Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Lesser of Three Evils

In the past week the mayoral candidates have started slinging mud in a desperate attempt to get into the anticipated runoff. It is usually amusing to watch candidates I dislike beat up on one another, and this round is no exception.

This week Locke began running a radio ad attacking Peter Brown. The interesting aspect of this ad is not what is said, but what isn't said and merely implied. The Chronicle's political blog has a transcript of the ad:
In this year's mayoral race let's look at the facts.

We know Peter Brown's already spent more than three million dollars to buy this election but it's more than that.

Can we really trust Peter Brown?
Locke implies that Brown has done something nefarious in spending a bunch of money--that spending money makes an individual unworthy of trust. How much money does one have to spend to be unworthy of trust? Locke doesn't say, but I suspect the answer is: more than Locke. Unable to attack Brown on principles--because Locke shares those principles--Locke can only pursue a superficial issue with the hope of eliciting animosity towards Brown's wealth. And Locke doesn't stop there:
When asked what he paid in property taxes he [Brown] refused to answer, maybe that's because he paid $55,000 last year, more than most of us make in a year.
So Brown owns an expensive house. Is this supposed to disqualify him as mayor? Is Locke jealous, or is he simply playing on the jealousies that others might feel towards Brown? And Locke certainly makes much more than $55,000 a year, so who is the "us" he refers to? In any case, to make this a campaign issue is petty. Continuing the theme, and adding a new twist:
Brown voted against low-income housing here but owns a vacation home in France.

Voting against low-income housing is proper--government should not be taking money from some citizens to distribute to others--whether one owns a vacation home in France or not. I'd vote against low-income housing and I've never even been to France. (Incidentally, one reason I have been to France is because I am forced to pay for low-income housing. Another reason is, after considerable research, I have concluded that the place is teeming with far more Frenchmen than I could tolerate.)

If you think having a vacation home in France is bad, then Brown's ignorance of supermarket prices is sure to send you scurrying to vote for Locke:

The Houston Chronicle noted in 2007 that Brown expressed amazement at the cost of milk. And quoted Brown saying, "I don't know much about the daily lives of people I represent." Clearly he's out of touch.

How can we trust Peter Brown?

I must admit that I don't know the cost of milk either. I seldom drink the stuff and my wife does the shopping. (I'm no ogre though; I do all of the cooking.) Of all the issues that the next mayor will have to deal with, I seriously doubt that knowing the price of milk will really be that important. And if for some bizarre reason it does matter, I will give Peter Brown enough credit to be able to find out.

Locke's ad is one continuous ad hominem attack. We are supposed to distrust Peter Brown--not because of his positions on the issues--but because of his wealth. We are supposed to distrust Brown--not because he wants to enact restrictive land-use regulations--but because he doesn't know the price of milk.

While raising issues regarding Brown's character, Locke tells us nothing about his own positions. He tells us that we can't trust Peter Brown, but offers no substantive reason why we should trust Gene Locke. He does tell us of his endorsements:

He's been endorsed by the Houston Chronicle, over 100 Pastors, Reverends and Bishops, and most of our community leaders.

Actually, Locke was co-endorsed by the Chronicle (along with Annise Parker), a fact that he conveniently glosses over. And so what that a bunch of religious leaders have endorsed him? Is this supposed to imply that he has, at least implicitly, God's endorsement as well?

Parker, who has previously made some swipes at Brown for spending his own money on the campaign, sent out a postcard this week that mimics Locke's play on class envy. (I haven't received this particular card, but you can see an image here.) In the ad Parker attacks Brown for missing city council votes while vacationing at "his luxury villa on the French Riviera." Parker's card paints Brown as a croissant eating elitist, and herself as a plain bread kind of gal. (Interestingly, the Chronicle naively views this as anti-French, rather than anti-wealth.) But the fact is, she is offering the same stale ideas as Brown.

Brown has engaged in his own mud slinging. He has been mailing postcards that attack both Locke and Parker, without a single mention of Brown's positions or accomplishments. In fact, the only mention of Brown is a little blurb (in very small type) that the card was paid for by his campaign.

These ads are giving us "reasons" to vote against others. None attack his opponent's position on the issues, because in essentials all three agree on the issues. None can attack the others on principles, because to do so would be to attack their own position.

Since this campaign began I have argued that Parker, Locke, and Brown are indistinguishable in terms of their policies and ideas. Apparently Parker and Locke agree, and see Brown's wealth as the only distinction between them. And now, in their last mad rush to secure votes, they are using Brown's wealth as an argument to vote against him.

At least implicitly, this is an admission that there are no reasons to vote for either candidate--that our best option is to select the lesser of the evils. Personally, I don't regard that as an option. A "choice" between arsenic and cyanide is not a choice. Evil is evil, and evil will never get my vote.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Emperor has no Money

Last week three retired CPAs--Bob Lemer, Aubrey Farb, and Tom Roberts--released a report on the city's financial status. (HT: blogHouston) Their conclusion is that the city is essentially bankrupt. While that finding certainly is interesting, another aspect of the report is more so.

According to the report the city uses "modified accrual basis" accounting, which it states is essentially cash basis accounting. I am no accountant, but as a small business owner I know the difference between accrual accounting and cash basis accounting. In accrual accounting income and expenses are recorded when accrued; in cash basis accounting income and expenses are recorded when cash actually changes hands. The primary difference is when income and expenses are recorded. And that can be a pretty significant difference, particularly when significant liabilities are involved.

I will use a simple example to demonstrate the difference between these two methods. Let us say that I start the day with $10,000 in the bank and no debts. My balance sheet will show equity of $10,000 (assets minus liabilities). During the course of the day I take out a loan for $10,000. Under cash accounting, I will now show $20,000 in assets but no liabilities. My balance sheet will show equity of $20,000 even though my financial position has not changed. Under accrual accounting the liability would be recorded when it is incurred. My balance sheet would show equity of $10,000.

From a certain perspective there is a real benefit in using cash accounting--it allows you to mask reality. If your intention is to hide your liabilities, then cash accounting is just what you need. Indeed, the report states that on a cash basis the city had a $19.891 million surplus in fiscal 2008; on an accrual basis the city had a deficit of $281.556 million because of incurred liabilities. Consequently, using cash basis accounting both the mayor and the controller can claim that the city is in good shape financially and present the numbers to "prove" it.

It appears that municipalities are required to use the "modified accrual basis", so at least some responsibility lies outside of city officials. However, the city's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report is prepared on an accrual basis and both the mayor and the controller must sign off on it. Since Mayor White has made a big deal of being a businessman, and Annise Parker has served as controller for 6 years, I would assume that they know how to read financial statements. They have no excuse for hiding the fact that the city is broke--assuming that this is true--from the citizens of Houston.

Like inflation, cash accounting can allow politicians to spend money and shift the true cost to the future. White can claim that the city has a surplus, even though he has committed to spend millions of dollars that future mayors will have to actually include on the budget. The future mayors will take the heat and try to shift the blame to White. And White, if he has his way, will be off in Washington committing an even bigger fraud.

The report states that the problem has not been declining revenues (the report anticipates declining revenues going forward as sales and property taxes decrease), but overspending by the city government. This doesn't come as a huge surprise, given that White has unleashed the pit bulls on virtually every business in the city, from taco trucks to sign companies, from developers to sexually oriented businesses to apartment complexes. He has launched a "green" initiative that includes caulking windows, insulating attics, and sending squiggly light bulbs to Houstonians. He has pushed Houston Hope, which gives taxpayer money to home buyers, and light rail. He has spent and spent and spent.

If you think getting rid of White will solve this problem, think again. The leading mayoral candidates--Parker, Brown, and Locke--intend to follow essentially the same pattern. None has rejected White's premises, and they simply quibble over the details. Eager to secure political support today, they evade the future consequences.

