Friday, May 28, 2010

Rand Rising

The rise from obscurity of Rand Paul has the media in full frenzy, attempting to understand and explain what it all means. Problem is that there aren't many libertarians in American newsrooms, and any who are there are still in the closet, so you have reporters and pundits trying to explain something they either don't understand or view with hostility. Most of the coverage, not surprisingly, has been simplistic, snide or stupid. But in culling through items to post on LLO's news aggregators, I picked out a few pieces that make worthwhile reading.

There's a little of that liberal media bias, but not too much, in this Time Magazine piece about how the Pauls (Rand and father Ron) are shaking up the political scene. Newsweek offers a surprisingly refreshing take on the subject, by asking whether Rand Paul's ideas are any more wacky or outlandish than the left-wing dogmas that dominate in Washington -- which is a very good question, since we have ample proof that left-wing ideas don't work.

But most recommended is this Politico piece by the Cato Institute's Bob Levy, which not only puts Rand Paul's controversial statements on the Civil Rights Act into context, explaining why his position is more defensible than critics allow, but also offers a nice precis on what libertarianism really is, and isn't, for people who aren't sure.

Here's the section that deals with libertarianism, as a philosophy:

"Of course, the media have used Paul’s forthright if impolitic pronouncement (on the Civil Right Act) as an occasion to disparage his libertarian — that is, classic liberal — philosophy. Not surprisingly, critics either do not understand or willfully distort basic libertarian principles. For starters, libertarians are proponents of limited government. We are not anarchists.

My colleague David Boaz sums it up nicely: “A government is a set of institutions through which we adjudicate our disputes, defend our rights and provide for certain common needs. ... What we want is a limited government that attends to its necessary and proper functions. “Libertarians support limited, constitutional government — limited not just in size but, of far greater importance, in the scope of its powers.”

Ideally, government’s role is to foster an environment in which individuals can pursue happiness in any manner they please — provided they do not impede other individuals’ rights to do the same. Regrettably, government does much more — and much less — than create a congenial civil environment. It burdens transactors with confiscatory taxes, favors politically connected special interests, coerces parties to engage in unwanted transactions, transfers assets and incomes without consent from one party to another and depletes our financial and human resources by undertaking foreign interventions that bear little relation to America’s vital interests. Those are the excesses of government that libertarians struggle to rein in. In addition, and perhaps least understood, a vital aspect of personal liberty is the freedom not to participate. In that regard, libertarianism is the antithesis of collectivism.

Anyone who prefers a social order that sacrifices individual liberty to attain equal outcomes is free to leave my libertarian world and form the collectivist society he favors. But he may not compel me to join. Libertarianism does not foreclose collectivist arrangements as long as participation in those arrangements is voluntary. By contrast, collectivists will not endorse libertarian enclaves within a collectivist system. Just try refusing to support the welfare state. People who believe a deregulated free market leaves us worse off can create a hyper-regulated marketplace, shackled by government to their heart’s content. They would not extend the same opt-out choice to me.

The essence of collectivism is force. The essence of libertarianism is choice."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

All the Right Enemies

I was surprised (but not displeased) to see a "Richard Pombo for Congress" ad in today's online version of The Colorado Springs Gazette. We're a long way from California's 19th District, where Pombo is running, and readers may wonder who he is and why they should care about this race.

More about who he is can be found at his campaign website. Why his candidacy matters to out-of-state voters is explained in the recent Wall Street Journal column republished on the site (reading the original requires a subscription). The Reader's Digest condensation is this: Gang green hates Pombo because he is a stalwart defender of property rights and was an effective counterweight to their extreme agenda when he previously served in Congress. He fought abuses and misuses of the Endangered Species Act. He fought for economic freedom and regulatory reform, and against the encroachment of the federal government.

The Big Green Machine mustered all its might (and all its smear tactics) to knock him out of Congress once; it badly wants to keep him from getting in again. Isn't that reason enough to learn more about Richard Pombo? He must have been doing something right if so many wrong-headed people want to keep him out of Congress.

