Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Heaven Help Us

I think NIMBYism has gone too far when the target of the naysaying moves beyond landfills and nuclear waste dumps, to focus on . . . monasteries. Yes, monasteries. The kind that have monks.

"To maintain their seclusion, the monks have their eyes on a 2,500-acre ranch about 50 miles away in a rugged area with creeks fed by looming mountains. The area has few roads, a few widely dispersed ranch homes, a few scattered oil and gas wells. The ranch is about 14 miles from the nearest public road, and the nearest town, 20 miles away, is Meeteetse, population about 350, that is most famous for the arrest of outlaw Butch Cassidy in 1894.

They plan to build a monastery mainly of stone with 30 separate hermitages for monks, a small dormitory for men in training to become monks, a commons area and a church spire rising the equivalent of 15 stories.

Ranch owner Dave Grabbert, whose family has held the property since 1938, has agreed to sell to the religious order, and he describes the two monks he has met as personable, intelligent and "just decent guys."

"I don't care if they're Hindus, Buddhists or what they are, but being decent people, that's really a plus in this day and age," Grabbert said. "Not everyone is."

Some of his neighbors object to the sale, citing concerns about traffic, wildlife, water -- and questioning whether the massive stone structure fits with the rural landscape.

"The plans look like someone took an old cathedral and just dropped it onto our beautiful landscape," Mary Elliott, who lives about 15 miles from the site, wrote to the Planning and Zoning Commission. She noted the religious order wouldn't be paying property taxes.

"As their contribution to this community will be prayer rather than property taxes the town will take a large loss on the currently paid property taxes," Elliott wrote. "As for prayer, I am sure we are all grateful for that but are capable of doing that ourselves."

Heaven help the country that has lost its mind.

Not to mention its soul.

P.S. An editorial writer at The Casper Star Tribune apparently had the same reaction to this story as I did, resulting in this well-deserved scolding.

Obama's War on Summer Vacation

Wreck the economy, if you must. Spend us into oblivion. Lead a federal takeover of health care. Drag us deeper into the quagmire called Afghanistan.

But you go too far, Mr. President, when you begin messing with summer vacation!

Obama's just lucky school kids don't vote.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Two Legends at Work

I've never been a big baseball fan, but I do appreciate fine writing. This 1960 New Yorker piece by the great John Updike, rediscovered this morning while reading the Sunday New York Times, almost made me love baseball. Updike is to writing what Ted Williams was to baseball -- the master craftsman. Read it and be awed.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Federal Railroad

It seems that Amtrak isn't the only federal railroad Americans have to worry about.

A Colorado man faces a possible life sentence for engaging in an activity he believed was legal under state law -- growing medicinal marijuana in his Denver-area home -- yet a federal judge ruled yesterday, at the urging of federal prosecutors, that Christopher Bartkowicz is barred from using that as a legal defense. That means that anyone in Colorado who the feds want to charge with drug violations they can charge with drug violations, and that the rules of the game will be rigged in the prosecution's favor. Jurors won't get to hear a compelling and plausible explanation for why Coloradans are using or cultivating medical marijuana -- because it's permitted by our state Constitution. Bartkowicz may go to prison, possibly for life, without having an opportunity to explain and defend his actions, in a proceeding that seems more like kangaroo court, or a Stalinist show trial, than something one associates with the American justice system.

This has become more than just a case about medical marijuana. It's now about whether "equal protection under the law" means anything when state law comes into conflict with federal law -- and whether arrogant federal prosecutors and judges can rig the outcome in their favor.

Read more about the Bartkowicz case in yesterday's column by the Denver Post's Vince Carroll, who is no fan of medical marijuana yet nonetheless understands the injustice being done.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Trojan Cat

Diabetics beware: reading this editorial in today's Denver Post could have you reaching for the insulin.

Not sure what it is about endangered species that leads to the suspension of all skepticism among journalists. Hand them a pretty picture of a "majestic" Canada lynx running free in Colorado and they go weak in the knees. Then all we hear from these supposedly hard-bitten cynics is goo-goos and ga-gas. Not once in this 500-word gusher do the larger implications of lynx reintroduction get a mention, though the cats already are having significant adverse impacts on how public lands are managed in Colorado.

The reintroduction is a success story, of sorts, if you ignore the fact that Canada lynx are, technically-speaking, an invasive species (much like the gray wolves released in the Northern Rockies are invasive), along with the fact that Colorado marked the southernmost boundary of their historic habitat, meaning that they never exactly flourished here. But like the "successful" reintroduction of the wolf, it can complicate life for the rest of us -- something that the Post doesn't mention.