Of course, the fault does not lie entirely with the politicians. They are simply doing as the citizenry requests. The citizens--or at least a noisy portion of them--want to tear down the signs, shutter the strip clubs, and shackle developers. They demand that city officials preserve old buildings, house the needy, and provide mass transit. They are content to spend money that isn't theirs and dictate to their fellow citizens. They believe that their wishes and desires can transform reality, and they want government to fulfill their fantasies.

When the bill comes due--and it will come due--they will no longer be able to evade the fact that the city is bankrupt. It remains to be seen if they will realize that the ideas that have caused this mess are equally bankrupt.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

An Open Letter to Buckhead Investment Partners

Update note: Buckhead Investment Partners is the developer of the proposed Ashby High Rise.

Dear Matthew and Kevin,

For more than two years you have suffered a gross injustice at the hands of the city of Houston. The city has placed barrier after arbitrary barrier in your path, forcing you to spend valuable time, money, and resources in an attempt to use your property as you choose.

You are not alone in suffering injustice at the hands of the city. As two recent examples, Spec's Liquor was forced to close a store and the sign industry faces a growing litany of regulations that threaten its very existence.

In each instance the victims have sanctioned the city's actions. While you, Spec's, and the sign industry have challenged the details of the city's controls, you have not challenged the city's right to enact such controls. You have ceded the premise that you may use your property only with the city's permission, rather than by right. You have ceded the moral high ground to the city, and can only complain when those controls go "too far".

You--as well as Spec's and the sign industry--must withdraw your sanction. You must declare that you have a moral right to use your property as you choose, so long as you respect the mutual rights of others. You must state the fundamental issue--the sanctity of individual rights, including property rights--clearly, openly, and explicitly. You must demand that your opponents justify the violation of your rights. They can't.

While the city has been erecting barriers in your path, it is only acting as a proxy for the Southamptom and Boulevard Oaks civic clubs. The home owners in these neighborhoods have exerted political pressure on city officials, who have responded by declaring your proposed project illegal. They have depended on your sanction for their success. They have depended on you accepting their premises.

Fundamentally, they believe that might makes right. They believe that the majority has a right to determine what actions others may take. They believe that they have a right to determine how you use your property. They believe that you must sacrifice your interests and values for the "common good", and they will determine what constitutes that "good". And if you do not do so "voluntarily" they believe that they have a right to use force to compel your compliance.

If you think that this is an exaggeration, consider what will happen if you--or Spec's or the sign industry--defy the city's orders. You will face fines, jail, or both. Sooner or later someone with a gun will show up to demand that you act as the city--i.e., the home owners--demands.

So long as you accept the premise that you must comply with the dictates of others, that the city has a right to control your business and your life, such threats will always loom over you.

The leading candidates for mayor have all endorsed more restrictive controls over land-use. All have stated opposition to your project. They will seek more control over you and your business. And they will be successful so long as you continue to sanction their right to do so.

You have built your business by acting on your own judgment, which is your moral right. Nobody--including government--has a right to force you to act contrary to that judgment. Indeed, government's proper purpose is the protection of your freedom to act according to your own rational conclusions.

You must do more than challenge the city's edicts. You must challenge the principle that says that they may even make such edicts. You are not chattel, whose dreams, business, and life can be disposed of by others, no matter their number. When you can state that openly and proudly, you will disarm your opponents. Morality is your most powerful weapon. Use it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Proposition 9 and the Alamo

Next week Texans will have an opportunity to defend property rights, and chances are quite high that they will refuse to do so. Proposition 9 will amend the state constitution to solidify the Texas Open Beaches Act (TOBA), which declares that all beach front property seaward of the vegetation line is "public property". TOBA has already robbed countless individuals of their property, and Proposition 9 will make it more difficult to rectify this gross injustice in the future.

Last Sunday the Chronicle reported on the proposition, stating:

[V]oters will decide whether the law's [TOBA] promise of beach access, which some folks already consider a Texan's birthright, should be part of the state's constitution. [emphasis added]
Rights sanction our freedom to act without interference from others; they do not grant us a claim to some object. To claim that open beaches are a "Texan's birthright" is to claim that some individuals--beach front property owners--must fulfill the desires of others. This is a negation of all rights.

Not content to merely pervert the meaning of "rights", for this is quite common, supporters of TOBA blame the victims for the state's seizure of private property. The comments left in response to the Chronicle article cited above illustrate this fact.

While the comments vary, they have a similar message: Beach front property owners know what the law is and have nobody to blame but themselves. If they are so foolish as to build on the beach, then they get exactly what they deserve when the state takes their property.

According to the Chronicle a number of law suits are pending against the state and its use of TOBA. The paper reports that Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who is responsible for regulating beach access, evades any responsibility in the matter:
Patterson has countered that Mother Nature, not the state, is taking their properties.
Apparently Patterson believes that Mother Nature passed TOBA. Apparently Patterson believes Mother Nature shows up at the property owner's door with a gun, demanding that the "offending" house be demolished. If Patterson is correct, why are state officials even involved? It is not Mother Nature who threatens property owners, but Patterson.

Government's sole legitimate purpose is the protection of individual rights, including property rights--the right to own, use, and dispose of material objects. Our rights are inviolable. They are not subject to the whims of state officials or a vote of the citizenry. That a majority of Texans support armed robbery doesn't turn the act into a charitable donation, nor does it turn the desire for open beaches into a right.

When Texans go to vote next week, I urge them to consider a cry long associated with this state: "Remember the Alamo!" The brave men who fought and died in that battle were fighting for freedom from Santa Anna--a dictator who believed that he could dispose of the lives of others. Today, advocates of liberty are fighting an equally tyrannical idea--that the rights of the individual may be voted away.

Davy Crockett, one of the hero's of the Alamo, once said, ""A government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you have." Supporters of TOBA want government to give them a fictitious "right" to open beaches by taking property from others. Today, it is the rights of beach front property owners that are at risk. Tomorrow, it may be their rights.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The "Greening" of "the Market"

Next month the city will launch a new program aimed at increasing recycling in Houston. According to a Chronicle editorial:
The latest wrinkle is a partnership with a New York company, RecycleBank, that allows participants who recycle to convert trash into credits that can be cashed in at national and local retailers. Already used in 21 states and serving a million people, the program has dramatically stimulated the rate of participation in recycling programs where it operates.
The program will allow participants to earn up to $450 per year in credits for recycling. The credits can be used for discounts at participating businesses or donated to charity. Lamenting the fact that Houston lags far behind other cities in recycling, the paper urges eligible Houstonians to participate in the program for the benefit of the environment and their household budget.

The program is the latest maneuver by Mayor White to turn Houston into a "green" city. While this measure won't resort to outright coercion, it is an attempt to manipulate us into certain behavior.

Environmentalists have mixed reactions to this program:
As with most things, this program is not the answer in and of itself, but it is a step in the right direction. The more we can get our markets and social structures to reward and encourage more sustainable behaviors, the sooner we'll get to where we need to go.
And where do the greenies think "we need to go"? They have made it abundantly clear that they would like to see "consumerism" wiped off the face of the earth. They want us to consume less, use fewer resources, and ultimately go back to huddling in a cave. Of course, forcing Americans to give up their I-Pods and Internet access would not go over well, and so they are content to take baby steps to slowly move us in that direction. They are content to use a combination of carrots and sticks.

"Cap and Trade" programs are one example. The EPA's web site has this to say:
EPA’s Clean Air Markets Programs use a market-based regulatory program called Cap and Trade to reduce emissions. This type of approach is one of several different market-based mechanisms that use a variety of economic incentives and disincentives, such as tax credits, emissions fees, and emissions trading.
While greenies loathe "the market", they will use it (or pretend that they are) when it fits their purposes. But is this really "the market" at work, or is it something else?

