Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year: A hopeful peek into Houston's 2015.

Congratulations Houston, you made it through 2014 unscathed except for some minor potty/religious scuffles and now you're looking down the barrel of a 2015 that appears to portend some rough times.

With oil continuing to free-fall all of the politicians who have so-far taken the credit for Houston (and Texas) economic growth are suddenly being slapped in the face with dual realities. The first is that oil is a global commodity and they have little to say in its pricing. The second is that, despite all the talk of a diversified economy, being the energy capitol of the world still means that as the price per Bbl goes, so goes Houston.

With those thoughts in mind let's take a look into the future to see what (we think) awaits Houston in 2015.

Mayor Parker: Having negotiated the Great Urinal Compromise of 2014 (and then having been struck down trying to subpoena and restrict religious speech) our fair city's mayor illustrated that she does in fact hold a grudge when she wished her Facebook followers a happy Chanukah and a joyous Kwanzaa but not (noticeably) a Merry Christmas.

Prediction for 2015:  Mayor Parker just can't help herself. At heart she's really, really anti-Christian/Conservative and doesn't like those people who disagree with her politically. She's already stated that politics is personal so why expect anything different in her last year in office?  For 2015 YDOP is predicting that, one Sunday after attending Church, Parker will announce a new city ordinance that outlaws anti-GLBT messages from the pulpit.  The penalty for violating the ordinance will be having to sit and watch Juan Carlos roller-blade for 24 straight hours. On her way out, she'll thank everyone except for those "religious nut-job poopy-heads" who stood in the way of her benefiting financially from new benefits rules for all. Juan Carlos will then file a lawsuit (aided by Chris Bell) seeking $10 Million in unpaid overtime.

The Astrodome: 2014 was an odd year for the Dome as it was jilted by the Texas Historical Commission but wooed by Judge Ed Emmett on multiple occasions in preparation for something. It was given a facelift for reasons vaguely related to the Super Bowl.

Prediction for 2015: Desperate to not be known as the "man who tore down the Astrodome" Ed Emmett will get increasingly desperate as each and every one of the plans put forward are proven to be economically unfeasible. In an 11th hour bid to save the Dome from demolition Emmett is going to announce that he and the Dome are, in fact, getting married and that any further attempts at demolition would cause him undo grief and harm. The Art Guys (aided by Chris Bell) will immediately file a lawsuit claiming Emmett stole their intellectual capital and would demand damages except that no-one remembers exactly who they are. Bell announces that he'll stay in the lawsuit because Emmett is a Republican and he desperately wants to beat a Republican at something.

Urbanization: 2014 was a great year for Houston's unproductive class as former Mayor Bob Lanier finally passed allowing David Crossely to finally say that he's hated Hizzoner for all these years.

Prediction for 2015: With Lanier's candidate vetting machine out of the way I expect David Crossley to push for his son, Jay Crossley to run for something in Houston in 2016, with the announcement coming in 2015. Expect groups like Houston Tomorrow to start putting forward candidates in each city election, not being satisfied with picking what they view as the best of the worst that were previously given the green light by Lanier. Finally, sometime in 2015 Christof Spieler's ego will finally inflate to the point that he's no longer able to fit inside the light rail system and he'll be relegated to riding in a limousine like the rest of Metro's bigwigs. On a final note, Houston will finally get its swimming hole which will immediately be closed due to blistering of swimmers caused by ground-water contamination from nearby Buffalo Bayou. Users of the Swimming hole will then file a lawsuit (aided by Chris Bell) seeking $20 Billion in damages due to their no longer being able to gain employment as hand models.

Preservation: Look, saving the soul of the city is hard. Doing it when you can't decide what is, and what isn't, historic is even harder. In 2014 the preservation movement was both maligned and joyed over many, many minor dust-ups. The biggest thing they're missing is that it's the business interests who actually create value that are really running things.

Prediction for 2015: In a desperate attempt to save the city's history multiple preservation groups will join together in 2015 and announce that everything not related to either McDonald's or Wal-Mart is, in fact, historic and demand that nothing be torn down ever. In order to facilitate this bold new plan of action a committee will be formed who will meet every Wednesday morning at one of Houston's many Starbucks for coffee and iMac blogging. The movement will then vanish in a whiff of irony. Angry at Starbucks the remaining preservationists will then file a lawsuit (aided by Chris Bell) seeking $10 Billion in damages because Starbucks did not properly disclose that they were, in fact, a for-profit corporation.

Education: HISD needs a shake-up. With Superintendent Terry Grier under increased fire for poor academic performance 2015 is sure to be one full of action.

Prediction for 2015: Understanding that, in Texas, High School football is King, Superintendent Grier will announce that former University of Houston head coach Tony Levine will be brought in as director of HISD football operations. This will have disastrous consequences as every HISD football program will lose their first game to schools that have previously not competed at the UIL level. Teacher's Union Head Gayle Fallon will eventually limit all of her responses to "Terry Grier is a wimpy putz" and will be disgraced after being seen Christmas shopping for Grier at the Galleria. Thus embarrassed, Fallon will file a lawsuit against the Galleria (aided by Chris Bell) seeking $30 Million in damages for "failing to properly protect her privacy".

Media: In 2014 the Houston media landscape saw major changes. Dave Ward finally retired from Channel 13's 10 O'clock newscast and the Houston Chronicle announced it was leaving downtown for the former Houston Post's Brutalist, military-style compound on 59.

Prediction for 2015: TV News Media will have a rough year in 2015 as it's revealed that Chita Johnson is actually a computer generated composite of Scarlet Johannson and Erin Andrews. Her voice is actually that of a 50 year old chain-smoker from Pittsburgh. The Chronicle will announce the formal splitting of Chron.com and HoustonChronicle.com into two separate entities. Chron.com will be renamed Sideboob.com and will focus on entertainment and racy pictures of Houston Texans cheerleaders with constant links to sites like Deadspin and TMZ. HoustonChronicle.com will become GreyMatters.com where Managing Director Vernan Loeb and Lisa Grey will announce that they are rebelling against the Hearst Corporation and are changing their titles to the King and Queen of mediocre blogging. The Heart Corporation will then file a lawsuit (aided by Chris Bell) announcing that they promised Jeff Cohen the title of King and that Loeb and Grey are usurping the natural order of things. They would seek damages but it's thought that the Chronicle lacks the recourses to pay much of anything.  Just in case a couple of thousand dollars is found Bell states that he's going to continue to advise.

Sports: Unfortunately, Houston's teams are a little moribund at this point and are, with the exception of the Astros, floating around the fringes of title contention. UH and Rice found themselves on the outside looking in, again, when it comes to big-time college football.

Prediction for 2015: This year will mean more of the same as the Texans see improvement in 2015 to 11-5 and lose in the first round of the NFL playoffs to a suddenly resurgent Oakland Raiders team coached by Rex Ryan. The Rockets will announce the sudden trade of their entire roster for a group of undersized power forwards that Daryl Morey will term "assets". Sports talk media will instantly say that "In Daryl they trust" and that they expect a championship soon.  The Astros will finally drop all pretense and trade away every major league caliber player on their roster for a group of prospects, all while raising prices 500% in a move Jim Crane will call "building for the future". The Dynamo will shock experts by failing to score a goal in their first 10 home games which will suddenly be explained away as a result of poor sight lines caused by protestors chaining themselves to downtown buildings scheduled for demolition.  UH and Rice will continue to find themselves on the fringes of National relevance as it's discovered that the new TDECU Stadium was, in fact, built with faulty concrete that will not accept a coat of paint leaving the interior to look perpetually unfinished.  John McClain will give everyone a grade of F-. Stung by these grades the various sports entities will file a lawsuit (aided by Chris Bell) asking for $100 Billion in damages due to McClain's "bullying".

Politics: With municipal elections looming, and a lawsuit over campaign finance rules expected to come down before year's end (in other words, sometime on Wednesday) the outlook for Houston's political landscape is promising.

Predictions for 2015:

Mayor's Race: Chris Bell will announce that he is running for Mayor and then will immediately run out of funds and will be forced to re-run his "moonshot for education" adds. The only difference will be is that he will dub out 'Texas' with 'Houston' which will make the ads sound like Die Hard when played on TNT. Sylvester Turner will come into the race as the prohibitive favorite (again) and will lose in a run-off (again). Sheriff Garcia will take one look at the bureaucratic mess that is City Hall and will realize that he's got it pretty good and back off. In a surprise move Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia will enter the race at the 11th hour and will win a run-off against Turner by having many people vote for him thinking they are voting for Sheriff Garcia. His first act will be to decree that anyone driving a car downtown who is not either the Mayor, a member of the City Council, or a director at Metro. Violators of this rule will be forced to clean the light-rail tracks with a toothbrush. He will then declare Houston's congestion problem solved and will spend the remainder of his term on an economic junket to the South of France.

