Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Texas Leadership Vacuum: Taking it one step further

In what has become an easy target, the Chronicle Editorial Board weighed in again today on the Prohibition era laws that don't allow craft breweries to sell their products to consumers "to go".

Suds Buster. Editorial Board, ($$$)

Texas allows wineries, distilleries and brewpubs to sell their products directly to the consumer for off-premise consumption. Yet brewery visitors must drink any beer they buy before they leave.
Forgetting for a moment just how patently unfair this law is, or that there are other aspects to the law (forcing local breweries to give away [without compensation] their local distribution rights) which are downright ridiculous, this speaks to a big problem with the business regulatory environment in Texas.

And I'm not talking just about beer.

Automobiles, for example, and the laws that establish, and prop-up, the dealership system, are antiquated and discourage growth in the Internet age. While I'm no fan of Tesla, that Elon Musk cannot sell his cars in Texas, without providing a percentage to a middle man, runs counter to the so-called 'business-friendly' climate the State likes to promote.

The fact is that Texas supports business as long as it's the 'right kind' of business. 'Right kind' being defined as those with pockets deep enough to hire lobbyists and pump large amounts of money into re-election accounts. And yes, I'm including in this group not only the wind-energy industry, but the Oil and Gas industry itself, which receives huge tax incentives which allow it to produce at below-market cost structures.

Texas also lags when it comes to the so-called "gig" economy. From local politicians who are beholden to the hotel and taxicab lobby, stunting the growth of Uber, AirBnB and others, to State and National elected officials who rely on these influential groups to bank-roll their Millions in campaign funds.

In Texas cities routinely try to stifle anti-establishment operations such as food trucks, jitneys and other emerging businesses with little chance of victory for the new businesses. The entrenched order is both well funded, and provided with better access than their newer opponents.

This doesn't mean that successes don't happen. From time to time public outcry leads to common sense prevailing. But too often it doesn't. That's why Houston watched the demise of GoRevGo with some sadness and why workers in several cities don't have the option of hopping over to a local food truck for a quick bite.

In Texas, despite the protestations of our elected officials, the free market is not free. There is an increasingly high barrier to entry. Once you get in, mind you, the perks are legion. More and more municipalities are picking winners and losers through public-private partnerships and, unless you're Amazon, it is relatively easy to develop a business plan that dovetails with a local politician's agenda, which can earn you a tax abatement if you try hard enough.

We are bombarded with stories regarding how the Texas Government, under the leadership of those mean old Republicans, are killing the business climate within the State by refusing to raise taxes to pay for increased Government services. We hear that our future is at stake because we won't take Federal money loaded with an expiration date which will eventually create a huge budget hole to expand Medicare, and we're given the guilt trip that people are coming to this State in an effort to "feed their families" and we won't hold out our entitlement filled hands to them.

What we don't hear enough of is how politicians of all ideological stripes are stifling the ability of everyone to improve economically by rigging the game toward established players. While the free market is not an ends in and of itself the expansion of it's freedom is one part of an overall strategy to help those in need.

Groups like the Chronicle Editorial Board understand that concept when it comes to beer. It's amazing to me that they fail to apply that to the rest of the economy.  It would be of benefit to all Texans if they did.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

L'affair de Pontifex: Going bonkers over we know not what.

Count Chron.columnist (and recently Pulitzer giftee winner) Lisa Falkenberg is a fan of, at least portions of, Pope Francis' recent messaging.

What if we listened to the Pope's call to action - And acted? Lisa Falkenberg, ($$$)

I imagined that somewhere, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, himself a Catholic, was listening and weighing the pope's message against politics as he leads a state with the nation's highest uninsured rate, a broken education system and child poverty at 30 percent. ''

At heart then, as you will find in most writings on the subject, the Left's rhapsody over the Pope is not due to the man's gentleness or supposed humility, but instead it's because his politics, such as they are, for the most part present a church-wielded stick in the eye to those on the Right.

We have a leftist Pope and all is right with the world, if only we would listen to him.  If anything the Pope has given those on the left an air of moral legitimacy that they've been lacking since the rise of the moral majority and other values voter groups.

Christianity had left the left, abandoned it in the eyes of some. And while none of that was particularly true (authentic Religion should be apolitical, a question we should ask ourselves as the current Pope spent a lot of time in America lecturing political bodies) the myth of the "godless left" has been a hard mantle to shake.

Sure, there have been efforts in fits and starts. Locally Chris Bell told everyone who would listen that budgets were "moral documents" and nationally entitlements, and other programs "for the children", have been cast in quasi-religious terms by leftist groups and politicians, but the idea that God staked his ideological flag firmly on the right side was a hard argument for the left to counter, among those who really cared that is.

But now we have his Holiness espousing leftist ideas, some of them anyway, and progressive thinkers are enraptured by his tenderness. This provides, in their minds, moral cover for ideas like combating climate change, expanding the welfare state and funding groups like Planned Parenthood "for the children" (ignoring the fact that PP is, almost entirely, anti-children up to a vague point of 'viability').

The problem with all of this is that it reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of the Biblical tradition of governance, including the fact that God, per the Old and New Testaments, is not a fan of big, overreaching government. In fact, in the book of Judges, the 'ideal' government established by God to govern the Israeli people was a theocracy with a flat 10% tax rate.

When God established Israel after the exodus from Egypt it was a morality based, free market system governed by Judges attached to, and governed by, the Church. The Synagogue was the seat of power, the same Judges were responsible for conflict resolution, defense, and generally establishing the social order. When the Israelis decided that they wanted a King, to mimic the surrounding powers, God, through the prophets, warned against such actions by warning that a King will increase taxes, take their sons away to war, and take the spoils of their labor to feed his court. Despite all of this the people said (paraphrasing) "Yes, we get all that, but we still want a King".

While I am not a Catholic, I have a deep respect for the Catholic adherence to orthodoxy, and their honor of reverence when it comes to worship. I also think that the leadership of the Church is deeply flawed. The reality is that the Church is one of the richest corporations, and landholders, in the world. This brings into question the sincerity of the Pope when he addresses the following:

 - Homelessness: If you've ever had the gift of visiting the Vatican you will be stunned by it's opulence. Buildings are marble with gold plating on almost everything, the wealth is stunning to behold. St. Peter's Basilica is one of the prettiest rooms in all of the world. You will also be shocked by the number of poor and infirm pan-handling to tourists around the seat of Catholic power. There are thousands of poor and destitute who park themselves daily within eye shot of the Pope. They panhandle, beg from tourists, and look to the Vatican for aid that it, seemingly, does not provide.

 - Climate Change: One of the funnier things Pope Francis said was that air conditioning was the equivalent of oppression. Again, if you've been to the Vatican you will be struck by the fact that they have excellent AC themselves (in certain parts) The Vatican Vaults being one of the most climate controlled interior spaces in the world. While I understand that there are priceless Holy relics contained within, do those overstep the plight of the poor?

 - Capitalism: There is nothing in the Bible that speaks on the evils of capitalism. In fact, the barter system espoused by Israel was wholly capitalist in nature.  Even the advent of the Shekel was to move commerce. While it's true that Jesus did speak about the difficulties of a rich man getting to Heaven (camel through the eye of a needle) that was more a warning against a personal lack of charity than an anti-capitalist screed.  The idea of the 'evil merchant' really did not appear in literature until the days of Chaucer. It should be noted that the only character more foul in his books was the Pardoner, sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

None of this should mean that I consider the Catholic Church to be evil. Far from it. In most instances I believe that the motivations of the Church are good. However, like government the Catholic Church is an institution of man. I realize that many will view this as a sacrilege but it's true. There's no Biblical support for a labyrinthine, bureaucratic Religious order emanating from inside Rome to coordinate the global spread of Christianity. The early Church, as described in the New Testament, contained individual churches who, worked together closely for sure, but were largely independent in their daily operations.

The point I'm trying to make with this is that the Church is flawed. Just as every construct of man is flawed. We are imperfect beings and those of us who are Christians try and fail every day to emulate God. But this doesn't mean that we throw out the baby with the bathwater. Quite the opposite is true. While the message of Evangelicals is flawed as well (too much focus on wealth, not enough on charity) the overall idea behind Christianity is still viable today. For sure, there are challenges in the modern world, obstacles that require thought, prayer and meditation. Climate Change is one, and how to reconcile it with the economic needs of the poor. Charity, and it's role in an increasingly entitled world, is another. There are many more for which Christians are struggling today. Sexual identity, the role of women in leadership, divorce, abortion and the pervasive creep of crudeness and vulgarity in modern society.

