The first farmer was the first man. All historic nobility rests on the possession and use of land. Ralph Waldo Emerson

30 April 2010

The Most Tax Burdened State In America

A recent article in Forbes confirms what us Californians intuitively knew: California is the most tax-burdened state in America. This has been confirmed thanks to a study by the Pacific Research Institute which looked at two critical factors: 1) how much of the state's economy (the gross state product) is taken up by local and state government spending; and 2) how favorably is the state's tax structure designed to benefit small businesses to encourage growth, investment, and innovation.

When burden and structure are combined, the most tax efficient state in the Union is South Dakota, followed closely by Delaware, Nevada, Texas, and Louisiana.

The lowest-ranked states? South Carolina, New York, and....California in dead last.

California politicians have been rankled by a recent advertising campaign by the State of Nevada which encourages small businesses in California to pull up stakes and move across state lines. But until those same politicians address the crushing tax burden--coupled with the brutal tax structure they have erected--California's once shining influence will continue to diminish. And businesses will continue to leave the Golden State in droves.

28 April 2010

The Waterfalls Of Yosemite

One of the great fringe benefits of living in Northern California is its proximity to some of the most beautiful sites and places in all the world. And the most beautiful valley I have ever seen lies less than two hours' drive from my home in Yosemite National Park. The valley was carved out of granite by glaciers during the last Ice Age and--when the glaciers melted--they left an 8-mile-long valley of enduring and incomparable splendor.

The granite walls stretch some 4,000 feet above the valley floor, with half a dozen creeks tumbling from hanging valleys above to form the headwaters of the Merced River which flows from the western end of Yosemite and then down into the San Joaquin Valley on its way to the Pacific. But before the river is joined, a total of nineteen waterfalls tumble from the precipice of those granite cliffs into the valley below.

And it is now--in the mid-spring and particularly during the month of May--that the allure and the power and the magnificence of Yosemite's waterfalls are at their peak. The snows of the past winter are melting, and the runoff is turbocharging the Wonderful Waterfall Machine more than at any other time of the year. Not only that, but particularly in a year like we've had this year--with rains and snow accumulation above normal--the result is utterly breathtaking.

Even the names of Yosemite's falls are enchanting: Bridalveil Falls, Vernal Fall, Horsetail Falls, Illilouette Fall, Ribbon Falls, Waterwheel Falls, Royal Arch Cascade, Sentinel Fall, Staircase Falls, and--probably the most famous of them all--the namesake, Yosemite Falls. Altogether, there are nineteen named waterfalls in Yosemite with drops ranging from as short as Vernal's 317 feet (but still a beautiful and quite powerfall waterfall) to Yosemite's 2425 feet.

Nowhere else in the world is there such a concentration of major waterfalls in one place. Ribbon and Upper Yosemite rank among the world's highest. Bridalveil, Yosemite, and Vernal are among the most famous. And when you visit--especially during the month of May--you literally wonder why the entire valley is not floating away for the sheer volume of water which is spilling into the valley from so many places, from so many waterfalls.

For those of you who live within a long day's drive of Yosemite, I urge you to indulge your senses and see this amazing natural wonder. For those of you who live further away, please mark your calendars for any May of any year to make the journey.

And for those who may live half a world away, I have included this link to let you know what you're missing: .

To see the waterfalls of Yosemite in the mid-spring is something we should all include on the list of things we'll do before we die.

27 April 2010

The Greatest President (Part Two)

Our greatest President was Abraham Lincoln. And while most Americans acknowledge that, most also have only a vague idea of why. If Washington is known as the Father of our Country, Lincoln was the savior of it--preserving the fragile Union in the crucible of the Civil War. People also have a vague notion of Lincoln's humble beginnings, but most don't know that he lived in abject poverty on the American frontier. And, thanks to his immortal Gettysburg Address, most Americans know that Lincoln's skills as an orator stand unparalleled--but there are many other examples of his astonishing eloquence that are left to us.

Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room cabin on February 12, 1809 to Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln--the son of two farmers in Hardin County, Kentucky. At the time, Kentucky represented "the West" to most Americans--the hard frontier where settlers were scratching out a living and on constant watch from Indian attacks. Lincoln's mother died when he was 9 and, though he was very close to his stepmother throughout the rest of his life, he became estranged from his father.

Because of the family's need for Lincoln--even at a young age--to help with tasks on the farm, he received only a cumulative eighteen months or so of formal education. He loved school and loved learning--and was known to devour books, having essentially taught himself to read and write (his stepmother was illiterate). As he got older, Lincoln became fascinated with the English language--with the intricacy of words, their meanings and the cadence of their pronunciation. As a young man he studied the law, on his own, and passed the Illinois bar on his first attempt.

He became a successful itinerant lawyer. In those days on the frontier, the population was too sparse and too far away from the county seat to have justice meted out at the courthouse. And so the courts would come to the people. It was not uncommon for the judge, the district attorney, and the defense attorney to ride a circuit together throughout their jurisdiction to hear and argue cases in various towns and villages. This Lincoln did successfully for year, building a prosperous law practice in Springfield, Illinois. It was also during this time that Lincoln saw firsthand the power of the spoken word and how arguments could be influenced through the crafting of a well-turned phrase.

Lincoln joined the nascent Republican Party when it was formed in the 1850's. Although he had been a Whig all his adult life, the Republicans sought to more clearly articulate the brewing conflagration over slavery. It was during this time that Lincoln ran for--and lost--the battle for the Illinois Senate seat with Stephen A. Douglas. The Lincoln-Douglas debates leading up to that election pitted two oratorical rock stars battling for the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens.

Six years later, Lincoln found himself battling Douglas again--this time in the Election of 1860 for President of the United States. It was a surreal political landscape. Lincoln was the sole Republican nominee. But the Democrats were badly split over the slavery issue--with Douglas representing Northern Democrats and two other candidates representing Southern interests. Lincoln's election actually served as the breaking point for many of the Southern states. Barely a month after his election, South Carolina formally seceded from the Union, followed by six other states during the winter prior to Lincoln's inauguration.

It was during that inauguration that the nation first got a taste of Lincoln's remarkable phrases. His appeal to the Southerners not to allow their fervor to devolve into civil war is striking: "I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Four years later during his Second Inaugural, Lincoln spoke on the eve of the end of the terrible war which would ultimately leave more than 620,000 Americans dead. His tone was not one of a brash declaration of victory, but of humility before God, a strong arm of comfort to his countrymen, and a gracious hand of friendship to his enemies: "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Five weeks later, Lincoln was shot while watching a play at Ford's Theater in Washington and died the next morning. The nation was wrapped in a paroxysm of grief for months. In the excruciating hours after he was shot, Lincoln's cabinet (except for Secretary of State Seward who was shot the same night), gathered around him. When he passed, Secretary Stanton famously said "Now he belongs to the ages".

23 April 2010

The Greatest President (Part One)

Our greatest President was George Washington. (In the next post, you'll see me say that the greatest President was Abraham Lincoln because, quite honestly, I can't choose between the two.) To those of us who live in the 21st century, he's become iconic, untouchable--as if he is and always was a marble statue in the rotunda of the Capitol.

George Washington was our greatest President not only for what he did, but also--quite importantly--for what he did not do. It's hard for us to relate to this concept today, but during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Founding Fathers were on the horns of a dilemma: on the one hand, they did not want the office of the new President of our fledgling country to be too strong and centralized such that it might resemble a King; on the other hand, they did not want an executive who was so weak that there would be a leadership vacuum at the top of the government. Ultimately, they looked to the man who presided over that convention during the long summer of 1787 when our nation was conceived--George Washington. In Washington, they saw a man whose courage was unassailable, whose leadership and stature throughout America was recognized, who was revered as the man who had endured the suffering with his troops through the course of the long war with Great Britain. They also saw something else: Washington did not thirst for power.

