Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Silence of the Lambs

We all knew al Qaeda wasn't above hitting below the belt. But an underwear bomb? They really stooped to new lows this time.

But there's a certain genius in the underwear bomb, whether or not it succeeded as a weapon, given the American propensity to overreact to each new terror tactic. We all had to start taking off our shoes at airports after the failed shoe bombing. Now, presumably, TSA screening efforts will focus on our underwear. What new humiliations and indignities will follow, one can only imagine.

Al Qaeda may be as interested in inflicting mass humiliation on America as mass casualties: stripping away our last shred of dignity, along with our clothes, may be the group's ultimate goal. When we're all forced by TSA to board airplanes wearing nothing but hospital gowns -- our ass checks hanging out there, exposed to the elements, in order to better accomodate the body cavity search -- that will be the end of America as we know it. We'll have been reduced by al Qaeda to a nation of bleating sheep, all the better to be led off to slaughter -- a people who will bow to (or bend over for) each new security measure, no matter how humiliating, idiotic or pointless, even while the federal bureaucrats in charge of homeland security are bumbling and fumbling with our lives.

TSA is a lot like "the great and powerful Oz" -- all smoke-and-mirrors bluster, meant to awe and bamboozle the boobs. And as long as we pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, and passively and mindlessly comply with the Wizard's demands, the flimsy illusion called "homeland security" can be maintained.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Speak Up, Mr. President

President Obama acquitted himself poorly the last time he had an opportunity to speak up for freedom in Iran. Apparently reluctant to rile the mullahs, and heeding the advice of those who argue that overt American support for the Iranian resistance will undermine it's legitimacy, the President stood by and said little as the regime violently crushed pro-reform forces.

Now comes another uprising -- and a do-over for Obama.

Whether he repeats his earlier mistake will tell a great deal not just about his personal character and courage, but about whether he has the stones to champion American ideals and interests abroad.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Ski Train Derailed By Federal Red Tape

Who put Colorado's Ski Train out of commission, just days before it was about to begin it's 70th year of service between Denver and Winter Park? A federal judge did, technically. But the impasse that led to the lawsuit, which led to Wednesday's ruling that derailed the service -- perhaps temporarily, buy maybe permanently -- can almost certainly be traced back to federal rules and red tape.

The company that's trying to keep the trains running (Iowa Pacific), after the long-time operator (The Anschutz Co.) pulled out, was forced by rail line owner Union Pacific to crew the trains with Amtrak personnel. Why that should be a requirement, no media report explains. But that was probably the kiss of death for the Colorado Ski Train, since any operation involving Amtrak -- the train wreck of federal bureaucracies -- is bound to get bogged-down in union-mandated staffing requirements and federal red tape. And sure enough, that seems to have happened here.

Iowa Pacific, believing it had reached agreement with Amtrak, began selling tickets and promoting the service. That's when Amtrak began making additional demands -- one of which boosted the company's liability insurance requirements from $2 million to $200 million for the season. The safety of the trains also became an issue, with the company insisting that it meets all standards, while attorneys for Amtrak waived red flags. The most detailed coverage of the conflict can be found in The Denver Business Journal: here and here.

If you dig a few layers deeper, you'd undoubtedly discover many costly and unreasonable demands made on Iowa Pacific as a result of its forced partnership with Amtrak. Nothing is simple, affordable or efficient once the federal government is involved. The history of Amtrak testifies to that. Iowa Pacific may not be blameless in this situation. But my best guess -- based on years of watching the federal government in inaction -- is that the company is being railroaded by Amtrak, unions and federal bureaucrats.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Crossing the Rubicon

"We have to keep our eyes on what we're trying to do here,” Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin said yesterday, while fending off a reporter’s niggling question about why so much bribery was required to get the CongressCare bill passed. “We're trying to cross a demarcation line. On one side is health care as a privilege, on the other side is health care as a right. With these votes, with the vote that we'll take before Christmas, we will cross that line finally and say that health care is a right of all Americans."

This may not be the most frightening political quote of 2009. But it certainly ranks near the top of the heap.

Watch It and Weep

One trait common among Detroiters, and we in The Legion of Ex-Detroiters (I wonder if we could form our own voting block?), is a morbid sense of humor about our old home town. This permits us to watch YouTube posts like this one -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hhJ_49leBw -- without breaking down in tears.

Even non-Detroiters might take an interest in this, however -- if only as a lesson in how to (or how not to) destroy a major American city. Why is Detroit relevant to non-Detroiters? Because, says the host, "Detroit has been the perfect laboratory for leftist policies at work for nearly half a century: it's the perfect vision of the leftist Utopia that this (Obama) administration sees." An outrageous statement? Perhaps. But not too far off the mark, in the view of this ex-Detroiter.

One slender ray of hope in the otherwise pessimism-inducing picture is new Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, who I remember best as a Pistons player. Here's a recent profile of Bing in the Wall Street Journal. He seems like a good man, with the right attitudes. But so did Dennis Archer.

Ex Post Facto "Incentives"

IBM probably spends more than $35,000 a year on ballpoint pens and paperclips. So does anyone really believe that the city of Boulder landed a new IBM service center, and the 500 jobs that go with it, because of $35,000 in tax "incentives" it will give the company?

The Boulder Daily Camera seems to believe it, judging from its diligence in drawing these causal connections. "IBM gets $35,000 business incentive from Boulder, will add 500 jobs," reads the headline. And Boulder city officials may also choose to believe it, since it would seem to justify this obvious misuse of public money. But does anyone else really, truly, honestly believe that a corporate behemoth like IBM made this decision based on a penny-ante $35,000 handout from the city?

You'd have to be a PhD to believe anything so far-fetched.

The company has been a presence in Boulder for years. It actually has a "campus" there. It made this move based not on a measly $35,000 in tax rebates, but because it makes compelling business sense, unrelated to this payment. The company apparently is shameless enough to take "free" money when "free" money is offered: the widespread bidding for jobs with public funds has created a mercenary culture inside too many board rooms. But no sensible person would in this case connect one event with the other.

I'm not saying "incentives" never matter. In some cases, they may make a difference, at the margins. But other factors still matter more -- like the fact that IBM already has a campus in Boulder. Corporate executives have become very shrewd about collecting "incentives" for choices they would probably have made without them.

If folks in Boulder want to believe that this $35,000 offering played a pivotal part in the decision, and congratulate themselves on their economic development prowess, who's going to pop their big green balloon? Certainly not the top brass at IBM, who are laughing about this all the way to the bank.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Far From The Madding Crowd

What an invaluable resource for reasoning people the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal continues to be -- countering the general dumbing-down of media and simpering namby-pambyism that dominates the opinion sections of most American newspapers. Particularly insightful and timely have been a series of pieces on the topic of climate change, which I'll link to below for the benefit of those who don't make the WSJ a regular stop on their reading list.

Here a respected biologist calls for reconsideration of the somewhat rigid, romanticized way we look at nature.

Here Patrick Michaels -- a man who has suffered at the hands of the eco-McCarthyists -- explains how the alarmist camp of climate researchers managed to "manufacture" the myth of a scientific "consensus."

Here Howard Bloom argues that climate change is just nature's way.

Here the "skeptical environmentalist," Bjorn Lomborg, calls for a smarter response to climate variation.

At a time when all the country frequently seems on the verge of mass insanity, it's comforting to know that there's at least one place to turn where reason and critical thinking still can be found.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

O Radical, Where Art Thou?

Protest marches on college campuses are old news, at least since the 1960s. But what makes this march different, and noteworthy, is the mysterious absence of students -- students who are usually quick to join in on civil rights fights.

This protest was organized not by students, or by the faculty, however, but by residents of neighborhoods near Columbia University, who fear the school will use eminent domain in pursuit of a West Harlem expansion project. A New York appeals court recently slapped down the school, ruling that its efforts to displace holdouts, through eminent domain, were unconstitutional. The protesters are asking Columbia not to appeal the decision; to build around the holdouts. But school officials are noncommittal.

