Wednesday, October 18, 2017

BadMedia: Yes, the Texas Tax System is broken.

But the solution is not to replace it with a punitive tax code.

I agree with the Chron's Austin-based business columnist in one area:  Taxation in the State of Texas is one of the most poorly designed systems I've come across.

Where we disagree is on the fix.

Mr. Tomlinson (From the linked article above):

Texas' tax system is as broken as the federal system and desperately needs an overhaul. We need the Legislature to stop punishing business and investment, and instead tax conspicuous consumption, bad behavior and extreme income.

OK then, what is "bad behavior"? And who defines that?  What is "conspicuous consumption" and who defines that?  And what is "extreme income" and who gets the power of defining that?

My guess is that Tomlinson believes that he is the ideal candidate to become the "Texas Tax Czar" placing punitive taxes on Wal-Mart purchases, the energy industry and anyone making more than he. Because, that is what he's calling for, selectively taxing things that he doesn't like while giving those things he does a pass.

That's not a fair and effective tax system, that's a means of punishing those with differing political views than you.

Ironically, he admits, directly above his prescription for Texas, that his system wouldn't work.

A smaller tax on more people and businesses is also better than a high tax on only a few.

Yet his prescription for Texas is more of the same of what it is currently doing, only at higher rates and more tightly targeted against those whom he feels are bad actors.  This is demagoguery at its highest, not a serious attempt to reform Texas taxes.

The best, most equitable tax code is one that is broad, flat, easy to adhere to and free of special interest exemptions. As Mr. Tomlinson points out the current Texas tax code is anything but that. The problem is, his "fix" for the situation is even worse.

He focuses on the so-called Margins Tax, which is awful, but let me give you an under-the-radar way Texas handles tax policy poorly....oil and gas severance taxes.

On it's surface the tax is fairly straight-forward.  Unlike some other commodity taxes it's a value based tax on the "Net Taxable Value" derived from the severance of oil and gas from the soil. In short, it's the gross proceeds less allowed expenses times 7.5%, for oil and produced condensate the rate is 4.6%.  Easy enough.

But then, you have exemptions.  There's the high cost gas exemption (Type 05) which allows for a reduced rate of taxation for up to 10 years or until 50% of the drilling costs are recaptured, whichever comes first. In order to qualify for this there is a lengthy, an unwieldy, application process which involves first dealing with the RRC, and then turning around and repeating the process with the Texas Comptroller.  Then you assigned a reduced rate, and can take that new rate until you meet the deadline or threshold whichever comes first.

Of course, by the time the State gets around to approving the rate reduction over a year can go by before approval. This means that you have to go back and retrospectively adjust your accounting, pay royalty owners late for their share of the increased rates they pay, and ask the Texas Comptroller's office for a refund, which is a time-consuming and expensive process, not to mention the time and expense wasted on the re-work.

Think that's bad? There's also the low-producing well exemption (Type 11) which is triggered by both price and volume. Not only that, but the State index price that has to be rolled back to 2005 equivalents, that's right, the Lege forgot to allow for inflation.  To add to that, a producer has to calculate a 3-month rolling average of production to ensure the tax criteria is met. If a producer makes an error, or uses a different production factor than the State, then the State will revoke your lower rate and charge interest on the unpaid tax.

For oil there's the Enhanced Oil Recover exemption (Type 05, for oil) which provides a rate decrease of 50% (from 4.6% to 2.3%) on all incremental barrels of production realized from secondary or tertiary recovery. In order to qualify for this then you have to initiate a project, file the appropriate paperwork (with fee) to the RRC, and then wait a year to determine if the project was successful or no.  Once it is you have to re-apply with the results to the RRC, and then take their approval over to the Comptroller's office to have them approve the credit, and tell you how long you have to retrospectively fix you accounting on the back periods before you lose the credit. All of the time you are waiting for this money has come into the State on which the are earning interest. Meanwhile, the private royalty owners (who share in the tax expense) are losing out on revenue because a company is charging them full-rate tax (by law) which reduces their income.

All of that for reporting and paying taxes in Texas and I haven't even discussed the Cost to Market deduction yet. A better way to administrate this would be to eliminate all of the exemptions, and lower the tax rates.  A flat oil tax of 2% of Net Taxable Value and a gas tax of 4% of Net Taxable value (calculated as they are currently) would be much easier (and cheaper) for companies to administer and would benefit the State as well.

You could extrapolate that to the Federal Income Tax, most business taxes and a host of other taxes as well. Any tax really where special-interest driven loopholes exist.

Unfortunately, this will never happen because both political parties and their courtiers LIKE the system we have. Not only does it wet the beaks of their patrons, but it proffers them the levers of power to punish their political opposites as well.  It's always been this way, it's just rare when one of the courtiers is dense enough to put the fact in print.

On that note: Thank you Mr. Tomlinson.  Thank you.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

BadHumanity: When we Stop Talking

Recently, in Houston, a Republican State Representative was invited to speak on the campus of Texas Southern University. Things did not go well. Missing from the KHOU story any mention of State Representative Borris Miles he of the gun-toting, shooting people persuasion was also there to prevent Representative Cain from making his speech.  Unsurprisingly, the all but worthless Houston Chronicle Editorial Board scrubbed Miles from their missive.  Of course, the useful idiots at the Ed Board sided with "free speech" because Cain is a politician, had it been a normal citizen their proclivities on the matter are not as cut and dried.

"We have always been at war with Eastasia"

The bigger problem here, even bigger than the Texas Leadership Vacuum that is ever-expanding, is that there now exists an active group of civic leaders who are openly trying to suppress speech from the other side no matter the source, or validity of their arguments against.  This is not just a Left-wing phenomenon. President Trump has now decided to attack the media. If you support this at any level I would invite you to check your "Constitutional Conservative" card in at the front desk please.

"Liberalism is a mental disease"

All of these are charges made by the sheep to try and silence, or discredit, the ideas of the other side. They do not help forward the conversation.  Yet every time a politicians says the other side's actions are "shocking" or the "worst they've ever seen" (my favorite) they drive the sheep that follow them a little more crazy and into the path of susceptibility to authoritarianism.

Bread and Circuses, peasants and sheep, to the ruling class the lumpen proletariat are feed stock used to feed the machine of politics. This is not hard because a vast, vast majority of Americans want to be led. People don't want to think, they want to be ANGRY (Dammit). And the best way to be ANGRY (Dammit) is to join a tribe.

Because in tribalism there is purity, and a certain basic instinct of thought. Your tribe helps you to dislike the other side and gives you that smug sense of fulfillment when the other tribe effs it up. You see it all the time, especially on the fetid cesspool of Twitter and other social media.  It comes as predictable as the sunrise.

1. Supposed "outrage" of the moment.
2. Spleen-venting by one tribe against the other.
3. A moment of post-orgasmic joy as the endorphins release
4. The smug smile and slow exhalation of someone who has just "destroyed" the other side.

These victories are an illusion hover because a.) no one has actually "destroyed" anything. A "sick burn" only resonates with the tribe, it has nothing to do with actually....winning the argument with logic and b.), your "sick burn" is another person's show of immaturity.  The other tribe doesn't recognize that anything was won, or that any point has been made.  In fact, regardless of which side is "right" or "burned" they are correct.

We cannot "win" arguments any longer because we have entirely lost the ability to both discuss our differences and to process information correctly. The United States has become two giant pools of cognitive dissonance running back and forth with their hair on fire accusing (accurately) the other pool to be guilty of hypocrisy.

And, this should not surprise you, this is exactly the way that the ruling class and their courtiers want it to be. The politicians use this to make breathless appeals for campaign donations and votes, the media uses it for click-bait, the Universities use it to get their names in the papers and secure funding and the entertaining class uses it to curry favor and convince themselves that their careers actually mean something.  Access to power is a bigger drug than is the truth in almost every case.

When will things get better you ask?

Here's the rub, until we stop listening to the ruling class and their courtiers......they won't.

Fixing the current political, social and economic climate is not up to the politicians, it's not up to the media, it's not up to the actors, producers and associated slime of Hollywood and it's not going to be solved by athletes taking a knee or no. It's sure as hell not going to be fixed by ESPN.

The fix has to come from you, and me, by refusing to get caught up in these games and not rewarding the people who do with our time, energy and (most importantly) money.

Give your money to charity, and I don't mean "charity" as defined by the Democratic National Committee I mean real charities that help people, not ones that only exist to help you.

When you think about it, the DNC's actions in this case are the final symptom that illustrates just how sick the patient really is.  The prognosis is not good, not good at all.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

ShutterTheEdBoard: Without oil....

