Thursday, January 27, 2011

Houston, You Have a Problem

Houston is showing us how not to run a teacher performance pay program. When 92 percent of the teachers qualify for the bonuses, something is wrong. This type of incentive pay system is just a phony and cynical way of boosting everyone's salary.

The March of Folly

I can recall -- and it doesn't seem that long ago, really -- when the "b" word -- billion -- was still something of a novelty in Washington. I was working there in those days and even we Washingtonians had to have it explained to us: a billion is a thousand million dollars, which was one way of helping get our minds around it. Carl Sagan used the word in his PBS "Cosmos" series, sometimes ad nauseum, to illustrate the incomprehensible vastness of space. But it was still a very big number even by Washington standards.

I think I can also recall when annual budget deficits, which had been counted in hundreds of millions of dollars, began being counted in billions of dollars, and then billions and billions of dollars, as Sagan would say. Trillion (which I think is a thousand billion dollars) was still a word rarely used. It began being applied to the national debt at some point -- which is the accumulation of deficits, plus the cost of borrowing money to finance it -- but it was never imagined that it would one day be applied to the deficit. And that just wasn't that long ago.

What comes after a trillion? Maybe a zillion? Or a bazillion? I guess I'll have to Google it and find out. Whether I want to accept it or not, it's probably a number that's in our fiscal future.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Mild Mild West

I sometimes wish Colorado had a little more of the rebellious spirit you still see in other Western states. We've become tame, compliant and conditioned to accepting federal domination, while a number of neighbors -- in this case, Idaho -- are still bucking under Washington's big saddle.

A little sagebrush rebellion now and again is a good thing -- it helps keep alive the spirit of rugged individualism that once defined the West. But Colorado is now the most Californianized of Western states. While other statehouses in the region are roiling with bills designed to take on the feds (at least symbolically), our legislators seem about as cantankerous and rebellious as those you'd find in Iowa.

The neo-federalist revival we're seeing elsewhere isn't stirring a ripple in Colorado. We're sitting safely on the sidelines while something really exciting is passing us by.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Regulatory Triumph or Bureaucratic Blunder?

"Tiny Flower Saved from Extinction," is how The New York Times headlined its story about the Maguire daisy, which was removed this week from the endangered species list after a near-miraculous recovery assisted by good old Uncle Sam. Or that's what readers were led to believe. “The delisting of the Maguire daisy shows that the Endangered Species Act is an effective tool not only to save species from the brink of extinction but also to recover them to healthy populations,” assistant Secretary of Interior Tom Strickland was quoted as saying. The desert flower joins a growing list of rare plants and animals pulled back from the brink of oblivion thanks to federal intervention, reported the Times, "including such species as the bald eagle, the Virginia northern flying squirrel, the American peregrine falcon, the red kangaroo and the North Pacific population of the gray whale."

But that's just spin. "Saving" the daisy is not the regulatory triumph Times readers were led to believe: It's actually a case of bureaucratic bumbling and regulatory malpractice that took 25 years to correct.

The daisy didn't need "saving" because it was never in serious danger, which you would only learn by reading the far more nuanced, far more accurate, far more honest account published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

"It turns out the southern Utah desert’s rare Maguire daisy wasn’t nearly as rare as believed.

First listed as an endangered species in 1985 and downgraded to threatened in 1996, the brushy little white flower that peeks out from under rocks on sandstone mesas and in canyons is now "recovered" and will disappear entirely from the list of federally protected species.

Once thought to have only seven specimens in the San Rafael Swell’s Calf Canyon, the daisy now numbers at least 163,000 plants, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It’s not just that the plants thrived under protection, said Bekee Hotze, the agency’s chief of terrestrial endangered species for Utah. Rather, the scrutiny that came with the daisy’s listing led an interagency botany team to search for more, and they found plenty growing south through the swell and in Capitol Reef National Park.

"This species probably got listed too quickly," said Tony Frates, conservation coordinator for the Utah Native Plant Society. It likely wouldn’t happen today, he added, because the government is more thorough in its research before listings."

The daisy is one of many species that gain federal protection erroneously or prematurely, only to have researchers later discover that the science was flawed and the threat was exaggerated. About a third of all species removed from the list fall into this category. They gain federal protection under false pretenses, forced onto the list, usually, by lawsuit-happy green groups pursuing an anti-development agenda. The daisy served as a pawn in efforts to block drilling and mining in Utah's San Rafael Swell, and the ploy probably worked, as it usually does.

Proponents of the "precautionary principle" see nothing wrong with such listings: "better safe than sorry" and "whatever it takes" are their mantras. But that presumes that such erroneous or premature listings are cost-free events, with few consequences for anyone other than the plant or animal being "protected." This ignores the mounting "opportunity costs" of having federal bureaucrats working to protect something that doesn't need protection, instead of spending their time protecting species in real need of attention. And the critical habitat designations that accompany such listings carry significant costs for those on whom the regulatory hammer falls, whether it be the energy company denied a drilling permit, the recreationists denies access to a road or trail, the private land owner who must hire a professional consultant, and commission a study, before she can construct a tool shed in the "critical habitat" overlaying her property.