In her book "Miracle At Philadelphia", Catherine Drinker Bowen maintains that the delegates to the Convention drafted Article II (the portion dealing with the executive branch of our government) with Washington in mind. Had he not been there as a reassuring presence, the structure of the office--indeed, our entire government structure--would likely look much different even today.

Even so, Washington could have reached for power. When King George III of England heard that Washington would soon resign his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, he said "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world." It had been the pattern of victorious commanding generals to grip and hold power, not to step away from it.

He was so revered by his countrymen that, if he had tried to consolidate power against the will of the Congress, many--perhaps even a majority--of his fellow citizens would have supported him. Not only did he not do this, but Washington tried scrupulously to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States", as he and every President have sworn to do on their inauguration day.

 He was constantly aware that nearly everything he did served to create important precedents for those who would follow. For example, his Vice President, John Adams, wanted to address Washington as "Your Excellency"--something far too imperial-sounding, even having an air of royalty in the mind of Mr. Washington. The President insisted on a simple salutation: "Mr. President". It stuck. Today, that's how our Presidents are addressed by their fellow citizens.

Another example, and perhaps the most important: Washington voluntarily gave up his office after two terms. Many think the two-term Presidency has always been part of our Constitution. But after Washington served two terms, every President after him respected his example until Franklin Roosevelt broke the standard and was elected to four terms (he died in office before he could complete his fourth term). It was only then that the 22nd Amendment was adopted, limiting the Presidency to two terms in office.

Washington was, literally, a living legend. Very few Americans have ever held such universal adoration, awe, and respect from their countrymen. His Secretary of State and the future 3rd President, Thomas Jefferson, had this to say upon Washington's death in 1799: "On the whole, his character was, in the mass, perfect. It may be truly said that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance".

21 April 2010

Private Property Rights Under Attack

In my last post, I referenced the Kelo vs. City of New London ruling of 2005 by the Supreme Court. This ruling--handed down by the Rehnquist court--continues to have far-reaching effects and represents a frontal assault on one of the core principles of our nation's founding--the principle of private property rights. As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in her dissenting opinion,

"Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.

She argued that the decision eliminates "any distinction between private and public use of property — and thereby effectively delete[s] the words 'for public use' from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment."

Now private property rights are, once again, under assault because of this landmark decision five years ago. Today Fox News reported that the city of Auburn, New York will hold a hearing on May 5 to determine if eminent domain should be used to force the sale of a dog-grooming business in order to make way for the development of a new hotel. This is a classic example of just what the now-retired Justice O'Connor wrote about: the beneficiary of this fatally flawed ruling is a developer who has likely made substantial political donations to local and state officeholders, and who is promising higher tax revenues as a result of a new hotel being built in the city.  In the meantime, the owners of the dog grooming business are in shock. According to the Fox News report, the city of Auburn is offering the owners a "fair price" for their business. But "Ms. Smith-Ward blasts the offers as a "very insulting price for our property," and said she was stunned to learn that the city was considering seizing the business she and her husband Doug had sunk their life savings into only to hand their land over to someone else. She told Fox News she always thought eminent domain was "for power lines, roads, schools, hospitals and not for a private developer." "

There is another business--a pizza parlor--that has capitulated and agreed to sell to the city. Ironically, that business is owned by a former Communist from the Soviet Union who emigrated to the United States in the 1990's. She says she never knew there was such a law in the United States that could force a private property owner of a small business to sell out to a higher power and that it reminds her of what she grew up with in Communist Russia.

The truly frightening thing about this is that--if you own a home, a small business, a small farm--anything which is deemed subjectively by local officials as not serving the greater public good (whatever that means and however arbitrarily it's defined)--you can lose that property under the 2005 Kelo ruling. It is nothing short of an outrage. The Founding Fathers must be turning over in their graves.

