24 October, 2007

The California Conflagration

As I'm writing, blessedly unseasonable rain and snow is falling upon the Southern California fires that have devoured over 3,300 homes and 1,100 square miles. This is a wonderful turn of events, although the TV newscasts, after a week of nonstop coverage of the conflagrations, are now warning of that tragicomic offspring of wildfire: mudslides.

But that's life in California: one disaster after another. California is a particularly fragile place for 35 million people to live in. And the cost of cramming more people into the state keeps rising.
Brushfires and mudslides used to seem more amusing because they afflicted Hollywood celebrities significantly more often than average citizens. This was not just a matter of God's good taste. Average citizens lived in the cheaper and safer flatlands. The rich poised precariously in the hills, where construction and maintenance costs are higher—especially if you want your home to survive what Mother Nature keeps up her sleeve.

But the plains of Southern California filled up long ago. So the ever-growing population has been spilling into the more treacherous wild areas. This is regularly denounced as "sprawl," which implies that individuals are wastefully consuming more and more land per capita. But in California the driver has been population growth. According to a 2003 Center for Immigration Studies report, from 1982 to 1997 the total number of developed acres in California grew by 32 percent, but the per capita usage was up only two percent. Essentially all of California's population growth in the 1990s was due to new immigrants or births to foreign-born women. (Indeed, close to one and a half million more American-born citizens moved out of California during the 1990s than moved in from other states.)

As low-income immigrants pour into Southern California's lowlands, crowding the freeways and overstressing the older cities' public schools, the middle class (at least the ones who don't leave the state) have responded by taking to the hills. The hill country's environment is benign most of the year. But the local ecosystem evolved to require periodic blazes. Up through American Indian times, these brushfires were frequent and thus relatively mild.

Unfortunately, we modern people haven't really figured out how to manage the chaparral and pine forests yet—especially when the canyons and mountains are home to housing. The best-known remedy, controlled burns, is disliked by people who live in the backcountry because they pollute the air, and they can jump out of control. The 2000 Los Alamos fire set by the Forest Service ended up destroying hundreds of structures.
Thus the policy has been to try to suppress all fires. This, however, causes fuel in the form of dry brush and dead trees to build up each decade, inevitably leading to infernos like those of 1993 and 2003. Indeed, an order of magnitude more homes could have burned this year if the hot Santa Ana winds had blown for another week.
It’s just California's problem? ‘fraid not! Taxpayers across the country always end up chipping in, through government disaster loans, new federal firefighting and forestry management programs, lower stock market prices for insurance companies, and other forms of burden-sharing.

And, in some ways, that's fair, because so much of California's current crisis traces back to the federal refusal to adequately enforce immigration laws.
California desperately needs a slower population growth rate until it learns how its current vast population can live with its lovely but sometime lethal landscape. And the state's burgeoning numbers are solely driven by immigration.

The logical solution: cut back on immigration. Reality is literally lighting a fire under us.

22 October, 2007

Cowboy up!

Gene Autry must be spinning in his grave.

"Many of my peers think Blackwater is oftentimes out of control. They often act like cowboys over here ... not seeming to play by the same rules everyone else tries to play by."
- A senior U.S. commander in Iraq, quoted anonymously in The Washington Post

And as for the many cowboys who work for a living on the range in the Golden Spread, they need some sort of massive public relations campaign to counter the damage being done to their image.

That great icon of the American West - the cowboy - is now a derogatory term.
Thanks to the Blackwater scandal currently stagnating in Congress, the cowboy is being lassoed and blamed for the failure of U.S. foreign and military policy. Blackwater USA is a private company that provides security in Iraq. Blackwater is under fire for allegedly violent and deadly actions by its employees, many of them former members of the U.S. military, against Iraqi civilians.

Erik Prince - the company's chairman and a former Navy SEAL - testified Tuesday before Congress, denying the "cowboy" allegations. "Blackwater cowboys" is now the term used to describe those who allegedly shoot and kill Iraqi civilians. As of Wednesday, there were more than 730,000 references to this term in cyberspace. An Associated Press headline from last week read "Cowboy Aggression Works for Blackwater."

