Monday, March 28, 2011

The SHO/Final Four Wrangle

The Texas Progressive Alliance is ready for another sports-related tourist infusion as it brings you this week's blog roundup.

If the goal of the 81st Texas Legislature and Governor Rick Perry is to stifle job creation in Texas for the next two years, then Off the Kuff says they're knocking it out of the park.

Letters From Texas rolls its collective eyes about the word games played by the Republicans in charge as they announce their Senate subcommittee to find "non-tax revenue." Earth to Republicans: if we used to own it, but now the government owns it, it's a tax.

Musings looks ahead to 2021 in Connecting the Dots: Killing Education, Killing Unions, Funding the Tea Partiers. Give it a look. The videos are worth the price of admission by themselves!

WCNews at Eye On Williamson has something to say about the austerity budget: House Appropriations passes budget - tea party blamed for cuts.

In the latest post regarding the poll he's conducting on the mortgage interest tax deduction, PDiddie at Brains and Eggs explains why he has never owned a home.

CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme warns that Republicans are near their goal of killing public education for K-12 and at the university level.

Neil at Texas Liberal apologized for ever having voted for Houston city councilmember C.O. Bradford for any public office. Neil feels that voting for Mr. Bradford was one of the worst ballot box mistakes he has ever made.

refinish69 at Doing My Part for the Left is ever amazed by the stupidity of the Texas Lege. It is the gift that keeps on giving. Case in point is Rep. David Simpson's Don't Touch My Junk Bill.

This week, McBlogger takes a look at what austerity will do to Texas.

And PDiddie adds: as a type 2 diabetic for almost ten years, this was the most interesting thing I read in the past week.

Friday, March 25, 2011

"Hundreds of thousands of job cuts" in Texas

The only question is how Rick Perry will attempt to blame President Obama for it.

Deep reductions in a House committee's budget proposal would cost Texas hundreds of thousands of jobs through the next two years, according to an analysis released Thursday.

"I've been trying to say this for over a year. I've been trying to say how our economy was bad, and how our shortfall was going to be affecting Texas, and nobody seemed to believe me. But I think reality is probably setting in on that," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. "I really didn't realize the extent of the total employment. It's pretty shocking."

"How about if we blame it on the Great Collapse of 2008?"

The Legislative Budget Board's "dynamic economic impact" analysis of the Appropriations-approved budget proposal predicts 271,746 fewer jobs in 2012, and 335,244 fewer in 2013, compared to what total employment would be if revenues and spending remained stable. That includes government and private-sector jobs.

The analysis cautions that the estimate "does not imply the state will lose that many jobs from our current employment level upon enactment" of House Bill 1, as approved by the Appropriations Committee this week.

Instead, it shows Texas would have fewer jobs compared to a scenario in which state spending remained constant relative to the current budget.
Bad economy blamed

"Since available revenue for the 2012-13 biennium is predicted to fall well below that amount, in large part due to the national economic recession, many of these job losses can be attributed to the steep downturn of the Texas economy during the past several years," the LBB analysis said.

"But I thought Rick Perry said Texas was doing great. Back during the campaign season. How about if we say it just won't be that bad, like Dewhurst has been saying?"

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said the state needs to address the structural budget deficit caused by the 2006 school finance plan, but disputed the LBB's job loss estimates.

"We have a trillion-dollar economy in Texas. There's 9.5 million people employed in Texas. I don't think by any stretch of the imagination the budget that we pass is going to cost many - it may result in hundreds of job losses, but I would really doubt if it would be thousands," he said. "Most economic analysts would say that if you raise taxes to increase government spending, you'll cost jobs."

Travis Tullos, regional economist with Austin-based consulting firm TXP, described the LBB's prediction as a "worst-case scenario, generally speaking."

"If you were to increase taxes sufficient to cover that deficit - whatever that ends up being - that would be more deleterious to the economy than going ahead with a more conservative budget," Tullos said.

Vertigo-inducing spin. My question: how's that voting-a-straight-Republican-ticket-for-the-past-sixteen-years thing workin' out for ya?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"For me, life happened."

"I never planned to acquire a lot of jewels or a lot of husbands," ...  "For me, life happened, just as it does for anyone else. I have been supremely lucky in my life in that I have known great love, and of course I am the temporary custodian of some incredible and beautiful things. But I have never felt more alive than when I watched my children delight in something, never more alive than when I have watched a great artist perform, and never richer than when I have scored a big check to fight AIDS."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why I have never owned a home

In the wake of this post on the mortgage interest deduction -- still want your input, by the way -- a few people marveled at the fact that I was a 52-year-old successful businessman who had never owned been a homeowner. They intimated a few common-to-me assumptions, one of which was that perhaps I was not as successful as I presented myself. (And I have certainly had some lean years, income-wise, along with the good ones.) But the overriding question  was some variation of: what's wrong with you? Why do you just want to pour your money down a hole by renting? Renting is for scumbags. You're not a scumbag, are you? How can you actually be a financial counselor and not be a homeowner? Well, like this.

A) Cash Gone. You have to write a big fat check for a downpayment. “But it's an investment,” you might say to me. Historically this isn’t true. Housing returned 0.4% per year from from 1890 to 2004. And that’s just housing prices. It forgets all the other stuff I’m going to mention below. Suffice to say, when you write that check, you’re never going to see that money again. Because even when you sell the house later you’re just going to take that money and put it into another downpayment. So if you buy a $400,000 home, just say goodbye to $100,000 that you worked hard for. You can put a little sign on the front lawn: “$100,000 R.I.P.”

B) Closing costs. I forget what they were the last two times I bought a house. But it was about another 2-3% out the window. Lawyers, title insurance, moving costs, antidepressant medicine. It adds up. 2-3%.

C) Maintenance. No matter what, you’re going to fix things. Lots of things. In the lifespan of your house, everything is going to break. Thrice. Get down on your hands and knees and fix it! And then open up your checkbook again. Spend some more money. I rent. My dishwasher doesn’t work. I call the landlord and he fixes it. Or I buy a new one and deduct it from my rent. And some guy from Sears comes and installs it. I do nothing. The Sears repairman and my landlord work for me.

D) Taxes. There’s this myth that you can deduct mortgage payment interest from your taxes. Whatever. That’s a microscopic dot on your tax returns. What's worse is the taxes you pay. So your kids can get a great education. Whatever.

E) You’re trapped. Let's spell out very clearly why the myth of home ownership became religion in the United States. It's because corporations didn’t want their employees to have many job choices. So they encouraged them to own homes. So they can’t move away and get new jobs. Job salaries are a function of supply and demand. If you can’t move, then your supply of jobs is low. You can’t argue the reverse, since new adults are always competing with you.

