Thursday, January 31, 2008

Please Someone Run Against Jane Brunner

This article does a good job describing the increasingly crowded field in this year's Oakland City Council race. I was disappointed, though not surprised, to see that neo-socialist Jane Brunner is still running unopposed.

This is not to say that whoever we might get instead of Jane would be any better. Take a look at Oakland's City Council district map [pdf]. Notice anything odd? Oakland has cleverly drawn its districts to completely disenfranchise the more affluent parts of the city.

So, for example, Jane's district 1 represents Rockridge, Hiller Highlands, and part of the burn area of the hills. But, most of the population in the district is the area down near MLK in the flats.

Now, I have no problem with everyone in the city having reasonable representation, but this districting system is partly to blame for the council's complete lack of concern about economic development in the city. It's also partly to blame for the ever-increasing spiral of taxes--property and otherwise. I mean, consider the fact that the biggest contributors to residential property taxes in the city have effectively zero representation on the City Council.

That said, I believe Jane's district is the most amenable to a candidate who caters to the less-Leftist elements of the city's population. We need to see a viable candidate run against her to try and inject at least one rational voice into the dialog.

So Please, Please, Please, someone run against Jane Brunner. The city needs it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Oakland Teachers Union Plans Theater of the Absurd

I was discouraged, but not surprised, to see this article indicating that the Oakland Teachers Union still appears to have little interest in helping solve the problems at the Oakland School District.

OEA president Betty Olsen-Jones* set the tone by indicating flatly that the teachers are making "unreasonable" demands. Great.

They went on to complain about Eli Broad, who admittedly has apparently played some sort of spooky/shadowy role in the state control over the Oakland School District. I have no problem with the suggestion that control of the schools should be handled locally. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear to me that anyone in the city government or in the unions is actually interested in doing anything that would meaningfully improve the situation.

The union predictably wants more money and smaller class sizes. I actually don't even have a problem with this. I mean, you can't expect a group of people not to campaign in favor of increases in their own wages. The main issues I have with their position are the following:

  • I would prefer the OEA not pretend it aims to improve actual education in Oakland. Anyone who's looked seriously at the problem knows that we need to look at more far-reaching solutions such as magnet schools, vouchers and vocational training for those who can't cut it in the regular classroom. The OEA doesn't support reforms like these because they don't meet their only real objectives: increased wages and avoiding layoffs.

  • I have a problem with public servants participating in political campaigns to raise their own wages. This goes for teachers, firemen, policemen, etc. The state and many localities are facing impending disaster because of unreasonable benefits packages for these folks. I blame this partly on misuse of the proposition/initiative system, though there's plenty of blame to go around. This also highlights a key problem with Leftist campaign finance arguments. They always seek to block corporate donations while allowing unions unlimited donations.

  • At the OEA rally, people held up a banner reading "Corporate Oakland Pay Your Share." I'm sorry, did Oakland suddenly get a meaningful business district while I wasn't watching? The last thing we need to be doing is demonizing businesses. This city needs jobs, and this city needs to compete with the likes of Emeryville. It's time to stop demonizing whatever corporations we do have and start thanking them for their willingness to stick it out.

A final point/question. Does anyone know how much money taxpayers will wind up having to pay to make up the loan currently outstanding to the state from the school district? I've been waiting for that property tax measure for some time. I'm sure it'll be a whopper.

* By the way, am I the only one who has noticed that some of the worst culprits behind the East Bay Leftist agenda have hyphenated names? What's the deal with that?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

West Oakland 99 Cents Only Store Opponents Are Cheaters

Check out this article in today's Oakland Tribune. Here is the critical part:
A long-running debate in the West Oakland community, opponents of the discount retailer preferred to have that space devoted to the Mandela Foods Cooperative....

"We asked BRIDGE to restrict the square footage that 99 Cents devotes to the sale of produce, dairy and meat to 50 square feet," said Mandela Marketplace project manager Wells Lawson, so it wouldn't compete with the community-based fresh-food retailer.

So, to paraphrase, let's help West Oakland residents get sorely needed fresh food by preventing stores from having more than 50 sq feet of space for it.

