The Danger of Deregulation

Many have applauded President Trump’s stated objective to “massively” reduce regulations. Certainly, fewer regulations are better than the mountains of controls and prohibitions that currently stifle American businesses. But reducing regulations is not the panacea some might believe.

Consider the Environmental Protection Agency as an example. Last week, Scott Pruitt, the head of the agency, indicated that he would be curtailing regulations that control electricity generation and other Obama-era regulations. He went on to say, “Right now the focal point I think as we get into the agency, one is dealing with these regulations I think are an example of regulatory overreach.”

To free market advocates, this might sound like a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it is only a step. What is really needed is a giant leap–the abolition of the EPA.

Neither Pruitt not Trump questions the need for government controls and regulations of business. They only question those regulations that go “too far.” But like many terms used in political discourse, “too far” is never defined. All it means is that the speaker finds a particular regulation distasteful.

The danger of deregulation is that it only addresses details, rather than principles. So long as the principle of government regulation is accepted, Pruitt and Trump can only bicker over which regulations are “excessive” and which are not. And that brings us to the real danger of deregulation.

Deregulating is not the same thing as unregulating. Deregulation does not abolish the regulatory agency, but merely reduces its powers. Which means, the next regime can simply expand those powers again. For statists, deregulation is merely a temporary setback.

Further, most deregulation is accompanied with new regulations. As an example, when California deregulated its wholesale electricity market, it capped the price that retailers could charge end users. When demand spiked in the early 2000s, retailers were forced to sell electricity for less than they were paying for it. The result was a series of bankruptcies and power outages.

Uninformed citizens ultimately blame the failures of deregulation on the free market, rather than the continued meddling of politicians and bureaucrats. And that inevitably leads to further regulations to “correct” the distortions caused by previous controls.

In truth, as a matter of principle all regulations are excessive.

Mayor Turner’s Latest Cronyism

The Chronicle reports that the city will lend $13.9 million to HEB to build a new grocery store near the Museum District. The money comes from a federal grant issued in 1995 to help revitalize downtown. Mayor Sylvester Turner said that he isn’t thrilled about the “deal,” but it will help provide fresh produce to residents of the Third Ward.

As if this story isn’t strange enough, the land is owned by the Houston Community College (HCC). HCC previously sold the land in 2000 for $2 million, and then repurchased it in 2011 for $13.6 million. But HCC never dveloped the land and will now sell it to the city, which will in turn lease it to HEB.

Despite his reticence regarding this “deal,” Turner argues that the city will eventually recover the money and be able to use it on other pet projects without any geographic limits.

Since the $13.9 million has been languishing in the city’s coffers for two decades, it is obvious that it wasn’t needed to revitalize downtown. But rather than return that money to taxpayers, Turner is determined to use cronyism to promote his agenda.

HEB has admitted that they wouldn’t build the store without the city’s help. So Turner can entice HEB with a low interest loan and please low income constituents at the same time. It’s a win-win for HEB and Turner, and a complete loss for taxpayers–the ones footing the bill.

Turner is hardly the first Houston mayor to use cronyism to “encourage” private companies to build what and where the city desires. For decades, the city has used a combination of financial incentives and regulatory threats to control development inside the Loop.

For Turner and his ilk, cronyism is how things get done. Lacking the dictatorial power to command HEB to build new stores where they want, cronyists rely on the carrot and stick approach. They will dangle your money as a carrot to “encourage” the development desired by the city. And when that doesn’t suffice, they won’t hesitate to use the city’s regulatory powers to stop the development desired by private businesses (see the Ashby High Rise as an example).

In the near future, HEB may bring carrots to the Third Ward. But sooner or later, the city will use the stick against them.

How Republicans Can Win Harris County

Harris County Republicans took a beating in last November’s election. Democrats won all four major county offices and swept the two dozen judgeships up for election. Some of claimed that Republican woes in Harris County were a down ballot consequence of Donald Trump leading the ticket. While there may be some truth to this, the problems in the Republican Party go far deeper than a single individual.

