Saturday, October 31, 2009

We Want a Hero Government

Robert Higgs is an economics scholar that has produced empirical works on the Great Depression and on the Cold War, among other things. He is an expert on the economic implications of governments. Per this Oct. 12 blog post, he also “despise[s] politics in general, and the two major parties in this country in particular.”

When it comes to politics, says Higgs, we do have only two parties in this country: “(1) those who, in one way or another, use state power to bully and live at the expense of others; and (2) those unfortunate others.”

While the post contains many candid (if somewhat distorted) observations, it seethes with cynicism. If I had only this post to go by, I’d assume that Higgs sees all government activity as a net loss to society. Reading his scholarly works provides some balance to this picture.

While I am copacetic with some of Higgs’ anti-government rhetoric, I’m not prepared to go whole-hog libertarian. I too have grown uneasy with the partisan “systematic organization of hatreds” Higgs cites. My once naive belief in a system of virtuous, well tempered public servants wisely representing the best in each of us has been dashed by the realities of the actual economy of the political culture.

Higgs presents the common libertarian contention that there is almost never a cause that comes under the rubric of government that warrants personal sacrifice. In this view, patriotism is an irrational emotional connection to a “predatory state” that deserves to be despised.

While I believe that this view overshoots the mark, much of what Higgs has to say is informative and useful. Higgs’ deep studies convince him that the size and scope of government has already improperly limited liberty and will necessarily cripple it given the current trajectory.

Diagnosing vs. treating the problem
As far as what to do about this state of affairs, Higgs admits he doesn’t know. In this Oct. 15 post, he says that he is a diagnostician, not a therapist. And while he understands why such a response is discouraging, he believes that proper diagnosis is key to proper treatment.

Higgs says that people often ask what they can do to stop the incessant growth of big government. Many are stunned when he tells them that it is quite possible that people that value liberty likely can’t “do anything significant to deflect the trend toward larger, more tyrannical government.” He cites two reasons why this may be the case:
  1. “[O]ne man’s problem may be another man’s solution. Because people’s desires and needs are so varied, people do not view the situation in the same way. … Many people are pleased when the government grows, whereas others are outraged. Still others, of course, have no concern one way or the other, so long as their personal ox is not being gored deeply. In short, the normative evaluation of a socioeconomic condition or development may vary greatly among the people involved in it.”
  2. “[E]ven if everyone agrees that a certain condition constitutes a problem, it still may have no generally acceptable solution. Because of the diversity of beliefs, values, and interests in the populace, whatever is done to create a “public good” ― that is, a condition that, if established at all, applies equally to everyone ― will displease some people.”
I would add to this that citizens often approach political matters somewhat irrationally. We clamor for limited government while calling for government to intervene in issues that concern us. We hate some things government does while loving or being ambivalent about others. We want low taxes but lots of government services. We sense no discrepancy with this and we often support politicians that promise to impossibly do all these things simultaneously.

Don’t just stand there, do something
Keying into ‘the government ought to do something about that’ syndrome, Higgs asserts that:
“Since the Great Depression, the American public has generally approved of an active, interventionist federal government. In a perceived crisis, most people want the government to “do something.” Of course, most politicians and government functionaries, for perfectly understandable self-serving reasons, are quite pleased to respond to such public demands for action ― after all, taking such action promises to butter their bread more thickly.”
I’d use more economic terms. As media exposure grew, so did citizens’ awareness of large scope social problems. To be sure, some of this perception developed due to a desire to sell news and entertainment. But a perhaps more significant factor was that that the economy had developed to the point that people started to see the possibility of addressing concerns that had always existed but that had been beyond the ability of society to address.

At any rate, people began to believe that their dispersed (often private) institutions were inadequate to meet these challenges. No doubt this was sometimes correct. Looking to the strong central government to address these concerns was a natural response.

As the citizenry began to demand more action by government, they elected officials that promised to perform according to these wishes, even if such performances failed to address the issues and/or caused other problems. The seeds of the public acceptance of interventionist government were sown at least a generation before the Great Depression, only to bloom in full once people experienced deep and prolonged pain — something in which government played no small role.

Appreciating societal complexity
The trajectory of government growth we are on today is a natural result of the desire for a “do something” government. Higgs provides yet another reason why this insidious expansion is so difficult to stop.
“Furthermore, in dealing with a “problem” such as the relentless growth of government, we must recognize that unlike the automobile mechanic who undertakes to repair a sputtering engine, we are attempting to alter the workings of a socio-economic process that has hundreds of millions of moving parts, each one with a mind of its own!”
The idea that any ‘simple’ solution would do the trick — especially one that takes a top-down approach — represents just as much hubris as the absurd notion that government assuming control over a sector of the economy will produce lower costs and improved quality.

The only sure fire way, then, to put a stop to the growth of the big government leviathan is to change the hearts and minds of the people. There is no “magic bullet” that will make that happen. It requires a multi-pronged approach at every level, but especially at the individual level.

The way Dr. Higgs sees it, the current course of government growth will not abate until people come to a sense of the incentives for changing that course. He seems to believe that this can only come about through natural events and external forces which are the innate consequences of government expansion.

This view may be right. The nation’s course may be governed by factors that are completely out of our control. On the other hand, history is rife with episodes where individuals have instigated change by bringing fresh insights to others. I think that those that care about liberty and believe in the importance of limited government need to undertake the challenge of helping others come to a similar understanding. The possible methods for accomplishing this can be as varied as human ingenuity permits.

Or I suppose we could just sit around and do nothing. While my suggestion may not quickly curtail the growth of unbounded big government, it’s certainly more likely to affect a positive change than simply sitting around.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Methinks They Poll Too Much

We are a nation driven by polls. Much of the news every day oozes with the results of polls. Some politicians appear to govern according to polling. Anyone promoting anything repeatedly cites polls backing them up. Experts spend time slicing and dicing polling data and our news organizations regurgitate the results.

Yes, we are a nation awash in polls. And all too often we give them more credence than they are due.

Once in an undergraduate statistics course as we struggled with the concepts of the chi-square test and the implications of Bayes’ theorem, one exasperated student asked the instructor, “Why do I have to know this? When am I ever going to use it?!”

The professor, who actually did a very good job, explained that most of us would never in our professional careers use the technical skills we were learning in that course. He expected that within a few years (or even months), most of us wouldn’t remember that basics of the Student’s t-test. However, he said it was important that we should be aware of these methods because many sources that seek to influence us are based on them. He said that the exercises we were undertaking were also designed to help us improve our logic processes.

