Mike Kueber's Blog

June 30, 2010

World’s greatest workout regimen for an average 56-year-old retiree

Filed under: Fitness — Mike Kueber @ 8:39 pm

A recent magazine article described student athletes who are in great condition until they complete their schooling.  Then, without the discipline and structure provided by coaches, they quickly go to seed.  I was fortunate to be surrounded by active friends, so when my time for high school athletics expired, I was able to continue with semi-organized activities, like intra-mural college sports and independent softball, and pick-up games of basketball, tennis, and golf.  Later, when group activities became more difficult to coordinate, I shifted to solitary sports, like biking, running, swimming, and lifting weights. 

But it is never too late to develop a workout regiment that fits your lifestyle and your body.  Based on my many years of experience, I have developed the world’s greatest workout regimen for an average 56-year-old retiree:

  • Biking.  Biking is the cornerstone to a workout regimen because (a) it is low-impact, and (b) you can do it for long periods of time without getting exhausted or bored.  I’ve tried stationary bikes, but find it difficult to stay on a stationary bike for an hour without getting bored.  So find an outdoor route of about 15-20 miles, which will take a bit more than an hour to complete (and burn 600 calories).  Ideally, the route should be hilly and avoid most car traffic.  Fortunately, I live on the edge of San Antonio and on the edge of the Texas Hill Country, so I have a plethora of excellent routes. 
  • Swimming.  Swimming is an excellent complement to biking.  Both activities are low-impact, but most people (non-expert swimmers) find swimming to be an intense, intermittent activity as compared to a long, steady bike ride.  Most people swim about 25 to 100 yards before needing a rest.  After a rest of a minute or two, they are ready to go again.  I suggest 10 repetitions, which will take about 20-30 minutes.  This is perfect interval training, which most experts recommend.
  • Lifting weights.  Lifting weights is necessary to put some muscle on your bones.  In the past, experts have recommended that you lift every other day or shift daily between different muscle groups.  They also recommended at least two, and even three or four sets for each exercise.  I have found that it is better for long-term maintenance of muscle (as opposed to building muscle) to do a single set with a full complement of exercises each day.  I do the following 12 exercises most days; they should take about 30 minutes to complete.   The rule of thumb for determining the amount of weight is – if you can’t do six repetitions, the weight is too heavy; if you can do more than 15 repetitions, the weight is too light:
    1. Bench press (chest);
    2. Military press (shoulders);
    3. Pectoral fly (pecs);
    4. Rear deltoid (back shoulders);
    5. Row (back);
    6. Pull down (back shoulders);
    7. Torso twist (waist);
    8. Bicep curl (biceps);
    9. Triceps (triceps);
    10. Abs (abs);
    11. Back straightener (lower back); and
    12. Hang from bar (stretch ligaments). 
  • Yoga.  My fitness club offers almost 20 one-hour yoga practices a week.  The practice styles include athletic yoga, sculpting yoga, hatha yoga, athletic yoga, hot yoga, vinyasa levels 1, 2, or 3, and yoga & meditation.  All of these yoga practices strive to improve your flexibility, strength, balance, and mood. 

I try to do the biking, swimming, and lifting almost every day.  And, depending on my schedule and energy, I usually participate in 2-6 yoga practices a week.  Combined, this regimen gives endurance from the biking, intense interval training from the swimming, and muscles from the lifting.  Yoga ties it all together. 

I admit that this world’s best regimen is missing one important item – reflexes and quickness.  For many years, I used to play basketball at noon at USAA.  Going against another person, man-to-man, in a game of basketball helps keep your reflexes and quickness.  I always felt that, if I ever got into a fight downtown, my basketball playing would help me a lot more than my biking or weightlifting.  Fortunately, I never got into that fight, so I never needed to call on cat-like reflexes.  Now I’ve given up basketball because my body can’t stand up to the pounding, and let’s hope I don’t have to call on my slowing reflexes some night downtown. 

As Clint Eastwood said in one of his Dirty Harry movies (Magnum Force), “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

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June 29, 2010

Gun control and the 2nd Amendment after the Chicago decision

 Earlier today, the Supreme Court in McDonald v. Chicago held that the right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment applied to state and local governments.  Two years earlier, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court had applied the right to bear arms against the federal government.  Both decisions involved a law that prohibited the possession of a handgun in an individual’s home, and the Court warned that less draconian restrictions on firearms would not violate the 2nd amendment:

  • “… the right to keep and bear arms is not a right to keep and bear any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.  We made it clear in Heller that our holding did not cast doubt on such longstanding regulatory measures as prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms….  Despite municipal respondents’ doomsday proclamations, incorporation does not imperil every law regulating firearms.”

