Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Hazardous Spending

Something is wrong with a city's priorities when running golf courses comes
before paying employees.

Mesa spends $2.5 million to run two city-owned golf courses. At the same
time, city employees are being asked to forgo cost-of-living adjustments for
the next two years.

While glittering greens may look great in convention brochures and nicely
complement the other 19 golf courses in Mesa, a round on the municipal back
nine is cold comfort to those employees facing de facto pay cuts.

Reasonable people may disagree about the proper role of government; but
municipal golf courses shouldn't cause much contention.

After all, it is hard to discern the public benefit in a playing a round of
golf. When you consider that public courses are draining precious tax
dollars from payrolls, something is clearly amiss. Public parks with swing
sets and slides, these are not.

Mesa is not alone in financing lavish personal recreation at public expense.
Tempe and Glendale each run two courses; Kingman, Page, and Casa Grande have
eighteen holes each. These one- and two-course operations are positively
quaint compared to other Arizona cities. Tucson has 5 city-owned courses,
Phoenix runs 7, Sun City has 8.

Maybe these public links wouldn't seem so fantastical if Arizona didn't have
over 300 privately owned courses, many of them reasonably priced and most
open to the public. But even if the market was not already well served by
the private sector, government-run luxuries like golf courses make about as
much sense as government-run amusement parks or night clubs- none at all.


Bad management yields Mesa deficit

Getting Greens in the Black: Golf-Course Privatization Trends and Practices

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Creative Coercion

Mesa's $40 million budget shortfall is being billed as "Armageddon" and "Apocalypse" by Vice Mayor Claudia Walters and other city council members. To hear Walters talk about the problem "the community she bought her home in" is at stake.

But what the biblical Chicken Littles in Mesa don't realize is that government spending is not a measure of community strength; it's a reflection of its weakness.

Consider the almost $14 million, more than a quarter of Mesa's prospective deficit, tied up in funding for the arts and museums. These are certainly necessary attributes of a strong community, but what does it say about the strength of a community when its citizens must be coerced into funding them by the taxman?

Government spending is not a measure of community strength; it's a reflection of
its weakness.

The same goes for stadiums and convention centers; if citizens want them, they should fund them voluntarily, not with taxes.

Is it possible the Mesa Arts Center could raise its $4.7 million budget through ticket sales and donations? If it cannot, then the community that Vice Mayor Walters decries losing is already lost.

Governments do best what individuals alone cannot, like provide police and courts; when it comes to cultural development, convention centers, and stadiums, leave it to individuals to pick up the tab through ticket sales and donations. Walters may be surprised to find her community is stronger than she seems to think--cut the funding and we'll find out.

Friday, June 17, 2005

One Way Conversation

  If you talk to God, you are praying;
   If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.

  --Thomas S. Szasz, The Second Sin,
   Anchor/Doubleday, Garden City, NY. 1973, Page 113

I think you're crazy either way.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

ROC'n' the Boat

The Arizona Registrar of Contractors (ROC) is busy protecting vulnerable consumers in Arizona from construction and remodeling scams: the elderly, new home owners, the City of Tempe. The City of Tempe?


When Tempe decided to install a city-wide wireless internet (wi-fi) network the ROC stepped in to protect the city from itself. The city hired an experienced technology firm to install the system, but the ROC threatened to shut down the project because the firm is not licensed to perform construction work in Arizona. Even though Tempe probably shouldn’t be in the business of providing wi-fi internet service, does it really need the ROC to tell it who it can and cannot hire to carry out its plans?


Perhaps it is because private firms like the Better Business Bureau do such a good job of advancing the ROC’s core mission of protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public that the ROC has been so willing to step beyond its legitimate authority of late.


In the past year, instead of only focusing on helping consumers to resolve claims against contractors who walk off a job or do shoddy work, the ROC has increased its purview to include seeking out all unlicensed contractors, even those who operate legally. It has become something of a pseudo law-enforcement agency, complete with most-wanted lists and sting operations.