Some congressional races take on national significance. This may be one of them.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Chimp vs. Chumps

I've given up on the reliability of hurricane forecasts done annually by the federal government. This year I'm looking to a more reliable source -- a dice-rolling chimp named Dr. James Hansimian. Here's a link to Dr. Hansimian's Hurricane Forecast Center, which isn't underwritten by the government but which just as well could be, given the shoddy, politically-tainted "science" so many federally-funded centers crank out.

Can Hansimian out-forecast the supposed know-it-alls at NOAA?

My money's on the chimp.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Salazar a Flop as Mr. Fix-It

I wasn't keen on Ken Salazar when he represented Colorado in the U.S. Senate. His centrism was a contrivance and media-generated myth, in my opinion -- about as convincing as the cowboy hat he wears as a folksy prop. But his stock has fallen even more with me since he became Interior Secretary. Two recent actions illustrate why.

First, in a demonstration that he's become a consummate Washingtonian, Salazar "reformed" one troubled federal bureaucracy (the Minerals Management Service) by breaking it into 3 baby bureaucracies -- as if a change of logos and letterhead constitutes a meaningful fix. Federal agencies routinely undergo such re-naming rituals in an effort to scrub away the stain of scandal, failure or irrelevance. I can't think of one such reinvention that resulted in any real transformation.

One classic example of this was the Rural Electrification Administration, a New Deal creation with a laudable mission that should have shut down years ago, declaring "mission accomplished," but which lives on today as the Rural Utilities Service. The change was made in 1994, when the original name had become such a laughably obvious anachronism.

Even more disingenuous is Salazar's plan to reduce the number of energy leasing disputes by preemptively capitulating to the zero-drilling lobby. By declining to put thousands of potential leases up for bid, and removing huge new swaths of federal land from responsible energy development, and smothering the process under a new blanket of pre-lease "reviews," Salazar will succeed in quelling controversy and reducing legal challenges. Fewer leases, fewer protests, after all. But he'll also succeed in creating energy scarcity, driving up costs, heaping a new burden on the staggering U.S. economy and increasing U.S. reliance on energy imports.

Instituting these sweeping new changes with no real public process or congressional buy-in already has one state (Utah) threatening legal action. So much for reducing contentiousness and court battles.

A high price will eventually be paid for these Washington-style "fixes" and short-sighted policy changes: the seeds of the next energy crisis are being sown by Salazar today. It almost makes me wish Salazar were still in the Senate, where the damage he could do was limited to voting the wrong way, not doing the wrong things.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

When the Cheering Stops

The German word "zeitgeist" translates as "spirit of the times" or "spirit of the age." But the "spirit of the times" in contemporary America might more accurately be called its "frightgeist," given the state of permanent anxiety in which so many of us seem to live.

We lurch from "crisis" to "crisis," in a reactionary mode, applying a patchwork of policy prescriptions as we go. Then we wonder why we have no coherent energy policy, no coherent foreign policy, no coherent public lands policy, no coherent policy, period.

The Crisis of the Day, according to this MSNBC report, is reckless, risky, completely un-regulated cheerleading -- the kind of cheerleading that has left a swath of heartache and carnage in its wake. And as so often happens, once a sense of crisis is generated, the thinking of some Americans reflexively turns to a government response. The story comes complete with a poll, in fact, which poses the inevitable question: "Should cheerleading be more tightly regulated?"

This being MSNBC -- a cable network that caters to a left-leaning audience -- the poll results as of 2:00 pm today were as follows:

93.1% said "yes,"cheerleading should be more tightly regulated;

6.3% said "no" -- indicating that they must have gotten lost on their way to Fox News;

And 0.7 percent weren't sure what to think -- meaning they must be Keith Olbermann fans.

With poll results like this, how long before pandering politicos will be introducing bills, and government regulators will be making "rules," designed to safeguard our young people from the scourge of cheerleading-related injuries and hazards? Only a matter of days or weeks, if experience is any guide. Manufacturing and sustaining a sense of crisis --irrespective of whether a crisis exists -- is the necessary prerequisite to the expansion of government power. And this is how government grows, step by step, "crisis" by "crisis," into the monster it is today.

Friday, May 14, 2010

"No" News is Good News

I’m not sure why this non-event generated so much coverage and commentary in Colorado Spring, but since it has, let me make a few points.