City Council: Michael Kubosh will announce that he's "running an open-ended campaign" for any race that it looks like he can win.  This will cause great consternation and will lead to a lawsuit from Chris Bell because "Hey, I need the money." In a surprise move the men's urinal from Poison Girl (now given rights thanks to the HERO ordinance) will run unopposed in District C due to everyone forgetting that Ellen Cohen is term-limited and will immediately announce that he's A-OK with anyone and everyone using him.  This will cause a great firestorm as transgender activists everywhere decry the oppressive patriarchy of urinal design. They would ask Chris Bell to sue on their behalf but he declines since urinals are not (in his mind) a growth industry.

City Finances: With the Mayor out of town and Chris Bell suing everything in sight desperately seeking a financial settlement it will go unnoticed that the pension fund has totally collapsed and the City of Houston attorney's office is totally unequipped to deal with this.  Enter Ben Hall, who will leverage his experience and horrible campaigning skills to convince Mayor Gilbert Garcia (via Skype call of course) that he's the man who can lead the City back to greatness.  Once installed as 'Guru in charge of all things Pensioney.' Hall hires former Controller and City Council member Ronald Green to take the point on these issues. Green then disappears for a full year returning right before the next round of elections saying something about his recent appearance being not related in any way to politics.  In a strange twist new Houston Controller Carroll Robinson admits that he really doesn't have any clue about how all of this finance gobbledy-gook works and announces that he will be relocating his base of operations to the South of France to 'consult' with Mayor Garcia.

Party politics: After years of infighting Jared Woodfill and his hairdo will announce a split over a disagreement regarding hair gel. It appears that Woodfill's hair prefers free-trade organic gel and not the Brylcreem that Woodfill has been using for years. Suddenly flush with green credentials Woodfill's hair is immediately elected Montgomery County Democratic Chair because no one else wants the job.  In June, the Harris County Republican Party and the various Tea Party groups will declare an impasse in negotiations with the Tea Party groups saying "At this point, any hope of reconciliation is dead" while the HCRP will announce that they have "kicked the professional dividers out of the room once and for all."  From his offices in Austin former quitter and Harris County Tax-Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt will remind everyone that "He's been watching the goings on and that the Taxman knows who's been naught and who's been nice" and that, if he has to, he'll come back to Harris County to straighten things out once he finishes this load of Dan Patrick's laundry. Later in the year Bettencourt will announce that he's quitting the Texas Senate to pursue a "too good to pass up" opportunity running a Dippin' Dots truck.  Ice Cream of the future and all.

Economy: With oil falling and screams of doom resounding it's going to be hard to predict much good for Houston.

Predictions for 2015: Having to face down the reality that many planned projects are no longer financially viable in the current environment, Houston's oil and gas production companies will accelerate the laying off of petroleum engineers and well service technicians. This will lead to a glut in the employment market which will lead to a curious increase in the prevalence of "Bettencourt's Dippin Dots" (Ice Cream of the Future) trucks circling the city on a consistent basis. Suddenly unemployed former Mayor Annise Parker announces that her new venture will be a company specializing in a more equitable design of the traditional urinal. Meanwhile, most Houstonians will tune all of this out and continue to go about their daily lives trying to make ends meet. Small business owners will still continue to try and navigate the labyrinth that is Houston City Regulation and people will continue to move into the region because it's still better than most everywhere else.



Note: There's a high probability that none of this comes true.  In the meantime, have a Happy New Year and continue to laugh.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Death to the year in review (and other stories)

As we rapidly approach the end of an utterly forgettable 2014 with our eyes firmly set on what (we hope) will be a much better 2015, there's plenty of yearning and heartbreak over the year that was. Unfortunately, it seems that those who write, either for a living (the media) or as a hobby (bloggers) can't help but force us to take a trip down memory lane, for better or worse, in a ham-fisted attempt to remind us what they think was important and how we're not placing enough weight on those items.

I'm referring, of course, to the increasingly prevalent 'Year in Review' features that every newspaper, TV Station, web-site and blogger feels the need to release. Usually, they're liberally sprinkled with content from their own organs which, in reality, means that these histograms are nothing more than some chest-beating masquerading a walk down memory lane. "Remember the time we wrote about...." and what-not.

Maybe it's nothing more than my proclivity to look-forward rather than backwards but I think we've reached the point where this tradition needs to come to an end.

Yes, it is important to understand history in it's context so that we can learn from our mistakes (and those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it) but many of these year-in-review pieces discuss news items of such recent history that any context they may develop over time is stripped away in the immediacy of partisan wailing and gnashing of teeth.

While it's very easy, journalistically, to take a look back to one of Obama's many rounds of golf in 2014 it's very difficult to place any true perspective on it. It's also silly to say that the ACA is sure to be Obama's legacy when we're not even sure if it's going to survive the decade.

The same holds true for The Texas Tribunes (apparently) comprehensive and (supposedly) authoritative tome on the Perry "Legacy". In reality, this is a silly exercise in journalistic ego-building trying to set a road-map for historians who will probably ignore the thing anyway.  The fact is, it's impossible to define what is (and is not) a politician's legacy while he (or she) is still occupying the office.

Part of the problem, I think, is the inability of society to take the long view. Currently, we live in an instant gratification world spawned by the Internet and (still relatively) easy credit. It's partly the fault of the general public that we require of our media (and newsish sites) to provide us historical context now.

The truth is that whatever legacy is ultimately affixed to Perry in the historical canon will evolve and emerge over the period of many years as the full effects of his policies and leadership will be realized.

So let's call for an end to the 'year that was' stories and start focusing instead on the year that might be. We can have no effect on the events that already happened but we can influence those that will. I think the latter is a much more productive use of our time than is the former.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: When the last real leader passes on, the middling regional news daily struggles to encapsulate his legacy.

On Sunday, Decmber 21, 2014 Houston's former Mayor Bob Lanier reportedly passed quietly while napping after a lunch with family. It was a quiet exit for a good man and the last real leader that Houston's had in elected city government since he was term limited out of the job.

What Mayor Lanier did for the City of Houston, revitalizing her at the tail end of the oil bust by focusing on public works and public safety at the expense of trinkets, has not been duplicated by the string of empty shells that have followed. While he was immensely popular with many he did have his detractors, many of which will never forgive him for a perceived litany of sins. An example of this can be found in ChronBlog's rather weak attempts to document his time in power. Now fully immersed in the 'light rail for some' movement they can't help but quote figures like noxious member of the unproductive class David Crossley while editorially taking shots at Lanier (and allowing Bill White some odd historical revisionism) about his opposition to rail.

It's too bad that the New Mrs. White and the rest of the Chron are reduced to this because the lessons Mayor Lanier taught the city as its mayor need to be relearned.  Current Mayor Parker went so far as to praise Lanier for his commitment to public works despite the fact that she possesses no similar commitment herself. 

And while do-nothings like Crossley take shots at Lanier for his anti-Monorail and Light Rail in Houston stances, the current fiscal mess that Metro is experiencing suggests that he was correct. Certainly he deserves better than petty shots taken by a man who's done nothing to improve the quality of life in Houston outside pontificating and holding workshops about the inner-beauty of bees (or something)?

In fact, I think Lanier deserves a lot better.

Was he perfect?  No, no one is. There are real policy areas where disagreements could be had with almost everyone.  The important thing to note is this: Whether or not you agreed with Mr. Lanier on the issues, he was undoubtedly a leader.

Houston could use more like him, and less like the current crop of civic loudmouths that are currently trying to steer the ship.

God Bless the Lanier family and comfort them during this time.

Monday, December 15, 2014

BadMedia: Maybe if the Chron stopped focusing on Austin and Dallas they wouldn't get scooped so much locally?

Grey Matters, the self-indulgent, overwrought "thought blog" currently being championed at every-turn by Houston Chronicle Managing Editor (And Grey Matters Contributor FWIW) Vernan Loeb is indicative of everything wrong about Houston's middling regional daily.

