Friday, January 29, 2010

Conservative Populism

Glenn Beck can be both illuminating and infuriating. As an example of the latter, he recently made a statement on his radio show that the states have a right to institute universal health care, hand out free cars, etc. if the citizens of that state want such things. He stated that the federal government is barred from such actions, but the states are not. In other words, he is not opposed to violating individual rights; he just wants it done on a more local level.

This is a typical approach by conservatives. They do not oppose government power over the lives and property of individuals. They just want that power to be exercised by state and local governments. To these conservatives, universal health care, entitlement programs, and business regulation are perfectly acceptable, so long as they are implemented on the state level.

This unprincipled thinking is primarily why the Republicans have lost control of Congress. They occasionally oppose violations of individual rights on the federal level (and even then that opposition is precarious and inconsistent) but not on the local level. They do not challenge the premise that the individual must be forced to sacrifice for the "common good"--they merely want to argue over who will make that determination.

If the people want it, Beck said, then virtually anything goes on the state level. But why does he apply this only to the states, while denying such power to the federal government? Beck's answer is: The Constitution.

The Constitution limits the power of the federal government, but not the states. The Tenth Amendment reserves for the states those powers not specifically enumerated in the Constitution. According to Beck, while the federal government has limited powers, the state governments do not. This isn't a defense of individual rights; it is an invitation for the states to establish fifty separate tyrannies.

Beck is not opposed to government using coercion to implement the "will of the people". Whatever his good points (and there are many), Beck does not defend individual rights as a matter of principle. For all of his talk about honor and integrity, he is sadly lacking in rational principles.

Recently Beck has been attacking the Progressive Movement from the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as its current manifestations, and rightfully so. But ironically he shares some of that movement's basic premises. The Progressives, largely animated by German Idealism, argued that "the people" should have a greater voice in government. Beck, who is animated by religious mysticism, concurs, only he wants that voice to be expressed in the state capitols rather than in Washington.

Beck demonstrates why conservatives are losing the intellectual battle. They have accepted the same basic premises as the Left, and they just want to bicker over the details. They aren't opposed to slavery, they just want the masters to be closer to home.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

When Self-Defense is Wrong

Chronicle columnist Rick Casey has joined the chorus in decrying the influence of money in politics:
Imagine how many congressmen Goldman Sachs could make quake if it quietly let it be known it had decided to divert just 10 percent of the $16.2 billion in employee bonuses it has budgeted this year to retaliate against any of them who supported Obama's proposed reforms.
Casey believes that it is fine if the government issues more edicts to control banks and other financial institutions, but if those same businesses wish to defend themselves it is wrong. He would prefer that they meekly accept whatever mandates Washington hands down. He would prefer that they just shut up and take it.

Casey--like others who issue such claims--implies that politicians are more interested in getting elected than doing what is right. And I would agree with him on that point. However, I disagree with Casey on the meaning of "doing what is right".

For Casey this means enacting the "will of the people" or some similar nonsense. For Casey anything that involves more controls, regulations, edicts, or mandates are "right", and more individual freedom is wrong. Indeed, the Supreme Court ruling that he finds so distasteful actually extended some measure of freedom to the individuals who own businesses.

Speaking of Texas' limitations on corporate political donations, Casey writes:
Even without those First Amendment rights, insurance companies and other corporations in Texas have been able to buy a state Supreme Court and Legislature once wholly owned by plaintiffs' attorneys.
If this is true, why isn't Casey attacking corrupt jurists and legislators? If it is true that the Supreme Court and Legislature have been bribed by corporations, why is Casey only concerned about the corporations? The fact is, Casey accepts the politics of pull that are inevitable in a mixed economy. He just doesn't want businesses involved in the struggle for political power.

Casey concludes his article:
The power struggle won't be between the states and the federal government. It will be between the citizens and the corporations.
To Casey politics, and life, is a power struggle. The only issue is who will be the combatants. He refuses to identify the nature of the power that awaits those who win--the power to dictate, regulate, and control the lives of the citizenry. He refuses to consider the possibility that individuals can live together peacefully.

A government limited to its proper function--the protection of individual rights--is prohibited from initiating force against its citizens (as are all individuals). Such a limitation removes the power struggle that Casey regards as a metaphysical given.

But Casey is not concerned about individual rights. He has no problem with the First Amendment rights of business owners being trampled. I wonder if he would be so giddy if it were his First Amendment rights, or those of his corporate employer, that were violated. If he isn't careful, we might find out. If he isn't willing to defend the rights of other individuals, his rights may be next on the chopping block.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Another Textbook Controversy

In March the Texas State Board of Education will make recommendations regarding textbooks for the state's 4.7 million public school students. The elected board is already creating controversy over standards it has accepted, such as restoring Christmas as an example of an important religious celebration and excluding mention of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Critics are claiming that the board has become an avenue for social conservatives to push their political agenda. The Chronicle reported:

The Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based group which monitors public education in Texas, complained about "blatant politicization of social studies curriculum."

"When partisan politicians take a wrecking ball to the work of teachers and scholars, you get a document that looks more like a party platform than a social studies curriculum," said Kathy Miller, president of the group.

This shouldn't be surprising. The very nature of the State Board of Education makes it a political entity. Backed by government force, the board determines what is taught in the state's schools, and its edicts are imposed on all students. Anyone who thinks that this won't become a magnet for special interest groups is extremely naive, dishonest, or both.

The entire public school system is dependent upon force. Revenues are obtained through confiscatory taxation. "Customers", i.e. students, are obtained through compulsory attendance laws. The curriculum is imposed by the State Board. The result is predictable--special interest groups competing to wield the reigns of power.

While home-schooling and private schools are certainly an alternative to the public schools, for many families these are not practical options. Both can impose significant financial hardships on parents, particularly when they are forced to financially support a failing public school system. Such families are left to the mercy of politicians and bureaucrats, who have the power to decide what their children are taught.

The education of one's children is one of the most important tasks of parenthood. Yet most parents have little choice in the matter. Their own judgment is rendered moot. When conservatives are in control, the children of Leftists are forced to learn about Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority. When Leftists are in control, the children of conservatives are forced to learn about La Raza and alternative lifestyles. No matter who is in control, someone will be unhappy.

The solution is to put parents back in control of their children's education. The solution is to abolish public education and let parents decide what their children will be taught.

Government's only legitimate purpose is the protection of individual rights--the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Government's purpose is not the indoctrination of children, which will invariably occur when government dictates the curriculum in the schools.

Of course, the Leftists who are criticizing the current textbook proposals are not interested in ceding such control. Despite their rhetoric, their complaints are not aimed at government's virtual monopoly on education, but how that monopoly is currently being exercised. Fundamentally, the criticisms from the Left are not about education, but about power.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Distorting the Educational Market

An article in the Chronicle tells us that private, for-profit colleges are growing faster than their public counterparts. Some of this growth is being driven by the economy as many are seeking to bolster their resumes with a college degree. Military veterans make up another large portion of the student body.
Despite the dramatic growth, it's not clear that the schools are a good deal for many of their students — who are less likely to graduate and more likely to default on student loans than their counterparts at traditional schools — or a deal for taxpayers.
According to the article, students at for-profit schools get a disproportionate amount of financial aid from the federal government. For example, while 10% of college students attend for-profit colleges, they receive 20% of Pell grants, the main form of financial aid to college students. In addition, nearly 32% will default on his student loan, while only 9.8% of the students at a public, four-year college will do so.