19 April 2010

Becoming A Constitutional Scholar

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”  Thomas Jefferson

Today--April 19--marks the 235th anniversary of The Shot Heard Round The World, when colonists from Massachusetts fired on British regulars on the Lexington green west of Boston and so fired the first shots of the Revolutionary War.

Beginning tomorrow--20 April 2010--you can participate in a great national call to join that patriotic effort and become a Constitutional scholar. Led by the actress Janine Turner (whose most prominent role was as the lead in the hit show Northern Exposure), a challenge has been placed before the American people to read and understand what our Founding Fathers wrought during those remarkable 17 weeks in the city of Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.

Never before had a nation been spoken forth from the minds and hearts of men elected for such a purpose. And today--some 225 years after its creation--the United States Constitution stands as both a symbolic as well as a practical model of individual freedom for nations around the world.

But our freedoms are being abrogated by the federal government--not just by the Obama Administration, but by the Supreme Court, the Bush Administration, the U.S. Congress, and the various agencies and bureaucracies that operate the government and enforce the laws that Congress makes with statutes which are increasingly overbearing, intrusive, and even confiscatory.

I will offer one simple example--and I will refrain from picking on the present Administration (though the examples after just fifteen months in office are legion): on June 22, 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Kelo vs. City of New London ruled in favor of the city's power to condemn a man's private property under eminent domain--not to build or widen a highway or to build a dam or some other public work--but in order to transfer private property from one private owner to another so that the latter--a developer--could build a downtown improvement project, including a waterfront development tract of 91 acres. (Ironically, five years after the ruling, the developer has been unable to get financing for the project and the site of the former Kelo property stands vacant and unoccupied--generating zero tax revenue for the city of New London.)

The Court ruled in a narrow 5-4 decision that the city of New London could condemn the property under the "Takings" Clause of the Fifth Amendment. So what would you have done if you were on the Court? Chances are you have no idea what the Takings Clause says. (Candid confession: As of this writing, I don't either.)

And that is exactly why the effort of Ms. Turner is so important. I urge you to go to the Constituting America website by clicking on this link: .  Sign up on the right hand side. 

You can read the Constitution and the Federalist Papers (written most prominently by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, as well as John Jay).  Reading assignments of about three pages per night will be assigned, and the readings will be discussed in an accompanying blog by invited Constitutional scholars.  And you can also participate, by simply offering your own thoughts in the public discussion section.

I invite you to join me in answering the call of Thomas Jefferson. Let us not be ignorant, or else we will no longer be free.

16 April 2010

Willie Mays, The Man

They say the character of a man is displayed in what he does when no one else is watching. In an earlier post, I referred to a new, authorized biography of Mays entitled "Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend" by James S. Hirsch. As might be expected, the reader learns not only of Mays' on-field exploits, but also details of his private life. And one of the most endearing aspects of his life was (is) his genuine love for children.

In Chapter 25, the author tells of three heartwarming episodes that would likely not ever be repeated by any of today's athletes.

One morning in June 1961, two ten-year-old boys stood outside Willie Mays' home on Spruce Street in San Francisco, hoping he would give them his autograph. When Mays stepped outside, he gladly acceded to their wish, and then one of them--a boy named Billy Knox--got a wild idea.

"Hey, Willie", he said, "We got tickets to today's game and we were going to take the bus, but how about a ride to the game?" Mays told them to hop in.

As soon as they pulled out, the boys realized they had forgotten their tickets. "Where do you live?" Mays asked. Five blocks away, said Knox's friend, and Mays drove them there to get the tickets. Then Billy exclaimed "Willie! My mother made us bag lunches for the game. She'll kill me if we don't pick up our stuff, and she would worry where we were." Mays then drove across town to Billy's house.

"To this day", Knox recalls some forty years later, "I can still see my mom standing at our dining room picture window with her hands on her hips, mouth ajar, awestruck as the green Cadillac pulled out of our driveway and sped off."

