Don’t mess with Texas. They’re perfectly capable of messing things up for themselves.

I’ve noticed that Republicans, who seem to live primarily in southern latitudes, are happy to dish out criticism of us “libtards”, you know, those of us in blue states. They don’t get much bluer than where I live in Massachusetts. Yes, here the property taxes are high. Our $559,000 house was recently reassessed and our property taxes will soon be close to $10,000 a year. But unlike in Texas, you can’t buy a house in this state where the plumbing lines go along the outer, uninsulated side of the house. We have something called a “building code” around here.

Oh, I’m sure Texas has building codes too, it’s just that they aren’t very particular. It’s not a high bar to build a house to code in Texas, and it keeps the house prices low. It does have some downsides, such as in the recent arctic blast to hit the state. Pipes are freezing statewide, even down along the Mexican border. Electricity supply can’t keep up with demand on the Texas grid, leading to widespread blackouts and deathly cold. Texas’s electricity grid is cut off from the other states. This is very much in the spirit of “Don’t mess with Texas”.

The mayor of Colorado City, Texas told his constituents that no one owes them anything and they are just looking for handouts. He has since resigned. We may be paying nearly $10,000 a year in property taxes but I’m confident the gas heat and electricity will stay on around here. We have public service commissions that perform oversight to make sure these things don’t occur. There aren’t a huge number of windmills in the state, but unlike those in Texas, those we do have are winterized so they keep turning as long as there is wind. The natural gas pipelines are insulated too.

Of course we get real winter around here, so this wasn’t rocket science. The gas company never considered doing otherwise. In Texas though they opted to hope for the best and to ride out temporary inconveniences, like the dozens of people dead, from this unexpected cold snap.

In fact, they keep upping the building codes around here. In 2015 when our house was built they were already very high. We’ve even got insulation between our interior walls. Now the codes require basements to be insulated as well, no doubt adding a cost to the house. I don’t have to worry much about our pipes freezing. They are easy enough to see running along the walls and ceilings of our basement. The main waterline is at least three feet below the ground where the ground is unlikely to ever freeze. And because we are a newer development, power outages are rare; the power lines run underground.

Unlike in Texas, we don’t see government as the source of evil. We don’t subscribe to the idea that less government means better government. Power is pretty decentralized in this state: cities and towns generally control more than the state. But the state has certain standards. Most of our taxes goes to the City of Northampton, mostly in property taxes. State income taxes actually aren’t too bad. But if you live in Texas where there are no state income taxes, well, you doubtless save a lot of money.

But what do you give up? Apparently you have to worry about shoddy schools, shoddy houses and because you don’t believe in much regulation, a free-for-all energy market very good at maximizing corporate profits but not so good at ensuring service when they are needed the most. We here in the blue states notice that you do demand a bailout from Uncle Sam when a hurricane comes through and repeatedly floods homes constructed in flood zones, while whining about how mismanaged the federal government is. Yes, looking at you Ted Cruz.

Obviously, not all Texans subscribe to the government-is-evil mantra that a majority of voters in the state support (at least those who are not voter suppressed). Like Georgia, Texas is bluing up, just a bit more slowly. This latest real-life lesson in the costs of minimal government might persuade Texans that government is not evil. In fact, it’s necessary. If keeping society functioning with heat, water and electricity is not the job of government, then what you really are left with is anarchy that will sometimes catch up with you.

So while I’m sorry for all the Texans in cold, pain and who will be dealing with burst pipes when the temperatures warm up, I’m not that sorry. Your mindless adherence to the idea that government is the problem … well, that’s your problem. You should expect more from government and like us here in Massachusetts you shouldn’t be that upset when you have to pay for it. It will be just as cold here during this arctic blast, but the lights and heat will stay on.

We will all be paying for Harvey (or the cost of laissez-fare)

Did government fail the people of Houston? Or did Texans get the second-class government they voted for? Or was Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey truly a “no one could have predicted” event, beyond reasonable mitigation by government?

