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Random Fragments

May - June 2008

Stimulus or Pork?

Let the Mountain Line Die

Criteria for Entitlements

All Aglow Over Mining

STS-124 Launch

Sounding Board Editorials

Taxes and Morality

Natural Quiet

Thursday, May 22, 2008

   Stimulus or Pork? - The president of Northern Arizona University joined his counterparts at UA and ASU in proposing a massive building plan at the three state universities.  Well, can we ever expect anything different?  No.  But, the absurdity of this proposal lies in how it was marketed - as a "fiscal stimulus" to help stave off the ill effects of an economic recession.  Ouch!  I think I was reasonably successful at convincing my compatriots on the editorial board of the Arizona Daily Sun that it was a smokescreen, and penned this comment, which ran on March 30.

Editorial Board Sounding:  NAU building plan too late for stimulus

If it looks like pork, smells like pork, and waddles like pork, it’s probably not really “economic stimulus.”  And, so it goes for the recently floated proposal for $300 million in building projects at NAU.  Yes, this spending will boost the fortunes of the local economy.  But, this isn’t some kind of salve for a slowing national economy – it’s too small and it is ill-timed.

The idea that government spending can boost the economy relies on the existence of excess saving, meaning that purchasing power exists and isn’t being used.  If this is true, then it is possible that these funds can be accessed through government bonds and used to stimulate production and income.  But, timing is everything here.

Economic downturns are generally short-lived.  Embarking on a spending spree in 2009, 2010 and 2011 is likely to be counterproductive.  That is, this government spending will likely have to compete with private investment spending, squeezing out residential and commercial development.  That is why the Fed is cutting interest rates now and why the Congress has decided to send us tax rebates later this spring.  And, don’t think even this is without cost.  If inflation is surging a year from now, we’ll be pining for the good old days of the sub-prime crisis!

It may be that sound public policy determines that it is worthwhile to build a one hundred million dollar health professions building at NAU.  Trying to sell that proposition based on its “economic stimulus” effect leads me to be suspect.

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics, teaches at the university level and is an avid Grand Canyon hiker.

 With a state budget that is verging on being $2 billion in the hole, the prospect for cuts at NAU, and the other universities, has increased dramatically in the weeks since this editorial was publish.  It seems that the "fiscal stimulus" notion has met a quick and deserving death.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

   Let the Mountain Line Die - The Daily Sun editorial on this topic was quite favorable, in no small part because it seems like the price is right!  Well, so it goes.  Every couple of years we are asked to raise our taxes by some miniscule amount to pay for some new project and it is awfully hard to get people worked up about it.  So, I thought I would continue using Barack Obama-isms in this editorial, but I can't say that my appeal to the "audacity of hope" really resonated with readers.  This comment ran on April 6.

Editorial Board Sounding:  Just say no to feeding the transit leviathan

With five Mountain Line ballot propositions up for a vote I am suffering from an “audacity of hope.”  Might Flagstaff voters take this opportunity to rearrange the transit landscape?  I hope so.

Face it, the Mountain Line is a failure.  Here’s a statistic you probably haven’t heard – one.  As best I can tell, that’s the number of passengers carried on the bus per mile traveled.  And, this number was forecast to fall to .66 by 2009!  Doesn’t that make driving my SUV the “earth-friendly” option?

Also, even though the Feds paid for buses, and the Mountain Line only needs to pay to operate the system, passenger fares only account for 15% of what they spend.  The tax subsidy per regular rider appears to be between $1000 and $1500 per year!

If voters rejected all five propositions would it cause hardships?  Well, not necessarily.  We have bus stops all over town.  Why not open up this market to all who wish to compete?  Anyone with a bus (and a license) can ply the existing routes and pick up passengers and charge any fare they want.  I would anticipate that service frequency, service coverage and passenger levels would increase, while bus sizes and transit times would fall.

If you don’t like competition, then why not just give regular riders a car?  Maybe one of those new NANOs they make in India (www.tatamotors.com) that sell for $2500.  We’d still save money!  Don’t Phoenix Flagstaff and just say no to feeding the transit leviathan.

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics, teaches at the university level, is an avid Grand Canyon hiker and relied on data in the Flagstaff Five-Year Transit Plan for this commentary.

While some transit propositions failed in the last election, one notion kicked around was that there wasn't any political group championing its cause.  Well, that was not the case this time around, with a group formed to raise money to post up signs around town extolling voters to approve these propositions.  The theme of these signs is to "let the mountain line thrive," hence the title of my blog.  

