Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Who is Getting Hammered?

I previously addressed issues with Sheltering Arms Senior Services (SASS), a local outfit that is using taxpayer loot to make private homes more energy efficient. At the time SASS was under fire for performing sub-par work and Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg was whining that SASS officials were not being held accountable. In my post I wrote:
I can only assume that Falkenberg wants SASS to be held accountable to the government officials overseeing the program, and ultimately the taxpayers who are footing the bill. That might sound reasonable--no sensible person wants to see government waste the money it has stolen from the citizenry. 
It now appears that someone might be held "accountable" for the crummy work. Texas Watchdog reports (HT: blogHouston) that the weatherization director for SASS has been canned. Falkenberg might be happy, but I'm not impressed.

Texas Watchdog reports that SASS is the state's second leading recipient of stolen money--$22.3 million--for weatherizing private homes. The Alamo Area Council of Governments in San Antonio is getting $14.5 million, while the city and county of Dallas each are receiving more than $13 million. But the "winner" in the race to fleece taxpayers is the city of Houston, coming in at a cool $23.5 million.

I am sure that a lot of people feel better now that an incompetent manager has been fired. But that won't change the fact that the money being spent by SASS was taken from taxpayers without their consent, for purposes that they may or may not agree with. It doesn't change the fact that many taxpayers will be unable to afford their own weatherization projects because they had money forcibly removed from their wallets so that Granny Smith could have her windows caulked.

If Granny Smith marched over to her neighbor's house with a shotgun and took his money so that she could pay to have her windows caulked, she would rightfully be regarded as a thief. That doesn't change simply because the government does the taking.

It has been reported that SASS spent 60% of its "revenues" on administration for the weatherization program. That money is gone, consumed by parasites sucking the life out of productive, tax paying citizens. If that isn't bad enough, we are being told that this parasitism will "stimulate" the economy. Granny Smith might have gotten her windows caulked, but taxpayers are getting hammered.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What About the Future?

Preservationists insist that we protect "our past" by prohibiting the demolition of old buildings. In the current "debate" over the city's proposal to toughen the existing preservation ordinance, the Chronicle previously reported:
The city plans to begin negotiating with developers, property owners and preservationists in the coming months about permanent changes to the law...
Many would think that it is reasonable to gather together those who will be impacted by the ordinance to work out an agreement. But the truth is, this is impossible. The city cannot even begin to identify everyone who will be impacted by the ordinance.

For example, if someone moves to Houston after the ordinance is enacted and seeks to buy a home in a "protected" neighborhood, he will find that housing prices have risen dramatically. (Sue Lovell, who is leading the preservation effort, has noted that home prices in "protected" neighborhoods have risen 30%.) He will pay significantly more for housing or have to seek housing somewhere else. Yet he is not going to be invited to the city's pow wow.

Further, as the number of "protected" neighborhoods expands, pressure on housing in other areas will also increase, driving up prices there. How far and to what extent this ripple will continue is impossible to predict, but the result will be higher housing prices throughout the city. This will impact everyone who currently lives in Houston and surrounding areas, as well as anyone who moves to the city in the future. They will be among the hidden victims of the city's attempt to preserve the past.

As with all government interventions, the focus is on the here and now. The long-term consequences are of no concern. They will worry about the future when it gets here. And that usually means more interventions.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Chronicle Gets it Right--For Now

It is rare that I find myself in agreement with a Chronicle editorial. On Sunday the paper accomplished this feat, at least in part, in chastising city council for its refusal to cut its budget:
The defense offered by some council members is that the cuts would have come out of salaries and health care benefits for staff members. And so they would have. We sympathize with the hardships these cuts would cause, limited as they are. But we're also left to wonder: How are those hardships any different than the ones borne by so many in the private sector in these days of benefit cuts, wage and salary freezes and layoffs? That's what too many of the people who pay for city government are facing.
Of course, it is easy for the paper to take the side of taxpayers on this issue.So I'm not going to give it too much credit, particularly when it evades the implications of its own statements.
From France to Washington, D.C., to Sacramento, Calif., public sector employees have for too long been insulated from the realities faced by those in the private sector. They have more vacation time, better pensions and more job security than most in the private sector. It's starting to break the bank in Europe and in parts of this country.
If this is true--which it is--then why does the paper continually advocate for expanding the number of public sector employees? If more government is breaking the bank, then why does the paper consistently call for more government? From local to federal, from land-use regulations to health care and everything in between, the paper urges more government controls and regulations.

Apparently the paper believes that such controls and regulations do not require more public sector employees to monitor and harass the citizenry. Apparently the paper believes that there are no costs associated with enforcing these edicts. Apparently the paper can't see the connection between more government control over our lives and bankruptcy. To make such a connection, one would have to look beyond concrete details and think in principles.

Economically, government is a consumer--it produces nothing of value. (It's proper purpose is the protection of our moral right to produce values.) To feed its voracious appetite, government must take money from the private sector, which reduces the money available to invest in expanded production. In addition, government controls and regulations place additional burdens on producers, forcing them to spend enormous sums to comply with the demands and dictates of politicians and bureaucrats. This too is money that cannot be invested in production.