Then the professor said something that caught my attention. “If you get nothing else out of this course, I want you to come out with a strong skepticism of any quoted statistic, especially if it comes in sound bite fashion.” He said that you know nothing about a statistic unless you know how the data was gathered, what assumptions were applied, what statistical methods were used, who sponsored the study, and why the study was undertaken.

According to the professor’s definition, most of the polling data to which we are exposed daily amounts to nothing more than meaningless drivel. We don’t really know who was asked what, what conditions applied, what assumptions and statistical methods were used, who was really behind the poll, or why the poll was conducted. While we are frequently given bits of this information, we are almost never given all of it. Besides, most people would tune it out if more than a few details were provided.

Most polling that comes to our attention has been undertaken and/or published to promote a specific agenda. Rarely is that agenda made clear.

Faulty incentives
But this is not the only reason that we should consider polling results suspect. Perhaps the most important factor in this regard is that those being polled have no skin in the game, as it were. They can respond whether they prefer answer A, B, C, or D to a question posed by a pollster, and they can even be perfectly honest. But it usually doesn’t matter that much because the incentives for answering a pollster differ greatly from the incentives for dealing with the same matter in real life.

I remember an instance years ago when two young women where I worked were discussing the case of a popular celebrity that was not known for being kind to women. He had divorced his wife and then a short time later married a woman that was their same age that he had just met at a gathering. It was a scandal, but the guy was rich, buff, and popular.

Both of these young women told each other that they would also marry the guy if he were to ask them. The one that was married said that she’d leave her husband and child to do so. Such conversation makes for interesting workplace banter, but it is hardly representative of the choice either of these women would have made had she actually been faced with such an opportunity.

In the case of workplace chatter, one is free to engage in romanticism and all kinds of fantasy without the necessity of considering the realities that would have to be faced in a real life situation. The potential infliction of pain and permanent damage to family relationships doesn’t have to come into the equation. Perhaps each of these women would have acted as they suggested had the fantasized opportunity been actual. But they would first have had to weigh consequences that cannot be fully considered in an imaginary scenario.

Polls work the same way. Those polled do not have to live with the consequences of their answers, so they do not (cannot) consider the matter with the same cogency they would if the consequences were real. For these reasons, it is wise to ignore most polling reports. They rarely approximate reality.

Where polling is useful
Pollsters are not unaware of the inherent inaccuracy of their art. But that does not mean that all polling is useless. Polling can be valuable in trend analysis, for example. When a similar sampling of the same population is polled on the exact same questions at intervals, the resulting trend data can be useful, although, the actual results of each poll may differ substantially from reality. Thus, repeating well controlled polling can provide effective information.

Polling about political races can more closely approximate actual results, if done with a pool that closely represents actual voters. One of the reasons for this is that the polling question about which candidate one plans to vote for is pretty much the same question that will be faced in the voting booth. But it is still wise to be skeptical when presented with such polling information, because candidates, political parties, and other interested groups sometimes stand to gain by publicizing tailored polling results.

I think that if more Americans understood the principles outlined by my statistics professor years ago, they’d be less likely to be swayed by published polling results. Few polls can hope to closely approximate reality and a lot of published polling data is agenda driven. That’s why my basic posture toward any poll data is one of distrust.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness

It turns out that cleanliness is next to godliness. (See Science Daily article.) Or at least, clean scents appear to entice people to engage in more ethical behavior. They become more fair and charitable.

The article points out that past research has found a correlation between moral choices and physical cleanliness.

Researchers think that this knowledge might be useful in business and institutional settings. They note that businesses sometimes employ heavy handed techniques to regulate behavior, when relatively inexpensive cleanliness and appropriate aromas might do the trick.

It is also suggested that cleanliness could be useful in our homes. Of course, that’s nothing new. For generations parents have nagged their kids to keep their rooms clean on the premise that doing so is somehow good for their souls. Parents have instinctively known about this linkage for millennia.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Super Fed to the Rescue!

This morning I began quickly reading this WSJ article touting six specific regulations that its authors claim would quickly stabilize our nation’s problematic financial markets. The authors state:
“Our country needs to strive for transparency in financial-company balance sheets and recognize the direct correlation between clarity in asset value and how financial enterprises are valued by investors.”
OK, that sounds good, but the very next sentence caused me some concern. The following paragraph made me wonder whether the authors were sane. Finally when I reached the first of their six suggestions, “Make the Federal Reserve the super-regulator responsible for overseeing systemic risk,” I scrolled to see who the authors were.

Judah S. Kraushaar is the head of a hedge fund. Sandy Weill is the former CEO of Citigroup. He is most notable for having driven that corporate giant down the toilet while simultaneously playing a significant role in fomenting the current economic crisis.

Together the two men wrote a 2006 book that touted Weill’s magnificence as a businessman-philanthropist. Of course, no one really expects objectivity in such a work. But these men’s WSJ op-ed demonstrates the same kind of fictional hope found in their book (which can presently be purchased new in hardback from some sellers for $0.01.)

Making the Fed — a privately owned for-profit bank that distributes unknown amounts taxpayer dollars to unknown entities and that cannot itself be audited (being an unchecked government within a government) — the super-regulator in charge of our nation’s entire financial system is a suggestion so stunning in its preposterousness that it boggles the mind.

The Fed has already demonstrably failed in both of its main missions, which are to stabilize the monetary system and to ensure full employment (a mission added in 1978 that has essentially made the Fed’s primary job impossible). As one commenter on the article noted:
“The Fed was chartered to protect the value of the Dollar. In 1913, the dollar was worth 1/20th of an ounce of gold. Today, it is worth less than 1/1000th of an ounce, a decline by a factor of 50. In that period, the per capita income in constant dollars has risen less than 6 fold. By these metrics, the Fed has failed miserably. Yet, what do we propose? To give the Fed even more power and control.”
Weill’s and Kraushaar’s five other suggestions are cut from the same cloth, asserting the superhuman ability of omnipotent regulatory technocrats to achieve nirvana via a federal Rube Goldberg process.

Fortunately, a number of WSJ readers take Messrs. Weill and Kraushaar to task for their lack of credibility and the utter silliness of their suggestions. (See comments.) Some comments are simply rants, while others are quite creative. The commenters provide some interesting sidelights as well. Varying views about the usefulness of the Glass-Stegall Act of 1933 and the implications of its repeal in 1999 are expressed, and differing views about restrictions on executive pay are offered.