Rather than discuss ideas from a diverse cross-section of Houston thinkers it chooses instead to apply a strict, progressive filter to it's classification of brilliance. This would be OK if it were a personal blog typed out by someone not affiliated with a so-called "news" source but, considering the Chron's self-identification as a media outlet, it reflects poorly on the editorial lean of the publication as a whole.

On top of all this: the newspaper felt the need to create a manifesto. Historically things (or people) with manifestos have not found good ends.

This would be OK if Grey Matters took seriously the job of reporting all things Houston with an open heart and mind.  Unfortunately, they don't.  What they do provide, at times, is a little bit of insight into the mind-set of the editorial group which has, for years now, led the Chron down a dark tunnel of irrelevance.

To whit:

The Trouble with Austin. Lisa Grey, GreyMatters @ HoustonChronicle.com

It's probable, that when Ms. Grey wrote this she didn't realize just how silly it would look coming from a newspaper in a city that cannot either pave it's roads properly or maintain it's water system. It's also probable that Ms. Grey was under orders (which I'm assuming are running orders) to increase page clicks. As a matter of fact, it feels like most items on both chron.com and houstonchronicle.com($$$) are designed with page clicks, and not actual newsworthiness, in mind. So from that perspective it makes sense that Ms. Grey would pen a story about how Austin needs to grow up. Of course, news outlet KVUE in Austin felt duty bound to respond to the story probably in hopes that Houston v. Austin becomes the new Houston v. Dallas or something.

Let's hope not, because the entire Houston v. anyone right now (save possibly Detroit) is becoming more and more one-sided against the Bayou City in large part to misguided efforts from well-meaning but Houtopian fogged thinking by New-Urbanists whose talent seems to be producing little more than neat graphs maps and reports that they banged out over a coffee session on their new iApples in an effort to impress the brunette across the way.

In the meantime, most of the real reporting on Houston issues is being done elsewhere.  Yes, the Chron has some good talent (and, some not so good talent) in the municipal reporting pool right now, but they don't have enough of it.

One wonders how much better the reporting at the Houston Chronicle could be if their increasingly limited resources weren't diverted to thought blogs, cheesy pictorials of scantily clad women, the New Mrs. White and the increasingly noxious Nick Anderson?

I propose to the Chronicle leadership a novel, or even quaint idea:

More news, less thought leadership. And quit worrying about what other cities in Texas are doing.

It would be OK with me as well (and probably many of the feminists that you claim to be in ideological agreement with) if you eliminated side-boob as a thing as well.

BadMedia: The Chron Eye for Australia

What's important to the Web-group over at The Houston Chronicle?

While Australia is working through a pretty dire situation the intrepid folks at Chron.com have decided that what we really want to know is.....


How the Australians party during the Winter.

That's not world-class.

Heck, it's even bad for a middling regional newspaper, which undoubtedly the Chron is.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Texas Politics: Why does the State have a say on the distribution rights of a private company anyway?

Yesterday (or, earlier today at the time I'm writing) the news broke that 3 Texas craft brewers are suing the State of Texas regarding a 2013 law that required them to relinquish their local distribution rights to distribution middlemen for no compensation.

State Sued for "Stifling the Texas Craft Beer Renaissance". Reeve Hamilton, Texas Tribune

Three Texas breweries filed a lawsuit against the state on Wednesday seeking to to overturn a 2013 law they say violates the Texas Constitution by forcing them to give away their territorial distribution rights for free.
In their complaint, filed in state district court in Austin, the heads of Live Oak Brewing in Austin, Peticolas Brewing Company in Dallas and Revolver Brewing in Granbury say that were it not for Senate Bill 639, they would be expanding. Instead, their plans to bring their beer to new markets around the state have been put on hold. 

For conservatives this should be a no-brainer.  However, it should also be taken further to question why the State has laws on the books regulating many private-businesses anyway.

When the bill was passed it was clear that it was a hand-out to the distribution companies, some of whom are owned or are subsidiaries of the large, multi-national brewing companies with whom the craft brewers are taking market share. For Republican legislators who campaign on the so-called "free-market" and other politically hollow terms this was an all-to-usual anti-free-market action. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that the large alcohol distribution companies throw law-makers a big "welcome to the session" gala before each legislature convenes.

Of course, real reform would mean looking at a host of silly laws like this.  For example: Why must car dealerships only be open on Saturday or Sunday, but not both? Why can't liquor stores be open on Sunday?

When you hear so-called conservative policy makers talk about waste in the Government you rarely hear them mention laws such as these.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  If you look down at the municipal level you can find many ordinances in cities across the state attempting to regulate something the State has no business regulating.

In an era where the State rushed head-long to supposedly de-regulate utilities and higher education (two areas that are not really free-markets [in reality they're either regulated monopolies or oligopolies]) it's amazing that in Texas, where our politicians constantly beat into our brains that they're more business friendly than anyone else, these types of laws are viewed as solutions.

The best outcome, for consumers, would be for the courts to strike the law down and decimate Texas three-tier system when it comes to alcohol sales. Even better for consumers would be the newly (very) Republican legislature to take a look at all areas where market-stifling restrictions* exist.

Fat chance though because there's a lot of money at play in Texas' legislative system.


































































*It will be read as thus by people of a progressive bent, but OF COURSE I'm not calling for a relaxation of safety or (in most cases) environmental standards.  This is specifically related to the State interfering in legal, commercial enterprise or sales transactions. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Happy Belated Thanksgiving.

I hope that your Thanksgiving was filled with family, fun, football and relatively free of the politics that sometimes tends to spoil the day. I hope that you had a chance to reflect on what makes you happy, the blessings you have, and were able to take some time away from the chaos of the real world before plunging into the hectic Christmas shopping season.

And while there were several attempts to preempt the festivities with calls of shame and cries of racism, I hope you were able to block that out for at least one day and spend some time with your family arguing over the things that really matter. Specifically, who gets the last serving of stuffing.

For 364 days of a regular year, I admit that there's a lot of attention paid to politics in my household, but I always try to shut that out during Thanksgiving and just focus on what I'm truly thankful for without being made to feel guilty about it because there are bad things going on in the world.  Of course, there are ALWAYS bad things on Earth, even on Thanksgiving. But, if our politicians can take holidays, play golf, and jet-set to various places then we should be able to have a politics free day as well.

For those who insist that we be shamed or reminded that evil things exist and we're bad people for not ripping our garments in mourning? Well, they typically spend Thanksgiving alone and miserable and they should be largely pitied.

As we transition to the Christmas season my wish for you is that you continue to be able to block out the noise and remember what's really important: your family, your friends, and whatever faith (if any) you choose to engage in.

At the end of the day the noise made by the naysayers is nothing more than a pathetic cry for attention. I, for one, will not engage them in their desperation.

With that thought in mind I hope that you and yours had a good Thanksgiving holiday, that you ate too much stuffing and, if you decided to brave the Black Friday crowds, that you at least scored a good deal on something that is useful to someone on your gift list.

Thank you, as always, for reading.  I would imagine that blogging will be sparse for a bit as I finish up my Christmas shopping but I'm also sure, as always happens, there will be several things that pique my interest.

Happy (belated) Thanksgiving, enjoy the football this weekend.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A brief pause: Immigration

I have not written a blog post in regards to a national issue in many years. Certainly not on this blog and looking back in my archives, not on Harris County Almanac, Lose an Eye, It's a Sport or even NoUpgrades.  As a matter of fact, the last national issue post that I may have written was probably in either 2004 or 2005 on my old LiveJournal or in the early days of Isolated Desolation.  For those of you who have been kind enough to stick through all of the blog changes and continue reading during this time, you realize how much has changed (both in my writing and in the world) since then.

All that said, I'd like to spend just a minute today to opine on President Obama's executive action on immigration, and his speech last night. Before I start however I will admit that many prominent writers have done a much better job opining on this than will I. Most have done a much better job.

I also realize that those of you on the progressive side of the political spectrum are not gong to believe anything I write here.  That's another reason I tend to shy away from National political writing, there's no room left for debate, only shouting across the table and mindless, baseless charges of racism, sexism....all kinds of isms. (Thank you Congress WOMAN! Sheila Jackson-Lee)

Because of all of this, what I'm writing today is not focused primarily on policy, but on delivery, reaction and why I think we're now witnessing the full-on end of the charge to American mediocrity.

