Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ma Parker's "Tool"

I previously wrote about the hissy fit that residents of The Heights are throwing over a proposed Wal-Mart. Ma Parker called a meeting on Wednesday so that the residents could voice their objections to the developer. All of that is typical and not really worthy of comment. However, Ma's comments, as reported by the Chronicle, were revealing.
"Our goal is to make sure that we get something from these developers that we would not otherwise get just as they go and do their own thing," she said. "It's leverage. It's a tool to bring them to the table."
The "tool" that Ma is speaking of is a state program called a 380 agreement. This program, according to the paper, "allows the city to grant or loan local tax revenue for economic development purposes." In this particular case, the city proposes to reimburse the developer for the cost of improving city property:
If the agreement is approved, developer Ainbinder Co. would widen and repave streets surrounding the project, refurbish bridges near the site, develop a bike and pedestrian trail along a stretch of Heights Boulevard south of I-10 and improve underground drainage, among other upgrades.
The money to pay the developer would come from increased property taxes from nearby properties. Which means, the developer will be "encouraged" to invest his money to improve city infrastructure, and if those improvements meet with the city's approval, money will be stolen from neighbors to reimburse the developer.

While Ma considers the 380 agreement her "tool", the implement that gives her "leverage" is a gun. It is her ability to use government coercion against both the developer and nearby property owners that brings anyone to the table. It is the government's coercive power that residents of The Heights have been hoping to use to halt the project. Instead, it appears that the city is trying to through crumbs--infrastructure improvements--to the residents as a consolation prize.

If the city government were limited to its proper function--the protection of individual rights, including property rights--this controversy would not exist. Residents of The Heights could not plead with city officials to halt the project. City officials could not use taxation to rob some for the alleged benefit of others. And instead of a civil war in which citizens battle to use government force for their own purposes, all of us could live our lives as we choose, according to our own judgment in the pursuit of our own values.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Food for Thought

In our increasingly technological economy, you might think that educators and parents would like to see increased emphasis on science and mathematics in our public schools. But, according to an OpEd article in Saturday's Chronicle, this is not the most important issue facing the Houston Independent School District (HISD). Instead, HISD should be teaching students about making better food choices.

Responding to changes in the lunches offered at HISD, Bettina Elias Siegel argues that the school district isn't doing enough. Offering healthier choices is good, but until HISD educates students about the benefits of bok choy and acorn squash, the city's youth will continue to make poor dietary choices.
Introducing something like acorn squash or steamed spinach to this population - especially in a system in which students (under USDA regulations) are perfectly free to refuse two out of five items offered at lunch - is a virtual guarantee that such items will end up in the trash. 
Apparently, Siegel believes that it is more important for students to learn the benefits of spinach versus the benefits of algebra. Even this isn't sufficient, because many of the "better" foods are not going to be offered to all students.
But while HISD has laudably followed the recommendations of the PAC to start developing similar entrees (including wraps, rice bowls, stir fries and curries), the district has also indicated that for financial reasons such new foods might only be available on the "a la carte" line - that is, to paying students only. Because almost 80 percent of HISD students qualify for free and reduced lunch, this would create an inequitable system of "haves" and "have nots" where only students with money in their pockets can access the new, more healthful items.
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?

As with all public institutions, our educational system has become a battle ground over competing special interests. While some demand that students actually be taught to read and write, others are more concerned with what is served in the cafeteria. While some want their children to be prepared to become functional, productive individuals, others want to make sure that they get enough fiber.

In the end, public schools must try to find a compromise between these competing interests. The inevitable result is that students are served unhealthy food in both the classroom and the lunch room. Pizza and chicken nuggets might not be healthy for their bodies, but according to parents like Siegel, the ideas that fuel their minds are of less significance.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Yogis and Their Boo Boo Defense

While Texans worry about the economy, the expansion of government, and an endless parade of proposals to separate us from our money, the state will soon eliminate one source of concern to many of us--yoga instructors. The Chronicle reports that the Texas Workforce Commission has been sending letters to yoga studios threatening them with $50,000 fines.
"We send letters to schools that we think are teaching someone to have a profession," said Ann Hatchitt, the commission's spokeswoman. "All we're doing is seeing that yoga schools are all either exempt, or if they're charging students enough money to make a career, than they need to be monitored."
The article doesn't explain why some schools are exempt and some are not, but does state that an exemption is available if a school doesn't offer marketing or business classes and charges less than $500. Apparently, the state wants to have the final say if you want to teach someone how to operate a business.

