Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Righteous Indignation

This piece by Denver Post Editorial Page Editor Dan Haley captures the anger I feel every time I drive through Colorado's beetle-ravaged forests. Instead of defaulting to the cop-out position, that it's all the fault of climate change, Haley lays the blame where it belongs -- with unsound policy, paralyzed federal land managers and tree-hugging extremists:

"Katrina was a natural disaster followed by gross incompetence. This was gross incompetence that allowed for a natural disaster.

Pine beetles are native and a natural part of the eco-system, and forests need them, and fire, to regenerate. But decades of neglect — of short-sighted politicians foolishly choosing to put out fires later than pay now to create a healthier forest, and of knee-jerk environmentalists opposing every logging proposal — have finally taken root. Our forests may have looked thick and lush, but they were overcrowded and unhealthy.

We began ruining them more than a century ago when we started putting out fires that would otherwise cleanse forests of downed trees, underbrush and dry pine needles. And when well-intentioned yet overzealous tree-huggers made logging a sin a few decades ago, problems only mounted."

I began writing about the forest health crisis in the late 1990s, while at The Washington Times (which I picked up on from an unlikely source: Government Accountability Office reports), but it had been a recognized problem for at least a decade before that, dating back to the Yellowstone infernos of the late 1980s. The great Alston Chase sounded the alarm with his prescient book, "Playing God in Yellowstone," but the alarm went un-heeded.

It became much more obvious in 2002, when the Hayman and other wildfires ignited public awareness. It was widely acknowledged at that point -- before climate change became the default excuse for everything, and a convenient way for federal eco-crats and politicians to evade responsibility -- that there was a significant man-made component to the crisis. Here is a piece I wrote on the subject that year.

But by then, getting ahead of the problem was itself a problem, given the neglect this issue had received at most levels of government. Paralysis and defeatism were plaguing federal land agencies, which largely had lost the ability to actively manage forests, due to a constant barrage of lawsuits and a "public process" that worked to the advantage of professional activists.

Greens prefer non-management to traditional multiple-use management, because the latter translates into timber-cutting, mining, drilling, etc., and reeks to them of the evil profit motive. Quiet and reverent communing with nature is the only legitimate use for public land in their eyes. Cutting out the cancer, when it was still a manageable problem, was opposed, because it opened the door to "logging." That selective "logging" could have actually helped restore forest health was heresy. Better to see the forests die and burn than to give an inch on dogma.

Politicians (like Mark Udall, Ken Salazar and others) slept through most of this history, and only recently awoke from their slumbers, offering responses that are mostly too little, too late. They also share responsibility for this scandalous -- and it is a scandal, arguably criminal is nature, given the vast destruction of public assets involved -- chain of events. Public anger over the Gulf Coast oil spill is understandable, but where's that same righteous indignation, and where are the presidential promises of a little ass-kicking, over a forest health disaster that has been incrementally destroying Western landscapes for more than 20 years, without an adequate federal response?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Called to Meet His Sausage-Maker

They say you shouldn't speak ill of the dead, so I'll keep this brief.

I wish I could say that the King of Pork's passing will leave the U.S. Treasury a bit more secure from congressional plundering, but Sen. Robert Byrd taught his proteges in both parties well. Don't apologize for pigging-out, he taught them -- be damn proud of it.

By helping to turn fiscal vice into political virtue, he made pork-barrel politics not just respectable, but admirable. It's a darker part of his "legacy" that our grandchildren will be paying for.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Why Bother with a Ban?

The economic arguments for licensing, regulating and taxing medical marijuana -- see related news stories here and here -- won't make a dent with prohibitionists. They are on a moral crusade to prevent the corruption of Colorado Springs youth, by pushing medical marijuana back into the shadows. That this will deny medical marijuana patients their constitutional rights, and get the city sued, while doing nothing to curb teen drug use, is of little consequence to them. Crusaders can see no shades of gray.

But those fretting over the prevalence of medical marijuana dispensaries in Colorado Springs need only be patient. Many of these businesses won't be around a year from now. They'll have been killed-off by regulation or competition.