These facts are true no matter the intention of any particular government intervention. These facts are true in Athens, Sacramento, Washington, and everywhere else on earth. These facts are true no matter how many people support a particular regulation. These facts were true in 1776, they are true today, and they will be true in 2176. These facts are true in principle--always.

The Chronicle can't have it both ways. The paper can't chastise politicians for spending money while it consistently urges them to spend money. It can't lament the cost of expanding the public sector while regularly calling for an expansion of the public sector. The paper can't warn of impending financial ruin while simultaneously advocating the actions that lead to that ruin. At least, it can't do these things if it wishes to be consistent and to be taken seriously.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Houston's Non-Balanced Budget

On Wednesday city council unanimously passed a "balanced" budget, closing a deficit of $140 million through a combination of modest spending cuts, fee increases, and evasion. The Chronicle reports:
Some council members questioned how Parker will cut $22 million in spending during the coming year through unspecified "efficiencies."
In other words, the budget isn't really balanced. Council got within $22 million of doing so and gave up, declaring that the remaining deficit will be eliminated "somehow." Imagine telling your boss that you can save the company money "somehow." Do you really think that he would tell you to run with it? Yet this is precisely what our city "leaders" are telling their boss--the taxpayer.

Evading the sham they are trying to pull, council member Anne Clutterbuck was quick to praise her colleagues:
Clutterbuck, who chairs council's Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee, said Parker and council members should feel proud of a budget "that is balanced in these very difficult financial times." 
Isn't that precious? City council simply took an eraser to the budget, wiped out $22 million, and now they want boast about their "accomplishment." To call this budget balanced is simply a fraud.This is akin to finding yourself short at the end of the month, throwing the electric bill in the trash, and declaring your budget balanced. No matter what you--or council--say, your budget is not balanced and reality will eventually prove it.

So what will happen when these mysterious "efficiencies" do not materialize? What will council do when it realizes that its "balanced" budget exists only in its imagination? My suspicion--based on recent council actions--is that they will pass another non-tax that robs citizens of the money needed to truly balance the budget. And then Ma Parker and her posse will engage in another round of patting themselves on the back for making "tough decisions."

And what "tough decisions" did council make? Despite asking all city departments to cut their budgets by 2%, council refused to do the same with their office budgets. Granted, this would have saved a paltry $110,000 and been largely symbolic in terms of the budget, but it would have demonstrated some measure of integrity. Jolanda Jones, who has complained about not having a shower in her office, explained her reasons for opposing the cut:
If someone calls my office and I don't have staff or resources to help them solve their problem, they're going to be mad at me. ... They're going to be mad at the city.
Apparently Jones wants us to feel sorry for her because her constituents might get mad at her. She doesn't have the imagination to figure out how to do with $8,000 less per year and doesn't want to be bothered with trying to figure out how to do so. Instead, she will just sit on her throne issuing edicts and robbing taxpayers.

Jones of course, is not alone in her sanctimonious disregard for Houstonians. In voting for the non-balanced budget her colleagues demonstrated that they think we are fools. And absent an uproar from the citizenry, perhaps they are right.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Houston: Model City...But Not for Long

I previously commented on a piece by Joel Kotkin titled "Houston: Model City" that appeared in Forbes. Kotkin writes:
Politicians in big cities talk about jobs, but by keeping taxes, fees and regulatory barriers high they discourage the creation of jobs, at least in the private sector. A business in San Francisco or Los Angeles never knows what bizarre new cost will be imposed by city hall. In New York or Boston you can thrive as a nonprofit executive, high-end consultant or financier, but if you are the owner of a business that wants to grow you're out of luck.

Houston, however, has kept the cost of government low while investing in ports, airports, roads, transit and schools. A person or business moving there gets an immediate raise through lower taxes and cheaper real estate. Houston just works better at nurturing jobs.
Kotkin is only partially right. Certainly, business owners in most major cities never know what arbitrary edicts will be forced upon them. But our politicians are working overtime to catch up.

Consider what city officials have done just in the past 2 years: taco tags, a ban on "attention-getting" devices, shutting down a Spec's liquor store, harassing CES Environmental Services, ever shifting demands regarding the Ashby High Rise, tougher restrictions on billboards, a "crackdown" on sexually-oriented businesses, a proposed tightening of the preservation ordinance, mandated use of biodegradable leaf bags, and more. Each of these measures drives up the cost of doing business, kills jobs, or both. Is this an environment that "nurtures jobs"?

Despite the praise that is regularly heaped upon Houston, including that of being a model city, our alleged leaders keep telling us that we must do this and do that if we want to be "world class". They keep telling us that we should emulate other cities, while the rest of the world is being told that they should emulate us. Why such a different view of our city?

