Friday, July 31, 2009

The Power to Coerce

Electric companies are popular targets for politicians who seek to score points with voters. Nobody likes high electric bills or power outages, and politicians can use all manner of threats, arm twisting, and explicit force to compel utilities to act as the politicians desire. Houston mayor Bill White is no exception.

On Wednesday White threatened to sue CenterPoint Energy for charges related to the Hurricane Ike recovery. According to the Chronicle:
The dispute, which will be considered Friday at a hearing before the Public Utility Commission of Texas, is not likely to change the $1.83 monthly increase on Houston-area bills to pay for the $677 million cost of restoring power after Ike.

But White said the city has taken on CenterPoint out of principle because the company is attempting to be repaid for paying employees who would have been working even if Ike hadn't hit. [emphasis added]

While most Houstonians will likely applaud White for "standing on principle", I am not one of them. The nature of White's "principles" is neither admirable nor principled.

Principles are, as Ayn Rand identified, “a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend.” They are man's means of evaluating the concrete alternatives he faces in life and of projecting the consequences of his choices and actions.

Men have only two means of dealing with one another--by rational persuasion or by force. They can appeal to the facts of reality or the threat of a club. They can use reason or they can use a gun.

Mayor White has made it clear which he prefers. Whether it is jamming "green" initiatives down our throat, or fighting the Ashby High Rise, or bullying a power company, he is quick to wield the coercive power of government to achieve his ends.

In the short term, both White and CenterPoint customers might "benefit" from these strong-arm tactics. White will score political points and customers will save money. But what of the long-term? What are the implications of White's methods for the future?

In principle, White advocates using force against the power companies. He believes that force is a legitimate and proper means for dealing with others. He believes that the government should determine what electric providers can charge customers. Indeed, he believes that those who do not abide by his desires should be forced to do so. That is the "principle" that is guiding Bill White.

Many states--including Texas--have "deregulated" electricity; however, those states have not created a true free market. They have retained some level of controls and regulations, and in the process continue to strangle the industry. The results have been predictable, at least to those who hold rational principles.

While keeping power companies in chains, White and his ilk complain that the market has failed. In response, many are now seeking to re-regulate electric companies. Maryland for example, has considered a bill that would arbitrarily reduce electric rates by 10% to 18%.

Having abandoned principles--that is, their conceptual faculty--power hungry politicians can only resort to the brute force of animals. Unable to project the consequences of their proposals, they tinker and tweak, issue mandates and decrees, and demand that others abide by their whims.

Building and operating a power plant is a complex undertaking. An animal cannot do it. Neither can men who are treated like animals.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Flooding Us with Non-Solutions

Peter Brown has unveiled his plan to address flooding in Houston, and as would be expected, it involves the violation of property rights:

Unchecked development just outside the city limits is creating flooding inside Houston. We need to use the tools available to protect neighborhoods from unchecked development that isn’t bound by the standards and policies of the City of Houston. Everyone needs to play by the same set of rules if we’re going to stop flooding in every part of Houston.

It isn't enough for Brown to limit development within the city; he now wants to expand that arbitrary power to areas outside of city limits. He wants the power to control the property of individuals who can't vote for him and have no representation on city council.

The recognition and protection of property rights is the only practical and moral solution to flooding concerns. However, Brown has thoroughly rejected property rights--as evidenced by his continual calls for restrictions on development. No matter the issue, his automatic response is more government controls and regulations.

Flooding is certainly a complex issue. The actions of one property owner can have an impact on other property owners miles away. But this complexity does not justify government controls.

The right to property means the right of use and disposal. A property owner has a moral right to use his property as he chooses, so long as he does not interfere with the mutual rights of other property owners. If I use my property in such a way that it floods another's property, I have violated his rights and I am responsible for the resulting damages.

Because flooding is a widespread issue, impacting virtually the entire city, many believe that only government can properly address the issue. Only government, it is believed, has the resources and the power to develop a regional plan. Houston's recurring flooding problems stand as testimony to the effectiveness of that approach.

If property rights were respected, this would provide a powerful incentive to use my property wisely. It would provide motivation to examine the possible consequences of developing land upstream and take appropriate precautions. But when government intervenes with controls and regulations, that responsibility is removed from the individual property owner and vested in government.

Respecting and protecting property rights would not eliminate flooding, but neither has government. While politicians, such as Peter Brown, like to crow about their concern and their innovative solutions, they continue to offer us the same failed ideas. They continue to offer more government controls and regulations, and argue that they will somehow wield the power of government more effectively.

A truly innovative solution would be freedom--the recognition and protection of individual rights. A truly innovative solution would be to remove the arbitrary dictates and prohibitions of government. Until Houstonians demand that city government recognize the moral right of each individual to his own life, his own liberty, his own property, and the pursuit of his own happiness, we will continue to be flooded with non-solutions.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pro-Business Versus Pro-Individual

Over the past several weeks I have sent emails to a number of small business owners in Houston directing them to posts defending their property rights. While their responses have been positive, they reflect an attitude that is troubling.

The primary concern of these business owners seems to be electing a mayor who is pro-business. On the surface, this is understandable and desirable. But below the surface lies a premise that explains--at least in part--the city's slow but steady march towards more regulations over business and individuals.

What does it mean to be "pro-business"? Most people take this to mean a government that passes legislation favorable to the business community, in contrast to legislation that is favorable to consumers. The premise is that the interests of businesses and the interests of consumers necessarily conflict, and government must find a balance between these competing interests. However, properly understood, the interests of businesses and consumers are not in conflict.

Both businesses and consumers have a moral right to act according to their own judgment without interference from others, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others. Such interference can only occur through force--by compelling or prohibiting certain actions. Freedom--the absence of coercion--is in the interest of both businesses and consumers.

The false conflict between businesses and consumers ignores the fact that businesses are comprised of individuals, and do not gain or lose rights because of that fact. Individuals, and only individuals, possess rights. And those rights apply to all individuals, regardless of their capacity as a business owner or a consumer.

Further, this false conflict ignores the fact that businesses--producers--are also consumers. Indeed, one must first produce before one can consume. Unless of course, government intervenes.

The false conflict between businesses and consumers has deeper roots--that the rights of individuals necessarily conflict. With much of the citizenry having equated rights with desires, and having accepted that one's man need is a claim on the property owned by others, the perceived conflict between businesses and consumer seems logical. But a syllogism that begins with false premises will lead to a false conclusion.

Rights pertain to action--the freedom to act as one chooses. Rights allow one to pursue values, and protect one's ownership of the values attained. Rights do not guarantee success in one's actions. Rights are not a claim on others, nor is the frustration of a desire a violation of one's rights.

Whether it is the Ashby High Rise, or signs, or planning, or a myriad other issues, Houston is slowly being divided into different groups, most of which propose to use force against others. Most lobby for ordinances favorable to their particular group or cause, and seek to impose the expense on others. No matter the issue, these groups are anti-individual, whether the supposed beneficiaries of their scheme is consumers, home owners, or businesses.

Houston does not need a "pro-business" mayor. Houston needs a mayor who recognizes the moral right of each individual to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy his life. This isn't pro-business or pro-consumer. It is pro-individual.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Paternalism and Compromisers

Apparently, the Texas Legislature thinks that Texans are nothing more than little children who need the paternalistic strong arm of government to dictate their actions. A law that will take effect on September 1 allows the police to arrest anyone who refuses to evacuate when ordered to do so.

As it stands, officials cannot compel people to evacuate, only warn that those who stay behind won't have any emergency services at their disposal.