One cause of death comes naturally in a capitalist system, with competition separating the good operators from the bad. Boom almost always leads to bust; that will happen here, too. Too many suppliers chasing a limited number of patients (and it is limited, despite the recent surge in red card applications) will sooner or later thin the herd. I trust in the market to solve many MMJ-related "problems," if given time to operate and evolve. But that requires a degree of patience, and an understanding of markets, that prohibitionists lack.

The second cause of death -- death by regulation -- is more objectionable, in my opinion, because it is government-induced and largely unnecessary. Some reasonable local controls make sense, given the newness and sensitive nature of this industry. But most regulation is excessive and blindly destructive; it's imposed for the ego-gratification of politicians and the job security of regulators. It pretends to "fix" what isn't broken, to protect the public from a phantom menace.

An example of this dynamic at work can be found in this article from the Boulder Camera, which details the struggles that city's dispensaries are having trying to comply with a spate of new regulations imposed by the state.

"Boulder-area providers of medical marijuana are scrambling to comply with new state regulations that require them to grow most of their own pot, keep detailed records of all transactions and apply for state licenses through a process that includes criminal background checks.

The new rules, signed into law by Gov. Bill Ritter earlier this month, are predicted to put at least half of the state's 1,100 medical marijuana dispensaries out of business.

Local dispensary owners agree their numbers soon will be fewer, but each business owner is doing everything possible to be one of the survivors.

"When I look six months down the road, we're either going to be very successful because we made it through this, or we're going to be out of business," said Ryan Hartman, owner of Boulder Wellness Center on Arapahoe Avenue.

The biggest hurdle for Hartman is the requirement that dispensaries grow 70 percent of their own marijuana by Sept. 1. Hartman doesn't have the resources to hire employees right now, and he and his partners -- his wife and another couple -- are working "triple-time" to ramp up what had been a very small growing operation.
The new rules also require that dispensaries -- called "medical marijuana centers" -- have a local license by July 1 and apply for a state license through an as-yet-undetermined process by Aug.

1. The state license requires criminal background checks for all owners, officers and employees and calls for detailed security and record-keeping measures to account for all the marijuana that moves through a center.

"I think ultimately the goal of the legislation is to centralize the industry so it's easier to keep track of and control and tax," said Eric Moutz, a Boulder attorney who specializes in advising clients who work with medical marijuana.

While some of the law's requirements are clear, many of the details still need to be worked out through a state rule-making process that could take most of the year.

"Everything is in a holding pattern until the rules get set," Moutz said. "And those could be crippling or they could be very reasonable."

Colorado Springs dispensaries are in the same boat. Some will sink, others will stay afloat, as they struggle with the dual threat of competition and regulation. The architects of H.B. 1284 said they were out to kill many of these businesses, and they'll undoubtedly succeed. A year from now, the landscape will look much different, whether or not a dispensary ban makes the ballot.

Storefronts now filled will be empty again; landlords will be without tenants; jobs will disappear; city tax revenues will fall. Instead of visible dispensaries, operating openly in designated areas, some providers may go underground. The action will move back into neighborhoods, back behind closed doors. With less competition, and fewer places to purchase their medicine, the costs and inconveniences for patients will soar.

All the dreams of MMJ prohibitionists will be realized, in short, without the need for a divisive ballot battle, or the legal battle that will follow. And all they have to do is be patient, trust in the free market and let business-killing regulations take their toll. Banning businesses outright isn't really necessary in the United States. We have plenty of other ways to drive them under -- to strangle opportunity and entrepreneurship and cripple our local and national economy -- without the need for such extreme measures. All we need to do is the usual thing and these businesses will also disappear.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

American Oligarch

New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov didn't become a billionaire on the up-and-up, in a strictly capitalist system, as this piece in the New York Times points out. Like other Russian "oligarchs," he made his money the post-Soviet way, by manipulating a corrupt "system" from the inside to line his pockets. The way he made his fortune wouldn't be legal in the United States, as the story points out. Oligarchs reaped unfair advantage from a too-cozy relationship with government.