The article concludes that the cause of this high default rate is unknown, but speculates that it may be because for-profit schools serve more low-income students than public colleges, the quality of such schools is lower, or both. Regardless, tax payers are left with the bill when students default.

As with home ownership, the federal government has declared it desirable for more Americans to obtain a higher education. To facilitate this goal, various programs have been established to provide financial assistance. As with programs and policies that encourage home ownership, many who could not otherwise afford to attend college can now do so--on the tax payer's dime. As we saw in the housing market, many incur more debt than they should, an action that is enabled by the government programs. The high default rate should not be surprising.

In the late 1970s I attended a for-profit college. Each term the school would be overflowing with new students, many of whom were from low-income families and receiving some kind of government financial assistance. Invariably, most of these students did not make it to the second term.

While I was quite satisfied with the education I received, in retrospect it appears that the school was more interested in selling dreams than an education. Recruiters could dangle the promise of a higher education coupled with government financial aid to attract those who would otherwise not attend college. I do not know the details of the financial aid, but I suspect that the school got its money (or a large percentage) whether the student graduated or not.

I do not mean this to slam for-profit schools. However, government financial aid is greatly distorting the market and providing an incentive to the schools to fill classrooms, rather than educate. Government aid provides an incentive to both the schools and the students to take actions that they would not--and in the case of students could not--otherwise. That is not a good deal for the students, and it certainly isn't a good deal for tax payers.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Cause of Lobbying

Last week's Supreme Court ruling regarding corporate contributions to political campaigns has statists of all persuasions up in arms. The Chronicle, for example, editorialized:
With this action, the court has effectively undermined the influence of individuals and parties on electoral outcomes, while vastly increasing the clout of business behemoths and their lobbyist representatives to influence and intimidate legislators to support their agendas. If the lawmaker doesn't play ball, he or she can be threatened with an unregulated financial blitz come election time.
This is a classic case of dropping context. The Chronicle conveniently ignores numerous facts as it puts forth another call for more government regulation.

Contrary to the paper's implication, "business behemoths" are nothing more than a collection of individuals. Individuals do not lose their rights when they join together to pursue a common goal. They retain their right to act according to their own judgment without interference from others, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others. This includes donating to political candidates.

The paper fears that this will lead to undue corporate influence over elections, that businesses and their lobbyists will exert pressure on politicians to support legislation and policies favorable to those businesses. This is likely true, but it too drops context.

The paper refuses to question the premise that underlies lobbying. It fails to question a political process that allows--and even encourages--pressure group politics. Instead, the paper argues that some groups--businesses--should not have an "unfair" advantage.

Lobbyists are not a creation of the free market, but of a mixed economy--an economy with a mixture of freedoms and controls. When government has the power to regulate economic activity, individuals will seek to influence that power. When government has the power to arbitrarily dictate the actions of individuals, individuals will seek legislation that is favorable to them.

The logical result is pressure group politics, in which individuals band together to exert influence on legislators. Whether the group is a union, a business, or a special interest, it will claim that the "common good" or "public interest" requires legislation that provides it with special benefits at the expense of those who are not a member of that group. This is true whether the legislation prescribes or proscribes, whether the legislation confers tax benefits, or creates entitlement programs, or attempts to stimulate some industry.

When faced with the alternative of legislation that is beneficial or harmful to their interests, most individuals would prefer legislation that is beneficial. It is morally proper to pursue one's interests, so long as one respects the mutual rights of others to do the same.

Pressure group politics makes this virtually impossible. One never knows when some government edict will dictate or prohibit certain actions. One never knows when his plans and interests will be sacrificed to the "general welfare". The motto of pressure group politics is: Eat or be eaten; sacrifice oneself, or sacrifice others.

The Chronicle does not question the need for sacrifice. It only wants to quibble over the victims. Despite what the Chronicle believes, the real issue is not who should influence politicians, but the purpose of government.

Government's only legitimate purpose is the protection of individual rights--the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. When government is restricted to this purpose, the motivation to influence politicians does not exist. When government can no longer dispense political favors, lobbyists will disappear.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 41

The Brown Victory
Liberals seem to be in denial over the meaning of Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts. The Chronicle, for example, editorializes that Brown's upset win was not a referendum on ObamaCare:
Massachusetts residents already have their own version of a universal health care system. We know anecdotally that many Bay Staters voted for Scott Brown to send the specific message that they are happy with that plan and do not want it overridden by a “one-size-fits-all” national plan that many obviously believe would be a step down in quality.
It may be true that "many" voters are happy with Massachusetts' enslavement of doctors and prefer to keep the slave masters in their own state. But how many is "many"? Does this explain why a state that voted for Obama by a 26% margin in 2008 elected a Republican Senator for the first time in 38 years? And what of the polls that show Obama's approval rating falling faster than any American President?

Citing Tip O'Neil, the Chronicle argues that all politics is local, and it was local issues alone that led to Brown's victory. In a certain sense this is true. Individual voters cast ballots, and it doesn't get any more local than the individual. While I seriously doubt that voters were making a principled stand for individual rights--this is Massachusetts after all--they clearly rejected the candidate who would have sealed the deal for ObamaCare.

Not surprisingly, Nancy Pelosi hasn't pulled her head out of the sand either:
Massachusetts has health care and so the rest of the country would like to have that too. So we don't [think] a state that already has health care should determine whether the rest of the country should.
Apparently, the fact that citizens across the country have rejected ObamaCare doesn't count. The great unwashed masses don't know what is best for them, and we need the anointed to force health care "reform" down our throats, whether we want it or not.

While Brown's victory did send a message, I doubt that anyone is really hearing it. Despite their rhetoric, the Democrats could care less what the citizenry wants. And the Republicans will likely continue with their own assault on our rights.

Enlightening the Masses
Earlier this week I caught a portion of the Chris Baker show. While Baker can be entertaining at times, he is a typical conservative. However, on this particular day he did something that was quite good.

A caller was taking him to task (I didn't hear the beginning of the call, so I don't know the particular issue). Baker responded with a series of questions, each pertaining to a particular issue--such as taxes and education--and culminating with: Do you think that you should have that choice or have it forced upon you by government?

At first the caller agreed that he should have the choice to make decisions regarding his own life. However, at one point he began to backtrack and contradict himself. He wanted to have his cake and eat it too--he wanted the freedom to choose for himself, but when he realized that this meant extending that same right to others he was less certain.

While the caller's response was interesting, I found Baker's tactics more so. He concretized his position in a way that related to the caller. Rather than simply make statements, Baker's questions demonstrated how political policies actually effect the caller's life. He showed that ideas matter.