The truth is, city officials are not concerned with Houston being a "world class" city. They aren't concerned with creating jobs, or protecting the environment, or improving our "quality of life". These are just empty platitudes that they toss out to the pressure group of the day in an obsequious attempt to win political support. All they want is power--the power to dictate and control our lives. And if you don't believe me, how do you explain the list of dictates and controls I cited above?

The pattern is generally the same. Some group gets mad because others are doing something that they don't like. So they assemble a bunch of nosy and noisy cohorts to pester City Hall. Once they find a council member willing to pander to their demands--which isn't hard--the issue is declared a matter of public safety, or "quality of life", or "neighborhood protection", or something similar that makes everybody feel good about themselves because they are "doing something".

And that "something" is forcing their values on the rest of their fellow citizens. That "something" is using the coercive power of government to dictate how others may or may not act. That "something" is the exact opposite of what made Houston great. That "something" is destroying the city that the rest of the world wants to emulate.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ma Strikes Again

The Chronicle reports:
A Travis County state district judge has said he will declare the city's sharp water and sewer rate increases valid, giving Mayor Annise Parker the legal blessing she hopes will head off efforts to force the issue to a public referendum.
The odd thing about this is the city sued itself in a court in another jurisdiction as a pre-emptive strike. Ma Parker ran for office on a pledge to not raise taxes. So far she has kept that pledge by forcing us to use more expensive lawn bags in lieu of a tax increase, and now she is trying to ram a water rate increase down our throats. Technically, neither qualifies as a tax increase. Practically and morally, we are being forced to pay more money for city services.

The fact is, most Houstonians have no choice but to use city services. Confiscatory taxes and prohibitions on private competitors grant the city a coercive monopoly on many services and make those open to competition generally too expensive. If we want our leaves carted away or want running water, we have little choice but to use the city's services. And the city can charge whatever it damn well pleases, because it's "customers" have no recourse except to yell at council members and write blog posts.

To date, opposition to the rate increase seems to be focused on a referendum. Apparently, opponents to the increase aren't opposed to the city being in the water business. They just want the "people" to have a voice in the matter.

If the city sold the water system to private companies the people would have a voice. They would have a choice in which company they patronized. Competition, and the fact that individuals would have choices, would drive costs down. In contrast, Ma claims that the city is losing $100 million a year on water services. By her own admission, the city sucks at the water business, and yet she wants to stay in it. And who can really blame her--she has millions of captive customers who must pay whatever she demands.

Interestingly, one of the arguments made in favor of municipal utilities is the fact that utilities are "natural monopolies". The nature of these services allegedly precludes competition, and therefore the city should provide the service in order to promote the "common good". Look at where that has gotten us. The city's infrastructure is in shambles and it is losing money faster than a drunken sailor in Vegas.

The solution isn't lawsuits and referendums. The solution is for the city to get out of the water business. And I don't mean some Mickey Mouse sham like retaining ownership of the assets and letting a private company manage the system. I mean sell everything and get out of the water business entirely. We don't depend on the government for our food, thank God. Why should we depend on it for our water?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Nanny State for Nannies

Saturday's editorial in the Chronicle applauds New York for passing legislation granting nannies paid sick days and holidays. According to the paper, nannies work in near slavery:
[D]omestic workers still enjoy the fewest rights of almost any other class of workers. Though their ethnicity has changed over the decades, for the last century domestic workers have tended to be people of color: already marginalized, in other words, and with less leverage to negotiate work contracts. Throughout U.S. history, domestic workers have also tended to be women, who are still paid less on average than their male counterparts even in the professional world.

Above all, domestic employees do their jobs within families - who all too often fail to treat them as the paid workers they are. It's little wonder that these workers often endure verbal abuse, overwork and nonpayment, even sexual assault. Working in the insular world of the home, they lack the neutral witnesses and other social controls found in other work environments. 
Despite the paper's claims, nannies have the same rights as any individual. Rights pertain to action--the freedom to act according to one's own judgment. Short of literal slavery, nannies have a choice as to whether they stay in the profession, as well as for whom they work. If a nanny finds the conditions in one home unbearable, she is free to go elsewhere. (Instances of sexual abuse or nonpayment are violations of the nanny's rights and should be prosecuted.)

But this isn't good enough for the Chronicle. The fact that some individuals tolerate abuse is intolerable to the paper. The Chronicle objects to the fact that some individuals make choices that it finds objectionable, and government must prohibit the freedom to make such choices. 

While the paper stops short of calling for such legislation in Texas, it certainly would support such controls. For years the paper has not hesitated to endorse virtually any proposal that limits individual choice, imposes controls and restrictions on individuals, and expands the power of government.

That some individuals make bad decisions or tolerate situations that many of us would run away from is indisputable. But so what? It is quite easy to find fault with the choices others make, but that does not justify preventing them from making such decisions.