F) Ugly. Saying “my house is an investment” forgets the fact that a house has all the qualities of the ugliest type of investment:

Illiquidity. You can’t cash out whenever you want.
High leverage. You have to borrow a lot of money in most cases.
No diversification. For most people, a house is by far the largest part of their portfolio and greatly exceeds the 10% of net worth that any other investment should be.

When I began my first corporate career in 1981 with Hearst Newspapers, there was only one way to move up in the company (and industry) then, and it was to change newspapers, which meant changing cities. Hearst didn't have a relo program for middle managers, and that could have meant that I would still be owning a home today in Plainview, Texas. Or Midland. Not exactly the most robust of housing markets. Or I could have lost a small wad a time or two or three. Doubtful I would have made much, if any, on the sale whenever it happened, to save nothing of interest lost on the money I invested elsewhere than a homestead, taxes, yadda yadda.

Since 1993, and after a calendar year in the Tampa/St. Pete area (Jan-Dec of 1992) we've been back in Houston, but my second corporate career -- lasting until 2002 -- was in automobile dealerships, as the F&I guy. Less stability but about three to five times as much money as I ever made in the newspaper biz. And sometimes I was working on the southeast side of town (Clear Lake), sometimes the southwest (Sharpstown, with occasional duty in Rosenberg), sometimes north of downtown, once close to the Astrodome -- and to where I lived, in the Med Center/West U area. So we chose to live as close in to the city as we could afford -- since we're DINKs any worries about schools and so on aren't part of the equation -- with commutes for me in any direction that were outbound in the morning and inbound in the evening. Against the grain ... suiting my general contrarian philosophy. Once I started my insurance business in 2002, my commute became irrelevant to where I lived. I had a small office in the now-defunct Texas Gas Building in Rice Village; when it made way for those Bohemian things that will never be constructed, I just moved my office into the house (condo, as it were). Speaking of houses, I just rented one a year ago in the Willowbend area, and that was really only because the dogs -- first one, now two plus a foster -- needed a yard to play in. All of this time (living in Houston) I have paid anywhere from $1000 to $1500 a month, as much as most $150K-200K mortgages in the far-flung Houston suburbs but with a far greater peace of mind. YMMV.

Without the furkids I would still be waking up to a view of the Texas Medical Center skyline, looking east, from the fourth floor bedroom window, walking to the Rice Epicurean, walking to my dentist's office ... you get the picture.

I still have no desire to own a home, despite the fact that now may be the best time in my lifetime to do so (plentiful inventory, rock-bottom prices, most favorable terms).

So all this may be the reason why I have no real strong opinion about the mortgage interest deduction. But again, if you do I want to hear it. Comment there or here, please.

Update: I should add that since I moved into this house, the landlord has had to a) patch the roof, b) have dead limbs trimmed from the two large trees -- they were neglected so long that they were in danger of falling and possibly injuring someone, and c) replace the furnace -- which was $2000 by itself. Oh, and he had to pay the property taxes. I'm sure glad I didn't have to come up with all that out of my pocket at once.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Vernal Equinox Wrangle

The Texas Progressive Alliance's brackets are still in good shape as it brings you this week's blog roundup.

WhosPlayin has been focused on Lewisville city council elections and the criminal records of two of the candidates, each of whom has assault convictions and each of whom lied on their ballot application.

Off the Kuff discusses the budget deal that allows for Rainy Day funds to be used to close the current biennium's shortfall.

DosCentavos compares the Mexican-shootin' Missouri legislator and the goings-on at the Texas Capitol and tell us what Dems should be doing.

Bay Area Houston notes that When the Galveston County Republican Party Chair slept with teabaggers he woke up with a bad taste in his mouth... and no job.

Are you in favor of preserving the mortgage interest income tax deduction, or do you favor phasing it out for larger, more expensive homes and/or wealthier taxpayers -- or eliminating it altogether? PDiddie wants your opinion at Brains and Eggs.

Musings gives an update on the ground perspective of why schools need more support staff, not less, in order to ensure student success with the new, more rigorous curriculum and testing mandated by the Legislature and SBOE.

WCNews at Eye On Williamson makes clear that the recent "drama" surrounding whether to spend some of the Rainy Day Fund was done for political cover, better known as The Show.

This week McBlogger takes a look at two crazy people who are, unbelievably, elected officials.

refinish69 at Doing My Part for the Left is disgusted and dismayed at the stupidity that is the Texas Lege. Nothing like a Clean Crapper Bill or protecting the ignorant to make the state of Texas proud.

CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme suspects that Republican hate against Muslims resulted in fires at a Houston mosque. Republicans have sliced and diced the American public every which way -- women, people of color, gays, teachers, nurses, Jews, Muslims and who knows what else. Wisconsin has woken up. Lets hope the rest of America soon follows.

At TexasKaos, lightseeker is Shocked! Shocked! at the new "edited" video that has hit the web. Check out The Media Fail Us Again- of NPR and Edited Videos.

Neil at Texas Liberal came across an example of extreme government direction of our lives.

And PDiddie adds: One of the most interesting things I read in the past week was this ...

I'm sure the government of Iran must be watching the events in Libya with particular interest. In December of 2003, Libya announced it had a nuclear weapons program and that it would get rid of it. The last of the nuclear weapons technology exited the country in 2009. Libya's repressive, dictatorial regime was welcomed back into the fold of the great Western powers and their friends (a.k.a., the "international community") and trade flourished. Now, just over seven years later, Libya is under military assault from those same powers, only now without the nuclear threat that keeps the West out of North Korea. For the power centers in Iran this must be particularly instructive. America will one day have another Republican president determined to go to war in the Middle East. Will the Iranian people rise up and find a government willing to crush dissent with brutal force? Will America decide that this cannot be tolerated and military action must occur? Will Iran have a "nuclear deterrent" or not? These are questions military leaders in Iran, and our folks in the Pentagon and intelligence community, must be considering. Military actions always have unpredictable repercussions.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday Night Funnies


What about the (newborn) children? CUT!

Ah, Texas Republicans may get into the business of helping doctors and hospitals choose life -- or not, because it costs too much. The Texas Tribune:

An unlikely battlefield in Texas’ budget war is a hushed pink-and-blue hospital nursery, where 1- and 2-pound babies bleat like lambs under heating lamps and neonatal nurses use tiny rulers to measure limbs no bigger than fingers.

State health officials, searching for solutions to Texas’ multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, have set their sights on these neonatal intensive care units, or NICUs, which they fear are being overbuilt and overused by hospitals eager to profit from the high-cost care — and by doctors too quick to offer pregnant mothers elective inductions and Caesarean sections before their babies are full term.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), under the gun to find cost savings in the state’s huge Medicaid program, suggested last month it could save $36.5 million over the next biennium by better managing which babies end up in NICUs, curbing so-called convenience C-sections and refusing to finance elective inductions before the 39th week of pregnancy.

