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Archive - June 2006

United 93

Markets do work

Lies, Myths & John Stossel

The Woody Fire

Local Hiking - Last Call

The Union is No Prescription

Thursday, June 1, 2006

   United 93 - The movie United 93 has been showing at the local theater, but ended its run today.  I finally went to see it yesterday.  It was, in a word, excellent.  There are no stars in the film, which heightens the realism.  Also, the choppy chatter of dialog rings real.  There is an unfolding of the story without any particular character development.  We really are given a "you are there" perspective, except that the movie does cut back and forth between the flight, some military air command post, the FAA post and various airport traffic controller facilities.  There is no action shown on the other hijacked aircraft, although it is the take-over of American 11 that triggers the official involvement.  Well worth remembering these events, especially if one only knew parts of the full story.  Watching this movie prompted a couple of thoughts that I think are relevant to this topic.

Paradigm shifts can happen quickly.  What struck me at the time, and still does, is how fast a paradigm shift can occur.  In this case, the shift was from tolerance of hijackers to intolerance.  As voiced by a couple of passengers in the film, we have a history of dealing with hijackers that generally want to make a statement, or try to extort particular concessions from some government.  They aren't particularly interested in killing the passengers, and themselves, in the exercise, although they may threaten to do so.  But, after finding out about the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, these passengers decided to act to thwart these terrorists.  A few held out for doing nothing (at least, as portrayed in the film) despite the information that was coming in from phone conversations by various passengers.  [Another interesting aspect is the fact that such conversations could take place.]  The bottom line is that this paradigm - tolerating hijackers - is over.  Although a great deal has been made about beefing up security, and the attendant waste of tons of money, the events of 9/11 cannot occur again - four, or five, men armed with box cutters will never be able to take over another airplane.

A "what if" scenario.  We can all admire the efforts made by these passengers on that fateful day.  Yet, the object of this group of hijackers was the nation's capitol.  What if this attack had succeeded?  And, what if a significant number of representatives and senators had been victims?  Something inside tells me that our current "war on terror" would have a lot more support from the gutless wonders that "serve" on Capitol Hill.  Sure, there would still be questions about WMDs and the link between Saddam and al-Qaeda.  But, I bet there would be less hand wringing about our stirring up a hornet's nest, versus targeting individual hornets, as a long-run strategy to ending this problem.  A free and democratic Iraq, as flawed as it is (and will be) still can serve as an engine of change in that part of the world.  That idea represents the kind of vision that the first President Bush sorely lacked.

Friday, June 2, 2006

   Markets do work - This past Wednesday, the local paper ran an editorial titled, "Consider responsible drilling on U.S. soil," by Philip Gold.  This was a reprint from its appearance in the Christian Science Monitor.  The basic idea was that an impartial panel could select domestic drilling sites, weighing the relevant benefits and costs, and submit a single list to Congress for an up-or-down vote, as is done these days with regard to military base closures.  Well, it is interesting, but it still ignores the issue of why the government should be so involved in the first place.  But, what troubled me about Gold's editorial was that he claimed that, when it came to oil and gas, the market just didn't work - "According to common belief, high prices inevitably call forth both consumer conservation and increased supply...But it doesn't work that way."  Nonsense.  His reasoning was shallow in the extreme, and it lead to some rather perverse conclusions.  So, I penned the following letter to the editor:

To the editor:

Philip Gold’s editorial contained some interesting ideas, but his premise – that market don’t work – is dangerously flawed.

Yes, the demand for oil is “inelastic.”  So what?  That just means that it will take people longer to fully react to price changes, assuming that these price changes are permanent, in real purchasing power terms.  If the price of Coke rises to $3 a can, consumers will respond right away - buying Pepsi and other substitutes.  But, there aren’t really good substitutes for oil.  When its price rises, it takes a while to fully respond.

How will consumers react?  They’ll double up on trips, going to the store on their way home from work.  They’ll cut back on non-work travel, making fewer trips to Phoenix per month.  They’ll go hiking up Mt. Humphreys rather than drive to the Grand Canyon.  For some, carpooling will become more convenient.  All these actions reduce our gasoline consumption.