It's curious that Columbia's famously-radical students are largely silent on the issue. This isn't the '60s, I know. But isn't the indignation of students stirred by seeing working-class people bullied by the school into giving up their homes and businesses? One of the school's few libertarians raised his voice in protest, yet campus liberals (the self-styled champions of civil rights) haven't much been heard from.

Where is the anger?

Where is the outrage?

Where is the outcry for justice?

All are absent in this case, except from non-students in the neighborhood.

Does apathy explain it? Or could it be that Columbia students, so quick to see injustice elsewhere (and everywhere), can't see it when it's right under their noses? Has self-interest in this case trumped self-righteous indignation? Perhaps, more ominously, the liberals at Columbia don't see property rights as a civil right, although they were recognized by the country's founders as paramount. The big brains at Columbia surely must see that all civil rights are undermined if a person isn't secure in her person or possessions. Don't alarm bells go off at seeing the state empowered to take someone's property, virtually at will?

This highlights a curious blind spot on the part of American left-wingers, who are so shrill in defense of other (arguably less-important) civil rights. Property rights apparently rank low on the list of causes they'll take to the barricades for, perhaps because these rights stand as obstacles to other agenda items, like "economic justice," redistribution of wealth, social equality, government regulation, etc.

Property rights aren't recognized in the leftist fantasy land called Cuba, just as they were absent in the former Soviet Union (with which many American liberals had a love affair, let's not forget, right up to the moment the wall came down). Property rights are the first things to go when leftists take power, because they carve out a zone of individual autonomy and control that statists can't tolerate. And even here, in the civil rights-happy U.S., property rights are looked on with suspicion and scorn by the left -- are seen as speed bumps that slow the pace of state-sponsored "progress."

That, more than anything, may explain the strange absence of student radicals from the anti-Columbia protests.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The New Religion

No national columnist hits the nail as squarely on the head as consistently as Charles Krauthammer. He does it again today, with a piece about the EPA's attempted takeover of the U.S. economy, through the proposed regulation of CO2.

Of particular interest to me, though, since it echoes my own views on the subject, is Krauthammer's assertion that environmentalism has become "a new religion" -- but a religion that differs in significant ways from most others, and poses a greater threat to our political and economic liberties, because it is embraced by the state and has socialist underpinnings.

Here's the sound of the hammer hitting the nail:

"Since we operate an overwhelmingly carbon-based economy, the EPA will be regulating practically everything. No institution that emits more than 250 tons of CO2 a year will fall outside EPA control. This means more than a million building complexes, hospitals, plants, schools, businesses and similar enterprises. (The EPA proposes regulating emissions only above 25,000 tons, but it has no such authority.) Not since the creation of the Internal Revenue Service has a federal agency been given more intrusive power over every aspect of economic life.

This naked assertion of vast executive power in the name of the environment is the perfect fulfillment of the prediction of Czech President (and economist) Vaclav Klaus that environmentalism is becoming the new socialism, i.e., the totemic ideal in the name of which government seizes the commanding heights of the economy and society.

Socialism having failed so spectacularly, the left was adrift until it struck upon a brilliant gambit: metamorphosis from red to green. The cultural elites went straight from the memorial service for socialism to the altar of the environment. The objective is the same: highly centralized power given to the best and the brightest, the new class of experts, managers and technocrats. This time, however, the alleged justification is not abolishing oppression and inequality but saving the planet."

All totalitarian movements need a grandiose mission statement; a goal big enough to justify their abuses of power. Some have marched under the banner of racial purity; others under the banner of the proletarian revolution. In the name of "saving the planet" -- what mission could be more important than that? -- almost any abuses of political or economic liberty can be justified. It's that awareness that explains my strong aversion to the new religion called environmentalism -- and my belief that Americans, just as they insist on a separation of church and state, must also demand the separation of cult and state.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Friedman Meets Murdoch

Economist Milton Friedman famously said (or is supposed to have said) "there's no free lunch." Media mogul Rupert Murdoch says something very similar, in a slightly different context, in today's Wall Street Journal. The implications of this seemingly simple message are profound not just for the economy at large, but for a media industry transitioning from old paradigm to new. The future face of blogs like this might hang on the issue.

Murdoch is bullish on the future of journalism, at a time when many are scribbling its obituary. That's encouraging. But the success of the new media won't rest on advertising revenues, as the traditional model did. The new model will require readers to pay for what they now get "free" on the Internet. That's where the lunch thing comes in.

Murdoch says the new media will have to work harder to give news consumers the content they really want. But that’s only half the bargain. Here's the other half, in Murdoch's words:

"My second point follows from my first: Quality content is not free. In the future, good journalism will depend on the ability of a news organization to attract customers by providing news and information they are willing to pay for.

The old business model based mainly on advertising is dead. Let's face it: A business model that relies primarily on online advertising cannot sustain newspapers over the long term. The reason is simple arithmetic. Though online advertising is increasing, that increase is only a fraction of what is being lost with print advertising.

That's not going to change, even in a boom. The reason is that the old model was founded on quasimonopolies such as classified advertising, which has been decimated by new and cheaper competitors such as Craigslist, Monster.com, and so on.

In the new business model, we will be charging consumers for the news we provide on our Internet sites. The critics say people won't pay. I believe they will, but only if we give them something of good and useful value. Our customers are smart enough to know that you don't get something for nothing.

That goes for some of our friends online too. And yet there are those who think they have a right to take our news content and use it for their own purposes without contributing a penny to its production. Some rewrite, at times without attribution, the news stories of expensive and distinguished journalists who invested days, weeks or even months in their stories—all under the tattered veil of "fair use."

These people are not investing in journalism. They are feeding off the hard-earned efforts and investments of others. And their almost wholesale misappropriation of our stories is not "fair use." To be impolite, it's theft.

Right now content creators bear all the costs, while aggregators enjoy many of the benefits. In the long term, this is untenable. We are open to different pay models. But the principle is clear: To paraphrase a famous economist, there's no such thing as a free news story, and we are going to ensure that we get a fair but modest price for the value we provide."

Will spoiled news consumers agree to pay news producers for what they now get, and replicate, for virtually nothing? That's unknown until media companies move aggressively to restrict content to paying customers only. Some of this is done on a small scale now, but most content is still out there for the taking. Already-shaky media companies are reluctant to throw up toll gates on the "information highway" when the competition is giving it all away. Everyone sees that the freebies must end. But all the major players are standing on the edge of the pool, wondering who’s going to jump first.

Murdoch's new paradigm, if it gains ground, also has the potential to dramatically change the so-called blogosphere, given how many blogs and websites depend on re-posting mainstream media material. I frequently link to news stories in this blog, and sometimes re-publish verbatim excerpts as reference points (as I'm doing in this post). This is arguably a benefit to the originating news source, if people click back through the links. But it also raises copyright questions that can’t be ignored.

We in the blogosphere tend to think of it as borrowing, but Murdoch calls it “theft.” And I think many of the points he makes are well-taken.

But this presents a problem. I’m one of “these people,” one of these "friends online," Murdoch references in the piece. If I had to pay to insert a link, or republish an excerpt, or pay to access the myriad news sites I now view for nada, the cost of doing this will increase considerably, possibly making it impossible. So what Murdock is proposing would impact (and possibly ruin) this and millions of other blogs and websites, which currently serve as a sort of shadow media, dependent, for the most part, on content provided by the “old media.”

Many “new media” sites take glee in bashing, badgering and discrediting the “old media.” But that’s dangerous and self-defeating in my view, given that the old media remains the baseline that most of us still use as a common reference point.

The new media may someday become as trusted and reliable, as a source of hard news, as the old media was in its heyday. But now, in its infancy, it’s still dependent on conventional news producers. We’ve been enjoying a Golden Age of news and information exchange, made possible by a virtually “free” web, where reams of content can be accessed at the click of a mouse. But that moment of freeloading may have to end, in order to preserve the professional information gatherers otherwise known as journalists.

If they go extinct, all you’ll have left is a tower of bloggle.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Left Wing Lesson Plan

Wackos, weirdos and radicals of all stripes find welcoming and eager ears on American college campuses (some even burrow in and earn tenure); it's almost as if parents, taxpayers and tuition-payers feel obligated to expose impressionable minds to both the best and the worst of ideas, assuming students can tell the difference. But many students can't tell the difference -- which is why activist-turned-"educator" Annie Leonard received a warm reception at last week's appearance at Colorado College.

