Thursday, September 30, 2010

Harris County Wants a Raise

Like many other government entities, Harris County is feeling the impact of the recession. Property tax collections have declined and the county has had to dip into its reserve fund. Where the county has historically maintained reserves amounting to about 15 percent of its budget, it will enter the next fiscal year with a cushion of about 1 percent. County officials are warning that a tax increase must be considered, though they made the usual promises to look into cutting spending.

The Chronicle reports that Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole believes that a tax increase cannot be avoided:
"You're absolutely wasting time if you think we can maintain this budget without a tax increase," he [Eversole] said. "If we can get through 2011, we damn sure aren't going to get through 2012. So somewhere along the line either this (budget) has to be cut or we've got to talk about a tax increase."

After the meeting, Eversole said he does not favor a tax increase, but that it has to be on the table along with options for spending cuts.
Unlike private citizens, the county government has an ATM--tax payers--that never runs dry. It can spend beyond its means and then simply demand, at the point of a gun, that tax payers replenish the bank.

Commissioners, eager to show that they are on the side of tax payers, tossed out a few suggestions for meager cuts: ending car allowances and take-home cars for county employee and conducting a study to privatize the county jail. Nobody suggested cutting any of the improper county services that comprise a large part of the budget.

For example, the 2009-2010 budget includes $990 million for toll roads and $437 million for flood control. Even if we concede that privatizing infrastructure services isn't going to happen soon, the county's bloated budget contains plenty of other targets for spending cuts. More than $28.5 million was budgeted for public health and environmental services, $27.3 million for libraries, and $130.9 million for youth and family services. Of course, cutting spending in these areas would require Commissioners to not only grow a spine, but to also reject the morality of altruism.

So long as they believe that individuals have a moral obligation to sacrifice for others, they will continue to fund things like public health, libraries, and youth services. Until they recognize the moral right of each individual to his own life, the pursuit of his own happiness, and the wealth that he creates, they will continue to rob tax payers to pay for the needs of others. And that won't occur until voters refuse to be self-sacrificial milch cows.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why is the Chronicle Surprised?

Absent rational principles, virtually any issue can be confusing. Absent rational principles, it can be almost impossible to identify a connection between events. Absent rational principles, we get editorials like that in Tuesday's Chronicle. Subtitled "The State Board of Education is still politicizing our children's textbooks," the editorial seems surprised that political considerations are a part of a government agency.

The paper's dismay results from refusing to recognize the essential nature of the board. Government is an agency of force, and the State Board of Education is no exception. Its edicts are imposed upon public schools, teachers, and parents by force. That competing interests want to control the use of that force for their own ends should not be surprising. Indeed, it should be expected.

As with other issues, such as Metro, the Chronicle wants us to believe that the problem is not an improper government agency, but rather those in charge. If only board members put aside their personal views and did what is best for the state's public school students, such issues would not even be raised. That simply isn't going to happen when so much political power is at stake.

If the Chronicle wants to see politics taken out of education, then it should advocate for government to get out of education. Politics and government are inseparable, a fact that continues to escape the paper's editorial writers. And that is precisely what we should expect from those who reject rational principles.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Non-fundamental Change at HISD

On Sunday the Chronicle ran an OpEd optimistically titled "Reinventing education in Houston." From the title, one would expect the article to reveal some kind of revolutionary idea. Instead, we simply got more of the status quo.

The article states:
HISD has not been waiting passively for someone to provide an answer; it has the will, the leadership and the support to transform the district into a model for the rest of the nation. The board of education, Superintendent Terry Grier and the HISD team have the courage and expertise to step outside the comfort zone and take the necessary but often controversial actions to bring about fundamental change, like linking teacher pay with their performance based on reliable data and making continued employment contingent on ongoing improvement. That level of accountability also applies to the quality of the leadership of principals and central office staff. 
Consider what is regarded as "fundamental change": Holding teachers, principals, and staff accountable. Granted, this might be new in the realm of public education, but it can hardly be considered fundamental change. HISD will remain a political institution, subject to the vagaries of educational bureaucrats in Austin and political pressure in Houston. Taxpayers will continue to be forced to support public schools, whether they are happy with the results or not. Parents--particularly those in lower income brackets--will continue to have limited educational choices for their children. How is this "fundamental change"? It brief, it isn't. HISD is simply tinkering with details while throwing out another promise.

