Taking a Knee

In 2016, a relatively untalented professional football player named Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem prior to games. He “took a knee” to protest what he called oppression of people of color in the United States. This year, taking a knee during the national anthem has become widespread in the National Football League (NFL).

Like any American, NFL players have a right to express their views. But I don’t watch the NFL to get uninformed political commentary. (When I want that, I listen to Sean Hannity.) I watch the NFL to enjoy talented athletes competing against one another.

Only a fool would claim that racism and other forms of irrational discrimination do not exist in America. There have always been individuals who hold such ideas, and there probably always will be. But those types of irrational ideas are the exception rather than the rule in America.

At the time Kaepernick first took a knee, America had a black president, and a female creature was a front runner to win that office. In many, if not most, nations in the world, minorities and women are barred from many activities that Americans take for granted. For example, only recently has Saudi Arabia allowed some women to drive.

Those who claim widespread and rampant oppression in America are pushing a political agenda. And it is an agenda that will actually lead to widespread and rampant oppression.

Those pushing this agenda want more government controls and regulations. They want government dictating what ideas are and are not acceptable to express. As an example, consider the riots that have erupted on many college campuses when conservative speakers have been scheduled to speak. The rioters aren’t interested in an open exchange of ideas. They want to silence those with whom they disagree. And they will use whatever means necessary to do so, including cracking skulls and setting fire to buildings.

The NFL players who are taking a knee are supporting those who would ultimately deny those players the freedom to express their ideas. And when they express ideas that those in control don’t like, the football players won’t have helmets to protect them.

The Citizen’s Police Academy, Part 1

Last week, I attended the first class of the Citizen’s Police Academy. It is a 10-week course put on by the Harris County Precinct 5 Constable. For the duration of the course, I will occasionally share my thoughts and experiences as I progress through the course.

The first class was largely introductory. We were introduced to the equipment used by police officers, such as tasers, their service belt, and their shop–what most people would call a police car. We were given a crash course in some police lingo, as well as an overview of the similarities and differences between constables, police, and sheriff.

The course is a part of the constable’s public relations department. In recent years, law enforcement officers have been increasing criticized for brutality, racism, and other violations of individual rights. The officer leading the course acknowledged that some of these criticisms have a degree of validity. But he stressed the fact that the media often reports only a small part of the facts, and both liberals and conservatives often inflame an issue by reporting the facts that support their particular political agenda. He is correct.

More fundamentally, the officer stressed that context matters. He didn’t state it that way, but that is what he meant. Law enforcement must make decisions quickly, and often they are life and death decisions. A short video clip seldom captures the entire context, yet such clips can easily make it appear that officers acted in haste.

It is said that hindsight is 20-20. When we can step back from the emotions of a particular situation and analyze all of the facts, we can make the most rational decision. But police officers are seldom offered that luxury. They are called because someone is threatening others or a crime has been committed. When they arrive on the scene, they don’t know who is friend and who is foe. They must make that determination very quickly, often with contradictory testimony. And sometimes the situation quickly becomes a threat to their lives.

As an example, we were shown a video of two officers approaching a house. The video was filmed by a bodycam on one of the officers. After they knocked on the door, the mother and her son soon emerged. As the mother walked by the officers, she said that her son was paranoid-schizophrenic and was off his medications. He walked out of the house holding a screwdriver, which the officers ordered him to drop. He was within a few feet of the officers, and as he stepped closer to them, they responded by firing shots that killed him.

It would be easy to criticize the officers after the fact. But if someone was approaching you with a screwdriver, how would you react? Again, context matters.

If that person was a contractor doing repairs on your home, you might expect him to be holding a screwdriver and would probably not consider him a threat. But if that person had broken into your home, you would have a different perspective.

It is not rational to judge the decisions people have made days, weeks, or years after all of the facts are known. We should only judge their decisions based on the facts that they could or should have known at the time that they made the decision.

Justice is the virtue of judging others by rational principles and treating them accordingly. No citizen wants to be unfairly accused of a crime or to be a victim of irrational biases. And that includes law enforcement officers. Before we rush to judgment about the actions of the police, we should first get all of the facts. Justice demands it.