When someone speaks of "the market", it is generally implied that they are referring to a free market, that is, a market in which trade is conducted voluntarily. But there is nothing voluntary about Cap and Trade. Emission limits and emissions fees--the stick--are imposed by government. And where that doesn't suffice, tax credits--the carrot--are dangled. Whether government is mandating or "using incentives", the fact remains that government is controlling the behavior of individuals.

Despite the EPA's claim, a market-based regulatory program is a contradiction in terms. Government is an agent of force; "the market" is based on voluntary consent. Cap and Trade, and similar programs--are an attempt to combine elements of choice with elements of dictatorial policies. It is an attempt to get us to do the "right thing" and fool us into believing that we actually have a choice in the matter.

Like government regulation of the financial industry, health care, and everything else, when problems develop (and they will) it will be the elements of freedom that take the blame. Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, and their cohorts will chortle that "the market" failed. They will evade the fact that it was their policies that strangled "the market". They will evade the fact that "the market" consists of all consumers and producers--which means, the vast majority of the American people.

In proclaiming that "the market" failed, the gang in Washington really means that the American people failed to act as they--the gang in Washington--want us to act. Americans actually want to enjoy their lives, rather than sit in frigid darkness in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Americans actually enjoy SUVs and private automobiles, not sitting on crowded mass transit like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse. But that doesn't sit well in Washington.

When "the market" fails, when the free and voluntary choices of individual Americans fail to produce Utopia, the czars of Washington will be unleashed. When the carrot doesn't work, they drag out the stick.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Defending Peter Brown (Sort of)

Mayoral candidate Peter Brown has reportedly spent about $2.4 million of his own money to finance his candidacy. Rumors are that he is willing to spend millions more. Not surprisingly, this is raising eye-brows and accusations--both implicit and explicit--that he is trying to buy the office.

I must admit that spending enormous sums of one's own money in order to secure an elected office raises some questions in my mind. Presumably, someone with enough money to drop millions on an election has some financial acumen. So I would assume that they spend their money with the intent of getting a reasonable return on the investment. But what return is there from holding an elected office?

The more cynical among us might think they do it for financial gain. While undoubtedly many politicians gain wealth as a result of their positions, I don't think that that is why most people run for office. And certainly not those who already have a boat load of money.

Holding a political office offers something that no position in the private sector offers--power. And more specifically, political power. While some might argue that businessmen have power, such claims evade the distinction between political power and economic power:
The difference between political power and any other kind of social “power,” between a government and any private organization, is the fact that a government holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force.
I think it is power-lust that drives most individuals to "buy" a political office--they seek the ability to impose their views and values upon others by force. I can, and have, made a strong case that this is what Peter Brown seeks.

I seriously doubt that Annise Parker--who has questioned Brown's spending--would turn down $2.4 million in donations. But Parker, like most local politicians, would need to acquire such financial support in small chunks. To raise $2.4 million in $25, $50, and $100 increments requires a lot of donors, which is very difficult. Since Parker hasn't beaten Brown in the financial department, she will try to beat him verbally by calling his spending into question. She implies that there is something morally wrong with putting one's money where one's mouth is. There isn't. In fact, I wish more politicians would put some of their own "skin" in the game.

Compared to Gene Locke, Parker has been relatively mild regarding this issue. Last week Locke unleashed one of his pit bulls, Jew Don Boney, who claimed that Brown is trying to buy the black vote:
“Peter Brown is spending millions of dollars in this mayor's race because he can't match Gene's longtime record of service,” former City Councilman Jew Don Boney, associate director of the Mickey Leland Center for World Hunger at Texas Southern University, says in the ad. [a radio ad] “But our community is not for sale."
Locke repeated this charge during Saturday night's mayoral debate and then upped the ante:
Mr. Brown is trying to buy the election, not just in the African-American community but across the city.
Here is a news flash for both Locke and Boney: You, and virtually every politician, buy votes by promising government favoritism to those who vote for you. What is your campaign primarily about? It is about appealing to certain groups--groups that hope to benefit if you are in office. Groups that will exchange political support for government favors. If you truly think that votes aren't for sale, then either you have not been paying attention or you are more intellectually dishonest than I thought.

The truth is, Parker and Locke lust after the same position as Brown, and for very similar reasons. Brown just happens to have the money to finance his campaign without begging every Tom, Juan, and Jew Don for a donation or endorsement.

In case I haven't made it clear over the past year, I'm no fan of Peter Brown. But how he spends his money is no business of mine. I only wish he would extend the same courtesy to me and other Houstonians.

You see, Peter Brown wants to tell me (and you) what I can do with my property. He wants to develop a "plan" for the city and then shove it down my throat. He wants to continue Bill White's "greening" of Houston and make sure that I caulk my windows and insulate my attic (not literally). He wants to be the maestro of Houston's economy, deciding which industries will thrive and which will not. He wants to expand the power and scope of city government, and somehow he's going to do it without raising taxes.

Politicians love to tell us that they won't raise our taxes. What they don't tell us is that their proposals will make our life more difficult. They don't tell us that we will have to spend more money when we go shopping because they outlawed efficient and reasonably priced advertising (such as billboards and "attention-getting devices"). They don't tell us that they are going to destroy jobs by making it more difficult to do business, and thereby impose more costs on taxpayers because those same politicians demand that we help those in need.

Perhaps Brown can enact his proposals without actually raising taxes. But his proposals will cost us more, in time and in money. Developers and builders will have to spend more time groveling at the feet of city bureaucrats to secure permission to pursue projects in accordance with Brown's "blueprint". The costs and delays associated with this boot licking will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher rents, higher housing costs, and a higher cost of doing business.

If Brown has his way, projects such as the Ashby High Rise will be impossible. And the affordable housing provided by such projects will never materialize. Many of the victims of this injustice will never know that the reason they must spend more for housing, or endure a longer commute, is because of the city's policies.

And to address traffic congestion, Brown will force us to pay for more light rail, despite the fact that it seems to attract more accidents than riders.

So, while Brown is eagerly spending his own money in his campaign for mayor, he is doing so to attain the power to subsequently spend my money and your money. He can do what he wants with his money. I greatly resent any thought on his part that he has a right to spend mine.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 38

Mother May I?
Not surprisingly, a Chronicle editorial endorses the city's threats to veterinarians who refuse to report pet vaccinations to the city:
You'd think dedicated veterinarians would be the first to call for and contribute to an effective licensing system for pets. Not only would it provide valuable data on the extent of animal vaccinations, but it would also yield added revenue to improve animal control and care.
Nowhere in the editorial is it explained why should pets be licensed, other than the fact that it will provide "valuable data". And what will be done with this data? No answer is given. The city has enough trouble keeping track of its water, and now it wants more information to confuse the minds of its employees.

But the real issue is that the city is requiring that we seek permission to own a pet. Consider this definition of license

a formal permission from the proper authorities to perform certain acts
If we don't secure the permission of the "proper authorities" then we will be subject to fines and other penalties. Owning a pet does not violate anyone's rights, and yet the city would make us criminals if we do not seek its permission to own Fluffy or Fido. If the city (and the Chronicle) is so enamored with controlling such a mundane part of our lives, what else is next?

High Speed Rail to Pearland
At a time when seemingly everyone in the nation is clamoring over ways to spend federal government stimulus money, Andrew at neoHouston puts forth a refreshingly good proposal. He suggests building a high speed rail line between downtown Houston and Pearland with private capital.