Consider what is regarded as holding teachers, principals, and staff accountable: Basing their pay on student performance. And who will determine student performance? The same bureaucrats and administrators that have been promising change and improved performance for decades. The "customers" of public education will have little, if any, input other than putting political pressure on those same bureaucrats and administrators. This is precisely what has been occurring for decades, and can hardly be considered "fundamental change."

If HISD truly wants to do something revolutionary and do something that would truly serve as a model to the rest of the nation, it would begin putting itself out of business. It would begin taking measures to get government out of education.

Doing so would benefit taxpayers who would no longer be forced to support a failing public educational system. Those who want to voluntarily support education would be free to do so, and they could choose to support those schools who produce results with which they approve. They could hold schools accountable by withdrawing their financial support if they are unhappy with those results.

Parents would benefit by having the freedom--and the resources--to choose how their children are educated. If they are unhappy with the content of that education, or the results, they would be free to hold the school accountable by moving their children to a different school.

Competent and talented teachers and administrators would benefit because they would have the freedom to command higher salaries. Those who value their services would be willing to pay higher prices for results, but nobody would be forced to do so.

Fundamental change does not mean tinkering with the details of public education. It means abolishing public education.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Metro Unveils New Transit Plan

In the face of increased public scrutiny and declining tax revenues, over the weekend Metro unveiled a new transit plan that it claims will slash expenses by 83.4% and simultaneously create nearly 175,000 jobs. The new plan will scrap the proposed light rail lines, as well as most bus routes, and replace them with hand-pulled rickshaws.

At a press conference announcing the new plan, Metro CEO George Greanias said:
When I took this position I told Ma Parker that I had no preconceived notions about how we should solve the city's transportation problems. I promised to start from scratch and consider anything, no matter how antiquated and labor intensive. Sometimes the best way to move forward is to move backward and this plan accomplishes that in spades.
While federal regulations do not mandate "buy American" for purchases of rickshaws, Greanias was quick to explain that Metro had located a manufacturer in Neodesha, Kansas. A company spokesman acknowledged that the company's capacity of 250 rickshaws a year was grossly inadequate to meet Metro's requirements, but vowed that the company would ramp up production "somehow." The new plan calls for Metro to purchase 50,000 rickshaws by 2012.

Greanias admitted that transit times would increase substantially, noting that a commute that now takes 30 minutes would increase to approximately 6 hours by rickshaw. "Certainly some people won't like the idea of spending half of their life in a rickshaw," he said, "but they need to put aside their own interests and consider the good of the community."

Metro will spend $10 million to promote its new plan, including about $1 million for Google AdWords and another $500,000 for ads in The Greensheet. Its slogan for the campaign will be, "Please ride our rickshaws." Metro will also paint squiggly lines down the middle of the street along selected routes. Greanias didn't explain the purpose of the squiggly lines, but did say that they would look "pretty cool."

The Chronicle quickly endorsed the idea in a Sunday editorial:
In our fast-paced modern world, Greanias has demonstrated remarkable vision in proposing a plan that will slow commutes to a snail's pace. Instead of fighting traffic, isolated in their vehicles with only blowhards like Glenn Beck for company, commuters will be able to engage in leisurely conversations with other commuters. And they will have more time to enjoy Houston's only daily newspaper, which will be offering 20% off new subscriptions.
To serve the needs of passengers during their long, arduous journeys, Metro will build about 10,000 rest stops along its routes. Each rest stop will include a Starbucks, free WiFi, and shower facilities. Select facilities will also have recreational areas with beach volleyball and a bowling alley.

Houstonians had mixed reactions to the announcement. "That's a great idea," said one bus rider. "Two rickshaws crashing into one another isn't going to be nearly as spectacular as a train-bus collision," said another passenger. Greanias dismissed the critics as uninformed naysayers, adding, "If I cared about their opinion, I would have spent $5 million on a study. I don't, so I didn't."

Local labor officials expressed concern that Metro would try to keep costs low by hiring only illegal aliens to pull the rickshaws. "Illegals don't have the necessary training," said one labor official, "and they will take jobs from Americans who want an easy paycheck and extravagant benefits."

Metro expects ridership to decline between 6% and 97%, a fact that doesn't concern Greanias. "To be honest," he said, "Metro has never been about transportation. It has been about providing jobs. And this is going to create goo-gobs of jobs."

The first rickshaws were scheduled to be delivered in mid-October. However, production has been delayed because Metro officials can't decide what color to paint them.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bill White's Legacy

While serving as Houston's mayor, Bill White was championed as a visionary who would lead our city to greatness. He advocated for light rail, rammed numerous "green" initiatives down our throats, and promoted Houston Hope. His business skills were touted as a new model for politicians.

