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Archive - July/August 2006

Independence Day 2006

Spaces, Spaces, Everywhere

The Ending Earmarks Express

Smug Localism

A River of Abuses

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

   Independence Day 2006 - Well, at least once a year we get to celebrate the concepts of liberty and freedom!  I only wish more people took it more seriously the rest of the year.  The annual parade in Flagstaff was well attended (the local paper reported 15,000 plus).  Politicians were especially in force, including the governor, whom we also saw at the pancake breakfast at the American Legion before the parade.  The attorney general was here and my wife challenged me to boo and hiss him.  There are good reasons to do so, but I deferred.  In general, the crowd seemed non-partisan, giving only polite applause for the various candidates that strolled by.

     There were many participants that were vets, or otherwise honoring the military.  They all received enthusiastic responses from the crowd.  My impression was that the crowd, and the participants, were more conservative than you might think from this bastion of liberalism.  It would be interesting to know if anyone has surveyed this crowd for their general views.  No groups were outright protest groups in the parade.  The local Friends of Flagstaff's Future had a colorful contingent sporting umbrellas and marching in choreographed steps, but I didn't spot a flag among any of them.  Hmm .......

Click on any photo for a larger image - but, they were all taken with my phone camera.
Flagstaff Police Color Guard.  Native American Iraqi War vets.  Native vets remember Lori Piestewa

It really can't be much of a
parade without horses,
can it?  Nope!

Vietnam War vet.  Local high school band. 
Aargh - no free samples!  Coconino Community College truck;
door reads, "For official use only."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

   Spaces, Spaces, Everywhere - During the academic school year (is that redundant?), parking on the campus of Northern Arizona University during peak hours is tight.  Many years ago, zonal parking was instituted - north, central and south campus commuter lots, residential parking, employee parking, and, more recently, a lot called "Park 'N Stay."  There is only one such lot, and it is in the southwest corner of campus.  It is behind a huge commuter lot.  It is not paved, but is covered in chunked-up asphalt, that was rolled onto the surface in the summer of 2005.  So, the lot can get muddy and slippery under adverse weather conditions.  And, during the winter this lot isn't cleared of snow in a very timely fashion.

     The motivation for this lot is "to encourage utilization of alternate forms of transportation when on campus."  [NAU Parking Regs; page 6].  Well, not always.  After 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, and all day on weekends, anyone can park in the commuter lots (even without a permit).  So, effectively, this encouragement only exists during regular business hours.  And, the upside is that the permit is cheap - only $48 for the next calendar year, versus $162 for the regular employee permit.  So who uses this lot?  I do.  Why?  Because my office, and all the classes I teach, are in a building that is very close to this lot.  I've noticed that many of the employees in my building also use this lot.  That is, this lot is heavily used by those who work nearby and aren't going anywhere else on campus!  "Alternative forms of transportation" be ... well, darned!

     OK, so what is the issue here?  Well, during the summer, the parking lots are not congested.  As you can see from the photo, above, and the two photos below, the commuter lot is practically deserted, while the Park 'N Stay lot is about half full.  So, the question here is, "Why does the Park N' Stay lot operate in the summer?"  I can think of no clear reason for this.  In fact, since we do get a lot of rain in July and August, its use during this time promotes the degradation of this lot.  

Click on either photo, below, to see a larger image.

Panorama of the Park 'N Stay lot and the (mostly) vacant commuter lot.

Panorama of the commuter lot - the Park 'N Stay lot is where the cars in the background are parked.

     Well, despite my suspicion that the rationale is just plain, old-fashioned, social engineering, I wrote to the folks at our Parking Services and suggested a change in the rules.  The person that responded was not helpful, and, indeed, did not seem to understand my point at all.  Here are our e-mail exchanges:

From: Foster, Dennis
Sent: Wednesday, July 05, 2006 4:50 PM
To: 'askparking@nau.edu'
Subject: Yellow lot - park & stay 

I currently have the yellow sticker for the Park & Stay lot on the SW corner of the campus.  During the year, the regulations on this permit seem clear to me and fair as well:
-- We must park in only this lot Mon-Fri from 7:30 am until 4:30 pm.
-- We can park in any black (commuter) lot during weekday evenings and on weekends.

OK, so what about during the summer?  Since the parking lots are rarely even close to full, why not allow for use of these yellow stickers to park in black (commuter lots) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?  It doesn’t stress out the existing parking, since these lots (as best I can tell) are not congested, and it keeps vehicles out of that yellow lot when the monsoons hits and entering/exiting vehicles noticeably degrade the existing lot (because it isn’t paved).  Thanks for any reply someone would care to make.