“Don’t mess with Texas” I hear from my Texan friends and it is something they are passionate about. They like doing things the Texan way: all sort of laissez-fare (abstention by governments from interfering in the workings of the free market because government is not to be trusted). It was heartwarming to see fellow Texans come to the aid of those unable to evacuate, although many from the “Cajun Navy” came from nearby Louisiana. The “Cajun Navy” was pretty ad-hoc and poorly coordinated, but Harvey was clearly a storm beyond the resources of federal, state and local government, at least as we taxpayers chose to fund them.

Some compared it with the evacuation of Dunkirk during World War Two where pretty much every vessel available along the coast of Britain headed to this coast in France to evacuate British soldiers stationed there. Thankfully no one was firing live explosives at this “navy”. Now with floodwaters receding we are getting a better picture of the damage. So far loss of life has been minimal considering the scale of the storm. The property damage though looks horrific: hundreds of thousands of homes in need of repair, replacement or abandonment and an estimated 500,000 automobiles totaled. Estimates of repairing all the damage exceed $100 billion.

Only about 20% of these flooded homes had federal flood insurance. You would think getting this insurance would be a no-brainer for Houstonians, who are used to flooding but not quite on this scale. Except flood insurance is hardly cheap. Most of these homeowners figured they could not afford it, so they rolled the die. Most of them lost this bet.

The federal government through an act of beneficence could pay for their catastrophic losses. It’s unclear how much the federal government will rush to Texans’ aid. There would be quite a lot of hypocrisy if Texans accepted too much flood aid, given their hostility toward the federal government in general and the unwillingness of many of their legislators to fund Hurricane Sandy relief.

So it appears that most of these homeowners are on the hook for rebuilding their houses, should they choose to do so. It’s likely that most of these homeowners don’t own their homes outright, i.e. they have a mortgage on the property. Insurance companies won’t pay for flood damages, so the principal victims of this storm will be property owners. They will have to fund the rebuilding of their homes out of their own pockets. This means finding lenders who will loan them money to rebuild. Of course they are also on the hook for the balance of their mortgage. It’s unclear whether they could borrow the money to rebuild, as it may be more than they can afford to pay back.

It’s not too hard to predict then that barring some extraordinary largess from the federal government many if not most of these property owners will walk away from their investment. If they do they will ruin their credit and likely lose any equity they have in the property too. Lenders will take them to court to try to make them pay anyhow for houses they cannot afford to rebuild. Most of these lenders will eventually write off these losses. This will shift at least some of these costs to taxpayers, since when these lenders report losses they are not paying income taxes on the loss and may get money back. These flooded homeowners too will write off their losses if they can. In short whether we like it or not a lot of these losses will be socialized on you, the American taxpayer through decreased revenues to the federal government and increased borrowing costs. Perhaps the economic growth from rebuilding will mitigate some of these costs to taxpayers.

So we are all paying for Harvey, whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not. In theory taxpayers could stem their losses. It is possible to write legislation to not allow these lenders or taxpayers to write off these losses. After all, they were stupid enough to put up housing in a flood zone. That won’t happen. It’s also possible, as Senator Ted Cruz wanted to do after Hurricane Sandy, for the federal government not to come to the financial rescue of Houstonians. That won’t happen either.

However, if these unlikely events happened, the impact might be pretty profound. Texans might realize that the cost of their bad financial decisions will really be totally borne by them. This might encourage Texans to write laws that mitigate many of the preventable costs of floods. It might incentivize Houstonians to implement zoning and prioritize funding for flood mitigation. It might result in laws and ordinances to require new housing to be built outside of likely flood plains or at least raised above the floodplain.