In the wake of his exit from the local political scene, we are finding that White's leadership wasn't all that it appeared. He left the city with a massive budget deficit. He appointed leaders to Metro who apparently wasted millions of tax dollars, ignored federal law, and left Houstonians with a bunch of empty promises regarding light rail. And now we find that Houston Hope may leave tax payers holding the bag for millions more.

According to the Chronicle:
The city may have to return tens of millions of dollars to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for errors it made in the use of federal funds dating back to 2001....

City officials characterized HUD's challenges to its use of federal money as old news, but sources with knowledge of the matter say the city could be on the hook to pay back between $35 million and $45 million due to previous issues and newly identified problems. Those include questions about "Houston Hope" homes, a signature initiative of then-Mayor Bill White that sought to help low and middle-income individuals buy their own homes.
While in office, politicians love to tout programs like Houston Hope. It is an "easy" way to win political support with tax payer money. They love to make grand promises about how a program or initiative will provide untold benefits to everyone. By the time the program or initiative is exposed as a failure, the politician has moved on to greener pastures and his successors must clean up the mess. Such is the case with Bill White.

The more cynical among us would attribute this to politics as usual. And in a sense they would be right. 

While many complain about corrupt politicians and inane government policies, few question the basic premise underlying those policies. Few question the legitimacy of government's involvement in housing, education, transportation, or a myriad other aspects of our lives. Few question the legitimacy of using government coercion to regulate and control the actions of individuals. "Politics as usual" means a continual battle by competing groups to gain political influence and force their pet cause on the citizenry.

Bill White is certainly not unique in this respect. He capitalized on a booming economy, his political connections, and his likable personality to create support for expanding city government. He led a drunken orgy of regulations and programs that made voters feel good in the short term. Now, the hangover has set in and the bill must be paid.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rush and Rand

Like many, I was introduced to the work of Ayn Rand by the Canadian rock band Rush. An early album was dedicated to "the genius of Ayn Rand." While I was a Rush fan in high school, it was several years before I read anything by Rand. Even then, while I found her work compelling, neither Anthem nor The Fountainhead motivated me to read further. That motivation came when I was about 23 and served on a jury for an attempted murder trial.

The defendant in the case pleaded guilty by reason of insanity (or whatever the plea is). He definitely seemed to have mental problems, but we convicted him in about an hour. That part of the trial was easy. The sentencing phase was much more difficult.

We were presented with a range of options, from probation to 20 years. We finally settled on 7 years, a decision which I remain comfortable with given the context of my knowledge at the time. But after the trial I was bothered by the difficulty of the decision. I began to wonder how we are to make decisions regarding moral issues.

To solve my dilemma I decided to study religion, since religion was the only source of morality known to me at the time. I went to the book store to stock up on writings on the great religions. Fortunately, the philosophy section was next to the religion section. Spotting several of Rand's works, I thought that she was likely to have better answers than religion. (I considered myself an agnostic at the time.)

I tried to read The Virtue of Selfishness, but was overwhelmed within a few pages. She addressed issues and ideas that were completely foreign to me. But I persevered, and with a dictionary as a constant companion, I dove into "The Objectivist Ethics." Before I was finished I concluded that I had found the source for the answers I was seeking. I then began to devour everything I could find that Ayn Rand had written, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I tell this story because Rush is playing in Houston this weekend. I will miss their concert because I am presenting a paper to the Houston Objectivism Society, but I will be there in spirit. While they are playing songs that have moved and inspired me for years, I will be talking about the ideas that have changed my life. I will have fun, even if I can't play the air guitar.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 47

The Vampire Cops
The Houston DWI blog reports "that Harris County DWI "No Refusal" weekends are going to be every weekend for the next 3 years." (HT: blogHouston) Thanks to a federal grant, anyone suspected of DWI can have their blood forcibly removed from their body for testing.

I want to make it clear that I think driving while drunk is grossly irresponsible and an objective threat to others. However, I find the standard for DWI to be non-objective. Certainly, the level of alcohol in one's bloodstream can be measured, but that alone does not tell us whether an individual is impaired to the point that he should not be driving. Two individuals can have the exact same alcohol in their blood and exhibit vastly different levels of impairment.

