Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Will Salazar's Home Turf Get Some Solar-Powered Pork?

Southern Colorado's San Luis Valley seems like a suitable spot for solar power facilities. It's sunny most days. It's flat. It's relatively uncrowded. The federal government has some significant land holdings there. Thus, it makes sense that the valley would be among the locales the Interior Department is considering for the fast-tracking of such projects, as was reported in today's Denver Business Journal.

But the San Luis Valley also happens to be the home turf of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former attorney general and senator from Colorado. His family owns land there. It's part of his brother's congressional district. And the economy isn't exactly booming. This raises the possibility that the valley could get an unfair leg up on the competition -- if it hasn't gotten one already -- should Salazar decide to toss it a little solar power pork.

That means Interior had better be very scrupulous and transparent about how these siting decisions are made, and permits are handed out, lest it appear that Salazar is using his office to do special favors for the home crowd.

The Western landscape seems ideally suited for such projects. There's still plenty of space; federal holdings are vast; and most states in the region, including Colorado, are falling all over themselves trying to jump on the "clean energy" bandwagon. But the prospect that this process will devolve into just another pork-barrel pig out seems real enough, seeing as how Salazar made this announcement while standing beside Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will undoubtedly be pulling strings to see that Nevada lands "its fair share" (and then some) of the projects.

Members of the legislative branch are justifiable renowned for "earmarking" federal dollars for pet projects. But high-ranking members of the executive branch are well-positioned to do the same, if they have the opportunity and inclination. I wouldn't mind seeing the San Luis Valley get in on the action, if the process is honest. But the process will have to be watched closely to ensure that's the case.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Test of Resolve, Part 2

"Our Decaying Nuclear Deterrent," an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal, reinforces a point I made here several weeks back: That the Obama administration, by nixing nuclear weapons modernization efforts and pushing ratification of a permanent test ban, is setting the nation on a dangerous course of disarmament by default (the authors call it "disarmament by unilateral obsolescence").

My interest in this issue dates back at least ten years. It resulted in a number of pieces -- here, here, here -- in which I warned about events that are unfolding today.

Here's an excerpt from today's Journal:

"There are some who believe that failing to invest adequately in our nuclear deterrent will move us closer to a nuclear free world. In fact, blocking crucial modernization means unilateral disarmament by unilateral obsolescence. This unilateral disarmament will only encourage nuclear proliferation, since our allies will see the danger and our adversaries the opportunity.

By neglecting -- and in some cases even opposing -- essential modernization programs, arms-control proponents are actually undermining the prospect for further reductions of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. As our nuclear weapons stockpile ages and concern about its reliability increases, we will have to compensate by retaining more nuclear weapons than would otherwise be the case. This reality will necessarily influence future arms-control negotiations, beginning with the upcoming Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty follow-on. . . .

. . . .There is a fashionable notion that if only we and the Russians reduced our nuclear forces, other nations would reduce their existing arsenals or abandon plans to acquire nuclear weapons altogether. This idea, an article of faith of the "soft power" approach to halting nuclear proliferation, assumes that the nuclear ambitions of Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be curtailed or abandoned in response to reductions in the American and Russian deterrent forces -- or that India, Pakistan or China would respond with reductions of their own.

This is dangerous, wishful thinking. If we were to approach zero nuclear weapons today, others would almost certainly try even harder to catapult to superpower status by acquiring a bomb or two. A robust American nuclear force is an essential discouragement to nuclear proliferators; a weak or uncertain force just the opposite."

Those interested in this topic might also read the related article from a recent USA Today, pasted below:

WASHINGTON — President Obama plans deep new cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal at a time when the government faces a 15-year backlog of warheads already waiting to be dismantled and a need for billions of dollars in new facilities to store and dispose of the weapons' plutonium. The logjam of thousands of retired warheads will grow considerably based on a promise made in April by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to get their stockpiles far below levels set by current disarmament pacts.

Yet much of the infrastructure needed to dispose of those weapons don't exist yet, according to federal audits and other records reviewed by USA TODAY. Dismantling the retired warheads — not counting the additional weapons that Obama wants to eliminate — will take until 2024, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the weapons program.

The schedule for disposing of the plutonium cores from those weapons runs past 2030. Building the necessary plants and storage facilities "is expensive … (and) is going to take a long time," says Linton Brooks, a former arms negotiator who headed the nuclear security administration from 2002 to 2007. "That doesn't stop the president from taking more warheads off missiles and bombers and (adding to) to the backlog. It means the queue gets a lot longer."

Among the challenges:

• The Texas storage site for the plutonium "pits" from dismantled weapons could have capacity shortages by 2014, according to an inspector general audit earlier this year and a separate 2008 report by a federal oversight board.

• A plant to convert those pits into a form that can be processed into fuel for nuclear power reactors — the current disposal plan — hasn't been sited and isn't slated to be built until 2021. Projected cost: nearly $4 billion.

