Posts tagged ‘Native American’

Examples of Why Government Infrastructure Projects Are So Hard To Get Done

As most of you know, my company operates public recreation facilities for a variety of public agencies under concession contracts.  These contracts are mostly similar to each other in their structure, but one key difference among them is the contract length -- we have both short-term contracts of say 5 years and long-term contracts up to 30 years.  When we have longer-term contracts, we are expected to do all the maintenance, even capital maintenance such as repaving roads and replacing roofs (more on that approach here).  The US Forest Service tends to prefer much shorter contracts where they retain responsibility for capital maintenance -- this tends to work out as we pay a higher concession fee on these (since we have fewer expenses) and the Forest Service has a process to use the concession fee to perform capital maintenance.  In fact, generally the FS asks us to do the maintenance because it is way easier for us to get it started (avoids the government contracting processes) and then we get credit for our costs against the fees we owe.

Anyway, I have a fair amount of experience with performing small to medium-sized infrastructure projects on public lands.  Here are a few examples, starting from the sublime and proceeding to the ridiculous, of projects we have not been able to proceed with and why.  In all these examples, my company was going to fund the project so availability of funds was not an issue.

  • In TN, we had already begun an expansion to add more campsites to an existing campground, a project already approved by our government landlord.  A disgruntled ex-employee, on his way out, claimed we had disturbed a rock pile and he thought the rock pile was some sort of Native American artifact.  Despite the fact there was no evidence for this, and that the construction was no where near the rock pile, construction was halted and my contractor had to go home while an investigation was begun.  As we speak, scores of acres surrounding the campground have been put off-limits to development until the rock pile is thoroughly studied, but of course no funding currently exists to study the rock pile so it is not clear how long this will take.  I am proceeding internally on the assumption that we will never be given permission and am cutting losses on materials bought for the project.
  • In AZ, we operated a snow play area in what was essentially a gravel pit.  The slopes we used were what was left from years of mining gravel, and essentially the whole area had been disturbed.  We wanted to add a real bathroom to replace scores of portable toilets and to bring power to the area rather than use generators.  All the work would be performed on already disturbed land in the gravel pit.  We were told we could not proceed without a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) study to assess environmental impacts of the work, which could easily take years or longer if its results got tied up in the courts, as they often do.  Since the government had no money or manpower to do the NEPA study, it was pointless to even try to proceed.  This year, without the ability to construct necessary facilities for visitors, we exited the concession contract and the Forest Service has not be successful yet in finding anyone else to reopen it.
  • In CA, just this week, I was discussing two maintenance projects with the government in a series of campgrounds we run near the Owens Valley.  In one, we wanted to dig up a water line that runs under a dirt road to repair a leak.  In the second, we desperately needed to replace some leaky roofs on bathrooms.  Both projects are now delayed.  In the case of the water line, digging up the road was going to require an archaeological study - yes, any digging basically requires such a study, and there is no exception for utterly absurd situations like this.  We eventually decided to open the campground without water this year, to the detriment of campers.  In the other case, the replacement of roofs on some old 1950's campground pit toilet buildings (think bathrooms at a highway rest area but not as nice) have to first be evaluated to make sure they are not historic buildings that should be protected.  Since this is a safety issue, I used up my favors on this one to try to get it to proceed.  In my experience, once a building in a park or campground has been labelled historic, that is pretty much its death sentence.  It becomes impossible to do any work on them and they simply fall apart.  For example, years ago there were some really neat old travel cabins in Slide Rock State Park in AZ.  I tried to get permission to fix them up and reopen them, but was told they were historic and they had to wait for special permissions and procedures and materials.  Today, the cabins are basically kindling, having fallen apart completely.

Recognize that these are projects entirely without NIMBY, funding, permitting, licensing, or procurement issues.  But they still face barriers from government rules.

The Power to Say "Yes"

Bruce McQuain tells some stories of bureaucratic frustration in the Gulf, as local governors trying to protect their state from the spill fights against a myriad of mindless bureaucracies.

The governor said the problem is there's still no single person giving a "yes" or "no." While the Gulf Coast governors have developed plans with the Coast Guard's command center in the Gulf, things begin to shift when other agencies start weighing in, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's like this huge committee down there," Riley said, "and every decision that we try to implement, any one person on that committee has absolute veto power."