The website for the Harris County Republican Party states:

The name “Republican” was chosen, alluding to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party and conveying a commitment to the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But when the party had an opportunity to explicitly defend these rights when City Council passed the Houston Equal Rights Amendment (HERO), then-chairman of the county party, Jared Woodfill, argued:

Her [Mayor Annise Parker] most recent efforts include a proposed ordinance that provides an opportunity for sexual predators to have access to our families.  The Mayor’s proposed ordinance, among other things, requires Houston businesses to make all women’s bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms available to all who are dressed in female attire, without regard to biological sex.

Rather than defend individual rights, including property rights, the party resorted to fallacious claims about sexual predators. The tactic worked and HERO was repealed in a city-wide referendum, but long-term success will not be achieved by abandoning rational principles.

Republicans have resorted to the same collectivist appeals as Democrats, pitting groups against one another (such as families versus sexual deviates).

If Republicans truly support the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then why don’t they explicitly defend those rights? If they truly believe that individuals have a right to live their lives as they choose, then why isn’t that their message?

These are, of course, rhetorical questions. Despite their platitudes, Republicans don’t support individual rights completely and consistently. If they did, they would not have campaigned against HERO on such superficial grounds. They would have argued that HERO actually violates rights, rather than protect them.

If Republicans want to win Harris County, then they should stop trying to appeal to groups. They should appeal to individuals and defend the moral right of individuals to live their lives as they choose, so long as they respect the rights of others to do the same. But before Republicans can defend individual rights, they must first discover them.

Trump vs. Houston

Last week, a Chronicle editorial proclaimed that the policies of the Trump Administration will have a devastating impact on Houston. While it is true that the policies cited–a border tax, import tariffs and immigrant roundups–will have harmful effects, the paper conveniently ignores the many equally harmful consequences of policies it advocates.

A proposed border tax or tariff risks recession for the Port of Houston’s multi-billion-dollar import-export business…. While Trump lambastes regulations for hurting coal, he’s touting trade regulations that will hurt the import of crude and export of natural gas.

The paper conveniently doesn’t mention its support for fighting global warming. It’s no secret that the warmists are enemies of fossil fuels, and can’t wean mankind of oil, gas, and coal quickly enough. What will that do to Houston’s economy? The paper doesn’t say.

Meanwhile, anti-immigration rhetoric and enforcement has the construction industry worried about a labor crisis in an already tight market. Houston’s reputation for affordable housing will take a hit if construction costs skyrocket.

The editorial conveniently ignores the plethora of city ordinances–most of which it supports–that drive up housing costs. As a few examples: the preservation ordinance, “green” building codes, the landscaping ordinance, and similar land-use regulations.

The Chronicle’s concerns about Trump would be much more believable if the paper was consistent. But the paper is little more than a hypocritical Leftist propaganda rag. They claim to support the backbone of Houston’s economy–petrochemicals–while simultaneously supporting those who want to shut down the entire petrochemical industry. They claim to support low housing costs, while simultaneously supporting policies that drive up the cost of housing.

If the paper wants the federal government to support free trade, then the paper should demand the same of City Hall.

Chronicle Should Lead the Campaign on Gun Safety

A recent editorial in the Chronicle called for a state program to increase public awareness regarding safe gun storage. Citing the 600 Texas children who are annually killed or injured by guns and the 1,900 Texans who commit suicide with guns, the paper argues that

Because the number of firearm fatalities is comparable to the number of motor-vehicle deaths in our state, surely lawmakers can find a source of revenue to pay for a safe gun-storage campaign. The campaign would fall squarely within the Texas Department of Safety’s stated vision to “proactively protect the citizens of Texas.”