It is bad enough that entrepreneurs need government permission to pursue a livelihood. But when the state admits that its rules are non-objective, the door is thrown open to the arbitrary decrees of bureaucrats:
[T]he commission must follow its interpretation of the law, according to Hatchitt.
Any law that is open to interpretation is by that fact non-objective. Whose interpretation? By what standard? The yoga studio owner is considered guilty and is subjected to the hassle and expense of fighting a massive state bureaucracy for the "crime" of running a yoga studio.

The state's proper purpose is the protection of individual rights, not forcing entrepreneurs to grovel for permission to earn a living. The state should be protecting our right to act according to our own rational judgment, not placing arbitrary restrictions on business owners.

The yogis aren't doing themselves any favors. Albina Rippy, owner of a studio in Houston, told the paper:
I don't think it's fair when others like martial arts centers and fitness facilities don't have to pay a fee to operate.
In other words, if other training facilities had to pay a fee then it would be acceptable to force yoga studios to do so. Or, selective slavery is simply unacceptable, but wholesale slavery will be tolerated. This is not the way to "defend" one's rights.

The yogis aren't opposed to the violation of individual rights via government regulation. They just don't want to be the victims. But they would be wise to learn from Martin Niemöller, a pastor in Nazi Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Unexpected Absence

Last Tuesday I was struck by sudden and severe back pain that persisted through the weekend. It was unbearable to sit at my computer for more than a few minutes at a time. Fortunately, I am much better today but it may be a few days before I resume regular posts.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Good Intentions and Boondoggles

The Chronicle reports that the Bayport Cruise Terminal sits idle 2 years after completion. (HT: blogHouston) Like many other boondoggles, the $81 million cruise terminal was hailed as an economic stimulus. And, like many other boondoggles, its obvious failure to deliver on those promises hasn't stopped its advocates from continuing to make optimistic predictions.
"I'm optimistic that we'll end up with a cruise line," Port of Houston Chairman James Edmonds said.
How is this to happen? Edmonds wants to spend more of your money to develop 40 acres around the terminal. In other words, rather than admit that he wasted your money, Edmonds wants to throw more money at the problem. 

This is what happens when a "visionary" has the coercive power of government at his disposal. He can propose virtually anything, make outlandishly optimistic predictions, and then take your money to create his vision. Undeterred by the actual facts, he can then dream up an even more preposterous scheme. After all, that is what "visionaries" do.

Sometimes Edmonds asks himself why the port got into the cruising business, and his answer is job creation. A weekly vessel departing from Houston would mean vendors could sell flowers, food, drink and other items to the cruise, he said.

"From that standpoint, I think there's a lot of justification for us to be in that kind of business," Edmonds said.
As Dr. Phil likes to say, "How is that working for you?" The fact that vendors are not selling flowers, food, and trinkets doesn't matter. The fact that the only jobs "created" were for the construction workers who built the terminal is irrelevant. Edmonds intention was to create jobs, and that is the important thing. His intention justifies the boondoggle. 

Armed with good intentions in one hand and the government's taxing authority in the other, Edmonds and his ilk can "justify" nearly anything. Keep that in mind the next time you hear some Metro official tell us how great light rail will be.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

Ramona Davis, executive director of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, tells us that opponents of the proposed preservation ordinance are using a "a barrage of misinformation, disinformation and scare tactics" in Sunday's Chronicle:
It is not clear whether the leaders of this campaign are woefully misinformed or willfully misleading the public, but it is obvious that they either have not read Houston's preservation ordinance and the proposed amendments or that they are intentionally distorting the issue. The Greater Houston Preservation Alliance is determined to clear up these misrepresentations.
What is particularly interesting about the article is that Davis resorts to the same tactics she accuses others of using. Consider, for example, that Davis does not document the source of her information. She cites information from a web site, but provides neither the name of the organization operating the web site nor a URL. Apparently we are to take her word on this as a matter of faith. But this is minor compared to a later claim.