The ROC is a prime example of a regulatory agency out of control. And the costs to consumers and contractors, both in terms of dollars and freedoms, are mounting.


The agency helps justifies its existence with incredible tales of entire neighborhoods swindled by fly-by-night contractors. Perhaps the equally incredible tale of the ROC swooping in to save the City of Tempe from its wi-fi installers will help justify curtailing its authority.



Monday, June 06, 2005

Windows' Death Knell

The "Apple model" is changing. If Apple fails to make a version of its OS available to the Wintel public, it will take decades to reach market parity with Windows. Not releasing Mac OS X on the Wintel world to save Apple's hardware division would be like cutting off the nose to spite the face. By opening up the Mac OS X market to all Intel boxes (and I assume AMD boxes as well) Apple will be in direct competition with Microsoft. That has never been the case.
The central advantage of Windows (that it can be installed on a wide variety of boxes) would disappear overnight. Reliability could be at least as good as Windows, but without the viruses and spyware. Those who wanted the ultimate in stability and style could still buy a 100% Apple system. The important thing is that no sane IT director would chose to keep his computers on Windows because the cost of changing would be software alone, i.e., their hardware could sit still. Then Apple gets a real crack at the corporate market. Then Bill Gates will be left with a pile of worthless paper in all his Microsoft stock (he'll still be rich because he has steadily divested his MS interest, but think of all the new fortunes to be made in Apple stock!!).
This is not a redux of the clone fiasco, because Apple is not licensing its OS to new developers to expand its market share. It is (or could be) launching a frontal attack against Microsoft's market share.
Apple's hardware division will not die, in fact its longevity will be guaranteed by a Wintel-compatible Mac OS. Witness the Xbox; it is a billion dollar negative entry on the MS balance sheet - and little more than a blip in comparison to its big brother Windows. When Apple is the standard OS, think of the R&D dollars Apple will have to spend on its hardware.
This could be the start of something profound.

Romani Ite Domum

Supremes to Pot-Smoking Pain-Sufferers: Fuck You

The purpose of courts is emphatically to say what the law is, not what it should be. The democratic process was trampled in this ruling - this is the very definition of judicial activism. I will be shocked, just shocked if Tom Delay doesn't bring this up when the Senate votes on Judge Janice Brown.

Seriously, though, this is judicial activism and it goes to the heart of resurrecting the debate over Federalism, vis-à-vis Article 1, Section 8. This is a perfect example of why we need judges like Brown on the federal bench. We need judges who recognize that the powers of the federal government extend only as far as Art. 1, 8 casts them.

Is this a debate that needs "resurrecting," or has it been raging since 1787? It did indeed start in 1787, but it died in the late 1930s when FDR strong-armed the courts into approving the federal tyranny that was the New Deal. It has been inching its way out of the grave ever since 1980. Why else, pray tell, did we need a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol in 1919, but Congress could ban marijuana (and many other drugs) in 1970 with the legislation at issue here?

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Back to Reality

Barry Goldwater was a man who believed in the ameliorating power of free enterprise. So it is all the more disheartening when a swath of desert named in his honor becomes the final resting place for those seeking that ideal.
Two women were found dead on the Barry Goldwater Range last weekend, apparently felled by heat exposure as they illegally crossed the border looking for work.
What makes the deaths of illegal immigrants like these so tragic is the lack of realistic federal action on a problem that long ago became a crisis.
While the bi-partisan legislation being drafted in congress, in part by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy, looks promising – it grants legal status based on employment and does not give preferential treatment to illegals already working here – the heart of the problem goes unaddressed: it will still be easier to sneak across the border than to try to follow legal pathways.
Take the provision for matching foreign workers with American firms. Employers will have to list jobs in an electronic database and foreign workers could not apply until the job has been offered exclusively to American workers for two weeks. This scheme assumes that American firms can wait more than two weeks to fill essential positions and that starving foreign workers can somehow access this database. Dumb and dumber.
Simpler solutions that focus on documenting migrant workers and allowing American firms more latitude in hiring who they want, when they want would lead the way to a safer border – for Americans and foreign nationals alike.