I also apologize for going all Lisa Falkenberg (Who I consider to be on of the worst columnists in Houston) and liberally dotting the letter "I" all over this post.  I only do so because these issues are some that, on a state-wide and local level, I've taken very personally for some time now.


With all of that navel-gazing out of the way, if you're still with me, let's discuss last night's Presidential diktat on immigration......

The first take-away from Obama's speech is that he genuinely feels that the American people are to dumb to make their own decisions.  This is not something that's been foisted on him by his advisors, nor is it a crafted public persona.  The Obamas truly feel that the only things America has gotten right over the past 50 years are electing them into office. (I say them because Michelle Obama is as much a part of his public persona as Hillary was to Bill Clinton's)

It is also very clear that President Obama possesses a visceral hatred of those who disagree with him politically.  I'm unsure whether this hatred is spawned by an outsized ego or is due to the fact that he's (seemingly) been socially promoted his entire life but it's there. In all of my life I've never had the feeling that our President would rather I be taken out back and shot, but you get the feeling Obama would rather slide down a razor blade into a vat of rubbing alcohol rather than share a beer with someone of opposite political leanings.

It's also very clear that Obama's approved method of dealing with push-back is just about on par with that of a child.  His response last night, and his treatment of the Republican controlled Congress was petty ("pass a bill") and arrogant ("congress won't act") it was also highly dismissive of both the Constitution and the Representative Republic that it established.

And, here's the rub.  I'm not one of those "deport 'em all" screaming for blood types. In reality, I was in favor of the guest worker plan forwarded by Bush the Younger and I'm in favor of legislation that brings this large sliver of our economy out of the gray market and into the light.  This might surprise a lot of progressives, but I believe that it's wrong to separate families and I think there are ways that this can be done without political grandstanding.

I would also like to see it done in another way than executive order, because I truly believe that this sets a dangerous precedent in terms of the Imperial Presidency and could (slippery slope fallacy alert!) lead to greater assertions of the power in the future.

We've already been told, after the Republican landslide a couple of weeks ago, that mid-term elections are not needed so what's to stop the next level of hubris that the electoral system is flawed and isn't needed at all?  Certainly, we would still (ostensibly) have local and state elections but our representatives at the federal level could (theoretically) be appointed by those bodies. After all, with the influx of so-called "dark-money" and the general public's utter ignorance of complex federal issues it's not fair to ask them to select a President, Senate and Congressperson of whom they know little about anyway.  It will not be lost on the Constitutional scholars of convenience that this was how the Founders intended it in the first place.

What this would do, supporters will note, is sever the august deliberative bodies in Congress from the mob-rule mentality of the proletariat which would allow this group of intellectual betters to enact policy for the greater good, rather than for special interests which currently dominate our elective will.  Besides, a very small portion of the populace bothers to vote anyway, and many of them can't name the Vice President.

In the aftermath to the 2014 Mid-Term Republican wave President Obama claimed to have "heard" the voices of the two-thirds of registered voters who had chosen to tune out. This was a convenient ploy because it allowed him to project whatever message he wanted onto the backs of Millions of silent voices. In effect, they became his muse, except that they were created by him and fashioned in his image.  This is a huge problem.

Throughout history, all great leaders, artists, heroes have been inspired by something outside, or bigger, than themselves. With Obama it seems that he is only inspired and driven by himself. By his legacy, by his petty political victories over the other party and by is vision of what America is not and what he thinks it needs to be. There is no sense of overriding concern for the bedrock foundations that have made America great.  And, contrary to some, these bedrocks are not rooted in policy. They're rooted in freedom and the rule of law.

By throwing aside the rule of law and continuing to make moves to reduce the freedom of the American people Obama's desire to "fundamentally transform the country" is coming to fruition. I'm not sure if this type of transformation is what those who voted for him had in mind.

Sadly, even if it wasn't, I'm not sure the results would change had they known at the time.

This should worry you.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Looking toward (next) November: Already

Just when you think it's safe to pay attention, the campaigns for next year's Houston municipal elections are already starting to heat up.  This is despite the fact that (officially) candidates cannot raise money (yet).

The early front-runner for most ridiculous campaign ads goes to Mayoral candidate Ben Hall's "The Harrison's" ads. More bitter than insightful they seem to suggest that, instead of just losing to a popular incumbent, Hall really is that inept of a campaigner.

Perhaps the most critical race in 2015 for Houston is going to be the race for City Controller.  I've got pretty strong feelings about who the best candidate is in this race and I think, if Houston votes the wrong way, there are going to be fairly large repercussions in the near future.

Looking outside of Houston for a minute. Leticia Van de Putte proves that success in politics is largely dependent on your ability to lie and then pivot without a hint of remorse or irony. It also helps to have a doting group of unquestioning supporters who don't care that you said "under no circumstances" would you run for San Antonio Mayor as recently as July.

Speaking of politics, Paul Bettencourt has been elected as the State Senator for my home district. When we last saw Mr. Bettencourt in the public sector he was resigning less than halfway through his term as Harris County Tax Assessor/Collector to start a private business which took advantage of the tax appraisal creep issue that he, and current Lt. Gov elect Dan Patrick railed against for years. Once Mr. Bettencourt started his business most of that angry rhetoric against appraisal tax creep went away.

I can't help but wonder if Mr. Bettencourt has promised to not resign again should there be an opportunity to make some money on whatever his pet issues are this time?

Unfortunately he had no opposition to speak of, and his campaign was barely covered by the local media, so these questions were never asked.

Lurching towards Houtopia: Montrose Edition

Safely tucked behind the Houston Chronicle's pay wall is a pretty interesting story about changes that are coming to the Montrose area and why some people will never get what they want out of the whole urbanization movement.

Montrose tries to keep its vibe. Erin Mulvaney, HoustonChronicle.com ($$$)

Interestingly, the address seems to suggest that the original idea for the headline was as follows:

"Montrose at critical junction for retail."

One small part of the article intrigued me and lays out the issues that Houston is going to have in its efforts to move everyone inside Loop 610:

Scott McClelland is very familiar with the balancing act required to succeed in Montrose. McClelland, Houston president for H-E-B, set out to develop a store at Alabama and Dunlavy in 2011 on what at the time was the largest undeveloped tract in the neighborhood. News of the project initially disappointed many in the community, who hoped to see a park instead.


To my way of thinking, this is the problem with many of a new-urbanist lean. They want to have their cake and eat it as well.  In this case the relatively affluent, predominantly white, crowd that's moving into the neighborhood are just fine getting in their cars and driving over to Central Market to do their shopping. To preserve that they'd rather have a park where they can lounge, check their iPhones and generally while away the hours.

Unfortunately, for them, the Parker administration has identified so-called "food deserts" as a problem. A problem that a centrally located H.E.B is primed to address.  As more and more people move into the area having a grocery store nearby will be a great plus. The developers will want it because it falls into the myth their building of a car-less Houston and the newer residents want it because they're buying the developers story.

You are starting to see more and more of this as the traditional "quirky" restaurants, bars and retail shops make way for things new-urbanists like including Chipotle and (at the moment) high-end beer taverns and restaurants whose seasonal menus come, at least in part, from the back of a Sysco truck.

Ironically, the result of this change is leading to the suburbanization of Houston's urban core. There's a homogenizing effect on retail (think Urban Outfitters instead of High Times), restaurants (many of the so-called quirky, independent establishments are actually well thought-out concepts controlled by increasingly large investor groups) and entertainment. (Is there really much difference between any of Houston's hip, trendy bars other than name and theme?)

What's being driven from the currently hot areas of Houston's urban core is what made them quirky in the first place. Namely, ethnic eateries, shopping and entertainment. Those truly, independent and quirky businesses are moving out to the suburbs, where rent is much, much cheaper and they can make a go of it selling to people with whom they share a cultural heritage.

The funniest part of all of this is the following:

The challenge moving forward, especially as the area becomes more packed with townhomes, condos and other multifamily projects, is to upgrade the infrastructure while preserving the vibe that draws people there, business and economic developers agreed in a discussion on Wednesday at the posh La Colombe d'Or.
Emphasis mine.

The people who are doing the most hand-wringing over this are those who are the least equipped to understand the problem and those who have done the most to cause it. Truly, in Houston, the foxes of economic development councils are guarding the hen-house of traditional neighborhoods.