The Devil Calling Satan Evil
On Friday the Texas Board of Education will consider a resolution "asserting the need to fend off a pro-Islamic, anti-Christian bias in textbooks." According to the Chronicle:
The resolution says pro-Islamic and anti-Christian bias has tainted past social studies textbooks, and problems "still roil" in some books nationwide. It asserts that "more such discriminatory treatment of religion may occur as Middle Easterners buy into the U.S. public school textbook oligopoly." It says past books devoted more text lines to Islamic than to Christian beliefs and asserted that there have been "politically correct white-washes" of Islamic culture and "stigmas on Christian civilization." 
The conservative Christians on the Board are concerned that their particular form of mysticism is not getting enough attention in the public schools. Instead of removing all religion from the educational system, they want to argue over which particular irrationality will be forced upon students.

More Economic Illiteracy
The Chronicle reports:
American taxpayers have thrown $4.6 billion into emergency projects across Texas over the past 19 months to salvage the Lone Star State economy — creating or saving 47,704 jobs as of July, a review of federal records shows.
First, American taxpayers didn't "throw" money into Texas. It was taken from them by force.

Second, the paper doesn't tell us how much money was taken from Texans to "save" jobs in other states.

Third, the paper doesn't tell us is how many jobs were destroyed when that $4.6 billion was seized from individuals and businesses who would have otherwise saved, invested, or spent that money.  Nor does it tell us how many jobs were destroyed by the taxes Texans have paid and will pay to allegedly benefit the residents of other states.

In short, while bragging about the "jobs" saved, the paper conveniently ignores the cost.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It's Time to Abolish Public Education

Last week Senate Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, announced that the public school system in Texas is broke. The Chronicle's story said:
According to committee members and experts, the system has vast inequities of more than $1,000 per student and is built on adjustments for low-income students, rural school districts, small districts, medium districts and other factors that are nearly 30 years old with little reflection of real costs.
Shapiro, along with other Republicans, wants to scrap the current system and start over. Unfortunately, they don't really mean it. For example:
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said he favors a sales tax increase to fund public education instead of property tax revenue.

"The homeowners and the commercial business owners can't stand much more," Patrick said, noting that all consumers would directly contribute to public education if the funding source shifts from property to sales.
This isn't scrapping the current system--this is tinkering with details. The current system is essentially a government monopoly funded through coercive taxation. What Patrick proposes is more of the same, with the names of the victims changed.

For all of their talk of free markets, conservatives such as Patrick are quick to reject free markets when it comes to education. They cling to the belief that money is the answer, even when more money continues to produce the same abysmal results. They refuse to question the legitimacy of public education and struggle to find ways to make it work.

If conservatives were serious about improving the state's educational system, they would be calling for the abolition of public schools. While they often taut the superior results of home schooling and private schools they are loathe to remove the financial burdens that prevent the poor and middle class from having such options. Forced to pay for public education, the poor and middle class can seldom afford other educational options for their children.

I agree with Shapiro that the system is broken. I disagree with her that it can be repaired--it can't. Now is the time to abandon public education.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Victory for Preservationists

Last Friday city council released a final draft of proposed changes to the preservation ordinance. While preservationists are already criticizing the ordinance, at least one group that allegedly defends property rights has praised the proposal. Josh Sanders of Houstonians for Responsible Growth (HRG), a group that the Chronicle describes as representing "the interests of developers" said:
These changes to the ordinance will protect what's truly historic on the ground and not re-create history. The difference from the first draft is night and day.
While the proposed changes might make the ordinance more friendly to developers, it remains a threat to property rights. And HRG's response is the polar opposite of how property rights should be defended.

The right to property is the right to own, use, keep, and dispose of material values. The right to property means that an owner may use his property as he chooses, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. Like all rights, property rights are a sanction to act without interference from others, including government.

However, HRG abandons this principle and concedes that government may interfere with property use, so long as it doesn't go "too far." According to HRG, city council may regulate and control "what's truly historic." And by what standard will it be determined what is "truly historic"? Your guess is as good as mine.

Regardless of the standard used, the property owner will not be the one making that determination:
As expected, the revised law will close a loophole that allowed property owners to demolish the structures on their land even when a city commission disapproved of their plans.
Which means, if city officials determine that a property is "truly historic," the plans, aspirations, and judgment of the property owner is irrelevant. He will be forced to abide by the dictates of regulators. He will not be able to use his property as he chooses.

City council's preservationist du jour, Sue Lovell, was quick to demonstrate that she too has no understanding of property rights:
This is a very fair, open, transparent process. We've met with at least 200 citizens and heard what they had to say and listened to it. We've found a great balance between respecting people's property rights and also protecting and preserving the history of the city of Houston.
Nearly 2 million people live within the city limits of Houston, and Lovell considers it fair that 200 of them had a voice in the ordinance.  She considers it fair that 1 in 10,000 Houstonians had input regarding how others may use their property. This, she wants us to believe, is respecting property rights.