Over time, we are likely to see more dramatic changes – people living closer to work and buying more fuel efficient cars.  Yes, markets do respond.  After all, many Japanese companies profited quite well by satisfying Americans' demand for high gas mileage cars back in the 1970s.

The illogical consequence of Gold’s premise is his suggestion that domestic supplies be priced “below market prices, as a stabilizer.”  Ouch!  Pricing any good below the market price doesn’t stabilize anything.  It only creates a shortage, forcing consumers to pay in other ways – standing in line, buying gas only on certain days, or offering under the table payments to insure they aren’t left holding the empty gas can.  It is a recipe for chaos.

Dennis Foster
Flagstaff, Arizona

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

   Lies, Myths & John Stossel - Last week, the Goldwater Institute sponsored a luncheon featuring ABC News reporter/commentator John Stossel.  He has been on the road recently, plugging his new book, Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity.  Although he has been an unparalleled champion of free markets and economic liberty for many years, this is only his second foray into the book market, and his first one wasn't all that long ago.  I was quite interested in attending this lunch, and was accompanied by my wife, Cara Lynn, and two of my students (my treat).

     Stossel has been a favorite of mine for many years.  I was first introduced to his work when I sat through a colleague's class when they were watching Stossel's "Is America #One?" video.  I soon ordered a copy to show in my classes, and, since then, have added two other of his 20/20 specials:  "Greed" and "Tampering With Nature."  My students really like these videos - I think they are eager to hear from someone that makes sense of the world around them, and cuts through all the mumbo jumbo.

     Needless to say, the presentation was excellent, and, not surprisingly, well-received by a packed house at this event.  Stossel is, I think, taken a bit aback by a room full of supporters.  Afterwards, he signed copies of his new book.

     I am about half way through the book and it is a great read, although depressing in the sense of how much junk goes on around us.  Stossel seems rather reserved in his speaking roles, but, in the book, he really has taken off the kid gloves and is much more explicit about what he thinks of people that work to limit our liberties.  [But, not as explicit as, say, Penn & Teller.]  It may just make it to my "required reading" list for my economics students next spring (but, then, I'd likely have to give up the excellent book, How Capitalism Saved America). 

Thursday, June 15, 2006

   The Woody Fire - Late yesterday afternoon, Flagstaff residents found themselves suddenly under billowing plumes of smoke.  It isn't all that unusual for smoke to blow through the area, from distant fires, but this one was close.  My wife, Cara Lynn, spotted the plume from I-17, at the airport exit, at about 4:15 p.m.  As her son lives in the same general vicinity as the smoke, she decided to check it out.  She got on I-40, westbound, and just a couple of miles down the road took some photos, below, with her camera phone.  While the local paper has described this fire as starting at 4:40 p.m., they are certainly off by about an hour.  In the second picture, below, she had just passed by three fire engines that were responding to the fire.  She said that, while passing by the fire, she could feel the heat quite intensely.  After getting home, she e-mailed these three photos to Channel 3, in Phoenix, which ran them often over the next hour during their coverage of this fire.  They also posted them up on their web site as part of a photo gallery for this fire.

     While the fire spread fast, and the high winds were really fanning the flames, fire crews responded quickly, and we had air tankers, as well as helicopters loaded with water buckets, fighting the fire by 6 p.m., if not earlier.  We dodged a bullet on this one, in part due to the quick response of firefighters, as well as forest thinning, which has been an ongoing effort around this area for a few years, despite the protests of some environmental nuts.  In an additional ironic twist, the local paper featured a front page story, yesterday morning, about police rousting out summertime transients, who illegally set up campsites in the local forests.  Ironic because the police were just issuing warnings and letting this activity go on for up to a week before taking definitive action!  That may change as a result of this fire, not that it was caused by a transient, but it does highlight the risks posed.

Click on any picture to see a larger image (including the panorama, above).
Approaching fire, near the Flagstaff Ranch Road exit, along I-40. Fire starting point, along I-40.
Photo taken just at 4:25 p.m.
Trees engulfed in smoke, with
flames at their base.

