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January - February 2008

Grand Canyon at 100

Win Pennsylvania!

School Size Matters

The Right to Park

Monday, January 14, 2008

   Grand Canyon at 100 - Well, not exactly.  It was one hundred years ago, as of last Thursday, that the Grand Canyon Monument was created, which was the precursor of the national park.  There were some stories and editorials in the local paper, and I found a way to chime in on the topic.  In fact, what had happened is that the Daily Sun ran an article about how the Verkamp's were leaving the canyon, refusing to bid on the property they had operated for more than a hundred years.  Well, surprise, surprise!  I mentioned that possibility in a letter back in August, which I put in my blog, Out of Service.  But the editor decided that I was being too fanciful and he excised it from the published version!  Well, we went back and forth on that at the time, but he didn't relent in his view.  Well, now that has changed, and I thought it was an opportunity to stick my nose back under that tent and he agreed to let me write a "guest editorial" and run it in the Sunday paper, opposite their own editorial about Grand Canyon:

A Century of Control
by Dennis Foster

The news that the Verkamp family will no longer fight to retain their 102 year old business at Grand Canyon should be met with dismay at how officials who run the Park Service discount and denigrate productive and competitive entrepreneurial activities that open up this magnificent destination to travelers from all over the world.

Over the last one hundred years, the environment at Grand Canyon has steadily deteriorated.  Not the physical environment, but the human environment.  New hotels are built miles from the rim.  Restaurants are located without views of the canyon.  Indeed, even the Canyon View Information Plaza doesn’t actually have a canyon view.  And, the number of competitors catering to visitors has steadily decreased.  The Park Service doesn’t like to deal with multiple business entities, so they encourage the monopolization of services within the park.

The history of the park has been filled with contentiousness between entrepreneurs and the government.  From Ralph Cameron to W.W. Bass, from Pete Berry to Dan Hogan, and from Emery Kolb to the Verkamps, the stories are legend.  Cameron operated the Bright Angel trail, Bass ran tourists out to the rim where he had built a trail, Berry built the Grand View Hotel and Hogan operated the Grand Canyon Trading Post a couple of miles west of the South Rim Village.  All are gone.  They have lost their property rights to the government.  Their historic contributions to the development of Grand Canyon are not maintained, not sustained, not preserved.

Over the last weekend in 2007, I hiked down the Hermit Trail and camped near the site of the old Hermit Camp, built by the Fred Harvey Company to accommodate mule riders.  I wondered how it might have been if this place, once considered the “heart of the Grand Canyon,” was still a vibrant and energetic place.

Could a modern-day Mary Colter get Park Service permission to build another Phantom Ranch?  Another Hermit’s Rest?  Another Bright Angel Lodge?  Another Desert View Watchtower?  Most certainly not.  Bold, innovative, human influences are forbidden!  In the early 1960s, the owners of the Grand Canyon Inn floated the idea of an eight hundred room hotel that would flow over the side of the canyon.  The next time you are at Powell Monument, along the West Rim Drive, look to the east and imagine how many visitors would have been drawn to such spectacular accommodations.

It is ironic that so many supporters of the park’s efforts to detour, divert and discourage visitation embrace President Roosevelt’s famous phrase to “leave it as it is,” but fail to live up to his exhortation that “every American should see” such an astounding natural wonder.  I believe that both can be accomplished.

The only innovation taking place today is at the margin of Grand Canyon.  The development of Grand Canyon West, by the Hualapai Tribe, is slowly taking shape.  The completion of their awe-inspiring Skywalk is just a taste of what is possible.  I expect that the enrichment of the Grand Canyon experience will continue at GCW, while the Park Service continues to smother the vitality out of the South Rim with their proposals for a depressing mass transit system, and its antagonism towards entrepreneurs like the Verkamps.  Perhaps that will take another hundred years.

