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Random Fragments

July - August 2008

Markets and Housing

The Character of Flagstaff

Sounding Board Editorials

The Five Ring Circus

Dem Con 1 - Hollow

Dem Con 2 - Humdrum

Dem Con 3 - Stooge Night

Dem Con 4 - Histrionics

Snowmaking Immoral?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

   Markets and Housing - While interviewing candidates for city offices as part of the Daily Sun editorial board, I heard the comment, on more than a couple of occasions, that "markets don't work."  Of course, this is false.  What is really meant is that we don't always like market outcomes and we wish we could just wave our magic wand and change everything.  And, that's exactly what the lazy social activists keep doing, except that they substitute the government for the magic wand, and, in reality, the world doesn't change into a land of milk and honey.  I was especially dismayed at how one of the city council candidates - Karla Brewster (who won a seat) - made this sentiment the [il]logical foundation for her proposals to deal with our "affordable housing" crisis.  So, I took this opportunity to address the general issue and to explain how markets function.  This comment ran on May 11.

Editorial Board Sounding - Want lower prices? Open affordable housing
problem to market solutions

One of the truly repulsive ideas that has been kicking around during this election cycle is that “markets don’t work.”  This criticism has been especially in vogue insofar as “affordable housing” is concerned.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Markets are a mechanism for directing resources to the production of goods and services and the distribution of those goods and services to consumers.  The freer it is from arbitrary political constraints, the more effective and efficient mechanism it is, allowing us to enjoy the unparalleled standard of living that we have today.

Why is housing so expensive in Flagstaff?  The reasons are simple - a lot of people would like to live here, we face unique physical constraints, and there are a host of political restrictions that stifle supply.  Prices are high because of these three factors, not because of markets.

To reduce housing costs, we could focus on reducing demand.  We could work to shun new businesses from locating in Flagstaff, we could ask the state to move NAU to Kingman, we can reduce our amenities, and we can encourage the growth and development of potholes.  And, like magic, housing prices will fall.

Or, we can reduce restrictions and regulations that hamper growth.  Loosen up zoning rules.  Allow for more mixed uses and for taller structures.  Allow for the market to try out creative solutions to our housing “needs.”  Let’s be open to the reality that dynamic and vibrant change can’t be directed by city hall.

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

  What continues to amaze me is that so many people don't understand that the market is a reflection of our tastes and preferences.  Instead, they seem to think that it is some kind of external mechanism, whose workings are mysterious, that control our lives.  Hence, they come up with an endless list of government rules and regulations and subsidies to try and create an outcome they like.  The effort will either be unsuccessful or will lead to a host of unintended consequences - keep lot density low, require that trees remain standing, institute an onerous permitting process and end up with high housing prices.  Require builders to devote some of their developments to "affordable units" and that makes everything else more expensive.  And, now you have to determine who is entitled to these subsidized units.  It reminds me of a passage from John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society (I think it was that book) where he mused about whether a mouse running circles on a wheel might make for a good model of what we do.  He used it to describe the pursuit of consumption, but I think it could be applied to public policy as well!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

   The Character of Flagstaff - While interviewing candidates for city offices as part of the Daily Sun editorial board, I have often heard them say that they want to "preserve the character of Flagstaff."  This was true of mayoral candidates as well as those for city council.  Perhaps it is just a meaningless phrase, but one that every politician must utter, as if it were some kind of loyalty oath.  I don't know.  But, I do know that it is meaningless and, so, took this opportunity to address the issue of what a city's character means.  This comment ran on May 18.

Editorial Board Sounding - Which character are we really trying to preserve?

Do you ever wonder what candidates mean when they say that they want to “preserve the character of our community?”  I do.  The character of any community changes over time; such is the nature of life.  Read the Flagstaff history column on Saturdays to get a sense of how this community has changed.  I can’t say that I’ve ever overheard someone discussing the current price of wool, which once seemed a topic of local interest.