The True Crisis

Those who claim Social Security is not the crisis of the day, but rather it is Medicaid and the overall cost of health care that deserve our full attention miss the point. The solution to both problems is the same, because the underlying problem is the same.

The socialized medicine crowd fails to consider the fact that personal choices weigh heavily on one's overall level of health. One of the fortunate 90 or so percent of Americans who has health insurance and access to good healthcare can make the individual choice to smoke, drink, overeat, have unprotected sex or ignore prenatal care. Any one of these decisions can severally limit the effectiveness of even the best healthcare.
It is tired, it is clichéd, but it is true: An once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The crisis in this country is not one of health insurance or healthcare, but of healthy living. This crisis must be addressed at a personal level if people are to make choices that prevent the need for costly medical treatment, regardless of who is paying for the care. Such a "national policy" in this vein would tread too harshly on individual rights for most Americans to stomach. It would be far better to simply allow people to decide for themselves whether a 99-cent hamburger is a good bargain when they factor in the cost of a heart attack or two.
Such economic disincentives to unhealthy choices do not exist for most Americans because the cost of healthcare is too low. I pay less than $10 a pop for prescriptions that cost the insurance company many times that. So, let’s say Joe Blow has high blood pressure and “good” health insurance that covers his Lipitor. Joe’s only disincentives to eating fast food are: to avoid a heart attack (“But,” Joe says, “I take Lipitor and Aspirin, so what do I have to worry about? Plus, I have health insurance, so I will have the best possible care if I need it”), or to stop having to pop Lipitor (“But,” Joe says, “it only costs $10, I can afford it”).
What if Joe didn’t have health insurance? “I would,” Joe says, “certainly be worse off, because I would be unhealthy or broke, or both.” But, what if no one had health insurance, at least not as we know it today?
If the price on the register was the real price of Lipitor, Joe might not be so happy to take it. He might look for cheaper ways to lower his blood pressure, like eating healthy, natural foods. He might, gasp, even find time to sit down and eat a home-cooked meal with his family. 

You get the picture. It gets rosier though, because with health insurance out of the picture, the market begins to take effect. As Joe and his middle-income friends stop taking Lipitor, Pfizer will lower the price or lose half their market.
This market incentive only applies so far, as people are willing to pay whatever it takes in cases of catastrophe; in such cases insurance takes over. This that such a radical idea?
Does your car insurance cover the cost of gas? Oil changes? Does your homeowner’s policy pay the gardener or the chimney sweep? Of course not. But somehow a perversion has taken place. Health insurance has come to function as a means to pay for routine expenses, not as a safety net in times of trouble. Modern health insurance and the social welfare state mitigate personal responsibility and that – not lack of health care or insurance or failing pension plans – is the crisis of our times. Fixing Social Security will fix Medicare by changing our expectations of the proper role of government.

Hand in my Pocket

President Bush may use his veto stamp for the first time in the coming days, as the 2005 Transportation budget headed for his desk has burgeoned to $295 billion, $11 billion more than the limit he set previously. But is $284 billion that much more reasonable?
Sure, states benefit from federal transportation funding, Arizona is set to receive $75 million to fund light rail, but when you consider where all that money is coming from, it seems less like a boon for Arizona and more like a boondoggle.
About 85 percent of Federal transportation funding comes primarily from the federal gas tax, which amounts to more than 18 cents a gallon at the pump. So, that $75 million in light rail funding came out of your pocket. It seems pretty silly to send all that money to Washington, just so they can send some of it back to us, with instructions as to how we should spend it.
Repealing the federal gas tax wouldn't cost us anything. We could very well come out ahead, with more money for public projects and more money in our pockets, if we replaced it with a lower state tax that filled Arizona's coffers directly instead of first routing tax dollars through Washington.
Profligate projects like light rail might seem a lot more palatable when someone else is paying for them; but reach far enough into that bag of money the federal government is handing the state and you will find your hand in your own pocket.