The Pope's message is one that can help all of us, Catholic or no, possibly come to terms with this. But to fully understand it we have to accept both the parts of his message with which we agree, and those parts where our political beliefs find us at cross-purposes. As with many things, the goals are the same: Reduce poverty, increase economic opportunity, live on a clean planet.

Where we disagree is how to get there. The Pope has his ideas, and it is correct that they be included in the conversation. What is incorrect is acting as if they are the end of the debate. Because adopting that stance, as Ms. Falkenberg does in her article, means that you also have to accept and encourage those parts with which you disagree as well.  Based on the abortion-related prose later in her column, Ms. Falkenberg is not willing to entertain those points.

Which is where her argument falls apart.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Do Endorsements matter?

About three weeks ago the Chron, in a fairly well-written piece, pondered whether or not all of the endorsements being touted by various local candidate mattered a hill of beans in the final results? I think it's a good question, and one that the Chron might want to turn inward when evaluating how they cover elections.

The short version of this post: I think newspapers, especially regional newspapers, should get out of the endorsement business altogether.

The long version?  Well, if you have some free time and want to spend a couple of minutes of your life, that you'll never get back, read on.....

At the National and State level I don't think the endorsements matter. As an example of this I'll simply remind you that a large majority of newspapers backed Wendy(?!?) Davis for Governor and all but one backed Leticia Van de Putte for Lt. Governor.  Few cared. In the 2014 race for US Senate around half of newspaper editorial boards endorsed Democratic challenger David Alameel. Even fewer cared.

There was a time when media news coverage of State politics was limited solely to the local fishwrap. Those days are gone.  This holds doubly true for National politics where it's increasingly obvious that regional editorial boards don't understand the nuance and, especially, the external factors that voters take into consideration for broad, global issues. There's also (in Houston) an abundance of proof that the Editorial Board is out of touch with local voters. (Note: they often use this as an important, they consider fatal, critique of local politicians when calling for their ouster.)

Locally, it's a little less clear but I believe that the end-result is obvious: Newspaper endorsements are no longer needed, nor paid all that much attention to. They also hurt the objectivity of the newspaper when reporting the "news" due to obvious conflicts of interest between the policy priorities of the organizations thinkers and the quality and perspective of the news that's reported on a day to day basis. For proof of that read the following then think about the perspective of the Chron's transportation reporting over the last decade plus.

Then there's the question of whether or not endorsements matter. For instance, today the Chronicle endorsed incumbent Brenda Stardig for City Council District A. They will no doubt, when the election is said and done, count this as a "win" for their endorsement process. But should they?

The only other candidate in this race is on the fringes. Iesheia K. Ayers Wilson is a political novice with almost no funding and no meaningful base of support within the district. This doesn't mean that she shouldn't be running (of course she should) but it also doesn't mean that she's a very severe threat to Stardig either.  Critics will, of course, point to Helena Brown who beat Stardig after the latter's first term in a low-turnout election where Stardig ran one of the worst campaigns in recent memory. In that election however, the Chron endorsed Stardig which had little effect on the voters.

In other races it's too soon to tell what the effect is going to be. In some cases it appears that the choice is fairly straightforward and in some cases it's a little more complicated.  The problem is, by endorsing based on one set of standards, the Chronicle is all but ignoring that different Districts may have very different priorities.

What the editorial board seems to want (when available) is a candidate who is anti-TIRZ (their new 'cause') pro public-private partnership, for infrastructure repair (although they've been mute about the issue for years, preferring local pols follow "trinket" journalism instead), for lifting the pillow-soft voter imposed revenue cap and for doing something about the pension mess (but we're not sure exactly what). They are also including HER Ordinance in every endorsement, preferring to endorse candidates who support it but settling for ones that opposed on procedural grounds instead of due to the thorny issue of gender self-identification.

It's all very cookie-cutter and all very much in-line with the type of reporting that the Chron is favoring these days.  Ask yourself this:  The Chron is running many "news" stories critical of TIRZ of late but when was the last time you saw one critical of a public-private partnership? The coverage of HER Ordinance almost seems to be vetted through Mayor Parker's office and they're treading very, very lightly on the pension issue.

It would be better, for the Houston region, if they dropped this silliness and freed up the news desks to report on every aspect of local politics instead of just those the senior editorial staff has publically declared to be a priority.

All of this is before we got to the issue of resources. And, if you haven't been reading or haven't figured it out yet, I feel the entire Op/Ed department to be a huge waste of. Not only the Editorial Board (which I call the Chron's bag of idiots) but also the entire group of columnists and the high-priced doodler.  To be honest, the Chronicle's "other voices" guest editorials are often more insightful than the in-house brand. Taking a pair of hedge-trimmers to that entire budget would be the best thing. Then you redeploy resources to hiring some beat reporters to cover things like the County Government, The Port of Houston and all of these public/private entities that the Chron likes so much.

There are two reasons this won't happen: 

1. Tradition. Newspapers are still living in the pre-Internet age, where they are the primary (If not sole) purveyor of the local news narrative. In print media, traditions are very hard to break. It's why so many newspapers are watching their coffers run dry before they make needed changes.

2. Ego. Pure and simple. The members of the editorial board LOVE the idea that they are the carriers of unique information that they are allowed to dole out to the public selectively. They enjoy their secret meetings with candidates and local members of the ruling class to the point that suggestions they live stream those meetings online is often met with derision.

It should also be noted that reason one is driven, in part, by reason number two which makes them self-reinforcing and unlikely to be undone in the near future.  This is not just a Houston Chronicle issue however but an issue for the industry as a whole.

I was asked recently, by a Chron employee: "When did you EVER like anything the Chron has done".  My answer was that back when Houston had two competing newspapers I liked the work that they both were doing very much.  After the Post went away the Chron started a long, slow, spiral into the depths of BadMedia that shows little sign of stopping.  They still have some quality reporters on staff but the management and editorial team is bringing the quality of the product down.

This issue however, has less to do with the Chron's general (sad) decline and more to do with the changing roles of regional news dailies. Editorial Boards, despite being relics of a bygone era, are wastes of resources that can be better utilized actually going out and covering the news.  It would be nice if the powers that be at the publications realize this, but I'm not holding my breath that they will.

One last thought: Ask yourself this.  Do you care, or will you give any weight to, who the Chronicle endorses for either Mayor or Controller?


Friday, September 25, 2015

Sounds Painful #BadMedia

I'm not sure what goes into getting "wecomed" but it can't be pleasant.

Sounds like a Bilderberg ritual to me.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Handicapping the Mayoral Race, A Poll would be nice.

One of the issues with trying to track Houston Municipal Elections is the relative scarcity of good polling data. Call it a "Poll Desert*" if you will. It makes determining where the race is hard and it forces people to rely on a couple of things: Conventional wisdom and the Campaigns themselves. This is typically a recipe for disaster, or being very wrong.

Here at YDOP we're not afraid to be wrong. In fact, we embrace wrong as a necessary counter-balance to the rare times that we get it right. Those are the times when a celebratory Scotch is in order.

I now use the above as an argument why I'm choosing to reject conventional wisdom and substitute my own reality. The truth is we just don't know where things lie right now, so we might was well forward a theory.  Here's mine:

It's fairly clear that this election is steamrolling toward a run-off. The conventional wisdom states that Sylvester Turner and Adrian Garcia are going to be the contestants. I'm not entirely sure this is correct, but I do get the argument.

1. Turner appears to be a shoo-in to make round 2.  I haven't seen anyone seriously go after him on his (relatively sparse) record, or his seeming ability to pull defeat from the jaws of victory in past Mayoral contests (Turner says those were just pre-season after all) and the feeling, by many, probably is that there are enough "other" voting blocs out there who would vote against Turner to crate a winning coalition regardless.

So, let's put Turner in.  He comes in first place with say....35-37% of the popular vote on round one. Maybe even as much as 40%.

2. Everyone appears to be going after Adrian Garcia.  Why?  Because I believe he's seen as vulnerable and he also has what many consider to be a large natural constituency: the Hispanic vote.

The thing about the Hispanic voting bloc is that they are not necessarily a bloc. They're a group that both conservatives and progressives feel will fall their way in a run-off election.  This makes Garcia especially vulnerable as does his very public turbulence while Harris County Sheriff.

3. The attacks are starting to sting.  Don't believe me?  Take a look at the responses that are starting to trickle out. For a while, Garcia was silent in response to the attacks. That he's starting to respond, and is defending his record, tells me that his internal polling shows that these attacks are having an impact, and are probably significantly softening his support.

This doesn't mean everything is doom and gloom for Garcia however.

4. The Republican bloc is starting to show signs of a 3-way split. And the split appears to be unlikely to be reconciled before election day. 

