Monday, August 31, 2009

Shakedown in Shanksville

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Monday announced that a $9.5 million deal has finally been struck to acquire the last land parcels needed to move forward with a Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, bringing a supposedly happy ending to a decidedly ugly affair, in which Salazar threatened and used eminent domain against landowners who wouldn't sell, or wouldn't sell for what the feds were offering.

The “breakthrough” delighted Flight 93 families, who now can have a memorial open (they hope) in time to mark the 10th anniversary of 9-11. But the heavy-handed tactics undoubtedly left some hard feelings in and around Shanksville, where property rights were trampled, and American citizens were intimidated, in order to meet a timetable set by politicians and Flight 93 families.

Here's the final chapter in a nutshell, courtesy of the New York Times:

"The announcement ends years of bargaining with landowners. Negotiations intensified at the end of last year when, with some parcels still in limbo, the Families of Flight 93, a nonprofit group that has been helping with the purchases, asked the Bush administration to get something done before it left office.

This summer, with time running short to get the first $58 million phase of the memorial completed in time for the 10th anniversary of the crash, the Interior Department set a deadline for the remaining landowners and threatened to take the land through condemnation."

Salazar avoided the bad publicity that might come from bulldozing over the holdouts, but only because he held all the cards and the landowners knew it. "Christine Williams, whose family owned about 6 acres with a log cabin they had planned to retire to, said she was pleased to settle, given the alternative of government seizure," reported The AP (italics added). Williams really didn't have a choice, in other words. She made the best of a no-win situation -- the lot of many a landowner confronted with a government "taking."

That she wasn't physically evicted from her log cabin is just a technicality, which saves Salazar the bad publicity such a scene would bring. But make no mistake: the Williams family was forcibly evicted from its cabin. Yet most news coverage painted a smiley face on the whole affair, making it seem like everyone involved walked away happy.

Would it be nice to have a memorial built in time to mark the 10th anniversary? Of course. Does that justify using threats to make "willing sellers" of those who weren't willing? I don't think so. I have to believe those being memorialized in Shanksville would rest a little easier if they knew that those trying to honor them had exercised a little more patience, and avoided the use of such tactics, with landowners who stood in their way.

In a lame attempt to echo Lincoln, Salazar spoke of the “fields of western Pennsylvania” having become “hallowed ground for a grateful nation" after the events of 9-11. "Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the landowners, the Families of Flight 93 and the employees of the National Park Service, we have reached this important milestone in properly honoring the courage and sacrifice of the men and women who gave their lives that day," he said.

But that overstates the “collaborativeness” of the landowners, some of whom sold under pressure or are having their property taken through eminent domain. The land in question, although maybe not “hallowed” before the jetliner came down there, was valued enough by some owners that they put up a fight. Salazar’s attempted echoes of Gettysburg are strained and slightly gag-inducing. None of the Gettysburg National Cemetery land was acquired through threats or intimidation. I’m not sure “honest Abe” would have approved.

Most media coverage of Monday's announcement left it unclear whether eminent domain had even been used. Most stories glossed right over that detail. Only one report (of the 8 or 9 I read that night) confirmed that eminent domain was used to acquire one critically important parcel, with the final sale price still to be settled in court.

"A 275-acre property at the heart of the future memorial, which includes the crash site itself, will be acquired through eminent domain, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at a news conference,” reported USA Today. “The price of the land will be set by the court. The National Park Service and the landowner, Svonavec, a mining company, had not been able to agree on a price." It took the Associated Press several days to generate a story that focused any real attention on the eminent domain angle.

Salazar’s hard bargaining over money strikes me as odd and unnecessary, since the $9.5 million the feds will reportedly spend on these last parcels is probably what his department blows on staples each year. Governments at all levels are notorious for wasting taxpayers' money. They do it as a matter of routine, on a grand and obscene scale. Yet they suddenly become penny-pinchers, and "good stewards of public money," when it comes to paying the victims of eminent domain what they are owed, in accordance with The U.S. Constitution.

Given the dislocation and trauma such proceedings can mean for the victims, paying these people "fair market value" for their property, as determined by an appraiser, is a rip-off and crime. They should be paid 3 or 4 times the fair market value, at least, in order to compensate them for the pain and suffering they endure at the hands of the government. When these cases go to trial, juries routinely award compensation far in access of what governments were willing to pay -- one demonstration of the injustices that are perpetrated when governments use eminent domain to drive a hard bargain.

Why didn’t Salazar just pay the locals their asking price, whatever it was, plus a few million more for their trouble? Who would object, or even notice, given the way Interior and other federal agencies spend money? I wouldn't call it a waste of money. I would call it "reparations," which the government should pay for perpetrating an injustice upon American citizens, who became targets of a government "taking" simply because they happen to live near where a tragedy occurred. That, in my view, would be money well spent.

So yes, Ken Salazar's Interior Department "reached agreement" with the holdouts. But reaching such agreements becomes a lot easier, and the terms of sale can be surprisingly affordable, when you have the hammer of eminent domain as leverage. That the second victims of Flight 93 are surrendering their land for a good cause may provide some of them consolation. But this “happy ending” is nothing Americans can be proud of.

Perhaps a small plaque or historic marker can be placed somewhere near the Flight 93 Memorial, noting the sacrifices local property owners made in order to accommodate those pushing the project. “This is the spot where America's belief in the sanctity of private property was laid to rest,” it might say. We can call it the American Property Rights Memorial.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

But Don't Try This in Your Lamborghini

P.T. Barnum was right. There's a sucker born every minute in America. The current fascination with pie-in-the-sky energy panaceas proves the point.

The competition was tough, as always, but my latest Energy Con Job of the Week Award goes to the "E-Fuel MicroFueler," which is poised to go big following this gullible write-up in the Los Angeles Times. Have a few casks of rancid wine or old beer laying around the house (don't we all?)? Run out of creative ways to ditch those lawn mower clippings (besides chucking them over the neighbor's fence?)? Problem solved, my friends.

The E-Fuel MicroFueler -- just like the flux capacitor that powered the time-traveling DeLorean in the Back to the Future movies -- can turn all that household flotsam into something you can burn in your gas tank. The E-Fuel MicroFueler is your ticket to energy independence. The E-Fuel MicroFueler is the must-have item for those who don't mind spending ridiculous amounts of money, and going to absurd lengths, to demonstrate their earnest desire to reduce their carbon footprints. It's the perfect holiday gift for the Ed Begley Jr.s in your life.

And here's the best part: Taxpayers will pay half the cost of your E-Fuel MicroFueler, whether they buy into this B.S. or not.

Writes the L.A. Times:

"It sounds too good to be true: A residential system that allows people to make fuel from waste products and use it to run their vehicles. That’s what inventors of the E-Fuel MicroFueler claim, and there's support for the idea in government, industry, technology and pop culture."