Dennis Foster 

From: *******
Sent: Mon 7/10/2006 2:45 PM
To: Dennis Foster
Subject: park-n-stay

Hi Dennis,
The rules and regulations for the park-n-stay pass do not change, they
remain the same as when you purchased the permit.  The park-n-stay pass is
purchased at a reduced rate from the regular commuter permits.  Which
restricts its use to only the parking lot P62B with use of the commuter
lots after 4:30 even during summer, and holiday parking regulations.  I
apologize for any confusion and would be glad to answer any other questions
you may have.  Thank you.

Parking/Shuttle Services


Hi ******,
  Thanks for your reply.  I wasn't really confused about the regulations, but I did think that imposing them during the summer seemed inefficient.

Dennis Foster

     Well,  there is hardly any point in trying to getting people in a bureaucracy to recognize a problem (or, to recognize a better way of doing things!) and do something about it.  There is no reward to individuals, nor to managers, from taking on new tasks - like revising the parking regulations to allow Park 'N Stay permit holders to park in the commuter lots during the summer.  So, I do not expect anything to every come of my complaint.

Also, consider the issue of permit pricing.  I think NAU is typical of most universities in this regard.  We can buy a permit for the fall, or for the spring, or for the summer, or for the full year.  But, we can't buy a permit only for the regular academic year - the fall and the spring.  [In fact, the spring permit is good for the spring and the summer, so it isn't truly just a spring permit.]  Why is that?  I really don't have a good answer for this one.  Since the university is a monopoly provider of parking on campus (substitutes are, as a rule, rather expensive in time, energy, effort, and risk), they should be able to price any combination of parking choices.  Granted, there is a monitoring cost associated with these additional choices, but the additional revenues generated should more than compensate for that.

     One might argue that making the spring permit a spring/summer permit allows for the school to justifiably charge more for that permit than it does for the fall permit.  Such seems to be the case for the Park 'N Stay lot, as you can see from the chart to the right.  But, this is not true for regular student commuter permits, nor for employee permits.  And, in fact, the Park 'N Stay figure for the spring may be an error (I got them from the NAU web site), as these rates followed the same pattern as the other rates during the last academic year.

     The pricing issue is also interesting in that it well illustrates the economic notion of price discrimination.  The one semester user pays about two-thirds of the annual rate, when there is no clear cost differential.  In a free and competitive market, the semester rates would tend to be closer to 50% of the annual rate.  If permit holders could transfer their permits (which the school doesn't allow), there would likely be an active bidding down of this price and the university would end up selling virtually none of the one semester permits.

     It is interesting to note that, while people complain about Microsoft being a monopoly (which it isn't) and about how gasoline prices are arbitrarily set by producers (they aren't), they fail to recognize monopoly pricing by the state, and the harm it does to consumers.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

   The Ending Earmarks Express - This past Wednesday, the Ending Earmarks Express rolled into Flagstaff, as part of a campaign to stir up grassroots opposition to this hideous form of government budgeting.  An "earmark" is a specific budget request that is slipped into a bill, in Congress, that largely goes unnoticed before the bill is voted on.  The transportation bill, of last summer, was especially egregious in this regard.

     Tom Jenney, of the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers, alerted me to this event, and was on hand to introduce Tim Phillips, the president of the Americans for Prosperity, who organized this effort (both pictured to the left; click on the photo for a larger image).  Phillips noted that the number of earmarks has skyrocketed, totaling nearly 16,000 items this last year.  Among them is a grant to study mariachi music, which they planned to highlight at their next stop, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

     The Flagstaff stop was made to highlight $7.4 million that has gone to transit funding.  Phillips argued that whether these monies are well-spent, or are poorly spent, is a moot question.  The point is that they were approved without consideration and open debate.  And that, he said, is a bad way to run the government.  Even worse than the lack of oversight and accountability inherent in this process is the risk of out and out corruption.  Phillips cited the example of former Representative Duke Cunningham, who has been sentenced to jail for taking bribes - bribes that came from recipients of specially earmarked funds.

     I can't say that there is much chance that this practice will come to an end.  Only one Representative - Arizona's Jeff Flake - actually turned down the opportunity to earmark funds for his district.  He argued that the funds should just be sent to the Arizona Department of Transportation, and they can decide how best to use them.  That means, 434 other Representatives did some feasting at the pork barrel trough.

     Quite frankly, there were only a few people attending this event that weren't, in some way, shape or form, associated with this group, or with the transit operation.  So, it wasn't really much more than a media event.  Still, there was a decent write-up in the local paper, and this topic was the subject of their editorial today - so, the issue did get some attention.  [There was also someone there from the local TV station, but I forgot to watch!]  I think that two observations on this event are in order ...