This is good news for Garcia because his main challengers appear to be either Republicans (King, Costello) or social conservatives (Hall) whose primary hope was to consolidate the Republican vote and uncouple enough Hispanic support from Garcia to eek out a 2nd place finish. There doesn't appear to be much hope for that unless things change drastically.

5. The television ads are starting to run.

This is probably the biggest development in the race because, until now, probably 50% of those likely to vote don't have a clue who's running.  Here's a quick run-down.

Sylvester Turner: Dream it!

Review: For Turner this is a pretty typical ad. He's running a positive message and adopting an Ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand approach to Houston's fiscal issues. To me, the biggest problem that Turner has in these ads is that he's not the most convincing speaker. His body language is wooden, at best, and his timing feels forced.  Still, there's nothing heinous in this ad. It's solid but not spectacular.  Grade: C

Adrian Garcia: Nothing yet. I expect this to change soon.

What I expect: I'm assuming that Garcia will come out with a "Get to Know me" ad soon. I expect that it will be light and airy, in the same way that Turner's is. I would also expect him to create a Spanish language ad at or near the same time.  Grade: Incomplete

Ben Hall: YouTube Channel, but no TV buy

What I expect:  I think Ben Hall's first big TV buy will be a variant on his Moving Houston Forward YouTube drop from five months ago. As a matter of fact, I would expect something almost identical. It's not a horrible ad although it's production values feel low-end. Based on that I would expect his TV ad to be produced at a much higher level. Grade: Incomplete

Chris Bell: One Candidate

Review: This ad is not good. Production wise it feels like a movie trailer not a campaign ad.  And the line "no baggage" is a laugher.  It's also notable that he brought in abortion rights, which is a non-issue in the Mayoral Election but reaffirms Bell's inability to focus on City Priorities.  Still, despite all that's wrong it is still better than his 2006 "Think Big" disaster of an ad for Governor. ("Moonshot for Education" still brings a chuckle.)  Grade: D

Bill King: Pops is Going to Fix the Potholes

Review: King has been on the airwaves since May. The ad above was his second ad to drop, and it focuses on his "Back to Basics" message.  It's a good ad, solid, not spectacular, but that's kind of in keeping with the candidate and the message the campaign is trying to convey. Solid, get things done, not flashy.  Grade: B-

Stephen Costello: Hello Costello!

Review:  Stephen Costello was among the first candidates to hit the airwaves, and his ad contained a fairly significant error that was humorously pointed out by the Chron's Ken Hoffman.  Maybe it would have been wise for him to wait a bit?  Grade: F (When the biggest reaction to your add is laughter, it's got to be given a failing grade )

Marty McVey: Nothing but a YouTube Introductory Video

What I expect: I'd be very surprised to see a full-on TV buy from McVey. I don't think he's going to have the money to do so.  This video, while earnest, was overlong and cheaply produced. I think this is the best we're going to see from him.  Once again, I think he understands that his winning future lies in an eventual run for City Council. He's just laying the groundwork here.  Grade: Drop (Will not affect GPA)

Odds: As is typical, here's my Sportsbook style handicapping providing odds that each individual candidate will make the run-off.

Sylvester Turner:   1/5 - It's getting more and more clear that no one is going to go after Turner, and a lot of his opponents think that running against him is the clear path to victory.  Because of this I'm increasing his odds. If Turner doesn't make the run-off it'd be a huge upset.

Adrian Garcia:   5/1 - Garcia is getting hit, and I think it's stinging a little, but I also think that whatever damage is being done is more than offset by the Republican in-fighting. If anything, despite the attacks, his chances of seeing the run-off have improved.

Stephen Costello, Ben Hall, Bill King:  100/1 - I'm grouping these three together right now because they're all basically fighting for the same constituency. The reality is that unless one of them can wrangle the cats that make-up the current conservative vote in Houston, they are all three going to find themselves out of the picture.

Chris Bell:    300-1 - The reality for Chris Bell is this: He's once again being viewed by the Left as a likeable guy who's a second-tier candidate with no obvious base of support outside of relatively well-off, Inner Loop Caucasian voters. Given today's modern electoral mix that's a pretty thin slice of support. He needs someone above him to crash, hard and fast.

Marty McVey:     Taken off the board - The way I see it right now he cannot, under almost any circumstances, make the run-off. He has no natural constituency that's large enough to matter and lacks the funds to go toe-to-toe with the major players. It might behoove him to consider dropping out and supporting either Turner or Garcia in order to gain some patronage for a future council run.  Whoever is advising him, if they're any good, should have already floated this idea.

So that's where I see us now.  Can things change? 

Of course, because we're still closer to Labor Day (when people start paying attention) than we are to the actual day of the election and oppo drops ALWAYS happen. Whether or not they have any legs is a little harder to determine or, how long it will take for those legs to get on solid ground. (For an example of this see the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal that's been slow to grow, but looks as if it might be a real issue for her now.) On another note: Mayor Parker (on Twitter) declined to endorse in the race but declared that only the five candidates who support HER Ordinance to be viable candidates. Parker is, still, a popular Mayor but I doubt this moves the needle any at all.  After weeks of claiming HER Ordinance is not a signature item it's odd that she is seemingly using it as a filter for which candidate is "worthy".

Until the next time.

*Might as well, since "deserts" (real or imagined) are the only thing our local media seem to respond to lately.

The current state of Restaurant Review in Houston is not good.

This is, one presumes, a serious lede to a restaurant review:

Don't let your car choose the restaurant. Scott Vogel, Houstonia (Yes, they're still in business)

The only thing more interesting than the car-bound faces trudging down Post Oak Blvd. these days are the car-bound faces flying through Midtown. I take peculiar pleasure in watching the latter, especially the slack-jawed visages of suburbanites gawking at the pedestrian-friendly urban village taking shape on the other side of the glass, at strangers conversing while their dogs sniff each other, at neighbors biking home with fresh produce in their baskets, at restaurants where there’s no question as to who got the best parking space or if it’s time to take away Doug’s keys. Though clearly on the ascendant, the urban Houstonian still leaves the exurban one gobsmacked, and yet they feel drawn to Midtown anyway, mesmerized by its inevitability.

It's amazing that, in the 4th (soon to be the 3rd) largest city in America the best we can do when it comes to food criticism spits out that.

While I realize that there are a lot of Inner Loop Houstonians who believe that society in Houston begins and ends inside Houston's inner-most ring-road (while, oddly, disparaging New Yorkers who believe the same about the Five Boroughs) it's jarring to see that a publication supposedly marketing to the Houston region, is so dismissive of those who live in outlying areas. And is it really necessary to insult the intelligence of over half of your readers?

You could forgive the writer his insular world view would that he offer something new. Sadly:

I am not above this sort of culinary snobbery myself, and though I stop short at foraging for morels in the Hill Country, do pride myself on locavoring whenever possible.

Yes, locavoring.  He might as well have just thrown in a Food Network show or three to get the new trendy food from 5 years ago.  I'm not writing here to pick on Scott Vogel. He's got a paid writing gig while I pound out this dreck for free so take that into consideration.  But I am concerned that the restaurant review in Houston is all coming from the same place: The FoodBorg, and that's concerning.

For a long time Houston was spoiled. Both Alison Cook and Robb Walsh (working for the Houston Chron and Houston Press respectively) sat and dined and told us about it in entertaining and enlightening fashion. Their reviews came with an experienced palate, some honest feedback and writing styles that were fun to read.  Sadly, Walsh is a restaurant owner now and Cook seems to spend more time in her home state of Vermont than in Houston, and her current stories are indicative of that.  She also spends as much time feuding with other restaurant critics and foodies than writing reviews (Full disclosure, she also recently feuded with me, growing tired of my constant Chron criticism). This leads me to believe that she will be on her way out soon as well.

Unfortunately, there's no one on the current Chron roster that seems suited to take her place.

Greg Morago is more of a food history, story writer. Syd Kearney is an events writer. JC Reid does a good job writing about Bar-B-Q but he's really just a copy of Texas Monthly's Bar-B-Q Snob. Amazingly, Elizabeth Pudwill is listed as "reader rep" and "columnist" a dichotomy that makes little sense and the two beverage writers Dale Robertson and Ronnie Crocker are a below-average sports writer and very good beer blogger respectively.  I'm not sure anyone in that lineup will be able to fill the role when Cook finally decides to leave.

Even worse is the State of food writing at the Houston Press. Where former wanna-be "blue" comedian (she made a lot of fart jokes on Twitter and her blog) Phaedra Cook offers up this interesting non-question:

At Peli-Peli, showmanship sometimes overwhelms essentials, like price. Phaedra Cook, Houston Press

There’s a mystery to unravel, though. Peli Peli is a South African restaurant, so why is it featuring a Portuguese dish? Portugal is near Morocco — northern Africa — adjacent to Spain and separated from the African continent by the Gulf of Cádiz. Regardless, a South African restaurant including a Portuguese dish isn’t farfetched. The Portuguese first explored the coast of southern Africa in the late 15th century and, to this day, that history remains a significant part of South African culture.

