Kaibab Journal

Kaibab Journal Grand Canyon Logo

Random Fragments

October - December 2009

Can Obama Govern?

The GC Permit Shuffle

Hollow Avatar

Saturday, November 14, 2009

   Can Obama Govern? - A little more than a year after he was elected to the most powerful position in the world, the answer is unequivocal - No.  And, really, we shouldn't be surprised.  People who are good at one thing are rarely good at something else.  For example, we really don't expect that an NFL quarterback can be a good running back, or receiver, and certainly not a defensive linebacker.

     Still, we oftentimes will try to project competence across differing areas.  Candidate Barack Obama showed us his superior rhetorical skills.  From that, many projected that aptitude onto the ability to govern.  And, that hasn't worked out.  Obama seems to relish the idea of being President without really having any serious interest in governing in a manner that leaves us better off after his term(s) in office than we were before he started.  He jets off to Copenhagen to make an Olympics pitch.  He travels around the world speechifying on what is wrong with America.  He takes his family on a vacation to the Grand Canyon and Martha's Vineyard.  He seems mesmerized by the spectacle of the presidency and not so intrigued by its hope and promise.

     He dallies on the war in Afghanistan.  He pushes us into more dependence on the government.  He is reckless with how the government should spend taxpayer money, be it on the stimulus or health care, or, coming soon, the cap and trade boondoggle.  He associates himself with the most radical of ideologues.  Yet, I recall his stirring words during the campaign, when he implored us to work together to solve problems, when he promised "change we can believe in," when he was adamant about bipartisanship and transparency.

     And, those things have not happened.  He did not take on the mantle of the stern schoolmaster and force the cantankerous children that populate the House and Senate to sit down and chart an agreeable course into the future.  Instead, it has been the Democrat leadership that has taken control of the process and is steering us into disaster and calamity.

     Now, I don't really believe that Obama disagrees with the other Dems in terms of the policies being pursued.  But, that is not what he promised during the campaign.  But, why should we have expected any different?  He had not a shred of governing experience.  He only had experience as a successful campaigner and articulate speaker.  The conclusion that must be drawn, and it is not a surprising conclusion, is that Obama is a typical politician.  He is not exceptionally gifted at telling the truth, nor at rising above the fray of politics-as-usual.  While one may argue that the hope and promise was our fantasy projection onto Obama, I still remember his words.  And, they were not words I put into his mouth. 

Thursday, December 17, 2009

   The GC Permit Shuffle - Last month, the Park Service announced a new permit policy for backpacking in the Grand Canyon.  It eliminates the walk-in request, in favor of mailed/faxed requests, for the first month that permits are available.  For example, on June 1st, one can apply for a permit to do a trip in October.  Because the park is deluged with fax requests on the first of each month (well, not every month), if you walk in on the first, or even on the second, day of the month, you are likely to get your request filled well in advance of all the faxed requests.  That will change on February 1, 2010.  Now, only faxed requests will be taken during June for October hikes.  Walk-in requests will not be accepted until July 1st, for October hikes.  [Well, the walk-in will be treated like a faxed request - drop it off and they'll add it to the pile.]  There were a few letters printed in the local paper complaining about this policy change.  I thought to write a letter as well, but approached the editor about possibly writing a longer commentary.  He agreed, and my "guest editorial" ran in the Arizona Daily Sun on Wednesday, November 25th, the same day I left for a six day backpacking trip in the canyon.

Reservation system wasteful and inefficient
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
by Dennis Foster

Is the existing system of issuing backpacking permits at the Grand Canyon fair? Of course not.

Is the proposed change, to a random lottery on the first of each month, going to be fair? Of course not. Will it be better, or worse? It depends.

Someone from New Jersey who faxes in their permit request will now have a better chance of getting the itinerary they want. Someone like me, who lives in Flagstaff and who made a lifestyle choice 20 years ago to forgo higher income opportunities elsewhere, will find it harder to get the itinerary that I want. It should not surprise anyone that the person in New Jersey thinks that this new system is fair.

While "fairness" is in the eye of the beholder, what we can say about the new system is that it will be inefficient, will waste resources, and will likely get worse over time.

The Park Service's proposal for hiking permits seems to be leading them down the same path that they have taken in issuing Colorado River permits. That lottery system was instituted in 2006 when their wait list for river permits had grown over the years to 40 times greater than the annual supply. Additionally, the Park Service will only allow recreational users to run the river once per year.

Not surprisingly, these kinds of rules and regulations waste the time, energy and effort of the applicants. But, park officials don't bear these costs, so they tend to ignore them in their policymaking.

Thankfully, when it comes to river running, there is still a major allocation of river use to commercial enterprises and the Park Service has allowed these trips to be priced at close to their true market value. When I took a commercial river trip in 2002, I made reservations three months in advance. Another couple made reservations a year in advance. And, one traveler made his reservation only a few days in advance. That is one of the beauties of a well-functioning free market. It shouldn't be the case that only people who plan a year in advance can get a reservation.

Conversely, the Park Service has dropped the ball when it comes to how it oversees Xanterra's operation at Phantom Ranch. Booking a cabin, or dorm space, requires you to play the phone game 13 months in advance. If you are lucky enough to get through, on the first of each month, you can be put on hold for hours.