I don’t consider myself an especially long-term resident, but I do remember when there was a working lumber mill in town and when 4th Street was a shopping magnet.  I remember using the front entrance to Cline Library, on the west side of the building.  I would often go to Cline to rent an IBM typewriter; I think it was fifty cents an hour.  I remember that there was a Chinese restaurant where the Checkers store is on Old Route 66, where I used to buy the Sunday edition of the Daily Sun.

I still have furniture I bought at Ole’s and books I bought at Duck’s.  I have a backpacking cook pot set, which I still use, that I bought at a little store up on Beaver Street back in the late 1970s.  Long since gone.

Somehow, I don’t think that these political candidates are talking about preserving that Flagstaff, before there were city buses, before there was an F-cubed and before there was public “art” that looked like alien outhouses.

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

Some more on some of the local references:

Flagstaff history column.  Every Saturday, for some time now, there is a column, on page two, that summarizes some of what was going on (at least as reported in the paper) 100, 75, 50 and 25 years ago that week.  The woman who puts that together served with me on the virtual board a couple of years ago.  It's usually quite interesting, and next year I will be reading about what was going on when I first lived in Flagstaff (i.e., 1984 will be 25 years ago).  One of the things I have noted over time is that the topic of sheep come up often in the news of 100 years ago.

Duck's Bookstore.  Ah, I can half close my eyes and recall this quaint little shop.  Where was it?  I want to say that it was in the Greentree Shopping Plaza, but I think he may have moved around a bit.  For those familiar with Bookmans, Duck's was like a small version of that store, selling mostly used books.  I would stop by whenever I could while I was working at the Grand Canyon in the late 1970s/early 1980s, in search of old canyon-related books.

Edited references.  With a 250 word limit, I had to drop a few additional references that I liked, including one about dropping off typed "letters to the editor" at the Daily Sun office on Santa Fe, driving down a 2-lane Butler Avenue, the old Flamingo Motel (now a Barnes & Noble) and the old Wendy's (now a Carl's Jr.). 

F-cubed and alien outhouses.  The activist group, Friends of Flagstaff's Future, is probably made up of more recent residents to this area, and they certainly have no interest in preserving Flagstaff's character.  Rather, they cloak their desire to mold Flagstaff into the vision they have and use the character issue as the justification.  The "alien outhouses" cost the city's taxpayers $50,000 and sit across the street from the main post office.  It was part of an ill-conceived public art program that has, thankfully, gone away.

Friday, July 25, 2008

   Sounding Board Editorials - It has taken me a while to wrap up this project, but the complete annotated "sounding board" editorials that I wrote over the spring of 2008 are up in a special section.  There is a featured link in the center panel of my home page, which will stay up for some time yet.  Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

   The Five Ring Circus I have never been much of an avid follower of the Olympics.  I have only seen bits and pieces over the years, although I do remember catching some of the major events from time to time.  This is especially true of the summer version, when there is so much else to do with my time, energy and effort.  The winter version, on the other hand, fills up dead space in my schedule.

     So, since the games have begun in Beijing, I have tuned in a few times, on a sporadic basis.  And, what do I see?  Well, there is beach volleyball, some kind of handball version of soccer, some kind of stick version of broomball, archery, more beach volleyball, some "real" volleyball, water polo and some women's weight lifting.  I must say that I scratch my head and ponder exactly what the Olympics are supposed to mean.  And, then, there is the issue of how many medal opportunities a participant may have - for swimmer Michael Phelps it is quite high, while for a basketball player it must certainly just be one.  So, how do you compare the performance of the two?  Well, here are my suggestions . . .

Eliminate team sports.  To my eye, the Olympics should be about individual achievement.  So, team sports should be tossed.  No water polo.  No soccer.  No hockey.  No softball.  Those might be interesting games, but they should only appear in some other venue.
Exceptions:  Teams where the competition is not one-on-one, like rowing and relays.

Eliminate games entirely.  I don't think chess is an Olympic sport . . . yet!  But, tennis is, and it shouldn't be.  The Olympics are a competition, but not one in a game.  No tennis.  No ping pong.  No badminton.

