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COVID 19: Nationwide Cohesion Needed

In the book, The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James, the book’s Zen Master, George Pocock, gave Joe Rantz these words of advice: Once you row past the pain, the exhaustion, the voice that said it can’t be done, then strive to work in harmony with the others in the boat, trust the others in the boat, and when you do, “you will feel as if you rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.” With Joe and seven other depression-era working class boys rowing in perfect sync, Joe’s team stole the 1936 Olympic Gold from Nazi Germany.

Now imagine fifty very different rowers that have to row in perfect unison. Only the race isn’t for gold. It is for lives. Millions of lives.

Today, states and counties in the US have a myriad of different COVID 19-related county declarations and policies. They vary dramatically, even across neighboring states. This is a big problem, with life and death consequences. Counties need stronger state leadership, and states must cooperate at unprecedented levels.

All fifty states have declared states of emergency. But even under these declarations, counties pursue their own policies. And their public health offices or local governments often have to seek approval from the state health officer or the governor’s office before implementing stricter closures than those imposed by the state.

Counties throughout our nation have often been out in front of their states in implementing COVID 19-related closures and limits on public gatherings. Teton County, Wyoming, gateway to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks and home to three ski areas including the popular Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, recognized the threat that remaining open for businesses would pose to a small, rural health care system. Local leaders and health officials knew the resorts, restaurants, bars and shops—all incredibly reliant on tourist—had to close. Supported by the local town and county governments, the Teton District Health Officer had to craft his own resolution and request approval from the State Health Officer in order to implement it. Shortly thereafter, the Governor announced state-wide closures.

However, at the time of writing, just over the border, Idaho merely recommends that “organizers (whether groups or individuals) postpone or cancel mass gatherings and public events” with over fifty people or more. That despite the fact that as many as 10,000 residents of eastern Idaho commute daily back and forth across the state line. Teton County, Idaho later implemented closures similar to those in Teton County, Wyoming. But elsewhere in Idaho, closures and restrictions vary widely, from the minimum required by the state to shelter-in-place restrictions in Blaine County—home to Sun Valley Ski Resort and the hardest hit county in Idaho—to bans on visitors entering from regions “that have sustained widespread community transmission” in Custer County.

Similar patterns of disparate county-level restrictions exist across the nation. In much of Kansas restaurants and bars remain open. In New York, Illinois and California the hardest hit counties have implemented shelter-in-place policies. While hard-hit Washington state has not gone that far.

A lack of a coordinated response will likely result in nationwide infection rates almost uniformly above 75%, with catastrophic implications for local health care systems. If one state closes all non-essential businesses, people can simply go to the next state to do their business or recreate. Crowded public gatherings in bars, restaurants and other public venues combined with unchecked travel by virus carriers with mild or no symptoms will drive exponential growth in transmission. In this same light, non-essential domestic air-travel has not been prohibited. How can local leaders seek to protect their communities and states when airplanes continue to traverse the nation, providing perfect vectors of disease transmission?

Unless every state and county puts in place strict measures to close public gatherings and limit travel, we are not going to flatten the curve, and health care systems across our country will be overwhelmed.

The ethos of the United States is firmly rooted in individual rights and freedoms, so the only way we can really change the trajectory of our current patch-work set of controls is for all states to work together. This can be done through groups like the Western Governors Association, where currently there is a list of initiatives to tackle regional issues such as stemming the spread of invasive species, but where there’s no indication of any form of coordination around preventing the spread of COVID 19. Region-wide efforts could quickly be amended and adapted to match those of neighboring regions, especially with leadership and guidance at the federal level, thereby creating a cohesive national strategy. This is essential.

To forge a gold-medal team, Pocock told Joe to “think of a well-rowed race as a symphony, and himself as just one player in the orchestra. If one fellow in an orchestra was playing out of tune, or playing at a different tempo, the whole piece would naturally be ruined.” Our nation’s states and counties need to pull together now if we are to avoid the worst-case scenario.

We cannot delay.