The Court acknowledged that this decision will result in extensive and costly litigation to identify restrictions that are constitutionally permissible.  Although Chicago was one of the few cities in America to prohibit possession of a handgun in a home, many cities like New York City have laws that prevent most people from carrying concealed handguns outside the home, and those laws will be challenged.  There will also be challenges over laws that limit the permissible locations for carrying a firearm.

I expect the Right to Bear Arms will be litigated like abortion for years to come, with opponents pushing and probing to learn how far the courts will let them go.

June 28, 2010

Citizens United and the DISCLOSE Act

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 7:45 pm
Tags: , , ,

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional to prohibit a corporation from placing political ads in the last months of a campaign.  Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  Although this holding seems a reasonable application of the First Amendment’s right of free speech, the Democratic Party went apoplectic.  President Obama went so far as to criticize the decision in his State of the Union speech in front of the Supreme Court justices.  (It takes a lot of chutzpah for a former part-time law professor to think he understands the Constitution better than the Supreme Court.) 

During my congressional campaign, we candidates were sometimes asked to provide an opinion on Citizens United, and as constitutional conservatives we uniformly took a position in favor of freedom of speech under the First Amendment.  I also opined in favor of something I had learned from columnist George Will many years earlier – no limits, but full disclosure.

The Democratic Party is now proposing a legislative fix to the Citizen United decision.  Their fix is a bill called Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections, or DISCLOSE.  According to the sponsors, the act will:

  1. Enhance disclaimers (notice on the ads);
  2. Enhance disclosures (reporting expenditures to FEC);
  3. Shareholder/member disclosure;
  4. Provide the lowest unit rate for candidates and parties;
  5. Tighten coordination rules (no coordination with candidates);
  6. Prevent government contractors from spending; and
  7. Prevent foreign influence.

The first three objectives of the DISCLOSE bill focus on improving disclosure, so that is a good thing.  The next two points deal with some logistical issues – rates and coordination.  Again, no problem.  But the final two points are problematic because they attempt to prohibit certain groups from exercising their free speech – foreigners and government contractors.  Whereas the prohibition against foreigners makes sense because their involvement would complicate elections and is probably not constitutionally protected, the prohibition against government contractors would apply to a large number of American businesses, and their involvement may be constitutionally protected under Citizens United.  The Supreme Court will ultimately decide this.

The San Antonio Express-News wrote an editorial today on DISCLOSE, and its only criticism was that a recent amendment had exempted from the disclosure requirements any organization that had been in existence for at least ten years and had at least a million members – e.g., the NAACP, AARP, and the NRA. http://www.mysanantonio.com/opinion/dont_weaken_disclosure_effort_97188014.html.   I have been unable to find a reasonable explanation for these exemptions other than political muscle, so the E-N criticism appears well-founded. 

I find it ironic, however, that the E-N appears to be such a strong supporter of campaign-financing disclosure.  During my congressional campaign, I used existing disclosure laws to learn that two of my primary opponents had obtained large amounts of money from out-of-district sources, yet when I presented this information to the E-N, they ignored it.   

Disclosure laws don’t do any good if the public is not provided the information.  And without the help of the free media, only candidates corrupted by campaign financing will have the money to communicate with the voters.

June 27, 2010

Welfare and our country’s safety net

Back when I was a kid, there was a federal department called HEW – Health, Education, and Welfare.  But because Americans prided themselves on self-reliance, there was a stigma associated with welfare, and to avoid this stigma, “welfare” was euphemistically changed in 1979 to “human services.”     

A more recent example of the welfare stigma occurred in a New York Times article reporting that many people were reluctant to accept food stamps because they considered the stamps to be welfare.  (Incredibly, the article suggested that these people were mistaken and that food stamps were not welfare.  See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/11/us/11foodstamps.html.)  In 2008, the government’s food-stamp solution was the same as its welfare solution in 1979 – i.e., change the stigmatized name of the Food Stamp Program (it’s been around since 1962) to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.    

