In the Name of Competition

This past Sunday, the Chronicle editorial board revealed how confused and unprincipled it is. An editorial called for the federal government to use antitrust laws to block Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods.

Amazon’s business model is to become a monopoly. Buying Whole Foods gives the online retailer its first major foothold in the brick-and-mortar grocery business….

However, the real challenge is in addressing the underlying problem of a political and economic order that not only allows anti-competitive behavior, but even encourages it.

As examples of policies that encourage anti-competitive behavior, the paper cites the tax code, the influence of lobbyists, and occupational licensing. These examples have one fundamental thing in common: each involves government intervention in the economy. And so do the antitrust laws.

In other words, the editorial bemoans the results of government intervention and then calls for more intervention as a solution.

The examples of cronyism cited by the paper certainly stifle competition. The tax code rewards us with a lower tax burden if we engage in the types of activities that government officials deem desirable, such as purchasing an electric car or installing solar panels. Lobbyists frequently seek legislation that prevents upstarts from competing with established companies. As examples, auto dealerships and beer distributors lobbied the recent legislature to prohibit certain types of competition. Occupational licensing is used to erect outrageous barriers to entering a profession.

Antitrust laws prevent companies from engaging in activities that the government deems anti-competitive, such as earning too large of a market share. Government intervention is “justified” as necessary to protect consumers and promote the “public interest.” The “public interest” is the same justification that is used to defend the tax code, the influence of lobbyists, and occupational licensing.

The paper’s editorial board is unable to see this similarity because it does not think in principles. It sees problems, whether real or imagined, as isolated issues. It is unable to identify the fundamental ideas that underlie seemingly disparate issues.

For example, the paper’s columnists have repeatedly decried Uber’s attempts to escape the draconian regulations that stifle the taxi industry. The paper wants Uber to be subjected to the same licensing requirements as taxi companies. So, while decrying occupational licensing, the Chronicle wants taxi licensing. Having rejected principles, the paper can’t see that both violate an individual’s moral right to act on his own judgment and offer his services to willing buyers.

In truth, all government intervention–including the antitrust laws–is anti-competitive.

Why Discrimination is Inescapable

Last week, California banned state-funded travel to Texas, saying that a new adoption law passed by Texas is discriminatory. California law restricts the use of state funds to travel to places that “authorize discrimination” on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Seven other states are on California’s no-travel list.

Ironically, in issuing such a ban, California is itself guilty of discrimination.

To discriminate means to recognize a difference between two or more things. It is a recognition of the fact that things are not the same. And that is precisely what California is doing in issuing its travel ban. It is saying that the eight states are not the same as the other forty-two states.

Every choice that we make, from the most mundane to the most life shaping, is an act of discrimination.

All of us make choices that others may regard as unfair. When government becomes the arbiter of what is fair and what is unfair, then ideas will necessarily be censored. Those who hold ideas that the government deems unfair become criminals by that fact. They are legally prohibited from acting on their ideas, not because they have violated the rights of others, but because their ideas offend others.

Again, any attempt to ban discrimination is itself an act of discrimination. It is an act of identifying what is fair and what is unfair (at least in the eyes of anti-discrimination advocates).

Certainly, many individuals will use irrelevant or irrational criteria when making decisions. They may choose to hire individuals solely on the basis of race or sex. They may refuse to serve individuals who have a lifestyle that they don’t like. But they have a moral right to use such criteria, to make such choices, and to act accordingly.  This does not mean that individuals have a right to use force against others. A racist has a right to hold irrational ideas; he does not have a right to burn a cross in the yard of his black neighbor. A homophobe has a right to regard gays as repugnant; he does not have a right to assault them.

The proper purpose of government is the protection of our right to live as we choose, not determine what criteria are relevant and rational in making such choices. Government cannot force us to be rational. It can only protect our freedom to think and act rationally. This not preclude the possibility that individuals may act irrationally. But so long as they do not use force or fraud against others, they should be free to act as they choose.

