Posts tagged ‘Arizona’

It's Not A Just Revenue Problem in Arizona Parks, It's A Cost Problem

Former Arizona State Parks director Ken Travous takes to the editorial page of our local paper to criticize current park management and the Arizona legislature for not sending enough money to parks"

Things were looking pretty good, and I guess that’s the problem. In some odd kind of way, employing some type of sideways logic, the Legislature deemed that if State Parks is getting along well, it must be out of our control. So, after 15 years of parks acting like a business, the Legislature decided to act like a government and take their money. A little bit here and there in the beginning, to test the public reaction, and then in breathtaking swaths.

Heritage Fund ... gone. Enhancement fund ... swiped. General fund? No way. A $250,000 bequest? Oops, they caught us; better put it back.

State Parks now has a mountainous backlog of maintenance projects all because the Legislature would rather wholly own a failure than share a success. We need to put people in the halls that care about those things that we want our children to enjoy, and a governor who will stand in the breach when the next onslaught appears.

I agree with Travous that our parks could use some more funds.  But what Mr. Travous ignores is that the seeds of this problem were very much sown on his watch.

Travous points out that revenues in the parks expanded to nearly $10 million when he was in charge.  But left unsaid is that at the same time agency expenses on his watch ballooned to a preposterous $33 million a year**.  At every turn, Travous made decisions that increased the agency's costs.  For example, park rangers were all given law enforcement certifications, substantially increasing their pay and putting them all into the much more expensive law enforcement pension fund.  There is little evidence this was necessary -- Arizona parks generally are not hotbeds of crime -- but it did infuriate many customers as some rangers focused more on citation-writing than customer service.  There is a reason McDonald's doesn't write citations in their own parking lot.

What Mr. Travous fails to mention is that the parks were falling apart on his watch - even with these huge budgets - because he tended to spend money on just about anything other than maintaining current infrastructure.  Infrastructure maintenance is not sexy, and sexy projects like the Kartchner Caverns development (it is a gorgeous park) always seem to win out in government budgeting.  You can see why in this editorial -- Kartcher is his legacy, whereas bathroom maintenance is next to invisible.  I know deferred maintenance was accumulating during his tenure because Arizona State Parks itself used to say so.  Way back in 2009 I saw a book Arizona State Parks used with legislators.  It showed pictures of deteriorating parks, with notes that many of these locations had not been properly maintained for a decade.  The current management inherited this problem from previous leaders like Travous, it did not create it.

So where were those huge budgets going, if not to maintenance?  Well, for one, Travous oversaw a crazy expansion of the state parks headquarters staff.    When he left, there were about 150 people (possibly more, it is hard to count) on the parks headquarters staff.  This is almost the same number of full-time employees that were actually in the field maintaining parks.  As a comparison, our company runs public parks and campgrounds very similar to those in Arizona State Parks and we serve about the same number of visitors -- but we have only 1.5 people in headquarters, allowing us to put our resources on the ground in parks serving customers and performing maintenance.  None of the 100+ parks we operate have the same deferred maintenance problems that Arizona State Parks have, despite operating with less than a third of the budget that Travous had in his heyday.

I am not much of a political analyst, but my reading is that the legislature cut park funds because it lost confidence in the ability of Arizona State Parks to manage itself.   Did they really need to cut, say, $250,000 from parks to close a billion dollar budget hole?  Arizona State Parks had its budgets cut because the legislature did not think it was acting fiscally prudent, like cutting off a child's allowance after he has shown bad judgement.

I have met with current Director Bryan Martyn and much of the Arizona State Park staff.  Ken Travous is not telling them anything they do not know.  Of course they would like more funds to fix up their parks.  But they understand that before they can expect any such largess, they need to prove that Arizona State Parks will use its funds in a fiscally sensible manner.  And I get the impression that they are succeeding, that the legislature is gaining confidence in this agency.  The irony is that  Arizona State Parks will be able to grow and get more funds only when it has overcome the problems Travous left for them.

 

 ** Footnote:  Getting an actual budget number for ASP is an arduous task.  I once talked to a very smart local consultant named Grady Gammage who worked with parks and finally despaired of accurately laying out the budget and allocating it to tasks.  What this achieves is that it allows insiders to criticize anyone they want as being "misinformed" because almost any number one picks is wrong.   The $33 million figure comes from outside consulting reports.  The headcount numbers come from numbers the ASP information officer gave me several years ago.  Headcount numbers are different today but the ones above are relevant to the agency as it existed when Travous left.

The Thought Experiment That First Made Me A Climate Skeptic

Please check out my Forbes post today.  Here is how it begins:

Last night, the accumulated years of being called an evil-Koch-funded-anti-science-tobacco-lawyer-Holocaust-Denier finally caught up with me.  I wrote something like 3000 words of indignation about climate alarmists corrupting the very definition of science by declaring their work “settled”, answering difficult scientific questions with the equivalent of voting, and telling everyone the way to be pro-science is to listen to self-designated authorities and shut up.  I looked at the draft this morning and while I agreed with everything written, I decided not to publish a whiny ode of victimization.  There are plenty of those floating around already.

And then, out of the blue, I received an email from a stranger.  Last year I had helped to sponsor a proposal to legalize gay marriage in Arizona.  I was doing some outreach to folks in the libertarian community who had no problem with gay marriage (after all, they are libertarians) but were concerned that marriage licensing should not be a government activity at all and were therefore lukewarm about our proposition.  I suppose I could have called them bigots, or homophobic, or in the pay of Big Hetero — but instead I gathered and presented data on the number of different laws, such as inheritance, where rights and privileges were tied to marriage.  I argued that the government was already deeply involved with marriage, and fairness therefore demanded that more people have access to these rights and privileges.  Just yesterday I had a reader send me an email that said, simply, “you changed my mind on gay marriage.”  It made my day.  If only climate discussion could work this way.

So I decided the right way to drive change in the climate debate is not to rant about it but instead to continue to model what I consider good behavior — fact-based discussion and a recognition that reasonable people can disagree without that disagreement implying one or the other has evil intentions or is mean-spirited.

This analysis was originally published about 8 years ago, and there is no longer an online version.  So for fun, I thought I would reproduce my original thought experiment on climate models that led me to the climate dark side.

I have been flattered over time that folks like Matt Ridley have picked up on bits and pieces of this analysis.  See it all here.