Resorting to a tactic used by pro-zoners in the 1990s, Davis writes:
Draconian measures are already in place in many of Houston's older neighborhoods, but they have nothing to do with the preservation ordinance. They are the restrictions enforced in the townhouse and condominium developments being built in and around our historic districts. Approved paint schemes, acceptable types and placement of plants, and bans on additions, alterations and even basketball goals are justified as necessary for protecting a homeowner's investment. Yet opponents of the ordinance revisions warn that instituting much less stringent protections for historic properties in the same neighborhood would have disastrous results.
Davis is unable to distinguish between the voluntary, contractual agreements that are deed restrictions and the mandatory, coercive mandates that make up the preservation ordinance. She sees a similarity--restrictions on the use of property--and ignores the fact that deed restrictions and the preservation ordinance are fundamentally different.

To call this misinformation would be too kind. To equate a private, voluntary agreement with a coercive government mandate is not an innocent mistake. It requires a willful evasion. And the evasions do not stop there. Throughout her article Davis addresses concrete details of the ordinance, repeatedly telling us what the proposed ordinance does not do--for now.

When the first preservation ordinance was being considered in the 1990s I told city council that it would only be a matter of time before preservationists demanded more stringent controls on "historic" properties. And that is precisely what is happening.

Once it becomes acceptable for government to establish some controls and restrictions on the use of property, it becomes acceptable--as a matter of principle--for government to completely control the use of property. The only issue up for debate is the extent of those controls. In time, those who want more and more controls will push the envelope, as preservationists are doing today.And that is precisely what is happening today.

Monday, August 16, 2010

It is Not Enough to Comply

I previously wrote about the city's intimidation tactics regarding my burglar alarm permit. Several weeks before my permit was set to expire, I received an automated call from the city informing me of that fact and threatening me with a fine if I failed to renew the permit. I subsequently renewed the permit and thought little more about it--until last Friday night.

On Friday I received another automated phone call from the city, this time informing me that my permit had expired. Again, I was threatened with a fine. Had I failed to renew the permit, I might have appreciated this not so friendly reminder. But the fact is, my new permit is currently sitting on my desk. Further, my check cleared the bank more than three weeks ago. While some might dismiss this as further evidence of incompetence in city government, it goes far beyond that.

The issue begins with the city's demand that I obtain permission to operate an alarm. The city has imposed this requirement because other citizens have been guilty of sending false alarms. My actions are irrelevant to the city--I am regarded as irresponsible until I prove differently. Hence, the city treats me like a child with harassing phone calls. And just to make sure that I get the message, the city finds it necessary to threaten me with fines.

This is not an isolated incident. When a city inspector visited my office, he too found it necessary to threaten me with fines if I failed to get city permission to occupy the rental space.

In both instances my only "transgression" was a failure to obtain permission from the city to engage in certain activities. In neither case was there a claim that I had used force against another individual, engaged in fraud, or violated anyone's rights. That I operate an alarm or own a business makes me suspect, and my actual actions do not matter. It is not surprising then, that compliance with the city's demands is not enough--my actions still do not matter.

A proper government would use force only in retaliation, and only against those who initiate its use--such as robbers, kidnappers, rapists, and murderers. A proper government would treat individuals on the basis of their actions, not the actions of some group to which they belong. A proper government would serve its citizens by protecting their rights, not demand their obedience and submission.

Friday, August 13, 2010

You Have no Choice

Echoing a common ploy of the left, the Chronicle opines that opposition to the mosque to be built near Ground Zero in New York City is founded primarily on bigotry. The mosque, the paper concludes, will stand as a symbol of America's diversity and tolerance.

Reflecting its own inability to think in principles, the paper refuses to acknowledge that there are principled arguments against the mosque. Instead, the editorial cites two local examples of allegedly anti-Muslim sentiments:
Late last year, news broke that a West Houston mosque and school was one of several properties to be seized by the federal government in a large counter-terrorism sweep. (The mosque merely rents the space from the targeted organization.) Protesters gathered and media swarmed, frightening members, many of whom were already fearful of a backlash from the Fort Hood shootings two weeks earlier, in which a Muslim soldier was charged with killing 13 and injuring 30. 

And in May, local talk show host Michael Berry, in a heated conversation with a caller on KTRH radio, expressed the hope that if the New York center were built, someone would blow it up. The combative Berry later apologized for his outburst, but not for his opinion that the mosque should not be built.
To oppose the mosque, the paper implies, is to be a bigoted red-neck who opposes anyone who is "different."