While I doubt that Lovell is really that happy with the proposed ordinance, it represents a complete victory for her and the preservationists. The moral premise underlying the ordinance was not challenged, and indeed, HRG endorsed it. Until that premise is challenged, and the right to property is completely and consistently defended, HRG will continue to bicker over details. And that is a victory for preservationists.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Speak for Yourself

On Thursday, the Chronicle Editorial Board admitted that it is irresponsible and would prefer for government officials to be their nanny. Granted, they didn't use those words, nor were they so explicit, but that was the meaning of an editorial titled "Dollars and sense: Why do banks fear Elizabeth Warren? Because she's on our side." What the editorial does say is:
The bank gets to make unilateral changes to our contract, and we don't. The bank has a staff of Ivy League-educated Masters of the Universe to dream up new fees and tricky ways to disguise interest rates, and we have about eight minutes, between getting home from work and making the kids' dinner, to decipher the mail. No surprise: The bank wins.
Unwilling to spend more than "about eight minutes" dealing with its financial matters, the board would prefer to grant a government official expanded powers over financial institutions.  Unable to understand the contracts that it signs, it simply throws its hands in the air and naively believes that regulators will protect them. Just like those regulators prevented the housing bubble and the meltdown on Wall Street.

It would be fine if the editorial board wanted to cede control of their finances to someone else. What isn't fine is that it wants to force everyone else to do the same. They project their own inadequacies on the rest of us.

The Chronicle would have us believe that the financial crisis was caused because individuals are too damned stupid and greedy to be trusted to make decisions without government oversight. The Chronicle would have us ignore the fact that government officials are individuals, and they can be just as stupid as anyone. In fact, given the state of the economy, a very good case could be made that they are more stupider.

But this isn't about intelligence. It's about power. Just as health care "reform" was a blatant power grab, financial "reform" is an attempt to seize more control over the economy. That some--such as the paper's editorial board--would willingly give away control over their own lives goes a long way toward explaining the success of those attempts.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sacrifice Today, or Sacrifice Tomorrow

Several weeks ago I wrote about an OpEd in the Chronicle that chastised HISD for the food it is serving at the district's schools. The author of that article--Bettina Elias Siegel--has responded to my post on her own blog. She makes an argument in her response that is worthy of additional comment.

In her OpEd, Siegel had criticized the fact that children receiving free lunches would not have the same choices as those paying for their meals. I wrote:
Siegel, who has two children in HISD, isn't content that better dietary choices will be available. That such choices won't be available to children being fed by taxpayers is wrong. Why should those paying for their own lunch have a choice that is denied to those who aren't?
Siegel responded on her blog:
Your attitude seems to be, “if you’re eating at taxpayers’ expense, you’ll take what we dish out and no complaining.”  That’s a pretty harsh world view.  Are lower income students somehow inherently less entitled to nutritious food choices by virtue of their economic status?
Siegel implies that those who pay for their own lunch are receiving an entitlement that will be denied to those receiving free lunches. But this is a gross equivocation and a misrepresentation of my position.

Nobody is entitled to nutritious food, if by "entitlement" we mean "possessing a right." Rights pertain to freedom of action; they provide a sanction to act according to one's own judgment without interference from others, so long as the mutual rights of others are respected. Everyone has a right to purchase nutritious food, if someone wishes to sell it to them and they can pay for it. Nobody has a right to force others to provide that food.

Siegel goes on to write:

But since my bleeding-heart liberal appeals are likely to be lost on you, I’ll instead appeal your pragmatism:  More than 35 percent of Texas schoolchildren are overweight or obese.  That number has doubled over the last 20 years, and it continues to rise. Studies show that overweight children miss three or four times as much school as children who are not overweight. Furthermore, a child who is obese by age 12 has more than a 75 percent chance of becoming an obese adult, at risk for Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, high blood pressure, gallbladder disease, asthma and certain cancers. It has been estimated that the healthcare costs associated with such diseases will total $344 billion in 2018, or more than one in five dollars spent on health care.  Whether you like it or not, Mr. Phillips, you and I are both going to be paying those costs on the back end unless present trends can be reversed.
Siegel is right when she assumes that her altruistic appeals will not sway me. But what does she offer as an alternative? More altruism. Refusing to question the premise that one man's need is a claim on the life and property of others, she proceeds to argue that I have a choice--sacrifice for others today or sacrifice for others tomorrow.