• A $4.8 billion plant being built to do final processing of the plutonium into mixed oxide reactor fuel at the Savannah River (S.C.) nuclear weapons site isn't slated to be running until 2016. Obama's 2010 budget plan would boost spending for weapons disposition by $4 million, or 5%, to $84 million, according to the nuclear administration.

Timelines for eliminating the current backlog of retired warheads and the added weapons Obama wants to cut will depend on how far the reductions ultimately go, says Tom D'Agostino, head of the nuclear administration. He notes that a "nuclear posture review," due this fall, will help determine how much more storage and dismantlement capacity is needed. "There are infrastructure hurdles, but … until that review is done, substantial infrastructure changes would be premature," D'Agostino says. "I'm very impressed with the dismantlement rate," he adds, noting it has risen more than 150% since 2006.

Specific disassembly figures are secret, but a study of available data by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Federation of American Scientists finds that, despite the rate increase, the Bush administration dismantled the fewest warheads per year since the Eisenhower era.

About 2,700 warheads remain deployed, 2,500 are in operational reserve and 4,200 are awaiting disassembly, the report says. Cuts by Obama could add a few thousand to that. "No effort has really been made to transform (the nuclear weapons program) to meet the mission of nuclear weapons elimination," says Robert Alvarez, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior adviser at the Energy Department, which oversees the nuclear administration. Program funds "have gone mostly to maintain what we now recognize is an oversized nuclear stockpile."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Dangerous Liaisons

There are worse things than having a governor slip quietly out of sight, and out of the country, for a romantic rendezvous with a woman other than his wife, in my opinion. Arguably more alarming is when your governor is jetting off to that den of inequity, Washington D.C., to have flirtatious fundraising liaisons hosted by some of the city's most powerful lobbyists -- here and here -- and the only reason you find out about it is because a group of union goons is following the governor around, tossing a tantrum about something.

Mark Sanford's betrayal of his wife raises questions about his personal integrity, but has little relevance to the question of how well he functions as governor, in my opinion. Bill Ritter's dalliance with Washington lobbyists and out-of-state donors, by contrast, raises serious questions about his political integrity, and could directly impact the decisions he makes as a politician and a governor.

But Mark Sanford's dangerous liaison in Argentina likely will ruin his career, while Bill Ritter's fundraising trip to Washington will help his (unless his Colorado constituents begin to wonder why he's attracting so much interest and money from liberal Democrats out of state). I see some ironies in that.

Mark Sanford fell for a woman other than his wife. Bill Ritter is seducing, or being seduced by, out-of-state donors and organizations that expect some policy payoff for their political support. Sanford acted out of love and passion, apparently. Ritter acted out of lust for campaign contributions and his burning political ambition.

Which is the more serious breach of the public trust -- and which individual is the bigger reprobate -- in your view? Who's the bigger whore, in short? Just a question to ponder as we wander the foggy borderlands between personal and public morality.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Innovations in Earmarking

U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, Democrat from Washington State, is taking a novel approach to plundering the U.S. Treasury, which might be called "do-it-yourself earmarking." It's a way of cutting out the middle man in the pork-barrel process -- your local member of Congress -- by letting Americans go directly to appropriators with their earmark wish-lists. Just file a funding request, hoist it up the flag pole and voilĂ : In a few short months it might just start raining money!

No need to hire an expensive lobbyist. No need for quid-pro-quo campaign contributions. It's Uncle Sam as ATM -- only you don't need a secret pin number to make a withdrawal. And the best part is, it gives members of Congress "plausible deniability" if embarrassing pork barrel projects make the papers. It's no longer their request; it's your request. Don't blame the messenger; all they were doing was passing it along to the right people.

This latest innovation in earmarking came to light a few days back, after The Seattle Times reported that McDermott was seeking a $250,000 federal earmark for the replacement of window sills at The Rainier Club, an exclusive private dinner club in Seattle. That's when the 11-termer conjured up the following defense. He really didn't think the funding request would go through, he told The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but he made it anyway, because some folks in the district asked him to.

"Everybody in my district is entitled to make a request," he said. "I will let the (appropriations) committee with the responsibility make the decision." And whatever committee members decide on the matter is just fine with McDermott, apparently.

So there it is, folks. Everyone in McDermott's district is "entitled" to request an earmark. You are. So's your neighbor. So are the folks who run the supper club. It's a free-for all, in other words; he has no responsibility for screening the requests, or modifying them, or rejecting those (like this one) that are too trivial and parochial to justify the use of federal funds.

And he wants us to believe he trusts wiser minds on the appropriations committee to make such calls. "The congressman argued that his colleagues controlling the purse strings sort through requested earmarks, usually funding things deemed most important," reports the P-I.