Most things that sound too good to be true are too good to be true. And I'm not sure what credibility "pop culture" lends to things. But go on.

"The $10,000 E-Fuel MicroFueler consists of a 250-gallon holding tank for organic feedstock, such as waste wine and beer, and a still that converts it to 100% ethanol, or E-Fuel. The still doubles as a fuel pump, which works similarly to those at traditional gas stations. The only waste product is distilled water, which can flow down a drain or be used to irrigate plants."

How does this miracle technology work? The story doesn't say, exactly. But it sounds good on paper, which is all you need in order to sell the public energy policy snake oil.

"Although . . . MicroFueler is most effective with wastes that are already high in alcohol content, ethanol "can be made out of any waste – lawn clippings, dairy products, old chemicals, cardboard, paper, bruised and discarded apples from the grocery store. It can be fermented and turned into fuel in minutes," says [the Silicon Valley entrepreneur behind the concept].

How many bruised apples or old cartons of rancid cottage cheese does it take to whip up a gallon of ethanol? Details, details. The reporter doesn't say. Standard journalistic skepticism and cynicism get suspended in such stories. The aim is to dazzle readers with the possibilities, not bog them down in the devilish details, throwing cold water on a cool new idea. You usually have to read carefully, or between the lines, to see that some things really are "too good to be true." Only later in the story do we discover that the real-world workability of the MicroFueler has barely been tested.

So far, only one MicroFueler is up and running. It was installed in late June at the Pacific Palisades home of Chris Ursitti, CEO of the green-technology firm GreenHouse, which is distributing the units and supplying the feedstock to those who install MicroFuelers at their homes.

Distributing the feedstock? What's with that? I thought this thing worked on household refuse. Where does said "feedstock" originate? What will it cost an average MicroFueler owner? What sort of carbon footprints are created by the collection, packaging and delivery of said feedstock? Once again, our "news story" is lacking such details.

But not to worry. The MicroFueler is endorse by basketball star and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Shaquille O'Neal (who's also an investor in the company), so it must work, right? Right.

An enterprising reporter might have asked whether O'Neal really burns homemade Hummer hooch in his favorite Escalade. A bold reporter would have asked for a demonstration. But most reporters aren't interested in asking questions that might pour cold water on the good story; most reporters are born suckers when it comes to these sorts of things. So we'll just have to take Shaq's word for the fact that it works. But I'm betting he doesn't use it in his Escalade.

We do get an acknowledgment in the story that ethanol has substantially less "fuel value" than gasoline, meaning that you must burn considerably more ethanol than gasoline to cover the same distance. The story claims that ethanol "creates 38% less carbon dioxide than gasoline when burned," but doesn't acknowledge that other bi-products of burning ethanol contribute to smog (something people in L.A. need to be cognizant of), calling the fuel's environmental benefits into question. Ethanol production leaves a significant "carbon footprint," if one looks at what goes into growing, harvesting, processing and transporting the "feedstock." You can't really judge ethanol's efficacy as an alternative to gasoline without factoring those things in. But most ethanolics conveniently overlook those issues.

Then there's the issue of permitting. You didn't really think a government that regulates virtually everything was going to let MicroFueler owners off the hook, did you?

Under U.S. law, it is legal to create up to 10,000 gallons of an alcohol fuel, such as ethanol, per year on one’s own property, though it is not legal to sell it to others. All that’s required is an alcohol fuel producer’s permit from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which issues the permits for free if producers meet the appropriate criteria – describing the premises where the alcohol will be produced, how it will be used, what type of security mechanisms are in place and guaranteeing that the alcohol will be denatured so it’s not drinkable.

This makes getting a federal permit sound like a snap. Will the feds simply take your word that you're meeting permit requirements, or are home inspections and modifications part of what you invite once you install a MicroFueler? The story glosses over this question.

If someone really believes this technology will save the planet; if he or she is willing to endure the hassles and expense and time required to install, maintain and operate a MicroFueler; if he or she wants to risk the engines of their cars or trucks by burning homemade moonshine; if he or she wants to open their home to federal regulators -- if they want to do all this on their own dime, that's their business. It's still a free country, at least on paper. But I resent having to pay for it.

"The U.S. government, as part of its stimulus bill, is offering a $5,000 tax credit to homeowners who purchase MicroFuelers," reports the Times -- meaning that you and I are helping to bankroll such gimmickry, and to line the pockets of the eco-shysters peddling it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Last Curtain Call for Scamelot

It's considered impolite to speak ill of the dead. And I, like a lot of people, was told as a youth that if you don't have anything nice to say about someone, don't say anything at all. So this will have to be one of the shortest posts I've done at the Contrarian.

Ted Kennedy passed away last night, at the relatively ripe old age of 77. Apparently it's true: only the good die young.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Team Obama's Empty Bench

The New York Times is fretting today about the leisurely pace with which the president is filling key political appointments. But why? With an all powerful, "zen-like" Oracle ensconced in the oval office, and with the skeleton crew that is on board taking credit for everything from vanquishing Somali pirates to saving the economy, who needs the additional bodies or brainpower?

The bureaucracy obviously drives itself (but that's fairly easy, since it mostly operates in "neutral"). It's grown fairly impervious to policy directives that come from the top anyway. And Democrats seem to have adopted the position that federal worker bees -- the career technocrats who live for cranking out new rules and regulations -- should rule the hive. So what purpose do all these political appointees serve?

Obama could take his first semi-sincere swipe at reducing the monster deficit by halting all further political appointments, leaving the unfilled offices dark (which would also help stop climate change), leaving federal agencies to their own devices and carrying on very much as he has been -- running everything out of his hip pocket. Super Presidents don't need a supporting cast of hundreds to save the country. Just a few trusted side-kicks will do.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Slave New World?

One could view the finalists in Dwell Magazine's "Reburbia" competition as creative, light-hearted, largely harmless exercises in techno-dweeb future-think. And on that level, the top entries do offer some clever (if inadvertently humorous) scenarios for the urban and suburban landscape of the future. But there's a darker side to the contest that commands our attention.

That most of the finalists slavishly bow to the "sustainability" mania, and take predictable swipes at evil "sprawl" -- as if those who choose to dwell in a tract development are soulless wretches whose lives can't be worth living, for want of "walkability" -- isn't surprising, given the suburbia-non-grata snobbishness that runs in planning and design circles. This wasn't just a design exercise, after all; it was a political exercise, inviting architects and professional planners to have a little fun, while heaping requisite scorn on the environmentally-incorrect lifestyle choices of Homo Suburbanis.