Administrative Bloat

Benjamin Ginsberg is discussing administrative bloat in academia:

Carlson confirms this sad tale by reporting that increases in administrative staffing drove a 28 percent expansion of the higher education work force from 2000 to 2012.  This period, of course, includes several years of severe recession when colleges saw their revenues decline and many found themselves forced to make hard choices about spending.  The character of these choices is evident from the data reported by Carlson.  Colleges reined in spending on instruction and faculty salaries, hired more part-time adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors and, yet, found the money to employ more and more administrators and staffers.

Administrative bloat is a problem in every organization.  It would be nice to think that organizations can stay right-sized at all times, but the reality is that they bloat in good times, and have to have layoffs to trim the fat in bad times.

The difference between high and low-performing organizations, though, is often where they make their cuts.  It appears from this example that academia is protecting its administration staff at the expense of its front-line value delivery staff (ie the faculty).  This is a hallmark of failing organizations, and we find a lot of this behavior in public agencies.  For example, several years ago when Arizona State Parks had to have  a big layoff, they barely touched their enormous headquarters staff and laid off mostly field customer service and maintenance staff. (At the time, Arizona State Parks and my company, both of whom run public parks, served about the same number of visitors.  ASP had over 100 HQ staff, I had 1.5).

This tendency to protect administrative staff over value-delivery staff is not unique to public institutions - General Motors did the same thing for years in the 70's and 80's.  But it is more prevalent in the public realm because of lack of competition.  In the private world, companies that engage in such behaviors are eventually swept away (except if you are GM and get bailed out at every turn).  Public agencies persist on and on and on and never go away, no matter how much they screw up.  When was the last time you ever heard of even the smallest public agency getting shut down?

I would love to see more on the psychology of this tendency to protect administrative over line staff.   My presumption has always been that 1) those in charge of the layoffs know the administrative staff personally, and so it is harder to lay them off and 2) Administrative staff tend to offload work from the executives, so they have more immediate value to the executives running the layoffs.

Why Peyton Manning is an Icon

I friend sent me a note analyzing data on NFL quarterbacks past and present, and came up with this top five based on a points system that ranked the top 40 all time quarterbacks on a number of dimensions, such that the lowest score is the best:

1. Joe Montana - 54 Points
1. Tom Brady - 54 Points
3. John Elway - 68 Points
4. Terry Bradshaw - 84 Points
5. Peyton Manning - 86 Points
Even without going through the numbers, I can live with this.  The conundrum is that Peyton feels to many, including me, like he may be the greatest of all time, but nearly any numerical or scientific analysis puts him behind other quarterbacks, including Tom Brady.  So why do our hearts tell us something else?  I have two hypotheses:
  1.  He is the most interesting guy in the history of the NFL before the ball is snapped.  This is a criteria I never would have thought even existed 10 years ago.  But Peyton has made watching the team at the line of scrimmage before the play starts totally compelling.  No one in history is even close.   Think of all the great quarterbacks in history -- you think of them throwing, right?  With Montana, for example, I see those slants to Jerry Rice, hitting him in stride.  Now, how do you picture Peyton?  Yelling Omaha at the line of scrimmage.
  2.  He is money in advertisements and live appearances (e.g. Saturnday Night Live).  Have you seen Joe Montana's and Farvre's ads?  Stiff.  How much better would Peyton have been in There's Something About Mary?  Only Bradshaw is close.

Peyton gets dinged for being a poor bad-weather quarterback.  I am not sure if the numbers support this hypothesis, but he would have to go a long way to being worse than Aikman was.  I was in Dallas during their three Aikman-era superbowls (actually I lived in Denver for their 2, and St Louis for theirs, and Arizona for theirs, all of which is payback for growing up an Oiler fan).   Aikman always disappointed in bad weather.  The one year of their four year run in the 90's that they did not go to the Superbowl, they lost to SF in the Conference championships.  That day, the moment I saw it was raining, I knew the Cowboys were doomed.

Surprise: Near Bankrupt City Finds that Throwing Good Money After Bad is Not a Good Investment

I have written here any number of times about the crazy ongoing subsidies by Glendale, Arizona (a 250,000 resident suburb of Phoenix) to an NHL franchise.  The city last year was teetering at the edge of bankruptcy from past hockey subsidies, but decided to double down committing to yet more annual payments to the new ownership of the team.

Surprisingly, throwing more money into an entreprise that has run through tens of millions of taxpayer money without any hint of a turnaround turns out to be a bad investment

Revenue from the Phoenix Coyotes is coming up short for Glendale, which approved a $225 million deal to keep the National Hockey League franchise in 2013.

City leaders expected to see at least $6.8 million in revenue annually from the team to help offset the $15 million the city pays each year for team owners to manage Jobing.com Arena. The revenue comes from ticket surcharges, parking fees and a split of naming rights for the arena.

Halfway through the fiscal year, the city has collected $1.9 million from those sources, and nearly $2.3 million when including sales-tax revenue from the arena.

Even including the rent payments on the publicly-funded stadium, Glendale is still losing money each year on the deal.

The source of the error in forecasting is actually pretty funny.  Glendale assumed that it could charge very high monopoly parking fees for the arena spaces ($10-$30 a game).  In some circumstances, such fees would have stuck.  But in this case, two other entities (a mall and another sports stadium) have adjoining lots, and once parking for hockey was no longer free, these other entities started competing parking operations which held down parking rates and volumes (I always find it hilarious when the government attempts to charge exorbitant monopoly prices and the free market undercuts them).

Had the parking rates stuck at the higher level, one can assume they still would have missed their forecast.  The Coyotes hockey team already has among the worst attendance numbers in the league, and hockey ticket buyers are particularly price sensitive, such that a $20 increase in the cost of attending a game likely would have driven attendance, and thus parking fees and city ticket surcharges and sales taxes, down.  Many private companies who are used to market dynamics still fail to forecast competitive and customer reaction to things like price increases well, and the government never does it well.

Emulating North Korea

I have little tolerance for enforced patriotism of any sort.  In fact, having loyalty oaths and singing songs and genuflecting to flags all seem more consistent with totalitarianism than the values of liberty that patriots are nominally trying to promote.  If I were rotting in a crappy Phoenix jail for being caught with marijuana or busted for driving while Mexican, I would be even less patriotic

Dozens of Arizona inmates will eat nothing but bread and water for at least seven days in the latest punishment by one of America's toughest sheriffs.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio handed down the sentence after inmates defaced American flags hung in each jail cell. He says the men tore the flags, wrote or stepped on them and threw them in the toilet.