A McDermott staffer scoffed at any suggestion that the Rainier Club earmark was a favor to fat cats. "People who know Jim well . . . would chuckle out loud if the implication is that he's in the pocket of business interests," he told the Times. But this misses the point. The problem isn't that McDermott is "in the pocket of business interests," but that he's in the pocket of taxpayers, at the behest of an elite private club that should pay for its own damn window repairs. The problem is that such outrages have become routine in the era of do-it-yourself earmarking.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ken Salazar's Hard Bargain

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar continues to take a personal hand in the government's effort to force a group of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, farmers to part with their property, for use as part of a Flight 93 memorial. Salazar is using the threat of eminent domain to hasten the "negotiations," because the feds want it built before the 10th anniversary of 9-11. Otherwise, a touching photo-op with grateful survivors might me missed.

One Salazar deadline for landowners has come and gone. A few have come to terms, but holdouts remain. He hasn't brought the hammer down yet. But what, really, can be complicating and prolonging these one-sided "negotiations," unless the feds are trying to nickel and dime the farmers.

That's the really odd thing about these situations. 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 targeted landowners, paying these people "fair market value" for their property, as determined by a government-paid 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 the hammer of eminent domain to drive a hard bargain.

Why doesn't Salazar just pay the Pennsylvania farmers their asking price, whatever it is, plus a few million more for their trouble? Who would object, or even notice, given the way Interior and every other federal agency spend (and squander) money?

I wouldn't call it a waste of money. I would call it "reparations," which the government should pay for perpetrating a great injustice upon American citizens, who became the targets of a government "taking" (a euphemism for theft) simply because they happen to live near where a tragedy occurred. That, in my view, would be money well spent.

The victims of Flight 93 at least will have their memorial. But how peacefully will these heroes rest if the government creates a second group of Flight 93 victims -- the landowners of Shanksville, Pennsylvania -- by callously mishandling the situation in an effort to drive a hard bargain and "get the deal done"?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Muddying the Waters

Good news, everyone. Pueblo, Colorado, can now officially be certified as a crime-free city. There are no robberies, no rapes, no spousal abuse or purse-snatching or petty crimes to prosecute. That leaves Pueblo DA Bill Thiebaut with so much time on his hands that he can focus his prodigious crime-fighting skills on another culprit -- Colorado Springs -- by interjecting himself into the Colorado Springs-Pueblo water feud.

For the second time in his tenure, Thiebaut is acting as if he exercised authority over water quality and management issues in Fountain Creek; this time, by submitting a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers designed to toss a monkey-wrench into the Southern Delivery System pipeline project. But his views on the matter are irrelevant, as his earlier attempt to intervene proved.

Thiebaut a few years back dragged Pueblo into a federal lawsuit, claiming that Colorado Springs waste water spills were violating federal Clean Water Act regulations. It was grandstanding of the worst kind. He was unceremoniously dumped from the suit by a federal judge who ruled that this exceeded his authority.

How much taxpayer money Thiebaut wasted on this lark is unknown. One can't help believing those resources could have been put to better use, since Pueblo is not, contrary to my lead, a crime-free city. But this has nothing to do with the law, or with water quality, or with Thiebaut's sincere desire to serve as eco-enforcer on Fountain Creek. It's about politics, plain and simple -- about Thiebaut's desire to curry favor with a few crusty old water warriors in Pueblo (and possibly distract public attention from some major housekeeping problems in his office).

Thiebaut must have gotten a call from Bob Rawlings, publisher of the Chieftain, who has long played the role of puppet master on such issues, suggesting that a letter from Thiebaut might help slow the recent progress Colorado Springs has made on clearing away hurdles to SDS. The ploy probably won't do much in that regard, because Thiebaut's opinions on Fountain Creek are as legally and morally relevant as the tooth fairy's. He has no expertise. He has no legal standing. He has no jurisdiction, unless a body is found floating down the creek south of the Pueblo County line.

But it plays well as propaganda with Springs-bashers in Pueblo. And it wins Thiebaut another merit badge with Rawlings, whose editorial page can come in very handy when re-election time comes around.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Barack Obama: Super President

If you haven't seen the latest animated creation by JibJab, which hilariously lampoons the Obama cult, you can check it out here.

Start the week with a laugh. It will only go down hill from here.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Risks of Viral Legislating

"No one can say this is a junket." Or so said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, when responding to Denver Post coverage of the group's 87th annual conference in Vail. "This is a quality conference, and people recognize it as such."

Whatever you say, Sam. I suppose it's a question of semantics.

The event did have some appearances of a seminar. But the golfing and parties certainly might give taxpayers the wrong impression, given the financial hardships so many cities and counties are suffering at the moment. It didn’t help that one attendee, Glendale City Council member LuVerne Davenport, admitted to a reporter (who she didn’t know was a reporter) that the city’s six-member contingent was there to “goof off.”