The headline in the Gazette might lead casual readers to conclude that Uncle Sam placed a bucket of gold on the city’s doorstep and it was rudely rejected. That’s not the case. We simply decided not to send a form letter, at the urging of a left-leaning municipal league, asking U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn to support a bill that might, at some future date, trickle some federal “job creation” money into the city, if we grovel hard enough, if we are lucky and if we want to live with the strings that always come attached. The chance that this bill will pass, and that the money will ever flow to this city, and that it would do this city any lasting good, is so small and hypothetical that it barely deserves mention – much less the headline coverage it received.

The proposed bill hasn't passed. It may not pass. No money has been appropriated -- and any money that might be appropriated is borrowed money, which will have to be funded with more debt, or with printed money, which will eventually contribute to explosive inflation. One letter from this city to Doug Lamborn will have zero impact on whether the bill passes, how the proposed program will work, what levels of funding it will receive and whether this city would ever receive a dollar of it. It's all pie-in-the-sky, in short. You can't turn down something that doesn't exist. There are better uses of staff time than lobbying on behalf of The National League of Cities.

But even if such a program, and such a pot of gold, existed, there are plenty of reasons to be wary. Temporary infusions of federal money won't result in sustainable solutions, because the funding will eventually go away, leaving the city with an obligation it can't afford. Uncle Sam is a pusher, who gets the addict hooked on a habit he can't pay for.

FREX offers a good case in point. The commuter bus service began as a federal "demonstration" project -- which demonstrated that people will take a heavily-subsidized ride to work if it's offered to them. But when the federal funds ran out, the city was left to fund a service that couldn't operate on a sustainable basis and was draining precious resources from our core bus routes. FREX is today running on borrowed time -- time borrowed by cannibalizing and selling off the fleet. It was an expensive diversion from the city's real transit priorities, which began with an offer of federal "help." Sometimes, it's better to say "no" to such offers -- that's the lesson of FREX and a hundred other federal programs. If you don't want to become an addict, you have to turn your back on the pusher.

Virtually all federal money is earmarked for certain purposes, and comes with conditions attached. The city can't just take federal money designated for "job creation," for instance, and use it to water city parks or fill potholes or keep community centers open. Because of that lack of flexibility, the utility of such funds is limited. As in the case of FREX, if we hire additional city personnel based on a temporary funding stream, those jobs may have to go away when the funding stops. You gain no long-term benefit and assume obligations you can't sustain. This is what happened with Bill Clinton's Community Oriented Policing program, which I covered as a reporter. Some local police departments used the windfall to put a few more cops on the street (the 100,000 figure touted by Clinton was a lie, to put it bluntly), temporarily. But many of those cops were hitting the streets with pink slips a few years later, when the funding ran out.

The federal government has killed far more jobs than it ever “created.” It should focus its efforts on killing fewer, leaving job “creation” to the competitive sector. Every job “created” with a federal dollar is paid for by removing that dollar from our pockets, or from the private sector, where the real jobs are created. Maybe if we stop asking so much of Washington, it will stop taking so much from us. Until we as citizens (and cities) recognize that this is all just a shell game, in which government “gives” us something that it actually takes from us through its taxing power, we’ll never get a handle on runaway federal deficits and debt.

The best way to create real local jobs, and to stimulate the economy, is for Washington to stop carrying so much local money off to the U.S. Treasury, where it is re-distributed according to a political spoils system. Until Americans start saying “no thanks” to gifts from Washington, Washington has tacit permission to fund its gift-giving sprees at our expense.

This was one small (largely symbolic, admittedly) step in the right direction. It's a revealing sign of the times that politely saying "no" to Washington becomes news.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Driven Off The Deep End

Deep offshore oil drilling is far more dangerous than on-shore drilling, as has now become obvious. It's easier to contain a spill on land than to cap a blowout that takes place a mile below the ocean surface. But that's where oil companies are forced to go, given the barriers to domestic drilling that exist almost everywhere else.

Even Wyoming, which is more receptive to energy development than most states, has seen a significant recent slowdown in activity -- a slowdown not just due to the swooning economy, but due to the obstructionist tactics of federal bureaucrats and zero-drilling zealots.