Strolling the streets of Reburbia isn't just an imaginative adventure. It also offers a revealing glimpse into the mind of the modern eco-Utopian, which melds dark apocalyptic forebodings with naive flights of fancy. It's a mirror held up to the tortured psyches of "new urbanists," where all the predictable bogeymen can be found: Big box stores, freeways, parking garages, strip malls and, of course, "McMansions." There, too, is the fear of looming economic and ecological calamity -- the sense that we'll all have to resort to farming freeway medians in the dark days ahead. Tossed in for good measure are the energy policy panaceas of the moment.

You have wind-powered freeway systems, "big box agriculture," parking lot agriculture, big box biofuel plants, swimming pools that double as water purification systems, abandoned McMansions devolving into frog-friendly wetlands. Pessimism and misanthropy permeate the scenes. The future is not an earthly paradise, where human ingenuity and intelligence have triumphed -- the sort of Jetsonsesque future Americans were promised in the 1950s -- but a place where farmers scratch out a subsistence living (growing "organic" produce I'm sure) in empty parking garages and on former freeways -- in the wasteland that was suburbia.

The future of suburbia looks desolate and dark. Something terrible has happened there. Parking lots and big box stores no longer are needed, apparently. Where have all the people gone? Have they all moved -- or been moved? -- back into the urban core, to become bicycle commuters? Have they been loaded into boxcars and taken off to fenced camps just beyond the tree line, in a "final solution" to America's over-sized "carbon footprint"? Few hints of what happened to suburbia, and suburbians, can be found in the designs.

Where have all the cars gone, since parking lots seen superfluous and there's so little traffic that the medians can safely be farmed? Have cars become unnecessary? Have cars become illegal? Have cars been taken away?

Were the vacant McMansions that have become wetlands abandoned, as embarrassing extravagances, or were they banned by authorities for having an over-sized "carbon footprint" -- something Boulder, Colorado, is in the process of doing right now? Did their former owners go willingly, or through force? Maybe they've been indicted for environmental crimes and forced to wander through abandoned strip malls (those that haven't been transformed into organic farmers markets, that is) with a scarlet "E" emblazoned on their pajamas.

Reburbia contestants weren't charged with telling the story of how we get from here to there. All they were interested in was conjuring up clever "solutions" to the problem that is (in their frame of reference) suburbia. Yet the question hangs over the contest like acid smog.

Are these just the brain farts of naive Utopians -- harmless dreamers with a fashionably pessimistic outlook? Or are these draft planning documents for the "coercive Utopians" (in Thomas Sowell's phrase) -- those "planners" that intend to use the levers of power, and the force of government, to impose their environmentally- and socially-correct visions on those who won't go willingly?

The problem with such exercises is that the people who organize and participate in them actually take these ideas seriously. The danger is that they'll attempt to impose these visions by force, if given the opportunity. And the reality is that that opportunity is there, thanks to the power granted government planners through the mania for "smart growth," new urbanism and other social engineering fads, combined with the totalitarian tendencies of those trying to "save the planet" from climate change.

Americans have gradually been conditioned into going along like sheep with the planning thing. The broad acceptance of zoning rules -- and the notion that chaos will reign if there isn't some order imposed on things by planning "experts" -- laid the predicate for ever more radical concepts, like urban growth boundaries, new urbanism, historic preservation districts and so-called "smart growth." We've gradually become a nation of control freaks. We've learned that we don't actually have to own a piece of property in order to control it, because zoning laws have collectivized private property rights. The table has been set for even greater tyrannies.

In "global warming" the coercive Utopians have found the ultimate justification for using government force to achieve their goals, since anything can be justified in the name of "saving the planet." Property rights can be trampled. People can be displaced. Extravagances can be banned, or regulated away. Consumer choice can be curtailed. Environmentally-incorrect lifestyles can be made war upon. Energy policy can be dictated by central planners, and the economy can be micromanaged, in the interest of safeguarding the planet.

An alarmist view? Perhaps. But some of what I just described was worming its way into American society even before the battle cry of "save the planet" gave coercive Utopians the green light they need to impose their "Reburbian" values and visions on the rest of us.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Obama's Cash-Guzzler Running on Fumes

While certainly not the biggest boondoggle in federal history, "cash for clunkers" must have broken the record as the fastest taxpayer ripoff on wheels, going from 0 to $3 billion in just a few weeks -- with two thirds of that spent after it was obvious that a massive scam was going on. It used to take years for a federal program to squander that kind of money. But that was life in America B.B. -- Before Barack. Now it can happen in a matter of days.

First $1 billion went flying out the window, even before controls were in place to ensure the program was operating properly. But rather than hit the brakes and ask for directions, and get a handle on what was going on, the president and Congress poured $2 billion more into this high-octane cash-guzzler, effectively putting the pedal to the metal. Now that money's been blown, and the plug has been pulled -- which I read as a belated acknowledgment that the program was a disaster, made worse my reckless spending my the president and Congress.

President Obama is still valiantly trying to put a positive spin on things. During a radio address yesterday, he said C for C had "been successful beyond anybody's imagination. And we're now slightly victims of success because the thing happened so quick, there was so much more demand than anybody expected, that dealers were overwhelmed with applications." Obama called the paperwork backlog "a good-news story" because dealers -- some of whom are pulling out of the program in frustration -- "are seeing sales that they have not seen in years." It just takes time for those conscientious federal workers to process the paperwork "properly," explained the president (though perennial reports of Social Security checks going to dead people aren't a confidence booster).

But I'm not sure the public will buy what the president is selling. He's coming off a little too slick, a little too much the used-car salesman.

If Obama truly believes the program was a smashing success, why pull the plug now, after "only" $3 billion has been spent? Just imagine all the auto showroom traffic Obama could generate, all the additional economic stimulus that would occur, how many auto dealers would be high-fiving, how much cleaner the air around us would be, if Congress appropriated $20 or $30 billion more for the program. If we maintained that level of funding annually, all our problems would be solved -- if clunkernomics really works.

But I think the White House and Congress belatedly came to understand what most level-headed Americans knew intuitively from the start -- that clunkernomics doesn't work. This was nothing but a boondoggle, that accomplished nothing meaningful for the economy or the environment, and will turn out to be an embarrassment to the president when the full story is told. $3 billion was blown in a matter of weeks. Dealers have been dropping out of the program in frustration. A mess has been created that will take months to clean up. Lawsuits could result, as dealers demand the rebates that were promised them but haven't been coming, snared as they are in federal red tape.

Enterprising reporters will uncover all sorts of abuses, by both car-buyers and car-dealers. Any objective cost-benefit analysis would undoubtedly show that the former far outweighed the latter, especially when one adds-in the federal man-hours being expended to process paperwork and issue the checks.