These anecdotes reveal at least two points:

  • If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it probably is a duck.  Welfare means government assistance to people in need.  I responded to the NYT article by asking the author why food stamps were not welfare, but never received a response.  If anyone can distinguish food stamps from welfare, I would like to hear it. 
  • Despite government efforts to de-stigmatize welfare, most Americans continue to prefer self-reliance.  There are currently 40 million Americans receiving food stamps, but according to the most recent government statistics, only 66% of those SNAP-eligible actually receive the benefits – ranging from 100% in Missouri to 47% in Wyoming, with Texas near the bottom with 55%.  The participation rate for the working poor who are SNAP-eligible is even lower at 56% – ranging from 100% in Missouri to 33% in California, with Texas again near the bottom with 47%.  The state and federal governments see this as a problem and are trying to increase their participation by running ads on TV telling people that they may be entitled to food stamps even if they have a car or a job.  And they are again re-attacking the stigma by issuing benefits through new debit-like plastic cards instead of stamps. 

To be eligible for food stamps, a person or family can have income up to $14,000 for an individual and $29,000 for a family of four.  (This is 130% of the poverty rate.)  Should the government spend money encouraging all eligibles to apply for the benefit?  This is not an easy question.  As a country, you want your citizens to be self-reliant, and that involves being uncomfortable when dependent on welfare.  The irony is that the people most affected by the stigma of welfare are those most deserving of the benefits.  For that reason, I come down on the side of those who think it is appropriate for the government to de-stigmatize SNAP. 

But de-stigmatizing welfare is not the same thing as making it so generous that individuals lose their incentive to be self-reliant.  That is one of my major complaints about ObamaCare.  It contains a provision that requires subsidized policies to contain coverage that is comparable to the average employer group plan:

  •  “The Secretary shall ensure that the scope of the essential health benefits under paragraph (1) is equal to the scope of benefits provided under a typical employer plan, as determined by the Secretary.”  Section 1302(b)(2)(A).

Employer group plans are generally accepted as the Cadillacs of insurance policies, and because of ObamaCare there will be Cadillac-like health insurance for everybody.  That’s reminiscent of Herbert Hoover’s campaign slogan, “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”  Furthermore, ObamaCare provides for government subsidization of premium for individuals with income up to 400% of the poverty rate ($88,200 for a family of four).  Extending welfare to the middle class exacerbates the danger that eventually there will be a majority of the voters who receive more from the government than they pay in. 

When I ran for Congress, I argued that America was ready for expanding its safety net to include universal health insurance, but I didn’t expect Obama to put a Cadillac in everyone’s garage.  Cadillac health insurance for all may be achievable in Utopia, but it is a prescription for disaster in our current economy.

June 26, 2010

Eric Balderas and the Dream Act

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 12:19 am
Tags: , ,

Eric Balderas is a San Antonio kid who graduated as valedictorian of his high school in 2009 and attended Harvard on a scholarship.  A few weeks ago, when Eric attempted to board a plane in San Antonio, an immigration officer determined that Eric was an illegal immigrant from Mexico.  In fact, Eric had been living illegally in Texas with his illegal-immigrant parents since he was four years old. 

Although immigration officials quickly started the process to deport Eric, they announced this past weekend that they would indefinitely suspend deportation.  This means that Eric should be able to finish college, but it is not clear whether he will ultimately have a path to citizenship.  There is a bill in Congress, however, that will provide such a path.  The bill is called the Dream Act.

Dream means Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors.  The Dream Act, which was first introduced in 2001, provides a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who:

  • Are between 12- and 35-years old and have been in the U.S. for at least five years when the law is enacted;
  • Entered the U.S. when they were 15-years old or younger; and
  • Have graduated from an American high school or obtained a GED.

The Act authorizes qualified illegal immigrants to remain in America with Conditional Permanent Residency if they go to college or one of the military services for two years.  (Inexplicably, the Act gives a person six years to accomplish these two-year goals.)  For those who have not graduated from high school, the Act authorizes them to remain in America if they continue attending high school until they become eligible for the Conditional Permanent Residency described above.

Bi-partisan support for the Act is growing, and 52 Senators voted in favor of it in 2007.  Opponents make two arguments:

  • Some label the Dream Act as amnesty that will only encourage further illegal immigration.
  • Others say the Dream Act, though worthy legislation, should only be enacted as part of a comprehensive immigration reform.