Before Colorado volunteered to be part of this experiment -- based on a promise that we wouldn't have the regulatory hammer lowered by the feds if the experiment worked -- anyone claiming that a ski resort couldn't be expanded, or a forest trail improved, because of "lynx habitat" would have been laughed out of the room. No lynx, no habitat, no problem, in short. Federal land managers would have to dream-up another excuse to say "no" to something.

But that's no longer the case in Colorado. With a colony of the cats now firmly established, "lynx habitat" now becomes a credible catch-all excuse to block this project or that one. It's a regulatory Trojan horse, which Colorado invited in, rather gullibly. And like the defenders of Troy, we'll now pay a heavy price for that gullibility.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bucking the Beer Cartel

The Economist has a good, succinct definition of the term "rent-seeking":


Cutting yourself a bigger slice of the cake rather than making the cake bigger. Trying to make more money without producing more for customers. Classic examples of rent-seeking, a phrase coined by an economist, Gordon Tullock, include:

• a protection racket, in which the gang takes a cut from the shopkeeper’s profit.

• a cartel of firms agreeing to raise prices;

• a union demanding higher wages without offering any increase in productivity;

• lobbying the government for tax, spending or regulatory policies that benefit the lobbyists at the expense of taxpayers or consumers or some other rivals.

Whether legal or illegal, as they do not create any value, rent-seeking activities can impose large costs on an economy."

But how does rent-seeking work in the real world? This news story, from last week's Idaho Statesman, offers a near-perfect example of renk-seeking in action.

It tells of how big beer wholesalers, backed by an army of lobbyists, are turning to Congress for help in eliminating competition from small wine and beer shops that can sell directly to the public, minus the middle man, thanks to the Internet. Instead of meeting the upstarts head-on, the big boys want Washington to help them squash the little boys, through the passage of a renk-seeking measure.

"The bill is backed largely by the National Beer Wholesalers Association, which wants to see it passed in response to a 2005 Supreme Court decision that found some bans on direct shipments of alcohol unconstitutional. That ruling helped open the door to more direct shipments to consumers, especially from wineries. The law would allow states to block direct sales of wine and beer.

The beer wholesalers say the bill will give states more certainty in deciding who can sell alcohol to their residents.

"The net result is that states are unsure about whether or not they can regulate alcohol effectively," said Mike Johnson, the association's executive vice president and chief advocacy officer.

Many winemakers and retailers believe the beer wholesalers back the bill because they view the direct sale of alcohol as a threat to their business. Online sales - now about 1 percent of the market - are growing."

Big Beer has found a sympathetic ear among those who fear that direct sales, via the Internet, will lead to a loss of revenue, and regulatory control, for states. And the campaign donations don't hurt, either:

"The beer wholesalers have proved to be effective advocates. The Washington Post reported that the National Beer Wholesalers Association this year poured nearly $300,000 into the campaign accounts of about 100 lawmakers who co-sponsored the bill."

This case thus falls into the fourth definition of "rent-seeking" offered by The Economist: "lobbying the government for tax, spending or regulatory policies that benefit the lobbyists at the expense of taxpayers or consumers or some other rivals." Keep a lookout and you'll see other examples of it, virtually everywhere, given that we live in an era of increasing coziness between big government and big business.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bad News from the District of Precambria

Just as it seemed on the verge of gaining real momentum, Michelle Rhee's courageous effort to reinvent the abysmally-bad D.C. school system faces a major setback, and possibly reversal, following the ouster of pro-reform Mayor Adrian Fenty. Mayor-to-be Vincent Gray pledged that reform would go on, in the wake of his upset win over Fenty. But Rhee isn't buying it, judging from the unvarnished opinions she shared with The Washington Post.

Rhee's detractors -- starting with local and national teacher unions -- will gloat and applaud, as hard-won improvements are rolled-back. But it's D.C.'s school kids who will suffer most for this untimely and unfortunate turn of events.

Somehow I see a think tank in Rhee's future.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Loose Lips Sink Ships

We're assured by U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn that the possible addition of a new aviation brigade at Fort Carson isn't in any way contingent on the future expansion of the Pinon Canyon training area -- at least that's the official line coming from the Pentagon. But one can't help wonder, and worry a little, about whether the anti-Army venom that has come to taint so much of the rhetoric from expansion opponents won't in this case come back to haunt Colorado.

I'm not sure how much controversy relocation of the brigade will stir in Tacoma, Washington, where Joint Base Lewis-McChord is also in the running to serve as host. I'm betting an influx of nearly 3,000 new soldiers will be met with cheers, parades and keys to the city. But here in southern Colorado, the polarizing nature of the Pinon Canyon debate, and the increasingly anti-Army tone it has assumed, could tilt the competition in Tacoma's favor.