“When we look at the data, it indicates that, yes, there is overutilization of NICUs — more babies are being put in NICUs than need to be in NICUs,” said HHSC Commissioner Tom Suehs, adding that two of his own grandchildren were put in Texas hospital NICUs in the last two years, even though they were healthy and their deliveries were uncomplicated.

Wait a minute. You meant to tell me that the corporate hospitals are maximizing their profit opportunities on the backs of both sick AND healthy newborn babies?

No one could have predicted that.

Lawmakers are not ready to say with certainty that Texas has a NICU overutilization problem, though their comments suggest it. “We are seeing some trends that are a bit troubling,” said State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who has filed legislation to create a commission to study NICU use. Added Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound: “We don’t want to reduce services, but we need to combat inefficient, unnecessary use.”

Nor will most hospitals admit to a NICU problem. Couple Texas’ high birth rate, low health insurance coverage and limited prenatal care with the growth of in vitro fertilization, multiple-baby births and so-called geriatric — or past the age of 35 — pregnancies, hospital administrators say, and you have a full NICU. “The services exist because they fill a need,” said Amanda Engler, spokeswoman for the Texas Hospital Association.

"Problem? What problem?" said the doctor/administrator/stockholder.

The data suggests NICU beds may not be proliferating due to natural demand alone. Births in Texas are up nearly 18 percent since 1998, according to state health statistics. Meanwhile, the number of NICU beds in Texas hospitals has surged roughly 84 percent, to 2,510 in 2009 from 1,365 in 1998.

State health officials are not shy in suggesting there is a profit motive at play for hospitals. The average routine delivery costs Medicaid $2,500, according to state records; the average NICU stay costs $45,000.

Elective procedures like inducing labor prior to 39 weeks of gestation or delivering a baby via C-section at the mother’s request are only contributing to complications that send babies to the NICU, these health officials say. In 1998, C-sections made up 23.8 percent of Medicaid births, state data shows; more than a decade later, they made up 35 percent. In 2009 alone, 137 Medicaid-covered newborns suffered complications resulting from elective inductions, according to state health officials, costing the Texas Medicaid program $1.6 million.

Simple solution (to a conservative mind): deport all the Ill Eagles, especially the pregnant ones, magically solving ALL the state's budget problems. Instantly.

Dr. Charles T. Hankins, a longtime neonatologist at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and an associate professor of pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine, suggested there is a far more nuanced motive than pure profit. Hospitals — hard hit by low reimbursement rates and high malpractice costs for routine obstetric care — are simply looking for ways to make up the difference. “A lot of facilities realize if they had a Level 3 nursery, they could help offset their costs,” he said.

He thinks the NICU boom is often driven less by hospitals than by obstetricians, who do their residency training in facilities with NICUs and cannot imagine not having one available for their patients. “The doctors want their patients to be happy, and the hospital administrators want to keep the doctors happy,” he said.

The problem is that diagnosing the need for neonatal care can be subjective, Hankins said. If a hospital wants to increase its NICU census, providers can admit more infants or lengthen their stays — and parents generally trust those assessments. And he said there is no state oversight, either of admission and discharge best practices, or of how NICUs advertise themselves. Some hospitals convert Level 2 NICU beds to Level 3 NICU beds with little to no increase in infrastructure or technology, he said, and no one challenges the designation.

NO state oversight?

State health officials acknowledge that the NICU designation is up to the hospital and is not reviewed by the state. “Hospitals are willing to work together to accomplish the optimal care for these babies,” Hankins said, but added that they need proper guidance to do so.

Some state lawmakers question what Texas’ Medicaid program has been doing, if not offering this guidance. The growth in NICU beds — much of it along the Texas-Mexico border, which has the youngest population in the state, and in suburban hospitals outside of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — comes despite years of improvements in prenatal care for mothers on Medicaid, the joint state-federal health program that covers more than half of Texas births.

"One of the tenets of Medicaid has long been better prenatal care, and less babies needing NICUs,” said Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, a family practice doctor who, in a recent Senate hearing, suggested the cost savings health officials are looking for may not be ample in the delivery room.

Even as I post this, Austin legislators are meeting to discuss the ending of Medicaid in Texas -- because it costs too much, of course -- and replacing it with some state version done on the cheap. Exempting veterans' care; that will remain paid for by the feds. Which saves Texas money. *faceplant*

But Dr. Frank Mazza, vice president and chief patient safety officer for the Seton Family of Hospitals, said state health officials are on the right path in considering birth inefficiencies. When Seton made the almost unheard-of move in 2005 of prohibiting elective inductions before 39 weeks — part of a system-wide effort to improve perinatal safety — the number of babies admitted to the NICU fell off dramatically. The hospital’s revenue from them also dropped by 95 percent, to $186,000 per year from roughly $4.5 million per year.

“We should have in Texas the safest health care and the most cost-effective health care,” Mazza said. “By keeping babies out of the NICU, you accomplish both.”

Still, even Mazza acknowledged that if his own wife were having a baby today, he would choose a hospital with all the bells and whistles. “Of course I’d want her in a hospital with a NICU,” he said, “with the latest and greatest technology.”

I just can't wait to see how all this turns out. How about you?

Sunday Funnies


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Super Moon Rising -- tonight

Astrologer Richard Nolle coined the term “Super Moon” 30 years ago to describe the extra large full moon rising tonight. It will be something special – a great look at the “biggest” moon in 20 years.
“Super Moon” describes a new or full moon occurring at the same time the Moon comes within 90 percent of its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit. It’s an event that happens 4-6 times a year, but according to a NASA Science News story, tonight's full moon will nearly coincide with the Moon's arrival at the closest point in its orbit around the Earth, resulting in the largest visible full moon in North America in two decades.

"The last full moon so big and close to Earth occurred in March of 1993," Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington D.C.  said in the recent NASA Science News story. "I'd say it's worth a look."

Officially, a “Super Moon” is called a  "perigee moon."



"The full moon of March 19th occurs less than one hour away from perigee – a near-perfect coincidence that happens only 18 years or so," added Chester.

Full moons vary in size because of the moon’s oval shape, according to the article. The moon is an ellipse with one side [perigee] about 50,000 km closer to Earth than the other [apogee]. Perigee moons appear about 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than non-perigee moons – if the weather cooperates.

No earthquakes, tsunamis, or nuclear accidents should result, although that Mayan calendar thing still kinda freaks me out.

The mortgage interest deduction: for or against?

This is the kind of topic I really enjoy discussing: one which I don't have a strong feeling about (while others do); one which I can agree with the arguments on each side; and one which the usual liberal/conservative pros and cons don't easily apply.