     One problem that is well illustrated by this issue is that most people think that the market would never provide mass transit service.  That is only true because of restrictions and regulations.  And, at a subsidy of more than the cost of taking a taxi, on a per person, per mile traveled basis, certainly no market participants would come up with the same kind of system that the government has.

     This commentary got a lot of feedback - plenty of web comments, and follow-up letters to the editor.  Mostly, they just reinforce the entitlement notion - taxpayers should pay for them to use this costly mode of transport.  The bus system director also wrote a commentary, and while he noted that sometimes buses are full, didn't provide any updated values to the number of passengers carried per bus mile traveled.

     All five propositions passed by a wide margin.  So it goes.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

   Criteria for Entitlements - The topic of government support for this project, or that project, seems to mostly center around two questions:  Is it a good idea? Does it cost much?  This kind of thinking drives me crazy and I took the opportunity of this editorial to lay out the bigger questions:  Who is entitled?  Who isn't?  Why?  The questions are not rhetorical.  I really do want to know the answers to these questions and I wish politicians were held accountable to answer them.  Far too often you get some kind of mushy response that some proposal "helps the community" which just avoids to spell out the specifics.  This comment ran on April 13.

Ed. Bd. Sounding: Candidates should be challenged on government entitlements

With city elections right around the corner, I want to support candidates that will promise change I can believe in - especially changing the way that government is used to promote special interests, which concentrate benefits into few hands while spreading costs around to many pockets.

In the private market, this isn’t a problem, since these special interests must convince people to voluntarily give up money to support their causes – like the United Way, Habitat for Humanity, the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, the Sunshine Rescue Mission, the National Rifle Association, and the Nature Conservancy to name but a few.

But, in the public sector, the pursuit of special interests degrades our freedoms and liberty by mandating that we pay for these interests, be it a bridge to nowhere in Alaska, the inclusion of “affordable housing” in residential developments, or that taxpayers subsidize a small group of people who ride the bus or an even smaller group that want to fly to Los Angeles.

Especially appalling is how often recipients of these special benefits feel entitled to what they have received rather than thankful and humble!  If you’re not sure on this score, re-read the e-mail commentaries, published in this paper last week, on finding housing in Flagstaff.

So, in the upcoming election for mayor and city council, I would ask candidates to answer these simple questions, and to do so honestly:

1.  What housing, jobs, and transportation are residents of Flagstaff entitled to?
2.  Who is entitled, and who isn’t?

3.  Why?

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics, teaches at the university level, is an avid Grand Canyon hiker and once worked for Al White cleaning hotel rooms for a living.

     The attitude that I see exhibited in the public arena really is one of entitlement.  One letter writer, critical of my opposition to the bus, referred to how he had decided to retire to Flagstaff from St. Louis.  And, he feels entitled to a bus system, subsidized by taxpayers.  In the housing stories was a recurring theme - people moving to Flagstaff, finding it difficult to make ends meet, and being "forced" to move elsewhere.

     If the city is to promote "affordable housing" who is going to be helped?  Will it be long time residents?  Or, residents in some favored job category (police, nurse or teacher)?  And, why is that?  This is the problem with government welfare - all taxpayers must pay to help those deemed suitable.  I am much more comfortable with discrimination practiced by charitable groups that raise their money through voluntary contributions.  For more on this topic, read the story profiling two families and their housing woes, as well as the web comments posted below the story.

     In my bio I mention Al White, who is a current city council member and often champions the "need" for higher wages and affordable housing.  The point being that even I had jobs that are bottom of the barrel.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

   All Aglow Over Mining - There has been a surge in companies filing documents to do exploratory drilling on the Colorado Plateau in search of uranium deposits.  Some of these sites are a bit south of the Grand Canyon, and this has opened up a barrage of opposition.  I had been planning on showing the film Mine Your Own Business to my students for some time now, and had arranged to use the campus library auditorium for this purpose.  So, my commentary on this subject allowed me to also advertise this film.  Mostly, the auditorium was filled with my students, who were favorably disposed to the idea that environmentalists go too far, although there were others in the audience from the public, including some folks from one of the mining companies.  This comment ran on April 20.

Edit. Board Sounding:  Memo to uranium opponents: 'Mine' your own business

What good is mining?  To those who care to notice, it is a more significant contributor to our standard of living than is our ability to hunt and gather.  Without mining, you can’t ride around in subsidized buses, you can’t heat your affordable home, you can't operate your solar oven, and you can’t enjoy your favorite microbrew.