The increasingly irrelevant Houston Chronicle Editorial Board has pronounced itself Pope in the issue of environmental sins.

Sins of Oil will be Shouted from the Rooftops. HoustonChronicle ($$$)

They go on to list all of the 'sins' of oil.

The Catholic Church suddenly doesn't like it and......

And nothing.  Because without the oil and gas industry you don't have the following:

Computers and the Internet
Electric Cars
Green Energy transmission systems
Mobile Phones
Busses (even ones that run on CNG)
Most medical devices
Heating fuel for the NorthEast

You name it, and the oil and gas industry probably has a hand in it. Even newspapers such as the Houston Chronicle who would be unable to print a product sans oil and gas.

Now, I'm OK if you don't necessarily approve of the industry, you're entitled to. But to cast such a wide net over all of us and term us "sinners" because we're providing a product that fuels the world (and will continue to, until a replacement for plastics and international shipping and other transportation is found) is not only irresponsible, but dishonest and clumsy as well. It's also inflammatory and (to be honest) vile to term your home cities most important, largest industry as "vile, sinful" or some other nonsense.

It's a good thing the Chronicle Editorial Board has been shoved behind the Chronicle' pay-wall.  There are a lot of good reporters at that publication who shouldn't have their good-names sullied by the increasingly irrelevant, predominantly Caucasian, wealthy and progressive Editorial board who writes decrees for Houston's most diverse city and who, increasingly, feels themselves to be God.

It's high-time for newspapers to rid themselves of the unsigned editorial board, and to redeploy the resources to covering actual news.  In fact, I would argue that most staff-opinion writers are crap, offering up partisan fodder and child-like outbursts offering no real, workable solutions other than "see things my way".

Not that there's no place for that writing, but it would be better served in an opinion outlet such as National Review or Slate not news outlets per se, but a place where people can go and be reaffirmed that their tribe is "on the right side", God-like even. (Full Disclosure: I'm a fan of the writing of Kevin D. Williamson of National Review.)

Houston residents, the few who can read this stuff, would do well to ask the Houston Chronicle why they think it's OK that the largest employer be shut down and the tax base of the city be decimated? Do they really hate you or are they just very angry that you won't STFU and follow their lead? (And, the leads of the politicians they curry favor to.)

What this comes down to is one irrelevant agency calling for the shut-down of a relevant one, and causing great pain and hardship for its customers at the same time. The customers should demand the same of the ed board.

Guess which one will be missed? (Hint, it's not the anonymous scribblers)

Las Vegas Massacre: In Defense of Video Poker

I am a video poker player.

So, apparently, was Stephen Paddock the man who you now know, unless you've been living under a rock, carried-out the worst mass-shooting event in modern American history last Sunday evening.  His choice of gaming, and lifestyle, of course has the media in a tizzy....

Las Vegas Gunman Chased Las Vegas' Payouts and Perks. New York Times

Las Vegas Shooter Lived High-Stakes Lifestyle. Chicago Tribune

Vegas Shooter's Gambling Draws New Attention to Video Poker. Yahoo! News.

Paddock's Game of Choice Allowed Him to Blend In. Las Vegas Review-Journal

It's not surprising that a person good at maths chose video poker as his game of choice. The 'house edge' or expected value of the game is among the best in the casino for the player, IF proper strategy is used. It's also a game, like blackjack, where correct decisions by the player can reduce the house edge even further.

At Paddock's playing level the expected return was probably somewhere around 99.20%.  That means for every $100 you play you can expect, over time, to lose $.80.  Factor in comps for high-end players (free rooms, free meals, shows, alcohol etc.) and you could easily realize a return of greater than 100% over time.

And the goal of any casino patron is to beat the casino right?

We have a propensity in this country to try and find evil in everything an evil person does. And that's what I think is happening here with video poker.  As we struggle to rationalize how a person could be so callous as to kill 58 people and injure 489, we start to look at the things they did in life and make them more sinister than they really are in an attempt to assuage society's blame for his sins.

We tend to find "things" that might have sparked him, and there are a ton of low-rent, headline-chasing social scientists, and so-called "experts" that will tell us whatever we want to know about these "things" to make us feel better.

"Video Poker is the crack-cocaine of gambling!" (From the New York Times Piece)

Except that it's not.  Instead, video poker is a happy-medium between playing slots, and playing on the tables.

A lot of people don't like to play table games for one reason or another. Maybe they don't like the crowds or are uncomfortable having others judge their play. If you've ever sat at "third base" (the last seat next to the dealer's right hand) at a blackjack table and made the "wrong play" and been hollered at for it you might understand why, then you could see why video poker, a game where strategy still counts but is more solitary, has an appeal.

But the main appeal, and the reason for it's popularity, is the relatively high expected value from the game and the very real chance at making some real money on an smallish sized bet.  For example, I am not a high-roller, gambling is entertainment for me but, I frequently win $500 on a $1.25 bet playing at the 25-cent level.  I've won $1683 on a Royal Flush playing the same. My biggest slot win is $2080 on a $5 bet.  Which game do you think has the better expected value?

As a regular Vegas visitor I was distraught when I first heard the news, and was even more sad when the scope of the event became fully known.  Now it's coming out that this evil man was an accountant, a frequent Vegas visitor and a video poker player, just like me.

This makes it difficult because I cannot envision a situation where playing video poker, or anything in life for that matter, would make me act in such a way. Which is kind of my point.

Stephen Paddock did what he did not because he played video poker or because he was chasing the high-end Vegas lifestyle. He did what he did because he was an evil prick.  Full stop.

Video poker had nothing to do with it.  Ask the Millions of people who do "fly into Vegas to play it" despite what the so-called "experts" tell you.  It's a great, fun game and a good way to control your losses if played correctly, much less volatile than slots.  Yes, it's less social than a table game, but so are slots.

Neither should be demonized in this.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Gun Control: Which laws exactly?

We have now reached the point where the political outrage machine gets cranked up to eleven and spleen-venting takes the place of grief and shock.  Dutifully, QuestLove tweeted out every Republican Representative and Senator who expressed condolence to the Vegas victims replete with the amount of money the NRA donated to their campaigns. (Strangely, he did not feel the need to single out Democrats thusly).  Jimmy Kimmel came on your TV, spooled up some tears, and emotionally emoted that Something! must be done.

But what exactly?

The early candidate is to outlaw "silencers" which is more of an admission that one doesn't understand guns rather than a call to do something about them. "Silencers" are actually "flash suppressors" and, unlike you see in the movies, the guns still make one heck of a noise when fired.

The second thing you hear is to "close the gun show loophole".  OK, but by all accounts Stephen Paddock purchased his firearms either from a gun store, and completed all of the requisite background checks, or we don't know where he obtained them yet. So it's not clear that that would have had any impact at all.

Limiting the amount of guns is my favorite. Yes, the man appears to have owned several guns but it's unclear that he would have been less successful with five guns than say the 23 that he had. Limiting ammunition is another bad idea, both would only encourage an untraceable black market which would result in us having no idea where the guns or bullets really are.

Finally, and my favorite, is the idea that gun owners should be forced to "voluntarily give up their guns". Nevermind that this proposal is an oxymoron, it's also impractical and will lead to only the law-abiding citizens doing the same. What this means is that only criminals will own guns, and anyone who continues to own a gun will become a criminal. It's amazing how quick our tribes are to try and criminalize behavior they don't like, while simultaneously trying to decriminalize what they enjoy.

While I'm no fan of "conceal and open carry" laws, in most cases having a gun is not going to prevent any crime, none of us are Jason Bourne after all, I don't think their repeal would do much, very few crimes are committed by lawful gun-carriers after all.

I also don't think the answer lies in arresting and incarcerating people who buy guns that are really meant to go to their criminal husbands, boyfriends, etc. Which is nothing more than a way for the Right, this time, to make 'more' illegal things, and people, they don't like.

I might get on board with outlawing bump-stocks, for which I can see no practical application outside of making the gun a more-effective killing machine, and I am on-board with closing the so-called gun-show loophole. Not to prevent criminals from receiving guns but to ensure that everyone who purchases a firearm through legal channels is legally entitled to do so.

The editors of National Review yesterday had a point when they wrote: "not every crime demands a new law" but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't look at ways to prevent them going forward. Not is it advisable to strip rights away from otherwise law-abiding citizens in a vain effort to punish the law-breakers. Unfortunately that is an action that our elected rulers always seem to take.

It is understandable that people are distraught over Sunday night's shootings, that they are angry and looking to lash out. What's not defensible is the belief that the only sane solution to the problem is revoking a key portion of the bill of rights. Especially when you consider the same people that want to repeal number 2 are knee-deep in efforts to kick the shit out of the other nine as well.