Leonard's popular video, The Story of Stuff, "details in a simplistic, almost childlike way, the linear journey that stuff takes to get to our homes and the journey it takes when we toss the stuff out," reports The Gazette. But the film's "childlike" style is designed to deceive. It actually delivers a much more adult message, leveling a wide-ranging critique of capitalism, consumerism, industrialism and Americanism, tied-up in a bright green ribbon to lower a viewer's guard.

Leonard once worked for Greenpeace. The group's extremist ethos permeates the film. "Stuff" was bankrolled in part by The Tides Foundation, which gives generously to radical causes. A quick read of the transcript, or viewing of the film, reveals that "Stuff" is much more than just a primer on resource extraction and mass consumption. It's a context-free broadside against the American way of life, full of fear-mongering distortions and political editorializing. Many of the "facts" presented are debatable. The transcript has footnotes, but most lead back to dubious, ideologically-loaded sources.

If The Story of Stuff were confined to YouTube, and it's creator to the college lecture circuit, it couldn't do too much harm. But the film is being shown in many U.S. schools, where captive and unwitting audiences are clueless about its hard-left subtext. The New York Times reported in May that the film is jumping from the Internet into the classroom, with very little resistance. It's something parents and school administrators need to be wary of.

The Times:

"More than 7,000 schools, churches and others have ordered a DVD version, and hundreds of teachers have written Ms. Leonard to say they have assigned students to view it on the Web. It has also won support from independent groups that advise teachers on curriculum choices. Facing the Future, a curriculum developer for schools in all 50 states, is drafting lesson plans based on the video."

One Montana school district banned the film, following complaints from an alert parent, according to the Times. But the public school establishment seems to be embracing the film as a legitimate teaching tool.

"In January, a school board in Missoula County, Mont., decided that screening the video treaded on academic freedom after a parent complained that its message was anticapitalist. But many educators say the video is a boon to teachers as they struggle to address the gap in what textbooks say about the environment and what science has revealed in recent years.

“Frankly, a lot of the textbooks are awful on the subject of the environment,” said Bill Bigelow, the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools, a quarterly magazine that has promoted “The Story of Stuff” to its subscribers and on its Web site, which reaches about 600,000 educators a month. “The one used out here in Oregon for global studies — it’s required — has only three paragraphs on climate change. So, yes, teachers are looking for alternative resources.”

Environmental education is still a young and variable field, according to Frank Niepold, the climate education coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There are few state or local school mandates on how to teach the subject.

The agency is seeking to change that, but in the interim many teachers are developing their own lesson plans on climate change, taking some elements from established sources like the National Wildlife Federation and others from less conventional ones like “The Story of Stuff.”

Whether endorsed by curriculum committees, or infiltrating our classrooms one DVD at a time, courtesy of teachers who don't recognize it's political overtones, The Story of Stuff is mind pollution of a toxic kind. Parents need to learn whether their kids are seeing it in school. They should demand that schools stop showing it, unless balance, context and counter-arguments are offered in response. It's left-wing indoctrination, not education -- something as out of place in the classroom as Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, which many U.S. schools passed off as a serious lesson in climate science.

Peddling this kind of "stuff" to college students is one thing; imposing it on K-12 kids is quite another.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Climategate Jr.

The reputation of climate scientists has taken a hit lately, even if a few Obama administration deniers still insist that the Climategate affair is much ado about nothing. But all the focus on the infamous hacked e-mails has overshadowed news of a more overt act of fraud, perpetrated by another "highly-respected" climate scientist -- a case that underscores the danger of putting such people on pedestals.

The accused, NASA climatologist Mark Schoeberl, got a slap on the wrist, as compared to more run of the mill felons, presumably because his long service in government and testimonials to his otherwise good character from colleagues -- including one Nobel Prize winner! -- held sway with the court. His defenders (like the defenders of monkey-wrencher Tim DeChristopher) argued that he wasn't motivated by low motives or ignoble greed, but acted out of an overzealous (but noble) desire to help protect the planet. Whether justice was served, I leave to your judgment.

Here's the story, as told by one of my favorite websites, GovExec.com:

NASA scientist avoids jail in procurement case

A prominent NASA scientist, who has admitted directing thousands of dollars in sole-source agency contracts to his wife's company and failing to report the income on a financial disclosure form, has been spared a prison sentence. The U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., on Tuesday sentenced Mark Schoeberl, 60, of Silver Spring, Md., to one year's probation and a $10,000 fine.

Schoeberl, who was a senior manager and a well-known atmospheric scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland before he retired earlier this year, pleaded guilty in September to one felony count of conflict of interest. At Tuesday's sentencing, Schoeberl, who spent 30-plus years with the agency, expressed remorse for his mistakes and admitted an error in judgment.

Three scientists, including two who still work for NASA, also addressed the court and requested leniency for Schoeberl. More than 50 other scientists, included one Nobel Prize winner, submitted letters praising his character and credentials. Schoeberl's attorney Jacob Frenkel said the sentence was a reflection of his client's "enormous contributions to world atmospheric sciences and anticipated valuable continuing work in support of climate change research."

Prosecutors agreed Schoeberl did not deserve to go to jail, noting in court documents that he quickly accepted responsibility for his conduct, had no criminal history and had a lengthy record of service at NASA. Schoeberl was the chief scientist of Goddard's earth sciences division, which conducts climate research, and the project scientist for the Aura mission to study the Earth's ozone layer, air quality and climate.

Schoeberl's position enabled him to guide funds budgeted for the Aura mission. According to the plea agreement, in mid-2004 Schoeberl began inquiring about ways to direct work to his wife Barbara's company, Animated Earth, a small business that develops and distributes Earth Today, an exhibit displaying near-real-time earth science data. The couple previously had collaborated on a host of projects and presentations for NASA and court documents indicate that the relationship was well-known at the agency.

Prosecutors said Mark Schoeberl initially encountered resistance to a plan that would have directed a $20,000 appropriation to Animated Earth, but later convinced a colleague to approve the funding. In May, Schoeberl prepared a document that justified Animated Earth as the only contractor eligible to bid on a new award for maintenance on kiosks that the company previously had installed on NASA grounds. In June, he provided another sole-source justification directing NASA contracting personnel to award a $60,000 software contract to Animated Earth.

Schoeberl's 2007 financial disclosure form did not include the more than $50,000 in contracts his wife's firm earned that year. Between fiscal 2006 and fiscal 2008, Animated Earth was awarded more than $190,000 in NASA contracts, all without competition, according to data on USASpending.gov, a federal Web site that aggregates date on contract spending.

Frenkel argued that Schoeberl was not motivated by financial gain but rather by a belief that Animated Earth's software was the best product available for earth science education. "Unfortunately, his appreciation of the efficacy and value of the product, and his encouragement of its use, was inconsistent with his professional position at NASA because Dr. Schoeberl's job included responsibility for administering the educational function associated with the satellite program he supervised," the attorney wrote in a sentencing memo he prepared for the court.

"Once a NASA lawyer instructed Dr. Schoeberl that he, in substance, should not even be communicating about Earth Today, it was too late; by then the incidents supporting use of the software already had occurred." In Nov. 20 sentencing correspondence to the court, prosecutors said the government does not seem to have suffered a financial loss because "Animated Earth appears to have completed the work that it contracted with the federal government."

Nontheless, Frenkel said NASA has refused to pay an outstanding bill to Barbara Schoeberl because of the criminal case. The Goddard Space Flight Center did not respond to a request for comment. In the wake of the criminal charges against Schoeberl, agency lawyers reportedly issued a memo to staffers advising them of ethics rules and post-employment restrictions, Frenkel said in his court filings. He said several NASA employees subsequently came forward about similar ethical conflicts. Schoeberl, who has received numerous awards from the space agency and written more than 150 published articles, now finds himself out of work and "radioactive" to potential employers, Frenkel said. "The atmospheric science program has been his life and he has no desire to abandon it," he said.