Recently some folks at SaveMyMID.com have been asking me to blog on the issue, so I encouraged them to submit a guest post. As background, know that Rep. Gary Miller of California is sponsoring legislation to protect the mortgage interest tax deduction, and in 2007 Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) proposed a bill to repeal it. Miller is not only as solid a right-winger as the Right could hope for, he's also a shady developer from way back. CREW even lists him as one of Congress' most corrupt members. (The only Texan that makes their list is Pete Sessions, which is amazing in its own right.) Dingell, 84, is one of Congress' oldest and longest-serving  members, was the chair of the House Energy and Commerce committee when the Dems were still the majority, and survived a tough challenge last November to earn a 28th term. That makes this his 55th year in the House of Representatives (but who's counting).

Dingell's legislation in 2007 would have phased out the MID as part of his "carbon tax" reform package:

The phase-out schedule (begins) with houses of 3,000 square feet, which would lose 15 percent of their deductions, and ending with houses of 4,200 square feet and larger, which would receive no deductions at all.

“In order to address the issues of climate change, we must address the come forth of consumption -- we do that by making consumption more expensive,” Dingell said.

Then along came the housing market bust, of course, and in the interest of reviving the economy talk of the MID went away. But Obama's budget revives and expands it, particularly on the wealthy, who are still building large homes despite the Great Crash of 2010 2008.

The Obama administration hopes to tap the rich to help pay for its ambitious programs. Specifically, that would include slashing mortgage interest deductions for high-income taxpayers.

The proposal would cap at 28% the tax break for itemized deductions.

That would leave people in higher marginal tax brackets of 33% and 35% - the wealthiest Americans -- with a smaller benefit from the deduction of mortgage interest, state and local taxes and other items such as charitable contributions.

The move is projected to raise $318 billion over 10 years and fits nicely with the president's campaign pledge to increase taxes only for families earning more than $250,000. Few, if any middle-income homeowners are in tax brackets of more than 28%.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a D.C. think tank, said he was impressed with this part of the budget plan.

"It's a no-brainer for economists," he said. "Why have taxpayers been [in effect] subsidizing home payments for the highest income people in the country?"

Preserving the MID is favored by a host of historically conservative special-interest groups like the National Association of Realtors.

Here's the argument SaveMyMID sent me.

Contrary to assertions by some economists, the income tax deductions for mortgage interest and real estate taxes primarily benefit middle class taxpayers with incomes between $50,000 and $200,000, according to the findings of a study by the National Association of Home Builders. Taxpayers earning less than $200,000 pay 43 percent of all income taxes. However, they receive 68 percent of the total benefit of the mortgage interest deduction and 77 percent of the total benefit of the real estate tax deduction.

Moreover, larger benefits go to larger households and families, such as those with children. And as a share of household income, larger benefits are collected by families with less than $200,000 income, indicating that these tax rules make the tax system more progressive. Ever since the federal income tax was introduced in 1913, the government has used the tax code to encourage homeownership. Now, as a result of the effort to reduce the federal deficit, the mortgage interest deduction is under fire. Proposed changes to the tax code would have a dramatic impact on homeowners and would significantly reduce the value of this deduction.

Suppose a home owner paying $10,000 in mortgage interest in a year faces a marginal tax rate of 25 percent and, to keep things simple, has enough other itemized deductions that they would itemize regardless of the mortgage interest deduction. For that homeowner, the mortgage interest deduction is worth approximately 25 percent times $10,000 or $2,500 in reduced taxes paid. With a 12 percent tax credit, the homeowner’s tax benefit would be reduced to $10,000 times 12 percent or $1,200.

Moreover, if other proposals affecting housing-related deductions went into effect, home owners would not be able to deduct their state and local property taxes or the interest on any home equity loan they might have and they would pay higher tax on a principal residence when sold.

Here let's add some additional remarks from various online conversations (too many to properly credit, I'm afraid) ...

Next time a right-winger complains about entitlements, ask him or her to not take the mortgage deduction on their taxes.

A liberal responds:

FWIW this is a deal-breaker for me. I will probably vote against anybody who supports repealing the mortgage deduction.

OTOH, the mortgage deduction doesn't meet the definition of an "entitlement", just like social security doesn't. Neither are entitlements. I believe that as part of our social safety net, we SHOULD have some entitlements, however... the mortgage deduction is not an entitlement in the first place.

Sure sounds like you are treating it like it is.

Nope. Here's the distinction.

I made an important INVESTMENT decision based on the deduction. I would have made a different investment decision (a different mortgage, house etc.) if it wasn't there. The mortgage interest deduction is no more an entitlement than the lower tax rate for capital gains vs. income is. It's about trade-offs, and if they change the rules in the middle of the game, I call foul. If they changed the rule for all NEW mortgages, that would be different.

It's not an entitlement, it's a tax incentive based on one type of investment vs. another.

More along that vein.

The mortagage deduction should be repealed.

It is corporate welfare for the banking and real estate industry. It causes the prices of houses to be inflated beyond their worth ("Look at all the money you will save by taking the mortgage deduction!"). If the deduction were eliminated the houses would come down in price because people would not be tricked into taking loans which they can't afford. Get rid of it.

Wrong on two points.

First, it doesn't help banks at all; they charge the same interest rate whether you deduct interest from your taxable income or not. It does help a potential homeowner by lowering the net cost of owning a home. Second point, I don't see how people are being "tricked" into taking out loans they can't afford and why would a bank want that? If you can't afford your home loan and default on it, then the bank has to foreclose on the house and they'll probably lose a lot of money. If you're too dumb to make an intelligent decision about whether you can afford a mortgage, you shouldn't be borrowing money -- period.

Brokers/originators don't care if the loan is repaid or not. Fees/commissions for the mortgage originator are paid upfront with the closing costs. True, the mortgage lender suffers from a default. But by that time the originator is long gone from the transaction.

So what? The bank makes the final decision about whether to lend the money.

Based on what the originator tells them (my note: more accurately, the information collected by the originator, furnished by the borrower. Which could be manipulated by either/both for a favorable outcome). No investor intentionally bought bad paper. It was all funneled through secondary markets, changing hands several times before being bundled and sold as securities for investors. Hence the culprits had plausible deniability for passing the bad paper. In the end they stuck the bill to the US taxpayer.

Maybe the banks did crappy due diligence or maybe the originator committed fraud. The fix for those problems is not to bail out the banks and the securities firms and to prosecute fraud if and where it occurred. That is unrelated to whether mortgage interest should be deductible for the borrower.

I just can't argue with any of this so far. Here's something else.

The mortgage crisis is separate from the tax issue.