Eliminate competitions based on judging.  Any competition where the participant must look up to see how they scored among a set of judges doesn't cut it with me.  There must be rules for competitors, and some enforcement mechanism, but let's just throw out all the "sports" that get scored.  No pommel horse.  No rings.  No synchronized swimming.  No diving.  No trampoline.
   Exceptions:  Change the gymnastics "competition" into truly athletic events - who can jump the most pommel horses in one minute, etc.

Crown one champion.  Whoever wins the decathlon, or some variation thereof, would be deemed "the Olympic Champion."  Score this as currently is done, or come up with some alternative scheme that can produce an overall champion that excels across many fields.  The modern day triathlon is really a better indicator of who is "best" than is someone who wins nine medals in closely related competitions.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

   Dem Con 1 - Hollow I have pretty much always been a political junkie.  I usually make it a point to watch the conventions, even if I know who I am supporting.  This year is no different, but I now have the opportunity to comment on these affairs.  So, first up are the Dems who are convening in my, more or less, hometown of Denver, Colorado.  Day one I have decided can best be summarized as "hollow."

     Of course, the highlight of the evening's show was Michelle Obama, wife of the candidate.  She was personable and gave a good speech.  I would echo Juan Williams comments, made on Fox, that it held special cultural significance and that it served as a role model for a stable middle-class black family.

     But, when it came to content, we heard only the same shallow rhetoric that filled the primary season.  I really don't know what is meant by saying that Barak Obama will "bring about the change we need."  This was especially awkward in the context of Ms. Obama's rousing story of her success - strong, hard-working father, close knit family, the wherewithal to send both kids to college, etc.  One would think that her story is an example of what is right with this country, and not the foundation for the "change we need."  I just don't get it.

    Her funniest line, which was unintentional, but I don't hold it against her, was that Barak "grew up way across the continent in Hawaii."  Once you pass by California, you're no longer on the continent.

     The star of the night was really Ted Kennedy.  Man, can the guy talk a good line.  I don't buy the whole "health care is a fundamental right, not a privilege" nonsense - as Ayn Rand pointed out so many years ago, if you have a right to something like health care, then someone is obliged to provide it, and that obligation is going to come at the point of the gun wielded by the government.  Still, he seemed in his usual top form and gave a stirring talk.  The video tribute, done by Ken Burns, fell flat for me.  It is hard to feel some special connection to someone who owns a giant sailboat and is able to flit about the ocean with his family.  It just doesn't resonate with the lifestyle of the common masses.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

   Dem Con 2 - Humdrum - Last night it was time for the Dems to chip away at McCain and for Hillary to have her moment in the spotlight.  The delivery was fine, but on content, I was not impressed.  The rhetoric got sharper, but it almost always sounded like nonsense.  But, I guess when you're the party of redistribution, the whole notion of wealth creation is unimportant.  Otherwise, it is hard to fathom how anyone can believe the ranting.   So, my take on the night - humdrum.

     The keynote speaker was Mark Warner, candidate for the Senate from Virginia (and former governor).  Boring.  He didn't seem especially passionate and his message was convoluted - from his participation in the cell phone revolution (hmm . . . he's starting to sound like Al Gore, who invented the internet) to 100 mpg hybrid vehicles for all.  The worst was his "complaint" that George Bush's major flaw was that he failed to rally the American spirit after 9/11.  Awful.

     Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer was more animated and did a much better job of rousing the crowd.  Still, the content of his message was weak, from arguing for tax credits to consumers that buy hybrid cars (ouch!) to his remark that "petrol dictators will never own American wind and sunshine."  Well, that kind of talk is bound to make us friends and influence people.  Not!

     Hillary was the highlight, naturally.  She gave a great performance, although she could have paused at times when the crowd was all riled up and thunderous in their applause.  Instead, she kept surging through her speech, which struck me as unusually short, ringing in at just a tad over twenty minutes.  I doubt that Bill will be that brief tonight!  Here are some of the parts that caught my attention . . .

