Thursday, July 31, 2008

Colorado's "New Ice Cream Economy"

Politicians are fond of taking credit for good economic developments that generally are far beyond their power to control, even while discounting their influence when the economic news is bad. So I wonder if news that the Baskin-Robbins chain is planning a major expansion into the Denver metro area, possibly adding 60 new stores, will have Governor Bill Ritter taking credit for the “new ice cream economy” in Colorado.

After all, Ritter, although less than two years on the job, already takes credit for creating a “new energy economy” in the state, thanks to his support for alternative energy development. He's even been to Washington, D.C., to tell everyone there what a snap it was. But from what I see, it’s the “old” energy economy, centered on oil and gas development, that’s bringing jobs and revenue into the state. The "old" energy economy still seems firmly entrenched, judging from the dozens of long, heavily-laden, coal trains that chug through Colorado Springs each day, keeping the lights and air conditioning on in points south.

I just hope Ritter doesn't plan to pull the plug on Colorado's "old" energy economy prematurely, before the "new energy economy" is more in evidence. But that almost seems to be the plan, given the regulatory and rhetorical warfare he and other Democrats are waging on energy producers and their operations.

Ritter takes credit for renewable energy production quotas first approved by voters before he was elected (though, in a case of irrational exuberance, they were ratcheted-up by the legislature since he’s been governor), as well as federal subsidies and biofuel mandates he had nothing to do with. Without these mandates and subsidies -- without the heavy hand of government -- Ritter’s vaunted energy revolution would be going nowhere. And as is, despite all the hype, it's still a low wattage affair. In truth, Colorado's is a "Field of Dreams" sort of energy revolution: mandate it, claim it, take credit for it . . . . and it will happen.

But now let's compare the "new energy economy" to the "new ice cream economy."

Baskin-Robbins isn’t getting any subsidies to help bankroll its planned expansion into the state (as far as I know). No federal or state ice cream production or consumption mandates are in place to tilt the market in its favor. It isn't shaking down local communities for tax breaks or cold cash "incentives," as a condition for expansion. The company sees a promising market in the Denver area and will take the plunge. Its shareholders and employees and loyal customers will benefit if it’s betting correctly; they'll suffer if turns out to have been a bad move. Ice cream consumers and competitive forces, not politicians or energy panacea-pushers, will determine the outcome. The government's appropriate role is to provide a level playing field on which the ice-cream contest can be waged.

That’s how a real, free market economy works – which stands in stark contrast to the government-centered, politically-tainted, command and control model on which Ritter’s “new energy economy” is built.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Let Them Eat Sprouts

L.A.'s ban on new fast food restaurants in heavily black and Latino parts of the city, if it isn't a new form of racial discrimination worthy of legal retaliation, certainly looks patronizing, insulting and elitist. And it's a municipal fad some other cities are almost sure to follow, given how bad ideas sweep across the country's urban landscape like viruses. Trying to get the people in south L.A. to eat better by limiting their access to restaurant chains that city officials, through these actions, essentially brand public health threats, takes nanny state thinking into dangerous new territory. And this comes down in the same week that California became the first state to ban trans fat in restaurant food, ensuring that the Golden State remains a national leader in opening new regulatory frontiers.

This wouldn't matter much, really, if all the craziness was confined to California. But many other states continue to look to California as a trendsetter in governing as well as fashion fads -- which is mystifying, since the state is a basket case. And California is leveraging its huge market clout as a high-population state to force it's choices on non-Californians.

Since it's impractical and costly for national food chains, like national automobile manufacturers, to customize a subset of their products to meet California's unique demands, whether on trans fats or fuel economy standards, many national companies may be forced to overhaul their entire product line in response to the diktats of just one heavily-populated state. As a result, California's automobile fuel economy standards, and the additional costs associated with meeting them, could become North Carolina's fuel economy standards, whether North Carolinians want this or not. It's a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

And that's why the rest of Americans can't afford to just sit back, shake their heads, and laugh at the latest antics of those crazy Californians.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Road to Nowhere

The U.S. Forest Service is seeking public input on the latest roadless plan for Colorado, according to today's Durango Herald. But why bother?

This dispute will be settled, if it's ever settled, the way every other policy clash is resolved in America -- by a federal judge or panel of judges making policy from the bench (in this case, by assuming the role of public land managers). The "public process" isn't much of a factor in a country that functions as a judicial oligarchy, and anyway, it's a game that's rigged in favor of narrow-interest extremists, since the general public doesn't have a small army of professional activists and lawyers working "the process" for it.

This controversy has now been raging for almost eights years, since Bill Clinton, in one of his last acts as president, attempted to use the so-called Roadless rule to create de-facto wilderness on a third (or roughly 60 million acres) of national forest, while cutting Congress out of the process. The rule resulted in a dizzying array of sometimes-contradictory court decisions -- at least six or seven, when I stopped counting -- that have only deepened the paralysis gripping federal land agencies. This at a time when a forest health crisis requires more access to these disease- and fire-prone forests, not less.

So now we embark on another round of pointless public meetings, in response to a Bush administration roadless compromise that was tossed out by one federal judge, who restored the Clinton roadless plan of nearly eight years ago, which was itself overtuned by another federal judge. Confused? Join the crowd. Meanwhile, as judges and bureaucrats and extremist groups fight and fiddle, beetle blight and wildfires devour ever greater swaths of the West.

At this rate, roadless advocates need not worry about the great unwashed running roughshod through the "last great places," because many of those great places are being methodically destroyed, with the tacit okay of people who claim to love them. Perhaps future historians will see tragic irony in the fact that all this was done by folks claiming to have the forest's best interest in mind.

Go out and attend the public meetings if you choose to. Just don't imagine that your opinion really counts for much.

Hazmat Hysteria

Americans of a certain age – I’m pushing 50 – may find something to chuckle at in this news report out of Boise Idaho, where an 11-person EPA hazmat team descended on a neighborhood – wearing blue moon suits, I imagine -- after some local kids were discovered playing with mercury. The newspaper’s breathless, blow-by-blow account reads like the outline of a techno-thriller, as though the EPA had been battling an outbreak of anthrax or Ebola. But all these kids were doing was something most kids of my generation did from time to time, with no ill effects that I’m aware of.

My friends and I handled – and, yes, played with – quicksilver at home and at school. I think I recall handling it in science class. And it was one of the coolest things a kid could do. The feel of that heavy liquid metal tumbling around in the palm of one’s hand, or spilling through one’s fingers, or seeing the luster it brought to a tarnished dime, was incredible. I asked my mother, who worked in a public school, to score some from a science teacher there, and she came through. No one thought anything of it. Today she’d be up on child endangerment charges.

Readers of a certain age probably recall similar experiences. This was the 1960s; a good and carefree time to be a child, before the EPA was even a glint in Dick Nixon’s eye and before the safety cultists came out in force. The American anxiety industry was just being born. We rode our bikes without helmets. No one strapped us into car seats, backward. Wearing seat belts was a suggestion, not a mandate. We gobbled down Alar-coated apples. Pregnant women smoked and drank and ate canned tuna with a clear conscience. Warning labels weren’t ubiquitous. Parents left their kids in the car while they went shopping. No one covered electric sockets with plastic so we wouldn’t come to a shocking end. And we played and experimented with mercury.