Try as the president may to turn this lemon into lemonade, it's still going to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of most Americans when the complete story of cash for clunkers is written.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The "Public Option"

Keeping Orwell at bay means insisting that words and phrases be used with precision, lest their meanings be inverted or perverted, ala "1984."

That's why I have to say a quick something about the "public option" -- the term that's now widely used by politicos, pundits and serious journalists to describe a health care fix that would more accurately be called "the government option." Most Americans have seen through the obfuscation, thankfully, which is why the "public option" seems to be going down in flames, following an August recess in which congressional town hall meetings actually made news. But some of us might still be gulled into thinking that a "public option" would be under the control of the "public," meaning the people, instead of the government -- which today doesn't really represent the people or serve the people at all, but more often looks out for itself.

I realize that government these days is often referred to as the “public sector,” as juxtaposed against the “private sector,” but that’s something that also must change. Let’s call the “public sector” what it really is, which is the “government sector,” and start calling the private sector the “productive sector,” denoting the fact that everything the government sector spends, and frequently squanders, it takes from producers in the private sector.

So let's all stop using the term "public option" and begin using the more accurate "government option," just to end whatever confusion might still be out there, sown by the Orwellians who do the "messaging" in Washington.

Animal Crackers

The Endangered Species Act to most Americans is just a law they've heard about, which might even give them a warm and fuzzy tickle deep inside. To many Westerners it's synonymous with tyranny -- an all-powerful presence that licenses the federal government to trample property rights, destroy jobs, obstruct energy development and restrict access to supposedly "public" lands, all to "protect" a subsegment of a subspecies that some graduate student says is rare.

It's the law that eco-Luddites use to dictate public lands policies and thwart any sort of development or economic activity they find objectionable. Discover a new natural gas field in the Rocky Mountain region and in no time flat, almost miraculously, a host of rare plants or animals -- all in dire need of protection -- will be discovered there. It's the silver bullet that can stop any infrastructure project: any roadway, dam, reservoir, power plant, pipeline. Even some "clean energy" projects -- the only kinds of energy projects eco-Luddites embrace -- are being stymied by the ESA. All you need to do is identify something allegedly rare living or growing in the targeted project's vicinity and -- voilĂ ! -- you have a reason to say "no."

So whenever most Westerners read about the latest list of species, subspecies, or "distinct population segments" proposed for ESA protections, they greet the news with dread, not delight. It only evokes glee among federal biocrats (biologist-bureaucrats), who will see their power and budgets enhanced when the listings (and the regulatory controls that come with them) take place, and among eco-Luddites and their lawyers, who will use the listings to destroy jobs, drive up energy costs and thwart progress.

"Twenty-nine species in more than 20 states -- from a rare beach-dwelling plant in Yellowstone National Park to a caddis fly in Nebraska -- may need federal protections to avoid extinction, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," reports the Associated Press. "Fourteen of the 29 species appear in Utah, including 10 plant species and a small silvery minnow called the Northern leatherside chub. The agency said Tuesday that 20 plants, six snails, two insects and a fish may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act."

This stems from a 2007 listing petition made by WildEarth Guardians, which proposed more than 200 new species for protection, most of them in the West. The Fish and Wildlife Service rejected 165 of the candidates and delayed a decision on 38. But the listing of even 29 new species could have profound impacts on Westerners -- and on non-Westerners who get their energy from Western sources -- depending on where the species are found.

Here are the species that made the cut (each of which is of course critical to the survival of the planet):

Yellowstone Sand Verbena in Wyoming
Ross' bentgrass in Wyoming
Hamilton milkvetch in Colorado and Utah
Isely milkvetch in Utah
Skiff milkvetch in Colorado
Precocious milkvetch in Wyoming
Cisco milkvetch in Utah
Schmoll milkvetch in Colorado
Fremont County rockcress in Wyoming
Boat-shaped bugseed in Colorado
Pine springs cryptantha in Arizona, Utah
Weber whitlowgrass in Colorado
Brandegee's wild buckwheat in Colorado
Frisco buckwheat in Utah
Ostler's peppergrass in Utah
Lesquerella navajoensis in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah
Flowers pentemon in Utah
Gibben's beardtongue in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming
Pale blue-eyed grass in North Dakota, Oregon, Washington
Frisco clover in Utah

Frigid ambersnail in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin
Bearmouth mountainsnail in Montana
Byrne Resort mountainsnail in Montana
Longitudinal gland pyrg in Nevada, Utah
Hamlin Valley pyrg in Utah
Sub-globose snake pyrg in Utah

Platte River caddis fly in Nebraska
Meltwater lednian stonefly in Montana

Northern leatherside chub in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming

That you've never heard of these plants and animals is irrelevant. That they may seem laughably insignificant, or may seem related to one another (like the 5 or 6 types of milkvetch included), and that their names may sound funny -- none of this matters under the ESA. That some of these aren't actually species, but subspecies of subspecies, also doesn't matter. Such judgments must be left to myopic federal biocrats, who can't see the implications of anything beyond what's on the microscope, and for whom cost-benefit analysis is an alien concept.

All creatures are created equal in the eyes of the ESA, meaning the Meltwater lednian stonefly is as worthy of protection as the bald eagle or a grizzly bear, no matter the cost to taxpayers, no matter the consequences for land owners. It's arrogant species-centrism to argue that some animals are more worthy of federal protection than others. Noah didn't discriminate; we can't either.

This is the insanity of an environmental law run wild. Yet few in Washington have the courage to admit that it's gotten completely out of control, lest they face the wrath of the Environmental Anxiety Industry. And non-Westerners in Congress have little reason to call for ESA reform, since the law's costs and consequences weigh relatively lightly (at least for now) on their constituents.

Past administrations have tried to slow the listing process down a bit, arguing that USFWS was financially and logistically swamped by the species-related work already on its plate. Much of what the agency should be spending on protection it instead spends on lawyers, to deal with the dozens of ESA-related lawsuits going at any one time. But it's doubtful the Obama administration will show any similar restraint when it comes to listing decisions, given the strong political ties it has to Gang Green.

Budget limitations aren't a reason for the agency not to act under this president. Bureaucratic inertia is the only hope Westerners have of slowing the regulatory deluge that threatens. This is one case in which federal red tape, "analysis paralysis" and the natural lethargy of the leviathan might actually be a blessing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

White House Smart to Avoid Hair-Trigger Responses

The White House may have bungled the health care reform debate, as many pundits are saying. But it's done a much better job of dealing with a sidecar controversy, of firearms carried openly at political rallies, by keeping its cool and not engaging in hair-trigger responses.

The same can't be said for knee-jerk anti-gun groups, who are now in the position of arguing that the Second Amendment and state gun laws don't apply when the president comes to town.