But the advocates of anti-discrimination legislation believe that force will overcome ignorance and irrationality. They believe that individuals should be prohibited from acting as they choose. They believe that discrimination is inherently wrong. And so they do the very thing that they claim to oppose–they discriminate. Discrimination is inescapable.

Lobbying and Cronyism

Chronicle columnist Chris Tomlinson makes an issue out of the fact that Uber lobbied the Texas legislature to block local efforts to regulate the company:

When Houston’s city council refused to bend to Uber’s demands, and Austin voters threw Uber out of the capitol, Kalanick hired a team of high-priced lobbyists to buy friendly statewide laws at the Texas Legislature. Uber now has its own set of rules that give it an advantage over local taxi drivers.

The advantage enjoyed by Uber is that taxi companies are subject to draconian regulations, which both Houston and Austin sought to impose on the company. Uber lobbied the legislature in an effort to protect its freedom.

Tomlinson and his ilk would have us believe that this is wrong, that we should obediently submit to whatever government officials demand.

In contrast, consider the lobbying efforts undertaken by taxi companies around the world whenever Uber enters a market. The taxi companies lobby for government to place more restrictions on Uber, rather than demand a lessening of the controls on them. That is nothing more than cronyism–government protection from competition in exchange for political support.

The fact is, the taxi companies don’t want to compete in a free market. They enjoy their cozy relationship with government officials and the monopolies that they have established.

There is a moral gulf between what Uber did and what taxi companies have been doing. Uber lobbied to protect its freedom; the taxi companies lobbied to enslave Uber.

MacKie and Kamrath: Texas Medical Center, Part 2

Today we look at two more Mackie & Kamrath works in the Texas Medical Center, one of which is slated for demolition as in the case of the earlier-seen UT School of Public Health. This structure, the University of Houston School of Pharmacy building, went up in the early 1970’s and although not revolutionary is worthy of note.

Laboratory square footage where window space was not a critical consideration was the primary need that the Pharmacy building would address. This allowed for great flexibility in meeting the school’s changing internal arrangement needs but would dictate a rather blank exterior. Kamrath solved the problem by placing bands of small high “transom” windows at the east and west ends of the building where offices were situated, while a Willem Dudok-influenced broad windowless expanse dominated the north and south sides in the center (behind which laboratories were placed for Professors that preferred or required darkness). This expanse was faced with orange-tan brick separated by horizontally-raked mortar as with Wright, mirroring the overall horizontal building orientation. Another nod to Wright would be the arched entranceways which recall somewhat the 1948 V.C. Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco and the 1902 Arthur Heurtley house in Chicago.

Although most aspects of the facility are restrained, there is a rather showy display of cantilevering on the east and west ends. Simply by extending floors about 12 feet and then repeating the extension above, he gets five different floor lengths, four of which are longer than the foundation. This is interesting in an engineering sense because the cantilevering is not of the Fallingwater variety. It is made possible by the building’s steel structure itself, as beams are not counterweighted with a stone mass above, but are counterweighted by being bolted to everything else. It’s unfortunate that the school is constructing a new facility rather than expanding this one but the structure is old and new work is frequently cheaper to build than restoration or redesign jobs.

The second M&K building to note in this installment will be an aspect of the larger two-section Lutheran Pavilion (the structure’s original name that remains on one tower), which fortunately is not immediately threatened with demolition. The Freeman-Dunn Chapel, a freestanding feature in front of the south Holcolmbe face of the Pavilion tower complex, is an unexpected gem which must be entered in order to understand the design. This will take a bit of doing since not only will one need to park in a Medical Center garage and take a third-floor walkway back to the Pavilion, but there is no outside entrance to the chapel. A small corridor extending south from inside the Medical Center mega-structure is the only public way in.