Prognosticators and Proselytizers, Part 3

We have previously examined two predictions made by environmentalists: mass starvation and a new ice age. Neither came true, but environmentalists have been undeterred from issuing further claims that catastrophe awaits mankind if immediate and drastic actions aren’t taken. In this post we will examine another prediction made by environmentalists.

Within a few years of predicting a new ice age, environmentalists reversed course and began claiming global warming was the real threat. We weren’t going to freeze to death; we were going to burn up. And, while the prognosticators were trying to decide what catastrophe awaited mankind, they were certain about its cause: fossil fuels.

In the mid-2000s, environmentalists (including Al Gore) began predicting that the Arctic would be ice free within a decade (they couldn’t agree on a year) because of global warming. Yet, in September 2016 (sea ice is at its minimum in September) scientists discovered that, not only did the sea ice remain, it was 21 percent larger than in 2012 (the year with the least sea ice). And in September 2017, it was about 12 percent larger than in 2016. Apparently, the sea ice didn’t get the environmentalist’s memo.

But the proselytizers have downplayed the fact that Arctic sea ice is growing. Instead, they have reported that this summer’s sea ice is the eighth lowest on record (the record goes back only 38 years) and remains below the average for 1981 through 2010. An increase in sea ice doesn’t fit the environmentalist predictions, and so they must spin the facts to fit their narrative.

This is a pattern we have seen time and again. For example, when Paul Ehrlich’s prediction about mass starvation failed to come true, he denied that it was a prediction. After being told that the northern hemisphere would soon be covered in ice, the prognosticators decided that the polar ice caps were going to melt instead. Finally, they changed their tune again, declaring that the real threat is climate change.

Though the predicted catastrophe keep changing, the solution has remained constant: a drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels. Which means, a drastic reduction in our standard of living.

Modern, industrialized society requires abundant, inexpensive, and reliable energy. Fossil fuels provide that energy. Wind and solar do not. Reducing the use of fossil fuels means reducing the availability of energy, which means reducing our ability to produce the values that human flourishing requires.

Environmentalists are not concerned with human flourishing. Quite the opposite. They value nature over humans. And they are willing to do anything–including an endless stream of dire predictions–to protect nature.

An old adage states, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” The environmentalists have fooled us more than twice.

Prognosticators and Proselytizers, Part 2

In my last post, we examined one of the first predictions made by environmentalists. That was only the beginning of a string of prognostications that catastrophe awaited mankind unless immediate and drastic actions were taken. In this post, we will examine another prediction made nearly fifty years ago.

At the first Earth Day in 1970, environmentalist Nigel Calder declared, “The threat of a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery for mankind.” University of California professor Kenneth Watt stated, “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.” Time and Life magazine both reported on the impending ice age.

Despite the hysteria, the ice age (like the mass starvation previously predicted) did not materialize. But to environmentalists, this was irrelevant. They had an agenda to push, and they weren’t going to let the facts get in their way.

To prevent the predicted ice age, environmentalists , such as law professor Arnold Reitze, suggested that it may be necessary to ban the internal combustion engine, impose rigid controls on research and development of new products, and set population controls. This has been a consistent refrain that accompanies every prediction from environmentalists: government must impose more controls and regulations upon its citizens. And those controls invariably include reductions in the use of fossil fuels and everything that they make possible.

Despite claiming that they want to save the planet for future generations, environmentalists are unconcerned with human flourishing. Indeed, they are opposed to human flourishing. They not only want to stop innovation and progress in its tracks, they want to reverse progress. Their push for renewable energy is but one example.

Wind and solar–the two primary renewable energy sources–are notoriously unreliable. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Moving from reliable energy sources, such as fossil fuels, to unreliable sources is not progress by any rational standard. However, it is “progress” if one’s goal is to return mankind to the ways of our ancestors.

Until the mid-1800s, nighttime illumination was inaccessible to most Americans. Expensive oil lamps and candles were the primary sources of illumination, and because few could afford these illuminants, throughout history most of mankind was literally in the dark when the sun went down. This is the future that awaits us if environmentalists have their way.

Dire predictions are the means. That those predictions have proven wrong time after time doesn’t matter to the environmentalists. Enough people believe the predictions and demand more controls and regulations. Each prognostication moves us closer to the proselytizer’s goal–reducing our standard of living.