Seriously, what the heck is wrong with these people? I have no problem with competition, and good luck to the Mandela co-op, but it's a virtual lock that prices there will be dramatically higher than at 99 Cents Only (if the co-op ever even opens).

But why do they feel the need to hamstring 99 Cents Only's ability to compete? What are they afraid of? That maybe low-income residents of the area might actually get a good deal on a product?

Think about it. The only reason to restrict 99 Cents Only's store space for produce, dairy and meat is to help the co-op succeed even if the co-op has higher prices. Because, if the co-op had lower prices, it would beat out the other store anyway. This is ridiculous, and West Oakland residents should not stand for it.

I'll never understand why Leftist groups like environmentalists and the organic food people constantly pick on poor people. Want to force a co-op into Oakland somewhere? Fine. Do it in Montclair, where at least the people can afford to fight back. But don't pick on people who have no grocery store within 2 miles and don't have the money to drive all over town looking for what they need.

This Mandela Cooperative is nothing but a scam designed to burden low-income residents of our city. Because of how they've tried to cheat to succeed, I hope they fail.

Residents of West Oakland, I call on you to boycott the Mandela Cooperative unless they agree to allow 99 Cents Only to put as much produce, meat and dairy in their store as they want!

And by the way, from visiting the new 99 Cents Only store twice today, I see that they've managed to fit quite a wide selection of produce, meat and dairy into those 50 square feet. Bravo! I hope you kick some co-op butt.

Why Oaklanders Should Vote No on Measure G

When I think of liberal guilt, I always picture it as an ashen-faced bearded man, sort of in the mold of Karl Marx. Well, the bearded man of Oakland's election February 5 is Measure G.

This measure purports not to raise taxes, while extending indefinitely a previously temporary $195-per-parcel tax on nearly every property owner in the city. What the measure really does is helps to assuage people's liberal guilt by throwing money at a problem which money cannot solve.

People claim the school district is nearly bankrupt and needs the money desperately. BS. The district receives more than enough money from the state to pay for teachers, staff and supplies.

What the school district lacks is motivated students. Why? because at the failing schools, their heroes are largely rappers and drug dealers, both of whom are in jobs requiring no formal education.

History is full of examples of smart young people learning what they need to know with no money whatsoever. Books and ideas cost nothing. What we need to do is motivate our kids to align their ambition with the goals of education.

How to do this?

  1. Create a magnet program in the Oakland schools that anyone of any income level or region can enter if they test high enough. Not only would this lure kids back from private schools, but it would provide a real path of opportunity for those who currently must attend failing schools. Make this program run from first grade all the way through high school, and allow kids to test in at any grade level.

  2. Expel troublemakers and/or provide vocational schools for low-testing students. The reality is there is no point repeatedly trying to teach unmotivated kids the same material year after year. Give them an opportunity to learn something they might perceive as more useful, and the option to return to regular school if they can show commitment through test scores and hard work.

  3. Stop trying to replace parents. Nothing, and I mean nothing, the school does will save a kid whose parents don't give a damn. This is a sad fact, but it is a reality. Pouring money into programs that cannot be shown to work is at best wasteful. And I actually believe it does direct harm by preventing things like the magnet program mentioned above.

  4. Drain the profit pool for bad role models. My number one target here is drug dealers and the "drug war." The city needs to take the lead in finding ways to make drug dealing unprofitable. Kids are motivated by what they see as "success" around them. We need to stop drug dealers from becoming monetarily rich. The only way to do this is to lower the price of street drugs. The city should advocate for drug legalization, and seek ways such as decriminalization and refusal to enforce drug laws.

A word on #4. I realize doing this might cost the city some federal funding. I believe it's worth it. Federal funding in this case is harming our kids, and it's time to stand up to the federal government and say "enough is enough." The real drug problem is not people using drugs. It's our kids seeing drug dealers become wealthy and treating those same dealers as role models. Only by eliminating that path to wealth do other legitimate roads to success have a chance.