I am not an expert on trains or other transportation issues, so I cannot comment on the details he presents. He projects that the trip from Pearland to downtown would take less than 17 minutes, compared to 30 to 40 minutes by car. And the cost would range from $3.00 to $5.50 for a round trip. These numbers would be very appealing to a commuter.

Admittedly, the $260 million price tag is hefty. But the capital could be raised if the plan were sound and investors thought that they would make a good return on their investment.

The one issue that Andrew does not address is land acquisition. Purchasing land south of the 610 Loop may not be so difficult, as development is sparse between there and Pearland. But what of inside the Loop, particularly in the Medical Center and downtown, where development is dense? This is one of those details that could turn a good idea into a nightmare.

Shark Tank
Last week I caught a part of Shark Tank, a show on ABC. This week I watched the entire episode, and I recommend it without reservation (based on what I have seen). Wikipedia describes the show:
The series stars five "Sharks" — multi-millionaire business tycoons — who hear investment proposals from entrepreneurs and consider whether to invest in the businesses.
That description alone makes the show potentially interesting. Anything that celebrates business has the potential to be enjoyable, but this show does more than just glorify productivity. It implicitly embraces rational egoism.

In this week's show, one "shark" told an entrepreneur that he was being greedy. My heart momentarily sunk, until he said, "Greed is good. We just need to be greedy together." In other words: It is fine to want to make a lot of money. But offer value for value to the mutual benefit of all involved.

This type of thinking permeated the show. The "sharks" and entrepreneurs negotiated deals, trying to reach an agreement that was beneficial to both. Some entrepreneurs primarily wanted to raise capital for their business. At least one was primarily interested in obtaining business expertise to market his product. Each had different needs and desires, and all of the participants pursued his own self-interest. It was thoroughly enjoyable to witness.

Unfortunately, this week's show was the last of the season. I sincerely hope that it will be renewed for another season. In the meantime, numerous episodes are available on the ABC web site. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Courage and Freedom

America, our national anthem tells us, is the "land of the free and the home of the brave". Is this true? Are we really free? And how many of us are truly brave (or courageous)?

Courage, according to Ayn Rand, "is the practical form of being true to existence, of being true to truth." Courage is an aspect of independence, of placing nothing above the rational judgment of one's own mind. While I suspect that most people would claim to be "true to truth", even a cursory examination of current events reveals appeals to emotion, an evasion of facts, and demands that individuals suspend their own judgment.

For example, opponents of the Ashby High Rise have lobbied the city to forcibly stop the developers from proceeding, claiming that such coercive measures are necessary to "protect" their neighborhood. Our leading mayoral candidates have echoed the call for "neighborhood protection". Yet nobody has bothered to define the term. Instead, they shout "neighborhood protection" as a mantra and we are supposed to understand the meaning of this invalid concept. Hiding behind undefinable bromides, a noisy gang has insisted that its judgment be imposed upon the developers.

Or, consider the unending claims that Houston needs light rail in order to become a "world-class city". Apparently, leading the nation in job growth isn't "world-class", but having more riderless trains crashing into automobiles is. Evading the actual facts, advocates of light rail offer some futuristic fantasy while demanding that we sacrifice our money today.

And what of those who continue to press forward with plans to bring invasive land-use regulations to Houston? They claim that they oppose zoning, and just want "planning". They think that by calling a putrid pile of dung--zoning--a rose it will in fact become a fragrant flower. Using verbal gymnastics, they claim that government control of our land will protect our rights.

If one examines the political landscape in Houston one sees few signs of intellectual independence. All one sees are the same stale ideas, repackaged in the vernacular of the moment. One does not see principled politicians explicitly stating their goals and the means of attaining those goals. Instead, we get vague generalities intended to warm our hearts and numb our minds.

When courage is vanquished, freedom will soon follow. When the judgment of individuals is sacrificed to a gang of home owners, the property rights of individuals will soon be sacrificed as well. When the alleged welfare of the collective--the city--supersedes the actual welfare of individuals, the rights of those individuals will soon be dispensable. When individuals cannot pursue their own values without interference from others, they are not free.

Freedom--the absence of coercion--provides the individual with the social conditions necessary to act on his own independent judgment. Without independence in thought, independence in action is impossible. Without courage, freedom is impossible.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Civics Lesson

Evaluating political candidates can be a difficult exercise, even for those of us who have followed the issues for years. Candidates often offer conflicting proposals as they seek to appeal to disparate groups. They often toss about vague generalities about reducing crime and improving government efficiency, but seldom tell us what specific actions they will take to accomplish these goals. This year's mayoral candidates are no exception.

How then, do you select a candidate to support? What criteria should you use in making such a decision? Does it really matter which candidate is elected? The answers to these questions are vitally important and yet, many regular voters could not give you a clear, understandable answer.

Many voters select a candidate on the basis of a particular issue, such as his position on light rail. Others select a candidate based on his past performance in public office. Some select a candidate based on more superficial factors, such as the endorsements he has received (which means, the opinions of others). While each of these can offer us useful clues, they are insufficient in and of themselves.

A proper answer must begin by identifying the purpose of government. While space does not permit me to present a complete argument, we can find the answer in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

To the Founding Fathers each individual has a natural right to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy his life (so long as he respects the mutual rights of others). The purpose of government is the protection of this right.

Rights pertain to action--hence the Founders' choice of "pursuit of happiness". Rights do not guarantee success, but rather, the freedom to pursue success. Rights are a sanction to act without interference from others; they allow us to act as we choose, so long as we to not interfere with others acting as they choose. Rights allow us to choose our career; they do not guarantee success in that career or even a job in a particular industry. Rights allow us to choose where to live; they do not guarantee that we can afford a home. Rights allow us to pursue our dreams, no matter how lofty; they do not guarantee that we will soar to incredible heights.

Further, rights pertain to individuals--all individuals. There is no such thing as "Hispanic rights", or "gay rights", or "women's rights", or "worker's rights". There are only individual rights, and they apply to Hispanics and Anglos, gays and straights, women and men, workers and employers. (For a more complete explanation of these ideas, see the works of Ayn Rand.)

The standard by which we should judge a political candidate is his willingness to protect our individual rights, his willingness to protect our freedom to act in the pursuit of our values.

But, you may ask, isn't it sometimes necessary for us to put aside our own interests for the "public good" or the "general welfare"? Isn't it sometimes necessary for government to make us do things--such as pay for roads or public education--that we would not do voluntarily?

The answer is resoundingly "NO". If we abandon the principle of individual rights, if we permit government to compel certain actions or prohibit others (certain actions, such as murder, rape, and theft violate individual rights and are properly prohibited) then elections become a battle over whose rights will be violated and who will benefit.

And this is precisely what we see today. The leading candidates for mayor want to impose restrictions on developers, mandate "green" building policies, and compel taxpayers to finance rail projects. They want to dictate how some people live and work, and the only question is who the victims will be. What is certain is that there will be victims.

As you ponder the mayoral election, these are the issues that must be considered. You must think about your future. You must consider whether you wish to live in a city that recognizes and protects your freedom, or one that dictates, regulates, and restricts your actions. You must consider whether you want to be free to pursue your dreams and aspirations, or be forced to live as others determine that you should. Your decisions should not be made lightly, but rather, as if your life depends upon them. Because in fact it does.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The War on Property Rights Continues

The headline for Monday's lead article in the Chronicle blares: "Tough Land-Use Law Supported". The headline implies that a specific law has been proposed and is generating support. But in fact, the headline refers to a poll conducted by the paper. That poll of 601 people found that 71% strongly agree or somewhat agree that “Houston should enact tougher land use restrictions.” The Ashby High Rise controversy is getting pinned as the reason for this support:

Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg, who has gauged voter support for zoning and stronger development protections for decades, said much of the support for such planning improvements likely falls at the feet of the Ashby high-rise development. [emphasis added]

I have argued numerous times that those calling for increased city "planning"--such as Peter Brown--are simply seeking a more appealing way to implement land-use regulations. While the article does not mention any questions about "planning", Klineberg equates land-use regulations and "planning". But that isn't the real story here.