Why this story received so little media play, in contrast to Climategate, is curious. Maybe fraud undertaken in the name of lining one's pockets is less interesting than fraud undertaken in the name of a cause. But it amounts to the same thing, in my opinion, since climate alarmists are guaranteed to garner more funding, more power, more media attention and adulation than scientists who take a more skeptical tack. No one ever won a government grant, after all, by arguing that everything's alright with the world.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

To Go Where No City Has Gone Before

The search for intelligent life in the universe must go on, because there's no sign of it in the city called Denver, on the place called planet Earth.

Human, All Too Human

That there might be a money motive behind climate change alarmism is usually dismissed by true believers. Scientists operate in a world of facts and hard data, it's assumed, standing apart from mere mortals, who act subjectively and selfishly, swayed by self-interest. The ClimateGate scandal hopefully will shatter, once and for all, that rather naive perception.

Alarmist-in-Chief Al Gore's profit motives already have been pointed out. But everyone knows he's a political huckster (and a former theology student who found a new religion), not a scientist. But scientists too are human -- all too human, as these e-mails reveal -- making them subject to all the baser motives, petty rivalries and herd-think with which the rest of us struggle. Ideology, political considerations and a craving for celebrity (think NASA's James Hansen) can also color their objectivity and work.

This isn't a slam on scientists, or on science, just a long-overdue acknowledgment that they don't always belong on the pedestal on which we place them. And the sooner Americans recognize this, the safer we'll all be from the dangers of science in the service of political extremism.

The Wall Street Journal has two related pieces on today's Editorial Page -- link and link -- I would highly recommend.

No Laughing Matter

Not so long ago in America, finding a note attached to the front door, announcing that your property was being seized to pave the way for a new football stadium, wouldn't have been credible enough to elicit more than an incredulous shrug. But such highly-improbable abuses of eminent domain became all-too-plausible after the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous 2005 Kelo ruling -- which explains the genuine alarm that swept neighborhoods near Baylor University last weekend in the wake of a Friday night prank in which faux eviction notices appeared on hundreds of homes.

Reports the Waco Tribune:

"Prank letters no joke to residents around Baylor University, who feared losing their homes to make way for new stadium

Baylor University sophomore Jordan Washington was alarmed when she saw the notice that had been taped to the door of her 10th Street home sometime Friday night.

The official-looking flier said the university was seizing properties in the neighborhood to make way for a new, $255 million football stadium to be built next March over an area from Speight Avenue at 12th Street to La Salle Avenue at Seventh Street. And it described how her home had been condemned under the state’s eminent domain law so Baylor could buy it.

All of which, Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman emphasized, is “absolutely false.”

Pranksters slipped the fliers under doormats and taped them to the doors of houses and apartment buildings in neighborhoods east and south of campus, Fogleman said. Baylor police canvassed the area Saturday afternoon and collected at least 232 of them."

One hates to see people needlessly alarmed, but my hat goes off to these pranksters. They may have just been out for a little fun, but they also managed to make a political statement of sorts, by demonstrating how deeply unsettling the Kelo ruling is to many Americans. What made the prank work was the plausibility of the scenario – something that wouldn’t have been taken seriously in pre-Kelo times.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Separation of Cult and State

Who are "the deniers" now?

The publication of some pretty damning e-mail exchanges between members of the Alarmist School of climate research (e-mails suggesting that they colluded in cooking the books and conspired to freeze-out and discredit members of the Skeptical School) has spawned a new breed of "denier" -- those in journalism and in government who deny the scandal's implications and want to charge ahead with a regulatory overreaction, as if these revelations change nothing.

So wedded are some people to the alarmist interpretation of climate variability, apparently, that nothing will shake their faith -- not even evidence that some of the high priests have been fudging on "facts." It's more evidence that environmentalism has evolved into a secular religion -- the one religion officially sanctioned by the state, perhaps because it enlarges, rather than challenges, state power.

We Americans are careful about upholding a "separation of church and state." Maybe we should think more about maintaining a separation of cult and state.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Green Lady

The New York Times was once widely known as "the Gray Lady," denoting its formerly staid appearance and tone. Today it might better be called "the Green Lady," given how eagerly it has surrendered any objectivity on environmental issues, and how completely it has joined forces with the Earth-worshipers.

Today's new breed of "environmental journalists" are environmentalists first, journalists second, for the most part. Greens get a pass on the cynicism and skepticism newsies heap on everyone else. But the Times has knocked-down any remaining barriers, and thrown balance to the wind, by re-publishing "news stories" generated by the for-profit website Greenwire, resulting in "New York Times coverage" like this.

I've been a regular user of Greenwire for years, because it's a useful consolidator of news on the environment, energy and public lands. But I also see Greenwire as a major cog in the green propaganda machine. It is not an unbiased news organization or news source, as any objective party would confirm, but an organization that slavishly serves the environmentalist agenda, spinning the news to serve that purpose. That most New York Times readers aren't aware of this, and may be giving Greenwire and New York Times stories equal weight, is troubling, to say the least.

I don't know how long this shared content arrangement has been in place. But after noticing Greenwire stories popping-up in the Times several months back, I registered my objections with the paper's ombudsman, which was met with a non-response. I'll try again in the next few days, but doubt the Times will respond. So enmeshed have the news business and Environmental Anxiety Industry become that there's no recognition of the improprieties involved. "Saving the planet" is a noble cause. Who in her right mind wouldn't join in?

It's hard of late to tell the difference between environmental "journalism" and environmentalist press releases, as already noted. But the Times' unholy alliance with Greenwire obliterates any remaining barriers and distinctions, foisting-off blatant agit-prop as legitimate news. The fact that most readers don't have a clue about what they're ingesting constitutes a serious deception, which further erodes public confidence in the "mainstream media."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Energy Obstructionists

The Associated Press notes a sudden reluctance on the part of energy companies to bid on federal oil and gas leases in the state Utah. But is it really surprising? Virtually every major auction offered in the Rocky Mountain West is fiercely contested by anti-drilling extremists. The knee-jerk obstructionism is simply wearing energy providers down. And given the obvious sway the extremists hold with this administration, and with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (an obstructionists himself while in the Senate), it's little wonder that the Rocky Mountain energy boom went bust.

Macroeconomic forces have played a part in this, no question. But green extremism is also a significant factor, as these two news reports -- link and link -- make clear. Especially frustrating was the dishonest way that Salazar and the Obama administration unilaterally nullified dozens of legitimate energy leases in Utah shortly after coming to power. A number of those voided leases have been reinstated, thanks to the scrutiny of Utah's congressional delegation. But watching the administration attempt to justify that abuse of power proves to me that the Obamatons (much like the Clintonistas) are absolutely devoid of any principle, save for political expediency and interest group loyalty. And I'm glad to see folks aren't just laying down for it.

From Thursday Deseret News:

Utah oil and gas leases should be reinstated, report says
Analysis is latest in ongoing fight over 2008 land auction

A new analysis by an association representing oil and gas producers asserts the Department of the Interior thwarted the public process and "second-guessed" its own land managers when it yanked bids on oil and gas parcels sold at a controversial auction in Salt Lake City last December.

Despite "aggressive" environmental protections included in the Bureau of Land Management's Resource Management Plans, the Interior Department recommended eight leases for removal and 52 leases for deferral, disregarding scientific evidence and input from Utah stakeholders, according to the association.

"It's a sad day when politics trumps the expertise of professional land managers and the hard work of citizens to develop economic and resource-development plans that the community has embraced," said Kathleen Sgamma, Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States spokeswoman. "If you're not listening to your land managers and the public, who are you listening to?"

The report, released Thursday, is the latest in a series of volleys fired back and forth among environmentalists, the oil and gas industry and the Interior Department on the heels of the auction that was marred by protests and the arrest of activist Timothy DeChristopher.

Two months after the auction, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pulled all 77 leases, saying they had been put on the table after a rushed "midnight" decision in the waning hours of the Bush administration. He later sent a hand-picked team led by Forest Supervisor Mike Stiles to Utah to conduct a review of the appropriateness of the leases offered at auction.
As a result of that review, Salazar removed eight parcels from consideration and put 52 more under additional review.

