Archive for July, 2010

The Hot Dog: Symbol of Opportunity

Chalk it up to my formal preaching training, but I’m a sucker for a good illustration. Stories communicate on levels that other forms of data can’t reach. It’s one thing to theorize about freedom, opportunity and employment. It’s another to see those themes play out in real life.

Such narratives are even more powerful when they happen in one’s own midst.

Since taking my sons to swimming lessons at the Boerne City Pool for the last two weeks, I’ve noticed the concessionaires who staff the pool snack bar.

Between belly flops and low dives and motor boat rides, I finally had a chance to inquire about their story. It turns out to be an extraordinary one.

Tony and Roxana Santiago moved to Boerne from Puerto Rico two years ago. They live with their four kids and one dog in a three bedroom apartment on the north end of town.

In their native Puerto Rico, they worked in the motion picture industry: he as an animal handler, she as a camera assistant.

Unbeknownst to me, quite a few movies are made in Puerto Rico because the territory has favorable tax incentives for film production. Between movie shoots, the Santiagos also ran a family hardware store.

But Puerto Rico’s public schools did not pass the test for the Santiagos’ children and private school for four was becoming too expensive. So they took a leap of faith to experience a place Tony’s brother talked so much about: Boerne.

They came with next to nothing and did what more than a few immigrants have done over the years in our nation’s most legendary cities: They bought a hot dog stand.

The Santiagos set up shop on North Main Street in front of Hill Country Animal League. They refer to it as their “winter location.” They serve their hot dogs with a twist: onions grilled with an original Puerto Rican seasoning.

This summer Boerne Parks Manager Ed Puente asked the Santiagos to service the city pool concession stand. They committed to being open every hour the pool is and are careful to meet the parks department’s expectations.

As a result, they hope other opportunities will come their way. I suspect they will.

The Santiago children help with the stand. One is only old enough to splash in the pool and sample the snacks. Another assists with taking orders and making change.

All, like their parents, have contagious smiles. All, like their parents, are contributing to a better Boerne and a better America.

One family member I have not met is he for whom the hot dog stand is named: the Santiagos’ dog, Zuko.

You won’t be surprised by Zuko’s breed. He’s a Dachsund. That’s right. He’s a wiener dog.

Who Needs Lower Taxes?

President Obama remarked in his weekly radio address Saturday that he does not want to continue the Bush “tax breaks for folks at the top who don’t need them.”

Unintentionally, he makes a good point. “Folks at the top” may not necessarily “need” tax breaks. But folks at the bottom need folks at the top to have them!

“Folks at the top” are business owners, investors and job creators. If taxes go up, they don’t trim their profit margin. They trim their overhead.

And what’s the biggest part of overhead for most businesses? Payroll; i.e., jobs. Tax folks at the top and watch folks at the bottom get laid off.

The president and his Democrat allies see things differently. They think more unemployment checks will help people get through the downturn.

In actuality, people will get through the slowdown when they find work. And people will most likely find work when their unemployment checks run out. It’s basic economics, not to mention basic parenting.

Perhaps Mr. Obama wants a slow recovery in order to build a case for a European-style value added tax (VAT). If economic growth remains low and government spending remains high, he can argue we have nowhere else to turn.

From last year’s gargantuan stimulus bill that garnered no bi-partisan support to the ramming through of the health care bill this year with fewer than 60 Senate votes, the president’s pen hasn’t seen a trillion-dollar spending bill it hasn’t liked.

It also hasn’t seen a 2,000-plus page bill it hasn’t liked.

The massive financial reform bill signed into law this week may not initially be the spending behemoth that the stimulus and health care bills were, but it does create layers of bureaucracy that will ultimately demand significant resources.

So, the spending’s been done. The next step is paying for it. That’s where the argument for a “reformed” tax structure comes in. The president will sell the VAT as a more sophisticated, modern system, but wealth redistribution is nothing new.

And don’t think Congressional Democrats will lower income taxes as a trade-off. That would defeat their purpose of net growth in government control/spending.

