Thursday, November 30, 2017

Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

As time goes on real life, and sports, become more and more important than this little blog in the hinterlands of the Houston blogosphere.  After years of doggedly banging away it's become pretty clear that there's little of interest in what I have to say.

Which is OK, I've always stated that I would continue to hammer away at this thing as long as it interested me.  Which it just really doesn't any more.  I'm having more fun writing sports posts and making bad sports picks than I am watching the city of Houston, the State of Texas and the United States of America slowly flush themselves down the political toilet.  I'll still follow along, but not in long form.

Should you be so inclined, you can keep up with my political thoughts on my Pinboard Feed and on Twitter. That's where I'll continue to offer up bad political takes and my odd-ball way of looking at things.

What this leaves me with is how to say goodbye.  What am I going to leave up here as a final farewell to over 10 years of truly awful political blogging.

In can think of nothing better than a listicle.  Because listicles suck.

With that in mind, here are the top things that I hope you keep in mind.

1. State's don't have "rights" they have "powers".

This is so important to remember because many a bad politician, and bureaucrat, will drone on and on about State's rights and other nonsense which is really nothing other than demagoguery in fancy dress.  Rights are exclusive to the citizenry.  And protecting those rights are our purview as well.  Anytime you hear a politicians say that the government has to 'protect the citizens rights' run and vote the other way. Or, if you're of a more reasonable disposition, don't vote.  Voting is the lowest level of participation that you can have in any society. Voting tells the politicians that you believe they, and they alone, hold the solutions.

Because it's not the job of the State to protect, or grant, your rights. It's yours. And any State powerful enough to determine your rights is also powerful enough to remove them.  The political arc of America has been one of winning hard-fought rights from a monarchy, and then slowly, inexorably, over a period of almost 300 years giving them back to a new kind of tyranny.  Every time we allow the government to grant us a new 'right' (healthcare, privacy, equality, etc) we bind ourselves more deeply in servitude with them.  America needs a good, old-fashioned Bill of Rights house-cleaning, but I don't think either the political will, self reliance or intelligence exists to conduct it any more.

2. All politicians are horrid people, even those you voted for.

Politics is about money and power.  Even those who start off with good intentions eventually become enthralled.  Today's partisan system only perpetuates that, it just changes who are the winners and who are the losers.  When a Democrat says they want "money out of politics" they really mean they want Republican money out of politics while they keep theirs. When Republicans warn about "Evil George Soros" and others they want to keep their political patrons while harming the Democrats. And that's the thing about sacred oxen. It's only an issue when yours gets gored.

The issue of campaign finance reform is the biggest political lie fostered on the American people in a decade. The idea that any politician would give up their fundraising advantage is ludicrous.  At heart, campaign finance reform is an incumbent protection program in the same vein as gerrymandering. There is no honorable stance on campaign finance regardless of what the politicians and media want you to believe. It is ALL about incumbent protection. The status quo of push-pull between the two parties works well for, the members of the two parties.  Division is tool, a feature of our current tribal system not a bug.  They are allowed to get away with this because the American citizen is complicit.  This is not conspiracy theory stuff, it's true and right out in the open.

3. The media has fallen, with few exceptions.

One side will rant about the "corporate media" while the other side wails about "liberal bias". The fact is the news has one bias and one bias only: Protecting their political patrons and sources which brings about money.  Media is a for-profit business now in most cases.  And in cases where it's not (such as John Thornton's vanity project the Texas Tribune) it is funded by ideological think-tanks and companies that pay large sums for minimal disclosure and "paid" ads.

The days of Deep Throat are far behind us. There is little interest in the modern day media in bringing the government down, in advocating for the taxpayer or ensuring that corruption is cleansed with the light of the sun. The media today wants to ensure access, as such they excel more in the glowing puff-piece than they do in outing government corruption. Sure, they can still give you a good rehashing of a corporate corruption piece after the fact, but they're not going to be the ones actually breaking the story.  In short, the media are spin-doctors for those in power. The PR reps of the courtier class.  This is too bad because there are still a few talented reporters who might be able to do good work given the chance. The rest are young ideologues and dreamers who strive not to report and uncover the news, but to enact social change.  That's a problem.