The former results from a system that placed rewards upon certain transactions without sufficient oversight to ensure that impropriety wasn't taking place. Such as an accurate rating of mortgage backed securities. And our legislative history of allowing large corps to privatize profits while socializing losses.

Interest deduction on taxes was originally intended to prevent the money from being taxed twice. Once by the Payee and again by the Lender. During the Reagan administration the rules were changed, and most loan interest was no longer tax deductible. The exception being the 'Interest on Primary Residence' and a secondary residence. Then the tax lawyers found ways to start incorporating home improvement loans into mortgages and others went further, selling HILs with the pitching of buying big-ticket items with the money.

Going back to the pre-Reagan view IMO is the right choice. Let everyone get the deduction for interest and avoid paying tax twice on the interest.

Finally, some of this.

Sorry chum, but us poor folks who are holding on to our homes by the finger nails use the mortgage interest deduction tax. Sure, it's only a little over $2,000 per year that I'm saving from adding to my income taxes, but every little bit helps.

If they change it, lots of middle class folks will see a HUGE tax increase.

You'd have to phase it out over time because people who bought their home calculated that into the decision, and you have to give them enough time to make a change. And in this housing environment, selling or refinancing is very tough for the middle class.

A wealthy family will have no problem restructuring their debt.

There are several classic confrontations inherent in the MID conversation, from economic vs. enviromental and tax cut vs. tax increase as well as the social and class concerns.

So is the mortgage deduction regressive, as some would seem to suggest? Do you favor it or oppose it? Are you a homeowner or not (or a Realtor or a banker or a lender, for that matter)?

FTR I am not a homeowner and never have been. I HAVE worked as a loan originator and my wife as a banker, mostly as an originator herself, though she has the experience of a big bank's deliberations in loan approval. I think I quite clearly see the pros and cons of both sides and lean in favor of reducing and/or phasing out mortgage interest deductions, most particularly on larger more expensive homes (as well as taxpayers). But I'm capable of being swayed by almost any argument.

What's yours? Please post it in the comments.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

KISS at the Houston Rodeo

The first time I saw these dudes was in 1976, my senior high school year, at McDonald Gymnasium on the campus of Lamar University. I was 17 years old.

So last evening I took the wife to her first Rodeo to see them again.

KISS, by now, is as warm and familiar to fans as a (sparkly) bathrobe. There's nary a sense of danger, though Gene Simmons can still strike an imposing stance. Paul Stanley's voice has taken on a banshee screech, even when he's talking, and it's often funnier than it should be.

But the band's sense of humor is what keeps things from dwindling into complete parody. Stanley and Simmons are in on the joke. They're like vaudeville stars (in spandex). And the KISS army was out in force. Old-school fans and grade-schoolers in full makeup populated the crowd of more than 72,000, a big number for a weekday show, even during spring break.

If you haven't seen Simmons' reality TV show Family Jewels -- season 6 is on the way -- then you're not getting all of the joke. Gene's relatively normal suburban dad occasionally mashes into six-inch-tongue-in-cheek self-parodies of his stage character, and his relationships with Playmate "wife" Shannon Tweed, now a pinup victim of too much plastic surgery, and their children Nick and Sophie (seemingly unaffected psychologically by being burdened with parents like these) are never boring either. But I digress from last night.

Stage limitations cut out much of the band's extravagant stage show, which is a large part of the KISS experience. But they did what they could with pyro and fireworks, which punctuated every song.


Modern Day Delilah, from 2009 album Sonic Boom, was a strange choice for opening such an abbreviated set. But things soon sounded familiar: Shout it Out Loud, Deuce, Firehouse (complete with Simmons' fire-breathing finale) and Calling Dr. Love.

I Was Made for Lovin' You didn't pack as big a punch as it should have. It felt tentative instead of arrogant. But drummer Eric Singer managed a standout version of Beth, the night's only ballad.

I am ashamed to say I wouldn't have known the drummer's name if it hadn't been included in this article. Former kitmaster Peter Criss -- he wore a CAT Diesel Power cap in Beaumont 35 years ago -- long ago dropped out and was later diagnosed with breast cancer, rare for men. He's a survivor. Still couldn't tell you who or how many have replaced Ace Frehley over the years.

But my voluntary and semi-dishonorable discharge from the KISS Army after college and the corporate world summoned was all forgotten last night. My favorites were Detroit Rock City and of course the closer, Rock and Roll All Night. I would have loved hearing some of the old stuff, like Cold Gin or Black Diamond, but I'm sure they never play them live any more. Here's what we missed, fresh from that era ...



Stanley led the crowd through a military salute and the Pledge of Allegiance before kicking into a Rock and Roll All Nite sing-along and guitar-smashing finale. It was random, a little ridiculous and, overall, more fun than it should have been.

It was just as weird as you think it would be to see all of the cowboy hats and too-tight Wrangler jeans all around me, with flames shooting in the air and KISS onstage jamming. As a commenter at the link noted, I never thought I would have seen the day when this band led its fans in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Despite that brief return to current reality, for about an hour last night I was back in high school.

Teabagger starts fight at rally

What did you expect?

One person was arrested Tuesday after a scuffle broke out during a rally on the steps of City Hall to protest cuts in the state budget.

A Houston police spokesman confirmed that one person was arrested for misdemeanor assault but didn't have any specific details. The spokesman said it was the only incident of note at the Texans Day of Outrage protest rally.

A Houston man said a scuffle broke out after an unidentified man carrying an umbrella and a video camera moved toward the podium during one of the speeches.

"He kept advancing step by step, until he was right in his face," said Dan Joyce. Joyce said he supports the 400-500 people who attended the rally.

The man took a swing when Harris County AFL-CIO president E. Dale Wortham came toward him, Joyce said.

"He landed a punch," Joyce said. "Mr. Wortham did not retaliate."

Joyce said Wortham did not appear to be injured.

Others at the rally pulled the man away. Houston police officers took the man away in handcuffs, Joyce said.

Here's the video. Pretty provocative on the part of an old white dude all by himself.


Update: Stace at Dos has more pictures of the perp, including being handcuffed and led away by HPD. And the Chron has more video -- it inaccurately describes the rally and the counter-protest as between "Democrats" and "Republicans" -- that includes fellow blogger Egberto Willies...



Update II: Big Jolly demonstrates his math handicap again, though he does manage to conclude that Mr. Agitated TeaBagger was wrong in attacking the podium.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Taxing Questions – How Wisely is Tax Money Being Spent?

The following guest post is contributed by Phillip Donavan, who writes on the subject of Online Political Science Degrees. Phillip can be reached at his email: phillip dot donavan at gmail dot com.

