Saturday, September 30, 2006

Athletics and Academics

As I watched thousands of drunken fans make their way past my house this morning (September 30) to a football stadium where the Iowa-Ohio State game was not scheduled to begin until 10 hours later, I was reminded of Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford's regular Wednesday commentary on NPR's "Morning Edition" this past week.

Headlined "College Sports Excesses Seep Into High Schools," it began:

"I've decided to rewrite my will. . . .. [T]he bulk of my estate is going where it's really needed -- to the athletic department at my old elementary school. There, the money will help renovate the weight room and build a 20,000-seat football stadium with a retractable roof for the disadvantaged little fourth and fifth grade student athletes at my alma mater.

"Basically, you see, rather than correcting all the abuses of college athletics, we Americans are instead simply taking all that's wrong with college sports down to high school. And given good old American know-how, I figure that by the time I'm pushing up daisies the same sins will have reached the elementary school level."

It continues along this line, but you get the idea.

Frankly, I don't know that anything can or should be done about these excesses -- except to the extent that the young athletes are being harmed in some way. Parents, students, school administrators and teachers are in a position to opt out if they want, or self-impose such limitations as they may think desirable. For an analogous analysis see, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "Gambling and Paternalism," September 4, 2006.

But there are a couple of things we might want to consider that would not interfere a bit with the "youth athletics industry" (as it has come to be) or the enthusiasm and enjoyment of the fans. And there are precedents for both.

Deford concludes, "Both ESPN and the Fox Sports Network regularly televise high school games nationally. Really, do we need this attention for teenagers? The bald fact is sports is growing in importance in schools even as book learning is diminishing. But in the United States, no athlete shall be left behind." (emphasis supplied)

Athletics and Academics

I grew up in a college town, and have now returned to it. I spent six years at a major football university as an undergraduate and law student. I've taught at a good many more, including the one in the town where I now live. I've served on the local school board. Based on those years of varied experience I've formed some opinions.

High Schools.

Intramural sports are great in school. Physical fitness is essential if we're ever to do anything about childhood obesity. But the overemphasis on the semi-pro competition between institutions' teams, whether high school or college, is at odds with the academic mission.

I wouldn't suggest for a moment that we abolish these sports teams -- and it wouldn't make any difference if I did, except for putting myself at physical risk. But I would suggest the sports programs, and the academic programs, would benefit from a separation agreement.

Europe and the rest of the world are if anything even more crazy about their sports than we are. The only true world series, after all, is the World Cup soccer competition. They certainly haven't de-emphasized sports.

What they have done, however, is separate it from academics. Their school children and college athletes play for community teams, not school teams.

Think about it. We do a good deal of this already. There's Little League for baseball. In Iowa City we have the "Kickers" soccer league. The City Recreation Department organizes a number of sports leagues including softball. Many small Iowa rural towns have a community softball team that fills the bleachers on a summer's eve. There are bowling leagues. So this is not an alien idea, even in America, and certainly not in the rest of the world.

Athletic competition tears some towns, and school districts, apart. Community teams would bring them together.

Trying to blend athletics and academics creates conflicts of interest for everyone. High school principals and teachers may be under pressure to give student athletes special privileges -- and passing grades.

Colleges and Universities.

But I've only heard stories about high schools. As a visiting professor around the country I've had some experience with colleges and universities.

I once had a call from a university president's office asking me to change a football player's grade. Of course, I refused to do it. But imagine the indignity for a university president having to make such a request.

Imagine the pressure on the untenured, tenure-track professors -- or a tenured full professor for that matter -- at that school, or any other, knowing that his or her school might lose the "big game" that Saturday if they enter the grade that an athlete actually earned, rather than bumping it up to keep the athlete eligible.

Nor is the coach immune. Our football coach is paid $3 million a year, the highest paid public employee in the state of Iowa. He and the basketball coach don't need reminders of what they've been hired to do, but they get them in their contracts anyway: the more they win the more they're paid. At the same time, colleges put forth a rhetoric about "student athletes." The university provides tutors, and entire buildings devoted exclusively to athletes' education, tracks their grades, and graduation rates. But the coaches know that if they let the "student" part of the equation interfere with the "athlete" part the coach will be looking for another job.

And for those of the college athletes who really do want to be students as well, they have a conflict, too. I've spoken with football players who need to log time in the science labs required to get into medical school, but have been told they're going to have to choose between that and football practice sessions.

The economic benefits that flow to these students are not insignificant, but they are as nothing compared with what the coaches are paid -- or the athletes playing for professional teams. And yet, the reality is that college football teams are as much "farm clubs" for the National Football League as baseball's farm clubs are for the majors.

Obviously, it's highly unlikely this system would ever be changed over the objection of the alums, coaches and school administrators. And if it were to be, it would need to be league-wide. A single school couldn't do it unilaterally.

But here's a thought for a starter; that I'll illustrate with how it might work at the University of Iowa as a part of the Big 10.

The football program, which tends to operate relatively independently of the university president's office anyway, would become entirely independent, a for-profit corporation with a board of directors and CEO. It would negotiate with the university for continued use of the "Hawkeyes" trademark, and make a lease arrangement for the use of the stadium and its skyboxes. The program would be expected to run without any taxpayer support. The board could pay the coach whatever it wanted, and set ticket prices, and contract for television rights, as it chose.

The players would be recruited however the corporation wanted, but presumably from high schools and other colleges as now. But they would be paid; not as much as coaches or NFL players, but something more in accord with their role in bringing in the football corporation's revenue.

Presumably the NFL would continue to scout the team, as major league baseball does with the minor league players.

There would be no requirement that they be enrolled at the University of Iowa. Perhaps a part of the University-football corporation contract could provide that those players who wanted to enroll in some courses could do so at free or reduced rates while under contract to the team, but none would be required to do so.

I know that neither idea -- community teams instead of high school teams, and separate corporations for the former college teams -- is going anywhere. But I figure if a big shot Sports Illustrated guy like Fank Deford can say what he did I ought to be able to throw out these ideas without the risk of being lynched.

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Let's Welcome the Prairie Robin

There's a new Iowa blog in town: "Funky Little House on the Prairie."

My son, in Maryland, brought it to my attention, in part because it involves someone else who left the joys of the greater Washington, D.C., area for the greater joys of Iowa (although in my case it was a return to Iowa).

Prairie Robin and her partner have just arrived, are living in Manchester, and so far seem to be appreciating and enjoying the state as if they were third generation Iowans.

Check out the Funky Little House and welcome the first Robin of September to Iowa.