It’s not that Weill and Kraushaar are totally wrong in their observations, but their assessment of the situation ignores many important factors, including Mr. Weill’s and the government’s culpability in the crisis. Moreover, their solutions fail to consider such political realities as to whether politicians will vote to give the Fed power to police the politicians and the institutions they create, manage, and enable. Or perhaps that side of the equation is simply uninteresting to those super handymen whose toolboxes contain only hammers (and perhaps sickles).

If Weill’s past performance and Kraushaar’s past fawning about Weill’s performance weren’t already enough to make laughingstocks of the two men, their ridiculous WSJ article ought to finish the job. The solution to the failure of big government and its big business allies is not more big government intertwined with big business. It’s amazing to see such creative minds suffer from such an abject lack of creative imagination.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Laws of the Uncivilized

Some time ago, my local newspaper published a letter to the editor calling for harsher treatment of people that kept dogs that harmed or threatened others. The writer suggested an escalating scale for repeated offenses. The severity of the suggested punishments, the writer felt, would provide a disincentive to owning a dangerous dog in a residential area.

Another reader responded to the letter, stating that additional laws would not bring the civility that the letter writer craved and that the proliferation of such laws was itself a measure of how uncivilized we have become.

That response sounded familiar. It kept running through my head until I finally googled for it and I found this article by Walter Williams. He writes:
“A civilized society's first line of defense is not the law, police and courts but customs, traditions and moral values. Behavioral norms, mostly transmitted by example, word of mouth and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important thou-shalt-nots such as shalt not murder, shalt not steal, shalt not lie and cheat, but they also include all those courtesies one might call ladylike and gentlemanly conduct. The failure to fully transmit values and traditions to subsequent generations represents one of the failings of the so-called greatest generation.

“Behavior accepted as the norm today would have been seen as despicable yesteryear. …

“Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we've become.”
I note that some of this article was quoted by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in his LDS General Conference address a few weeks ago.

Addressing Incivility
I agree that the proliferation of laws intended to induce civility are actually a measure of our incivility as a society and that such laws will not ultimately make us more civilized. I think there is probably plenty of variation in concepts of what the ideal civilized society would look like. Even if we could share a common vision of this, the question of how to deal with the immediate situation would still have to be addressed.

The respondent to the letter writer further stated that if his neighbors were intent on keeping dangerous dogs, he was confident that he would be able to use his legal concealed weapon to dispatch such animals if they proved a threat. He suggested that others likewise arm themselves in order to ensure a civil society.

I have no problem with people responsibly carrying a legal concealed weapon. (Responsible parties would not include people like the guy that accidentally shot a toilet in a Carl’s Jr. to pieces in Centerville, Utah last January, as reported in this D-News article.) But the ‘civilized’ society imagined by the letter respondent doesn’t sound very civilized to me.

I’m not sure that turning everyone into a gun slinger is the answer. I’m having difficulty imagining what the letter respondent thinks I should do when my kids want to go outside to play. Hopefully he wouldn’t think that it would be appropriate for me to arm my children, but maybe he thinks that I should either act as their armed bodyguard or else should hire such a service to watch over them.

Or maybe he thinks that I should just be prepared to hire a lawyer to sue anyone whose dangerous dog gets out, as if the proliferation of lawyers isn’t just another symptom of the societal illness he already diagnosed.

Dog Story
These are not rhetorical questions. We live in a lovely middle class neighborhood. (No McMansions here.) There are lots of families, so there are lots of children at play during certain times of day.

My wife used to go walking in our neighborhood early in the day. One day as she walked, a neighbor had let two large dogs (Boxer breed) out into the unfenced yard to relieve themselves unattended and unleashed. This is illegal in our city. Completely unprovoked, the dogs charged down the street and viciously confronted my wife.

Sensing real mortal danger, my wife did everything she had been taught about dealing with such situations. She avoided looking the animals in the eye and stood silently. Still, the dogs approached her with lowered tails, barred teeth, harsh growls and barks, and menacing body language.

Finally, the owner came out of the house to bring the dogs back inside. When he finally called the dogs back, one trotted toward him. The other turned toward him, but then turned back on my wife, who had not moved a muscle, and lunged at her. It turned out to be a false charge. The dog was letting her know who was in charge of the situation.

Since that time, my wife has not walked the neighborhood much. The police had a chat with the dogs’ owner and issued a warning, but the situation left my wife rattled.

Reality vs. Idealism
I suppose that if my wife were like the letter writer, she would arm herself to go out walking. But I think that even an expert marksman would have difficulty successfully shooting and disabling two vicious dogs at close range before one of them had him.

I believe that when we choose to live in a residential community, we accept certain limitations on our behavior in order to optimize conditions. Such restraint ultimately garners more benefits for us than would acting out our whims in an unbridled fashion. The question is how to deal with those that refuse to impose such necessary restraint on themselves.

While no amount of law making and compliance enforcement can create a civil society, this does not mean that we can stand idly by while a few wreck the community for all. Nor does it mean that becoming a self appointed compliance officer will remedy the situation.

If internal moral values and cultural sanctions do not cause people to refrain from behavior that poses unacceptable risks for their neighbors, it is necessary to implement policies that create disincentives to such behavior. I know that in the ideal libertarian utopia, these kinds of coercive restraints would be unnecessary. But in the real world where we live — a world where some people seem to think that owning vicious pets in a residential area is a good idea — they appear to be necessary.

Yes, I know that this kind of thing leads down an awful slippery slope, but does anyone have any truly feasible better ideas?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

America Shall Overcome

This is the third post in a series about demonstrating adulthood as a society. In part 1 I discussed the new long-term revenue realities that state governments must face and that the federal government will eventually face. In part 2 I took exception to Indiana Governor Mitch Danielscontention that this situation “is a test of our adulthood as a democracy.” After gnashing on the problems with pure democracies, I will now discuss what Daniels probably really meant.

Like most people of the past few generations, I assume that Daniels is conflating the terms democracy and republic. The average American that uses the word democracy to refer to our system of government does not usually intend to deny the fact that we actually have a republic with some democratic features. Sometimes people use the term “representative democracy.” But usually, all of these things mean roughly the same thing in the minds of most Americans.

I think it’s clear that I believe that there is and should be a marked distinction between the idiom ‘democracy’ and our system of government. A democracy has been described as two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. Democracies are not capable of demonstrating “adulthood.” Our Founders designed a republican form of government that is supposed to temper the excesses inherent in democracies.