Why Trump Is Winning Rural America

Addressing a room full of Wyoming county commissioners in mid-February, Wyoming Governor Gordon said something to the effect of, “If you want Wyoming to continue having a seat at the table, a true voice at the highest level, vote for Trump.” He went on to describe how the Trump Administration has given unprecedented voice to Wyoming, from the Governor’s administration down to town and county officials, insisting that he’s never seen anything like it before. He added, “I’m not trying to be political.” To which a Democrat sitting next to me responded, “That’s not being political!?”

But that’s exactly the point: to many citizens of Wyoming, that’s just straight talk reflecting a refreshing change in attitude and attention to rural people and places adopted by the Trump Administration. Governor Gordon is practical, as are people across Wyoming and other states throughout the West and Midwest. And the fact is, Wyoming citizens, for better (in the eyes of the vast majority of voters in Wyoming) or worse (in the eyes of environmental-minded people around the nation), now have more of a say over federal policies that impact their private property, their job prospects (largely in the energy industry), and over environmental rules (that in their eyes often look like handcuffs) than they’ve had in recent memory.

I’m a Democratic county commissioner in Wyoming, and here is what I see.

The Trump Administration gives rural counties unprecedented personal attention. At the first Western Interstate Region (WIR) county commissioner conference that I attended after President Trump’s election, an official with the USDA came up to me, asked which county I was from and said, “I’ve been hoping to meet with you.” Shortly thereafter he gave me information on available funding for rural sewer and water projects, broadband expansion, wildfire mitigation programs, and economic development efforts, along with information on how to apply. Handing me his card he said, “Call me if you have questions.” Nothing like that happened at any of the prior conferences I’d attended, and there has been follow up, including the FCC Chairman visiting to check on the results of a grant to expand broadband within the Wind River Indian Reservation and to remote Wyoming ranches.

Trump’s staff conducts regular outreach and communication to Wyoming counties. At least once a month we receive emails from the Department of Interior (DOI) with news about initiatives responsive to rural concerns, such as repealing the 2015 Rule Defining “Waters of the United States.” Updates include a list of DOI efforts, accomplishments and “DOI-in-the-news” headlines such as “Cattlemen applaud Trump’s regulatory relief,” “Bernhardt Meets in Montana about Grizzly Delisting Decision” and “Melania to visit Wyoming National Parks.” This never happened during the Obama years.

At the annual legislative conference for the National Association County officers (NACo) in Washington DC, the theme was the same. Commissioners from around the nation are regularly invited to the White House and to occasions such as State Leadership Days, where Secretary Bernhardt and other senior administration officials meet with local officials. We also receive numerous invitations from this Administration to participate in discussions about federal programs and initiatives to deal with invasive species, expand broadband, and learn about available grant funding and rural economic development programs. This never happened under President Obama.

County commissioners have had a seat at the table as the Trump Administration has rolled back, amended or sought to amend major environmental federal legislation like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), rules such as the BLM Planning 2.0 Rule, and definitions such as the 2015 Waters of the US Act (WOTUS) – all issues with broad implications for how public and private land is managed throughout the West. When President Trump signed the bill repealing the BLM 2.0 Planning Rule, he invited a Wyoming commissioner to the ceremony, who gave the President his favorite cowboy hat in gratitude.

Wyoming is receiving this attention even though we’re hardly a swing state: President Trump’s net approval in Wyoming is the highest out of any state in the country. From the perspective of Governor Gordon, this expanded outreach happened when Trump came into office, and if he goes, Wyoming’s seat at the table goes. If Trump were a Democrat and taking action on issues from Grizzly delisting to streamlining NEPA to amending the Endangered Species Act, Governor Gordon would likely say the same thing. But Trump’s not a Democrat. And Democrat’s don’t seem to be paying much attention to rural counties, citizens and voters – this is going to be a problem for them.

Democratic presidential hopefuls simply aren’t reaching people in counties throughout the West, hearing our concerns or even speaking our language. Healthcare is a big issue everywhere, but the visceral appeal to voters of a presidential administration that places private property rights over common resource protections and focuses on the siren-call of well-paying mining jobs will always win the day, especially in areas of the country hit hardest by the decline in manufacturing and coal. Here in Wyoming, as in many other similar places, private property rights, decent-paying jobs (and yes, second amendment rights and “religious freedom”) outweigh hand-waving promises by Democratic candidates offering “socialized” healthcare, green new deals and $15 per hour minimum wages. After all, it’s the lost $80 per hour mining wage that actually matters to many in my state, while wonky distinctions between liberal, neoliberal, socialist and democratic socialist simply aren’t part of the vocabulary.