Should uranium mining be banned in northern Arizona?  Some argue it should, because it was poorly done in the past and that it poses some risk.  But, then, why not ban all production?  There is no such thing as a world without risks.  Let’s assess these risks, and assess the benefits.  Then, let’s have an open, and honest, discussion about uranium mining.  Maybe it shouldn’t be allowed, but maybe it should.

Indeed, if you believe all the mumbo jumbo about human caused global warming dooming our planet to a fiery grave, you should be an unabashed supporter of uranium mining – the benefits of saving the human race must certainly outweigh mining’s risk factors.  Stop being bitter, clutching at your solar panels and your copy of “The Population Bomb.”  Grab a shovel and help move us into a truly nuclear age. 

The clash between environmentalists and people struggling for a decent living in mining is going on all around the globe.  If that clash interests you, come see a special screening of the documentary, “Mine Your Own Business” at NAU’s Cline Library Auditorium on Wednesday, April 23 at 7 p.m.  Free and open to the public.

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics, teaches at the university level, and is an avid Grand Canyon hiker.

  Once again I was able to include an Obama-ism in my editorial - the snippet about "bitter, clutching" comes from his faux pas in San Francisco about middle America.  Also, the reference to the solar oven is courtesy of Lisa Rayner, local activist, who was profiled on the front page of the paper that week, next to her solar oven.

Monday, June 9, 2008

   STS-124 Launch The space shuttle program is winding to an end - only 10 more missions (after STS-124) are left before the fleet is retired.  For years I have been meaning to go down to Florida and see a launch.  But, with the program on a regular schedule I always put that off.  Now, with the impending end of the shuttle program, it was finally time to get going on this!  Eric was quite enthusiastic about going, so together we headed out of Flagstaff in the early morning of Friday, May 30, arriving at out hotel in Cocoa Beach, Florida, in the early evening, the day before the launch of STS-124.  Shuttle missions are often postponed, so we booked a room for five nights and kept our fingers crossed that any delay would fall within our "launch window."

     We headed up to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Saturday morning.  Only those who had pre-purchased tickets are let in on launch day.  Our tickets, and a parking pass, were sent to me about ten days before our trip.  Since the launch was slated for late in the day - at 5 p.m. - we had a lot of time to see the place.  We started with a bus tour of the center.  These tours only ran until 11 a.m. and we were one one of the last ones.  We didn't get to make the stop at the observation gantry because of the launch, but did stop at the Saturn V building and, from the lawn outside, we could see across the 3.5 miles to the launch pads.  Some bleachers were set up nearby, and this is were NASA VIPs come to see the launch.

     We caught one of the last buses back to the visitors center, and en route, we got to see the astronauts passing by in their famous little trailer (photo to the right).  Traffic was stopped for their passage to the launch pad.  Once back at the visitors center, we checked out a couple of exhibits (the Shuttle Launch Experience is cool) and set up our chairs in the viewing area next to the Rocket Garden.  The place was filling up.  There was a large screen showing the video from NASA TV and some ongoing commentary from a stage set up below the screen.  At just past 5 p.m., with all going well, the shuttle launched, with the Japanese Kibo module in its payload bay.  Quite exciting, to be sure.  The shuttle clears the trees in front of us before we hear it, as it shot straight up into the sky.  The most remarkable thing to me was how bright the exhaust flames were - it was like looking at a fire in the sky.  On TV, the brightness just washes out to white and you don't get the same effect as we did.  Our view only lasted a couple of minutes, as the shuttle disappeared behind its own exhaust trail.  Eric watched through his new binoculars and could see the separation of the solid rocket boosters.  Below is a video I took of the launch, which is posted up on YouTube - my premier posting.  OK, so now I need to learn some editing skills.  All in due time.

The crew of Discovery - click the photo to see their NASA bio page.


     Following the launch, we had "dinner with an astronaut."  Not personally, although there aren't more than a couple of hundred people for this event.  Our featured astronaut was retired pilot Jon McBride, who flew the Challenger for STS-41G in 1984.  He was a fascinating speaker and related well to the crowd.  Afterwards, he took pictures with each of us, as you can see below.  One piece of information that I was not aware of - the "space shuttle" is the designation for the whole launch vehicle, including the rockets/fuel tanks.  What we call the shuttle (Discovery, in this case) is technically called the "orbiter."  So, we saw the space shuttle launch of the Discovery orbiter.