4. There are systemic problems, taxing people until their eyes bleed is not going to help.

Colin Kaepernick was right when he took a knee during the National Anthem. There IS such a thing as institutional racism in the US. Driving while black is a thing, especially in wealthy, primarily Caucasian neighborhoods. In short, the system is designed to create winners and losers. But there are deeper issues that keep the minority citizen down as well. There are politicians who act as de-facto bosses over neighborhoods whose real goal is to keep the populace poor, uneducated and (most importantly) voting for them, it's happening in the city in which you live, probably by people who you voted for. Politicians that you consider to be on the "right side" of various issues. Don't give your support, or you votes (if you vote) to one side or the other exclusively.

Again, we're given a bogeyman on which to project our hate, being promised that only by taxing "them" more can we solve the issue. Throwing money at the problem is never the answer, only in politics.  The problem with this is that the politicians know that the money they are hoping to raise is not going to go to fix the issue, it's going to be distributed among their political patrons as a thank you for getting, and keeping, them elected. After all, if the problems go away, so does the need for the politicians to solve them.

I realize that this seems like a lot of doom and gloom, and for that I'm sorry, but after over a decade of blogging politics, following issues and meeting a variety of politicians I can now safely say that I've lost any and all hope for the future of American politics should the status quo hold.  This is why I've stopped voting, stopped attending rallies and have almost totally depoliticized my social media feeds.

And it's why I'm stepping away from the keyboard.  After a decade of futile keyboard pounding it's only gotten worse, and it will keep worsening until the American people rise up and say 'Enough!'  Sadly, I think what we're going to demand is more of the same government that got us into this mess in the first place. It seems that more government is the de facto answer to everything these days, even from so-called "conservatives".

Democracy has a half-life.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Adios, it's been a lot of fun this last decade writing about Houston City, Texas State and National politics on this blog for my handful of regular readers. I wish you well and I'll see you over on The Public Money for general sports talk and some really bad betting advice.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

HALV: Brown's crocodile tears regarding SALT are all about the rev cap.

City Controller Chris Brown is flummoxed.

State, Local tax deductions are vital to Houston. Chris Brown, ($$$)

It's hard to forward a plan that's going to bust the rev cap and allow Turner, Brown and company to raise property taxes on citizens until their eyes bleed when those damn feds are planning to take away the partial tax-credits that residents can use to off-set the increases.

Damn you Washington DC!!!

It's a reminder that all politics is local, and all politicians, either federal, State or local have one end-goal in mind: Increasing takings  revenue from your pocketbook.

Financially the City of Houston is broken, spending money like a young frat boy in Vegas on his 21st birthday while TIRZ and other "special purpose" districts go around painting sign posts unusual colors in order to brand neighborhoods.  Meanwhile the city police and fire departments are woefully understaffed, the roads, despite Turner's pothole patrol, are in such a sad state 3rd world countries are pointing at us and laughing and the sewage/water system is so leaky we're probably losing almost as much water per year as we're using.

Of course, they passed the 'rain tax' which has accomplished.....pretty close to nothing, might run counter to the State Constitution and has been tied up in court proceedings since about 5 minutes after it passed.

Pensions are (still) a mess, ignoring what the courtiers in the media, and the politicians on whom they rely for patronage, might tell you.  All Houston basically did was refinance $1 Billion of existing debt and shit-hammer the fire department pension for not going along.  The system soon to be infused with cash, which will allow those that did the heavy lifting for Turner's campaign to walk-away with a nice little nest egg before they move on to private-sector jobs.

So how, in a time where decades of fiscal malfeasance are now coming home to roost, can the Federal Government stop accounting tricks designed to soften the blow of bad municipal and State policy?

Fairly easy it seems.

Because, as the folks on the left have been saying for years, elections have consequences. And if the other 'tribe' wins then it's reasonable to suggest that they're not going to pass or propose legislation that's going to make it easy for your 'tribe' to continue to cover up its warts.

This is agnostic as to whether or not the GOP tax plan is 'good' or 'bad' (hint: It's a start but, as is usual, doesn't go far enough) but solely a commentary on the piss-poor job of governing that the status-quo has provided Houston, and other cities, after several decades of what is basically one-party rule.