While the people suggest that they want parks, what they really want is the ability to go to Panera Bread to grab some breakfast and surf social media.  The 'leaders' who are fretting about this seem happy to quaff Champagne and dine on lightly roasted peacock while trying to figure out how to provide the illusion of quirky without affecting the bottom line.

I'm not suggesting these groups shouldn't try to make money, I'm simply suggesting that they drop the pretense of preserving neighborhoods and admit that what's best for Houston (and their bottom line) is a remaking of the same.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Law of Unintended Consequences: Quriky Houston Bar Edition.

One of the things that has always made Houston so appealing to those of an entrepreneurial bent were relatively loose land restrictions that allowed for low property values which made it affordable to start and run a business.

Enter the new-urbanist types who demanded that Houston be laid-out under a plan, using seemingly benign terms like "form-based codes" and "smart-growth" which were really just keywords for "mechanisms to keep property values inflated to keep out the riff-raff.

The problem with this idea is that it also makes it more and more difficult for those uber-quirky, hotly desired Mom and Pop shops that the new-urbanists love so much to make a go of it.

Case in point.....

Boneyard Drinkery to close after November 30, 2014. Syd Kearney, Chron.com

The reason? The property that the bar has been renting has been sold. Relocating is off the table because of the 'outrageous increase of property value'  the last couple of years, according to its Facebook page.

Now, new urbanists such as Houston Tomorrow and Peter "plan" Brown would argue that these property values are not being driven by their plans to bring about Houtopia, but by a city that is beholden to developers and allows for land speculation.

There is a little bit of truth to this but it's the planning and attempts to create "most favored" status on certain areas that has led to these big increases in the first place. Instead of growing organically, and where the market might suggest it's needed, Houston's business climate is now being encouraged to move into certain corridors which allow for speculators to run amok.

The more quirky and independent we try and force Houston to be, the more we lose the quirky and independent soul that drew us all here in the first place.  What we're going to end up with is a very segregated inner-loop where everything looks pretty much the same. Yes, in legal terms the businesses in question might be 'independent' but in reality they're just going to be carbon-copies of one another.

We've seen this before in the mirror-image wine bars that sprung up (and then petered out) around the city and we're seeing it again in bars restaurants and craft-beer establishments.  Unsurprisingly then, we're also seeing them fade away.

This cycle will continue as long as Houston is being planned by people with homogenous tastes and food-borg like sensibilities.  That should make you sad.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Required Blogging: Election Day.

It's finally here.

After months of being subjected to political ads featuring half-truths and dodgy claims, Texas Lock-Step Political Media reporting of questionable accuracy and some truly horrible claims from politicians that they will "fight" for one thing or another, our long national nightmare winds down (temporarily) today.

While around 10% of the Nation will spend the evening hanging on the trickling in returns to see how the Republicans and Democrats fare across the Country, the balance of power in the Senate will be largely ignored by 90% of you who have better things to do.

In Texas, the questions are less about who is going to win or lose than just how bad the beating will be. In order to drive at least some interest, the TLSPM is mining the fields of presumed electoral ash to find a sprinkling of diamonds for Texas Democrats to cling to.

Yes, it's cute that Wendy! Davis is saying that all of the polls are off and she will somehow pull off the upset of the season but, odds are, this is not going to be the case. The better question is just how far behind she as fallen.  For most, the benchmark is 42% which, assuming 56-57% of the remaining vote goes to Abbott would put her at 14-15% behind.

In terms of the effort put forth by Wendy! and Battleground Texas, this would spell disaster because it would mean that, despite their work, they gained exactly zero ground from 4 years prior. I believe that this will be the likely scenario with Wendy! taking in somewhere around 40-42% and Abbott cleaning house. 

If I had to guess, I see things falling like this:

Governor
Wendy!  41%
Abbott    58%

Lt. Governor
Van de Putte 44%
Patrick 55%

Attorney General
Paxton  53%
Houston 46%

Comptroller
Hegar 58%
Collier 41%

Ag Commish
Miller 57%
Hogan 42%

Land Commish
Bush 60%
Cook 39%

Railroad Commish
Sitton 59%
Brown 40%

Prop 1
Yes 65%
No  35%

I think there is something to the "no to Dan Patrick" vote and I think Sam Houston does the best of all the Democratic Statewide candidates on name alone.  George P. Bush should win by the largest margin due to his name ID and I don't see Prop 1 having any trouble due to the absence of any organized opposition.

All that being said, I think tonight is going to be a disaster for Wendy!, Matt Angle and the folks over at Battleground. In a sane political party this would lead to a re-examination of message, platform, leadership and infrastructure but, this being Texas Democrats, I've a feeling not much is going to change. It would be good news for Texas Republicans if the Dems continue to back Angle as a key player in their state party because he has shown himself to be fairly incompetent in the areas of running good campaigns, identifying quality candidates and structuring a winning message for them.

I do think that the lack of impact shown by the folks over at Battleground is going to be hotly debated within the TLSPM for months to come. I wouldn't be surprised to see the National Democratic Party pull their bigger names from the group and leave in place what is basically a shell organization, possibly headed up by Angle, which would be a dream come true for Texas Republicans.

One important thing to watch that's only receiving minimal play from the TLSPM is how all of the candidates fare among Hispanic voters, and in the Rio Grande Valley.  If Abbott, Bush, Sitton, Miller, Hegar and, to a lesser extent, Patrick can contend, and possibly even win in that area it could punch a huge hole in the "demographics are destiny" electoral weather balloon, possibly damaging the hopes of Texas Democrats for years to come.

Over the last weekend, on vacation in Boston, I saw a few ads for Republican senate candidates who did their level best to tie Democratic senators to President Obama. I commented to my wife that most voters in Massachusetts and New Hampshire (the two states for which the races were contested) would probably view this as a feature not a bug.  I think the same thing applies to Texas Dems but in reverse.

I realize that it's political blasphemy these days to suggest anything other than ideological purity but would everything be better if we returned (at least regionally) to the days where liberal Republican and conservative Democrat were more than just museum pieces?  I know that I, for one, would enjoy having two quality candidates from whom to select in the general election, in addition to the primary. It'd make all of this seem just a little more worth it.

Instead of obsessing over ground-games and GOTV and just how bad the whipping is going to be there might be a reason to stay up and watch the returns.  Of course, the person rooting hardest against this is Stan Stanart, the Harris County Clerk who's issues with releasing voting numbers is now legend.

Go get informed and vote. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: Ready! Fire! Aim! (Lies, Damn lies, and statistics version)

I'm sure at least some of my reader's saw yesterday's story on the horror of increased traffic collisions since the pulling of red-light cameras.

Crashes double at Houston intersections after red-light cameras pulled. James Pinkerton, Chron.com

HPD statistics show an increase of 117 percent over the last four years. While the cameras were in operation from 2006-2010, HPD reported 4,100 crashes at those intersections followed by almost 9,000 crashes during the next four years without camera, including a 30 percent increase in fatal collisions.

However, HPD's data did not show traffic counts over time at the monitored intersections.
(Emphasis mine)

This is a case of selectively presenting statistics with the desire of attending a desired result. In this case, HPD would REALLY like to have back that $10MM per year.

The problem is that without these traffic count numbers this particular set of statistics is bunk.  Since 2010 there have been major road-works projects on area feeder roads (driven on 59 by Greenway Plaza lately?) that have impacted traffic counts and Houston's population has grown mightily since the lights were removed.

That's not to suggest that collisions, including fatal collisions, haven't increased, but a correlation does not equal causation.

One of the biggest problems that journalists have when presenting statistics is that, in many cases, they don't have the mathematical and analytical education to understand what they mean or to apply context. In this case, it appears that Mr. Pinkerton did understand the holes in the data but, either through editing or omission, did no continue the line of thinking to its logical end.

I wish he would have. It wouldn't have meant that the HPD numbers were bogus, but it might have provided a platform to start the City down the road of trying to figure out exactly WHY these collisions are happening rather than just firing a revenue cannon at the problem and hoping it goes away.

It's just another case where Houston's elected non-leadership overreacted to a problem without having a full understanding of what that problem was. As Pinkerton pointed out in the story, the unintended consequences of not taking the time to properly aim resulted in the City spending $4.8MM in settlement money that could have been used to fix some pot-holes. Too many times in Houston the government does this while the Chronicle, and other media, drop the ball in their watchdog role.

From a good governance perspective (as the InterLeft continually reminds us "we all want") this should be priority one for everyone. Sadly, it's not.