The trade unions in Wisconsin want higher taxation for the super-rich so that their benefits are not cut; there are suggestions being put forward to increase gasoline tax to $1 by the CEO of Hess Corp., John B. Hess as a way to introduce fuel economy measures and moderate the demand for gas in the coming years; and there is a general outrage at the proposed hike in taxes. It is in this backdrop that we hear news of tax dollars being put to use to train counter-terrorist squads to annihilate Jihadi units.

But that’s not wrong, you say? Well, not if the units are being trained to counter terrorism in any form. But when they’re being indoctrinated to form an image of Muslims that is distorted and skewed, then we do have a problem at hand. According to progressive think tank Political Research Associates (PRA), the US government is spending millions of tax dollars to set up unregulated training programs for the police and others in law enforcement, and that these programs are spreading the ideology that Muslims as a whole are a dangerous lot because Islam is a violent religion that endorses terrorism.

One training conference which the agency attended was held late last year by the International Counter-Terrorism Officers’ Association, a unit of New York police officers formed after 9/11, and it featured an invective that could at best be called rabid; delivered by Muslim-turned-Christian Walid Shoebat who features in many of the training sessions, it went on to state how all Muslim men raped women and children and were pedophiles who were taught to kill people of other religions with a smile on their faces. The presentation was titled "The Jihadi Mindset and How to Defeat It: Why We Want to Kill You” and sought to negate the fact that Islam is a peaceful religion.

According to the author of the PRA report Thomas Cincotta, this kind of mental conditioning could spell disaster because it essentially conveyed the message that anyone who was a Muslim was a traitor and extremist. While it’s true that many terrorists follow extreme Islamic principles and methods, the converse is not always true – just because you’re a Muslim, it doesn’t give law enforcement the right to harass or persecute you. This is infringement of religious freedom, just as Tennessee is hoping to introduce a law that will ban the practice of the Islamic law Sharia which defines a way of life under the pretext that it breeds extremists and spawns terrorism.

By going to such extreme measures, we’re proving that we’re just as narrow-minded and bigoted as the few Muslims who hate the West and are bent upon wreaking havoc on any nation and its citizens who don’t follow Islam. We’re adopting their attitude and being indoctrinated into believing that all Muslims are terrorists and must be viewed with a jaundiced eye, just as extremists are raised to believe that the Western world is full of infidels who must be killed because they belong to a different faith.

When contacted, one of these training agencies, Security Solutions International (SSI) which is based out of Miami, responded to these allegations as those of “people who were politically motivated and out to weaken the anti-terrorism efforts of the country”. It’s all well and good to combat terrorism, but not with propaganda and vicious invective which is sure to harm and ruin innocent people just because they follow a certain way of life.

Update: More on this story from TPM Muckraker.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Weekly Wrangle

The Texas Progressive Alliance is still working on springing its clocks forward as it brings you this week's roundup.

Off the Kuff noted that in the days just before the Save Texas Schools rally, State Rep. Scott Hochberg filed a bill that made clear what the effects of cutting the public school budget would mean for local school districts.

Despite a strengthening progressive uprising, the Texas Democratic Party remains so feeble that it appears unable to capitalize on an open US Senate seat in 2012. That's why the nascent movement to draft Tommy Lee Jones to run keeps gaining steam, notes PDiddie at Brains and Eggs.

As thousands of Texans turned out on Saturday to "Save Texas Schools", WCNews at Eye On Williamson reminds us whose fault it is that Texas schools need saving -- and that their ruin has been the GOP's plan all along: Yes Governor Perry, it is your fault.

Letters From Texas poked fun at Bill O'Reilly for his claim that President Obama was the first African-American candidate for president, which is absolutely true if you ignore five or six other African-American candidates for president.

Libby Shaw at TexasKaos explains how Governor "It's not my fault" is going to cut care for Granny. Read all about it and then plan to attend the Day of Outrage event near you! See here for more.

Stace at DosCentavos also tells us about the big rally at the Texas Capitol. It's got pictures and everything!

CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme notes Dan Patrick is a woman-hating asshat without a sense of irony.

Neil at Texas Liberal noted the March 12, 2011 passing of his father. Tony Aquino was a combat veteran of the Korean War, an award-winning journalist, and a committed liberal. Tony would have wanted you to each day fight for a more fair and just society.

This week at McBlogger, Captain Kroc went to the Rally to Save Texas Schools and came away a little underwhelmed.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Funnies


The mess is here.

A sad yet brutal truth about our beloved Great State, the 17-year one-party Republican rule of it, and the state of the opposition. The Texas Tribune:

In recent weeks, an idea of Houston attorney Geoff Berg's turned into a Facebook page and then became a website that he hopes might spark a movement. The message: "Draft Tommy Lee Jones for Senate."

Berg, a left-leaning commentator and host of the radio show Partisan Gridlock on KPFT, says he is "absolutely serious."

"I can't think of another Democrat in Texas," Berg says, "that has the necessary name ID, that has positive name ID, that would be able to raise money, and that would have at least the potential to attract swing voters and a substantial number of Republicans."

Berg says he would "love" to see former Comptroller John Sharp or former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. The only problem, he says, "neither one of them can win, and I'm certain they know that."

As the Trib notes, Berg hosts "Partisan Gridlock" on Houston's KPFT radio and is accurately described as a political southpaw with a mostly low opinion of the Democrats in general and the Texas Democratic Party specifically. He floated this idea three weeks ago in his blog post at the Chron. Continuing with the Trib...

Assuming Berg's right, does that say more about Jones or the state of the Democratic Party? "It probably says a lot about both," Berg says, "and it also says a lot about the state of our politics."

So far, Berg does not believe the Republican field for 2012 is particularly inspiring either — but "whatever right-wing extremist they nominate is going to waltz right in if the Democrats don't have a credible candidate."

A legitimate Democratic star could change that, he believes. Think of it this way: the three-plus minute YouTube video former Republican Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert released after jumping in the race doesn't hold a candle to Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

To make this point, Berg recently released a YouTube video of his own:


Berg is, as usual, dead solid perfect in his analysis. The Texas Democratic Party is in the same shape as the California Republican Party: impotent, toothless, and all but extinct. There's lots of excited liberals and progressives throughout Texas -- just look at the rallies taking place yesterday and next Tuesday --  but the TDP has spectacularly weak management at the top, little money, less enthusiasm, and no improved prospects for the future. All that after seventeen years of 100% Republican rule at the statewide level, all nine SCOTX justices, and in the wake of the 2010 Red Tea Tide, near-supermajorities in the Texas House and Senate. The Texas Green Party achieved ballot status for 2012 based initially on the impotence of Boyd Richie failing to recruit a candidate to run for Comptroller in 2010, an inexcusable mistake (yet he continues to head the TDP to only the most perfunctory objection and with nothing but a handful of opposition).