This raises legitimate questions about fiscal responsibility; about whether it's a wise use of public resources in times such as these. But it's the networking and conferring I dread most. If they were really all just "goofing off," we'd have less to fear than if they're actually exchanging ideas and trafficking in policy prescriptions. That’s where the trouble begins.

The biggest problem with such events, in my opinion, isn't the waste of money or time. It's the fact that they can hasten the spread of stupid municipal fads, which seem to move like viruses through the body politic. It's not by chance that you read about something being approved by your city council this year that was approved by Boulder's city council last year. Most politicians are herd animals. When they aren't trolling newspaper headlines, searching for regulatory responses to the stories they read, they're being spoon-fed ideas by special interests and professional planning groups, or borrowing them from "colleagues" in other cities.

One purpose of associations like the Colorado Municipal League is to help bored or unimaginative legislators keep up with the latest governing fads, so they can stay busy and seem relevant. You've heard of viral marketing? There's also such a thing as viral legislating. And it's at these functions that such contagions are unleashed.

Because politicians are always looking for reasons to legislate, for "problems” to solve, for new excuses to "do good," they're highly susceptible to the sort of group-think that goes on at such conferences. One lousy governing idea, if raised in isolation, will most likely get shot down. And if approved, the damage it will do is limited in scope. But lousy ideas more easily germinate, gain credibility and spread when group-think is at work. And the damage can be more widespread, and become really serious, when this sort of viral legislating takes place.

The best reason to steer your local officials away from such events isn't to save tax money; it's to keep them focused on their own backyards, on the governing fundamentals, and to not give them any bright ideas. It's in places like Vail that they catch the activist itch, or Do-Gooders Syndrome, which almost always leads them off on larks. And it's this that explains why even local governments have a tendency over time to grow, spend more, regulate excessively and stray from core functions.

No vaccine as yet exists to guard against the threat of viral legislating, so the best way to protect local officials is quarantine. As constituents, we should insist that they avoid such conferences and seminars. As risky as such behaviors are to them, it’s we taxpayers who ultimately pay the price when they return from such conferences infected with the activist itch.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Skirmish Won on Pinon Canyon

It seems a minor victory, coming as it does after a long series of stinging defeats, but U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn this week thwarted another attempt by U.S. Rep. John Salazar (of Colorado's 3rd District) to close off options for Fort Carson expansion at the Pinon Canyon training site. The proposal is on life support, after being battered by bad PR and a series of legislative setbacks, including some delivered by Gov. Bill Ritter and other Colorado political "leaders." But Lamborn deserves credit for outmaneuvering Salazar's latest anti-expansion efforts in the House -- and doing so even while Salazar was gleefully boasting to area newspapers about what a breeze it was driving another stake in Pinon Canyon's heart (for which he received a nice pat on the head from the usual quarters).

Three versions of events were published Thursday, in The Gazette, the Pueblo Chieftain and The Denver Post. A complete picture of what went down is best gleaned by reading all three.

The Post story is particularly interesting, though, because it has Salazar trying to make a virtue out of defeat by saying that he’s done waging war on the expansion concept, at least for now. It verges on an admission that he and other expansion opponents are engaging in overkill. But that attitude only emerged after Lamborn outflanked Salazar’s latest assassination attempt, by changing minds and votes on a key committee at the 11th hour.

The Post:

"Given that the Army already can't expand without lots of money approved by Congress, Salazar decided there were enough restrictions in place that for now he will no longer push the legislative ban.

"At the end of day, we have concluded that Pi�on Canyon is off the table for the foreseeable future," said Eric Wortman, Salazar's spokesman, noting that Salazar can continue to deny funding for the expansion through his spot on the House Appropriations Committee.

"It is what John wanted all along — for everyone to take a timeout," Wortman said."

It's dishonest to say Salazar is seeking a "timeout." He's on record as wanting to permanently kill the idea. He's on record saying that it would never happen while he's in Congress (something that hopefully can be changed in the next few years). And he was out in the media, boasting about his latest victory against the Army, even before it was a done deal. Lamborn's last-minute counteroffensive left him with egg on his face.

Realizing that The Denver Post story would raise the hackles of the "ranchers"-turned-activists who have turned the expansion proposal into a cause celebre, by claiming, hysterically, that it's part of a secret plot to kill cow culture in Southeastern Colorado, Salazar scrambled to maintain his hard-line credentials, generating this story in today's Pueblo Chieftain. Salazar had his staff crank-out a strong anti-Pinon Canyon statement after the Post reported he was showing a reasonable side. "The fight to permanently end expansion may be a long one, however, for as long as I serve in Congress, I will fight any effort to advance an expansion of Pinon Canyon," it said in part.

So the promised cease fire was just a false hope. The pandering must go on.