Monday, October 27, 2014

How will they govern? The Republican Majority as a whole.

The current Texas election, much the same as recent elections, is expected to be a Republican rout. The brand of the Texas Democrats is so weakened state-wide, their base of support so concentrated, that it will be a major upset should all of the state-wide races and a large majority of the State House and Senate races not tilt the Republicans way.

Amazingly, after 20-plus years of Republican rule, the question "Can the Republicans Govern?"  is still being asked by some members of Texas' Lock-Step Political Media.

Political Monsters. The New Mrs. White, Chron.com

Don't want to vote? So don't. It's the Texan way. Lisa Falkenberg, HoustonChronicle.com ($$$)

Abbott says that, as Governor he would 'be like Greg Abbott'. Peggy Fikac, HoustonChronicle.com ($$$)

Elkins' conflict. The New Mrs. White, Chron.com

UT/TT Poll: Transportation Amendment on cruise control. Ross Ramsey, Texas Tribune.

UT/TT Poll: Abbott holds a commanding lead over Davis. Ross Ramsey, Texas Tribune

Why Entitlement Reform isn't on the GOP Agenda. Jim Manley, WSJ

Davis ad focused on Abbott's wheelchair raises legitimate questions. Wayne Slater, Dallas Morning News

In the Valley, Van de Putte blasts Patrick, urges students to vote. Christopher Hooks, The Texas Observer


With one exception (the WSJ story) all of the articles that I've chosen carry a common theme: The questions still being raised by the TLSPM as to whether or not Texas Republicans can govern.  It was a question first clumsily asked by a then-relevant Paul Burka in 2003 and it's been repeated as accepted dogma by the TLSPM since that time*.

In 2003, that question made some sense.  Having taken over the entirety of the Texas political process for the first time there were legitimate questions whether or not this group of fresh-faced, politically inexperienced lawmakers could come together, back away from the scary rhetoric and actually create a budget, address the state's issues, and do something besides cut taxes and then wait for the furor to subside.

The good news, if you're a citizen of Texas and not a hard-core partisan, is that they did. The sky did not fall and things pretty much went on as they had for generations.  Yes there were tax cuts, tort-reform and a whole bunch of other things that made Democrats cringe, but the basic functions of government never ground to a halt. (Except for when the Democrats decided to take a vacation in Ardmore, OK)

A much bigger issue is that the Republicans, either through ignorance or indifference, have not done a very good job outlining exactly what they think good government looks like. While "cut taxes" is a mantra that's resonating at the ballot box there's not been an overriding narrative of what cutting taxes looks like in relation to things that citizens expect from their government. When you look at the current iteration of the top of the Republican ballot there's very little to indicate this is going to change.

Abbott, despite his ads speaking about infrastructure and education, has an issues page filled with National red meat for the base Dan Patrick is being Dan Patrick and while he's promoting his vouchers plan for education alongside property tax reductions, he's been off and on that bandwagon for years now and, seemingly, if it does get fixed he's out of campaign material. Glenn Hegar is saying a lot without actually saying anything. And Ken Paxton and George P. Bush are clearly already thinking about a higher office.

Before you shut this down and think that I'm suggesting you should vote against the Republican slate you're mistaken. As a fiscal conservative I think that all of these candidates deserve your vote. The narrative of the TLSPM has been that, especially in the races for Comptroller and Attorney General, the Democrats offer a slate of pragmatic, business friendly candidates who are going to govern against progressive type and not try to bury the state's economy under an avalanche of new business taxes and soak-the-rich policies to make everyone pay their 'fair share'.  This is a happy fantasy, but one that I don't share based on the candidates own statements and legislative histories.

Which brings us back to the narrative. If you only read the TLSPM and nothing else then it's amazing that Texas Republicans can fog a mirror electorally speaking. Part of this is because Republicans such as Perry and Patrick have shown that you don't need the media to win in Texas and part of it is because the TLSPM likes and agrees with the Texas Democrats more often then they like and agree with Texas Republicans. In many ways, those narratives are never going to go away no matter what Republicans do, short of turning to Democratic policies.

Even IF Texas Republicans decided to pivot and support the DREAM Act, fund education beyond the dreams of Avarice, move to change the voting laws to allow for same-day registration and do pretty much everything the TLSPM desires, they would still push for Democrats to be elected because they would still think more would be done if only the right people were in charge.

Clearly the Republican way-forward is with principle. But it also lies in defining exactly what those principles are. What ARE the things that Texas Republicans feel to be 'core government services?' In the linked editorial addressing Rep. Elkin's recent troubles it's a given that the state has the obligation to regulate and eliminate pay-day and auto-title loans.  Do they?  Is it the obligation of the State to clothe, house and properly educate every child regardless of their desire? Does the State have an obligation to provide grants and tax breaks to bring business (and, by extension, jobs) to Texas?

Unlike Lisa Falkenberg, I'm not going to attempt to sit behind my keyboard on a Sunday evening and tell you what you need to think. Nor am I going to belittle you if you think differently than I.  There are, I admit, sound arguments behind both the yes and the no's on all of these positions. Choosing to think yes or no where I think differently is not a sign of mental weakness (as Falkenberg (wrongly) suggests) it's a sign of mental strength.

What I do know is that Republicans need to start doing a better job outlining what are core functions of government and what are not. And Republican voters had better start doing a better job rewarding candidates who take the issues seriously. The second problem will be how to get this message out to the voters, because the TLSPM is not going to be very keen on putting it out there for them.

Finally, Texas Republicans need a leader who's not only solid on the issues, but able to communicate them effectively.  For all of the noise relating to 'demographics is destiny' and Battleground Texas, the sense of inevitability surrounding the two is overblown. To counter this Texas Republicans are going to have to get better at their ground game, in their communications and in controlling their rhetoric. Because, right now, the left is doing a much better job of this and what's really holding them back is a dearth of quality candidates, a national party that's doing whatever they can to blow it and some curious policy positions that are at odds with the electorate. At some point, this is going to change and Texas Republicans will have a fight on their hands.

Conservative Republicans could take huge steps toward winning this fight by clarifying the conservative position now. To do this it's time for conservatives to stop saying what they're against and start saying what they're FOR. I'm not sure if there's anyone in this crop of state-wide candidates that's able to accomplish this however.  I hope I'm wrong.





































*2003 was the first year that Republicans held all of the State-wide offices along with majorities in the Texas House and Senate. In reality Republicans had a strangle-hold on state-wide races for much longer.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: How to torpedo bullet trains.

There's a lot of news coming out today about the proposed bullet train between Houston and Dallas....

Federal officials green-light Houston-Dallas high speed rail environmental study. Dug Begley, Houston Chronicle.

While the environmental study is a first, necessary step, and all looks rosy, I still think there's a better than average chance Houston's sub-par delegation of political officials and "leaders" are going to mess this up.

There's an important take-away, hidden behind the Chron's pay-wall, regarding the investor group behind the current project.

(I'm just going to quote the pertinent quote here and encourage you to go read the entire article if you can)

Robert Eckels, president of Texas Central Railway, the company proposing the line, said in a statement that the notice begins a process, "which, true to our overall philosophy, will be funded with private dollars."
The emphasis is mine.

I've had the opportunity to speak with a couple of people associated with this project and they have all told me that the private-only funding aspect of this is a must-have for the project to go forward. The reason for this is simple: If you start accepting Federal and State funds then you have to meet Federal and State priorities, most of which are designed for political, not profitable reasons.

In business, this is a deal-killer.  Given that this train is going to have extremely high capitol costs the company is going to want the flexibility to have the most profitable route structure possible.  The feeling is the inclusion of additional stops (to provide service to those who can't drive to the train) and other foibles will take away from the utility of the project itself and kill flexibility.

Already, however, we're seeing that some of Houston's dimmer bulbs are already trying to force their way into the action.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee pressing for bullet train between Houston and Dallas. Stewart Powell, Chron.com

Jackson Lee said she had fought hard to secure $15 million in initial funding for Texas’ high-speed rail line from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The potential high-speed rail route between Houston and Dallas will include only one or two stops in between. 
“Japanese and South Korean officials both expressed interest in supporting and providing high-speed rail in the state of Texas,” Jackson Lee’s statement said. 

The lawmaker said she was working to arrange visits to Houston by the foreign officials so they could “see first-hand our needs and plans for an expanded rail transportation system.” 