I am currently re-reading Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis. Babbitt is a complete conformist. He opposes Prohibition and regales in his ability to skirt the law. He tolerates restrictions on his rights because it is good for the sops who cannot control their own drinking, while he simultaneously rejoices when he can enjoy a cocktail. Because Prohibition allegedly benefits others he is willing to put aside his own judgment, desires, and interests. Such is the thinking that gives rise to the nanny state. Such is the thinking that allows individuals to slowly cede their rights.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Another Bad Idea for the Dome

One idea being floated for the renovation of the Astrodome is a public-private "partnership". Such "partnerships" have grown more popular in recent years, as governments seek to provide "public" goods without taxing citizens into oblivion. But these "partnerships" are a bad idea.

Consider the nature of the "partnership". One side--the government--holds a gun. It can, at any time, force its "partner" to concede to its demands, or else. And we know what "or else" means when government is involved. Such deals might seem good to a business, and they might be profitable in the short-term. Paying protection money to the local street gang might also seem like a good deal, but in the end the "partner" with the gun can demand more. And the business must pay, or else.

Consider also the nature of the projects proposed for public-private "partnerships". These invariably involve activities that are outside of government's proper functions, such as roads, parks, and sports stadiums. If these alleged "public" goods truly are a proper function of government, then why is it necessary or even desirable for private companies to be involved?

The fact is, such "partnerships" are an attempt by government and businesses to have their cake and eat it too. Government can provide "public" goods while gaining greater control over a private business. And the business can invest in an asset without bearing the full cost. Government uses the "partnership" to encourage investments into projects it can't afford; businesses get to rape the taxpayers who subsidize the project. Government can "encourage" investments in "public" goods; businesses get to profit while being backed by government coercion.

If these goods are truly desired by the public, and businesses can truly profit by providing them, then they should be provided entirely by the private sector. If they are not desired (or individuals are not willing to voluntarily pay for them) then government is simply wasting taxpayer money. If profits can be made, then businesses should be willing to pony up the investment without relying on taxpayer subsidies.

The Astrodome has the potential to become many things, all of which are expensive and risky. I do not care to invest my money in such endeavors, and I should not be forced to do so through my tax dollars. Those who are willing to take that risk should do so, and they should benefit accordingly. But government should not be involved.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Contradictions of Conservatives

During the very short portion of Sean Hannity's program that I heard on Monday, a caller rebuked Hannity for taking contradictory positions. You call for smaller government, the caller said, but now you attack Obama for not doing more in regard to the oil spill in the Gulf. Hannity responded that this was not a contradiction, that he was only demanding that the government do what it is supposed to do.

The fact is, cleaning up oil spills is not a proper function of government.

Hannity--and other conservatives--want to make the oil spill Obama's Katrina. They continually deride Obama for incompetence and indecisiveness in handling the spill. But the government's proper response should have been to do nothing but hold BP responsible for damages to the property of others.

For all their empty rhetoric about small government, conservatives are not opposed to government encroachments on our rights. Indeed, they champion many such violations--prohibitions on pornography and abortion ranking are but 2 examples.

Hannity and his ilk are not about small government (whatever that means). Nor are they about limited government. They do not advocate that government be limited to its proper function of protecting our rights. What they do advocate is the coercive imposition of their values upon the entire nation. In that regard, they are no different from liberals.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Surprising Editorial-- Not

Not surprisingly, the Chronicle has endorsed expanding the historic preservation ordinance:
People who want to live in historic neighborhoods ought to have that choice. And if we don’t protect those neighborhoods, they’ll slowly slip away.
In true collectivist fashion, the paper argues that what an individual property owner wants is irrelevant--he must surrender his judgment and desires to that of his neighbors. If enough noisy and nosy property owners in a neighborhood want to force others to beg the city for permission to use their property, then so be it.

In response to critics of the proposal the paper offers the following:

Detractors argue that any limitation on what can be done with a piece of land is bad for property values. But that’s a hard case to make: In cities across the country, historic neighborhoods tend to be the most desirable.
The paper doesn't tell us which cities, so I can only assume that it means the same ones that have made housing unaffordable for the middle class because of land-use regulations. I can only assume that it means the same cities that are losing citizens and jobs. The connection between preservation and higher housing costs isn't lost on the Chronicle:
And tight protections certainly haven’t hurt the Old Sixth Ward. If anything, they seem to make buyers feel secure. In the three years the protections have been in place there, sale prices have zoomed up by roughly 30 percent.
These arbitrarily inflated housing costs are what the paper and preservationists want to impose on neighborhoods around the city. And the impact won't be limited to the neighborhoods receiving "protection". Higher housing costs in those neighborhoods will increase demand in non-historic neighborhoods, thereby driving up housing costs there.

But these simple economic arguments are not the primary case against historic preservation. The primary case is moral--each individual has a moral right to use his property as he judges best, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. Government's purpose is to protect this right by prohibiting the initiation of force.

Renovating or demolishing an old building does not violate the rights of anyone. Forcing property owners to seek government approval to do so does--it is founded on the premise that property owners may act only with permission, rather than by right. Ownership means control; land-use regulations--including historic preservation--wrests control from the rightful owner and places it in the hands of politicians, bureaucrats, and nosy neighbors.