I don't doubt that some opponents to the mosque fit this portrayal. But to imply that opponents of the mosque are monolithic is an evasion of the facts. It is a refusal to consider the fact that opponents of the mosque have diverse reasons for their opposition. To the Chronicle, those reasons are irrelevant.Why someone opposes the mosque does not matter, because ultimately those reasons are a mere rationalization.

Consider the two examples cited above. The paper implies that the protest outside of the seized mosque was an over-reaction--the mosque only rents space from suspected terrorists. The "combative" Berry apologized for his "outburst"--that is, the emotion-driven talk show host simply couldn't control himself. In neither instance, the paper would have us believe, did individuals act on the basis of a rational evaluation of the facts. Without the intellectual honesty to say so, the paper wants us to conclude that the same is true of all opponents of the mosque.

To the Chronicle's editorial staff, individuals really don't have any choice in the ideas that they accept and hold to be true. The ideas we hold are the result of something outside of our control, such as our emotions (Berry) or our gender. As an example of the latter, in Thursday's editorial, the paper tells us that the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court is a good thing because it will strengthen the "woman's point of view" on the Court. In short, Kagan's "point of view" is not shaped by her own choices, but by her gender. The paper's implicit endorsement of determinism isn't surprising.

Fundamentally, the paper rejects the fact that human beings are autonomous, independent beings. Time after time the paper calls for government restrictions on the moral right of individuals to act according to their own judgment. Time after time the paper calls for individuals to put aside their own conclusions and values in deference to the "public good" or "common welfare." For years the paper has endorsed the use of government coercion to eliminate your right to choose. For the past two days it has told us why.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Problem Isn't Term Limits

The Chronicle's editorial on Wednesday again voiced opposition to term limits:
We continue to believe they entail needless public cost for staging elections while denying the best officials the opportunity to continue serving the city. The system prevents citizens from exercising the unfettered right to choose their municipal leaders and insinuates they're not smart enough to reject bad incumbents. 
The paper is correct in asserting that the ballot box provides the only means of term limits necessary. But the paper believes that term limits are necessarily bad because elected officials need to spend much of their time simply learning their job. But what is their job?

The proper purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. This is the only proper job of government officials. I hold that anyone who needs on-the-job training to carry out this responsibility should not be in an elected office.

Of course, the Chronicle holds a much different view of government. The paper believes that government should regulate and control the actions of individuals--such as what they do with their property. The paper believes that government should take actions that allegedly benefit some at the expense of others--such as health care. The paper believes that government should not protect individual rights, but actively engage in their violation.

And this is what the paper means by on-the-job training. Elected officials must learn how to dispense political favors, how to determine which pet cause to support and which to oppose, whose rights to violate and when. Given that there are no objective criteria for making such decisions, a newly elected official understandably needs some training and time to develop his own little fiefdom of political connections.

I agree with the paper that our current system is bad, but for much different reasons. The current system is bad because it provides government officials with the power to violate the rights of individuals. And that has nothing to do with term limits.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The True Ethics Violation

KTRK reporter Wayne Dolcefino reports that city council member Jarvis Jackson may be under investigation for ethics violations. (HT: blogHouston) The councilman, who was arrested in June for evading arrest, has allegedly been "soliciting" contributions from contractors. As one example, allegedly Jackson asked a contractor--who had recently received a $10 million city contract--for a donation to his son's little league.

Dolcefino tells us that both Jackson and the contractor have avoided talking to him, implying that something shady might be going on. Namely, that Jackson is exchanging his political muscle for financial support. That may be the case here, but what about the fact that this occurs on a daily basis right out in the open? Apparently Dolcefino has no problem with the use of political pull, so long as it is done publicly. In fact, he admits as much:
At least with campaign donations, the public gets to see who's donating.

Even with charitable events, there's a paper trail the public can follow. 
Dolcefino implies that as long as we know who is making donations it's fine if they later benefit from greasing the political wheels. It's fine if contractors (or anyone) uses political influence in order to gain lucrative government contracts, just so long as we know who is benefiting. As long as everyone completes the proper forms there is nothing wrong with exchanging influence for money. It is wrong--and apparently unethical--only when it occurs out of the public eye.

Dolcefino is hardly alone in holding this position. Many people hold the view that all politicians are crooks, and then continue to support the ideas advocated by those crooks. In most jurisdictions, aiding and abetting thieves is itself a crime, and it is always unethical.