No offense Ms. Jackson-Lee, but on a $10 Billion dollar project $15 Million is nothing. Furthermore it's a $15 Million dollar grant the company in charge of the project doesn't want. Unless that is Ms. Jackson-Lee is pushing to get a competing project off the ground, one funded with taxpayer dollars and that might run at a loss?  One that's funded by people that she has a relationship with?

It seems fairly apparent that Ms. Jackson-Lee either doesn't understand the current project being proposed, or she's trying to either muscle in, or muscle it out, in favor of another group of investors to which she has previous ties.

A second problem is going to be when politicians start messing with the proposed route.

Routes proposed for Houston-Dallas bullet train revealed. Dug Begley, Chron.com

Again, in conversations with people employed by the train company I've been told that routing and stops will be decided on purely profitable metrics.  If politics enters the fray and say, someone wants to build 10 extra miles of rail to service a neighborhood which makes the line unprofitable the entire thing could go up in smoke.

From the Begley article:

Looking at the southern end in the Houston area, the real decision — which could quickly get political — is which of the two preferred routes is the top contender. While the BNSF Railway option grabs a lot of Tomball area and then hooks along Loop 610 before coming south, the utility alignment connects with Cypress and follows the crowded U.S. 290 corridor in. 

If you need proof that the most destructive force in wealth creation today is politics than look no further than here.  I also question the Begley assertion that these trains will be free of lines and security.  So far we've gotten no assurances from the Federal government that the TSA will not be involved in screening. I think that there will.

All that said, as it's currently designed I approve of this project because whether or not to build it will be based on whether or not money can be made. Obviously the investors think that it can be and their willing to take that gamble.  So be it.

When I'll remove my support is if the current crop of inept Houston elected officials, at all levels, start to try and add public funding components to this which I believe would strip the project of all value and leave us with a cash-sucking boondoggle probably named the Queen Sheila express. At least she'll be able to get her seafood meal one guesses but the rest of us will get the bill for a $10 Billion boondoggle.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: A return to Ready! Fire! Aim!

A few years back Anne Linehan and Kevin Whited of BlogHouston spent some time discussing the idiocy of Houston's Ready! Fire! Aim! method of finding solutions for problems that may, or may not exist.  Frequently these solutions were expensive and actually exacerbated other, far worse, problems in an bull-headed attempt to fix something of dodgy provenance.

Fast forward to today:

Officials hope downtown bike lane opens by end of year. Dug Begley, HoustonChronicle.com ($)

The article goes on to focus on the lack of availability of so-called armadillo land dividers and spends much time talking about green epoxy to coat the lanes and how wonderful everything will be once bicyclists have one road lane all to themselves.

It really is a beautiful vision of no-cars with thousands of Houston bicyclists pedaling along, although apparently without the pointy hats reminiscent of 1980's Saigon.

One tiny problem however:

(Just a quick snippet from the HoustonChrnoicle.com news story in respect to their pay-wall. Please go read the entire thing if you can)

It will take some time before officials can judge the lane's effect on cycling, however. Houston's first bicycle master plan is a work in progress ,and Payne said little data is available on Houstonians' bike habits.

"We have not been measuring cycling activity in our city, unfortunately, but we are going to start," he said.

The onus behind this dedicated bicycle lane is to allow riders to safely access and interconnect between bicycle trails on the East and West sides of downtown. The belief being that, again, thousands of cyclists will suddenly fill these lanes, cars will suddenly disappear from downtown and your morning commute will suddenly look more like this:
 
 
Rather than this:
 
 
 
Of course, Peter Brown would tell you that, without a plan, Houston is going to get stuck with this:
 

It seems however that we might end up with this:

Because, and this is typical of Houston, we don't know how much demand there is for bicycle riding in downtown, or any part, of Houston.  The City is not studying it, they aren't tracking it, in reality, they have no idea.

Of course, supporters of bicycling in Houston will wildly point at Critical Mass Houston as proof of case that "thousands" of people are dying to commute to work under pedal power and two wheels.  The flaw in that logic is this: There's a big difference between having some upper-middle class Caucasians joining in on a bit of low-level social protest than there is ditching the car and footing it into work solo on a daily basis.  Critical Mass is popular because it's developed a reputation as being somewhat edgy. The few hard-core bicyclists that made up the core of this ride go on a once-a-month power trip against cars, slam their fists on them, and stick their hands up ordering them to stop as the families, college kids and young professionals slowly meander by taking selfies and getting a tingle up their spine thinking that they're engaging in something that might, just possibly, be a little bit illegal.

I've said before that I take no issue with grade separated bike lanes which allow those who want to to commute throughout the city in spandex and awkward shoes.  I like the addition of bike trails and I think that their construction is a worthy cause.  However, we're talking about cordoning off an entire street lane and making it inaccessible to automobiles, in a city that has a notorious traffic problem and where the Danger train has already made certain areas impassable.

And Houston is doing this without having any idea whatsoever if there's sufficient demand to justify this decision.

Ready!  Fire! Oh....Aim!




Monday, October 20, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: What is the Controller's Office doing?

A lunch conversation over the weekend with parties interested in City of Houston finances got me to thinking.....What's the Office of The City Controller doing lately?

The answer:  Not much apparently.

In 2014 the City Controller has released 3 audit reports and one report of a compliance review.  They have offered up an audit plan for 2014, but none of the 2014 audits have, according  to the site, been completed as of yet.  In fact, the rollover audits from 2013 (which included unfinished audits from 2011 and 2012 FY) has more items on it (Ten) than did the audit plan for 2013 (6 - not including past roll-forward items).

In fact, according to the Controller's website they have not issued and published an audit report since 11-26-2013, If you remember there was controversy surrounding the flurry of releases because of their proximity to the election.

It appears that those charges, hotly refuted by Controller Ronald Green at the time, might have had some merit since his office has released nothing since that date. It's also telling that the latest status update for departmental project is dated 12/31/2013.  This means that it's been almost a year since Green's office has even updated their current status log.

As we move to 2015 there will be a fresh round of municipal elections and rumors are that Ronald Green is considering a run for Mayor. I'm guessing this means we'll finally get some audit reports and an updated status somewhere around October 2015?

Houston has a leadership problem. It also has a fiscal watchdog problem because right now there is no one minding the store.  A City Controller who was performing their duties aggressively and completely would be on top of these audits and would not be continually adding to the roll-forward list. They would be weighing in on the coming Fiscal Apocalypse! in an educated manner and not just trying to work the angles for seemingly political purposes.

Maybe all of this is wrong and maybe the office of Controller Green really is doing a lot of work on audits. If so then they could divert a lot of this criticism by properly reporting results and statuses openly on their website.

Until then, the conclusion has to be made that they're not doing their job.  This all goes back to leadership, where Houston is currently deficient.

Looking to November: The KHOU/Houston Public Media Poll

Last night, on their 10 PM newscast, KHOU released the results of a poll jointly sponsored by Houston Public Media.

Abbott, Patrick command big leads in KHOU, Houston Public Media Poll. Doug Miller, KHOU

Full poll results can be found here including a breakdown between Harris County and Statewide.

In short, the poll has Abbott with a 15 point advantage over Wendy! Davis and Dan Patrick leading Leticia Van de Putte by 12 percentage points. 

Looking over the poll questions (and I'm assuming the questions on the results page are the only ones asked, it's fairly bare-bones focusing just on the races in question and some key issues.

One conclusion by Bob Stein, Houston's bicycling authority, and go-to guy for political analysis for the TLSPM,  puzzled me however:

(from the KHOU story linked above)
The timing of the survey happened to coincide with a period before and after the Davis campaign launched its hard-hitting "wheelchair ad" criticizing Abbott for opposing plaintiffs suing for damages while Abbott himself collected a multi-million dollar settlement over the 1984 accident that left him a paraplegic. As a result, the poll offers a clue about whether the controversial political spot influenced voters.

"It's had no impact on the distribution of the vote," Stein said. "And it's had even less impact on mobilizing people who otherwise, we think, would be supportive of Wendy Davis."
Based on the questions asked, I'm unclear with how Stein is coming up with that conclusion. There is nothing in the poll that addresses the ad, nor is there anything that might suggest the ad's impact. In short, you can't make any inferences on the ad's effectiveness in any area by looking at this poll.

