Monday, February 29, 2016

The Oscars: Here we are now, entertain us.

Last night, the denizens of Hollywood met and threw their annual homage to themselves. From starlets in $20,000 custom gowns to leading men sporting various stages of beard-growth the annual brouhaha to determine just who suffered the most for their craft was wrapped up in it's usual bow of glitz, glamour and insufferableness.

Whether it was Best Actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio reminding us that our refusal to limit our energy consumption is hampering his ability to fly in his private jet guilt-free, or brilliant actor (but slug of a human being) Mark Ruffalo chastising the Pope for......well, I'm not sure what really, as Ruffalo doesn't really seem to know what he's calling for either, except that the solution should be 'liberal; or some-such, the night was full of glitz, glamour, preaching and a decent dallop of full-on self unawareness. In fact, the only group that is more self-unaware than Hollywood is professional athletics. Increasingly common in any award show is the idea that you, not them, are responsible for their short-comings.

When Cheryl Boone-Isaacs (President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) stands up and tells you that racism is "all of our problem" she is, to a certain extent, correct.  But what she, and others in Hollywood are really trying to say is that you need to fix your racism, but they're OK with theirs because....advocacy, or something. We had to destroy the village to save it right?

So actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio (who finally got his Oscar last night, for one of his lesser roles) stands up and says that you need to "act" on Climate Change and defy the will of the big corporations (ignoring, for a minute, that both his film, and the award he just won, wouldn't be possible without big corporations) what he's really saying is that you should change so he and his can continue jet-setting at their leisure.

Then, there's the iron-clad fact that these are actors. Not doctors or scientists or particle physicists or firefighters or policemen or engineers or anything else that would imply expertise in the field. These are people who can do a good job pretending to be someone they are not. This doesn't mean that they shouldn't have a voice, only that we as a society need to stop paying so much attention to it, and granting it a weight that it does not deserve.

The problem is, America loves itself some fame. We worship it, adore it. We put fame on a pedestal so high it causes us to lose sight of the fact that, quite often, those who are famous are pretty awful people. The same room of people who gave a standing ovation to Joe Biden after he made a call to bring and end to rape culture famously gave a standing ovation to Roman Polanski. In Hollywood, after all, you're not judged by the crimes you commit, but by whether or not actors enjoy working with you and consider your work to be brilliant.

Last year, a record-low audience tuned in to watch Hollywood's warm self-embrace, something that I think will not happen this year.  By embracing #OscarsSoWhite (they had pre-scripted bits about it woven into the show for Chrissakes) and hiring a black comedian to host the Oscars have ensured that they would at least get a curiosity bump.

What they haven't done is given us any indication that they really give a shit about affecting the kind of change that they demand of society.

Oh sure, next year (and for a few years following) there will be a token number of black actors, directors and producers nominated in each category. The Oscars won't admit to a quota system but one will exist. Some of them might even be given a win from time to time. If anything next year's nominee list is sure to be overwhelmingly of color, a classic case of overcorrecting after this year's snafu.

But long-term, in society, where sorority racism (one of Chris Rock's better lines of the evening) really exists is this going to have any effect?

No, because Hollywood is not real life and the people that you saw on television were not real people. They were mannequin peacocks dressed up in finery parading themselves in front of the camera.  Everything they said and did was either scripted or pre-planned. The only thing authentic was the statue itself.

And I didn't watch, after the monologue that is.  Because I don't care. 

I will watch your movies Hollywood because you entertain me (at times).  Beyond that?

You have nothing for me. (And I hope they have nothing for you)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Fading First: Freely given is freely taken away.

Another day another story about a bakery not wanting to make a cake for a GLBT wedding....

An East Texas Bakery coming under fire for refusing to bake a gay wedding cake. Craig Hlavaty,

A Christian couple that owns a bakery in Longview, Texas is coming under fire for refusing to make a cake for a same-sex couple in that area.
Edie and David Delorme own Kern’s Bake Shop. They attend a small Baptist church just outside of town. 
According to Longview News-Journal the bakery was asked by a couple, Ben Valencia and Luis Marmolejo, to make a cake for their upcoming nuptials back on Feb. 17. The bakery’s owners told the couple that their faith precluded them from making the cake but they did suggest a handful of bakeries in the area that could suit their needs.
Mr. Valencia and Mr. Marmolejo go on, later in the story, to both question the faith of the proprietors and to discuss the dehumanizing effects not having a specific shop make them a cake truly is. According to the owners, at the time the conversation was civil, so I've a feeling their deep-seated feelings of pain and suffering were seeded by others.

That doesn't make this a "baker friendly" post however.  Because the outrage culture that's feeding stories of this type often takes one side or the other often excluding that both parties have warts.  For example, take this quote from the cake-shop's lawyer, Michael Berry....

Berry says that the bakery remains open but they have expressed real concern that some of the internet chatter could have a financial impact on the business.

Berry is correct.  The backlash and noise that is a result of a couple exercising their Constitutionally protected freedom of religion could produce negative economic consequences. The loss of revenues could even potentially cause them to either sell, or close permanently.  On the other hand the ground-swell of financial support from those with similar beliefs might elevate their financial profile to as-yet unheard of levels.  That any of these results is perfectly acceptable will be lost on most who follow this story.

The idea in America that free speech must not only be unrestricted, but uncontested as well is a dangerous trap into which many fall, and it leads to idiotic outcomes such as "safe spaces" and limits the germination of ideas.  Yes, you have a freedom of speech, granted in the Constitution, that is (supposedly) to be free from government censure.  What you do not have is a right to say anything at all and not be called out on it by the private market.

This goes the other way as well.  Twitter, who in a high profile move have taken steps to practice open censorship against political ideals with which it disagrees is certainly acting within it's rights as a private company, but there is no hedge against them suffering financially if enough people decide that their decision makes them a less desirable platform with which to engage.

Conversely, Kern's Bake Shop should have the right to accept, or refuse business from GLBTPQ couples. Just as GLBTPQ couples/and their supporters, have the right to refuse to do business with them, boycott them, or generally promote (without using violence, slander or libel of course) people taking their business elsewhere.

We all have, ostensibly, the right to free speech and the right that the government does not attempt to regulate it (with a few, very, very limited exceptions).  What we do not, or should not, have is the cost of that free speech always being zero.

Kern's Bake Shop should always have the right to refuse to do business with groups that it's ownership genuinely fees to be counter to their beliefs, just as consumers should always have the choice to take their business to companies that do. (As a matter of fact, in this case, it appears that Kern's provide the aggrieved with a list of options so that they could do so.)  Then again, we are talking about a wedding cake, which is a luxury, and not something as fundamental as marriage, which the SCOTUS has declared to be a right.

If we ever do get to the place in the US where wedding cakes are considered to be valuable pieces of our civil rights then we might want to start checking the private rooms of the ruling class to see if any descendants of Ms. Antoinette are hanging around.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Everyone is doing it.

I would imagine that, when you walked into the ballot box, you voted for people you thought had creative solutions to your city/state/country/world's biggest problems.  I doubt for a second that you pulled the lever for people who would look around and just try to "keep up with the Joneses" which might include adopting their bad policies just because?

Apparently, in Houston, there are several people residing in the courtesan class who would just as soon pick the latter....

City's free ride to recycling success about to end. Mike Morris, ($$$)

Francis and Scruggs both noted that Houston is Texas' only big city without a garbage fee.

"Objective" reporter (and spouse to far-left Democratic State Rep) Miya Shay:

Mayor opined about possibility of garbage fee, didn't go far. But other cities charge💰for city trash service. 

And so it goes.

Clearly the pass/fail test for municipal policy, for some, is to look around and see if everyone else is doing it.  This is the thinking that got Houston saddled with 4 very expensive professional sports stadiums (one of which is an eyesore that going to cost taxpayers Billions of dollars to revitalize and maintain) a light rail system that doesn't go anywhere, or do anything to reduce congestion, and red-light cameras that were removed due to concerns regarding their legality.

It's also the thinking that led to great expense surrounding Parker's Folly (HER Ordinance), has led to the bird sculpture disaster and paved the way for the stellar political career of Sylvester Turner.

Everyone else is doing it.

From that perspective however you have to stop and wonder what everyone "else" is doing that Houston might want to do next?

