Saturday, October 15, 2011

Open Source Dem on Rebuild Houston's fees going to hike and bike trails

Toes will be stepped upon and oxen will be gored. You've been warned. -- PD


Re: Rebuild Houston funds may be going to hike/bike trails ...

There may or may not be a good reason for that. We will never know because Houston does not have plans or standards for this or anything. Remember? That Peter Brown was the plans guy, not Annise Parker the financial guy. (Ed.: *ouch*)

We have big deals, small deals, and probably -- in the case of hike/bike trails to or from nowhere -- side-deals. Such are the artifacts of collusive bargaining. The accounting aspects of all that are interesting -- well, to me, the economist -- but the accountability aspects of it are devastating to me the political executive: There are none!

This is pervasive unaccountability, which mainly benefits GOP incumbents and ideologues in state, county, and local governments. That is, government that the GOP here mostly controls but “govmint” that it runs against successfully for lack of any principled opposition or coherent alternative from the cringing liberal party of Vichy Democrats.

Municipalities have something called funds accounting. This (collusive bargaining, not funds accounting) will allow the drainage fee and Rebuild Houston scheme -- a huge transfer of municipal debt into a special-purpose entity “off the books” -- to have consequences that somebody envisioned originally (the transaction lawyers, surely) but that most of our elected officials and few if any citizens even begin to grasp. “Who could have known?” the Tim Geithners and Andy Ickens will ask rhetorically?

Well, the fee-men know for sure. They know about the fiascos they engineer (financially) and the whiz-bangs they plant in government (politically).

The right wing take, a “rain tax”, is farcical but predictable. It was a stupid-clever phrase that was nearly successful in defeating the measure in 2010 and, oh, a great way to sweep Sylvia Garcia out of office. That was not bad politics from the GOP standpoint. The, well, center-wing critique -- a “management district” -- is comparatively lame but true. Still it was nothing cringing liberals wanted to hear, so they lined up behind the drainage fee, and now they get their little hike/bike trails.

Some things are knowable: logically, funds accounting is neither complex nor much different from what people think of as budgeting or as just reconciling a bank account. Funds accounting is something the Democratic Party ought to not just understand but to use if it is to compete with the GOP for votes and, oh, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo or the King Street Patriots for money and activists.

In practice funds accounting can be very complex, indeed opaque, if a municipal or non-profit corporation like a hospital or my favorite, the “Fat Stock Show”, has many sources and uses of money. It may be channeled through many different funds and some officials may be able hide from others what is going on behind the legal mumbo-jumbo that municipal business in Houston is festooned with. To deal with such accounting, financial engineering, and even legal complexity, you have to trust the people managing it or at least appreciate the result ... as Rodeo, Pickup Truck, and Barbecue fans seem to.

Meanwhile, in municipal government …we do not have planning and standards so much as we have deals. We do not have agendas on Commissioners’ Court or City Council, we have dockets. So we fire-proof half a warehouse and wake up one morning with all the voting machines burned up. Duh!

The civil engineering is done not by actual civil engineers but by bond lawyers on behalf of land speculators and slumlords; thus, the engineers design the basements of world-class buildings downtown, then connect them all to an underground garage next to the bayou and eventually wonder: “why do all the buildings flood?” Duh! Plaintiff and defense lawyers -- symbiotes politically, mock adversaries in court -- loot banks and insurance exchanges all over the world with such fiascos and laugh all the way to … wherever else in the world they hide the proceeds. This is the way to run a pirate's cove, not a world-class professional and economic powerhouse.

Corporations, criminals, and syndicates comprised of both only have one fund to account for: a bottom line, also known in the trades as “net, net, net” or, in the original Italian, patrimonio netto. Exotic public/private enterprises use “special-purpose entities” -- specialty bankers or just 'bagmen' -- and now what are called transaction lawyers to do externally what, for example, the City of Houston does internally: exploit the fungible nature of money … creatively, as they say. When the internal and external obfuscation overlap, as they did here in Austin, and in D.C. with Enron, we get grand larceny as well as everything from the incompetent terrorism of the Iranian used-car salesman from Corpus Christi to the flamboyant piracy of Sir Allen Stanford. That is sad and dangerous but at this point almost funny.

There is no telling what will become of Rebuild Houston. Certainly it does not seem to be any different from what has gone before, just a new way to provide public credit for private real estate development and to poorly maintain everything with the cheapest labor possible. Hike and bike trails will certainly appease a few goo-goo liberals among the newly-prized class of political investors with incomes in the $250,000-1,000,000 bracket -- the darlings of political bundlers and consultants, the constituency of Martin Frost.

Sadly, the legalized criminality and criminalized legalism that pass for proficiency in municipal government is not conducive to peace or prosperity. They will destroy moderate Republicans like Ed Emmett and Steven Costello as well as sweep well-meaning Democrats out of citywide and countywide offices they have been elected to.

What we have been doing here in Houston and Harris County for decades cannot go on, so it won’t. The magical realism of the far-right noise and cringing liberal sham of center-left government will end in brutal clarity of some sort.

“You can fool some people all the time and all the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.”

President Lincoln said that, and I think President Obama gets it.

But I worry about the rest of the Democratic Party. It is plain enough that many of the voters I represent have less and less trust in our complex machinations and excuses for cowardice or failure. They do not think that a tortured succession of deals amount to a plan, and the Solyandra vultures on talk radio will not let them forget it.

Yes, this public credit for a private venture was craven, rotten, bundler/consultant politics from first (Bush) to finish (Obama). And that is likely how the White-Parker deal culture will play out as long as whiz-bangs -- in Steampunk terminology called mountebanks -- like Andy Icken are involved.

So who here would trust anything an Andy Icken would vouch for, a Vinson  Elkins would sign off on, and an Arthur Andersen -- now called Protiviti -- would account for?

Nobody in their right mind!

But those are whom the Seinfeld “Party about Nothing” rely on in city government obviously, and County Commissioner Precinct 2 most recently. This deal-culture -- legal or not -- is a suicidal paradigm of politics and government. It benefits the parasites of government and the pirates of modern commerce.

The Tea Party suspects as much. Cringing liberal, center-left office squatters and their entourages do not. They haven’t a clue and in fact live from deal to deal. They will probably lose their Blazing Saddles jobs owing to precisely the sort of demoralization they are spreading with regressive and indirect taxation multiplied many times over by the obfuscation of public finance generally.

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