Children being killed or injured by guns is certainly tragic, but where should the Department of Safety draw the line on proactively protecting Texans? Should the Department of Safety seek to educate us about every conceivable cause of death and injury? Clearly, this would be absurd.

Every activity in life carries with it some risk of death or injury. But this does not mean that the government should barrage us with constant warnings about those risks.

Responsible people educate themselves regarding the risks involved in their activities. They take appropriate precautions, and when they judge the risks to be too great, they abstain.

Of course, the Chronicle and its nanny state cohorts like to focus on the minority of individuals who aren’t responsible. And then they want to penalize the responsible for the actions of the irresponsible. The proposed public safety campaign for safe gun storage is but one example. Someone will pay for the campaign, and you can bet dollars to donuts that the financiers won’t be limited to irresponsible gun owners.

The proper purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, not educational campaigns. If the paper wants to see a campaign to educate the public about safe gun storage, it is more than welcome to lead that effort. Hearst, which owns the Chronicle and five other Texas newspapers, has the resources to lead such a campaign at no cost to taxpayers.

It’s extremely doubtful that the paper will put its money where its mouth is. It’s much easier to advocate programs that spend taxpayer money than to actually show some integrity.

A New Blog on Free Will

I highly recommend a new blog–You Can and Did Built It–that focuses on free will. An excerpt from the most recent post:

Pick any product or company name you think of – IBM, Johnson&Johnson, Gillette, Oscar Mayer, Hallmark, Baskin-Robbins, Rolles-Royce – and there is a story behind it, a story of men who founded the company, often more than a century ago:  With entrepreneurial spirit, hard work and a dedication to producing something worthwhile to make a profit they’d be proud of.  Sometimes there was a patented invention behind it, as in the case of the razor blade or the tractor, and sometimes there was simply the commitment to making a product better than had been done before.  We benefit from these products every day, but how often do we think of the story behind them, the men who created them or the effort it took to make a product that could last, not weeks or months, but decades or centuries?

Visit the blog to learn more about this important philosophical issue and its impact on our culture.

Altruism and the Homeless

Last week, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced plans to reduce panhandling and homeless encampments in Houston. A part of the plan is the construction of “low-level shelters” under freeway underpasses. The mayor intends to introduce an ordinance that will ban tents on public property, and the taxpayer funded shelters will provide an alternative.

Turner’s “holistic” approach to homelessness also includes

pledging to house 500 chronically homeless people within the next six months, working with a local nonprofit to add 215 shelter beds by August, launching an anti-panhandling awareness campaign, encouraging groups who feed the homeless to coordinate with the city, and adding mental health and substance abuse treatment to the city’s legislative agenda.

Houston is already facing a budget deficit, and the mayor wants to add another costly, altruistic project to the city’s improper functions.

According to the Chronicle, the city spent $20 million on homelessness in 2015. It is probably safe to assume that the mayor’s plan will increase that amount because altruistic spending almost never decreases. The reason for this is built into the very concept of altruism.

Altruism holds that individuals have a moral responsibility to satisfy the needs of others. But human needs are virtually unlimited, and no matter how much money is spent, there will always be unfulfilled needs. Further, many individuals would prefer to forsake responsibility for their own life and allow others to provide for them. The number seeking aid for their needs invariably grows, and more and more tax dollars are thrown at the problem.

Altruism also holds that we are not to judge others. The reasons for their plight are irrelevant. If they have a need, we have an obligation to satisfy it. Our own personal judgment is irrelevant, and government will use its coercive powers to ensure that we meet our alleged moral responsibilities.

Turner’s plan is doomed to fail, as any plan based on altruism must ultimately fail. But that won’t stop him (or his successors) from trying. In the meantime, taxpayers will be forced to finance another boondoggle.

What Happened to America

My previous article identified the Enlightenment ideas, centered on reason, as the root of individual rights and therefore of America. But America has largely abandoned the principles on which it was founded. Instead of limited government dedicated to protecting the rights of each citizen, we have an intrusive government that uses coercion to impose their view of the beautiful society on those citizens.