The flags are part of a push for patriotism in county jail cells. Arpaio has ordered thatGod Bless America and the national anthem be played daily in every jail facility.

This isn't Arpaio's first controversial move. He made headlines for keeping thousands of inmates outdoors in repurposed military tents in weather that was hotter than 117 degrees. He also made male inmates wear pink underwear.

He banned smoking, coffee and movies in all jails. And he's even put his stamp on mealtime. Inmates are fed only twice a day, and he stopped serving salt and pepper – all to save taxpayers money, he says.

Minimum Wage and Teen Unemployment

The other day, when criticizing an incredibly facile minimum wage analysis in the Arizona Republic, I had meant to observe that since minimum wage jobs are such a tiny (1.5% if include jobs that work for tips) portion of the workforce, one should look at more targeted metrics to assess the effect of minimum wage hikes, such as teen employment.

Kevin Erdmann has such an analysis.  He observes, "Is there any other issue where the data conforms so strongly to basic economic intuition, and yet is widely written off as a coincidence?"

Note that there is still some danger, as I wrote before, in measuring employment effects from the implementation date. Businesses plan ahead an many job losses may be occurring between the announcement and the implementation date.  I know we have made all the job cuts we plan to make in response to California minimum wage increases six months ahead of the actual date the wage takes effect.

Update:  The charts are obviously far from a smoking gun.  That is the nature of economic analysis.  In complex and chaotic multi-multi-variable systems, controlled studies are almost impossible and direct correlations are hard to find, and even when found may be coincidence.  As an employer who hires a lot of summer seasonal employees in parks, I would obviously be a natural employer of teens.  But I no longer do so, and it is important to understand that wages are only a part of the equation.  Another major issue is one of liability.  Increasingly, the legal system makes the employer liable for any action of their employees, no matter how boneheaded or how much the action is against all policy and training.   I have enough trouble with employees that have years of good work history -- I am not really excited about taking a chance on an unproven 17-year-old.

Measure of the Job Market

The other day I sent out an email listing a job opening next summer for camp hosts.  The job was in an out of the way place (in Arizona, north of the Grand Canyon) and had been hard to fill.  I have a list of 22,000 people who have asked to have camping jobs sent to them.

The email batch of 22,000 had a 54% open rate.  That is ridiculously high.

Breaking News: Half The Time It Was Above Average

I guess I should not make too much fun of our local paper, I know it must be hard to fill all those pages every day.  But I have to laugh at the statistical insights our reporters provide:

Arizona will be entering the new year ahead on rainfall for the first time since 2010 as well as above-average temperatures, according to the National Weather Service.

OK, so 2010 and 2013 were above average, and presumably 2011 and 2012 were below average.  Wow.  Half the time above, and half below?  I can certainly see why that deserved a headline.

50% Discount for Ballet Arizona's Performance of the Nutcracker

Somehow I screwed this up before.  Here is the offer (pdf):  Ballet Arizona Nutcracker - Up to 50% off

I had a percent sign in the URL which screwed everything up, I think.

When Private Enterprise is Inflamatory

When people ask me about my business, one of the things that is hard to explain is just how deep and visceral the skepticism of private enterprise can be.  I constantly have people take single words I might have uttered in the immediacy of a live TV interview and try to craft straw man positions for me out of them**.  Sometimes it is not even something I said, but something where some lazy journalist has poorly paraphrased my position.

Here is a great example, where a Flagstaff writer (who by the way knows me and my phone number quite well but did not bother to interview me) tries to take my opposition to the government shutdown to paint me with some sort of entitlement.  She lectures me that I don't actually own the land on which I operate, as if that is somehow news to me.  You can read my comments if you are interested, but the issue with the shutdown was the lawlessness of Administration officials, not any sense that I am entitled to the land any more than my lease contract allows me to be.  (As an aside, she seems to be expressing a strong theory of landlord rights, that my landlord (the US Forest Service) should have the absolute right to shut me down whenever they want.  Why is it that I don't think she has the same position vis a vis other tenants and landlords?)

By the way, compare her straw man to my actual position on public land, which is likely to the Left of many of my readers:

In my history of public discussions on private operation of public parks, it is no surprise that I run into a lot of skepticism about having any private role at all.  But I also run into the opposite -- folks who ask (or demand) that the government sell all the parks to private buyers.  So why shouldn't privatization of parks just consist of a massive land sale?

The answer has to do with profit potential.  Over time, if in private hands, a piece of land will naturally migrate towards the use which can generate the highest returns.  And often, for a unique piece of land, this most profitable use might not be a picnic area with a $6 entrance fee -- it might instead be something very exclusive which only a few can enjoy, like an expensive resort or a luxury home development (think: Aspen or Jackson Hole).  The public has asked its government to own certain unique lands in order to control their development and the public access to them.

Public ownership of unique lands, then, tends to have the goal of allowing access to and enjoyment of a particular piece of land for all of the public, not just a few.  Typically this entails a public agency owning the land and controlling the types of uses allowed on the land and the nature and style of facility development.  I call these state activities controlling the "character" of the land and its use.  (One could legitimately argue that private land trusts could fulfill the same role, and in fact I have personally been a supporter of and donor to private land trusts.  However, I am not an expert in this field and will leave this discussion to others).

Having established a role for the government in setting the character of the lands we call "parks," we can then legitimately ask, "does this goal require that government employees actually staff the parks and clean the bathrooms?"

** Postscript:  A couple of years ago I was asked to do an interview with Glen Beck on my proposal to keep open, via private operation, a number of Arizona parks slated for closure.  It was the first time I ever did live TV, and a national show to boot.  I had never seen his show but he had the reputation of being freaky and unpredictable, which just made me more nervous.   Anyway, during the interview I said that typically an agency would contract with us for a group of parks, instead of just one, so the stars could help cover the cost of the dogs.  This terminology is from a framework many business school students learn early, often called a BCG matrix (named after the Boston Consulting Group).  It is a two by two matrix with market share or profitability on one axis and market growth on the other.  Anyway, the profitable high revenue units within a company are stars and the unprofitable stagnant ones are called dogs (the profitable stagnant ones were cash cows and I can't actually remember what was in the fourth box).  You can see this nomenclature is so established they actually put little pictures of stars and dogs in the boxes.