Oakland's kids are smart and capable. They want to be successful. We need to set up a system where the government no longer prevents them from achieving success. The first step is saying "enough is enough" and refusing to provide any more funding to a failing system.

Please. For the kids. Vote no on G.

New 99c Only Store A Success!

I spent about an hour at the new 99c Only store. Dozens of people there, buying everything from produce and milk to toys for their kids. Everyone looked very happy to finally have a reasonable business enterprise in their midst.

Needless to say the shoppers looked as diverse as the city of Oakland. I saw several men in there with little kids, and plenty of older folks, many of whom I'm sure live on fixed incomes.

I did see overhear one man complaining to his friend about "these businesses run by white folks that come into our neighborhood." Bravo to his friend who replied, "then don't shop here!" That's the wonderful thing about capitalism. Everyone has a choice with their dollars, and if people want to apply a racial map to their purchases, so be it. But I hope most people do not, and I hope this store continues to thrive.

And by the way, the employees looked as diverse as Oakland as well. From the looks of it, this new store has provided 20-30 new good, stable jobs in an area that sorely needs them.

Thanks to 99c Only, and thank the gods the city and the Mandela Collective failed to stop this great new store from coming to town.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

West Oakland Welcomes 99c Only Stores!

This morning at 8AM West Oakland gets its new 99c Only Store [press release]. The store is on Seventh Avenue, just across from the West Oakland BART station. When I came home from work today, I could see there were already people lining up there to get iPods and scooters for 99c at the grand opening.

This store is a miracle of capitalism in a decimated area of liquor stores and section 8 housing. The folks wanting to open the "Mandela Collective," a joke enterprise which will undoubtedly fail, did everything in their power to stop 99c Only from coming to town.

The collective is one of these weird combinations of Leftist causes you see occasionally in places like Oakland where no one even bothers to try to run profitable enterprises. Their whole idea is to bring organic (and therefore extremely expensive) produce to the inner city. Folks, people in West Oakland don't need prestige products. If they want that, they can head over to the new Whole Foods. What they need are honest products at fair prices, just like everyone else.

One argument people floated against the 99c Only store is that it won't provide people with food. That's just false. 99c Only offers produce, milk, eggs, canned goods, you name it, and you can feed a family of four out of that store on $5 per day. Try doing that on organic produce.

Bravo also to 99c Only for bringing some honest private-enterprise jobs to town. This is what West Oakland needs. Not more government programs. Not more "collective" style businesses that last a few months and then fail.

While we're on the subject, 99c Only turns out to be a pretty nice company itself. It has 250 stores, most of them in California, and over $1B in revenues. Not a bad win for Oakland. And, for those EBC readers out there looking for a place to invest some money, 99c Only's stock looks extremely cheap to me. Here's a chance to make some money and invest in real economic development for the East Bay all at once.

Bank of America's New ATMs Suck

Tonight I went to my local BofA branch to deposit a refund check I received from my insurance carrier in the mail when I got home from work. I discovered that they no longer allow you to put your check in an envelope and deposit it at the ATM. Instead, there's a slot where you're supposed to insert the check so the machine can scan it. Here's a link to an article about the new ATMs.

First off, the ATM told me not to crumple the check. So I dutifully made sure it wasn't bent and inserted it. Immediately I noticed that the machine itself was busy crumpling the check. It then returned it. I straightened it and tried again.

Five minutes later, after inserting the check about 37 times, it finally accepted it. Only problem was, I assumed it would be able to read the dollar amount written on the check. Wrong. It shows you a tiny scanned image of the check and makes you type in the amount. After squinting for another couple minutes I gave up and just typed in a number I knew was higher than the amount of the check. I figure they'll sort it out.

Bottom line, if you are short on time and want to deposit a check at Bank of America, I suggest you go inside to the teller.

Recalling Dellums Will Not Help

A number of people have called for Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums to resign or be recalled, thinking this will somehow solve the city's problems.

In truth, removing Dellums, or any city politician for that matter, will have little effect, for the simple reason that whoever takes the job will do exactly the same sorts of things that Dellums has done. Oakland faces problems that the government cannot solve. They are problems which drive well-meaning people to suggest solutions such as increased school funding, more police, social programs, affordable housing, etc. They are also problems which none of these policies can solve.