It won’t happen. Instead, Texans will get to pretend that no one will mess with Texas. Because Texas allows cities like Houston to have no zoning laws, and because we admitted Texas into the United States knowing that federalism would make it hard to force Texas to implement common sense measures like not building houses in flood zones, we all get to pay the costs of Harvey. Certainly Houston homeowners will shoulder huge losses, and the lenders of these flooded houses will shoulder a share of these losses too. But in reality we all are paying for this mess, and we’ll continue to pay for similar messes like this in the future.

All we can really do is pass common sense legislation to minimize our liabilities when these events occur. But that requires government to work as a fiduciary, which will seem Big Brotherish. There is little likelihood of that happening, particularly in good old Laissez-faire Texas. Our own obstinacy about the so-called evil of too much government is in fact bleeding us dry.

Texans needs an intervention, not an invasion

“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Response by Dr. Benjamin Franklin to an onlooker after the close of the 1787 constitutional convention

In case you missed the news, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the activities of the U.S. military in Texas during their upcoming military exercise Jade Helm. No, I swear I’m not making this up! When I first heard it, I chuckled. “I can’t wait to read The Onion article,” I said. To my astonishment, it’s true. Conspiracy theorists have whipped up yet another dazzling conspiracy theory: that this multi-state military exercise to train our special forces against enemies like ISIS is actually an invasion of Texas by our own military. It’s an attempt to subjugate and subdue Texans, and to allow the Mexicans and radical Muslims in, because as everyone knows President Obama is not actually an American, but is a secret Muslim. Yeah, the same guy who brought down Osama bin Laden when George W. Bush could not. Go figure!

Conspiracy theorists of course are always dreaming up something. The only thing different here is that the governor of Texas – the governor – gave some legitimacy to these nutcases. It was not by offering some token sympathy to these people; it was by taking some deliberate action to appease them.

So I guess it’s official: the lunatics are running the government of Texas and Greg Abbott is one of them. I’m going to hope this was just an exercise in political cowardice, something you would not expect from Texans where the primary preoccupation seems to be asserting your state’s manliness and your right to do things your way. As the saying goes, don’t mess with Texas. Abbott is hoping for former governor Rick Perry’s hold on office. As Rick Perry learned you can’t possibly run too far to the right if you want to stay elected in Texas. Abbott’s political calculus may have been that this is simply the next step. Maybe he’s just acknowledging that most of his fellow Texans, at least the ones that vote, are nutcases so he better make them happy. Or he’s a nutcase too.

It doesn’t really matter because either scenario is appalling. This crazy response to a batshit crazy conspiracy theory does suggest that Texas needs an intervention instead of an invasion. Detroit got taken over by the state because it couldn’t keep itself solvent. The grownups, if there are any of them left in the state, need to stage a Texas intervention. It’s gotten so bad that former governor Rick Perry now sounds like a reasonable person.

It doesn’t matter who does it as long as it is someone who can separate fantasy from reality. The proper response to these conspiracy theorists is not respect but derisive laughter. I mean, it’s right on the floor funny. It certainly was for me, because the more I read the harder I laughed. Because many of these conspiracy theorists also believe this is somehow tied to the recent closure of six Walmart stores due to plumbing problems. The conspiracy theorists see this as related: these stores are actually going to be used as staging areas for Texans who are going to be shipped from there to FEMA camps.

Perhaps this is the logical result of progressive gerrymandering. When you create increasingly polarized voting districts you tend to elect only progressively more partisan legislators. It’s no longer okay just to be conservative. To get elected you have to be conservative, fundamentalist, against abortion, want to take away all subsidies for the poor and disenfranchise anyone who doesn’t look like you or parrot your behavior. Now it has been demonstrated that even governors can feel forced to take lunatic acts like this one simply to appease their base. Whether it will work is unclear, and there are plenty of conspiracy theorists that think Abbott’s actions aren’t nearly enough.

