Losing Democracy?

What most people in the United States accept without thinking about it too much is that American democracy – or our representative democratic republic, if one wants to be technical about it – rests largely on voluntary compliance with the laws of the land.  We also have a Congress designed to update and make new laws as necessary, and an elaborate judicial system designed to interpret those laws under the guidelines laid out by the Constitution.

The situation that developed in Bunkerville, Nevada, between rancher Cliven Bundy and the BLM is an example of what can happen when people adopt a view of what laws apply to them and what do not, and defend their position with force.  There is absolutely no doubt that Bundy is a fairly big-time law-breaker.  He is grazing his cattle on federal lands without permission;  he has not paid grazing fees for over fifteen years; he owes the federal government over a million dollars; and he and the other ranchers and close to a thousand hangers-on with fairly heavy weapons gathered to oppose the BLM round-up of the offending cattle. Fearing bloodshed, the BLM backed down, at least for the moment.  Bundy justifies this on the grounds that his family has grazed on the lands since the 1870s and that he therefore has a “right” to those lands.  Unfortunately, according to news reports, some local officials are sympathetic.

I’m not sympathetic to Bundy’s views.  I’m outraged, and anyone who understands American democracy and values it should be equally so.  Why?

First, Bundy’s claims aren’t even good law.  Second, allowing the force of arms to flout two fundamental bases of the American system sets an example that could more easily than many understand lead to an even greater breakdown of law and order…or equally unpleasant, an even greater establishment of preferential law enforcement based on the power of arms and money. As for the legal “issues,” those are basic.  According to the treaty of Guadalupe Hildago in 1848 that ended the Mexican War, all of the states of Utah and Nevada became U.S. territory, and any lands owned by Mexican citizens remained theirs and all others belonged to the federal government.  Since Bundy’s ancestors weren’t there at that time, and the only inhabitants were native Americans, either the lands belonged to the federal government or to the local inhabitants.  If Bundy is claiming that land rights belong to who was there first, then the lands rightfully belong to the native Americans.  Otherwise, legally, they’re federal lands.

The more troubling issue is the use of “second amendment rights” to flout federal law on federal lands. If the government used force to arrest Bundy and seize his cattle, it would have resulted in bloodshed and outrage on the part of the ranchers, which would, in turn, have justified in their minds the need for arms and protection against the government for taking away “their rights.”  But, by backing off, the BLM reinforced the idea that the government defers to power of some sort, especially if one considers the economic meltdown of 2008, where hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes, their jobs, and often everything… and where not a single bank or mortgage company has ever been indicted for fraudulent loans, and where financial executives are once again getting enormous bonuses. We have the highest rate of imprisoning people in the industrialized world, and possibly in the entire world, and most of them are people without power. More and more government is portrayed as the enemy. As an illustration, one right-wing Washington, D.C., newspaper put it this way, “the elites in D.C. aren’t happy about the drubbing that they took at the hands of a citizen’s movement in Nevada… Their protest sent a message to anyone with a beef against Washington that if you stick to your guns, you can win.”

Exactly how long before voluntary compliance with law and ethics erodes even further? Especially with about one quarter of the population stockpiling weapons, and with continuing dissatisfaction, and with more and more examples of corporations and others with power either avoiding the law or paying it off?

And how long can one keep a democracy when it’s clearer and clearer that power trumps ethics and law – apparently always?  And even if the BLM does punish Bundy, how many people will just see it as a case where justice is only enforced against those without the power to oppose it?

Book/Author Buzz

Over just the past few years, I’ve gotten the general impression that the reading public’s attention span in dealing with new books has shortened, but that impression was gained mainly from my observation of other authors’ book sales from the outside and what I observed in far more detail from everything surrounding my own books, i.e., the sales patterns, the reviews, the blogs, internet commentary, letters, etc. What I observed in my own case was that, besides changes in overall sales figures, the initial sales “bump” and associated “buzz” have been compressed into shorter and shorter periods after, first, the initial hardcover release, and then again, at the time when the mass market paperback sale, and lower ebook price, occurred. Because we all have the tendency to generalize based on our own experience, my first thought was that, because I’m an older author, this just might be particular to me… and possibly to other authors with a similar career profile.