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Pixiedust in Pella

A number of folks whom I only know from our electronic exchanges have provided me information and amusement over the months of my rain forest watching. "Cindy" is one with a special creativity with the English language. On this occasion I got her permission to share her email following the Pella site selection:

I know there are some good, well-intentioned people involved in this project. But that doesn't change financial reality. Congratulations to Riverside on dodging the bullet. I'm shocked, shocked that Pella was chosen.

"I blame the journalists who have shown collective wide-eyed awe. If I ever figure out a mildly-complicated scheme for fraudulently enriching myself at public expense, it is my deep hope that my activities will be given the same level of scrutiny, objectivity, analysis, financial acumen, and common sense that has characterized most media coverage of The Pixiedust Project. I'll bet this is the way the River City Enquirer covered the Music Man during those first few weeks ("Band Uniforms Almost Here, Thanks To World-Renowned Music Authority!"). The media are behaving like Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn -- they're agog, simply agog."

Cindy Hildebrand

For the record, my own "mildly-complicated scheme for fraudulently enriching myself at public expense" is spelled out in Nicholas Johnson, "TIF-ing My Toolshed," September 2, 2006.

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Friday, September 29, 2006

Gazette to Earthpark: "Ask not, what Pella can do for you . . ."

The Gazette has provided the rain forest project too much support, for too long, to start ridiculing or savaging it now. So this morning's (September 29) editorial includes, for example, "Even after seven and a half years of ups and downs for Earthpark — and continuing skepticism about whether it will really be built — the proposal to build a 4-acre indoor rain forest and 600,000-gallon aquarium is still a bold one that can mean great things for Iowa."

But this Gazette editorial strolls deeper into the forest with some Dutch uncle comments about Earthpark's history and management. Here are some of them:

Pella it is. Let’s hope that this time the people involved with the Earthpark project will do better than they have in the past with meeting deadlines, communicating and following through on what they say they will do. And let’s hope they will soon announce they have real commitments for substantial private support for the project. Even though a corporate technology partner, Siemens, was named in May, no information about a financial contribution from that company has been made.

"Let’s also hope the folks in Pella are going into this relationship prepared to hold Earthpark officials accountable and to demand that they be treated as real partners.

. . .

"Skepticism about the project has been earned by its leaders. Its name, what it will include, how many visitors it will attract, the economic impact it will have, how much private money has been contributed, where it will be, when it will open — all these factors and more have been in a constant state of change.

. . .

"Pella officials should take the lead in determining how and how often progress reports should be made to Iowans. Because so much public money is involved . . . Iowans have the right to know in great detail what is happening with Earthpark.

"Earthpark officials should understand, too, that what many Iowans want to hear is them talking about what they can do for Pella and the state, and not just what they expect from the community of Pella. . . . Earthpark officials must show that they understand that the development of this project is a two-way street."

Editorial, "Earthpark Trying This Again," The Gazette, September 29, 2006.

It's never too late, I guess, but if only the media had provided their audiences with more of this kind of skeptical reporting and analysis during the past 10 years -- instead of playing the cheerleaders' role of uncritically repeating the project promoters' news releases, and leaving their assertions unchallenged -- they could have saved a lot of wasted motion, time and dollars for everyone.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Rain Forest Tiptoes Through the Tulips: "Rewrite!"

See State 29, "It's Pella," September 28, 2006, with link to Perry Beeman's story.

See updated Perry Beeman story, with added features "At a Glance" and "Timeline," at Perry Beeman, "Pella Gets Nod for Earthpark," Des Moines Register (online), September 28, 2006, 12:30 p.m.

And while you're checking out State 29, don't miss State 29, "Rewriting Radio Iowa's Earthpork Story," September 28, 2006. State 29 is always a colorful and incisive writer; but this one is as professional an example of humor writing as you'll find anywhere on the Internet, cable TV, or print.

While you're at it, if you haven't read it yet, see Side Notes and Detours' "Not So Much," September 7, 2006, for a well-written pulling together of a somewhat unique analysis of many of the rain forest proposal's problems.

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Rain Forest: "Shell and Pea Games" vs. Basics

With the Earthpark board's selection of a site today (September 28) [See, State 29, "Earthpork Announcement on Thursday?" September 27, 2006; Gregg Hennigan, "And the Winner Is . . .; Rain Forest Expected to Pick Either Pella or Riverside Today," The Gazette, September 28, 2006], it's time to review some basics about this project.

Over the past five years I have been adding to what is now a book-length Web site about the proposed rain forest, with links to the full text of 100s of articles and reports, my own commentary, and links to some 14 of my published op eds, and 15 other significant documents, over those years.

Anyone interested in getting into the history and details of the project will find that resource useful. But it is, admittedly, a bit much for the vast majority of journalists with looming deadlines and Iowans who have many more significant issues on their plates and have little more than a casual awareness of, and interest in, the project -- if that.

The problem that creates is that they, and the media reporting about the proposed rain forest, can be much more easily manipulated with the glitz and glamour, blue smoke and mirrors, and the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't shell and pea game the project's promoters have been playing for over a decade.

So I thought it appropriate on this day -- if this day does, indeed, turn out to be the day of site selection -- to review some basics in very summary fashion.

1. "Site selection" is yet one more diversion, not a meaningful decision. It's like asking you, "If you were going to build a $2 million home, where would you build it?"

2. Operating costs are the deal breaker. The discussion, even by project critics, has centered on raising the up-front money to build this thing. That's also a diversion. None of the functions it might end up performing are sustainable. That's what the discussion ought to be about.

3. Lack of focus. It's still not clear what would go inside this structure, or why. It's been promoted as a national research center, a teacher training facility, a tourist attraction, a K-5 school -- and many other, often mutually inconsistent, functions. As State 29 has said, "It's a floor wax, it's a desert topping; it's whatever they want it to be." But whether its revenue stream would come from research grants, Iowa's school districts, or ticket sales, best estimates are that it won't be able to make it financially.

4. Lack of business basics. Obviously, without focus, without knowing what you're doing or why, it's impossible to comply with the "Management 101" requirement of a detailed business plan. [For my critique of the "business plan" they have, see Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark Business Plan: A Review," August 12, 2006.] Without a detailed business plan it's somewhere between exceedingly difficult and impossible to get funding -- as has proven to be the case.

5. Failure to attract financing. The real elephant in this rain forest is that in 10 years the project's promoters have not banked a dime from foundations, corporations, wealthy contributors, or governments. (Exception: Senator Grassley got them a $50 million earmark, but shut off the spiggot after discovering they had taken $3 million without turning a spade-full of earth. It's now a "matching grant" -- which they are unable to match.)