In 1963, a writer for the Pittsburgh Press named Les Biederman asked Mays if he would speak to a group of youngsters at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind. Mays readily accepted. During the Giants' next trip to Pittsburgh, Biederman drove Mays to the school, and when he entered the auditorium whispers rippled through the crowd of about 200 students. "That's him", one boy said. "He really came."

Mays was introduced, and became--in Biederman's words--'the eyes of these sightless youngsters". Mays stood for over an hour and answered the kids' countless questions. After the talk, he waded into the crowd and touched the hands and arms of the students, who reached up to touch his face. "I gave them only my time and a little bit of baseball", he later said. "And they gave me their hearts".

In 1965, Richard Martin was a 24-year-old director of the St. James Center in Pittsburgh, an afterschool program for disadvantaged children. The center planned an awards ceremony for a Saturday in June and Martin, wanting a sports celebrity to present the awards, checked the schedule and saw that the Giants were going to be in town to play the hometown Pirates. He called Bill Nunn, the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, who said he would contact Mays. The day before the Giants were coming into town, Nunn called and asked how many kids would be in attendance. "About two hundred", Martin replied. "Then he'll be there", said Nunn. "He just wanted to make sure it was really an event for the kids".

That Saturday, Martin drove to the hotel where the Giants were staying and called up to Mays' room. "Mr. Mays, this is Dick Martin...I believe Mr. Nunn spoke to you about our program tonight?"

"Yeah, man. I'll be right down", Mays replied. Ten minutes later, Mays introduced himself, wearing a sharkskin suit, and Martin drove him to an obscure youth center in an impoverished part of town. He sneaked Mays into the building through a fire escape and then instructed the astonished 14-year-old master of ceremonies--who nearly fainted--on how to introduce the guest of honor. "And now, to present the Most Valuable Junior and Senior Softball Awards, possibly the greatest player of all time...Willie Mays!"

The curtain opened, and Willie walked out. The audience at first sat in stunned silence. But when they realized it really was him, they shouted, whistled, cheered, and clapped for several minutes. Mays stepped to the microphone and said "Some people may think winning a softball award in a small neighborhood is no big thing. But I'm telling you that when you win the most valuable award in anything, you're doing something!" After presenting the awards--and knowing that Mays had another game the next day--Martin whisked him out and drove him back to the hotel.

Martin, who later became a teacher and school principal in Arlington, Virginia, recalled "I must have thanked him a dozen times for his exceptional generosity. One of the greatest athletes of all time did this for no money, no publicity, no conditions whatsoever. He did it just because he loved kids, plain and simple. What a selfless gesture, what an amazing human being."

In little more than three weeks--on May 6--Mays will turn 79. He was my boyhood hero. And he still is.

11 April 2010

The Worst Labor Union Of Them All

Jaime Escalante died last week at the age of 79. He was not memorialized on network television, and very few Americans know who he was or what he accomplished. But in the 1980's, in the wasteland known as the Los Angeles School District, he broke through the gnawing inertia of mediocrity to teach kids at Garfield High School how to do math. At its peak, more students passed Advanced Placement calculus at Garfield than those at Beverly Hills High School. By the end of the decade, Escalante reached both his pinnacle and his nadir. In 1988, he was immortalized in the film "Stand And Deliver" for which Edward James Olmos received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. But in 1990, Escalante was stripped of his chairmanship of the math department he'd so painstakingly--and successfully--built over the previous decade. Disgusted and discouraged, he left Garfield in 1991 and eventually returned to his native Bolivia.

What happened? How could a wildly successful and impassioned teacher become so disheartened that he would not only leave his school, but the country where his success had been achieved? In a word, Escalante could not overcome the union. Escalante's success was making other teachers look bad. He was coming into work early, leaving late, admitting far more students into his classroom than the union's 35-student limit would allow. In the private sector, such performance would be recognized and rewarded. In the private sector, a teacher like Escalante would be given rapid promotion, increasing responsibility to spread and duplicate his success, and rising levels of compensation to encourage him to continue. But not as a teacher in the public schools. Not with the disapproving union looking over his shoulder.