That being said, I will assume the best of the statement made by Governor Daniels and accept the notion that what he really meant is that the current and coming revenue crisis that faces and will face our state and federal governments is a test of the capability of our political system to exhibit adult levels of responsibility and accountability.

If that’s what Daniels meant, then I agree with him. In that case, will we pass the test? It’s difficult to know. If I could tell the future, I would already be a billionaire. But I think we have some cues.

American public policy is often myopic and short sighted. It is often driven by pandering to both big business and the dependent class. The chief concern of a significant portion of society is how others are going to take care of them. The size of the dependent class is growing and many politicians are happy with that. We currently run our monetary system like a banana republic and pretend that there is no limit to what we can spend.

But historically, when the chips are really down and when matters are really critical, America tends to make the right decision. It is when we are actually up against a wall that we seem to do what’s best, at least from a big picture perspective. (There have always been individuals and groups that have been less than helpful during such times.)

The fact that our state and federal governments are acting like adolescents rather than adults right now tells me that the average American doesn’t currently perceive conditions to be critical. When that perception eventually gels, no amount of greed and ineptitude in government (or in its business and organizational supporters) will be able to withstand the call to do what must be done.

In other words, I’m suggesting that it will get worse before it gets better. But when we hit bottom, we will pull up our bootstraps and move in the right direction. We are, after all, Americans.

Of course, like every other foreteller of the future, I have nothing but history and hunches to upon which to base this theory. Others imagine different scenarios, some darker and some rosier. And it is impossible to say at this point that any of these are wrong. But I suspect that a period of more responsible policy will eventually arrive when there are few credible alternatives left.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Democracies Fail the Test of Adulthood

In my last post, I discussed the harsh financial realities that states must now face and that the federal government will eventually have to face, even if it currently acts as if the piper will never have to be paid. I wrapped up the post by citing Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ contention in this WSJ op-ed that this situation “is a test of our adulthood as a democracy.” I think that Daniels is wrong on this point. Here’s why.

Our nation’s Founders understood that democracies are ill suited to the adult level of responsibility Daniels calls for. Madison, in particular, was keenly aware of the inevitability of a democracy becoming an oppressive force against the minority, as discussed in Federalist #10.

In a democracy there is nothing to stop the majority from voting themselves benefits from the minority, since there is no private property that cannot be construed to be exempt from belonging to “the people.” Thus, as Madison noted, democracies “have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property….” Democracies embrace and glorify the immorality of “might makes right.” (Although they don’t have a corner on that market.)

Madison wrote that those “who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.” Rather, to combat the unavoidable instability caused by the system, democracies eventually transition to dictatorial states ruled over by a strong man or an oligarchy.

Madison opined that a properly designed republican form of government would mitigate many of the problems inherent in democracies without unduly inhibiting the majority. But in his passion for this new structure, he put far too much stock in the ability of the structure to attract the virtuous to public office. He wrote:
“…as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.”
Ah, if he could only see today’s political campaigns. Madison assumed that the government of the new republic would attract representatives “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” The level headed deliberations of these enlightened politicians would mute the excesses of direct democracy.

The idealistic Madison felt that the ability of factions to have a seat at the table of government would temper both smaller and larger factions and would lead to good government. He apparently could not foresee the development of partisan politics, which arose (with Madison playing an integral role) during Washington’s presidency and was deeply entrenched by the time Madison became Chief Executive. By the time Madison finished his second term, he no longer held lofty illusions about government attracting chiefly politicians of high moral character.

The question, then, is how to deal with the combined realities that:
  • Democracies tend to tyranny.
  • Politicians in republics almost universally act in their own self interest within the economy of the political system.
  • Gaining power in the political realm usually requires aiding and abetting the development of systems that ostensibly oppress citizens (under the guise, of course, of aiding them).
We can put on blinders and believe, as did the Madison of 1787, in the inherent virtue of politicians seeking and holding office. Or we can approach matters with the realities of politics understood by the Madison of 1817. At any rate, neither the 1787 nor the 1817 Madison believed that democracies were capable of demonstrating adulthood, as Governor Mitch Daniels suggests.

Next time I will discuss the kind of adulthood that I think Daniels probably intended when he wrote his statement.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Future of State Government Revenues Is Now

Back in the dim ages of, oh, three to five years ago, Utah’s politicians reveled in unprecedented ‘surplus revenues’ several years in a row. We had a popular pretty-boy governor with a big government agenda and a legislature that was busy figuring out its own priorities for growing state government. We even had to convene special legislative sessions on how to divide up the largess.

Times were good. Few cared about or paid attention to the expansion of state government. I was among the few voices in the wilderness crying out for austerity and preparation. Such voices were drowned out in the raucous revelry over how to dispose of billions of extra (taxpayer) dollars that had found their way into state coffers. Others were crying out for preparation as well. But these voices repeatedly called for more spending, which they conveniently labeled “investment.”

Hardly anybody seemed to care that all economic boom cycles must go bust. And those that did care were busy trying to nail down their share of the money while it was easy to come by. It was a good time to be a politician. It is so much more enjoyable saying yes to pleas for more funding than saying no, “And by the way, we’re going to have to take back some of what we previously gave you.”

Nowadays nervous state politicians try to find ways to scrimp just enough to keep the state solvent, hoping that the bust will soon return to a boom so that they can get back to business as usual. There’s only one problem. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels thinks that what we’re seeing today is the new normal.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal last month, Daniels said, “What we are being hit by isn't a tropical storm that will come and go, with sunshine soon to follow. It's much more likely that we're facing a near permanent reduction in state tax revenues that will require us to reduce the size and scope of our state governments. And the time to prepare for this new reality is already at hand.”

Daniels notes that states, like their citizens, lived pretty high on the hog for the decade preceding the recession, when states increased their spending “by an average of 6% per year, gusting to 8% during 2007-08.” Although Utah continues to rank very well among states by fiscal measures, that’s like saying that you’re the best of the dregs, given that most state governments, as Daniels puts it, are being kept afloat only by “an emergency infusion of printed federal funny money.”

During the same time that Indiana cut spending 1.4% annually and reduced state staffing by 5,000, Utah joined most other states in growing spending and the number of government employees. Why did Indiana buck the trend? While Utah started out 2005 flush with cash, Indiana was teetering on bankruptcy. Hence its drive for governmental austerity while other state governments (including Utah’s) were growing by leaps and bounds.