Anyway, it was a poor choice of wording, but the nomenclature is wired do deep in my now it just came out.  The context of the entire interview was that I cared deeply about the parks and that I was offended that the legislature was going to let them close when there was an easy solution at hand.  No matter.  The #2 guy at Arizona State Parks took the video and make the rounds of the state park staff, highlighting my use of the word "dog" and inflaming their rank and file that I thought their parks were bad places and I was bent on destroying them, or something.  Anyway, none of the Arizona Park Staff I have ever talked to has ever seen an operations manual for their parks but they have all seen the video of me saying "dogs."

Postscript #2:  Don't ever think that consulting is different from any other business.  When I was an McKinsey, we had piles of frameworks we used (the 7S organization framework being perhaps the most common and actually fairly useful, as its intent was to take focus away from structure alone in organizational work).  Anyway, McKinsey had to have a growth-share matrix, but to try to differentiate this product a bit they had a 3x3 matrix rather than a 2x2.

Since I am somehow oddly onto a consulting tangent here, the single most useful thing I garnered from McKinsey was the pyramid principle in persuasive and analytical writing.  I have talked to a lot of other ex-McKinsey folks, and almost all of them wonder why the pyramid principle is not taught in high school.  I am not a believer in business books -- I am looking around my office and I don't think I see even one here.  But if I had to offer one book for someone who wanted a business book, this is it.

Special Discount for Our Readers to the Nutcracker by Ballet Arizona

I may have mentioned in the past that my wife is on the Board of Ballet Arizona.  Phoenix has a reputation as a cultural wasteland, but our Ballet is certainly an exception to this.  Our artistic director Ib Andersen is fabulous, garnering top reviews even from the fussy New York press.  We have several young dancers, including one young lady who recently defected from Cuba, who are astonishing and whom you should frankly come see now before they are lured away to the bright lights of New York or Washington.

Anyway, they have a promotion running for the Nutcracker this holiday season and have allowed me to offer this same promotion to our readers, with discounts up to 50% on tickets.  See this pdf for details: Link Fixed to Ballet Arizona Offer.

Media Accountability -- When The Arizona Republic Tried to Get Scottsdale To Bankrupt Itself

Three cheers for Greg Patterson holding the media accountable for their past support of costly corporate welfare.

You may have seen the recent Wall Street Journal Story about the financial fiasco that is Glendale Arizona.

Here's the Republic's take on it. 

Glendale ranked second in the U.S., according to the story, thanks to a $26.6 million negative fund balance at the close of fiscal 2012, due largely to sports-related debt.

Glendale has made a lot of mistakes, but I think that there is near universal agreement that the critical error was their decision to build the hockey arena.

Yep.  I have written about the egregious hockey deals that have bankrupted Glendale on several occasions.  George Will even quoted me on the topic.

Greg Patterson went back and looked at what the Arizona Republic was writing before the Glendale deals went so noticeably bad.  I have written before about how the media goes into full cheerleader mode on those crony stadium deals.

Before Glendale bankrupted itself to subsidize the hockey team, Scottsdale was offered the "opportunity" to do so and turned it down.  The local paper Arizona Republic excoriated Scottsdale for passing on the chance to subsidize rich sports team owners, saying that "Once-in-a-lifetime projects are just that".  Here is the best quote from the 2004 Republic editorial:

Our view is that Scottsdale's mishandling of the arena idea was a leadership blunder of biblical proportions. Enough with the blame game. We hope that Scottsdale at least has learned some tough lessons from the disaster.

And this is classic:

Some city officials seemed content to nitpick, complain, second-guess and haggle over details. They're right to be diligent. Certainly nobody endorses a Pollyanna-ish panel of rubber-stampers. But at the same time, people who are forever looking for stuff to complain about always seem to find it.

I bet Glendale wishes it had more second-guessers on its city council.  The whole thing is worth reading.

Postscript:  This is one recommendation from the Republic I can agree with:

Think twice about ever launching a redevelopment effort like this again. Sensing that the Los Arcos Mall area was hurting economically, the council formed the Los Arcos Redevelopment District in December 1995. The council adopted a redevelopment plan the following July, and the Ellman Cos. subsequently acquired the 42-acre site. Not too surprisingly, Ellman was the only one to answer the city's request for proposals.

Ellman owns the Los Arcos property. That gives him a lot of advantages, including a position of negotiating authority. It allows him to stoke political outrage by wearing down the patience of neighbors who would like to see something built on this key corner. Got a great idea about what should be done at Los Arcos? Too bad. Ellman still owns it. Condemnation is not a viable political or financial course for the city, and Ellman knows it.

Redevelopment almost always means "crony giveaway" nowadays.

Republican Web Folks Still Suck

Somehow I managed to get on the NRCC email list.  I don't generally mind these things, as I am on several lists from both parties and it is kind of interesting to see what marketing come-ons they are using at any particular moment.

But the NRCC has been spamming the hell out of me.  This in and of itself I think shows a lack of understanding about the medium.  You lose effectiveness really fast if you send, say, five emails in five minutes, which is what I just received.  Worse, though, is that there is no opt-out link in the email.  Who in this day and age is dumb enough to send out even quasi-legitimate marketing material and not include an opt-out?  Morons.  I am one of the those people who actually can and do write rules to sort my email box, so I can take care of the problem, but this is just bush league.  If you are a GOP member, I would not be fooled by your parties happy talk that it is closing the gap on digital communications with the Dems.  I see no such evidence.

During my brief foray into politics Chairing Equal Marriage Arizona, we were trying to message from the center right on the gay marriage issue.  We found out, to our dismay, this is not at all a comfortable approach for established gay rights organizations (to say the least), but we thought it an intelligent and necessary approach to win on the issue in a red state.  Anyway, one thing we found quickly is that there is no bullpen out there of talented web people on the Right, at least in Arizona.   They are all on the Left.  If I were a member of the GOP and actually cared about their fate, I would sure be looking for a way to fix this, perhaps with some sort of internship program to start developing a bench.

The Greatest Bit of Color Commentary in Baseball History

Today is the anniversary of what is probably the greatest moment in Arizona sports history.  But it is also the occasion of the most precient bit of sports commentary I have ever heard.  Watch this brief clip.  Listen to Tim McCarver's comment just before the second pitch and then see what happens.  He called it exactly.