Rule of law, as messy as it may be, is vital to the health of a country.  Once that goes so do the last tools to hold back tyranny. Which, ironically, is the reason the 2nd amendment exists in the first place.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Las Vegas Shooting: The Government We Deserve

No sooner had the bullets stopped flying in Las Vegas than certain politicians and media outlets (whom I will not dignify) started firing up the political machine. It mostly came in the form of tweets, calls for the political opposition to drop their deep-held beliefs and side with them as the only reasonable course of action.  Of course, the demonization of the NRA began almost immediately as well, and while I'm not a member of the NRA, nor do I agree with some of their resistance to certain issues, I do not think they are the PR arm of a gun-toting political movement hell-bent on allowing people to shoot one another.

They are a political group, similar in nature to the Sierra Club, or any of the single-issue political groups on the right or left, but they are demonized because they a) mostly donate to Republicans and b) have been very successful in their efforts to promote legislation.

One area in the on-going game of political PR where the Democrats have most certainly won is in casting the opponents funding groups as somehow evil or a malignant force for society.  Oil Companies? Polluting the world, the NRA? Actively trying to kill you. Drug companies? Trying to make big bucks on the backs of the dying.  It's not an accident, it's a political plan by the left that they are winning in the same way they have won the culture wars.  In short: The GOP has not become the hot-mess that they are wholly because they have bad ideas, in large part they struggle because their leadership is shite and their messaging is even worse.

It has now gotten so bad that even expressing sorrow and wishing good thoughts to victims of tragedy is seen as a negative event by the left's useful idiots. While the right makes up fake-news about Islamist terrorists where none exist, or continually tries to find a boogeyman for their adherents to latch on to.

What dies in all of this is reason, and reasonable arguments. For all of the bemoaning of the depths to which our politics has fallen both sides firmly believe that the root-cause of this is the actions of the other 'side' exclusively. This is because we've elected a group of carnival barkers to rule us, with no thought given to their intelligence or ability to actually govern.  I've said this many times before and I'll say it again.

The problems in America are not caused by Trump, or by Obama or by the media, or anyone other than US.  We have allowed things to devolve this far because WE abdicated our position of power in the Republic and handed it over lock, stock and barrel to a group of low-functioning idiots with a penchant for strongman style histrionics and rhetorical flair.

In a sane world, reasonable people could disagree on the merits or extent that gun control is needed. However, no reasonable person should disagree that every legal option should be investigated when it comes to preventing mass shootings.

Reasonable people can disagree on whether or not healthcare is a "right" or a "privilege" but should be able to agree that what we currently have is irreparably broken and the entire system needs an overhaul. Reasonable people can also disagree on what exactly the overhaul should be.

Reasonable people can disagree on taxation and government revenue, on where the money is going, but should be able to agree that the current tax code is a partisan, rent-seeking mess filled with too many rules and give-aways to political patrons.

But, and this is a big, big but, we no longer operate as reasonable people in our politics, either in the murky, stupid world of social media or in the increasingly page-click driven world of actual media.

I have made no secret of my disliking of the Republican party. The GOP is a dysfunctional, anti-intellectual mess right now. And while I dabbled with independence before I believe this time it will stick because where before I still found GOP politicians with ideas, I currently find many of the ideas from both parties to be lacking in both reason and logic. I can never be a Democrat because of their authoritarianism and, frankly, pretty scary ideas about how the country should be ran, but I can never be a Republican either because of the same.

It is possible, albeit unlikely, that the current Supreme Court case on gerrymandering could help alleviate some of this by removing the incumbent protection system but I doubt it. I doubt it because we've now all firmly entrenched ourselves within our tribes and our only goal is to "sick-burn" the other tribe.  We don't want to govern, we have a NEED to win. And not just that, to humiliate the other side in large part to feel like we're something, instead of just floating along in life, accomplishing nothing and generally being......a loser.

To be honest, I'm not sure of the fix, if any exists.

And that might be the most depressing bit of all. That this cannot be fixed because most Americans, despite protestations to the contrary, don't WANT it to be.  We NEED to hate the other side because it makes us feel superior, we need to gloat, to assure ourselves through smugness that we are, in fact, the superior people. We NEED to laugh at the stupidity of our political opposites because it helps us cover up our own.

You can't fix stupid, increasingly, it seems that we don't want to.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Las Vegas: Give as you are able.

Last night at around 10PM Vegas time a very deranged man by the name of Stephen Paddock broke his hotel room window on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino and proceeded to fire hundreds of round of bullets into approximately 20,000 people who were attending an outdoor country music festival.

The horrific result was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US History with a (current) count of 58 dead and 400+ wounded. It is a tragedy that knocked a hole into the collective psyche of a city that I love and, more importantly, has permanently damaged the lives of thousands due to loss of a loved one or injury.

There will come a time to discuss next steps but, for now, I would encourage you to either donate blood (if you're able) or make a donation if you can.

Until then, this blog offers up thought and prayers to everyone who is suffering from this.

Bad Humanity: Pray for Las Vegas

Horrific news out of Las Vegas:

Mass Shooting leaves at least 50 dead, 400 wounded in Las Vegas. Las Vegas Review-Journal

There will, of course, be a lot of politics that surround the loss of 50 souls as ghouls on both sides try and use this for political gain. Right now I think it's best to ignore that and just do what we can to help those who were harmed, and to thank those who ran toward the shooter when everyone else was (rightfully) running away.

I'll just leave this here as I'm very saddened this morning by a tragedy in one of my favorite places in the world.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

BadBlogging: Things I LIKE about Houston

I will admit that, from time to time, this blog can get a teensy bit negative. That's probably more human nature than anything else, we tend to focus on things we feel need to be fixed after all rather than those things that are humming along smoothly.

To remedy that, I think I'll list out the things about Houston that I like. I haven't done that in a while so this seems like a good time to do so....

1. The way people helped one another during the Harvey Floods - It was cool, when I was cooped up in my house for a week, watching normal, everyday citizens and first responders busting their humps to rescue and evacuate their fellow residents.

2. The food and restaurant scene, even in the suburbs. - While I have to fess up to not venturing 'Inside the Loop' very often except for work (and number four which follows) even out here in the hinterlands there is a large selection of good places to grab a good meal that are not chains. And food trucks. Food trucks are good, very good.

3. The energy industry and job market. - The fact is, the energy industry pays pretty well, they have good benefits and it's a good industry in which to work. You hear a lot of bad about us in the media, but I've seen a lot of good inside.

4. The Houston Zoo. - The wife and I love the zoo here. It's great. The Houston Zoo is one of the underappreciated great places to go in Houston.  People gush about the Museums and Theaters, but the truth is a lot of cities have facilities comparable to those.

5. The Houston Astros. - I don't like the Texans, I pull for the Rockets, the Dynamo (and the entire MLS for that matter) are minor league soccer but the Astros?  I'm a fan. The first baseball game I ever saw was in the Astrodome and back then I thought it was the biggest building in the world (I was 5).

And that's it.  Everything else about Houston is just 'meh' or substantially worse than other cities I've visited/lived in.  But those five things are pretty great and I will miss them should I ever leave here.

BadPolitics: The Trouble with Taxes....

Here we go again. If you feel like the show from Washington D.C. is a never-ending wheel of misfortune you'd be forgiven.  While Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands work to climb out of the muck created by Harvey, Irma and Maria the political types in our Nations cess-pool of a capital have been trying, and failing, to repeal the Affordable Care Act and are now focusing their attention on cutting taxes.

This, as you can imagine, has the usual suspects in somewhat of a tizzy. It's even got the New York Times play-pretending that they're deficit hawks again.  Of course, the Politifarce 'fact-checkers' are out in force trying to convince us that their opinions on the matter are in fact, facts, and voices from the left side of the political aisle are here to remind you that you don't NEED a tax cut at all.  All that's left is an idiotic think-piece from Vox. Wait, nevermind, they've delivered.

Winning the prize for non-seriousness however is, as is typical, the non-relevant Houston Chronicle Editorial Board, who have decided to plant their flag directly within the confines of the Alternative Minimum Tax.  Let that sink in for a minute. (Seriously Chronicle, it's past-time to shutter the Ed Board and redeploy the resources to something you can do fairly well [hint: local reporting])

Of course, there will be no shortage of opinion pieces telling you what you want and need by members of the ruling class. None of them actually touching on what could, or should, be done.

This happens because politics is a mess, the media has fallen down on the job for the last eight years and the rest of America is too busy arguing whether a bunch of Millionaire athletes protesting during the National Anthem is sufficient enough reason for them to either stop (or start) watching NFL football.

