Government: Bane or Remedy?

By Blaine Davis, Contributing Editor

Having spent the last month or so locked behind the “ranch gate” as with majority of the country and for that matter the world, I have discovered a new “normal” with hope it’s only temporary. The COVID-19 pandemic it seems has brought everything to a near standstill and uncertainty abounds. With government mandates banning large gatherings, my usual entertainment of basketball and baseball games, not just college and professional-type, but pee-wee leagues for my grandsons have been forsaken. Auto racing, live concerts, movies, rodeo and stock shows and even the Kentucky Derby have been curtailed. With these “non-event” scenarios and considerable time on my hands, I have devoured close to a dozen books, ranging from a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, to a couple Tom Clancys and a few other novels, to an illustrated history of the Old South through our Civil War. I’m presently in the midst of Civilization, the West and the Rest by one of Britain’s most renown historians, Niall Ferguson.

Throughout my architecture career I have been known to carp about governmental meddling or overreach, specifically in planning, zoning and inspections of many of my projects. Recently, it seems if the bureaucracy has become a bane to my fulfillment of my clients’ needs. The review processes take weeks to more than a month, consequently raising associated building costs and impacting deadlines.

In reading Paul Hendrickson’s biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, I can commiserate with what most of my peers consider America’s greatest architect and his attempts to acquire his building permits. Late in his career, Wright was awarded the commission for New York City’s Guggenheim Museum in 1943, but it wasn’t completed until 1959, six months after his death at age 91. Much of these 16 years was mired in planning, zoning and permit issues, with even the New York Building Commission denying a permit for 32 alleged building code violations in 1952.

After this, Robert Moses, head of the city and state park systems, a city construction coordinator, a member of the city planning commission and arguably the most powerful man in all of New York said, “Damn it, get a permit for Frank. I don’t care how many laws you have to break.”

Incidentally, Moses was distantly related to Wright by marriage, but this permit still took another four years to obtain with a legendary phone call by Moses to a department commissioner

“I will have a building permit on my desk by 8 a.m. tomorrow or there will be a new building commissioner,” Moses threatened.

Not having a distant relative of influence say, “Damn it, get a permit for Blaine,” I will just carry on and probably carp some more.

Several years ago, one of my staff sat on our local planning commission and, having a light schedule, returned rather early to the office with a query for me, as an architect. It seems they had brainstormed an idea of mandating  future land developments to donate a portion of their tract to the municipality for public use, such as parks and recreation. First as a design professional, I would welcome the aesthetic values that would offer, and basing my practice in a municipality named Garden City, who could argue? Thinking pragmatically though, construction budgets and affordable housing are difficult enough without the developers increasing the cost of their remaining lots as the municipality carves out a couple slices of the pie for their use.

As a taxpayer, this scheme can be likened to pork barrel projects like the proverbial “bridge to nowhere” or simply government overreach. With this supposed free land comes unending costs, such as development of a park or ball field and its requisite sod, landscaping and the irrigation to sustain it. With that now established, they need to hire maintenance personnel, with accompanying health insurance, retirement and other benefits, and next a pickup truck or two for their transportation and, often portrayed, a place for a nap. Next they need lawn mowers, shrub and tree trimmers, leaf blowers and a variety of other landscaping tools – more than can fit in the truck – so a dual-axle trailer is on order. Not to mention, there are the annual fertilizer and chemical treatments. Obviously, my report to my staffer was to return to the next planning commission meeting and concentrate on their job of reviewing private-enterprise projects on their individual merit and not what can be extracted from these developers for supposed governmental gain.

Playing with the numbers

Between several of my tomes, I did allot a portion of my time for the latest news, almost exclusively driven by the coronavirus. I must admit, as each day passed my allotment became less and less, as the media added their slant and bias against the government, primarily the White House, to each report. Not being an epidemiologist or knowing no more than, “take two aspirins and call me in the morning,” I questioned their protocols and the math behind it.

Early in this outbreak, a supposed scientific model was forecasting two million deaths in Great Britain alone. Even as our White House grappled with this on a daily basis, some of these same modelers questioned the numbers at the White House briefings, even though they themselves provided them. Yesterday, as Tammy and I escaped our “ranch” for a short automobile ride, the radio expounded another scientist stating that, before the virus subsides, 60 to 70 percent of America will have contracted it.

Again, I question the math. With a population of 328 million, that prediction means 197 to 229 million people will be infected. Even if this pandemic would approach these astronomical numbers, what other scientific fields of study have a margin of error of 32 million?

I agree with a recent statement by USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue: “We’ve never seen anything like this at all.” But I do see some parallels to the supposed man-made climate change Just last night, in reading 2011’s Civilization, the West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson wrote, “We live in fear of pandemics and man-made changes to global climate.”

Prior to the pandemic and its associated paranoia, the American economy was thriving, with unemployment numbers across all demographic groups being the lowest in decades, and jobs returning back home from foreign lands. Much of this I believe can be contributed to the federal government stepping aside and providing fewer restrictions, tax cuts and more encouragement to the point I was looking down the “retirement tunnel” and seeing a bright light.

Within the last six weeks, the Dow Jones average fell 30 percent from a high over 30,000 points. My light has grown dim with my market portfolio falling in a corresponding fashion. On the farm, commodities were feeling the same as corn prices had fallen to the $3 per bushel range. Fortunately, I did contract some of my projected 2020 crop at slightly more than $4, but, unfortunately, I should have done more.

With the travel bans and “cowering in place” orders, the oil industry has maybe been hit the hardest – at one point crude oil traded in negative numbers. Limiting air travel and our individual freedom of getting behind the wheel of our iron steeds has gravely reduced demand and, consequently, ethanol production fell 38 percent from February to April. My corn crop marketing takes yet another hit as distillers react by slowing or even closing plants.

Recognizing the millions now unemployed and the shuttering of many businesses, the federal government has enacted some relief or stimulus packages, including $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and ranchers. While being welcomed by those in dire needs, I question, “Is this a remedy or just a stop-gap measure, and where does this money originate? Is it more taxes in the future or do they add another shift to print additional dollars?”

I trust the answer to this being the government, as in the past three years, stepping aside to allow the American entrepreneurial spirit and the fortitude of its people to get things done in a safe manner. Just maybe I can again witness my grandsons’ ball games.