Why are energy companies drilling so far offshore?

Because this is what they typically face when drilling on shore:

Backlog of protested Wyo leases persists at BLM

CHEYENNE -- Environmental protests, uncertainty over endangered species and a change in presidential administrations have bogged down oil and gas leasing in Wyoming.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has issued just 51 of nearly 1,200 oil and gas leases sold at its 11 lease auctions since June 2008.

The backlog prompted Gov. Dave Freudenthal to "implore" Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a fellow Democrat, to act in a January letter. Yet the backlog is likely to grow when the BLM holds its next lease auction today.

Of the 85 leases the BLM plans to offer at the regular sale in Cheyenne, environmental groups are protesting 62. If previous auctions are any indication, that means at least 62 more leases in limbo -- none of the 51 leases recently issued was protested.

Environmental groups have protested 1,297 of 1,351, or 96 percent, of leases offered from the June 2008 sale through the upcoming sale, BLM documents show.

"No wonder companies are taking their money and investing in other states that have private land, where they don't have to deal with this bureaucracy and politics," said Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

Oil and gas leasing in Wyoming provides a significant share of the nation's energy. The state in 2008 ranked second among states for natural gas production, providing more than 10 percent of the U.S. total, and ranked seventh for oil production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Environmentalists defend the protests as necessary to protect Wyoming's wildlife and cherished vistas. They expressed doubt that the protests are slowing down drilling.
"The oil industry has enough leases in its pocket now to drill for decades. So the idea that somehow a scarcity of oil and gas leases is holding up energy production is laughable," said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

Not only are companies unable to drill on leases they've bought, the state and federal governments haven't had access to the $50 million companies have paid.
Half of the money would go to the state and half to the federal government. Both are having budget trouble, yet the money has been piling up in an escrow account pending a BLM decision on whether to issue the leases.

"I implore your immediate attention to these unissued leases," Freudenthal wrote Salazar on Jan. 8. "Some would say that the oil and gas industry is getting what it deserves. But this is much too serious an issue for such pettiness."

A reply letter from Assistant Interior Secretary Wilma Lewis said the leasing process is "broken" and the department is working on a way to "restore needed balance."

Salazar spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff did not respond to a request for comment.

Julie Weaver, the BLM's head of oil and gas leasing in Wyoming, said she expects the backlog to end soon, especially now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in March that it would not list sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species. Most of Wyoming, including its best oil and gas fields, is sage grouse habitat.

Even so, Fish and Wildlife determined that protection for sage grouse is warranted, just precluded by higher priorities. That didn't exactly open the gate for leases.
"We had to go back and re-evaluate everything to make sure that we are complying with the Fish and Wildlife decision to warrant that animal," Weaver said.
The BLM auctions offer oil and gas leases every other month in Cheyenne. Environmental groups began stepping up protests against the leases a couple years ago.

Groups have protested not just leases in sage grouse habitat but leases they said could affect a wide range of wildlife -- prairie dogs, raptors, big game migration corridors and fish. Some protests have focused on climate change.

"We must address a protest before we can issue a lease," Weaver said. "And we have protests on every sale, different parcels in every sale, that we're trying to resolve."

She also said the change in presidential administrations has required the BLM state office in Cheyenne to adjust to new policies.

On Thursday, environmental groups stepped up pressure on the BLM by suing over the BLM's plan for oil and gas development in southern Wyoming. The area includes Adobe Town, a "wilderness quality" badlands where the groups say the BLM has approved five drilling permits.

The groups, represented by the Natural Resources Defense Council, include the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, which by itself or with others has protested more than 90 percent of leases offered over the past two years. Other plaintiffs include the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which has protested leases offered at every sale over the past two years.
Wyoming Outdoor Council attorney Bruce Pendery said his group used to be one of the few that would protest oil and gas leases in Wyoming. Now, he said, a range of groups have been protesting leases.

"To me, what that speaks to is that there was this massive effort to increase oil and gas leasing during the Bush administration," Pendery said. "Because of that massive effort to increase leasing, there was an equally massive response."