The troubling irony in his continuing "success story," as the foreign owner of an American professional sports team, is how adroitly he worked the "system" in New York City to similar advantage. Prokhorov has plenty of cash with which to hire top coaches and talent -- no objection there -- but he will also profit from taxpayer funding of his new arena in Brooklyn. Other government help for Prokhorov "includes eminent domain, major subsidies, a naming-rights giveaway and bad, undemocratic urban planning," reports The Times.

Prokhorov is working the system in New York City the same way he worked the system in the former Soviet Union, by using public resources and government power to get his way and enrich himself. That the two systems are so similar, and similarly corrupt, should be deeply troubling to Americans.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Is Ken Salazar Trying to Soak Colorado Springs?

Gazette Editorial Page Editor Wayne Laugesen must be a very alert reader. One would have to be in order to pick out this paragraph, buried near the end of a long Pueblo Chieftain story, for special attention:

"Collins explained that federal laws give Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar broad concessions to set rates, and did not attempt to argue the basis with the Colorado Springs team."

The passage jumped out at me, too, because it at least hinted, if not strongly suggested, that Inferior Secretary Ken Salazar had some direct involvement in the exorbitant, some might say extortive, rates the Bureau of Reclamation wants to charge Colorado Springs for storing water in Pueblo Reservoir, which is part of a water project local taxpayers heavily bankroll. I appreciate Laugesen's effort to drill a little deeper (so to speak) into this potentially-troubling possibility.

Having a Coloradan as inferior secretary should be a help, not a hindrance, to the folks back home. If Salazar is trying to soak Colorado Springs for using the reservoir, while other users, like Pueblo, enjoy discount rates, we need to know about it.

Salazar's muppet denies the secretary is so intimately involved in such decisions, and denies, as well, that Salazar has any anti-Colorado Springs bias . . .

“The secretary has had no involvement in the development of the rate proposal,” Interior spokesman Daniel DuBray wrote in an e-mail. “The Secretary has delegated this authority to the Bureau of Reclamation. The federal negotiating team, led by Mr. Michael Collins of the Bureau of Reclamation, developed the proposed rates for storage, conveyance, and exchange of non-federal water within the federally-owned facilities of the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Fryingpan-Arkansas Project.”

DuBray denied that his boss sides with Pueblo to spite Colorado Springs.

“It has been Secretary Salazar, more than any other elected or public official in recent memory, who has tried over the years to bring Pueblo and Colorado Springs together to work cooperatively on water issues,” DuBray wrote.

. . . but I find it extremely hard to believe that the bureau is making such significant decisions in the secretary's home state without implicit or explicit approval from Salazar. And the fact is that Salazar sometimes has been a divider, not a uniter, in the Pueblo-Colorado Springs water feud. As senator, Salazar did seem to walk a middle ground, at least publicly. But before that, while serving as attorney general, he played a much more divisive role. It was AG Salazar who urged Pueblo County and other SDS obstructionists down south to use so-called 1041 regulations to delay or derail the project. And Pueblo County made the most of such advice.

Obstructionists have used this and whatever other levers they have to shakedown Colorado Springs for various "concessions" (it's Colorado Springs' water, for instance, that helps keep a kayaking course in downtown Pueblo frothy), driving up the price tag on an already-costly project. So this would be the latest, but perhaps most outrageous, of numerous shakedowns Colorado Springs has endured while simply trying to run a pipe north from Pueblo Reservoir. We have tried to be good neighbors. But some of our "neighbors," in Pueblo and points south, aren't content to borrow a cup of sugar, but seem to want a pound of flesh. At some point we need to fight back.

That's all water over the dam, perhaps, but it's important to remember that Ken Salazar and his brother, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, have always been more closely aligned with Democrat-leaning Pueblo than with Republican-voting Colorado Springs. The anti-Springs bias of brother John (who serves on the House Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, which puts him in a strong position to influence bureau decisions) is overt. But Ken, when he was senator, needed to appear more even-handed.

Michael Collins could have said that federal law gives the bureau broad latitude to set such rates, but he specifically used Salazar's name, which raises suspicions that the inferior secretary is more deeply involved than his muppet lets on. That suspicion grows when the bureau can offer no clear and coherent explanation for how it determined that this city should pay $50 per acre foot of stored water, when Pueblo pays about $22 per acre foot. The missing methodology makes the charge appear arbitrary and capricious -- almost as if the number were pulled from a hat, by someone very high up the federal food chain.