The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports the new law gives county judges and mayors the power to authorize use of “reasonable force”.

And just what is reasonable about jailing people because they refuse to leave their home? It may be silly--perhaps even suicidal--to stay in one's home during a hurricane, but individuals have a right to make such a choice.

Advocates of the law would argue that such individuals invariably need to be rescued, which puts the rescuers in danger. The solution to this is quite simple--don't rescue the fools who stay in their home and become trapped. If they want the freedom to make such decisions, which they have a moral right to do, then they should be held accountable for those decisions.

This is another example of the actions of a few being used to justify the wholesale violation of the rights of all Texans. Rather than hold individuals responsible for their actions, the state legislature simply outlaws the offending action.

Such hostility to personal liberty is hardly limited to hurricanes and evacuation orders. According to the Chronicle, the legislature has also outlawed hand-held cell phones in "active" school zones across the state. Telephone companies, who had fought an ordinance in West University that bans all cell phone use in school zones, supported the new law:

Kerry Hibbs, an Austin-based spokesman for AT&T, said in the wake of the West U. debacle that the company opposed only the “hands-free” portion of the ban on cell phone use in school zones, and was in the early stages of working on a statewide law prohibiting handheld conversations in school zones.

It is of course, so much easier to toss aside the rights of one's customers than it is to stand on principle. To stand on principle would require that one actually hold principles, as well as possess a spine. Having suffered an embarrassing defeat when West U passed their ban, AT&T would prefer to compromise and influence the drafting of legislation, rather than oppose it.

This is the same type of appeasing, range of the moment thinking that has doomed Houston's sign industry since the 1980s. The industry began by protesting restrictions on outdoor signs, then only opposed those that "went too far", and today finds itself about to be driven out of business.

The sign industry thought that it could compromise in regard to its own rights, and now has few of those rights remaining. AT&T thinks that it can compromise in regard to its customers rights in the mistaken belief that it will somehow protect its own interests. It may be right--for today. But the violation of the rights of anyone are ultimately an attack on the rights of everyone. Sadly, that is a lesson that few businesses have learned.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Free the Power Companies

Advocates of statism often resort to irrelevant facts to support their position. The Chronicle demonstrates this in Sunday's editorial regarding a petition to the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to prohibit power companies from disconnecting service to customers who do not pay their bill:
According to the National Weather Service meteorologists here, June's average temperatures were the hottest in a century, and July's average of 87.7 degrees is on track to rank as the hottest of any month on record in Houston.
According to the Chronicle the fact that it has been hot is justification to use government coercion against power companies. Losing air conditioning during such hot periods can be life threatening for the elderly and the ill, and their need trumps the rights of power companies. In truth, the need of one man is not a claim on the property of another, no matter how dire his situation.

Morally, this is an outrage. The power companies are expected to provide service and not be compensated for it. And it they don't do so "voluntarily", then the government should force them to do so. I wonder how many of the members of the Chronicle's editorial staff would be willing to provide their services for free.

PUC commissioners rejected a previous petition to prohibit disconnects because there is already a program to help low-income consumers with their electric bills. But even this isn't good enough for the Chronicle:
As Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg pointed out, the Lite-Up Texas program has been poorly promoted and is utilized by fewer than half those eligible.
State Sen. Sylvester Turner, the driving force behind the petition, wants to force power companies to advertise the program and encourage participation. It isn't enough to offer assistance--the companies must also spend additional money trying to increase participation.

If Texans wonder why their power bills are high, this is one clue as to why. Texas does not have a free market in electricity, despite "deregulation". The electric market remains regulated, and regulations by their very nature are arbitrary and immoral. The force businesses to engage in activities that are contrary to their own judgment, increase costs to consumers, and stifle innovation.

But such facts are lost on power lusting politicians and their media cheerleaders. They would prefer to cite such compelling facts as the temperature. Here is a news flash--it is summer in Houston. It is going to be hot. And here is a news flash for consumers--our electric bills are going to go up in the summer.

The Chronicle's solution to every problem, large and small, real and imagined, is the same. No matter the issue, more controls and regulations are the answer. More prescriptions and proscriptions on the actions of businesses and individuals will cure whatever ills might face us.

The fact is, such controls are the cause of many of the issues the Chronicle seeks to remedy. It is readily evident to any honest student of history or economics that government interventions invariably lead to distortions in the market. And those distortions invariably lead to renewed calls for more government intervention. This is true in every area--housing, banking, agriculture, and electricity.

The solution is not more government intervention, but a true free market. The solution is not tweaking existing regulations, but the repeal of those regulations. The solution is to allow power companies to use their property as they judge best and to offer their product without interference or mandates from government. Freedom--the absence of coercion--benefits both consumers and producers.

Government has created the current problems with electricity providers. It is time for government to "solve" those problems by getting out of the way. Then, and only then, will Texans have an abundance of inexpensive power.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 34

A Hiatus
This will likely be my last Saturday post for a while. I need a bit of a break from posting six days a week.

I'm Gonna Be Rich

I recently received the following business proposal, which is very similar to other proposals I have received through the years. Since many of my readers may be interested in this proposal, as a public service I am posting it, along with my response.
HELLO It is understandable that you might be a little bit apprehensive because you do not know me, Please forgive this unusual manner to contact you, but this particular letter/email is of exceptional and very private nature, as by virtue of my vantage position in Bank of China Hong Kong i have a lucrative business proposal of mutual interest to share with you. There is no way for me to know whether I will be properly understood, but it is my duty to write and reach out to you, TRUSTING that you will give this proposal a positive consideration.
Why would I let the fact that I don't know you make me apprehensive? You seem like a nice man, and given the miracle of the Internet (thank you Al Gore), you can randomly reach out across the globe and spread your generosity. Let me assure you, I understand you very well.
I am Mr. LEE Raymond Wing Hung I am 58 years old and happily married with grown-up children, and i am a Director of Bank of China Hong Kong in charge of the International Remittance department.
It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance Mr. Hung. Since we will be entering into a business agreement, I think I should share some information about myself. I too am 58 years old and happily married, though sadly I do not have children. A farm accident in my youth resulted in the loss of my testicles. (I should add that a very creative doctor was able to use a donation from a pig to replace my missing parts. However, I feared what the fruit of my loin might produce, and thus refrained from having children.) But I digress. I spend most of my time collecting aluminum cans and reading Sartre. Have you read Sartre? He is almost incomprehensible, but it makes me feel sophisticated when I get on the bus with a bag of aluminum cans and a copy of Being and Nothingness.
I will need you to assist me in executing a business project from our bank worth US$30.5 Million. These funds were deposited with our bank by a customer of our bank who is a national {citizen} of your country, who unfortunately died in the December2004 Asia Tsunami disaster.
You must be a very important and honorable man for your bank to trust you with so much money. I feel extremely fortunate that, of the billions of people in the world, you chose me to help you in your scheme. I am saddened to hear of the death of your customer. What was his name? Rumor has it that my cousin Jim was killed in the tsunami, though nobody knows for sure. He had spent most of the past decade hitchhiking across Asia and seldom even sent a postcard.