"18 million cracks in the glass ceiling" - The reference is to the number of votes she got and the invisible barrier to women that want to climb to the top of the corporate ladder.  Well, she got to run for President!  Isn't that a sign that there is no "glass ceiling?"  Apparently not; only if she won would that ceiling have shattered.  Oh, give me a break! 

"I've spent 35 years in the trenches" - This reference really should be phased out in politics.  It is so over the top and denigrates the blood, sweat and tears of those that really do spend time in trenches (i.e., our military). 

"We've suffered 8 years of failed leadership" - She makes it sound as if we live in a gulag, or something.  Brit Hume, on Fox, made the same kind of comment, in a more general fashion, as part of all conventions.  Yes, but still it is just rhetoric.  This got worse at the end, when she said that with this election, the "fate of the nation hangs in the balance."  You mean, we might actually privatize social security?  Woo hoo!  Of course, even if the Dems lose the presidential race (and, I think they will), they are certainly going to keep control of both houses of Congress.

"No way.  No how.  No McCain." - One of the highlights and, really, kind of funny although it doesn't rhyme. 

"We will create a world class educational system and make it affordable again" - Ouch!  If we don't already have a "world class" system, what do we have?  And, isn't this more than a little bit contradictory?  A Hummer education for the price of a Yugo?  I don't think so.  

"Stop padding the pockets of energy speculators" - If a politician doesn't understand the role that speculators play in stabilizing economic conditions, then they just don't understand anything about the economy. 

     I think one thing was clear from her performance - she would have been a much stronger candidate against McCain than Obama will be.  Will she run against a President McCain in 2012?  Probably.  Will she run in 2016 if Obama gets two terms?  Probably not.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

   Dem Con 3 - Stooge Night - Last night, the marquee speakers were Kerry, Clinton, and Joe.  Hmm . . . perhaps the program should have been billed as "Three Stooges Night."  With apologies to Larry, Curly and Moe.

     Clinton was in fine form, feeding off of an appreciative audience.  He speaks well, and carries it off with a great deal of conviction.  But, since we know that little of what he says is actually true (yes, yes, yes, I know it all depends on what the meaning of "is" is), we can write him off as stooge #1 for the night.  Some of his antics included:

"The American Dream is under siege here at home." - Oh, give me a break.

"People around the world have always been more impressed by the power of our example rather than the example of our power." - Hmm . . . the power of his examples did little more than fuel the continued rise of radical Islam until it culminated in the 9/11 attack.  During his eight years, we could have used some more examples of power!

16 years ago, critics said he was too young and inexperienced to be commander-in-chief - I thought the fact that he was dope-smoking, draft-avoiding hippie was the reason.  Shows you what I know.  But, two more points here - first, he had actually been a governor for multiple terms, unlike Obama's weak resume, and second, he only won in 1992 because Ross Perot's third party challenge siphoned off way more votes from Bush than from Clinton.

     Next up was John Kerry, the last standard bearer of the Dems.  It's too bad Fox cut away from this exercise in tomfoolery - it must be their liberal bias showing.  CNN and MSNBC showed this speech, although I watched it on C-SPAN (as I did with all the speeches).  He was a bit humorous in his attack of McCain, essentially calling him a flip-flopper [Before McCain debates Obama, "he should finish the debate with himself."].  I think that Kerry was poking fun at himself, the king of flip-floppers, but maybe it was just subtle advice.  His throwaway line about being in "the wrong war, in the wrong place at the wrong time" begs the question of what the right war/place/time would be.  He didn't specify, naturally.  Finally, his attempt to tie Obama to the military by referring to Obama's grandfather and great uncle was laughable.

     Joe Biden gave the final speech for the night, in his acceptance of the Vice Presidential nomination.  I have watched Biden for years - well, he has been in the Senate for 36 so far - and, sometimes he says sensible things.  Then there are times when he is just a loon.  He made a few minor slip-ups, but otherwise carried off the style portion of the competition well.  His shtick with the Obama/McCain contrast ("That's not change, that's more of the same" and "That's the change we need.") was entertaining.  I suspect we'll hear more of this over the next two months.  Otherwise, some of the oddball things he had to say included:

"Failure is inevitable, giving up is unforgivable." - This sage advice from his mother seems to have fallen on deaf ears for someone that voted for the resolution that sent our troops into Iraq.