The Source and Nature of Rights
In October Craig Biddle delivered a series of talks at the Universidad Francisco MarroquĂ­n in Guatemala. Those talks are now available for free. I am only about half way through the 6 hours, but this is one of the best (if not the best) discussions of rights that I have heard.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Veggie Police

Before becoming mayor, Annise "Ma" Parker told the Chronicle:
I’m going to be the mom telling you to eat your vegetables and you don’t get dessert.
Last week Ma took a step towards making this a reality, when she announced a multi-prong effort to implement numerous promises made during her mayoral campaign. Before a cheering throng of vegans and vagrants in front of City Hall she announced the formation of the Cauliflower Commission, which will recommend members for the Potato Panel. The Potato Panel will study the feasibility of establishing a Bean Bureau, which will oversee vegetable consumption in Houston.

Ma introduced former Mayor Louie Welch as the chairman of the Cauliflower Commission. Welch, who died in 2008, insisted that the commission had no preconceived recommendations. "We will consider all Houstonians for the Potato Panel," he said, "except those with connections to the cattle industry."

The irony of Welch's appointment was not lost on reporters. (In 1985 Welch was once asked how the city could combat the spread of AIDS. He responded, "Shoot the queers.") When asked about this, Ma said, "Since his death, Louie has been extremely remorseful for that statement. And, since he was outed by Slampo he has been eager to work with my administration."

Ma stressed that she was not going to impose any mandates on the commission, panel, or bureau. However, she envisioned that the city would eventually need to hire about 200,000 police to enforce the new laws that she suspected the Bureau would ultimately recommend. This, she pointed out, would add some badly needed jobs to the city's economy. "I said that my administration would create jobs, and this should do the trick," she said.

While the crowd chewed on free tofu and picked lice off of one another, Ma announced that the city had started condemnation proceedings against the Astrodome, with the intent of using eminent domain to seize the venerable stadium for the purpose of turning it into a giant indoor hydroponic spinach farm. When it was pointed out that the roof of the Astrodome does not allow sunlight into the stadium, Ma responded, "That might be a problem."

The reaction by city council members to the mayor's announcement was far from unanimous. Council members with 9 or more letters in their last name opposed the proposal. Members with 6 to 8 letters in their last name were sharply divided, while the 3 members with 5 letters in their surname expressed confusion. New council member Al Hoang captured that sentiment. When reached at his home in Pearland, he said, "If we are growing spinach in the Astrodome, where are the Oilers going to play?"

Meeting with reporters in her office later, Ma shrugged off the council's concerns. With Helen Reddy's anthem "I Am Woman" blaring from her secretary's office, Ma said, "Spinach is high in iron, and we all know that women need goo-gobs of iron in their diet. I'm sure if I promise to support some sewer project in their districts, I can get enough council members to support this to ram it through."

When asked how the city would pay for another 200,000 police officers, as well as the operation of a huge indoor farm, Ma twisted her lips into that cute little smile that Houstonians have come to fear. "Don't know, do you?" she responded.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Shaking Loose the Altruists

There is nothing like a natural disaster to inspire certain types of people to opine on its cause, how it should be addressed, or something of the sort. The Haiti earthquake is no exception.

For example, Pat Robertson claimed that the earthquake was the result of a sinister agreement with Beelzebub:
Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal.
It would be quite easy (and accurate) to dismiss Robertson as a delusional idiot, but I will resist that temptation. Personally, I don't find Robertson to be a very credible historian, particularly given that he isn't sure which Frenchie had the Haitians under his heel. I will admit that I was unaware that the devil spoke French, but it really doesn't surprise me.

While most of the civilized world has been laughing off Robertson's claim, it seems that the Chronicle accepts his theory, for on Monday their editorial provided a stern warning:
As one of the world's so-called failed states, Haiti is not only an ongoing humanitarian disaster. Its chronic instability also poses a potential health and security threat to its Caribbean neighbors and the United States, with Miami only 700 miles to the northwest.
Since the Chronicle editorial board appears to have sworn off research, I would like to point out that Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Their navy is a fantasy--that is, it does not exist, except perhaps in Pat Robertson's mind. Ditto for their air force. Given that Miami is "only" 700 shark-infested miles away, how in the hell is this non-military a threat to the security of the United States? I can only conclude that since the Haitians have a pact with the devil, the Chronicle believes that they have some nukes hidden in some of their mud huts.

Not to be outdone, actor Danny Glover piped in with his take:
What happened in Haiti could happen to anywhere in the Caribbean because all these island nations are in peril because of global warming. When we see what we did at the climate summit in Copenhagen, this is the response, this is what happens, you know what I'm sayin'?
Yeah Danny, I know what you are saying. You are telling the world that you have a political agenda to push and you aren't above using a tragedy to do so. Unless Americans submit to Obama's dictatorial desires, we too may have massive earthquakes tear our cardboard shacks to shreds. And then we will have to march through the streets clapping our hands and chanting, impatiently waiting for someone to help us.

While most of the world is trying to instill guilt in us for not rushing to the aid of the Haitian people, we have others--such as Robertson and Glover--using the occasion to promote their agenda. But in the end, there is no difference. One group wants us to sacrifice for the Haitians. Robertson wants us to sacrifice for God. And Glover wants us to sacrifice for Gaia. In principle they all agree.

Glover wants me to believe that because I have driven an SUV for the past 12 years I am responsible for killing Haitian babies. I refuse to accept that guilt trip, for 2 reasons. First, it is a bunch of bunk. Second, in 1974 I purchased a Vodou drum in the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince. I paid the handsome price of $5, which was a considerable sum to a teen-age boy. Given that the average family income in Haiti today is about $2 a day, I probably supported a family for a week or more. And rather than just give my money away, I got something in return.

There is nothing wrong with helping others, but it is not a moral obligation. Nor should one provide aid to others when doing so is a sacrifice. You have a moral right to your own life and your own happiness. Your only responsibility is to yourself and those you voluntarily choose to support (such as your family). And don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Copper Pot

In The Facets of Ayn Rand, Mary Ann Sures tells the story of the "copper pot", a copper-clad frying pan that she enjoyed polishing and hanging in her kitchen. When a friend learned of this, he criticized her for such a non-intellectual activity. Mary Ann later had a discussion with Ayn Rand about her copper pot:
I told her about the incident, and she nodded in understanding. When I finished, she said, “Oh, check your premises.” I told her I didn’t know what premises to check. So, she led me to understand the issue by questioning me about my response to the copper pot. She pointed out that it was significant that I didn’t clean it and then put it away, that I hung it up so I could look at it and enjoy its beauty. That, she said, was a rational value, and I shouldn’t apologize for it....