Assuming that the poll accurately reflects the sentiments of Houstonians in general is a stretch. However, that doesn't stop the Chronicle from shouting from the rooftops. This isn't surprising since the paper eagerly embraces virtually any proposal that regulates or controls the activities of individuals. Rather than wait for an actual land-use law to be proposed, the paper wants to take the lead and start the public relations campaign now.

Back in the early 1990s the Houston Post played cheerleader to the last attempt to bring zoning to Houston. That paper trotted out poll after poll showing support for zoning, even on the eve of the referendum. But the defeat of zoning in 1993 did not deter zoning advocates, who have continued to press for land-use regulations.

What is particularly interesting about the papers using these polls is that they evade one very important fact: On three separate occasions a poll--a referendum--has been taken on zoning, and each time it has been defeated. The only poll that really matters--a binding vote by the citizenry-- is repeatedly ignored by both the Chronicle and advocates of land-use regulations.

What is also interesting is that zoning advocates (that is what they are, but they lack the intellectual honesty to say so) keep bringing up the same stale arguments. Without zoning, or "planning", or land-use regulations our "quality of life" will deteriorate, our economy will crumble, and Houston will become unlivable.

These arguments weren't true in the 1990s and they aren't true now. As evidence, Houston's population and job growth has been among the nation's leaders for decades. Houston did not experience the housing bubble and it has weathered the recession much better than most major cities. The predictions made in the 1990s have not come true, and yet zoning "planning" advocates continue to use the same claims.

I can think of a number of possible explanations for this lack of creativity. Perhaps zoning "planning" advocates are in such denial that they have lost all touch with reality. Perhaps they think that Houstonians have forgotten what was said a mere 19 years ago. (Peter Brown has apparently forgotten what he said, so it would be natural that he would think the same is true of all of us.) Perhaps they think that if they repeat their mantra over and over and over voters will approve their proposals simply to shut them up.

Regardless of their reason, those who want more control over our lives and our property will not and do not give up easily. After all, they need only one victory, while defenders of property rights must remain ever vigilant. They have lost three straight attempts to impose their restrictions and controls on property owners across the city, yet they need win only a single battle to claim victory in their war on property rights.

The Chronicle's article is the opening shot of what will surely become another battle to defend property rights in Houston. The battle cannot be fought with economic or practical arguments (as many anti-zoners did in the 1990s). The battle must be fought on moral grounds--on the intransigent moral right of each individual to use his property for his own values and interests (so long as he respects the mutual rights of others). A battle fought on any other grounds concedes morality to our enemies.

Morality--and specifically the morality of rational self-interest--is on our side. It is our most powerful weapon. We must brandish it proudly and without reservation.

Monday, October 19, 2009

It's Not About the Pets

A big topic on the mayoral campaign trail has been crime. The candidates agree that we need more police on the streets, but have offered few details on how they will accomplish this. I have previously suggested that one simple, quick, and effective solution is to eliminate enforcement of laws that violate individual rights. Rather than having police officers checking on the distance between "exotic" dancers and patrons in "gentlemen's clubs", police officers should be spending their time apprehending true criminals--rapists, thieves, and murderers. The city however, has different ideas on what constitutes a real threat to the safety and welfare of the citizenry.

The Chronicle reports that city officials are getting serious about fighting a growing threat to the well-being of Houstonians--renegade veterinarians:

For more than two decades, many Houston veterinarians have engaged in a quiet mutiny of sorts.

They have refused to follow a law requiring them to essentially name names — to turn over the identities and addresses of pet owners whose dogs and cats received rabies shots....

A 1985 city ordinance requires veterinarians to turn over the data, but just 20 percent have been complying. The rest have revolted, saying they don't want to become quasi-tax collectors or participate in a “Big Brother” surveillance of their customers.

The city has been sending letters to veterinarians warning of $500 per day fines for failing to comply with the ordinance. The city justifies these strong-armed tactics in a most interesting fashion. Elena Marks, director of health and environmental policy for the mayor, is cited in the article:

Marks said pets should not have more privacy rights than human beings, noting physicians already abide by requirements to report children's vaccinations to state databases.

Of course, Marks is right--pets don't have "privacy rights". But she ignores the fact that the information turned over to the city pertains to human beings--the owners of the pets. Further, she ignores the blatant invasion of privacy involved in reporting children's vaccinations to the state. The evasion doesn't stop there. Marks tells the paper:

This data helps us encourage residents to license their pets.

When the government "encourages" residents to do something, it is always accompanied with an "or else". And "or else" means fines, jail time, or both for those who fail to comply. The "encouragement" offered by the city is akin to the thief who waves a gun in your face to "encourage" you to surrender your money.

While claiming that vaccinating pets is a "public health issue", the article states that the city could raise $1 million per year in licensing fees. Given the city's budget deficit, it appears that this shakedown of vets is nothing more than an attempt to extort more money from Houstonians. Regardless of the motivation, the city is considering more drastic actions:

Efforts by veterinarians to simply hand their clients pamphlets on how to license their pets have not been effective, and city authorities don't want to use extreme tactics of going door-to-door to see who has unlicensed pets.

A home invasion by a gang of street thugs would be a horrifying experience. When it is conducted by city officials under the pretense of identifying unlicensed pets, we have reason for concern. Will city officials look under our beds to find a hiding pet? Will they search our pantry for evidence of pet food? According to Elena Marks, pets don't have a right to privacy. But what of their owners, whose homes will be subjected to invasive searches?

This isn't about pets or anything of the sort. Claims of "public health issues" are a mere pretense for the city government to invade our homes and gain even greater control over our lives. And that is a far greater threat to our well-being than rabies.

Friday, October 16, 2009

We Don't Need Houston Hope, We Need Houston Freedom

Houston Mayor Bill White, who previously proposed using tax dollars to help individuals pay off their debt so that they could qualify for a home mortgage, recently proposed an equally inane idea. He proposed using tax dollars to pay Realtors to sell houses for Houston Hope. (On Thursday White declared the proposal "dead".)

Under the Houston Hope initiative, the city has been foreclosing on tax delinquent homes, selling them to developers to redevelop, and then assisting buyers with their down payment. Qualifying home buyers can receive as much as $45,000 from the city. With the city currently owning 1,000 properties, tax payers could potentially be on the hook for $45 million.

If this strikes you as a gross injustice to tax payers--many of whom cannot afford a home because of programs such as this--you will be happy to learn that this will save the city money. According to the Chronicle:
Chris Butler, special assistant to White for neighborhood development, said the city saves money on each home because it is able to collect taxes, water bills and permit fees and does not have to mow the grass or require police to keep criminal activity away from such vacant properties.

He estimates that for 1,000 lots, the city could generate revenue and save money to the tune of nearly $1.7 million a year.
I don't think one needs to be an accountant to realize that spending $45 million to save $1.7 million is not a very good investment. Yet, this is the justification offered by our "businessman" mayor.

While a number of council members attacked White's plan to incentivize realtors, none questioned the Houston Hope program itself. In principle they have no problem taking money from some Houstonians to give to others. They just happen to think this particular redistribution of wealth is, as council member Pam Holm said, "pretty outrageous.” Mike Sullivan called it "poor public policy.”

Both Holm and Sullivan are correct, but there are certainly stronger and more accurate words to use to describe White's proposal. Immoral is one that comes to mind. But city council wouldn't think to use such words, because they share the mayor's moral premises. They believe that need constitutes a claim on the property of others. And they believe that the city may properly force us to meet those needs.