I won’t pretend to understand the nuances of electoral math, but 2016 should have made it obvious that if a presidential candidate can’t win a significant chunk of rural American, it is going to be very hard to win the White House. The Trump Administration’s outreach efforts are calculated and strategic. They play a big role in local lawmakers’ devotion to the President and will likely swing key states to Trump. The eventual Democratic nominee for President should take heed.

Dear Ms/Mr Economist: Explain This….

Finger tips crimping millimeter wide ledges, toes balancing on nubbins, a man on a vertical rock wall more than 3,000 feet high swings his left foot up and out smearing it against a vertical edge, reaches palm up with his left hand to grip a downward pointing flake of rock, and in a move requiring precisely apportioned oppositional forces presses with the foot, pulls with the hand, and repositions his other hand on another small edge and the other foot on another sloping nubbin in order to reach up again with his left hand to grab a slightly larger and more secure edge to continue his upward progress. If the karate-kick like move had failed, if his foot had slipped or if his hand had missed the exact spot that maximized oppositional force, he would have fallen over 2,000 feet to his death.  It’s a scene from the Oscar award winning documentary Free Solo of Alex Honnold accomplishing an unprecedented free-solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, and even for experienced rock climbers, watching him move through that section of a 3,000 foot climb, with no ropes or safety equipment, is nauseating.

The scene also captures the essence of death-defying pursuits that humans engage in, often for little or no monetary or material reward, pursuits that are ostensibly contrary to our normal survival instincts or even flat-out irrational. They include but are not limited to free-solo rock climbing, base jumping, paragliding, big-wave surfing, alpine mountaineering, and ski mountaineering (a form of backcountry skiing on high, steep, exposed alpine peaks where one slip or one small snow avalanche can be fatal).

So where does economics come in on explaining this kind of human behavior, a behavior that can’t be measured by things like wages and income? Apparently nowhere. A quick on-line search brings up much on the economic impacts of these sports. But nothing comes up about how or why humans do these things. For climbing, John Cochrane on his blog The Grumpy Economist noted Alex’s accomplishment but only in that it got him “thinking about economic growth,” not about why in the world anyone would want to do that in the first place. And he certainly passed on trying to answer the deeper question yet of why anyone would want to commit their life or their prime working years to an activity that might prove fatal on any given day. These sports demand immense commitment. You must train fiendishly and basically live, eat, sleep and breath the activity, forsaking material goods and often relationships. And, all too often die doing so.

Writers have explored these sports and the people who pursue them, as in this Outside article by Nick Heil about the tragic death of three exceptionally accomplished climbers, noting, “How close one needed to stand—or fly, or ski, or surf—to their own mortality was, to me, a question of infinite fascination with no correct answer.” Filmmakers have included these activities in films with some success, including The Eiger Sanction, and most recently the Oscar Award winning Free Solo.

Despite this constant (though arguably sideline) presence in modern culture economists have avoided examining the motivations behind the pursuit of these activities. Yet if economists purport to model human behavior based on how we respond to incentives and based on rational thinking (ala the rational choice model) and the pursuit of self-interest, how do they explain the pursuit of these activities? Doesn’t it seem like we’re missing a huge opportunity to examine motivations around risk taking that might be pervasive throughout other fields such as finance and health with far-reaching influence on economies? Is it possible that strands of the underlying motivations behind these pursuits are woven throughout all human behavior? Is there a little bit of climber, skier, surfer and base jumper in each of us? And if so, might that lead to more frequent so-called black-swan outcomes than models might predict?

As Earnest Hemingway put it, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” Mountaineering, climbing and other pursuits where the probability of a bad outcome incorporates forces of nature and the consequences routinely involve death are not games. They are passions. Why haven’t we examined from whence these passions arise? Or examined the capacity for otherwise rational human beings to contain them?