And somehow, I guess miraculously, most of us emerged unscathed.

Or have we?

Maybe we mercury-handlers are all ticking time bombs, waiting to go off; a new victim class, like the nuclear test "downwinders," that no one’s bothered to study for cancer clusters. Perhaps the terrible side effects of mercury exposure have yet to show themselves, and my generation will soon go collectively mad as a hatter, or lapse into twitching and mouth-foaming, in delayed response to our youthful indiscretions with liquid metal. Maybe this explains my short attention span, my inability to remember telephone numbers, or other personality quirks -- when all the while I blamed these on that fall off a ladder, or just haywire genetics.

Or, maybe, mercury isn’t as hazardous to humans as EPA toxicologists, studying lab rats, claim it is. It certainly doesn’t seem to warrant the sort of Keystone Kops overreaction this story details. Here's how the Idaho Statesmen described the situation:

"Two apartments are clear and residents can return.

Two garages near a driveway where mercury was found are clear.

Two apartments still have high mercury levels.

Two driveways, a patch of soil between the four-plexes, and a nearby sidewalk also contain mercury.

Clean up of the gutter along the street is complete, officials said, but testing will continue to be sure.

(An EPA official) said workers will remove about 30 cubic yards of soil and grass from the yards of the two affected residences. Excavation will continue until soil samples test clean. The soil will go to a waste disposal site in Washington.

Clean up inside one apartment, where EPA teams found mercury readings approximately seven times higher than what's considered safe, will involve removing carpet and a couch."

Despite all the alarm and expense, and the estimated five days it will take 11 EPA personnel to "clear" the scene of contamination, all seven children who came in contact with quicksilver were unharmed. And I venture to guess that they would have remained safe and healthy, and gone on to lead normal productive lives, had their possession of mercury never been discovered.

Let me suggest a non-scientific explanation for EPA's overreaction.

Whatever its original intent, the agency today exists to "protect" Americans from many hazards that are so overstated, and so statistically minuscule, that they barely merit serious attention. It exists to promulgated a never-ending stream of increasingly ridiculous regulations, in pursuit of the impossible -- a risk-free world. The agency can't perpetuate itself without needlessly scaring the crap out of people, about an ever-expanding, yet ever more trivial, list of alleged hazards. And when the agency and other elements of the anxiety industry go around alarming Americans about the alleged dangers posed by mercury thermometers, and investigating the alleged health risks from mercury fillings, etc., it's compelled to treat a little mishandled mercury in Boise as the return of bubonic plague.

Doing anything less might clue Americans in to the fact that they're being terrorized by their own government, in the form of over-hyped threats and phantom dangers.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Let's "re-wild" West Virginia

There are too many wild horses roaming the Western range, an adoption program isn't working well enough and a proposal to thin the herd through euthanasia has animal lovers in an emotional stampede. But there is a solution. Let’s ship our surplus wild horses to West Virginia, where they've found a champion in U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall.

Rahall, a Democrat who chairs the powerful House Natural Resources Committee, has no wild horse problem in his home state -- at least not yet -- but he's helping to create one out here, by repeatedly using his high position to block the Bureau of Land Management from pursuing any solution that animal groups oppose. He several years ago helped end the sale of horses to slaughterhouses, forcing the BLM to keep growing numbers of them penned up in what amount to federally-managed feed lots -- which isn't exactly humane, either -- but the feed lots are overflowing, the range is being ravaged, and the runaway emotions of animal cultists make reasoned debate impossible. BLM recently raised the possibility of euthanasia, which set off the predictable outcry, and Rahall again stepped in, to meddle in BLM's effort to responsibly manage the herd.

"It is a sad state of affairs when we have to fight to prevent the possible euthanasia of thousands of American horses," Rahall has said. "We have a responsibility to preserve these icons of the American West for future generations."

No one's against "preserving" them (despite the fact that they are, technically speaking, an invasive species). But they're proliferating like rats and have to be responsibly managed, in order to mitigate their impacts on the public lands.

If Rahall and his constituents in West Virginia have such a soft spot for wild horses, and if they know better than we Westerners do how to manage them, they should have no problem turning our surplus horses loose in their own backyards. West Virginia, with its lush forests and fertile farmland, would seem ideal mustang habitat -- far better than the sparse and scrubby landscape of the arid Southwest. And when West Virginia's wild horse population grows unmanageable, we could reintroduce surplus reintroduced wolves from the West -- we're trying to cope with that problem, too. And if that doesn't work, we've also got federally-protected grizzly bears we could share with West Virginia.

How Rahall's constituents will react to the re-wilding of West Virginia is unknown. I can only assume, given Rahall's long-distance enthusiasm for re-wilding the West, that they'll be supportive. The newer, wilder West Virginia might even become a tourist draw, diversifying a state economy now largely sustained by strip-mining and congressional pork projects. Now only a Sunday drive away, Washingtonians can experience first-hand the bizarre and unmanageable menagerie their long-distance meddling has created here in the West.

And maybe, just maybe, they'll be shocked and chastened by what they see.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Asleep at the Switch

A few days back I wrote that the United States seems to have informally adopted a policy of nuclear disarmament through benign neglect, even as Russia is taking steps to modernize its nuclear capabilities, raising the prospect of a Second Cold War. I called the post "While America slept," without imagining that the title would within days take on a literal, rather than just figurative, meaning.

Today's news story about nuclear launch officers in North Dakota falling asleep on the job seems an eye-opening confirmation of the case I was making. Air Force officials try in the story to dismiss this as a "procedural violation," and to assure the public that there really was no danger because an investigation found that "the missile launch codes were outdated." So, even if someone managed to slip past the slumbering officers and turn the keys for an unauthorized launch, they would have been foiled -- haaah! -- by the useless launch codes.

Well, thank heaven for safeguards. A missile force with outdated launch codes may not be much of a military deterrent, but at least it's no danger to itself. I can rest easier at night, can't you?

An unnamed friend of mine has an unnamed relative who is a missile launch officer at an unnamed military facility in an unnamed state, and he once regaled me with a story about how this person, when required to work the overnight shift in the silo, swapped the usual stiff military uniform for cozy flannel pajamas. We had a good laugh, picturing the person with a finger on "the button" wearing fuzzy slippers and PJs with bunnies on them. But now it seems less funny.

I didn't mention in my earlier post, but should have, an episode not too long ago when an Air Force B-52 bomber flew cross-country with armed nuclear munitions strapped to its belly, which the crew believed were inactive dummy bombs. There was no real danger that Newark would get nuked (not that anyone would notice). But the incident was a serious enough breach of procedure that the president was alerted, and it not long ago cost some senior Air Force brass their jobs.