Based on that there's not really a mystery to unravel at all.  South American African** cuisine is largely influenced by Portuguese culture. Did it really require an entire paragraph to tell us that?

I don't think so.

But the Press has long since stopped being an alt-media site with a strong food section, transforming instead to a listicle driven snark-site with some FoodBorg writing and pictorials. The same can be said for the Chronicle as well.

At the bottom of the current barrel is CultureMap: Houston. Who seem to have a fixation with reviewing a restaurant without actually tasting, or telling us anything, about the food itself.  I'm not even sure if you can call what they're currently doing "restaurant review" in a classical sense. But this site has always been more about flash than substance anyway, so maybe we shouldn't be all that surprised.

At least at the other news outlets there are glimpses of good.  For example (from the linked stories above)

Alison Cook:

A deftly seasoned molcajete full of chunky guacamole sparkles with just the right notes of sea salt, jalapeño, onion and lime. House-made corn tortillas are worthy, pliable specimens with an engagingly pebbled texture. Creamy charro beans bask in an expansive bacon broth that's called out on the menu by the pedigree of the gluten-free Daura Damm beer (I am not making this up) with which it's simmered.
(One quibble, it's Daura Gluten-free beer by Estrella Damm)

Scott Vogel:
One does not savor cauliflower, that most nondescript of brassicas, you will say. Ah, but one does, especially when swirled with a creamy pancetta sauce, bread crumbs and asparagus before being topped with a fried egg. North Italia casts a similar spell over another homely vegetable, by the way, zucchini, creating a winning appetizer out of lightly fried, paper-thin slices of it. Zucca chips they are called, and your table will fight over them. 

Phaedra Cook:
The skewer of thick chunks of seared beef fillet dangles from a metal framework, dripping garlicky meat juices on the platter of side dishes below. There’s a well of more warm, chopped garlic at the top of the skewer. A generous, deep green pile of sautéed baby spinach (with more garlic) and a neat scoop of the mash of carrots and potatoes, called carrot bredie, benefit from the infusion of jus dripping off the beef. How popular is this dish? During a Thursday night dinner in Peli Peli Galleria’s raucous bar area, every single booth along the back wall sported a skewer of espetada. A hearty Portuguese beef dish served in a South African restaurant in a posh shopping mall? Welcome to Houston, the world’s most wonderful melting pot. 


Some dishes, like the espetada, are the equals of the magnificent interior design. Others are sad mockeries of what they’re supposed to be, like the unseasoned osso buco hidden under an ugly pile of nondescript vegetable mush with a sharp, broken shank bone jutting out the side. That’s unforgivable for a $36 dish.

It was ordered alongside kingklip, a fish rarely seen in the United States that produces thick white fillets similar to cod or haddock. The planks of fish were thick, firm, perfectly cooked and cleverly topped with chopped scallops. However, the fish was so salty that it would have been a joy to send half of the seasoning over to the bland lamb shank.  
I include the following examples for two reasons.  1. There IS still some writing talent in Houston when it comes to food and 2. I've been accused of being too negative (no, and not pointing out the good.  So, there you go.

So, there's hope. Possibility even. But it's buried under a sea of condescension so deep you can't get through to the main course without spelunking gear and long descent.  It's making the writing unreadable and it needs to stop.  The sooner the better. Because for all of the good food and drink in Houston you are often finding out more about it from out of town publications.

However, writers should not be afraid to point out the bad either.  As much as we hate to admit it there are places, popular restaurants even, who serve up food and drink to the quality that you wonder what all of the fuss is about.  So with those thoughts in mind I offer up the following to Houston's food writers in hopes of a better future.

1. Don't insult the intelligence of your readers.   In many cases, they're much smarter than you think they are. Yes, even the ones who make the decision to live outside the confines of Loop 610. We're not surprised that Midtown Houston is becoming more urban (Goodness knows a lot of our taxpayer money is going to make it that way) and we're not surprised to find out that the culinary traditions of one country might be influenced by the culinary traditions of another.

2. Get back to the basics.  How does the restaurant look, what is the ambiance, how is the wine list, the service, do you need reservations and, most importantly, does the food taste good and is it worth the money?  These things should take up 97% of your article.  If you don't think it can then you haven't visited a restaurant enough times.  Go for it, you're on expense account.

3. Don't be afraid to be a contrarian. Just because a restaurant is popular does not mean it's good. In my experience there are a group of people who will suck down gray-water if they think it's what they should do.

4. But don't be a contrarian for contrarian's sake either. Just because something is popular doesn't mean it's bad. It's your job as a critic to tell us whether or not the restaurants in town are worth the trouble and price.

5. For goodness' sake stop the bickering. I realize that this means we're going to have to do something about Cleverley Stone. I'm open to ideas.

I realize that, by writing this, I open myself up to criticism. You see, I tried restaurant review writing before and was HORRIBLE at it.  My problem is three-fold: 1. I don't eat out a lot (I cook myself) 2. I have a hard time remembering to take pictures of my food. and 3. I'm not real creative when describing food. While a good writer might describe a piece of brisket as "succulent and rich, redolent with hickory aroma and possessing a full smoke ring the size of Atlanta" I'm more likely to say "it was good brisket".  But they say that those who can't, criticize. So here it is.  And what I can do is read.  As a matter of fact I enjoy reading, and writing, especially when the subject (food and restaurants) is something that interests me.

Of course, there's also the problem that, when criticizing someone's writing, they take it personal.  And that's OK too. One good thing for all of these writers is that the readership of YDOP is relatively small. In that case I'm probably just writing a post that few are going to read which will drive no change.

That's the story of my blogging life.  Which tells you all you need to know really.

**Note: E-mailer Crystal Lee pointed out the above, since corrected typo/error.  YDOP thanks her and adds her name to our ever-growing list of unpaid editors.  We, of course, regret the error.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Presumptuous Blogging: Things you should read (09/22/2015)

And the beat goes on......

Downtown retail incentive program winding down. Nancy Sarnoff. - Final numbers? $2.2MM doled out to 11 (eleven) businesses over 10 (ten) years.  And there's still $785M in the fund for the Downtown authority to give away to friends disburse if they want.

HER Ordinance, Racism and Houston bars. Danyahel Norris, Gray Matters. HoustonChron ($$$) - Given the relatively low intellectual bar for inclusion into the Gray Matters bloglet, I guess this is the best we can expect from them in regards to defending HER Ordinance: It's good because: Twitter.

Controversial bathroom access nixed from equal rights ordinances in other cities. Greg Googan, Fox 26 News - In other words, Mayor Parker could have avoided all of the HER Ordinance mess by omitting the controversial parts about gender self-identification and where to potty.  But she chose not to in an overreach and is now paying the political price.

There is sanity missing from this argument.

George P. Bush trims more than 100 jobs from the General Land Office. J David McSwane, Austin American-Statesman

Bush runs Land Office with campaigners, family friends. Brian J. Rosenthal, Hearst Austin Bureau.

Having been slapped down on attempt number one to get a hit in on George P, Brian Rosenthal of the Hearst Austin Bureau is trying again.  Now however Patterson has come out of exile and is fanning the flames.  Revealing more about the TLSPM than he is George P.

FWIW - For someone who ran as a fiscal conservative cutting jobs would be in line with campaign promises.  Second, when a new CEO enters a firm it's 100% expected that the Sr. officers around him will be let go and replaced with "their people."  That appears to be what George P. is going here and it's not really all that unusual.  IF you understand how business works.

On another note: I'm guessing the TLSPM won't go after THIS. - Because, Mayor Parker is a fave-rave in the ruling class. George P. is not.

Houston ISD Students take on the State of Texas. Andrea White, Gray Matters HoustonChronicle ($$$) - So wife of Former Mayor Andrea White writes a puff piece on a student who just happens to share a name with a former political ally and associate?  Coincidence I'm sure.

As a note: The people's needs and historical preservation are not one and the same. - Quite frequently the knee-jerk need to preserve something of questionable historical worth runs counter to the 'needs' of an individual neighborhood.

"Important community issues being discussed". - Coming from Chris Bell that's probably not true.

The TLSPM gushing over the boy and the clock is starting to look silly in retrospect. - "He didn't build that" and it's possible that the entire thing was a set-up by an activist family. Understanding, of course, how the media and political elite deal with all things Islam.

Bill King gets his puff piece. - Granted, it's a little less puffy than others (the writer actually challenges some of his platform positions) but it's still pillow-soft.

