What matters in Texas?

Has Texas really sunk that low?  Is vaccinating the Lone Star State against the scourge of Sharia law really more important than addressing our education, transportation, and water needs?  Apparently so.  I didn’t know this until recently, but the Texas Legislature failed to pass a law last session prohibiting the application of Sharia law in this great State.  Our current Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, trailing in the polls against red-meat conservative state Senator Dan Patrick, felt the need to defend himself in their recent debate face-off for failing to shepherd through the Texas Senate a bill to prohibit the application of Sharia law in the Texas courts.  The Lite Guv contended he supported this measure “101 percent” and promised to appoint a new Committee chair next session in order to guarantee that Texans are not threatened with Sharia law anytime soon.

Yes, it’s true—S.B. 1639 was actually sponsored by Sen. John Carona, the chair of the Texas Senate Business and Commerce Committee, but it died in committee.  It died because, among other things, some of our legislators woke up long enough to realize that never, ever in Texas’s history had Texas courts deferred to Sharia law, and the need for this extra ounce of prevention seemed remote.  Ironically, Sen. Carona’s 100 percent true-to-Texas hostility to Islamic jihadist influence was apparently at least 1 percent short.  Carona lost his re-election bid in the Republican primary to an allegedly more-conservative candidate.  Now, regardless of whether Dewhurst or Patrick (or, heavens, the Democratic nominee Leticia Van de Putte) wins, the Business and Commerce Committee will have a new chair in the next session.

The wonder is not that there are one-off loonies in Texas who promote such legislation; the wonder is that people who know better are forced to pretend to support looniness or risk losing.  Witness Dewhurst, who will probably lose the runoff election anyway.  What if he had just said, “This is asinine.  We have better things to do than worry about Sharia law suddenly infecting our courts.  This is all of a part of my opponent’s general wackiness, including his concern that illegal immigants are introducing leprosy into Texas.  We need to focus on keeping the ‘Texas Miracle’ in place – which means meeting our education, water and and transportation needs for the next 10, 20 or 50 years.  Anyone who doesn’t focus on the important issues is hurting Texas.  Badly.”

I guess I’ll never be hired as a speechwriter, at least not by a Texas Republican.  Because I cannot find a single Texas GOP officeholder or candidate who talks that way.  That includes Dewhurst, whose nod to education in late January was to opine that, when one takes into account the cost of living, “we are paying our teachers a very fair salary.”  Not true.  Texas teachers are paid, on average, about 87% of the national average.  Even taking into account Texas’ lower overall cost of living, we would have to give every teacher in the state a 10% pay raise just to hit the national average.  Even more shocking, and even after the Legislature partially restored funding cuts from two years earlier, a widely-publicized study by the National Education Agency reckons that Texas spends $8998 per student, a 5 percent decrease from per-student funding of $9,462 in 2010-11. Yes, we all know that throwing more money at something doesn’t necessarily solve it.  But we’re spending less, not more. And that’s in a state which is flush economically.  We are raising a whole generation of children – not just in the Rio Grande Valley, but in the cities and towns throughout the State –   who are less literate than their peers in other states.  Burger flippers, yes.  Rocket scientists, not so much.

The same dearth of leadership is evident with respect to our critical water problems.  One statewide officeholder who touched on our water problems in a serious way is retiring from public office.  Susan Combs wisely decided that even a West Texas rancher was not conservative enough to win again, but in January she pointed out that Texas is facing a long-term water emergency.  (Yes, “emergency” is the word we normally apply to short-term problems, but here, it applies to both.)  Too bad the candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor haven’t taken note.  Abortion is much more important.  For example, in an interview on WOAI 1200 a few months ago, our current Attorney General (and still heavy favorite to be our next Governor) Greg Abbott spent more airtime on abortion and voter ID than these important issues.  Even though his friendly interviewer tried to ask him about water issues, Abbott’s spiel was focused on pointing out that we shouldn’t use the Rainy Day fund to solve our water problems.  OK, then, but what did he propose?  Nothing.

Perhaps we’re being unfair, and Attorney General Abbott really is interested in education, transportation and water, but that interview was just too short to get to the important stuff?  Nope.   Check out http://www.gregabbott.com/issues/, where the candidate for Texas’s highest office lists key issues.  None of these three make the top 10.  They’re not even listed!  What’s the No. 1 issue?  You guessed it – ObamaCare.  What’s No. 2? – the Second Amendment.  You cannot find anything on education, water, or transportation.  (I guess we should be grateful that stopping human trafficking made it to tenth place.)

As for Sen. Patrick, who is widely anticipated to beat Dewhurst in the GOP primary runoff for Lieutenant Governor, his contribution on education seems to be an effort to re-work something called CSCOPE.  The details of this are fairly arcane, but Sen. Patrick seems to think that CSCOPE was a thinly-veiled effort to indoctrinate children into a left-wing, fifth-column agenda right under the noses of God-fearing Texas parents.  OK, once again, we know what he’s against, but what is Sen. Patrick for?  When asked by the Collin County Conservative Republicans “what do you want to accomplish?”, this is what he said:

“There are many conservative issues that I will take action on that have not passed in the last decade. I will pass legislation to secure the border, end magnets that draw illegals to cross our border, pass school choice, lower property taxes, repeal or reform the franchise tax, pass campus carry, protect life and marriage, reduce transportation debt, end the diversions from dedicated taxes and fees to other areas of spending, reduce the 21 vote rule to 19 and not appoint half the Democrats to be Chairs of Committees as has been the long practice.”