My aunt has been devastated not knowing his demise, and even went so far as to erect a small replica of an Asian village out of toothpicks in Jim's old bedroom. Every year on the anniversary of the tsunami she takes a large bucket of water and throws it on the village. She then collapses on the sofa and sobs until she passes out. It is really a pathetic sight, and any relief you could bring to her would make my uncle most grateful. Just so you know, their names are Olga and Fred.
The deceased account has been declared dormant since 2006 and these funds will be confiscated/declared unserviceable and turned over to the Hong Kong government if the deceased business associates or next-of-kin did not claim this money; since all efforts to trace any living relative of the deceased proved abortive, i have decided that i will have you claim this money as the deceased business associate/or next-of-kin, since you are from the same country and perhaps have some similarities in certain areas. Everything concerning this transaction shall be LEGALLY done without hitch, as i was the deceased account Officer and all the relevant documents of this deposit were kept under my care.
I was beginning to think that maybe you were proposing something a little shady, but now that you confirm that this will be done legally, I am relieved. Since the deceased is from my country, that practically makes us brothers, so I don't see any problem pretending that we are. Actually, the more I think about, the more upset I get. I never really got a chance to know my brother and share all those things that brothers share, like sneaking booze from our parent's liquor cabinet.
Please endeavor to observe utmost discretion in all matters concerning this issue, as i hope that you are a sincere, honest and matured person and above all TRUSTWORTHY. Once the funds have been successfully transferred into your account, we shall share it in a ratio of 30% for you, 65% for me and my associates in the bank and the reminder 5% to take care of contingencies.
I assume that posting this on the Internet will meet your criteria for sincerity, honesty, and discretion. But I really must question the veracity of your proposed split. It seems rather heartless of you to offer me only 30%--it was my brother after all. Since you seem like such a nice man, I am willing to split the proceeds with you. But anything more just seems like pure greed to me. Are you a greedy person? Are you trying to take advantage of me while I am grieving the death of my brother?
Please if you are not interested delete this email and do not hurt me because I am putting my career and the life of my family at stake with this venture. Although nothing ventured is nothing gained, as it is said, the taste of the pudding is in the eating, do give this proposal SERIOUS AND POSITIVE CONSIDERATION.
I did delete the email, so unfortunately I lost your email address. Therefore, I am posting this on the Internet in the hope that you will find it and contact me again, because as we say in Texas, there is a bee in her bonnet.

The above is of course, a Nigerian 419 scam. I first received one of these scam letters via FAX in the 1980s, and continue to receive them by email with some regularity. What is perhaps more amazing to me is that people actually fall for this scam. I suppose that there will always be individuals who want something for nothing, and are willing to risk their life's savings to get it.

If I had unlimited time, I might engage one of these scammers just for grins. This post, and this site, will have to suffice.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Metro Boondoggle

Barry Klein of the Houston Property Rights Association has calculated that the average household in Harris County pays nearly $500 a year to Metro in sales taxes:

Assuming three million people in the Metro district and assuming the Metro household size reflects that of Harris County, and assuming 2.8 persons per household, we can conclude that there are 1,071,429 households in the Metro taxing district.

Dividing that into Metro’s $520 million yearly sales tax income produces an average annual household payment to Metro of $485.
As Barry points out, this does not include federal and state money sent to Metro, which would raise the figure even higher.

I previously wrote that Metro has been a complete failure and continues to violate the rights of all Houstonians:
Government should not be in the transportation business. Like every other improper government activity, public transportation is inefficient, expensive, and fails to deliver on its stated goals. It requires taking money from some individuals to pay for the transportation of others. It requires seizing private property to build roads and rail lines. In short, it violates the rights of individuals.

There may be some individuals who enjoy "contributing" to the boondoggle that is Metro, but I am not one of them. I earn my money and have a moral right to spend it as I choose, as is true of all tax payers.

City officials regularly beseech us to use public transportation, and continue to rob us of more and more of our money in a vain attempt to attract more riders to Metro. When that proves ineffective, they simply take more of our money and engage in more of the same failed activities. If a private business did such a thing, it would go out of business. But since Metro is armed with a gun and can reach into the tax payer's wallet whenever it chooses, it can continue to merrily skip along.

A private business carefully monitors the success of its products and services. Its motivation is not manipulating consumers to act as it chooses; its motivation is to make a profit. And it does this by providing the products and consumers that consumers desire. When a product or service is not successful, it is pulled from the market.

Despite what Metro and government officials tell us, most Houstonians do not want light rail. They aren't using it. A private business would have gotten that message a long time ago. Government officials however, are unconcerned with such facts--they conflict with their vision for the city.

Those who do want light rail should be free to pursue their utopian vision by raising money privately and building a rail system. If they are correct in their assessment regarding the demand then they will benefit and make a ton of money. If they are wrong only they and their investors will suffer.

Of course, that would require them to actually trust their own judgment and put their money where their mouth is. That would require them to actually offer something that consumers independently judge to be worth paying for voluntarily. That would require them to have confidence in their plan. But since they insist on using a gun to force others to pay for their schemes, we can only conclude that they do not have the strength of their convictions. They would prefer to resort to coercion rather than pursuasion.

It is not that difficult to concoct grandiose ideas for making the city better. It is another thing entirely to develop ideas that require the consent of all involved--both investors and consumers. It is another thing to allow individuals to be free to pursue their own values. And that is my vision for Houston--a city in which each individual's moral right to his own life, his own liberty, his own property, and the pursuit of his own happiness is recognized and protected.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Private Beach is Threatened

While the Texas Open Beaches Act (TOBA) made land along the shore "public property", a small section of beach in Galveston has remained private property since the enactment of TOBA in 1959. According to the Chronicle:
The Legislature approved the act guaranteeing public access to Texas beaches about the same time that Henry Peter Porretto Jr. purchased a small plot used as a playground that was auctioned by the Galveston school district.

Porretto acquired adjacent properties to create the 27-acre Porretto Beach, which became a thriving enterprise and fixture on the Galveston beach front.

Unlike other owners of beach-front property, Porretto claimed that deeds issued when Texas was part of Mexico give him ownership of land extending from the seawall into the Gulf of Mexico, including what the Texas General Land Office says is public beach.

The state has challenged this claim, and in 2002 Porreto sued the state to recognize his property rights. In March a judge ruled that the state had taken the land without just compensation and awarded Porreto $6.8 million. The state is appealing that decision.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson claims that the judge bowed to "hometown pressure" and believes that a ruling in favor of the Porreto family (Henry Porreto died in 2007) would harm the state:
Patterson acknowledges that the Porretto family owns land near the Seawall but objects to their argument that their title extends to submerged land. They say Texas laws don't apply because the titles were granted before Texas became a state.

Patterson says if the family wins, other property owners with similar titles will assert ownership in the Gulf. “It's a domino effect,” Patterson said. “Everyone can trace a title back to Mexico or the Republic of Texas.”

Patterson--who is a Republican--stands adamantly opposed to property rights. I do not know if his argument holds water legally, but morally it is a travesty. The Porreto family has a moral claim to the property--they have used it, and I assume paid taxes on it, for 50 years. This doesn't matter to Patterson, who wants to use government force to seize the land because the "public" has a "right" to beach access.

Patterson is hardly alone in this perverted view of rights. The Chronicle tells of a Houstonian visiting the island:
The broad, uncrowded expanse of sand and water attracted Dwayne Milton to the Texas Gulf Coast's only privately owned beach, tucked between public beaches at the east end of the Galveston Seawall.

“It just looked a little bit nicer,” said Milton, 50, who brought his family from Houston to Galveston for a weekend at the beach.

Like many tourists, Milton didn't know Porretto Beach was private. Once informed, his opinion changed. “It shouldn't be privately owned,” said Milton, vowing to use the neighboring city-operated Stewart Beach next time even though the city charges a dollar more to park.