I appreciate both arguments.  Regarding the anti-amnesty position, it’s easy to argue that people shouldn’t benefit from their illegal act.  Regarding the position for comprehensive reform, it’s easy to argue that, because the Dream Act does nothing to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S., we will have the same problem a few years down the road.  

When I campaigned for Congress, I was ignorant of the Dream Act, but my position was similar.  My proposal was to provide a path of citizenship to illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least ten years and who have led productive lives – either school or work.  Aside from the 5- vs. 10-year requirement, the major difference is that the Dream Act applies to young students-soldier, while my proposal would apply to all illegal immigrants.  I can see an argument for either a 5-year or 10-year requirement, but I don’t think the benefit should be limited to soldiers and students.  American citizenship should also be available to the blue-collar working class.

June 25, 2010

Bad law – stuck on stupid

“Bad facts make bad law” is an old adage taught in law school.  It means that a court’s opinion is often dictated, not by legal reasoning, but rather by the ultimate result that the court wants.  In other words, the court first decides which party should win and then writes an opinion that leads to that result.  Bush v. Gore is often mentioned as an example of this.  

Bad law also results when a judicial decision is based essentially on the court’s preferred public policy, not on legal principles.  This is sometimes called “legislating from the bench,” and a good example is the landmark affirmative action case, Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).  In Grutter, Justice O’Connor approved reverse discrimination by a university, but warned:

  • “Race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time….  The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

Although the Supreme Court is bound by the concept of precedent, the Grutter opinion supports the proposition that earlier decisions should be revisited when the historical context changes or underlying assumptions are shown to be incorrect.  Nearly 30 years ago – in Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982) – the United States Supreme Court declared that Texas must provide a free public education to children who were illegal immigrants.  I suggest that, based on historical developments, the well-intended Plyler decision should be revisited and reversed because it improperly restricts the ability of states to discourage illegal immigration.   

Plyler struck down a Texas statute that attempted to prevent children who were illegal immigrants from attending public schools.  The Court found that where states limit the rights afforded to people (specifically children) based on their status as aliens, this limitation must be examined under an “intermediate scrutiny” standard to determine if it complies with the Equal Protection clause in the 14th Amendment.  A law satisfies “intermediate scrutiny” if it furthers a substantial goal of the State.  (“Strict scrutiny” is applied to laws that involve “suspect classes” or a “fundamental right” and requires that the law be precisely tailored to serve a compelling government interest.  All other laws require only that the classification at issue bears some fair relationship to a legitimate public purpose.)

The Supreme Court in Plyler determined that a law that tended to deny the education of illegal immigrants deserved intermediate scrutiny because of the Court was concerned about the creation of a permanent underclass:

  • “Sheer incapability or lax enforcement of the laws barring entry into this country, coupled with the failure to establish an effective bar to the employment of undocumented aliens, has resulted in the creation of a substantial ‘shadow population’ of illegal migrants – numbering in the millions – within our borders.  This situation raises the specter of a permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens, encouraged by some to remain here as a source of cheap labor, but nevertheless denied the benefits that our society makes available to citizens and lawful residents.  The existence of such an underclass presents most difficult problems for a Nation that prides itself on adherence to principles of equality under law.”

This language from the Court clearly suggests that its motivation is to ameliorate the consequences of a dysfunctional federal government and its ineffectual immigration policy. 

The Court in Plyler went on to explain why the Texas law fails to further a substantial goal of the state:

