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The Lighthouse®

The Lighthouse® is the weekly email newsletter of the Independent Institute.
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Volume 16, Issue 1: January 7, 2014

  1. A New Leaf for Federal Forests
  2. How Gas Taxes Subsidize Central Planning
  3. Chile’s Leftist Move Threatens Economic Gains
  4. P. J. O’Rourke—Talkin’ ’Bout His Generation (Oakland, Calif., 2/13/14)
  5. New Blog Posts
  6. Selected News Alerts

1) A New Leaf for Federal Forests

When two million federal workers rate a government agency as among the worst managed of the lot, you know something must be dreadfully wrong. And so it is with the U.S. Forest Service. The agency, which employs 35,000 workers to care for about one-tenth of the land in the United States, was ranked 260th out of 300 agencies in a 2013 survey. Small wonder. Every few years the Forest Service sees a new record in the number of acres lost to forest fires. Last year the agency lost 6,500 square miles to fires—and that number was an improvement over 2012. The agency knows it has serious problems, but it hasn’t gotten around to finalizing the strategy report that Congress required it to complete three years ago. What should the troubled agency propose to do?

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert H. Nelson, who worked for many years as an economist at the Department of the Interior, recommends an innovative approach to improving national forest management: “Create ‘charter forests,’ like charter schools.”

Like charter schools, charter forests wouldn’t be privatized entities—but they would be highly decentralized, with decisions made by local boards of directors that might include government officials, economists, environmentalists, and representatives of recreational and commercial interests. Charter forests would also be free to hire and fire their own personnel—and they would be exempt from various land-use restrictions, provided the directors met basic standards for maintaining environmental quality. “But they would have the flexibility to develop and implement innovative solutions to the severe problems of forest fire, spreading disease and other threats today to national forests, especially in the West,” Nelson writes.

Taking an Ax to Traditional Forest Management, by Robert H. Nelson (The Wall Street Journal, 1/1/14)

The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, by Robert H. Nelson

Ronald N. Johnson reviews Robert H. Nelson’s A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service (The Independent Review, Fall 2001)


2) How Gas Taxes Subsidize Central Planning

Should automobile drivers be forced to fund an open-space preserve they’ll never visit or to subsidize high-density housing? Drivers might ask this question if they knew how the taxes they pay at the gas pump are increasingly being spent. With little fanfare, the Highway Trust Fund—the program financed by the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax—is becoming a key player in the funding of land-use projects that have little to do with its original mission of building and maintaining the nation’s highways. Independent Institute Senior Fellow Lawrence J. McQuillan explains.

“To nobody’s real surprise, over time the trust fund has become a slush fund to finance various ‘smart growth’ projects unrelated to highways,” McQuillan writes in a widely published op-ed. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, a bill that became law in 2012 is steering $10 million in gas-tax revenues to local governments for the purchase of land for conservation rather than for development—and $50 million is being earmarked for transit villages that would house workers who rely on public transportation. “Like walking, the government apparently considers crowded housing a surface transportation problem,” McQuillan writes.

California is a leading state for the diversion of federal gasoline taxes toward smart-growth programs such as open-space preserves and “stack-and-pack” housing, but other states are following course. South Floridians, for example, are battling proposals that resemble those enacted in the San Francisco Bay Area. So much for counting on the Highway Trust Fund to focus on fixing the crumbling highways. “Next time you hit one of those freeway potholes,” McQuillan continues, “be reminded that the money you paid at the pump to maintain our highways is being used to purchase land in Napa Valley, so wine snobs can ride their $5,000 mountain bikes. That’s how ‘smart growth’ really works.”

Highway Robbery: How Your Taxes Subsidize the California Lifestyle, by Lawrence J. McQuillan (The Modesto Bee, 12/24/13; other McClatchy papers, various dates)

Street Smart: Competition, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of Roads, edited by Gabriel Roth


3) Chile’s Leftist Move Threatens Economic Gains

Chile’s economy under President Sebastián Piñera has been, by most accounts, an international success story: Output has grown at a rapid clip of 4 to 5 percent, poverty and unemployment have fallen, and foreign investment has soared to nearly 25 percent of GDP. But Chile is in the midst of an ideological identity crisis. Voters were mostly ambivalent toward Piñera’s electoral successor and instead made Michelle Bachelet their president-elect. It will be Bachelet’s second stint as president but her first as part of a coalition that includes members of the Community Party. Independent Institute Senior Fellow Alvaro Vargas Llosa wonders whether or not other Latin American countries will follow Chile’s lurch to the left.