The inspiration for this work is clearly Wright’s First Christian Church in Phoenix, Arizona but Kamrath got a similar effect in a tiny fraction of the space. The chapel’s sanctuary is only about 600 square feet in size, but is not cramped due to a 45-degree ceiling which in a sort of 3-D A-frame maneuver (essentially a pyramid) makes the roof a major element. Impinging corner windows of modernist stained glass are also at 45-degree angles, which is also the offset of the oak chandelier in the center. These angles when mixed with the 90-degree corners and the 45-degree rooflines give the effect not of a square (which it actually is) but of being inside a 20-foot diamond. I know of no Wrightian precedent for this room, and I don’t think Rudolph Schindler, Richard or Dion Neutra, Craig Ellwood or Charles Eames approached it either.

There are also completely unexpected features with no precedent in the Prairie or any other design school. Where Wright would sometimes make column-style wall supports in a stylized version of the classic column order (capital, shaft and base), Kamrath does the entire west wall of the chapel in a stretched version of the idea, and with wildly expensive light rose-colored marble. Horizontal separator elements are in white marble. Cleverly, the two other walls to the south and southeast are of differing shades of red granite, which with a more demure effect, hide the brighter impact of the west-side marbles until one banks left and then one is on top of it. It’s quite a surprise.

At press time I did not have permission to do interior photography; I suggest you spend some time and drop by this Chapel, which although tricky to get to is open 24 hours. It’s one of the most delightful spaces in Houston.

The Evil of Occupational Licensing

A bill is being considered in Austin that will redefine what it means to be a psychologist. Anyone who engages in certain conversations with others will be considered a criminal if he doesn’t meet the state’s criteria. The bill would force life coaches, hypnotherapists, spiritual healers, business coaches, positive thinking coaches, and countless others to get the government’s approval before offering advice.

Across the nation, more than 800 professions require a government license in at least one state. It is estimated that as much as one-third of the American workforce must acquire government permission to enter the profession of their choice. A small sampling of these professions includes rainmakers in Arizona, manure applicators in Iowa, lobster sellers in Rhode Island, and mussel dealers in Illinois.

Whether you are a consumer or a professional, licensing is a direct assault on your moral right to freely contract with others. Under licensing you can act only with government permission, rather than by right. The injustice of such controls was recognized long ago by James Madison:

That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where arbitrary restrictions, exemptions, and monopolies deny to part of its citizens that free use of their faculties, and free choice of their occupations, which not only constitute their property in the general sense of the word; but are the means of acquiring property….

Isn’t this a description of licensing? Licensing creates “arbitrary restrictions, exemptions, and monopolies” within a profession; it denies individuals the freedom to earn a living as they choose.

The obvious victim of this injustice is the individual who must overcome these arbitrary restrictions to enter the occupation of his choice. Often, these restrictions are outlandish. As an example, in Texas a licensing law was passed that requires computer-repair technicians to obtain a criminal justice degree or serve a three-year apprenticeship under a licensed private investigator. The bill’s sponsor said, “If you’re investigating or analyzing data, then you should need a little more credentials than someone who just repairs computers.” But why criminal justice? Why not economics or literature? Wouldn’t these provide “more credentials,” as the bill’s sponsor desires? Regardless, competency in repairing computers is not considered sufficient for repairing computers. And if you think otherwise, that is just too bad.

The fact is, occupational licensing is nothing more than a protection racket. It protects licensed professionals from competition by erecting arbitrary barriers to entry. There is nothing moral or just about occupational licensing. There is only evil.

 

Safe Buildings and City Regulations

The City of Houston makes building owners jump through outrageous hoops to obtain permission to occupy and use their property. Ostensibly, these regulations are intended to ensure the safety of those use the building. But as a recent audit of the Life Safety Bureau of the Houston Fire Department discovered, those regulations are nothing more than a sham.

As an example, in the past two years 526 of Houston’s 5,000 apartment buildings have been inspected. The department’s goal is 470 per month. In other words, it took almost two years for the bureau to meet the goal for a single month.

Unless I have missed something, Houston has not been plagued by a rash of apartment fires. Apparently, Houston’s buildings are safe whether the city inspects them or not. And that shouldn’t be surprising. Building owners have a vested interest in keeping their properties safe. Further, insurance companies also have an interest in ensuring that buildings meet certain standards.