Raise the minimum wage to $15/hour?  Potentially. Never mind that jobs in the cities that are doing that are seeing all of the problems doubters predicted (increased unemployment (as compared to the National average and trends), increased prices, increased small business closings, business flight etc.) because "they're all doing it" people are already starting to shout that Houston should to.

Bike trails?  Oh sure. Never mind that the future of transportation probably resides with driverless car technology other cities (many with much more temperate climates) are spending Billions on bike paths so Houston should as well.  As a matter of fact, we need to become a bike leader, allowing for the 4 months of good weather that Houstonians actually like to bike.

Remove the revenue caps?  Of course, because OTHER cities don't have them why should Houston?  Besides, if Houston were to remove the revenue caps then they could spend more money to "get things done" just like they do in cities in State's like California and the Rust Belt, places where many of the people forwarding and supporting these ideas fled from to avoid high taxes and low services.

Of course, following this logic there are a host of other things Houston can do to keep in line as well.

File for Bankruptcy?  Hey, why not.  Maybe we can get a State Appointed City Manager to run things for us as well?  What Houston REALLY needs to be "world class" is an appointed "czar" to make decisions for us.

Shrink in size?  That's a good possibility.  Because while most of the cities Houston is trying to emulate had boom times, they are currently shrinking in size.  This creates reduced tax collections which lead to increased debt (governments at all levels rarely truly decrease spending) and inner city blight.  Of course, as segregated as Houston (inside the city limits) is it won't be the wealthy progressive (predominantly Caucasian) neighborhoods that will suffer, but the poor, predominantly minority ones.

Lose global influence?  Outside of New York City, Los Angeles (primarily due to Hollywood) and possibly San Francisco, America has no truly "global" cities. Sure Chicago has it's finance and business and Houston has it's energy and medical, but there's nothing truly unique about either. If Houston were to lose population in sufficient amounts to reduce it's two biggest industries then it would rapidly fade from global importance as has Pittsburgh, Cleveland and other cities in the Rust belt.  Same for Chicago.  (If you don't think this can happen take a look north to Oklahoma City, which is continually building itself up as an energy center outside of Houston.)

Of course, if you asked Houston's ruling and courtesan classes if they wanted any of the above to happen they would snort and call you crazy. That they are currently pursuing practices that are leading Houston down this path seems lost on them and there's very little chance you're going to pierce the cones of silence they have erected around themselves to plant an unorthodox idea.

Many people, mistakenly, thought that I was referring to a temporary leadership vacuum in Houston during election season when I mentioned the HALV. Sadly, I wasn't.

The Houston Leadership Vacuum is not created by a lack of bodies in an office, but a lack of ideas that accompanies the office holders.  Houston currently has in place a bevvy of elected officials.  What it does not have in any position is a true leader.  The problem is, the more elections we have, the more the leadership vacuum expands.

Election 2016: The Republicans and Democrats have the same problem.

If you listen to the media, the GOP should just close up shop now.  Given that Donald trump is leading the nomination process, after less than a 10th of the delegates have been awarded, and no one can seemingly put a dent in Mr. Trumps armor, it's just time for them to throw in the towel and let the much more reasonable Democrats run things.

If you listen to the media you could be forgiven for thinking this is what's going on. If you look at the hard numbers (removing the Democratic super-delegates [more on them later]) you'd quickly realize that the problems both parties are currently experiencing are almost identical.

Let me explain.

Currently, the Grand Old Party is struggling to come to terms with the reality that fully 30-40% of it's party members lack basic literacy in civics. They don't understand how it is that laws get passed, and why it's difficult to accomplish anything if you do not control all of the three branches in the American government. (And, even then, it's not a given. [Ask Obama how his policy priorities, outside of ObamaCare, fared while the Dems held both houses of Congress and the White House]).  This is why the government shut-down never really had a chance, once the American people sided with the Democrats, it's why Ted Cruz meaningless "repeal and replace" bills over Obamacare are just more grandstanding (Veto anyone?) and it's why things are currently stuck (stalled really) in D.C. currently.

To "remake" the country in the way they see fit the GOP needs to win elections, at all levels.  While it's true that they would have a great chance of accomplishing this if they held the Executive branch of government, the lack of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate would be the hedge against getting much done even then.

The Democratic Party is not having to really face the reality that 30-40% of it's party members lack basic financial literacy because of two reasons.  First, the party did a good job clearing the field of meaningful competition for Hillary Clinton.  Because of this there is only one guide post for those party members who remain tenuously connected to reality to lash their ships.  Whether for good or for ill that post is Her Highness Hillary Rodham Clinton, possibly the most corrupt, entitled candidate to ever stand for a major party nomination in recent history.

Second, the Demcrats, for all of their hiding behind democracy and voter's rights, have possibly the most undemocratic primary process in the free, Western world.  Hillary's current delegate lead of 502 to 70 is largely a construct of the Party's anti-Democratic SuperDelegate system which, in reality, pushes the nomination toward the candidate who best plays ball with the Democratic Party elite.  Eight years ago that was Barack Obama, this year it's Hillary Clinton. (Note: The Republicans have "super" delegates as well but they are far less in number, and much more strongly committed to vote the way of their state's primary voters).

If all of this sounds a little bit convenient and "establishment" friendly to you, you're right.

What this has really done is kept the absolute top of the Democratic Party (Nationally) lily white while it's voter mix is increasingly diverse. Ironically, the masses who continue to vote for this confab of upper-crust, predominantly Caucasian set of Democrats provide the role of useful idiot by continuing to gain ground, and media time, calling the GOP a bunch of racists.  To be fair, the GOP aides in allowing this more often than not be acting tone-deaf on racial issues, as well as having possibly the worst urban messaging in recorded history. (Possibly Marie Antoinette was worse, but not by much).

Sadly, for the GOP, during this election cycle it's not only the messaging that's off, but their entire function as a party. They've lost control of their 30-40% of angry, low-information voters and (in part to a split-ticket and in part due to inconsistent messaging) are currently in danger of nominating, to represent them on the Presidential ballot, a man who has spent his life as a member of the opposing party. A man who has, at the minimum, understood that the low-information voter on the right is enthralled by anti-immigrant rhetoric, protectionist trade language and a hearty dislike of anything remotely politically correct and has channeled that. Anger being a powerful, albeit historically temporary, motivator.

That Trump has done this and is considered (by some) to be the favorite to win the GOP Presidential nomination while Sanders, who has done the same thing exactly instead of choice of targets (the 1% vs. immigrants) is not speaks more about the job the party did pre-election than anything it says about the candidates or their electorate.

The Democrats and the Republicans have both spent most of the last 20 years catering to an angry sub-set of their electoral base. In many, not all, but many, cases those angry people also lack the basic knowledge to succeed in modern times. This is why demagogues succeed, because it's easier to blame someone else for your faults than to blame yourself.

Which brings us back to the GOP.

IF Trump wins the nomination and IF, as many (including myself) predict, the party suffers down-ballot because of the same, you're likely to hear a lot of clap-trap about how the "media" framed things to make the GOP (and by extension conservatives) look bad. This will ignore the fact that the GOP's problems are largely of their own making.

For all of the talk about the 'biased' media the GOP misses the point. The media is biased against ideas, not party.  And the replacement media that the GOP has embraced (talk radio, independent Internet news outlets etc.) have been far worse. Ratings hungry talking heads such as Sean Hannity, Laura Ingram, Ann Coulter and Erick Erickson are not the solution, they're the problem. (At least part of it). In Texas the finger should be pointed at Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his fire-breathing (light on action) sycophants.

A light at the end of the tunnel?

For one, the GOP is having to deal with it's issues and is currently starting to turn it's serious talkers toward educating the angry plurality of voters.  This could mean that education rises and GOP low-information voters is on the wane.

The Democrats are putting their heads in the sand.  Long-term this could spell trouble for a party who might find themselves fully running against the American system and embracing policies that would diminish the Country over time. 

That might play to the base, but independents and moderates would, for a while, be a lost cause.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: A 19th Century Solution to a modern problem.

(And a problem that's well on the way to being solved anyway via 21st century technology )

Say this about the unproductive, ruling and courtesan classes, they're persistent in their quest to waste a lot of your money.

