Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Highlights of the First Half of 2009

I have covered a lot of topics during the first half of the year. Below are some of the posts that I most enjoyed.

An Interview with Gus Van Horn--In this interview I discuss challenges to Objectivist bloggers, intellectual activism, and other topics with the popular blogger.

My Virtual Mayoral Campaign--While this "campaign" has garnered little attention, working out my positions on various issues--such as a Statement of Principles, city assets, crime, taxes, city services, and the economy--was a lot of fun and an interesting intellectual challenge.

An Interview With Brian Phillips--In this two-part interview, I interview myself. Again, this was a fun and interesting challenge. I asked fair, but challenging questions and did not throw myself softballs, as tempting as that was.

Government Without Taxation--In this six-part article, I demonstrated that voluntary support of government is both practical and moral.

Two other highlights not related to this blog were my speech to the Houston Property Rights Association and my article in The Objective Standard.

One of the challenges of writing a daily blog is to find fresh ideas that are interesting to me. Unfortunately, there seems to be no shortage of issues to address, as politicians on every level seem to be intent on destroying every vestige of property rights.

When I started this blog one of my primary goals was to build a library of information on property rights. Specifically, I wanted to address the various attacks on property rights and present a moral defense of the right to property. I am now approaching 300 posts, and while many do not specifically address property rights issues, I am pleased with the breadth and depth of the issues I have covered.

Another purpose of starting this blog was to provide myself with an outlet for my writing. After nearly fifteen years of self-imposed writing exile (largely due to business pursuits) the "writing bug" struck me again in early 2008. This blog has allowed me to work on the craft of writing. While I will not claim that every post approaches literary genius, I have seen an improvement in my writing. While practice alone may not make perfect, practice is a necessary component of improving any skill.

I have long been interested in property rights issues for two reasons. The first is, as Ayn Rand said, without property rights no other rights are possible. The second is the widespread misunderstanding regarding property rights and their application. This last provides a very interesting intellectual challenge in trying to identify the application of property rights to specific situations, such as the oceans or neighborhoods.

While this blog is primarily about me--my interests and my improvement--it is rewarding that my readership has steadily grown. I write primarily for myself, but it is nice to know that others appreciate what I have to say. So I thank everyone who has supported this blog in whatever form.

I look forward to the day when I can find no violations of property rights to address. But I think it is very safe to say that it won't be in the second half of 2009.

Monday, June 29, 2009

An Act of God, or TOBA?

Advocates of the Texas Open Beaches Act (TOBA) frequently defend the law by declaring that those who build on the beach are aware of the possibility that their land may some day be seized by the state. In an OpEd article in Saturday's Chronicle, real estate attorney Daryl Bailey writes:
[T]he exercise of such authority by the state is a far cry from when it is exercised to make way for development. In fact, it is the opposite, to prevent development of public areas that exist because of an act of God, not an act of the state.
Wikipedia describes an "act of God" as:
Act of God is a legal term for events outside of human control, such as sudden floods or other natural disasters, for which no one can be held responsible.
Bailey is referring to Hurricane Ike as an "act of God", but it wasn't Ike that wrote TOBA. While Ike may have changed the vegetation line, Ike did not mandate that land outside of that line is a "public beach".

In her essay "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made" Ayn Rand writes:
Any natural phenomenon, i.e., any event which occurs without human participation, is the metaphysically given, and could not have occurred differently or failed to occur; any phenomenon involving human action is the man-made, and could have been different.
An "act of God"--such as Hurricane Ike--is the metaphysically given; TOBA is the man-made. And it is TOBA that is responsible for the seizure of private property. In other words, while no individual is responsible for the devastation caused by Ike, the Texas Legislature is responsible for the devastation caused by TOBA. For Bailey to imply otherwise is intellectually dishonest.

In her article Ayn Rand goes on to write:
It is the metaphysically given that must be accepted: it cannot be changed. It is the man-made that must never be accepted uncritically: it must be judged, then accepted or rejected and changed when necessary. Man is not omniscient or infallible: he can make innocent errors through lack of knowledge, or he can lie, cheat and fake. The man-made may be a product of genius, perceptiveness, ingenuity—or it may be a product of stupidity, deception, malice, evil. One man may be right and everyone else wrong, or vice versa (or any numerical division in between).
As a man-made phenomenon, TOBA must be judged. Bailey would have us treat it as the metaphysically given--as an immutable fact that cannot be changed. It exists, and therefore it must be good. At the same time, he regards public access to beaches as a natural right, while simultaneously discarding the actual rights of property owners:
On one side of the eye is the right to public beaches — created by Ike’s fury. On the dirty side — some might say — are the rights of a few owners of private property who are trying to assert a new exemption from the 50-year-old Texas Open Beaches Act (TOBA).
Bailey's choice of words is quite revealing. Those who assert their property rights are on the "dirty side" (this is a reference to the northeast quadrant of a hurricane, which typically has the most rain and wind). Those who want to seize private property, we must conclude, are "clean". While such language is certainly "cute", it is nothing more than a smear against those who are angry that their property is being taken by the state.

Theft is theft, no matter how many people support it, whether it is done by private thugs or under the pretense of law. And theft is never clean. It is a violation of individual rights, and the perpetrator is not God, but the government.

That defenders of TOBA routinely argue that the victims were warned about the law demonstrates their callous disregard for individual rights and individual lives. While posturing as humanitarian guardians of "the public", they do not hesitate to destroy the lives of some of the individuals who constitute that public.

Their justification for trampling on individuals is altruism. They believe that the individual must place the welfare and interests of others before his own, that the "good of society" or the "public welfare" supersede any individual good. And who will determine the "public welfare"? The public, or their appointed spokesmen. This elevates "the public" above any principles; "the public" may do as it pleases with no constraints. If a few "dirty" individuals get hurt in the process, that's just too bad.

Ironically, while supporters of TOBA substitute society for God as the ultimate moral authority, they rely on an "act of God" to justify their brazen and heartless thievery. Their ethics are just as irrational as the most devout mystic, and the consequences are the same--the use of force as the means for dealing with others.

Neither TOBA nor any other statist policy can be defeated while clutching to altruism. Defenders of liberty must reject the premise that man's purpose for existence is to serve others. More importantly, they must defend the right of each individual to his own life, his own liberty, the pursuit of his own happiness, and his own property.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 31

A Pointless Statistic
neoHouston presents a long argument showing that Houstonians pay much higher property tax bills than other major cities. This, he claims, makes housing less affordable. While there is truth in this, he fails to address one significant difference between Houston and other cities.

He uses a $100,000 home to compare tax rates between Houston, LA, New York City, and Chicago. While this is perhaps useful for his purposes, it is pointless. I seriously doubt that anyone can find a home in New York City for $100,000, unless you consider a cardboard box in some alley a home.

While our property taxes may be higher, we get a lot more house for our money. As I wrote in The Objective Standard:

In Houston, a house of two thousand square feet costs about $120,000. In New York City, the average apartment of fifteen hundred square feet costs more than $1.7 million.

As I demonstrated in that article, the primary cause of this difference is government intervention in land-use. So, while property taxes may increase the cost of home ownership in Houston, home ownership is still affordable to the middle class. Statistics are only useful when used in context--the full context.

Tinkering with Details

Earlier this month mayoral candidate Peter Brown held a press conference, during which he called for city council to cut its budget by 2%. He said:

[W]e need to use our resources smarter and more efficiently, but we’ve got to uphold our commitments to the citizens of the City of Houston. It would be completely irresponsible to cut off vitally needed resources for essential services such as police, fire and infrastructure.

I seldom agree with Mr. Brown, and this isn't any different. The city should get out of the infrastructure business. While using its resources more efficiently is always a good idea, the city should be reducing its intervention in the economy and our lives. Doing do would require fewer resources, and allow Houstonians to keep more of their money.

Brown is just tinkering with details, rather than addressing the real issue--the city government has expanded far beyond its proper functions.