Mr. Milton found the beach nicer, but for some unnamed reason doesn't want individuals owning beaches. Apparently, he believes that if wants to visit the beach nobody should stop him--he has a "right" to visit the beach and others, namely taxpayers, must satisfy his desires. And if that also means stealing 27 acres, so be it.

It is bad enough when someone must spend $3.5 million (that is how much the Porretos have spent on legal fees) to defend their property rights. It is even worse when government officials are the cause of that expense. The government should be defending the Porreto family, not trying to rob them.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Property Rights and the Ogallala Acquifer

The Chronicle reports that the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies water to Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming, could be in jeopardy. According to a report issued by the U.S. Geological Survey:

Future water supplies from the High Plains aquifer could be in jeopardy if large amounts of water are pumped out of it and if farmers continue using chemicals on land above the vast underground reservoir...

Interestingly, the report found no evidence that the aquifer is actually being contaminated by agricultural chemicals. Of the 370 wells tested, about 6 percent contained levels of nitrates that exceeded federal clean water standards. Nitrates are a byproduct of fertilizers, but they also occur naturally.

The implication of the report is that more government controls will be necessary to protect the sustainability of the aquifer. Indeed, the report states:

The rigorous scientific approach of the USGS NAWQA Program and the resulting
improved understanding of groundwater quality in the High Plains aquifer will be
invaluable for local and statewide management toward sustainable groundwater
resources of this important aquifer system.

The most likely form of those controls will be restrictions on fertilizers, pesticides, and pumping of water from the aquifer. Controls and regulations in any of these areas could have significant, and destructive, consequences. For example, controls on the application and use of fertilizers and pesticides would likely result in decreased food production. Limits on pumping for irrigation would have similar consequences.

Concerns regarding the long-term sustainability of the aquifer are a direct result of "public ownership". The inevitable result of such "ownership" is the "tragedy of the commons". When a resource is not owned by anyone in particular, it is overused and ill-maintained. The lack of ownership provides each user with an incentive to focus on the short-term and maximize his immediate benefits. And because he does not own the resource, he cannot take the actions necessary to protect and improve its long-term value.

The solution is not more government controls, regulations, and restrictions. The solution is to identify and protect property rights in the aquifer. One of the primary functions of government is the protection of property rights, and its continued default on this responsibility threatens the welfare of every American. Certainly, identifying and protecting property rights in a resource as vast as the Ogallala aquifer would be a complex undertaking. But the complexity of the task is not justification for continued "public ownership" of that resource. Indeed, there are existing laws in regard to water rights that provide an indication of how property rights can be identified.

In the American west, where water is relatively scarce, a doctrine known as "prior appropriation water rights" was developed. According to Wikipedia:
The legal details vary from state to state; however, the general principle is that water rights are unconnected to land ownership, and can be sold or mortgaged like other property. The first person to use a quantity of water from a water source for a beneficial use has the right to continue to use that quantity of water for that purpose. Subsequent users can use the remaining water for their own beneficial purposes provided that they do not impinge on the rights of previous users.

"Prior appropriation water rights" essentially means "first come, first served". Those who first make use of a resource or give it value are the rightful owners, and subsequent users cannot take any action that threatens the ability of the first owner to use his property.

In practice, "prior appropriation water rights" give the owner the right to a certain quantity of water and the first user has the first claim to his water. He cannot use more than his "share", as this could interfere with the rights of subsequent owners to their "share".

Protecting property rights gives the owners a powerful incentive to protect their asset. If they damage it--through excessive use or pollution--they damage the value of their asset. And, if they damage the property owned by others they are subject to litigation.

Certainly, pollution is a long-term issue, as it can take decades for contaminated surface water to reach the aquifer. Further, because of the manner in which water travels from the surface to the aquifer, it can be difficult to identify polluters. Again, such complexities are not justification for government to continue to violate the rights of individuals, nor does it justify further restrictions and controls.

The government has demonstrated that it is incompetent when it comes to managing virtually any resource. It has certainly demonstrated that in regard to water it cannot prevent pollution. In 2004 the Environmental Protection Agency released a report that found one-third of America's public lakes and nearly one-fourth of its rivers were polluted and unsafe for drinking, fishing, or recreation. Despite spending billions of dollars and enacting reams of regulations, the government has done little to keep our water clean and safe. The Ogallala aquifer will not be an exception.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ellsworth Toohey as DA

The crime lab for the Houston police department has been under fire for years for less than stellar handling of evidence. It has also become clear that the District Attorney's office is just as guilty of pursuing convictions instead of justice. A few weeks ago a convicted rapist--Lawrence Napper--appeared at a hearing to determine if he should get a new trial.

The Chronicle reports:

Wicoff [Napper's attorney] told the judge a $5.3 million independent study of the HPD crime lab by former federal prosecutor Michael Bromwich cited Napper's case as a prime example of the substandard DNA lab procedures and protocols before it was shuttered in December 2002.

The report said HPD criminologist Joseph Chu prepared a report claiming evidence contained DNA from the victim along with DNA that could “only” belong to Napper, a claim he would repeat to a jury later in the year.

It's bad enough that such "evidence" is used to convict someone, but the prosecutor on the case doesn't think the issue is relevant. Prosecutor Jack Roady argued:

During the hearing, prosecutor Roady told the judge that while sloppy lab work may have been involved, it did not rise to the malicious or bad-faith destruction of evidence that would warrant a new trial. And he said the HPD lab work did not exclude Napper.

‘‘Negligence, even gross negligence, is not enough,“ Roady argued, later adding. “There is no evidence anyone was hiding the ball.“

In other words, false testimony alone isn't sufficient for a new trial. That testimony must also be malicious. It doesn't matter if someone is convicted on the basis of untruths--testimony that conflicts with the actual facts--unless that testimony was given in "bad faith".

I'm no lawyer, and I don't play one on the Internet, but this is a travesty. The purpose of a trial is to determine the truth--what actually happened. But if it is acceptable to deliver false testimony, so long as it is not intentional, then how is the truth to be determined? And how is the jury or the judge to determine the intentions of those testifying? Further, if incompetence is an excuse for offering false testimony, what is next? "Sorry Judge, I'm a pathological liar. It's in my DNA, and I have a report from the Houston crime lab to prove it."

In a criminal trial the burden of proof is on the state, and it must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. (Incidentally, in Texas the state does not and cannot define "reasonable doubt", which itself is travesty.) Leonard Peikoff, in his lecture series "The Philosophy of Objectivism", indirectly addressed this issue while speaking about certainty:

Idea X is “certain” if, in a given context of knowledge, the evidence for X is conclusive. In such a context, all the evidence supports X and there is no evidence to support any alternative. . . .

You cannot challenge a claim to certainty by means of an arbitrary declaration of a counter-possibility, . . . you cannot manufacture possibilities without evidence . . . .

From my layman's perspective, this is the proper standard for "reasonable doubt"--all of the evidence points to guilt, and there is no evidence to the contrary. For this to occur, all of the relevant evidence, and nothing but the relevant evidence, must be considered. In Napper's case, the state's witness literally manufactured evidence pointing to his guilt. Which means, the state entered arbitrary declarations in support of its position. If this is acceptable, and not cause for a retrial, then I submit that the state could find anyone guilty of virtually anything.

Consider also Roady's claim that the DNA evidence did not exclude Napper. There is no limit to the "evidence" that would not exclude the accused--Napper's favorite ice cream flavor doesn't exclude him either--but such "evidence" is irrelevant. Roady wants to assert the arbitrary--since X does not exclude the accused, it is "possible" that he is guilty.