The fact is, our entire political system is an ethics violation. Our welfare state is based on the premise that it is proper to steal from some for the alleged benefit of others. If Dolcefino(or anyone) is concerned about ethics and government, he would do well to discover that the proper purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, not the redistribution of wealth. He would do well to discover that each individual has a moral right to live by the judgment of his own mind, in the pursuit of his own values, for the purpose of his own happiness. Now that would be a story.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

HCD's Lack of Integrity

On Friday the city announced that 29 positions at the Houston Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) were being eliminated. The press release states that the move is part of
a restructuring that will restore financial integrity, improve performance and facilitate expansion of the mission to include a new focus on community development. 
Interestingly HCD admits that it has lacked financial integrity. Apparently this was acceptable in the past, but with the city fighting a budget deficit, city officials want to appear that they care about things like integrity and fiscal responsibility. Given the very nature of HCD, it is doubtful that such concern will last for long. In fact, the press release itself indicates that such concern didn't last for more than 4 paragraphs:
Mr. Noteware [HCD director Jim Noteware] decided against a larger reduction in force that would have eliminated the deficit entirely due to concerns that it would harm the department’s performance.
Since the agency didn't eliminate its budget deficit, what does it mean by "financial integrity"? We can only guess since they don't bother to tell us. Apparently, wasting less of the taxpayer's money constitutes "integrity" in the eyes of HCD. Apparently, claiming that they will restore integrity is sufficient and should make us all feel better.

The truth is, agencies such as HCD are engaged in the redistribution of wealth, forcibly taking money from some for the alleged benefit of others. HCD would have us believe that it is virtuous for exercising some restraint in the level of its theft.

This is akin to a criminal demanding your wallet at gun point, examining its contents, returning a portion of your money, and then proclaiming his virtue for showing some restraint. Any reasonable person would regard this as absurd. The principle does not change simply because government is holding the gun.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Double Standard

Sunday's print version of the Chronicle (the article was not available online when I wrote this, though a teaser was) provides more evidence of why the city is fighting a budget deficit:
Of approximately 1,200 cars assigned to city employees, only 54 percent of the total mileage reported was work-related. And the yearly tab for those cars and hundreds of others is considerable -- the maintenance and fuel costs for the take-home cars cost Houston taxpayers $4 million last year. 
Granted, $4 million isn't much in the grand scheme of the city's budget. But if the city can spend $4 million on take-home cars, it makes one wonder where else our money is being wasted.

While Ma Parker is vowing to crack down on the practice, city employees are justifying their free ride. Fire Department Assistant Chief Daniel Snell for example, told the paper:
The job I have requires me to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on and off duty. I have a lot of off-duty activities, meeting and things after hours.
Snell, who has a 52 mile commute to his office, reported that only 11.9 percent of the miles he drives are work related. Which means, taxpayers are paying for his commute and probably a whole lot more. Further, city policy holds that employees must live within 30 miles of their office to be eligible for a take-home car. Snell is not the only employee in violation of this policy--the paper reports 44 employees with take-home cars live outside of the 30-mile limit.

The paper reports that the Public Works Department, which has 560 cars, has at least 10 employees whose business use mileage was reported at less than 15 percent. And three had negative percentages, which the city called a "reporting problem."  It is bad enough that the city won't enforce its own policies, but when we consider the nature of the positions held by many of those with take-home cars, the insult is even worse.

It is the Public Works Department that is responsible for such things as issuing occupancy permits. When my office was inspected a few months ago, 6 employees of the department arrived in separate vehicles. Their purpose in the visit was to enforce a city ordinance. In other words, while the city has no problems turning a blind eye to violations of its own policies, it won't hesitate to harass citizens. At least I now know where the money I paid for the inspection is going--to allow some city employee to drive to work for free.

Friday, August 6, 2010

More Absurdity from City Council

Swamplot reports (HT: blogHouston) that city council has approved new regulations for jitneys. The new regulations require all fixed-route services to have a capacity of 9 to 15 passengers.

I am sure that the wonderful folks on city council can provide us with an explanation as to why they picked this range. But I don't care to spend the time to find it, because frankly, I am just as sure that it is absurd and will ultimately come down to some type of claim that that number serves the "public interest."

If there is a legitimate economic reason for jitneys to have a capacity of 9 to 15 passengers, the operators of those services are perfectly capable of making that determination and acting accordingly. However, if there isn't, and the actual facts indicate that, they such a restriction is arbitrary.

