Posts tagged ‘Big Island’

Volcanoes and Home Ownership

I have seen several web sites where folks looked at the neighborhoods getting devastated by lava in Hawaii and asked "why did the government let them build their homes there?"  I have three responses:

First, nature is hard to predict.  And even if it were, it tends to operate on really long cycles that are longer than most of our attention spans.  This style and location of eruption  has not happened in recent memory so folks treat it as impossible.  For a good example of this phenomenon see:  stock market.

Second, I laugh when I see the "why does the government allow homes built in dangerous areas" question.   In fact, in many cases, the government subsidizes construction of homes in dangerous areas.  Federal flood insurance is notorious for continuing to rebuild people's homes practically for free on dangerous coasts and in known flood plains.

Third, there are private entities who do take a hand in preventing construction in dangerous areas:  mortgage lenders and insurers.  Lenders do not want a lien on an asset that is underneath 20 feet of new rock, and insurers do not want to take on expensive risks in known danger areas (particularly if there are no federal guarantees as in #2).

I actually own some land on the Big Island, a long way away on the Kohala Coast.  And in the process of getting a mortgage and insurance, we had to go through a lava risk review.  There are apparently maps of risk zones similar to flood plain maps.   Obviously, these neighborhoods that are being consumed slowly (see:  Deadpool Zamboni scene) likely cleared this hurdle.  I am not sure how.  Perhaps the developer used pull to get the maps changed.  Perhaps the people who made the maps just predicted risk incorrectly (see #1).  Perhaps lenders ignored the maps and took on the mortgages anyway despite the risks (see: 2008).

Travel Report from the Big Island

My wife's cousin is in management of a beautiful resort (Mauna Kea / Hapuna)  on the Kohala coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.  I was asking him if it was OK to visit and you can feel the frustration of a resort executive in his reply:

Absolutely ZERO impact from Volcano….

Volcano is 120 miles away and has zero impact on MK. Since it has been rumbling we have had nothing but beautiful sky, perfect air and perfect water temperature.

Web site with air quality… http://www.hiso2index.info/ MK is about the same as Kihei in Maui… Kona occasionally gets not great with some Vog… So Kihei and MK are both at 14 right now. Kona is the worst at 46 on the west side (Still good) Phoenix is at 71; St. Louis right now seems the worst in the nation at 119. Worst are on the Big Island right now is Ocean View a little south west of the lava flows at 82.

Unfortunately, CNN makes it seem like everyone is wearing a gas mask and there is acid rain falling all over the place. The volcano is limited to a tiny area on the south-east coast and all Island in Hawaii and 90% of the big island and all of the Kohala Coast are not impacted. The impact from the Volcano for me is the same as you in Phoenix… ZERO….. Also no matter what it does it will not impact us… It is a shield volcano, not Mt. St. Helene so it can’t blow up and there is not enough lava in the chamber to cause any big issues other than right at its base…

The only time to “pay attention” is if Mauna Loa or Hualalai started to rumble. Both of those could have an impact on the west side of the island.

 

If I Were a Billionaire: Coyote College

My daughter and I did the whole college visit thing last week -- 8 colleges in five days.  In doing so, I was struck by the fact that all these great schools we visited, with one exception, were founded by rich people no more recently than the 19th century.  Seriously, can you name a college top students are trying to get into that was founded since 1900?  I think Rice University in Houston was founded in the 20th century but it is still over 100 years old.

The one exception, by the way, was SCAD, an art school in Savannah, Georgia.  SCAD is new enough that it is still being run by its founder.  I am not sure I am totally comfortable in the value proposition of an expensive art school, but I will say that this was -- by far -- the most dynamic school we visited.

So here is what I would do:  Create a new not-for-profit university aimed at competing at the top levels, e.g. with the Ivy League.  I would find a nice bit of land for it in a good climate, avoiding big cities.  The Big Island of Hawaii would be a nice spot, though that may be too remote.   Scottsdale would not be a bad choice since its bad weather is during the summer out of the normal school year and land is relatively cheap.

Then, I would take the top academic kids, period.  No special breaks for athletes or tuba players.  It would have some reasonable school non-academic programs just to remain competitive for students - maybe some intramurals or club sports, but certainly no focus on powerhouse athletics.  We could set a pool of money aside to help fund clubs and let students drive and run most of the extra-curriculars, from singing groups to debate clubs.  If students are passionate enough to form and lead these activities, they would happen.

And now I need a reader promise here - if you are going to read the next sentence, you have to read the whole rest of the article before flying into any tizzies.

And for the most part we would scrap affirmative action and diversity goals.  We are going to take the best students.  This does not mean its pure SAT's - one can certainly look at a transcript and SAT in the context of the school kids went to, so that smart kids are not punished for going to a crap public high school.