Programs such as Houston Hope garner lots of good press for White and his cronies. They are helping revitalize poor neighborhoods, and who could be opposed to that? The beneficiaries of their largess are visible and easily identified. They city can cite statistics showing the "good deeds" it has done, such has helping more than 1,500 people buy a home. But what we don't see, and the city ignores, are the hidden victims of these programs.

Every dollar used to fund Houston Hope comes from the pocket of some Houstonian--many of whom are trying to save for their own home. Why should they be forced to subsidize the home purchase of someone else? What about their needs? And more importantly, what about their rights? Of course, we do not hear politicians sob and moan about these individuals, because they are hidden and difficult to identify.

If city officials really wanted to give Houstonians hope, they would unleash the shackles that restrict how we do business. They would repeal land-use regulations, sign restrictions, and controls on where we can build a liquor store. They would get out of our stores and out of our bedrooms. And then they could slash taxes.

But to do that would require the rejection of the idea that we are our brother's keeper. It would require city officials to recognize and embrace the idea that each individual has a moral right to his own life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness. It would require men of integrity and courage to fight for our freedom. That such men do exist is what gives me hope.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

My "Green" Initiative

Update 10/20/2009: When this was posted I did not realize that October 15 was "blog action day" and the theme was environmentalism. My choice of topic for this day was purely a coincidence. (HT: Gus Van Horn)

I am generally not one to jump on bandwagons. I usually find them too crowded for my tastes, not to mention the foul odor that seems to emanate from them. But over the summer I decided to hop aboard the "go green" bandwagon.

My green initiative has several aspects. The first, and perhaps most significant, was dumping tons of water on my plants during this summer's drought. I realize that most "go green" initiatives involve conserving water, but as an individualist I will "go green" any damn way I want, thank you very much. The results of this prodigious water use were two-fold. First, my water bill rose significantly. Second, my plants stayed alive, and a few actually thrived. In contrast, my neighbor's yards turned brown, which is not very green in my book.

Another thing I did this summer was get serious about man-made pesticides. In the past I have used pesticides sparingly, primarily because I don't enjoy wandering around my yard spraying toxic chemicals when the temperature is approaching 120 degrees. But I enjoy lace bugs on my azaleas, mealy bug on my hibiscus, and white fly on everything else even less. (Just in case you don't know, lace bugs will turn the leaves of azaleas a putrid gray color, and gray isn't green. Mealy bugs are scaly creatures that suck the life out of plants, and like white fly they are--can you guess--white. White isn't green either.) I realize that true "greenies" don't use man-made pesticides, but as I previously stated, I will "go green" in the manner that I choose.

Another part of my "go green" initiative actually involved something that rabid environmentalists might actually approve. I spent time perfecting my compost piles. You (and my wife) might think it silly to have compost piles in the middle of the nation's fourth largest city. You (and my wife) are wrong.

Compost provides micro-nutrients, microbes, and other yummy stuff to the soil and plants. It makes plants healthy, wealthy, and wise. It breeds earthworms, and earthworms are our friends--they chew up dead organic material and create lots of tiny holes in the ground. And the best part is, worm poop (technically called "castings") is very nutrient rich.

I used to buy dozens of bags of compost each year to spread throughout my yard and gardens. I tended to do this over a few weekends each spring, and it was back breaking work. Now, I can spread a little compost each week, providing my adorable little plants with fresh compost throughout the year. It saves my back and the soil benefits from the steady application of humus. (Humus should not be confused with hummus, which I actually enjoy eating.) And my wife doesn't think that so silly.

An unexpected benefit of my increased interest in compost was the opportunity to commune with nature. There is nothing quite like spending an hour turning a compost pile and letting the earthy smell of rotting vegetable matter waft into your nostrils. You just can't get that experience living in an apartment.

I've also learned many interesting facts about the biology of composting. For example, the ideal compost pile has about 5 parts "brown" to 1 part "green". Now, a rational person might think that "brown" and "green" refer to colors. And that would be wrong. "Brown" refers to carbon rich materials, like dead leaves. "Green" refers to nitrogen rich materials, like fresh grass clippings. So far the brown/ green dichotomy makes sense, but coffee grounds, manure, and urine are "green".

The results of my "go green" initiative have been mixed. This summer's drought undoubtedly stunted the growth of many of my plants. But I am optimistic about the long-term. My adventures with composting are showing signs of greatly benefiting the plants and reducing my watering requirements. My indiscriminate use of pesticides resulted in no mealy bugs or lace bugs this year. My "go green" initiative is not intended to save the planet or anything along those irrational lines. My "go green" initiative is intended for my benefit and my pleasure (and my wife's). And anyone who doesn't like that can kiss my jolly green thumb.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Principles, Propositions, and Property Rights

When an individual abandons principles he approaches each issue in isolation from other issues. He has no way to integrate or connect seemingly separate issues, and deals with each on a case-by-case basis. The resulting conclusions are often contradictory, as evidenced by two recent editorials in the Chronicle that take contradictory positions on property rights.

The first editorial supports Prop 9, which will strengthen the Texas Open Beaches Act (TOBA):
We believe strengthening and clarifying the laws relating to public access, as Proposition 9 would do, is both proper and necessary. As Texas Gulf Coast residents know all too well, Mother Nature can change the landscape of beaches abruptly. That is one of the acknowledged risks of building a vacation home on the sand. Granting a permanent public easement onto our beaches seems likely to avoid confrontation and confusion while ensuring the broadest possible access. In short, it is in the spirit of opening beaches that has been built in Texas over half a century.

TOBA--which I have previously addressed many times--allows the state to seize private property when storms or erosion shifts the beach. The justification for this brazen theft is "the public's" "right" to the beaches. The "risk" is not the action of Mother Nature, but the whims of the Texas Legislature.

The second editorial supports Prop 11, which will place limits on the use of eminent domain:
Preventing takings for economic motives is consistent with Texans' historically strong support for property rights. At the same time, it would not impede eminent domain takings for necessary purposes.

As I have previously written, the use of eminent domain to seize private property is wrong in principle, no matter the purpose. Indeed, the seizure of private property--whether through eminent domain, TOBA, or any other law--is morally wrong. (Of course, an individual who violates the rights of another person may properly be subject to such seizures as a form of punishment or to make restitution.) The Chronicle however, sees no connection between these issues, and cannot even take a consistent position on eminent domain.

The right to property is the right of use and disposal. Property rights sanction the use of material objects as the owner chooses, so long as he does not violate the mutual rights of others. If one makes an exception to this principle, declaring that property rights may be violated in some situations, one has abandoned the principle entirely. A "principle" with exceptions is not a principle, but a loose guideline that can be discarded on whim. And this is precisely the Chronicle's position.

Consider the editorial on eminent domain: The paper is opposed to seizure of private property for "economic motives", but is not opposed to such seizures when they are for "necessary purposes". But what is a "necessary purpose"? How will this be determined, and who will make such a determination? No answer is given.

Virtually anything can be declared a "necessary purpose" with enough rationalization and evasion. Building a rail line or widening a street could be considered a "necessary purpose". So could the redevelopment of a neighborhood, or the construction of a marina, or any number of "economic motives". A "necessary purpose" for one person may not be a "necessary purpose" for another. The person whose property is being seized certainly doesn't consider the intended use a "necessary purpose".