The underlying theme is this: You can’t be trusted with your own money. You aren’t capable of caring for your health, educating your children or planning for your golden years.

Henceforth, the Obama administration will contradict proven economic theory in order to assist you.

Mr. Obama’s own chief economic advisor, Christina Romer, wrote in the most recent American Economic Review that “tax increases are highly contractionary . . . tax cuts have very large and persistent positive output effects.”

No matter. Raising taxes is the merciful thing to do. You may not have decent-paying, private sector employment in the years ahead, but your government will soften the blow and blunt your misery.

With centralized health care, stimulus-funded civil service jobs and unemployment benefits, your federal government will add years to your life. It just won’t add life to your years.

Trail Trials

More than three years have passed since we citizens of Boerne passed a bond package that included a $2 million network of hike and bike trails.

It was an ambitious vision that you might expect to take some time to implement, especially with TXDOT involved. (TXDOT has to approve the places where a trail crosses one of its highways.)

But you also might expect at least a shovel of dirt to have been turned by now. Unfortunately, not even a gold-plated ceremonial trowel has turned. And a dollar buys less trail with every passing day.

Rarely does an issue come along that garners support across the political spectrum. Hike and bike trails are such a topic. They have something for everyone: the greenie that wants a more petroleum-free, walkable city; the Main Street business owner who wants more drop-in traffic; the family looking for a safe place to exercise.

Pedestrian trails increase property values. For proof, see before and after photos of the neighborhoods bisected by Dallas’ Katy Trail. Explore why master-planned community
The Woodlands north of Houston has a 160 miles of paths. People want them.

Roads are more congested and autos travel faster than they once did. A 9-year-old on a bike can’t have free reign on Main Street today like he could fifty years ago.

We would be wise to retrofit our city to meet the demand and the times.

Has this case not already been made? Yes and no. City staff and the Quality of Life Bond Committee successfully persuaded voters in 2007.

But some property owners along the proposed trail routes need additional encouragement: specifically, along the east bank of Cibolo Creek west of Main Street; and along Curry Creek from Adler Road to Rosewood Avenue.

The city has been trying for more than a year to acquire rights of way from these owners. The sooner it does, the sooner everyone’s property value and quality of life increases, especially those with the nearest access to the $2 million-plus community asset.

As the process inches along, I hope the landscape architects are also remembering that the goal is functional trails through existing natural landscape, not costly pristine masterpieces. The bond funding won’t get us to the finish line if they don’t.

Imagine a day when you can brunch at Bear Moon, hike the Cibolo Nature Center, swim the city pool, feed the ducks, and cool down with a snow cone at Main Plaza, all without starting your car or endangering your life!

Imagine biking from Oak Knoll or English Oaks to City Park for your kid’s soccer game or tennis match and then stopping for a latte and a thriller from the new library on the way home.

The Hill Country Council for the Arts is already imagining public art sculptures throughout the trail network.  

Former Mayor Patrick Heath and city leaders had the foresight to pursue the network’s spine a decade ago. The Old No. 9 Trail continues to be one of Boerne’s most unique features. Without growing branches though, the stem will never reach its potential. Neither will our city.

The Rolling of a General’s Head

President Obama recently relieved General Stanley McChrystal of his duties leading the international security forces in Afghanistan. The quasi-firing came on the heels of a Rolling Stones magazine article that offered a somewhat unfiltered look into McChrystal’s inner circle.

What a world we live in where an envelope-pushing pub can affect assignments at the highest levels of leadership in the world’s most powerful military. The new chain of military command: President – Defense Secretary – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs – Rolling Stones.

Without doubt, there is plenty of fault to be shared in this episode. McChrystal, his aides, even the embedded reporter should have been more careful with their words. But I can’t help but wish the man at the top of the food chain would have responded with more engaged vigor. I wish he had had the gumption to fight fire with fire.

Rather than elevating the influence of the fringe press, what if he had, in so many words, told McChrystal to stick it and get back to work. Since Mr. Obama has found an inclination for cursing of late, perhaps a profanity-laced tirade was in order. An Oval Office push-up session? A trip to Camp David? There must be an old woodshed out there somewhere.  