This is not to say that there are no good arguments against this tax cut. There certainly are.  Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review (and a favorite read by the author of this blog) lays out the case against fairly succinctly, and without falling into the nutty trap surrounding the 'rich'.  Unfortunately, most (if not all) of the criticism from the Left gets fixated on that and just.won't.stop.

Does America need a massive tax cut right now?  My answer is probably not.  But tax REFORM on the other hand is much needed.  Let me explain.

The current tax code contains 74,608 pages of regulation. Not only is that a draw on time, resources and energy but it creates a complex web of regulation that's impossible to correctly navigate except under the simplest of returns, or with the greatest of financial resources.  Part of the reason for this is just the nature of Federal regulation. Its designed, despite bills requiring regulation to be "clear and concise", to be complicated and vague in almost all cases. Government bureaucracies don't want things to be easy, because they always want to a) be able to come back and charge more and b) keep the option for fines and civil penalties open.

There's a reason that all guidance from Federal agencies is considered "non-binding" after all. This allows a low-level staff employee to come back on an audit and make a determination against even guidance by the organization itself. If you've ever sought guidance from the federal government at your work, and then been audited, you understand what I'm on about here.

The income tax code is no different. It's designed to do three things. First, to maximize the amount of revenue the government can extract from you under threat of force. Second, to create an unruly tax structure which increases the risk of error, which increases the government's ability to levy fines and penalties. Third (and most importantly) to reward political patrons.

Streamlining the tax code, flattening and broadening it, and reducing the gifts to political patrons should be of primacy in any reform plan. It's not entirely clear that Trump's GOP has this in mind. A secondary goal should be to reduce the number of people who are not paying in and not sharing in the tax burden with the rest of us.  Current numbers put that figure at close to 50%. This means that almost half of Americans are being subsidized by the other half. If that number gets to 50% plus one, our democracy is kaput.

This doesn't mean that the rich should get a shave, that the middle class need more heaped on them, that businesses should be punished or that the poor should be made to pay 'their fair share'.  What it means is that a flattening, broadening and simplification is desperately needed in order to knock the system back into balance.

Does the GOP plan do that?  I'm doubtful.  As a matter of fact, I think any plan that would do that would be so unpopular that Americans would fly into an apocalyptic rage were it to be proposed.  The goal in America is to see the tax cut benefit them and start to be punitive at a level that's just above what they are making. Until we change that thinking, we're going to get what we have today, which is a wonky, hard to decipher mess of a system that can be gamed providing you have sufficient money.

In short: We're getting the tax code we deserve and we're getting it good and hard.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

HALV: As Politicians do....

"Never let a serious crisis go to waste". - Rahm Emanuel

It's undoubted that Mr. Emanuel, one of the more odious people in the odious profession of politics, was not the originator of that statement, yet he's given credit for co-opting and popularizing it to a new generation. Much like failed Texas Democratic candidate for Attorney General Daivd Van Os stole "Fight 'em until Hell freezes over and then Fight 'em on the Ice a few years back.

That's important because it provides some historical context for the histrionics that are surrounding the current debate regarding relief funds for the Houston region related to Hurricane Harvey.

Career back-bench State Legislature, and current Houston Mayor, Sylvester Turner wants to use Harvey to undo the pillow-soft, voter imposed revenue cap without having to call an election that there's a very real chance he could lose.  To add fuel to the fire, he's playing dutiful partisan Democrat by following the chain all the way up to the highest Republican, Greg Abbott.

Abbott, for his part, is aping the Gipper's "fiscal responsibility" play-book and is blaming Turner for Houston's tax and spend ways.  It's all very predictable, very boring and very unlikely to actually HELP those in need.

MOST, not all most, of the clean-up and rebuilding activities that directly impact residents fall primarily under the fiscal eye of officials at the County, State and Federal levels.  Yes, the City is involved in the gigantic task of picking up the waste that resulted from the storm, but even that task is going to be primarily funded by the feds.

Buying out homeowners? County

Rebuilding and strengthening flood infrastructure?  County, State and Federal

In fact, most of the taxpayer money the city is trying to take under the threat of force is earmarked for making the city, not the taxpayers, whole.  While the County, State and Federal governments are starting to pivot to prevention the City is still looking at replacing vehicles lost in the floods and repairing city buildings.

Should the State open the taps on the rainy day fund to assist with that?  Your mileage may vary depending, in large part, on your party identification.  I tend to think there are arguments for releasing some rainy day funds but not to the city, to the county and regional flood control work but that's me.

We've entered the "great game" phase of after-Harvey politics, the point in time where the small people that we've elected to rule over us try and score political points against one another and where the political momentum for actually getting things done falls away in a frenzy of partisanship, dim-wittedness and red-meat tossed to the political bases.  After all, politicians HAVE to get re-elected you understand.

It would be great, for Houston, if there was a media organization in town who could cover all of this with a level-head and aplomb.  Unfortunately, the leadership at the Houston Chronicle doesn't comprehend the difference between charity given out of service and taxes taken under the threat of force.

Remember all of this 5 years from now when we're still discussion the same issues and nothing has been done. It will be that way because you continue to vote for the same people who aren't all that interested in doing it in the first place.

The leadership vacuum continues to suck away.

Monday, September 25, 2017

BadHumanity: Bread.....and circuses.

On Sunday we found ourselves neck-deep in yet another "worst thing EVER" regarding the Trump administration when the Bronzed Ego decided to use a speech to supporters in Alabama, and a subsequent Tweet-storm, to scold the NFL on its players kneeling or protesting what they view as institutional racism during the National Anthem.

The NFL, naturally, used the outrage over this to pump themselves up as some kind of athletic "Global Force for Good" in communities, on the civil rights front-line and (apparently) for the rights of dogs everywhere to pee.  If pressed, and they weren't by the media anyway, no one at the Shield would dare admit, even in their most unguarded moments, that they viewed this as a god-send coming on the heels of Aaron Hernandez CTE findings and during the middle of Cowboy running back Zeke Elliot's kerfuffle involving domestic violence.

Nope, the NFL is here for you, your communities and, when they're honest, for those multiple Billions of dollars that you gift them out of your pocketbooks every year in the way of tickets, merchandise sales, TV rights, tax credits, stadium subsidies, extra overtime for police to provide security for the team etc.  The NFL wants you to know that they give greatness to you and just ignore all of the other stuff.

In a way, the explosion by the Bronzed Ego was a success. It's going to suck up all of the oxygen and distract you from things that aren't going so swimmingly for him.  If the man knows anything, it's how to wag the dog.

Which brings us to my problems with all of this.  Namely, that the four groups of people who are central players in this mockudrama are the four that I'm least likely to provide any gravitas to when setting my moral compass.

Athletes: Other than playing the sport they play, I don't really want to hear anything from athletes. I don't give their political or social views any weight, nor do I care who they voted for, what their issues are, or how they think America should be ran.  You're being paid an awful lot of money to play a game. And while I respect your right to free speech, I also retain the right to pretty much ignore what you say, even if I agree with it.

Entertainers: Same as with athletes.  You can rant, rave, come up with catchy slogans, shed a tear when talking about the plight of the unfortunate (as you do) and it's not going to change my opinion one iota. If I decided to boycott every entertainer, musician or personality that held a different political view than me would be able to watch TV, go to movies or listen to music at all. The thing is though, I don't care.  Darren Arnofky's mother! wasn't an unmitigated piece of crap because of his and Jennifer Lawrence's odd politics, it was an unmitigated piece of crap because it was stupid and it sucked, was clumsily told, and was nothing more than Arnofky's hatred of religion force-fed down your throat. It lacked both subtlety and nuance, which always makes for a bad movie.

Journalists: The hot takes from the media over this have been epic. Even Politifarce is chiming in trying to convince us that NFL ratings are not way down, after two solid years of the same media (and the raw numbers) telling us that they are.  Journalists love to use breathless exclamations such as "must-read" and "powerful" and (my favorite) "important" to describe works of their peers.  When you get right down to it however those rarely apply when dealing with columnists, or opinion.  Where those do apply is in honest-to-God watchdog, investigative reporting, but you don't get much of that any more.  The journalists in this mess are just trying to increase eyes on their product, and that includes the network broadcasters for these games who are making damn sure to broadcast every detail of every national anthem, with a special focus on the players 'serious' faces while someone sings the vocal-cord strangling anthem in the background.  "Courage".