Bike plan will take shape slowly, supporters say. Dug Begley and Mike Morris. ($$$)

The bike as key transportation tool has not been all that valuable since, oh, the end of the 19th century. Unless you live in parts of Asia that is, or Amsterdam.  Probably has something to do with hash.

For the rest of the world however bicycles are fun things, things to be used to exercise, things to be used for recreation, and things that are toys rather than motor vehicles.  This is not to suggest that no one uses their bicycles to commute. There are three groups who do this and you will not mistake one for the other.

The first group are people who need to use the bike. They either cannot afford a car or are undocumented and need the bike to get around. Typically they're not riding top-of-the-line urban bikes, but the low-end bikes as one would find at Wal-Mart. They don't have specialty riding gear, are frequently riding sans helmet, and they don't have special add-ons to their bikes for cargo.

The second group are people who use the bike for healthy reasons. In most cases they own a car but choose not to use it to commute for various reasons. These people ride a bike to work because they enjoy it and like the health benefits that they get from biking. They live close enough to work that they have the ability to bike in, and they have an office that either offers them facilities or flexibility to clean up when they arrive.

The last group (and the group that soaks up most of the media attention) are the people who use the bike to make a statement. These people, in almost all cases, could own a car but choose not to so that they can look down on those who do. They are the bike "activists" who thought that Critical Mass was a good idea. These are the people who spend a lot of their time at Bike Barn looking at $500 saddles made out of virgin baby cow leather, wear "kits" when riding to work and could tell you that yes, there is a thing called bike to work pants and that they can tell you which brand is best. These people don't view biking as commuting, they view it as a moral choice, and only they are on the "correct" side of the moral debate.

The problem is, groups one and two just want to ride their bikes, for as long as they want to, and be left alone. Group three wants to beat you over the head with their moral superiority until you acquiesce and agree to spend Billions building out a bike system that is dripping in World Classiness. Also, give up your car, embrace their lifestyle and (if you would be so kind) admit to them constantly that they are great and right in all things and your moral better.

If you won't do these things they'll continue to whine, stage mass rides and delay first responders until you do. They have a sympathetic ear from the media because those who write news stories think that bicycling is cool and European while the car is ugly and American.

Local politicians love it because they see it as both a chance to build trinkets they can attach their manes to (The Annise Parker Bike Trail System etc.) and it carries with it the stink of world classiness that they can use to promote the city (in their minds). In reality however the true world-class cities of the future are looking toward driverless technologies that will become of increasing importance in the 21st century.

It is truly Houston Stupid to look toward the 19th century to solve our transportation woes, yet that's exactly what we're doing by espousing bikes and street-cars over driverless car technology. By all but ignoring this growing industry Houston is missing the boat on one of the great growth engines of the future, remaining stuck in the past and continuing to be damaged by the ever-expanding leadership vacuum.

That Plan Houston didn't even consider infrastructure needed for driverless cars suggested tunnel-vision. That it's still not being considered is flat-out negligent. The future is coming pretty soon, and Houston's Leadership Vacuum continues to be enthralled by the unproductive class who are tethered to the past.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Not In (or anywhere near) My Back Yard.

New Urbanists, those relatively well off, primarily Caucasian, urban dwellers who tend to like trinkets such as light-rail and parklets, are none-too-happy in Houston that "the poors" might be shoehorned in among them.

Affordable Housing Proposal puts neighbors on edge. Erin Mulvaney, ($$$)

The Houston Housing Authority, under federal and court pressure to address years of segregation, hopes to break ground this fall on a 233-unit affordable-housing apartment complex at 2640 Fountain View. The project, expected to be completed by 2018, would be the local housing authority's first in an area considered high-end and high opportunity. 
Residents are mounting a fierce campaign against it, enlisting the help of their city councilman and representatives on the Houston ISD board, state Legislature and U.S. Congress. Hundreds have joined the effort and say they primarily are worried about school crowding, although some also admit to concern over property values or traffic.

To be sure, they are. No one LIKES the idea of those of a different economic strata (specifically, the strata below them) moving into the same neighborhood, and there are typically big, wide-ranging fights that occur when they do.

Of course, it doesn't just happen when those on the top have to share. Take a look at the battles over gentrification and you'll see that the angst is just as strong on the other side as well. State Rep. Garnett Coleman rails against the "destruction of the community" in Houston's 3rd Ward etc.

All of these lead me to believe that the argument against the desegregation of urban Houston isn't based (totally) on race, but largely on class. A class system, in America, that is newly formed and, for the most part, not acknowledged by many but supported by most. Especially when it comes to urban life.

The ruling class and the courtesan class work together with the unproductive class to make rules on how the working, professional and underclass should live.  Any deviation from these rules (say, mixing affordable housing into upper-class areas) is met with revulsion and arguments about "the children" and such.

Of course, advocates for the underclass, most of them minority groups, will instantly scream "racism" when confronted with resistance. They will also be wrong.  It does not matter what race the people are who are expected to buy into the houses, it only matters that they are poor.

In Houston the talk often focuses on racial segregation, as the most metropolitan region in America is extremely segregated within the confines of the city limits. The conversation should be focused on economic segregation because that is the bigger issue. 

A totally separate issue is whether or not it should be an issue at all?

For years now we've tried to bring up the quality of poor neighborhoods and communities by giving them access to schools (through bussing) shopping (through tax incentives) and perks only formerly available to the upper class.  The result? We're now looking at income that's more divided than ever. The poor are still poor, but they've developed expensive tastes as they try to keep up with the Joneses.

The poor now feel the need to drive fancy cars, wear designer, name brand clothes, talk on $700 cell phones and shop at Whole Foods. Do you think increasingly relocating them to "high-opportunity" (and high expense) areas are going to do anything toward moderating their standard of living?

Maybe a better idea is to try, really try, to improve the living conditions of so-called "poor neighborhoods" and to better equip those low on the socio-economic ladder by teaching them how to budget, and (more importantly) how to stick to it.  Possibly then we can see something happening that won't involve building taxpayer-subsidized housing next to the Galleria so that some poor family can move in and immediately be hit by a wave of things they cannot afford but are urged to buy so they don't get treated like pariahs in schools.

Of course, that would mean taking a look at our failing education system, and training kids the basics instead of trying to indoctrinate them into a specific world view.  Fat chance of THAT happening.

So the fight for inner-city real estate continues, and will continue until we start thinking smarter, not harder, about what we are trying to accomplish in our cities.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Travel Talk: A serious word about selfies.

Last week I travelled, with my wife and parents, to Las Vegas.  As those of you who know me are aware this is not unusual for me, as the wife and I head out to the desert around 2-3 times per year.

For my parents however it was a different story.  45 years ago they eloped, drove to Vegas, got married, and left. They haven't been back since.  In short, they were a little gobsmacked by the whole ordeal.

Las Vegas is not a mecca for cheap buffets, entertainment and gambling any more. Today it's a high-end, high dollar, food, booze and boob fest where you can get pretty much anything you want, provided you have enough money to pay for it. As a matter of fact, I believe that recent numbers have shown that gaming revenues make up around 35% of the casino/resorts total revenue now. What this means, on the Strip at least, is that gambling is just about the worst way you can pass your time.

In the interest of greed (and, to be honest, a little bit of corporate stupidity) the major strip casinos shot a middle-finger to serious gamblers by tightening their slot machines and making pretty much every blackjack table under $25/hand pay out at 6/5. Unless you're willing to bring a bank roll of around $4000 to the table (you need to be able to ride out the swings) that's not an option for most people.  And, if you're ever tempted to play 6/5 blackjack, just don't. Trust me on this the house edge will not work in your favor. (If you want to play blackjack hop on the bus and go down to Freemont street, where most $5 - $10 tables pay 3/2.)

Regardless of where you go the one thing you are not going to get away from is the selfie taking mob.

They are everywhere.

Watching the fountains at the Bellagio?  Good luck getting to see things with all of the selfie sticks in the way.

Want to get a picture of the Chinese New Year Display at the Wynn?  Please wait 10 minutes until all of the people taking selfies get out of the way.

The problem with selfies, as opposed to just standard pictures, is that in order to take a good one you have to be obstructing the view of pretty much everyone else. That means they can't take a picture unless you are in it.