Any of these would have shown some actual toughness among the civilian brass. It would have been a statement that a few 7th grade cut-downs won’t commence a game of military musical chairs.

Instead, we got a Rose Garden press conference complete with more sleepy speak about applying pressure to the Taliban and dismantling al Qaeda.

McChrystal was arguably proficient in battling insurgents in part because he once was one. His rebellious West Point record is Exhibit A. Of course he and his comrades think the Pentagon is full of pip squeaks and the White House is full of wimps! McChrystal & Co. were on the front lines. The DC wonks reside in the ultimate green zone where war remains somewhat academic.

I’m not condoning insubordination. Respect for authority has its high place. But don’t you want confidence bordering on arrogance from the people tasked with ridding the world of the most carelessly violent beings since Nazism?

Mr. Obama’s response was indicative of an administration desperately soft on our enemies and bewilderingly critical of our friends.

Considering Mr. Obama’s nuanced-ness, it’s a surprising shame that he couldn’t see through the macho remarks to the burning passion beneath. I wish he had demonstrated that leadership is not throwing babies out with bath water but re-directing high-potential subordinates back to the narrow way.

Too, perhaps Mr. Obama was just as alarmed by McChrystal’s rabid commitment to destroying the enemy as he was by the general’s thoughts about the national security advisor. McChrystal did speak with a certain certainty unheard of since a particular Texan exited the White House. That’s not exactly BO’s MO.

Washington, District of Construction

While reading highlights of the near-finished Congressional reform of the U.S. financial services industry, I was reminded of two things. First, the 2009 United Van Lines migration report that listed Washington, D.C., as having the highest in-bound percentage of any “state” in the nation (i.e., people moving in versus moving out).

Second, a friend’s telling me after his recent trip to D.C. that he has never seen so many cranes on active building projects. While the troops suffer on the economic front lines, the commanders live in luxury. Not exactly the George Washington way. If the pending financial overhaul bill gets final approval, it will only get worse.

The 2,300-page bill couldn’t be more foreign to nearly all Americans. Derivatives, hedge funds, default swaps, proprietary trading, Tier 1 capital…the terms are mind-numbing to anyone whose only Wall Street experience came on a double-decker tour bus.

I’m in a financial job and the bill summary I read might as well have been the tutorial my mechanic gave me on how to replace my car’s instrument panel.

For those who know, the consensus is that the bill could have been worse on financial institutions. Moderate Democrats, especially those representing New York, kept the extreme, “let no crisis go to waste” crowd in check.

Big banks will live to see another day, though they will have to get creative to replace lost revenue sources. “Free Checking” may soon become “Cheap Checking.”

When lawmakers lack the political courage to eliminate something altogether (or let it alone completely), they often institute rules of engagement that some regulator has to enforce, a labor-intensive proposition. It’s cheaper to police a driving ban than to enforce speed limits.

Speed limits are what Congress has largely done here with many additional registering, reporting and oversight requirements. According to Timothy Ryan of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the reform bill has 200 some-odd items whose details must be fleshed out by regulators even before they can be enforced.

The bill creates some regulatory agencies from scratch (e.g., the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a “systemic risk council”) and loads up others with more things to track (e.g., the Federal Reserve and the SEC). Unfortunately and mysteriously, the bill fails to address Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two principal players in the recent housing bubble and collapse.

Under the bill, firms can keep investing in hedge and private equity funds but only with so much of their capital. Banks can continue to securitize mortgages, but they must keep a certain percentage of them on their own books.

I’m not opposed to such measures. Federally-insured banks should have limitations on their investing. Securitizers should have skin in the game.

I just wish that for every new regulation Congress passes it would find an old regulation (and an old regulator!) to eliminate. Then, the represented would gain confidence that their government is changing with the times, not merely piling on rules.

Then, moving trucks and construction cranes may appear in a city near you, not just in the District of Construction.

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