Politicians: I've said it many times on this blog, I've no use for politics or politicians. I am comfortable making the blanket statement that every politician is in it for themselves, and their sole job is to increase the power and influence of their position.  Oh sure, they'll argue this, they're scream and drone on about "public service" and that crap but when you really get down to it, when you judge their views and actions, it's very clear that they view themselves as the ruling class and everyone around them to be ruled.  this extends, for the most part, to the Federal, State and local bureaucracy as well.

So here you have an issue that bundles up the worst of societies actors, and dumps them on the public in one big disgusting opinion bomb, complete with a thorny racial issue to boot.  I've stated before on this blog, and on many different places, my belief that there is such a thing in America as "driving while black" and it sucks. I don't claim to understand or be able to truly understand how that must feel because, being Caucasian myself, it doesn't apply to me. I also get that slavery was never properly addressed in this country, and I too am puzzled with the losing side in a battle (The Confederacy) is given such a large place in writing the history of it. (you don't see plaques and statutes to Nazi heroes in Germany for example).  Part of the reason, I'm sure, is the uncomfortable position the War Between the States places us in.

Slavery was an evil institution, but does that mean, as with Nazism, that all those who fought for the Confederacy were evil as well?  And do we now transfer the sins of the forefathers to their descendants as many are wont to do in this issue?  I haven't researched it (honestly I don't feel I need to) but I'm positive that at least one side of my family owned slaves in the past (they owned cotton farms after all) but the other side I'm pretty sure didn't because they were all poor.  but does that mean that I'm guilty by association?

The logical answer is no, of course not. But increasingly society seems to say yes, you are.  And that is the crux of all of this.  These are heady issues that should be discussed intelligently, and rationally between the few remaining adults in America. Unfortunately it's being conducted, largely on Twitter, Facebook, the media (who are desperately looking to profit off of it) inside the confines of a professional sports league who's using it to distract from some very real problems and by a President who simply doesn't know any better.

In short: It's the worst sort of problem involving the worst sort of people none of whom have a vested interest in actually seeing it solved.  You can always bake more bread, and you can always build another ring for the circus.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

BadScience: The Lack of Trusted Voices Matters a LOT.

Given my history of writing, and knowing my occupation within the oil and gas industry, you might be surprised to find out that I DO believe that the Earth's climate is changing. I believe that the climate of this pebble has been changing for somewhere around 4.54 Billion years and it continues to do so today.

You may also be surprised to find out that I'm very concerned about pollution that results from modern society including, but not limited to, my very own oil and gas industry.  As you read above, I also, despite my open Christianity, believe that the Earth was NOT created 5-6,000 years ago but more like 4.54 Billion years ago and that evolution is a very real thing.

I also think that one of the worst things to happen in modern society is the politicization of pretty much everything.  This despite, for years, writing what is known by my handful of readers as being a pretty horrible politics blog.

And yes, I believe in, and appreciate, science.  Most importantly I value the scientific method and frequently mourn it's recent passing.  I mourn it because there are a lot of bad things that happen when we don't believe in science, or the scientific method, and allow our politics to dominate the conversation.

 - Vaccines (or the refusal to use them)
 - Nutrition (and the obesity epidemic)
 - Food supply (ethanol and GMO's being two examples of this)

But the things I worry most about are pollution and climate change, in that order.

When Al Gore first formed his investment group and realized that the American populace was a) sadly uneducated on the scientific method and b.) he could make a mint off of this fact, it all started to go downhill.  What followed was a movie with nine proven factual errors being given the Oscar for "Best Outstanding Documentary" and outsized influence because those of a similar political disposition liked the cut of Gore's jib.

And everyone loves a villain.

Trust me when I tell you that there is NO better villain in this world than so-called "Big Oil".  Not that they're evil, but that they operate on a massive scale, generate some fairly hefty profits at times, are primarily led by old Caucasian guys and, when accidents happen, they are whoppers.

But they usually are just that, accidents. In my over a decade working in the industry I've never heard, or been part of, conversations about harming the environment, or cutting corners to put people in harm's way.  I'm not suggesting this goes on, but most of the engineers that I've met have no desire to have their project 'in the news' or 'creating a headline'.  That's just truth.  I realize few believe it but since you probably aren't in the industry there's no way I can prove it and it probably wouldn't matter anyway.

That's because we've been conditioned, by our politicians and society, to discount information that contradicts our beliefs no matter how compelling the facts are surrounding the case.  For example:

The Climate Change Computer Models (around which there is such scientific "consensus" that they are treated as Gospel) are not accurately matching what is going on in the real world.  They neither foresaw the "pause" in heating that occurred nor are they accurately reflecting the real-world results of a decrease in carbon. This doesn't mean that human activity doesn't contribute to the change, only that it might not be the main driving force behind it.

In "scientific" circles, that makes me a "climate denier' which symbolizes my empathy and de facto agreement with Holocaust deniers according to leading scientific lights such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye (the Science Guy).  There are some who even suggest (seriously) that those who point this out should be arrested, sent to 'reconditioning camps' even.  I guess so that we can have the heresy beaten out of us?

But again, those two distinguished thinkers that I just referenced are less scientists now and more political activists. That's where the money and fame lie. There is also the problem that neither Tyson, or Nye are actual climate scientists.  That's right, the leading argument used by Michael Mann against those who pointed out flaws in his hockey stick diagram (namely, that they weren't climate scientists) can be leveled accurately against the two proponents of the same.

And this gets us to the point of this post (finally):

The biggest problems with climate change are not that enough resources are being spent, too few economies are being destroyed, too little money is flowing into the already sizable bank accounts of Al Gore's investment groups, too-little power is being handed over to the world government, that the poorer nations aren't getting paid enough money by the richer ones, no.  The biggest problem is that the politicization of the issue is preventing us from figuring out what we can do to deal with it rather then destroying society in a fairly useless attempt at stopping something that's been going on before man was even a single-cell organism.

The biggest problem is us.

Because we choose to listen to politicians who are simply trying to punish political enemies (and, in many cases, impede the other 'side' from fund-raising or rent-seeking), get re-elected and gain majorities at all levels over government in order to increase their power base and pay off their political patrons. We chose to forget what the scientific method really is in lieu of some neat Power Point slides and a movie or three with gee-whiz special effects. Think about this: It was a Democratic US Representative who stated she wanted to "Nationalize the US Oil companies" and you know what?  Once that happened the debate over "carbon-caused climate change" would disappear overnight.

We put too much power in the hands of functional idiots, and then we wonder why things are as they are.

We currently have a President who couldn't make a solid go of it as a casino owner in an industry that basically prints money.  And look at the US Senate. To quote Obi Wan Kenobi: "You will never find a bigger hive of scum and villainy."  And REALLY stupid people.  The House of Representatives is just as bad.  Even worse are your state-elected officials, and then your municipal and county politicians. It's an ever growing pile of incompetence, inability and utterly clueless people. (Not to mention, horribly socially awkward)  And, no, it's not the fault of everyone else, your elected representatives are just as bad.  You won't admit it in most cases because then you have to admit that you voted for them.

The worst thing about all of this is that not only have we elected low-functioning idiots to rule us (and, make no mistake about it, they're not public servants, THEY ARE RULERS in America at this point) but we're taking totally gormless entertainers seriously.

No, Jennifer Lawrence, it wasn't God who was punishing us for Donald Trump that caused the hurricanes, and no Neil deGrasse Tyson it wasn't climate change that suddenly caused them to appear.

It was primarily the Atlantic mulitdecadal oscillation.

That you haven't heard that term on a newscast, from a politician or from *snicker* Leonardo DiCaprio is everything wrong with the entire situation in one.neat.package.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

HALV: On the (breaking) backs of the citizenry.

By now you've probably read about Mayor Turner's proposed "undo the revenue cap" tax designed not to provide relief for struggling citizens, but to replace city vehicles that were stupidly left in underground garages during Harvey and to repair government buildings. It's a brutal pill to Houston residents who, foolishly, elected a career back-bench legislator to be the Chief Executive of the fourth largest city in America.

Turner wants, at all costs, his revenue back, and he'll do whatever he can to try and get it there, even if it means pushing through a tax increase on home-values BEFORE the flood, before they're reappraised to reflect current market conditions AFTER the flood.

On top of that Harris County has caught the tax-them-until-their-eyes-bleed bug and is preparing to take a $1 Billion bond-issue to voters, the majority of which would go to buy-out around 3,000 flood-prone homes, pay-off patrons to begin planning for a third reservoir and "revamp the County's Flood Management Strategy" which basically sounds like a ReBuild Houston style slush-fund to heap taxpayer largesse onto preferred political patrons.

In short, the Houston Area Leadership Vacuum is sucking harder than ever.