These incidents seem to confirm that the "tip of the spear" may have dulled a bit since the end of the Cold War, when America's nuclear weapons program was all but mothballed. The question is, does the political will exist to re-sharpen it?

Washington Post hits a triple

It’s a rare day that I agree with even one Washington Post editorial, but when I agree with three of them, all published on one day, either I forgot to take my meds or Washington's company town newspaper is coming to its senses.

The first of the three, “Structurally Unsound,” bemoans the “costs and contradictions” of a housing market rescue bill that includes “a mishmash of policies whose ultimate impact would be far from certain.” When a piece of legislation has The Post worried about potentially unforeseen costs and consequences, it's time to go back to the drawing board.

In the second editorial, "Trigger Happy on the Hill," the Post argues, quite correctly, that it's not Congress's job to impose a new gun law on Washington, D.C., in the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision that tossed out the capital city's firearms law, which was among the nation's most restrictive (and which I happily ignored when I lived there).

I thought I was reading The Washington Times editorial page when the Post declared: "Once again, lawmakers are willing to impose on the District something they wouldn't contemplate for their home districts. Local officials -- not Congress -- are the best arbiters of their community's needs and priorities. What makes sense for Fort Wayne, Ind., doesn't necessarily translate to the streets of Washington, D.C."

Local officials are equipped to make decisions for themselves? One size doesn't fit all? What rascals snuck into the Post's editorial offices and hijacked their word processors? And where would Washington and The Washington Post be if Congress actually applied this sort of thinking across the board?

Local officials in D.C. will undoubtedly screw up in re-writing the city's new gun law. Early indications are, they'll throw up as many hurdles to handgun ownership and registration as they can, mired as they are in the failed gun control mindset. They'll do the bare minimum required to stay on the right side of the Second Amendment. It may take more lawsuits, and more court rulings, to restore full gun rights to D.C. residents. This is the district, after all. The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree.

But the district, even if it is a federal enclave, should have the opportunity to work these matters out without Congressional meddling, just as states should have more power to chart their own courses without Uncle Sam looking over their shoulders. If mistakes and lousy laws get made in the process, those closest to the local officials hopefully will let them know about it, and course corrections will be made. That's how the federal system, as conceived by the founders, is supposed to work. And it's not as if Congress never makes mistakes or cranks out lousy laws. It happens habitually.

The third remarkably right-on editorial, "No Drilling, No Vote," chides House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for using procedural maneuvers to prevent members from voting on whether or not to lift the offshore drilling bans Congress has long maintained. If such a vote were in the offing, The Post would no doubt repeat the usual mantra about how we can't drill our way to energy independence, blah, blah, blah. But in another principled stand, it argues that Democrats are doing the country a disservice, and resorting to the same Machiavellian tactics they decried when Republicans were in charge, my using procedural tricks to dodge a debate they might lose.

Other important congressional business had come to a halt, the editorial points out, for fear that pro-drilling Republicans will use almost any opportunity to force a vote on what they see as a winning wedge issue for them. "If drilling opponents really have the better of this argument," asks the Post, "why are they so worried about letting it come to a vote?"

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Albino Eagle, meet Preble's Mouse

Perhaps I'm getting a tad paranoid. But it comes with the territory, if one spends enough time watching and writing about the Endangered Species Act, which routinely gets misused to advance ulterior agendas in the West.

A rare albino eagle this week was discovered by a rancher in a part of southeastern Colorado that Fort Carson is sizing-up as a possible expansion site -- here's the complete story in yesterday's Pueblo Chieftain -- and, given the political controversy this project has generated, one has to scratch one's head and wonder: How long before someone suggests that this might be some kind of protection-worthy subspecies, ala the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, requiring that we permanently lock this habitat away from use or development?

Absurd, you say? Perhaps. But stranger things have happened, and more ludicrous arguments have been made, in the surreal annals of the ESA, as anyone who's followed the Preble's meadow jumping mouse fiasco knows (for the complete story, see my July 9 post) . Slice the DNA precisely enough and you will undoubtedly discover that this albino eagle is genetically distinct from other eagles, arguably making it a "distinct population segment" all its own. And given that the ESA now applies not just to species, but to subspecies of subspecies and "distinct population segments," and given, too, that these unique albino features could be transmitted genetically, why not petition for a listing?

It may not fly. But the years of of delay it will cause will almost certainly be enough to drive another nail in the coffin of the Pinon Canyon plan. And delay and obstruction, after all, are what ESA is really about, right?


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

While America Slept . . . .

. . . . a Second Cold War with Russia was creeping up on them.

This is only one of many reports over the last few years indicating that Russia, now flush with oil and gas revenues and run by ex-KGB, plans on shouldering it's way back onto the world stage, and regaining its former superpower status. This punchy former heavyweight may be down but he isn't out. Whether a militarily-overextended and economically battered U.S. is prepared to meet the challenge remains to be seen.

The American general quoted in the story, warning that Russian bomber flights to Cuba may cross some "red line," sounds like he's spewing empty bravado. The mental picture this paints is of the blustering George C. Scott character in the move Dr. Strangelove -- only without the will or wherewithal to actually go toe-to-toe with the "Russkies."

The Russians have taken steps to modernize their nuclear systems and armaments, while ours are mostly mothballed (and possibly slipping into disrepair), with Congress refusing to fund significant upgrades or modernizations, based on the comfortable but dangerous delusion that this chapter in history closed in 1989. Our leaders refuse to even consider a return to nuclear testing, abiding by a test-ban treaty we never ratified, fearing that doing so will send the "wrong" signals to aspiring members of the nuclear club. Most serious nations act out of self-interest, not peer-group pressure. What these folks will say when Russia resumes testing -- as it undoubtedly will before long -- will be interesting to see. Perhaps this will serve as the Sputnik moment that shakes America awake.

Computer models are helpful. But without real-world testing, it's difficult to predict the reliability of future warheads -- and the dependability and safety of the aging (arguably even decrepit) models we have sitting in mothballs. One expert I saw quoted years ago offered a good analogy. He likened what America's doing to buying a brand new Ferrari and parking it in the garage for 25 years -- and assuming it will roar to life and perform flawlessly in some future emergency.

Will these highly complex systems work in a crisis? Are they aging gracefully, or becoming safety hazards? Testing is the only way to really be sure. But with that off the table, we're left to guess. The Department of Energy's "Stockpile Stewardship" program has taken on the ambitious task of monitoring and maintaining our aged arsenal without the benefit of many critical testing tools.
If it's failing in that mission, would average Americans know about it? Probably not, given the shroud of secrecy in which such efforts are cloaked.

What seems to be happening in the United States is nuclear disarmament by neglect.

The Russians evidently don't intend to let their military muscle atrophy in this way -- and they obviously aren't concerned about being provocative.