Maybe economists should climb a mountain, a big mountain. Maybe they should surf a point break, kayak a whitewater river, ski the uncontrolled backcountry. Because it appears they’re missing something, something at first blush not rooted in rationality, something ineffable, something spiritual. Yet something intensely human just the same.

p.s.: Hint—possibly because….for some their time in the mountains—on a rock face, a knife edge ridge, a ledge, an airy bivouac, fingers on a dime edge, toes on sloping nubbin, space below, sky and wind above—is where there’s clarity, purity…of thought, of air, of life. Or death. Make the next move, the next step the next turn. It’s simple up there. It might be scary, but not scary like life in the world down below: where do I go next, why, people really care about this [car, house, nice pair of jeans, fancy meal]…..this…..shit….?. It might seem unpredictable up there, but not the human kind of unpredictability: who’s against me; what’s the meaning of that look, that sentence; did I just say the right thing or the wrong thing; who’s that, what do they want and why; why are they laughing. It’s simple up there. Your head is clear. There’s one task: don’t fall. It’s a combination of mental and physical awareness that can never be achieved anywhere else. There are no drugs, no artificial stimulants, no depressants. There’s no hang-over. You sleep well, exhausted, cocooned, below a universe of stars. And sometimes….sometimes you just don’t want to come back down……

Stay Wild? We’ll See…

The peaks—cathedral spires rising from the flat valley bottom. The river—intertwined trout-filled channels; the sage-brush flats spotted with free-roaming antelope and bison; the misty pre-dawn meadows shadowed with silhouettes of bull elk; the willow marshes screening hulking bull moose. The small-town charm; the unparalleled mountain resorts; the visual and performing arts that are as creative as this place is wild. The Travel and Tourism Board (TTB) has woven a spectacular narrative, the Stay Wild campaign, a narrative that borders on myth.

Or maybe is myth?

Marketing? Myth? Both? Myth: landscapes, heroes, creatures, feats and deeds bigger than life—cultural ideals. Myths are memorable, evocative, durable and believable. But only if rooted in fact. And what are the facts behind staying wild?

Teton County and the Town of Jackson, through citizen input, crafted and implemented the Jackson | Teton County Comprehensive Plan as the over-arching policy statement guiding growth, development and land use. At its core the Plan strives to protect the highest priority community values (a healthy ecosystem, a thriving economy, a vibrant community). Most communities prioritize only the latter two. Teton County not only places the three on equal pedestals but emphasizes that a healthy ecosystem underpins the latter two: our economy and our vibrant and diverse community rely on the vast array of ecosystem services delivered by a healthy, functioning ecosystem. And the Travel and Tourism Board’s Stay Wild campaign sums it up brilliantly, concisely and with elegance: stay wild.

But to stay wild we need wild—both wildlife and wildlife habitat. And to stay vibrant and creative we need artists. To that end, our town and county governments have put in place myriad policies and practices, often in partnership with private efforts, that lay the foundation for a vibrant and sustainable community. They are as broad-sweeping as the Integrated Transportation Plan and as minor as ensuring offices are provided with adequate bins to sort recycling. They include efforts to fund roadside signs to slow drivers and make them more aware of wildlife, to facilitate wildlife movement across private property, to preserve and improve water quality, to get people out of cars onto bikes and into busses, to promote the arts and early childhood education, to make our community age friendly, to preserve historic character, and to reduce our waste stream. It is because of these efforts, supported by thousands of hours and many hundreds of thousands of private dollars, that our community can rightfully claim that we are doing our best to stay wild.

But the TTB, the creator of Stay Wild, the number one promoter of our wild character, falls short of funding these very resources, the very people and organizations, the conservation efforts, the sustainability initiatives, the partnerships, that form the core of our most important values, the seeds of the myth that is Jackson Hole. Why?

It’s possible the board feels constrained by an interpretation of state law that is wildly (pun intended) off the mark when it comes to the definition of promotion.

As mandated by law, 60% of the roughly $7 million in funds generated by the 2% tax on all lodging expenditures should go towards efforts that are or that strongly relate to tourism promotion. An opinion (and only an opinion) by the Wyoming State Attorney General (AG) speaks specifically to funding “concerts, grooming ski trails and plowing roads,” stating that those are not allowed by the lodging tax statute. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about promotion, and here the opinion states that “’promotion’ in the context of the statute appears (AG’s emphasis) to have a narrow meaning more synonymous with advertise or publicize” and explicitly includes “promotional materials.”