For a statement to be considered "possible" there must be some facts indicating that it is true. A mere assertion does not make a claim possible. For example, I could claim that you are a bank robber and concoct any number of outrageous additional assertions to support my position. No matter your response, I could continue to invent further assertions. So long as you allow the arbitrary to be considered valid, you will unable to prove anything, including your innocence.

(Lest anyone think that I am soft on crime, or anti-police, or anything of the sort, I should point out that Napper should have been in prison at the time of his arrest in this case. He was on parole for a prior rape conviction, which is just another rock in this mountain of travesties. But with the prisons filled with those who have violated nobody's rights--such as drug offenders--an actual criminal was set free. That prior conviction however, says nothing about his actual guilt in this case.)

To Roady, Lawrence Napper is disposable. Napper is simply the means to the prosecutor's ends--convictions. It doesn't matter how those convictions are achieved, or how many lives are destroyed. After all, he has been taught that we have a moral duty to serve others, that we must place the welfare and interests of others before our own, that we must sacrifice for others. Napper is "selfish" to proclaim his innocence--what about Roady's needs? Napper must set aside his own desire for freedom and justice--the desires of others are more important. Napper shouldn't think about himself--Roady has a career to build, and it is Napper's moral duty to help him.

Roady is Ellsworth Toohey--the collector of sacrifices. (Roady is hardly alone in this regard.) But unlike Toohey, Roady has a gun to back him up. Like Toohey, Roady is not interested in truth or justice, only "prestige"--the "prestige" that comes from convictions. The truth, and justice, can go to hell if they serve that purpose. Lawrence Napper can go to prison.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Jam of the Uber-Gang

Continuing its push to turn Houston business owners into criminals, on Saturday the Chronicle ran an OpEd that calls for outlawing many existing signs within the city:
Visual blight seriously damages Houston's public image, impairs quality of life and impedes economic development. It's important that the business and civic community work together to ensure that Houston maintains an appealing and visually inviting environment in an economically competitive marketplace. We look forward to additional efforts by the city to improve signage in Houston.
The article claims that the "business and civic community" should work together to address the sign "problem". This would be fine, so long as it remained voluntary. But that is obviously not enough for the authors, for they want "additional efforts" from the city--they want more controls, restrictions, and prohibitions.

The fact that some people dislike signs is hardly justification to criminalize their existence. I dislike the Chronicle's vendors badgering me at street corners to buy their rag; I dislike editorials and articles that attack individual rights; I dislike elitists who believe they have a right to jam their values down my throat. But my dislikes--no matter how many people share them--do not justify the use force against those who engage in such activities.

As is common, the article makes vague claims about Houston being at an economic disadvantage because of its proliferation of signs. Cities such as Boston, Charlotte, Denver, and Los Angeles have more restrictive sign ordinances, and supposedly our economy suffers because of it.

This argument evades the actual facts. As I have noted previously, Houston led the nation in job creation in 2008. If we are at some kind of economic disadvantage, how do these statists explain this fact? Actually, they don't attempt to address it--they simply ignore it and make absurd claims. The fact of the matter is, Houston has had a huge economic advantage because of its relative respect for property rights.

A respect for property rights means that property owners have the freedom to use their property as they choose, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others. Statists don't like the choices some individuals make. They believe that if they can assemble enough like minded people then they are justified to use force against the offending parties. They believe that might makes right.

The authors of this article are members of the Quality of Life Coalition's (QLC) steering committee. The QLC's web site describes its activities:
The Quality of Life Coalition works to affect policy and encourage change in order to implement the quality of life agenda to the benefit of those living in the Houston region. We work with elected officials, private citizens, organizations and agencies to ensure adequate funding, sound planning, and appropriate implementation of the agenda items. Collectively, these endorsing organizations are able to more effectively address issues than if they attempted to do so individually.
The QLC is nothing more than an uber-gang--a coalition of gangs. Each pushes its own particular agenda, working in concert to advance their common cause--more control over the lives of Houstonians.

I could not find any definition of "quality of life" on their web site, which isn't particularly surprising. The truth is, they can't define it. Somehow we are all supposed to just know, and agree with, the meaning of the term. After all, only an ogre could possibly be opposed to "quality of life". As I previously wrote:
The truth is, “quality of life” is a matter of personal values. We each define “quality of life” differently. Some individuals prefer a spacious back yard, while some prefer no yard at all. Some prefer proximity to parks, while others prefer to live close to shopping. Some prefer a short commute, while others prefer suburban life. All of these preferences and many, many more contribute to how each individual conceives “quality of life”.
Personal values, and the freedom to pursue them, is precisely what the QLC wants to extinguish. No matter the issue, they want to force their collective values down our throats and turn the recalcitrant into criminals. This, they would have us believe, will make Houston a better city.

Gang warfare is never pretty. It doesn't become more appealing, or less immoral, just because the thugs put on a suit and tie.

Friday, July 17, 2009

We Need Another Texas Revolution

The Economist has an article detailing the economic success of Texas and how it is weathering the recession. (HT: Houston Strategies) While the article paints a generally positive picture of the state, one paragraph is particularly interesting:
His [state senator Eliot Shapleigh] statistics are a lot less rosy. Texas has the highest proportion of people lacking health insurance of all 50 states; the third-highest poverty rate; the second-highest imprisonment rate; the highest teenage-birth rate; the lowest voter turnout; and the lowest proportion of high-school graduates. Mr. Shapleigh is not surprised that these figures are so terrible: Texas spends less on each of its citizens than does any other state. Being a low-tax, low-spend state has not made Texans rich, though they are not dirt-poor either; their median income ranks 37th among the 50 states.
Certainly, most of these statistics are nothing to brag about. But neither are they an indictment on the state government, as Mr. Shapleigh would have us believe. Health insurance, teenage pregnancies, and education are not proper concerns of government.

What caught my eye, and is worth bragging about, is the fact that Texas spends less on its citizens than any other state. In other words, Texas has not built a mammoth welfare state within its borders. Which means, more than other states, the state government is not in the business of redistributing wealth. While the article implies that this is a bad thing, this is a large part of the reason that the state's economy has done well. Texas is home to more Fortune 500 companies than any other state and its unemployment rate in May was 2.3% below the national average.

Businesses and individuals move to Texas because economic opportunities abound. With fewer regulations and no state income tax, individuals are free to pursue their dreams without begging for permission to the extent demanded in other states.

The quote cited above states that the median income in Texas ranks 37th in the nation. While this is an interesting statistic, it is very misleading because it says nothing about the purchasing power of that income. According to the Missouri Economic Research & Information Center, Texas ranks 8th in the nation for the lowest cost of living. Even though Texans earn less, their money goes much further.

To concretize this last point, according to an annual income of $50,000 in Houston is the equivalent of an income of $62,343 in Chicago, $68,385 in Seattle, $73,430 in Boston, and $81,133 in Los Angeles. While this is a city-to-city comparison, money clearly goes further in Houston than other major cities.

Despite the rather upbeat portrayal of Texas, the article concludes that the future may not be so positive:
A committee on education appointed by Mr. Perry [the governor] concluded in January that “Texas is not globally competitive” and gave warning that it “faces a downward spiral in both quality of life and economic competitiveness”.