One minor gripe with this story is the reporter's evident ignorance of the fact that Russians were routinely flying Backfire Bombers to Cuba during the First Cold War, tracing the contours of the U.S. eastern seaboard. My recollections of the era aren't so hazy that I've forgotten that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Barnes details a political coup in Colorado

Fred Barnes is best known to many Americans as a talking head on Fox News, but all the white lights and hairspray haven't dulled his skills as a serious reporter, as his Weekly Standard story on The Colorado Model illustrates. For a non-Coloradoan, Barnes does an excellent job of tracing the slumping trajectory of Republicans in the state, and of explaining why Democrats have made such stunning gains -- a trend that seems likely to continue this fall.

Barnes does such a good job, in fact, that I have little to add or critique. I would simply recommend the story to anyone who may be scratching their heads and wondering, "What happened to Colorado?" -- and who may wonder whether such a political coup could be replicated in their home state. Part of what befell the GOP stems from the rot and malaise afflicting the party generally. But the dramatic reversal of fortune also must be chalked up to the ruthless, multi-faceted spin machine a few deep-pocket Dems put together here. And it's largely flown below the radar, circumventing (and at the same time benefiting from) campaign finance laws.

Especially insidious is Media Matters Colorado, an obvious Democrat Party front traveling under the guise of a media watchdog group. Ironically, the group may be alienated it's natural allies inside the legitimate media with its shrill insistence that any news story that doesn't tilt left confirms a conservative media conspiracy. Yet members of Colorado's mainstream media, despite being badgered and mischaracterized by the group, seem reluctant to pull back the veil on its hush-hush funding sources and dishonest motives.

Barnes, sitting in his far-away Washington office, does an admirable job of putting some of the puzzle pieces together. What's wrong with the "journalists" here in Colorado?

Monday, July 21, 2008

"Save our Starbucks" campaign a little hard to swallow

I was just striving for a little satire Friday, when I suggested that the closing of 600 Starbucks stores might lead to a federal "barista bailout," given the government's fondness for rescuing in-over-their-heads mortgage holders and "too-big-to-fail" financial institutions. It was all just a spoof, obviously. But attempting satire is a risky proposition in these surreal times, when the unthinkable has become commonplace.

No, I am not reporting today that a "barista bailout" actually is in the cards, though one might yet materialize if the "Save our Starbucks" campaign reported on in today's Wall Street Journal gains enough momentum. Pandering politicians are always looking to address a perceived "crisis" and woo a constituency, so it doesn't take much to get their attention. And a heavily caffeinated constituency is one worth cultivating.

Folks who find their friendly neighborhood Starbucks store indispensable might try to avert the closures by doubling or tripling up on their daily diet of expensive coffee drinks, making these stores too profitable to close. Instead, as has become typical in contemporary America, they organize, protest and sign petitions, evidently angling for third-party intervention.

Perhaps such pleas will lead Starbucks corporate to reconsider certain closures, given the company's desire to appear more like a charity for coffee pickers than a cutthroat capitalist enterprise. But what other party might many of the petitioners have in mind when they demand that someone save their Starbucks? That party is government, of course -- sadly demonstrating that some Americans are as hooked on state-centered "solutions" as they are on the evil bean.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Aspen's Slippery Slope: Where regulating is the first resort

The Aspen Times reported recently that the number of second homes in nearby Snowmass Village exceeds the number in Aspen. “Between 61 percent and 68 percent of all single-family residences and condominiums in Snowmass Village are second homes,” according to the Times. “A 2007 study by the nonprofit organization showed that 58 percent of residences in Aspen are vacation homes.” The study was commissioned by something called The Sopris Foundation.

That’s interesting though not exactly shocking, since both towns are ski resorts catering to a jet-setting crowd. So what, one may wonder, is the relevance? Why, one may ask, is someone spending money to study the obvious?

The answer is hinted at in the story’s lead: “The percentage of second homes sitting vacant and theoretically wasting energy is higher in Snowmass Village than in Aspen, a new study has determined.” Because they frequently sit empty, second homes evidently are considered wasteful to the area's energy efficiency enforcers. This study is obviously intended to generate a regulatory response, given that this is the People’s Republic of Pitken County. And you can bet the Green Shirts will be demanding something more Draconian than a reminder to second-home owners to lower the thermostat and turn out the light when they blow out of town.

The agenda is made explicit further down in the story. “The finding is significant . . . because the Aspen study determined that second homes use as much energy per square foot per year as fully occupied units, even though second homes are unoccupied an average of 277 days annually," according to The Times. "When information about energy usage learned in the earlier study is applied to Snowmass Village, it indicates that the town's total residential carbon emission output is 57,221 tons per year . . . At least 35,000 tons and possibly at much as 39,000 tons comes from second homes, the study indicated.”

The Sopris Foundation wants to see the information used by the "community stewards" of Snowmass Village -- which has a slightly Orwellian ring to it -- to promote "responsible energy use." It hopes to see “bold leadership” in "regulating second home energy use, including outlawing heated driveways and sidewalks and more restrictions on home sizes."

And sure enough, only a few days later, the regulatory wheels were
turning. Only a few voices of reason were heard. The second homeowners of Snowmass are obviously going to be dragged by force into Aspen's orbit. And the implications for property owners and businesses could be severe, as these recent stories suggest.

Here's a story about how Aspen is forcing a couple to rent their property to a county employee, because of old deed restrictions designating it "affordable housing." Here's one about how the city is forcing trash haulers to offer recycling, but prohibiting them from raising rates to cover additional costs: story. Here's another about how an Aspen condo board, taking the prevailing contempt for property rights to its outlandish conclusion, is planning to prohibit smoking even inside private residences. In 2007, city council passed an "emergency ordinance" designating structures built in the 1970s as "historic" -- story -- meaning owners couldn't demolish or make major alterations without a permission slip. After a mild backlash, the city softened the law a bit -- story -- but it's still outrageous. Residents who claim the ordinance causes hardship are required to prove it by bringing their personal tax returns down to City Hall.

And such stories represent just the tip of the iceberg.

Absentee homeowners are an easy target group, since they're only sporadically in town, they don't typically show up at town meetings and they aren't well organized to fight back. And let's face it, if you're wealthy enough to own a second home in Aspen, you're wealthy enough to shrug off most of the extra costs and complications new rules and regulations create -- wealthy enough, too, to hire a lawyer to find loopholes or go to battle for you, if necessary. If you prevent second homeowners from operating their driveway heaters while away -- yes, some Aspenites have driveway heaters -- they can easily afford to hire a plowing company to ensure that they have an ice-free path to their 5,000 square-foot "log cabin."

There are all sorts of workarounds available to the wealthy that aren't available to the rest of us. But the damage being done to personal liberty and property rights along the way is incalculable, and will do far more harm to the less-affluent, living in any communities that follow Aspen's example.

It may be this Second Home Syndrome, along with the ability of part-timers to absorb the punishment, that explains the ability of a few radical year-rounders (most genuine "locals" were priced-out long ago) to turn Aspen into the politically- and ecologically-correct fiefdom it's become. It may even be that year-rounders are exacting a sort of revenge against their absentee neighbors by waging regulatory warfare against them.