Click on any picture to see a larger image. 

Dennis & Eric in line for the bus tour of Kennedy Space Center.  Tours ran until 11 a.m. on this launch day. 

Exhibit Hall next to Rocket Garden. 

Liftoff of the Space Shuttle Discovery, STS-124, at 5:02 p.m. on 5/31/08.  The weather was ideal for the launch. 

Pad 39A four hours before launch.
Live broadcast of shuttle from KSC.  Shuttle commander Jon McBride. Eric poses beside Saturn V rocket.

     Since the shuttle launch went off without a hitch, we decided to spend a day at the beach.  Cocoa Beach is famous, of course, for its proximity to the launch facilities, and its use in the old I Dream of Jeannie TV show.  Since this is the off season for the beach - temps in the low 90s - there was plenty of room to hang out.  We walked about a mile down the beach to the Cocoa Beach Pier, where we ate lunch and saw a pelican wandering around.  Nice leisurely day and whenever we were back at the room, we had NASA TV tuned on, to catch all the space action!

Cocoa Beach.  The pier at Cocoa Beach. Don't tease the pelicans!

     Our Kennedy Space Center admission tickets allowed for a second visit within seven days.  Since we didn't see everything on launch day, we decided to go back on Monday and spend another day there.  The night before, we bumped into some guys from Phoenix, who had been at our table for "dinner with an astronaut."  They recommended the "NASA Up Close" tour, so that's what we opted for as soon as we arrived at KSC.

     In stark contrast to launch day, the crowd on this day was quite small.  They say that they get about a million visitors a year - I'd bet that half of those are here on launch days, which means that usually this is a rather laid back place to visit.  The bus tour was great.  We went out on the causeway, where public viewing of the launch is allowed, but quite difficult to get (tickets are snapped up right away for that venue).  We also drove right up and around the two launch pads - 39A and 39B.  Cool, cool, cool.  We stopped at a viewing area halfway between the two launch pads, which was quite a sight.

     The tour dropped us off back at the Saturn V building, where we could pick up the regular tour to return to the visitors center.  Since Eric and I had missed the stop at the International Space Station (ISS) building on the launch day tour (it was too late), we took the opportunity of going there.  The public area overlooks the main floor here, where space station components are being readied for later flights.  We saw the "cupola" on the work floor.

     Once back at the visitors center, we decided to do the Shuttle Launch Experience again (it is a cool simulation) and we saw the two 3-D Imax movies.  They were great.  It was another full day.

The Rocket Garden at KSC.  Launch pad 39B. The famed Vehicle Assembly Bldg.
Shuttle garages next to the VAB.  Cupola slated for delivery to ISS. Exhibit of testing models at IMAX.

     There was one more day of our trip, and we decided to spend it, again, at the beach.  I rented an umbrella, since I got some sunburn on our previous visit.  Eric had a boogie board that he used on the small waves here, while I enjoyed a day of reading and soaking up the views.  We saw some dolphins breaching the water offshore and pelicans flying overhead, periodically diving into the water in search of food.

Sunset over the Banana River.  Our rental shade for the day. Mural at Coconuts on the Beach.

     Wednesday morning (June 4) we traveled back to Orlando to fly home.  It was a great trip and chance to see the shuttle launch, as well as enjoy the beach and eat seafood all the time - the gator bites were good at Florida's Seafood Bar & Grill, the crayfish and shrimp chowder was fabulous at Coconuts on the Beach, the rock shrimp was a treat at the Old Fish House, and the lobster bisque was great at Jack Baker's Lobster Shanty.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

   Sounding Board Editorials - Although I haven't yet posted up the final five editorials, I have created a space where all of the editorials I wrote for the Arizona Daily Sun during the spring of 2008 can be found.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

   Taxes and Morality - When the issue of sales taxes comes up in the local arena, I am constantly amazed at how easy it is for supporters to make the argument that we should support such a tax, or its expansion, in part because visitors pay a sizable chunk of these taxes.  Well, it happens everywhere, but that doesn't make it right.  How often have you traveled somewhere and, upon inspecting your hotel room bill seen a line item called "room tax?"  It is the same principle - tax people who are just passing through and make them help to pay for local services which they aren't going to use!  It is the ultimate in taxation without representation.  And, yet, it enjoys such widespread political support.  I have never heard anyone raise the issue of the morality of such a taxing scheme.  While we are constantly barraged with issues of ethical behavior, how can such a lapse go so totally unnoticed?  The ballot measure to raise taxes to help fund the bus system has been touted as a sort of kinder and gentler tax since it is a sales tax and we get a lot of visitors in Flagstaff, who really are never going to use the bus system.  So, it's like free money.  I decided to address the issue with this editorial.   This comment ran on April 27.