"Anyone can make it if you try hard enough." - More sage advice from his mother.  Yet, he seems not to understand what it means!  Especially, when you consider this next one . . .

"People worked hard on the promise that their tomorrows would be better than their yesterdays." - I don't recall ever seeing any such "promise."  And, doesn't it just take hard work anyway?

Obama would help to rebuild Georgia. - Yikes!  Granted, we have an interest there, and will probably help, but it would seem that this is way down the list of our priorities.  And, if this spending is really going to take place in earnest, let's not hear any more about federal deficits!

Obama wants to send two more brigades to Afghanistan. - OK, insofar as a careful consideration of policy goes.  But, I can't believe that the base of the Democrat party will embrace this platform.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

   Dem Con 4 - Histrionics - Thursday evening, the Dems wrapped up their convention with Obama's acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium in Denver, about a mile from where my dad lives.  While there were a number of speakers during the night, the show featured former Vice President Al Gore and a "surprise" visit from the  current VP candidate, Joe Biden.

     For a while, I thought Al Gore might actually downplay his whole global warming crusade, as his talk began with lots of regular partisan rhetoric.  He did mention the "borrow from China to pay for oil from Saudi Arabia" line and did so in a way that made me think that this was his line to begin with.  Well, you never know with this guy!  I thought his most memorable, and funny, line was about how "Big Oil and Big Coal have a 50 year lease . . . on the Republican Party."  Of course, most of his immediate audience certainly took it as literal truth rather than as a witty turn of a phrase.  I did not remember him ever mentioning either of the Clintons, although he made a point to say that Joe Biden's acceptance speech was great (which, of course, it wasn't).   Still, the former Veep was at his pompous "best" when he compared Obama to Abraham Lincoln.  Maybe Obama should start wearing a stovepipe hat . . . ?

     Obama's fifty minute speech was, as usual, articulate and had more of the kinds of specifics he used in his primary speeches.  The short biographical video was interesting, although the attempt to downplay his ivy league education just continues to astound me.  While there had been some hubbub about the Greek columns, the backdrop looked like a stylized version of the White House, which I think was smart.

     As to content, we were once again made to believe that our economy is worse than the Great Depression.  How ironic that second quarter GDP figures came out that morning, showing robust growth of 3.3%.  Well, we wouldn't want anything like economic growth get in the way of our fairy tale narrative!  Indeed, as he went through a litany of personal stories of economic hardship all I could think of was that here was the ultimate lazy social activist.  If some people need help, start a charity to help them; don't try to shove a hugely wasteful government program down our throats just because you and your friends are too lazy to do something about these "problems."

     Obama went on and on about something called the "American Promise."  Exactly what that means, and how it differs from what we generally call the "American Dream" escapes me.  He did mention a few points here which just sounded like our existing system (e.g., that the market should reward innovation), but other points were disturbing - "Business has the responsibility to create jobs and take care of workers."  Delusional.

     Obama did spell out what kinds of changes he would promote.  Here are some of them:

Cut taxes for 95% of all "working families." - Impossible, given the enormous amount of additional spending he is proposing.  It is quite likely this "promise" would be operationalized as cutting income taxes for 95% of all working families, but then raising a host of other taxes that would more than offset this reduced tax burden.  Well, he is a lawyer!

End our dependence on oil from the Middle East in ten years. - So, I looked up data on where we get our oil (find it here).  It turns out that Canada is #1.  Of the top 15 countries, the only Middle Eastern countries are Saudi Arabia (1.5 million barrels per day - bd), Iraq (700,000 bd) and Kuwait (200,000 bd).  So, why on earth would we want to stop importing oil from Kuwait and Iraq?  So, it really comes down to just Saudi Arabia.  OK, lets do this.  We will just import more oil from our other oil trading partners to make up for this difference - Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria and maybe even Libya and Russia!  Well, there's a statement!