Preservationists hold that buildings have intrinsic value. They hold that buildings should be protected and preserved regardless of the consequences to human beings. In their zeal to protect bricks and mortar they do not hesitate to trample on the lives of property owners.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sell the Damn Thing

I love the Astrodome. Before I moved to Houston it was the one symbol of the city that stood out the most. I have attended baseball games, football games, rodeos, concerts, and trade shows there. I have fond memories of "Dome dogs" and gigantic beers. But I am tired of paying for this massive monument to the past.

The Dome has been sitting idle for years, and despite occasional debates over its future, nothing has been done. And during this period taxpayers have had the privilege of paying about $4.4 million a year for insurance, debt, and interest. Now, the Chronicle reports that we will get to pony up some more money:
The Astrodome's future could range from a $128 million teardown to its renovation as part of a $1.35 billion makeover of Reliant Park, leaders of the stadium complex said Monday.

Whatever the option, the public is almost certain to be asked to pay a big portion of the price.
Before I comment on the actual proposal, consider the dishonesty of the wording in the last sentence above. We will be "asked" to pay for whatever plan is adopted. This is like a mugger claiming that he "asked" for your wallet. And what happens if you don't comply? Both the mugger and the taxman will bash your head in. Now back to our story.

For years, taxpayers have been paying for the debt and interest on a vacant building. Our esteemed leaders have been so wise that we have been continuing to pay on this building long after it quit being used. And now they claim that they have a good idea for the property. Just like they claimed that all of the other sports stadiums were a good idea. Lest anyone forget, it wasn't that long ago that the city unloaded one if its previous "good ideas"--the facility formerly known as The Summit--in a fire sale because it needed to reduce its budget deficit.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me five, six, ten times, I'm a damn idiot. Government officials are playing taxpayers for idiots, and with good reason. Taxpayers (or at least voters) have continued to buy into the claptrap that we must pay for these playgrounds or else we won't have major leagues sports teams. And then we won't be a "world-class city". I have news for the whiners who make such claims: There isn't any class in forcing taxpayers to "invest" their money into these boondoggles.

I have a suggestion that won't cost taxpayers a penny. In fact, it will help reduce taxes. Sell the damn thing.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Petition that Will Kill Jobs

The debate over the RENEW Houston petition drive is heating up. And some rational arguments are beginning to surface. Tory Gattis, for example, writes:
The biggest issue seems to be the open-ended developer impact fees.  These have been a major problem in other cities.  The argument seems reasonable - "make developers pay their fair share" - but that's not how they really work out in practice.  Politicians find it easy to tax new development because that doesn't upset most voters (some of the anti-growthers even promote it).  By raising the cost of new housing (often by many tens of thousands of dollars), it has an insidious secondary effect of raising the market price of all existing housing. 
While Gattis is undecided on the petition, his argument reveals how short-term thinking leads to long-term destruction. Current home owners of course, would generally love to shift their tax burden to others. Impact fees on developers would do this, providing home owners with tax relief today.

As Gattis notes, this drives up the cost of new housing, and ultimately, all housing. Home owners generally love this as well--at least when they go to sell their current home. But the cost of new housing quickly erodes much of their windfall. Worse yet, higher housing costs kill jobs and raises the cost of doing business. This ripples through the economy as individuals have less money to spend on everything else, killing more jobs and increasing the cost of living in general.

By the time these long-term consequences show up, few will make the connection to the impact fees forced on developers years before. And we will hear another chorus of voices demanding that government do something to fix the problems it created.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Preserve Houston's Culture, Not It's Buildings

With stricter controls on "historic" properties looming on the horizon, the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance (GHPA) will likely play a key role in the effort to strong-arm property owners. Interestingly, the GHPA's web site claims that:
GHPA promotes the preservation and appreciation of Houston's architectural and cultural historic resources through education, advocacy and committed action, thereby creating economic value, developing a stronger sense of community.
If this is true, then why is the organization's emphasis on bricks and mortar rather than ideas? If the GHPA really wants to preserve and appreciate Houston's culture, then why is it so adamant in attacking that culture? These are, of course, rhetorical questions, because GHPA has no understanding of Houston's culture, let alone a desire to preserve it.

As Ayn Rand wrote:
A nation’s culture is the sum of the intellectual achievements of individual men, which their fellow-citizens have accepted in whole or in part, and which have influenced the nation’s way of life. 
The same is true of a city--its culture is the sum of individual intellectual achievements that influence or dominate the city's way of life. What then, is Houston's culture?

In essentials, Houston's culture is defined by a relative respect for individual rights, including property rights. (I say relative because the city certainly engages in numerous violations of property rights. But in comparison to other large cities, Houston is a bastion of freedom in this regard.) The city's lack of zoning and similar restrictions makes Houston unique, politically, economically, and morally.

This is precisely what the GHPA and other preservationists do not want to preserve. They do not recognize the moral right of each individual to use his property as he chooses (so long as he respects the mutual rights of others). They seek to remove this freedom in the name of protecting old buildings.