The response to this, from what passes for Conservative leadership in the area, is to scream "government waste, fraud, abuse!" without offering any real examples of this. It's the playbook that's turned Houston blue and will probably turn Harris County blue (and eventually Texas) in the coming years.  It doesn't matter how bad the Texas Democrats are (and trust me, they're pretty bad) as long as Texas Republicans are worse.  Which they are, and it's not close right now.

In fact, while many of the issues in Houston are the result of a long-line of bad Democratic Leadership (Hi Lee P. Brown!) and a County Commissioner election process that was basically a lifetime appointment due to poor media coverage and cronyism, the Harris County Republican Party has been unbelievably worse.

Even worse is the fact that both of these tax proposals have arisen before the City or the County even understand the full scope of the task in front of them.  In the linked Chronicle article even Sylvester Turner admits he might not need all of the tax money he's asking for, but he's going to take it from citizens anyway.  The County doesn't yet know how much FEMA will provide to assist in the condemnation process, but they're going to collect the tax anyway.

And be sure, if the City of Houston's insurance, FEMA or the State make the City and County whole there's NO WAY that tax money is going to be refunded.  The County will divert it to the Astrodome so Ed Emmett can get a plaque with his name on it and the City will squander it repainting bike lanes, probably.

Remember all of this in late December, when you're looking down the barrel of home repair bills as, hopefully, you're spending the Holiday with your family.....then, in the mail, comes a bigger tax bill than you were expecting. A tax bill based on your property's value BEFORE the flood because the City of Houston and County of Harris wanted to ensure the greatest amount of money possible was extracted from your bank account.

And the thing is, this is just the beginning.  There are many in the Courtier Class who are already starting to demand more.  When it comes to the Editorial Board of the Houston Chronicle however I offer this advice:  The Chronicle keeps suggesting that "$10 per month is not going to bankrupt anyone with a home".  Fine, I say, a Chronicle subscription runs around $10-$12 per month.  What say we all cancel those when the tax hit comes to keep our budgets even and see how much it effects them?

I've a feeling they'd be in a world of bother.

Monday, September 11, 2017

BadBusiness: It's a pretty thing, but what does it do? (Part IV of ?)

Part I: Luxury Demands, Commodity Pocketbooks
Part II: "I'm just looking"
Part III: Introducing the new....

News is coming out hot and heavy that Apple is going to be releasing the 8th version of their popular iPhone.  This has techies in a craze over the details and wonders that promise to make this version WAY more advanced than anything prior.

That's the buzz anyway, the reality is that cell phones have advanced remarkably little since the introduction of the first iPhone yet prices for them have increasingly skyrocketed.

This runs counter to other trends in tech, where prices seem to drop fairly rapidly. (Priced a 4K HDTV lately?)  In fact, I will argue that tech is the one consumer area where Americans will pay a premium consistently for a brand. (Cell phones, not tech in general)  Even personal computers lack 'traditional' brand loyalty.

We're seeing a raft of new tech items that sure look nice, but don't seem to DO a whole lot. Again, we've stagnated.  When the biggest news about the iPhone 7 was that they eliminated the headphone jack you know something is amiss.

Apple has been the master of this, convincing people they need the new flashy toy without actually explaining what it does that's all that different, but other companies are gaining ground. Samsung (who currently makes the best cellphone in my opinion) has, to date, given me little reason to pay an increasing price for the S8 which doesn't appear to offer more in functionality than does my current S7.

Motorola is now offering extensions, which supposedly turn your phone into a 70 inch television screen, or a DSLR camera, but doesn't seem to have bridged the gap of providing a battery that will either watch an entire movie or take more than a handful of pictures.  Browing the Internet on your phone?  Good luck.  Battery drain falls quicker than Hillary Clinton's Presidential hopes on election night.

The newest doo-dad is the so-called "digital assistant" who can play music for you, turn on the lights, order pizza (and pay for it, if you load a credit card into it's memory [which can be hacked]) and...what actually?

Yes, they're cute little dots, but I can't help but be reminded a little bit of the Dr. Who episode where all of the black cubes appeared on Earth.  We already have invented AI that's created it's own language, and while I think the "SkyNet" doomsayers are being more than a little silly, it's not too hard to imagine a day where less of our day to day decisions are made by us rather than computes.

And that's the danger.  We've already accepted a world where we allow politicians, marketers and big business to make many decisions for us, (Think about that, complete strangers that you're letting run your life) is it much of a stretch to think that computers running complex algorithms could going forward?

Unlike clothes or cars or foodstuffs, tech is sold to us with the promise that it will make our lives easier, that not having it makes one a Luddite and is akin to Ted Kascinsky sitting in that damn cabin slowly, inexorably going insane.  And we're buying into it.

Possibly at the risk of everything else.  Including our common sense.  Which we've outsourced to the government, which is a problem I'll address in the next chapter.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

BadBusiness: Introducing the new..... (Part III of ?)

Part I: Luxury Demands, Commodity Pocketbooks
Part II: "I'm just looking"

A couple of years back I decided to buy a new car.  My old Mazda3 was getting up in miles and was starting to show signs of age. I thought the transmission might be going out, the interior was pretty worn and it was just time.

Since i hadn't been in the car market for almost 10 years (I hold onto cars) I thought that test-driving almost everything in the style I wanted, a 4-door sedan, would be the way to go.  I started off heading to dealerships, getting harangued (while I typically like good customer service I would not qualify what happens at car dealerships to be such) and finally heading out on a pre-determined course to highlight what each car did well before coming back to the dealership to be hard-sold on a vehicle in which I had little interest.

As I drove, I was noticing a disturbing trend.  All of the cars that I was driving felt and looked, minus a few obvious cosmetic differences, almost exactly the same. (Ignoring the Nissan Altima obviously, which is a piece of automotive crap) The Kia Optima was indistinguishable from the Hyndai Sonata, which felt remarkably like the Chevy Malibu, which was remarkably similar to the Ford Focus.  I even test-drove a Mercedes CLA 250 which was remarkably similar in form to all of the above. (albeit around $10K more expensive.)

Of all the cars the CLA was the most disappointing. I LOVE Mercedes, I consider them to be some of the finest machines on the road. And what they have created is a middling front-wheel drive sedan with the tri-star badge.  It was horrible.

I eventually settled on the Subaru Legacy, in large part, because the driving position was insanely comfortable and the cabin was a nice place to be.  I have not regretted that decision, but I worry that the next time I go to purchase a vehicle it will be even worse.

We've entered a moment in consumer history where companies have figured out that they can spin less as more provided they make the price point right. Technologically we've stagnated, and that's in large part because the consumer has decided that the price point is king.  Granted, this is not true in all cases. There is such as thing as "label envy" where people will pay more for a "name brand", but in many cases (as with the CLA) the upmarket badge doesn't provide any additional quality. 

Louis Vuitton is a prime example of this.  They are faux luxury, the victory of marketing over substance. In reality thy make bags of middling quality and unimaginative design that people will pay a premium for because they think it makes them look wealthy.  No it doesn't, it just makes you look like you've got the measles.

Despite their upmarket reputation however LV items can be had for cheap.  Yes, there are knock-offs, but there are also discount bins at outlet malls and you even find their stuff at Costco.  Now, I like Costco, even have a membership there, but there is nothing about the place that screams 'luxury'. In fact, there's nothing about Louis Vuitton that screams it either.

In fact, you name the 'luxury' brand and I'll show you where quality has fallen.  Tommy Hilfiger?  They used to make GREAT dress shirts, now their items of OK quality for the masses.  Polo? Except for their top-end 'couture' lines they're the same. Coach? There's better leather out there, Cadillac? They are responsible for the Escalade, a gigantic waste of tarmac.  I've already spoken about Mercedes (except for the S class obviously) and even BMW has fallen off of late.  Audi's are basically 4WD Volkswagens (and you can't buy one lest you be branded a prat) even Lamborgini is owned by VW, which is a crime.

Yes, I know, there's still Ferrari, but you can't afford one of those anyway, and I wouldn't drive one on the streets of Houston even if I could.

In fact, very little that is out there today can really be called "luxury" with a straight face. And when someone tries to produce a luxury item they're soon slapped in the face by the realities of market demand.

Consider this: After performing many upgrades to their first and business class services airlines are already starting to pare them back. The reason for this?  For the most part they're giving it away as upgrades as the American traveler refuses to pay premium prices for a premium product.

The notable exception to this trend is technology, but I think there are more problems there which I'll discuss next.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

BadBusiness: "I'm just looking" (Part II of ?)

Part I: Luxury Demands, Commodity Pocketbooks

In part one I discussed American's wanting the allusion of luxury at a low price.  Today I want to discuss how this, in part, has led to the death of retail.  I'm not suggesting what follows 100% killed the industry, but it was a big contributing factor.