Having accepted the idea that private property may be seized in certain situations, the paper can only bicker that some purposes are "going too far" and some takings are "unfair":
In situations where economic development is the objective it is simple fairness to give property owners the benefits of choice, and of a marketplace sale. To force a sale upon them under such inflexible circumstances is inimical to constitutional principles enumerated in the takings clause. [emphasis added]

I agree that property owners should have a choice--to sell or not to sell. But why doesn't this also apply to beach front property owners or those forced to sell for "necessary purposes"? Why is it "simple fairness" (not to mention moral) to allow some property owners to dispose of their property as they choose, but other property owners are forced to sell? The Chronicle does not answer this question.

If the Chronicle, or anyone, wishes to defend property rights, it must do so consistently, completely, and without exception. If it believes that certain situations warrant the seizure of private property, it is defenseless when someone declares a particular purpose "necessary".

The motivation for the paper's contradictory positions is transparent. Both positions are popular with Texans. Many Texans have no problem seizing private property when they perceive some benefit--such as beach access--but they do not like the idea that their property might be seized for the benefit of someone else. (As a concrete example, see the contradictory position of the home owners opposing the Ashby High Rise.) They want their property rights protected, but are not willing to protect the mutual rights of others. What they, like the Chronicle, don't realize is that they cannot pick and choose when to apply a principle. Sadly, they might learn that lesson when it is too late.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Unplanned" Charm in Montrose

The American Planning Association recently named Houston's Montrose one of its “10 Great Neighborhoods” for 2009. The Chronicle laments this award, because the planning that has occurred in Montrose was conducted privately, rather than by the city:

As the pro-planning group Blueprint Houston recently pointed out, three of the intersection's four corners are occupied by pedestrian-hostile blah-ness: a gas station, a dispirited-looking half-empty strip center and a drive-thru restaurant. No planner in his right mind would allow such crud to command that spot.

And there's the irony. Planning can't take credit for the off-beat charms of Montrose. But without at least some planning — public, private or both — that unplanned charm may disappear. [emphasis added]

To the Chronicle, a planner "in his right mind", i.e., a rational planner, wouldn't allow what the paper considers "crud". While the editorial fails to tell us what constitutes rational planning or "crud", the real meaning is quite clear: Unless planning is dictated by some central authority, it isn't really planning. Since land-use is being determined by the choices of property owners and the market, it really isn't planning.

The only legitimate function of government is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. The paper doesn't tell us how a gas station, strip center, and fast food joint violates anyone's rights. There are two reasons doesn't tell us: 1. These businesses do not violate anyone's rights; 2. The Chronicle cares more about appearances than individual rights. Since the paper doesn't like the way this one particular corner looks, property rights are irrelevant.

The paper has made no secret of the fact that it wants much more stringent land-use regulations in Houston. It has jumped on the "quality of life"/ "protect" neighborhoods bandwagon with both feet and spools of newsprint. It has a vision of what Houston should look like and wants government to force all Houstonians to toe the line to make that vision a reality. And this is the crux of the matter from the Chronicle's perspective.

Individual liberty allows individuals to pursue their own values without interference from others, so long as they respect the mutual rights of their fellow citizens. The result can be the kind of eclectic development that has occurred in Montrose. The Chronicle may not like this, but one's likes and dislikes do not justify using government coercion.

Continuing its evasion, the editorial argues that Montrose will loose its "charm" if some type of planning does not occur. If that "charm" resulted from the absence of planning--as the paper claims--then why is planning needed to maintain that "charm"? If the free and voluntary choices of property owners has created a "charming" neighborhood, then what does the Chronicle expect planning to achieve? The answers become clear when we identify what planning really means.

While advocates of land-use regulations are reticent to use the "z-word"--zoning--they have not deviated from their goal. Recognizing that Houstonians do not want zoning, they have taken a back-door to their goal of controlling land-use in the city. Zoning, they say, won't work in Houston, but the city still needs "planning". As I have pointed out, planning without the means of implementation is pointless. Any plan developed by the city will require extensive land-use regulations.

A property owner then, will only be permitted to use his land in accordance with the city's plan. Any use that deviates from that plan will require the land owner to grovel at the feet of city officials. As evidence, see what the city has done to the developers of the Ashby High Rise. A property owner who wishes to do something "charming" will have to conform to the dictates of city officials. Which means, the city's idea of "charming" will be imposed upon the land owner. This is the goal of planning.

If the Chronicle had its way, Montrose would be a much different neighborhood than it is today. Rather than responding to changing market conditions, property owners would be compelled to respond to the demands and dictates of city bureaucrats and politicians. And that is not very charming.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Fraud of Blogger "Guidelines"

Last week the Federal Trade Commission released "guidelines" requiring bloggers to disclose "material connections" (payments or free products) to advertisers for products reviewed or testimonials given. The alleged purpose of these "guidelines"--which can result in a fine of $11,000 per "offending" post--is to protect consumers.

Presumably, these "guidelines" fall under the purvey of "truth in advertising", which holds that advertising may not be deceptive or misleading. While I would agree that advertisers should not engage in fraud, this is not the purpose of the new FTC guidelines. And more significantly, it fails to address the true fraud being perpetuated on the American people.

Fraud is an intentional misrepresentation of the facts for the purpose of influencing a person's actions. Fraud is intended to convince a person to act differently than he would if he had all of the facts.

And what do the "guidelines" offer in terms of "guidance"? Not much:

The Commission will, of course, consider each use of these new media on a case-by-
case basis for purposes of law enforcement, as it does with all advertising.

The Commission does not believe that all uses of new consumer-generated media to
discuss product attributes or consumer experiences should be deemed “endorsements” within the meaning of the Guides. Rather, in analyzing statements made via these new media, the fundamental question is whether, viewed objectively, the relationship between the advertiser and the speaker is such that the speaker’s statement can be considered “sponsored” by the advertiser and therefore an “advertising message.” In other words, in disseminating positive statements about a product or service, is the speaker: (1) acting solely independently, in which case there is no endorsement, or (2) acting on behalf of the advertiser or its agent, such that the speaker’s statement is an “endorsement” that is part of an overall marketing campaign? The facts and circumstances that will determine the answer to this question are extremely varied and cannot be fully enumerated here... [pages 8- 9, emphasis added]

The FTC claims that it will view a post "objectively", yet it cannot state what criteria it will use. How then is a writer to know if his post is an "advertising message" or not? The fact is, he can't know until the FTC comes knocking on his door.

Such arbitrary "guidelines" will not protect anyone. They will however, accomplish the unstated purpose of paralyzing writers with uncertainty and fear. As Diana Hsieh writes:

The inevitable result will be that many honest bloggers will stop discussing products entirely -- or they'll stop blogging. Seriously, how many bloggers make enough money to cover the potential fines? How many bloggers will have the time and the fortitude to read through all the regulations, to know whether they're complying or not with them? Many other people will not start a blog; it would be too much trouble -- and too risky.

The FTC is peddling these "guidelines" as consumer protection, when in fact the true purpose is to stifle the free exchange of ideas. If this strikes you as manipulative and misleading, you would be correct. The FTC--the agency charged with "protecting" consumers from fraudulent advertising--is perpetuating a fraud. If advertisers and bloggers must disclose all relevant facts, shouldn't the FTC be subject to the same "guidelines"?

And what of politicians who ply American voters with promises of unearned rewards in exchange for votes? What of those who claim that massive government programs can be enacted with no ill affects? What of politicians who renege on campaign promises? What of politicians who claim impartiality while accepting campaign donations from organizations seeking to influence legislation? Or those who first point a gun at businessmen to mandate their behavior and then point a finger at "greedy" businessmen in blame when the politician's schemes fall apart? Or those who preach "family values" while engaging in sordid behavior? Aren't these claims and promises fraudulent? Aren't these intentional misrepresentations of the facts for the purpose of influencing the actions of voters?