The other, even more important, reason to expect change is internal. In 2004 Texas became one of only four states in America where whites are no longer in the majority. On recent trends, Hispanics will be the largest ethnic group in the state by 2015. Since they tend to vote Democratic, this has big implications for Texas’s political make-up and for national politics. And an increasingly assertive Hispanic caucus, in an increasingly Democratic state, also seems sure to demand better schools and health care for the people it represents...
This trend will take Texas in the direction of California--more social programs, more regulations, and higher taxes. It could spell the demise of Texas as an economic powerhouse. But this isn't a racial issue; it is an issue of individual rights. And individual rights apply to all individuals--white and black, Anglo and Hispanic, male and female, gay and straight, young and old.

More than most states, Texas has respected and protected individual rights, and this has served Texas well. It will continue to do so, but only if Texans demand that the government refrain from succumbing to the lure of trading votes for robbing the productive members of the state. To do that, Texans must reject the premise that they are their brother's keeper, that morality consists of service to others. If Texans wish to remain the envy of the nation, they must embark on a new revolution--a moral revolution. They must declare their moral right to their own life, their own liberty, their own property, and the pursuit of their own happiness. They must embrace rational egoism and all that it implies.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blinding the Able

Advocates of expanding government control over the lives of Houstonians love to make claims about how visitors see our city. For example, in supporting more restrictions on billboards, the Chronicle recently claimed:
There’s no virtue in looking awful, and when Houston competes with other cities, our tackiness puts us at a disadvantage.
Anne Culver, executive director of Scenic Houston, an anti-billboard organization, told the Chronicle:
People come here and they are consistently shocked by the city’s appearance and they often ask us how we let this happen to our city. Site consultants say all the time that they’re told not to put Houston on their lists because of pollution, the heat and how it looks.
As I have pointed out, statists love to make assertions about how bad Houston is, while ignoring the actual facts. In the past year I have pointed out studies, reports, and articles that praise Houston. I have also pointed out articles that demonstrate the negative consequences of land-use regulations. Conveniently, the statists ignore the public, published findings and conclusions that cite Houston as a model for other cities, and instead make reference to private comments made by unnamed sources. Why?

On the political level, statists do not like the decisions made by others and seek to use government coercion to control the actions of others. They don't like the fact that some individuals choose to erect billboards on their property or use "attention-getting devices" to promote their business. And because they believe that force is a proper way to deal with others, they seek the power of government to impose their views on the community.

But politics is not a primary. One's views on the proper relationship between individuals is determined by one's views on what is proper for individuals qua individuals. That is, one's views on ethics determines one's views on politics.

While the specifics vary, statists agree that morality consists of placing the welfare of others before one's own individual welfare. They agree that the individual must be subservient to the demands of others, whether it is the community, or the majority, or "the public". They agree that morality demands that the individual serve others, that the individual does not exist for his own sake. They agree that the individual has no right to his own life, his own liberty, his own property, or the pursuit of his own happiness.

To the statist, those who refuse to sacrifice their values and place the "public welfare" before their own individual welfare are "selfish" and immoral. The statist believes that these recalcitrant individualists may properly be forced to be moral.

Fundamentally, statists believe that individuals should not be permitted to act according to their own judgment. To act according to one's own judgment means to choose one's values and the means for attaining them. It means to judge the facts and act accordingly. Government controls and regulations are, at root, an attempt to prevent individuals from acting as they determine best. This is what underlies every government control, regulation, mandate, and decree.

To justify such atrocities, government officials hold hearings and conduct meetings to determine "the will of the people". If enough people agree, then the idea must be true. If a consensus can be reached, then the proposal must be proper. In short, truth is determined by a vote.

This is what lies at the very foundation of the appeals to unnamed "experts". The actual, observable facts are not to be believed. That Houston led the nation in job growth or has affordable housing is a mere chimera. It isn't true unless "the people" declare it to be true. The testimony of individuals that Houston's relative freedom in land-use is a primary cause of its economic prosperity is insufficient, for it is based on the judgment of individuals.

Just as statists wish to prevent individuals from acting according to their own judgment, they wish to dismiss the judgment of individuals when it conflicts with their agenda. They want the majority to rule, not just in elections, but in determining the truth. They have closed their eyes to reality, and they seek to blind those who refuse to do the same.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An Open Letter to Jim McIngvale

Dear Mr. McIngvale,

I recently read a story about the Greater Northside Management District (GNMD) suing you for back taxes. The Chronicle quotes you as saying, “To me, it's taxation without representation. If they were doing something that was benefiting the area, I would pay.”

I have a great deal of respect for your business acumen and admire your willingness to challenge this tax. But this isn't a very compelling argument, for it concedes the moral high ground to the GNMD.

Consider the phrase "taxation without representation". The underlying premise is that if you are represented then taxation is acceptable; that if you have a vote (whether directly or indirectly) then your money can be forcibly taken. This is hardly a defense of your rights, for the right to vote is not a primary. What is primary is your right to life, and the right to property—which includes your money--is the only practical implementation.

Your rights are not subject to a vote. The purpose of government is to protect your rights, no matter how many people wish to violate them.

Apparently you do not agree with how GNMD has spent the money it has received, but this is irrelevant. As a quasi-government entity, GNMD has the power to force you to cede your money for purposes it determines. Indeed, this is the nature of all taxation--government coercion is used to obtain revenues.

The quote I cited above implies that you would gladly pay the taxes if you saw some benefit. But what if that benefit is short-lived? You will still be forced to support GNMD. And what of other business owners who do not see benefits or would prefer to use their money for other purposes? They too will be forced to support GNMD without their consent.

The issue is not taxation with or without representation. The issue is your moral right to use your property as you judge best. And that right applies to all individuals.

The alleged goals of GNMD can easily be accomplished through a voluntary association of businesses. Such associations are common--indeed, you are likely a member of a number of such organizations. Such associations are based on the consent of each member, who is free to sever his membership when he no longer sees benefits. But unlike a government entity, such associations cannot use force against others. Such associations require the voluntary agreement of its members, rather than the forced obedience of GNMD.

If you wish to win your fight, you must seize the moral high ground. You must defend your rights, not on the basis of practical benefits (or the lack thereof), but on moral grounds. You--and all individuals--have a moral right to live your life and use your property as you choose, so long as you respect the mutual rights of others. Nobody--including government--has a right to compel you to act contrary to your judgment (unless of course, you have violated the rights of others).

You are one of Houston's great success stories. You have taken risks that others would not, and you did so because you judged those risks to be worth taking. You were free to act as you deemed appropriate. You have never relinquished that right. Defend it with the same moral certainty and conviction that has helped you build Gallery Furniture.

Brian Phillips

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Peter Brown's Magical See-Saw Ride

Politicians seem to think that voters have no memory. They endorse policies or programs today that often contradict what they said yesterday. Take Peter Brown for example. On his web site he states:
Houston’s economy can’t grow if we’re simultaneously losing jobs as we add them.
This is certainly true, but Brown's actions belie his words. He has been an advocate for severe restrictions on the sign industry, and in a 1988 OpEd article in the Houston Post, called billboards "a plague". Apparently, the jobs destroyed--and to be destroyed--by Brown's support of anti-sign regulations don't count. Apparently, jobs in the sign industry are expendable. If Brown truly meant what he says, he would not vote to literally erase hundreds of jobs.

Brown's hypocrisy isn't limited to signs. Consider his position on land-use regulations. His web site states:
Businesses that try to build or expand within the city limits are subject to confusing and unpredictable standards. The city must streamline the permitting process by removing obstacles and streamlining Chapter 42 into a user-friendly, cross-referenced and consolidated development code. This will provide the predictability property owners and developers want.
Yet, Brown supported zoning--the most confusing and unpredictable "standards" possible--in the 1990s. More recently he has called for central planning in Houston to dictate where development occurs. Apparently, Brown believes that city mandates enforced at the point of a gun are not confusing and unpredictable.