The National Education Association--otherwise known as the public teachers' union--is a scourge on our public schools, our children, and our country. It's incredibly powerful, with over 3 million members--one of the largest and best-funded unions in America. But the NEA is a cesspool for mediocrity, and it manifests that mediocrity in several ways:

  • If you're a good teacher, you can't get promoted faster than a bad teacher. The NEA would balk at the notion that there is such a thing as 'bad teachers'. But we've all been there: we all know a bad teacher when we see one--first as students, later as parents. Some bad teachers were once good teachers with high hopes and passion who got worn down by the grinding mediocrity of the system. Other bad teachers were bad teachers from the beginning. What constitutes a bad teacher? Someone who shows up because they have to, not because they're excited about teaching and inspiring young minds. Someone who does nothing but teach out of the textbook, who is not interested in providing anecdotes or application or enlightenment that can help students connect what they're learning to how they can use that knowledge in the real world. Someone who teaches only to squire away the rich perks and retirement benefits the union has negotiated, but cares little for their students. And then there are the good teachers. And like the bad teachers, we all know who they are. They're the ones who make learning exciting. They're the ones who, like Escalante, show up early and will stay late to help a student who has questions or is struggling. They're the ones who recent alumni come back to see--the students who are now in college or are recent graduates, and who come back to thank the great teachers for giving them the foundation for the rest of their education. And thanks to the NEA, those great teachers get paid on the same scale--based solely on seniority and not merit--as the bad teachers. There's no distinction, other than NEA-sponsored award recognition, which often is given to teachers who are most active in the union, not necessarily in improving young minds.
  • Bad teachers, if they have achieved tenure, can't get fired. Imagine that you're a small business owner and you have an employee who sits at his desk on his computer instead of doing the work he's been assigned to do. Imagine that you talk to this employee and, in his annual review, you admonish him to stop being lazy and to put his energy into his job. Imagine that you write the employee up for unsatisfactory performance. And imagine that, if he does nothing to improve, there's not a darn thing you can do about it. That's the beauty of the tenure system in most of our public school systems. The NEA has created this system, ostensibly, to "protect" teachers from unhappy parents who might want them fired because of a perceived slight to their children. But the net effect of tenure is, once again, simply to perpetuate mediocrity. Unless you're convicted of a felony, you can't get fired.
  • The NEA hates competition. It's no secret that our public school system is failing. Of course, there are exceptions--certain school districts that still fulfill their mission to educate our young people and send them out prepared to negotiate the challenges of college and higher learning. But those are the exceptions. For the most part, public schools are failing because of the NEA, not in spite of it. As a result, more and more parents embrace alternatives--private schools, home schooling, and other options where they can be found. But there are drawbacks: private schools aren't cheap, and home schooling requires that a parent not only stay home, but have the skills and patience and cooperation of their children to make it work. There is another alternative which is despised by the NEA: school vouchers. Essentially, the voucher system allows  parents to take the tax money they've paid into the public school system and apply it toward tuition in a competing private school. The NEA--and the school districts--hate this idea. They claim that voucher systems rob them of needed funds for their own programs, facility maintenance, teacher salaries, and the like. And they're right. But here's the rub: if those schools were doing the kind of job they should be doing, no parent would have any desire to send their kids to private schools in the first place. The NEA, like all unions, hates competition, which really means they disdain the free enterprise system upon which our country was built. And voucher systems mean competition. They're great for kids and their parents. They're bad for the union.
  • The NEA has a political agenda. Officially, the NEA purports to be non-partisan and therefore plays an insignificant role in national politics. But that's like saying the Yankees play a little baseball. Since 1976, the NEA has endorsed every Democratic presidential candidate from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama. It has never endorsed either a Republican or a third-party candidate. And if the national organization is so decidedly left-leaning, can there be any doubt that its members predominantly lean in that direction as well? And if that's true, why is it important? The answer is patently obvious: those union members are the same people who are with our kids five days a week during the school year. To be fair, most of them stick to the knitting, preferring to teach rather than pontificate. But too many teachers choose to espouse their political views on issues of the day with their students. And since they have a bully pulpit--unchallenged by an opposing point of view--their views can have a powerful influence.
At the peak of his achievements at Garfield High School, Jaime Escalante received visits from other teachers, school administrators, and even then-President Reagan. He told them the same thing: "The key to my success with youngsters is a very simple and time-honored tradition: hard work for teacher and student alike". As long as the NEA has its way, teachers like Escalante will never be allowed to succeed--and our children are suffering because of it.