Personally I support a Jones candidacy for all of these reasons, but deplore the Schwarzneggar-ization of American politics. The only way the CA GOP managed to get someone in the governor's office was to recruit a movie star, and he was of course an epic failure. Every time a famous person's name gets floated for office anywhere, it makes me cringe.

Still, seventeen years wandering in the desert is too long. It's past time for a saviour, and Jones will do until one gets here.

Austin's "Save Our Schools" rally draws thousands

That's correct, Big Jolly; thousands. And thousands.


Thousands of teachers, parents and students swarmed the state Capitol grounds Saturday to protest the sharp education cuts that Gov. Rick Perry and many Texas lawmakers are pushing to close a budget shortfall.

The rowdy but peaceful gathering, which organizers said numbered at least 11,000, focused on some simple messages: Don't abandon children. Don't lay off teachers. Don't increase class sizes. Don't cut music, theater and art classes.


Chau Tran, selected as Teacher of the Year in 2010 at her elementary school in Austin, told the crowd she learned recently that she might get laid off next year.
"I was stunned and devastated," she told the crowd. "I love teaching. It's my passion. We are not numbers, we are not positions. We are people."
Increasing class sizes, cutting programs and firings educators could be toxic to the state's future, Tran said.



Dalton Sherman, 12, a Dallas student whose talks about hope and opportunity have earned him a television spot on Oprah, drew frenzied applause.

"We need our teachers. We need books. We need classrooms. We also need music, art and culture. We need these things to feed our minds," Sherman told the crowd. "We are scared about our teachers and schools and our dreams."


Courtesy to Martha Griffin and Susan Bankston, from their Facebook profiles, for some of the above photos. See more pictures at The World's Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, and at the Statesman.

I reallly like it that BJ has only the weakest amount of snark available as a response. This indicates that conservatives are failing to recognize the strength of this progressive populist uprising ... just as we underestimated the wrath of the TeaBaggers.

Update: Eye on Williamson has another pic and some video.

Madison's "Tractorcade" protest refocuses WI outrage

Clogging the Wisconsin Capitol grounds and screaming angry chants, tens of thousands of undaunted pro-labor protesters descended on Madison again Saturday and vowed to focus on future elections now that contentious cuts to public worker union rights have become law.


"This is so not the end," said protester Judy Gump, a 45-year-old English teacher at Madison Memorial High School. "This is what makes people more determined and makes them dig in."


The day began with a morning "Farmer Labor Tractorcade" that circled (Wisconsin's Capitol) Square with antique tractors and farmers who led the chants of "Show me what democracy looks like!" and “Recall Walker!"


Early afternoon saw "Art Workers March Together", aka "The Blue Tape Brigade". Lavishly decorated in the type of tape used to affix posters to the Capitol’s wall, around 100 actors, painters, musicians and others marched from the Overture Center to the gathering on the Square, beating drums and carrying possibly the largest and most elaborately constructed palm tree yet.


Of course, the highlight of the day was unquestionably the return of the 14 Senate Democrats. An overflow crowd that packed the Square and several State Street blocks greeted the returning senators like celebrities, chanting: "Thank you! Thank you!" and "Welcome home!"

Update: Tractorcade, the video.

Let me remind you of something.

When it comes to nuclear incidents (and accidents) the owners of the facility, government officials, and media all lie. If they can't cover up an incident they will minimize it.

When a serious crisis such as we are seeing in Japan occurs, the danger is repeatedly mitigated.

We've seen this pattern for decades. Minor releases of radioactive material are covered up for years, if not forever. Major incidents such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are downplayed, sometimes to ludicrous extents, until the extent of the devastation simply can't be hidden anymore. And even afterward reports of the event mostly marginalize the damage and the scope. Proponents of nuclear power in the United States like to point to TMI and say that no deaths occurred, all the while ignoring the fact that there are cancer clusters surrounding the downwind side of TMI, one full of thyroid cancers and childhood leukemia.

We're seeing the same game being played out in Japan. Since the reactor building at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactor in Sendai, Japan exploded yesterday, the damage and worsening threat has been consistently underemphasized. Vague statements that were meant to be reassuring were issued, and all the buzz words were used. First we read that there was one reactor in danger, then two ... then five. Officials assured us that they could control the overheated core. Then we were told that a cloud of "slightly" radioactive steam was released. Radiation levels around the plant went up, then went down. All this while more and more people near the site were evacuated.

Since most people don't carry around a Geiger counter, officials feel that they can get away with minimizing the impact, and thus people nearest the accident are led to believe they can risk some amount of environmental exposure. Only later will we learn ("through the Internet" only, at first) that the damage, risks, and fallout -- literally as well as figuratively -- were much, much worse than anyone in charge disclosed. Since radiation poisoning only kills immediately with close exposure at dangerous levels, the plant and government officials will continue to say that all is well, nobody has died, the danger is over, etc. But radiation at low levels or exposure at a great distance over a long period can also kill. It just happens slowly, over a long period of time ... as in the next generation, even. Years after the incident, cancer clusters begin to pop up and people die prematurely.Particularly children.

Nuclear power has been shoved down the throats of the people in this world for the past sixty years despite the dangers, despite the threats, despite the fact that it is no longer by any reasonable measure an economical way to produce large amounts of electricity. A small group of powerful people have a vested monetary interest in continuing the nuclear path, and when disaster occurs they are able to exert their influence to put out the myths, spin the facts, and advance the lies and propaganda.

Don't fall for it. The evidence of nuclear's dangers are apparent in the cancer clusters of Pennsylvania. They are evident in a 2,800-square mile dead zone in Ukraine. And they are being played out for us now, on the eastern coast of Japan.

Update: This is what I'm talking about.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nuclear meltdown likely happening at Japanese reactor

A meltdown may be under way at one of Fukushima Daiichi's nuclear power reactors in northern Japan, an official with Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency told CNN Sunday.

"There is a possibility, we see the possibility of a meltdown," said Toshihiro Bannai, director of the agency's international affairs office, in a telephone interview from the agency's headquarters in Tokyo. "At this point, we have still not confirmed that there is an actual meltdown, but there is a possibility."

Though he said engineers have been unable to get close enough to the core to know what's going on, he based his conclusion on the fact that they measured radioactive cesium and radioactive iodine in the air Saturday night.

"What we have seen is only the slight indication from a monitoring post of cesium and iodine," he said. Since then, he said, plant officials have injected sea water and boron into the plant in an effort to cool its nuclear fuel.



The reported presence of Cesium 127 was disturbing, experts agreed, because it was evidence that the core had overheated, if only for a portion of time. The radioactive debris is produced when the core is exposed above the coolant water level and overheats. One of the other potential by-products of such overheating is hydrogen. Hydrogen is believed to be the cause of the blast at Fukushima.