The gun-toting is obviously intended as a test and a provocation -- as an in-your-face challenge to a president whose positions on the gun issue have spurred suspicion among Americans who jealously guard their Second Amendment rights. An overreaction by the White House -- even if it came in the form of Secret Service mandate that protesters come unarmed -- would only refuel fears that Obama is a gun-grabber. But so far, at least, the president's PR people have played it perfectly by playing it cool.

Here's today's Washington Post:

White House Backs Right to Arms Outside Obama Events
But Some Fear Health Talks Will Spark Violence

Armed men seen mixing with protesters outside recent events held by President Obama acted within the law, the White House said Tuesday, attempting to allay fears of a security threat.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said people are entitled to carry weapons outside such events if local laws allow it. "There are laws that govern firearms that are done state or locally," he said. "Those laws don't change when the president comes to your state or locality."

Anti-gun campaigners disagreed with Gibbs's comments, voicing fears that volatile debates over health-care reform are more likely to turn violent if gun control is not enforced.
"What Gibbs said is wrong," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "Individuals carrying loaded weapons at these events require constant attention from police and Secret Service officers. It's crazy to bring a gun to these events. It endangers everybody."

The past week has seen a spate of men carrying firearms while milling outside meetings Obama has held to defend his health-care reform effort. On Monday, a man with an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle strapped to his shoulder was outside a veterans' event in Phoenix. He was one of a dozen men who reportedly had guns outside the forum.

Phoenix police made no arrests, saying Arizona law allows weapons to be carried in the open.
Last week, a man with a gun strapped to his leg held a sign outside an Obama town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., that read: "It's time to water the tree of liberty."

Before the same meeting, Richard Terry Young, a New Hampshire resident, was arrested by the Secret Service for allegedly having a loaded, unlicensed gun in his car. Young was stopped inside the school where Obama held the forum, having reportedly sneaked past a security perimeter.

Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said incidents of firearms being carried outside presidential events are a "relatively new phenomenon." But he said the president's safety is not being jeopardized. "We're well aware of the subjects that are showing up at these events with firearms," he said. "We work closely with local law enforcement to make sure that their very strict laws on gun permits are administered. These people weren't ticketed for events and wouldn't have been allowed inside and weren't in a position outside to offer a threat." The immediate area occupied by Obama on such trips is considered a federal site where weapons are not permitted, Donovan said.

The only potentially troubling part of the story surfaces in the final paragraph I excerpted, which seems to indicate that the Secret Service is involved in active surveillance (that it is "well aware") of individuals who choose to come armed to rallies -- which raises the possibility that these people might be placed on Secret Service "watch lists" simply because they're exercising their state and federal gun rights at a political rally.

The Secret Service is expected to keep track of individuals who pose credible threats to the president, but does someone who shows up at an Obama event openly armed, as a way of making a statement about gun rights, end up on, or belong on, such a list? That's a question that bears more scrutiny and debate as the situation evolves.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Born Again Pork-Buster

Barack Obama came out swinging against congressional earmarks (formerly known as pork projects) yesterday, during an appearance before a veterans group in Phoenix. It was a message custom made not just to please the vets but to boost flagging poll numbers:

“Every dollar wasted in our defense budget is a dollar we can’t spend to care for our troops, or protect America or prepare for the future,” Obama told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Phoenix. “If a project doesn’t support our troops, if it does not make America safer, we will not fund it. If a system doesn’t perform, we will terminate it. And if Congress sends me a defense bill loaded with a bunch of pork, I will veto

But the president hasn't landed a glove on Congressional earmarks in the early rounds of this bout, despite earlier vows to veto earmark-laden spending bills, and the practice of earmarking is bigger than ever in Congress, according to Washington waste-watchers, despite Speaker Pelosi's now hollow-sounding pledge to clean up Congress.

I'll believe it when I see it, in other words. And it will be interesting to see if the president's no-earmarks stance extends to the many non-military spending bills now in the works. If so, he ought to start limbering-up his veto hand now, lest a cold start lead to a repetitive motion injury later this year.

It will also be interesting to see how Obama the government waste warrior deals with another pork-related issue that made headlines yesterday -- a request from American hog farmers for a $250 million federal bailout.

"The [National Pork Producers] council wants the USDA to spend at least $150 million on pork products for various programs, including immediately buying up to $50 million of pork for federal food programs, using fiscal 2009 funds before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

The USDA spent $62.6 million in 2008 buying pork for food programs, according to the council. The producers are also asking Congress to lift a spending cap that limits spending on pork for certain food programs. In addition, the council requested $100 million to help address the H1N1 virus, including $70 million for swine disease surveillance."

The report indicates that it wouldn't be the first time the feds have propped up the industry through pork buy-up programs. This crutch probably accounts for the oversupply of product, which keeps prices lower than some farmers can survive. Propping up the less-efficient producers will only forestall the day of economic reckoning that faces some hog farmers. A bailout may keep consumer prices low, at least at the meat counter, but it does so by picking the publics' pocket with another hand, in order to pay for the hog farmer handouts. The oversupply problem isn't addressed, which leads to a continuing cycle of low prices and government bailouts.

Also hurting hog farmers are "commodity costs that reached record highs last summer," according to the story, though the reporter fails to explain the federal government's role in keeping commodity costs so high. Last summer's spike in oil and gasoline prices undoubtedly played a part in this, but an equally important factor was increased demand for corn, spurred by a government-mandated ethanol craze.

Hog farmers feed their animals corn. But corn suddenly became much more expensive last year, because it was being used for motor fuel, to meet production quotas established by politicians. Ethanol also constitutes a massive rip-off of taxpayers, because we're directly subsidizing, on a per gallon basis, the production of a fuel that doesn't make economic or environmental sense -- but is popular with panacea-pushing politicians. So the hardships being visited on hog farmers are in part the result of federal efforts to benefit corn growers, via ethanol mandates. It's a case study of why government manipulations of the market, through subsidies and mandates, almost always leads to a cascading series of new problems.

Obama can't begin to trim the deficit or debt without at some point saying "no" not just to earmarks, but to the pleading classes that step forward almost daily, asking for a handout. But that's incredibly hard to do when you've already offered direct or indirect bailouts to every conceivable American industry that asked for one.

How can Obama say "no" to hog farmers, when he's already lavished federal money on bankers, brokerage houses and automakers, and when he's spending wildly in a scatter shot approach to economic stimulus? How can he say "no" to legislative branch pork, even while doling out executive branch pork to every wheel that starts squeaking -- or squealing, in the case of pig farmers?