While many politicians hunker down hopeful of a brighter economy just around the corner, Daniels lays out a grim picture of why they hope in vain.
  • Much of the spending that fueled the revenues of the boom years was based on borrowing that will not soon be repeated.
    • Loans have tightened significantly for businesses. This will continue to be the case for quite a while.
    • The home equity that was the basis of borrowing that fueled consumer spending is gone. Today’s realistic home prices aren’t going to rocket back to unsustainable levels anytime soon, so that source of revenue is kaput.
  • Even if the market roars back to life, it will take years before investors overcome their losses and have to start paying capital gains taxes.
  • Soak-the-rich taxes are producing far less revenue. Not only are there fewer rich to soak, the ones that are left have options to relocate to more tax advantaged settings.
Daniels notes that, unlike the federal government, states cannot keep themselves afloat by printing more money. Even if the federal government bucks public sentiment and does another ‘stimulus,’ it will only postpone what must be done: revise expectations and downsize state governments. The alternative currently being tried by many states, wishing “for an improbably huge boom while chasing your own tail through self-destructive taxes won't prove much of a strategy,” writes Daniels.

I find it interesting that so many are in denial about the path that state governments must take. As states come to grips with the reality of much lower revenues, the usual members of the dependent class will be seen shrieking at every possible instance. Eventually, however, there simply won’t be other options.

While state governments must contemplate actual reductions, the federal government is going the exact opposite direction at hyper speed, seemingly heedless of any limitation whatsoever. Daniels opines that this kind of extreme denial will only continue “for a while longer” and “as long as our Chinese lenders enable it.”

I find Daniels’ call to responsibility intriguing. He writes, “The time to plan and debate is now. This is a test of our adulthood as a democracy.” This is where I think Daniels got it wrong. I will elaborate on that in my next post.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Oh, the Inanity!

“They will reap the whirlwind,” a middle-age acquaintance prognosticated recently while speaking of the explosion of electronic social networking, particularly among the younger generation.

“Eventually they won’t know how to interact verbally or how to read body language. They won’t know how dating or courting works and they’ll end up with a bunch of superficial relationships that lack the joy and connection that can only be found in deep human relationships,” he opined. “And then when they’re at that state, they won’t be able to recapture what has been lost.”

I think similar fears have been expressed over the millennia as humans have moved from tribalism to the modern extended order. I’m sure that some tribal elders were freaked out when they saw younger people starting to use writing for communication. They’d sit around shaking their heads, saying, “In another couple of generations all of the oral histories will be lost. Don’t expect those clay tablets to last.”

If you think about all of the fears of the older curmudgeons stretching back into the mists of time, they were often somewhat correct in their forecasts. The oral histories died out. The profound sense of belonging to a tight group whose members were entirely economically and socially co-dependent faded out with the expansion of the extended order.

But in another sense, the curmudgeons were wrong. Since the future is difficult to see, they failed to envision the marvelous and good things that came out of the social and technological advancements they feared. Although there have been some stupendous attempts to thwart ideas whose times have come — some even lasting generations — the overall trend is clear. Though uneven the course may be, and often fraught with opposition, society eventually adopts compelling progress.

Count me as one of those refusing to come into the new age. So far, I have successfully avoided the brave new world of Facebook, and I have yet too much of a sense of dignity to stoop to Twitter. There are some things that ought to be private, even if some people insist on assaulting others with the most mundane facets of their pathetic lives. Unless you live in my home, there’s no reason for me to know that you’re at the supermarket contemplating which toothpaste to buy.

My wife recently gave into peer pressure from several lifelong friends to get a Facebook account. She admits that if she weren’t such a busy mom, she could easily waste many hours daily at the computer. As it is, she checks Facebook about twice per week. While there are some features she enjoys, her main impression is that it is an incessant source of inanity. Some of the senseless communication is easy to block; some is not.

My older children look at me like I’m from another century. Maintaining a blog site and using an email client are soooooooo old fashioned. On the other hand, they think that middle-aged people trolling Facebook are pretty creepy.

In a throwback to the don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 sentiment of the ‘hip’ era, Facebook is the domain of the younger generation. (And apparently also of junky furniture. I recently discovered that our 1987 vintage couch in the basement has its own Facebook account.)

Anyway, what would it profit me to argue with an age group for whom Facebook is equal to beer and only behind iPods in popularity? (Or at least, that was the case back in 2006, which is three eons ago at the current pace of change.) Actually, my kids don’t have a problem with old fogies being on Facebook, as long as they stay in their own sphere. It’s OK for a parent to be a ‘friend,’ but that’s it.

I suspect that I will stay on the outside looking in at Facebook until modern necessity drags me kicking and screaming into social networking. I suppose I could stay out for years, becoming a member of the cyber-Amish that refuse to bow to the modern demands for social networking, but I’m not that passionate about it.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see what the current penchant for electronic social networking evolves into over the next generation. Will they find a way to keep it from becoming a paradise for ID thieves?

Despite my current lack of enthusiasm for Facebook, I’m not about to prophesy that it only portends a dark and evil future. History has too many examples of advances that have brought more good things than they destroyed. Although the curmudgeons have always been right about some things, they have never owned the future.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Freedom of Rational (or Irrational) Choice

For years my darling wife has graciously packed me lunches for work, Scouting events, hikes, etc. She has put up with all of my food idiosyncrasies and various approaches to healthy eating. My wife does this because she loves me, despite my many flaws.

Years ago when we lived on a pretty tight budget, my wife explained that we could save some money if I would wash out and recycle the re-sealable plastic bags in which she packed my food items. It was something she had learned at home. Dutifully, I took to washing out and then drying these small bags on a daily basis. They would be reused a number of times.

One day a friend observed my behavior and asked what I was doing. When I explained the basis for my actions, he responded in a friendly manner that the total savings I could achieve in a year by reusing my food bags could amount to only a few dollars; probably less than five and certainly less than ten. He too liked to save money, he said, but he tried to focus on actions that would maximize savings for the least effort.

My friend was correct, of course. To him my actions appeared illogical — or irrational they would say in some circles. But rationality does not imply that each person’s actions must make sense to others. Indeed, rationality postulates that only the individual making a particular choice can fully appreciate and weigh all of the inputs upon which a choice is based.

We employ such a broad range of inputs in most of our choices that it would be impossible to fully quantify these factors. In fact, many such elements never even make it to the level of general consciousness. We are so quick to employ deeply ingrained knowledge and assumptions that we call it instinct. We probably couldn’t explain all of these dynamics to others even if we wanted to.