Perhaps as part of an intervention it would help for Texans to recall why they joined the United States in the first place. Basically, Texans could not beat the Mexicans alone, so it petitioned to join the United States because with its forces they could (read up on the Mexican-American War). By joining the Union, Mexico lost and Texas was saved for white people. Texas was stronger as part of the United States than it was as a republic. For all their macho posturing, if Texas did leave the union they would be back in a similar situation. It would be entirely up to them to stop migrations from Mexico and other parts of the Americas. Texans though seem incapable of admitting that they are needy; that their survival as a culture is predicated on belonging to a larger entity. Unless all the other forty-nine states do things exactly as they would do them, they don’t really feel an affiliation.

I do know one thing: if the Texas republic did reemerge, it wouldn’t last very long. These same nuts would be in charge, but since they can’t seem to manage reality, they would be easy prey. For all their mean mouthing and domineering attitudes, it’s all bravado and they are mostly cowards. They need the United States much more than the rest of us need Texas. Acts like this one would have me gladly voting for the state to succeed. Eventually they would realize it was a big mistake and put the sane people in charge again. Then I would let them back in.


The good life on the 30th floor

Someone must have mistaken me for someone important. I am thirty floors up, living in this enormous hotel suite (which I calculate must at least be a thousand square feet) looking down on the breadth of San Antonio, Texas. To be specific, I am in the Marriott Rivercenter hotel. Perhaps my Marriott Silver Elite status entitled me to this free upgrade. In any event, I feel more than a bit flabbergasted. I have spent my share of time in four star hotels and in suite hotels. I have never had such an upscale hotel room as before. You could fit four standard Courtyard Inn hotel rooms (another Marriott brand) into this hotel suite.

All this space was purchased at a government rate, which is not much over a hundred dollars a night. I have to assume I won the Marriott lottery or something, or someone on our convention planning committee highlighted my name and told the hotel to make sure I got a really nice room. While probably higher graded than most of the attendees, there are plenty attending this convention that make more money that I do. This makes me curious: what are their rooms are like?

How do you make a luxury room more luxurious than the competition’s? To some extent you go to silly extremes. For example, my clock radio has dual stereo speakers and also comes complete with a MP3 docking port. The floor lamp has a foot control that you use to vary the light level. You make sure the toilet has two push buttons instead of a handle, a number one (which delivers a half flush) and a number two (which delivers a full flush). Presumably you use the number one for going Number 1, and the number two for going Number 2. I haven’t looked at my local Lowes to see if this model of toilet is available there. I am guessing not. In any event, press either button and you get a huge, instant whoosh that quickly carries away any excrement.

The room also comes complete with a high definition 42-inch television. Plain wooden furniture won’t do. The dresser has to have a marble top on it, and the drawers have to be on metal rails. The coffee and end tables appear to be brushed metal. The sofas and chairs have pillows for lumbar support. The bed, oddly, is much lower than my regular bed but like all four star hotels these days it comes with six enormously stuffed pillows, far more than any couple could possibly use on this king sized bed.

Alas, I am here alone. However, had I known I would have gotten a room this nice, I would have insisted that my wife accompany me. She could spend her days ambling up and down San Antonio’s lovely River Walk, which you can get to from a shopping mall on one side of the hotel. Moreover, with this magnificent view it seems kind of a waste for me to be here all alone. This is the sort of room where you should definitely include some romantic cardiovascular exercise, preferably with the curtains wide open and the lights off. I am betting the rear entry position while gazing out the window would never feel more ecstatic than here thirty floors up and with the city of San Antonio splayed like a postcard out my window.

In any event, this room has pretty much anything I could want except a whirlpool bath and a comely woman between the sheets. No matter, there is a large pool and Jacuzzi on the fourth floor, and I intend to try it out later tonight and perhaps some comely females in tight bathing suits will be there. I need the exercise from the pool, although I did at least amble a mile or so this evening along River Walk.  On the River Walk, the birds fearlessly grub for food among the tightly packed ambling humans. Motorized tourist boats chug down the small river (at best no more than three dozen feet across), and visitors can choose from literally hundreds of restaurants, many with live musicians and servers anxious to make eye contact so they can invite you to dine.