Other groups that have been protesting leases include the National Audubon Society, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited, Center for Native Ecosystems and Wyoming Wildlife Federation. Sometimes the groups object to just a handful of leases.
Other times, it's every lease offered at a sale, as the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance has done eight times in the past two years.

"Our goal here is to get results on the ground for wildlife and for special landscapes," Molvar said. "Not to prevent the oil and gas industry from gaining access to oil and gas leases."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The George Orwell Film Festival

The EPA recently announced a contest -- the "Rulemaking Matters Video Contest" -- asking Americans to submit videos extolling the virtues of the regulatory superstate. It's a fun, creative way to show how grateful we all are for the blessings bestowed on us by Big Government.

Here's the actual press release, in case you think I'm joking. And because it's the EPA, don't forget to carefully follow all the rules. Naturally, there will be a form or two to fill out. The EPA prefers that you use the term "rulemaking," instead of "regulating" -- the latter carries such negative connotations with some folks. Finally, please be sure that no plants or animals are harmed, or noxious chemicals released into the environment, during the making of your video: You don't want to end up on the bad side of the EPA. The winner will walk away with $2,500 in prize money (before taxes, of course, since all this "protection" doesn't come cheap).

My fun-loving former colleagues at the Competitive Enterprise Institute have entered the contest, with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek short called "A Day in the Life of the The Regulatory State." Find it on YouTube by following this link. Somehow, I don't think it will win top prize. But I found it entertaining.

A Revolution in Reverse

Does anyone else see irony in the news that Concord, Massachusetts -- a town so closely associated with America's first fight for freedom -- has approved an ordinance banning the sale of bottled water?

Is it me, or does the American Revolution seem to be moving in reverse?

Moving Target

Ever wonder why there are so few endangered species success stories? Could it be because federal agencies and green groups keep moving the goal posts on what constitutes species recovery?

The federal wolf reintroduction program offers a good case in point.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Imperial Educrat

Does a U.S. Secretary of Education really need a siren-wailing motorcade to clear away the rabble as he rushes to a media interview in Washington, D.C.? That's the first of many indicators in this New York Times profile that the man in charge at the department, Obama basketball buddy Arne Duncan, might be a little out of control, a little too intoxicated with a sense of power and self-importance. And that, as the story indicates, means he poses an unprecedented threat to the independence of local schools.

"Mr. Duncan is a man in a hurry. He has far more money to dole out than any previous secretary of education, and he is using it in ways that extend the federal government’s reach into virtually every area of education, from pre-kindergarten to college.

“This is the most assertive secretary of education we’ve ever had,” said Carl Kaestle, an education historian at Brown University who has studied the federal role in 20th-century American schooling.

Mr. Duncan has run a $4 billion school-improvement competition that led many states to change education laws to reflect his prescriptions. This month, the department is distributing $3.5 billion for the overhaul of thousands of failing schools. Mr. Duncan has been shuttling frequently to Capitol Hill to outline plans for a rewriting of the main federal law on public schools.

In March, Congress terminated a huge, bank-based college loan program, replacing it with one run out of the Education Department, and redirecting $36 billion in bank subsidies into Pell grants for low-income students.

Now the administration has begun writing rules to ensure that students will not assume burdensome tuition debt for career training that is unlikely to land them well-paying jobs.

“This administration’s education vision is a very activist, expansive role for the federal government,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, who has watched education policies evolve in Washington for nearly 30 years. “We’re never going to be like France, where the education minister can look at his watch and tell you what every fourth grader is doing. But inevitably, with more federal education initiatives, more federal money, comes more strings, more federal control.”

Not everything Duncan has done as Ed-Sec is bad; in fact, on many issues, he convincingly mouths the rhetoric of a reformer. And federal encroachment into the formerly-off limits realm of local public schools really got a boost from Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, with No Child Left Behind. But even a self-styled reformer is something to be wary of if his goal is total federal hegemony over local schools -- since such powers, once granted, are unlikely ever to be rolled back.

We've heard warnings for years about the rise of the "Imperial President." In Barack Obama, this idea takes on its most tangible form yet. Maybe, in Duncan, we have our first "Imperial Educrat."