Arizona Sunset

On my last night in the Southwest, we were treated to a spectacular Arizona sunset. We just don’t get them in Ohio during the winter months.

We came to the Southwest in search of the sun — and we found it, and how. The temperatures have been a bit cooler than normal, but seeing Old Sol everyday makes up for just about anything. I’d recommend the desert in winter to anyone interested in combating the Midwestern gray sky blahs.

On The Dusty Trail To Las Cruces

It’s 275 miles from Tucson, Arizona to Las Cruces, New Mexico, as the crow flies, and it’s just about the same distance if you’re traveling by car.  You get on I-10 and head east, and it’s a straight shot on an unbending road that takes you past long freight trains rattling west and dusty mountains framed by blue sky, bright sunshine, and high clouds.

And speaking of dust, the section of I-10 from Tucson to Las Cruces is one of the few places in America where you’ll see highway signs warning you of what to do if you’re caught in a dust storm.  As I took in the brittle, dry look of the surrounding landscape, with only a few desert plants here and there and lots of exposed earth, it wasn’t hard to imagine a dust storm kicking up.  Fortunately, we didn’t encounter any dust storms — the recent snow presumably tamped down the dust, and it wasn’t that windy, anyway — but I now know from seeing multiple signs that you’re supposed to pull to the side immediately, turn off all lights, set your emergency brake, take your foot off the brake, stay in the vehicle with your seatbelt buckled, and wait until the storm passes.

Shortly after you pass from Arizona to New Mexico you pass a notch in the southern border of the state that puts you within 40 miles or so of Mexico.  If you look south from the roadway you see desolate countryside that probably hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years, more dusty looking mountains in the distance, and not much else.  You do, however, have a great selection of Mexican AM radio stations to keep you company as you roll along.

Firefighter Tragedy

There aren’t many jobs that require more bravery than being a firefighter.  You risk your life to try to save those in danger, battling a blaze that could take the floor from under you or burst unexpectedly through a wall.  When your job is fighting wildfires, when wind conditions can shift suddenly and fires can leap quickly from tree to tree, the risks are even greater.

So it was yesterday in Arizona, when 19 firefighters — 19! — were killed while trying to contain a huge wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona.  It’s the largest loss of firefighters in a single day since 9/11.

The firefighters were part of an experienced, elite unit that was attempting to clear brush to prevent the spread of the fire.  The members of the unit were equipped with the latest technology, including special fire retardant blankets that are designed to allow firefighters to dig a hole, crouch in, cover themselves with the blanket, and hope that the fire burns over the top of the blanket without harming them.  Yesterday, though, something happened.  The fire turned, caught the firefighters in the wrong position, and the result was disaster.  Some of the dead firefighters were found beneath their fire blankets, but the heat and flames were too intense for the technology.  It must have been a terrifying and horrible way to go.  Two members of the unit somehow survived and are being treated for severe burns.

The Yarnell fire was started by lightning, during a period of intense heat in the desert southwest.  It’s a natural occurrence that probably has been happening for thousands of years.  The difference is that now people are building houses in those arid hills, and when fires start they expect firefighters to try to stop the fires and save their homes.  Every summer, we read about wildfires threatening communities in California, Arizona, Nevada, and other states in the western U.S.

When a tragedy like this occurs, and so many people die, I wonder:  why are we allowing people to build houses in places that are regularly exposed to wildfires, and why are we asking courageous firefighters, and their families, to run deadly risks as a result?  Wouldn’t it be prudent to reexamine our western land use policies, rather than regularly mourning the loss of some of our bravest citizens who died trying to protect homes that should not have been built in the first place?

The President And The Governor

When I read the political news, I often feel like I’m in high school again.  That was my reaction when I read the story this week about an apparently testy exchange between President Obama and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on an airport tarmac.

President Obama, fresh from his State of the Union speech, flew to Arizona to talk about his policy proposals.  Brewer met him at the airport tarmac, and the two had a terse discussion.  The President’s press secretary says the President told Brewer her version of a 2010 Oval Office meeting they had, described in a book Brewer recently wrote, was inaccurate.  Brewer says she went to meet the President to talk about “Arizona’s comeback” and instead he focused on the book and seemed “thin-skinned” and “a little tense.”  The President says the little snit was “no big deal.”  No kidding!

I find this kind of story embarrassing, because it exposes the unflattering qualities of our political leaders.  With all of the problems besetting America and Arizona, why would the President need to bring up the characterization of a meeting that happened two years ago in a book that almost no one has even heard of, much less read?  Isn’t he big enough to shrug off such things?  If not, how much time is he spending fretting about other minor stuff?  As for Governor Brewer, can’t she give the President a break and simply report that they had an animated discussion without calling him “thin-skinned”?  Couldn’t she be a big enough person to resist the temptation to score cheap political points from this silly, meaningless incident?

Next thing you know, we’ll learn that the President and the Governor were passing notes in study hall.

Signs of Trouble

Yesterday an interesting story reported on signs posted in Arizona by the federal Bureau of Land Management.  The signs warn that drivers are entering “an active drug and human smuggling area” and “may encounter armed criminals and smuggling vehicles traveling at high rates of speed.”  The signs suggest that travelers drive farther north.