In the case of my baggie washing, my love of my wife certainly was an input that my friend either didn’t grasp or to which he ascribed less weight than I did. However, humans are learning machines. We are fully capable of including additional inputs in our decision making within our capacities. Although behavioralists know that we usually try to minimize the education and other inputs necessary to make a choice. Indeed, pretty much all of our choices are made on imperfect bases.

My friend’s observations caused me to question the value of my baggie reuse activity. When I shared my concerns with my wife, who is very intelligent, she was quick to agree that the procedure made little financial sense. And that was the end of our family’s baggie recycling program.

We can never fully understand another’s decision making process. (Indeed, we probably can’t even fully explain our own choice processes.) With each choice we weigh a myriad of factors of various priorities based on specific conditions. We constantly attempt to maximize our benefits while minimizing our costs.

Each of us is uniquely qualified to make the choices with which we are faced because only we face the precise set of circumstances and have the broadest knowledge base of the intricate ways in which a certain choice will affect us, even if we act on imperfect information. We can never judge with complete accuracy another’s assessment of the costs and benefits of a given decision.

Each of us can do much to educate ourselves to improve our basis for making choices. And sometimes we can help educate others so that they can achieve better decisions, as my friend did with me. But in most cases, we simply cannot with certainty prove that our vision of what a person’s choice ought to be is demonstrably better than the choice they make instead.

It is with this sense of humility that we should approach all public policy issues. This kind of modesty is cause for a default strategy of minimizing coercive restrictions on choices that people may make. I am not here calling for anarchy or for lack of care and concern for others.

A healthy appreciation for public choice theory ought to give us pause when contemplating the ‘good’ that we suppose can or should be accomplished through the instrument of government.

The best statesmen — and the best citizens — will understand that arrogance is incompatible with good government. They will comprehend that government; whether that be the ruling class or even the majority, does not generally have better answers to society’s problems than leaving people free to govern themselves as much as possible, so that its scope must be restricted to those few areas where it must intervene and where it has a track record of overall superior performance.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Free Speech by Car

I’m grateful for freedom of speech. It is quite common for Americans to use their automobiles as moving billboards for expressing their opinions. I use my freedom to demure from such activities.

My family’s automobiles are plain, stodgy, unadorned middle class family cars. There’s nothing attention grabbing about the interior or exterior of our vehicles. No special window decals. No bumper stickers. Just state required license plates. In fact, the plainness of our vehicles is sometimes the feature that makes them easy to find in a busy parking lot.

Years ago I sort of fancied the idea of getting a vanity license plate. Some of my friends did so. But I somehow could never bring myself to pony up the additional fee for the plate. Then one day I wondered to myself why in the world I would want to call attention to myself out on the road in that manner and I became grateful that I was too cheap to buy vanity plates.

As I see cars posted with various messages, it is sometimes easy for me to understand why the owners would communicate such things. Other times it’s not so easy.

Except for callow teenagers, I have no clue why anyone would fill their windows with decals of a rock band’s logo. I enjoy music from a variety of artists. But there are none that I believe to be so superior to all others that I would want to publicly demonstrate some kind of permanent loyalty to them.

I see some cars that carry religious messages. While I don’t have general objections to people doing so, I personally prefer to handle communication about sacred matters in other ways. (I sometimes have specific objections when a religious message is couched in a way that conveys superiority, which runs counter to the virtue of humility that most religions endorse.)

Lots of vehicles feature sports logos. That’s fine, although, I have explained before that I can’t fathom why anyone would feel beholden to any sports club. It just doesn’t make sense to me to attach one’s sense of self worth to a sports team (unless one is a participant on the team).

Similarly, I don’t understand non-business cars that sport corporate logos. What product or service is so magnificent that I would offer a type of permanent free mobile advertising for it? I just don’t get it. On the other hand, stickers denoting membership in some organization are easier for me to understand. They show that the owner believes in the principles the organization espouses.

The other day we were following a jeep that had a wheel cover featuring the Jolly Roger and the words, “Pirate Gal.” My son asked what that was supposed to mean. From what I know of women associated with pirates, that’s not an association I would think that anyone would seek. My son howled with laughter when I responded that maybe it meant that the woman had a sunken chest.

Some bumper stickers have humorous messages. Although I would never put one on my car, I have a few favorites.

Back in the 80s bumper stickers stating “I love …” were very common. Actually, the word ‘love’ was represented by a red heart. People loved all kinds of things: dogs, cats, motorcycles, spouses, hiking, etc. A common sticker said, “I heart my dog.” One day I saw a sticker that replaced the heart symbol with a spade symbol that is common on playing cards, so that it implied, “I spayed my dog.” I thought that was pretty funny in context.

Another sticker points to the obvious problem of those that are so environmentally conscious that they have an anti-human agenda. The crass tongue-in-cheek message states “Save the world; kill yourself.”

I had to wonder about the sanity of the owner of the junky car I saw that sported a bumper sticker with a cartoonish image of a monkey and the words, “I fling poo.” I detest the vulgar messages on some cars. But at least these clearly advertise who the idiots are. (Loud thumping stereos perform the same public service.)

Political bumper stickers are quite common, especially at certain seasons. Although, some people keep their stickers on long after the race is over, or even after the candidate has served and left office. It’s kind of like the people that still have their Christmas lights up in July. I’ve never found a politician that I liked enough to cause me to deface my car with promotional material. But I have no problem with people that choose to do so.

So, while I drive around in my plain, unobtrusive family cars that I refuse to decorate with messages, you can know that I still look at — and occasionally enjoy (or find useful) — the messages others choose to display on their cars.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Teachers Behaving Badly

Salacious news sells well. A juicy story that has been splashing across the pages of my local newspaper in recent days is the tale of a 62-year-old high school choral teacher that married one of his former students a short time after she graduated high school and turned 18. (See St-Ex story — the paper’s gotta be loving this one.)

The story referenced above mainly focuses on the opinions of various teenagers. Some are kind of creeped out. Others figure that the two partners are consenting adults, although, it’s pretty clear that the relationship was ongoing while the girl was still a minor. The police want to know if any laws were broken during that time.

Regardless of whether the teacher violated any legal statutes, he has crossed a social moral boundary. This necessarily damages public trust in his profession and in the institution where he has worked.

I can’t speak to this specific relationship. I know nothing of these two people other than what has been hinted at in sensational news coverage. But I will comment on the social implications of the pattern they have demonstrated.

Some of the reasons society looks askance at winter-spring relationships include the tremendous power differential between the partners involved and the incentives that generally underlie such liaisons. Although it is entirely possible that the teacher was the one seduced, the more mature individual is considered to have vastly more power in a situation of this nature. The older person has much more life experience and should be far more capable of temperate behavior.