His web site previously contained a section called "Lessons from U.S. Cities". One of his lessons came from New York City, which is divided into 59 districts. His site stated:
Categorical performance standards are set for each District. Citizens therefore have real access to their government, with direct contact and coordination among the various city agencies at the “street” or grass-roots level, where it counts.
In some ways, this is even worse than central planning. Each district could have radically different standards. If implemented in Houston, developers might have to deal with dozens of different standards, but Brown would have us believe that this wouldn't be confusing and unpredictable.

Brown, like many politicians, is a chameleon. He endorses whatever position seems to be popular at the moment. He never stops to identify the fact that today's unprincipled pandering contradicts yesterday's appeasing conformity. In his zeal to get elected--read, be popular--Brown votes to wipe out jobs while claiming that he wants to create jobs; he erects barriers to development while claiming that he wants to streamline regulations on developers. He wants to eat our cake, and have it too. And then he wants us to bake him another cake.

This is the type of short-term, out of context thinking that gives politicians a bad name.

While licking boots out of one side of his mouth, Brown likes to crow about his "accomplishments" out of the other side. His web site claims:
  • Saved taxpayers millions by redesigning city initiated plans for critical city-wide firehouse renovations.
  • As Chairman of the Sustainable Growth Committee, saved the city over $1 million through developing the City’s first “Green Waste” recycling program, preventing over 90,000 tons of waste from filling our landfills.
  • Cut $800,000 from the proposed Riverside Health Clinic renovation plan, ensuring Council action and ultimately saving the clinic from closure.
  • Generated $8 million in new revenue by prompting the city to collect unenforced commercial trash hauler franchise fees.
While saving more than $10 million during four years on city council is certainly a good thing, I previously laid out a plan to save the city $104 million in one year. After more than two terms, he is bragging about saving the city less than .015% of its budget during that time. And of course, he doesn't mention the additional costs he has imposed on Houstonians by supporting a myriad of regulations--like taco truck tags, banning "attention-getting devices", or mandating inspections of apartment complexes.

For all of his touchy-feely, "civic minded" rhetoric, Peter Brown is a typical politician. He stands for nothing, except expanding government power. Certainly, he mouths platitudes to the "pro-business" crowd with talk of cutting regulations, while simultaneously appeasing the pro-land-use regulation crowd with talk of banning billboards and controlling development. Forrest Gump said of a box of chocolates-- "You never know what you will get." The same is true of Peter Brown, except you know that somewhere a gun stands behind his edicts.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Insuring Our Destruction

If you regularly read the Chronicle's editorials, you would think that Houston and Texas are the absolute worst places on earth. Whether it is restrictions on signs, or banning trans fats, or saving the planet, or insurance rates, the paper consistently comes out on the side of more government and less individual liberty.

On Sunday the paper called for more government scrutiny of insurance companies:
The current Texas system for handling insurance rate requests is a game unfairly stacked in favor of the insurer. Companies should not be able to charge higher premiums until state regulators have weighed the financial data and found the increases to be justified. If the state rules them excessive, insurers should not be able to keep pocketing their ill-gotten gains while fighting lengthy delaying actions in court.
In short, the Chronicle wants the state to determine what rates are "fair" and what profits are "excessive". But if this applies to insurance companies, why shouldn't it apply to all businesses? If it is proper for the government to determine what one industry can charge for its services, why shouldn't the government make similar determinations regarding all industries? What do you think the paper's position would be if the government declared that the Chronicle's rates and delivery area would be determined by a government agency?

I suspect that the Chronicle would object to such controls over its operations. I suspect that the paper would claim that it has a right to print what it chooses. I suspect that the owners would argue that the Second Amendment protects that right. I suspect that it would claim that it should be allowed to charge a price that allows it to make a profit. And the paper would be correct on each of these points.

The same rights apply to every other business, no matter the industry. Just as the owners of the Chronicle have a moral right to use their property as they choose, in the pursuit of their values, so do the owners of every other business.

In calling for more controls and regulations on other industries, the paper defends its position with a myriad of arguments based on a common principle. For example, in supporting a ban on trans fats the paper said:
It takes just a quick trip around the grocery store perusing the signs on display cases to confirm what you already knew: “No trans fats!” “Zero trans fats!” No doubt about it: Trans fats are bad for us.
According to the Chronicle, since trans fats are bad for us, the government should protect us from our own decisions and actions. In other words, we are too stupid to make decisions for ourselves. And because the decisions of one individual impact others, government must step in and protect the "general welfare". Force must be used against individuals for the alleged benefit of all.

When it comes to saving energy, the government must force some individuals to pay for upgrades to the homes of others:
Here’s the concept: Local governments and nonprofits provide free energy-efficiency upgrades to people who otherwise couldn’t afford them.
According to the Chronicle, one person's need is a claim on the property of others and government may properly use force to compel some individuals to provide energy upgrades for others.

When it comes to signs, well, they are just plain ugly (according to the paper) and should be severely restricted. According to the Chronicle, if enough people find something ugly, government should use coercion to prohibit it.

No matter the issue, no matter the cause, the Chronicle consistently proposes the same solution--use force against the "offending" parties. According to the Chronicle, if you engage in activities that are unpopular, you should be made a criminal and subject to fines, imprisonment, or both.

In calling for greater government controls and regulations, the paper is endorsing the very policies that have created our current economic crisis. The paper is calling for an even greater dose of the poison that is wrecking our economy. Cyanide is not the antidote to arsenic. Government controls, mandates, and prohibitions are not the solution to government regulations, dictates, and restrictions. To believe otherwise is to insure our destruction.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Signs and Printing Presses

In keeping with its unstated policy of supporting any idea or policy that increases government control, on Saturday the Chronicle editorial supported the city's new restrictions on signs:
Houston brings out the nagging mother in us: She’d be such a pretty girl if she paid a shred of attention to her appearance. She has such beautiful trees and bayous, such interesting architecture! But she hides her assets behind hideous visual clutter — big clashing signs and billboards that are the urban equivalent of wearing zebra prints, polka dots and paisley all at the same time. They make our head hurt.
I suppose that the Chronicle will next support laws dictating how Houstonians may dress. If "visual clutter" is worth outlawing, then certainly poor taste is as well. After all, they are equivalent according to the paper.

In response to critics who argue that such restrictions violate the tenants of free enterprise, the editorial responds with a childish retort:
To that we say: Oh, please. There’s no virtue in looking awful, and when Houston competes with other cities, our tackiness puts us at a disadvantage. Nobody dreams of living in the Ugly Betty of cities.
The Chronicle fails to tell us their standard for "looking awful". Nor does the paper make mention of the fact that the city led the nation in job creation last year--a fact that belies the claim that Houston is somehow at an economic disadvantage. Nor does the paper mention the number of jobs that will be destroyed by this ordinance. By why let facts get in the way of your argument?

Interestingly, the editorial cites a private developer--Ed Wulfe--who restricts signs in his commercial developments. The paper would have us believe that the voluntary, contractual decisions of Wulfe and his tenants are the equivalent of a government mandate enforced at the point of a gun. The paper doesn't recognize the difference between the voluntary and the mandatory, between the contractual and the coerced. This is what happens when principles are abandoned (or never recognized).