Then she said, “Do you know what we are doing?” I didn’t know what she was getting at, and I said, “We are analyzing this situation.” She said, “What we are doing, Mary Ann, we are taking ideas seriously. You are applying philosophy to your life. This is what philosophy is for.”
Indeed, philosophy--or at least a rational philosophy--provides guidance for living our lives. It provides us with the principles by which we can make the countless choices that confront us. It provides us the means of choosing our values and the means by which to attain them. It helps us decide how to spend our precious time on earth. Philosophy--or at least a rational philosophy--is an eminently practical science.

Life is the pursuit of values. Life itself is our ultimate value, but everything we seek is also a value—something that will sustain our life or add to its enjoyment. If we are going to spend our precious time in the pursuit of something, shouldn’t we understand why it is worth spending the time and effort in that pursuit? We might discover that we are pursuing something out of habit, or social pressure, or some other non-rational reason—in other words, we don’t hold that object or activity as a value any longer.

I don’t mean to imply that this is a never ending cycle. But when we become aware of this issue, it means that we should examine our values and be certain why they are values to us.

A value is that which we seek to gain and/ or keep. It is something we want. But the fact that we want something doesn’t explain why we want it. It doesn’t explain the reasons for that desire. And the reasons are crucial. They are the cause for our actions. They determine how we spend our time and what we choose to do with it. If we cannot identify the reasons, we cannot identify the cause. If we don’t know the cause, then our actions are being guided by something outside of our awareness and therefore, outside of our control. And that is not a good thing.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Laughter of the Anguished

Last week a reader who wished to remain anonymous left comments to two older posts. Both comments were devoid of intellectual content, which usually results in an automatic rejection (I moderate all comments). However, I did find them interesting in what they reveal. I allowed one of the comments, but the second was rejected because it contained a personal attack on someone I admire and value immensely.

The comment that I allowed was in response to "Blaming the Victim". This post addressed the city revoking a permit for Spec's Liquor to operate a store on Washington Avenue. The comment follows:
"The law required that Spec's seek permission to open a store, which is what is truly offensive about this story. Spec's--and indeed every business--has a moral right to operate where and how it chooses " [this was quoted from my post]

that's hilarious! LOL, you really believe this nonsense ? What a loon you must be.
This is what was offered in response to my moral defense of an individual's right to live for his own sake, to seek his own values, to pursue his own happiness. Rather than point out an error on my part, or faulty reasoning, or have the intellectual honesty to state his own position on the issue, Mr. Anonymous resorted to laughter. "You are wrong," he said, "because ha, ha, ha."

This is not a very compelling argument. Indeed, it is not an argument. It is an attempt to "prove" one's point by calling names, as if someone who takes ideas seriously would find such childish tactics convincing. But then, Mr. Anonymous does not take ideas seriously, as evidenced by the comment that I rejected.

In response to "A Pyrrhic Victory" (which addressed the developers of the Ashby High Rise finally receiving permission to proceed with the project), he wrote (in part):
What a complete load of theoretical BS. It's sad that developers were ever given permission in the first place to do anything more than private homes there. It was outrageous and pure short sighted greed to try to stick all they wanted there, so no tears over the loss on their gamble.
Again, rather than address any of the points I raised, our brave Mr. Anonymous retorts with an angry dismissal. Anonymity may provide him with courage, but it certainly has not endowed him with intellectual prowess. Given the actual facts of the situation, his comments make little sense--the site has long been an apartment complex. In addition, while not repeated here, his comment contained an ad hominem "argument".

Perhaps more interesting (and disgusting) is the apparent glee that he feels towards the suffering of others. That Buckhead Development--Ashby's developers--had to spend years groveling at the feet of petty city bureaucrats for permission to use their property is apparently a source of pleasure to my anonymous reader. That he gloats when entrepreneurs are shackled by city officials speaks volumes about his character.

Such hatred and hostility is not natural--by "natural" I mean appropriate for man's life. Such hatred is not aimed at a criminal, but at the men and women who create the values upon which our lives depend. Such hostility is ultimately aimed at life itself.

Many years ago such depravity would have led me to hope that some ill-fortune would befall the advocates of such ideas as a measure of justice. And then one day I realized that justice was being served. Despite whatever material trappings or prestige such individuals might enjoy, they are not and cannot be happy individuals. No matter what facade they present to others, their soul is wracked with envy and anger. Their laughter is a mask for their own anguish.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti's Real Need

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti, there seems to be no shortage of calls for Americans--including the federal government--to send aid. The earthquake is an undeniable tragedy. No decent person could find any pleasure in the resulting death and destruction. But no matter how tragic the situation, the needs of the Haitian people are not a claim on the lives and property of others.

This however, has not and will not stop the altruists from arguing otherwise. As one example, Thursday's Chronicle editorial is titled "Haiti's fresh hell: World must help nation to recover". But nowhere in the editorial are we told why we must help Haiti recover. It is assumed that we know, and agree, that morality demands that we help the Haitians in their time of need.

As the editorial acknowledges, Haiti has had a long history of political corruption. And, while the editorial states that that issue should be dealt with another day, I disagree. Haiti's current needs are largely a result of the culture that has allowed such corruption. Further, if the Chronicle addressed that issue in a principled manner, it would undermine its own claim that we must send aid to Haiti.

Haiti is a nation steeped in mysticism and altruism. According to Wikipedia, 80% of Haitians are Roman Catholic. Vodou is practiced by a large portion of the population, though the number is unknown. Like Catholicism, Vodou preaches service to others as a moral ideal, that the needs of one man impose a moral obligation on others, that each individual must place the welfare and interests of others before his own.

This is precisely what Haiti's string of tin-pot dictators (and indeed every dictator in history) have demanded of the citizenry. The particular justifications have varied, but the nation's rulers have demanded that Haitians sacrifice for the "general welfare" or the "common good".

The Chronicle cannot question this premise, because it underlies their regular calls for Houstonians to do the same. Whether it is the paper's support of health care "reform", or shoving light rail down our throats, or restricting signs in Houston, or any other government intervention, the paper believes that each of us has a moral obligation to put aside our own personal desires and values in the same of some "higher" good--the alleged welfare of the community.

Of course, the Chronicle is hardly alone in embracing self-sacrificial service to others as the standard of morality. Most Americans share that belief, and government officials are more than happy to make them oblige. If one accepts the premise that the individual is subservient to the demands of the group--whether one's community, one's race, one's religion, or one's nation--then one will logically accept that it is proper for government to compel obedience to those demands.

These are the premises that underlie the corruption in Haiti, as well as the more open corruption that exists in America (such as the deals that were made to secure support for health care "reform"). These are the premises that must be rejected.

If Americans truly want to help Haitians, they would teach them the morality upon which America was implicitly founded. Each individual has the moral right of each individual to his own life, his own liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness. But before Americans can export such a moral code, they must discover it for themselves.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest is my favorite work by Oscar Wilde. The play is a delightful exhibition of wit and mastery of the English language. And contained within this benevolent satire is a very important message: the need to persevere in the pursuit of one's values, that is, the importance of being earnest. (I have attempted to minimize the plot spoilers in this post, but I cannot avoid doing so completely.)