Bus monies really are a waste.  Phillips worked hard to avoid attacking the use of these monies directly, instead attacking the methods used.  Maybe he was just trying to be civil.  But, since they made this stop to highlight this problem, I think he should have taken up the issue more directly.  These funds are wasted because they represent a subsidy for capital purchases only and, so, distort decision-making.  That is, the feds will buy us buses, but we must pay for the gas and the driver.  So, what do we do - buy 40 small buses and hire 40 drivers, or buy 5 big buses and hire 5 drivers?  We do the latter, because we have to pay for the drivers.  If the feds just gave us the money and told us to spend it for capital and operations, we would have spent this money different.  Indeed, if the feds had just given the money to the city government to spend as they see fit, it is unlikely that any of it would have gone to transit.

The Grand Canyon Greenway project is a better example of bad earmarks.  The transit funding wasn't a bad choice for this group, and it might have been necessary in order to attract attention.  But, the $2.5 million allocated for the Grand Canyon Greenway project definitely falls into the "egregious" category.  Although it sounds good, the trail would run from the visitor's center to the nearby community of Tusayan, entirely in the forest, with no views of the Grand Canyon.  Now, that's pork, plain and simple.

Related blogs:
Virtual Editorial #14 - How should federal funds for public works projects and other purposes by appropriated?
Virtual Editorial #13 - Should the Mountain Line bus service be expanded?

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

   Smug Localism - The local paper ran a story about "buying local" put out by the Christian Science Monitor, titled, "Buying local may not always be best."  I thought it was an excellent piece, because it actually treated globalism proponents as serious and reasonable!!  That's a far cry from how this issue is usually treated.  I was going to send a quick e-mail to the editor commenting on what a good story it was.  But, there appeared a few disparaging letters over the last week and the editor, in his weekly column, pooh-poohed these views as "contrarian."  Well, so much for an enlightened press.  So, while I thought to write a letter in response, it wasn't until another pro-local letter appeared, written by Becky Daggett, the Executive Director of the Friends of Flagstaff's Future, that I was motivated to respond . . .

To the editor:

   Kudos for running the article, “Buying local may not always be best.”  It was both well-balanced and a refreshing change.  It underscored a central feature to our high standard of living – specialization.  We don’t strive for self-sufficiency, because that makes us poor.  It’s really just a matter of common sense.

   Of course, common sense seems to be in short supply at the so-called Friends of Flagstaff’s Future.  Their executive director writes that, “each dollar spent at a locally owned business recirculates at least three times … versus a dollar spent with a chain store, which departs immediately to corporate headquarters.”

   That is patently false.  Of each dollar spent, both stores have to pay their employees and have to pay for the goods they sell.  Their employees live here, while the goods they sell likely come from outside Flagstaff.  The only difference is that the profit of the chain store is owned by the stockholders, only some of whom live here, while the profit of the locally-owned store goes entirely to its owner.  How big a difference is that?  Well, over the last year, Wal-Mart earned a 3.5% profit margin on its sales.  So, a net of less than 3.5 cents on each dollar spent at Wal-Mart flows out of Flagstaff, as compared to some locally-owned store.

   So, if you want to buy local, please do so.  If you want to feel smug and superior about it, fine with me.  Just don’t try (again) to use the government to force me to have to shop with you.

Dennis Foster
Flagstaff, AZ

There are other issues here worthy of mention.

Ad hominem attacks show weakness for "localism" argument.  Both Daggett and earlier letter writer, Ned Barnett, attacked the globalism argument by attacking the people who were representing the argument.  This is known as the ad hominem fallacy.  Why attack the argument when you can question the arguer?  Daggett's criticism was especially egregious in this regard by whining that a buy-local critic works for the Hudson Institute, which is funded, in part, by corporations like Wal-Mart.  She writes that, "This could be why Mr. Avery takes a dim view of supporting ... locally owned businesses."  Isn't it funny how these smug social activists cannot fathom the notion that researchers at conservative think tanks (like Hudson) actually believe in what they do?

What do we buy locally?  Clearly, we are quite motivated to buy goods and services that cost us as little as possible.  Some may get satisfaction from shopping at the local bookstore, versus the Barnes and Noble, but what they are buying is a bundle of services we can label as "ambiance."  Generally speaking, services are most likely to be provided locally, because it is costly for us to travel elsewhere.  Services like - lawyers, doctors, financial planners, realtors, auto mechanics, insurance agents, and so on.  Most of these services are provided for by locally-owned firms (perhaps sole proprietors) even if they are associated with regional, and national, businesses.  That is, my MetLife agent owns his own business. 