Texas Secession

Calls for Texas secession have been going on for a long time. They probably started shortly after Texas joined the Union. While I harbor a teensy-weensy bit of empathy for those who would like to establish an independent republic, secession is not the answer. While Texans might free themselves from the dictates of Washington, the dictates from Austin can be just as destructive.

One secession group, the Texas Nationalist Movement, illustrates the inanity of the secession movement. Their web site states their goals, which include:
  • Preserving Texas history and culture

  • Educating Texans and the world about Texas history and culture

  • Celebrating Texas history and culture

  • Defending Texas history and culture

  • Improving and supporting the way of life of Texas communities
Texas was a slave state. I don't regard that part of our history to be worth celebrating or preserving. More importantly, this fascination with all things Texas is a crude form of collectivism.

Texas is certainly more pro-business than other states. But Austin is increasingly interfering with businesses, property rights, and the lives of the citizenry. Simply divorcing ourselves from Washington will not change much if current trends continue.

If the secession movement advocated laissez-faire capitalism and individual rights, it might be worthy of consideration. But it doesn't and it isn't. Ideas matter, and the secession movement embraces the same altruist/ collectivist ideas that dominate our culture. The results of those ideas will be the same, whether our masters reside in Austin or Washington.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Sign of the Times?

On Wednesday a federal judge declared Houston's 1993 sign ordinance unconstitutional. The ruling concluded a trial in which Houston Balloons & Promotions sued the city. The company was awarded damages of $927,841 with an additional $187,000 for expenses and attorneys fees.

After the verdict, Jim Purtee--the owner of Houston Balloons & Promotions-- said:
I’m a small-businessman, and it was a tough decision to go against the fourth-largest city in the country. I think it’s a victory against how many cities in this country treat their citizens and the way they enforce their laws.

The judge ruled that the ordinance was vague and arbitrarily enforced. Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel does not anticipate the ruling having any implications regarding the city's recent ban on "attention-getting devices". Purtee and other business owners plan to challenge that ban.

Purtee's victory is certainly encouraging. But given the pragmatic, out of context mentality that dominates our culture, it could be isolated. It is likely that a future judge will not see that such ordinances are, by their very nature, arbitrary.

The lawyer for Purtee told the Chronicle:
The city’s going to have to be very careful in how it enforces the new ordinance starting in January. If they enforce it literally and ban car lot streamers and banners along with inflatables, they’ll likely face an array of challengers. If they don’t, and they discriminate, they’ll be in the same boat as this case.

While inconsistent enforcement of the new ordinance would certainly strengthen the case against the ban, it is likely that a future judge will not see that such ordinances are, by their very nature, arbitrary.

The ban on "attention-getting devices"--and indeed, the city's entire sign ordinance--substitutes the judgment and decisions of bureaucrats and politicians for those of business owners. The city has justified banning inflatables by calling them distracting; restrictions on billboards and other signs are justified by calling them ugly. Distracting to whom? Ugly to whom? And by what standard?

Causing distractions does not violate the rights of anyone. Nor does erecting ugly signs. If causing a distraction or displaying something ugly is proper grounds for banning certain activities, there is no end to the activities that should be prohibited.

Is an inflatable gorilla more distracting than a van full of children? Is a billboard uglier than a fat chick in spandex?

The proper purpose of government is the protection of our rights, including property rights. It is not a proper purpose of government to dictate good taste. If it were, city council would be required to prohibit most of its actions.

City council should not be concerning itself with what kind of signs we erect outside of our business. They should not be concerned with what is ugly or pretty, distracting or informative. They should not be imposing their values--or those of their political cronies--on the citizenry. They should leave us be, and protect our right to pursue our own happiness as we choose, so long as we respect the mutual rights of others. Until council does so, they will remain a much bigger distraction than any giant gorilla. And far uglier too.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Electric "Deregulation" Double-Speak

It's June in Houston, and it's hot. Which means, it's time for State Rep. Sylvester Turner to issue his annual call for the state utility commission to prohibit any utility from shutting off power to a customer who doesn't pay his bill. While most utilities have voluntarily programs that they institute during the summer, this isn't good enough for Turner:
What we don’t need to see happen is we don’t need to have news stories of seniors or critical care customers who are in the hospital or dying because of the heat and then we decide to step in and do something.

But what we do need to see, according to Turner, is government coercion used against power companies. What we do need to see is a business forced to provide service to those who cannot pay for it.

Lest I sound like some kind of ogre, I spent two weeks after Hurricane Ike without electricity. So I have some idea of what it is like to be without air conditioning--it is not pleasant. Granted, the weather was somewhat cooperative and I did have a generator, but these provided only partial relief.

Turner has long been an advocate of using coercion against utilities for the alleged benefit of low-income citizens. He is certainly not alone in that regard. In 2007 Mayor Bill White appeared at a town hall meeting with Turner. White--like most politicians of his ilk--distorted the facts for political purposes:
They say there is competition. But there is not. That's a rip-off. You cannot have a situation where there are really two major monopolies and nobody regulates them without someone ripping you off.

White would like us to believe that "deregulation" is the same thing as an absence of regulation. He would like us to believe that a loosening of controls is the same thing as the removal of controls. The fact is, despite "deregulation" utility companies in Texas remain regulated. Consider this statement from the web site of the Texas Public Utilities Commission:
We are responsible for regulating certain services provided by telephone and electric utilities in Texas and for protecting utility customers.

I agree with White that a rip-off is occurring. But who is the victim? Who is the perpetrator? And if a monopoly does exist, what is the nature of that monopoly and how did the utilities achieve that status?

White and Turner would have us believe that consumers are the victims of the "unregulated" utilities, despite the fact that utilities are regulated. They would have us believe that politicians of their sort are truly concerned about the welfare of consumers. They would have us believe that government intervention can solve the problems created by government intervention.

Coercive monopolies cannot exist without government intervention--only government can prohibit entry into an industry. As Ayn Rand wrote:

Every coercive monopoly was created by government intervention into the economy: by special privileges, such as franchises or subsidies, which closed the entry of competitors into a given field, by legislative action.

If power companies are a monopoly, it is because of government intervention. (For an excellent expose on the history of utilities, see Raymond Niles' article in The Objective Standard.) Despite the platitudes of White and Turner, it is government intervention that gives utilities their monopoly status. And government intervention continues to plague the industry, regardless of claims to the contrary.

If White and Turner are truly concerned about the plight of low-income citizens, then they would not misrepresent the state of the industry. They would not make claims that are blatantly false. They would not ignore their own role in driving up the cost of electricity.

The solution--as in every industry--is not more government regulations and controls. The solution is to recognize the rights of electricity providers to use their property as they choose. The solution is to truly deregulate--to remove all restrictions on the provision of electricity.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Visionaries and Houston Housing

On Monday, a local blogger listed three factors that determine where and what type of development occurs in Houston:
  • Government policy
  • Market forces
  • Developer conservatism
He notes that developers often lag consumer demands/ desires:
Thus it’s really proper to think of the supply of housing types and neighborhood styles as a lagging indicator of the demand for housing types and neighborhood styles. If everyone decided tomorrow that Tuscan was out and Tudor was back in, homebuilders would continue to build Tuscan until there was enough evidence that the trend back towards Tudor was solid.
I don't doubt the truth of this. It is true of many, if not most, industries. But why? And perhaps more importantly, how do businesses identify changing consumer tastes and desires? In other words, how will builders know that Tuscan is out and Tudor is in?

Let us consider housing in one small area of Houston--downtown. I lived downtown in the mid-1980's. At the time, there were only a handful of places to live--the Houston House and 2016 Main being the most significant. Today, there are dozens of options. This did not happen because of government policy. It did not happen because developers suddenly realized that converting buildings to residences would be successful.

It occurred because one man--Randall Davis--had a vision. He saw a need and he sought to satisfy it. He converted unused buildings into homes and started the downtown housing boom. He anticipated a demand, and when he proved his vision to be correct, others then followed.