In this case, the diversionary tactic is to focus on the $25 million the project is demanding from local communities -- a bit outrageous, given the results of the project's own failure with its decade-long search for funds nationally. Even more outrageous is the misrepresentation that this has been "met or exceeded" in both Riverside and Pella -- given that the facts clearly show it has been neither met nor exceeded in Riverside, and Pella refuses to reveal its funding.

Why is focusing on the $25 million diversionary? Because, even if it had been "met or exceeded" (and all indications are it hasn't) $25 million is only a drop in the bucket. This was originally a $300 million project. It now has no money; and $25 million gets it nothing. It will need $50 million to free the $50 million matching grant. At that point it will still need between $55 and $80 million more -- if its own figures are to be believed, and there are no cost overruns. Focusing on the "$25 million" only diverts attention from the fact that this proposed undertaking has neither the money, nor the prospects for getting it, needed to build and operate such a project.

Coupled with the fact that 14 (soon to be 15) of the 16 communities supposedly once interested in this project, after evaluating it, have said "thanks, but no thanks," this overwhelming lack of financial and other support over a period of 10 years ought to tell even the least well informed journalist, or member of the public, something.

6. The shrinking rain forest. Given the project promoters' repeated failures to raise what they now say is $155 million, they might as well have stuck with their original $300 million, or $225 million goal. Even their own consultants warned them, when they reduced the project from $300 to $225 million, that they were flirting with failure. Being "the world's largest" (as Omaha's once was; see, Nicholas Johnson, "Coralville Project Can't Match Up to Omaha's Zoo," Des Moines Register, July 17, 2004) is one key (among many others, also not present) to making a project like this work (see, Nicholas Johnson, "Time to Learn From 'What Works,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 20, 2006).

7. Other troubling factors. For a "summary" this is already much longer than I intended. Needless to say, there are many other categories of concerns about this project that any community, or individual, seriously interested in it needs to investigate. They are explored in some detail in the materials available from my "Iowa Rain Forest" Web site.

But as the publicity steam roller reaches maximum speed later today, this may help provide a little perspective with which to evaluate the claims.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Rain Forest Decision Tomorow (28th) Says Register

The Des Moines Register's Perry Beeman, who's done a number of stories about the Iowa rain forest project, is saying today (September 27) that the project's board will actually pick a site tomorrow. His brief story opens with the following paragraphs:

Earthpark Rain Forest Site To Be Chosen Thursday

Perry Beeman

Des Moines Register

September 27, 2006

"The board of directors of Earthpark, an indoor rainforest and environmental education center, plan to pick a site for the $155 million project Thursday.

"The finalists are Pella and Riverside.

"The board meets in the morning and plans to announce the site about 12:30 p.m.

"The long-delayed development . . . is slated to open in 2010.

. . . (emphasis supplied)"

"Announce the site about 12:30" is a lot more precise than anything we've heard from the rain forest's promoters in the past, as the promised announcement has kept slipping, month by month, from January through September. And Perry Beeman is a good reporter, and knowledgeable regarding the rain forest. So we may actually soon know.

But that "choice" is relatively meaningless given the basics about this decade-long project, of which more soon.

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State 29 Solves School Finance

State 29 caught Nicholas Johnson, "Press-Citizen Promotes Student Gambling," September 26, 2006, and explains why it's the solution to school finance and a good reason to vote for Chet Culver. Don't miss it, at State 29, "Solutions to School Financing," September 26, 2006.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Press-Citizen Promotes Student Gambling

The Iowa City Press-Citizen, which has been pushing the edge of the envelope with regard to the promotion of gambling (see earlier blog entries, linked from below) in page one stories and special supplements, ripped the envelope open this morning with a direct assault on our local high school and college youth. Hieu Pham, "Students Find New Ways to Earn Cash," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 26, 2006, p. 1A.

Without even a nod in the direction of balance, under a headline designed to get high school and college students' attention (after all, what student would not be interested in "new ways to earn cash"?), the paper introduces readers to Kyle Obrecht, "who plays online poker and gambles at casinos to make rent." "Gambling has paid for me to live in the last couple of years," he's quoted as saying. I'm sure many students, trying to make it on Iowa's minimum wage, will be excited to learn from the Press-Citizen that gambling has "proven to be much more lucrative than any regular job" for him.

Moreover, it's easy to do. "At his first casino visit, Obrecht won $600 . . . [but] still plays online three days a week." Given his gambling riches it's not surprising that "Obrecht . . . said he is considering becoming a pro poker player on the side."

But there are other ways, even if not as lucrative, for students to make money from the gambling industry. "UI junior Anthony Lobaito, 21, said he found his job as a dealer at the Riverside Casino & Golf Resort through Jobnet. 'The pay is really good,' said Lobaito, who earns an hourly base pay of $5.50 . . .." Yeah, $5.50 sure beats $5.15 an hour. (Actually, it's the tips that attract him.)

I've known the Press-Citizen since I've been a kid. I helped a buddy deliver the papers at one point in my life. I have read it for many of the years since. I have written regular columns for the paper during the 1980s ("Communications Watch," which was ultimately in national syndication), and 1990s (about K-12 issues, while serving on the local school board), and from time to time since. I read it early every morning with my first cup of coffee.

So it gives me no pleasure to have to criticize the paper in strong language.

But I really do think that for any paper to promote gambling in this irresponsible, inaccurate way to young people, without balance, without saying something about the real odds of winning (laid out in detail in the UI piece linked below), the real disasters it has brougnt into the lives of many youngsters, and the treatment programs that are available, can only be described as "shameful."

Over the past couple of months I have posted a number of blog entries on the subject of gambling and the media's promotion of the new Riverside Casino that are listed, and linked, below. In one, titled "Gambling's Road to Nowhere" (see link, in list, below), I began:

Nobody but the house wins from gambling; seldom do gamblers win, even in the short run and virtually never in the long run. Like a fisherman who will tell you about the big ones he caught, but seldom about the entire days spent in a boat, or on the bank, without so much as a nibble, in my experience gamblers are notoriously poor bookkeepers when it comes to recording losses with the attention to detail they bring to their winnings."

I will give the reporter -- whom I have no reason to believe is anything other than an honorable, professional journalist -- that Kyle Obrecht actually said the things that are quoted and reported.

But were they confirmed? That even one student has found "online poker and . . . casinos" sufficiently profitable on a sustained, ongoing basis, to pay his rent and otherwise enable him "to live in the last couple years" is so outlandishly unbelievable that one would hope an editor would at least require the reporter to obtain, and share with the editor, the bookkeeping records that confirm the story.