I certainly appreciate history and historical sites. But my appreciation and interest has little to do with the physical aspects of a building. My appreciation and interest pertains to the intellectual achievements represented by those buildings. For example, the significance of Independence Hall is what was achieved there. Even when the architecture is the focus--such as Fallingwater--that architecture represents an intellectual achievement.

Such achievements are not what GHPA seeks to protect, for such achievements are the result of an unfettered mind. They are the result of intellectual freedom--the recognition of an individual's right to act according to his own judgment. The ideas advocated by the Founding Fathers and Frank Lloyd Wright did not enjoy universal support. They were not required to seek the approval of others prior to acting; they acted according to their own judgment.

More than other cities, Houston has continued to recognize this fundamental moral right. Individuals have been left relatively free to use their property as they choose. The result has been lower housing costs, a lower cost of doing business, and economic prosperity. This is Houston's culture, and this is what the preservationists are attacking.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Doublespeak at City Hall

Having recently read George Orwell's 1984, the idea of "doublespeak" is fresh in my mind. In the world of 1984, government officials distort the meanings of words, uttering such nonsense as "war is peace". But doublespeak is not confined to works of fiction--it is alive and well in Houston's city council. Consider the words of council member Sue Lovell, who is leading the effort to tighten controls on "historic" properties:
I'm all for property rights, too. I'm a property owner, and I'm here to defend that right. I also want to be able to ... defend the history of our city, and so, we're all going to sit down and listen to each other.
The right to property is the right of use and disposal. The right to property is a sanction to use one's property as one chooses, so long as one respects the mutual rights of others. But this is not what Lovell proposes. She seeks to force the owners of "historic" properties to beg for permission to use their property. She does not want property owners using their land by right, but only with the approval of city officials.

Consider what will happen if city officials do not like your proposed use. They will render your judgment irrelevant, and if you do in fact act on your judgment, you will become a criminal, subject to fines and perhaps jail time. This is not a recognition of property rights, but the exact opposite.

Lovell's claims are worse than an evasion. She insists that those on both sides of the issue will "sit down and listen to each other." And what will be the nature of this "discussion"?

On one side--assuming that Lovell even seeks out a principled defender of property rights--will be those who recognize and defend each individual's moral right to his own life, liberty, and property. On the other side will be Lovell and her ilk--those who claim that they have a "right" to compel individuals to use their property in a particular manner. And Lovell will have the coercive power of government on her side.

Throughout the "negotiations" an implied threat will be omnipresent--property owners must comply with Lovell's dictates, or else. Property owners will be forced to cede their rights, or else. And when government is involved, "or else" means "go to jail".

If a private citizen attempted to "negotiate" using such tactics, his actions would rightfully be labeled blackmail. The principle does not change simply because a government official is making the threats--implied or otherwise. The principle does not change by hiding behind sticky sweet bromides like the "common good" or "protecting our heritage". The threat of force makes "negotiations" a mere facade.

The Chronicle reports that proposed changes to the preservation ordinance will "set the stage for a broad, and likely heated, debate about land use and the character of the city." I am doubtful.

More likely, any "debate" that occurs will center on the terms of compromise. The paper tells us that
The city plans to begin negotiating with developers, property owners and preservationists in the coming months about permanent changes to the law, a process Mayor Annise Parker, an advocate for stricter preservation controls, said is likely to end by September.
In other words, the city considers this a done deal and all that remains is to see what concessions it can squeeze out of property owners. Of course, city officials won't admit to any of this. They will continue to pretend that "government control is property rights". They will continue to engage in doublespeak.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Temporary Today, Permanent Tomorrow

Years ago, when city council was considering Houston's first historic preservation ordinance, I spoke before the council. The ordinance called for a 90-day "waiting period" before an "historic" building could be demolished. Council members considered this an acceptable compromise between preservationists who wanted stricter controls and property rights advocates who opposed any controls.

At that time, I pointed out that if one accepted the premise underlying the ordinance--that it is proper for council to violate property rights--it would only be a matter of time before somebody would demand a complete prohibition on demolitions of historic buildings. In a remarkable display of evasion, a council member remarked that he could not concern himself with what future councils decided.

My "prediction" is indeed coming true, as city council has enacted a "temporary" moratorium on any demolitions of in historic districts. According to the Chronicle, preservationists aren't happy with the current ordinance:
“The 90-day ordinance we have has not worked to preserve the historic character of the city of Houston,” said David Beale, a resident of the West Heights Historic District who has fought a development under way to build four homes where there once were two. “We need a better ordinance, we need a new ordinance, and this new temporary ordinance will give us the time that we need.”
The "compromise" reached on the original ordinance was a complete surrender--it established the principle that council could restrict or prohibit the demolition of buildings deemed historic, regardless of the desires or judgment of the property owner. That the ordinance established a 90-day waiting period was only a minor detail.

In principle, the ordinance stated that, for 90-days the city can dictate what a property owner can do. But what is so magic about 90-days? Why not 120-days, or 180-days, or 3-years, or forever? In principle, if 90-days is proper and just, then so is any amount of time.