  • “First, appellants appear to suggest that the State may seek to protect itself from an influx of illegal immigrants. While a State might have an interest in mitigating the potentially harsh economic effects of sudden shifts in population, 21.031 hardly offers an effective method of dealing with an urgent demographic or economic problem. There is no evidence in the record suggesting that illegal entrants impose any significant burden on the State’s economy. To the contrary, the available evidence suggests that illegal aliens underutilize public services, while contributing their labor to the local economy and tax money to the state fisc.  The dominant incentive for illegal entry into the State of Texas is the availability of employment; few if any illegal immigrants come to this country, or presumably to the State of Texas, in order to avail themselves of a free education. Thus, even making the doubtful assumption that the net impact of illegal aliens on the economy of the State is negative, we think it clear that ‘charging tuition to undocumented children constitutes a ludicrously ineffectual attempt to stem the tide of illegal immigration,’ at least when compared with the alternative of   prohibiting the employment of illegal aliens.”
  • “Second, while it is apparent that a State may ‘not . . . reduce expenditures for education by barring [some arbitrarily chosen class of] children from its schools,’ appellants suggest that undocumented children are appropriately singled out for exclusion because of the special burdens they impose on the State’s ability to provide high-quality public education. But the record in no way supports the claim that exclusion of undocumented children is likely to improve the overall quality of education in the State.  As the District Court in No. 80-1934 noted, the State failed to offer any ‘credible supporting evidence that a proportionately small diminution of the funds spent on each child [which might result from devoting some state funds to the education of the excluded group] will have a grave impact on the quality of education.’  And, after reviewing the State’s school financing mechanism, the District Court in No. 80-1538 concluded that barring undocumented children from local schools would not necessarily improve the quality of education provided in those schools.  Of course, even if improvement in the quality of education were a likely result of barring some number of children from the schools of the State, the State must support its selection of this group as the appropriate target for exclusion.  In terms of educational cost and need, however, undocumented children are ‘basically indistinguishable’ from legally resident alien children.”

Both dot points above contain examples of a court substituting its judgment for the judgment of legislators.  The most jarring were the assertions that “few if any illegal immigrants come to this country… to avail themselves of free education” and that “charging tuition to undocumented children constitutes a ludicrously ineffectual attempt to stem the tide of illegal immigration, at least when compared with the alternative of prohibiting employment of illegal aliens.” 

With the benefit of hindsight, these judicial assertions seem ludicrous and laughingly simplistic.  Jobs are not the only magnet for illegal immigrants.  America also offers free education and medical care, reduced crime, and freedom.  It takes a lot of chutzpah for the Supreme Court to criticize legislators for ineffectively controlling immigration, while brazenly shooting-down a good-faith effort by Texas legislators to address the problem.

When the government response to Hurricane Katrina was floundering, a John Wayne-like character appeared on the scene and took charge.  Among Lt. General Russel Honore’s most famous comments was, “We aren’t stuck on stupid.”  I believe that our evolving Supreme Court knows more than it did in 1982, and Texas should give it another chance.  Let’s pass a law that addresses education and employment of illegal immigrants, and then give the Supreme Court a chance to show that it isn’t stuck on stupid.

June 13, 2010

“Our peculiar institution” and abortion

Filed under: History,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:47 am
Tags: ,

As I previously mentioned, I am reading A Patriot’s History of the United States to refresh my recollection of a subject that I last studied formally more than 30 years ago in college.  My reading has progressed to Ft. Sumter and the start of the Civil War.  

For several decades leading up to the Civil War, American politicians struggled with “our peculiar institution,” which was a euphemism used by those who didn’t like the term slavery.  Unfortunately, because our politicians failed to do their job successfully, 620,000 American soldiers died. 

As the authors of A Patriots History, Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, described the various efforts by politicians to resolve the slavery issue, I was struck by the similarities of slavery with America’s current political disagreement regarding abortion.  Both issues involve an individual’s personal morality, there is no middle ground, and an individual’s position is not susceptible to reasoning, analysis, or persuasion.  Abolitionists believed that slavery was immoral, just as pro-life people believe that abortions are evil.

During my readings, I was also struck by the slavery position taken by Stephen Douglas in the 1860 election.  You may recall that Douglas was the Illinois senator who defeated Lincoln in a 1858 senatorial race, but then lost to Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election.  Douglas was a pragmatic politician, and he argued that the voters of each state should have the right to decide whether to allow slavery in their jurisdiction.  That happens to be exactly the position I took on abortion during my congressional race. 

As a congressional candidate, I argued that Roe v. Wade should be reversed because this issue should be decided by the people, not by judicial legislation.  And consistent with the Tenth Amendment, this issue should be decided by each state, not the federal government.  Furthermore, there is already precedent for the states successfully handling another comparable issue – i.e., the death penalty. 

A lot of Americans think the death penalty is immoral, but most are comfortable with allowing each state to decide how it feels.  My home state of North Dakota does not have a death penalty, but my adopted state of Texas does.  Even though there are occasionally a few out-of-state protestors outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville for executions, the practice is generally accepted as a legitimate state power even by those who personally oppose it.   