But I digress. This isn't a discourse on how group psychology impacts urban policy. Whatever the root causes of Aspen's reflex-regulating, the danger is that other communities, in Colorado and elsewhere, will follow its lead, given that chasing fads is as prevelant in the world of municipal governance as in the world of high fashion. Here, for instance, is a story about how nearby Eagle County is playing follow the leader.

Questions about whether such regulations are reasonable, fair or trample property rights don't get raised much in Aspen, except by the uncool few who will will take a stand on practicality or principle. Here's a profile of one brave soul, Marilyn Marks, who has infuriated the social engineers at City Hall by erecting a few moguls on Aspen's slippery slope. But for the most part, it's been a well-groomed Green run for the petty despots in charge.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Catch a Falling Starbucks: Can a federal barista bailout be far off?

This may well go down as I Just Take it Black Friday.

The Starbucks coffee shop universe, which burst on the American scene with such a big bang, now is contracting, demonstrating that even the brightest stars in America's corporate constellation are subject to the fundamental laws of economics. Here's the list of the 600 stores to be closed, in case you're sitting, edgily on the edge of your seat, wondering where your next vanilla bean no whip frappuccino is coming from.

I say, better latte than never. But I also wonder: Does this mean we'll soon see a federal bailout of unemployed baristas?

After all, when they got into the industry it was booming -- a seemingly endless line of increasingly complicated and expensive coffee drinks stretching to the horizon. It wasn't cheap enrolling in The American Barista & Coffee School. Now there are federally-guaranteed student loans to pay off. These people were easy prey for predatory coffee-peddlers, who never fully informed them of the risky side of the barista biz.

If they don't get government help, and re-training, an army of unemployed baristas will soon be back in the job market, desperate for work, creating a surplus of labor that will depress the wages of employed baristas, who also have rents to pay, children to feed, student loans from barista schools to pay off. And the dominoes will begin to fall, sending another shudder through the U.S. economy. Coffee culture itself could crumble, at least in America, leaving us decaffeinated, sluggish, at a competitive disadvantage to economic rivals with coffee shops on every corner.

Clearly, we all have a stake is seeing that out-of-work baristas -- and coffee shop workers generally -- are cushioned against this harsh and unanticipated blow. Let me be the first to propose the Preserving Coffee Culture for American Competitiveness Act of 2008.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Yucca Mountain: Still a bargain at $90 billion

Is it really so surprising that the projected cost of the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, – the completion of which is critical to reviving the nation’s moribund nuclear energy sector -- has soared from $58 billion to $90 billion since 2001? Read about it in detail here. The project was supposed to have opened back in 1998, meaning it’s now more than a decade behind schedule, and it's in a perpetual fight for its life against those who traffic in fear and are positioned to cut-off funding. All these delays and obstructions add to the price tag.

Now, the same folks who have done so much to drive up costs turn around and use these higher costs as a reason to nail the coffin closed. What a racket they've got going. But they're hardly ever called out on their hypocrisy and mendacity.

Simple old inflation accounts for some of the cost growth. And this cost estimate isn’t just to open the facility, but covers the 100 years it will take to finish the storage process and seal it up. Prorated over a century, that actually sounds affordable, considering the challenging problem Yucca Mountain helps resolve. Given what the federal government squanders annually on food stamps and farm subsidies alone, and relative to the massive waste that occurs everywhere in the federal government, and given the critical part nuclear energy plays in meeting this country's energy requirements, $90 billion actually sounds like a bargain to me.

Completing Yucca Mountain would be a concrete and measurable accomplishment that helps address a real and pressing problem – more than can be said for most of what the feds squander money on. And consider for a moment what it will cost to replace the 20 percent of electricity that nuclear facilities provide.

A point also missing from this news story, and from much of the debate, is that much of the money for Yucca Mountain is coming not from the Department of Energy, but from utility companies and their ratepayers, who have paid billions of dollars into a special fund based on Uncle Sam's promise to provide a secure storage facility. If the obstructionists succeed, and the federal government can't make good on its promise, not only will the future of the nuclear energy be at risk, but those funds -- plus potentially huge damages -- will have to be paid back. And what do you suppose it will cost to start on an alternative storage solution from scratch? That's also conveniently missing from the debate.

Yucca Mountain isn't a perfect solution. But it's the best solution we have at the moment. While $90 billion ain't chicken feed, it's a pittance compared to what it will mean to taxpayers, ratepayers and America's energy security interests if Yucca Mountain suffers a permanent meltdown.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Take my newspaper editorial Rorschach test

Two newspaper editorials from two different parts of the country, published within days of one another, present two diametrically opposing views of a controversial proposal to open more Conservation Reserve Program acreage to cattle grazing and hay cultivation. Readers can decide which one makes more sense. And, in fact, this might serve as an ideological Rorschach test of sorts, separating libertarians from liberals, the mentally healthy from the . . . . well . . . maybe I should leave it at that.

The New York Times' July 12 editorial pretty accurately reflects the view from the nation’s ideological and geographical fringes, expressing “sympathy” for farmers who want to bend CRP rules during a mounting food crisis but arguing, along with greens, that “the potential environmental damage caused by taking these lands out of conservation is far too great.”

These aren't national park lands being plowed under, mind you, but established farms that went dormant after their owners discovered (much to their amazement, no doubt) that Uncle Sam pays farmers not to farm. Returning these acres to productive uses might help ease some of the human hardship being caused by federal meddling in energy markets, the Times concedes (one wonders where the paper stood on ethanol mandates before the repercussions became clear). But the well being of deer and sage grouse must take precedent.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal, in contrast, seems to me to hit the heifer on the head when it calls CRP a federal farm "boondoggle,” although that may be an understatement. If environmentalists are correct in arguing that these are mostly "marginal" croplands, which will do little good in alleviating the food (and livestock feed) crisis, asks the editorial, "why are taxpayers paying (farmers) $1.8 billion per year -- that's billion with a "b" -- to keep them out of production?" It's an excellent question.

"The Agriculture Department might as well pay Wal-Mart not to grow soybeans in their parking lots," quips the Review-Journal. "Shhh . . . better not give them any more ideas."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Energy Crisis? What Energy Crisis?

Stop the presses! Green groups are suing to block natural gas drilling on Colorado’s Roan Plateau, trying to nullify in court more than eight years of public process that didn’t turn out the way they liked. Read more about it at

Actually, such stories are today so commonplace they hardly count as "news." On any given week, I could find half a dozen similar ones to post here. Just this week, while perusing headlines, I saw reports about an effort to block the expansion of an oil refinery in the Midwest, and stop a coal-fired power plant in New Mexico.

And then some Americans wonder why we’re in an energy crisis.

Does anyone at this point doubt that the ultimate (though unstated) aim of environmentalists is to create a false scarcity of energy supplies in the U.S., as a way of driving up costs to the point where Americans will have to give up our allegedly wasteful, greedy, environmentally-incorrect lifestyles? It should by now be obvious. No realistic energy solution -- except possibly wind power, as long as the turbines don't kill raptors or obstruct anyone's "view corridor"-- passes the green litmus test.