Consider Rev Eco-Shuttle, which operates 2 5-passenger vehicles downtown. Under the regulation Rev will be allowed to continue operations, but will be prohibited from expanding. No matter what reason council has concocted for his passenger limit, it has contradicted itself in granting an exception. Either the passenger limit has a valid justification or it doesn't. When an exception is made to any law the message is quite clear: There is no valid justification for that law.

Council's interest in jitneys has been sparked by an increase in such services in areas such as downtown, Midtown, and Washington Avenue. Recognizing an opportunity, at least 2 companies have begun offering jitney services in these areas. These companies have acted on their own judgment in regard to offering the service and the size/ type of vehicle they use. And consumers have similarly acted on their own judgment--both services seem to be very popular.

Allowing individuals to make such voluntary choices does not sit well with those who want to control and dictate how we live our lives. And they will go to absurd lengths to impose their values upon others. The new regulations literally make it illegal for a business to operate with a 5-passenger vehicle. Which means, you would be a criminal if you used your vehicle as a jitney.

Anyone who chooses to operate a jitney has a moral right to do so. City council has no business dictating who may or may not operate a jitney or the type of vehicle they must use.

The jitney ordinance continues a trend going back decades. Council has increasingly used government coercion to dictate what you may or may not do. From landscaping to signs, from taco trucks to land-use, council has enacted ordinance after ordinance that prohibits a growing number of voluntary and consensual activities of Houstonians. Virtually nothing is off limits to the power lusting "leaders" of our city, and as long as Houstonians accept these restriction, controls, and mandates, city government will continue to assume more control over our lives.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Metro's Got a Gun

The Mighty Wizard posts an informative summary of 2 recent events involving Metro board members. (HT: blogHouston) A couple of his comments are worth elaboration.

The issue of parking also came up with the Airport Express buses. Sedlak [John Sedlak, Metro VP] told the audience that Metro "loses a ton of money" running the Airport Express, but was looking at expanding the service to stop by nearby downtown hotels in an effort to pick up ridership. [removed a parenthetical comment]
Only a government agency could think that the way to correct a money-losing service is by expanding it. So long as Metro can continue to force citizens to subsidize its operations the agency has no incentive to do anything that makes financial sense. It can simply grab a gun, go back to the public trough, and demand that taxpayers fork over another billion dollars or so. And that is what it is doing.
Garcia [Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia,] stated that agency leadership was eating, sleeping, going all out to get the $900 million in federal grant money. 
Apparently Metro isn't content to steal only from the citizens of Houston. It wants to pony up to the federal trough as well, and force the citizens of other cities to pay for our light rail.

For years we have been told that Houston needs light rail or myriad ills will befall our city. Just like Houstonians have been told--on 3 separate occasions--that without zoning the city would lose jobs to more "progressive" locales. The statists were wrong about zoning, and they are wrong about light rail.

Our so-called city leaders insist that we must be more like the other major cities in the nation, while ignoring the fact that those cities are losing jobs and citizens. Our "leaders" want us to follow the same failed policies that is crippling other major American cities. If we continue to follow their advice, we will soon be just like those other cities, and that won't be a good thing.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Tale of Two Walmarts

Two Houston neighborhoods are unhappy with Walmart because of the retailer's plans to build stores nearby. One is in The Heights, and it has some residents fearing that small businesses won't be able to compete. As one told the Houston Press:
My fear is that if Walmart moved into this area, it would pose major competition to all of these places I love so much and force them into extinction.
Undoubtedly, Walmart will pose a competitive threat to many of the small stores in The Heights. But the voluntary choices of the store owners and consumers will determine which survive. If the stores offer products not found in Walmart, and consumers want to buy those products, they should have no problem.

Of course, there are those who don't want individuals to have such choices. The Chronicle reports that residents of The Heights met with city council last week with the intent of stopping the project through political force (my words, not the Chronicle's). Apparently, Heightsonians have less political clout than the home owners who oppose the Ashby High Rise--the city is considering tax breaks for the developer of the Walmart project.

A few miles to the west residents of Ashton Village are also upset about a proposed Walmart near their neighborhood. But they aren't trying to stop the retailer. According to KPRC:
"In contrast with trying to fight the Walmart, we really want to work with them to see what would be the best plan," Gilbert [a home owner] said.

Residents said they found out too late to stop Walmart from breaking ground on the site. Some are worried about property values, but admitted that their hands are tied.