Lamborn took some heat after a similar Salazar amendment passed by a significant margin last year. Local critics often point to that vote as evidence that Lamborn's ineffectual in defending the district’s interest. But this time he worked the issue hard and won, which wouldn’t have happened unless he changed Democrat votes on the committee. Once a majority of committee members really understood the issue, and understood that continually lobbing mortar rounds at Fort Carson was not only gratuitous but could do lasting damage to this state’s economy and relations with the Pentagon, reason thankfully prevailed. Lamborn deserves credit for pulling this off.

This isn’t some tipping point, that will turn the tide of political or public opinion in favor of at least giving Fort Carson expansion a fair hearing. That's still a long shot, in my view, given the political forces arrayed against it. It's one minor skirmish won in a war that's probably lost. But it gives one a glimmer of hope that we'll perhaps see an end to the gratuitous hammering away at the issue, and at the Army, for hammering's sake, by short-sighted politicos hoping to score points with the vocal minority of Coloradans who have dominated the debate.

This demagoguery already has cost the state money and soldiers. And it has the potential to do even more harm in the future, if extreme actions and rhetoric (which Radio host Mike Rosen addresses in today's Pueblo Chieftain) continue to win the battle over reasoned debate.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Energy Failure

All talk of a "federal energy policy" is a fiction. It implies a coherence and direction that just isn't there. An administration can lend some rhetorical and material support to certain energy policy hobby horses, as Obama is doing with so-called "green energy," but focus, discipline and direction are impossible as long as the legislative branch is pushing and pulling in other directions.

Congress is now working on its 3rd major energy bill in 4 years. Each of the previous measures, dating back to 2005, were hailed at the time of passage as a "landmark" measure, offering a comprehensive and holistic "answer" to the nation's energy quandaries. But the fact that Congress keeps writing new "landmark" bills, at a clip of one per year, betrays the terrible truth; that each of the previous measures, like the measure now in the works, brought confusion rather than coherence to the nation's energy policy.

These were essentially pork-barrel bills, larded up with federal largess for industries or niche technologies favored by members of Congress. There is no way for any administration -- even one headed by Obama the Magnificent -- to bring order out of such chaos. And that's why the country is destined to pin-ball from energy crisis to energy crisis, with Congress writing a new "landmark" energy bill in response to each of them, without ever establishing the rational and reality-based energy strategy that an economic powerhouse needs to survive.

I believe Congress pauses for six years between the writing of major highway funding bills. And although this can lead to pork-barrel pillaging on an obscene scale, when the bills periodically come up for renewal, the federal funding formulas and policies then set in place (even if they're flawed) at least bring some focus and coherence to federal highway activities in the years between bills. Perhaps we need to take a similar approach with federal energy bills, by limiting Congress to the passage of one "landmark" measure every five years or so.

A badly-written bill might set the nation on the wrong path for half a decade. But any course of action is arguably better than the paralysis, waste and chaos we see under current circumstances.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Denver's Building Permit Racket

This story in Wednesday's Denver Business Journal highlights a question that's been nagging me lately: Why does it take a catastrophic economic downturn for governments to start thinking seriously about the merits of deregulation as an economic development strategy?

The city of Denver is temporarily waiving certain building fees, in an effort to encourage home improvement projects, as a way of boosting the local economy. And it seems to be working, according to the Journal:

"The free permits issued under the city’s “Home Renovation Bonanza” program saved residents an estimated $85.774 in fees, officials said. Building-permit fees normally range from $20 to several thousand dollars, depending on the value of the project.

The program aimed to boost the local economy by encouraging home-improvement projects. The free permits, available June 1-15, are for common improvement projects involving single-family homes and duplexes.

“We wanted a bonanza and it seems we got one,” Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper said in a statement. “We hoped to stimulate the local economy by offering an incentive for residents to make improvements to their property. This is a good sign that people are moving forward and doing what they can to get our economy back on track.”

But why does it take an economic downturn before local governments begin to think seriously about clearing away the hurdles they erect to entrepreneurship, enterprise and personal initiative? Why are Denverites required to get permits and pay fees for "common improvement projects" to begin with? Hickenlooper's statement tacitly acknowledges that the fees are an obstacle -- a disincentive -- to home improvement and economic activity; he concedes that they're something the city can do without, at least on a temporary basis, in order to help kick-start the economy. So why not make Denver's "Home Renovation Bonanza" a permanent thing? If it can do so much short-term good, wouldn't the benefits be multiplied over the long haul?

This isn't tenable, from the average politico's perspective, because, in Denver's case, the fees fund a city bureaucracy. If you permanently slash or eliminate these fees, you would also have to slash or eliminate the bureaucracy they sustain, and you would relinquish control over something -- in this case home renovation activities -- that the city and the politicians who run it want to control. It's become a racket, in other words -- one legitimized by official sanction. That's why Denver's "Home Renovation Bonanza" can only be a temporary thing; can only be a tease to the public about what life might be like if it didn't have to jump through so many hoops, and pay so many bribes, to get through the bureaucracy.