This particular food chain, if you follow it to the top, stops with Ken Salazar.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Talking Trash

Colorado Springs has heard a lot of trash talk from certain Denverites about our choice of budget cuts, but at least we can still get the garbage collected when things get tight. Unlike Denver, and a lot of supposedly-"progressive" cities, we have embraced a groundbreaking innovation called "private garbage collection" -- a system that's reliable, affordable and frees residents from the threat of garbage strikes or service cuts when a contract expires or the money runs low.

Believe it or not, you don't need government, or government workers, to pick up garbage and transport it to the dump. Turns out that there are very reliable private companies that will provide this service, at very competitive rates, if the government simply declines to get into the business. Makes you wonder what other "government functions" could be performed by the competitive sector, if the government didn't insist on doing everything.

Not that I'm gloating or anything. It's just a reminder that not everything we do in Colorado Springs is backward or wrong. In point of fact, we do a lot of things the right way, despite all the trash talking we sometimes hear from misinformed outsiders.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Arlington's "Gravegate" Scandal Could Have Been Averted

Watching Washington for any significant length of time is bound to evoke feelings of deja vu. Not only do the political debates run in monotonous cycles, creating a sense of "haven't we done this before," but reports of federal malfeasance resurface with depressing regularity, showing how little really changes in Washington despite repeated calls for reform.

I had that deja vu feeling all over again last week, when reading stories and commentary about the disgraceful situation at Arlington National Cemetery, some of the most hallowed ground under federal management. They eerily echo a piece I wrote back in 1998 -- more than a dozen years ago -- for Insight Magazine, highlighting racial tensions and management problems at Arlington.

Really stunning is that the more recent revelations and critiques focus on cemetery Superintendent John Metzler, who has just been reprimanded and demoted over mixups involving graves. But Metzler was in charge at Arlington back in 1998, when I was blowing the whistle -- meaning that he's kept his job despite a long and documented history of management problems at the cemetery. And the problems predated my piece by years.

Here's a snippet of what I wrote back then:

"Behind its tidy white rows of headstones, impeccably manicured spaces and outward tranquility, Arlington, or ANC, is the site of bureaucratic bickering, mismanagement, morale problems and racial tensions, according to Army inspector general "climate assessments" conducted last year. "The atmosphere of turmoil, distrust, mismanagement and poor employee morale has continued [from the early 1990s] to the present," according to a Freedom of Information Act-exempt summary of the reports. "There is an overwhelming sense of frustration among employees and the senior leadership at ANC."

Fairly or not, the memo lays much of the blame for ANC's morale and management malaise on the "autocratic management style" of cemetery superintendent John Metzler, and suggests that little improvement is expected during his tenure. "There is no indication that the superintendent will ever change," the memo states, "and employees have lost confidence in his leadership ability."

It was long ago known that Metzler was a major screw-up, who shouldn't have been entrusted with managing this sacred ground, much less with managing a McDonald's. Yet he somehow kept his job, up to the present day, and all he's receiving for years of "autocratic" incompetence is a slap on the wrist. Metzler will be allowed to retire with dignity on July 2. He should have been fired years ago.

A reprimand posted Friday chastises Metzler for his "dysfunctional relationship" with deputy Thurman Higginbotham, who shares some of the blame for gravegate. But that dysfunctional relationship had been a problem for more than a decade. Higginbotham was on staff, and feuding with Metzler, back when I wrote about the cemetery:

"Group-sensing sessions" conducted at the cemetery last year found that a communication breakdown had occurred between ANC employees and management, and additional tensions exist between Metzler and his deputy, Thurman Higgenbotham. The (inspector general) bemoaned the lack of "team leadership," "sharing and consideration of others" and "unified direction" resulting from the rifts. The IG also found that the "dissension and discord" between the top two leaders "has a significant impact on the overall efficiency of the day-to-day operations of ANC."

This, recall, was back in the late 1990s.