America has abandoned individualism for collectivism – the theory that the unit of reality and standard of value is the group (be it society, the nation, the community, the race etc.). The result being that the country is splintered into warring gangs vying for government handouts and favors. And it has produced an army of politicians vying for votes by making contradictory promises that can never be fulfilled.

So what happened? What caused this fundamental change in the country from the ideas of the Enlightenment to their opposite? Briefly, the Enlightenment thinkers could not establish a credible view of the nature of reason, and it wasn’t long before the attacks from anti-reason proponents undercut the Enlightenment and starting moving the western world in the opposite direction.

And concomitant with this failure to defend reason properly was the failure of the Enlightenment thinkers to formulate a rational view of ethics. Implicit in and underlying individual rights is an ethical code of self-interest. From the beginning America was torn between the conflict of self-interest and the dominant ethical code of the time; that of self-sacrifice as a moral ideal (i.e. altruism).

Reason and individualism lead to the principle that everyone is an end in himself, not a means to an allegedly higher end. On the other hand, mysticism (acceptance of allegations apart from or against the evidence of the senses and reason) and collectivism state the opposite. With collectivism, since the unit of consideration is the group, individuals are expected to sacrifice for the “common good” as determined by the group leaders. And if any individual refuses to sacrifice, the collectivists hold that the government should properly step in and force that individual to sacrifice. What followed was the ascendancy of the ideas of thinkers such as Karl Marx into western civilization, the view of an all-powerful government controlling every aspect of an individual’s life (Marx was revered by the political left in the early part of the last century).

The attempts to defend the original American system (i.e. Capitalism) were flawed from the start. They were flawed because the defenders could not abandon the ethics of altruism, of self-sacrifice. They did not recognize the inherent contradiction between altruism and freedom, between self-sacrifice and individualism.

One example of this is John Stuart Mill. He tried to defend Capitalism on the premise of the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”. As to an individual’s own happiness, Mill makes his view on this clear in his book Utilitarianism when he states “All honor to those who can abnegate for themselves the personal enjoyment of life when by such renunciation they contribute worthily to increase the amount of happiness in the world . . . .”

Another example of the futile attempt to defend Capitalism is the religious right. Noting the secularism of the political left (i.e. the ideas of Marx), some of the defenders of Capitalism concluded that the way to combat the statism of the political left was to embrace religion. But religion is antagonistic to the pro-reason and pro-individualism that defined the Enlightenment movement.

For over a century now the combatants for America have shared the same basic premises; an anti-reason approach to knowledge, and an anti-self approach to ethics. And it is the liberal’s advocacy of a strong centralized government that is the consistent and inevitable result of these premises. The conservatives, sharing these same premises, cannot stop this trend and often support or accelerate it.

Anti-reason societies produce mentally lethargic thugs who support a “follow the leader” authoritarianism and who believe that ideas should be forced on people. Opportunistic power lusters who relish the notion of dictatorial control over people will eventually rise to rule such societies. While America has not sunk to the level of dictatorship yet, the anti-reason trend is unmistakable.

This trend is what is really ominous about Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. (It should be noted that the “follow the leader” mentality is not limited to Trump supporters; a similar attitude can be seen among both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters). Trump’s brazenly anti-intellectual approach to ideas in the form of off-the-cuff statements with no foundation, and his ad hominem and blatantly childish attacks against his opponents during his campaign did not deter any of his supporters – they welcomed them.

And a number of his supporters are examples of the mentally lethargic thugs mentioned above, the supporters who threaten violence upon hearing ideas they don’t agree with. At one rally during his campaign one report stated of his supporters: “And if Trump doesn’t win, some are even openly talking about violent rebellion and assassination, as fantastical and unhinged as that may seem.”