04 April 2010

02 April 2010

When Preserving The Family Farm Does Not Preserve Family Farmers

The beautiful Rogue River Valley in southern Oregon is blessed with some of the best soils and climate in the world for growing pears. And if you're a regular customer--as I am--of Harry & David's Royal Riviera pears which are prominently featured in their catalog during the Christmas holidays, you know how delicious the fruit is which comes from this region.

But the pear industry in Oregon is in trouble--and it has nothing to do with the land or the climate or the farmers. It has to do with well-intentioned (in some cases) land use laws with horrible consequences. In the early 1970's, environmentalists encouraged the passage of a law which was designed to "preserve the family farm"--a popular term today. The law restricted land use of designated areas of the pear growing region for agricultural use only--without exception. Now, some 35 years later, the chickens are coming home to roost. Farmers whose land would be worth as much as $100,000/acre if they could sell the land to developers find that their land is valued closer to $10,000/acre--with no buyers.

Strict environmentalists would say "Well, that just proves the law is working; after all, who wants another shopping mall on land that grows delicious pears?" But the whole story has not been told. Farming is expensive. As farmers deal with increasing government regulation, confiscatory inheritance taxes, tougher employment laws--not to mention rising costs of fuel, chemicals, fertilizer, and labor--they often find that the best way to continue farming is to be able to sell their high-value land in order to use the proceeds of such a sale to buy less expensive land further away from urban areas. But the land use laws in Oregon prevent that.

The net result? In 1992, there were 87 pear farms in the Rogue River Valley. Today there are 48--and many of those are in trouble.

About a year ago, I attended a land use planning meeting at the City Hall of one of the towns where my family owns walnut orchards. The town was in the process of revising its General Plan, something that happens only once every ten years. There were a lot of environmentally-concerned people there--and they spoke fervently about the need to "preserve the family farm" by doing exactly what the people in Oregon had done decades ago: restrict currently-zoned land for agricultural use to agricultural use for time immemorial. I hadn't planned to speak. But after several of these people had offered their opinions to the Planning Commission members, I rose and said something like this: "I find it interesting that all of the people purportedly concerned about preserving family farms here are not farmers. My family has been farming our land in this town for nearly fifty years--and we've made a livelihood from farming for nearly a hundred years. In all that time, we've never sold any of our agricultural land to developers. Our life is farming, and we want to preserve that livelihood for more than ideological or esoteric reasons. One of the hallmarks of our nation's capitalist society is the fundamental principle of private property rights. The land is ours: we've been farming it for generations. And some of that land is in an area which is being squeezed by urban growth. We now have neighbors we didn't have 50 or 100 years ago, and they don't like the dust, the spray drift, the noise that we farmers make when we work our land and harvest our crops. We need the vital ability to be able to sell our land if need be at premium prices so that we can buy land elsewhere in the region that is far removed from the cities and towns so that we can continue to farm--so that we can continue this way of life we have enjoyed for five generations now."  When I finished--and to my great surprise--the room erupted in applause.