The petroleum association's 66-page analysis of Stiles' report found "no evidence" to support the resulting Interior Department decision and said Salazar showed a "lack of regard" for the seven-year public planning process that produced the Resource Management Plans.

Specific information for each parcel, location details, wilderness status and lease stipulations contained in the management plans are contained in the report, as well as a summary of why the association believes the parcel is appropriate for leasing.

One of the parcels, for example, was described as 160 acres with a western boundary located 4.5 miles from Canyonlands National Park, with existing state and federal leases between it and the park. The environmental protections mandated in the lease stipulation include air quality, paleontological resources and mitigation of impacts to endangered or threatened species such as the Mexican spotted owl.

"Based on this analysis, (the petroleum association) believes the 60 leases were legitimately sold at the December 2008 sale and should be reinstated to the winning bidders," the report said.

And here's a report from the AP earlier in the week:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A trade group says it's getting so hard to obtain an oil-and-gas lease in the Rocky Mountains that many drillers and land agents aren't even trying to buy one.
The criticism came after the government held an auction of public lands in Utah that was remarkable for how few parcels were offered or sold.

The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States says drillers are scared that the administration of President Barack Obama will hold up a lease after it sells one, so they aren't bothering with the auctions.

The industry group also complains the new administration is doing little to clear a $100 million backlog of leases that were sold years ago but are being stifled by legal or bureaucratic review.

The energy crisis of a few years has abated for now, due to the global economic downturn. But it will return, and persist, in the years ahead. Spiking prices and short supplies will have Americans crying out for relief (remember the chants of "drill, baby, drill" that were heard not so long ago?) and wondering who's to blame. But energy obstructionists always can count on the amnesia of average Americans to shield them from blame when the uproar commences.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pyrrhic "Victories"

Bowing to pressure from Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and others, the U.S. Army will decline to appeal a court ruling that has the potential to curtail training activities at the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site. It's a decision that could come back to haunt Colorado, and Colorado Springs especially, the next time a commission is asked to close bases or downsize America's military footprint.

The rancher-activists who brought this suit -- which deals not with the proposed expansion, but with operations at the existing site -- are gleefully waiving their cowboy hats and yelping "yippee." "We keep winning all the battles (with the Army) but it's the war over Pinon Canyon that we're worried about," one of their leaders told the Chieftain. But the "victories" will be Pyrrhic if this lawsuit and all the continued (at this point, manufactured) controversy over expansion destroys Fort Carson's value and standing as a training facility, making it vulnerable to downsizing or eventual disappearance.

It was one thing to fight expansion -- I actually had some sympathy for the ranchers back when this all began. But now the activists (who, like many of these types, become somewhat addicted to it) seem intent not just on blocking expansion but on curtailing training activities at the old site. That goes too far in my book. But rather than calling for some sort of cease-fire, or negotiating a compromise, supposed-leaders like Sen. Bennet chose to ride the anti-Army bandwagon, irresponsibly playing politics with the issue.

The Army may one day find more hospitable confines in which to train. And the activist-ranchers who turned the Army into the enemy will once again be able to use these supposedly-precious lands for chasing cattle. They can continue living out a 19th Century lifestyle in splendid isolation, and economic stagnation, unfettered by modern intrusions or inconveniences, like having to ready fighting men and women for combat on an expanding battlefield.

They'll have won every battle against the Army -- but Colorado as a whole, and the readiness of U.S. fighting forces, will be the ultimate casualties.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Watch Your Behavior. TSA Will Be.

I wasn't the most easygoing air traveler even before 9-11. My customary rush not to miss the flight, combined with the dread that I'll get a middle seat, along with an active imagination about all that can go wrong during takeoff and landing, made me an edgy flier even under ideal circumstances. But the mostly-mindless security rituals imposed on air passengers since 9-11 have notched-up my stress level three fold, at least. Each running of the airport security gauntlet brings my blood to a slow boil, as I brood about the handful of homicidal maniacs who on that day turned America into a nation of sheep. I imagine the new indignities we'll endure if someone ever sets off an underwear bomb.

TSA conditioning hasn't completely worn me down yet. I still seethe each time I have to remove my shoes, empty my pocket change and metal jewelry into the plastic bowl, take off my belt, lift my cap, spread my arms, surrender the potentially-explosive hair products I left in my carry-on. I still chafe each time I have to take orders from some overly-officious TSA securacrat, who didn't have the right stuff to be a cop or flunked the CIA entrance exam and defaulted to this instead.

I seethe silently for the most part, because to rebel, or register anger or frustration -- to tell those glorified postal workers what you really think of this elaborate charade -- invites suspicion, retaliation, further delay. But sometimes -- when my wife isn't there to squeeze my arm or shoot be a disapproving look -- I act out on these frustrations and say or do something uncool. Like the time I dropped my pants after a wand-wielding TSA worker asked that I unbuckle my belt.

That's why I'm a little worried about recent reports that TSA "Behavior Detection Officers" will soon be fanning out to American airports, on the lookout for passengers who exhibit "erratic" or "suspicious" behavior. As someone who exhibits erratic behavior even when not passing through TSA checkpoints, but in the course of everyday life, I fear that airport visits are about to get worse.

From The Washington Post:

"FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- You might not see them, but they're studying you.

To identify potentially dangerous individuals, the Transportation Security Administration has stationed specially trained behavior-detection officers at 161 U.S. airports. The officers may be positioned anywhere, from the parking garage to the gate, trying to spot passengers who show an unusual level of nervousness or stress.

They do not focus on nationality, race, ethnicity or gender, said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz. "We're not looking for a type of person, but at behaviors," she said.

Under the program, which started in Boston in 2003, a suspicious passenger might be given a secondary security screening or referred to police; detection officers do not have arrest powers."

My body language in an airport practically broadcasts tension, frustration, impatience and intolerance -- presenting the very picture of a homicidal hijacker on a martyrdom mission. I'm just the sort of brooding, jumpy, sweaty traveler some half-baked TSA behaviorist would pick out of a crowd. And my demeanor will only get more suspicious when I'm pulled aside by a TSA profiler -- armed with "four days of behavior training, which includes training to spot suicide terrorists, and . . . 24 hours of on-the-job preparation," according to the Post -- and subjected to additional search or interrogation. I'm likely to get mouthy. I'm likely to seem hostile. I'm likely to quickly have the TSA securacrat talking into his sleeve, calling for backup.

The Post cites several cases of TSA behaviorists flushing out suspicious characters:

"In one case, in March 2008, detection officers noticed a passenger about to board a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Charlotte, N.C. During a secondary screening, officers found 209 grams of the drug ecstasy, with a street value of $2.5 million, in a carry-on bag. The traveler was arrested.

In other instances, passengers have been arrested on charges of drug trafficking, possessing fraudulent documents and having outstanding warrants, Koshetz said.

In February 2008, detection officers at Miami International Airport noted that a passenger had suspicious documents and was acting oddly. When he was flagged for a secondary screening, he bolted.

Local police and TSA officers chased the man, who ran out of the terminal and jumped off a second-story road onto a sidewalk. He broke an arm and was arrested on charges of resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and possessing several identification documents."

Way to go, McGruff. But the paper doesn't cite a single case of profilers detecting an actual terrorist, or foiling a terror plot. A lot of suspicious characters travel through airports on any given day: a mule carrying cocaine; an illegal immigrant slipping into the country on a supposed business trip; someone high on ecstasy; a gambler heading to Vegas with $60,000 in cash. Some people may even begin to act suspicious in response to constantly being under state suspicion.

It's not TSA's job to apprehend anyone and everyone acting suspicious -- that casts too wide a net, in my view -- but to detect and foil potential terror plots against air passengers. And I doubt this new tack will be any more effective, in that regard, than TSA's mass confiscation of shampoo bottles and toenail clippers.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Calling All Regulators

Every headline-making mishap in America must generate a disproportionate overreaction on the part of politicos, regulators and other government officials -- it's as predictable as the fall following the summer, the winter following the fall. Our "lawmakers" turned law-manufacturers often seem to be trolling the papers, looking for reasons to legislate. And almost any excuse will do.