Realize I say this with the expectation that the largest group of students who will be getting affirmative action over the next 20 years are... white males.

What?  How can this be?  Well it is already nearly true.  Sure, historically everyone has focused on reverse discrimination against white males when colleges were dealing with having twice as many men than women and they had few qualified black or hispanic candidates.  But my sense is that few white males any more lose their spot in college due to competition from under-qualified minority candidates.

That is because there is an enormous demographic shift going on in college.  In fact there are three:

  1. Girls rule high school and higher education.  Yes, I know that women steeped in "Failing at Fairness" will find this hard to believe, but undergraduates are something like 56% women nowadays.  As we toured Ivy League schools, we were on tours with about 6 prospective female students for every one guy.  Back when my son played high school basketball, on the walls of various high schools he played at were pictures of their honor societies.  Time and again I saw pictures of 20 girls and one or two forlorn boys.  If top schools want to keep their gender numbers even, then they are going to have to start affirmative action for boys, if they have not done so already (I suspect they have).
  2. Asians are being actively discriminated against.  Schools will never ever admit it, because they are getting sued by Asian prospective students (I know Princeton has been sued) but reverse discrimination against Asian students is becoming more and more intense.  The bar for Asia females already is way higher than the bar for white males in top schools, and it likely will only get worse
  3. Foreign students bring in the cash.  Ivy League schools have a ton of international students, which makes sense as they strive to be international institutions.  But one thing they will not tell you is that there is another reason for bringing in foreign students:  For most schools, their need-blind admissions policies and increasingly generous financial aid packages do not apply to foreign students, or apply on a much more limited basis.  The average tuition paid by international students is thus much higher.  I suspect, but cannot prove, that under the cover of diversity these schools are lowering their standards to bring in students who bring the cash.

So we scrap all this.  If the school ends up 80% Asian women, fine.  Every forum in one's life does not have to have perfect diversity (whatever the hell that is), and besides there are plenty of other market choices for students who are seeking different racial and ethnic mixes in their college experience.   We just want the best.  And whatever money we can raise, we make sure  a lot of it goes to financial aid rather than prettier buildings (have you seen what they are building at colleges these days?) so we can make sure the best can afford to attend.  Getting good faculty might be the challenge at first, but tenure tracks have dried up so many places that my gut feel is that there are plenty of great folks out there who can't get tenure where they are and would jump at a chance to move.  You won't have Paul Krugman or Bill McKibben type names at first, but is that so bad?

We know the business community hires from Ivy League schools in part because they can essentially outsource their applicant screening to the University admissions office.  So we will go them one better and really sell this.   Hire any of our graduates and you know you are getting someone hard-working and focused and very smart.

I don't know if it would work, but hell, I am a billionaire, what's the risk in trying?

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)

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).

 

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.

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:

 

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.

Environmentalists are Anti-Change, Not Pro-Environment

Here in Hawaii, much of the talk is about the Hawaiian Island ferry service that was supposed to start up this summer.  Most of you who have not spend much time here would probably expect that there already exists some kind of ferry service between the islands.  But for some reason, there is no such service.  Lacking you own boat, the only way to get to the island that I can see right across the water (I can see Maui right now from the north shore of the Big Island of Hawaii) is for me to drive forty miles south to an airport, get on an airplane, fly to the Maui airport, and then drive tens of miles to my destination.  Those of you who live in San Francisco, imagine if the only way to get to Oakland were by airplane.  One would think a ferry service would not only be a great service for residents and tourists, but would be a huge environmental benefit, giving folks an alternative to driving and flying.

Well, not according to the Sierra Club,
which has sued to block the ferry service on environmental grounds.  Of course, absolutely everything Hawaii uses comes in by ship, and there are always ships coming in and out of port, not to mention hundreds of fishing boats.  But we just can't have this one extra boat.  It makes much more environmental sense to the Sierra Club that people drive miles and miles to an airport and fly between the islands than to take a sensible ferry.

Note, by the way, as an added libertarian bonus, the ferry service seems to be entirely for-profit and does not appear to involve any major government subsidies.  Though I could be wrong about that, there are always hidden ways to subsidize such efforts.

Update: The main reason for opposition is that the ferry will make it easier for "undesirable" people to come to Maui and make the place less, uh, desirable.  First, it is unclear to me why the ferry service should be held accountable for future environmental damage that might be committed by its passengers - certainly airlines are not held to the same standard.  Second, this is snobbery, not environmentalism.  It is the same argument that prevented the red line in Boston from being extended to Lexington -- the upscale residents didn't want an easier path for the undesirables to get in.  So now Lexington residents have to drive for miles if they want to ride the train.  My sense is that this kind of faux environmentalism has become a very popular way for the reach to keep the middle class and poor at bay.  See:  Hamptons.