The play tells the story of two aristocratic friends, Ernest Worthing and Algernon Moncrief, who spend their days enjoying life's pleasures. Both fall deeply in love, and while the women reciprocate their affections, Victorian traditions prohibit either from marrying.

One of the most popular literary figures of his day, Wilde was not one to mindlessly embrace the societal traditions of his time. Indeed, Earnest flaunts those traditions. Personally, he was imprisoned for two years for engaging in "indecent" relations with young men--homosexuality was a crime in Victorian Britain.

The lessons from Earnest go beyond merely exposing the presumptuous arrogance of those who seek to impose their values upon others by force. It shows us that values--and particularly immensely important values--are not achieved easily. Perhaps most importantly, Earnest implicitly shows us that the mind is the source of value creation.

When confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, both Ernest and Algernon devise a plan that is clever. And when that fails, Ernest proposes a cooperative solution to overcome the final impediment to both men's marriage. Both men rely on their minds--which they have previously used largely to avoid responsibility and pursue hedonistic pleasures--to achieve the values they passionately desire.

I highly recommend the 2002 film starring Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, and Judi Dench. It beautifully dramatizes a benevolent universe.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Complexity Worship

In an article titled "Parker on gay issues: It's complicated" Chronicle writer Mike Snyder tells us that Mayor Ma Parker "is more focused on basic services than gay rights". In one sense, this is a great relief. In another, I seriously doubt that it is true.

I hate to be the one to spoil the party, but there are no such things as gay rights. To make such a claim is to imply that gays have certain rights not enjoyed by straights, and vice versa. (The same applies to women's rights, black's rights, etc.) There are only individual rights, and they apply to all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race, or ethnicity.

Those rights pertain to freedom of action--they are a sanction for each individual to act according to his own judgment without interference from others, so long as he respects their mutual rights. Nobody--including government--may morally compel others to act contrary to their own choice.

Rights are not a claim to some material value, but rather, the freedom to take the actions necessary to create or earn that value. To claim otherwise is to claim that some must provide those values without their consent, that they should be forced to labor while others benefit.

Government's sole purpose is to protect our rights by identifying those actions that constitute the use of force against others, and by prosecuting those who initiate force. This is the only "basic service" that government should be providing.

Of course, this is not the service that Ma is trying to provide. She wants to make sure that Houstonians have light rail, that old houses are preserved, that high rises are not built in "inappropriate" places. She wants to provide some Houstonians with the values that they desire, and she is more than willing to force others to pay for it.

"Gay" issues really aren't that complicated when one recognizes individual rights. Indeed, many issues become non-issues if one recognizes individual rights.

However, when one rejects principles every concrete situation appears to be isolated and distinct from others. Every issue must be dealt with individually, without reference to any other issue. One becomes trapped in a maze that Leonard Peikoff called "complexity worship" in his 1988 lecture at Ford Hall Forum.

Ma could address "complicated" gay issues by adopting the proper principles--the sanctity of individual rights, including property rights. And in the process, she could provide all Houstonians with the only "basic service" we need from government--the protection of those rights. It is no more complicated than that.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff 40

Mercy and Evasion
Recently, the Yates High School boys basketball team put a whooping on the Lee High School team by a score of 170 to 35. Since then, many have complained that the game should have been stopped at halftime to spare the Lee team additional humiliation. Indeed, last week a Chronicle editorial called for a "mercy rule":
Let's have a serious, inclusive discussion about instituting a mercy rule in high school basketball so that travesties such as this one can be stopped before they become outright embarrassments....

But, please, let's stop the totally unnecessary embarrassment that now rains down on the hapless losers. This was never what high school sports was supposed to be all about.

I have a lot of problems with this. An athletic contest is a competition in which each participant strives to perform his best under objective and uniform rules. If one team is vastly superior to another, then the outcome will and should reflect that fact. "Mercy rules", like all forms of mercy, are intended to evade the facts.

I feel for the Lee team. They obviously were no match for Yates. But why pretend otherwise? The fact is, some teams are better than others. Some individuals have more talent than others. Some work harder to develop their talent than others. And they should not have arbitrary restrictions placed on the exhibition of that talent.

Consider the lesson that "mercy rules" teach. If you are in a competition, we will make sure that you don't get beaten too badly, because that might hurt your feelings. That might not seem like a big deal in a basketball game. But apply the same principle to other realms of life, and the consequences are much more destructive.

For example, a "mercy rule" for grades would prevent the smarter, harder working student from getting test scores that might embarrass his classmates. A "mercy rule" for employees would prohibit one worker from getting a higher salary because that might make his colleagues feel bad. Such "mercy rules" would destroy ambition and punish the talented and successful.

The EPA's Moving Target
Last week the EPA announced tighter limits on ozone pollution that will impact 25 counties in Texas, including Houston. This announcement comes just as the city has met federal standards for the first time.

The EPA justifies its continually changing mandates as necessary as scientists learn more about the effects of pollution. According to the Chronicle:
Federal law prohibits the EPA from considering cost when setting air standards. It has estimated the price tag of the new program at $19 billion to $90 billion per year by 2020, depending on the standard it sets, but also said the expense could be offset by reduced health care costs.
In the midst of a recession, the federal government is going to impose more costs on individuals and businesses. Given that government officials seem to be genetically programmed to underestimate the cost and overestimate the benefits of any program, the actual costs will likely be much higher. Nor do they include the diminished quality of life that will result from more controls on producers.

The Benefits of Theft
There seems to be no shortage of people who think that they know how to spend my money better than I do. Take for instance, South Texas Chisme:
Dollars spent on infrastructure are leverage dollars. You get a benefit greater than the money spent.
Unless I am very much mistaken, Mr. Chisme does not know me, so he really has no clue as to what I spend on infrastructure, nor does he know what benefits I receive from that money. Yet, he believes that the government should take my money, because he believes that the benefits justify stealing from the citizenry. And if we really accept Mr. Chisme's premise, then government should take all of our money, so that we can have all kinds of spiffy infrastructure.

Virtually anything can, and has been, "justified" on these grounds. The wholesale slaughter of millions under communist dictators has been perpetrated on the premise that the alleged benefits make such actions necessary. Ditto for the Nazis and Islamic Fascists.

Mr. Chisme may object to be categorized with mass murderers. But the moment he claims that he has a right to use government coercion to impose his values on me, he has become their partner in crime.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Let's Be Honest

Last Friday KPRC reported that Stages Repertory Theatre owes the city more than $350,000 in back rent. In an amazing display of evasion, both the city and the reporter ignored the facts of the situation.

The report calls Stages the home of the avant-garde, which is just a nice way of saying disgusting bullshit that nobody wants to pay money to see. Why else is the theatre several years behind in rent? The fact is, the theatre cannot attract enough paying customers to pay its rent.

The report blames the recession for a decrease in donations to the theatre. But the recession started in December 2007, approximately 2 years after Stages stopped paying rent. What was their excuse then? Could it be that they were producing plays that nobody wanted to pay money to see?