So I, in a personal little parlor game, have taken to reading the news in a similar fashion -- trying to predict which stories will most likely generate a legislative overreaction.

This week's pick for news item most likely to result in a legislative "fix" isn't the "balloon boy" story (though some effort could be launched to make it a federal crime to perpetrate a hoax using your child as pawns), but the "Arizona sweat lodge tragedy." It made The New York Times today, virtually assuring that some enterprising politicos in Washington or the Arizona legislature will be stepping in to offer a regulatory response.

Players of my parlor game can earn extra points by naming the bill. I'm betting it will be called the "Safer Sweat Lodges Act of 2010." If Congress seizes on the tragedy to regulate other dubious "new age" healing rituals, it might be called the "Safer Sweat Lodges and Holistic Healing Act of 2010."

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pain Relief

Voters in a number of states have approved medical marijuana laws in recent years, only to find federal drug enforcers effectively nullifying those measures by busting people who tried to prescribe, cultivate or distribute medical marijuana. It was a classic states' rights conflict, in which federal drug laws were being used by Washington to override modest legalization steps taken by states. Voters in many states (including Colorado) seem open to relaxing certain drug prohibitions, if it could do suffering people some good. But the Bush Justice Department held firm to its "zero tolerance" stance, using DEA raids to effectively force federal drug laws on everyone else.

But that (thankfully) is changing under the Obama administration, which is calling-off the DEA raiders (at least for now) as long as the medical marijuana dispensaries adhere to state law. Here's a write-up on the issue in today's Los Angeles Times.

It doesn't mean the DEA isn't monitoring developments in the nascent medical marijuana industry, or that it won't raid operations it thinks are fronts for the non-medical distribution of pot. But the new deference the Justice Department is showing states -- the new reasonableness and respect -- is in my view a positive development, reducing some of the frictions (and injustices) its formerly-hardline stance were creating.

Will this experiment in partial legalization be abused and exploited by bad actors? It would be naive to ignore the possibility. But that's a matter better dealt with at the state and local level than by the U.S. Justice Department. States that have medical marijuana laws are dealing with an analogous issue, as state and local law enforcers, and state and local officials, begin to work through the sometimes-prickly issues and dilemmas this legalization experiment presents. We'll have to wrestle with these issues in Colorado Springs as well.

These difficulties aren't an argument against the experiment -- major changes in longstanding policy always create tensions and gray-area uncertainties. They're just the normal (but temporary) disorientation that occurs when freedom wins out over order, control and reflexive regimentation. I'm just glad that the Obama administration -- for now, at least -- will be giving states the opportunity -- the liberty -- to deal with this themselves.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Federal Agency Could Use More Gun Control

The government expects average Americans to keep close tabs on our personal firearms, lest sloppiness lead to thefts, accidents or guns finding their way into the wrong hands. But how carefully does the federal government keep track of its firearms?

Not very carefully, according to this just-released report by the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Interior, which identified a number of problems with how the agency stored and accounted for weapons. While investigators didn't identify any specific cases in which federal firearms ended up in the wrong hands, or made their way to the black market, the lax management it describes at some agency weapons caches raises the possibility that this occurs.

Average citizens who handled their personal firearms in this way might be accused of reckless endangerment, or at least be called irresponsible. But when the federal government is involved, it's business as usual.

Here are some key experts from the IG report:

"All bureaus have policies and procedures designed to control and safeguard property that are generally consistent with Department standards and other federal regulations. Despite these policies and procedures, we found that most DOI law enforcement programs could not accurately account for their cached firearms. Inventories were found to be inaccurate and those responsible for firearms accountability did not always follow established procedures for conducting periodic inventories or reporting and investigating missing firearms. We found 373 inventory discrepancies out of the 1,334 firearms we physically handled. These discrepancies include: firearms listed on inventories but not present; firearms present, but not listed on inventories; and administrative errors such as lost and unprocessed paperwork or transposition errors. Consequently, the Department cannot accurately account for the number of law enforcement firearms it has or where those firearms are actually located."

"We discovered inconsistencies in the diligence paid to firearms inventories at most National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) locations we visited. During a review of the NWRS armory at FLETC, where approximately 400 weapons were stored, we found that the NWRS had not conducted an official inventory for over two years. NWRS belatedly conducted an inventory of those weapons in response to our data request. When questioned about the lack of annual inventories, the NWRS official responsible for those firearms said “you’re not going to like what I’m about to say” and confessed that he has refused to conduct the required inventories because of inaccurate inventory reports he received from NWRS headquarters. We learned that prior to his assignment to FLETC, a paid student intern had been given responsibility for firearms after a past firearms custodian had been relieved of his responsibilities.

When we compared the NWRS armory firearms inventory that was certified on April 2, 2009, to our April 20, 2009 physical inventory of those firearms, we discovered over 100 firearms that were not in the armory as indicated in the official inventory records. We also found several firearms on the inventory were listed as assigned to personnel who had retired in 2004, as well as other firearms that had been assigned to personnel who had resigned and now works for the Department of Homeland Security. Firearms that had been documented elsewhere as destroyed were still listed on current inventories."

What the IG found at New York Field Office of the U.S. Park Police was troubling.

"Our findings at the U.S. Park Police (USPP) New York Field Office (NYFO) further highlighted our concerns over disconcerting attitudes towards firearms accountability and security. Original property receipts were stored in a plastic bag, abandoned and personal weapons were intermixed with government-owned firearms, and gun safes containing a silenced machine gun and other firearms were unlocked. An unknown number of keys had been issued to the firearms storage area, firearms custodians were unaware of the number of guns in their inventory or their origin, and guns physically present were not listed on the inventory.

Three weapons originally purchased in 1993 (two of which were never used), and which are now obsolete, were reported as missing. They were subsequently discovered at the abandoned USPP firearms range during the course of our assessment. USPP could not tell us when those guns were last inventoried or had been physically seen.arms.

Upon discovering the physical conditions of the NYFO armory and the management of their firearms, we notified the USPP Chief about our observations. The chief subsequently ordered an investigation be conducted regarding the three missing weapons. He also ordered the armory moved to a more appropriate location under new supervision, a complete audit of the firearms property management function, and inventory of all weapons. The deputy chief confirmed that these tasks had been completed . . ."

. . . Two assault weapons located in NYFO firearms storage closet.

A senior law enforcement executive who has spent 30 years in NWRS told us he knows that refuges “squirrel” away firearms. In another case, we discovered two assault weapons stored in the NYFO firearms storage closet that were not listed on the official inventory. Both weapons were labeled “safe keeping private owner abandoned.” We received two conflicting accounts about how these weapons came into USPP custody when we questioned the office’s firearms custodians about those weapons. One explained that they had been turned in approximately 18 years ago by a private citizen after the assault weapons ban went into effect. The other told us that the weapons had been seized as evidence during a criminal investigation but were no longer needed. Neither firearms custodian could tell us why the weapons were still being stored."

Not every weapons cache the IG visited was badly managed, thankfully. But enough were to make one wonder whether similar conditions exist inside other federal agencies -- and to make one think that there's a good deal of hypocrisy in the constant lecturing about firearm safety that average citizens get from government officials. Government officials often are leading the cheers for more gun control for the rest of us. Maybe they need a little more of their own.

Here's a final salvo from the IG's report:

All Departmental law enforcement programs require that missing or stolen assigned firearms be immediately reported and investigated. The Department also requires that all missing firearms be reported to the Office of Law Enforcement and Security (OLES) through Serious Incident Reporting procedures. Despite these requirements, we found that weapons missing from firearms caches are handled differently and are less likely to be reported as missing or investigated. Instead of handling missing cache firearms the same as a missing assigned firearm, in most cases, missing cache firearms discovered during annual property inventories are simply treated as inventory discrepancies or paperwork errors. It is not until the firearms inventory is completed and supporting documents are reviewed, sometimes days or months later, that a weapon may be considered missing and reported as such.