Prognosticators and Proselytizers, Part 1

In 1968, biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate….”

To prevent this catastrophic loss of life, Ehrlich called for drastic actions to curtail population growth. He advocated using incentives and penalties to “encourage” individuals to have fewer children, but acknowledged that coercive measures might be required.

To say that Ehrlich’s prediction was wrong would be a gross understatement. In 1968, the world’s population was about 3.5 billion. Today, it is over 7.5 billion. Despite the population more than doubling, the percentage of people who are undernourished has decreased from about 18 percent in 1991 (the earliest statistic I could find) to about 11 percent in 2015. In real numbers, more than 4.3 billion people were adequately nourished in 1991. In 2015, the number had risen to more than 6.4 billion.

Not only did mass starvation fail to materialize, more people than ever are being fed. These facts, however, have failed to dissuade Ehrlich. In 2004, he stated,

Anne [Ehrlich’s wife and co-author] and I have always followed U.N. population projections as modified by the Population Reference Bureau — so we never made “predictions,” even though idiots think we have. When I wrote The Population Bomb in 1968, there were 3.5 billion people. Since then we’ve added another 2.8 billion — many more than the total population (2 billion) when I was born in 1932. If that’s not a population explosion, what is? My basic claims (and those of the many scientific colleagues who reviewed my work) were that population growth was a major problem.

In other words, anyone who took Ehrlich seriously when he claimed that “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death” is an idiot.

If Ehrlich’s predictions aren’t really predictions, then what are they? The answer to that can be found in another statement from 2004:

The worst population problems are in rich nations, especially the U.S., because of their very high rates of consumption. Consumption is, in Anne’s and my view, the single most difficult problem to deal with now — as we discuss extensively in One With Nineveh. Times have changed — population control, especially among the rich, is critical, but consumption control today is probably more critical and certainly tougher to achieve.

Reducing consumption–our standard of living–is Ehrlich’s real goal. Indeed, that is the goal behind the entire environmentalist movement.

The environmentalist movement has a long history of making dire prognostications about the future, none of which have come true. But that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to claim that disaster will soon befall mankind, unless we reduce industrialization and our standard of living.

For fifty years, environmentalists have used predictions of catastrophe to push their agenda. For five decades, they have fought against progress, development, and human flourishing. Ehrlich was one of the first to issue dire warnings, but he certainly wasn’t the last.

Tax Breaks for All

Amazon recently announced plans to build a second headquarters. Almost immediately, local governments across the country began forming plans to entice the company to select their city. Amazon wants cities to get into a bidding war, and the bids will include tax breaks and other financial incentives.

The Chronicle chimed in as a cheerleader for Houston:

We’ve always been deeply skeptical about government officials showering corporations with tax enticements that amount to little more than corporate welfare. But what we have here is not some questionable deal to sweeten the pot for a retailer moving into a shopping strip. Amazon’s new headquarters is a special case, a major new employer whose potential benefit to our city fully justifies offering generous economic development incentives.

I am completely in favor of tax breaks–the more the merrier. But tax breaks that favor one company or industry over another reek of cronyism. Such tax breaks give a competitive advantage to those receiving them. Tax breaks should be extended to all businesses, not just those that promise to make city officials look good.

The paper’s editorial staff recognizes the fact that reduced taxes encourage economic growth. But apparently, encouraging economic growth should be limited to large companies.

Amazon projects that its new headquarters will employ 50,000 people. According to the paper, economic incentives are worth offering to attract that many jobs to the city. But offering such incentives to small businesses won’t create the same headlines or give city officials a high-profile opportunity to pat themselves on the back.

There are thousands of small businesses in Houston, and each would benefit from tax reductions and other economic incentives. If city officials focused on doing what is just, the number of jobs created by those small businesses would be substantially higher than those promised by Amazon.

Rather than drooling over the prospects of landing Amazon’s new headquarters, city officials should be reducing the taxes and regulations that impede small businesses. Of course, that won’t be quite as glamorous as wining and dining Amazon executives. But it will be much more effective in continuing Houston’s vibrant economy.