I haven’t found it yet, but somewhere near the River Walk is The Alamo, where occupying Texan soldiers were slaughtered by a much larger Mexican army some hundred and seventy plus years ago. As with most things, the Battle at The Alamo has been made to sound far nobler than it was. Vastly overwhelmed by the Mexican army, they could have easily been routed in a day, but Santa Anna wanted to play with the defenders, much like a cat will play with a mouse before killing it. While the battle does not deserve its overblown hype, it, plus the nearby River Walk helps bring in a lot of tourists, which makes the merchants, restaurant owners and hoteliers in San Antonio very happy.

San Antonio in May is quite warm and humid but still lovely. The River Walk is a strangely beautiful experience, but is somewhat marred by its many restaurants and shops that are clustered so close to its banks. It is full of paths and bridges, artificial waterfalls and limestone masonry. The city exists largely above it, which explains why I could not see it from my hotel room. This latitude has never agreed with me: it is too hot and humid overall, but at least along the River Walk you can forget the inch and a half long cockroaches and other scaly things you occasionally see here. Instead you can revel in the experience, which is sort of like the flume ride at Disney World without the flume, just the last bit before they haul you out of the boat on their artificial river. The San Antonio River is real enough, just smaller than I envisioned, with much of its water now able to be diverted along underground tunnels carved through the limestone. This is needed in the event of flooding, which happens periodically.  I learned today that San Antonio still holds the world’s record for the largest volume of rainfall delivered in less than twenty four hours.

Three more days of meetings in conference rooms await, with one day already behind me. Today I just listened and took notes. Tomorrow I speak for twenty minutes or so to sixty people or so signed up for our workshop. Down on the conference level the internet is free, but up here on the 30th floor, Marriott wants you to spend $12.95 a day for the privilege. It is too pricey for me to indulge, so instead I will take a quick ride down to the third floor to post this.

I expect during my week here to be charmed by San Antonio as well as eat a lot of great Mexican food, something I don’t do back home as my wife dislikes Mexican food. I expect to feel a little hot under the collar when I venture outdoors, which suggests I should first put on a T-shirt. This hotel, like most here in Texas, is a big believer in excessive air conditioning. Likely I will glad to be heading back to Northern Virginia on Friday.

The shadows of racism

If you had to pick one word almost guaranteed to raise people’s dander here in the United States, I would pick “reparations”. Almost everyone acknowledges that bad and misguided policies in our past caused the oppression, enslavement, relocation if not deaths of millions of Native and African Americans. However, almost every white person today feels that while these things happened long ago, they didn’t cause them so they should be held harmless. In addition, since discrimination by race is now illegal, the problem of racism is solved! Discussion over!

Arizona is attempting to deal with illegal immigration through essentially legislating ethnic profiling, which of course is just legislated racism. Just imagine the ruckus if roles were reversed and whites were judged likely of not being a citizen because they were white. That this is happening in Arizona of all places is more than a little ironic. Whites settled states like Arizona largely by pushing Native Americans and Hispanics off the land where they were the natives. Moreover, the vast majority of Hispanics living in Arizona are legal residents, and native born. But since Hispanics coming from Mexico illegally are considered a pervasive problem, sure, just write a law saying it’s okay to ethnically profile all Hispanics in Arizona!

They say the victors write the history books, and this is true particularly here in the United States. Here our history books give short shrift to issues like the forced relocation of Native Americans but plenty of puffing up how special and blessed our republic is. While Americans certainly enjoy an extraordinary amount of freedom compared with most countries, our history books and our history teachers have omitted a whole lot of pertinent facts that would present a more balanced picture of our history. While I was aware of the general problem, I did not understand the full extent of the problem until I started reading Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen, a historian, sociologist, professor and scholar.