Last month, The New Zealand Herald ran a story about private security in Iraq. Supposedly, at a meeting of such groups, there was a concern of "an influx of criminals and cowboys" working in private security in Iraq. The world of blogs - many of which are the junior high bathroom wall of journalism - rode herd also: "In any other country in the world it would be called cold-blooded murder and these Blackwater 'cowboys' would be sent to jail for life."

Calling someone a "cowboy" is often the sticks-and-stones attack style of the media. The Guardian, Britain's liberal newspaper, once referred to President Bush as a "hopelessly inarticulate, trigger-happy cowboy." Better cowboy up, cowboys. Your good name is well on its way to politically correct hyphen-word status. There's the n-word, the b-word, the h-word. The c-word is already taken, right? I'll have to update my vulgarity meter. How about the cow-word?

Speaking of Autry, he is credited for creating the "Cowboy Code." The first rule is the cowboy must not shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage. Real cowboys will have to excuse the media brand being applied to "cowboy" by those whose only relationship to a horse is acting like the rear end of one.

03 October, 2007

Why I hate (and love) C-Span

I find myself in sunny Auburn, Indiana this fine evening, ruminating over the last few days since I posted to this blog. Last night, I had quite a bit of trouble sleeping. Now, I am quite used to spending nights in a hotel (167 nights so far this year), but no matter how many times I stay in a Holiday Inn Express, I have never found a comfortable bed.

So, after an hour or so of tossing and turning, I gave in to insomnia and clicked the TV back on about midnight or so. After channel surfing through the vast wasteland of infomercials, sitcom reruns and assorted celbri-crap, I happened upon good ol' C-Span. Now if anything can put me to sleep, it's gotta be this channel, right?

C-Span was replaying the Blackwater hearings from earlier in the day. Erik Prince, company founder and CEO (and brother of Betsy DeVos) was testiying about his companies activities in Iraq over the last 4 years as a private security contractor working under the Department of Defense and now, the State Department. Part of the debate was the discussion of the cost-justification of using private enterprise contractors versus active-duty military.

One of things that absolutely frustrates me to no end is the inability of television and print media to actually cover an issue. They would much rather spend inches of columns and minutes of air-time discussing pointless items about who is dating who than actually devote the time to discuss something of substance that affects all of us. That's why I really like C-Span, issues is what they do. Finally!! I get to see something intellectually stimulating, right?

Oops...I forgot. While the medium is set up to discuss issues, the players involved - not so much. For the next 3 and a half hours, I sat watching a train wreck of pompous, grandstanding, ill-informed and flat-out ignorant doofi demonstrate to everyone watching why our government is so ineffective. Both sides of the aisle completely wasted the opportunity to have a constructive discussion as how to best use tax dollars and how we should set our policy going forward. No, why do that? There's name calling to do!! We're discussing Blackwater...I know, I'm going to go on a 3 minute rant about MoveOn.org! And I'm going to answer that rant by complaining about Rush Limbaugh!

As if the posturing about unrelated issues wasn't vomit-inducing enough, the complete lack of preparation by these congressmen blew me away. One Democart demanded to know why Blackwater had not incarcerated their personnel who had been terminated for improperly discharging their weapons. When he was told that Blackwater could not detain people because they were not a law enforcement agency, he exploded and demanded to know whose fault that was. Hello?!?!?! It's your fault - Congress made the law!! A Republican senator from Indiana responded to this exchange, not by using facts or even reasoning, but by claiming that all Democrats hate profit and want to see rich people suffer. Thankfully I was able to stop from smothering myself with a pillow.

This is the reason why I sometimes hate C-Span. Our elected leaders choose to self-aggrandize rather than govern and lead. And all the posturing seems to be done for the benefit of the cameras. The chairman of the committee, Henry Waxman, actually addressed "the viewers" when ranting about something completely unrelated to the issue at hand. Is this what we've sunk to? Is being "electable" and "telegenic" more important than visionary and inspiring?

I know we started on this slippery slope during the Kennedy-Nixon debates, but I can't just give up hope that our integrity is a lost cause. I can only hope that one day C-Span can put me to sleep because of the depth of the issues being discussed and not because I exhaust myself screaming "You morons!!" at my TV.