This was bad enough when people used to hand their cameras to others to take group shots. Sure you had to wait from time to time and then, inevitably, the person given the camera would have no idea how to work it, but you waited nonetheless and, eventually, the group moved out of the way and everyone could take their picture.

Today however anything of which you might want to take a picture of is blocked by a perpetual train of vain people standing at odd angles trying to get the perfect shot of themselves, backed by something they'll only vaguely remember when they get home.

And why do you want a picture of yourself anyway?

Think about it.  I know what I look like.  I see myself every morning in the mirror.  And don't tell me that you want a picture of yourself because "I want people to know I was there".  That's just a load of crap.  Who cares what other people think.  You KNOW you were there because you were there. The pictures on your phone should be of stuff, not you and your hair halfway blocking out the stuff that caused you to want to take the picture in the first place.

Then we come to the elephant in the room.  Safety.

Let's face it, this wave and epidemic of selfie taking has gotten way, way too dangerous. It's to the point that some selfie takers can be classified as a public nuisance.  I've seen people stop in the middle of the road with traffic oncoming, in the middle of a busy sidewalk, intersection, suddenly in front of a massive crowd. You name it, people stop there.  And selfie sticks? Last week in Las Vegas I got hit no less than three times by someone not paying attention.  Twice in the arm and once in the head.  The time I got hit in the head the offender got mad at me for messing up their shot. I honestly believe the police would have let me off had I spiked him and his phone into the Canal at the Venetian.

When it comes down to it I understand that there is a certain demographic that is going to fight giving away their selfies with all the fervor of the NRA. Those people we might not be able to reach.  But that doesn't mean that the sane among us, the adults in the room, shouldn't be able to band together and start taking back our right to walk in a straight line without having to play dodge-camera or almost get impaled by a selfie-stick.  At a minimum, we can not join into those kiddie games and go back to taking pictures of stuff like respectable tourists.

But, most of all, we can all do society a solid by making a mockery of those who think selfies are the highest form of the photographic arts by repeatedly, and consistently, refusing to acquiesce to their narcissism.

In other words, don't make way for their obsession.

It's for the greater good y'all.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Tales of a sub-par media outlet: So you've lost your job. (HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!)

On more than one occasion I've been taken to task by various staffers of the Houston Chronicle for my incessant criticism of the fading company.  Usually, their argument falls something like this:

"They're human beings that work there".

Of course, the staffers are correct.  With the possible exception of Ken Hoffman, the employees of the Houston Chronicle are human beings.  That is why I don't call for anyone to lose their jobs, except for the members of the Editorial Board, many of whom are either there ceremonially or who have personal wealth to a level that they can afford to stop preaching.

The reporters and other staff?  I want them to stay around and keep working, keep reporting etc.  While it's true that I think the newspaper would be better given a refreshing of the editorial direction, that doesn't mean that I want anyone to "lose their job".  They are people with families and pets after all.

Conversely, I wonder what they would say if you asked them for the same respect?

Probably just to shut up and keep purchasing their product.  Because, when it comes to reporting on the rest of us, they seem to find people losing their jobs in the private sector pretty damn funny.

Oil crash memes bring humor to petroleum's plunge. Craig Hlavaty,

Now, granted, is the wart on the ample backside of the Hearst Media empire. It's where we're given the social media beat, tantalizing headlines that naked bodies are just a click away and lectures on what we SHOULD be doing from Jr. reporters with J-school degrees and little life experience. In short, it's a tabloid masquerading as media.

But it's still part of Hearst Corp and (ostensibly) the Houston Chronicle.  That's why it's so jarring to see a newspaper poke fun at people getting laid off and losing their livelihood. When you juxtapose that to the same publication's serious treatment of government losing tax revenue a clearer picture starts to form:

Region braces for impact of declining sales-tax revenue. Mike D. Smith & Mike Tolson. ($$$)

You have read here, many times, of the courtesan class. A group of people who's sole purpose in life is seemingly to prostitute themselves to the ruling class without regard for appearance or propriety.  They are the modern-day equivalent of court jesters and they have firmly imbedded themselves in the media.

To the courtesans the loss of income by people is a joke, something to be mocked and laughed at. The true tragedy is when the ruling class has to face reduction. That cannot stand. There was a time, when newspapers and media engaged in something they still like to jokingly call "accountability journalism". The inside joke is that they no longer hold those with power accountable at all.  The media prefers to go after the ruled, not the rulers. And they honestly believe that they are held in special favor for that.

So, the next time a staffer from the Houston Chronicle chides you for reminding them of just how bad they're doing, make sure to point them to these two articles (or, if you're clearer thinking, this blog post which contains both).  If they try to say that "they're people too" you should probably tune them out.  What they're really saying is that they don't want to listen to criticism, and that the problem is not them, it's you.

Which is what they always think.  The problem is you.

The day is coming where enough problems are going to look at legacy media and decide the abuse makes the relationship not worth maintaining.  Maybe we're already there? 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: On birds, space, global trade and the rate of vacuum expansion.

Who knew?

Council's Funding Up in Air Over Sculpture's Bird Theme. Rebecca Elliott,$$$)

"Bird migration. Why?" Councilman Robert Gallegos asked during an 18-minute debate alternately tense and jesting. "How are we promoting the city with global trade, space exploration? That's what Houston is. I don't have a problem that you want to promote the birds, but promote global trade."

Further down the article District A Councilman Brenda Stardig weighs in, which is always fun...

"I've expressed my concern to Houston First about our branding and trying to make us something that we're not," Stardig said, referring to the agency that runs the city's convention and entertainment facilities. "We need to embrace our space. We're known for NASA. People come here, they don't talk about the migration of birds."


Ignoring, for a minute, the continued waste of money on trinket governance that this sculpture represents (Funding couldn't have come from private sources, or fundraising?), the idea that sculptures are to be taken literally reveals a stunning lack of creativity on the part of Council members Gallgos and Stardig.

First, there is a long literary history tying birds with space, and flight in general. Second, global trade can certainly be signified by birds. The winged messenger Mercury anyone?  Third, Houston is not really "known" for either of those things, despite what the councilmembers think. Houston is known as a place to get business done.  To be honest, it could have been a sculpture of key buildings in Omaha and no one would have given it two thoughts.

Even more amazing is that this became an issue in the first place. With all of the problems that Houston is currently staring down the City Council decided they needed to pause and spend 20 minutes talking about carved birds?

You've read before where I've said that the US Congress is nothing more than a collection of America's lowest common denominator in D.C. I think you can say something similar about Houston City Hall.  Often in politics we are stuck with a choice of the least of us, those striving for power or influence or just feeling the need to be important. The adrenaline shot of having a majority pick you out of a lineup and pull a voting lever for you is an insatiable drug for many.  The true irony is that in politics those who are most capable of governing in a rational competent manner usually have no desire to do so.

This is because they can, and do, accomplish so much more in the private sector.

What we're left with then is a group of people who argue over bird sculptures and then turn around, with a straight face, and tell their constituents that they are "fighting" for them. I've no doubt that Stardig and Gallegos view themselves as fighters. Sadly, the Battle of the Birds is going to be pretty much their biggest fight.

And that says all you need to know.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: I reject your patronage system and substitute my own*.

It's good to be the King.

Turner tears up airport contracts, will start bidding process over. Mike Morris, ($$$)

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he will tear up a series of massive airport expansion contracts and start the bidding process over late Tuesday, hours after City Controller Chris Brown said he would not clear the way for council to approve the items, citing potential violations of city procurement rules and other concerns.

And, so it begins.  There were questions surrounding these contracts that first surfaced under the prior administration which, amazingly, were not even mentioned in this article.  At the time, then Mayor Annise Parker tried to classify the dispute as a personal issue between then-City Controller Ronald Green and Texas State Representative Boris Miles, the latter seemingly having forged some type of relationship with the former's ex (or soon to be ex)-wife.

Like most political observers I assumed, wrongly, that the exit of Green and Parker would mean that the contracts plowed ahead, and all would be well that ended well with the establishment patronage system still in place. (After all, one of the firms contracted employed a current sitting councilman and the other was owned by Democratic gadfly Boris Miles.)