This is the general trend in most industries--a visionary identifies a better product or service and offers it to the market. If his judgment is correct he (and consumers) benefits. And other producers then follow his lead. If he is wrong, he and his investors suffer the consequences. In short, the market determines if the visionary is correct or not.

To claim that demand creates supply is to reject Say's Law, which holds that supply creates demand. Or, as worded by James Mills:
[P]roduction of commodities creates, and is the one and universal cause which creates a market for the commodities produced.

In the context of the present discussion, developers (or at least one developer) created a supply of downtown housing. The demand then followed.

The visionary developer relies on his own judgment to determine what and where to build. By definition, he bucks the trend--he reaches a conclusion not shared by others. And he must rely on the independent judgment of consumers that his assessment is correct.

In Houston this process occurs with fewer government restrictions than other cities. Consequently, land uses change with relative ease. Developers can create supply without groveling at the feet of bureaucrats, trying to convince them that the developer's judgment is correct. This freedom is the primary cause of Houston's affordable and plentiful housing options.

A notable exception is the Ashby High Rise. The city government has prohibited the developers from acting according to their judgment. City officials have substituted their decisions for those of the developers and consumers. And they have used the power of law to enforce their decisions.

Ayn Rand regularly pointed out that government restrictions are, at root, an attack on the mind. They prohibit individuals from acting according to their own judgment, in the pursuit of their own values. More than other cities, Houston has respected the right of individuals exercise their own judgment and act accordingly. Houston has allowed developers like Randall Davis to be free. And all of us have benefited.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Path to Destruction

If I claimed that the leading candidates for mayor in Houston--Annise Parker and Peter Brown--are fascists, most Houstonians would dismiss me as a lunatic. But I am willing to take that chance, because they are fascists and I am not a lunatic.

To begin, I will define my terms. Contrary to popular opinion, fascism is not an extreme form of capitalism, but its opposite. Fascism is a form of statism--of government control over business, property, and the lives of the citizens. As Ayn Rand wrote in "The Fascist New Frontier":
Under fascism, citizens retain the responsibility of owning property, without freedom to act and without any of the advantages of ownership.

Consider that both Parker and Brown favor regulation of land-use. Brown supported zoning in the 1990s and is a fervent opponents of billboards. Parker supported the preservation ordinance and opposed the Ashby High Rise.

Neither calls for government seizure of private property--they simply want to dictate how citizens may use their property. Neither opposes the fact that citizens must pay taxes and upkeep for their property--they simply want citizens to seek government permission to use their property. Private "ownership" with government control is the defining characteristic of fascism. But ownership without control is a contradiction.

The fascist tendencies of Parker and Brown do not stop there. Brown, for example, wants more government involvement in the city's economy. He proposes creating an Economic Development Office:

A General Economic Development Plan will coordinate the city's efforts in an intelligent way resulting in well-planned and predictable growth.

Government is an agent of force, and when it plans something the citizens must obey. In the context of the economy, government economic planning means that businesses must adhere to the city's plan under threat of fines, imprisonment, or both. Brown is not content to let individual make their own plans and act accordingly. He wants an economic czar to plan Houston's economy and force every business owner to honor his edicts.

Parker is no better. She wants to build "partnerships" with the oil and gas industry to create jobs. As Ayn Rand wrote:

"Partnership" is an indecent euphemism for "government control." There can be no partnership between armed bureaucrats and defenseless private citizens who have no choice but to obey.

Parker wants to forge a "partnership" in which her word is final, in which her demands are to be obeyed or else. I should not have to point out that, when government is involved, "or else" means "go to jail".

In addition to similar ends, both politicians are using similar means--both are calling for a consensus among Houstonians. Parker calls it "engaging the community"; Brown calls it a "common vision". Both terms mean the same thing--finding a "safe", middle ground that "everyone" can agree to. Both seek to forge compromise between the various interests involved.

In principle, this is a complete rejection of principles. What compromise is possible between a banker and a thief? What compromise is possible between an advocate of property rights and an advocate of zoning? What compromise is possible between an individual who upholds his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and a statist who declares that the individual's life and property belong to the government? In truth, no compromise is possible because any concession on the part of the advocate of individual rights means a complete surrender. In this context, to give an inch literally means to give it all.

Undoubtedly, a certain type of businessman will approve of the tactics endorsed by Brown and Parker. But what of the thousands of businessmen who do not? What of the businesses that will not grovel at their feet seeking government favors? They will be thrown under the bus and sacrificed for the “public good”.

Either Parker or Brown will likely be the next mayor of Houston. The only difference between them lies in the particular groups upon which they will dispense favors. They differ in details, but not in principle. Each wants more control over our businesses, our property, and our lives. Each advocates positions that will destroy jobs, increase the cost of living, and reduce choices. Each wants to take us down a path that will ultimately lead to the destruction of all that is great about Houston.

Monday, June 22, 2009

What Can One Do?

In her essay "What Can One Do?" Ayn Rand writes:

Speak on any scale open to you, large or small--to your friends, your associates, your professional organizations, or any legitimate public forum. You can never tell when your words will reach the right mind at the right time.

A friend--Joe Reed--recently demonstrated this in a simple, but effective way. His city, a suburb of Houston, has zoning. Home owners in his neighborhood were protesting a variance request by a nearby property owner. Joe wrote the following letter to a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission:

I am a homeowner in the Oak Creek subdivision. It has come to my attention
that the owner of a piece of commercial property adjacent to my neighborhood,
Mr. Tim Wood, is requesting a zoning variance (case number BP09-01R).

The purpose of the city government and its various departments should be
the protection of property rights. Based on the information I have received on
the matter, I believe the Planning and Zoning Commission is failing to perform
this function. I believe that the property rights of Mr. Wood are being
violated. Here's why:

(1) Although I was not in attendance at the first hearing, I was told that
the planning board received over 30 emails from homeowners in my subdivision,
and that between 10-15 homeowners spoke to the commissioners at the meeting.
According to the map I've seen, the property in question backs up to only two or
three houses at the front of the Oak Creek subdivision. Assuming their argument
was that they did not want to look over their back fence and see a warehouse
(which I've been told is what Mr. Wood is building), I think it is wrong to
allow homeowners who would not be directly affected to have a voice in the
matter. For example, I received a flyer on my door requesting support against Mr.
Wood's plans (in addition to several emails), even though I live several blocks
away from the property. Why should I (and the other 150 or so homeowners in the
neighborhood) be able to keep Mr. Wood from building on his own land, when I
wouldn't even be able to see what he's built? The opinions of those who are not
even directly impacted by the variance request should be thrown out as
irrelevant- no matter how many there are. The basic principle in question is
property rights, and these should not be up for a vote.

(2) As for the two or three homeowners whose property is directly adjacent
to the property in question, they should not be able to dictate what Mr. Wood
can and cannot build on his own land, either. There is no inalienable right to
an unobstructed view from one's back door. They built houses at the edge of the
neighborhood, next door to (at the time) undeveloped land. They cannot demand
that the land remain untouched forever more. If they want to control what
happens on the adjacent property, then they could/should purchase it. The true
meaning of property rights is the right to use your own property as you see fit,
and not to dictate to others how they should be allowed to use theirs.

(3) I learned (independently of the flyer and emails I received) that there is a
potential issue with sewage service for the property in question. Apparently the
property does not currently have access to a sewage system. As I understand the
situation, this means that Mr. Wood would need to either build an on-site septic
system, or tie into a nearby sewage system (i.e., Oak Creek's). I've been told
that these options are unacceptable to the various parties.