I would state the problem differently.  In the Federal bureaucracy, seemingly everyone has the power to say "no," and absolutely no one is willing to risk their career or even a minor bureaucratic sanction to over-rule when someone else in the room says "no."  I have seen it a hundred times in my business -- we will be close to doing something for the public, building a new shower building in a campground for example, and some government employee in the room will say that their sister's gynecologist's barber's housekeeper once overheard a conversation in a bar that some guy who may have visited a university once said he had heard a rumor that there might have been a Native American settlement somewhere within 100 miles of that spot 10,000 years ago -- and suddenly the work on the shower has to stop for 6 months while we all run around calling in archeologists and taking this concern seriously.

The problem  in a government discussion, particularly a multi-agency discussion, is that EVERYONE can say "no," and worse, since their incentives are loaded towards risk avoidance (they get punished for violating procedure, but never punished for missing an opportunity), they have a tendency to say "no" a lot, in fact to say "no" by default.  In the Gulf you have a thousand federal employees from 20 agencies whose entire incentive system, whose entire career, whose every lesson from every bureaucratic battle in a sort of long-term aversion therapy, prompts them to say "no" by reflex.

What is missing is someone who can say "yes," and make it stick against all the no's.  That does not have to be Obama -- but it probably does have to be someone very senior who knows (and who everyone else knows) is backed to the hilt by the President and has an incentive system where the only measure of success is more or less oil damage, and thus for whom aggrieved bureaucrats (even senior ones) and petty procedure are irrelevant.  It does not appear such a person has been appointed.

Postscript: By the way, I don't want folks to fall into the trap of thinking that these government folks are necessarily bad people.  I think that is a mistake both conservatives and liberals make -- conservatives vilify government employees, while liberals want to believe that government would work right if we just had the right people in it.   I work with a lot of very bright, very good people in government.  The problem is that their incentives and information are awful.  How would you behave if for 20 years your main feedback was to be criticized for violating minor procedures or trying new things?  How would you have any understanding of business if you grew up in the bizarro world of government budgeting and accounting?   This is the problem with government - not that it is full of bad stupid people, but it takes good smart people and incentivizes them do counter-productive things.

Update: Here is a great example, from Kevin Drum, who is a smart guy but can't do anything but dither in a decision among multiple risks:

It's pretty hard to take the other side of this argument [ie defending the Coast Guard's decision to hold up the GUlf cleanup barges for minor rules violations]. But I wonder. We are, after all, talking about barges that are sucking up oil, and the last time I checked oil was pretty damn flammable. Everyone wants the cleanup operation to proceed with breakneck speed, but that's exactly when people get tired and sloppy. And I wonder what everyone would think of the Coast Guard's ridiculous rules if they waived them and then some boat went up in a huge fireball because a spark caught somewhere and no one had a fire extinguisher handy?

I will say again - I have been in many rooms of bureaucrats, both federal and private, and they all think this way.  These rooms are full of Kevin Drum's wondering out loud, "I don't know, what happens if..."  This is such a common phrase in these meetings I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard it.  Then everyone in the room defers to this hypothetical risk.   Bureaucrats are always more worried about sins of commission  (e.g. knowingly allowing a barge to go out without enough fire extinguishers in violation of guidelines) than the sin of omission (e.g. delay will allow the spill to get worse).  Even when the omission is 100% certainty and the danger from the act of commission is vaguely hypothetical.  It takes a leader to say "send the damn barges out now."

Useful Advice from John Scalzi

Another fake memoir has been revealed:

In "Love and Consequences," a critically acclaimed memoir published
last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white,
half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a
foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.

The problem is that none of it is true.

Margaret B. Jones is a
pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the
well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando
Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell
Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood
neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run
drugs for any gang members.

John Scalzi offers advice:

You know, the rules of a memoir are pretty simple. If an event actually happened to you, you can use it in a memoir. If it didn't actually happen to you, you can't. Because then it's fiction, you see. Which is different from a memoir. No, really; you can look it up. I'm not sure why this has suddenly become so difficult for everyone to process.

I must say that this actually sounds like a good book -- he should go for it:

On the other hand, I'm looking forward to selling my memoir of my
life as a teenage transvestite in the Bogota slums, who later joined
the Navy SEALs and adopted the twin daughters of the ruthless Afghan
opium warlord whom I battled to the death using only a spoon
and 14 bars of the 1812 Overture, and then, having beaten back a
terrible addiction to khat, went on to become one of the most famous
celebrity chefs on The Cooking Channel. Because apparently this would
be at least as true as most of the other memoirs on the market today.
And, I'd wager, a great deal more entertaining. I'm waiting for my
check, I am.

Libertarians Even Further Adrift

I think maybe its time for me to stop reading the news.  What else can a good libertarian do when Republicans oppose free trade, support government intervention in the economy, and spend tax money like drunken sailors while Democrats vote for new restrictions on free speech?