I suppose we Arizonans are biased, but the whole game is one of the best baseball games I have ever watched.  Randy Johnson relieving Curt Schilling.  Mariano Rivera relieving Roger Clemens.  You can watch it all here.

The Problem with Job Discrimination Legislation

Congress is considering adding gays and lesbians to the list of protected groups covered by the EEOC.  As former chairman of a group that tried to get gay marriage legalized in Arizona (at least until we were shot down by gay rights groups that did not want libertarians or Republicans  helping to lead the effort), I hope I don't have to prove that I have no problem with differences in sexual orientation.  But I have a big problem with Federal employment discrimination law.

If you are unfamiliar with how it works, this is perhaps how you THINK it works:  An employee, who has been mistreated in a company based on clear prejudice for his or her race / gender / sexual orientation, etc. has tried to bring the problem to management's attention.  With no success via internal grievance processes, the employee turns finally to the government for help.

Ha!  If this were how it worked, I would have no problem with the law.  In reality, this is how it works:  Suddenly, as owner of the company, one finds a lawsuit or EEOC complain in his lap, generally with absolutely no warning.  In the few cases we have seen in our company, the employee never told anyone in the company about the alleged harassment, never gave me or management a chance to fix it, despite very clear policies in our employee's manuals that we don't tolerate such behavior and outlining methods for getting help.  There is nothing in EEO law that requires an employee to try to get the problem fixed via internal processes.

As a result, our company can be financially liable for allowing a discriminatory situation to exist that we could not have known about, because it happened in a one-on-one conversations and the alleged victim never reported it.

What I want is a reasonable chance to fix problems, get rid of bad supervisors, etc.  A reasonable anti-discrimination law would say that companies have to have a grievance process with such and such specifications, and that no one may sue until they have exhausted the grievance process or when there is no conforming grievance process.  If I don't fix the problem and give the employee a safe work environment, then a suit is appropriate.  The difference between this reasonable goal and the system we actually have is lawyers.  Lawyers do not want the problem to be fixed.  Lawyers want the problem to be as bad as possible and completely hidden from management so there is no chance it can be fixed before they can file a lucrative lawsuit.

I worry in particular about how this will play out with a new gay/lesbian discrimination law.  We have employed a number of gay couples over the years, and never had any particular internal issue  (I had to defend one couple in Florida from a set of customers who thought that it was inherently dangerous to employ gay people around children camping, but I did so gladly).  But I know I have employees who have religious beliefs different form my own such that they think gay people are damned, evil, whatever.  So now what do I do when I have one of these religious folks in conflict with an employee who is gay?  If I don't separate them, I am going to get sued by the gay person for a hostile work environment.  If I move the gay person, I will get sued for gay discrimination.  If I move or fire the religious person, I will get sued for religious discrimination.

I am happy to work hard to build a respectful, safe work environment, but such laws put me as a business owner in no-win situations.  And the lawyers who craft this stuff consider this a feature, not a bug.  Heads I sue you, tails I sue you.

More Totally Bogus Obama Excuses

Here is his new excuse for his "you can keep your health insurance" promise being broken.  It is -- wait for it, you will never guess -- insurance companies' fault.

"One of the things health reform was designed to do was to help not only the uninsured but also the under-insured," Obama said. "And there are a number of Americans, fewer than 5 percent of Americans, who've got cut-rate plans that don't offer real financial protection in the event of a serious illness or an accident.

"Remember, before the Affordable Care Act, these bad apple insurers had free rein every single year to limit the care that you received or used minor pre-existing conditions to jack up your premiums or bill you into bankruptcy."

This is absurd.   Kaiser Permanente cut zillions of policies.  Are they a bad apple?  My policy was cut by Blue Cross / Blue Shield of Arizona.  Are they some fly-by-night cut-rate insurer?

Today's "Sell" Indicator

The Arizona Republic says there is not stock market bubble.  Can't think of a better reason to sell.

Forest Service Proves Itself to Be Arbitrarily Targeting Private Companies

By now, readers will know that our company operates public parks and campgrounds in the National Forest without taking one dime of Federal money.  We pay for the cleaning, maintenance, utilities, and staffing of the facilities entirely from the user fees paid by visitors at the gate.  Because we take no government money(we actually make lease payments to the government) we have never been closed in past shutdowns, but we were closed last week as the White House overruled an early Forest Service decision and ordered us closed.

Well, here is a photo from yesterday of the parking lot of one of the recreation areas we operate and were forced to closed.  Doesn't look very closed, does it?

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As it turns out, yesterday the local Sheriff was concerned with traffic jams on the highway near here as people tried to park and walk in.  It is a danger I warned the US Forest Service about way back on October 2 in a letter to Cal Joyner, the Regional Forester for Arizona and New Mexico (and was promptly ignored).  The Sheriff forced the gate open and let everyone in.

The amazing thing I found out today, and confirmed through pictures and news reports, is that the Sheriff was accompanied by US Forest Service personnel who apparently accepted this action.  This means in effect that the US Forest Service believes this site is safe to occupy by visitors without our company present to clean the bathrooms, take out the trash, monitor security, watch for fires, stop vandalism, etc.  but is not safe, somehow, with us present and actively staffing the site.  This obviously makes no sense and just points out how arbitrary the decision-making has been.

Starting yesterday morning I begged the US Forest Service to let us return to staffing the site (which should be an easy decision since, unlike opening National Parks, this would require zero dollars from the government) but I got no response.

We have also found numerous other sites operated by third parties like ourselves on US Forest Service land in Arizona still open.  For example, the Oak Flats campground in the Tonto National Forest is still open for business.  In addition, we know of at least three Arizona State Parks, including Slide Rock SP, that operate on US Forest Service land just as we do but who have not been ordered to close.  I know that Fool Hollow SP operates with a special use permit very similar to ours, but unlike us, its permit has not been temporarily suspended and it is open for business.

In fact, I cannot find a single third party who operates on the National Forests in Arizona who have had their operations suspended except for the private campground concessionaires.   The powerful ski associations got their operations on Forest Service lands exempted from the get-go, probably because they have a full-time lobbying staff in DC and I do not.  The same goes true for BLM lands, where the BLM has not closed its campgrounds or parks to the public.  And the same goes true now for the Grand Canyon NP, which has been reopened by the state of Arizona.  In fact, we may be the only recreation operations on Federal land in this state that are still required to close.