“A significant segment of the middle class [in Chile] seems to have fallen for the siren song of old-fashioned socialism,” Vargas Llosa writes. “There are already signs in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Colombia that middle classes brought about by the opening of the economy...are beginning to lose sight of what made possible their rise and their high levels of consumption in the first place.”

Chile has served as a model for other emerging economies as far back as 1990, the year that Augusto Pinochet relinquished power and democracy was put in place. With other countries watching closely, Bachelet could have an influence on policymakers throughout the region. “If she steers that dangerous energy towards productive ends and is able to preserve what is best in her country’s socioeconomic model while avoiding a radicalization of vast sectors of society, she will have rendered a service to her country and to the rest of Latin America, where observers are watching nervously what lies ahead,” writes Vargas Llosa. “If not, there is much trouble ahead.”

Whither Chile?, by Alvaro Vargas Llosa (12/31/13)

Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, by Alvaro Vargas Llosa


4) P. J. O’Rourke—Talkin’ ’Bout His Generation (Oakland, Calif., 2/13/14)

In a writing career that has spanned four decades, P. J. O’Rourke has become famous for his astute jabs at politicians, bureaucrats, busybody activists, and the cultural elite. In his latest book, however, the humorist directs his keen eye and razor-sharp wit at those who came of age with him: the Baby Boomers. The result is both hilarious and profound.

“We’re often silly, and we’re spoiled by any measure of history,” says O’Rourke. “At the same time, we have made the world a better place—just not necessarily in the ways we set out to.”

How severe is the silliness? How beneficial are the unintended accomplishments? And why have so many pundits missed the boat? Perhaps only P. J. O’Rourke can tie it all together in a way that will fill you with fresh insights and make you laugh out loud.

Join us for a special event on Thursday, February 13, as the brilliant satirist and commentator shares his witty analysis at the Independent Institute’s Conference Center in Oakland, Calif. Tickets are expected to sell out, so hardcore fans of P. J. O’Rourke should reserve their seats early!

Who: P. J. O’Rourke, author of The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way...And It Wasn’t My Fault...And I’ll Never Do It Again

When: Thursday, February 13, 2014
Reception and Book Signing: 6:00 p.m.
Program: 7:00 p.m.

Where: The Independent Institute, Oakland, Calif. (Map and Directions)

Tickets: General Admission: $20 ($15 for Members)

OR $40 Special Admission includes one copy of The Baby Boom ($35 for Members). Books ordered will be distributed at the event. If you order a book and do not attend, we will ship the book to you.

Advance Praise for The Baby Boom:

“Even while discussing annual income and per capita GDP, O’Rourke maintains the dry wit that makes every chapter a delight... As a cultural analyst, O’Rourke’s ability and willingness to simultaneously lampoon and celebrate himself and his generation are unequaled.”
Publishers Weekly

“O’Rourke’s Baby Boom may just be his best book ever. Teems with heart and humor—much of it laugh out loud, or as the post-boomers would say, LOL—as well as with his trademark brilliant social commentary. A terrific American memoir, in tone a beguiling mix of Jean Shepherd and ‘Animal House’.”
—Christopher Buckley, winner, Thurber Prize for American Humor; author of fifteen books including Thank You For Smoking

More event details


5) New Blog Posts

From The Beacon:

From MyGovCost News & Blog:

Bright Shiny Object Syndrome
Craig Eyermann (1/6/14)

Cops and Robbers
K. Lloyd Billingsley (1/6/14)

The Future of Social Security
Craig Eyermann (1/3/14)

Section 8 Government Policies
Craig Eyermann (12/31/13)

Obamacare Tops 2013 Charts in Waste, Fraud and Abuse
K. Lloyd Billingsley (12/31/13)

You can find the Independent Institute’s Spanish-language website here and blog here.


6) Selected News Alerts


  • Catalyst
  • Beyond Homeless