Otherwise this is little more than a story -- and a very dangerous one at that -- about male college student braggadocio.

Gambling among young people is a serious problem in this country, as even a few minutes' search of the Internet will confirm. The references linked below are but a small, illustrative sampling.

The Nebraska report refers to studies by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Those studies reveal such things as that
roughly one in four 18 year olds gambled in a casino during the prior 12 months, and that among the 55% of adolescents who are "casual or recreational gamblers," as many as 1.1 million kids between 12 and 18 are "pathological gamblers" -- a proportion as much as three times that for adults. Moreover, quoting from an NGISC report, "pathological gambling is associated with alcohol and drug use, truancy, low grades . . . and illegal activities to finance gambling." The Nebraska paper continues, "Problems with gambling . . . increases . . . the likelihood of being involved in violent incidents [and] an increased risk for attempted suicide."

The NCAA's Director of Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities has testified that "The advent of Internet wagering . . . raises even greater cause for concern." He refers to the concerns of the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others:

"A 1999 Gallup Poll reports that teenagers say they start betting on college sports at age 10 and . . . at twice the rate of adults. Called 'the addiction of the '90's' by the American Academy of Pediatrics, their research indicates that there are over one million United States teens who are addicted to gambling. A recent Harvard School of Medicine report estimates that six percent of teenagers under 18 have serious gambling problems."

Not only are there adverse impacts on the youths engaged in gambling, and their families, there are costs of various kinds -- including financial -- to be paid by the broader community as well.

A story about the losses from youthful gambling could be a real journalistic service to any community. A story about college students' gambling as one of the "new ways to earn cash," indeed, to offset rising tuition, pay the rent and other living expenses, a substitute for what we'd normally think of as student employment, is grossly irresponsible.

Deliberate misrepresentations regarding the consequences of risky behavior, as one in a series of articles promoting gambling in general and the nearby Riverside Casino in particular, is a serious matter.

I'm not suggesting a direct parallel, and I'm certainly not urging that anyone file a law suit. But I would note yesterday's story about the $200 billion dollar class action suit against the tobacco companies for their misrepresentation regarding the health benefits of their "light" cigarettes. See, e.g., Adam Hochberg, "Judge OKs Class-Action Suit by 'Light' Smokers," NPR Morning Edition, September 25, 2006.

I expect better than tobacco company ethics from my local paper.

Sampling of Online Information About Youthful Gambling and Gambling Generally

1. University of Iowa: Student Health/Health Iowa: Substance Abuse/Gambling on Campus.

2. Debra E. Schroeder and Rebecca L. Versch, "Youthful Gambling in the United States," NebFact, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

3. International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors.

4. Gambling Problems, Villanova University.

5. William S. Saum, NCAA, Testimony Before the Judiciary Committee of the Nevada State Assembly, March 2, 2001.

6. Roger Dunstan, Gambling in California, January 1997.

Nicholas Johnson's Blogging About Gambling and Media Promotion of the Casino

Nicholas Johnson, "Mr. Editor, tear down this wall!" August 8, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Gazette: 'Reputation at Stake,'" August 18, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Gambling's Road to Nowhere," August 21, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Coming P-C Casino Spread: Another Frosty?" August 22, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Gambling: Same the Whole World Over," August 22, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Press-Citizen: Promoting Casino Gambling?"
August 28, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "The Gazette: Promoting Casino Gambling?" August 28, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Casino Offers Research Opportunity," August 29, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Press-Citizen's 'Shuffle Up' Stories Available,"
August 30, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Gazette Shames Press-Citizen," August 31, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Out of Body, Out of Mind," September 1, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Gambling and Paternalism,"
September 4, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Royal Flush," September 7, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Press-Citizen's Casino; Gazette's E-Frosty,"
September 14, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "UI Football Promoting Gambling?" September 16, 2006;

Nicholas Johnson, "Media on Casino's Leno," September 18, 2006;

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Monday, September 25, 2006

The Limits of Empire II: The Assassination Policy

The discussion between James E-J and myself, which began in Nicholas Johnson, "The Limits of Empire," September 24, 2006, continues with James' suggestion that the U.S. adopt an overt policy of assassination of leaders of countries we dislike (rather than going to "war" with them).
James E-J said...

I think your points are fair ... let me put this on the table as a proposal. I won't defend it right now, but from a game theory perspective, I suspect it will work:

1. The US should adopt a policy of targeted assassination.

2. Democratically elected leaders(even when elected in a sham election arranged by an elite that controls government, such as Ahmadinejad's election arranged by the Ayatollahs) are not subject to assassination under this policy, though such elite may be subject to assassination.

3. Leaders who exercise control over a geographic area and are not elected (the Ayatollahs, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, the Mullahs, etc.) are eligible for assassination.

4. The US will prioritize assassination targets that are a danger to foreign countries, support terror, impede democratization, impose fascism on domestic populations, engage in genocide or engage in any form of ethinic cleansing.

5. Successors to an assassinated leader will assume the same priority on the list as their predecessor absent clear and verifiable actions (not words) that establish a lower priority.

6. The US will make its assassination guidelines (but not a list of specific targets) public and publish its case against each person killed after their assassination.

I think if we established this kind of policy we would see more people like Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi reduce their involvement in anti-liberal terror programs. The policy would be targeted very narrowly against those people who cause so much harm to humanity, and would provide strong incentives for those specific people to realign their behavior towards a more liberal course.

9/24/2006 02:38:28 PM

Nick responds:

There are a number of ways of approaching this proposal for a deliberate, albeit superficially "rational," policy of assassination.

1. At the outset, the choice between assassination and war somehow reminds me of my colleague, Tung Yin's, survey regarding whether, starving and put to the limited choice, people would rather eat a "rat burger" or an "insect burger." See Nicholas Johnson, "Professor Yin Says 'No' to Bug Burgers," September 16, 2006.

2. If you want to put this as a theoretical, hypothetical, philosophical choice between only two choices, and require me to make one of them, then, yes, I would prefer that the senseless slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians (the all too common consequence of most "wars") be avoided, even though it would require -- within the terms of this choice -- the deliberate assassination of someone.

3. But if you'll permit me the least bit of a moral civilization, I would, of course, not support assassinatiion -- and certainly not as a deliberate, overt policy. There is a reason why we call premeditated, deliberate killing of another "murder," and reserve for it our two most heavy penalties: life imprisonment and the death penalty. This is a moral judgment shared by religions and secular legal systems for at least hundreds of years.