Given the presence of these signs, can anyone really question why Arizonans are so incensed about immigration problems and the lack of border security?  If the Obama Administration insists that enforcement of federal immigration law really is an exclusively federal issue, as is the case in its lawsuit against Arizona, then don’t those signs confirm that the federal government has miserably failed in that task?  Although Americans have many different views on immigration, I think a vast majority of Americans would agree that the borders need to be secure, such that “armed criminals and smuggling vehicles traveling at high rates of speed” can’t easily enter our country.

What is happening in Arizona is intolerable — and in view of the rampant drug-related violence and disorder in Mexico, is high dangerous to our national security.  Warning signs obviously are no substitute for personnel and equipment that actually secure our borders.

Protecting Us From Arizona

Here’s a curious story:  the United States State Department has cited the federal government’s lawsuit against the Arizona immigration law in a “required report” to the United Nations Human Rights Council as one of the 100 steps the federal government has taken to uphold human and civil rights in the United States.  Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, has reacted to this news with studied outrage.

There are lots of weird facets to this news item.  For example, why is the United States “required” to file a report about its internal affairs with the United Nations Human Rights Council?  (If we didn’t file the report, would the Council “flunk” us?)  Why should we be reporting to a Council that includes such noted freedom-loving countries as Cuba, Libya, China, and Saudi Arabia (among other countries where citizens enjoy fewer freedoms than are found in the U.S.A.)?   Moreover, do we really think that bringing a lawsuit that sought to enjoin the Arizona law before its enforcement was even attempted by police officers was really an important step in upholding human and civil rights?

The clear impression is that the State Department is pandering to an international community that is desperate to conclude that the United States is filled with angry xenophobes whose hate-filled bigotry is only barely being held in check through legal steps taken by our federal government.  The reaction of the Arizona Governor reported in the story linked above seems overdone, but it does rankle to think that our own national government is suggesting that one of our states needs to be restrained from violating human rights — and then is broadcasting that suggestion to repressive governments who don’t afford their citizens even the most basic freedoms provided by our Bill of Rights.

Thoughts On Immigration In The Wake Of The New Arizona Law

The recent enactment (and even more recent amendment) of a state law in Arizona that criminalizes illegal immigrant status has brought the issue of immigration to the forefront of national attention.  For the news reports I have heard, it seems to be one of those issues where people quickly choose up sides, adopt hard-line positions, and then are unwilling to try to understand the views and motivations of the other side. Massive marches to protest the Arizona law are planned for today.

Yesterday four of us from the office — JV, The Unkempt Guy, the Domer, and me — had an animated but respectful, and I think helpful, discussion about the immigration issue.  Although we approached the issue from different perspectives, our discussion indicated that there are some clear points of agreement.

First, we all recognized (obviously) that racial profiling is unacceptable and destructive of our free and pluralistic society.  The biggest challenge for the Arizona statute, if it ever takes effect, will be to develop some method for determining “reasonable suspicion” that is not, in reality, focused exclusively or primarily on skin color and language capabilities.  Perhaps everyone who is stopped by police should be treated equally and asked to provide the same evidence of citizenship or legal immigrant status, as a routine matter.

Second, we all agreed that maintaining secure borders is a fundamental requirement of nationhood and the job of the federal government.  If you cannot prevent marauding bands of armed men from crossing the border at will, can you even call yourself a country?  It may be easy for people in Ohio or other northern states to criticize the citizens of Arizona or downplay their concerns, but I’ve heard some harrowing reports about Americans who live near the border who have been hurt, killed, or terrorized by the armed groups of drug runners or human traffickers who have crossed the border  and roamed the desert with impunity.  Who would want to be awakened at night by the sounds of unknown groups of men crossing their property?

Third, we all agreed that legal immigration has been a wonderful thing for our country and should be encouraged.  This should not be a surprise — all of us have ancestors who came to this land, though Ellis Island and other ports of entry, from various parts of Europe and the British Isles, eager to start a new life in a New World of freedom and opportunity.

What do these three points of agreement mean?  For me, this means that the federal government has failed in one of its primary responsibilities.  I think the answer is to create whatever structures or patrolling approaches are necessary to keep illegal aliens from crossing the border into this country — period.  In an age of terrorism and weaponry that can easily cause mass casualties, we simply cannot accept a porous southern border.  In addition, we should liberalize our immigration laws to allow for significantly more legal immigration.  I think immigration is an easy way for America to continue to grow and prosper, because legal immigrants traditionally are energetic risk-takers who are willing to sacrifice their old lives and old ways for the hope of a new and better life.  Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who came to America were hard-working, thrifty, patriotic, and dedicated to their children’s success and their family’s betterment.  Those immigrants made this country an immeasurably better place to live, and we should welcome such people with open arms — just as the Statute of Liberty says:

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name,
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

A Primer On The Impact Of Regulations On Health Insurance Costs

Here’s a thought-provoking article from Fortune comparing health insurance costs in New York and Arizona, and analyzing how the regulatory regimes in those states have affected those costs.  The article notes that health insurance costs in New York are far higher, and the available options are far fewer, than in Arizona.  It attributes the cost difference, at least in part, to two regulatory requirements that exist in New York but not Arizona.