So I started looking for other figures that might confirm or refute my impression. A quick look at The New York Times listing of books remaining on the fiction bestseller list for extended periods showed that the number of books with long runs on the bestseller list had a pattern – of sorts. That is, there were about the same number of books with a long time on the list in the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1990s and 2000s, but not in the 1970s or 1980s… or since 2010. Looking deeper into the lists, I discovered something else. While there still remain a few “mega-seller” books every year that stay on the lists for months, sometimes, years, as in the case of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, the percentage of fiction bestsellers with moderate runs, say more than five weeks on the list, shifted fairly significant in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so that a far larger percentage of best-sellers are “one and dones,” if you will, or perhaps hold on for two weeks. Speaking frankly, that’s certainly been the case for my books. My only multiple-week best-seller was in the 1990s, although, in hardcover sales numbers, my biggest bestsellers have been after that shift, several even after 2010.

At least in a general sense, those figures tend to confirm that “peak sales” are being squeezed into a shorter and shorter period for all but literally a handful of mega-authors. While a short sales period has been the norm for first-published authors as long as I’ve been writing, the shortened prime sales period for all but the mega-authors appears to be a comparatively recent development. Whether that causes a shorter period of heightened “buzz” about an author, or whether those who create the buzz are only interested when a new book comes out… or a combination of both, I couldn’t determine in any factual sense, not unless I wanted to invest months in market research and analysis… and I left that career behind a long time ago.

At the same time, it’s a mixed blessing to learn that my perceptions based on my own situation weren’t totally off base, because it shows on the one hand that I wasn’t too self-deluded, but on the other it does indicate a much shorter attention span on the part of readers in dealing with new books and authors, and I can’t help but think that hurts not only up-and-coming writers whose work is good and solid, even outstanding, but not flashy, but also mid-list authors who don’t get the media and internet buzz for as long a period as before… and this has to impact their sales to some degree.


P.S.  Interesting enough, just after I posted this, I read an entry on Tor.com [ Under the Radar: Mid-Series from the Mid List ] that has a related theme.


Why do civilizations or nations fall?  There are many specific reasons, but, in the end, they all boil down to one point – the inability or unwillingness of the majority of inhabitants to pay the price necessary to sustain that civilization or nation.

Sometimes, that inability is largely the result of factors beyond the control of the inhabitants. One can certainly argue that the fall of Angkor Wat, the Pre-Columbian Mayan civilizations, Mohenjo-daro, and the Anasazi cultures of the American Southwest were all due to massive changes in rainfall patterns than rendered physically impossible the continuation of those civilizations as they were then constituted.  That does not mean the inability to live in those areas, but the inability of that “civilization” to survive under those conditions.  A good example of that is the collapse of the Norse settlements in Greenland.  At the same time the Norse were dying off or leaving the Inuit were successfully moving in and thriving.

The classical Greek culture never reached the heights, at least comparatively, of the Periclean era for one simple reason.  The Greeks would never pay the price of political unity, or accept the need for a core of shared values.  This is borne out by the fact that until the modern era, and even perhaps now, Greece has never been united except by an outside conqueror – Philip and Alexander, the Romans, the Ottoman Empire. It wasn’t that the Greeks didn’t lack talent or ability, but they couldn’t harness either in a shared fashion.  Ironically, a huge factor in the success of the Roman Empire was the use of those brilliant Greeks.

 So why aren’t people willing to support their nation and civilization?  Because no one really values civilization per se.  We all want what we want, and so long as our nation/civilization gives us what satisfies our needs, we’ll support it.  When it doesn’t satisfy the needs of a significant majority, however… that’s where the trouble begins.  I’m seeing signs of this all across the United States, and the “range war” problem in Utah and Nevada is symptomatic of what is occurring. 