As Americans have gone for "cheap at all costs" in retail, automobiles, airfares etc. two things have happened.

1. Customer service has died.
2. Pride in ownership has faded.

I want to take a minute to discuss issue 1 here, because it's been something that I've especially noticed both living in Houston and traveling.

The WORST trend in retail is price matching.  The person who invented the price match should be drawn, quartered and have their brain examined for signs of CTE.

The problem with price matching is that not all goods are created equal, and not all stores are created equal either. A boutique store selling Polo shirts should provide a higher level of customer service than would Wal-Mart selling made in Mumblistan knock-offs. As well they should. But when that store decides they have to compete on price with said retail giant, they then have to cut their staffing budget and Henri the tailor is replaced by Stephen the 18 year-old who could take it or leave it whether you buy that shirt.

When customer service goes the way of the Dodo, there's no reason for Marcus' Haberdashery to continue to exist. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't online shopping that did in retailers such as JC Penney and Sears, it was the rise of Marshall's and Ross and other off-price retailers, and outlet malls. The simple fact of the matter is that JC Penney still offers a good line of store-label clothing, but they have chosen to price it as though it's being sold at Wal-Mart or other discount retailers. As a result of this their customer service is atrocious.  As a matter of fact, it can be worse than atrocious during busy hours.  And I say that as a fan.

Other industries have followed suit.  Airlines have stripped their planes bare, cut down on food choices (including in First Class) and have generally made the flying experience a pathetic one in an effort to offer the lowest fare possible, in many cases this is the only fare they can offer.

It used to be that you could find a nice wine store, complete with a licensed Sommelier, who could assist you in navigating the weird world of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and *shudder* Sauvignon Blanc. Now you probably purchase most of your wine at the grocery store.  Have a question about a wine-growing region or a certain vintage?  Yeah good luck.  And don't count on those bottles having been properly stored either.  Not that many Americans know, sweet wines still being the number one seller.

Even liquor and beer fall into the trap.  Total Wine & More has just moved into the Houston area. They are widely considered to be the Wal-Mart of the liquor industry, moving in, offering certain high-demand items at bargain prices (they have tremendous buying power due to their national footprint) and running existing stores out of business because they cannot compete on price.

Once upon a time, they could compete on service (The customer service at TW&M is horrible FWIW) but now they can't because the customer doesn't care.  Americans have allowed themselves to become a commodity themselves.  Sure we throw up airs, post on social media, feign outrage when we feel we've been slighted, but in reality what people are really looking for in this case is a few moments attention and (hopefully) a bucket of free shit.

This idea has caused several companies to pack it in. It used to be that, when you entered a store, a sales rep was immediately there offering assistance.  After years of being angrily shouted at "I'm just looking!" most companies have abandoned this tactic and now only employ some cashier and stock personnel, whose job it is to clean up the messes that customers leave behind.  If you think things look bad after a hurricane, walk into a clothing store during a holiday sale.  It's bad enough that they should be declared disaster areas.

The take-away from this is that, while it's hip and trendy to blame Wal-Mart, or the airlines, or the "Internet" for ruining things the fact is that we brought all of this on ourselves. We demanded, through our buying habits, that companies race-to-the-bottom and offer less and less and less in the way of customer experience.

After they cut out any semblance of service, the next step was to decrease the quality, which is something I'll discuss next.

Friday, September 08, 2017

BadBusiness: Luxury Demands, Commodity Pocketbooks. (Part I of ?)

I ran across a pretty interesting article on the other day that made me think.

The Really Comfortable Plane That Airlines Just Don't Want to Buy.

The story is about the Bombardier C-Series commercial jet. The C-Series is, by all accounts, a marvel. It's got wider aisles, wider middle seats, more space between rows, and the airlines aren't interested.

Not because they're a bunch of sadists who like to see passengers cramp-up due to lack of circulation mid-flight, or because they're clueless (although the media would certainly like you to think they are). Nope, they don't want to buy this plane because they, rightfully, understand that the vast majority of American passengers won't pay even a small premium to fly on one.

And that's a big problem in American consumer culture right now.  We've been led to believe, by Madison Avenue, that we have champagne tastes when we're actually running on a Mad Dog 20/20 budget.

Yes, Americans demand nice "stuff", but they demand that "stuff" at bargain basement prices. This has led to two things:

1. True luxury goods becoming more and more scarce, especially in America
2. Faux-luxury taking its place.

For example:  If you travel to Las Vegas, as I do often, you see brand names selling wares that are decidedly not cheap.  The Europeans and Asian tourists flock to these stores (Prada, David Yurman, etc.) and buy one or two pieces before spending the rest of the evening playing Baccarat and quaffing Champagne by the bottle.  American tourists are hitting up the sales rack at Tommy, various "off-label" stores offering cheap knock-offs of designer goods while standing in line to play $5 blackjack, the shitty $5 "Sands" Roulette wheel and penny slots.  They then go to White Castle or some restaurant with a celebrity chef's name emblazoned on it to try a "seasonal" tasting menu that doesn't change year-round.

An American might walk into Prada, but will run out once he/she sees that the shoes have a price tag of over $1000. (Full disclosure: I'm not a fan of Prada, I don't find their designs all that practical or enticing)  And this is in 'see and be seen" Vegas, where 7 For All Mankind and Lucky Brand jeans are still a thing.

Go to a city like Houston and luxury goods in the Galleria are jumped on by tourists from (again) Europe, Asia and South America. (The Galleria in Houston being one of the most multi-lingual malls in America I'm betting) while locals head to one of the many "outlet malls" to fill up bags full of Tommy Hilfiger, Polo and US Polo Association.

But those aren't even the REAL Hilfiger, Polo, or Brooks Brother's items.  They're outlet mall knock-offs usually made in Vietnam.

The important thing is that they are cheap, and plentiful.  And if America likes anything it's cheap and plentiful goods.  See Wal-Mart for an example of that.

This race to the bottom of the price structure has led to two bad trends.  Trends that I'll discuss further in Part II of this series.

Enough Harvey: On a brighter note

If you haven't seen this video by Jon Bois you're doing yourself a disservice.

HALV: Destroying Houston is the consensus way to save it.

Politicians and the media love to drone on and on about so-called 'teachable moments'.  When bad things happen they like to tell us that we can learn from this and, through trusting in government and anti-business activists, take the right steps to ensure their upper-income, trendy enclave neighborhoods never have to worry about disaster again.

The fact is, Houston has a monumental rebuilding task ahead of it which may need to include buying out several properties in flood-prone areas.  Certainly there are going to be many long months ahead as people begin to unwind.

Yesterday I wrote about our unity, and how quickly it is fading as Houston's dimmer element starts trying to carve up the populace among the wise, and the gormless.  You're considered gormless by the way if you reject the idea of living in a Soviet-style high-rise remaining totally dependent on a light-rail system that goes out of order when the tracks get damp or on the many occasions when it decides to hit something (or someone).  None of this is helpful of course, so naturally the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board has decided that every single bit of it should be adopted in order to make Houston a more "resilient" city whatever the hell that means.

So yes, we could transform Houston, buy out everyone who has built in an area the Crossley crazies deem inappropriate, work to eliminate the energy industry in it's entirety, driving it from the City and "building batteries" in an attempt to remain relevant. Houston could even try to provide Amazon with a huge tax break to lure them into town as the host site of their 2nd Headquarters.

This could all be done.

And if it is then you could say goodbye to a great many things in Houston, as well as many of its residents.  Because without the good-paying jobs that the energy industry provides and without the relatively cheap housing that Houston offers these people, and businesses, will move on.  They will leave.

And I wouldn't blame them.  Despite having a shining moment during the devastation of Harvey there's really not much in Houston that would keep you here if your job prospects were brighter elsewhere.

The museum district?  Bah, every city of any reasonable size has museums.  The theater?  Even Lincoln Nebraska gets travelling Broadway shows.  And don't tell me that it's 'better' in Houston because it's just not.  Birmingham has a ballet company for Chrissakes.

I will admit that, after Harvey, I've thought long and hard about how much longer I want to continue to live in this fetid swamp.  Sure, the pay is nice but, as an accountant, it's not as if my skill-set won't travel.  I'm typically not an emotional type but I feel the edges fraying after Harvey, being stuck at home watching days of devastation will do that to you.  Fortunately, I've still got a clearer head than Jennifer Lawrence or Ann Coulter as I still think Harvey was created by the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation more so than Trump, Annise Parker or climate change.