What we're left with is Mr. Stein's personal opinion on how the ad has been perceived, and that's hardly an opinion coming from a disinterested source. These are issues that I have with most Stein polls, not that his methodology is flawed (it's impossible to tell without the cross-tabs and he's not the best at releasing those) but that the fuzzy nature of the responses allow him to make sweeping generalizations regarding results that aren't fully addressed in the mechanics of the poll.

In short, he's editorializing. Injecting his opinion into the poll results because that's the way he thinks things are going. Or, maybe there's something not being released, a question relating to the ad perhaps, that provide some data behind his ruminations?

Who knows?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Getting around Houston: A quick note on the proposed miracle that is Metro's reimagining

Interesting HoustonChronicle.com story today regarding how many well-paying Houston jobs are not accessible by transit:

Great jobs aren't always on the bus route. L.M. Sixel, HoustonChronicle.com($)

In keeping with the Chronicle's determination that many people cannot see their journalism I'll just take a small quote here:

Many families don't have cars and buses don't run where the manufacturing plants are located in the more remote parts of town. That inability to get around leaves many students blocked from taking the very jobs that pay higher wages and provide benefits.

In a city that is as economically diverse as Houston this is a real problem.  What's not discussed in the story, though it should be, is that  Metro's reimagining of the bus lines will make this problem much, much worse as it shunts service further away from these areas virtually eliminating bus service to the East side industrial corridors.

That this has never been reported, or openly discussed, in the debate surrounding this is malpractice.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Houston Leadership Vacuum: The definition of downtown insanity.

Houston's Courtier class, between rounds of desperately seeking attention from Ma Parker, is flummoxed.

For year's now Houston has been stumbling down the road of downtown development. The idea being that by priming the pump (in the form of TIRZ and tax abatements) the City could increase the number of creative class residents which would be a boon to those who think their social standing and party invitation counts could be increased by more exposure to the Millennials who primarily make up this group.

Despite these efforts, Houston's Downtown, urban population has not exploded as developers experts predicted they would. This is a problem for the good folks in the party scene because they feel they might just be missing out on something trendy and hip, possibly even an elbow-rubbing with BeyoncĂ© and Jay-Z.  The horror.

Amazingly, the answer to all of this is MORE downtown subsidies.

So, to recap.  The Millennial groups are angry that there are not enough loft-apartments downtown for them to live and play reindeer games.  To fix this they are demanding that more City tax money be spent on developing high-end, luxury apartments downtown.

And if you don't?

Not world class.....or something.

Of course, they pay lip service to so-called "affordable housing" but in reality they only want that housing to be built in approved areas. It's just like the Ashby High-Rise folks who, while demanding urbanization for others, grouse loudly when the urban dream interferes on the wrong part of town.

Downtown Houston already has TIRZ and other mechanisms which drain tax money from the remainder of the city proper. This is done because some developers, and wealthy Millennial groups have decided that they want to live a certain way on the public dime.

To accomplish this goal they will generate maps and provide non-sequitur data from other cities to somehow show that Houston is "falling behind". Never mind that Houston's current environment generates jobs and growth.  What they really want is a gate to be built around their idea of Utopia, and some facsimile of foreign cities that never really existed.

Oh, and they want you to pay for it. Never mind that it hasn't worked historically. This time will be different.

The really sad thing is that what passes for leadership in Houston is running right along with this madness....because world classiness or something or other I'm not sure what.  Meanwhile, Houston is devolving into a pock-marked, flooded mess and the same officials who green-lighted this removal of monies from the general fund are crying poor and fiscal calamity.


Thursday, October 02, 2014

Travelog: Two tales of customer service. United vs. Avis

I had to chuckle just a little bit when I saw this story about how United Airlines (inadvertently I'm sure) treated a customer recently.

United Airlines refers to customer as "Mr. Human" in reply to complaint. Lee Moran, New York Daily News

When a Florida reporter registered a complaint with United Airlines, he may have expected a heartfelt note back addressing his gripe.

What he wouldn't have anticipated, however, is being sent this email where the airline called him the ever-so-friendly "Mr. Human" an astonishing three times.
I'm not surprised by this, not in the least.  Because, if you've spent anytime dealing with United customer service it's pretty clear that the company provides them scripts from which they are forced to follow, with no alternatives, in conflict resolution.  The solutions are in place whether they benefit the customer or not.

I'm going to provide two recent examples of (embarrassingly) identical situations and explain how both Avis and United handled them.  You be the judge.

First: A few key admissions.

1. In both of these cases the fault was ENTIRELY on me.  There was no blame to be placed on either companies.  I messed up, and I admitted as such.

2. At no point did I ever argue with either company over the eventual result of the process.

3. I do not believe that United was inherently wrong in their approach to the situation. Customer (flyer) Unfriendly?  Yes. But, can I fault them?  Not really.

Scenario One:  On a business trip in Denver I dropped off my rental car at the Avis Car Return in DEN.  I then hopped on the shuttle bus to the terminal.  About half-way to the terminal I realized that I had left my suit-jacket and tie in the back-seat of the car.

I stayed on the bus and rode back to the rental center, found a worker who pointed me in the direction of lost and found.  When I arrived at lost & found they could not find the car (it had been immediately driven to a city location for a rental). To further complicate matters, my rental agreement had the wrong license plate on it.  Sensing no hope I left my information with Denise, the very nice lost and found clerk, hopped on the bus and rode back to the terminal.

The next day I received a message from Denise.  They had found my jacket and tie and were shipping it via FedEx to my house.  I received it about three days later.


Scenario Two:  On a business trip to Midland I left my Samsung Galaxy 7 tablet in the seatback pocket of the airplane.  I had put it there to take a nap (this was the return flight) and was dead tired. I forgot the tablet and did not realize it was missing until I got home.

I immediately reached out to the best customer service outlet United has, the Twitter team.  They said they would forward my information to some people who gave me a link to fill out a claim form.  I filled out the claim form and waited.

That night, at around 10 AM, I received a call from Jerry in Florida.  It seems that my tablet flew from Houston to Corpus Christi, back to Houston and then to St. Petersburg Florida where the cleaning crew found it that evening.  I was also told at that time that the ONLY WAY United would return the item to me was for me to set up a FedEx account so they could bill me.  I was not given an option to use UPS or the USPS or any other solution that might work for me.  "This is company policy" it was explained.

Having no choice, and being the idiot who left his tablet in the seatback cushion, I set up a FedEx account (that I will probably never use again since I typically ship through UPS), which included providing credit card information, etc. and called David with United the next morning who took my information and shipped the item back to my house as I requested.  It arrived two days later and I should note that everyone I spoke to was very polite. I have no issues with how this was handled on a professional, personal interaction level.


Which leads us to the question:  What did United do wrong here?

In my opinion, nothing really.  As I stated earlier, I was the one who left my item behind (in both cases) and I really had no problem taking care of the payment to have it shipped.  I would have gladly paid had AVIS asked me to.  I don't believe that it's necessarily on the company to take a financial hit (albeit a tiny one) just because one of their customers (me) is inattentive.

That said, which policy is more customer friendly?  And which company is currently spending Millions of dollars advertising themselves as "Flyer Friendly"?

As with the 'Mr. Human' response there's a lot of evidence that United customer service is doing nothing more than reading from scripts.  This human has problem X, send them form letter X. This person has problem Y, send them instructions Y and tell them there's no other option but option Y.  Yes, this ensures a consistent response to many problems but not always the best response. 

True customer service takes work and a staff that really enjoys interacting with people and finding them solutions. They also have to be experts at informing the customer when there is no possible solution that is going to make them 100% happy.  It takes a special talent to tell a customer that, although they might not always be right, they are always the customer and there may be additional options available to help resolve their problem.

Pre-printed scripts, form letters and one-size-fits-all "solutions" are a way to ensure that no one CSR goes off the reservation, but they don't always solve the root cause of the problem or make the customer feel valued.

United was right to assume that I would pay for shipping, and I had no problem doing so. In fact, I was surprised that AVIS decided to pay for what was basically my mistake. 

So, from that perspective I guess you could say it's not that United did poorly, only that others are doing it much better and, in today's travel world, that means they're falling behind.


The 2nd thing to learn from this story is that after two solid weeks of business travel I am not operating at peak performance.  I've never left anything behind while traveling before. yet twice in two weeks I left two items of some importance.  Of course, I'm done putting things in seat-back pockets and I'm not taking the rental car to the drop-off again without making sure everything is in it's appropriate place ready to go on the plane.

So there's a lesson in this for me as well.