How missing firearms are reported varies among bureaus and their individual office locations. In most cases, the person responsible for maintaining the firearms inventory is also the person responsible for reporting missing weapons. Many individuals we interviewed could only describe procedures used to investigate missing weapons in general terms. Concerns over the inherit dangers that these missing firearms pose to public safety should necessitate a sense of urgency for bureaus to make every effort to locate missing weapons; however, we found some cases where bureaus did not always report, or report in a timely manner, missing firearms. We found that in some cases, missing weapons are merely reported to a Board of Survey with little or no documentation and then requested to be removed from an office’s inventory. In other cases, criminal or administrative investigations of the missing firearm are conducted depending on the circumstances of the loss. In many cases nothing is done, and the weapons remain on the inventory for weeks or even years without any action being taken. The Department’s inventory process exacerbates this problem by failing to provide a mechanism for more frequent inventories or timely entries into property management systems."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Who Lost California?

There's a thoughtful piece in today's Wall Street Journal that poses a somewhat parochial, California-centric question, which nonetheless has relevance for other states, like Colorado, where citizen initiatives and referenda have gained popularity as governing mechanisms.

California is a basket case, obviously. But who's responsible? Some people blame the state's fondness for citizen initiatives and so-called "ballot-box budgeting" -- an accusation we hear in Colorado as well. Others (like the writers of the piece) argue that the state's notoriously free-spending politicians, in tandem with a smothering regulatory climate, are responsible for killing the California dream. "The Golden State's problem is not overly controlling voters," the authors conclude, "but out-of-control politicians."

I sometimes worry about the implications of ballot-box governance, even while supporting some ballot measures that, while not flawless, are in my view beneficial on balance -- our city and state TABOR being a good case in point. My preference is that citizen initiatives be used carefully, narrowly and sparingly, as a last resort. I sometimes think they are becoming seen as a first resort, and that's a problem.

It often comes down to a lesser-of-evils calculation. Which does one fear more: the danger of direct democracy, or elected officials who have a tendency to run wild if left to their own devices? Initiatives might be thought of as a "governor" placed on the engine of a rental vehicle, which keeps it from being driven recklessly. The vehicle still can be steered where the drivers (the politicians) want it to go. But it can't go there at any speed the driver's desire. The drivers retain some discretion, but are also constrained by the vehicle's owner (the people), in order to discourage crashes.

It's not a perfect analogy, I know, or the perfect governing model. But there is no perfect analogy, or perfect governing model. At least our system affords us the freedom to experiment.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Roadless" Radicals Have Gone Around the Bend

Just how extreme are the environmentalists who rallied in Denver yesterday for a restoration of the Clinton era-"roadless rule," and who reject a Colorado-tailored alternative that made some sensible modifications to the original? They're this extreme"

The Denver Post (italics added):

"Groups at a rally in downtown Denver on Thursday called for strong protection of Colorado's roadless areas. Critics argue the state proposal would leave the areas the least protected nationwide, because it would allow temporary roads for wildfire prevention, expansion of existing coal-mining and some utility infrastructure.

Some ski-area terrain would be permanently removed from the inventory of roadless areas."

These people don't even want temporary roads built in order to prevent wildfires.

They want to permanently put millions of acres of public land -- our land -- off limits to pipelines, transmission lines, etc. -- the infrastructure a growing West will need in order to thrive.

They want to close roads running to existing, operating, perfectly-legal mining operations -- which is a roundabout way of shutting these operations down.

They won't even make accommodation for the future expansion of ski resorts -- major job generators and economic engines for the state, which have long been accepted as a legitimate use of national forests.

And they want to impose these ironclad prohibitions and access limits on 4.4 million acres of federal forest in Colorado -- federal forests that are dying from beetle blight and prone to catastrophic wildfire. These are forests that need active management, aggressive management, not more benign neglect. This argues for more public access, not less.

But the roadless radicals are so far around the bend, and so blinkered by their fervor for access restrictions, that they can't see the forest for the trees. They have no common sense. They suffer from a psychological condition I call "environmental retardation."

Thursday, October 1, 2009

It's the Schools, Stupid.

Is it the school? Or is it the student? That's a frequently-heard debate when we talk about the failures of public education.

No one's simplistic enough to say it's all one or all the other. But this recent story in the Denver Post may help shine a little more light on the subject. It strongly suggests that freeing kids from failing schools can boost their performance, which doesn't exonerate lazy parents but does point an accusing finger back in the direction of lousy schools.

Here's the Post:

"Students from schools in Denver that were closed two years ago in a reform effort are performing better academically in their new schools, according to a district analysis.
In 2007, Denver Public Schools shut down eight elementary schools and announced the revamping of programs at five schools in a sweeping reform meant to reduce facility costs and improve student achievement.

The analysis of individual student scores from the 2008-09 Colorado Student Assessment Program shows that, at least initially, the effort is working.

The 2,000 affected students made more academic growth in their new schools in reading, writing and math than they did in the schools they left behind, according to DPS."

"Closing and reconfiguring schools is very difficult and a very painful process; we must keep our focus on what is best for the students," DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg told the Post. "Here, it is very clear that the students benefited from these changes."

This won't end the schools vs. students (and parents) debate, of course. But it does mean that the public education establishment can't convincingly argue that they are blameless when children fall through the cracks. The quality of the school obviously matters. And we're doing kids a great disservice when we don't ruthlessly eliminate those schools that aren't making the grade.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Blood on My Hands?

I've said and written some unflattering things about federal workers over the years. Back when I was a spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste, a fiscal watchdog group, and later, when I wrote the weekly "Waste and Abuse" column for Insight Magazine, I regularly penned pieces that cast federal workers in an unflattering light. I didn't always have to ferret these stories out; they mostly just fall in your lap, so pervasive is waste and mismanagement at the federal level.

Did all that work make me complicit in murder? That's the message coming out of Washington this morning.

Did all my "government-bashing" -- all my disrespecting of the dedicated men and women, "public servants" all, who labor tirelessly on my behalf in thankless government jobs -- help lay the predicate for the murder of census worker William Sparkman, who was found dead on Sept. 12 in the Daniel Boone National Forest? It just might have, says Bill Schauman, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 2782, in today's Washington Post.

"Perhaps, if more of our leaders had talked over the years about the dedication of the federal workforce, and shown us more of the appreciation and trust we deserve, this terrible event might not have happened," Schauman told the Post. Other union leaders quoted in the story were more cautious about making such connections. But John Berry, who runs the Office of Personnel Management, ratchets up the rhetoric again by suggesting that Sparkman may have been the victim of "domestic terrorism." "We cannot tolerate essentially domestic terrorism, if that is what this is," he said. "But until we understand the law enforcement investigation, we don’t know."

The Post further inflames the situation by trotting out some context-free statistics about crimes against federal workers (or in which federal worker are involved), leaving the inference that there's some political component to the crimes, though this is not supported in any way.

The Post:

"It is a federal crime to attack or kill a federal worker during or because of their job and government employees regularly face threats due to the nature of their work. Officials insist they have no information suggesting Sparkman was targeted because of his federal employment, but the slaying has raised concerns about the safety of federal employees.

The Justice Department had filed 277 such cases against 299 defendants as of August, according to spokesman Ian McCaleb. It prosecuted 303 cases against 330 defendants in FY '08, 326 cases against 348 defendants in FY '07 and 313 cases filed against 329 defendants in FY '06. McCaleb could not provide details about specific employees or agencies targeted or the number of successful prosecutions.

Union leaders have suggested that statements by lawmakers and commentators about the federal workforce may also be to blame."

So watch what you say about federal workers, everyone. Your critiques just might be egging on "domestic terrorism" and instigating cold-blooded murder.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Roll over, Barry Goldwater

Just a little news item from my old home state of Arizona -- link -- indicating that it's no longer the sort of place that the state's most iconic politician, the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, would recognize or celebrate.

Nearly 200 new laws went into effect today in Arizona -- not one of which makes Arizonans more free, more self-reliant, more prosperous. And this is just the work product of one legislative season. This churning out of new laws, assembly line fashion, goes on year after year, decade after decade -- incrementally chipping away at America's claim to being "the land of the free." It's not just happening in Arizona; it's happening in every state in the union. Not all the new laws are bad; just most of them. Arizona won't be measurably better off tomorrow than it was yesterday because of all the new rules. The opposite is probably true.