Consider one of the items on their current bill: Southern Rapture. Their web site describes this as:
[A] wickedly funny look at the intersection between artists and audiences, and the delicate contract theatres have with their communities.
I suppose it might be kind of humorous, but the joke is on the community. The community has been subsidizing Stages for years, in the form of free rent. Apparently, the "delicate contract" is one that can be unilaterally breached by theatres. A contract that is not honored or enforced is worthless. It is not a contract, but merely a pretense. For anyone--Stages, the city, or KPRC--to pretend otherwise is to place their desires above the facts.

The city spokesman in the KPRC report says that the city would not have worked with Stages if it did not think that the theatre "would work". So? The city thought, driven by its politically correct agenda, that a theatre presenting bullshit avant-garde productions would work, and when year after year went by and it didn't pay its rent, it clung to this delusion. The inability to pay one's rent is a pretty clear sign that things are not working.

The interesting thing about this is that it occurred under the watch of Bill White, the businessman turned mayor. If White had operated a business on this principle, he would not have been a businessman for long. If he had owned rental property, and permitted a tenant to avoid paying rent for 4 years without being evicted, his cash flow from that property would have been in the toilet. Which ironically, is apparently where Stages threw its rental agreement. And that is appropriate, given what they produce.

When contacted by the station, the former mayor issued this response:
My administration never indicated that it would be acceptable for Stages to avoid payment of rent.... I was told that the Board was working on a financing plan to either get current on the rent or buy the building. The City of Houston has and does support some of the arts and cultural activities important to the city...
This captures the essence of the city's position. Stages was deemed important and its delinquency was tolerated. But important to whom? It certainly hasn't been important to the citizens of Houston--that is evident by the fact that they have not voluntarily paid to attend performances at the theatre. City officials deemed Stages important despite the actions of Houstonians.

Apparently, city officials think that they know better than the citizens (it certainly wouldn't be the first time). Apparently, city officials think that it is important to have an avant-garde theatre, even if nobody attends. It makes us look cosmopolitan, just like light rail. And to city officials appearance to others is far more important than protecting our rights.

City officials have previously used appearance as an excuse to attempt to legislate billboards out of existence. As one anti-billboard advocate put it when the city was considering tougher restrictions on signs, "This will help make us look a lot more like the other great cities in the nation and in the world." The fact that such laws violate our property rights and destroys jobs is irrelevant.

Houston's economy has been one of the most vibrant in the nation for decades. A primary reason for this has been the city's relative respect for property rights. The city has become the envy of "the other great cities in the nation and in the world." But apparently, this is not an image that city officials deem important or worthy of protection.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

Last week, outgoing Mayor Bill White announced the formation of a committee to study the city's term limit ordinance. The Chronicle reports that the commission chairman, Arthur Schechter, believes changes might be needed:
Schechter said he is inclined to believe two-year terms are too short for effective governance, but isn't starting his work with any firm opinions about what the outcome should be.
Any changes to the ordinance will require voter approval, and based on the comments to the article, that appears to be an uphill battle. But the entire issue of term limits is superficial. As I wrote in an earlier post:
Enacted in the early 1990's, Houston limits council members to three two-year terms. This has only changed the faces, but not the essential policies. Houston has seen a steady parade of members pushing "quality of life" issues and seeking to expand city control of land-use. Before term limits we had Eleanor Tinsley and Jim Greenwood; today we have Sue Lovell and Peter Brown.
Those who think that term limits will fix anything are giving more importance to the butt in the seat than the ideas in the head. They believe that frequent turnover of elected officials will somehow result in better policies. But the fact is, the policies proposed by city officials are the consequence of their ideas. So long as voters continue to elect politicians with the same essential ideas, nothing significant is going to change.

Those who support term limits typically argue that we don't need career politicians, and term limits is one way to prevent that from occurring. That is naive at best, and an evasion of the real issue.

Consider Houston's new mayor, Ma Parker. She served 3 terms on city council before getting booted out by term limits. So then she ran for controller, and served 3 terms in that office before getting booted out by term limits. Now she is mayor, which means that despite term limits, Ma will have held a city office for 14 years at the end of her first term. And if she follows her predecessors, she will top out at 18 years. Term limits certainly haven't stopped Ma from making a pretty substantial career out of city politics.

Even if term limits somehow prevented this political buffet, it doesn't address the real issue. It doesn't address why anyone would want to make a career in politics.

Most politicians will state that they run for office to serve the public, or some similar blather. I suppose that there might be one or two who really mean it, but most are in it for the power--the power to impose their values on the rest of the citizenry.

Again, consider Ma Parker. She wants to make the trains run on time--and force us to pay for it. She wants to "protect neighborhoods", and she'll use force to keep those nasty developers--the guys who built the neighborhood--from doing things that she doesn't like. She likes old buildings, and if you are unfortunate to own one she takes a fancy to, she will prohibit you from tearing it down. Ma didn't get into politics to serve the public. She got into politics to serve those who share her values.

There is no such entity as "the public". The public consists of all individuals, and we do not speak with one voice. We do not seek the same things in life. But we do share one common value--the moral right to pursue our dreams and goals without interference from others, so long as we respect their mutual rights. This is the only proper meaning of "serving the public"--protecting the rights of all individuals.

Instead, politicians bicker over whose rights will be violated and who will benefit. Today, they slip a noose around the necks of one group of individuals in the name of the "public good". Tomorrow, they slip a noose around the necks of another group of individuals in the name of the "general welfare". Next week, another group still will find a noose slipping over their heads in the name of the "common good". And soon, all will find a noose around his neck. Nobody will think that good, except perhaps those with political pull.

Term limits do nothing to stop this orgy of sacrifice. Term limits do not challenge the notion that sacrifice is necessary or proper. They simply argue that we occasionally need a new group of henchmen. Until the idea that the individual is subservient to the demands of the group is rejected, individuals will continue to seek a career in politics.

I sympathize with those who want to put an end to career politicians. But term limits is not the way to do it. Spreading the right ideas is.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A "Plan" that Isn't

Texas gubernatorial candidate Kay "Bailout" Hutchison has unveiled a "plan" to improve Texas roads. In a speech last week, she said:
Texans are tired of the traffic and congestion in our cities. They are frustrated with the arrogance and inefficiencies of the leadership at the Texas Department of Transportation that have failed to produce results. One of my top priorities as governor will be to clean up TxDOT and solve the transportation problems that have plagued Texas for the last decade.
This all sounds fine and dandy. After all, who is in favor of congested roads? However, it is one thing to say that you are going to fix something and another thing to put forth a plan to actually do so. So what is the Senator's plan? She will appoint a "select committee". In other words, she has no plan, other than evading the issue and waiting for recommendations from others. That doesn't give us much to hang our hat on.

One does not need to be an expert in transportation issues to predict the outcome of the "select committee". They will issue a report that concludes that Texas highways are congested, and they will recommend some course of action. Some will think that the proposal is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and others will decry that proposal as a colossal waste of money. And then a long and acrimonious public debate will ensue. While the transportation elitists are sipping their soy lattes and arguing over how to spend our money, the roads will grow more congested.