The editor chose a slightly different title, "Grand Canyon: A century of too much control."  Well, that's fine with me.  I was glad to write about the issues here more broadly and appreciate the soapbox.  I'll get back to this issue and fill out some of the arguments made from the other side.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

   Win Pennsylvania! - I find that the talk of Michael Bloomberg running for president, as a third party candidate, about as close as one can come to defining the phrase, "smoke and mirrors."  Although current polls show some support, it is practically a certainty that if he were to run, he'd be lucky to garner 3% of the nationwide vote.  So it goes with third party candidates, his money notwithstanding.  The closest analogy to a Bloomberg run might be Ross Perot's failed efforts in 1992 and 1996, when Perot received a sizable chunk of the popular vote, but no electoral college votes.  But, I think the analogy is flawed - Perot really was running for president, while Bloomberg seems to be just posturing, and Perot had the cache of being outside the political system, which Bloomberg does not.  In the 1976 election, I spent time working for the McCarthy campaign.  He also showed remarkable polling strength in the months leading up to the election, but fizzled on election day.  I was attracted to John Anderson's quixotic campaign in 1980, and that was a bust as well.  It is inevitable that third party candidates end up far down in vote totals, even if they do influence the national outcome (Perot in 1992 and Nader in 2000).
Well, having dissed such a Bloomberg campaign, I do have a fascination with the political process, and have come up with a strategy that, I believe, has a decent chance of putting Bloomberg in the Oval Office.  I surfed out to an interactive electoral college map, and made some selections, as you can see below:

Based on this distribution of electoral college votes, neither party's candidate will win.  The key, in this scenario, is who takes Pennsylvania.  [In 2000, it turned on Florida, and in 2004, Ohio was the deciding call.]  Well, Bloomberg has many billions of dollars to spend.  What if he only ran in Pennsylvania?  And, if he won?  Well, then the contest gets tossed to the House of Representatives.  Hmm...  Things get interesting.  The House can follow partisan lines and elect either of the two major candidates, and we can "suffer" through four years of contentious and divided government.  Maybe not such a bad thing!  Still, I imagine that Bloomberg could now spend many billions more in a nationwide effort to apply pressure on the Congress to select him as a "compromise" candidate.  And, if he convinces the Senate to select the national popular vote winner as Vice President . . .  Well, if he is serious, it could work.  He may want to try and snag another couple of states away from the Dems and the GOP, like Ohio and Michigan, to seal the deal.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

   School Size Matters - I have recently been accepted to sit on the editorial board of the local newspaper, the Arizona Daily Sun.  Notwithstanding my many disputes with their editorial positions over the years, I am always interested in participating to whatever extent is possible.  I once served as a public member in the 1990s, for a three month stint, and, in 2005, participated in what they called the "virtual board."  The current venue is interesting in that we public members (there are seven of us) have the opportunity to opine on the editorial subjects in our own column, which run in the Sunday paper.  Our main role is to provide discussion of our views on subjects the editor has picked to write about.  We help inform his decision.  While we are listed as members of the editorial board, we don't necessarily have any control over the content.  So, being able to speak every week, in our own space, is an attractive draw for me.
     I let the first week go by without writing any commentary on the topics we discussed.  I had thought to do something on the governor's proposal to make college
tuition free for students that maintained a B average from the ninth grade through their graduation from high school.  Lots to write about here, but I just didn't have the time to do a suitable job.  You can read the Sun's editorial on this here.  In the second week there was a topic that I did have time to think about.  The paper's editorial concerned some newly imposed penalties on middle school students that were habitually late to class.  I had no quarrel with the editorial, but I thought it presented the opportunity to push the focus here to the issue of charter schools (posted here):

School Size Matters
by Dennis Foster

Should school officials count tardy students as absent, with the ultimate consequence being a loss of class credit?  Seems stern, but as Tuesday’s editorial pointed out, most of us would agree it should be a “mandatory lesson.”

However, there is another lesson here.  When viewed against the larger backdrop of other school-related issues – dress codes, weapon and drug policies, off-campus rules, transportation logistics, to name but a few – we are seeing yet another “unexpected consequence” that has arisen from the centralization of public education.