The land use laws in Oregon--and those now being established here in California--are built on good intentions (again, in some cases). But the notion of "preserving the family farm" does not preserve family farmers, and it is slowly but inexorably killing agriculture wherever those laws exist.

One final note: I have twice referred to the "preserving the family farm" movement as well-intentioned--in some cases. I choose to believe that most of the people in that room a year ago fall into this group. But there is a hard-core group of virulent environmentalists who know exactly what they're doing--and their purported concern for family farmers is a ruse. These people would willingly stomp on private property laws in order to slowly revert all land use back to nature. They do not care about farms or farming. But--as I have posted on the sidebar of this blog I designed--farmers were the first and original tree lovers.

01 April 2010

The Greatest Baseball Player Of All Time

Baseball, though its star has dimmed against the bright glow of the National Football League, is still America's Pastime. And back when I was a kid, long before we ever knew about performance-enhancing drugs or the reserve clause or free agency or $25 million per year contracts that have all contributed to baseball's decline, the game was played by some of the brightest stars ever to strap on a pair of cleats. Hitters like Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and Pete Rose were stepping into the batter's box against the likes of Tom Seaver, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, and Bob Gibson.

But the greatest player of all time was a young outfielder who played for the New York and San Francisco Giants named Willie Mays. In baseball, a great player must possess five key skills: he must be able to hit, hit for power, run, catch, and throw. Mays possessed all five of these skills and displayed them to the delight of his fans for more than twenty years. He broke onto the scene in 1951 and soon worked into the starting lineup of the Giants. In his first year in the league, the Giants played in the World Series--having completed one of the most improbable comebacks in baseball history. On August 11, the Brooklyn Dodgers held a commanding 13 1/2 game lead over the Giants with little more than six weeks to go in the regular season. But the Giants won their next 16 games and 37 of their final 44--a blistering .841 winning percentage--to catch and tie the Dodgers on the last day of the regular season. As any baseball fan knows, the Giants won the playoff series in the third and deciding game when Bobby Thomson hit 'The Shot Heard Round The World' in the bottom of the ninth inning to clinch the pennant for the Giants. What is little remembered is that Mays was on deck when the home run was hit.

Perhaps Mays' most enduring moment occurred three years later in the 1954 World Series. The Giants were playing against the heavily-favored Cleveland Indians, who had won an astonishing 111 games in what was then a 154-game regular season. (To this day, no team has finished with a higher winning percentage during the regular season.) But Mays set the tone in Game 1 with what is still known simply as "The Catch". With the score tied 2-2 in the top of the 8th inning and runners on first and second base, Vic Wertz clubbed a towering drive to straightaway center field. Because the game was being played in the Polo Grounds--a huge baseball venue--the hit would have been a home run in any other ballpark, having traveled an estimated 420 feet from home plate. But Mays broke immediately on the ball when it was hit, running straight toward the center field wall at full speed. He caught the ball over his shoulder and then spun and fired the ball back to the infield, preventing the Indians from scoring the go-ahead run. The Giants eventually won the game 5-2 and swept the Series.

Mays finished his career with a .302 batting average, having hit 660 home runs (despite missing two full seasons in the peak of his career to serve in the Korean War), a .557 slugging percentage, and 1,903 runs batted in. He was voted Most Valuable Player twice--in 1954 and again in 1965, and finished second in the voting two other times.

Willie Mays was my boyhood hero. I have fond memories of sneaking my transistor radio under my pillow and listening to games broadcast by Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons, regaling me with the tales of Mays' heroics for the Giants in the 1960's. I got to see him play a few times at Candlestick Park, which is still in existence--now the home of the football 49ers. Mays played the game all-out, with an evident joy, and he never used illegal drugs--performance-enhancing or not. Within the past couple of months, a new and authorized biography of the great Willie Mays has been published, entitled "Willie Mays--The Life, The Legend".  Appropriately enough, the book currently sits 24th on the New York Times Bestseller List.  Why is that appropriate?  Because Mays wore # 24 on his jersey his entire career.