Douglas’s position in favor of state sovereignty over slavery was never tested because Lincoln took a stronger anti-slavery stance and won the election.  It is doubtful, however, whether the southern states would have stayed in the Union even if Douglas had won.  They felt that their “peculiar institution” would never be accepted by the northern states and that secession was an inevitable necessity to maintain their way of life.  As Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz noted, war is the continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.  Or as Mao Zedong said, “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”  Let’s hope that the abortion issue can be resolved civilly over time without war.

June 10, 2010

What is a pragmatic politician to do?

My Congressional campaign focused on two interrelated issues – (1) the federal government had ceased to function properly, and (2) although there were many problems in America that were festering because of this dysfunction, the most dangerous was the exploding national debt.  (A third issue was the corrupting influence of money on politics.) 

My proposed solution was to run as a pragmatic conservative who was “more concerned about good governance than ideological purity.”  But election results across the country show that voters in both major political parties are rejecting pragmatism and are becoming more partisan and polarized.  This leaves people who think like me with several options for seeking beneficial change:

1.  Electoral-process reform.  Reform the electoral process so that pragmatic, nonideological candidates have a better chance at success.  Just a few days ago, California voters adopted Proposition 14, which provides that all legislative candidates must run in a single primary and only the top-two vote-getters will advance to the general election.  This process is called a “top two” law.  Washington voters adopted a similar law in 2004, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld it. 

According to proponents of the California law, its objective is to “reduce the partisanship that creates legislative gridlock.”  This will be accomplished by presenting pragmatic, nonideological candidates to a broader group of voters than the extreme partisans of a single party.  Joe Lieberman did something like this in his independent run for the Senate in Connecticut and Charlie Crist is doing it in Florida.  Although there is not any solid evidence that this will actually work, it makes intuitive sense and thus seems worth trying.

2.  Develop a viable third party.  The problem with developing a viable third party is that the political system created by our founders has always been dominated by two parties.  According to the Duverger Law (from political scientist Maurice Duverger), a two-party system almost always results from a plurality-rule voting system.  Thus, unless we reform the electoral process to provide for top-two voting, like California and Washington have done, or for proportional representation, like most of Europe has done, America is unlikely to support a strong third party.   

However, an erstwhile Libertarian, Carl S. Milsted, Jr., has postulated a possible exception to Duverger’s law (http://www.holisticpolitics.org/) if a third party follows three rules:

(Rule 1): A successful third party must be moderate enough to win somewhere;

 (Rule 2): A third party needs some principles; and

(Rule 3): A third party must have a base of voters/activists that is indifferent to the difference between the Democrats and Republicans. 

Milsted has given up on the Libertarian Party because some of its positions are too extreme to win anywhere and he was unable to reform it from within.  Milsted suggests that, if you consider politics on a one-dimensional continuum (liberal left vs. conservative right), the Republican Party will shift its positions to prevent the Libertarians from reaching critical mass.  But if you consider politics to be on a two-dimensional continuum (liberty vs. tyranny; equality vs. aristocracy), there is a space in the upper-right quadrant (liberty & equality) that neither D nor R chooses to represent.  That quadrant is a natural fit for me, so perhaps I will follow-up with Milsted.

3.  Replace one of the two existing major parties.  Although the American electoral process has always been a two-party system, the parties have been replaced on two occasions: 

  • In the early 1800s, Jefferson’s Republican Party became so dominant that its opposition, the Federalist Party of Washington and Adams disappeared.  This resulted in James Monroe running unopposed in 1820, the third and last time that a presidential election was not contested.  (The first two were Washington’s elections.)  Then in 1824, Jefferson’s Republican Party split into two factions – Andrew Jackson’s Democrats and John Quincy Adams’s Whigs.
  • In 1856, many members of the Whig Party deserted the party because of its vacillations re: slavery and immigration, and these members formed the Republican Party (anti-slavery) and the American (Know-Nothing) Party (anti-immigrant).    

Currently in America, there is no possibility of the first scenario happening – i.e., one party becoming so dominant that the other party withers.  Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are growing, but the number of Independents is.  The second scenario, however, is more likely – i.e., people dissatisfied with the failure of the Republican Party to take a strong position regarding fiscal responsibility.  The fiscal conservatives in the party could separate themselves from the Moral Majority cohort.

4.  The Doomsday Defense.  Let the partisan, polarized system operate dysfunctionally until the problems get so bad that a sub-optimal solution is reached under dire circumstances.  America can’t ignore forever the issues of immigration, social security, energy dependence, and, most importantly, the national debt. 