Coal, oil, oil shale, natural gas and all other fossil fuels are the devil's spawn. Nuclear is too scary. Hydro means hardship for spawning fish. Terminals for the import of liquefied natural gas disturb sea life and might become targets for terrorists. Geothermal could be okay, as long as it doesn't disturb "pristine" landscapes -- though every place a federal drilling or mineral lease is proposed turns out to be "pristine." Woody biomass has potential, but don't look to overgrown, disease- and wildfire-ravaged federal forests as a fuel source: that might re-open the door to logging. Everywhere sensible people turn for an answer, the answer from a fanatical minority is "no."

"Conservation" is their one word rejoinder to all our energy quandaries. But two excellent recent books, Robert Bryce's "Gusher of Lies" and the "The Bottomless Well" by Peter Huber and Mark Mills, offer potent reality checks on that silly and simplistic notion.

The Roan Plateau drilling debate has been going on for at least eight years. All the studies have been done, and the public hearings held; the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has painstakingly weighed input from various "stakeholders" (even though the public process itself is skewed to benefit professional activists and narrow interest groups).

But four or five years ago saving the pristine and precious Roan (a place that no one ever heard of before drilling was proposed) suddenly became a cause celebre -- it became the ANWR of the Rocky Mountain region. And because BLM's process didn't result in a no-drilling decision, which is the only outcome extremists would tolerate, politicians began trying to monkey-wrench things at the behest of the zero-drilling crowd. And as has now become routine, these groups now are suing to overturn a BLM plan that was carefully-considered and sensible. This will for many more years delay this natural gas from coming to market (if it doesn't kill the plan outright). And it has to serve as another disincentive to domestic drilling, since energy suppliers have to weigh the possibility that their next project will become another Roan Plateau.

In the midst of an energy crisis, when the U.S. economy is absorbing potentially staggering body blows and Americans are feeling the pinch, one might think that the energy obstructionists would back off a bit, take a breather, decide that discretion is the better part of valor. But these aren't reasonable (or humanitarian) people. They are dangerous ideologues bent on re-making society according to Utopian dictates, using obstructionism, litigation, indoctrination and political intimidation to get their way.

Greens and their political allies are significantly responsible for the energy fix we're in. But average Americans have trouble fingering the real culprit, and misdirect their wrath at hated “big oil,” because they're totally disconnected from reality, believe their quality of life is a grant from heaven, and no longer see the link between regulatory causes and economic/consumer effects. Until Americans re-connect those dots -- until American consumers become the defenders of America's besieged producers -- there can be little hope of regaining our collective sanity and countering the green menace.

Let's recap.

Greens don't want an energy policy that works. They want to put the United States on a low-energy diet in order to remake society according to their own specifications. And if creating an energy crisis cripples an allegedly unjust capitalistic system, all the better. They'll be killing two birds (not endangered birds, of course) with one stone. Environmentalism is about economics even more than ecology. Birds and bunnies and polar bears just serve as heartwarming window dressing.

Postscript: It's Monday, only a day after originally posting this, and I'm already well on my way to reading this week's quota of energy obstructionism stories. Here's one from the Associated Press. Here's another. I'll post others as I see them. This Houston Chronicle story details some of the hurdles facing oil shale development, including the fact that "Democrats have barred the Bureau of Land Management from leasing any federal land forcommercial-scale oil shale projects." Here a judge -- responding to a lawsuit -- blocks a drilling project in Michigan.

Maybe I should start a website called Energy Obstructionism News; there would never be a loss of stories to post. I can't wait to see what the rest of the week might bring.

Wednesday brought this story in the Denver Post.

Tony Snow

Booting up my PC this morning brought sad news. A familiar face – a friendly face – popped up on the screen. Then the headline shook me awake: “Former Bush Spokesman Dies.” Here’s how the Washington Post wrote it up.

In a town with more than its share of worms, weasels, louts and Machiavellian manipulators, genuinely good people stand out like sore thumbs. And Tony Snow, the former White House spokesman who has succumbed to cancer at 53, stood out from the crowd.

He always retained his humility and humanity while working in milieus – first the major media and then politics -- that can squeeze them both out of you. If he was a typical Washington climber, he hid it well. Snow rose through the ranks on the merits, motivated not my personal ambition but a genuine passion for ideas and love of country. He delivered the conservative message with the calmness, composure and good humor of someone who has confidence that reason and common sense can win out in the end.

My brushes with Snow were brief but always pleasant. My entrée came courtesy of my sister, Leslie, who knew Snow from the days when they both worked in Detroit media, she with PBS, he with the Detroit News. They stayed in touch after both went to Washington. These connections were tenuous. I was just the brother of someone he knew from a previous life. But he was always gracious when we crossed paths professionally or socially, treating me as if we were old friends. And that made me think of Tony as an old friend.

Frankly, I was a little worried, and surprised, when Tony leaped from the television studio into the snakepit of the White House briefing room. I had no doubt he could help the president deliver his message, and neutralize some of the press room prima donnas with his humanity, humor and credentials as a real-world journalist. But I thought it was a potential step down, into muck and mire that might leave a good man spattered with both. That he managed to emerge unscathed – and, in fact, as a hero for his tenacious battle with a killer -- underscored his decency and integrity as a person.

He took the White House job not because it would serve as the capstone to a brilliant career – he was still young and would have gone on to do greater things, I’m sure, had events not taken such a tragic turn -- but because the president needed him. It’s that simple, really. He was called to serve and he did.

That’s just the kind of guy Tony Snow was.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Mickey Mouse: A brief history of an endangered species fiasco

In what will surely go down as one of biggest absurdities in the history of the Endangered Species Act -- and that's saying something -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service yesterday removed Preble’s meadow jumping mice in Wyoming from the endangered species list, while the creature’s identical cousins, just across the state line in Colorado, remain "threatened." Read about the culmination of this regulatory fiasco here.

A book could be (and should be) written about the long, strange saga of the creature intermittently known as the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, which I followed closely during my years at The Colorado Springs Gazette. But I can’t possibly recount every plot point and bureaucratic intrigue here. Trying to do so would make my head spin right off my shoulders.

Here it is in bullet points, however.

  • Jumping mouse listed as threatened subspecies in 1998, based on a cursory examination of three dusty old museum specimens. Listing motivated, as usual, by desire of greens and no-growthers to stymie development along the Rocky Mountain Front Range. The creature, which hibernates for 8 months of the year, is gleefully dubbed "Mighty Mouse" for its ability to stop building projects in their tracks.
  • Critical habitat designation follows, endangering property rights and imposing enormous mitigation costs over large swaths of two states.
  • After questions are raised about the listing decision, genetic testing debunks creature’s bona fides as a unique subspecies, leading to calls for de-listing and regulatory relief.
  • All hell breaks loose. Greens go ape. Embarrassed federal bureaucrats circle the wagons and plot their response.
  • An eco-Inquisition is launched against Dr. Rob Ramey, the biologist who courted heresy by daring to 1.) challenge the creature’s status as a subspecies, and 2.) raise questions before a congressional committee about the scientific integrity of the Endangered Species Act. Controversy and outside pressure cost Ramey his prestigious position at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, as well as a later consulting contract with the Department in Interior. [Vince Carroll of the Rocky Mountain News laid out some of the ugly particulars here. And we editorialized on the subject when I was with The Colorado Springs Gazette.]
  • Feds in regional office go looking for a biologist who will debunk Ramey, and they find one – surprise! – who works for the federal government. His study – voila! – reaffirms mouse’s status as unique subspecies.