Monday, June 26, 2006

   Local Hiking - Last Call - Last Friday the local forests were closed, until our monsoon season starts and the danger of fire abates.  Luckily, I had the chance to do a couple of outstanding local trails just before that happened.  On Saturday, June 17, hiking buddy Russell, and his son, Russell (yes, no end of confusion there) climbed up to the top of 10,400 foot Kendrick Peak, located a few miles north, and west, of the San Francisco Peaks, which loom so prominently over Flagstaff.  It was a beautiful day, but my dog, Scout, tired out in the heat of the afternoon.  Still we covered the 9 miles, round trip, in about six hours, including rest breaks and lunch at the top.  The fire lookout was being manned, but there wasn't anything going on at that time.  The lookout, and the small area at the peak, were swarming with flying insects, so we didn't really stay very long.  In fact, you can see the bugs in the group picture of us (click on any picture to see a larger image).  The panorama of the San Francisco peaks, above, was taken from the fire lookout.  Quite noticeable are the ski slopes (to the right, along the side of Agassiz Peak) and Sunset Crater, to the left of the peaks.

     Russell and I had planned to climb Mt. Humphrey's, at 12,633 feet, the tallest in Arizona, on Saturday, June 24.  But, on Tuesday (6/20) we got word that the forests would be closing down that week, no doubt spurred on by the Brins Fire in Oak Creek Canyon.  So, we decided to get our hike in last Wednesday.  We were on the trail by 7 a.m., and there were a few parties ahead of us.  But, it was cool and pleasant hiking all the way to the top.  We covered the 9.2 miles, round trip, and 3100 feet of elevation change, in seven hours.  At the top, we could easily see the Brins Fire burning in Oak Creek, as shown in the photo, to the left, with Agassiz in the foreground.  For once, I didn't sign the register - the box was overstuffed with papers, and some were scattered about the area.  Too bad.  You'd figure that some forest service person treks up here on a regular basis and that they could keep this from happening.  Well, I'd think so.  And, here's another suggestion:

Leave some trails open!  I have yet to hear of a fire caused by hikers and bike riders.  Yet, we are the ones that bear the brunt of these forest closures.  And, the forest service has solicited the services of almost 200 volunteers to keep the dirt roads and trails closed.  So, why not keep some open?  Like, the Snowbowl road for bikers?  Or the Mt. Elden Fatman loop trail for hikers?  We can use the services of these volunteers to monitor activities without really raising our risks.  But, no.  Instead, the forest service decides that closing everything to everybody is the best way to proceed.  I disagree.

Related blogs:
A Break in the Action
Snowy Mt. Humphreys
Highest Ranked Blogmeister in Arizona

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

   The Union is No Prescription - Last week, nurses at the Flagstaff Medical Center voted down the efforts to organize a union, which were being spearheaded by a California nurses union.  Three cheers for the FMC nurses that voted against this effort to become parasites in a system that is already bleeding us dry.  I think that the main reason for this outcome is that most nurses recognize that the quality of their work environment will suffer, even if they get more pay.

     The organizers had claimed that their main interest was "patient care."  What malarkey!  Too bad we can't impose truth-in-advertising to the union.  The only thing the union - any union - cares about is the wealth of its members.  And, it isn't necessarily interested in maximizing its membership, as that would reduce wages.  Given that unions have special legal protections, not afforded to business interests, they become nothing more than state-sanctioned extortionists.  The notion that workers should, as a matter of law, have rights to control and constrain a business' decisions is . . . well, it's just bizarre.  Property owners get to make decisions about how to use their property.  And, in the business environment, those are stockholders.  If workers want to control a business, buy their stock.  In the case of the hospital, a non-profit institution, they could give up some of their salary, say 25%, in order to become financial investors in the organization, with a seat at the table.

     That is not to say that businesses can just ignore workers.  Workforce morale is quite important to the success of any business, but unionization isn't going to create that morale.  Instead, it deepens divisions, engenders mistrust, and wastes resources.  And, it certainly doesn't benefit hospital patients.

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