It appears however that current City Controller Brown is doing his former boss a solid, and Mayor Turner wants to start rewarding his own set of political patrons, so out to re-bid we go. 

My question is rather or not the jilted companies are going to play hard-ball and try and fight this, or will they understand that they can get back in the game fairly easily by paying tribute to the new and reigning king?

Given that Mr. Miles and Mr. Turner are firmly entrenched in Sheila Jackson-Lee's Houston Democratic political machine, I can't see Miles going anywhere and the firm that employs Councilman Davis is surely going to be retained in some fashion. So most of the major lawsuit worry is probably going to be negotiated away.  What is a mystery will be the other firms that are allowed to take a place at the public trough.

Outside of the direct negotiations is the status of Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz. Mr. Diaz was a vocal supporter of these contracts, a fact the Houston Chronicle made sure to point out, and has lobbied for their passage both loudly and publically. It's no secret that he's not considered to be "Sylvester Turner's guy" so it is a possibility that His Royal Highness Sylvester Turner of the House Acres Homes looks askance at the HAS until they sack Mr. Diaz (The failure and mess surrounding the contracts would certainly count as 'cause' for termination) and replace him with someone more in favor with the Turner Administration.

In Houston there are several candidates who meet the qualifications:  They need to be Democrats, loyal party activists/candidates/gadflies and they need to have supported Turner in the run-off.


*With apologies to the Mythbusters.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: How much is "enough".

A few years back there was a commercial, created by a company whose name I don't remember (not that great of advertising I guess) but whose meaning has stuck with me until today. In it there was a group of ancient Knights attacking a city by loading money onto a catapult and hurling it at the walls.

Cut to modern day and an executive saying to what are obviously business consultants: "Are you suggesting we throw money at the problem?"

This commercial, and the proclivity of the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board to editorialize for increased government funding to fix all problems, led to the creation of "Mrs. White's Catapult*" which they would roll out from time to time to bemoan that the local government crisis of the day was not getting enough funding, and would be immediately solved if Houstonians would just "pay a little" for the greater good.

On Wednesday, the Chronicle dusted off the old girl and started firing shots again.

Park Perks. ($$$)

Yet the hard work is not over; parks are not just about acquiring land. Parks have to be maintained, renovated and constantly made more accessible and relevant even as their natural beauty is preserved.         
As Houston has changed, its parks have had to adapt. Once Houstonians demanded more baseball fields; now park users want more soccer fields, fat-tire biking trails and skateboard facilities 
To accomplish all this, the parks department needs adequate funding. As park usage and demand for services have increased over the past few years, the budget for maintenance and programming has stayed flat.

So, once again we're rolling out Mrs. White's catapult and suggesting that we solve a problem by hurling large amounts of money at it. Add unmaintained parks to the list of problems solved overnight by the lifting of the pillow-soft revenue cap.

Also occurring several years ago, was a movement by certain members of the InterLeft, asking fiscal conservatives "how much is enough" when referring to tax cuts and reduced government. They thought this clever, but it was really just an exercise in avoiding any serious discussion on the issue. Obviously their efforts at avoidance were successful because the InterLeft as an entity has devolved into a morass of circular reasoning and blockquotes with no value add in a hermetically sealed netroots bubble. Want to engage with a blogger on the left? You can't, unless you're a politician or blogger on the left that is. To be fair, that's slightly more developed than the eco-system of the conservative blogosphere which has largely died.

The question itself though was ludicrous, but it should be asked again today (in reverse) to point out just how silly the entire debate is.

"How much additional government spending is "enough" to make things right? How high to taxes need to be raised?"

You will never (ever) get an honest answer to this because the answer to the question is "more".

The Leviathan that is the bureaucracy at all levels has an insatiable need for funding and control. There is no level that is going to ever be enough. It is akin to Ungoliant in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillian always drinking, always more thirsty.  Eventually, of course, Ungoliant began to hate the source of her nourishment and turned against them, such is the case with the government who views the ruled with disdain.

On the other side of the ledger you have fiscal conservatives, standing athwart the ever expanding bureaucracy, putting their hand out and hollering "Halt!".  If this reminds you of King Canute, trying to stop the rising tide you are not wrong. The problem with trying to put a halt to the inevitable is that you soon become frustrated. After decades of Democratic rule, and ever-rising tides, urban GOP groups are exactly that.

This is where the debate breaks down, and why one side can simultaneously roll out bigger and bigger catapults while chastising the other side for being 'knee-jerk' in their opposition to it. It's how one side can believe that "eliminating the IRS" is something not only plausible, but desirable as well. (Even with a flat tax, who would collect the money?)  So when the bloggers of the InterLeft mockingly asked Conservatives "how much?" what they were really saying is "We don't want to talk about it" and Conservatives said the same by becoming, in large part, the party of silence at the municipal level.

Throughout all of this however it is Mrs. White's catapult that has survived.

It is rolled out, from time to time, by the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board and loaded with money.  If you ask them how much they need to craft Houston into Houtopia they will look at you with a straight face and answer......


*At the time, I thought I was being humorous calling the Ed board "Mrs. White" they were in love with then-Mayor Bill White and their op-eds regarding his governance read more like love letters.  Little did I know, then, that they would have no shame and ultimately put the REAL Mrs. White  (Andrea White, wife of Bill) on the current version of the Editorial board.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Election 2016: So you want to be a GOP political pundit.

Just say "establishment" over and over and people will think you know what you're saying.

Armageddon for the GOP Establishment. Jeremy Carl, National Review Online

The night could have gone worse for the GOP establishment—but I’m not really sure how. Not only did Donald Trump win an overwhelming victory in New Hampshire, but the establishment lane of viable candidates got more crowded than it had been going in. And remember that since the current primary calendar was inaugurated in 1976, no GOP nominee has ever emerged without winning Iowa or New Hampshire.

What Mr. Carl writes would be true, if there existed a GOP "Establishment" as it used to be understood in the 80's and 90's. It's not so true when you look at the party today.  During the days of Reagan (and Bush the elder) the GOP "establishment" controlled most of the party apparatus and had a very big hand in selecting the eventual nominee.  Think the current Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton's six-coin-flip run in Iowa. Today however the GOP is made up of factions.  And winning the nomination is going to depend not on establishment support, as many pundits are claiming, but in corralling the support of enough factions to come out ahead.

In reality, what's called the "establishment" of the GOP are really two factions who typically find their interests aligned.  The Corporate Faction and Northeastern Moderates.

In light of this I think it's better to look at the nomination process via who is going to receive support from the various factions, and whether or not that presents them with a path to victory. The way I see it, there are seven major factions currently at work in the Republican Party.

The "Flyover" Faction: These are the Caucasian, mostly poor, mostly pissed off voters that Kevin D. Williamson describes in the White Ghetto.  If you have not read this piece of reporting you should, because it's vital to understanding just how strong their support of Trump is. While not wholly confined to Appalachia these people feel that the system of immigration and affirmative action are slanted against them.  They are voting on an emotional level.

The Social Tea Party: Not to be mistaken with the people who attended the tea party rallies post bailout, these people are often lumped in with the same but are really a different movement altogether.  It's also not fair to call them Evangelicals either.  By social I mean "culture" and by culture I mean language and immigration.  They count among their members some in the Flyover faction but they are truly a faction apart.  Trump draws a lot of support from these people and it includes many in the White Supremacy movement.

The Fiscal Tea Party: These are the people who, at parties, always start off by telling you they're "not Republican, they're conservative" and then devolve from there.  They are yuuuuge Ted Cruz supporters and are likely to have something about being "A strict Constitutionalist" somewhere in their social media bio. Ironically, these are also the people who make signs reading "Keep your government hands off my Medicare" at big rallies.

Evangelicals: Another Cruz-Group. The Evangelicals haven't changed much over the years, since the rise of the Moral Majority that is.  They are politically active, believe in a theocracy of convenience and almost always vote Republican. They are pro-life, anti-gambling, anti-alcohol, anti-drug legalization and will go to great lengths to tell you that they don't hate the GLBTQP community, but don't want the US to legalize their orientation either.

The Beltway/D.C. Faction: This is K-street.  The thought is often, mistakenly, that this is the group that supports business but that is sometimes not true.  These groups come from Wall Street, Military Suppliers and other companies who (to be honest) like to take a seat at the government trough.  They are widely derided but highly necessary.  They want to support Jeb(?) but his candidacy has been so weak that they are shifting between Rubio and Jeb(?) almost interchangeably.