The ranchers of the southwest want to hold on to their way of life, a way of life that extends back some four generations. But that way of life was developed in the 1880s at a time when there were fewer demands on the land and greater levels of rainfall. As average rainfall has decreased, overgrazing became more common.  The federal government attempted to manage the land by reducing grazing allotments, and, frankly, little else.  The ranchers haven’t seen much active management by the BLM, but they have seen the government reduce their grazing rights in favor of protecting wild horses and the desert tortoise.  On the other hand, as I noted earlier, federal grazing fees are far lower than the fees on privately owned land.  The BLM has not lived up to its own plans in managing wild horses, and that upsets the ranchers because they believe that threatens their way of life.  The environmentalists believe that excessive grazing is destroying the environment, and that will eventually harm everyone. In Iron County, the BLM currently permits grazing rights for 21,000 cattle animal unit months [AUM], and one AUM refers to a cow and a calf.  But… there are currently slightly more than 2,000 feral/wild horses on federal and private lands in Iron County, 1,700 more than allowed under the wild horse protection laws, and the range won’t support both.  Nor does the $1.35 BLM charges the ranchers cover the management costs for just the wild horses.  But the political power of the ranch and farm lobby keeps the fees low, and from what I’ve seen, if the fees were higher, I suspect that the revenues would be diverted for more “urgent” federal programs.  So we have a threatened way of life, a threatened environment… and the majority of Americans are clearly not wanting to pay more for either… and particularly not to support ranchers who are in fact being subsidized by the government.  The ranchers don’t see it that way.  Believe me, they don’t!  That’s why almost a thousand of them turned up in Nevada last weekend, many of them armed, and why the BLM backed down and released the cattle they’d impounded because Cliven Bundy hadn’t paid over a million dollars in grazing fees.

If this were just the case here, it wouldn’t be so bad, but various types of protests are occurring across the United States because people aren’t getting what they want.  Many women are angry because Congress won’t support legislation that would make it easier for them to get equal pay.  Same sex couples want the same “marriage” rights as heterosexual couples;  religious groups see their “rights” and way of life being threatened and want those rights put into law, even if that disadvantages others who don’t share their beliefs.  Businesses want the right to maximize profits, even when that profit maximization denies workers affordable health care.  Workers want affordable health care even if that means their employer is less profitable… and may even close.

And… the thing is, that even though we have as far higher standard of living than two centuries ago, our wants have increased far more than the standard of living.  Yet, when enough of those wants aren’t satisfied, then we’ll end up losing our civilization because, collectively, we won’t pay enough to maintain it.

Crisis/Short-Term Funding

We’ve all seen it, over and over.  A bridge collapses, usually over a river.  Or here in Iron County, a landslide closes a state highway, and it takes eight months moving a huge chunk of  mountainside to repair the damage and re-open the road. All across the country, we have infrastructure teetering on the edge of collapse, with the potential to kill people and cause millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars in damage in each case. But nothing gets done until there’s a crisis, and then what’s done is often only the cheapest acceptable fix.

In the case of the landslide here, the eight-month closure was the third that has closed the highway in the twenty years we’ve lived here.  Independent engineers who’ve studied the road suggest that it should have been built on the other side of the canyon where the rock and ground are more stable.  They even suggested it after the last eight month closure and repair that added more than a 100 mile detour to the commutes, delivery routes, and local cargo haulage trips of local residents, businesses, and tourists.  The state highway department turned that proposal down, claiming it was too expensive.  Yet, if the highway had been built where the better engineers suggested, that section wouldn’t have to be rebuilt every five to ten years, and the overall cost to taxpayers would be less, not to mention the possibility of reducing fatalities.

Yet pretty much everywhere in the United States, and likely elsewhere in the world, since I doubt human nature changes that much once one crosses borders – with a few possible exceptions – the same sort of deferred maintenance or “do it cheap now” attitude prevails with regard to the basic structures of society, despite the fact that spending a few more dollars now would save more dollars and lives later.

Why?  Because there seems to be an attitude that keeping taxes as low as possible is prudent.  It’s not.  Keeping taxes as low as possible when calculating costs and expenditures over a twenty or thirty year period is prudent, but keeping them as low as possible every year and deferring every possible maintenance or construction project until something has to be done only results in higher taxes… and higher costs on the community.

There’s an old saying that expresses the point succinctly – “penny wise and pound foolish” – but sayings like that are somehow out of date, which is ironic since it’s usually the Republicans who are looking to cut government spending, even while they keep saying the support traditional values.