The power differential is even greater when the mature partner has held in loco parentis trust over the less mature partner. This is the case with roles such as teachers and clergy, where persons are tasked with essentially performing the function of the parent — in essence, acting in the interest of the actual parents. This puts these kinds of relationships on a pseudo incestuous footing.

What about incentives? The base incentives for an old man to enjoy an intimate relationship with a young woman are so obvious as to be understood by children.

Less clear are the incentives of the young woman in such a liaison. Although I have no idea what is going on in this instance, common motivators include wealth, a desire to prove one’s maturity, and getting away from a difficult home atmosphere.

Many people are not able to fully articulate why relationships such as that of the high school teacher and the former student seem morally improper. But most sense that there is something wrong with the picture.

When an official at an institution that holds in loco parentis trust over minors effectively violates that trust, it reflects badly on both the institution and on the profession of the official. This is as true for clergy, daycare workers, and police as it is for teachers. They are held to a higher standard because their positions imbue them with higher level of trust than the average person.

I have spoken mainly of institutions that serve children, but this also applies to institutions that serve any member of society that is not fully capable or culpable. Consider nursing homes, for example.

Regardless of whether this teacher violated any laws, he has harmed his own trustworthiness and that of his colleagues. Which of the parents of this man’s female students isn’t going to be concerned about their daughters’ interactions with him? What does it say about the trustworthiness of a school (and a district) that has such an individual on staff? What is the likelihood that other teachers are disposed to similar behaviors?

People already know that schools are a pedophile’s dream. Matters like this only strengthen that perception. This situation puts the school district in an awful position. If it turns out that there are no legal grounds for this man’s dismissal, the district will be stuck having to keep him around despite the broad perception of untrustworthiness.

Again, we are not necessarily talking about this specific relationship. Perhaps these two people are so far from the average that they will have a happy, successful, and long-lived marriage. But the pattern they are acting out is cause for public concern.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Voters Don't Really Care About Issues

Utah Policy has posted a fascinating discussion about the importance of issues in political campaigns. Three knowledgeable contributors offer their views on the matter. Each has demonstrated success in getting candidates elected to political office.

These three are Todd Taylor, a chiropractor and Executive Director of the Utah State Democratic Party; Deidre Henderson, Campaign Manager for Congressman Jason Chaffetz; and Matt Lyon, a member of the Executive Board of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party. LaVarr Webb wraps up the commentary with brief remarks.

The three experts all hit on some of the same points, but each also offers a few additional insights. I’d summarize the points made as follows:
  • Specific issues are rarely important to campaigns.
  • Few voters pay attention to position statements.
  • The ability to communicate effectively and at the appropriate depth (for the audience) about a broad variety of issues is quite important.
  • Effectiveness in communicating principles upon which actions will be based is significant.
  • Party affiliation is more important than specific issues.
  • A candidate’s likability and appearance of competence are key factors.
  • The overall “message” the candidate delivers is a deciding factor.
In addition to these main points, the contributors offer some useful tidbits of insight. I sense significant wisdom in Todd Taylor’s observation that:
“The big issues that never seem to resolve, are not really important issues at all, they are talking points for two or more groups that find them profitable to keep unresolved. A note to voters: If you find that you are attracted to a candidate because of their position on one of the many unresolved but long-brewing issues, just know that you are being played. If it is not resolved, it is not resolved for a reason. Americans are good at taking care of the most important things.”
Deidre Henderson stresses effective communication of one’s beliefs in principles of government. Principle-based communication can help a candidate live with statements made on the campaign trail once elected. She notes that “Once a statement is made it's nearly impossible to retract.”

Matt Lyon explains why specific issues don’t help candidates much: “Since local issues vary so drastically for individuals and households, it can be difficult to relate to voters on a specific issue. Additionally, regardless of party affiliation, local candidates often have very similar local issues -- everyone runs on the "education" ticket.” Lyon notes the importance of connecting with voters in ways that increase likability. But he also emphasizes the significance of party affiliation.

Party affiliation is important to voters just as branding is useful in many of the products consumers buy and use daily. Voters look at political parties the same way they look at product lines. Little may be known about a new product, but the reliability of the brand’s other products and the brand’s overall message give the consumer some clue as to what to expect. Political parties work the same way for voters.

When you are voting in a tight enough group that you have personal interaction with (or at least personal knowledge of) the various candidates, you are selecting among somewhat known quantities. In most cases, political jurisdictions are now too large for voters to personally know the candidates. Voters don’t really know what they are getting. So they take cues from a variety of sources, including party affiliation.

Moreover, marketing experts know that consumers and voters tend to minimize the effort they must expend to make a selection, since we all have many things clamoring for our time. If the choice becomes too difficult — such as when too many options are offered or too much complexity is involved — many consumers won’t buy. Many would-be voters skip voting for the same reason. Conversely, voters tend to stay away when there is too little product differentiation (i.e. no candidate seems qualitatively superior).

Webb laments the fact that “well-researched, principled, in-depth positions on issues” is “not really the recipe for success.” He agrees that simply “staying on message with sound bites dictated by focus groups and polling will win more races.” He opines that a “great campaign can bring the two together….”

That may be true, but why would a candidate expend resources on activities that produce no advantage in an election? Besides, as Taylor notes, “The important issues that an officeholder will have to confront will likely be those that do come as a surprise - not only to the candidate but to the public and most everyone else.”

What are we really voting for when we vote for a political candidate? Are we expecting to get a box of cut and dried issues or are we expecting to get someone that we hope will competently represent us in government? Some of us certainly think that how candidates stand on issues helps define what kind of representatives they will be. But that is clearly not a selling feature for the vast majority of voters. They are trying to capture a glimpse of a bigger picture.