How bad might it get? Bergeron says, "if the core does melt, then it will slump to the bottom of the reactor vessel, melt through to into the containment floor" which will lead to that safety measure to fail. "It's likely to spread like a molten pool to the edge of the steel shell and melt through." You could have containment failure in less than a day." Then the core would exposed to the external environment. In that worst-case scenario, the only thing that can be done is to entomb the melted core in sand and cement, much as was done in Chernobyl. Said Bergeron, "A lot of first responders will die."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japan: earthquake, tsunami, nuclear emergency


What's worse than an 8.9 earthquake -- the strongest ever recorded in that country -- and a tsunami estimated between 13 and 23 feet? A nuclear reactor emergency, that's what.

Update: Make that five. Five nuclear reactors in 'emergency' status.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

On the Turning Away

A nice essay I found here and republished below.

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won't understand
Don't accept that what's happening
Is just a case of others' suffering
Or you'll find that you're joining in
The turning away 


-- Pink Floyd

The people that each of us are comes as a result of so many different influences. There are literally thousands of things that occur in our lifetimes that define the type of person that we ultimately become and if you’re really lucky, you will continue to evolve and grow until the day that you take your last breath. Some things stand out however and lately the events of the world have me thinking about a very small incident over 40 years ago that made a big impression on me. It was Father’s Day and my family was at my grandfather’s house. He lived in a small working class industrial city that had seen better days, even back then.

It was hot and we were all in the backyard. My sisters and a couple of my cousins were splashing around in a wading pool and I was sitting at a picnic table with my dad, my uncle and my grandfather, who, at the time, wasn’t much older than I am now. (That’s a frightening thought that didn’t hit me until I started writing this.) We were listening to the Mets-Phillies game on the radio. I was a Yankee fan, but they were out in Oakland and didn’t play until 4 o’clock so I sucked it up and listened to the Mets. The adults were engaged in “grown-up talk” and I felt cool because I got to sit there and listen. Kind of out of the blue, my uncle commented to my grandfather that he should consider selling his house and moving out because “the blacks were taking over the neighborhood”.

Now I very rarely saw him get mad, but I could tell that my grandfather was pissed. He looked at my uncle and said, “You know, 30 years ago when I bought this house the people who lived on this block started selling their houses and moving out. They said the damn guineas are taking over the neighborhood. If I did the same thing now I wouldn’t be any better than those bastards.” He went on to explain that he liked the house, it was where he raised his kids, it was paid for, he could walk to work and my grandmother could walk to the supermarket. He added that he could walk three blocks to Main Street and catch a bus or a train to anywhere he wanted to go and it was a real nice street with lots of trees. He leaned across the table towards my uncle and said, “those people moving in here, they like living here for the same reasons I do.” In retrospect, I think it was even more remarkable for him to feel this way only two or three years after riots had torn apart so many American cities and racial tensions were still very high. I don’t remember the subject ever coming up again.

My grandfather never went to college. He never graduated high school. He worked from the time he was 15 until the day he died of a heart attack while he was at his job, still doing physical labor in his early 60’s. For all of his lack of a formal education, he was a very smart man with a sophisticated view of the world. I never really appreciated a lot of the stuff that he said to me until I was older and he was gone, but that day really stuck with me. As a kid you hear that and you say yeah, that makes sense. As an adult you realize that here was a guy who had felt the sting of prejudice and came to the conclusion that it ended with him. That rather than extend the cycle by turning on some other ethnic or racial group, he chose not to look at the world that way.

My sisters and I were thankfully raised in a very tolerant household. I had initially thought my dad’s attitudes came from growing up in a very integrated community and attending school and playing sports with all kinds of people. I’m sure that had a part in it but as I got older I realized that my grandfather set the tone while raising my dad. I hope that my wife and I have perpetuated this cycle in how we are raising our children. Actually, as I listen to the things that my kids say about a lot of different issues, I’m pretty sure that they will make good adults.

I felt compelled to write this today because I feel that we are at something of a crossroads in America. I have a vague uneasy feeling that we are engaged in some kind of end game strategy. There are people who wish to take advantage of our country’s economic conditions; to step in and take full and final control of the nation’s wealth and society for the benefit of a very small elite faction. The main tool that is being used is division. Creating the perception that the least among us are stealing from the rest of society and that they are the reason for our economic problems. It’s the poor. It’s the immigrants. It’s the union workers who get a better deal than you. It’s those damn teachers who are living on Easy Street. Never mind the ½ of 1% who earn as much as the bottom 50% of America. Never mind the Wall Street bankers who are back to earning record bonuses and complain about how difficult life is in this country for them. No, they are smart and deserve everything that they have. Amazingly, they earned every penny on their own with no help and no support from our societal structure.

Meanwhile our public education system is being set up to be dismantled, which will leave quality education as the province of the rich. NPR, where relatively unbiased information is disseminated, is set up for the chopping block. Unions, with their ability to level the playing field and promote basic benefits that allow working people to live decently, are demonized as parasites on society. Access to health care for everyone, a concept for turning America into a socialist county! Good health care is for those who can afford it. Invest in infrastructure? We just don't have the money for that. What we really need are tax cuts for the rich! The best part is that average working class people have been convinced through the use of “hatred of the other” to be the conduit for this takeover to be effected.

On one hand, this is downright depressing. I can just see us hurtling towards the abyss. One group turned against the other. Using the strategy of division to win the day. On the other hand, if a guy with a 10th grade education could figure out that hate and division was a dead end, maybe there is hope for us yet. I just don’t know.

No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
It's not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there'll be
No more turning away?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Save Texas Schools Rally this Saturday

I'm in. Are you?

Save Austin Schools

March: 11:00 a.m. starting at 12th & Trinity Rally: Noon-2:00 p.m. at State Capitol Bldg, 11th & Congress

Texas students are tough, but they've never faced a crisis like this. In communities across the state, the same grim headlines repeat: campus closures, teacher layoffs, deep cuts to core academic programs.

There is help for Texas students - IF our leaders have the courage to use it - and you can make a difference.

On Saturday, March 12th, join thousands of Texans for a march and rally at the State Capitol to send a clear message to our leaders:

* Make education a top priority!

* Use the $9.3 billion Texas "Rainy Day" Fund to support schools.

* Sign the paperwork for $830 million in federal aid for teachers.

* Fix school funding laws to be fair to all districts and to our growing student population.

Plan now to be part of this historic event! Talk to your family, friends, students, co-workers, teachers, neighbors, business leaders, members of your faith community and more. Ask them to join you in Austin on March 12th to show our leaders what matters to Texas.

Together, we can make a difference. Please stand up for Texas schools on March 12th at the State Capitol. Our future depends on it!