The latter occurred yesterday, as the House failed to get the 2/3 majority necessary to pass the Online Freedom of Speech Act, mostly on the strength on opposition from Democrats (you know, those principled supporters of civil liberties).  Politicians have again shown themselves ready to trash the Constitution in order to limit the speech of those potentially critical to themselves.  Apparently, there is reason to hope, since bill sponsors are trying to bring the bill to the floor in a more routine process that would require only a majority vote for passage (which the bill appears to be able to garner).

My only problem with this initiative is that it falls far short of the mark of protecting all Americans.  Right now, only the major media outlets have full free-speech rights in an election.  This bill would extend free speech to the Internet.  Here's an idea:  Why don't we give everyone back their first amendment rights, as I wrote here:

These past few weeks, we have been debating whether this media
exemption from speech restrictions should be extended to bloggers.  At
first, I was in favorThen I was torn.
Now, I am pissed.  The more I think of it, it is insane that we are
creating a 2-tiered system of first amendment rights at all, and I
really don't care any more who is in which tier.  Given the wording of
the Constitution, how do I decide who gets speech and who doesn't - it
sounds like everyone is supposed to:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of
speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to
assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

have come to the conclusion that arguing over who gets the media
exemption is like arguing about whether a Native American in 1960's
Alabama should use the white or the colored-only bathroom:  It is an
obscene discussion and is missing the whole point, that the facilities
shouldn't be segregated in the first place.

By the way, I don't want to ever hear from the NY Times again about some company that is being monopolistic.  The NY Times has opposed the Online Free Speech Initiative from the very beginning in a transparent attempt to quash a competitive media that is stealing readers from it at a very fast clip.  I'm sure they hate having this type stuff on the Internet.  And this is the same NY Times that was one of the very few supporters of the Kelo decision because they were in the midst of getting a new HQ via an eminent domain landgrab.  Reason number 635 I don't agree with giving the press more rights than the rest of us have.

Arizona State University Racially Segregates Courses

I am a big supporter of the work FIRE does to support openness and individual rights in universities.  Today, FIRE turns its attention on Phoenix's own Arizona State University:

State-sponsored racial segregation has found a home at Arizona State University
(ASU).  ASU's ironically named 'Rainbow Sections' of English 101 and 102 have
been advertised on flyers and on the university's website as being open to
'Native Americans only.'

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has written to the
university to demand that the classes be opened to all students. Shockingly,
this marks the second time in less than four years that FIRE has been forced to
protest a racially segregated course at ASU.

It is appalling that ASU would resurrect segregated classes five decades
after Brown v. Board of Education," stated David French, president of
FIRE.  "The idea that a class can be 'separate but equal' was discredited long

The 'Rainbow Sections' of English 101 and 102, ASU's freshman composition
courses, were advertised as "restricted to Native Americans only" on the faculty
webpage of Professor G. Lynn Nelson, the course instructor.  A flyer
addressed to 'Native American Students' states that they 'are invited to enroll
in special Native American sections of ENG 101 and 102.'  It also discusses some
of the differences between the special sections and the 'standard First Year
Composition classes,' making it clear that the special sections offer a
different educational experience.

Anyone heard of Brown vs. Board of Education here?  I wouldn't have a particular problem with private groups offering such education with these restrictions, after all I have said many times that the right of free association implies a right not to associate with whoever you want.  But public institutions have different obligations in this regard.  Its actually not that hard to deal with, and even ASU knows what the solution is:

FIRE last wrote
to ASU in April 2002
to protest a segregated Navajo history class that
limited enrollment to Native American students. At that time, ASU simply dropped
the racial restriction in response to FIRE's letter.

Its OK to have different versions of the same coursework, and probably OK to advertise one version as specially targeted at a particular group, as long as you let individual students make the final decision on which of the University-sanctioned versions are right for them.

Do We Have to Change the State Names?

The NCAA has effectively banned the use of "hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery" at NCAA events.  Apparently, despite the broad language, the rules are aimed narrowly at teams named using Native American imagery, since "Fighting Irish" is not on the hitlist, despite the fact that Notre Dame has no formal approval from Ireland to use the name, while "Seminoles" is on the hitlist, despite the fact that Florida State has the Seminole tribe's blessing to use the name.  The "Dutch" and the "Dutchmen" are apparently OK, as are other teams named after non-Indian peoples such as the "Gauchos", the "Highlanders", the "Quakers", the "Norse", the "Scots", the "Swedes", the "Trojans", the "Vandals", the "Vikings", and of course, the "Nads" (Go Nads, go).  Complete mascot list here.  As a resident of Phoenix, can I sue the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay for denigrating me?