In Defense of the Corps

In the midst of Harvey’s unprecedented rainfall, the Army Corps of Engineers was faced with a difficult choice: release water from the Barker and Addicks reservoirs and flood homes downstream, or risk the dams being breached. They chose the former, and now the flooded homeowners are filing lawsuits seeking compensation for the damage to their properties.

The lawsuits are alleging that a “taking” took place–the government’s action effectively took the flooded homeowner’s property. Legal scholars are already debating the merits of the cases, which promise to drag through the courts for years.

I have long argued that any action on the part of government that diminishes the value of a property is a “taking” and compensation is due the owner. However, context matters. And in this instance, the concept of “taking” does not apply.

When officials announced the release of water from the reservoirs, they made it clear that water was going to come out of the reservoirs one way or another. At a minimum, water would overflow the reservoirs. And in the worst case, the dams would fail. In either of these cases, the release would be uncontrolled. And if the release were uncontrolled, officials could not predict how much water would flow into the bayous nor how many homes would be impacted. A controlled release allowed for more accurate predictions and gave property owners time to prepare.

At the time the release was announced, Col. Lars Zetterstrom, the Corps’ Galveston district commander, said,

If we don’t begin releasing now, the volume of uncontrolled water around the dams will be higher and have a greater impact on the surrounding communities…. It’s going to be better to release the water through the gates directly into Buffalo Bayou, as opposed to letting it go around the end and through additional neighborhoods and ultimately into the bayou.

In short, the homes that were flooded because of the release had a strong chance of flooding no matter what the Corps did. But a controlled release reduced the number of homes impacted.

It is understandable that those whose homes were flooded are upset. The flooding was not caused by the actions of the Corps. The flooding was caused by an unprecedented amount of rain.

The Personal Approach to Flooding

Barry Klein of the Houston Property Rights Association has a very good article on Houston’s perpetual flooding problem. Klein’s crucial point is that individuals must take responsibility for flood proofing their own properties, rather than looking to government to solve the problem.

In recent months I have decided that flood proofing needs to be routine for Houston area property owners based on their individual perception of risk. Each property owner would consider their elevation in the landscape, distance from nearby bayous and channels that can overflow, and whether their home or business sits on concrete pads or pier-and-beam foundations.

In contrast to Klein, many are calling for massive government intervention to address flooding. Some, such as Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, want to spend billions to upgrade dams and build more reservoirs. Another group wants tighter land-use regulations to control development.

Undoubtedly, either of these solutions will help reduce flooding in the future. But both come with enormous costs, and before we rush into embracing a solution, we should consider all of the alternatives, as well as their costs and benefits.

The advocates of tougher land-use regulations argue that development prevents water from absorbing into the ground, thereby flooding our streets and homes. It is certainly true that the ground absorbs water much more readily than concrete. But the clay soil found in the Houston region is not the absorbent sponge that many would like us to believe. And most streets include storm sewers that take runoff to drainage ditches and bayous.

For decades, those who want to control development have blamed nearly every problem Houston has faced on the absence of zoning. To listen to them, zoning will cure nearly every ill facing mankind. But zoning, along with any form of land-use regulation, comes with huge costs.

As an example, if large areas of land are removed from development, basic economics tells us that the value of the remaining land will increase. And when land prices increase, the cost of everything associated with land use–housing, businesses, schools, and much more– also  increases.  These costs will stifle economic growth.

More significantly, as history has shown us, government controls beget more government controls. Land-use regulations might be ushered in under the guise of reducing flooding, but we can be certain that additional controls will be enacted to address an ever growing list of “emergencies.”

The proper way to address flooding isn’t through massive government programs and more regulations. The proper approach is, as Klein tells us, personal responsibility.

Harvey’s Newest Victims

The Chronicle reports that more than 1,000 homeowners have requested that the government buy their flooded homes. The Harris County Commissioners Court has asked FEMA for $17 million to buy 104 homes that are considered high risks for flooding.

Since any money spent by government ultimately has to come from taxpayers, this means that individuals across the country will pay for these buyout programs. They will become the newest victims of Harvey.

It is certainly tragic when one’s home floods repeatedly. But one individual’s tragedy is not a license to force others to bear the financial responsibility. Yet, that is what the government does each time a natural disaster strikes.