Update:  The Forest Service made us cease operations at the Locket Meadow campground near Flagstaff.  After kicking us out, they have reopened the campground to the public (without any staff or services on site).  It is absolutely outrageous that the US Forest Service believes that the campground is fine for public visitation but that our company must be banned from operating it.  Clearly, the resource and the visitors are safer and better protected and better served with us there, so this can only mean that the Forest Service is for some reason arbitrarily targeting our business, rather than use of the land, for shutdown.  I cannot think of any possible justification for this action.  If the campground is safe for public visitation during the shutdown, it is safer for us to operate and keep clean and protected.

PS-  I should say targeting private SMALL companies.  Large companies with political pull seem to be getting the National Parks open where they have operations.  Just like with Obamacare and nearly everything else in modern government, restrictions are passed on private enterprises but exceptions are granted to those large enough to have staff lawyers, full-time lobbyists, and who can bundle a lot of donations.

Last Justification for Closing Private US Forest Service Concessionaires is in Tatters

The last remaining justification that anyone has given me for the need to close privately-funded concession-run parks in the US Forest Service is that the Forest Service must close to all uses on its lands.  But this justification is now in total tatters, making it all the more clear that closure of private concessionaires was an arbitrary and unjustified action.  Here is why:

  • As reported earlier, the US Forest Service is still allowing many recreation uses on its lands.  Individuals can still camp and hike in non-developed areas.  Many US Forest Service campgrounds till seem to be open (example Oak Flats near Globe, AZ).  And many state parks, such as Fool Hollow and Slide Rock in AZ and Burney Falls in CA that operate on US Forest Service land have been allowed to remain open and still use Forest Service land for recreation.  In fact, the only groups that seem to be closed in the US Forest Service are private concessionaires, which increasingly appear to have been singled out for rough treatment by the Administration.
  • We have received emails from the US Forest Service that these closures are required to be consistent with the NPS, but the NPS is allowing its parks to be reopened if they are funded by outside agencies.  Both Arizona and Utah have reached agreements to reopen National Parks in their states through use of state funding.  So why can't private parks on Federal lands be reopened through the use of private funding, which is how we operate anyway?  Its almost as if this Administration has some sort of bias against private activity.

Forest Service Closing Only Small Private Campground Operators, Not Closing Large Ski Corporations or State Parks that Operate on Forest Service Land

As readers will know, the US Forest Service has issued and unprecedented and unnecessary order to close over a thousand privately-funded campgrounds that don't take one dime of Federal money (example here).  All the 100+ parks we operate in the US Forest Service have been ordered closed.

But there appears to be more to this story.  There are several groups that operate parks on National Forest lands under agreements nearly identical to ours who appear to have been exempted from the closure order.

  • Large corporations that run ski resorts and certain other large resort properties on National Forest lands have been exempted.  It should be noted that ski resorts operators, unlike campground operators, have full-time lobbyists stationed in Washington and can afford in-house staff lawyers to fight these kinds of orders.  My guess is that knowing they would immediately get sued if they ordered larger private firms to close, the USFS focused only on smaller and more helpless private firms.
  • Many state parks, including at least 3 in Arizona and many in California, are actually on US Forest Service land and operate through special use permits almost identical to those we have with the USFS, yet none of these parks have been asked to close  (Slide Rock and Fool Hollow State Park in Arizona and Burney Falls SP in California are just a few examples of state parks that operate on US Forest Service land).

In other words, the US Forest Service seems to be issuing closure orders inconsistently, targeting only private operators who are too small to fight back.  The USFS has not been especially clear how they are justifying this order (perhaps since it can't be justified) but they have hinted that it is either because a) they can no longer "administer" these contracts, whatever that means since they have no day-to-day administration responsibilities or b) they are removing everyone from Federal lands.  Note, though, that both explanation "a" or "b" would apply equally to ski resorts and state parks operating on Federal land leases which are not being closed.

I will also add that the USFS is continuing to allow individuals to hike and camp in non-developed areas of the forests.  I have no problem with this -- there is no reason for the USFS to halt public access to public land just because their employees are getting a paid vacation.  But this just highlights how crazy and inconsistent their policies are.  People can camp in the National Forest everywhere except in developed campgrounds where private companies who take no Federal money normally have employees on site to clean up trash and provide security and prevent fires.  Many campers take good care of the land but some do not, and driving these campers out of privately-operated developed sites into dispersed areas where their impact cannot be mitigated is just another way these actions increase rather than decrease costs.

 

More Updates on Closing of Privately-Funded Parks

Fox Business has done an article on the government closing of privately funded parks.

One interesting note - many state parks operate on Federal land using almost exactly the same king of lease contract (called a special use permit) we have to privately operate parks and campgrounds.  If private parks with this type of lease with the USFS have to close, shouldn't state parks as well?  For example, both Slide Rock SP in Arizona and Burney Falls SP in California operation using the same kind of lease as we do.

Resort with Spectacular Views

I don't like to recommend destinations that are really expensive (why get people excited about a place they can't afford to visit) but we splurged this weekend on the Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Arizona.  It is the most spectacular location I have ever seen for a landlocked (ie non ocean-front) resort.  It is almost impossible to do it justice in photos, because it sits at the end of a box canyon and is surrounded on three sides by red rock walls.    Some pictures are here in the google image result.  Expect to pay $300-400 and up for a night, though you will get a very nice room even for the lower rates, and large casitas for higher rates.  As is usual for resorts, meals are crazy expensive -- its hard to get through breakfast, for example, for less than $20 a person.  But the views and hiking and everything else here are just beautiful.

One of the things I enjoyed was the resort had a native american climb onto a local rock outcropping a couple of times a day and play peaceful flute music that echoed around the resort.  You can see a group gathered around to watch (update:  A reader was nice enough to Photoshop out some of the haze using a levels command trick he taught me a while back -- you can compare below to this original)

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It freaked me out for a while because I would here this low-volume music as I walked around the resort and I could not figure out where it was coming from (I kept looking for hidden speakers until I figured it out).

As an added bonus, the night sky is totally dark -- you are out in the wilderness about 15 miles from Sedona and out of site of any other habitation of any sort and almost completely surrounded by canyon walls.  As a result, it is one of the few places where us city folk can see the Milky Way in all its glory (below is my amateur photography (you may have to click to enlarge to really see the Milky Way, but its there).