It won't be easy; that's the short answer. But it's the ultimate test of whether this president will ever get a handle on runaway spending.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts

George W. Bush cracked open the door to a federal takeover of American public schools with the unfunded mandates imposed on states through his No Child Left Behind program. Barack Obama is tearing that door off its hinges, and driving a truck through the gaping hole, by using stimulus funds to force state compliance with his own education agenda, as the New York Times reports today.

"Holding out billions of dollars as a potential windfall, the Obama administration is persuading state after state to rewrite education laws to open the door to more charter schools and expand the use of student test scores for judging teachers.

That aggressive use of economic stimulus money by Education Secretary Arne Duncan is provoking heated debates over the uses of standardized testing and the proper federal role in education, issues that flared frequently during President George W. Bush’s enforcement of his signature education law, called No Child Left Behind."

Both the Bush and Obama efforts travel under the guise of "reform." Both efforts include elements that many backers of improving education support in principle (higher testing standards and more accountability in the case of NCLB, for instance, and more charter schools in the case of Obama's No Taxpayer Left Alone program). But neither initiative serves the long-term interests of American public education, since both are unprecedented assaults on state and local control of schools.

No sector of American society that falls under federal dominance has flourished as a result. Almost everything Washington touches turns to shit, as we all know. That's reason enough to be wary of Uncle Sam's growing involvement in public education under Bush and Obama. And because federal involvement never comes without strings attached, and a hefty price tag attached, it's better in the long-run that such matters remain under state and local control.

I would like to see more charter school-averse states change their attitudes toward the alternative schools, so I might be inclined, at first blush, to applaud the Obama administration's use of stimulus funds as leverage against charter-resistant states. But because I try to think 2 or 3 moves ahead, I also anticipate that the Obama administration and its teacher union allies will eventually use this same leverage to force the unionization of charter schools, and to impose federal standards upon them, effectively robbing charter schools of the very things that make them unique, independent, effective and appealing.

Here's a hint of things to come in a related story from the Associated Press:

"Unions and their members do not oppose all charter schools, but they do want more say in how teachers are chosen. The American Federation of Teachers is actively seeking a bigger role in charter schools and has helped to unionize several."

Barack Obama's support for charter schools at first glance seems at odds with his political alliance with anti-charter school teachers' unions -- until one realizes that this administration intends to facilitate a union takeover of these schools through passage of the so-called card check law, which will make organizing the American workplace as easy as collecting enough signatures. Obama's support for charter schools is tolerated by teachers' unions because they understand that their chances of co-opting these schools will get a big boost from this union-friendly president.

That's why this backer of charter schools is skeptical of Obama actions that seem, on the surface, to be pro-school choice and pro-school reform. Beware Greeks bearing gifts. Charter schools have a better chance of remaining genuine charter schools if they are free of the federal government's -- and Barack Obama's -- smothering embrace.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Human Jukebox

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is a human jukebox. His tune is constantly changing, depending on what he thinks his audience wants to hear.

As a Colorado senator, Salazar pandered to the zero-drilling crowd by doing everything in his power to block energy leases on the Roan Plateau, throwing an 11th-hour monkey wrench into an exhaustive, multi-year public process that had struck a sensible balance between economic and ecological values. And one of the first things Salazar did after confirmation was unilaterally withdraw a number of drilling leases in Utah, after green extremists, led by the actor Robert Redford, raised a fuss over them.

Salazar's record as senator was consistently anti-drilling. He opposed opening ANWR, and supported drilling moratoriums off the east and west coasts. When gas prices went stratospheric last summer, and angry Americans began chanting "drill baby drill," Salazar made a minor position shift, by saying he was open to a little more drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. In another pander to FFPs (fossilfuelphobes), Salazar obstructed oil shale development on the Western Slope.

His record as a politician has been consistently anti-oil and gas development. He's been the happy lap dog of green extremists. And that's why he was a terrible choice for interior secretary -- a position that should be filled by a realist, not a radical.

The human jukebox was in drilling country yesterday -- Colorado's Western Slope -- so he was suddenly sounding bullish on natural gas development. He told editorial board members at the Grand Junction Sentinel exactly what they wanted to hear:

“The future of natural gas is very bright,” Salazar told The Daily Sentinel editorial board after he presided over the dedication of the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.
Natural gas is one of the sources of fuel he’s recommending President Obama look to as the nation’s energy policy is being shaped, primarily because it’s considered to be less a source of greenhouse gases than other fossil fuels, he said.

As a senator from Colorado, Salazar had been critical of the Bureau of Land Management’s leasing of lands on the Roan Plateau for natural-gas drilling. That plan is now the subject of a federal lawsuit and there are efforts to reach a settlement, Salazar said.

He ruled out withdrawing the Roan Plateau leases, as he did with 77 contentious leases in neighboring Utah near national parks, because the Roan leases had been signed, giving the buyers a property right he was bound to protect, Salazar said.

The process with the Utah leases was not so complete, he said."

I assume Sentinel board members were savvy enough to know they were being slant-drilled by Salazar. Maybe they were just too polite to call him out on his revisionism, his dishonesty and his inconsistency.

In fact, the Utah leases were as "complete" as the process allows. All the necessary procedures had been followed. They posed no threat to any national parks (except in the fevered minds of zero-drilling groups). Salazar's actions constituted an abuse of power, as shown by the fact that a number of the leases have been reinstated by a review board.

And the Roan leases only became a "property right" (I'm not sure Salazar really understands the concept) over the boisterous objections of then-Senator Salazar, because the Bush administration, to its credit, refused to nullify years of study and work by an agency Salazar now overseas, the Bureau of Land Management. Salazar's anti-drilling antics failed to block the Roan leases, but they cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue, since his efforts to derail drilling on the Roan scared-off many potential bidders, driving down expected proceeds from the auction.

The future of natural gas in America does indeed look bright -- imported natural gas, that is. Most domestic supplies of oil and natural gas remain off limits to drilling, thanks to green extremists and the politicians, like Salazar, who carry water for them. The future is bright for the foreign countries and foreign-owned companies that are hoping to get Americans as hooked on natural gas imports as we are on oil imports. The future will remain dim and uncertain for domestic natural gas development as long as the radicals, rather than the realists, are in charge.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hall Monitor Hypocrisy

I haven’t been pleased by some of the shout-downs and shoving we’ve seen at Congressional town hall meetings this August (well, maybe just a little pleased). But there’s a heavy dose of hypocrisy when the calls for civility and reasoned debate come from folks on the political left.

We rarely hear such complaints when the “angry mob” is advancing a “progressive” cause: when certain politically-incorrect speakers are shouted down on campus; when the anti-war protests of the 1960s got raucous; when anti-free trade groups disrupt international economic conferences; when environmentalists loudly protest logging projects or other alleged attacks on the planet.