No one at the Pentagon will say this. If Joint Base Lewis-McChord wins the competition, it will do so based strictly on the merits, or so military officials will tell us. But you can bet that what's been going on out here -- including local opposition to the brigade from Colorado Springs peace activists -- hasn't gone unnoticed in Washington. Some military brass undoubtedly are wondering how once-welcoming Southern Colorado became such hostile territory. Such noisy opposition, even if it's the minority view, can't help but raise yellow flags, which will only increase our vulnerability when the next round of base closures and realignments comes along.

If you were making the call, and everything else was equal, wouldn't you send the soldiers where you know they'll be unconditionally welcomed? Why would you send more soldiers to a training facility of limited future utility?

Of course, not everyone who's anti-expansion is anti-Army. But the willingness of certain leaders to tolerate (and pander to) the increasingly-militant, anti-Army rhetoric of Pinon Canyon protesters isn't improving Fort Carson's chances of landing the new brigade. Our cause isn't helped by the fact that so many of Colorado's senior leaders (including Senators Udall and Bennet and U.S. Rep. John Salazar) have closed minds concerning Pinon Canyon expansion. It's a reminder of how irresponsible and reckless rhetoric, employed for short-term political gain, can do real and lasting harm.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Out of Pocket, Out of Power

As someone who made all the wrong career choices, I never have to worry about the problem of owning a second home, and especially not one in Aspen. Even owning a "first home" is challenge enough for me. As such, I wasn't until now aware that second-home owners in Colorado don't have the right to vote on property tax increases, like the rest of us do. TABOR protections just don't apply to them. But that would change, apparently, if Amendment 60 is approved by voters.

The possibility that out-of-towners would get the right to vote on property tax increases has Aspen officials all aflutter. The town's permanent residents, who pretty much have their way on most matters, since 61 percent of Aspen's homes are empty most of the year, worry that extending TABOR protections to part-timers will mean relinquishing power over tax policy. A local minority would no longer rule supreme over the absent majority.

As today's Aspen Times explains:

"Second-home owners in Pitkin County have long been concerned that they are being taxed without representation because they are forced to pay for mill levies and tax increases that are approved by full-time residents.At the same time, many second-home owners do not reap a large amount of public services from entities such as the Aspen School District and others which receive that tax revenue.

But the city has said that allowing part-time residents to vote would be a bane on those public services. With a new voting population that likely would oppose tax increases, it could be harder to pass fees for special programs.

Amendment 60, which would also impose several stringent limits on the government's ability to implement new special district fees and taxes, echoes a 1992 Constitutional amendment that placed broad tax caps on state governments and required that voters approve all proposed tax increases."

I've always wondered why such nutty things go on in affluent enclaves like Aspen. One obvious explanation is that a minority of taxpayers is making all the taxing and spending decisions, on which a majority of taxpayers must remain silent. It's always easier to get a little crazy when most of the cost of that craziness gets shouldered by someone else. The part-timers are wealthy people, who may be able to shrug-off the regulatory or tax burdens that are imposed on them in their absence. But that doesn't make it right.

Even wealthy out-of-towners should have a say on what property taxes they pay. Anything else is taxation without representation.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Using Our Heads

"Sould Colorado ski areas require helmets on kids?" asks The Denver Post in a headline this morning -- a question that undoubtedly had a number of legislators salivating. But the body of the story makes the answer self-evident.

No need, really, since most boarders and skiers, and most responsible parents of same, already opt for a helmet, without the need for a government mandate. Some resorts now require them, which is their right as a private enterprise. And most slope veterans have enough common sense, or have had enough brushes with high-speed disaster, to understand that the minor inconvenience of donning a helmet is worth the added safety benefits.

Reports the Post:

"No legislation is under consideration here, but helmets already are virtually ubiquitous on the state's younger skiers.

"To me, this is the law catching up to where people already are. Very few kids don't have helmets these days," said Rob Katz, chief executive of Vail Resorts, which supported the California bill and operates the Heavenly ski area in the state. His company, with four ski areas in Colorado, would support similar rules here.

The state's largest ski operators — Vail Resorts, Aspen Skiing and Intrawest — already require kids in ski school to wear helmets. Many resorts also require their employees to wear them while working on the slopes. Even more mandate helmets for terrain-park riders."

A minority of folks won't have the good sense to make the smart choice, just as a minority won't confine itself to designated trails and insists on bending or breaking other rules. As it is on the slopes, so it is in society at large. For the most part, these poor choices fall heaviest on those who make them. The people who consistently make poor choices get weeded-out over time, as Darwinism does its thing. There's no end to government interventions, and to government expansion, if we take on the impossible task of reversing that process. That slope is steeper than any we have in Colorado.

Sometimes, it's better to just let nature -- and natural selection -- take its course.