The BLM Grazing Mess

This past week, what amounted to a small scale range war erupted just across the Utah border in Nevada, and in a spirit of misguided “idealism,” compounded by greed and ignorance, Iron County [Utah] officials weighed in on the side of a long-time law-breaking rancher.  Now… that’s not the way the local media put it, but so far as I can determine, here are the facts.

A Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy has been grazing over 500 head of cattle on BLM land for over 25 years without paying federal grazing fees, ever since the BLM decreased the number of cattle permitted on the federal lands that the Bundy family had used for roughly a century.  Despite previously paying grazing fees, Bundy has claimed that he and his family own the lands through their “beneficial use.”  After twenty years of contention and two recent court decisions denying Bundy’s claims, the BLM began removing Bundy’s cows this past week.  Fearing violence, BLM issued an order banning the Bundy-family from the federal lands where the cows were being removed and deployed heavily-armed agents to protect the federal-hired wranglers who were removing the livestock.  The Bundy family ignored the order and attempted to videotape the removal.  When they were ordered to leave, one family member refused and offered physical resistance.  He was arrested, and the round-up proceeded.

To make matters worse, the Iron County sheriff and the Iron County Commissioners, citing the Bundy case as another example of BLM trampling over local ranchers in favor of wildlife, offered an ultimatum to BLM, claiming that BLM’s failure to round up excessive numbers of wild horses on BLM lands was jeopardizing the health of the land and thus penalizing local ranchers, whose access to and leasing of federal lands was limited because of the poor state of those lands caused by too many feral horses.  The Iron County officials threatened to round up the horses themselves if BLM failed to come up with an immediate plan.  Late last week, BLM agreed to develop such a plan, after previously saying that it didn’t have the funds necessary for such a round-up.  Yesterday, both Iron County and Beaver County began moving feral horses off private property, claiming that, if the horses weren’t removed immediately, they would “destroy”the range in the next three weeks.

This is not a case of right versus wrong; it’s a case where everyone is wrong, and it’s a mess.

Under federal law, the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] can lease grazing rights to BLM lands in eleven western states, under a formula set by Congress, and last revised in law in 1978.

This past February, BLM set the rate at $1.35 per animal unit per month [AUM], the same rate that has been the case for the past eight years.  An animal unit means either one cow and her calf, one horse, or five goats or sheep.

This rate isn’t a bargain; it’s an absolute steal.  To begin with, according to the General Accounting Office of the federal government, grazing fees amount to less than one-sixth the cost the federal government spends maintaining those lands.  In addition, a 2005 GAO study found private, state, and federal grazing fees running anywhere between $20 and $150 per AUM, with rancher-friendly Texas charging that higher fee for some of its state lands.  According to a Congressional Research Service Report, “The average monthly lease rate for grazing on private lands in 11 western states in 2011 was $16.80 per head.”

In the Bundy case, the family hasn’t paid any fees in over twenty years – and feels that they’re the victims.  What’s more disturbing is that the Bundys report they’ve received letters of support from thousands of people across the west.

The BLM is far from blameless. According to BLM figures, the BLM lands in Iron County should only have 300 wild horses, but BLM estimates there are over 1,200, and BLM has cut grazing allotments to ranchers, claiming that the funding Congress has allowed for dealing with wild horses is inadequate – and it likely is, given that $70 million was appropriated last year for wild horse management, compared to the nearly $1 billion spent on livestock management on federal lands. How could they let these situations go on for over twenty years?  And why has BLM set the grazing fee so low at a time when the government is running massive deficits? And how could they let the wild horse situation get so bad that there are hundreds of horses on the verge of starvation and that certain lands have been badly overgrazed to the point of becoming true deserts?   As for the local ranchers, I find it hard to believe that, first the range could be totally destroyed in three weeks, but if it could be, exactly how long will it take their cows to do the same thing and why didn’t they make such a claim before things got so bad?

And finally, why are all those ranchers so indignant about federal overspending and big government – when they’re right up there with all the welfare cheats, getting huge subsidies at the expense of everyone else?