Northeast Moderates: This group is Jeb(?)'s core group of support. Again, they're often referred to as "The Establishment" but that is no longer true.  They are old money, a LOT of old money, and they have much influence in the region but their reach is no longer Nationwide. They also have been wavering from Jeb(?) and are looking for a home.

Business: Not to be confused with lobbyists and/or Wall Street. The Business faction is made up of several business sectors and is not as monolithic as people think.  The energy sector has different needs than the service sector for example.  However, most of this support is currently behind Rubio. As derided as it is in other GOP factions the "Gang of Eight" immigration reform bill would have been a boon to most business groups.

There are other, smaller, factions for sure but the seven above are pretty much the ones that are going to make up the electorate that selects the Republican nominee.  The exception to this was in New Hampshire, where Kasich was able to cobble together enough fake-Republican voters to come in 2nd, something he is unlikely to repeat in future states. This is also why I think Donald Trump might not see another win for quite some time.

In Iowa, the results for the GOP tend to skew toward the Evangelical candidate, which gave Cruz the edge. However, the large, Midwestern, influence exerted by the Flyover faction pushed Trump up to a respectable (if not funny) 2nd place finish. As I stated earlier, New Hampshire is a result not likely to be repeated. It's low levels of Evangelical voters, coupled with a large influx of moderate Democratic voters, skewed the results. More important to the health of each candidate's chances will be the results in Dixie.

Due to the rather large prevalence of Tea Party and Evangelical voters, I'm expecting Cruz to start gaining some distance over Trump.  And while the Flyovers had some pull in Iowa and (to a lesser extent) New Hampshire, I expect their influence to be muted in the much more economically well-off South. I think Rubio will start doing better as well.  Gone will be the Kasich distraction (he'll fall back to last place) and Jeb(?) will be diminished away from his ancestral home in New England. (The Bush Family, in case you are wondering, are NOT Texan)

One last point: Mr. Carl mentions, in his article, that the eventual Republican nominee has either won Iowa or New Hampshire in every election since the modern calendar was adopted in 1976. I think that's an interesting stat that is of diminishing importance.  The reason for that is the democratization of the media.

In prior elections engaged voters, of the type that vote in primaries, were limited in information to a few mainstream sources. Most campaign coverage was consumed by opening the morning paper with a bowl of cereal, or watching the network news.  That started changing in recent years as cable news rose to prominence, but even with the emergence of Fox News the narratives were still very narrow.

More than the general electorate voter the primary voter is much more likely to consume a large amount of political information. Increasingly, this information is much more varied and (in many cases) much less likely to hide its bias than was the old.  This means that many of the old narratives forced by the media, are now countered endlessly through articles, tweets, Facebook posts you name it.

An example of this, this year, would be John Kasich. In prior elections his 2nd place finish would have been reported as the resurrection of Lazarus. He would be instantly branded a contender and pushed forth to South Carolina where pundits would say "he's in with a chance".  This year's election however the much-needed context of his 2nd place finish is being discussed. What this means for Kasich is the likelihood that most, not all, voters in the Southern states will see his finish for what it is, an outcome of NH's silly primary/social system, and less a product of his viability.

Next up are Nevada (not all that important) and South Carolina (more important), where I predict the story will be that the "Establishment" is back because Rubio is going to do well in two States that he's always been targeting.  Rhetoric to the contrary, I still view this as a three man race between Cruz, Rubio & Trump.  I will say now, however, that instead of having Rubio a slight favorite I'm pivoting to the Jr. Senator from Texas as the odds-on favorite.

I also expect Christie, Fiorina** and Carson to exit the race soon.  Jeb(?) should exit but family dreams die hard.  I doubt he lasts long after S. Carolina.

Odds to win Republican Nomination*:

Cruz: 3/1
Rubio: 7/1
Trump: 15/1
Bush: 100/1

Other: 1000/1

*Note: The odds are NOT a measure of my support of any candidate, just where I think we stand.

**Additional Note: Since I wrote this two days ago both Christie and Fiorina have "suspended" their Presidential campaigns so I was correct about that.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Presumptuous Blogging: Things you should read (2/11/2016)

Did you know Tuesday, February 9th was National Pizza Day? (Neither did I, which means that we have too many "days")

Transition to low-carbon energy will be 'extremely difficult'. Fuel Fix - If you're poor, or live in a developing country, it's going to be brutal.  Al Gore's plan to save Gaia includes a healthy shot of population reduction after all.

Android has 85% of global market share. - To be honest that number surprised me.

Houston Pedestrians Rejoice!

Austin's City Leaders REALLY don't like Lyft and Uber. - Progressive politicians don't like the "gig" economy because it's a challenge to the patronage system that they enjoyed with the cab companies.

Your almost daily reminder that reporters very seldom really understand the subjects they are reporting on. - And longevity does not equal expertise.

Somehow, Houston's pillow-soft revenue cap has become the cause of all the woes. - It's amazing to watch the story get framed by a former newspaper of record whose current job is to carry the water for the current administration.

A lesson in World Classiness.  Old Conventional Wisdom:  "Municipal golf courses are world class!"  New Conventional Wisdom: "Municipal golf courses are elitist and exclusionary. What WE want are botanical gardens!"

Color me shocked. I'm amazed that pro-abortion/PP advocates determined that defunding PP would have negative effects on women's health.  Of course, to say this with a straight face you have to almost entirely limit "women's health" to abortions and taxpayer subsidized birth control.

Leadership, Grier Style. - Is there any Houston Area Government Agency (outside of the County) that's not running at a deficit? 

Devon Anderson is reaping the whirlwind she has sown. And she's angry about it to boot, which should make for some interesting election copy.

This is always how trinket governance starts. Some well meaning, but naïve, young new urbanist with zero real-life experience forwards an idea that they think should be 'privately funded' not realizing that public easements such as bridges and roads are treated very territorially by local politicians and are often viewed as legacy builders.  Meanwhile, Houston is drowning under a sea of red ink.

The minimum-wage patronage project. In reality, progressive groups use gimmicks such as minimum wage hikes to shrink the pool of available jobs and increase the likelihood that the awarding of the same will now flow through their political mechanisms.  Those who cannot work are thrown into the entitlement machine and are continually threatened with being cut-off from the supply if the dealer is ever to be unelected.

It's a brilliant plan really, you gain dependents both by restricting, and controlling, the labor market and then addicting those who cannot gain entrance on the drug of hand-outs.

New Urbanists hate the Grand Parkway but clear-thinking Houstonians should view it as yet another chance to escape the city limits and move to a lower-cost, less regulated, higher-opportunity area.

Gov. Abbott's priorities. - He sure is displaying a penchant to focus on hot-button issues of minor importance. That's a little discouraging.

The lipid theory has been all but debunked. - Yet many activists still cling to it's fallacy.

It's very clear here that Ms. Falkenberg doesn't understand the meaning of "access". Because she's confusing it with "taxpayer paid" which is often misclassified as "free" by the more dim among us.

Speaking of dim..... A vote for Sanders is a tacit admission you neither understand economics, or how taxation works.

I don't know about you, but I don't find people losing their jobs to be funny. - It appears that the Chron is OK with it provided the job losses are from approved industries.

Dome Derangement Syndrome. First Emmett, now the Chron Editorial Board. Hold on to you wallets.

There is a baseline of stupid in Houston The people opposing these lights are below it.

There are two schools of thought in modern racial thinking.

1. That 'race' is an increasingly meaningless term. This is because we have so much mixing in our backgrounds that almost everyone contains ancestry that appears to be cut from a quilt rather than a bolt of silk.  These people tend to be more optimistic in nature.

2. Segregationist writing. Which, in my opinion, is pessimistic and self-limiting. It assumes that certain races are incapable of making rational decisions, lack the skills to succeed, and will not thrive unless they are gifted large sums of money and given advantages over others.

When you can't win elections you're stuck snickering at stuff like this. - It's almost sad what the Texas Democratic Party has done to itself.  If it's members weren't such angry people I'd almost feel sorry for them.