I have heard that some types of septic systems cause odors to the
surrounding area that some find offensive. However, at this time, that is merely
a potential problem, since no such system has yet been built on the property.
Assuming that Mr. Wood builds such a system, and that it turns out to be
unacceptable to the nearby neighbors, then there are existing nuisance laws on
the books that can be used to deal with the situation if/when it actually
exists. The point is that there must exist an actual- not a potential- nuisance
before action can/should be taken. To block Mr. Wood's plans at this time, based
only on the potential for some future problem is just morally wrong. He should
be perfectly free to build whatever type of septic system he wants to (and can
afford). If he chooses now to build a system that will create a nuisance later,
then he should be prepared to deal with nuisance law violations later- when they
actually occur. If the costs of dealing with the problem later turn out to be
unacceptable at that time, then too bad for him- let the fines begin! In any
case, he should have the freedom to make those choices, and deal with the
consequences. He should not have to beg for permission from the Commission, or
the nearby homeowners, ahead of time.

As for the other option (tying into Oak Creek's sewage line), that should
be dealt with by direct negotiations between the property owner and Oak Creek
(or whatever the name of the party that represents the actual owner of the
land), independently of any zoning commission. Oak Creek owns the land through
which the other property owner wants access (to tie into the sewage system). If
Oak Creek determines that it does not want to provide access, then the other
property owner is out of luck. If the other property owner cannot convince Oak
Creek to allow access, then he must find another solution. If he cannot find
another alternative solution, then again, too bad for him. He has no right to
demand access, just as Oak Creek has no right to keep him from trying. If no
agreement between the parties can be reached, so be it. One party or the other
may walk away empty-handed, but no property rights have been violated in doing

Note that I am not in any way associated with Mr. Wood, and have in fact
never met or had any contact with him. My arguments are based strictly on the
moral premise that property rights are to be protected, not violated, by the
government, and that they should never be determined by popular vote. The
property owner has the moral right to use his property as he sees fit.

The Commission should fulfill its obligation to uphold the rights of
property owners, and should therefore grant the request to Mr. Wood.

I am happy to report that Mr. Wood's variance was granted. I suspect that Joe's letter had more impact than we will ever know. As he told me prior to sending the letter, he was greatly outnumbered by his neighbors. Yet, despite the mass of people opposed to the variance, one rational, principled voice carried the day. Congratulations Joe.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 30

Parker on Infrastructure

Mayoral candidate Annise Parker recently released a white paper on the city's infrastructure. Claiming that she will reform how the city provides roads, sanitation facilities, and bridges, she writes:

Infrastructure funding decisions are made in a yearly budget process that, even when it works well, can be intensely political. The short-term interests of politicians who can serve only six years may not coincide with the long-term planning necessary to maintain and upgrade our infrastructure.

So what is her proposal for reform? She wants to create a dedicated fund for infrastructure that will remove politics from the process.

Those who are unable to think in principles may find this plausible and consider it an effort at reform. But tinkering with details is not reform--it is tinkering with details. True reform means to change the essential character of the item or issue in question.

Parker believes that a dedicated fund will remove politics from infrastructure decisions. But politicians will remain in control of the process, which means, politics will invariably be involved in one form or another. If she truly wishes to get politics out of the process, then she should advocate getting politicians out of the process. In other words, she should advocate privatizing the city's infrastructure.

Parker concludes her paper:

Houston is the best place in America to live and raise a family. To keep it that way, we need a government that takes care of the basics – and makes sure that all voices are heard as these important decisions are made. That’s my job as your next mayor.

This is a large part of why Parker's alleged reform won't amount to anything. If "all voices are heard" on these important issues, how will she reconcile the competing and contradictory ideas she hears? The answer is quite simple: Those with the most political influence will get their way, which means, nothing will change.

Brown on Crime

Mayoral candidate Peter Brown also recently released a white paper. His addressed crime in Houston, and like Parker, he thinks that tinkering with details amounts to reform. He too is wrong.

Apparently, the way to address crime is through better relationships:

Almost half of Houston's police force is behind a desk instead of out on patrol, keeping us safe. Peter’s plan would get police officers out of downtown and into the community. Police officers will get to know our neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods will get to know their local officers, fostering relationships of trust and accountability, whether you live in Kingwood or the Third Ward.

In other words, if the citizens get to know police officers, criminals will lay down their guns, quit breaking into homes, and change their ways. If we all just sit in our front yards singing Kumbaya crime will plummet.

As sweet as this may sound, it isn't the way to combat crime. The most effective method for reducing crime is to punish criminals--those who violate the rights of other individuals. And the best way to accomplish this is quit wasting time on policing strip clubs, running prostitution stings, and otherwise interfering with the voluntary, consensual activities of adults.

The Cult of Compromise
Both Parker and Brown have called for greater citizen input into the decisions made by government officials. This is a common theme among politicians, who like to posture themselves as "servants of the people". What the politicians don't tell us is--the process of greater citizen input demands that all parties compromise.

For example, if some citizens demand that billboards be outlawed, while the billboard companies want to retain their moral right to use their property, how can politicians reconcile these diametrically opposite demands? We can find the answer by looking at history--the billboard companies will accept some controls and regulations and the anti-billboard crowd will accept a reduced presence of billboards. In short, both sides compromise.

But the result is actually a complete victory for those who oppose billboards, for the billboard companies have conceded that their business, their property, their lives can be disposed of by others. The billboard companies have conceded that their rights are subject to the approval of others, and the only issue to be decided is which rights will be violated and to what extent. As we have seen, once this principle is conceded, it is only a matter of time before the statists are knocking on the door demanding more blood.

Underlying this process is the belief that developing a consensus will lead us to the truth. If enough citizens express their views, the truth will emerge out of the mish-mash of conflicting ideas. In short, while one Houstonian is probably wrong, a million Houstonians can create the truth.

Truth is not determined by a vote. Reality is not malleable to the demands of the majority. And these facts will not change, no matter how many people believe otherwise.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Houston: The City I Love, Part 5

Freedom and Responsibility

Freedom means the absence of coercion. It means that each individual can act according to his own judgment without interference from others, so long as he respects their mutual rights. Freedom allows us to choose our values and the means by which we will attain them.

Freedom does not give us a claim to the values produced by others. It does not mean that others must satisfy our desires or needs.

Freedom carries with it the responsibility to choose wisely. If we choose wisely, we reap the benefits. If we choose poorly, we bear the consequences.

There are however, many who do not like this fact. They desire certain values but do not wish to engage in the actions necessary to attain them. They do not like the options available to them—such as transportation—and they seek to use government force to create additional options. In doing so, they limit the freedom of choice and options available to others—they compel other individuals to provide financial support for their values.

There are those who want an easy commute, and rather than move or find a new job, they demand that government build light rail for them. There are those who want their neighborhood to remain unchanged, and they demand that government prohibit the construction of certain projects. There are those who want “walkable” neighborhoods, and they demand that government mandate wider sidewalks and more green space. Such individuals have no reservations ceding their rights to government. Nor do they have a problem sacrificing the rights of their neighbors to satisfy their own desires.

More than other American cities, Houston has rejected these calls in the past and protected the rights of its citizens. The economic benefits that we enjoy—affordable housing, job growth, and a lower cost of living—are the practical benefits of this freedom. The many options we have in regard to places of employment and housing are a consequence of freedom of choice—both ours and that of our fellow Houstonians. Their freedom allows them to offer options to us, and our freedom allows us to choose those that satisfy our values.

I love Houston, and not just because I live here. I choose to live here, because I love and value freedom.

The prosperity that Houstonians enjoy has a cause. We will not and cannot continue to experience economic growth while destroying its cause. We will not and cannot continue to enjoy an abundance of affordable housing options while enacting more controls and restrictions on developers and builders. We will not and cannot solve our traffic problems by ceding more control to government.

Each individual has a moral right to pursue his own values without interference from others. Each of us has a moral right to our own life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness. This applies to every individual, gay or straight, white or black, Anglo or Hispanic, male or female.

Houston’s greatness is the result of recognizing this right more than any other city. Our continued greatness requires a renewed commitment to the principles of individual rights. Our continued greatness requires that we recognize and protect individual rights, completely and consistently. This is true in regard to housing, in regard to transportation, and in regard to how we conduct our businesses. It is true in every realm of our lives.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Houston: The City I Love, Part 4

Housing and Development
While many clamor for the government to do something about our congested freeways, they conveniently ignore evidence that demonstrates how the free market provides options to individuals without violating rights.