    De-listing process grinds to a halt, while an “independent” review panel -- selected by a contractor under hire to the USFWS -- pretends to objectively weigh the conflicting evidence. The dispute, roughly speaking, is between “lumpers” and “splitters,” which is more fully explained here. Ramey – who isn’t anti-ESA but believes the law is being misused – likened this experience to becoming the target of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Agency officials side against Ramey and with the splitters, to no one's surprise, since slicing and dicing the genetic code so precisely, in search of otherwise insignificant and imperceptible differences, creates a potentially infinite number of listable subspecies. And that means a potentially infinite new expansion of agency budgets and regulatory clout.

There's most of it, in a nutshell. But there’s one final act in the charade.

In response to intense political pressure from the state of Wyoming (Colorado, by contrast, offered little organized resistance to the original listing or to the regulatory regime that accompanied it), USFW responded to the de-listing petition with a weird split decision. Preble’s mice in the state of Colorado were to remain "threatened," while identical mice in Wyoming would lose their protected status. Although the creature’s habitat stretches across both states, they are less endangered in relatively slow-growing Wyoming, explained the agency, than in faster-growing Colorado.

In effect, the agency created two new subspecies of subspecies, separated by a state line, the Colorado Preble's meadow jumping mouse and the Wyoming Preble's meadow jumping mouse -- though, in all likelihood, both are actually bear lodge jumping mice. And that bizarre, patently political decision became a matter of federal policy yesterday.

If you're confused and dismayed at this point, join millions of Coloradans.

And then people wonder why ESA is the most hated law in America -- and why calls for its reform or elimination are so persistent here in the West, where its absurdities and burdens are most in evidence. And the rub is, it’s highly questionable whether the mouse is in danger of disappearing in either state. It’s listing is open to challenge not just on the genetics – which is the focus of much of what I've written today -- but on similar uncertainties surrounding the numbers. Some argue that the mice are much more prevalent than originally believed. They're now known to inhabit at least 132 sites, while they were found at just under 30 sites at the time of listing.

There is more to this travesty than regulatory malpractice, scientific shenanigans and bureaucratic butt-covering, however. A good man's name and reputation have been tarnished by greens and federal bureaucrats bent on winning this battle at all costs. Rob Ramey, who I got to know a bit while following the story, is one the best friends that truly endangered species have in this country. But because he has the courage to point out flaws in the Holy Grail of environmental laws, and because his work resulted in embarrassment for Preble's advocates and a de-listing petition, he became yet another target of fanatical eco-McCarthyists. Bjorn Lomborn experienced this for calling himself a “skeptical environmentalist." Many other honorable and highly-qualified scientists have come under similar attack for declining to take the sensationalist tack on climate change. Ramey has been the victim of a similar smear.

The eco-McCarthyists aren't content to settle scientific or policy disputes on the merits. They seek to destroy, discredit, intimidate and silence anyone who stands in their way. And unless this dangerous drive to impose scientific "consensus" through intimidation and coercion is confronted and rejected, the integrity of regulatory science -- and science itself -- will be endangered.

Build a bigger ark

A conservation biologist (which is a modern mutation of the common, garden variety biologist) at the University of Colorado claims a math error grossly underestimates the probability of extinction facing many animal species: Piece. "A math glitch could mean the future of creatures on endangered species lists is even grimmer, as the calculations commonly used underestimate extinction risks by as much as 100-fold," The Boulder Daily Camera reported last week, rather breathlessly. Current extinction prediction models are flawed, according to UC Assistant Professor Brett Melbourne, because they "overlook random differences among individuals in a given population" of red-listed species. “When we apply our new mathematical model to species extinction rates, it shows that things are worse than we thought,” Melbourne told the paper -- though results may vary from species to species.

But a 100-fold increase in a probably bogus estimate still makes it bogus, right? Right.

This may be bad news for the planet, but it can only come as welcome news to the professional alarmists who make up the Chicken Little Lobby (comedian George Carlin savagely lampoons these types in my June 27 AC post). And, yes, this includes university researchers, since no one ever landed a federal grant claiming everything's right with the world. Just imagine the gasps that will go up, among people who still take such claims seriously, when the devastating new risk estimates are unveiled. Hundreds of species possibly going extinct every day! Yet this holocaust must be going on behind closed doors, since we rarely see the specifics of which species disappeared from the planet today.

Reasonable people will simply sigh, much as the villagers reacted to the boy who cried wolf.

Interestingly, when ticking off the factors that go into extinction risk analysis, there's nary a mention in the Camera article of that cancer on the planet called mankind, at whose feet most contemporary extinctions too-conveniently get laid.

"Extinction risk models now are based primarily on two factors," reports The Camera. "One is the number of random events adversely affecting individuals within a population — such as an accidental drowning of a rock wallaby, for example. Secondly is the impact of outside random events like temperature and rainfall fluctuations that can influence birth and death rates. But the additional factors highlighted by the researchers in the Nature study — sex ratio variations and physical variations among individuals — have been overlooked by those evaluating extinction risks, Melbourne said."

There it is in black and white: accidental drownings may be at least as great a danger to rock wallabies as humans are. Who woulda thunk it? But perhaps it's our duty to improve the odds for mishap-prone rock wallabies by intervening, as we are intervening on the side of the spotted owl in its territorial dispute with the barred owl -- gunning down one species of owl in a probably vain (and undoubtedly presumptuous) attempt to save another. Read a little more about it here. We might build wallaby-friendly river crossings, for instance, or dispatch an army of conservation biologists to warn unsuspecting wallabies away from steep river banks.

Or we might accept that extinction is sometimes part of nature's plan and refrain from acting as if this is all within our control -- and all our fault.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Cheney's Energy Task Force: a nostalgic look back

I hate to repeat myself, but in this case I can't resist reaching into the wayback file for a column I wrote for The Colorado Springs Gazette in September 2005. It still stands as a potent critique of the politicians and interest groups that peremptorily (and gleefully) hammered nails in the coffin of Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force recommendations back in 2001. Politics, and nothing but politics, prevented these remarkably sensible proposals from seeing the light of day. Had Cheney been granted a fair hearing, and had his quite balanced and forward-thinking recommendations been implemented then, we might be in far less trouble today.

But will there be a public reckoning for, or apology from, the short-sighted obstructionists who, by summarily trashing the task force's work, helped create the crisis we're in today? Not as long as we remain The United States of Amnesia.