If the owner of a flooded home began robbing others to obtain the funds to repair his home, we’d recognize his action as theft. The principle does not change simply because government acts as his proxy. One individual’s need, no matter how dire, does not justify robbing others.

Many will claim that denying government disaster relief is heartless and uncaring. But how is it compassionate to rob non-victims? How is it just to force Iowans and Ohioans to pay for our tragedy?

Similarly, Mayor Sylvester Turner has called for an 8.9 percent property tax increase to pay for the city’s efforts to clean up after Harvey. Again, non-victims will be forced to pay for a tragedy that befell others.

Altruism underlies these disaster relief efforts. Altruism holds that we have a duty to self-sacrificially serve others; we have a moral obligation to satisfy the needs of others. If someone suffers repeated floods, we must repair his home or buy it from him. According to altruism, one individual’s need is a claim on the property of others.

Those who wish to voluntarily help the victims of natural disasters have ample opportunities to do so. Private charity, not coerced government aid, is the proper response to helping disaster victims.

How Cronyism Made Harvey Worse

The flood waters from Harvey not even stopped rising before pundits began casting blame. And the blame focused on man-made causes: climate change, the failure of city and county officials to control or mitigate flooding, and Houston’s lack of zoning.

The pundits got it partly right. There is a man-made factor that contributed to Harvey’s devastation: cronyism.

While it is true that Houston’s lack of zoning allowed development in flood prone areas, that development was largely encouraged by the policies of the federal government. By subsidizing flood insurance, the government has encouraged developers to build in areas prone to flooding.

As the economist Walter Williams has pointed out, when we subsidize something we get more of it. When government subsidizes the cost of living in a flood plain, we get more development in flood plains. More development in flood prone areas leads to more flooded homes and businesses when significant rainfall occurs.

Congress has repeatedly attempted to reform the government’s flood insurance program, but intense lobbying from real estate interests have derailed those efforts. Developers and realtors are among the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, and they have used their political clout to protect policies that help them sell homes. And one of those policies is subsidized flood insurance.

Real estate interests deliver votes and campaign donations. Politicians deliver favorable legislation for those who provide electoral support. That is cronyism—the exchange of political support for political favors.

Cronyism has encouraged developers to build in flood prone areas. And it has encouraged individuals to buy homes in those areas. For those who think short-term, cronyism seems to be a win-win. Developers, realtors, and home owners get subsidies, and politicians get campaign contributions and votes. But in the long-term, cronyism leads to disasters like Harvey.

It is unlikely that we will ever completely prevent flooding in Houston. But a first step in mitigating flooding is to prevent the flood of money from special interests that allows them to buy political favors. This doesn’t mean restricting campaign contributions; it means getting the government out of the insurance business. It means ending cronyism.

The federal government dominates the market in flood insurance. Few private companies offer flood insurance, because they price their policies to reflect the actual risk. The government doesn’t, and that is why the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is currently $25 billion in debt. If a private company priced its policies like the government does, it would have gone out of business long ago.

In pricing flood insurance below rational standards, the NFIP reduces the cost of living in a flood plain. And that encourages more development in flood prone areas.

If the government got out of the insurance business, the market would determine the rate for flood insurance. When those rates reach a point that the market won’t bear, developers will quit building in flood prone areas because they won’t be able to sell homes. And if they do build in those areas, the buyers (and insurance companies) will be the ones assuming the risk, not taxpayers.

Subsidies discourage rational decision making. Indeed, the very purpose of subsidies is to encourage individuals to undertake economic activities that would otherwise be irrational. A $3,000 flood insurance policy may prevent an individual from buying a home. Reduce that cost to $500 and he might be willing to buy the home. The risk of flooding hasn’t changed, but the cost of that risk has.

If a developer wants to build in a flood prone area, he should be free to do so. If an individual wants to buy a home in a flood prone area, he should be free to do so. But they—not taxpayers—should bear the responsibilities of those decisions.

Houston’s relative freedom in land use has been one of the primary motors of its economic success. Regulations might solve the problem in the short-term, but they will undoubtedly create greater problems in the long-term.

The free market has served Houston well. It’s time we let the free market serve us just as well in flood insurance. It’s time to end the cronyism.