I am optimistic that we won’t get to the fourth option.  The rise of the Tea Party suggests that voters are going to force corrective action on the issue of fiscal (in)sanity.  I am less optimistic, however, that good governance will become standard practice in America.  California state government is probably more dysfunctional than our federal government, and as they say back home, necessity is the mother of invention.  So maybe California can show us the way out of this mess.

June 8, 2010

Open letter to Rene Oliveira re: the ag exemption in Texas

Filed under: Economics,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 2:50 pm
Tags: , ,

Subject: the so-called ag-exemption law in Texas

Dear Rene Oliveira: 

I have been following with interest your work in finding the tax revenue necessary to address Texas’s budget problem.  Last week, there was a spate of articles speculating that a tax on tattoo shops was about the only low-hanging fruit that wouldn’t be defended by a swarm of lobbyists.  You’ve been in Austin long enough to know that, if you want to raise a significant amount of money, you need to look at places that have a significant amount of money, and those with a significant amount of money always have lobbyists.  So, fighting lobbyists will be unavoidable.  With that in mind, I suggest you look at the revising the so-called ag-exemption law in Texas.

As you know, the ag-exemption law in Texas comprises two different constitutional provisions – Section 1-d, Assessment of Lands Designated for Agricultural Use, and Section 1-d-1, Taxation of Certain Open-Space Land.  Section1-d was adopted in 1966 and its benefit was granted only to those land owners whose primary occupation and source of income was agriculture.  Section 1-d-1 was adopted in 1978 to extend the benefit to land owners whose primary occupation or source of income was outside of agriculture.

The merits of the ag exemption are dubious, especially in a state like Texas, which prides itself on self-reliance and the free market.  The law’s apparent rationale is that farmers and ranchers are wealthy in assets, but don’t have the cash-flow to pay the taxes.  But that rationale has no application to a landowner under the Open-Space provision.  Such persons own the land as an investment and their primary source of income is outside of agriculture.  Thus, the state should have no interest in protecting their investment from market-value taxation.

Based on my research, the ag exemption was last scrutinized seriously in 2004-2005.  At that time, the Texas Farm Bureau published a newsletter that provided landowners with talking points for “combating the misinformation … in the recent media frenzy… by urban newspapers.”  http://www.txfb.org/NewsManager/templates/AustinNewsLetter.aspx?articleid=716&zoneid=19.  One of those urban newspapers apparently engaging in the “frenzy” was the Houston Chronicle, and their well-written story by Janet Elliott is still on-line – http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/special/05/legislature/2985061.html.  The Chronicle article reported that the ag exemptions took $91 billion from Texas’s property roll and this cost school districts $1.5 billion a year.

The Texas Farm Bureau summarized the issue by stating:

  • The simple fact is that using land for agriculture is not profitable without the open-space valuation. It doesn’t matter if you are a full-time producer, a “hobby” farmer, or a corporation. The ability of land to produce an amount equal to property taxes based on fair market value of land is marginal at best. If Texas is to continue as a national force with an agricultural economy, it must retain this vital tax incentive to keep land in agriculture

I suggest that this conclusion shows a fundamental misunderstanding of economics.  Landowners, especially those who have a primary occupation or source of income outside of agriculture, will not stop using their land for agriculture just because land taxes are increased to reflect the market value of the land.  Rather, they will continue farming the land as long as the marginal benefits of farming exceed the marginal costs.  The taxes don’t enter into that equation because the taxes will remain to be paid even if the farming stops.

But increased taxes will affect the market value of the land, and this leads to the Farm Bureau’s more practical argument – i.e., without the Open-Space provision, the market value of land in Texas would drop.  That is quite a paradoxical argument if you consider that the underlying root of this problem is supposedly that the market value of land is too high.  You don’t solve a problem, like the housing-price bubble, by continuing to feed it.  The best long-term solution is to let the free market operate, so that prices will fall to the level they deserve.

Ideally, taxes are not supposed to affect the efficient economic operation of a business.  In this regard, the Open-Space provision is failing miserably.  It is well-known that thousands of small landowners don’t farm the land to make money, but rather they pretend to farm the land to get the tax shelter.  I routinely ride my bike in Bexar County past a one-acre homestead surrounded by eleven acres of grassland sloping down to a creek.  Although the homeowners pay taxes for the $1 million home, they pay almost no tax for the eleven surrounding acres.  Agricultural value – $1,000; market value – $200,000.  That treatment isn’t fair. 