4. For those reasons, I suspect there are many who would simply refuse to play this false game of choice, saying something like, "Murder is immoral as well as illegal; I simply refuse to make a choice between murder and war." As the lyrics to one of John Prine's songs put it, "Now Jesus don't like killin', No matter what the reasons for." (John Prine, "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore.")

5. First, let me say that (a) there are alternatives to violence. I won't launch into that lengthy essay here, except to say that "last resort" means last resort. (b) Every nation is entitled to protect its people once attacked. But virtually never should that justify unnecessary, "preemptive" wars (or assassinations) of choice. (c) Morality and international law aside, by what right does it fall to us to dictate to other peoples and countries who their leaders should be; which ones should be permitted to live and which should die? Where is the historical support for the assertion that things will be better after we've intervened?

6. Having said all that, I will now
take the challenge as the theoretical/philosophical issue it is intended to be and try to address it seriously.

7. There are some practical, administrative, problems with an overt policy of assassination as well as the moral objections.

(1) As Colin Powell has said recently of our torture policies, a benefit cost analysis of an assassination policy might very well reveal that what we lose in "moral high ground," with the allies and international cooperation it, and they, provide, would more than offset whatever we'd gain with an occasional assassination.

(2) It might very well be counter productive. As reports of the latest National Intelligence Estimate reveal, the war in Iraq has increased the number of terrorists, provided them a training ground, eased their task of recruiting, and spread their cells, like a cancer, throughout the world. See Nicholas Johnson, "Don't Like To Say 'I told you so, but . . .," September 24, 2006. Assassinations might very well contribute to the same kind of result.

(3) It's not clear it would "work." (a) The Administration claims to have captured or killed many terrorist leaders -- following which terrorists' attacks, and recruiting, have increased, not decreased. Although President Bush once said that taking Bin Laden, "dead or alive," was our primary goal, Bin Laden's isolation makes that one goal for which one can scarcely claim "Mission Accomplished." Recently there have been rumors that Bin Laden is dead. The point is, whatever the truth may be it hasn't made any difference -- especially with a metasticizing cancer of terrorist cells. (b) Any dictator who's been around a long time, once assassinated, will most likely be followed by a clone -- possibly even someone worse. (c) And, as noted, if you're dealing with the "leader" of an "organization" that is not hierarchial, that consists of semi-independent cells around the world, perfectly capable of coming up with their own devilment and destruction without direction -- a sort of human equivalent of the resiliency of the Internet -- the only consequence from the assassination of that "leader" will be to strengthen the terrorists' resolve and recruiting. (c) If the assassination policy extends well beyond "the leader" to others in the second and third levels (if a hierarchial organization) "assassination" soon evolves into something closer to "war."

(4) Even if it would work strategically it is very hard to pull off successfully tactically. (a) Our efforts to assassinate Castro read like a script for the keystone cops: poisoning his food, exploding cigars. Castro's continuing rule, extending through the terms of many U.S. presidents committed to his destruction, is perhaps the best pragmatic argument against a policy of assassination. (b) Even if you would be successful in killing somebody, the odds are good you will end up killing the wrong person, or persons.

(5) U.S. history is full of dramatic real life illustrations of one of the themes of George Orwell's book, 1984: Today's hated enemy can very quickly become tomorrow's trusted ally -- and the reverse. Bin Laden helped us fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Have you seen the pictures of our present Secretary of State with Saddam, our ally in our fight against Iran?

8. The policy is open to abuse. Today, critics of U.S. foreign policy charge that all too often we go to war on behalf of U.S. corporate interests -- or even for political motives, as depicted in the "fictional" movie "Wag the Dog." The presidential power to start wars without complying with the constitutional requirement of a congressional "declaration of war" is bad enough as it is. With the legalization of your "shoot first explain later" assassination policy there would be virtually no limit on this executive grasp of power from congress.

For example, ITT offered money to the CIA on more than one occasion to insure that Salvador Allende -- a democratically elected president of Chile -- would not be elected, or if elected, come to power in Chile and take over ITT's telephone company there. The CIA helped the company funnel the money to achieve its purposes, which some have charged included Allende's assassination. Whatever the facts may be, Allende was killed, and President Nixon was quite willing to act unilaterally according to a CIA report:

On 15 September President Nixon informed the DCI that an Allende regime in Chile would not be acceptable to the United States. He instructed the CIA to prevent Allende from coming to power or unseat him and authorized $10 million for this purpose. The President specifically directed that this action be carried out by the CIA without advising the Departments of State or Defense or the U.S. Ambassador in Chile."

CIA, "Subject: CIA Activities in Chile," September 18, 2000.

Can you imagine all the assassinations that might be requested these days by big oil and other major campaign contributors?

In conclusion, your choice, between war and assassination, reminds me of the conclusion the computer came to in the last scene in the movie "War Games." After trying various war scenarios against the Soviets, and a game of tic-tac-toe, it declares "the only winning move is not to play the game." Increasingly, that's where I come out.

Rain Forest: Monday September 25 Update

The Monday, September 25, update to the rain forest ("Earthpark") Web site,, went up about 2:00 p.m. CT this afternoon (September 25).

It is a fairly substantial (2400-words-plus) entry dealing with a number of subjects which, if they were to have been entered as blog entries, would have been a number of separate entries.


[Every Monday since December 2005 there has been a weekly upload to the pre-existing Iowa rain forest Web site I maintain. In all, printed out it would run over 100 single spaced pages; there are, in addition, links to the full text of hundreds of newspaper stories and reports. It is very probably the most complete resource on the topic anywhere on the Web.

It is found at:

Over the past few months the scope of the Web site has expanded from the rain forest project to include material related to the broader range of attractions and economic development generally in which the proposed rain forest exists and by which it must be evaluated.

If you are interested in following this subject, you might also want to check in from time to time with the Iowa Pork Forest blog for comments that are often humorous and entertaining as well as insightful.]

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Limits of Empire

Following the earlier entry, Nicholas Johnson, "Don't Like To Say 'I told you so,' but . . .," September 24, 2006, an exchange took place in the comments between James E-J and myself that I thought worth reproducing as an entry of its own:

James E-J said...

I opposed going into Iraq too, but I wonder what you think should have been done about Saddam's refusal to comply with UN Security resolutions, ongoing Food For Oil program corruption, repeated violations of the No-Fly zone ...

I also opposed economic sanctions generally because I find that they punish civilians while the leaders remain mostly unaffected. So, for me that also was not a solution.

I would have supported coordination with Kurdish and Shiite organizations to kill Saddam and his sons (who are worse than he was). Unfortunately, The US has a policy against targeting for assassination the people responsible for a country's bad acts. I wonder what you would have suggested?

Nick said...