And how do professional marketers (who have asked to remain anonymous) with nationwide clout create “promotional materials”? “By definition, any activity or investment that is designed with the intent to increase differentiation, visibility and awareness among an audience is, literally, branding and promotion.” So long as there is a clear strategic intent with “a promotional layer,” then “any program or project you invest in, it can be considered promotion,” no matter whether it is an investment in famous people, or sustainability initiatives or conservation efforts or arts councils. Other experts weighed in to the effect of “The “traditional” definition of marketing and branding – as defined in the AG opinion – is more than 20 years out of date…” while noting, “a critical advantage that Jackson Hole has over other mountain destinations is our abundant wildlife.” And, one might quickly add, includes our wildly creative arts community that generates over $50 million in economic activity.

In short, the AG’s opinion in no way constrains the TTB from deploying promotional dollars to invest in critical efforts to sustain our wild and wildly creative character. With a clear strategy, such as a campaign to Stay Wild, and a clear link to a bonified visitor experience, then investments in our highest community priorities is promotion. Save the bighorn so that when you ride the tram to the top of Rendezvous Peak you might see a bighorn. It’s that simple. Save the wild, film the effort to save the wild, and bingo you have some of the best Stay Wild marketing money can buy. Fund it, film it, let Instagram do the rest. Marketing 101—aka myth making.

Indeed the TTB already does some of this. They just do so in a limited, I would say timid, way. The TTB’s 2019 budget estimated revenues (these are 60% of total collections) at around $4.3 million. Of that it committed $200,000 to “local marketing partnerships.” This money, in the words of their budget, “funds the marketing efforts of local community organizations, for example, the Center for the Arts, JH Wild, Nordic Alliance, JH and Yellowstone Sustainability, so they can create and spend media in their areas of expertise and tell their brand and community story with the guidance of the TTB creative agency. Examples of recent work include the Wildly Creative campaign, JH Wild, Wild on Tour promotional video, Trip Advisor Green Leader and BEST certification and the Nordic Alliance Trail maps, website, Turpin Meadow Free Ski day and marketing initiatives. This initiative has also created community assets that can be used now and into the future.”

But there’s so much more than can be done. That line item could easily breach half a million dollars and still fall short. Why not include some of the genuine, community-led efforts that have measurable impacts in achieving community sustainability goals and that have strong symbolic value to drive the ‘stay wild’ narrative? Why not underwrite a portion of the multi-organization effort to restore river and stream water quality, or the multi-agency effort to save the high Teton bighorn sheep from extinction, or the partnerships that bolster and ensure a thriving arts community?

Jackson | Teton County have something no other rocky mountain community in the lower 48 have: an inimitable combination of scenery, history, thriving arts and small-town character ensconced in the center of the largest intact ecosystem in the lower 48 states. But are we the community with the motto ‘Stay Wild’ when in actuality we allowed Teton bighorn sheep to become extinct? Or didn’t prevent Fish Creek from becoming choked with algae? Or failed to support the artists that celebrate our rich community and amazing place with their work? Let’s support the TTB to do even more with valuable lodging tax dollars so that that doesn’t happen. The TTB has a talent pool that would make be the envy of a New York City ad agency. Let’s give them the policy-level support they deserve and unleash their best. Let’s do it for the sake of the community. Let’s do it for the sake of the ecosystem.

Mark Newcomb - Housing in Teton County

Housing: The Stats, The Supply, The Reality, The Challenge, The Bottom Line

The Stats (estimates that applied as of March 2018 based on a staff report by Housing Director April Norton):

  • 25,723 people work in Teton County.
  • There are 13,146 dwelling units in Teton County.
  • 868 are deed restricted and house 6% (~1,543 people) of the workforce.
  • 600 are employer-specific (built by employer) or LDR restricted (such as an accessory unit) and house 4% of the workforce (~1,029 people).
  • 2,559 are market rental units (~4,116 people).
  • 4,289 are market ownership (~7,974 people).
  • 1,280 units are occupied by non-workers. If occupants are local—for example retired—each of these units might generate the need for 0.221 employees for a 4,000 sq foot home or roughly 283 employees (here’s the highly technical study upon which these numbers are based).
  • 3,868 units are vacant. If occupants are non-local—for example, second homeowners—each of these homes generates the need for 0.266 employees for detached units and 0.398 employees for all other units (such as a 4 Season’s townhomes) amounting to around 1,160 employees.
  • 5,148 units (39%) generate the need for workers without providing any workers.
  • At 1.73 employees per unit, 7,998 units remaining would house 13,837 workers, or roughly 54% of the workforce. Current estimates are that 59% of workers live locally.