Roll over, Barry. This isn't the Arizona you knew.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Move Over Hybrid Hotshots . . . .

. . . there's a new privileged class favored by social engineers: story.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Giving the Devil its Due

It's fashionable in right wing circles to slam the Washington Post for being a left-wing rag. On most days, it lives up to that reputation. But the paper's editorial page has broken ranks with the hard left on at least one important issue, school choice. And it deserves credit for that.

The Post has lent rhetorical support to controversial D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, in her epic battles to turn around one of the worst systems in the country -- a national disgrace unfolding right in the shadow of the capitol dome. And the paper has come to embrace school choice, including charter schools and voucher programs, as important options for urban students trapped in failing systems.

Tomorrow's Post editorial touts the now-demonstrated benefits of charter schools for underprivileged kids, while slamming teachers unions for their hidebound opposition to this public school innovation. It's almost like reading The Washington Times, but better -- since it will be read, and hopefully taken to heart, by tens of thousands of hard core liberals over a cup of coffee tomorrow morning.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Three Cheers for "The Kelo Curse"

Maybe there is a just God out there after all.

Four years after the U.S. Supreme Court approved the bulldozing of a New London neighborhood, so the city could hand the land to a company promising more tax revenue, the city has yet to profit from its act of theft. Instead, the cleared lots still stand vacant, like a gaping wound. The company, and all the promises it made, never materialized. New London is no better off today than before it embarked on this notorious abuse of eminent domain. The wages of sin . . . is vacant lots.

And I for one, in a slightly malicious way, hope the "Kelo curse" will continue.

Here's the AP:

Conn. land vacant 4 years after court OK'd seizure

NEW LONDON, Conn. — Weeds, glass, bricks, pieces of pipe and shingle splinters have replaced the knot of aging homes at the site of the nation's most notorious eminent domain project.

There are a few signs of life: Feral cats glare at visitors from a miniature jungle of Queen Anne's lace, thistle and goldenrod. Gulls swoop between the lot's towering trees and the adjacent sewage treatment plant.

But what of the promised building boom that was supposed to come wrapped and ribboned with up to 3,169 new jobs and $1.2 million a year in tax revenues? They are noticeably missing.
Proponents of the ambitious plan blame the sour economy. Opponents call it a "poetic justice."

"They are getting what they deserve. They are going to get nothing," said Susette Kelo, the lead plaintiff in the landmark property rights case. "I don't think this is what the United States Supreme Court justices had in mind when they made this decision."

Kelo's iconic pink home sat for more than a century on that currently empty lot, just steps away from Connecticut's quaint but economically distressed Long Island Sound waterfront. Shortly after she moved in, in 1997, her house became ground zero in the nation's best-known land rights catfight.

New London officials decided they needed Kelo's land and the surrounding 90 acres for a multimillion-dollar private development that included residential, hotel conference, research and development space and a new state park that would complement a new $350 million Pfizer pharmaceutical research facility.

Kelo and six other homeowners fought for years, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2005, justices voted 5-4 against them, giving cities across the country the right to use eminent domain to take property for private development.

The decision was sharply criticized and created grassroots backlash. Forty states quickly passed new, protective rules and regulations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some protesters even tried to turn the tables on now-retired Justice David Souter, trying unsuccessfully in 2006 to take his New Hampshire home by eminent domain to build an inn.

In New London the city's prized economic development plan has fallen apart as the economy crumbled.

The Corcoran Jennison Cos., a Boston-based developer, had originally locked in exclusive rights to develop nearly the entire northern half of the Fort Trumbull peninsula. But those rights expired in June 2008, despite multiple extensions, because the firm was unable to secure financing, according to President Marty Jones. In July, backers halted fundraising for the project's crown jewel, a proposed $60 million, 60,000-square-foot Coast Guard museum.
The poor economy meant that donations weren't "keeping pace with expenses," said Coast Guard Foundation president Anne Brengle.

The group hopes to resume fundraising in the future, she said.

Overall, proponents say about two-thirds of the 90-acre site is developed, in part because of a 16-acre, $25 million state park. The other third of the land remains without the promised residential housing, office buildings, shops and hotel/conference center facility.

"If there had been no litigation, which took years to work its way through (the court system), then a substantial portion of this project would be constructed by now," said John Brooks, executive director of the New London Development Corp. "But we are victims of the economic cycle, and there is nothing we can do about that."

A new engineering tenant is moving into one of the office buildings at 1 Chelsea St., and a bio tech firm with as many as five employees is getting ready to move into an existing building on Howard Street, Brooks said.

Kelo, paid $442,000 by the state for her old property, now lives across the Thames River in Groton, in a white, two-bedroom 1950s bungalow. Her beloved pink house was sold for a dollar and moved less than two miles away, where a local preservationist has refurbished it.

Kelo can see her old neighborhood from her new home, but she finds the view too painful to bear.
"Everything is different, but everything is like still the same," said Kelo, who works two jobs and has largely maintained a low profile since moving away. "You still have life to deal with every day of the week. I just don't have eminent domain to deal with every day of the week, even after I ate, slept and breathed it for 10 years."

Although her side lost, Kelo said she sees the wider ramifications of her property rights battle.

"In the end it was seven of us who fought like wild animals to save what we had," she said. "I think that though we ultimately didn't win for ourselves, it has brought attention to what they did to us, and if it can make it better for some other people so they don't lose their homes to a Dunkin' Donuts or a Wal-Mart, I think we did some good."

Scott Bullock, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, argued Kelo's case before the Supreme Court. He calls "massive changes that have happened in the law and in the public consciousness" the "real legacy" of Kelo and the other plaintiffs.

The empty land means the city won a "hollow victory," he said. "What cities should take from this is to run fleeing from what New London did and do economic development that is market-driven and incorporate properties of folks who are truly committed to their neighborhood and simply want to be a part of what happens," he said.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Watch Your Behind . . .

The eco-prohibitionists are coming for your toilet paper now: Washington Post

For Charter Schools, Failure Is An Option

As a charter school supporter, I've watched with dismay as a once-renowned area charter school network, Cesar Chavez, has spiraled into disorder, scandal and disappointment for parents, students and teachers. It's too early to say exactly what went wrong. I hope some enterprising local journalist takes the time to tell the story in full. It appears there were problems in the network's upper ranks, which have now cast shadows over everyone below.

But the disappointment of parents and students, along with independent efforts to salvage some elements of the network, indicate that the schools still have strong support among customers, despite problems at the top.

The silver lining to every story of a charter school failure is that these schools are allowed to fail -- that they are held accountable for poor performance, unlike most conventional schools, that blithely carry on, in perpetuity, even when they aren't performing up to par. Such failures are rare. But they do occur. And that's okay. For every charter school that flounders and fails, three or four or five are flourishing. On balance, these school are still serving students well, as a mountain of new evidence shows, and despite what some blinkered critics say.

For charter schools, failure is an option. Maybe that's why so many succeed.

Still More Clunkequences

If you thought everyone who turned in a "clunker" as part of the federal "Cash for Clunkers" program was trading down to something a lot smaller, think again. Turns out, plenty of SUVs and pickups were purchased with the $3 billion, "with three truck models among the top 10 sellers," according to this report in The Detroit Free Press.

The story suggests that the Obama administration may have finessed the data a bit, in order to downplay the fact that not everyone who participated was buying a Prius (which ranked 15th among makes purchased).

Reports The Free Press:

"While the mania over cash-for-clunkers was under way in July and August, federal officials offered a breakdown of deals submitted by dealers that split models based on whether they were two-wheel or four-wheel drive. That analysis tended to give higher ranks to cars with no such option while underplaying the popularity of all-wheel-drive SUVs and trucks.

Using data released by the government this weekend, the Free Press’ analysis found that while the top four vehicles were the same in both lists -- the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Toyota Camry and Ford Focus – the Ford Escape SUV was the fifth-most popular vehicle overall, with 21,894 sold."

The paper also confirms that foreign car companies were the program's primary corporate beneficiaries, "with Detroit automakers claiming just 38.9% of the sales submitted."