But I reject the entire premise that the needs of others are a claim on me. I do not regard self-sacrifice as a virtue. I regard each individual as a sovereign being who possesses a moral right to act according to his own judgment to further his own life and pursue his own happiness. No individual and no group has a right to initiate force against others, no matter how dire the circumstances. That applies to food today and health care tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Promising the Impossible

The projected state budget deficit has grown to $21 billion according to a report in Monday's Chronicle. The additional deficit is being attributed to tax receipts that are lower than anticipated and increased expenditures for public schools, Medicaid, and increased health care costs for government employees and retirees.

Not surprisingly, state officials are still trying to have our cake and eat it too. They are making noises about the need to throw more money into the public education cesspool while simultaneously expressing hesitancy to raise taxes. The fact that a reasonably intelligent fourth-grader would know that this is impossible doesn't deter politicians from trying to make such promises to Texans.

If state officials were serious about balancing the budget and cutting taxes, they could do so quickly and easily by cutting spending on public education and granting more freedom to educators and parents. Simply removing state controls on education and allowing taxpayers to keep more of their money, rather than sending it to Austin to feed a bloated bureaucracy, could balance the budget and create a surplus.

Of course, this won't happen because the educational bureaucrats, along with politicians, think that they know better than parents and taxpayers. Even though those same state officials continue to demonstrate their ability to waste money, make unfulfilled promises, and turn out functional illiterates, they retain the audacity to claim that they know best.

Only the severely delusional and blatantly irrational would claim that the government could do a better job than private businesses in producing food, manufacturing computers, or virtually anything else. Yet public education remains a sacred cow, despite its repeated failings. And so, Texans had better hold on to their wallets because the children are going to need more money.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

More Trouble for Metro

As if Metro doesn’t have enough problems, CAF USA--the company hired to build the cars for the new light rail lines--is threatening to sue if its contract is canceled. If this actually occurs, Metro will find itself fighting a multi-million dollar law suit while simultaneously begging federal transportation bureaucrats for hundreds of millions in federal money.

No matter what happens, tax payers are going to be the big losers in this fiasco. Either we will get to throw a bunch of money at a law suit and get nothing in return, or we will get to throw a bunch of money at a light rail system that nobody will ride.

CAF is first going to ask the Federal Transit Administration to reconsider its ruling that Metro violated a "buy American" mandate and has asked Metro to consider joining in the challenge. Knowing who butters his bread, Gilbert Garcia, Metro's chairman, said:
It is still our intention to cancel the contracts. We're not going to deviate from the path that our partners at the FTA have laid out.
If one refuses to attach meaning to words, I suppose Metro could call the FTA its partner. But for the rest of us, Garcia's comment is nothing more than appeasing drivel. The FTA is setting the rules and holds the purse strings, and Metro must obey. They are partners only in the sense that each is seeking to rip off tax payers and jamb mass transit down out throats.

Metro desperately needs the $900 million grant now being held up by the FTA. Without that money it will be unable to complete its latest boondoggle. It will then face the choice of abandoning its grand dreams of running cattle cars all over the city, or return to voters to beg for more money. Given the state of the economy and ongoing revelations of incompetence at Metro, it is unlikely that voters would approve more tax money for Metro.

I'd like to think that this could perhaps be a blessing in disguise, that perhaps Metro and its light rail minions will finally surrender. But I am doubtful. Zoning advocates have not been deterred by defeat in three referendums. Their intellectual brethren will not let something as paltry as a lost federal grant stop them either.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Metro's Train Wreck

Late last week, Ma Parker and her Metro gang announced that the completion date for new rail lines will be delayed until 2014. It seems that the previous Metro administration tried to get around the federal law requiring that equipment be purchased from American companies, and the Federal Transit Administration is holding up the money needed to complete the lines.

Calling the challenges facing Metro "steep" and "rocky", Ma was quick to cast blame on former Metro CEO Frank Wilson. But any mismanagement on Wilson's part is not really Ma's concern:
We need to see whether there are any further investigations of Mr. Wilson, and I don't want to suppose whether there are or not. We are focused on Metro moving forward, and we'll worry about Mr. Wilson tomorrow.
Even though Metro has already spent $40 million on the contract it must now tear up, Ma doesn't care about the past. She is more concerned with jamming light rail down our throats and with hundreds of millions of tax dollars up for grabs, she isn't about to let anything get in her way. Investigating Wilson at this time might reveal deeper problems at Metro, and that could further undermine support for light rail.