What a depressing testimony to the entrenched incompetence at the federal level. What an insult to the heroes who are buried and honored at Arlington. What a black mark on the Pentagon for not cleaning up the situation more than a decade ago, when these problems first came to light (with the helping hand from Yours Truly). The scandal within the scandal is that some of the more recent disgraces might have been prevented, had the early warning signs not been ignored.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Hit the Road, Helen

The forced retirement of Helen Thomas, so-called "dean of the White House press corps," was about 20 or 30 years overdue, in my opinion. The daffy old crone has been making a fool of herself for at least that long, maybe longer, by badgering presidents and presidential press secretaries with all sorts of stupid, slanted, irrelevant questions. But she was tolerated, even venerated by colleagues, as long as the silliness came with a left-leaning spin. Only after Israel became the target of her barbs did press corps colleagues finally decide that she'd gone too far -- which only serves to confirm the political bias that's so deeply ingrained in the biz.

Enjoy your retirement, old war horse. I know I will.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Frosted Flakes at the FTC

I feel much, much safer eating breakfast this morning, knowing that the serial regulators at the FTC are going after the rogue cereal makers at Kellogg.

Who knew that such dangers lurked in a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats?

And all these years I thought Tony the Tiger was a stand-up guy.

The Miracle Worker

Some Americans may choose to vest their presidents with god-like powers. But the gulf spill reminds us that they aren't gods -- not even close -- and that's not such a bad thing, in my book.

The president-as-miracle-worker cult is out in force, demanding that Barack Obama single-handedly cap a deep water oil gusher, prevent the discharge from making landfall and scrub those oil-soaked pelicans clean -- all while defusing Mideast tensions and turning around the economy. He won't even need a helicopter to inspect the disaster site; he can just walk there on water.

But truth is, Obama and the vast federal machinery at his disposal are largely powerless to step in and stop the disaster, posture as he might about being in charge. If engineers at one of the top oil companies in the world can't fashion a fix, what makes Americans believe that some desk-riding paper-shuffler at the Department of Energy or Department of Interior can do so? Calls have been heard for Obama to take over the operation from BP, as if Washington has a fleet of oil gusher-fighting submersibles standing at the ready, which can dive down there on a day's notice and get the situation squared away, no fuss no muss. That's all a pipe dream.

The non-military part of the federal government doesn't actually do much of anything, except get in the way of, and exercise authority over, the actual doers. The bureaucrats can issue a deep water oil lease, or (in most cases) not issue one, but the incredible skills and engineering it takes to extract oil from the ocean floor is a feat that only people in the private sector -- only The Doers -- have the skills and know-how to perform.

Do The Doers perform flawlessly? Obviously not. They are human too. But without The Doers, where would the country be? All the federal overseers can do is stand around, like sidewalk supervisors, acting official and further complicating an already complex endeavor.

Americans who imagine anything different -- Americans who place their faith in the all-powerful president and the competent federal official -- have seen too many action flicks and TV shows.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Indelible Ink

I sometimes stop to wonder what the founders would think of the United States today, were they granted the power to travel through time. Some would no doubt be shocked at the madhouse it's become, and regret parenting such a wayward progeny. But they might also be amazed, and perhaps even pleased, that the U.S. Constitution remains as relevant and in-the-news now as it was back then.

Take, for example, this recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, which poses the question of whether inking tattoos is a constitutionally-protected form of free speech -- and, by extension, whether one town's ban on tattoo parlors tramples the First Amendment. It's hard to imagine where Jefferson or Madison would stand on this admittedly odd question (assuming they weren't enraged by the trivialization of such momentous issues). I imagine that zoning laws and tattoo parlors would be alien (and probably abhorrent) concepts to both of them. But they might be amazed to find that they're still a party to the debate.

While it's probably true that their "original intent" has been twisted and distorted into something they wouldn't recognize, or approve, the mere fact that we're still trying to settle such disputes by consulting the Constitution, several centuries later, shows that it continues to function as a beacon and guidepost, despite the passage of time -- and the fog that we're stumbling through.

We've obviously gone a little crazy. But how much crazier would things be if we didn't have the indelible ink on The Constitution as a touchstone?