And, make no mistake about it, this is a bit of a problem for local leaders who have tied their version of a modern utopia to increasing taxes that are very burdensome to the working poor.  Which has flummoxed poor Chris Brown.

I'm sure Mayor Turner is flummoxed as well, and probably angry, which seems to be his Modus Operendi when things don't go his way.

The problem is not a tax increase, it's just that the wrong tribe, and the wrong level of government, is proposing it.  Don't be fooled, they want the money, they just want to have control over which level of patronage benefits from it.

Getting elected isn't cheap you understand.

Friday, November 17, 2017

BadHumanity: The ugliness of our fealty to our tribes.

Bad people do bad things, get tripped up doing it, and bad results happen.  C'est la vie.

With so much talk going on in the media now it was almost certain that someone would pen the ultimate in twisted logic pieces to justify their support of a bad person.  With that in mind, I give you...

I'm a feminist, I study rape culture, I don't want Al Franken to resign. Kate Harding, Washington Post.

In the linked piece above Ms. Harding goes on to explain that she doesn't want Franken to resign BECAUSE he's a Democrat, and Democrats are good, even though Mr. Franken might be bad his votes are good therefore his behavior gets a pass.

The piece is remarkably refreshing in it's honesty and it's total lack of self-awareness.

It also brings to light another problem, the problem that we tend to feign outrage at transgressions by the other tribe while ignoring those of our own.  For Republicans, especially ones in Alabama, the current example is Roy Moore.  For Democrats its Sen. Franken.  I would posit that it will be hard for the Senate to expel Moore would that the body had any sense of shame left in it given the Franken issue.

But I won't, because the Senate has no remaining sense of shame.

Closer to Texas we find out that ugly people sometimes do ugly things, often to their regret...

Woman with crude anti-Trump truck decal arrested for fraud. CBSNews

The woman in question placed a decal on the back of her truck saying "FUCK TRUMP, and Fuck you for voting for him." Pretty standard "I'm angry that my tribe lost the election" stuff TBH, probably more effective than screaming at the sky for instance, but probably not the smartest thing to do if you have an outstanding warrant for fraud.

Of course, the lady in question blames "Republicans" for her problems ignoring the fact that it was her stupid actions that brought all of this attention down upon her in the first place.  People with ugly attitudes are often among the more dense in our society.

The two stories, taken separately, probably don't say all that much about society as a whole but when viewed in the context of what we're currently witnessing in America they speak volumes.

Our sense of outrage is almost purely tribal today. Where before reasonable people would agree that sexual harassment is wrong and should be discouraged, today it's become a political tool whose punishment should only be doled out to the other tribe and not to one's own.  In reality, both Roy Moore and Al Franken have no place in the United States Senate.  Trump, for that matter, has displayed a litany of actions that would make him unworthy of the office of the President of the United States.

But we live in a Democratic-Republic, where the people are allowed to elect, and blindly support, a Rogue's Gallery of clowns, fools and straight-up bad people regardless of their personal failings. If you think being a bad person and an elected official is either a new or partisan phenomenon, read up on your history.

What is a relatively new thing is the curious practice of people having the chutzpah to openly admit that they're sense of justice is linked to their tribe. Winning is more important than being right, destroying the enemy (and, make no mistake about it, the greatest enemy to partisans on both sides is the other party) more important than being able to look in the mirror every morning without insulting the mirror.

American society, such as it is, will eventually crumble in upon itself as all great societies do. I've a feeling that future human sociologists will look back on the events of today and determine these were the moments that made it all start to unravel.  Once we lose the ability to police ourselves, we lose the moral authority to police others.

In an America where there is a giant leadership vacuum at every level of government I think that moral authority is gone, possibly for good.

That fact alone should be slightly depressing.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

BadMedia: The Houston Chronicle has lost it's way.

When all else fails, the media is supposed to be on YOUR side.   The private citizen, the little guy, the work-a-day person who schleps this pebble just hoping to make ends meet and pay all the months bills and possibly save just a bit to sock away for retirement or take the family on a nice vacation.

Newspapers, and all media, are supposed to watchdog the government and industry and make sure that they're not taking advantage of you, that the system is not being rigged, that the government is operating in an efficient manner, and being good stewards of your tax money, and that the government is following the regulations and laws that bind together our society.