More annoying than the double standard, though, are condescending White House lectures on how the rest of us ought to behave in the presence of His Eminence, Barack Obama, when he blesses fly-over country with an audience later this week.

Here are a few paragraphs from Monday’s Grand Junction Sentinel:

"At the same White House press briefing in which it was announced the President will be coming to Grand Junction to possibly host a town hall meeting here, the tensions at similar style meetings across the country was touched upon.

“I will tell you this,” Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary told media on Friday, according to a White House transcript, “The President believes, and has always believed, that town hall meetings are a very useful place for the discussion of issues to talk about the decisions that are facing him and the American people. They ought to be able to be conducted without shouting and shoving and pushing and people getting hurt.

I think we can have honest policy disagreements without being either disagreeable, or certainly without being violent.“And I think anybody that has a strong opinion should come to a town hall meeting, but also respect that others may want to also take part in the town hall meeting, or you know, may just want to listen to the debate. And if somebody is yelling, or if somebody particularly is being violent, I’m not entirely sure that helps the entire process for anybody involved.”

Coloradans don’t need lectures in civility from the White House spokesman. I understand that Democrats like treating most people like children, by promising cradle-to-grave paternalism. But it's still insulting to hear them talking to the rest of us as if we were unruly kids who need a time out.

The shouting and finger-pointing may not follow the debating rules of the Oxford Union, but it does deliver a message, loud and clear, that not everyone is embracing ObamaCare. Whether this is a minority opinion won’t be determined until next election season. But that’s beside the point, since the art of protest is the art of making even a minority view seem politically potent.

It’s an art that the political left mastered long ago. Anti-war protesters of the 1960s didn’t represent the majority view (if I recall the polling data correctly), but they changed national policy by grabbing headlines. Environmental extremism isn’t the majority view in America, yet greens are driving the regulatory agenda through agitation, litigation and indoctrination. Loud and angry protest has been one important way the left exerts influence. But red flags go up when the protest comes from the right.

It’s equally odd to see those who elected a former community organizer president trying to discredit the ObamaCare backlash as the work of “conservative organizers.” Many recent news stories seem to go out of their way to make such connections. Yet I rarely see such labeling when liberal groups are involved.

America’s long and proud history of dissent wouldn’t have been possible without behind-the-scenes organizers. This never before delegitimized these events as bellwethers of public opinion. The anti-war protests of the 1960’s weren’t just spontaneous eruptions. Freedom marches in the South were planned and organized (thanks to “ringleaders” and “agitators” like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.). The American Revolution got a helping hand from organizer Sam Adams. Abolitionists and prohibitionists also had organizers.

Today, it seems, protests are only legitimate expressions of public sentiment when they’re organized by the left. Protesters become an angry “mob” when they oppose left-wing policy prescriptions. It’s a sign of how far the former “counterculture” has come, in terms of becoming the new “establishment,” that it can’t recognize the weird irony in this line of attack.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Political Malpractice

Accidental death and murder-through-malpractice occur at every American hospital, much to the delight of the ambulance-chasers. It's just a sad fact of life -- or fact of death -- that every reasonable person understands, because to err is human and because hospitals, on balance, do far more good than harm.

But the sorts of accidents that go unnoticed or barely-noticed at most hospitals can threaten to shut down a doctor-owned hospital, as this story in today's Denver Post explains. This double standard isn't because such "specialty hospitals" deliver substandard care, as compared to non-doctor-owned counterparts; it's because they are upstarts, which bring competition into a system in which true competition is absent. It's because they threaten the profit margins of other hospitals. It's because they make easy scapegoats for politicians looking for someone "greedy" to blame for a system that politicians and regulators screwed-up. And it's because some interest groups hope to use the health care overhaul being contemplated by Congress to get rid of these rival institutions.

The Post, to its credit, delves into the interest group politics lurking behind the attack on doctor-owned hospitals:

"The debate over doctor-owned hospitals, ongoing since they began to flourish a decade ago, has pitted politician against politician — and doctors and their trade groups, including the American Medical Association, against hospitals and their trade groups — in a battle of wills and dueling studies on the hospitals' impact.

A proposed provision in the health care reform package Congress is debating could effectively end the debate — and kill future doctor-owned hospitals.

The provision would prevent doctor-owned hospitals from collecting Medicare reimbursements, which can be a hospital's lifeblood" . . .

". . . .No sooner did these hospitals start popping up than traditional hospitals started crying foul. Those cries struck consistent themes: The specialized hospitals cherry-pick healthy, insured patients, leaving the really sick, the poor, the uninsured to pile up in generalized hospitals. The advent of doctor-owned hospitals, generalized hospitals say, threatens their very survival."

And their profits, of course. "The American Hospital Association reported that hospitals made a record $43 billion profit in 2007, the largest single-year profit jump in 15 years," reports The Post. And non-specialty hospitals aren't interested in cutting specialty hospitals in on that action.

Conflicts of interest and self-referrals can be a potential problem in doctor-owned hospitals. But this exists with conventional hospitals, too. I've only had a few major surgeries, fortunately, but I've never enjoyed my choice of hospital for having the procedures done. Once I picked my surgeon, my choice of hospital was also decided for me. I didn't ask "why?" I didn't investigate potential conflicts of interest. I didn't wring my hands over whether the surgeon's fee was reasonable or obscene (assuming a layperson has the knowledge to make such a determination).

The system isn't set up for comparison-shopping -- which is part of what's wrong with it. I just showed up at the appointed date and went under the knife, turning my fate over to a system I don't understand and can't control.

With doctor-owned hospitals, "we have individuals who will personally gain from having the control of what happens, of who goes in, who's admitted, what tests are done," a spokesman for the Colorado Hospital Association told the Post. But isn't that an apt description of how most non-doctor-owned hospitals operate?

The problem isn't specialty hospitals; the problem is an impossibly convoluted and covert system in which market forces don't work, and which conspires against a patient's ability to act as a true consumer. The problem isn't malpractice at certain doctor-owned hospitals; but malpractice in the broader, systemic sense, driven not so much by the "greed" of doctors but my the incessant meddling of politicians and government regulators. And now, based on a misdiagnosis of the ailment, Congress wants to do major surgery on a system that Congress made ill.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Make Way for Road Clogs

None of us likes a road hog. But an even bigger nuisance in the near future could come from road clogs. I'm talking about those environmentally correct but not-ready-for-prime time vehicles -- those glorified golf carts -- that the better-living-through-smaller-cars crowd wants us all to drive.

The scourge of the road clog will become even greater than the danger of road hogs in the years ahead, as special lanes are established, and new rules of the road are written, that will force those of us who still use evil old gasoline, and choose to drive a bigger-than-government-approved vehicle, and are willing and able to go the speed limit, to accommodate the slower, under-performing, less reliable death traps that many alternative cars are.