The Chronicle agrees that the problem should simply be swept under the rug:
It's unfortunate that Wilson's insistence on driving the agency into a contract that violated federal rules will significantly delay construction schedules on the North, East and Southeast lines. What motivated this train wreck remains an open question, but solving that mystery shouldn't be the city's or Metro's top priority.  
Both the paper and Ma imply that there is no systemic problem at Metro. The problem lies with those managing that system. And since Metro now has new management, whatever caused this "train wreck" has surely been corrected.

This is quite convenient for supporters of light rail. Simply vilify the dearly departed, anoint the new management with an aura of sainthood, and everyone can merrily skip on down the tracks. There is no need to identify the cause of broken promises or wasted tax payer money. There is no need to learn from the past because doing so might threaten the future. To supporters of light rail, nothing--especially the facts--can be allowed to derail their plans.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Things that Make you Go "What the ..."

CNN reports that the first-time home buyer tax credit program, designed to stimulate the economy, has a few problems (HT: Elaine Phillips):
According to a report from the Inspector General for Tax Administration, released to the public Thursday, about 950,000 of the nearly 1.8 million Americans who claimed the tax credit on their 2009 tax returns will have to return the money.

The confusion comes because home buyers were eligible for two different credits, depending on when their homes were purchased.

Those who bought properties during 2008 were to deduct, dollar for dollar, up to 10% of the home's purchase price or $7,500, whichever was less. The catch: The money was a no-interest loan that had to be repaid within 15 years.
It isn't surprising that a government program would cause mass confusion. Nor is it surprising that the IRS is struggling to sort this mess out. But what really makes one shake his head is this little tidbit:
The inspector general reported that 1,326 single people listed as dead by the Social Security Administration claimed more than $10 million in credits. The IRS threw out 528 of those 1,326 claims, saving $4 million.
Are we supposed to celebrate the fact that the IRS "saved" 40% of the money obtained fraudulently? What about the other 60%? The article implies that those claims weren't thrown out, even though they have been identified.

I must admit that I was briefly tempted to claim the tax credit for the two rental properties I bought in 2009. Given the IRS's record, I might have gotten away with it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Propping up a Dictator

The Chronicle thinks that the US should end its remaining ban on trade with Cuba. The reason:
Texas A&M economists have put a pencil to the numbers and they estimate passage of the bill would create 6,000 new jobs in this country's ag sector while boosting sales of agricultural products by about $365 million. A good chunk of that would benefit Texas.
The paper even goes so far as to claim that ending the ban might help loosen Castro's death grip on Cuba. Sort of like the way talks between the Palestinians and Israelis have resulted in peace in the Middle East.

Certainly, increased trade might help some Texas farmers and ranchers. But the real beneficiary will be Castro, who controls any "profits" generated within Cuba from that trade. To support increased trade with Cuba is to support a dictator.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Government's Monopoly on Roads

If you made a list of the places that you spend the most time waiting in line, I suspect that virtually all of those places would be some government agency or department. These government agencies have no incentive to provide fast and efficient service, because they have captive "customers." You must go to the government to get your driver's license renewed, or to obtain a building permit, or a myriad other activities, and there is no private alternative.

On the other hand, private businesses continually face competition. If one business routinely has long lines consumers will go elsewhere.

While it is probably impossible to calculate all of the time wasted by government mandates, controls, and regulations, the Texas Department of Transportation (TDT) recently released a study that provides a hint as to the time we waste on government roads.
The most congested roadway segment in Texas in 2009 was in Harris County, according to the data. Topping the list was the 9.3-mile stretch of road on Interstate 45 from Beltway 8 North to Interstate Highway 610, where the annual delay per mile was 484,630 hours and drivers dealt with 4.5 million hours of delay during the year.
This one section of road created a delay of nearly 1 hour for every man, woman, and child in the Houston metropolitan area. And that doesn't include all of the other congested highways and roads in Harris and adjoining counties. 

TDT calculated that the cost of these delays amounted to $21.75 per hour. All told, traffic delays cost Houstonians tens of millions of dollars every single year. Despite these costs in time and money, we are continually told that only government can build, own, and operate roads.

The government's monopoly on roadways is the cause of traffic congestion. First, consumers have no viable options (other than another government monopoly--mass transit). Second, consumers do not directly bear the cost of their use. Because government roads are supported through taxes, rather than user fees (or something similar) consumers have little incentive to modify their driving habits. 