So I started to think about the University of Utah Utes, who are also on the hitlist.  Apparently, using a name derived from the Ute Indian tribe is no longer Kosher in the NCAA.  Which leads to the obvious question - can the University of Utah even use the name Utah any more at NCAA events, since it is derived from the Ute tribe?  Instead of "Utah" on their uniforms, will they have to have something like "that state between Nevada and Colorado"?  Same with Missouri, Illinois, and both the Dakotas, all state names derived from local Indian tribe names.  And don't even get me started on the 40 or so state names (including my own Arizona) derived from Indian words.  How about Indiana, which means "land of Indians"?  Or Oklahoma, which is Choctow for "red people".  If we can't put "redskin" on a NCAA jersey, how can we put "Oklahoma"?  Coming soon: The Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. The Far North Texas Sooners.

The FIRE website has more, noting the irony of university presidents suddenly chafing under the same type of vague and arbitrarily enforced speech code that they have blithely imposed on their own students for years.

Update #1: I heard an interesting interview on this topic with an NCAA spokeman on the Dan Patrick Radio Show.  The host pressed the NCAA figure on why FSU can't use the "Seminole" name, when the Florida Seminole tribe had given their blessing.  The response from the NCAA official was typical of a lot of elitist thought nowadays.  It boiled down to "its for their own good, even if they don't agree".

Update #2: Being from Texas, I knew that calling Oklahoma "Far North Texas" would incite some response.  I have gotten several emails.  The conclusion to an email from reader Dale was typical:

from one fellow libertarian to another, can you do me a favor?  Henceforth,
please refrain from associating my Sooners with anything texas-like.  Thank


A Distasteful Task

Today, I am filling out my EEO-1 form, which I always find a mildly distasteful task.  For those who don't know, the EEO-1 is an annual report the government requires of all but very small corporations.  It requires me to list numbers on how many of my workers are black females or Native American males or Asian or whatever.  I have to ask all my managers to stare at the skin color of their employees and tell me what flavor everyone is so I can report it.  The government is careful to tell us that it is bad form to actually ask people what race or ethnicity they are, so it is up to us to apply whatever racial stereotypes we carry to the task of identification.  So much for a color-blind society.

Giving Citizens "Premium" Rights

In a previous post, I expressed my frustration with the argument over blogs and campaign finance rules:

These past few weeks, we have been debating whether this media
exemption from speech restrictions should be extended to bloggers.  At
first, I was in favorThen I was torn.
Now, I am pissed.  The more I think of it, it is insane that we are
creating a 2-tiered system of first amendment rights at all, and I
really don't care any more who is in which tier....

have come to the conclusion that arguing over who gets the media
exemption is like arguing about whether a Native American in 1960's
Alabama should use the white or the colored-only bathroom:  It is an
obscene discussion and is missing the whole point, that the facilities
shouldn't be segregated in the first place.

Currently, in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision ruling against a Constitutional journalistic privilege to withhold evidence from prosecutors.  Glenn Reynolds has a nice editorial in the USA Today echoing the point that we should not:

claims of privilege turn the press into a
privileged class. If ordinary people witness a crime, they have to talk
about it. If they participate in a crime "” say, by receiving classified
documents "” they have to say where they got them. Journalists want to
be treated differently, but the First Amendment doesn't create that
sort of privilege. Nor should we.

Many people who support these privileges say
that they would be limited to "real" journalists. But who decides when
a journalist is real? If the government decides, isn't that like
licensing the press, something the First Amendment was designed to
prevent? And if journalists decide, isn't that likely to lead to a
closed-shop, guild mentality at exactly the moment when citizen
journalism by non-professionals is taking off? All sorts of people are
reporting news via Web logs and the Internet. Shouldn't they be
entitled to the same privilege?

Press freedom is for everyone, not just professionals. James Madison wrote about "freedom in the use
of the press," making clear that the First Amendment is for everyone
who publishes, not just members of the professional-media guild.

Yes!  It is ridiculous to be creating two classes of citizen.  Why should Giraldo Rivera have different or even enhanced rights over, say, Martha Stewart, who went to jail for not being forthright with investigators?  This is a very disturbing trend in this country.  Already in the last week, the Supreme Court has ruled that developers, Walmarts, and Crate & Barrells have more and different property rights than homeowners, churches, and small retail establishments.