Add 'How taxes work' to the list of things Tomlinson doesn't quite get. - Let's see, he lives in Austin, writes (ostensibly) about Houston and is a business columnist that apparently has never done much work outside of journalism?  That actually fits for the Chronicle.

And finally......

A joke of a budget from a joke of a President. - It's too early to talk about it now, but history is not going to be kind to President Zero and that's a bummer.  The man just wasn't big enough for the office. This last budget almost feels like an admission of that.  Not an intentional admission mind you, because that would take self-awareness.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Behold the Superbowl.

It's coming.

Whether you want it to be here (and most do) or not (contrarian waves hand) Super Bowl LI is on its way and your taxpayer dollars are already being spent to get it here.

First off, is the movement (started by the Texans and NFL) to convince you that NRG is no longer enriched with enough world classiness to not only host this next Stupid Bowl, but to (gasp!) receive the honor of paying for hosting any others as well.

With a final cost in the hundreds of Millions, NRG is not going to be considered technologically advanced enough to compete with the Billion dollar pleasure palaces/entertainment complexes that are built, being built, or are planned to be built in other locales.

The answer to this? $50 Million in short-term upgrades but the long-term plan has not yet been announced.

My guess?  A $1 Billion package that makes use of the dilapidated Astrodome which also transforms the area into a new-urbanist, walkable (mixed-use) paradise that can only be accessed via bus or rail, with limited parking in the immediate area. The financing tool for this will be yet another increase in hotel and rental car taxes, and an increase in certain municipal and county "fees" which will disproportionally hurt those poor and economically disadvantaged.

Of course there will be bars, and nightclubs, and new entertainment districts that spring up along the rail lines, get hailed as the rebirth and renewal of the urban core. Articles will be written, Houston's night-life and urban environment will be declared "on the come" and officially full of "world classiness".  Then quietly, almost overnight, most of these venues will have taken all of the profit that they can out of the boom market and will shutter in short order.  Experts will blame this on Houston's lack of urban transportation options ignoring the fact that a majority of the city has never shown an inclination to party downtown.

In the course of all this racket you're going to hear whispers that Houston is going broke, that the city is running out of money, is facing a pension short-fall, a difficult debt situation and is short on both police and other first responders.  You will then be told by the sycophants that you elected to public office, and the media that devotes themselves to them, that all of these concerns are unfounded and the permanent spike in sales tax, property tax and other revenues that will be generated by Houston's new status as a party/convention mecca, is going to make all of our problems go away.

Houston has arrived as a destination dripping with world classiness and the Orange House dammit. Of course people want to travel here to ride the Danger Train, and see the Menil, and walk around in the half-full downtown tunnel system. Why soon, with the new Marriott Marquis featuring a lazy river (on the rooftop no less) people will be coming from miles around just to take a gander at the fancy cement pond. (It's shaped like Texas!)

So buckle up, get ready for two weeks of even worse traffic then we have right now, Pimp and Ho balls sponsored by mid-level players who aren't in the game and Gina Gaston in fish-net stockings.  The NFL is coming Houston, and you're going to be asked to sacrifice a little in order to be the perfect host for a game you'll not be able to attend.

Or, you can try and do what the sane people will do, move out of the central core into the suburbs, or even (if you can afford it) leave town that week.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Turner's vision is for a Houston diminished.

After an inauguration that included an Imam, a Rabbi and Sheila Jackson Lee newly minted Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner declared Houston's pothole problem forever fixed and then settled into relative obscurity.  He was still working, as much as elected officials "work" of course, and he would probably tell you that he was "fighting" (somehow) for all the citizens of Houston, but what he was really doing was planning his messaging regarding his vision for the City itself.

Now that Turner has had some time to hone his talking points, it is becoming increasingly clear why he wasn't willing to talk specifics on the campaign trail.  While Turner spent most of the campaign speaking of loving one another and being the Mayor for all of Houston, what he was really planning for is a city of haves and have nots. His goal isn't to bring people together but to continue to divide them along socio-economic lines, and to do so by wielding the City's tax collection and expenditure sticks to punish those who aren't following the wishes of the ruling class, and awarding those who do.

Houston Mayor Turner to Texas DOT: Wider roads mean more traffic. Eric Jaffe, CityLab

Turner ran on a transportation platform that says all the right things about improving urban mobility via travel alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles. His position emphasizes road maintenance without any mention of expansion and favors new public transit options, the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail plan, and the reconstruction of Interstate 45—an elevated highway that cuts through the city.

Turner's full essay can be found here.  In it, he proposes an overall decrease in highway spending in the Houston region, instead focusing on inner-city infrastructure projects, such as light-rail and street-cars, which do allow the relatively affluent to reach their play destinations more rapidly and add to the gentrification of neighborhoods, but do little to actually increase citywide mobility.

In fact, even the metrics that Turner uses in his attempt to denigrate the I-10 expansion are incomplete and basically worthless.  If you focus solely on travel time, and fail to take into consideration population growth and the increase in the region of overall vehicle traffic, then you are willfully skewing toward the negative the true impact of the I-10 expansion.

If you assume, as Turner and the unproductive class at the former Gulf Coast Institute do, that growth minus the freeway expansion would not happen, then the supposed reasoning behind the increase in commute times make sense.  However, knowing what we know about the economy, migration patterns and even the results in other cities (Austin, for example) it is pretty safe to say that the I-10 expansion didn't add to Houston's expansion-related traffic woes, it mitigated the worst effects of them.  Without the expansion Houston would be looking at a Hellscape of a commute on the West side. Commute times of 2 1/2 to 3 hours would be the norm, rather than the exception.

Why then, would Turner WANT Houstonians to suffer?

To be honest, he probably doesn't really know the answer to that.

Drop in Property Values Gives City Bigger Fiscal Headache. Mike Morris, ($$$)

Turner at Wednesday's council meeting lashed out at what he said is an "inherently unfair" system that rewards commercial property owners who hire lawyers to argue their properties are worth less than county officials contend. 
That hands a higher share of the tax burden to individual homeowners who lack the same means to fight, the mayor said. 
"They're doing it each and every year. When they're not successful at the appraisal districts, they go to court for relief," Turner said. "The reality is, that $16 million is a real hit to the city's budget." 
The hit is particularly harmful, Dowe said, because the city is operating under a cap on property tax collections that voters imposed a decade ago. 

It's important to realize that groups such as the Former Gulf Coast Institute look around Houston currently and see way too many people that can get around way too easily to partake in activities of which they don't approve.

The long-term vision of the unproductive class is a much smaller Houston that has rid itself of the oil & gas industry (and other industries that aren't viewed as "cool") with a very high tax rate and very few services to the poor and infirm. Most spending will go to baubles and  trinkets such as botanic gardens, expensive, taxpayer subsidized downtown retail and entertainment districts, sports stadiums, parklets, green spaces, polka-dotted bike lanes or anything else that is viewed as possessing the sheen of world classiness.

The poor?  The ultimate vision is to shuttle them out to the suburbs where services are mainly reliant on the County and entrance into the city core is difficult at best.  Roads in and out will be stripped of maintenance funding and public transit will not be designed to serve them. Of course, by the "poor" we don't mean ALL the poor. Starving artists and the like are welcome to stay. By "Poor" we really mean the working poor. People who work at McDonalds or Wal-Mart or retail. Proponents of New Urbanism are very keen on them being around so that they can sneer at them, they will even give lip-service to a "living wage" (which really isn't, if you understand economics and finance), but they don't want them living around them or too many of them riding in their trains. You already see things moving in that direction, except that the State is currently refusing to play along.

Another problem is business. Or, in reality, a lack of it.  Already Houston is beginning to see large companies such as Exxon and Schlumberger announce or begin to execute plans to move offices outside of Houston City Limits. The City's move to increase taxes on businesses will only exacerbate this trend. It's telling that in order to induce grocery stores inside many parts of the City property tax exemptions need to be granted.

And why is this?  Critics will suggest that so-called "food deserts" are created by residents in the area being poor.  A more realistic analysis suggests that these grocery-free zones are more a hybrid creation of economic condition and anti-business municipal policy. With a apologies to Princess Leia: "The more you tighten your grip Mayor Turner the more businesses will slip through your fingers." Those businesses that are not deemed worthy of largesse are increasingly slipping out to the suburbs, municipalities that are more than happy to accept them, and their jobs and sales taxes, into the fold.