One of the regulatory requirements is “guaranteed issue,” which means plans operating in New York must accept all applicants regardless of their medical condition.  Health insurers therefore cannot exclude applicants because of “pre-existing conditions” — an approach which, as I have noted previously, encourages people to wait to apply for health insurance until they are immediately facing significant health care costs.  The second regulatory requirement is called “community rating,” which means that all applicants must pay the same amount regardless of their health condition.  So, young healthy people who have low health care costs pay the same amount as older people who make much greater use of health care.  As a result, the younger and healthier participants in the insurance pool are directly subsidizing the health care of older and less healthy participants.

New York imposes the “guaranteed issue” and “community rating” requirements, and as a result the health insurance costs for young healthy people are much higher than they are in Arizona, which does not impose those requirements.

What does that mean for the rest of us?  It is relevant because the “health care reform” legislation recently enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Obama imposes both the “guaranteed issue” and “community rating” concepts, although the “community rating” requirement is not as stringent as that which exists in New York.  The question is whether those two requirements will operate to push up health insurance premium costs.  The experience in New York — and common sense — suggest that that is exactly what will happen.  And the increased burden will fall most significantly on the shoulders of young, healthy individuals who use health care the least.

Vacation in Arizona pt. 3

On Wednesday, I climbed the Vulture Peak mountain near Wickenburg, Arizona, with Scott and his friend Sadie. I stupidly forgot to charge my camera’s battery before we went, so I had to take pictures with Scott’s Blackberry. That’s why these are a little grainy.

We climbed the flat peak in the middle of the picture below. On the way, we passed a 73-year-old man and his grandson who told us it wasn’t difficult until close to the top, where it gets really steep, and that it’s even harder coming back down. I pretty much agreed with his assessment. We know his age because he signed the guestbook at the top.

The temperature was in the low 50s but we started to feel hot as we climbed up. The temperatures in Arizona feel 10 degrees higher than they are because of how powerful the sun is.

Here Scott is at the top of the mountain. We could see the Arizona Cardinals stadium in Phoenix from here. We also had a cool view of a rain storm that hit Wickenburg while we were up there.

Sadie is signing the guestbook. There was an entry in there from a couple who said they “made love for the first time on the peak on Valentine’s Day.”

Here I am, wearing Scott’s hoodie.

Scott and Sadie, on the way down.

Not Serious

After posting a piece this morning, immediately below, about why the “bipartisan budget commission” is a bogus idea that reflects badly on the capabilities of the President and the Congress, hours later I read this piece about how the President would announce today, in Nevada, $1.5 billion in new spending to “help spur local solutions” to the housing foreclosure problem in five states:  Nevada, Arizona, California, Michigan, and Florida.  What could be a clearer indication of why the “bipartisan budget commission” is a joke?

We’ve now seen how things will work.  The President will fly around the country, campaigning for Democratic Senators and Representatives and announcing new spending in their states and districts.  In the meantime, the “heavy lifting” of deficit reduction will be left for out-of-office political has-beens like former Senator Alan Simpson, who will be powerless to do anything other than recommend methods to reduce the deficit.  We all know how this will play out — the new spending will occur, while any proposed spending cuts won’t ever be enacted.

I sympathize with people who have lost their homes because they lost their jobs.  But how many of the people in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida who are experiencing foreclosure problems fall into that category?  How many of them stretched too far in buying their homes, or hoped to “flip” the houses when they bought in what used to be super-heated housing markets, or misrepresented their assets and income when they applied for their home loans?  How many of the banks involved just made bad loans?  Why should taxpayers in Ohio bail such people out, particularly when we have to borrow even more money to do it?

I think President Obama has shown his true stripes.  He doesn’t care about budget deficits or the federal debt, he cares about politics.  He doesn’t have the stomach to make the tough choices  because he cannot stand to suffer the political consequences that inevitably will result.  In that regard, note the sentence in the fourth paragraph of the linked article:  “He will be back in town-hall mode, a venue that aides say allows him to connect with people and distance himself from the messy process of Washington governing.” What could be a clearer indication that President Obama is taking the easy way out?

Trouble In Sin City

According to this article, more than two-thirds of the homeowners in the Las Vegas metropolitan area owe more on their mortgages than the houses are worth. That statistic is hard to believe, and tells you as much about the quality and credit analysis of the bankers in Las Vegas as it does about the homeowners. In any case, it will no doubt take years for the housing market in Las Vegas to recover.

The chart of the ten cities in the U.S. with highest percentage of homes with “negative equity” also tells you a lot about where the housing bubble was the biggest and flimsiest — California, Nevada, Florida, and Arizona. Expect the elected representatives from those areas to push hard for some kind of long-term legislative relief for the risk-taking bankers and homeowners who helped to make that bubble grow in the first place.