James: I (like you) don't claim to have all the answers. Clearly, I don't have educational/professional credentials with such matters.

My horseback sense is that we do have some level of obligation to all life on earth, and certainly humankind. I certainly don't advocate a "fortress America" isolationism.

On the other hand, we simply have neither the resources nor the wisdom to solve all of the world's problems. Nor do we have the right, I think, to make judgments for others regarding what we know to be better for them than what they have chosen for themselves (or had foisted upon them).

Putting the best face on it, giving the Bush Administration the benefit of the doubt that their intentions were an honorable desire to improve the lot of the Iraq people, Iraq stands as a classic example of how often and easily such seemingly well meaning efforts can end in a disastrously opposite state of affairs from what was intended.

There are a great many countries and peoples for whom I wish better than what they have, many world leaders whom I wish were not in the positions of power that they are -- and utilizing and abusing that power in the ways that they are.

At a minimum, picking who we're going to "help" requires a kind of triage by us of all the world's countries, and the various minority and other groupings within those countries. I don't know how Iraq would have ranked following such an assessment, but it's not obvious to me that it was a greater risk to us than North Korea, or a greater source of terrorists and their financing than Saudi Arabia, or involved greater brutality than Sri Lanka, Indonesia (East Timor), Darfur, or the former Burma, etc.

Are there absolutely horrible situations in which the best America can do is nothing? Yes, regretfully, I suspect that is often the case. Even more often, I imagine, is it the case that, as the bumper sticker has it, "Whatever is the question, war is not the answer."


Thank You Richard Doak

The column of the Des Moines Register's Richard Doak in this morning's (September 24) Sunday paper was devoted to his take on a couple of recent speeches, one by Congressman Jim Leach and the other my "General Semantics, Terrorism and War."

Richard Doak, "Two Iowans Speak Clearly on War, Verbal Confusion,"
Des Moines Register, September 24, 2006.

Congressman Leach's address, "The Politics of Power," delivered at the University of Iowa August 31, deals with a variety of subjects, but includes the role of money in politics, a subject on which Jim Leach has taken a reformer's leading role over the years. Here's an excerpt:

"[A]nyone who does not see a compelling case for radical campaign reform is not looking closely enough at the machinations in American politics. All societies have examples of corruption. We are no exception. But the bigger problem in our society is legalized conflicts of interest. In a system built on too much money in politics, the case for eliminating PACs and going to a system of partial public financing, with the government matching small contributions up to a precise ceiling, is profound."

It's the "legalized conflicts of interest" that have prompted my oft-repeated observation that, "The problem is not that corporate executives are breaking the laws, the problem is that they're writing the laws."

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Don't Like to Say 'I told you so,' but . . .

"2. Global Muslim support is essential to a successful war on terrorism. Threatening war with Iraq increases Muslims’ hatred – and terrorists’ recruiting. What benefits from war in Iraq exceed the costs of increased terrorism here?"

This was the second in my "Ten Questions for Bush Before War," an op ed column published February 4, 2003, before the President launched the Iraq War. (Click on the link if you're interested in the other nine equally prescient questions.)

This morning's (September 24) New York Times reports that a current "National Intelligence Estimate" -- the consensus product of our government's 16 spy agencies -- has now come to the same conclusion as the implication of my now nearly 44-month-old question. Mark Mazzetti, "Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terror Threat," New York Times, September 24, 2006 (also available here).

The story begins:

"A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The classified National Intelligence Estimate attributes a . . . direct role to the Iraq war in fueling radicalism . . ..

"The intelligence estimate . . . represents a consensus view of the 16 disparate spy services inside government. Titled Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States, it asserts that Islamic radicalism, rather than being in retreat, has metastasized and spread across the globe.

"An opening section of the report, 'Indicators of the Spread of the Global Jihadist Movement,' cites the Iraq war as a reason for the diffusion of jihad ideology.

"The report 'says that the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse,' said one American intelligence official."

For a listing of other of my writings about the subject, see "Terrorism and the War in Iraq."

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Press-Citizen Says "Tough TIF"

The Press-Citizen has now (September 22) joined those of us who are concerned about the propriety of TIFs as a way of transferring taxpayers' money to private, for-profit businesses -- sort of. It's a "middle way" opposition: TIFs are sometimes OK, but not at this time and place. Editorial, "TIF Not the Right Economic Tool for Building the Hieronymus Tower," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 22, 2006.

TIFs have been the subject of a good deal of (largely unfavorable) commentary in the blogosphere. Just a couple of examples from this blog:

Nicholas Johnson, "Supervisor Sullivan Says 'TIF, TIF, Tsk, Tsk," September 16, 2006, and Nicholas Johnson, "TIF-ing My Toolshed," September 2, 2006.

Most of the discussion of TIFs (by me as well as others) has focused on the downside from the standpoint of their impact on taxpayers and government: why should taxpayers subsidize for-profit enterprises, the taxpayers/governmental unit may never get the promised pay back, shifting tax revenues in this way means other needy programs' budgets must be cut (or taxes must be increased), and so forth.

But the Hieronymus Tower project neatly illustrates the other side of the coin in shared public-private enterprise: the adverse impact on the marketplace.

Unlike the purists who think that there should be no regulation of one's use of one's property -- and that property owners should be fully compensated for any decline in value resulting from regulation -- I do support some rational, minimal degree of zoning. I'd prefer that developers not put a large hog lot or ethanol plant right next to my residential, urban home. I'd prefer that the University of Iowa not continue to buy up properties, and otherwise destroy, the National Historic Neighborhood-registered area where I live.

But when it comes to high rise buildings I think it's a mistake for a governmental unit to get too far into the design of the building's structural and economic details. For example, as the Press-Citizen reports,

"[T]he City Council's Economic Development Committee . . . required Hieronymus Square Associates' 'best efforts' to reserve space for a 40-unit hotel on the fourth through sixth floors of the building."

Look, I wasn't there. One hopes this was a truly rational, well-supported "requirement." But, on the face of it, it's not.

(a) Given that the Committee also "agreed unanimously to recommend to the City Council up to $16.4 million in tax incremental financing" I would think that if the City really wants a couple floors of hotel in there they would be entitled to get more than "best efforts" for their $16-plus million of taxpayers' money.

(b) But putting that aside for the moment, what is this "40-unit hotel on the fourth through sixth floors" (emphasis supplied) business about? It appears a little looney just on its face.

However, I'm not objecting so much to the fact that it's a looney idea (a matter as to which I'm willing to suspend judgment) as I am to who is to be given the responsibility for making, or participating, in addressing and implementing looney ideas.