Tap into natural gas, clean coal and nuclear - Yikes!  Do his supporters know this?  

We have a moral obligation to give every child a world class education. - OMG!  He told us, early on in his speech, that his mother made him get up at 4 a.m. to work on his studies.  Is that lesson not meaningful?  Barack Obama's journey from a bi-racial union to the ivy league to the nomination to be President of the United States is truly remarkable.  He has lived the life of personal responsibility and hard work.  Yet, he wants to use the government to make these lessons impossible to learn.  Like John McCain, I guess, I just don't get it.   

Insurance companies must stop discriminating against sick people. - This shows how Dems in general, and Obama in particular, have not a smidgen of understanding about what "insurance" means.  

Paid family leave; change bankruptcy laws to protect pensions; equal pay for equal work. - As one commentator remarked, it seems like Obama wants to turn us into another European country.  

     There was more, of course, but these were some of the lowlights for me.  I thought that his deferring on a Martin Luther King reference until the end of his speech was also smart.  The more he tries to take on the mantle of the portion of black America that descended from slaves, the worse he looks.  The only one in his family background that ever had suffered any racial prejudice in America is him, and he is running as a major party nominee for President.  So, I give him some kudos for drawing some of these connections in a subtle manner (versus, say, a Jesse Jackson).  He did much to make this election a "crossroads in history" and he pledged to "march into the future" which makes this historic event one that may be better described as histrionic.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

   Snowmaking Immoral? - I have often jousted with Marcus Ford, a fellow faculty member at Northern Arizona University.  Although our disagreements are generally polite, it certainly isn't because we have a foundation of mutual respect.  On August 22, the paper ran a letter of his, where he argued that snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks, at the Snowbowl ski lodge, was immoral.  Despite the fact that the Ninth Circuit Court had just ruled in favor of Snowbowl, Ford argued that what was legal was not necessarily moral and raised the example of slavery to make his point.  An excellent example of hyperbole.  And, who will decide what is moral?  Apparently, Ford feels up to the challenge, since he decided that the city council's selling of reclaimed water to Snowbowl was "a mistake."  I quickly penned a reply, which was published in the paper on August 29:

To the editor:

The Ninth Circuit Court has ruled that using reclaimed water for snowmaking at Snowbowl does not infringe on the religious freedoms enjoyed by Native Americans, or others for that matter. Although a letter writer contends that this decision is immoral because it doesn't respect "the beliefs of Native Peoples," such an argument is an exercise in absurdity.

The court stated that, "the sole effect of the artificial snow is on the Plaintiffs' subjective spiritual experience." Is that a sufficient reason for disallowing snowmaking? No, ruled the court. The contention of the plaintiffs, and the letter writer, would, in the opinion of the court, give each citizen "an individual veto to prohibit the government action solely because it offends his religious beliefs, sensibilities, or tastes." And, even granting such a veto is problematic as it clearly would "deprive others of the right to use what is, by definition, land that belongs to everyone."

A decade ago the same argument was raised in opposition to sending one ounce of Eugene Shoemaker's ashes to the moon. The moon is sacred and such an action was disrespectful, claimed Navajo President Hale, totally ignoring the notion that there may be six billion people that also have some feelings, religious or otherwise, about the moon. That was exactly the point made in the snowmaking case as decided by the Ninth Circuit Court. The plaintiffs' views are hardly moral; they are really just plain childish. But, then, so is the notion that snowmaking is akin to slavery.

I am not really a big fan of the Ninth Circuit Court, but they nailed this one on the head.  You can see their opinion here.  There is nice short write up about Shoemaker's ashes here and you can read about former Navajo President Hale's remarks here.  The sentiment expressed by Ford is quite ghastly, yet he received plenty of positive comments on the web.  Follow the links, above, to each of our letters to read web comments.  I was heartened, however, to note that his letter received a rating of 2.4 stars, based on 32 ratings, while mine has received 2.7 stars, based on 55 ratings.  Quite frankly, in liberal Flagstaff, that just doesn't happen very often.  But, there are a lot of people that are passionate about being able to ski up on the peaks.

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