Imagine how much more robust the American economy could be if governments at all levels made clearing away economic disincentives a top permanent priority, rather than a short-term respite, to be continued, an anchor on the economy, once the crisis passes. Obamanomics focuses on massive government spending in order to prime the sluggish pump. There are other ways to skin this cat, however. The economic benefits of slashing red tape, eliminating onerous fees and taxes, clearing away the myriad economic disincentives that government creates -- of instituting reforms that get the government off the economy's back, in short -- aren't even talked about, at least at the federal level. Doing this would mean admitting that government is far better at killing jobs than creating them. And that flatly contradicts the statist world view.


Years ago, when I decided to move to Washington, my father, a child of The Depression who fretted about my employment prospects, offered this practical reason for endorsing the decision. "Washington is recession proof," he told me, because the government would be there, and still be growing, even when the rest of the economy was tanking -- even if the rest of the nation lay in ruins. Dad was right about this, too, as today's Washington Post explains.

Washington is riding out the recession in relative style, even if sky-high home prices have come down to Earth a bit, according to a Brookings Institution report. "In line with other studies, Brookings reports that the Washington area's economy has been shielded from the full brunt of the recession because of the dominance of the federal government and contractors, which has kept employment stable," according to The Post.

Government is the biggest single "industry" in America today. And that industry is booming with Barack Obama at the helm, as work formerly contracted out to the private sector is brought "in-house" as part of Obama's "in-sourcing" initiative; as agencies grow in size and power; as an explosion in government spending, borrowing and money-printing takes place; as the nationalization of productive sector industries moves ahead, with nary a peep of protest from the world's most famous capitalists. Lobbyists haven't gone away: on the contrary, they're enjoying a field day, as they do whenever more power and money is concentrated in the capital city.

Even if tax revenues plunge, due to a down economy, the "government bubble" never really bursts -- especially when economic downturn, in the inverted logic of the moment, becomes a justification for growing government, and spending more, rather than tightening the government's belt and siphoning less from the productive sectors of the economy.

Washingtonians may claim to feel the country's pain, but they truly live and operate in a world apart, in which the normal rules of economics, like the normal rules of everything, don't really apply.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pork and Procurement

There's been a lot of heady talk in Washington about reforming a military equipment procurement system which everyone -- except certain defense contractors -- admits is broken. But among the most intractable barriers to change is the role pork-barrel politics plays in how weapons programs get approved and funded, as The Washington Post's Dana Milbank points out in today's piece.

The Pentagon may not need a new destroyer, at least not right now, but that destroyer will still be built if it means work for a shipyard in a powerful congressman's home state. Reforming the system isn't fully in the executive branch's power, in other words, as long as the legislative branch is bent on misusing and abusing the power of the purse strings.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Charter School Double Standard

Because charter schools are seen as a threat to conventional public schools; because charter schools tend to outperform conventional schools; because charter schools offer an avenue out for families trapped in failing conventional schools; because charter schools break with public education convention; because there are lists of families waiting to get into the best of them. These are just a few reasons why charter schools have so many enemies in the public school establishment. And it explains why these enemies are so quick to pounce at the slightest evidence that a charter school is faltering or falling down on the job.

A dozen conventional public schools can be failing their students, and performing below standards. A dozen conventional schools can suffer from discipline problems, lousy teacher morale and poor financial management. But nobody says a word about those schools, because it's business as usual. But if one charter school fouls up, falls short or draws complaints, it suddenly becomes big news, generating the sort of coverage we've seen lately about The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs and the Cesar Chavez charter schools in Pueblo and the Springs. The sharks start circling, hoping to drag one of these charters off their pedestals. Doing so shows that they aren't really very different, they aren't really a cut above, after all.

We've seen a spate of stories in recent months, for instance, about some racially-tinged incidents at The Classical Academy, a well-regarded charter school in Colorado Springs. The school took quick action to address the situation. But I kept wondering, when reading the stories, whether similar incidents go on all the time at conventional public schools, without generating a peep from the media. Bullying incidents happen, racial incidents happen, sexual incidents happen and discipline cases occur regularly at conventional public schools, I'm sure, but it's unnoticed beyond school walls. But when The Classical Academy is involved, it becomes big local news. The double standard is in full effect.

Now we see a similar pattern with the Cesar Chavez charter school network in Pueblo and Colorado Springs.

From today's Pueblo Chieftain:

"The superintendent of Pueblo City Schools wants Colorado’s commissioner of education to launch an audit of the finances and testing practices at the Cesar Chavez School Network.John Covington sent the letter to Commissioner Dwight Jones last week, enclosing clippings from various newspapers regarding the salaries paid to network executives and issues surrounding state achievement tests . . .