How many hotel room do we already have in the corridor from Cedar Rapids to, now, Riverside? What are their past, present, and projected future occupancy rates? With what do those rates correlate? What do those occupancy rates need to be to justify more investment? What are the "best" locations for more, if more are needed? To the extent there is additional unmet demand, what range of room rates is most appropriate and responsive to that demand?

I'm quite prepared to concede that I don't know the answers to those questions.

My suspicion is that there are investors putting their money into hotels (Iowa City's Sheraton has just changed owners) who don't know all those answers with precision either.

I believe there are some things only government can do, and do well; I don't think that government is always "the problem, not the solution;" there are times when it is the solution.

But I think when it comes to the provision of hotel rooms "the marketplace" is the best way to resolve the balance between supply and demand, and to allocate the opportunities for profit, and the risks of loss, within our economy. I think government has little if anything to gain, and a whole lot to lose, by getting into that unpredictable game. The City Council might as well take our property tax dollars and leave them on the tables at the Riverside Casino. Moreover, when the taxpayers give generously to some hotel owners but not to their competitors, in addition to being clearly unfair, the economic results of the marketplace are really skewed.

There are reasons why the City might want to get into the housing business, especially the affordable housing business that was the subject of last evening's conference sponsored by FAIR!

Others would oppose the idea, and I wouldn't propose it, but I wouldn't automatically object to the City taking over the entire cost of building the structure at Clinton and Burlington (now to be called "Hieronymus Tower"), owning it 100%, and using it for affordable housing (as it already owns the parking garage across the street).

My point is simply that new construction is best when it is pure: either a 100% governmental project, or a 100% investors' project with no taxpayer subsidy.

When we endeavor to blend private and public funding, private and public planning, public and private projections of supply and demand (in this instance, for hotel rooms), we simply produce the worst of all possible worlds.

Hopefully, the City Council will follow the Press-Citizen's advice.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

More on Riverside Questions

I really will have something to say about the Q/A exchange between Riverside and David Oman as soon as I get this week behind me.

Meanwhile, there's lots to read elsewhere.

State 29 puts that blog's "tell it like it is" spin on the story, as the headline indicates: State29, "Riverside Hayseeds React to Con Artist Oman's Letter Concerning Earthpork," September 21, 2006.

The Press-Citizen editorializes, Editorial, "Earthpark Q&A Fails to Alleviate Our Concerns," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 21, 2006, and concludes, "As Earthpark officials seem to be postponing their final decision indefinitely, we hope Riverside officials will read these answers as evidence for why they should make Earthpark's decision that much easier by pulling their city out of the running."

And see yesterday's, Nicholas Johnson, "Riverside: 'Thanks But No Thanks'?" September 20, 2006, regarding Gregg Hennigen's story in The Gazette (with link), and Nicholas Johnson, "The $185 Million Dollar Questions," September 20, 2006, with link to the Press-Citizen's reproduction of the Q&A with Oman, and inclusion of Brad Franzwa's list of the questions that didn't get asked.

For the most thorough collection of commentary and links see Nicholas Johnson, "Iowa Rain Forest (Earthpark) Web Site," and for some 30 published op eds, speeches, etc., go to "Nicholas Johnson's Writing" (regarding the rain forest).

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The $185 Million Dollar Questions

Newspaper reports of a public meeting of the Riverside, Iowa, City Council on August 3, 2006, included the following:

"'We will get a packet of questions together,' said Mayor Bill Poch, 'and we would like you to write down the answers. We want hard copy.' He also asked if the answers could be done within a week after receiving the questions. Earthpark CEO David Oman said, 'It will not be a problem.'"

Mary Zielinski, "Riverside Wants 'Hard Copy' Answers for Earthpark Questions," Washington Evening Journal, August 4, 2006.

Apparently it was a problem getting answers within a week, but they finally arrived on September 19, and by noon today (September 20) the Iowa City Press-Citizen had scooped the competition and had them on its Web site. See, Press-Citizen, "Answers to Riverside's Questions," September 20, 2006.

When my wife and I watch the evening news the game we play is spotting the stories that aren't covered.

Since I was in class for most of this afternoon, I'm merely relaying for now the comments of Brad Franzwa (in an email to me this afternoon) who was apparently playing the same game with regard to the questions that weren't asked by the City of David Oman. Franzwa notes:

"The questions were somewhat insignificant considering the unresolved issues. The town asked questions about nearby hunting but failed to ask about 500 other more pertinent questions. No questions about cost overruns? No questions about attendance projections? No questions about specific financial details? How about operation costs? Spending to date? Lack of Vision Iowa funds? Funds already procured and in the bank? Siemens agreement? Other corporate lead promises? What about forecasting errors? What about the need for taxpayer funds being used for operations as well as construction? What about city/county requirements assuming the State offers nothing? How about any formal agreements between the casino and the rain forest? What about the match assuming Foundation contributions?

"If the project fails, who assumes the debt? Omen answered only about what would happen if there were assets left over after a project failure. Mr. Omen, who would be responsible for the remaining debt if there were not enough liquid assets to cover all of the debt? Will this project not be upside-down for at least a few decades? How often are there liquid assets left over after a total bankruptcy of a non-profit? Who would pay to relocate the monkeys? Who would be willing to pay for the lizard food? Seriously, what would it cost to dismantle and dispose of this project? How much in losses would have to be absorbed by the taxpayers before Omen would allow the project to die?

"This reminds me of any possible terminally ill elderly patient in our hospital’s ICU. The patient is 102 years old and just suffered a massive heart attack and a stroke leaving him on a vent, brain-dead, and unable to ever function again. No response to pain, no chance of recovery, and owning a hospital bill that goes up a thousand dollars every hour. The patient had been surrounded by 15 family members that said their goodbyes and have gone.

“'Doctor, why are we keeping this patient alive?' asks the nurse. 'Because WE CAN…'” responds Dr. Omen."

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Riverside: "Thanks But No Thanks"?

Gregg Hennigen has an Iowa Rain Forest story in this morning's (September 20) Gazette worthy of page one treatment. Why? It's "news." (Compare yesterday's, Nicholas Johnson, "Rain Forest's Big News: 'Nothing to Announce,'" September 19, 2006.)

Yesterday's story in the Press-Citizen repeated the rain forest's mischaracterization of "16 communities" having been involved in the "bidding process." (a) If there ever were anything like 16 communities the names of at least half of them were kept secret and never revealed by the rain forest's promoters. (b) The notion that there was a "bidding process" suggests that the project was evaluating the communities. In fact, just the opposite was taking place -- the communities were evaluating the project. (c) There have been very good reasons why, after that evaluation, all but two of the "sweet sixteen" have told the project's promoters: "Thanks, but no thanks."