What is local?  Years ago, while serving a three month stint as the public member of the editorial board for the local paper, the Arizona Daily Sun, I was astounded that they (editors, reporters) didn't understand the concept of a locally-owned franchise.  That is, they thought any national chain business must be run by the corporation.  I tried to disabuse them of this notion, but I can't say that I was wholly successful.  I pointed out that the local Sizzler was owned by a second, or third, generation Flagstaff resident.  Conversely, a downtown coffee shop was opened up by a couple that had just moved to Flagstaff six months earlier from California.  Which is local and which isn't?  In fact, the California couple pulled up stakes the following year and moved on to Colorado. 

Beware the lazy social activist.  At the end of my letter, I reference the use of government to curtail our choices.  The background for this was the decision by the city council, a couple of years ago, to place size, and usage, limitations on retail businesses, expressly to keep Wal-Mart from locating a Supercenter in Flagstaff.  There was a petition drive to place the matter on the ballot, and voters overturned this decision.  But, I don't think that will satisfy these lazy social activists from trying to use government to restrict our freedoms in the future.

Some related blogs:
Wal-Mart Bashing - Critiquing the anti Wal-Mart movie, "The High Cost of Low Price."
Brown v. Foster - A comment on a debate I had with a colleague about the anti Wal-Mart movie.

Final thought - A remark from another colleague of mine has lodged permanently in my brain, and seems apropos for this piece: "Why should I care about the Mom and Pop store?  Mom and Pop have been ripping me off for years."

Friday, August 18, 2006

   A River of Abuse - A Colorado River runner was arrested, this past June, and charged with obtaining permits by using the names of dead people.  This past week, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail, 5 years of probation, fined $15,000 and prohibited from entering any national park while on probation.  Oh, yes, and the guy is 61 years old.

     If it wasn't such a travesty of a bureaucratic system run amok, it would be funny.  Well, except for the $15,000 fine.  And, what is the deal with prohibiting this guy, Stephen Savage, from visiting national parks?  That sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to me.  Indeed, it's downright vindictive.

     In fact, it is worse.  It is an example of what happens when you look to government to "solve" problems that can be better dealt with by the market.  The issue is a simple one - how do you keep the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon, from becoming overly congested?  Well, up until the 1970s, there was no need, because it wasn't really a problem.  Now, it is.  The demand for trips has grown dramatically over the last 30 years.  So, the Park Service used to maintain a "wait list" and allocated precious space on the river (probably too little) based on one's seniority on the list.  It appears that what Mr. Savage did was pretend to be someone near the top of the list that had recently died.  Well, that's not the only way to scam the system.  A colleague of mine, who has taken a couple of "private" river trips, found that the providers asked the customers (who do pay for the service, even though it doesn't count as a "commercial" trip) to add their names to the wait list so that the provider can utilize that slot in the allocation process.  Upon closer inspection, Mr. Savage seems to have suffered from a lack of finesse.

     This year, the Park Service decided to overhaul the river permitting system, and it really has gone from bad to awful.  There is, no longer, a waiting list.  Instead, there is a lottery system.  I expect that this will be scammed as well, although there is a prohibition against anyone getting more than one trip per year.  As to the case of Mr. Savage, Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Joseph Alston issued a statement which read, in part, "We hope this sentence serves as a deterrent for others that have tried to abuse the system."

     Alas, it is not Mr. Savage that has abused the system, but, rather, the Park Service that is guilty of a river of abuses in dealing with this limited resource.  To wit ...

Auction off space on the Colorado River.  How do markets allocate scarce resources?  They sell them off to the highest bidder.  Hey, it works!  If you want to go, you have to pay.  If you can pay more than the next guy, then you get to go.  If you can't, then that's just the way it works.  I can hear the naysayers whine that "the poor will get left out."  Too bad.  That's what being poor is all about - fewer, and worse, choices.  If you want to do something about it, work hard to earn the income to acquire the lifestyle you want.  If you want to help poor people raft down the Colorado River, start a charity and contribute your money to them.  It really isn't that hard, although it not the way of the lazy social activist.
     And, everyone pays - commercial, private and government (with their pretend research trips).  If you want the river relatively uncongested, buy extra permits and don't use them.  If you don't mind running the river with a lot of other folks, you can probably get a good deal.  And, if you only wanted to go part way, you can probably get an even better deal.

Use the funds raised for river-related improvements.  While the Park Service can certainly absorb all these monies for wasteful projects, I would propose that the funds be used to enhance the experience of the river runner.  Better restroom facilities.  Better camping facilities.  Improved trail access to sites along the river.

     Tasking the Park Service with regulating use along the Colorado River is just an ongoing recipe for disaster.  The resource will be underutilized, unfairly allocated, and underfunded.  It is the curse of big government.

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