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, ($$$)

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,

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:

Wendy!  41%
Abbott    58%

Lt. Governor
Van de Putte 44%
Patrick 55%

Attorney General
Paxton  53%
Houston 46%

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.