The absence of zoning in Houston has allowed developers and builders to respond to changing market conditions with relative ease. They can change land-use to its most efficient purpose without wading through mountains of red tape and groveling at the feet of bureaucrats.

One of the remarkable features of Houston is the fact that the city has multiple business districts—downtown, Greenway Plaza, the Galleria, and the Energy Corridor are just a few. Where other cities force businesses into specific areas—often downtown—Houston has largely allowed the market to determine where businesses locate.

This fact provides significant relief on transportation. Rather than forcing all workers to commute to the center of the city, many work in other areas of the city. Rather than all roads leading to downtown, many lead to other areas of the city.

This allows employees options not found in other cities. A resident of The Woodlands or Kingwood can work in Greenspoint and significantly reduce his commute. A resident of Katy can work in the Energy Corridor and do likewise.

The development of these business centers did not occur because of government mandates. They were built because businesses and developers saw a need and found a way to satisfy it. They did not need government planning, controls, or regulations to tell them that it made sense to build outside of the central business district. They relied on their own judgment, and that of their investors.

Just as freedom in land-use has provided multiple options in regard to the location of businesses, and hence employment, freedom in land-use has also provided many options in regard to housing. Recognizing that many Houstonians desire shorter commutes, developers have transformed many downtown buildings into lofts and other housing. They have converted lots with single-family homes into multiple town homes, which eloquently illustrates how the market responds when it is left free.

The price of land has risen dramatically inside The Loop in response to greater demand for housing in that area. Using this land for a single-family home makes little economic sense—the cost for a home would be out of reach for most Houstonians. However, if a particular lot is used to build four single-family town homes, the cost of the land per unit is greatly reduced. New housing can be built much more affordably. And the greater density of the housing meets the increased demand. This is what has happened in Rice Military, the Heights, Montrose, the Museum District, and many other areas of the city.

Again, developers did this without mandates from the city government. They acted according to their own independent judgment, in response to the market. And in fact, in some instances—such as the Ashby High Rise—they have been opposed by the city government.

In short, where individuals have been free to act according to their own judgment in the pursuit of their own values, everyone has benefited. Where government has imposed restrictions and prohibited such freedom—such as transportation—everyone has suffered.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Houston: The City I Love, Part 3


One of the more frequently voiced complaints about Houston is the lack of mass transportation. The absence of light rail makes citizens dependent upon the automobile, a fact that many dislike. While I would agree that light rail would be nice, one cannot consider goals out of context. Yet, this is precisely what advocates of light rail do.

From a practical point of view, light rail is highly dubious. Ridership numbers for the existing line are below projections and make no sense financially. Despite this, Metro wants to add five additional light rail lines. Expanding light rail reminds me of the joke about the business owner who was selling his products below cost, and hoped to turn a profit by doing more volume. This is exactly what Metro proposes to do.

Morally, there is no justification for government building light rail. Expanding the system will require that Metro seize private property against the will of the rightful property owners through eminent domain. That alone is reason to be against light rail. However, the evil goes even further.

Taxpayers will be forced to pay for the construction of the system, whether they support rail or not. And through taxes they will be forced to subsidize the transportation costs of the few riders Metro manages to attract.

Light rail is a statist response to a legitimate issue. Houston’s freeways are certainly congested, but the solution is not further violations of the rights of Houstonians. The solution is greater freedom.

The ideal solution is to privatize all roads, which is not going to occur any time soon. The government’s monopoly on roads prevents businesses and entrepreneurs from offering innovative solutions while recognizing the rights of all individuals. In every realm where the free market can operate, entrepreneurs provide more options, greater efficiency, and lower costs than government alternatives.

Because the privatization of roads is not politically possible at this time, the challenge is to devise a plan that will address a legitimate issue, while simultaneously recognizing individual rights. In other words, given that the government will invariably be involved in one form or another, how do we improve transportation without expanding government power?

The first step would be to repeal all laws that prohibit or regulate private transportation options—such as controls on taxis, private buses, and private toll roads. This would provide the private sector with opportunities that are not currently available.

The second step would be to close down Metro and sell its assets. This would reduce sales taxes by one percent, which alone would provide additional capital to businesses and individuals.

These two measures would remove many arbitrary restrictions on private businesses. If a sufficient market exists for mass transit, profit seeking entrepreneurs will find methods for satisfying that demand. If such a market does not exist, then taxpayers will be freed from the burden of supporting the boondoggle that is Metro.

A third step that should be taken is to sell rights-of-way along freeways and major streets to private businesses. Again, if a market exists for light rail, entrepreneurs would find a way to meet that demand without forcing taxpayers to subsidize the cost. And if a market does not exist, then nobody is harmed.

While these measures will not provide immediate relief, government programs and proposals do not do so either. More importantly, the measures I have proposed are a step in the proper direction—they reduce the controls on private individuals, reduce taxes, and allow for more options in meeting the transportation requirements of Houstonians.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Houston: The City I Love, Part 2

Property Rights and Economic Prosperity

More than any major city in America, Houston respects the property rights of its citizens. On three separate occasions Houstonians have rejected zoning—the most egregious violation of property rights prevalent in America.

The right to property means the right of use and disposal of material values. Ownership means the right to use one’s property as one judges best, in the pursuit of one’s own values. It means that one may use his property without interference from others, so long as he respects their mutual rights.

Zoning removes this right and subjects land-use to the control of government officials. Zoning requires the property owner to seek permission to use his property.

Land-use regulations have a significant impact on the affordability of housing. As I wrote in the Spring issue of The Objective Standard:

There is a direct correlation between freedom in land-use and economic prosperity. For example, University of Washington professor Theo Eicher found that Seattle and Washington State’s land-use regulations have increased the cost of a $450,000 median home in the city of Seattle by $200,000, even taking into account inflation and demand. That is a 44 percent increase. That $200,000 results in the typical Seattle homeowner paying an additional $1,100 a month in principal, interest, property taxes, and other charges that would not exist were it not for these rights-violating land-use regulations. The steep cost of zoning has made home ownership virtually impossible for a large percentage of Seattle’s residents.

A report issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas acknowledged that Houston’s low housing prices are largely the result of its relative respect for property rights:

Houston and other metros such as Dallas and Atlanta that have relatively more permissive development policies have lower housing prices than more restrictive places do.

At $155,800, Houston’s median house price is the third lowest among the 12 largest U.S. metropolitan areas and is less than half the average for these cities. Houston’s median price is lower than even the national average, which includes inexpensive rural areas.

By comparison, the median house price in metropolitan San Francisco, where zoning laws and building codes are very strict, is $825,400.

In other words, where land-use controls and other regulations on building are most restrictive, housing is more expensive, and often outrageously so. The consequences of these controls are not limited to home ownership—they impact the cost of doing business, and indeed the cost of living.

The absence of restrictive land-use controls in Houston allows developers to use land for its most efficient purpose. They can respond to the demands of the market, rather than the dictates of politicians and bureaucrats. They are free to act according to their own judgment, rather than pander to the whims of government officials.

Land-use regulations do not occur in a vacuum—they are usually accompanied with other controls on businesses and individuals. The mentality that embraces controls on land-use also embraces controls on other activities. Those who think it proper to dictate how their neighbors use their property do not limit themselves to land-use—virtually all activities are fair game. And with these controls come inefficiencies and additional costs. The end result is a higher cost of doing business, higher housing costs, and less economic activity—that is, job loss.

It is not a mere coincidence that those states with the most severe controls on economic activity are also the ones experiencing the most severe hardships during this recession. Just as freedom leads to economic prosperity, controls lead to economic stagnation and decline.