Indeed, when I owned a four-plex my insurance company inspected the property more frequently than the city did. The insurance company had money on the line–if something happened they were the ones who would pay.

The Life Safety Bureau isn’t even close to following its own rules, but if a building owner breaks the rules, he faces fines or worse. Adding to the injustice is the fact that the bureau went over budget by $2.4 million in 2015 and 2016. Apparently, taxpayers have been paying inspectors to not inspect.

Predictably, Fire Chief Samuel Peña has promised reforms. Presumably, those reforms will include actually inspecting buildings.

With the city facing a budget deficit, now is the time to abolish the Life Safety Bureau. Even better would be repealing the city’s building codes and firing the army of inspectors who do little more than hassle property owners and help the city collect fees. As the audit and history shows, we don’t need government officials to keep us safe.

A Dictator in Dallas

In late May, one of the items on the agenda of the Dallas City Council was a proposed settlement with a property owner regarding an eminent domain case. Councilwoman Sandy Greyson spoke against the settlement,

I’m not blaming anyone that we’re settling this case, but it’s just infuriating that if you’re rich enough you can hold the city hostage for years and get what you want. There’s something really wrong with that.

Greyson didn’t like the fact that the property owner–Monty Bennett–had the means for fight the city when it wanted to seize his property. In her diatribe, she notes that “ordinary people” simply succumb to the city and lose their property. She doesn’t object to such legalized theft; she does object that some people don’t give in so easily.

Greyson wants citizens to be obedient and compliant to the demands and dictates of government officials. And she is infuriated when they aren’t. This is the mentality of a dictator.

She complains that Bennett’s fight against the city has cost taxpayers millions of dollars. But she has no concern for the individuals whose lives are destroyed by eminent domain. To a dictator, individuals exist solely for the purpose of serving the ruler.

Bennett had the audacity to assert and defend his rights. He is not the unthinking automaton that dictators like Greyson demand. Indeed, he built a cemetery on his land because Texas Law 711.035 exempts cemeteries are from taxation, seizure by creditors and eminent domain.

Sadly, Bennett represents a rare victory in the fight against eminent domain. As Greyson notes, most citizens do not have the means to fight City Hall. And so, “ordinary people” fall prey to thugs like Greyson.

California (and the Chronicle) Vs. Texas

Last week, the Chronicle announced that California is winning in its rivalry with Texas. Over the past year, the paper reports, the Golden State has outperformed the Lone Star State. Wages grew faster, the economy grew more, and unemployment was lower in California. Perhaps, the article opines, it wouldn’t be so bad for Texas to become a little more like California.

Conveniently, the article focuses on a short time frame. It ignores the many years–almost two decades–that Texas outperformed nearly every state in the union. In ignoring this fact, the Chronicle is guilty of far worse than merely promoting Progressivism.

Objective reporting requires a consideration of the full context. Selectively reporting a few statistics ignores that context.

As one example, hidden among all of the praise for California is the fact that, when the cost of living is factored in, the poverty rate in the state is the highest in the nation. In other words, the statistics cited by the paper do not tell the entire story. Job growth and higher wages are certainly good, but that’s not much of a consolation when the cost of living is outrageously high.

The paper wants us to believe that the California model of high taxes, a lavish welfare system, and regulations on virtually every activity are the path to economic success. It praises California’s one year of success while ignoring the years of economic success enjoyed by the Texas model of low taxes and fewer regulations.

Consider the issue of context regarding a different subject. On the morning of June 6, the Houston Astros had won 11 straight games and had a winning percentage of .714 for the season. They had the best record in Major League Baseball and were on a pace to set an all-time record for most wins in a season. They lost their game the evening of June 6. If we looked at their performance on June 6, we could declare them losers. But that would be ignoring the full context and would be a gross misrepresentation of their season to date.

Context is only one part of objectivity.