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The restaurant there is quite good and there are excellent tables on the deck outside to watch the sunset.  But if you want a slightly different Sedona experience (though equally expensive) the Restaurant at the L'Auberge resort right in the town of Sedona on Oak Creek is terrific.  The food is great and the location on the creek is very romantic at night.  Here is the view from my table right around sunset.

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You can't get closer to the water than that!

Postscript:  If you like the idea of creekside dining but don't want to blow a hundred bucks a person for dinner, I have eaten at a much less expensive, much less highbrow restaurant that had a very similar location.  It is the Rapids Lodge Restaurant at Grand Lake, Colorado, and is a great place to eat on a trip through Rocky Mountain National Park before you turn around and head back to Estes Park.  Here is the view from our table there:

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PPS:  Other US resort views I like:  Highlands Inn, near Carmel;  Hapuna Resort, Big Island, Hawaii;  Sanctuary Resort, Phoenix, AZ (though the rooms really need an update);  Trump Hotel, Las Vegas (located right on the bend of the strip so the strip view rooms look straight down the strip at night).

Update:  In the spirit of equal time, a reader writes that the Enchantment Resort ruined Boynton Canyon.  Its impossible for me to say -- I never knew it in its pristine state.  I will say the resort itself does a pretty good job of keeping a low profile in the canyon -- no buildings that I saw over 2 stories tall, most of the old trees are preserved.

All Is Right With the World Again

Arizona State has climbed back into the top 10 party school rankings.

This is the same institution that is opposing Grand Canyon University's entry into Division I athletics because, as a for-profit university, they are apparently not academically serious enough.  For some reasons GCU's accountability to shareholders isn't as pure and wonderful as ASU's accountability to former customers who will never use their product again except perhaps to attend a football game (e.g. alumni).

Trend That is Not A Trend: Rolling Stone Wildfire Article

Rolling Stone brings us an absolutely great example of an article that claims a trend without actually showing the trend data, and where the actual data point to a trend in the opposite direction as the one claimed.

I won't go into the conclusions of the article.  Suffice it to say it is as polemical as anything I have read of late and could be subtitled "the Tea Party and Republicans suck."  Apparently Republicans are wrong to criticize government wildfire management and do so only because they suck, and the government should not spend any effort to fight wildfires that threaten private property but does so only because Republicans, who suck, make them.  Or something.

What I want to delve into is the claim by the author that wildfires are increasing due to global warming, and only evil Republicans (who suck) could possibly deny this obvious trend (numbers in parenthesis added so I can reference passages below):

 But the United States is facing an even more basic question: How should we manage fire, given the fact that, thanks to climate change, the destruction potential for wildfires across the nation has never been greater? In the past decade alone, at least 10 states – from Alaska to Florida – have been hit by the largest or most destructive wildfires in their respective histories (1). Nationally, the cost of fighting fires has increased from $1.1 billion in 1994 to $2.7 billion in 2011.(2)

The line separating "fire season" from the rest of the year is becoming blurry. A wildfire that began in Colorado in early October continued smoldering into May of this year. Arizona's first wildfire of 2013 began in February, months ahead of the traditional firefighting season(3). A year-round fire season may be the new normal. The danger is particularly acute in the Intermountain West, but with drought and record-high temperatures in the Northwest, Midwest, South and Southeast over the past several years, the threat is spreading to the point that few regions can be considered safe....

For wildland firefighters, the debate about global warming was over years ago. "On the fire lines, it is clear," fire geographer Michael Medler told a House committee in 2007. "Global warming is changing fire behavior, creating longer fire seasons and causing more frequent, large-scale, high-severity wildfires."...(4)

Scientists have cited climate change as a major contributor in some of the biggest wildfires in recent years, including the massive Siberian fires during a record heat wave in 2010 and the bushfires that killed 173 people in Australia in 2009.(5)...

The problem is especially acute in Arizona, where average annual temperatures have risen nearly three-quarters of a degree Fahrenheit each decade since 1970, making it the fastest­-warming state in the nation. Over the same period, the average annual number of Arizona wildfires on more than 1,000 acres has nearly quadrupled, a record unsurpassed by any other state and matched only by Idaho. One-quarter of Arizona's signature ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests have burned in just the past decade. (6)...

At a Senate hearing in June, United States Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell testified that the average wildfire today burns twice as many acres as it did 40 years ago(7). "In 2012, over 9.3 million acres burned in the United States," he said – an area larger than New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware combined. Tidwell warned that the outlook for this year's fire season was particularly grave, with nearly 400 million acres – more than double the size of Texas – at a moderate-to-high risk of burning.(8)

These are the 8 statements I can find to support an upward trend in fires.  And you will note, I hope, that none of them include the most obvious data - what has the actual trend been in number of US wildfires and acres burned.  Each of these is either a statement of opinion or a data point related to fire severity in a particular year, but none actually address the point at hand:  are we getting more and larger fires?

Maybe the data does not exist.  But in fact it does, and I will say there is absolutely no way, no way, the author has not seen the data.  The reason it is not in this article is because it does not fit the "reporters" point of view so it is left out.  Here is where the US government tracks fires by year, at the National Interagency Fire Center.   To save you clicking through, here is the data as of this moment:

click to enlarge fires 2013 to date

 

Well what do you know?  The number of fires and the acres burned in 2013 are not some sort of record high -- in fact they actually are the, respectively, lowest and second lowest numbers of the last 10 years.  In fact, both the number of fires and the total acres burned are running a third below average.

The one thing this does not address is the size of fires.  The author implies that there are more fires burning more acres, which we see is clearly wrong, but perhaps the fires are getting larger?  Well, 2012 was indeed an outlier year in that fires were larger than average, but 2013 has returned to the trend which has actually been flat to down, again exactly opposite of the author's contention (data below is just math from chart above)

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In the rest of the post, I will briefly walk through his 8 statements highlighted above and show why they exhibit many of the classic fallacies in trying to assert a trend where none exists.  In the postscript, I will address one other inconsistency from the article as to the cause of these fires which is a pretty hilarious of how to turn any data to supporting you hypothesis, even if it is unrelated.  Now to his 8 statements:

(1) Again, no trend here, this is simply a single data point.  He says that  10 states have set in one year or another in the last decade a record for one of two variables related to fires.  With 50 states and 2 variables, we have 100 measurements that can potentially hit a record in any one year.  So if we have measured fires and fire damage for about 100 years (about the age of the US Forest Service), then we would expect on average 10 new records every decade, exactly what the author found.  Further, at least one of these -- costliness of the fires -- should be increasing over time due to higher property valuations and inflation, factors I am betting the author did not adjust for.