Those who want Houston to be like other cities—whether it is light rail, or more parks, or more land-use controls—cannot have it both ways. They cannot emulate the stagnant and decaying cities of the Rust Belt by enacting more controls and expect to escape similar consequences. They cannot expect us to embark on massive government projects and avoid the inevitable taxation that must result. They cannot expect us to enact the causes of economic collapse and yet avoid that outcome.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Houston: The City I Love

Politicians love to listen to citizen complaints. Complaints give the politician both a purpose and a justification. Solving the problem is the purpose, and the fact that the complaint was voiced to a government official provides justification for expanded government powers.

As an example, Annise Parker’s web site has a section titled “Houston Speaks”. Here, citizens can voice their displeasure about Houston and their opinions on how the city can be improved. The dominant issue raised on that page is the need for mass transit, and light rail in particular.

I’ve used the subway systems in both New York and London, and I will admit that they make for a relatively easy method for getting around town. Of course, the other alternatives can be expensive and difficult, and the city governments in those cities are largely responsible for this fact.

Much of the demand for rail in Houston seems to stem from similar experiences. Indeed, one poster on Parker’s site says: “I moved here from Chicago. Now that’s public transportation!” Another comment states: “Convenient neighborhood light-rail service to downtown and airport, like in other large cities.” In other words, these citizens want Houston to emulate other cities.

I have two questions to those who make such comments:

Something about Houston was enticing enough for you to move here, and stay here. What was/ is it?
If Chicago, or anywhere else, is so damn good, why didn’t you stay there?

These questions are rhetorical, because I am going to supply the answers in a moment. But I first would like to point out that underlying such comments is a gross evasion. Those who want Houston to emulate other cities ignore crucial facts about Houston and the cities they seem to love. They believe that there is nothing essentially different about Houston, other than the fact that we don’t have mass transit. And that, in their feeble minds, is a bad thing.

So what is it about Houston that attracts so many people that dislike our city? I’ve traveled the city far and wide for nearly thirty years, and I have yet to see a single sign advertising Houston as a Mecca for masochists. Since my arrival in 1980 I have heard an endless litany of complaints about Houston. Yet, our population continues to grow.

The reason is quite simple, but it seems to be lost on virtually every one of these whiners. We have jobs. Houston is filled with refugees from the Rust Belt—where jobs are disappearing faster than Boone’s Farm on skid row. And an increasing number are fleeing the West Coast and its obscene taxation.

Once in Houston, they pine for the “good old days” back in California, or New York, or whatever hell hole they fled. They want light rail, walkable neighborhoods, controlled growth, and all of the other things that created the problems in their Eden. They want to have their cake, and eat ours too.

The fact is, Houston is different from every other city in America. Houston shows a greater respect for individual rights—including property rights—than any other city. That fact is the primary reason why Houston created more jobs than any other city in 2008. That fact is the primary reason why our city has prospered. There is an indisputable connection between individual freedom and economic prosperity.

But freedom is not what many Houstonians want. They want to have their desires fulfilled by others, believing that if enough people support some proposal then it is proper and just. They don’t want to sit in their car for an hour drive to work, and have no qualms forcing their neighbor to help pay for a rail system. They want a nice house in the suburbs and a short commute. They want it all, and they want their neighbors to pay for it.

Just in case it isn’t clear, these people piss me off. They live in the greatest city in America, and they want to destroy it. They have no understanding of Houston’s greatness, the source of the jobs they are so happy to take, or the reason for our affordable housing. They view the economic benefits that they enjoy as a birthright, along with light rail and ample parks.

This week I will address this issue in more depth. I will indicate the connection between freedom in land-use and economic prosperity. I will show the vast number of options and choices available to Houstonians, in regard to both employment and where to live. I will show why Houston has more choices than the Shangri-Las these statists left behind. And finally, I will discuss why freedom of choice brings with it personal responsibility.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 29

Bar Boom on Washington Ave.
KHOU reports on the growing number of bars along Washington Avenue and the concerns being raised by residents of the area (HT: blogHouston). One resident is quoted:

We do want development. We want to see businesses come, but the right kind of businesses.

It’s too close to our houses. It’s too close to residential.

Residents have taken their complaints to the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, which licenses bars. As we all know, if we don't like something we should to run to government and demand that they shut down the offending activity.

There is a valid remedy disputes of this nature--nuisance laws. While the bars have a right to operate, they do not have a right to interfere with the rights of their neighbors. If they are creating loud noises late into the night or attracting excessive traffic, nuisance laws can be used to address these issues. Residents do not need to be running to the state to solve their problems.

A New York State of Mind
The New York state Senate turned into a circus this week when Republicans seized control with the help of two Democrats. The Chronicle offers details of this fiasco in an editorial:

The Democrats came unhinged. Smith [majority leader Malcolm Smith] stopped twiddling with his Blackberry but refused to recognize that he’d been ousted as majority leader. He and his secretary of the Senate locked the doors to the Capitol — literally — and refused to hand over the keys to the Senate.

New Yorkers must be proud. After Eliot Spitzer turned the state into a laughingstock, the Senate seems to be trying to do him one better.

Sign Enforcement is Arbitrary
Jim Purtee, owner of Houston Balloons & Promotions, is suing the city over its enforcement of a 1993 ordinance. The ordinance limited the number of days "attention-getting devices" could be displayed. Purtee filed a lawsuit in 2006 when his customers began getting ticketed for violating the ordinance.

The trial started on Wednesday, and the Chronicle reports:

When questioned Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore, the city’s sign administrator agreed that the enforcement of standards for balloons and other attention getters has been “arbitrary.”

This means that city officials are enforcing an arbitrary law arbitrarily. As Ayn Rand wrote:

That which cannot be formulated into an objective law, cannot be made the subject of legislation-not in a free country, not if we are to have “a government of laws and not of men.” An undefineable law is not a law, but merely a license for some men to rule others.
It is bad enough that city officials are enforcing the law at their whim. But city council now wants to expand this tyranny and strengthen the sign ordinance. KHOU reports that council is preparing changes to impose more restrictions on signs:
Under the changes, no new “electronic message boards” would be allowed within 150 feet of a residence. Most HISD schools would fall under this umbrella.

Broadly speaking, the new sign ordinance rules would limit the size and number of so-called on premise signs, which a business puts up on its property to advertise itself.

Council member Sue Lovell, who heads the "quality of life" commission, said:
We want people to be safe, we don’t want people to be distracted.

Ms. Lovell seems to think that if her motive is safety, then she can walk all over property rights. I want people to be safe too, but without freedom, safety is a non-issue. Besides, we really aren't very safe when government officials can arbitrarily seize our property or restrict our actions.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Is Nearly Naked a Nuisance?

A couple in Boulder, CO are being threatened with eviction from their rental house for gardening is very scanty attire (HT: Talk Left). Their landlord is claiming that they are creating a "public nuisance", which violates their lease agreement.

Police officers responding to a complaint found that the couple's dress (or lack thereof) was within the law. The couple, Catharine and Robert Pierce, argue that they are not breaking the law and that their rights are being violated:

"We want our freedom," Robert Pierce said. "We want exactly what the law gives you, and we don't want to be harassed about it."

My initial reaction to this story was mixed. At first I laughed at the seemingly prudish attitude of those quoted. And then I laughed at the transparency of these two aging hippies who appear to simply want to shock their neighbors. But there is an important issue involved in this story.

Wikipedia describes a "public nuisance" as:

In English criminal law, public nuisance is a class of common law offence in which the injury, loss or damage is suffered by the local community as a whole rather than by individual victims.

In the case of the Pierces, the alleged harm is resulting from the proximity of their home to nearby parks and school. Their landlord claims that their behavior is harming the community.

A community is nothing more than a number of individuals. A community--or any group--does not possess rights separate from its members. The only "rights" possessed by a community--or any group--are those possessed by the individuals comprising it. And those rights apply equally to everyone, including non-members of the group. In this context, if particular individuals are not being harmed, then some undefined entity known as "the community" is certainly not being harmed.