All goods and services exist in a limited quantity, including the roadways. Prices are the means by which goods and services are allocated to those who value them most highly. But in the case of roadways, use is "free" and there is no pricing mechanism to moderate traffic. If the roadways were privately owned, the owners would seek to maximize efficiency by raising prices during periods of peak demand.

For two reasons I won't begin to attempt to explain how private roads could and do work. First, such an explanation would take far more space than a single blog post. Second, I won't claim to know what creative solutions entrepreneurs will come up with when they are motivated by the opportunity to profit.

But I will point out that it wasn't that long ago that defenders of the postal service claimed that private mail delivery would never work. Today, companies like FedEx and UPS are sapping customers from the postal service. And this is despite that fact that the USPS still enjoys a monopoly on first-class mail. In other words, to the extent that private businesses are free, not only can they provide they provide services, they do so more efficiently than the government. Consumers agree, as evidenced by their voluntary choice to use the private businesses.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Selling" the Public on Light Rail

The Chronicle tells us that new Metro chairman George Greanias faces the challenge of selling a "sometimes skeptical public" on the alleged merits of light rail. The article makes it appear that Greanias is more concerned with the troubled agency's public image than correcting its financial problems. And that isn't surprising.

Unlike a private business, Metro has an endless source of funds--taxpayers--which it can tap into. Unlike a private business, Metro does not depend on the voluntary consent of its "investors." Whether it gets its money from taxes or by begging Washington, the money is ultimately taken from taxpayers through coercive means. That is not the only difference between a private business and a government agency.

A private business must offer potential investors a reasonable return on their investment, with each investor free to decide what is reasonable and what risk he wishes to take. A private business must sell potential investors on the merits of its plan. Similarly, a private business must sell potential customers on the value it offers. Again, each consumer is free to decide for himself whether the value offered is worth the price asked. Everyone--the business, investors, and consumers--is free to act according to his own judgment. This is not the case with Metro.

Greanias does not need the unanimous consent of every participant in Metro's boondoggles. In the case of bond elections, he need only obtain the consent of a majority of voters. In the case of handouts from Washington, he need only obtain the favor of the proper authorities. Unlike a private business, Greanias does not need to convince everyone of Metro's alleged benefits--he is ultimately backed by the coercive power of government.

This is true of both the "investors" and the consumers. Taxpayers are forced to subsidize Metro's operations, and thereby pay for the transportation expenses of other citizens. And the government's monopoly on roads and highways leaves drivers no choice but to utilize these government "services"--no selling is necessary.

If Greanias really wants to do the public a service, he would try to sell it on the merits of getting government out of the transportation business. Until he does that, all he is selling is a glorified welfare scheme.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Misplaced Goal

The Chronicle reports that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is conducting an audit of students who have withdrawn from public schools in favor of home schooling.
More than 22,620 Texas secondary students were listed as withdrawing to home-school in 2008 — raising a red flag among some experts and educators who worry that Texas’ lax regulations are encouraging abuse in the hands-off home-schooling category. The 2008 figures reflect a 24 percent jump from the prior year and roughly triple the number of high school home-schooling withdrawals from a decade ago. 
The article doesn't tell us what would constitute "abuse" in this context. But it is clear that educational bureaucrats aren't happy that they are losing "customers," nor are they pleased about the lack of state regulations regarding home schooling. But the real purpose of the audit appears to be aimed at public schools.

A home schooling group supports this audit:
The Texas Home School Coalition applauds the state’s efforts to crack down on public school districts who are “dumping” dropouts in the home-schooling category. Although the group strongly opposes government involvement in home schooling, it acknowledges that this audit is not being conducted to reproach families who are educating their children at home.

“School administrators are violating the policy and causing these problems,” coalition president Tim Lambert said. “The solution is, in our view, to put in place some sort of penalties for school officials who are abusing this process.”

In other words, the TEA doesn't trust public school officials. Acknowledging that public school officials might engage in activities that protect their fiefdom, the TEA refuses to question government's virtual monopoly on education and seeks to identify the few bad apples who are scamming the system. But the problem isn't a few bad apples--the problem is the public educational system.

These types of shenanigans are inevitable in any system that is backed by coercion. Public school educators are divorced from market considerations--that is, the free and voluntary choices of parents and students. Despite the rhetoric that routinely fills the papers and the air waves, public school administrators are ultimately answerable to the politicians and bureaucrats who set the standards for the public schools. And when those standards include the arbitrary, such as drop-out rates and standardized test scores, the goal of public schools will shift from educating students to meeting the demands of politicians and bureaucrats.