Edit. Board Sounding - Taxes, morality and ethics:  Voting 'no' only choice left

Taxes represent the seizure of your wealth and income, which is used to fund various governmental services. While there is a basic immorality to forcing our compliance, it is ethical to have a basic structure of government in order to protect individual freedoms. What isn't ethical is to expand and grow government, extending the reach of its coercive power, just because some argue that it "makes sense." Most people believe that the ends don't justify the means. So, for example, even if you believe that particular residents should have access to a bus system, it doesn't justify forcing taxpayers to pay for this system. It is the hallmark of the lazy social activist that individual freedoms can be so easily trumped by government force.

Indeed, one particularly contemptible argument made in favor of these taxes is that visitors will end up paying a substantial share of these monies. Can we possibly think of a more undemocratic process? To vote for taxes on others that cannot vote has got to be not only unethical, but absolutely immoral.

Two years ago, city voters rejected an attempt to make the sales tax and transit tax permanent, and rejected an increase in the transit tax. Despite that, the operating budget for the city has risen from $80 million to $100 million. It seems that the only check we have on insatiable, unsustainable and unethical local government spending is to vote down pretty much any tax proposal that requires our consent.

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics, teaches at the university level, and is an avid Grand Canyon hiker.

My comment about "making sense" was a retort to a letter published in the paper criticizing my earlier stance on the bus system.  The author of that letter, Marcus Ford, and I have tangled in print over the years and will likely continue to do so.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

   Natural Quiet - For some years now, there has been wrangling over the concept of "natural quiet" at the Grand Canyon.  Of course, it doesn't mean quiet.  Rather, it means the absence of man-made noise, which is, apparently, quite offensive to some people.  The problem really starts with measurement, and whether people actually notice the noise itself!  The editorial in the paper mostly contended that this was all a shell game, and probably just politically driven.  Yes, that's probably true.  Still, it is a step in a more reasonable direction, so I applauded this move.  I have previously blogged on this topic, when there was a scoping session held in town on this issue a couple of years ago.  This comment ran on May 4.

Edit. Board Sounding - Put a price on 'natural quiet' air routes with auctions

The Park Service, to their credit, wants to exclude high flying jets from being included in the convoluted measurement of “natural quiet” at the Grand Canyon.  But, there is a better way.

First, let’s dispense with the notion that “natural quiet” has any objective meaning.  It doesn’t.  When I’m hiking, I can’t hear much over my panting, groaning and moaning, except for maybe my pack creaking.  Totally unnatural, except to me!  And, Park Service helicopters are certainly the most egregious violators of quiet at the canyon, and I haven’t heard that they’ll be curtailed.

So, let’s cut to the chase.  Rather than debating on Byzantine regulations to restrict overflights, let’s use the market to find an efficient solution.

Here’s how.  Identify as many overflight routes as is practical over the Grand Canyon and auction off the rights to these routes.  They can be purchased by individuals, or by activist groups, or by air tour operators.  Then, instead of using the political process to determine what is best (and, probably getting it wrong), this auction will insure that the resource goes to its highest valued use, be it for quiet or for air tours.  And, the money from the auction could be used to improve the park, to the benefit of all visitors.

If you don’t like that idea, I suppose we could just have hikers download a “natural quiet” recording of the Grand Canyon onto their MP3 players.  Then, they can enjoy the natural quiet as much as they want!

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics, teaches at the university level, and is an avid Grand Canyon hiker.

As it turned out, Cara Lynn and I went hiking down the Tanner trail this very weekend, so I could cache an inflatable kayak for a bigger hike the following week.  She spent many hours atop the Redwall, overlooking the river and a big chunk of the eastern part of the canyon, while I continued down to find a spot to leave the kayak.  She noted that it was often perfectly quiet, and she wouldn't have noticed that except for the occasional passing plane every 30 minutes or so.  Hmm... interesting point - if it wasn't for the noise, you wouldn't notice the quiet.  Still, I think it is a silly argument.  There are no overflights at night, nor are there any river trips plying their way down the Colorado.  So, at the beginning and end of each day, while one is puttering around in camp, it is quiet!  And, it is appreciated!

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