I also remain concerned that no one in the media is asking what's been done with all of the tax money supposedly collected to improve drainage in Houston?  TIRZ money seems to be increasingly wasted, and ReBuild Houston has, to date, accomplished nada, despite draining Tens of Millions of dollars from the local economy.

I would be remiss however if I didn't remind you that a diminished Houston is exactly what the environmentalists and Crossley Crazies really want. I'm sure more than one of them is currently lamenting (privately of course) that the death count wasn't higher. Mathusianism you see.

I'll repeat again that Houston needs to focus on our better angels, not on those whose instinct is to lecture, harangue and sue. There is still so much to be done, so many people suffering, rebuilding, trying to make ends meet that tut-tutting them just seems to be counterproductive.

My fear being that, if the wrong voices are listened to, there won't be much recognizable in Houston that's worth fighting all that hard for.  The reality is however that I probably won't be around to witness it. The reality is also that my time here is coming to an end. Given that realization you might not want to listen much to what I have to say at all. (if you ever did in the first place) Increasingly I feel more and more separated from Houston and its future.

Which probably means that it's time to move on.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

HALV: How quickly our 'unity' has faded

Well that didn't take long.

Houston is still unwinding from the damage of that bastard Harvey and already the usual cast of characters are emerging to remind us that all of Houston's ills are caused by people who have chosen, for one reason or another, to live outside Beltway 8. (Full disclosure: This would include me and my family.)

The Houston Chronicle, as they do, have provided a sounding board for all of the old voices.  Even Eric Berger was pulled out of mothballs and allowed to opine....

Five Days of Hellish Rainfall must be a wake-up call to stop business as usual. Eric Berger, ($$$ eventually)

Also included in this "five-minutes hate-fest"  Jay Blazek Crossley, son of noted loony and a man increasingly known for his ever-growing beard, David Crossley.

Stop building neighborhoods that make other neighborhoods flood. Jay Blazek Crossley, Houston ($$$ eventually)

Of course Chris Tomlinson has to weigh-in, from Austin of course.

End housing discrimination and change lives. Chris Tomlinson, ($$$ eventually)

And while I'm somewhat sympathetic to Tomlinson's main argument (The Texas law allowing apartment owners to deny renting to those on government assistance IS ridiculous on it's face) his other writings reveal a new-urbanist lean that, while absent from this article, colors all of his writing. (To be fair: at least he paid lip-service to the free market, and didn't advocate requiring apartment owners to take on a certain percentage of low-income renters as some have. Kudos for that)

Finally, we learn that not all suburbs are created equal.

How can we save Houston's Mid-Century Modern neighborhoods? Bruce Race, ($$$ eventually)

It should be noted that the common thread in all of this, namely, picking and choosing where (other) people are allowed to live, ignore the very real problem of cost.

Because if you decide, for instance, that it's no longer possible for people to be able to live in areas outside of Beltway 8 and that everyone should lose their homes you then run into the sticky problem of compensation.  Because it's unconstitutional for the government to relieve someone of their personal property without offering adequate compensation.  If you didn't compensate, that would be a taking and those are prohibited by the 5th Amendment.

Now granted, Americans have a sketchy relationship with our governing document these days, specifically the Bill of Rights.  We tend to like some, and dislike others, or even to like some when it suits us but wish them out of the way when it doesn't.  See the first, second, fourth, fifth and tenth amendment for more detail.

The bad thing about this is that many, many Houston Chronicle reporters have done a spectacular job going into the muck and providing good, solid coverage of the storm and it's aftermath.  As usual, it's the opinion/commentary section of Houston's regional daily that's letting them down.  Gift a lady the first Pulitzer in the paper's history, and bad publisher's and Editors in Chief have a tendency to think "MOAR IS BETTAH!!"  which is what we're seeing here.

For all of the talk of unity and a shared mission it didn't take long for the dividers among us to bubble up out of the muck and try to forward their agenda that more than half of the Houston region's residents (and growing, if you look at the latest census numbers) are trying to kill the others and should be protected from their stupid selves.

Houston had unity for a brief, shining moment. It's being undone by horrid traffic which are turning drivers into selfish me-monkeys and now the courtier class who provide little in the way of actual tangible good, and much in the way of bloviatingly bad.

At some point we have to hope that the adults in the room (if any remain) emerge to steer the conversation in a more helpful direction.  Pointing the finger at people who are currently spending time ripping the guts out of their home is probably not going to be all that helpful.  The worry here is that Houston's political leadership is too bereft of common sense to not ignore the courtiers and courtesans who are desperately seeking their attention.

The leadership at the Houston Chronicle is just hoping that it sells more papers.  They are a for-profit business after all.

Maybe someone should take a look at where the RebuildHouston funds, and all of those TIRZ tax dollars are going?

Just a thought.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Surviving Harvey

Preface:  My family was insanely lucky.  We suffered no flood damage, we only lost power for a couple of hours and everyone is safe.  What we went through is nothing like what tens (hundreds) of thousands are going through right now.  So this is not a gripe, it's just a simple recounting.  I'm very thankful that the water stopped where it did.

"It's one block away".

That's what my wife told me on Thursday after it had been raining pretty much all week.  We're among the group of people who live North of the Addicks Reservoir. Some might say stupidly so. But we did research when buying and felt that the elevation (114-115 feet according to maps) would mean that an awful lot of rain would have to fall before we faced a flood.

Harvey dumped an awful lot of rain on the Northwest side of Houston.  According to my neighbors unofficial rain gauge readings, we received around 35 inches during the storm.  Just north of us, in Copperfield, one rain gauge reading said 61 inches.  And the water kept rising.

After my wife told me that I decided to take a walk down the block and see for myself.  She was right (of course, I didn't doubt her but I wanted to see) the water was slowly creeping up the street as was firmly in the middle of the road just one block away.  That street was at 108, it would flood the road ultimately but not any of the houses.  In fact, most of the houses on the "back half" of the subdivision would be high and dry.  They did a good job building our neighborhood, elevating most of the houses 3-5 feet above street level.

The front half was not so lucky.  We could see that those houses had taken on a lot of water. We also knew that this meant our waste water treatment facility (WWTF) was in deep crap. (literally).  On Wednesday night came the warning to curtail use. Only flush periodically, don't take showers etc.  On Thursday afternoon the notice came that our sewer system was 100% out of order. No water down the drains at all lest you wanted to have sewage back up in your house.

That was it for me.  We had a choice.  Now that the roads had opened up we could make a run to my parents house in Willis (they were out of town on an Alaskan cruise) or continue to sit in a house where we needed to defecate outdoors and go without a shower.  At first we cleaned off using the water hose in the back yard.  Once we couldn't flush at all we made the decision to run to Willis.

By now the water was dropping, but it could be days before the levels would lower sufficiently to allow repairs to the system.  So we threw the dogs in our cars and headed North.

To be honest, it was like staying in a vacation rental.  We visited the Kroger in Willis and bought a week's worth of food. I used my father's propane grill and we cooked outdoors every night.  We saw fireflies and one very scared opossum.  We put the dogs on leads and took them outside several times to relieve themselves.  We watched college football and counted ourselves lucky.

My parents came home on Monday and we grilled fish and watched the excellent Tennessee/Georgia Tech game.  I then got violently ill and had to call in sick to work.

That was a blessing however because, as the day progressed and I started feeling better, a notice from the MUD came that 'conservative' sewer use had been restored. In short, we could take quick showers and flush our toilets, we could not run the dishwasher or do laundry but that didn't matter.  My dad helped me load my car and the dogs and we headed home.

Unfortunately my wife DID go into work on Tuesday, and it took her 5 hours to get there.  Coming back to our place it still took her 2 and a half.  I don't know how I'm going to get to or from work tomorrow but by the time this publishes I will undoubtedly be there.

To those of you looking on all I can say is to donate.  Over on my sports blog I've put many links to charitable groups.  That post is here.

At work, I've got some on my staff who lost everything, others who just have roof damage and garage flooding and some who, like me, found themselves very fortunate. I'm sure almost everyone else in Houston is the same way.

No matter what emerges from this I do predict that Houston is going to be changed both drastically and subtly in the coming months.  What we see emerge from this will be a different city, hopefully we can avoid our lesser instincts and make it be better.  I'm not going to get into that too much now except to say that we're already seeing evidence that our politicians and "thought leaders" are choosing to go down the wrong path.  I sincerely hope they turn around but I'm afraid the impulses against that happening will be too great.

Harvey as a horrific tragedy with some very bright lights interspread throughout.  From the Cajun Navy to people with boats pulling out strangers to a local government who did a pretty good job coordinating it all.  There have been wonderful signs of giving, service and spirit.  I'm proud of this Houston.

I always have been.