Thursday, April 24, 2008

Hey Pal, No Soliciting

Every night when we turn on the news there are threats and evil forces surrounding us. It is Wall Street and the mortgage crisis, immigrants taking our jobs, and the disappearing middle class. It’s hard not to believe the hype. It’s hard not to believe that we are all victims of our circumstances, and that the world is hopelessly out of control and that Armageddon will come soon.

When we start to hear these hysterics, we need to employ a little skepticism. When the Wizard of Oz is spewing fire and the green vein on his forehead pulses with anger, we need to look around and see if Toto has exposed a little man behind a curtain. Fear is a tool of manipulation. The peddlers of fear usually want something from you. They want you to tune in at 10, buy their product, or vote for their candidate. We should greet these peddlers with the same skepticism that we greet car salesmen.

It is not that all horror stories are false. If the news tells me that there is a Hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, I need to watch because my life and family depend on knowing what to do. The critical test is listening to what they want you to do about it. Do they want something from you? Do they want your money, your personal freedom, your rapt attention during commercial breaks?

The more afraid we are, the more power we cede to those who want to be in charge. We feel powerless and hopeless and that only someone stronger can save us all. Beware the stench of manipulation.

Many economists now believe we are either in or about to be in a recession. Recessions are not fun, but the media blows it way out of proportion. According to the news, I should start growing my own crops and livestock to survive the coming dark ages. Many people may lose their jobs, but in reality that will only be 1 or 2% of the working population and it will be temporary. Most people’s income will continue to rise, but maybe a little slower.

Yielding to fear and handing over money and freedom to massive government “fixes” is not the answer we need. What we need to do now is what we need to do every day. We need to work hard at our jobs and set money aside for a rainy day. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand wrote of her character Henry Rearden, “He had never known fear, because against any disaster he had held the omnipotent cure of being able to act.” It is individual action that we need not collective panic.

If we do not act, we become slaves to luck. We become objects manipulated by those in power. When it comes to life’s troubles we sometimes exhort personal responsibility, but we misunderstand it. American Heritage Dictionary defines responsibility as a duty, an obligation, or a burden. When we choose to act, the only burden is the effort of throwing off the shackles of dependence. Action brings freedom, safety, and security.

A leader or politician cannot bring us freedom. Freedom begins in our hearts and minds, and flows upward to curtail the ambitions of those who wish to use us for their gain. However, action turns to force when it moves outside of ourselves and to the coercion of others. Do not be fooled, forcing others to act is not the same as them choosing to act.

While we sympathize with their plight, the poor and the downtrodden are not victims of circumstances they are slaves to inaction. Whether it is addiction and sloth or fear and hopelessness, they have ceded their personal freedom and borne themselves into bondage. Their emancipation cannot be delivered, they must choose to take it up. We best help when we live the answers that they seek.

It is not mere personal responsibility that we need, but a new individualism. We need an individualism that recognizes personal action, not as a burden, but the narrow gate to personal freedom. We need an individualism that sneers at fear and hopelessness. An individualism repulsed by the brimstone breath of fear mongers. We do not need “enlightened” leaders to save us; we only need to act with daily discipline and contempt for coercion.

We need the audacity of Winston Churchill under the specter of the Nazi blitzkrieg. As the Third Reich roared across Europe like a tsunami, he stoked the fires of defiance in England with his call to action and rejection of fear.

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”

Recessions, crises and corruption come and go. They will always happen, and they will always end. There will always be those who try to manipulate us into believing that we are powerless over our own lives, and that we need only to hand over our personal freedom so that they can protect us. But, the new individualist knows that safety and security can only be found in the daily discipline of human action. Declare your independence. Turn off the TV, put your wallet away, and vote for the other guy. Become a new individualist.

As always, tell me what you think.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

School Daze

I was reminded this week of how wasteful the public school system is by an article in the Houston Chronicle. Klein Independent School District is trying to pass a bond measure to borrow money for new facilities. Part of the bond package is to replace two existing high schools.

What is the price tag for each high school? Only $130 Million per high school! Each school is supposed to house a close-knit 3,500 students. The schools are full of “necessities”, such as “natatoriums, black-box theaters, dance areas and extensive career and technology programs”. The natatorium is likely an indoor Olympic size swimming pool. A black-box theater allows for special stage productions in addition to a traditional school theater.

Adding to that high price is the fact that the school district already owns the land and it does not include the price of furnishings.

Are these costs out of whack, or is it simply that expensive to build a high school today? How much did schools cost 15 to 20 years ago? What has been the increase in construction costs?

For proper comparison, the price needs to be divided by the number of students the school is expected to educate. It wouldn’t be fair to compare a small town high school to large suburban schools without adjusting for student population. The price per student is around $37,100 for these new high schools.