The Houston Chronicle Editorial Board has abdicated this role and should be shuttered as a result.

Revenue Cap. Houston Chronicle Editorial Board

The Chron's arguments against the cap are flimsy, at it recommends granting the city the same loose fiscal chain that got them into this mess in the first place. A mess that the same Chron Editorial Board argued FOR back when these plans were first proposed under former Mayor Lee P. Brown. In fact, it's become more common place for the Editorial Board to dismiss the rights of citizens in the face of State powers than to advocate for the very watchdog roles that the media is supposed to fill. The Chronicle is very good at glowing profiles of government officials, not so great at exposing government waste until after the fact. Typically their reporting of the same is piling on after some other outlet uncovers the issue first.

I believe that much of the reason for this stems from the Editorial Board, who set the tone for the entire paper.  It is past time for them to be shuttered, the resources then deployed throughout the newsroom under an editor whose desire is to return Houston's Middling Regional Daily to it's traditional role.

This won't happen, of course, but one can dream.  In the meantime those who understand the problems that will plague Houston if the rev cap is lifted had probably better start organizing.  Because Mayor Turner and Co. clearly have a 100,000 watt blowtorch in the form of the Chronicle that is ready and willing to produce unquestioning reporting and opinion in favor of lifting the cap.

That is going to be very, very difficult to overcome. In fact, it is probably impossible to overcome in a city that has clearly lost its way.

USLV: I am SHOCKED!! that things are not working out as planned.

After 9/11 American were told by our government that it would be necessary for us to set aside some of our freedoms in order to have security.  In light of this we rewarded politicians who voted for the Patriot Act, and agreed to have the travel experienced worsened by turning over pre-flight security to the TSA.

How's that working out?  Not well....

TSA Failure: Agency Falling Short on Most Undercover Screening Tests. SmarterTravel

A recent round of undercover tests revealed an agency that continues to fail at the most basic elements of its purpose. According to ABC News, these tests of multiple airport security checkpoints found that “screeners, their equipment or their procedures failed more than half the time.” ABC News’ source indicated that number may be closer to 80 percent.

In case you're wondering, an 80% failure rate is "not good" even by government standards. In short, after all of the freedoms we sacrificed, all of the gropings and "body scans" and strip searching of 80 year old grandmothers we're just about as secure from terrorism in the skies as we were before all of this mess.  On the bright side, a ton of people who were unemployable in the pre-existing job market are now collecting paychecks funded by you.

We gave up freedom for the illusion of security and got neither.  We also got just a little more poor as well.

Well done.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

HALV: Reminder - You Can't Raise Taxes Until You Issue those Bonds.

Mayor Sylvester Turner wants to waste no time issuing his debt.

This is being rolled out as a public safety play, instead of the two-pronged move that it really is.

First, each of these bond referendums included enabling taxation language, which I'm willing to bet you a six-pack of Dome F'auxm will be used as an attempted end-around of the voter-imposed, pillow-soft revenue cap that Turner (and others) has been aching to overturn since before he was elected.

When you've worked no job in your life that requires you to live within a budget, Turner is a life-long politician who has thrived on the patronage system, fiscal responsibility is a campaign buzz-word, and nothing more.  Turner wants his increased tax revenues to build a legacy.

Second, Turner has some campaign promises to fulfill. He needs to pay off the police and municipal employee unions that he relied on so heavily to win the election for Mayor. Failure to do so might imperil his reelection hopes.

Big infusions of cash into the pension plans will allow those who have been putting off retirement to do so.  Getting shiny new police cars will improve morale while ensuring votes in two years. That's the thinking behind this.

All politicians will talk a good game about how they're doing for the citizens and the worst of them will talk repeatedly about how they're "fighting" for the taxpayer, but what they're really doing is working to ensure they're in a place to get reelected, and that they can do some legacy assuring ribbon cuttings that will ultimately lead to having their names on plaques or things being named after them.

There's no doubt that Turner inherited a mess.  From Mayors Brown, White and Parker he took over leadership of a city that had ignored public works in favor of TIRZ and trinkets, he was saddled with a pension system that was built on bad actuarial projections and unicorn farts (some of which he had a hand in due to his position in the State Legislature) and he was smacked in the face upon getting elected by that bastard Harvey.