. . .Pueblo City Schools charters Cesar Chavez Academy and Dolores Huerta Preparatory High in Pueblo, are under contracts expiring in 2012 and 2014, respectively. The charter school network operates two elementary schools in Colorado Springs and an online program under the Colorado State Charter Institute and plans to open a school in Denver later this year under a charter from Denver Public Schools.News reports, instigated by a growing number of parents and former employees, recently reported on the salaries paid to Chief Executive Officer Lawrence Hernandez, his wife and Chief Operating Officer Annette Hernandez, and Jason Guerrero, the school's chief financial officer.

IRS filings pegged Hernandez’s compensation at more than $261,732, his wife at nearly $135,000 and Guerrero’s pay at just under $248,000.Another story, in the Colorado Springs Independent last week, resurrected cheating allegations dating back to 2005. At that time, according to stories in The Pueblo Chieftain, the school district’s director of assessment charged that answers on Colorado Student Achievement Program tests given at Cesar Chavez Academy had been erased but district officials did not follow up on the charges and the tests were not thrown out. Had they been, the district’s overall scores would have dropped."

I'm not objecting to the scrutiny these schools are getting. I'm not apologizing for any shortcomings, irregularities or misdeeds that such examinations bring to light. I'm fully aware that some charter schools are in deeper trouble than many conventional schools are.

I'm simply asking whether a double standard isn't at work in how this scrutiny is applied. All I'm arguing is that public education would be a lot better off, across the board, if that same level of skepticism -- that same eagerness to highlight deficiencies and problems -- applied to all public schools, equally, not just schools that the public education establishment wants to discredit or destroy.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Shanksville Ultimatum

It would be nice to have a memorial of some kind, somewhere, to the brave passengers and crew of Flight 93. Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the site where the plane came down after passengers led an uprising against hijackers, would seem like the best place to built it. But we do the dead no honors by allowing the U.S. government to seize that land, by threatening the use of eminent domain.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar traveled to Shanksville last week, attempting to negotiate an end to the impasse by meeting with landowners. But the shameful ultimatum he laid down -- sell within a week or we'll use eminent domain -- betrays the ugly truth, that the federal government is bullying Americans off their land, is trampling their property rights, in order to meet some deadline for getting the project finished.

All the folksy charm Salazar can muster doesn't disguise the fact that he's in this case an intimidator, a henchman and a thief. He likes wearing cowboy hats, a prop meant to convince people he's in touch with his rural roots. But I hope he didn't wear one of his white hats to Shanksville. Black would have been more fitting on this occasion.

Reports the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"The order (to sell) came hours after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) met with people who own 500 acres in and around the Shanksville area, where Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, and with victims' relatives eager to see the memorial built in time for the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

"After meeting with the landowners and the Park Service today, I have high hopes that the parties are close to agreement and will be able to reach consensus over the land in the next week so we can keep the memorial on track without using eminent domain," Salazar said. "Only if the parties are not able to reach agreement will we have to use the last resort of eminent domain to acquire land."

Kendra Barkoff, Salazar's spokeswoman, said the deadline was essential to keep the construction on track. He directed National Park Service officials to meet with landowners early next week and report to him by Friday.

The decision by the National Park Service last month to pursue eminent domain touched off fierce criticism in an area where local residents have been deeply involved in efforts to plan the park and establish and staff the temporary memorial at the crash site. Two local members of the Flight 93 Federal Advisory Commission were so angry about the government's seizure plans that they resigned."

Trampling the rights of some Americans in order to "honor" other Americans is ironic, incongruous, and outrageous. It will forever leave a stain on any memorial built there. However welcoming they are to sightseers, locals will long remember the strong-arm tactics used by the federal government to get the property.

Perhaps a small plaque can be placed somewhere near the Flight 93 memorial, noting that this is also the place where America's belief in the sanctity of private property was laid to rest. We could call it the American Property Rights Memorial.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bill Ritter Frags Fort Carson

Bill Ritter flunked the "governorship test" Tuesday, when he signed a bill that bars the state of Colorado from leasing or selling state land for the future expansion of Fort Carson. It shows that he'll never evolve beyond the pupal stage of political development, because he's incapable of making a decision that's politically risky, in a partisan sense, but the right thing to do for the state as a whole. Choosing what's right for the whole over what's smart politically is the ultimate test of governorship, of "statesmanship." It's what separates the bona fide "leader" from the political climber. And Ritter just can't make the transition, as this signature shows.

This won't necessarily cost Ritter the governor's job. Plenty of garden variety politicos can rise through the ranks, if individuals with more integrity, more courage and a bigger vision don't step up to challenge them. But it does open another avenue of attack, and point of contrast, for Republicans in the state, if they can pull it together and take advantage of such missteps.