Better "science" will sooner or later expose some of these scams -- usually later. But by then a lot of unnecessary costs have been incurred, and a lot of regulatory damage has been done. The listing has locked-up thousands or tens of thousands of acres of "critical habitat," sometimes for decades, even though the species for whom it's set aside is not in critical condition. That's how the endangered species game is played. And it is a game -- albeit one with huge implications for those unfortunate enough to get crushed by the regulatory steamroller that a listing unleashes.

A Google search of news coverage shows that virtually all of it paints this as an Endangered Species Act "success story," although it's just the opposite. The Maguire daisy actually shows how flawed listing "science" can be, how slowly the bureaucracy catches bad listings and how vulnerable the law is to misuse and abuse.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Private Versus Public Conservation

I always wonder why a transfer of private property into public (meaning government) hands is described in so many media reports as an act of "preservation," or "protection," even though the West's public lands have been mismanaged by federal bureaucrats on a scandalously-massive scale. Private land owners tend to be far better conservationists not only because they have the pride of ownership but because, unlike red tape- and litigation-bound federal agencies, they are free to actively manage their properties for economic and ecological outcomes. The two goals aren't contradictory, contrary to media myth; they're complementary, as this piece in the High Country News reminds us.

It's time to stop stupidly assuming that every transfer of private land into government lands automatically guarantees a higher level of care and stewardship, since the forest health crisis now ravaging the American West is a stinging rebuke to that odd idea. It's time, too, to rediscover the benefits and virtues of private conservation and active forest management -- which just may be the keys to saving the last healthy swaths of forest and rangeland in the West.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Obama's Challenger Moment

I didn't catch the first part of Obama's Tucson speech -- I was scanning channels in search of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills -- but I thought, from what I saw, that it was a possible "Challenger moment" for the president, which will help him "bond" with the people on the deeper level (as Reagan's remarks did after the Challenger disaster) and could mark a comeback of sorts. It was an exploitative moment, but he exploited it well, for maximum political benefit. That's not a criticism. That's just what presidents do. And if you think there wasn't a great deal of calculation involved, you're mistaken.

Most presidents are presented with one or two bonding opportunities with the American people. Frequently, and sadly, they come at a dark moment. Reagan's remarks after the space shuttle exploded (and his brave way of handling an assassination attempt); Clinton's speech after the Oklahoma City bombing; George W. Bush standing on a rubble pile at "ground zero," megaphone in hand: each forged a deeper emotional connection between a president and the people. This was just such a moment for President Obama. And I think, though it was fraught with backfire potential, and it appeared at moments to flirt with crass exploitation, that he threaded the needle and emerged much stronger.

My prediction: It may have helped him win a second term.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tragedy in Tucson

The prime suspect in the tragic Tucson killing spree apparently is mentally ill, according to reports, yet the punditocracy, in a typically-rushed judgment, already is indicting "toxic politics" and "rhetorical recklessness" as the real culprits.

Must sane people exercise self-censorship in order to ensure that the insane don't seize on pointed political rhetoric as in incitement to violence? And if so, how will that work and who will police it? Is this really an indictment of American political discourse, or an indictment of American mental healthcare (or the lack thereof) -- or just another case of a deranged individual acting-out in a terribly-tragic bid for public attention and notoriety? At the risk of being accused of a similar rush to judgment, I'm guessing that, when all the facts are in, this will look less like an attempted political assassination than a demented "cry for help" from an attention-seeking nut.

A little sincere soul-searching never hurts. But this already seems an exercise in politically-motivated shaming and finger-pointing.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Ties that Bind

Here's another argument against congressional earmarks for those who need one -- and for those who wrongly assume that the heaven-sent windfalls always benefit local beneficiaries.

The Colorado Springs City Council not long ago caught a little flak for refusing to sign-off on a letter to U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, drafted for us by city staff, seeking Lamborn's support for some Obama Administration "stimulus" measure intended to "help" local governments out. How dare we refuse a federal handout, the critics cried, when the city is weathering a fiscal storm? It amounts to looking a gift horse in the mouth.

But even a dolt by now knows that almost all federal money comes with strings firmly attached -- even those most notorious of federal "freebies," earmarks. There are times when accepting "federal money" -- which is really local money recycled -- is legitimate. But in most cases, we should look on such windfalls of printed money with a caveat emptor skepticism.

When presented with the opportunity to lunge for the loot, this city council showed wisdom by exercising discretion and saying "no thanks."

Land of Looters

Isn't this the fetid swamp from which our secretary of education materialized?