Give Turner this much, through it all he has kept a laser-like focus on the well being and prosperity of his political patrons.  That's both politics 101 in America today and the sign of a man who understands how American cities really work.

He's also lucky.  Lucky because Houston's civic engagement rests somewhere below minimal. People understand that there is a city government at work but what they do is nebulous and, largely, unreported.  

Yes the Houston Chronicle runs a glowing profile of some civil servant from time to time and even attempt investigative reporting, some of it can be quite good. But they bury it behind a pay wall that only around 10% of the populace cares enough to look behind.

In a low-turnout election as we just experienced the public sector can dominate. Even in high-turnout elections the scales are weighed so against the non-public sector that voting is more an exercise in insanity than it is an actual political act.  Governments are bloated, they vote in blocs, and they frequently move mountains to ensure all of their employees get a chance to vote against the citizens, and for themselves.  Psuedo government groups work hard to ensure that the message is one of spending and excess while the average taxpayer is currently working hard just to try and rebuild their homes.

You cannot beat the system, but the system will beat you.

My worry is not that Houston residents are going to find themselves overtaxed and cash-strapped, only the most poor will find themselves in that position, my concern is that this money, like so much before it, is going to be wasted on patronage and bike lanes, that real items that are needed to make a city run are going to be ignored.

Houston is very good about electing public officials who want to paint lanes of traffic green or spend hundreds of Millions on the Astrodome, not so good at electing people who want to sequence the traffic lights, fix the streets and sewer.

Right now Houston needs more of the latter and less of the former.

Guess which ones you're stuck with? 

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

HALV: The 12.5% Can-Kicking of the pension mess has been completed.

Thunderous applause today as Houston voters went to the polls last night and approved $1 Billion dollars (plus $10,000) in pension bonds.

Reforms locked in as voters approve $1B pension bond. Houston ($$$)

The article goes on to say that, if the bond failed, $1.8 Billion of the $2.8 Billion in negotiated "cuts" to benefits would roll back if the bond failed. It further explains that the "deficit" or "unfunded liability" (as people like to call it) currently sits at $8.2 Billion which means that Houston voters just agreed to refinance approximately 12.5% of the overall bill and are now having to sit and listen to what passes for leadership in Houston call the issue "fixed". Which it is, probably until current Mayor Sylvester Turner gets term-limited out of office. At which point the issue will flare up again and all of the people who are breathlessly calling this issue "over and done with" will be long gone as the community continues to deal with it.  Remember when former-Mayor Annise Parker declared that she had "ended homelessness in Houston?" 

Yeah, how's that working out.

It's as if Turner and Co. sat down with the unions and tried to determine what the bare minimum was that they could do in order to convince the public they had fixed the issue. 

"Can we do it at 5%"

"No, way to low."


"Too difficult."

"Let's call it a cool Billion and get the wordsmiths on it."


Or something along those lines.

Turner understands this, that the movers and shakers in Houston wanted this behind them, that they wanted a fix so they can move forward in 2018 to finally busting the pillow-soft, voter imposed revenue cap. The only way to do it, and keep all of the political patronage happy, was to tweak the plan around the edges, and pump a whole lot of cash into the system so that those in charge can get out on the taxpayer backs.  This bond accomplishes that.  Let future employees and elected officials, and taxpayers worry about the mess.

One note: The text of all the bond bills passed yesterday included language that authorized the city to levy taxes "necessary to pay off the bonds". My prediction is that this enabling language will be used as legal justification to circumvent the revenue cap in the way of massive property tax increases on individuals and businesses.  In other words, we're going to court over this I guarantee it.

Mayor Turner however will, rightly, consider this a political win and should start to pivot toward projects designed to establish his legacy.  Right now he's had few ribbon cuttings and his name is on no plaques. This is an untenable situation for a man whose career goal was to become Mayor of Houston and get his name put on things. I'm sure he's hoping for more than a sidewalk in a downtown dog park.

For now Turner gets to enjoy his victory lap having successfully pushed this problem to the next administration. This allows him an opening to pivot toward figuring out how to tax Houstonians until their eyes bleed.

Happy Holidays.