The fact is, any controls on land-use that initiate force against property owners (as the preservation ordinance does) are improper and unjust. The preservation ordinance should not be strengthened; it should be repealed.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Might Does Not Make Right

Yesterday's post on RENEW Houston generated 2 comments that reflect widely held views on the topic of infrastructure and flooding. I think it worth looking at these ideas a little deeper.

The first comment states, in part:
I suppose you would think the City has no business building such infrastructure, but I'm willing to pay for it to keep the runoff from my property flowing safely and without impacting others.
The second comment reflects a similar point of view:
I cannot take issue with your general thoughts on government, its promises, and the notion that often times others do try to Impose their vision. And you do have an opportunity to vote no...

I'm a small government conservative, but this problem is not going to fix itself, and their is no incentive for the private sector to provide a solution.

Many may choose to accept the current situation. And again that is their right. But I fear that many will oppose this initiative and then be the first to complain when their neighborhood does not drain.
I agree that I have an opportunity to vote "no" on this proposal. But my views--and indeed those of any particular individual--on this subject will be rendered largely irrelevant if RENEW Houston succeeds in getting this initiative on the ballot. If the referendum is passed, the "will of the people" as expressed by voters will be imposed upon everyone.

To be clear, the issue is not drainage or flooding--it is property rights. The issue is the moral right of each individual to use and dispose of his property, including his money, as he chooses. In seeking to force Houstonians to pay for flood control, the proposed referendum is a direct attack on property rights.

The underlying premise is that the majority may do as it pleases because it is the majority. If enough people agree to some proposal, then it becomes proper and just. We have heard this argument in regard to zoning and other land-use regulations for decades. In fact, Americans have been hearing from the first days of the republic. But might does not make right, a fact that our Founders clearly understood. James Madison, for example, wrote:
There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied, and which, therefore, more needs elucidation, than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.
The proper purpose of government is to protect the rights of individuals, no matter the number who wish to violate those rights or the pretense under which they do so. The fact that some individuals want to pay for infrastructure and flood control does not give them a moral right to force others to also pay.

If one accepts the premise that the rights of individuals are subject to a vote, then there are no limits on what the majority may do. The majority may commit any atrocity, and history is replete with examples. Individual rights, including property rights, are inviolate, no matter how many people want to believe otherwise.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

RENEW Houston and Flooding

Over the past week I have received 2 recorded messages and an oversized postcard/ petition from a group called RENEW Houston. According to their web site:
RENEW Houston is a charter amendment campaign to create a dedicated pay-as-you-go funding source to repair our drainage and streets.

Houston is an aging city. Over 60 % of all drainage and streets are past their useful life; 80% will be past their useful life in the next 20 years. When a street is assigned for re-construction, it takes the city 12 years before the work will commence due to lack of funding.
Not surprisingly, RENEW Houston presents its proposal as a complete panacea:
JOBS: Creates jobs for Houstonians. QUALITY OF LIFE: Rebuild the foundation of our communities with new storm sewers and streets, and maintenance of existing storm sewers, drainage ditches, and streets. PUBLIC SAFETY: Allow emergency vehicles easy and fast access to our neighborhoods and businesses. ECONOMY: Houston cannot be economically competitive with the rest of the nation without having good drainage and streets. 
If I had a dime for every group, politician, or special interest that made similar claims, I would be a very wealthy man. And if I had only a penny for every fallacy and evasion put forth by those making these claims, I would be equally wealthy. Let's look at a few of these in brief.

Jobs: Certainly, rebuilding infrastructure will create jobs. And it will destroy jobs too. The money to pay for that infrastructure must be taken from taxpayers and businesses--private citizens. They will have less money to spend at the grocer, or the movie theater, or the auto dealer. Reduced private spending means fewer jobs, a fact that RENEW Houston and its ilk conveniently evade.

Quality of Life: RENEW Houston does not explain why their vision of "quality of life" should be forced upon the entire city. I am no more a fan of flooded streets and homes than anyone else. But I also took responsibility to buy a home in an area that is not prone to flooding. My quality of life--along with many others--will be negatively impacted if my money is taken without my consent for purposes I do not agree with.

Economy: For nearly a century, Houstonians have heard threats that our city will never be economically competitive if we do not cede more power and money to government. We have heard it during the three failed attempts to implement zoning, we have heard it in support of various land-use restrictions, it was trotted out in support of more stringent controls on billboards. Given the actual facts, an honest person would look at the history of Houston's economy and be embarrassed to make such a claim. Yet, here comes RENEW Houston making the same false and disproved claims.