I like Deidre Henderson’s principle based approach. Clearly state your principles and then let the public determine how well your actions in office match those principles for the next go-around. But we also need good memories to recall what principles candidates said they held dear. Otherwise we will find that they slowly shift to something quite different. Consider, for example, the contrast between the 1976 vintage Orrin Hatch and the Orrin Hatch of 2009.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Repeating Pattern

Writing of the development of the extended order in his book The Fatal Conceit, celebrated economist Friedrich A. Hayek writes (p. 32):
“It is true that, for a time, the large trading communities that had grown up in the Mediterranean were precariously protected against marauders by the still more martial Romans, who as Cicero tells us, could dominate the region by subduing the most advanced commercial centres of Corinth and Carthage, which had sacrificed military progress to mercandi et navigandi cupiditas (De re publica, 2, 7-10). But during the last years of the Republic and the first centuries of the Empire, governed by a senate whose members were deeply involved in commercial interests, Rome gave the world the prototype of private law based on the most absolute conception of several property. The decline and final collapse of this first extended order came only after central administration in Rome increasingly displaced free endeavour. This sequence has been repeated again and again: civilization might spread, but is not likely to advance much further, under a government that takes over the direction of daily affairs from its citizens. It would seem that no advanced civilisation has yet developed without a government which saw its chief aim in the protection of private property, but that again and again the further evolution and growth to which this gave rise was halted by a ‘strong’ government. Governments strong enough to protect individuals against the violence of their fellows make possible the evolution of an increasingly complex order of spontaneous and voluntary cooperation. Sooner or later, however, they tend to abuse that power and to suppress the freedom they had earlier secured in order to enforce their own presumedly greater wisdom and to allow ‘social institutions to develop in a haphazard manner’ (to take a characteristic expression that is found under the heading ‘social engineering’ in the Fontana/Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought (1977)).”
Hayek goes on to discuss similar experiences in Asia, Meso-America, and Egypt to make his point. He goes on to decry the fact that historians have given far too much credit to the “monuments and documents left by holders of political power, whereas the true builders of the extended order, who as often as not created the wealth that made the monuments possible, left less tangible and ostentatious testimonies to their achievement.”

Does this pattern sound familiar?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Of National Parks and Public Property

Last week we took our family on vacation to three national parks that are in relatively close proximity to each other. Throughout our trip we were blessed with clear blue skies and moderate temperatures.

We knew that putting all seven of us together in a single vehicle for many hours of driving and then jamming us into cramped sleeping accommodations over several days and nights might create a little too much ‘family togetherness,’ but we determined to do it anyway. The experience turned out to be manageable and occasionally pleasant, with only rare threats of physical violence.

Three national parks
We first visited and did some hiking in Zion National Park. Although I do a fair amount of backcountry activity, that is not a favored pastime for some family members, so we stuck to the heavy tourist zones. During much of the year, you can’t drive your private vehicles on the park’s scenic drive. You park your vehicle and ride shuttle buses instead. Although you can choose to walk or ride a bicycle on the drive, the narrow roadway makes that a hazardous proposition.

We enjoyed seeing deer, wild turkeys, chipmunks, various fowl, and even a robust mountain sheep ram (that we caught on video). I think the family’s favorite activity was when we stopped at a pullout on the Zion Mount Carmel Highway for some unstructured playing in the sand and climbing around on the ‘slickrock’ formations.

We next visited Grand Canyon National Park. We went to the less popular North Rim that boasts a number of viewpoints offering various spectacular views of the canyon and the surrounding area. My wife discovered a newfound sense of acrophobia that only struck her when she saw her children scrambling around close to the edges of some of the sheer drop-offs. That’s the innate motherly urge to protect one’s offspring at work.

I think that of the three parks we visited, the kids were least impressed with the Grand Canyon. I thought it was amazing, but it was a bit hazy the day we were there. Also, a couple of our kids are prone to motion sickness and there is a lot of driving on winding mountainous roads to get to the various North Rim viewpoints.

The final featured destination of our trip was Bryce Canyon National Park. We spent most of a day visiting the various viewpoints. It was quite breezy at some of the viewpoints. It seemed to me that most visitors went to the viewpoints concentrated at the north end near the lodge and camping areas and that fewer visitors went to the viewpoints to the south, which offer more expansive views. The rock formations are magnificent at every viewpoint.

Three of my sons hiked with me to Queen’s Garden. This offers a view of the formations from the bottom up. The 1.6-mile round trip hike beginning at Sunrise Point can be challenging, although the trail is very good. We encountered a number of senior citizens on the hike, some using canes.

The foreign element
Everywhere we went we encountered foreigners. Most were from Europe, although, some were from Asia or Latin America. Having grown up with a German father, it was fairly easy for me to make out and understand the Germans. I was able to chat for quite a while with some Danes, who understood my Norwegian. I think that my oldest son was correct in his estimation that we encountered more foreign visitors than American visitors.

We springboarded off of Utah’s two-day educator association school break and took the kids out of school a couple more days to pull this off. I really hate taking the kids out of school because getting caught up on missed work can be difficult. But this was an educational experience as well. And this was the perfect time of year to go. It wasn’t desperately hot and the crowds were smaller.

The dark side of national parks
I have a love-hate relationship with our national parks and other public properties. I have enjoyed using such properties throughout my life. As I have become more conservation minded, I have become aware of the open secret that the U.S. Government demonstrates stunning incompetence in managing lands under its control.

It’s not that the people involved in government land management are bad. But they’re caught in a system that charges them with impossibly implementing conflicting policies. As Randal O'Toole explains in this analysis, “The fundamental problem is, not federal incompetence, but the political allocation of natural resources to favored constituencies, which subsidizes some at the expense of others and inflicts harm on both the ecological system and the economy as a whole.”

The history of federal lands policy is rife with proclamations made by executive fiat, circumventing the legislative branch and appropriate public debate. Although many hail these as hallmarks of this or that environmentally friendly president, they are actually a characteristic of bad government.

Public property often suffers from the tragedy of the commons, because when everyone owns a resource, no one has adequate incentive to properly care for it.

Many libertarian minded people argue for complete privatization of public lands. Under the Coase Theorem, privatization would offer the most efficient use of and access to the land. Most people can only imagine negative outcomes from such schemes. Most people assume that putting Yellowstone National Park into private hands, for example, could only result in keeping most of us out.

Trusting lands
O’Toole realizes that privatization isn’t an immediately likely scenario. So he suggests public land trusts. The concept of a public land trust is explained fairly well at this site. The author explains that “Land trusts respond rapidly to conservation needs and operate in cities, rural, and suburban areas.”

Land trusts work in places like “the California coast at Big Sur; in the San Juan Islands, Washington State; at Jackson Hole, Wyoming; along the Appalachian Trail; in New York's Adirondacks; and at Acadia National Park in Maine.”

The key feature of a land trust is to transfer actual ownership of the property to the trust. In this case, it would be a publicly owned trust. Although public ownership would leave some of the same problems inherent in the current system, the public trust system would create incentive for the trust to better manage the property.

No doubt this would be an imperfect solution. But perhaps it could be politically feasible.