Loewen’s in depth research is both fascinating and depressing. Most students studying history have little idea of our real history because, like in the old Soviet Union, so much of it has been airbrushed away. For example, few know that Christopher Columbus and the policies of the colonial Spanish government exterminated the natives of Haiti. Most of us have no idea that more than ninety five percent of the Native Americans living in what is now the United States died from diseases we brought over from Europe.

It’s all there and more, and it’s a sad, sorry but interesting story. For the most part, we know that Patrick Henry would accept only liberty or death, but don’t know that Patrick Henry was also a slaveholder and believed that negroes were intellectually inferior, a common view among whites at the time. We may have heard that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder as well. Yet, the handfuls of slaves that he freed upon death were related to him by blood. He actually increased the number of slaves in his household as he aged. His father owned slaves too, which accounted for his relative wealth, but Jefferson’s wealth, his fabulous Monticello estate (which I visited recently), not to mention his huge collection of books, most of which went to the University of Virginia that he founded came from wealth generated by human beings that he enslaved.

Nor are we aware that the first settled colony in what is now the United States was not Jamestown, but one populated by rebellious slaves in what is now South Carolina, slaves who were aided and assisted by inclusive Native Americans. I had no idea that many whites that came to this country joined Native American tribes, finding with them a much freer and inclusive life than was available in their colonies, where they were often oppressed or indentured. I had no idea that in 1864 at Democratic Party rallies people gleefully sang (to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) the “Nigger Doodle Dandy” with lyrics like:

Yankee Doodle is no more,
Sunk his name and station;
Nigger Doodle takes his place,
And favors amalgamation.

The sad truth is that we were a largely segregated society because the whites would have it no other way. For much of our history, the United States emulated South Africa under Apartheid. The Civil War solved the issue of slavery, but it did not change that many hearts. Hearts change slowly, over many generations, and racism never seems to die out completely.

In my last post, I mentioned my recent trip to Richmond, Virginia and the proud, almost obnoxious way it clings to its Confederate past. Our governor Bob McDonnell made the national news recently by proclaiming Confederate History Month in Virginia. In his proclamation he left out any reference to the evils of slavery, an omission, he says that was entirely accidental. Umm, right. If it weren’t for the discord between North and South on slavery, there would have been no Civil War. Curiously, only recent Republican governors bother to proclaim Confederate History Month. Democratic governors seem to realize that the Confederacy was a terrible mistake and slavery, the animus that started the Civil War, was a great wrong.

The truth is that even in the 21st century we are still at best only beginning to emerge into a post racial society. Professor Loewen though does an exquisitely professional job of documenting just how pervasive the racism was, why and how it still exists today. It exists due in part to the victors writing the history books. Moreover, selective rewriting our textbooks to fit our current political state of mind is still going on. Perhaps you read about misguided efforts by the Texas Education Board to rewrite history by discounting the role of Thomas Jefferson in the founding of our Republic. Perhaps Texas could start by telling the truth about its own history. White ranchers who craved the land held for generations by Hispanics who inconveniently lived there already formed the short lived Republic of Texas. Not surprisingly, they also considered the Hispanics to be intellectually inferior. The Battle of the Alamo in what is now San Antonio (and which I expect to visit in a few weeks) was a pivotal event in this lost cause. It was one of the reasons Texas decided to join the United States. There was strength in numbers and the United States was acknowledged as a white people’s country.

Much of the animus behind The Tea Party comes from largely unacknowledged racism. The party is overwhelmingly white, Republican and a majority believes crazy things like President Obama was born in Kenya.

What would real reparations look like? It is hard for me to really envision, but it would be justice if all profits earned at the Monticello estates went to scholarships for African Americans. That might make some small amends for Jefferson’s racism and enslavement of over two hundred human beings. It would be a start. In truth, we’ve got a long road ahead of us if we want to be post racial in fact, as well as in law.