According to the editorial, restricting signage is actually good for business:
Controlling all the signs’ size and materials makes the mall (Wulfe's properties] as a whole classier and more attractive to customers. Each tenant, of course, would prefer that its own sign be bigger and more attention-grabbing. But smaller, more coordinated signs for everyone lead to higher profits for all the stores.
In other words, left to their own devices, businesses will engage in activities that are harmful to their self-interest. What we need is for government to step in, determine what is truly beneficial, and then force business owners to comply. The judgment of the owners is irrelevant--the city knows better than they do. And besides, if Ed Wulfe--"a deal-loving, free-enterprise kind of guy"--implies support, then the ordinance must be consistent with property rights.

The truth is, the utterances of Wulfe (or any number of people) do not change the fact that the ordinance is a violation of property rights. The right to property is the right of use and disposal, the right to use one's property as one judges best, so long as the mutual rights of others are respected. But the Chronicle does not like the decisions that some individuals make. The Chronicle does not like the fact that some use their property differently than the paper would choose.

In a civilized society, disagreements are resolved through reason and persuasion--by an appeal to the facts. The Chronicle however, chooses to appeal to force, to endorse fines and imprisonment for those who do not share the paper's values. In the name of some undefined and undefinable "public good", the paper attacks the very source of the good--the individual, reasoning mind. As Ayn Rand noted, this is a gross contradiction:
An attempt to achieve the good by physical force is a monstrous contradiction which negates morality at its root by destroying man’s capacity to recognize the good, i.e., his capacity to value. Force invalidates and paralyzes a man’s judgment, demanding that he act against it, thus rendering him morally impotent.
The Chronicle has a moral right to use its property as it chooses, including printing editorials that attack that right. Having abandoned principles it treats the sign ordinance as an isolated issue with no broader implications. But if the city can regulate the use of a single property, in principle it can regulate the use of all property, including the Chronicle's printing presses. If force can be used to negate the decisions of one individual, it can be used to negate the decisions of all individuals, including those of the paper's editorial staff.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 33

None of the Above
City Controller and mayoral candidate Annise Parker recently unveiled a survey to determine Houstonians' satisfaction with city services. As is typical of such things, both the questions and the multiple choice answers provided are rigged in an apparent attempt to validate the city's agenda.

For example, the first question asks respondents to rate the "Overall quality of services provided by the City". Possible answers range from "very satisfied" to "don't know". If one is opposed to the city providing services such as trash collection, libraries, parks, etc. there is no proper answer. If one responds "very satisfied" then one implies an endorsement of the city providing such services. If one responds "very dissatisfied" one implies that he wants the city to do more.

A survey that sought to truly understand what the citizens think would have provided an opportunity to voice one's opinions, not limit the choices to those that will provide justification for expanding government.

Cap and Trade to Regulate Breathing
Over the weekend it came out that the Cap and Trade bill passed by Congress includes regulations on breathing. Congressmen who had voted for the bill were quick to defend their vote, pointing out that the bill had not actually been completed at the time of their vote. "We had no way of knowing what was in that bill," said Rep. Al Green (D-TX). "I mean, it was really long already, and they just kept adding things to it."

The Obama administration, which has been pushing for this legislation, feigned surprise that Congress went so far as to regulate the breathing of citizens. "Now that we have had time to think about it, this makes perfect sense," said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (who, incidentally, was not one of the Bee Gees). "Human breathing is a significant source of carbon dioxide."

The bill calls for a reduction in breathing to 1990 levels over the next 5 years. Given the increase in population, it is estimated that each individual will be required to take 40% fewer breaths each day. Critics argue that this will virtually eliminate such activities as exercise and hard manual labor. Gibbs dismissed such claims as reactionary, saying, “Americans are resilient people. Every time Congress has passed some outrageous bill that greatly reduces their freedom, Americans have learned to adjust.”

When it was noted that most Americans depend upon breathing to stay alive, Gibbs was circumspect. “While there is some validity in this claim, we must remember that we all must do our part. If some wind up perishing, it will be unfortunate, but this measure is intended to promote the public interest. Our projections are that this will reduce the population, I mean pollution, by 35%.” Gibbs added that there would be other benefits to the bill, such as reduced health care costs due to the rapid decline in the population, more jobs available for those who survived, and better parking places at the mall.

It is unclear how the new regulations would be enforced. Henry Waxman, the bill's sponsor, has suggested that each citizen will be required to wear a device that will automatically apply pressure to the windpipe and specific intervals, but he isn’t certain that Harry Reid's business partners will be able to meet the demand. An alternative plan proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would involve “lots of people running around with some kind of gadget”. Congressmen from the Midwest suggested using corn cobs as an environmentally friendly solution.

Environmental groups, who have been pushing for such legislation for years, said that the bill did not go far enough. “We wanted a reduction to the levels of 150 B.C.,” said a spokesman for Earth First!. “But this is a step in the right direction.”

Rep. Waxman was asked what other provisions were in the bill. "That's for me to know and you to find out," he said. "But seriously, we aren't sure yet. Since Congress has already passed it, we are just going to keep tinkering with it until we get tired."

While the above is satirical, it isn't far from what the various players would say if they were honest. Of course, if they were honest, they wouldn't be engaging in such dishonest shenanigans.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The City's Dilemma: Ashby Versus Rail

Government interventions into the economy almost always have unintended consequences. City officials are discovering this, as their attempt to stop the Ashby High Rise is now potentially creating problems with their desire to mandate walkable "urban corridors" along the proposed rail lines.

In their eagerness to appease noisy home owners near the Ashby location, city officials made changes to a city document known as the Infrastructure Design Manual to prevent high-density developments from negatively impacting traffic on nearby streets. According to the Chronicle:
City Council members and speakers at a public hearing Wednesday said certain provisions in the design manual conflict with the goals of the proposed urban transit corridors ordinance.

In other words, the city's efforts to stop one high-density development now threaten other high-density developments. The city isn't content to let individuals make decisions about the use of their property, and in their haste to mandate what is and isn't acceptable, city officials are now caught between two conflicting goals.

This is the inevitable result when government rejects the principle of individual rights--it acts on the expediency of the moment. When individuals must seek permission to act, government becomes a battleground as competing groups assert that their cause is in the "public interest" and the rights of others are expendable. Such conflicts can only be resolved by appeasing the gang that exerts the most political influence today. And if today's "solution" conflicts with tomorrow's goal--well, they'll just cross that bridge when they get to it and start the process over again.

Without principles, man is reduced to the range of the moment. Each issue is regarded as new and unique, disconnected from yesterday and irrelevant to tomorrow. As Ayn Rand wrote in "Credibility and Polarization":
Concrete problems cannot even be grasped, let alone judged or solved, without reference to abstract principles.

Andy Icken, deputy director of the Department of Public Works and Engineering has suggested that the city tweak the language of Infrastructure Design Manual:
Icken said he will work with Marlene Gafrick, Houston’s planning and development director, to add language to the transit corridors ordinance clarifying that reduced automobile traffic is likely along corridors where people will be riding trains. That should reduce the need for any traffic mitigation, Icken said.

Which means, if we just change some words in an ordinance we can make the problem go away. All we need to do is assert that people will ride trains. But Icken's wishes will not change the fact that the number of people using light rail is well below Metro's projections. Icken's desires, no matter how he expresses them, will not change reality.

Of course, the city will not allow something as "archaic" as individual rights to impede its plans. It has serious work to do, and if the rights of a few recalcitrant individuals must be trampled, so be it.

If the city truly wants to resolve this problem, it must begin by recognizing and protecting individual rights, including property rights. It must remove arbitrary obstacles to development by repealing mandates and prohibitions on land-use. By recognizing and protecting individual rights, the city can solve this dilemma, today and in the future.