When you start to add up the total cost of all of the items above, and include a few more that haven't been revealed yet, what you start to see is a version of Houston 2.0 as Houston Diminished.

As taxes rise more and more people will look for refuge outside of the city limits and businesses will follow. Those who cannot, or will not, move or relocate will be stuck holding on to an ever-larger piece of an ever-expanding funding pie. Currently, Houston is tenuously holding on to the title of "Energy Capitol of the World" a title that it seems increasingly intent on abdicating. Should the oil and gas industry decide that Houston no longer wishes to entertain their business the New Urbanists at the New Gulf Coast Institute might finally get their wish.

The growing Houston, currently the 4th largest city in America but soon to be the 3rd, will be a thing of the past. In it's place will be a massive retraction. From vibrant to decaying is a shockingly short trip for a city, just ask Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago et al.

Now that he's been elected to his long-time dream job as Mayor, Sylvester Turner is finally free to let us know what he really wants.

Turner's vision for Houston is a hot, humid, congested, high-unemployment, high-tax city with a burdensome regulatory environment and a population of somewhere around a Million people that is not only more segregated than it currently is, but which has greater barriers of entry for the poor.

But hey, at least those that remain are going to LOVE each other right?

Good Night and Good Luck Houston.  It's been a fun ride.

Tales of a Sub-Par Media Outlet: An agenda for me but not for thee?

Endorsement season with the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board is usually unintentionally hilarious.

For Tax Assessor-Collector. ($$$)

"If you want an administrator, Sullivan is your man," Sumners told the Houston Chronicle editorial board.
That's exactly what we want. An administrator can ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently and effectively, and focus on the duties of office.

That's great. It should be noted that Sullivan's opponent, Don Sumners, is promising to be a "taxpayer advocate" in the position, a watchdog in the supposed mold of former Assessor-Collector Paul "Quit" Bettencourt.

So, the Chronicle wants an administrator, unless the 'taxpayer advocate' is an advocate of people paying MORE taxes that is.....

Brandon Dudley, however, listed the solutions. Dudley currently serves as chief of staff and general counsel for state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and that experience in the state Legislature is apparent. A graduate of the University of Houston Law Center with a background in social work, Dudley is a regular policy wonk. He is quick to point out the ways that wealthy commercial landowners can exploit loopholes in the property appraisal system, which shifts the tax burden onto average homeowners. Dudley, 42, has even reached out to other tax assessor-collectors across the state in search of innovative ideas and best practices for the office. 

But for the Democrat, and a member of Sheila Jackson-Lee's rapidly expanding local political machine it should be noted, the exact same people are OK with a healthy dollop of advocacy.

The problem for the Editorial Board is this: They only want their advocates to advocate for one thing: Increased tax takings from local residents and businesses. Should they occasionally branch into the realm of advocating against certain politicians the Ed Board doesn't like? That's even better.

This would be OK if it was limited to the inane, lightly read, scribbling of the Ed Board, but it seeps into their hard news coverage all too often. The idea and viewpoint that Houston's problems can be solved by dusting off the catapult and hurling large sums of (other people's and companies') money at the problem.

A more intellectually honest endorsement would be to call for the selection of Don Sumners vs. Brandon Dudley, or Mike Sullivan vs. Ann Harris Bennett.  At least then you are carrying with you some ideological consistency that isn't as blatantly, obviously, Statist.

While it is not the position of this blog to make endorsements I would urge voters to consider adding this to the long list of races that you choose to under vote.  It's the same thing with the DA's race where no matter who wins, it's starting to look like we'll all wind up losers in the long-run.

Meanwhile, let's ignore these silly little exercises in mid-20th Century vanity that the Chronicle thinks are still viable in today's Internet age.  The funny thing is, while the leadership pays lip service to so-called "accountability" journalism their editorial decisions do more and more to downplay it every day. Never mind the fact that they have lost track of whom it is they are supposed to keep accountable.

Repeating: Shutter the Ed Board. Fire the members and redeploy the resources to the news desk to cover the many local governmental and quasi-governmental entities that blow through tremendous taxpayer dollars every day, and to which the Chronicle pays little attention.


Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Election 2016: What Iowa Does is Provide Some Clarity.

Thanks, I guess, to Microsoft, most of Iowa 2016 was over before it got too late last night.  By 9:30 PM CST we knew that Cruz was going to win, Trump was having a bad night and Rubio and Carson out-performed expectations. What we don't know, at 10:30, when I tuned out and got ready for bed (and work tomorrow) but we know now (5 AM, at the time of this writing) is that Hillary beat the angry socialist (barely) and, barring indictment, probably laid clear her path to the Democratic nomination.

For all intents and purposes however, we're down to five, flawed, candidates from which we're going to choose who is the next President of the United States.  If nothing else, last night in the snow, caucuses and remarkably consistent coin flips, Iowa served to focus the race and identify the main contenders.

On the Democratic side you have coin-flip Clinton and her e-mail servers. A woman with so much baggage she has to charter a 2nd plane just to carry it around. Despite having a likeability ranking somewhere below herpes, Democrats continue to go into the ballot-booth, and happily pull the lever for her. They have to be doing this while holding their noses. Hillary has none of the charisma and charm of Bill, lacks his ability to compromise and is seemingly transforming into a easily-confused, technology-incompetent, old woman right before our eyes. Not a sweet old woman but an angry old lady with a vicious mean-streak and temper.

Then you have Bernie Sanders, possibly the perfect candidate for the Millennial generation, physically unkempt, financially illiterate and perpetually angry about.....well he's not sure but he's damn sure angry about it. He's also considering suing Microsoft rigging or something. It's been neither confirmed, or denied, by the Sanders campaign that all of his future stops will include free tin-foil hats for himself and attendees.  Feel the Bern and all of that.

For Republicans the choice is a little better. At least they have a couple of top-tier candidates who aren't either under investigation or barking at the walls.

Ted Cruz had a good night. By all accounts he had an excellent plan and ground game in a State that's historically required the same.  The biggest deal, to me, is that Cruz came out AGAINST corn subsidies, was vehemently opposed by the Iowa Governor for that stance, and still won.  Yes, Cruz can come off as abrasive, and the label of "Cruz the Opportunist" is probably 100% accurate, but the guy can campaign and he's on the correct side on several issues.  One thing: Expect the Cruz/Birther stories to be Legion leading up to the New Hampshire primary.  Trump is going to hit that hard.

Speaking of The Donald. I can't see him recovering from this blow. After spending the entire run-up to Iowa talking about how he's going to win so much you might get bored of him winning  Mr. Trump's campaign lost. Not only did it lose, it almost slid to 3rd.  I thought as much might happen, and have said so for weeks now. He had a lot of support in the person of people who don't historically vote. I've only seen one candidate get those people out of their houses and to the caucuses and primaries. Unfortunately, for Trump, he doesn't have either the ability to campaign, or the natural voting bloc that Obama had 8 & 4 years ago.

Perhaps the best night of all was had by Marco Rubio. Yes, he came in 3rd, in a race where he was expected to come in 3rd, but his vote percentage was higher than expected and he didn't see the emergence of Jeb? Christie, Kasich or Santorum as a viable option-candidate.  This is huge because it now gives supporters of the lower-tier candidates a rallying point that I presume most are going to acquiesce around. The possible exception to this are the hard-core Paul supporters, who will probably sit this election out when their man eventually chucks it in.

Already Martin O'Malley and Mike Huckabee have suspended their campaigns in light of yesterday's results. I've a feeling we'll see a couple more suspensions today. I think Christie and Kasich are the two obvious candidates. Jeb? will hang in at least through New Hampshire, and maybe through to South Carolina as he desperately tries to kick-start a wheezing campaign that no-one, except a few in the money class, really has any interest in supporting.  Fiorina might as well stay in, but I think she jettison's things after New Hampshire.  Paul will stay in longer than he should, as will Carson, but I don't see either of them staying active much past Texas.

After that it turns into a 3-man slug-fest for the Republican nomination.

At this point I'd have to say that Rubio v. Clinton feels like the most probable outcome.

Keeping in mind this huge caveat:  We still have a long way to go.