Thinking in principles is another crucial component of objectivity. Principles allow us to project the future consequences of today’s actions, including policy decisions. But when one rejects principles, one cannot make such projections. One can only judge policies by the short-term results. California outperformed Texas for one brief period of time, and therefore, it is concluded that Texas should emulate California.

The Kansas City Royals beat the Houston Astros on June 6, and therefore, according to those who reject principles, the Royals are the better team. But one game does not a season make. Nor does one year indicate the validity of economic policies.

Those of us who do not reject principles can project the long-term consequences of California’s policies. We cannot predict what will happen this month or even this year. But we can predict that California is headed towards disaster. And that’s not something to emulate.

Protecting Fairy Tales

A recent piece in the Chronicle raised the question: What is a sincerely held religious belief? The question was raised in the context of the Legislature’s ongoing efforts to protect religious freedom.  The article offers no answer, but instead illustrates the problems that arise when one attempts to protect fairy tales.

For example, the article states:

Those who support a baker’s refusal to sell a cake to be used in a same-sex marriage are unlikely to be sympathetic if the same baker, quoting another passage of Scripture, refuses to sell a cake to an interracial couple.

Supposedly, refusing to sell a cake to gays can qualify as a sincerely held religious belief, but refusing to sell a cake to an interracial couple doesn’t. It is, as the article states, a matter of “general cultural norms as to what we wish to tolerate at a given time.” Which means, there are no principles involved. It’s simply a matter of what society is willing to accept today. Tomorrow might be completely different.

Justice then, is not a matter of principles. It is subject to the changing passions of society. This subjectivism renders the concept of justice meaningless.

Religious beliefs are equally subjective. The seemingly endless (and often contradictory) interpretations of the Bible are ample evidence of this fact. There are those who say that Jerry Falwell has the correct interpretation and others who defend Jesse Jackson. Some agree with David Koresh and others support Pope Francis.

The issue isn’t which interpretation is correct. The protectors of fairy tales don’t see this. They see the issue as one of religious freedom, and so they are locked in a battle over which subjective interpretation is correct. And their judgment on that matter determines what laws they support.

The entire issue would disappear is they understood the principle of individual rights, including property rights. The right to property means the right to create, use, dispose, and trade material values. If a baker wishes to refuse service to anyone–gay, black, green haired albinos from Latvia–he has a moral right to do so. And his reasons for doing so are irrelevant. Whether he does it because of sincerely held religious beliefs or because he believes that his dog instructed him to do so, that choice is his.

It is not the purpose of government to determine which ideas are sincerely held. Government’s proper purpose is to protect our freedom to believe as we choose, so long as our actions do not violate the freedom of others to do the same. And that includes the freedom to believe in fairy tales.

Protecting the Middlemen

The Internet has revolutionized how we shop. We are no longer limited to the brick and mortar store down the street–we can literally purchase products from companies almost anywhere in the world. But some businesses do not like the choices that the Internet has given consumers. Auto dealerships are one example.

For the third time, the Texas legislature has failed to pass a bill that would allow automobile manufacturers to sell directly to consumers. Current law forces consumers to buy only from dealerships.

It wasn’t consumers who demanded such restrictions–it was the dealerships. And the dealerships continue to defend their government protected monopolies with campaign donations and heavy lobbying. The Chronicle reports that prior to the 2013 legislative session, dealership interests spent $2.5 million on campaign contributions and $780,000 on lobbying.

This isn’t the first time that legislators have protected the middlemen. Just last month, they forced craft brewers to sell their beer to distributors and then buy it back from the middlemen before brewers could sell to consumers. And to encourage that little piece of cronyism, the beer distributors have donated to campaigns and lobbied legislators. As an example, Texans for Public Justice reports that from 2009 to 2012, alcohol interests donated almost $9 million to political campaigns. Nearly $7 million came from beer distributors.

Texas legislators claim to support the free market. But a free market is one in which individuals (and businesses) can produce, trade, and purchase the products of their choosing without government restrictions or controls. Protecting the middlemen doesn’t promote the free market; it promotes cronyism.