While there is no such thing as a "public nuisance", there are legitimate laws regarding nuisances. These pertain to property use or actions that pose a real and objective threat to other property owners. Actions such as loud music or sending noxious fumes over a fence are properly addressed through nuisance laws. However, those subjected to such actions can be identified--that is, real individuals are suffering real harm.

So the real question is whether nearly naked in public is truly a nuisance. Certainly, there are many among us who would argue yes. Children, they might argue, should not be subjected to such sights--it could cause them mental harm. But if the mere assertion of psychological harm were a valid claim against the actions of others, then virtually every one of us could make myriad claims against other citizens. For example, here is a partial list of things that really annoy me: gargoyles, pink shutters, people who chew with their mouth open, bumper stickers for liberal causes, bumper stickers for conservative causes, writers who use too many commas, and lists of annoying things. Such actions, while perhaps obnoxious or annoying, are not an objective threat to one's psychological well-being.

Psychological harm can be a violation of our rights, but only when objectively demonstrable. For example, if an individual burned a cross in his yard and hung nooses from his trees he has not damaged anyone's property or made an overt threat of physical harm. But his actions could instill fear in his neighbors, and particularly black neighbors. Such actions are an implied threat, given the history of such actions. Experiencing fear in such a context is an objective response.

The principle underlying valid nuisance laws is that each property owner has the right to the peaceful enjoyment of his property; the property owner must also recognize the mutual right of others. This is contextual--what is appropriate in a rural setting may be inappropriate in an urban or suburban setting. For example, conducting target practice in a suburban neighborhood violates the rights of one's neighbors--there is a real and objective threat of harm posed by such actions. What is appropriate in one's back yard or the privacy of one's bedroom, is not necessarily appropriate in one's front yard.

Being nearly naked in public poses neither an objective psychological threat nor a physical threat (complete nudity is another issue). It may be obnoxious and boorish, it may be disgusting to witness, but it does not violate the rights of anyone.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cy-Fair to Revoke Homestead Exemption

The Cypress-Fairbanks school district (Cy-Fair) is considering a proposal by Superintendent David Anthony to revoke the homestead exemption. According to the Chronicle:
Eliminating the 20 percent exemption would net the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District an extra $35 million for operating expenses and $10 million for debt service this year, he said.

Owners of a $100,000 home would see their bill rise by $287 over last year, according to district estimates. Senior citizens wouldn’t be affected by the hike.

Anthony also wants to raise the tax rate from $1.35 per $100 assessed value to $1.37 in response to a projected $28.8 million budget deficit.

Home owners in the Cy-Fair district are understandably upset at this proposed tax increase. But they aren't about to question the premise that underlies public education. One home owner is quoted:
It’s tight economic times. People don’t want to pay higher taxes, but at the same time we can’t abandon the children.

According to this taxpayer, the choice is between higher taxes and abandoning the children. And only some selfish ogre would even begin to consider abandoning the children. So taxpayers will just have to pony up.

This attitude treats education as a right. But a right pertains to action, not the results of action. Rights sanction freedom of action--the freedom to act according to one's judgment, so long as the mutual rights of others are respected. Any "right" that pertains to results--whether education, or housing, or health care--necessarily requires that some pay for the benefit of others. And this is precisely what the public education system does.

Government's proper purpose is the protection of our rights, not the provision of education. As with any improper government service, education has become a political football. Battles over textbooks, curriculum, and funding are routine as disparate groups compete for political influence and the power to impose their views and values on school districts.

As I wrote in May:
Public education involves the use of force on two levels—economically and intellectually. Economically, taxpayers are compelled to provide financial support for public schools. Intellectually, this means that taxpayers are compelled to support the teaching of ideas that they may oppose, such as evolution or creationism.

As long as the citizenry regards education as a right that must be funded with tax money, these issues will continue. As long as the premise that we are our brother's children's keeper remains unchallenged, the political battles over education will only intensify.

If the schools were privatized these battles would end. Parents could choose the schools that offered a curriculum to their liking. Taxpayers would not be forced to support schools that graduate functional illiterates. The home owner might consider this abandoning the children. The truth is, he and other parents have abandoned their children to a failing system, whether they want to admit it or not.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mayoral Preview: Roy Morales

Of the mayoral candidates, I have been most interested in hearing Roy Morales' positions. Unfortunately, his web site had very little information until recently. The retired Air Force officer currently is a Harris County School Trustee and business owner.

His web site addresses four issues: The Economy, City Services, Public Safety, and A New Vision.

On the economy, Morales sounds similar to the other candidates:
I will battle the current economic crisis by stimulating our economy, reducing the size of government and providing tax relief to our families. In the first 100 days of my administration, I will begin reducing the size of government. During these difficult times, when our citizens are struggling, we at City Hall need to set an example.

While I completely agree with reducing the size of government, he offers no concrete plan. As far as stimulating the economy, he claims that he will attract business. But the other candidates say the same thing. None have offered any specifics, and Morales is no different.

Morales argues that his military experience will help him fight crime:
I’m also the only candidate that has an active SECRET clearance and has had a TOP SECRET CLEARANCE with Sensitive Compartmented Information and Special Access Program accesses. This in-depth knowledge of our enemies will significantly assist me in protecting our region from man-made disasters.

I am not convinced that top secret clearance makes one better equipped to fight crime. And I am certain that phrases like "man-made disasters" are nothing more than political pandering. Ike was a disaster; 911 was a terrorist attack. Besides, fighting terrorists is primarily a federal responsibility.

Like the other candidates, Morales wants to assure us that city services won't suffer, even in these tough economic times:
I will ensure that the city improves your day-to-day services like trash pick-up, clean drinkable water to your homes and businesses, repairing your streets, and granting building permits in a timely manner. These improvements will be made by selecting better leadership in our city departments, using more efficient and effective procedures and cutting edge technology.

The problem isn't the leadership. The problem is that the government is doing things it shouldn't be doing. If Morales, or any candidate, truly wanted to improve services like water and trash collection it would privatize those services. If he wants to improve the permitting process, he should simply abolish it.

Morales' "New Vision" sounds a lot like stale altruism:
It is time to stop talking about breaking the cycle of poverty and start doing something about it. It should be our mission in the 21st century to move our children up the ladder of success not with welfare checks or government handouts but with education and hard work.

I certainly agree that education and hard work are important. But the only role the government should be playing in either is to get out of our way. But Morales wants to expand the mayor's role in education.

At the end of the day, Morales offers nothing new. He talks about cutting the size of government, but the absence of any specifics indicates that his reductions will be drops in the bucket. Like the other candidates, he embraces government's growing role in our lives. He just thinks that he will make a better czar.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Tax Haven in Texas

As a part of my platform for "virtual" mayor of Houston, I previously proposed that the city cut property taxes. I called for an initial reduction of 10% in the first month, and a reduction of 50% over six years. These reductions would be financially prudent if the city got out of the sanitation and water business, sold assets, and repealed regulations that violate individual rights.

I am sure that some find such proposals impractical--how could a city as large as Houston possibly balance its budget and reduce property taxes by half? As I have said many times, if the city government were limited to its proper functions--the police and the courts--its financial requirements would be a small fraction of what they are today. Reduced taxes would also improve the economy by allowing tax payers to keep more of their money.

An article in Monday's Chronicle provides evidence that such policies actually work when applied. Stafford--a suburb of Houston--has not levied property taxes since 1995. The city of 20,000 people relies on sales and franchise taxes (these too should be reduced, but that is a different issue). While other cities are struggling financially, Stafford has managed to reduce its debt and accumulate a cash reserve of $10 million.

The absence of property taxes provides tangible benefits to property owners. Home owners have lower mortgage payments. Business owners have more money to re-invest in their business. As a result, the city is attracting new businesses and recently placed number 36 on Fortune magazine's best places to launch a business.

While Stafford is exhibiting financial prudence, Houston city council members are gorging at the public trough. A Chronicle editorial reports that council members have increased their own budgets by 3.6% for the 2010 fiscal year. This has occurred despite Mayor White's insistence that the city make "difficult choices" and re-examine all spending.