It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Groups like RENEW Houston simply want us to forget history, along with economics, morality, and property rights. They have a vision for the city, and like all of their intellectual brethren, they are determined to force it upon us, come hell or high water.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ma's Big "Ifs"

A few weeks ago Ma Parker unveiled her first budget as Mother of all Houstonians. The $4.1 billion budget does not include any tax increases, but does include a number of fee hikes, land sales, a draw down on the city's "rainy day fund", and "efficiencies". According to the Chronicle:
Parker and other city officials warned that deeper cuts could be in store if tax revenues continue to slide. She also acknowledged that the drastic reduction in surplus funds will leave the city with little to no margin for error.
Ma deserves some credit for reducing spending about 3.7% and not raising taxes. But I suspect that that little piece of good news is going to be short lived. Ma admits that the city has little margin for error, and how many times have government budget forecasts been accurate? If I were a betting man, I would not bet against tax increases in the near future.

As part of my evidence:
City Controller Ronald Green sounded a more cautious note, pointing out that the budget has been balanced by anticipated cuts of more than $22 million and about $40 million in land sales that have yet to be realized.

City officials said the $22 million will come from what they termed “efficiencies” in how Houston manages its fleet of more than 12,000 vehicles, as well as consolidation of some employee functions. 
So, the budget will be balanced if the city can somehow figure out how to save $22 million--which it hasn't done yet--and if it can sell land for the value projected. These are some pretty big "ifs". And what happens if these projections fail to materialize? I would suggest holding onto your wallet, because the chances are good that the city will be reaching for it in one form or another.

I would suggest that Ma stop relying on "ifs" and return government to its proper function--the protection of individual rights. Not only could she balance the budget, she could actually cut taxes. But she could do that only if she recognizes the inviolate right of individuals to their own life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness. And that, like her budget projections, if a very big "if".

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Rearranging Education's Deck Chairs

Few Texans would argue that our public school system is broken. And, while there is considerable disagreement over how to fix public education, many do agree that politics should be taken out of the process. Karen Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, joined this chorus in Sunday's Chronicle:
It's time to fix this flawed system and get politics out of our children's classrooms. The state board is clearly unwilling to fix the problem. Last year, however, the Texas Legislature considered bills that would have put primary responsibility for the adoption of curriculum standards and textbooks in the hands of classroom teachers and academic experts. None of those bills passed, but lawmakers should revisit those recommendations in 2011. They must ensure that public schools are focused on just educating our children, not promoting the personal and political agendas of elected state board members.
My first reaction upon reading this was to wonder if Miller had any idea of the contradictory nature of her paragraph. While calling for an end to politics in education, Miller urges the Texas Legislature--a political body--to enact changes toward that end. In other words, she wants a political process to put an end to a political process.

Legislators are no more immune to politics than the members of the State Board of Education. Nor are the teachers and scholars that Miller wants setting the curriculum. So long as any group has the power to impose a curriculum upon Texas schools, politics will be involved. So long as government coercion is used to dictate what students are taught, there will be those who seek to use that power to promote their own ideas and agendas.

Politics will not be removed from education until government is removed from education. Until Miller and her ilk grasp this fact, they are simply asking for the deck chairs on the Titanic to be rearranged.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Accountability and Welfare

Politicians and pundits love to talk about the need for accountability in government. Lisa Falkenberg provides an example. She questions whether Sheltering Arms Senior Services (SASS), which uses stimulus money to improve the energy efficiency of homes, is being held accountable:
The monitoring report by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which is administering the stimulus funds, found that 60 percent of Sheltering Arms' weatherization work — 33 out of 53 units inspected— contained “workmanship deficiencies” that needed fixing.

“The Department is very concerned,” the report stated, with the organization's “capacity and commitment to implement” its Recovery Act weatherization contract. 

The report also cited the agency for spending nearly half its funding on administrative costs, which shouldn't exceed 5 percent by the end of the contract.
Falkenberg has no trouble with government taking from some for the alleged benefit of others. She just wants to be certain that it is done "wisely". She wants those benefiting from plundered loot to be held "accountable". What does she mean by "accountable"? And to whom? Unfortunately, Falkenberg doesn't tell us.

I can only assume that Falkenberg wants SASS to be held accountable to the government officials overseeing the program, and ultimately the taxpayers who are footing the bill. That might sound reasonable--no sensible person wants to see government waste the money it has stolen from the citizenry. But if we examine the full context, not only is this unreasonable, it is impossible.

When I purchase a product or service, I can easily hold the business I am patronizing accountable for fulfilling its end of the deal. I can complain if things go wrong, tell my friends of poor service, or take my business elsewhere. I can't do this with a government welfare program.

I did not choose to "patronize" the program. My participation is coerced. When the welfare program fails to fulfill its end of the "deal", I have no recourse. I can't take my "business" elsewhere. And I will be forced to "patronize" the next welfare scheme concocted by the statists. I can't hold anyone accountable because I have no choice in the matter.
I imagine that Falkenberg would respond that this is the role that she, and her fellow "reporters", are fulfilling. She is trying to hold SASS accountable for me--she is my eyes, ears, and mind. She will save me this effort so that I may spend my time laboring to pay for these give away programs. Thanks, but no thanks.

If Falkenberg is truly interested in accountability, then she must demand that individuals be free to spend their money as they choose. And she must demand that government officials be held accountable for protecting that freedom.