This is the real danger of the anti-intellectual trend in modern culture. When reason is abandoned the rule of brute force takes over. It always has. Donald Trump is an ominous step in that direction.

Legalizing the Paleo Diet

Last week, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced that, beginning in April, her office will quit prosecuting those who follow the Paleo diet. In making the announcement, Ogg said

While Harris County prides itself on being progressive, sometimes the best way to move forward is to look to the past. And in this case, we are talking way, way in the past.

Ogg said that the county’s jails and court system are being overworked prosecuting individuals for eating too much beef and berries. She added that, while she doesn’t subscribe to the Paleo diet, she doesn’t think that government should be telling people what they can or cannot put into their own bodies.

Reaction to Ogg’s announcement was mixed. A spokesman for Black Lives Matter applauded the new policy, saying that the Paleo diet is a public health issue and its advocates need counseling, not incarceration. However, vegans who attended the announcement were opposed, claiming that meat eaters should be prosecuted for murder.

The Paleo diet has been the source of great controversy since it was introduced more than 50,000 years ago. For millennia, it was embraced by virtually all of mankind, but it began falling out of favor with the introduction of agriculture. Numerous civilizations, including the Egyptians and Phoenicians, launched intense campaigns to discourage the diet.

In recent decades, the Paleo diet has gained popularity. But food companies, such as Kraft and Nabisco, have led efforts to portray the diet as dangerous. The video, “Eat Like a Caveman, Act Like a Caveman,” had more than 2.5 million views on You Tube in its first month and motivated legislators in nearly every state to criminalize the diet. And more than thirty states imposed additional taxes on grass-fed beef, one of the staples of the Paleo diet.

The higher taxes on grass-fed beef quickly resulted in a black market, and beef cartels formed in Texas and Colorado to meet the demand. The cartels grew increasingly violent, as each sought to protect its market share.

Law enforcement officials have increasingly urged legislators to reduce the taxes and legalize the Paleo diet. Physicians have advocated making exceptions for “medical Paleo,” arguing that the diet provided definite benefits for some of their patients. To date, only Maine and Rhode Island have legalized “medical Paleo.” If Ogg’s policy takes effect, Harris County will be the first jurisdiction in the nation to decriminalize Paleo.

In closing her press conference, Ogg noted that Houston is the most diverse city in the nation.

We accept people from different cultures and with different lifestyles. That is what makes Houston great. We recognize the right of individuals to live as they choose, so long as they recognize the rights of others to live as they choose.

Legalizing Paleo is a step in that direction.

A War Story, Part 2

I previously wrote about my experience with the city regarding a four-plex I once owned. In light of the recent media hype about “affordable housing,” it is worth revisiting that experience. While the city allegedly seeks to promote more “affordable housing” for low income Houstonians, many of its policies do the exact opposite.

About a year after I purchased the property, the city informed me that I had to obtain an Occupancy Permit. Apparently, the fact that the property was fully occupied when I purchased it was irrelevant. I needed the city’s permission to continue operating the property.

The city conducted a cursory inspection and then demanded that I perform a number of upgrades to the property. The cost of the upgrades was almost 30 percent of the purchase price for the property. This meant that the rents would have to be increased significantly in order to recover the costs. The tenants would have been unable to afford the new rents. (I sold the property a short time later.)

On the one hand, the city regularly whines about a lack of “affordable housing.” On the other hand, they impose costs on landlords that drive up the cost of housing. And for low-income residents, those costs make housing much less affordable.

The tenants of the property had resided there for more than five years. Apparently, they were satisfied with the condition. But the city’s intervention will force them to pay substantially higher rents or find other housing. The only “winner” in the entire experience was the city’s inspection department.

If the city is serious about providing more housing options for low-income residents, it must stop harassing and impeding landlords and developers. It must stop imposing needless costs on the entrepreneurs who are trying to fill a need in the market. Until the city does that, all of its talk about increasing “affordable housing” is worse than pointless; it is hypocritical.