It's clearly a betrayal of Ritter's Inauguration Day pledge to represent the interests of all Coloradans, not just those who voted for him. And it lends a hollow ring to words he spoke only a few weeks ago, when he was asked about the hand-stenciled signs that have been popping up along I-25, asking "Why does Ritter Hate El Paso County?" "I'll put my attention that I've paid to El Paso County against any governor in my lifetime," Ritter bragged to The Gazette. "Every part of the state matters and counts. And it doesn't matter to me what the vote is."

This signature indicates otherwise, Governor.

I've already explained the political calculus behind Ritter's decision, here and here. No point in repeating myself. But some parts of the state clearly matter more to the governor than others. Paso County is expendable because our voter rolls are heavily Republican and he has little to lose by giving us the shaft. The governor was warned that endorsing this gratuitous slap at the Pentagon could put Fort Carson at risk, by sending anti-military signals back to Washington. The possible repercussions were made clear to him -- here, here and here -- in time to have drawn a veto. But he signed the bill anyway, even as the potential fallout was beginning to be felt.

There's no way to describe this but "reckless." It's something the governor should be reminded of each time he comes to town. And if Republicans can't use this to their advantage, when the next election season rolls around, they really are beyond hope.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, who fought valiantly to keep Fort Carson's options open, has a typically-forceful piece on the subject in today's Denver Post. I recommend reading it -- and filing it away, against the day that Bill Ritter comes calling, asking for our votes.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Test of Resolve

The distant echo you heard one week ago wasn't just a nuclear device being detonated in North Korea. It was the sound of a naive and dangerous policy position toppled from its pedestal, shattering the delusion that America can contain the worldwide proliferation of nuclear arms by letting our own atomic arsenal fall into decline.

Boom goes an international test ban. Boom goes Barack Obama's fantasy of a nuclear-free world. Boom go the arguments against modernizing our own nuclear stockpile. Splat goes the egg on the faces of those who imagined the international arms race would end just because America opted out.

America's adherence to a never-ratified nuclear test ban is predicated on a false hope -- that our declining to test (and to modernize, since the two go hand in hand) would encourage similar restraint among other superpowers and superpower wanna-bes. The no nukes crowd assured us that by setting a good example, and putting our own nuclear program into mothballs, international tensions would ease and fewer nations would covet the ultimate weapon.

But our fine, upstanding example didn't deter North Korea from its nuclear ambitions. It will fail to dissuade Iran from testing, if Israel doesn't strike first. And it's only a matter of time -- as I predicted in this blog months ago -- before a resurgent Russia also returns to testing, as it pursues its own modernization effort.

That leaves America standing there, indignant but impotent, reduced to wagging its finger and delivering pious lectures, hypocritically, about the evils of other nations developing weapons it has had for more than 60 years. These other nations aren't going to sacrifice their national security interests because America will. It was folly to believe they would. A continuation of the nuclear arms race is inevitable. It's time to accept it and begin modernizing our nuclear weapons infrastructure and arsenal.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is moving us in the opposite direction. While North Korea tests, Obama just proposed the de-funding of a program vital to U.S. modernization. His budget canceled the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, leaving the country with an arsenal of aging warheads whose safety and functionality will degrade over time. "The Administration proposes to cancel development of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) -- a new design warhead intended to replace the current inventory of nuclear weapons -- because it is not consistent with Presidential commitments to move towards a nuclear-free world," according to the budget.

Congress cut off funding for the program in fiscal 2009, at the behest of Democrats who understand that modernizing might eventually force a return to testing. Computer simulations can only get you so far when it comes to assuring warhead reliability. And this task becomes vastly more complicated, and problematic, as these very specialized devices age beyond their design life expectancy, as many are. Upgrading the arsenal would almost certainly require more testing, which would upset environmentalists and the nuclear disarmament crowd. They seem adamant about sticking with a test ban, even though events are proving that it isn't working as intended.

The no nukes crowd is bent on a course of disarmament by default; the gradual downsizing of America's arsenal by allowing it to fall into disrepair and decay. This policy is un-stated, naturally, but already well underway, as weapons are being removed from the field not because of treaty obligations, or any strategic plan, but due to uncertainty about their safety and reliability.

Congress shares responsibility for blocking modernization efforts. But Obama need not go along with this folly. Obama's budget also nixed funding for design work on the next generation bomber (which has a certain perverse logic, if you intend to let our nuclear weapons rot in place) and the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository in Nevada, which, although not directly linked to weapons work, brings a halt to the quest for long-term storage of nuclear materials.

All recent presidents have wished for a nuclear-free world. It's as much a part of the job as pardoning the White House turkey just before Thanksgiving. But all recent presidents until Obama also understood that this was a rhetorical exercise, given geopolitical realities. At a time when America should be showing the world resolve, Obama is signaling retreat. At a time when the arms race is back on, America is asleep in the starting blocks, confident that it's long lead in the race guarantees that deterrence will hold. What some Americans don't want to acknowledge is that this is a marathon, not a sprint. And we're still a long way from safely crossing the finish line.