Monday, January 30, 2017

Fairness and Federal Lands

So for a second weekend in a row, I took a day off of blogging due to birthing class and also because I had to just sit there and watch history unfold.

There is some talk going around right now that the "Muslim Ban" is all an elaborate sleight-of-hand; that the Trump administration has craftily cooked up a distraction to keep us from examining the substantial work being quietly done elsewhere.  It's an intriguing thesis, but I'm not sure I buy it, because there are ways to pull off this sleight-of-hand without attracting denunciations not only from the opposition party but from many within your own party as well.

I'm of the opinion that if it looks like incompetence, and it smells like incompetence, it might just be incompetence.  But it's totally possible that it's sleight-of-hand.  I don't know, and anyone who tells you they know for sure is lying.

I will say, if the alleged sleight-of-hand had been successful, then so many people wouldn't have noticed that the House just made moves to devalue federal land, in what looks likely to be a giveaway to private developers - a classic GOP move.  That will be the topic of today's post.

But first, I want to address the charge that I am not giving President Trump a fair chance, or that the opposition generally is not giving him a fair chance.

Prior to Mr. Trump's inauguration, all we had was speculation on what his Presidency would be like.  Any charge that he would be this or that, up to that point, was quite unfair.  However, he's now a week into his presidency.  He's moved aggressively, and I assume his supporters are mostly happy that he has.  We can now judge the first week of his Presidency.  He's pushed aggressively for a wall that will not keep immigrants out but will cost upwards of $14 billion (and that's a conservative estimate) and he's pushed aggressively for an immigration ban targeting majority Muslim nations but excluding those nations which have actually exported terrorists before, so in other words, an ineffective ban but one that nonetheless manages to insult and alienate much of the world.  He's mucked around with the official White House website in a way guaranteed to anger anyone who puts their faith in scientific consensus.

It would be quite unfair to judge his entire Presidency as a failure based on one week!  That is certainly true.  We still don't even know what his infrastructure plan will be, and that might well Make America Great Again, at least in regard to most people's bottom line.  (And let me reiterate: I hope the infrastructure plan is a huge success, because I want my fellow Americans and their families to prosper, and if they prosper, my family will likely prosper as well.)  But we can judge his first week in office, because the results are in, and the results suggest an administration with a real "damn the torpedoes" approach.  As a Jets fan I am reminded of Rex Ryan's "ground and pound" offensive philosophy.  Let me tell you, it was not a pleasure to watch.

Anyways, down to brass tacks.  Let's address this Guardian article about the effective revaluation of federally owned and managed land by the GOP-led House.  I urge you to read it, but assuming you don't have time to, here are the key two paragraphs (emphasis added mine):

Ignoring those figures, the new language for the House budget, authored by Utah Republican representative Rob Bishop, who has a history of fighting to transfer public land to the states, says that federal land is effectively worthless. Transferring public land to “state, local government or tribal entity shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending or increasing outlays.” 

Essentially, the revised budget rules deny that federal land has any [monetary] value at all, allowing the new Congress to sidestep requirements that a bill giving away a piece of federal land does not decrease federal revenue or contribute to the federal debt.

I suspect where you're going to fall on this decision depends on how you see the following two maps.

In the map above, red - the color of communism, let me remind you - represents the percentage of land in a given state controlled by the federal government.  Seems like a whole lot of waste, right?

That is definitely the argument made by this Forbes article, which cites a 2015 study by Jason R. Mason of Wharton.  The numbers contained in this study are staggering.  Evidently, opening all these federal lands would generate 552,000 jobs annually for seven years and then 2.7 million new jobs annually for the following 30 years.  Holy cow!  By recent standards that is, frankly, an insane amount of jobs.  Taxing private activity on these open-for-business lands would generate $105.4 billion per year according to the Mason report - far from chump change!

If it sounds too good to be true, that might be in part because Mr. Mason has assumed, in his study, that oil will be selling for around $100 a barrel.  Oh.  While the price of a barrel of oil is inching back up above $50 currently, oil remains on shaky ground.  There remains too much oil in the world for a global economy still in the doldrums to consume it all (see this WSJ article or just Google search the topic).  This would suggest that the projected employment and income changes in Mr. Mason's study are highly dubious.

Still, for the sake of argument let's assume Mr. Mason's projections are correct.  According to the Guardian article, the current "closed" system of federal land management maintains 6.1 million jobs annually from recreation/tourism.  So, if the Mason report is correct and the Guardian article is also correct, opening federal lands to drilling, mining and the like would actually reduce employment by about 3.4 million jobs (2.7 million jobs in drilling, mining, etc. - 6.1 million jobs in tourism, etc. = a net loss of 3.4 million jobs).

This post is already getting too long, isn't it?  That's the problem with writing these dang things.  Let me just leave you with a different map and some closing thoughts, although I'm sure I'll be returning to this topic soon:

Ah, green.  The color of nature!  That's more like it.

The bottom line is that much of the West is not suitable for agriculture (READ THIS BOOK, please).  The Bureau of Land Management, which owns most of the land in the map above, allows ranchers to graze cattle on BLM lands.  Grazing cattle is one of the only economic activities that actually makes sense on arid Western lands.  The other two activities that make sense are mining/drilling, and tourism (largely "ecotourism" these days).

As a Northern Californian by birth who spent by boyhood summers in the Bitterroot Valley, Montana, I'm going to have to see much more convincing evidence than I've seen so far to convince me that mining and drilling will generate sufficient employment and economic growth to justify blowing the tops off the purple mountain's majesty.

Lest you think me an extremist, let me state for the record that there may well be many places for where after thorough and public review, federal lands should arguably be opened to private activity.  Still, sleight-of-hand attempts notwithstanding, after Donald Trump's first peculiar week in office, a LOT more people will be keeping their eyes on moves made with regard to our federal lands and will not tolerate a blind giveaway of federal lands.

The Bitterroot Valley, MT.  Wouldn't this look nicer if those mountains were being strip-mined?

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