The model of grouping together some seven hundred middle school students for the purpose of education sounds like a textbook example of a disaster waiting to happen.  It is easy to imagine that so many resources will have to be spent on controlling these students that education becomes merely a fortuitous by-product.

The centralized, monopolistic model is slowly being eclipsed by the model presented by charter schools.  Charters still face many challenges, but their small student populations alone yield enormous positive benefits in the educational process.  As long as parents continue to care about their children’s education, even opposition from the entrenched education establishment is unlikely to be successful at preventing the continued growth of these new schools.

So, yes, let’s applaud the efforts that keep students attending class on time.  But, let’s not lose sight of the flaws inherent in this system and look forward to a future where the city landscape is dotted with small neighborhood schools that are vibrant learning centers.

Monday, February 4, 2008

   The Right to Park - I have penned a second mini-editorial for the local paper, as part of my role as a temporary public member of the board.  The topic was about installing parking meters in downtown Flagstaff.  Apparently, there were meters downtown in the past, although I don't have any memory of it - maybe it was during some years in the late 1980s when I wasn't here.  It has received a good deal of attention in the letters section of the paper, with many arguing that charging for parking will push them out of shopping downtown.  That is probably unlikely in the extreme, and many places do provide parking.  Still, it was a good opportunity to think outside the box and to use this forum to extol the virtues of markets:

Why not auction off rights to parking?
by Dennis Foster

Some downtown merchants want metered street parking to deter workers from using up spaces all day.  Some nearby residents want residential permits to deter the spillover of these all-day parkers into their neighborhoods.

In the face of congestion, leaving this resource unpriced is an inefficient solution.  Despite that, private markets find solutions, and do so in a variety of ways.  Many businesses build their own parking.  [Take a look at downtown Flagstaff on Google Earth.]  If there are no onerous governmental barriers, we should also see the building of parking lots and/or garages.  The market also responds in more subtle ways – the development of malls for instance.  Malls usually provide sufficient parking, illumination for night time patrons, and, in some cases, an indoor venue that helps shoppers more easily visit multiple locations.  In fact, malls are an excellent example of sustainable practices in resource use.

Still, if there is congestion downtown, there should be ways to promote more efficient use of on-street parking.  While parking meters are one solution, let’s go one step better by auctioning off the property rights to this parking.  Then, business owners could prohibit parking outright, or restrict it (“customers only”) or charge for it, with meters.  Even residents could buy parking rights in front of their houses.  These rights may not be unlimited – they could last just a few years, and only apply during business hours.  We are likely to be best served in this process by looking for market-type solutions to promote creative outcomes.

Parking meter technology
is getting really interesting.  The idea that you can use a credit card, or some stored value card makes it more convenient.  The proposal for downtown parking isn't even to have meters, per se, but rather a kiosk for each block where you have to go and buy a permit, and, I guess, put it in your window.

     Still, it is a typical one-size-fits-all government solution.  The idea of an auction (or, perhaps, just a chance to bid for spots in front of one's business/home) for resource allocation is a favorite in the economics literature, although enforcement costs can sometimes be insurmountable.  But, these days, that doesn't seem likely to be a problem.  If residents and business owners "owned" the parking spots, they can do the monitoring of their use, making city enforcement costs lower.

     The image, to the right, I got from Google Earth.  You can see a sharper image at GoogleMaps, although I can't figure out how to rotate the picture.  This is the heart of downtown Flagstaff, and you can note that there is a great deal of off-street parking.  Part of the "problem" may be that it is hard to legally allow private property owners the option of renting out their spaces on an ad hoc basis (i.e., because of absurd liability issues).  That is a good example of government failure.  The resources could be better used, but they aren't.

     In my researching some of the issues involving parking meters, I found that old meters are for sale in Des Moines, for $15, and in Seattle, for $15-$20.  In Redwood, CA, the meter prices are altered throughout the day to insure that about 15% of the spaces are empty, that being deemed the efficient outcome.  While this may be considered efficient, I wouldn't necessarily call it "free market parking." 

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