Here's the 2005 column.

Conventional Thinking

It’s probably unfair, but nonetheless tempting, to see something prescient in the problems plaguing the planning phase of the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Read about some of them in today’s New York Times.

One can’t help wondering if the cost overruns, seat-of-the-pants planning, obsessing over all things “green,” kow-towing to labor unions and strange fetish for ecologically-correct culinary choices might not portend things to come if Democrats control both Congress and the White House.

“Some of the Democratic missteps started soon after planning for the event began," reports The Times. "The Democratic National Convention Committee decided not to take cheap office space and instead rented top-quality offices in downtown Denver at $100,000 a month, only to need less than half the space, which it then filled with rental furniture at $50,000 a month. And in a costly misstep, the Denver host committee, early on, told corporate donors that their contributions were not tax-deductible, rather than to encourage donations by saying that the tax-exempt application was pending and expected to be approved.

Overly ambitious environmental goals — to turn the event into a “green” convention — have backfired as only three states’ full delegations have so far agreed to participate in the program. Negotiations over where to locate demonstrators remain unsettled with members of the national news media concerned over proposals to locate the demonstrators — with their loud gatherings — next to the media tent.

And then there is the food: A 28-page contract requested by Denver organizers that caterers provide food in “at least three of the following five colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple and white.” Garnishes could not be counted toward the colors. No fried foods would be allowed. Organic and locally grown foods were mandated, and each plate had to be 50 percent fruits and vegetables. As a result, caterers are shying away.”

Denver Post columnist Dan Haley recently chronicled some additional absurdities. And the headaches the convention has brought for the so-far Teflon Mayor Hickenlooper, a Democrat, also have been interesting to watch. Labor unions are pouring millions of dollars into Colorado -- story -- hoping to turn what was not long ago a solidly red state into something indelibly blue. But the possibility that notoriously independent Coloradans will be put off by all this, rather than flattered and seduced, is very real, in my opinion.

A convention debacle could "reflect badly on the party and raise questions about Democratic management skills,” notes The Times. But when was the Democratic Party ever known for its managerial excellence or fiscal and ideological restraint? Not any time in my memory. If, indeed, the mishandling of the convention is in any way indicative of how Washington will function when Democrats rule supreme, it will be just as anyone with a long enough memory expects it to be.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Toward the creation of a Colorado Springs Model

In a piece published in today's Colorado Springs Gazette, I take a stab at laying out a limited government blueprint for what this city could and should look like in the year 2020, if it refrains from following in the footsteps of most other large American cities. It's part of a local visioning exercise called DreamCity 2020.

The headlining on the piece, and a typo in the third paragraph, are unfortunate. But perhaps the piece will help in some small way to stir serious debate about how a city that stands at a tipping point can avoid mistakes made elsewhere, and can take conscious steps toward building a better paradigm -- something I call the Colorado Springs Model.

If such a vision can be achieved anywhere, it can be achieved here.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Viva Uribe! FARC Chavez.

Who says you can't win an insurgency?

Yesterday brought yet another victory for Columbian President Alvaro Uribe in his stunningly successful effort to smash the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC: Time. But because this is a Marxist group, and Uribe is seen as a "conservative" who may be the Bush administration's best (and only?) friend in Latin America, expect the applause to be muted in certain circles.

Time's story engages in a little revisionist spin when it notes that FARC "even lost the enthusiasm of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, an unabashed FARC sympathizer who had brokered the release of a handful of other hostages this year." But Chavez only lost his enthusiasm for FARC recently, after the Columbians (with low key U.S. help) began kicking the crap out of the group -- and after Uribe called the Venezuelan dictator on the duplicitous game he was playing, by posing as peacemaker one day while providing aid and comfort to FARC terrorists on the next.

"Plan Columbia" may or may not be leading us to victory in the drug war. But it at least suggests that certain kinds of insurgencies may be winnable. It also serves as inspiration for another bumper sticker: "Viva Uribe! FARC Chavez."

Pick one up today at the American Contrarian Gift Shop

An idea whose time should come

In an otherwise New York-centric editorial with little relevance to the rest of us, the New York Sun stumbles upon a brilliant idea that should be applied nationwide: "Reverse eminent domain." The concept is described as follows:

"It is too bad we don't have the equivalent of reverse eminent domain, under which private developers could seize government property if they could convince a court that they could put it to better public use than the government."
Too bad, indeed.

It would be a perverse yet gratifying twist on the "logic" of the Supreme Court's Kelo decision, which grants municipalities the power to use eminent domain to clear the way for private urban redevelopment projects that promise to boost local tax revenues, thus broadening the traditional definition of "public use" to include virtually any project money-grubbing city leaders approve.

Adopting "reverse eminent domain" wouldn't right the wrong legalized by Kelo. But it might help even the score.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Political Science

The Bush administration has drawn a lot of fire from Capitol Hill and elsewhere for allegedly politicizing science, by tailoring the facts to meet the policy on everything from climate change to endangered species. But there’s a lot of politics behind the allegations as well. Such critiques naively assume that all government researchers and bureaucrats are politically-disinterested parties, who wouldn’t conceivably tailor ambiguous (or non-existent) scientific data to advance personal or bureaucratic agendas. Everyone else is tainted by ideology, self-interest and ego; only public servants are as pure as priests.

Except we all now know priests aren’t so pure.

The institutional inclinations of federal regulatory agencies -- guided as they are by the precautionary principle and run as they are by ambitious bureaucrats -- is to regulate first, worry about the definitive science later, which puts them at odds with any administration that's reluctant to regulate based on flimsy or sensationalist suppositions. A few federal bureaucrats and scientists – NASA’s James Hansen most notably – have become famous bucking the Bush administration, shouting to the rooftops that they’re being silenced. Another of these is former associate deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Jason Burnett, whose own political motivations are revealed in this Los Angeles Times story.

Federal employees are entitled to have their personal ideologies and agendas – outside the workplace. Where this becomes a problem is when these insiders, instead of exercising professional discipline and permitting elected policy-makers to set the agenda, decide to “go public” with their complaints about administration policy, while still collecting a paycheck and pension from Uncle Sam. These freelancers are typically frustrated in the humble role of policy-implementer, and secretly want to be a policy-makers. They just don’t want to go to the trouble of getting elected.

Burnett, to his credit, left the EPA (though I’m sure he waited long enough to qualify for a gold-plated federal pension), but not before airing his differences in a way that was designed to discredit his former boss, the president – and meant to ingratiate himself with Bush-bashing organizations on the outside, with an eye toward future job prospects. There's almost always an element of opportunism in such cases. Perhaps Burnett hopes to land a plumb job with the Obama administration as a reward for his grandstanding.

But even a President Obama will want appointees and agency staff who have the discipline and professionalism to follow policy directives, not buck those they personally disagree with. He'll want (and deserve) subordinates, not insubordinates. How can the executive branch function when all the Indians act like chiefs? What's the point of choosing a queen if the worker bees rule the hive?