The supply: (The public investment, a substantial portion of which is through land, in the following projects amounts to over $14 million dollars)

  • Redmond Street Rentals just added 26 deed-restricted rental units
  • Grove Phase 3 just added 8 deed-restricted rental and will add 16 more over the next two years
  • Housing associated with Parks and Rec Maintenance building will add 26 rental units by late 2019.
  • Construction to start in 2019 should add 30 rental units at 174 N King Street in Jackson
  • Construction on 90 non-deed restricted units should begin soon on West Broadway (Sagebrush Apartments)
  • Hidden Hollow will soon add 169 units, 73 of which will be deed-restricted, mostly rentals, for the local workforce.
  • There are other opportunities in town that April Norton is working on that would bring economies of scale to play and possibly result in over 100 more new units.

The Reality:

  • Current policy is to house 65% of Teton County’s workforce in Teton County, a goal set by examining other Rocky Mountain resort communities and estimating the ratio that seems to separate places that are communities first and resorts second from places that are mostly resorts (background). Following that policy, for every 100 new full-time jobs created, at least 35 people have to live outside of Teton County whether they choose to or not. It will be very expensive to meet that goal.
  • Just how expensive? Modest, two to three br houses from the late 80’s in Cottonwood Park are priced at over $800,000. Prices are higher yet in Rafter J and higher yet in Melody Ranch and portions of East Jackson. When it comes to vacant land, the 21-acre Bar J Chuckwagon property off of 390 was to be sold to a developer for $16 million. Another 80-acre parcel well south of town, no Teton views, rural and not zoned for density, was listed at $12 million (the hope by the owner is that it would be up-zoned for new housing). Building costs are expensive—estimated to be $450/sq foot minimum (a 1,000 foot building would cost $450,000 just to build). The Bar J developer wanted to build 69 units, 20 of which would have been deed-restricted affordable. $16 million divided by 69 makes the land cost $231,884/unit. For a 1,000 square foot unit, that means $450,000+$231,885=$681,884 at a minimum (doesn’t include infrastructure, profit margin, etc.) At seven or eight hundred thousand dollars a unit, the 49 market units would have been priced out of reach of most Teton County workers.
  • Going forward, for a significant number of new homeowners and renters, multi-family units will be the most available and affordable option

The challenge: Given the price of land and the cost of construction, how do we capture as much new housing development for the working class and not for second homeowners or retirees? Should zoning allow development in areas of rural, open space? If so where? If so, how do we ensure it won’t impact wildlife either by taking up important habitat or creating more traffic through wildlife movement corridors? How much potential is there for infill in town? And most importantly, how do we ensure that new housing development doesn’t target the marketable and willing to pay $1 million or more for a place to live in Teton County? In short, how do we preserve the important components of our community—both the people (hard-working, free-spirited locals) and the place (open space, agriculture, wildlife habitat, wildlife).

The bottom line: New development, especially new second homes, new short-term rental units, and new commercial and institutional space, creates jobs, and job growth is outpacing housing growth. Since 2000, jobs have increased at an annual rate of 2.1% while housing growth has remained around 1.6% (helpful video). There are over 5,000 dwelling units out of 13,000 that don’t house any workers but generate the need for new employees (and thus new housing). From a pure free-market perspective, without any obligation on the part of the developer, most new housing built would target people able to pay prices in excess of $1 million—far more than the local workforce can afford. Meeting the challenge above means taking advantage of public dollars to purchase space, optimally in town, and utilize private entrepreneurialism and efficiencies to develop a range of deed-restricted rental and ownership housing and take up space that would otherwise go towards higher-end units, short-term rentals or commercial. In short, that means realigning housing growth to match job growth while using size and style of units combined with deed restrictions to ensure they remain in the hands of local workers.

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