Um, I think they are all non-native

I thought it was kind of silly how often I have seen blogs commenting on the story about Bette Midler cutting down her own trees in Hawaii.  We should be supporting her property rights, not searching around for trivial examples of supposed hypocrisy.  However, I did note this line from Midler's spokesman:

"The whole idea with cutting the trees down was with the idea of
improving the lot with native species" instead of the nonnative,
invasive species that had grown there, Graham said. "It's unfortunate
that a mistake was made."

Given that the island rose out of the sea as volcanic molten lava, my wild guess, without having a degree in botany, is that most all the plants and animals in Hawaii are non-native.  For example, the Big Island only rose out of the sea less than 500,000 years ago.  I am pretty sure no trees came up with the lava.

This strikes me as a common form of environmental anthropomorphism -- "Normal" is defined as the condition in which man has observed things over the last 200 or so years, a blink of the eye in geologic time.  So the only allowable plants and animals are those that existed at the moment man started to observe a certain location.  In the same way, "normal" for world temperatures is defined as what we observed them to be in about 1950.  Climate and nature and geology follow multiple cycles and trend lines, some of which stretch for millions of years.  It is hubris to say that we know what "normal" is.

Back from Hawaii

Well, I am nursing some jet-lag but am working on a post for later this week on the alleged CIA secret overseas prisons.  This is one of those issues where my pragmatic frequent-flying persona is all over Jenifer Garner violating the crap out of terrorist civil rights to protect me, but my intellectual-libertarian persona knows better.  If you want a preview of where I am going with this, you can see this post on immigration, noting the argument that our individual rights pre-date, rather than flow from, the government, and therefore citizenship shouldn't matter in assessing what rights a person has vis-a-vis Uncle Sam.

I had the opportunity to look at some land while I was in Hawaii, thinking about maybe having a retirement home in the future, at least to escape the Phoenix summers.  My wife and I would like to be on a coast.  I don't like the Northeast, and neither of us like the Gulf coast or Northwest coast.  That leaves SoCal and Hawaii (if you limit it to the US).  What worries us is that though we expect some appreciation in our real earnings over the next decade, we fear that waterfront property in these areas may appreciate even faster, leading us to the conclusion that we may be able to afford a nicer piece of land now than when we retire.  We worry about bubble pricing but being willing to hold an asset for 20-30 years alleviates some of that problem.  The Big Island seems to be a better value than the other islands, but even there, its freaking expensive.  Sigh.  Maybe if it was a big enough lake, that would do?

Race-Based Tenant Restrictions

I am on the Big Island of Hawaii today doing some business (yes, I know, lets hear all those violins).  I encountered a program here called Hawaiian Home Lands.  Apparently the state makes long-term leases of land for homes available at $1 a year to native Hawaiians.  Recipients of this largess may either get a lot with an existing home, or just an undeveloped lot they can build on (using special subsidized loans and with a number of special exemptions from building and development codes).  People may pass on the lease and the improvements they have built to their kids as long as their kids qualify for the program as well.

On its face, this appears to be one of those well-meaning government programs designed to deal with a problem that many resort destinations face, that locals who work in the resort communities often get priced out of the market for homes in the area where they work (Vail is the classic example of this problem).  Unfortunately, as with many government programs, this program has some perverse results.

Qualifying for the program requires that the recipient pass a strict racial test, which the HHL web site says is "50% or greater native Hawaiian blood".  Setting eligibility for a government program based on racial tests is pretty outlandish in and of itself, but it gets worse.  People taking advantage of the program need to think carefully about the race of their mate before they decide how much to invest in their home.  A 75% Hawaiian who marries a full-blooded Hawaiian will be able to pass the improvements on to their children (since the children will be more than 50% Hawaiian), and thus can justify a large home investment.  The same person who marries a full-blooded Japanese or African or Anglo-Saxon will not be able to pass their home on to their kids, since their kids will fail the race test.  So, not only is there a race-test for a government program, but the government is providing strong financial incentives not to "dilute" a certain race.  Hawaii über alles.

By the way, those who don't think that passing assets to one's kids is an important part of long-term investment thinking should compare the houses built by program participants who know their kids cannot inherit to those built by those who will be able to pass the investment to their kids -- there is no comparison.  This would make a very fertile ground for an economics graduate student trying to quantify the value people assign to the of passing assets to one's kids in long-range investment planning.

I'm Back

Actually, I was back on Saturday, but Sunday was for rest and Monday was for catching up on a mail pile about 2 feet high in my office.  Hawaii was great.  For those of you who have not tried the Big Island, I highly recommend it.  While Maui and Kauai are perhaps more beautiful, the Big Island is a lot, lot less crowded, as Maui in particular is starting to look like Oahu.  The Big Island is also interesting for its active Volcanoes as well as glimpses of holdover ranching and plantation life from the 19th century.