Economists call these schemes "non-price" rationing. They are inefficient in that they not only allocate scarce resources in a manner that perverts the incentive of individuals to be productive and contributing members of society (i.e., by seeking out jobs that pay well), but it also generates that wasted time, energy and effort. In a world characterized by scarcity, this allocation mechanism is reprehensible.

A more efficient system would be to price the resource at its market clearing level. Then, you don't have to just hope for the best in a lottery. [However, you could hook up with other interested hikers, pool your money to buy an itinerary and have a lottery among yourselves.] With a real pricing mechanism, the most highly sought-after itineraries will command a high price to determine who will get them.

A better solution would be to have the Park Service privatize the management of the corridor campgrounds (Indian Garden, Bright Angel, Cottonwood) and have them compete with each other. I would expect quality and quantity would both increase. These actions would truly help to accommodate the increasing demand for a backcountry experience in the Grand Canyon.

Dennis Foster has a Ph.D. in economics, teaches at the university level and has been hiking at the Grand Canyon since 1979.

Some further comments: 

The "fairness" issue.  This drives me nuts!  The Grand Canyon Hikers group on Yahoo was full of comments about how this made the process more "fair" by making the odds more equal.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  They only see that they are getting better odds, hence that it must be "fair."  Really, it is all about greed, but people usually don't want to admit that!  I addressed this issue before, when I noted that rarely do these people take a holistic view of these matters.  Which brings me to my next point.

Changing rules negates our choices.  The worst part of this kind of change is that it penalizes people who have acted on the incentive structure created in the first place.  Maybe the old rule was "bad," but we have been living with it for quite a while and have adapted.  Now, the time, energy, effort and money we have put into this adaptation is made worthless.  And, does anyone at the Park Service factor that into their decision-making?  Of course not.

A market-based solution still "hurts" me.  Another point that few seem to get is that I am worse off with a market solution.  Prices rise, and I must compete with the fictional backpacker from New Jersey for a permit.  If he/she is willing to pay more, they get the permit.  That is quite likely if it is their once-a-year trip to the canyon, versus being just one of a half dozen trips I make annually.  But, I understand the "fairness" of such a system and am willing to support it, even if it reduces my chances relative to the current system.

My web rating was quite low.  I only got 1.4, out of 5, stars on the web, with an amazing 53 chiming in.  Too bad the web comments were down (while the paper migrates to a new platform), otherwise I might have been able to get a lively debate going here.  I suspect that most of the negative scores came from river runners that hate commercial outfits and wish that they had a much smaller allocation.  But, as I noted in my commentary, if it wasn't for these commercial services, you'd probably have to plan such a trip a year in advance, which is just wasteful.

Privatizing would raise quality.  Absolutely!  It certainly can't lower it!  For years, I have dreaded an overnight stay at the Bright Angel campground because the restroom facilities are just atrocious.  If these campgrounds were private and competitive with one another, I don't think that would be the case.  Indeed, the restroom at Phantom Ranch is in much better shape.  Hmm . . .  Lesson learned!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

   Hollow Avatar - The movie event of the season is the popular Avatar.  We saw the 3-D version at our local theater.  Of course, it was visually stunning.  The 3-D effect is quite good and the special effects are top notch.  The story, on the other hand, was a stinker.  The whole "bad guy industrialist" versus the "peaceful nature lover" is a tired theme, and not especially poignant here.  Better, on that score anyway, is Dances with Wolves, although I'd even rate that as "thick" on the sappiness scale.

     There are, however, two major complaints I have with the storyline, beyond the tired nature of the theme.  While watching, I was thinking that a prominent dimension was how a society with low/no technology can't co-exist with a society that has a high level of technology.  Wouldn't the story have been better if James Cameron had played this more as an inevitability?  Of course (spoiler alert!!), in the end, the "bad" guys lose, so that would have to change.  Still, I think that he could have done a better job of invoking our pathos by making the humans seem less "bad" and the aliens as less "noble."  Ambiguity on this score would make this a movie to remember instead of one that will likely be soon forgotten.

     But, there is a more fundamental shortcoming to this story.  Upon a little reflection, the Na'vi are a rather sad race.  They seem cool, but really it is only true insofar as Sully learns about these new and different people.  But, then what?  What do they do?  They seem only to produce body decorations.  They don't have industry.  No universities.  No research and development facilities.  They are, at the core, intelligent animals that refuse to use their intelligence.  Some have argued that the story is a metaphor for the clash of cultures that occurred between Europeans and Native Americans.  But, really it is more like the "clash" between Europeans and the buffalo.

     Indeed, I was reminded of my trip to Antarctica.  We visited many penguin colonies.  Instead of being struck by the awesome beauty of nature I was more struck by the fact that their entire existence is built around survival - breeding and eating.  The Na'vi, at least insofar as they were presented in the movie, likewise seemed to live their lives the same way.  Some may argue that they were living in "harmony" with nature.  But, that means stagnation.  No inventiveness.  No intellectual curiosity.  None of the (best) attributes that we would ascribe to our humanity.  Maybe a better movie would have painted these aliens as glorified plants, albeit with some intelligence.  Then, the moral conflict of how humans treat them would have been more ambiguous.

The Kaibab Journal