Another opportunity for abuse in Texas occurred in 1995 with the adoption of the wildlife-management exemption added to Section 1-d-1.  According to the Houston Chronicle article cited above, computer mogul Michael Dell had a 1,757-acre ranch in Travis County with a market value of $74.8 million, but because he managed a herd of deer on the ranch, its ag/wildlife value was only $290,000.  The ag/wildlife exemption cost the local school district $1.2 million a year.  That’s a lot of money for a few deer.

The spuriousness of the wildlife provision is well recognized throughout Texas.  According to Texas Wildlife Guy –  http://www.texaswildlifeguy.com/Home.html – there are several compelling reasons for “moving from ag to wildlife”:  

  • Maybe you are tired of dealing with the challenges associated with livestock.
  • You may have a physical or medical condition that affects your ability to deal with livestock or whatever your ag valuation is.
  • Want to keep the same tax benefits as you enjoyed with ag.
  • To decrease the costs of operation and the workload associated with ag.
  • Increase the quality of wildlife and your land’s habitat.
  • Increase the resale value of your land.
  • OR you just want a place in the country without having to place livestock or raise crops on your land.

That last reason listed above is the real kicker – i.e., you want a place in the country with ag-based taxes, but you don’t want to bother with the nuisance of ag.  “Moving from ag to wildlife” reveals that Texas landowners are learning a practice that farmers from my home state of North Dakota perfected long ago – they thrive, not by farming the land, but by farming the farm programs.    

What can we do?  Texas would be better served by an ag exemption like Florida’s.  Its ag exemption is limited to good faith commercial agricultural use of property, which is defined as, “the pursuit of an agricultural activity for a reasonable profit or at least upon a reasonable expectation of meeting investment cost and realizing a reasonable profit.  The profit or reasonable expectation thereof must be viewed from the standpoint of the fee owner and measured in light of his investment.”  Alternatively, New York has an ag exemption that is limited to farms that produce at least $10,000 in gross annual sales (or $50,000 if the farm is less than seven acres). 

Better yet, Texas should repeal its Open-Space provision.   Whatever the merits of the provision were in previous years, it is clear that Texas can no longer afford to grant this generous exemption to people whose primary occupation or source of income is outside of farming or ranching. 

Sincerely,

Mike Kueber

June 5, 2010

Jobs report – good or bad; that depends on whose ox is being gored.

 This morning I noticed that the Facebook page of my local Republican congressional candidate, Quico Canseco, posted a news release from the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.  The news release proclaimed that the government’s recent jobs report was misleading because, although there were a lot of new jobs in the U.S., 90% of the new jobs were for census workers.  Thus, Obama’s expensive stimulus package was failing to create private jobs, and, because of that, we should replace Democrat Congressman Ciro Rodriguez.

I have no problem with the Republican Party pointing out the critical details for the benefit of voters who don’t pay attention to details (although the stock market didn’t have any problem identifying the critical information, with prices crashing within minutes of the announcement of the jobs numbers).  But I do have a problem when a political party becomes so partisan that it seems to be rooting for the economy to tank so that they can re-gain power.  Rush Limbaugh was accused of similar treachery last year when he declared he wanted Obama to fail. 

The Republicans, however, don’t have a monopoly on disloyalty.  It is easy to recall that, when George W. Bush pushed for the surge in Iraq, most Democrats opposed it, and for many months they continued to assert that it was not working.  To this day, I don’t think Democratic partisans have conceded the obvious – the surge worked and Iraq is a success story, while Obama’s choice of wars, Afghanistan, remains problematic.

I am fearful that Americans are becoming more partisan, and this will preclude many from supporting the government’s actions.  Yesterday, I received a FB comment from a friend who read my political blog, and she suggested I didn’t sound like a Republican.  I noticed on her profile that her political affiliation was “Obama hopeful,” so I responded to her that I was an “Obama hopeful,” too, since I had voted for him in 2008.  She responded, “Hope never abandons you, you abandon it.”  I told her that, even though Obama had become too partisan and liberal for me, I was still hopeful that the stimulus would be effective, his Afghan strategy would succeed, ObamaCare would not bankrupt us, and the BP hole would be plugged.  After all, we are on the same team.

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