On another note: the first comment to this is a municipal worker who, again, repeats the lie that pensions are not the problem. Never mind that almost everyone with any financial sense at all understands that they are, indeed, a large portion of the financial problem facing Houston.

Ceding the moral high ground in the name of multiculturalism. - This is just sad.

The Pope says that air conditioning, which has saved the lives of Millions in bad climates, is bad. - This Pope is so anxious to condemn everything that looks like wealth he's putting himself in some awkward positions. A/C after all saves Millions every Summer. Perhaps the Pope wants to see more elderly people and children die due to heat-related problems?

This is why you should not take your global economics advice from a man whose spent his entire life in the Church, and who's residence contains remarkable air-conditioning.

The TLSPM and TXDems are still after Sid Miller. - What they fail to understand is that their anger towards him is a boost to him with his supporters.  (If you're angering the right people)

Falkenberg is either too lazy to view the unedited tapes, or is willfully ignoring them. - Either way it's a bad look for her.  Not that we expect much but still.

Houston will spend a bunch on b-cycle expansion. - Supporters will compare this to freeway expansion costs, but will ignore the ridiculous issues of scale when doing so.

Alternate Fountain name: Houston Taxpayers take a bath.

And finally....

Battleground Texas on a slow, uphill race. Peggy Fikac, ($$$) - It has been very clear for a while now that the TLSPM really, really likes the folks who are floundering around over at BGTX and are going to give them every chance to fail their way to eventual victory.

Houston Area Leadership Vaccum: A modest question for the Mayoral Hopefuls.

"How will you address quasi-governmental agencies in your time as Mayor?"

Convention Center Upgrades Designed to Improve the Experience. Nancy Sarnoff, ($$$)

(Some very selective quoting from behind the Chron's pay-wall. Please go read the entire article)
These improvements are part of the $1.5 billion worth of public and private development work underway on the east side of downtown, which is being revamped to make it more appealing to residents, workers and visitors.

Officials from Houston First, a quasi-public agency that manages Houston's convention facilities, toured with a small group through the area Monday, showing off some of the changes specific to the Brown center at a cost of $175 million 
I think this a valid question given that almost everyone, excepting Sylvester Turner and Chris Bell maybe, believe that the City is in a financial crunch.

A crunch that might call into question the wisdom of building a 10-story office building designed, primarily, to provide Houston First with some "world class" digs, all at taxpayer expense of course.

Now, the good folks over at Houston First will tell you that the tax money is from Hotel occupancy taxes and that Houstonians are "not going to pay the tax" which is a falsehood in and of itself. Even if you don't stay at a local hotel (and there are many reasons why you could have to) there's still the fact that this is money diverted from the general fund (not in the same manner as TIRZ of course) that could be used for other purposes.

I find it interesting that the Chron's bag of idiots has suddenly found religion on TIRZ, but remains firmly in the corner of unelected, largely unaccountable agencies like Houston First, who have budgets in-line with them.

The fact is that Houston's tax-income structure is as big a mess as their spending. Both are out of control and are in need of a serious overhaul.  And, no, repealing the pillow-soft, voter-imposed spending cap isn't the sole answer, nor are tax increases or pension reforms or any other "magic bullet" that the current group of pretenders for Mayor are proposing.

Houston government has been ran rough-shod since the days of Lee P. Brown, a full accounting and overhaul are not only necessary, but long overdue.  One key way to address this is for Houstonians to get it right this time regarding the Mayor, and City Controller.  There are candidates who can do this on the ballot, and ones who can't (or won't).

Far be it from me to tell you who those are. It would be nice however if what remains of local media in Houston would ask those questions so you could determine the answer for yourself.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Presumptuous Blogging: Things you should read (09/15/2015)

It's silly season time in Houston. (By that I mean both that the Texans are playing football AND Municipal Elections)

Promises and Votes. The Chron's Bag of Idiots. - The bond was passed in 2012. Yet the bag of idiots thinks that HISD should outline it's plan to the voters "with all deliberate speed". I would argue we've already passed that point.

If Miley Cyrus stips at the VMA's it won't matter because people are tuning her out. - This proves the limitations of "shock for shock's sake" which is all we see from so-called "entertainers" these days. Pretty soon people stopped being shocked, and you run out of material.

I give you an article on the resignation of HISD Superintendent Greer that does NOT mention the on-going Federal investigation. - That's our ChronBlog.

Reminder: Mayor Parker is "most proud" of her accomplishments on Houston's infrastructure. It's NOT about HER Ordinance, nope, nothing to see here.

At the end of the day, this is what climate change is all about. - Poor nations, typically led by dictators or warlords living lavishly, want the US to pay dammit.  PAY!!!!

Because, THIS is the news we were really wondering about. - In their endless search for more page-clicks the Chron has an odd habit of focusing on fringe groups to the exclusion of actual news.

How the TLSPM works. - The Chron runs a dodgy report, sourced solely from a liberal groups anger, and all of the rest of the TLSPM ignores fact and reports there are "questions" regarding the Land Commissioner.  Convenient right?

The most amazing thing (to me) in this year's run-up to the Mayoral election is this: That Stephen Costello has managed to hang on to the "fiscal conservative" label. Just amazing that no one has seriously hit him on this.

This, however, does not surprise me. - Mayor Parker was poised to endorse one candidate, who, rumor has it, would not do exactly what she wanted so.......It is notable that her five is not determined by party affiliation, but by support for HER Ordinance (which she assures us is not a policy priority of hers)

Your moment of HALV - with some additional context. - It's notable that BOTH of these tweets were (supposedly) by Ms. Parker herself.  That indicates that a.) she doesn't have much of an idea what is going on with infrastructure spending and b.) she's desperately trying to spin the fiasco that is Rebuild Houston as a win. (despite the courts suggesting it's not).

To Dream, the impossible dream. - Increasingly Turner's campaign is resembling a Stuart Smalley skit.

Although, daily affirmations are better than this. - What experience, other than voting yes or no (or, more likely, having the representative seated next to him reach over and vote yes or no) would Turner have crafting a budget? His career is patron and identity politics at it's highest form. He is a man who has made great hay out of accomplishing nothing at all.  Although, given that, he might be the perfect Mayor for a modern-day Houston and the people who currently have policy influence.

Overly dramatic slow-clap - Good job by Cooke here.

And finally......

What food deserts REALLY do is let savvy developers figure out ways to have the public subsidize their failing projects. - Have a problem making a development a problem?  Gerrymander a district where grocery stores don't exist, call the area a food desert and demand that taxpayers foot the bill to either improve infrastructure or build a grocery store from whose presence you can profit.

It's the Houston Way Y'all.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Tales of a sub-par Media outlet: That dysfunctional free market thingy again.

It's not hard to find anti-free market writings at the Houston Chronicle.  One only needs look.

It's also not surprising to see where the Chron's paid doodler doesn't like it all that much either. This is especially true when you view how the Chronicle, his employer, has been doing in it over the last several years.

Newspapers, by definition, are continuing to struggle as they try desperately to regain market share and (more importantly) ad revenue that has migrated to online sources.  So, no, it's not all that hard to see why they would be opposed to, and in favor of policies that diminish, free markets.

What is amazing, to me, is that Americans care so much these days about what other people make. We've caught up with Europe in one area at least: It's now just as vile and disgusting to be wealthy in the US as it is abroad.  Well, excepting celebrity that is. We tend to not begrudge them their money.

In fact, the only money that is portrayed as somehow dirty is that which is acquired through business. And by business I mean industry, or corporations or (shudder) banking. Whether or not you approve of the job Jeff Smisek did as CEO of United (I don't) it's not entirely his fault that the Board of Directors (who are supposed to have the company's (and it's investors) long-term health in mind) decided to ink Smisek to a contract that rewarded him for either success OR failure.

Yes, this IS the free market. Which means that companies are allowed to make decisions, both good and bad, regarding how they are ran, how employees are compensated and (to a point) how they're governed internally. When this free-market gets skewed, then you start to see poor outcomes as with Slolyndra, Tesla (currently) and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac.

Not that the government is ALWAYS the involved when things go tits-up, but they do play a rather large role. Left to their own devices companies that are managed intelligently are going to be a boon to all parties, their shareholders, the community at large and their employees. Unfortunately, in large part because of an anti-corporate attitude, many of the good things companies have accomplished are washed under a red-tide of rage and simple jealousy.

There was a time when watching the wealthy drive by in say, their BMW's we used to, as a country, say "I wish I had that car".  Now we just say "I bet they got that car by being dishonest" or even worse "they should take away that car and give it to me".  This is a very British way of viewing wealth and (to be honest) I'm not sure they are a country you want to be modeling right now.