According to an expert quoted in the article:

“The median cost-per-square-foot of a high school has increased from $104 in 1995 to $171 in 2007, he said. And rates continue to increase as much as 15 percent a year, experts said.”

So, in 1995 this school would have cost $22,600. The article also mentions the price of the high school I attended, Pearland High school, also a suburban Houston school, that was built in 1991. Filling the four year gap between 1991 and 1995, and adding two more years after 2007 to coincide with the actual groundbreaking date with the same rate of construction cost inflation between 1995 and 2007, this implies that my high school should have cost $17,600 per student.

From my memory, my high school was 5A (the largest classification in Texas) and held about 2,400 students my senior year when we started to run out of space. Using these numbers, it implies that my high school should have cost around $42 million.

What was the actual construction price of my high school according to the article? Only $12 million. This means that Klein’s school district has chosen to build these schools 3½ times more extravagant than Pearland did in 1991.

While the Klein High School numbers were rather shocking to me, I did a quick Google search assuming that this could not be the most outrageously expensive high school in America. I was not disappointed.

In suburban Boston, the town of Newton is building a high school for around 2,000 students. According to Boston Globe the costs have spiraled out of control up to $197 million. That is $98,500 per student. That price is just over 2½ times more expensive than Klein’s schools, and a mere 19 times more expensive per student than my high school. Surprisingly enough, the article does not mention any gold plated desks or diamond studded pencils.

The most heinous problem with this out of control spending is where the money is going. The costs for building a simple classroom have not increased so staggeringly. What has gone up is the enormous appetite of school officials for extracurricular facilities. While I have little doubt that all those things are fun for these students, I don’t really understand why the government needs society as a whole to pay for them. Having fun and forming hobbies is not the business of government.

I propose a state law that would limit school construction to having 40% of square footage to academic classroom space. The 40% is just an estimate and may seem high or low, but accounts for the need for hallways, offices, cafeterias, etc… There should also be room for extracurricular activities and vocational classes, but the school should not be dominated by hundreds of thousands of square feet of non-academic building space.

This bond package would include a 16% increase in school property taxes for Klein I.S.D. I complain about taxes, but the only way to keep taxes down is for the government to spend less. When millions of dollars of waste are included in all-or-nothing school bond packages, it puts voters in the unfair position of choosing between preventing waste and having crowded dilapidated schools.

As always, tell me what you think.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Currently, George Bush has submitted a free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States to Congress for consideration. Because I believe in free trade, I support this bill, but this agreement has more to it than just economics.

Colombia is increasingly an island of freedom. To the east, they share a long border with Venezuela and the increasingly aggressive and socialist Hugo Chavez. To the southwest, they border Ecuador, which is currently led by a Chavez ally and sycophant, Rafael Correa.

For a number of years, Colombia has been fighting the far-left Marxist group known as the FARC. The FARC has been abducting killing hundreds of people a year in their decades-long struggle to turn Colombia into a communist country. Colombia’s current president Álvaro Uribe has won a number of victories against them and has pushed them deep into the jungle. Evidence recently turned up suggesting Hugo Chavez may have given as much as $300 million to support the FARC’s terrorist activities. Hugo Chavez publicly defends the FARC and massed his troops on the border, threatening war, when Colombia briefly crossed into Ecuador to bomb a FARC base.

While Chavez and Correa have been confiscating private property and closing businesses, Colombia has been cutting the size of their government. Their national deficit has shrunk in recent years to acceptable levels.

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady has some other interesting comments during an interview with Colombia’s trade minister Luis Plata.

“No sooner had Luis Plata sat down then he started talking about the Irish economic transformation -- from impoverished ugly duckling to swanky swan of Europe in just two decades -- and why a similar growth model is just what Colombia needs.”

If you recall I talked about the Irish miracle a while back. An excerpt:

“In 1985, the average Irish family made 40% less than their French and German counterparts. Today, because of the massive spending cuts and massive growth from that, the Irish make 40% more than the French and the Germans according to the IMF.”

Mr. Plata went on to say in the interview:

"We starting going to Ireland several years ago, he says, "because we were looking at countries around the world that had been successful in attracting foreign direct investment. What we found was that Ireland had lowered its corporate tax rate from 40% to 12.5%," and as a result "was attracting investment, had lowered tax evasion and had increased tax collection. We went back to Colombia and said, 'why don't we just bring [our corporate rate] from 38% to 12.5%.'"

Apparently, he was only able to get the government to adopt some of these reforms, but some is better than none.

Currently, Colombia is ranked as the 81st richest country in the world. This places them behind Mexico. True poverty is still common. I commend their president for taking a number of political risks for the long-term interests of his people. At the same time, he has successfully beaten back left-wing terrorist groups, but he increasingly faces threats from enemies of the United States.