"We really want to work with them to see what would benefit us all from them," resident Jesse Green said. 
I can certainly understand that the residents don't want excessive traffic flowing through their neighborhood. This is a legitimate concern, and from what I have read, Ashton Villagers are taking a proper approach. Rather than seeking political power to halt the project, they are voicing their concerns to Walmart with the intent of preventing a nuisance from developing.

Walmart has a right to use its property as it chooses. But it may not do so in a way that interferes with the prior use of other property owners. In this context, Walmart cannot use its property in such a way that it will interfere with the prior use of home owners in Ashton Village. For example, Walmart may not create so much traffic in the neighborhood that the residents cannot safely walk down the street.

I am not an expert on traffic flow and related issues, and I won't begin to claim that I know what specific criteria should be used to make such assessments. What is clear is that objective criteria--not arbitrary claims--must be used. It appears that the residents of Ashton Village are not resorting to the emotion driven pleas of those in The Heights, and for that they should be applauded.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Killing Two Birds with One Bio-Degradable Bag

For several months I have been complaining about the city's mandate that citizens use bio-degradable bags for lawn debris. The bags are too small, don't work with my lawn caddy, and are simply a pain to use. This past weekend I came up with a solution, that if I may say so myself, is absolutely brilliant. And the best part is, it allowed me to address another lingering problem that I have been wrestling with.

Over the past few years I have managed to accumulate a rather impressive collection of used motor oil and house paint. It's not that I am a pack rat or anything, but I simply have not had time to take this toxic waste to the city's recycling center a half-mile away. Besides, the cans have been rusting for some time and I figured that eventually the contents would leak out and seep into the ground. Then I could just throw the cans away.

However, by my calculations this process might take another ten years. And for some reason I seem to continue to accumulate oil and paint faster than it is seeping out. My wife hasn't been happy about this, as she wants to put a flower bed where I have been storing these hazardous chemicals. And, being the worry wart that she is, she was also concerned about what was happening to the soil. But I digress.

This past weekend I realized that the problem I was having with the bags was caused by the conical shape at the bottom, combined with the "fluffiness" of the debris I was putting in the bags. There wasn't enough weight in the debris to stabilize the bottom of the bag, and when I tried to cram more into the bag, it would slide off of the caddy and stimulate a streak of swearing that would embarrass a sailor.

When I realized this, I first thought of wetting the leaves and debris. But the water just ran off of the leaves and made the bag too heavy. Then it hit me--use the paint and oil. Neither would run off. This stroke of genius now allows me to get more into each lawn bag, while also disposing of the oil and paint.

If you find yourself needing to dispose of toxic waste, this is a perfect way to do so. I would suggest about 1 gallon of paint or oil per bag. Also, take care to not poke any holes in the bag, or the liquid could seep out and leave a trail all over the place.

I am sure that some will claim that this is illegal, but I couldn't find anything in the city ordinances explicitly saying that we can't put used motor oil or house paint in the disposable lawn bags. Besides, my last trick was to put the bags in my neighbor's yard.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Metro and the Magic Bus

Last week I received a door hanger from Metro advertising its "magic bus" service. The door hanger did not tell me what is so magic about the service, but I suspect it has something to do with Metro's ability to make money disappear.

A business advertises in order to attract customers. A government subsidized monopoly, such as Metro, should have no problem attracting customers. After all, they charge rates well below what they are really worth and they have no competition as a matter of government policy. The former provides riders with a bargain, and the latter means nobody can drive them out of business by offering superior service. So why does Metro have such difficulty attracting riders?

The answer is quite simple: They are offering something that most people don't want. However, that won't stop them and all of their other mass-transit buddies from trying to force light rail down our throats. As is typical of government interventions, when one doesn't work we are quickly told that we need more. When bus ridership falls, we are told that we need light rail. When a light rail line is built, and fails to attract the predicted riders, we are told that it is because we don't have enough light rail!?!

If a private business used this "reasoning" it wouldn't be a business for long. But Metro has no concerns about using our money wisely, because it obtains that money by coercion, rather than our consent. Unlike a private business, which must produce a return for its investors--investors who may voluntarily withdraw their investment--Metro has no incentive to provide a return on investment or even a service that is desired.

Metro--like all such government boondoggles--is merely a means for those with political connections to legally rob productive citizens. And if you think otherwise, you are being taken for a ride.