A lot of this comes from the 100% incorrect, progressive, idea that wealth is a zero-sum game. In other words, if one person becomes wealthy then thousands of others must be poor. If America prospers then children in Africa are suffering as a result.  What this idea ignores is that wealth is something that is typically created.

A company creates value, they create worth and (if they are smart) they create demand for their goods and services. This then creates wealth which, ideally, is used to create other wealth get the point.

The problem is when we start to decide that some people don't deserve their wealth because the cut of their jib is different from what we expect it to be. As horrible of a CEO as Smisek was, he deserves his payout because that was what the market bore for his services.

Here's the rub.  The market for mine and your services has nothing to do with the market in which Smisek and United were negotiating. They are mutually exclusive. His compensation has an effect on ours to the rate of 0.000000000000000%  It's true. The only people who are paying for Smisek's buyout are the shareholders of the company, who will see it reflected on the financial statements as a one-time charge.

Of all the mess America is currently slogging through one of the biggest problems we have is that people are no longer aspiring to be rich. We've believed the warped political talking point that the playing field is tilted and we can never achieve anything meaningful without cheating, or without the government intervening on our behalf. Those are lies that need to be loudly, and forcefully rejected. In fact, we should celebrate success, learn from failure and try to improve our business lives accordingly. We need to relearn to take calculated risks, and deal with both the consequences if they fail, and the rewards if they succeed.

In part, America is suffering because a large portion of people have sub-let their risk-taking to the Government, hoping to have the risk of failure subsidized away. We view bad business decisions as criminal (provided it's an industry we don't like) and we cheer when the wealthy get put in prison for making one. We celebrate actors in movies who make Millions of dollars for a film taking pot-shots at an executive who makes that over a period of years. We listen to ultra-wealthy Michael Moore tell us how bad the working man has it, and we lionize Al Gore telling us to get by with less while he's jet-setting to and from his extremely large mansion.

Then, in Houston, we get to see a man whose product is not considered valuable enough to be hidden behind the pay-wall gripe and moan that someone made a better deal than he. If there's anywhere that you should not be going for economic or business advice, it's to the Houston Chronicle who is revealing itself to be pretty poor at the actual execution of the same.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: CIP is a mess.

From KTRK:

Frustrated neighborhood waits as major sidewalk project lags. Ted Oberg, Trent Siebert. KTRK abc13
The contractor, Current Construction, has been cited by the city for unsatisfactory work, for slow work and for not paying their subcontractors. The city has also withheld payments to the contractor.

The city's public works department is continuing to work with the contractor in the hopes they can still get the work done soon. City officials, though, would not estimate a completion date. Officials did say that Current will lose $800 each day the project is not completed starting Sept. 15.

The person who answered the phone at Current Construction blamed delays on the rain as well as a subcontractor who wasn't feeling good and who had a machine break down.

 It is important to remember that, a few weeks ago, Mayor Parker stated that she was "proudest" of the work she has done on Houston infrastructure.  Apparently she doesn't consider the CIP mess to be a part of that.

If the new Mayor is looking for a place to start fixing things, I would suggest here.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Presumptuous Blogging: Things you should read (09/09/2015)

Open the Moon Door!

One thing Sam Houston Race Park Needs? Slots. Ken Hoffman, ($$$) - I am in 100% agreement with this opinion.  As a matter of fact, I think that slots are the ONLY thing that will save racing in Texas long-term.

Things Mayor Parker deems worthy of retweeting. - Apparently all free speech isn't equal to what passes for leadership in Houston.

How to tell when a miles and points blogger doesn't get referral payments from a certain card? - They give it a bad review.

The Changing Face of Gambling in Vegas. Mark Meltzer, Travel Vegas - Hint: On the strip it's getting a lot, lot worse for the player.

After bashing all of the good guys, L'il Red walks back. ($$$) - I guess being given a Pulitzer by an editor at your paper doesn't mean you can just say whatever.  Better watch those P's and Q's.

Reports warn of finance trouble. Mike Morris, ($$$) - I'm OK hiding L'il Red behind the paywall.  But this type of story should be widely broadcast.  This also lays bare the lie that "newspapers and other media outlets are public trusts".  No they're not. They're for-profit companies who would hide the cure for cancer behind their paywall if they thought they could make a buck.

Racing Commission Fight driven by powerful lobbies. Brian M. Rosenthal. ($$$) - Nelson and Patrick SHOULD, given all of their rhetoric about honesty and forthrightness, recuse themselves from the discussion.  But given KDAN's history they won't.  And given Texas' non-existent conflict of interest laws they don't have to.

The Chron doesn't like so-called "breastaraunts" so they stealth editorialize against them.

The Chron has never supported UH (or Rice) athletics, so they stealth-editorialize against them.

The Chron WANTS zoning, so they stealth editorialize for it.

The Chron WANTS KTRU back, and they want more taxpayer funds to go toward classical music, so they stealth-editorialize for it.

Grey Matters is a de-facto extension of the Bag o' Idiots that make up the Chron Editorial Board.  The pieces seem selected to opine on issues that the Bag o' Idiots like but don't want to sign-off on.  Much like the Ed Board, it should be shuttered.  (Oh, and the arguments presented in all of these four stories are borderline idiotic)

This is starting to feel like yet another expensive boondoggle. - A very expensive one at that.

58% of Britons think it's A-OK for airlines to weigh passengers. Imagine their surprise when many of them are among the 30% that are denied flying because they're too fat.  What could possibly go wrong?

Presented with no further comment.

Candidates tout endorsements, but do voters even care? Rebecca Elliot, ($$$) - Yet another good election piece placed where only a sliver of voters can read it.  Ah well.

Your daily lesson in twisted logic. - I'm on board with calling out Abbott here. He was (and is) clearly in the wrong.  But I can't take that disapproval and conjoin it with support for expanded Medicare.  The only way you can is if you were for Medicare Expansion prior to this and are using this as an excuse to make it public.  That's OK, but at least be honest about it.

Stuff like this does not bother me. - If they want to come and try and put me in a "camp", they had better be sure that they have sufficient strength to get past my wife.  Whose response to this story was "Oh HELL NO!".  Looking at the picture of the "activist" my wife would Ronda Rousey her ass.

The roads are swallowing cars in Houston. - I know, let's focus on the fight over where to pee!!!!! (Said by what passes for leadership in Houston)

And finally........

Odd things behind the Chron's pay wall. (Part I)

Odd things behind the Chron's pay wall (Part II)

So that's an AP story (that you can read online for free) and a NY Times story (that you can also find online for free) that the Chron is requiring you pay them for.  It really is Comical.

Enjoy the kickoff of the NFL season tonight.

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Release the Uncritical Candidate Profiles!!!!!

Call it the Hippocratic Oath of what passes for local media in Houston:  "First, say nothing negative."

As we pass Labor Day and get into the period where Houston's Mayoral Race starts claiming public attention the puff-pieces are coming fast and furious.

KTRK -13 has all but completed their run with the "Why  ______ wants to be Houston's next Mayor" series.  In the spirit of things I thought I'd provide the answers the candidates didn't, and the reporter didn't push for.....

Why Adrian Garcia wants to be Houston's next Mayor. - Because he did such a slap-dash job running the Harris County Sheriff's Office he's hoping for a clean slate to distract from the mess he left behind.

Why Ben Hall wants to be Houston's next Mayor. - Because we must stop TEH GAYYSSSSSS!!!  Oh, and infrastructure, Malaysian solutions and more police or something like that.

Why Bill King wants to be Houston's next Mayor. - Honestly, I'm having some trouble figuring this one out.

Why Marty McVey wants to be Houston's next Mayor. - Increasingly it's feeling as if he had nothing else better to do and got bored.

Why Chris Bell wants to be Houston's next Mayor. - Because he's a perennial candidate and desperately wants to be elected to SOMETHING. (anything really, is the dog catcher election soon?)

Why Stephen Costello wants to be Houston's next Mayor. - Because he spearheaded a nifty slush-fund in RebuildHouston and realizes that the Mayor has control over the purse strings.

Why Sylvester Turner wants to be Houston's next Mayor. - Because he feels like he's the heir apparent, and coronations are supposed to go off without a hitch despite you offering nothing of substance and spouting inane platitudes.

The Chron is also in the middle of running puff pieces on the candidates.  They haven't completed them yet, but here are the ones they've ran so far....

Timing, Fate, put Garcia into race for Mayor. - There's no mention that the "timing" was caused by several missteps as Harris County Sheriff.

Costello, with Council experience, looks to grab top job. - Spinning RebuildHouston as a positive takes some work. As does not mentioning the court troubles the program is having.

After stretch of campaigns, Bell seeks to capitalize on experience. - Experience losing?

Here's the big problem with drive-by journalism on big political races.