So the border is No. 1 and No. 2.  What refreshing candor.  Also, we can at least credit Sen. Patrick for being aware that education and transportation are issues, although it’s hard to tell what he is proposing to improve education, a labor-intensive industry where recruiting and retaining good teachers is critical, and even harder to tell just what more “school choice” will do for students if all the schools are underfunded.  It is also hard to tell just how lowering property taxes and reducing transportation debt will do anything about fixing our roads.  As for what Sen. Patrick “hopes to accomplish” in dealing with our water crisis, he offers – nothing.

The bottom line is that we Texans are enjoying good times, right here, right now, but if we don’t spend some money while we’re flush on upgrading our education system, providing for our water needs, and building and maintaining roads, that miracle will become a mirage in the rearview mirror.  Ronald Reagan (who by today’s standards would be condemned as a backsliding liberal) spent more money on California’s system of higher education than anyone, and California is reaping the benefits even now, all under a Governor once called “Moonbeam.”   Laugh all you want about those kooks in Cali, but they are better positioned for the 21st century than we are, by a long shot.

Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown qualify as hardheaded realists; Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick are hardheaded ideologues.   We are about to digest the bitter fruits of their willful ignorance.  But at least it won’t be under Sharia law.

Cheating the poor

I am sure that Treasury Secretary Lew and President Obama are serious about raiding retirement plans that are “too big”, and discouraging “the wealthy” from avoiding taxes by saving. (Nevermind that the contributions and any accumulated increases will be taxed eventually anyway when withdrawn.) This latest initiative to discourage large savings means that many “average hard-working Americans” allegedly so beloved by the Citicorp alum and the President will be significantly harmed by these purported guardian angels. Many firms have plans that include significant matching contributions into the employees’ retirement plans. Some or all of that match is required in order for the bosses – a/k/a “the wealthy” a/k/a “the 1%” — to max out their contributions. Many firms match dollar-for-dollar the first 4% of contributions by the employees. So a $40,000 per year employee who puts $1,600 into a retirement plan doubles his or her retirement plan balance overnight.
Once the existing rules are thrown out and all promises are retracted, the bosses will stop contributing for themselves, and the matching contributions to their average hard-working employees will disappear.
Am I wrong?

Simpson-Bowles, you fools!

The sequester is an issue only because the President has consciously refused, throughout his four years in office, to propose any entitlement reforms.  Can anyone name a single entitlement reform that President Obama has specifically advocated, in public, and made even a token effort to implement?  (Please, don’t count the phantom savings that we will never see from purported healthcare reforms.  Even the most ardent apologists concede that the short-term truth is clearly the opposite.)

Since nearly 60% of the budget is off limits, the sequester hits even harder.  And the President has compounded the folly by making no effort to direct these cuts at non-essential services, instead preferring that they fall on the most useful ones, thereby wreaking maximum inconvenience on ordinary citizens.  Can it really be that the cuts at the TSA need to be at the airport scanning personnel level?  We couldn’t make a few cuts at the handbook-writing, convention-planning level?

Can it really be true that the President and Congress cannot find 6 percent savings in all discretionary spending by a Government that expands nearly that much year after year?  Or, to be more rational about it, that we cannot find 2.5% savings across the entire budget, or just half of the annual increase?

What we have seen, and is still playing out now, is politics, not responsible public policy.  The sad thing about this is that it’s not even good politics.  Had the President gone to the American people in late 2009 and, to steal a quote, asked everyone to “eat our peas” — by adopting Simpson-Bowles or something very close to it – the country would have begun a real economic recovery, and he would have been easily re-elected in 2012, with a higher percentage of the popular vote, not to mention avoiding the disastrous 2010 Tea Party takeover of the House.

It’s still not too late.

Simple explanation–why there aren’t more jobs

Let’s put this in terms that even an economics professor can understand:

Why is the recovery so anemic? Why is the employment-labor force ratio hovering around 58 ½ percent, instead of 62 ½ percent as it was until around 2008? In other words, why are we 9 or 10 million jobs behind where we should be if the same proportion of the workforce were employed as was normal until just 5 years ago? Why is it that, despite the Fed giving away money and loans available at the lowest rates in history, companies are not taking risks or expanding jobs here?

Back in late 2008 and early 2009, in an economic hailstorm, when the job creators in the private sector hunkered down awaiting the initiatives of the incoming Obama Administration, they expected tangible steps to jumpstart the private economy. After all, that’s where jobs are created. What did they get? The Administration’s first priority was health care reform that created immense uncertainty that lasts to this day – excepting only the absolute certainty that labor costs would increase. Added to that were new reporting and compliance costs in other areas of endeavor, so that enterprises could “prove” to the government’s satisfaction that they were not violating various laws and regulations. Added to that were measures that gave preferences to our most inefficient industries, whether in the form of wealth transfers from shareholders and investors to the ossified automobile industry, or from all taxpayers to the incredibly inefficient solar and wind industries peopled with Administration cronies. And did we forget the stimulus package trumpeted as “infrastructure” that was no such thing? To top that off, the President dished out some serious demagoguery over the airwaves against “wealthy fatcats” – never mind that milllions of small business owners qualify as “the wealthy” in his lexicon.

Despite incredibly low interest rates, the risk-takers aren’t buying. If you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 concern, are you going to gear up to hire more Americans and suffer more mandates – not just the ones you know about, but the ones you cannot yet imagine? Not likely.  The Fortune 500 companies aren’t borrowing, and if they are, they are acting rationally by investing overseas. And they are sitting on wads of cash, much of which they cannot even repatriate to the U.S. in the form of dividends to U.S. shareholders. If you are the owner of a small company, are you going to take risks by expanding?  No, your first priority is to cut overhead, not increase it; your second priority is to stay under the 50-employee limit so you don’t run into the Affordable Care Act.

There, does that explain it?

After four years, it’s time — at long last, and having been safely re-elected – for the President to own the consequences of his foolhardiness and (we hope) to chart a new path.  Who’ll give odds on that?