The fact that politicians and government bureaucrats are not held to the same standards as ordinary citizens speaks volumes. They try to "sell" the public on certain ideas while misrepresenting their own actions, beliefs, and intentions. If it is wrong for advertisers to misrepresent their products, why is acceptable for government officials to do so? The answer to that question reveals one of the greatest frauds of all.

Government officials allegedly act with the "public interest" in mind. Unlike businessmen who act for their own selfish interests, government officials allegedly act with the interests of others in mind. And since altruism--service to others--is the accepted standard of morality, the selfless actions of politicians and bureaucrats are covered with a veneer of moral rectitude while the actions of businessmen are tainted.

Obama has called upon all Americans to sacrifice. He has implored us to serve others. Why? Why should we serve others, rather than serve ourselves? Obama, and indeed nobody, has provided an answer to that question. And if Americans are busy serving one another, who is to benefit from this orgy of sacrifice? For a start, you might consider Harry Reid, Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Al Gore, and Obama.

We are supposed to believe that if we all sacrifice, we will all somehow be better off. Do you think that you would be better off if you burned a $100 bill, or let the food in your freezer spoil, or gave your car to the bum on the corner? For most people these actions would be a sacrifice. How would this make your life better?

One of the greatest frauds in history is the idea that morality consists of service to others, that you must place the welfare and interests of others before your own, that you have no right to exist for your own sake. So long as you accept that premise, there will be a steady stream of Franks, Dodds, and Pelosis eager to direct your service to do their bidding. They will cajole you with guilt, and if that doesn't work they will prod you with a club. They take altruism seriously, and they will demand that you do as well.

If you value your life, you must reject altruism. You must assert your right to your own precious life. You must proclaim that you have a right to your own happiness. Until you do that, you will continue to be a victim of your own mistaken ideas. And that is what the FTC is counting on.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Gene Locke and Legalized Plunder

Mayoral candidate Gene Locke currently finds himself accused of a conflict of interest. He has served as counsel for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority (HCHSA), which is currently attempting to get a taxpayer funded stadium for the Dynamos. (HT: blogHouston) Locke will get to appoint six members to the sports authority, and his law firm would benefit from any legal work it does for the HCHSA.

Some have questioned whether Locke has been using his position to lobby for campaign donations, which would be illegal. Locke denies this, claiming that he has done no legal work for HCHSA since he started his campaign. Musings however, posts a time line that shows differently. And Slampo's Place posts:

For what it's worth, Locke's latest campaign finance disclosure lists a $3,000 donation from California billionaire Phillip F. Anschutz of Anschutz Entertainment Group, 50-percent owner of the Dynamo and would-be promoter of the now-canceled but once-upcoming Michael Jackson tour. Locke reported receiving another $2,500 from Dynamo co-owner Brener Sports & Entertainment of Beverly Hills (the corporate PAC, we assume, although it's not listed as such) and $2,000 more from Brener-associated Oscar De La Hoya, a "self-employed boxer" from Los Angeles (and one of our favorite fighters of the past couple of decades) who has been reported to have some ownership interest in the local major-league soccer franchise. We know these are wholly meaningless and random acts of generosity and that all of these California-based parties are simply interested in enabling GOOD GOVERNMENT in Houston, Texas.
I am personally not concerned about who donates to Locke's campaign. The wealthy have every right to spend their money as they choose, and that includes financing political campaigns. What concerns me is that government is even involved in the "sports authority" business.

If government were limited to its proper function--protecting individual rights--this would not be an issue. (Nor would a myriad other issues that has everyone all hot and bothered, like light rail and the Ashby High Rise). But when government extends beyond this function, all sorts of looters start lining up to feed at the public trough. This is the story that everyone is missing.

When government involves itself in things like sports stadiums, those who have a vested interest seek to curry political favor. And those with the ability to dispense political favors will naturally scratch the back of those who are scratching theirs.

The solution isn't more transparency. We already know that PACs and other pressure groups spend enormous sums of money to influence legislation. The solution isn't campaign finance reform. Individuals and businesses have a moral right to support the candidates of their choice with whatever sums of money they choose. The solution is to restrict the reach of government.

Locke is claiming that any decisions he makes as mayor will be in the best interest of "the public". But "the public" does not speak with one voice on the Dynamo's stadium, light rail, or any other issue. Which means, Locke (or whomever is elected) will decide what is best for everyone, and then impose that view on all Houstonians.

Politicians who invoke the "public welfare" believe that they know what is best for you, me, and every other Houstonian. We are simply too ignorant to know it. This is precisely the attitude that underlies government support for sports stadiums--we are too "selfish" to voluntarily support such an endeavor, so they will force us to do so.

I have nothing against billionaires. But I horribly resent anyone who thinks he has a right to take my money for his benefit. The size of his bank account, nor the number of political supporters he can gather, does not change the fact that he is a thief. And I harbor even greater resentment at the politicians who enable this legalized plunder.

Any politician who must justify any proposal or policy on the basis of the "public welfare" or the "common good" or anything similar is simply seeking to rationalize legalized robbery of the citizenry. Where I come from, taking money from someone without his consent is theft, and that is precisely what Locke and his ilk propose to do.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

When Driving is a "Privilege" and Health Care is a "Right"

It is bad enough that the average citizen has no clear idea as to the meaning of the concept "rights". It is even worse when a judge is equally clueless. For example, in a letter to the Chronicle, County Criminal Court Jay Karahan writes:
Driving is a privilege, not a right, and there is a legal duty for each driver to give his or her best efforts to do so safely.

While a large segment of the American people think that health care is a right, another segment believes that driving is not a right. These views are simply flip sides of the same coin.

A right is, as Ayn Rand identified, a sanction to freedom of action in a social setting. Rights pertain only to action, not the consequences of action. Rights provide a sanction to act according to one's own judgment, free from coercion or interference from others, so long as you respect the mutual rights of others.

Those who view health care as a right seek to limit the freedom of doctors, patients, and insurance companies. Under the proposed health care "reforms" doctors will be force to accept payments as specified by the government and provide treatments dictated by bureaucrats. Patients will receive only those treatments allowed by government, while insurance companies will be compelled to insure pre-existing conditions and receive government approval for the policies they offer. No matter who you are, your freedom to act according to your own judgment will be restricted and controlled by government.

Having expanded the concept of "rights" into a meaningless term, statists can then declare that legitimate rights are merely privileges bestowed by the state. The state "allows" you to drive, so long as you meet whatever terms it demands. To the judge (and those who share his view) individuals may act only with the permission of government.

This perversion has profound implications. If legitimate rights are "privileges" and mere desires are "rights", every human action becomes subject to government scrutiny and control. If the freedom to act is only a privilege, government may revoke its permission at will. If the desire of one individual is a claim on the actions of another, each individual's life becomes subject to the whims of others.

The fact is, driving is a right. Individuals have a moral right to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy their lives. This includes the right to move about freely if one possess the means and desire to do so. (One does not have a right to be provided transportation--such as light rail or bus service--by others.) To declare otherwise is to claim that individuals do not have a right to their own life.

This is the meaning of "health care is a right" and "driving is a privilege". Those who advocate such ideas do not view individuals as independent, autonomous entities who may act for their own benefit. They view individuals as disposable "cells" in the organism of society and each must act for the "common good". Those who refuse to do so "voluntarily" may properly be forced to follow the demands and dictates of government.

While statists are aiming their regulations and controls at our actions, their real goal is to control our minds. They want to render the judgment of doctors and patients moot--we will not be allowed to act on our judgment without government approval. They dislike the choices made by some individuals--whether the developers of the Ashby High Rise, or "greedy" insurance companies, or "unscrupulous" doctors, or distracted drivers--and they want to eliminate everyone's ability to choose. Which means, they want to paralyze our minds, and destroy everything a thinking, rational mind makes possible.