Hutchison's "plan" is just a rehash of what the state has been doing all along. The problem, she implies, is that the "right" people aren't running the show. We don't need fundamental change, she implies, but rather, a different set of suits lording over Texas roads.

I realize that transportation issues can be very complex. And in a state the size of Texas, with multiple large metropolitan areas and vast expanses of desolate terrain, such issues are perhaps more complex than in other states. So I will not begin to pretend that I know how to reduce traffic congestion. However, neither Hutchison nor her "select committee" will know either, no matter how many hearings they hold or how much of our money they spend.

Nor does Hutchison know how to insure that our stores are full of products, or that Internet service is available to millions of people, or how to manufacture cell phones. The people in these industries do know and they do a spectacular job. I don't have to wait in bread lines, or tolerate Internet black outs, or wait months to purchase a cell phone. The producers of these values have an incentive--the profit motive--to insure an adequate and available supply. If they don't, they go out of business because consumers will go elsewhere.

But what incentive does Hutchison, or any politician, have to provide an adequate supply of roadways? The correct answer is: NONE. Sure, they make all kinds of noises to appease voters, but when the rubber meets the road little is done. The demand for roadways continues to exceed the supply, and congestion is the result.

With very few and rare exceptions, we do not experience such supply/ demand discrepancies when private companies are providing the goods or services. Private companies find innovative ways to provide the goods and services that consumers want and desire. Those that do so successfully profit; those that do not go out of business.

When government is unsuccessful--as in the case with roadways, mail delivery, and education to name a few examples--it is immune from the consequences. It's assets are not reallocated to more efficient producers. Indeed, it simply seizes more assets from producers to fund its inefficiencies.

Government should not be in the business of providing roads. In doing so, it violates our rights by forcibly taking our money. And in prohibiting competition, it violates the rights of would-be entrepreneurs who could and would find innovative solutions to our transportation needs.

Government's purpose is the protection of our rights--the freedom to act according to our own rational judgment (so long as we respect the mutual rights of others). Government's purpose is to provide the social context in which we can act morally.

Government's use of force may properly be used only against those who initiate force--robbers, kidnappers, rapists, murderers for example. Government's monopoly on roads (not to mention mail delivery and education) forces both consumers and would-be road entrepreneurs to act contrary to their own judgment. Our congested freeways are but one example of the impractical consequences of this approach.

If Hutchison (or any politician) truly wants to solve our transportation problems, she must begin by renouncing the government's immoral use of force to prohibit competition and compel tax payers to fund the government's monopoly. Only by subjecting government to moral law--limiting the use of force to retaliation against those who initiate its use--can the practical be achieved.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hans' Bier Haus Punch

Less than 2 miles from the site of the proposed Ashby High Rise, another controversy involving a high rise and a neighbor has erupted. In 2006 residents of the 2520 Robinhood Condominiums
allegedly began throwing objects at the patrons of a neighboring bar, Hans' Bier Haus, from their parking garage. Residents complained about noise from the bar, and apparently they thought that throwing eggs and produce would somehow diminish the noise. (Here is a news flash: It won't. It is likely to provoke more noise, like, "Hey jackass, why are you throwing squash at me?") According to the Chronicle:

The unpleasantness peaked December 13. The bar laid out a Sunday night holiday buffet and had Ronnie Renfrow's 15-piece big band set to play. But water cascading from the garage rained down on patrons, the band and its electrical equipment. Kellogg said a trumpet player slipped in the water and broke a finger.

Cave [bar co-owner Bill Cave] said in court papers that he went to the condo and was eventually successful in turning off the water at a faucet on a condo's porch. In the process, Frederick [Art Frederick, the general manager of the condos] said an angry Cave took the concierge by his tie, broke his phone and forced his way up in the elevator. And they have videotape of it all, Frederick said.

This is the type of dispute that is really quite easy to resolve if one applies the proper principles. (It shouldn't need to be said, but physically assaulting others by dumping water on bar patrons or attacking a concierge is not the proper principle.) Unfortunately, those principles appear to be as foreign to those involve in BierGate as they are to those fighting Ashby. In both cases, property rights are under attack. In both cases, identifying, recognizing, and protecting property rights provides a very clear resolution.

I have addressed the Ashby situation previously. In regard to the Bier Haus, the principle to apply is "coming to the nuisance". The Bier Haus existed prior to the construction of the condos--the residents "came to the nuisance". The prior use of the bar's owners established their right to continue to use the property for that purpose.

A point of contention is that the bar owners have changed their use (that is my interpretation, as those involved seem to be oblivious to the proper principles) since the construction of the condos. According to the general manager of the condos, the bar has increased its noise levels, becoming a "Friday night rodeo".

If this is true, the condo residents have a valid claim. If the Bier Haus was, for example, a quiet piano bar and one day it began hosting AC/DC tribute bands on its patio, its use has clearly changed. The condo was not built next to an establishment that blasted arena rock; it was built next to a cozy neighborhood watering hole that featured twinkling ivory keys.

In the context of nuisance complaints, first use establishes the right to continue using one's property for that purpose. Those who come later cannot complain that your use is a nuisance, for they "came to the nuisance". This principle applies to countless situations. One cannot build a home next to an existing oil refinery, or a muffler shop, or a truck depot, or a bar, and then complain about the noise. One could have avoided the nuisance by building elsewhere, by not "coming to the nuisance". (Similarly, if one is offended by nude women, don't go into a "gentleman's club".)

I hasten to add that nuisance complaints cannot be made arbitrarily. The fact that someone objects to a particular activity does not make that activity a nuisance. An objective threat to one's well-being, one's property, or the "peaceful enjoyment" of one's property must exist. Exactly where the line should be drawn can be complex, but blasting loud music at 3 A.M., or conducting target practice in your back yard (assuming you live in a subdivision), or sending noxious fumes over your fence are objective threats to your neighbors. Painting your shutters hot pink, or growing corn in your front yard, or erecting a monument to Elvis in your car port might be obnoxious, but they are not a threat to anyone's well-being or property.

I do not know enough of the facts in this particular situation to say whether the condo residents came to the nuisance, or whether the Bier Haus has changed its use. But that is the important point in this dispute. As with Ashby, all that is required is the application of the principle of property rights. That, and the residents of the condos need to start eating their veggies rather than throwing them at bar patrons, or Ma Parker will get on their case.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Mayor Ma Parker

With a number of Neanderthals waving anti-gay signs outside the Wortham Center, Mayor Annise Parker delivered her inaugural speech on Monday. According to the Chronicle:
Parker asked her fellow citizens for their prayers, their patience, their perseverance and, noting that mistakes and failures are inevitable, “for your forgiveness in advance.” [emphasis added]
If she already knows that she is going to make mistakes, why doesn't she take steps to avoid them? Every single day of my life I undertake activities that could result in mistakes or failures. I take reasonable steps to avoid those mistakes and failures, and indeed do avoid almost all of them.