We're seeing the first glimmer of this brave new world in Colorado, where a law is just kicking in that will force normal motorists to share already-overcrowded roads with glorified golf carts.

"One of 151 laws going into effect Wednesday, the 90th day after the end of the legislative session, it will allow smaller and slower electric car brands on more state roads. It aims to reduce gasoline consumption and pollution.

The law allows electric cars on state highways with speed limits of 35 mph or less and to cross state highways with higher speed limits. Currently, the vehicles are banned from all state highways and from crossing them because they're too slow."

It's a seemingly trivial change of law today; something we can shake our heads at and chuckle. But from such tiny acorns mighty oak trees can grow.

We'll find it less humorous when this attempt to integrate the roadways fails and segregation of the roadways occurs, as conventionally-powered, full-performance vehicles are forced to accommodate (and possibly even give preference to?) politically correct alternatives. We see this already, of course, in the creation of HOV lanes to reward car pooling -- and in the new push to allow solo drivers of certain social engineer-approved hybrid vehicles to also use those special lanes. But that's just a precursor.

Try to imagine how unmanageable, and potentially dangerous, the roadways will become when we're forced to accommodate significant numbers of undersized and under-performing vehicles. The road will be an even bigger mess than they are now.

Also becoming law today, not coincidently, is one bill that requires motorists to give bicyclists at least three feet of clearance when passing -- rules that will create conflict rather than curb it -- and another bill that allows motor scooters on more public rights of way. Any one else see a pattern emerging?

The legislator who gave the green light to golf carts hails from Snowmass, Colorado, not surprisingly, an elite enclave near Aspen that's about as far removed from the real world as it is physically removed from the congested Front Range cities of Denver, Colorado, Fort Collins and Pueblo (where this law also applies). The legislator noted that "citizens in Snowmass Village use the vehicles to run errands and take children to school. She hopes more households will buy the cars, which start at $9,000, instead of a traditional second car," according to one news story.

It's a pretty little picture, like all the pretty pictures painted by social engineers. But there are realities and practicalities to consider. People in Snowmass Village might be able to afford a $9,000 electric cart, for running kids to school or stopping by Whole Foods for a celery and sprout smoothie. But how and whether this law will work in the rest of Colorado -- in the real world -- remains to be seen.

Monday, August 3, 2009

No Justice

Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter -- the Boo Radley of the federal bench -- is moving up in the world, reports the New York Times, giving up his iconic New Hampshire farm house for some nicer place closer to town. And when it comes time for Souter to unload the old place -- the sort of humble digs befitting a man once billed as a latter-day Abe Lincoln -- he'll do so voluntarily and happily, completely free from government intimidation or coercion or blackmail.

Unlike the home sale forced upon Suzette Kelo of New London, Connecticut, whose court case will forever attach like a stain to the retiring justice's name.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Vanishing Breed

A champion of laissez-faire capitalism in corporate America? That really is news.

He's probably the last.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cash Test Dummies

"Congress and the Obama administration scrambled Friday to triple the size of the overwhelmingly popular ‘‘cash for clunkers’’ program after it appeared to be exhausting its $1 billion funding in its first week," reports one wire service this morning -- which comes on the heals of numerous reports (just one example) that the program is in complete disarray. My violent reaction nearly set off the airbag on my PC.

Better buckle up, everyone. This is not going to be a Sunday drive. It's all going to end badly, in some ditch up around the bend; twisted steel; powdered glass; smoking ruins; great plumes of greenbacks blowing in the wind.

Tripling the program's size would bring the total cost to taxpayers to $3 billion -- that's three thousand million dollars -- before we even know what's gone wrong with the week-old program, or whether it's a cost-effective way to improve air quality or reduce our dependence on foreign oil. That's its purpose, remember -- to incentivize Americans to trade in their gas-guzzling and vapor-spewing road hogs for something more environmentally-correct.

But "cash for clunkers" seems in only a week to have become something else: a way for shrewd car buyers and hungry auto dealers to game a new federal program for personal gain and profit. Nothing wrong with personal gain or profit, mind you, when it's pursued in the private sector, playing by the rules. But the remarkable popularity of this program suggests to me that a massive scam is going on, all bankrolled by taxpayers. And to commit even more money to the effort before we even know how the scam works, or recognize it as such, constitutes reckless driving on Washington's part.

Washington tends to judge the success of a program not by measuring actual results -- do we have any idea whether the $1 billion in car-buyer subsidies already spent by CFC will actually generate the promised benefits? -- but by measuring how many Americans take advantage of the program. If 2 million more Americans are on food stamps this year than were on food stamps last year, that's a successful program that needs more funding, according to Washington-think. And by that standard, this program is an instant success, which is poised to triple in size less than a week after launch.

Washington also likes to refashion federal programs that have strayed from, or can't possibly fulfill, their original purpose. That's already happening with "cash for clunkers." It started out as one thing -- a good-for-the-environment thing. It's already morphing into something else -- a good-for-the-car-business, helps-stimulate-the-economy thing. "Mission creep" used to creep into federal programs over a matter of decades. Now it can happen in a matter of days. Trying to turn this into a stimulus success story is making a lemon into lemonade.

‘‘Not more than a few weeks ago, there were skeptics who weren’t sure that this cash for clunkers program would work,’’ President Obama said yesterday. ‘‘I’m happy to report that it has succeeded well beyond our expectations and all expectations, and we’re already seeing a dramatic increase in showroom traffic at local car dealers.’’

Of course we're seeing "a dramatic increase in showroom traffic." Uncle Sam is handing out $4,500 checks to any car buyer or car seller who can figure out a way to make the trade-in appear to meet the program's sloppily-conceived and loophole-laced criteria. And because there's no oversight being exercised by federal officials, and because those administering the program are by all accounts overwhelmed and in disarray, it's become a field day for taking advantage of taxpayers.

I remain a skeptic, despite Obama's finger-wagging. There's massive gaming going on here, obviously. Cash for Clunkers is a boondogglemobile, which is taking taxpayers for a ride. But rather than hit the breaks, and get both hands back on the steering wheel, and rather than build in safeguards against the scams that must be taking place, the cash test dummies in Washington are putting the pedal to the metal and speeding forward, oblivious to the risks involved.

This program is an Edsel, which will probably go down as one of the fastest (though obviously not biggest) boondoggles in federal history (zero to $3 billion in sixty seconds may set a new track record). Obama's efforts to portray it as a Ferrari will blow up in his face when the extent of the scam becomes evident.

I'm reminded of that wonderful quote from P.J. O'Rourke: "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys."

The teenage boys have the car keys now.

How much more whiskey are we going to give them?