Yet, the Democratic party has shamefully held up this trade bill. Hillary Clinton recently forced a campaign advisor to resign when it was discovered that he was also consulting in support of this trade agreement. What can we expect though from a party that receives so much money from unions who are against free trade any where, any time, any place for any reason? These choices held by them just do not match my values.

Our ally stands out the door step to a socialist dictator. They give no sympathy. Our ally stands against terrorists who kill and kidnap in hopes of one day installing a communist dictatorship. They give no cheer. Our ally is taking political risks to lift his country out of poverty. They only see a threat to American union membership. Our ally is the best hope and beacon of economic freedom in a darkening South America. They want to embarrass Bush one more time before he leaves office by defeating this bill.

We can show South America that the future is not made of Hugo Chavez’s red banners, and angry militarism. Chavez wants this bill to fail because he knows that Colombia’s success will loosen his grip on power. Tell your congressional representative to sign this free trade bill today, as I have already done. Chavez likes to rattle his saber, so we should unsheathe our pens and sign the bill.

As always, tell me what you think.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Notes from the County Convention

This past weekend I attended the Galveston County Senatorial District Convention as a delegate. It was a rather interesting and enjoyable experience. I was selected as an Alternate Delegate to the State Convention, which means that I can attend and if 38 other delegates or alternate delegates ahead of me fall ill or are otherwise occupied, I can actually vote on the party platform.

For those who have never been to District Convention, let me explain the basic format of the one I attended. This may or may not be exactly how a convention for your area would occur.

First, everyone just socialized for about an hour or so. We were supposed to sit with our precinct and I did. I met the former mayor of my city, a former city councilman, and a gentleman who had unsuccessfully run for city council. If you are ever interested in running for city council in your city let me know and I will pass on the information they told me. This socializing time was my favorite part. I am usually not an extraordinarily social person, but everyone liked to talk about politics, making conversation easy.

In college, I turned away from the party system when I experienced some very petty behavior by the people in charge of College Republicans. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that everyone at my local convention was very nice, open to conversation, and happily answered my questions. The people seemed like average folks, not a bunch of country club Republicans.

After a little wait was a series of technical matters where we had to go through the legal formalities of voting to seat the delegates and elect the convention chairperson. You quickly grow to love and hate parliamentary procedure.

From time to time, the chairperson invited an elected Republican official to come speak. My State Rep. Larry Taylor, of whose voting record I am rather pleased, gave a great speech. My State Senator Mike Jackson, of whose voting record I am often displeased, stammered through a horribly ill-prepared speech. Two Republicans, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs and Pete Olson, in a primary run-off for Dem. Congressman Nick Lampson’s current seat also gave some mildly effective campaign speeches. Pete was a little more convincing from my perspective.

The last two-thirds of the convention was a refereed debate over the party platform for Galveston County. They supplied a packet of the platforms submitted for vote, which numbered over 200. If any delegate objected to a piece of the platform, they could move to strike it or amend it, and then the directed debate would ensue. Some people who spoke were eloquent, others confusing, and still others down right amusing because they were so over the top with passion, but short on good points. They were all greeted with cheers, polite applause or occasionally boos. Boos were mostly directed at the Paulites (supporters of Ron Paul), who advocated removing some references to God from the party platform. It was all in good fun, though. I would never describe it as tense.

For the state delegate selection process, I was not privy to their decision-making, but a few things became clear. Long time party loyalists got first dibs on being a delegate. Don’t be cynical of this choice though. There is very little that they could do to find out if you really were a Republican beyond your voter registration and your word that you were a Republican. They didn’t know me from Adam, so I understand them selecting people who have spent a lot of time working for the party.

Because there were more people wanting to be delegates and alternate delegates than there were slots available, we had to be interviewed for our credentials. I was in a room of about 25 people, of which 10 were interviewees like me. Most people either gave a little bit of party experience or a personal story for why they wanted to be a delegate. I was very glad that I had mentally prepared a few notes for why they should select me, because I only had about 5 minutes after I found out that I would be interviewed at all. My only regret is that I did not prepare more on paper. I think I could have moved up the list quite a bit if I had. Don’t think that you have to be a superstar to get selected. I think that around 5 of 6 people requesting to be delegates became delegates (including alternates).

As I mentioned before, if you want to be a part of a convention in the future, just prepare a little bit to get your thoughts organized and make a simple case for why you want to be a delegate. If zillions of people happen to show up one year it’s going to be more difficult if you haven’t spent much time working for the party, so don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work out as easy as it did for me.

I’ll let you know how the state convention goes after I attend.

As always, tell me what you think.