However, I occasionally neglect to promptly thank my wife for something she has done. Should I apologize each morning, "noting that mistakes and failures are inevitable", since I might commit this mistake during the course of the day? Or, on occasion I overlook some detail regarding a customer. Should I apologize to each customer at our first meeting, "noting that mistakes and failures are inevitable"? This certainly isn't an effective way to win customers.

Nor is it an effective way to instill confidence in the citizenry.

Parker went on to say:
The city of Houston is on your side. I firmly believe that our city's future will be shaped by our citizens — not our politicians. I welcome your suggestions.
I am curious who she is referring to when she says the city in on "your" side. It certainly hasn't been on the side of Buckhead Development, which has had to endure more than two years of harassment at the hands of the city. It hasn't on the side of Spec's Liquor, which had its permit for a store on Washington Avenue yanked because of a "clerical error". It hasn't been on the side of small business owners and sign companies, who have seen the city wage war against "attention-getting devices".

It hasn't been on the side of sexually-oriented businesses, or taco truck owners, or veterinarians. It hasn't been on the side of home owners, who will be forced to use more expensive bags to dispose of yard waste. It hasn't been on the side of tax payers, who have been forced to subsidize the housing and transportation costs of other citizens.

If the city isn't on the side of all of these people, who in the hell is it siding with? Fortunately, Ma Parker provides an answer:
Parker, 53, said she often is asked to compare Houston to other cities, but that the only city to which she could compare it was “the Houston in my imagination.” That city, she said, was a city of neighborhoods “where the police are known and recognized, and they in turn know the neighborhood, and we are all safer. . a city where mass transit really works. . . a city with clean and safe air. . . a city safe from the ravages of flood water. . . a city where the high school drop-out rate is insignificant.”
There is nothing wrong with having a vision--that is a necessary aspect of leadership. But let us consider what is included in Ma's vision. Safer streets are a good thing; indeed, this is an aspect of government's only legitimate purpose--protecting our rights. To this point, I'm with her.

However, I'm uncertain what she means by "a city where mass transit really works". I am assuming that she means a rail system that has more riders than collisions with automobiles. Since government shouldn't be in the transportation business, I think that this is a moot point. And it really starts to go downhill from there.

I spend a fair amount of time outdoors, and I have yet to be attacked by the air. I have had a few birds buzz by my head, but I attribute any threat to my well-being to the birds, and not the medium through which they fly. And, while I have experienced my share of flooded streets, I am not under perpetual attack by the city's bayous. So from my perspective, I would much prefer that our police be used to combat actual crime, rather than trying to protect me from air and water.

A greater concern arises with her desire to reduce the dropout rate to an insignificant level. First, the government shouldn't be in the education business. Second, given the fact that a large percentage of high school graduates are functionally illiterate, I don't see what the big deal is. Third, given the fact that public education is "free" and yet many teenagers do not take advantage of it (despite mandatory attendance laws), I am curious why she thinks that applying the same principle to transportation (light rail) will work.

The truth is, Ma Parker has a vision for the city and she is more than willing to ram it down our throats. If we don't share her vision, that is just too bad for us. She can, and has, passed laws to make us abide by her vision. She knows is best for us, and you better look out if you don't like spinach. She told the Chronicle:
I’m going to be the mom telling you to eat your vegetables and you don’t get dessert.
Ma may have made that comment facetiously, but there is much more truth to it than she would dare to admit. My mother would send me to bed without dessert if I didn't eat my veggies. Ma Parker will send you to jail if you don't take down your over-sized gorilla.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Go Green, or Give us Your Green

Last week the city announced that it will delay a new ordinance forcing residents to use biodegradable bags for leaves and yard debris. Apparently, while the city can compel residents to go green, it can't use the same coercive methods on retailers--the required bags are currently only available at Walmart and Kroger.

The city claims that this mandatory measure will save money, but just how much depends on which report you read. The Chronicle says the city will save $2 million a year, while KHOU reports an estimated savings of $1.5 million annually. I am not opposed to the city saving money--it certainly wastes enough of the loot it steals from us. But it doesn't take a CPA to see just how pathetically dishonest this claim is.

I will assume that the city's Solid Waste department services 200,000 homes (I couldn't find a specific number, but based on numbers I could find this seems like a very reasonable number). This means that each household will save $10 per year (or less) in fees, or less than 20 cents per week. The bags required by the city cost at least 10 cents more than their non-green counterparts. A household that has 2 bags of yard waste per week will break even.

I have at least 2 bags of yard waste every week, even during the winter when the grass isn't growing and I am doing no pruning or other maintenance. For most of the year, 4 or 5 bags is common, and during leaf season 20 or more bags is not unusual. In other words, I am going to spend a lot more on these stupid bags than I will ever save in fees. But the city's dishonesty goes beyond merely economics.

The Chronicle story states that:
City officials predict that the change will result in the diversion of 60,000 tons of organic material from local landfills...
Are we to believe that fewer leaves will fall simply because city council has mandated green lawn bags? I doubt that even city officials think that they have that kind of power. So where is all that rotting organic material going to go? The city hasn't addressed this, but apparently they think that Houstonians will turn into rabid composters. Indeed, the Chronicle editorial on Saturday states:
For those unwilling to pay more, there's a simple backyard solution. Just compost the trimmings in a bin or a wire enclosure, and use it to build up your lawns and gardens.
I'm not opposed to composting. In fact, I suspect that I have the largest intentional compost pile in my neighborhood. (I say intentional because I have a few neighbors who seem to throw everything into one huge pile. Given that the pile includes tires, plastic, and similar materials, I do not think that they are building a compost pile. But I digress.) I like compost. I have spent a lot of money buying compost.

However, if I tried to compost every piece of organic material generated on my property, it would cover the entire lot. Not only would I have no need for compost, as there would be no room for grass or shrubs or flowers, I would likely need a permit from the city for such a giant composting facility. So, even though I am one of the more "compost conscious" home owners in my neighborhood, I am not going to "divert" much from the landfill.

The city's mandate that we use biodegradable bags is simply a measure to "prod" us into behavior that city officials deem desirable. Rather than be honest about their intentions, they use the smoke screen of saving money.

If the city wants to save money on waste collection, I suggest that it get out of the waste collection business. In fact, I suggest that it get out of the water, park, and library businesses as well.

Government's proper purpose is the protection of our rights, not the collection of our trash, or the provision of parks and libraries. When government engages in activities beyond the protection of our rights, it must necessarily use force against the citizenry. It must violate our rights to compel compliance with its edicts or force us to pay for services that we do not use. And it usually prohibits competition, leaving residents with no choice but to tolerate the city's poor service and arbitrary rate increases.

I violate nobody's rights by putting my leaves in a black bag made of petroleum products. But the city has declared me--and everyone else--a criminal if I do so. Consider the penalty for violating this particular ordinance--fines will range from $50 to $2,000. Which means, the "atrocity" of putting your leaves in a bag of the wrong color could cost you dearly. The city has made its position clear: Go green, or give us your green.