By all accounts Houston is entering a very critical period.  From financial troubles to the very real possibility that Rebuild Houston could be taken off the books and the money forced to be refunded to a crumbling infrastructure, increasing crime. a deteriorating economy and resulting flight from the city to the outlying areas because of it what Houstonians need to know is whether or not the person for whom their pulling the voting leader is up to the job.

Taking that into perspective Houstonians deserve to have the candidates presented to them warts and all. Does it matter that Adrian Garcia proved to be an ineffective leader while Sheriff or that Sylvester Turner seems to have based his political career largely on the patronage of others rather than his own skills?  Should we be concerned that Stephen Costello appears to be wholly under the influence of a specific lobby group that stands to make a significant windfall from the State?  Does the fact that Chris Bell has proven to be an unserious candidate for unserious times matter?  Should we be concerned that Ben Hall seems to be more of an attorney and opportunist than a leader? Do we know whether or not Bill King has the organizational and leadership chops to "get things done" as he claims?

These things matter.  A lot.  And it's a shame that, in the interest of future access to the eventual winner, the media seems to be hedging their bets.

Houston voters deserve better.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Houston's greatness has been submerged in a sea of mundane.

If anything, the sad, dilapidated state of the Astrodome is a reflection of the City of Houston itself. Once the "Eighth Wonder of the World" the Astrodome was a touch point in South West Houston that reminded us of what the City could be. Along with Johnson Space Center the Astrodome is a relic of Houston's past. A past that represents a forward-thinking city whose visions of grandeur have been replaced with cheers for mediocrity.

Houston has always been a city of big.  From the mammoth shopping center that is the Galleria to the Williams (then Transco) Tower to the Ship Channel to Beltway 8 the Houston (and Harris County) leadership of the past understood this, it nurtured the reputation and sought to push it forward at every available opportunity. Whatever it's faults, heat and humidity, hazy air, a relatively flat, featureless landscape, Houston always had the potential to provide good visual.  Even today the view of Houston driving in on Hwy 288 is one of the prettiest you'll find anywhere.

Houston had visionaries as well. We all know about Judge Roy Hofheinz but there were a host of others as well.  Oscar Holcomb for one, Mary Kay Ashley, Red Adair, Howard Hughes (OK, that's a reach I realize) and a host of others.  From the 1960's through the 1980's Houston took pride in it's designation as "Space City" and seemed to have a pretty firm grasp on who (and what) it was. Granted, things weren't perfect, but Houston at least did "big" back then.

Fast forward to today.

Houston doesn't do big anymore, it does small. And, to be honest, it's not doing a great job handling small at the time being.  Oh sure, Houston still builds some things, but they are nowhere near the scope of our past icons.

Take the Astrodome for example. We've replaced that with NRG Stadium, an airport hanger with a fairly useless retractable roof, and Minute Maid Park, a decent ballpark whose signature item is a miniature copy of the Green Monster in Boston and a silly hill in centerfield. Neither stadium makes you go "wow".

It's much the same with other recent Houston achievements. Roy Hofheinz had a basketball stadium named after him.  Bill White had a promenade in a park. The Ship Channel bridge is a defining feature of Southeast Houston. Recently Mayor Annise Parker received accolades for painting a lane of traffic green.

The problem, as it has been for a while now, is a dearth of leadership in the area. The vision of George Mitchell, who founded the Woodlands, has been replaced by the silliness of David Crossley, who's idea of salvaging Houston is to carpet bomb suburbia. We've been convinced that 22 miles of light rail is some great achievement and that Christof Spieler "reimagining" the bus service away from transit-dependent areas is some kind of engineering miracle. Think about this: The first word uttered on the Moon was "Houston".  Now "Houston" is only uttered when people want to poke fun.

Politically we're fed a constant diet of Critical Mass, whether or not spending money on traffic signs has a positive cost/benefit outcome when it comes to enforcing no phones in school zones and the potty questions that are stemming from HER Ordinance. We are saddled with a crop of Mayoral candidates who (in no particular order) think that leadership is about "fighting" and spouting inane platitudes (Turner), think that "solving" Houston's traffic mess means implementing a "multi-modal" transportation system that emphasizes bicycles and walking shoes (Garcia, who probably had to look up multi-modal [hint: It's after 'management' which he should probably also look up given the results of his tenure as Sheriff]), a perennial candidate who is desperately looking for small pockets of Caucasian support (Bell), a former Obama bundler and life-long Democrat who's importing transportation solutions from Malaysia while courting social conservatives (Hall), a political unknown whose candidacy feels like on the job training for a future City Council run (McVey), a politician whose main contribution to the city was the creation of a multi-million dollar slush fund to hand out work to engineering firms (Costello) and a town crier whose campaign is having difficulty handling the basics of sign-delivery (King, who had a very good week given the dual reports that were released suggesting he's right on city finances.)

Houston doesn't build things like the Galleria any more. Instead, we're told that "multi-use" development is more than just a strip center with apartments built on top of it and are asked to swallow that lie. We have White Linen Night in the Heights where the well-to-do dine on peacock, sip wine and wonder how the other half lives.  Gone is "Luv ya Blue", In is "We are Texans" (and sure to finish somewhere around 8-8 every year).

As a final illustration of just how far we've fallen, recently Mayor Parker celebrated the return of Blue Bell ice cream in a supermarket that the City subsidized to the tune of  $1.7 Million dollars to provide a so-called "food desert" with access to "fresh produce". Or high-fructose-corn-syrup infused ice-cream one guesses?

This is not to say that Houston is a bad city. Because it's not. Despite all of the traffic, smog, hay-fever, mosquitoes, increasingly job-choking regulation and piddle battles, Houston is still a great place to live and do business. Outside of the FoodBorg and certain pockets of those who know better, the people of Houston are friendly, typically generous to a fault and still carry around a great sense of civic pride. It's not the people of Houston that are the problem, it's those who we have elected into positions of leadership. They've dropped the ball.  Granted, we've let them over time through inattention and a general sense of disinterest in local politics, but some of the problem is that the choices have been so limited.

In Houston the last three Mayors have been especially bad. Lee P. Brown increased the municipal pension payouts to unsustainable levels and had as his defining achievement a billboard in front of IAH emblazoned with his picture. Bill White tried to cover up the pension mess by hiding liabilities behind the Hilton Americas hotel, created SAFEClear which is no longer in operation due to lack of funding, and took a lot of credit for Hurricane Ike response despite the fact that Ed Emmett (who started off well, but has fallen victim to a severe case of 'Not tearing down the Astrodome on my watch' fever) did most of the work.

Which brings us to Annise Parker, the nadir. Parker has painted a lane of traffic green, reworked the CIP funding process to direct more resources to areas that favor her politically, has spent a lot of time advocating when she should have been governing, and saddled Houston with HER Ordinance, her tactics "fighting" for this have caused the Texas Supreme Court forced to step in and return us to the boundary of fair play. When Parker first ran for Mayor I actually stated that, given the current crop of candidates, she seemed like the best choice.  Sadly, despite everything, I was still probably right.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Travel: Jeff Smisek Resigns.

In case you didn't see the news today.....

United Airlines (UAL) CEO Smisek to step down, successor named. Street Insider
United Airlines (NYSE: UAL) announced that it has named Oscar Munoz as president and chief executive officer. Munoz will also continue to serve on United's board of directors. The board appointed Henry L. Meyer III, United's lead independent director, to serve as non-executive chairman of the board of directors. The company also announced that Jeff Smisek has stepped down from his roles as chairman, president and chief executive officer, and as a director. These changes are effective immediately.

Amazingly, United had another computer error today which is probably a fitting bookend to Mr. Smisek leaving the company.  Also amazingly, it doesn't appear that Mr. Smisek is leaving because he's all but ran the company into the ground but because of the on-going Federal investigation into the following (from the first linked article):

The company also announced that its executive vice president of communications and government affairs and its senior vice president of corporate and government affairs have stepped down. The departures announced today are in connection with the company's previously disclosed internal investigation related to the federal investigation associated with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The investigations are ongoing and the company continues to cooperate with the government. 

So, United has (really) cleaned house here, which leads me to believe that the Feds are going to drop the hammer on some folks when the investigation is complete.

Unfortunately, the new man in charge is from the old regime so I don't think this will mean that United is going to consider changing their "race to the bottom" strategy, no do I think they'll do much more than ape bad ideas from Delta and implement them 6-12 months down the line. This could then be nothing more than United rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But, for now, Smisek is no longer in charge.  We're putting a six-month statute of limitations on saying the airline has been "Smiseked" or 'Jeffed Up' because of this.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Tales of a sub-par Media outlet: Asking the important questions of the day.