(2)  This cost increase over 17 years represents a 5.4% per year inflation.  It is very possible this is entirely due to changes in firefighting unit costs and methods rather than any change in underlying fire counts.

(3) This is idiotic, a desperate reach by an author with an axe to grind.  Wildfires in Arizona often occur out of fire season.   Having a single fire in the winter means nothing.

(4) Again, we know the data does not support the point.  If the data does not support your point, find some "authority" that will say it is true.  There is always someone somewhere who will say anything is true.

(5) It is true that there are scientists who have blamed global warming for these fires.  Left unmentioned is that there are also scientists who think that it is impossible to parse the effect of a 0.5C increase in global temperatures from all the other potential causes of individual weather events and disasters.  If there is no data to support a trend in the mean, it is absolutely irresponsible to claim causality in isolated data points in the tails of the distribution

(6) The idea that temperatures in Arizona have risen 3/4 a degree F for four decades is madness.  Not even close.  This would be 3F, and there is simply no basis in any reputable data base I have seen to support this.  It is potentially possible to take a few AZ urban thermometers to see temperature increases of this magnitude, but they would be measuring mostly urban heat island effects, and not rural temperatures that drive wildfires (more discussion here).  The statement that "the average annual number of Arizona wildfires on more than 1,000 acres has nearly quadrupled" is so awkwardly worded we have to suspect the author is reaching here.  In fact, since wildfires average about 100 acres, the 1000 acre fire is going to be rare.  My bet is that this is a volatility in small numbers (e.g. 1 to 4) rather than a real trend.  His final statement that "One-quarter of Arizona's signature ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests have burned in just the past decade" is extremely disingenuous.  The reader will be forgiven for thinking that a quarter of the trees in Arizona have burned.  But in fact this only means there have been fires in a quarter of the forests -- a single tree in one forest burning would likely count for this metric as a forest which burned.

(7) This may well be true, but means nothing really.  It is more likely, particularly given the evidence of the rest of the article, to be due to forest management processes than global warming.

(8)  This is a data point, not a trend.  Is this a lot or a little?  And remember, no matter how much he says is at risk (and remember this man is testifying to get more budget money out of Congress, so he is going to exaggerate) the actual acreage burning is flat to down.

Postscript:  The article contains one of the most blatant data bait and switches I have ever seen.  The following quote is taken as-is in the article and has no breaks or editing and nothing left out.   Here is what you are going to see.  All the way up to the last paragraph, the author tells a compelling story that the fires are due to a series of USFS firefighting and fuel-management policies.  Fair enough.   His last paragraph says that Republicans are the big problem for opposing... opposing what?  Changes to the USFS fire management practices?  No, for opposing the Obama climate change plan. What??  He just spent paragraphs building a case that this is a fire and fuel management issue, but suddenly Republicans suck for opposing the climate change bill?

Like most land in the West, Yarnell is part of an ecosystem that evolved with fire. "The area has become unhealthy and unnatural," Hawes says, "because fires have been suppressed." Yarnell is in chaparral, a mix of small juniper, oak and manzanita trees, brush and grasses. For centuries, fires swept across the chaparral periodically, clearing out and resetting the "fuel load." But beginning in the early 1900s, U.S. wildfire policy was dominated by fire suppression, formalized in 1936 as "the 10 a.m. rule" – fires were to be extinguished by the morning after they were spotted; no exceptions. Back in the day, the logic behind the rule appeared sound: If you stop a fire when it's small, it won't become big. But wildland ecosystems need fire as much as they need rain, and it had been some 45 years since a large fire burned around Yarnell. Hawes estimates that there could have been up to five times more fuel to feed the Yarnell Hill fire than was natural.

The speed and intensity of a fire in overgrown chaparral is a wildland firefighter's nightmare, according to Rick Heron, part of another Arizona crew that worked on the Yarnell Hill fire. Volatile resins and waxy leaves make manzanita "gasoline in plant form," says Heron. He's worked chaparral fires where five-foot-tall manzanitas produced 25-foot-high flames. Then there are the decades of dried-up grasses, easily ignitable, and the quick-burning material known as "fine" or "flash" fuels. "That's the stuff that gets you," says Heron. "The fine, flashy fuels are just insane. It doesn't look like it's going to be a problem. But when the fire turns on you, man, you can't outdrive it. Let alone outrun it."

Beginning with the Forest Service in 1978, the 10 a.m. rule was gradually replaced by a plan that gave federal agencies the discretion to allow fires to burn where appropriate. But putting fire back in the landscape has proved harder to do in practice, where political pressures often trump science and best-management practices. That was the case last year when the Forest Service once again made fire suppression its default position. Fire managers were ordered to wage an "aggressive initial attack" on fires, and had to seek permission to deviate from this practice. The change was made for financial reasons. Faced with skyrocketing costs of battling major blazes and simultaneous cuts to the Forest Service firefighting budget, earlier suppression would, it was hoped, keep wildfires small and thus reduce the cost of battling big fires.

Some critics think election-year politics may have played a role in the decision. "The political liability of a house burning down is greater than the political liability of having a firefighter die," says Kierán Suckling, head of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. "If they die, you just hope that the public narrative is that they were American heroes."

The problem will only get worse as extremist Republicans and conservative Democrats foster a climate of malign neglect. Even before President Obama unveiled a new climate-change initiative days before the fire, House Speaker John Boehner dismissed the reported proposal as "absolutely crazy." Before he was elected to the Senate last November, Jeff Flake, then an Arizona congressman, fought to prohibit the National Science Foundation from funding research on developing a new model for international climate-change analysis, part of a program he called "meritless." The biggest contributor to Flake's Senate campaign was the Club for Growth, whose founder, Stephen Moore, called global warming "the biggest myth of the last one hundred years."

By the way, the Yarnell firefighters did not die due to global warming or even the 10am rule.  They died due to stupidity.  Whether their own or their leaders may never be clear, but I have yet to meet a single firefighter that thought they had any business being where they were and as out of communication as they were.