Now it appears that the Riverside City Council may have the sense to do the same, making it 15.

See, Gregg Hennigan, "Riverside Unsure on Rain Forest; Will long-awaited answers erase unease about communication?" The Gazette, September 20, 2006.

For over a decade this project has been unfocused, unfunded, unsupported, and unresponsive. It has not banked a dime beyond founder Ted Townsend's original pledge for what its consultants say must be at least a $220 million project to attract enough tourists. Since then the proposal has been cut to $180 million, and now $155 million.

As State 29 put it a little more directly this morning regarding The Gazette's story,

"I don't think there could be any bigger litmus test for politicians than sticking the Earthpork project in front of them and seeing how they react. If you're for a project that has no financing other than tax dollars, has already angered officials other towns, and has wildly grand projections of attendance figures, you're a retard who should never be allowed to hold elected office ever again."

State 29 even offers all of us rain forest watchers the "Official Song for the Earthpork Project." Check it out at, State 29, "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before," September 20, 2006.

For the Internet's largest collection of links to the full text of 100s of articles, and over 125 single-spaced pages of analysis and commentary pro and con, see Nicholas Johnson's Iowa Rain Forest (Earthpark) Web site. For the best collection of biting humor about the project see Iowa Pork Forest. For a review of the project's "business plan," such as it is, see Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark Business Plan: A Review," August 12, 2006.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Rain Forest's Big News: "Nothing to Announce"

The Press-Citizen's page one, column one, top of the page -- apparently reserved for promotion of the Riverside Casino and Earthpark (see yesterday's Nicholas Johnson, "Media on Casino's Leno," September 18, 2006) -- this morning (September 19) contains the latest big announcement from the rain forest project (Earthpark -- or, as State29 spells it, "Earthpork").

[Revision: After posting this, discovered
State29 also commented on the Press-Citizen's story this morning; see, State 29, "Hook, Line, and Sucker," September 19, 2006.]

It would have to be a big announcement to receive such prominent placement, right?

And what is the big news, the story that's more important than anything else going on in the world, U.S., Iowa, or Iowa City?

It is that the project has nothing to announce.

Kathryn Fiegen, "Time ticks for site decision; Earthpark board to meet Sept. 28," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 19, 2006, p. 1A.

"Time ticks," indeed. It has been ticking for 10 years. And the elephant in this rain forest is that the project has banked not one dime during that time beyond the initial pledge of project founder Ted Townsend.

In fact, it's going backwards on fundraising. A year ago, in Coralville, it could claim $90 million toward its one-time $300 million project (subsequently reduced to $225 million, then $180, and now $155 million). When the petulance of the project's leadership led to a falling out with Coralville's leaders, and it left town, it also left the $50 million federal earmark behind.

A federal grant for a "rain forest in Coralville, Iowa" left Senator Grassley with the need to redefine "Coralville" as "an area of 56,000 square miles, formerly known as 'the State of Iowa.'" That permitted David Oman to drive up and down Interstate 80 looking for a site. But with that definition, to keep the project alive, went a condition that the $50 million from grateful taxpayers be matched with $50 million from private sources -- sources so far proving to be much less grateful.

The board's final site selection -- promised for January of 2006, then February, March, April, May, June, July, August, and now September -- will, presumably, occur someday and on that day be proclaimed to be "on schedule." But it strikes me a little misleading not to mention that history.

Even more misleading is the suggestion that it makes any difference whether the project's board picks a site or not.

It's like making a big deal out of which city a major U.S. airline is going to choose as the place where it will declare bankruptcy.

"Wouldn't it be nice if we had an indoor rain forest," some folks say. "Maybe," I reply. "And it would also be nice if I had a $1.5 million house." But since they don't have the money to build -- let alone operate -- their rain forest, and I don't have the money for even a down payment on my $1.5 million house, I don't think it really makes much difference -- and it's certainly not "news" worthy of page one -- where either of us would build if we did have the money.

There is something called "the big lie" technique. Repeat a falsehood enough times, over and over, and it morphs into truth.

(The U.S. WWII Office of Strategic Services Report described "the big lie technique" used by Hitler as follows: "people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it." "Big Lie," Wikipedia, OSS Report, p51.)

So it is with the media's repetition of the project's assertion -- without any effort to investigate the details -- that "Both [Riverside and Pella] have met or exceeded the $25 million requirement for state funding." It is repeated once again in this morning's Press-Citizen story. The numbers simply don't add up -- even if you treat "a million a year for ten years" as the equivalent of $10 million in the bank, today; even if you're willing to consider "debt" the equivalent of private matching contributions; etc. (For repeated and detailed evaluations of the numbers over the years, see the material linked from and contained within my Iowa Child/Environmental Project/Earthpark/Iowa Rain Forest Web site.)

The story also continues the media's habit of repeating any assertion from the rain forest's promoters -- assertions that are obviously nothing more than hopes based on best case scenarios -- as if they were facts. And so this story concludes with:

"In addition to the $25 million in local funding, the project would be supported by a $50 million Department of Energy grant secured by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, $15 million to $20 million in state funding and the rest from debt financing. The park is expected to open during the 2009-2010 school year." (emphasis supplied)

Go through those two sentences word at a time. There is no $25 million in local funding. There is no $50 million "grant" -- it must be matched, and there is currently no basis for thinking it can be. The notion that there will be $15-$20 million in state funding has been ridiculed. (See yesterday's update to the rain forest Web site, linked above.) As for "debt financing," where is it written that debt will satisfy the terms of the matching grant? If (big if) they can get $25 million in local money, and if they can borrow $25 million (and that's ruled to be within the conditions of the matching grant), that will give them $100 million ($25 million plus $25 million triggers the additional $50 million) -- leaving an awful lot of "the rest" to be covered with "debt financing." Even if a $155 million project is big enough to draw visitors (and the project's own consultants say it's not), that would mean $80 million in debt ($55 million plus $25 million) -- for a project that has little prospect of ever being able to sustain itself. Who's going to loan them that money?

(As for self-sustaining, as
State29 has noted, "It's a floor wax, it's a desert topping, it's whatever they want it to be." Over the years it's been promoted as a K-5 school, teacher training facility, world class research lab, aquarium, tourist attraction, etc. At some point they're going to have to decide what's going to happen inside this structure. But there's no more reason to believe it could sustain itself with research grants or funding from Iowa's school districts than it could from tourists' dollars.)

And "expected to open"? Ah, but by now presumably you get the point.

Aside from all this, it was a really exciting bit of news this morning.

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