Spotted this morning on the front page of (The free portion of the Houston Chronicle's online offerings)

Now, I realize that there are different ways to classify what's important but, given the reality that Houston is currently staring down a budget crisis, that we're approaching the high-season for municipal elections and the fact that a Harris County Sheriff's Office Deputy who was brutally shot and killed is being laid to rest today.......
Is this really an important question?
It is if you work for apparently.  Next up, I'm waiting for the Bag of Idiots that is the Chronicle Editorial Staff to bemoan the low voter participation rates in the area.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Tales of a sub-par media outlet: We mock, what we don't know. (if we're in Jr. High) (The "free" portion of the Houston Chronicles online presence) is increasingly becoming unreadable.  For the one piece that they have which is somewhat funny (although nowhere near local and usually cribbed from another news outlet) you get a ton of Chron created slideshows which are just horrible.

Today's story attempting to rank McDonald's breakfast (In response, apparently, to the Golden Arches company announcing they will sell breakfast 24/7 now) reads as follows: (from the comments)

  • blitzcraigbop
  • I think it's great that the Chronicle is giving opportunities for junior high and high school kids to write for them for extra credit. That's what's happening here, right? 

    One imagines so.  Which brings us to the question of the day:

    IF the Chron is employing Jr. High students to write copy on their free site, doesn't this violate child labor laws?

    After all, that would make sense.  We already know that the Chron actively encourages businesses and Houstonians to move downtown (where property values and taxes are high) despite moving out of their themselves. 

    What I really want is a newspaper that focuses on local news and does a good job covering it.  With pap such as this the Chronicle is currently failing on all fronts. Sadly, the "reporting" behind the paywall was so slim (usually less than 5 new stories per day) that I cancelled my subscription and am no-longer a Chron customer. There is more, and better Houston news to be found on the local TV station websites and alternative news outlets.

    Meanwhile, the Chron lets a child rank the McDonald's breakfast menu.

    And they can't even get that right.  Clearly the McGriddle is one of the best items that they have. (Behind the Sausage McMuffin w/egg).  If you're going to have someone rank a menu, at least choose someone who has eaten there (Ken Hoffman).

    Of course, if Hoffman wrote that the brain-trust at the Chron would park it behind their paywall.

    Wednesday, September 02, 2015

    Texas Leadership Vacuum: Shooting the horse (tracks) for their own good?

    After months of political bickering over so-called "historical racing" the Legislative Budget Board called the racing industry's bluff and refused funding for the Racing Commission which forced all of the horse and dog tracks in Texas to shutter effective September 1st.

    One day later, it appears that is changing as new reports are suggesting that tracks can reopen and simulcasting can continue.  Reading through all of the stories it appears that the Legislative Budget Board has agreed on a 3-month temporary funding deal that will allow both sides more time to work out their differences over historical racing, which the industry feels is key to their financial success.

    And here we are. While I'm just an accounting manager I would not feel comfortable reopening my doors under a 3-month stay of execution when the likely result is that the courts are going to rule against the thing I think can keep me solvent sometime before the year is out anyway.

    Even IF the Texas State Senate (who is, to be honest, the main push behind all of this political anger) ultimately decides to let historical racing have its day in court I really think this is just lengthening the song that tracks are singing as they take a long stroll by the graveyard. 

    The problem, as I see it, lies with Texas refusal to seriously consider casino gambling within the State. This has always been the pile of horse dung (or dog dung, whatever) in the room for the industry and nothing has changed. The reason that horse racing is working in Louisiana and Oklahoma (and to a certain extent, New Mexico) is because the purses for their races are propped up by some pretty ridiculous slot-machine revenues whose payout levels are allowed to be ridiculously low per state regulations.  This provides the tracks in neighboring states an extra pile of cash to "add to" the purses for which the horses (dogs) are running.  Higher paybacks mean a better return on investment for animal owners, trainers and jockeys.  All of this means that a higher quality horse, trainer and jockey are competing right across the border.

    Because of this Louisiana Downs has the $400,000 Super Derby (Gr II) on it's schedule and Remington Downs (OK) puts on the $540,000 Remington Park Futurity.   While Lone Star Park has a Nice stakes payout schedule (including a $1Million dollar race) other tracks, such as Sam Houston, dither around the $200,000 or less level for stakes races.  What this means is that the top horses, trainers and jockeys, are moving their tack elsewhere for bigger payouts.  This has been a problem from the beginning of the industry, whose high point was the running of the 2004 Breeder's Cup at Lone Star.

    Personally, the decline of Sam Houston has been especially disappointing.

    The facility is beautiful and, for the most part, top notch. It's also in a bad location and has been poorly managed.  The old saying was that, when building it, 'they spent twice as much as they should have, put it in a place that no-one can get to, and then put the wrong people in charge of it.'  Besides that, they did do some things right.  The turf course, for example, is considered one of the better in all the land. The seats have great sight-lines and it's possible to view the finish line from most of the seating areas.  The track is well maintained, has a great tote-board/video monitor in what is a very picturesque infield.

    Are there downsides?  Sure.  For one, the concessions are borderline awful, there's no good dining option at the track and the liquor beer and wine options are basic, at best.  Finding a Texas craft beer is a miracle, and don't even ask for a wine that's not also available in a 1.5L format at the grocery store for under $10.  There are not enough betting terminals for big events (for example, I used to go on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby to place my bets because there was a good possibility I wouldn't be able to get through the betting line in time on racing day to bet live) and their betting options are sub-par.

    As an example of bad betting Sam Houston never, to my knowledge, offered a pot-guaranteed early or late pick 4.  Never. One of the most popular bets in horse racing (and one that's saved Los Alamitos in California) and Sam Houston never seriously considered it.  Granted, now that things are bad there's not enough money in the bank for them to make a guarantee.  But the old management, the group before the current group, actually could have done this and possibly increased their betting handle (which would allow for bigger purses) but they were fairly clueless on how to run a horse gaming operating and were soon forced to sell out to the current group.

    I do, to some extent, give the current management team a pass. They arrived at a time where the industry was faltering, the ambulance had come out on the track and there weren't many options left. In response to a dying racing industry, the current management group tried to supplement income by turning the track into a concert venue, extreme racing location and festival grounds.  This has kept them financially afloat but none of that money was significant enough to plow into the racing operation.  So, Sam Houston (and the other tracks in Texas) are still looking up at neighboring states who use casino revenue to inflate their purses to levels Texas cannot hope to reach.

    All of this brings us back, conveniently, to casino gambling. Namely, slots.

    From the go, horse racing in Texas was always built on the thought that casino gambling would eventually be authorized and the tracks would be competing on equal footing with neighboring states.  Of course, the industry couldn't admit that when they first sought (and received) legislative authorization to conduct business. Doing so would have immediately torpedoed their lobbying and would have led to no racing in Texas.  Depending on your view of gaming, this might not have been a bad thing.

    Regardless of whether or not you approve of gaming in Texas, if the racing owners didn't include the variable of slot machines in their initial economic forecasts then they were running on a set of the worst economic impact reports I've ever seen.  I've always thought however, that the racing industry based their initial projections on slots being present. There's no way they could have thought that non-casino revenue assisted racing was ever going to work.

    So now, we're moving (it seems) back into limbo. If the legislature authorizes a 3-month extension of funding for the Texas Racing Commission then the tracks will fire back up and everyone will turn a wary eye to the Texas Supreme Court who is going to rule on the legality of the TRC's authorization of historical racing which will signal to Texas whether or not any of this matters long-term. The thought being that, should the TXSC reject historical racing the tracks will have to close due to impossible economics. IF however, track owners say, they're allowed to install historical racing terminals then everything is going to turn around and Texas will be churning out horses and races that rival American Pharoah and the Triple Crown.

    Except, they won't.  Because even IF the TXSC rules in favor of the tracks (Aside: I don't think they will) historical racing terminals in and of themselves are not going to be the cure-all that the tracks need. These terminals will just be a Band-Aid on the cancer that is an uncompetitive environment.  What the tracks really need is the expansion of gambling in Texas to include Class III slot machines. IF they could get that, then they would stand a good chance of succeeding long term.

    Given the current political make-up of the Texas Legislature and body politic I can almost guarantee you this is not going to happen.  As proof of this I offer up the following evidence:  Tillman Fertitta, owner of the Landry's empire and the Golden Nugget casinos, has long advocated for casino gambling in Texas. He even has a resort in Galveston (the San Luis) that is designed for such a purpose.  Last year, he finally opened up a Golden Nugget in Lake Charles Louisiana, which relies almost exclusively on Texas imports for its financial success.

    Looking back on this the revocation of funding for the Texas Racing Commission might have been a blessing in disguise for the race tracks. Sometimes it's better to be humanely euthanized than it is to slowly bleed out.