In the past, council members have often approached the end of the fiscal year with money left in their budget. Last year several council members went on shopping sprees--two took staff members to Galveston, several bought new office furniture, and a total of 22 television sets were purchased. When Mayor White spoke of "difficult choices" I doubt he meant choosing between LCD and plasma.

In the context of the city's $4 billion budget, the additional $13,331 per council member is a drop in the bucket. But the issue is not the number of dollars--council members are forcibly taking money from Houstonians so that their staff members can watch Rachel Ray and Oprah. They have no problem dictating to the citizenry how we live our lives, but they cannot exercise even a modicum of self-restraint.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Making Galveston a Southern Belle

A story in Saturday's Chronicle reports that Galveston officials will consider a proposal to halt development on the island's west end and spend $1.1 billion to build 2,000 homes and repair another 17,000 homes. The proposal was submitted by a panel assembled by the Urban Land Institute.

The proposal calls for, among other things, creating "pedestrian friendly, self-contained neighborhoods" behind the seawall. One of the panel members said that Galveston could return to being the "Southern belle" of the United States if it adopted the plan.

While city officials consider this plan, residents on the west end of the island face the possibility of having their property seized by the state with no compensation. Adding insult to their injury, the city is now considering using their tax dollars to build homes for other citizens.

The city government should be defending the property rights of its citizens, including those on the west end. It should not be dictating where residents may build, nor should it be using tax money to build or repair homes. It should be protecting the moral right of each citizen to act according to his own judgment. While the prohibition on rebuilding on the west end of the island is a consequence of a state law--the Texas Open Beaches Act--a proper city government would be protesting this law.

Galveston suffered significant and serious damage during Hurricane Ike. Combined with the recession, the island is suffering. However, the solution to these ills is not restrictions on the actions of individuals. The solution is not massive government spending. The solution is more freedom--fewer controls, restrictions, and regulations.

The city wants to create jobs--remove restrictions on starting a business or expanding an existing business. The city wants more affordable housing--remove controls and regulations relating to building. The city wants to attract tourists--allow your citizens to be free, and they will find ways to use the city's resources to draw tourists. If Galveston wants to be the "Southern belle" it would be well-advised to begin by allowing its belles and beaux the freedom to act on their own judgment.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 28

Visions and Tequila
A Galveston woman has reported seeing the image of Jesus on her bathroom tile (HT: Houston Press). She told the Galveston County Daily:

I really didn’t want to see it. I focused on a few things on the tile, and then there it was.
I will admit to once seeing something strange on my bathroom tile. But tequila was involved, so I am not certain that it truly was a vision. And I certainly didn't call the newspaper. The Galveston woman thinks some kind of deep message is hidden in her vision:

Maybe we are being told something, and maybe we aren’t listening to it.
I'm going to step out on a limb and suggest what that "something" may be: Put down the tequila and quit staring at the bathroom tiles. Perhaps trying reading something educational, like the National Enquirer.

Death After Death
In the good old days, newspaper writers were grizzled, cigarette smoking, lushes who kept a flask in their drawer (at least that's the way it appears in old movies). Apparently, someone at the Chronicle has kept that tradition alive. blogHouston points out that a recent obituary, while quite nice, is a little redundant. It seems that the Chronicle ran the same obituary a year ago--when the dearly departed actually died. It must have been a slow news day for the paper to print old obituaries.

What Lessons Will He Teach?
Councilmember and mayor wanna-be Peter Brown has come out in favor of limited mayoral control over the city's schools. The Chronicle reports:

In Houston, City Councilman Brown is pitching the formation of a new "urban school district," perhaps spanning from downtown past the 610 Loop, that would fall under the mayor's power.

"I would favor the creation of this urban school district that is controlled by the mayor, that has a board that is largely appointed by the mayor, so there's accountability," he said.

Brown, who wants to subject all Houstonians to his grand vision of the city, as well as provide counseling and job training for gang members, now wants to inject more politics into the school system. If he wants to see more accountability in the school system, how about privatizing it and allowing parents to hold educators accountable?

Outgoing HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said:

It's common sense that it would be easier for two people to reach a level of consensus than it would be for 10 people.

I agree, and those two people should be the parents of the student, not educational bureaucrats or power lusting politicians.

It's a Matter of Opinion
It seems that city "leaders" can't agree whether the city's budget is balanced. The Chronicle reports:

Does the city of Houston have a balanced budget?

Like so many things in politics, it depends on whom you ask.

For wealthy businessman Bill King or City Councilwoman Pam Holm, the answer is no, since Mayor Bill White’s administration is planning to spend about $50 million more from its general fund in fiscal 2010 than it will take in from taxes and other revenue streams.

To Bob Lemer, conservative tax accountant and longtime critic of City Hall, the answer is an emphatic no. Lemer said a 2008 audit of Houston’s finances over the past five years shows the city in the red to the tune of $1.5 billion if it were to do its books like a private company.

And if you see things like the mayor, Finance Director Michelle Mitchell and most City Council members do, the answer is a strong yes in the sense that the city is not spending money it does not have.

Who is right? All of them, each in their own particular way, said City Controller Annise Parker.

So you see, it is all a matter of opinion. "Balanced budget" means different things to different people, and each opinion is "equally valid".

This site defines a balanced budget as:

A budget for which expenditures are equal to income.

I believe that this is what most people have in mind when they think of a balanced budget--income and expenses are in balance. But apparently our city "leaders" don't think like most people.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Texas Beaches and Property Rights: An Exemption

In a story filled with special deals, hypocrisy, and political intrigue, the Chronicle reports that Texas legislators have approved an exemption to the Texas Open Beaches Act (TOBA)--for one of their own. State Rep. Wayne Christian received an exemption to TOBA that will allow him to rebuild his home on Bolivar Peninsula.

The Texas Constitution prohibits bills that target a specific area of the state. Lawmakers sidestep this prohibition through a process called "bracketing"--they define the area without specifically naming it. The exemption, which was attached as an amendment to another bill, was carefully worded to apply only to Bolivar:
The amendment “brackets” Bolivar by saying that it applies to houses on a peninsula in a county with more than 250,000 population and less than 251,000 population. The only area fitting that description is Bolivar.

The sponsor of the amendment, Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, defended his actions:
Yes it does benefit (Christian), and I know it does, but I did it 99 percent for the benefit of my constituents.

Christian also denied any wrong doing:
If I were to pass a law that affected only Wayne Christian, that would be a conflict.

This is not an unethical, deceptive method of doing anything. This is the way it’s been ever since government was invented.

Contrary to what Christian thinks, such legislation is unethical. Many property owners on Galveston Island are in the same situation as Christian, yet the legislation provides them no relief. Instead, the state will use force to seize their property while Christian and his neighbors can rebuild. If it is proper for property owners on Bolivar to rebuild (which it is), it is equally proper for property owners on Galveston to rebuild.

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who is responsible for enforcing TOBA, has asked Gov. Rick Perry to veto the bill when it reaches his desk. Patterson has stated that he will not enforce the bill it is signed, and legislators will have to impeach him.
“I don’t think building houses on the beach, with the waters of the Gulf beneath them, is a good idea or good public policy,” Patterson said.

As I have previously argued, this isn't a decision for Patterson, or any other lawmaker to decide. This is a decision properly left to the property owners. And Patterson isn't content with legislators making arbitrary decisions--he wants to get in on the action too by unilaterally deciding which laws he will enforce and which he won't enforce.

Patterson's position would be admirable if he was refusing to enforce an unjust law. However, the exemption, while clearly reeking of political favoritism, does grant some measure of justice. It will provide some recognition of property rights to Bolivar property owners. While the rights of property owners on Galveston remain threatened, Patterson wishes to extend that threat to Bolivar.

Government's purpose is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. If Christian, Hamilton, and other legislators believe that Bolivar property owners have a right to rebuild on their property, then so do the property owners on Galveston. This is bad legislation, not so much because it grants an exemption, but because it doesn't go far enough.