The first thing to realize is that a substantial portion of Oakland operates as a high-income, white-collar suburb of San Francisco. For this portion of the city there appears to be nothing wrong with the policies of the city government, other than the high taxes which plague to all Bay Area cities. Several of this region's schools rank of the top of of the state achievement tests. People can walk the street at night in safety. My point is simply that nothing the city government is doing has prevented these areas from prospering.

Obviously, there are other regions of the city overrun with violence. And these are the regions that Dellums and everyone else in the city seems very worried about. Let's take a look at a few of the demographic differences between two representative zip codes:
Zip 94611 94607
Population 36,508 21,048
Median Income $ 68,853 $21,124
High School Graduates 95.6% 62.5%
Non-English Speakers 17.1% 40.9%

[You may have noticed I didn't mention race, and this may surprise you. This is because I consider it irrelevant and refuse to even mention it. Here is an example of why. I'm happy to debate that if someone would like to.]

Each of these numbers helps explain the problem. In 94607, a portion of West Oakland, we have a set of people with low incomes, below-average education levels, with a large number of English learners.

Now, I am lucky enough to not be in this demographic of people. But if I were, I would be looking for some way to get my hands on a reasonable income, in a capacity that did not require significant education and maybe didn't even require being able to speak English. Given that situation, I'm pretty sure I would turn down one of several criminal paths: robbery, drug dealing, pimping, whatever.

This shows the first basic problem with using government to tackle poverty and crime. You can fund schools all you want, but when a person looks around his neighborhood and sees that his most likely path is one of poverty and disenfranchisement, it would be irrational for him to care much about school. You can put money into social services and low-income housing, but all this does is encourages people to accept the status quo. This leads me to a basic rule:

1. You cannot expect a person living in abject poverty to be satisfied with his life. People are too smart and ambitious for that, and they will do whatever they can to plow around whatever system you set up.

So what then? Perhaps the government should offer some low-paying entry-level jobs? Offer welfare payments to people who stay clean?

In essence this is what we've come to. The government comes up with all sorts of ways to move money into impoverished areas, even though it's pretty clear to everyone involved that the money will be accepted, but not used in the "intended" way. Instead, the recipients will opportunistically look at how to better their lives. If there's enough money involved, maybe the recipients will just be satisfied with doing nothing all day long. This leads to another rule:

2. Leftists like social programs because they keep poor people out of their neighborhoods. I see this play out time and again in the East Bay. Wealthier residents grudgingly support giveaways to try to keep a lid on the problem for as long as possible. In my opinion, this strategy is unethical and immoral.

So what should be done? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Accept that government is not the solution, it is the problem. Instead of recalling Dellums, we should drain away money from the city government to prevent spending it on social programs and giveaways.

  2. Severely curtail government's power to manage the city's economic development should be . Oakland lies at the doorstep to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Numerous industries and jobs would locate here if they did not have to live in fear of city government cutting them off at the kneecaps with taxes and fees once they show up here.

  3. Schools should be funded appropriately, but not to excess. Motivated students will learn given a reasonable environment. The government cannot replace parents, and no matter how much money is thrown at the situation, a student who would rather do something else rather than school will find a way to do that. <b>Oakland should also put in place a magnet school program</b>, so that smart/motivated kids, no matter their economic background, can succeed.

  4. Oakland should stop policing drug dealers and users, to the extent possible. Oakland should also advocate for national drug legalization (good luck). The goal here is to decrease the profits available in this profession by making drugs commonplace. Yes, a city can actually accomplish this, as is demonstrated by the success of pot clubs.

  5. Don't be afraid to make poverty somoene else's problem. Oakland spends altogether too much time trying to figure out how to keep its poverty problem around, when instead it should allow economic growth. No, this will not reduce diversity. Take a look at New York City for an example.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Oakland's Silly Mortgage Workshop

This past weekend Oakland held what can at best be called a completely worthless forum on the so-called mortgage crisis.

Not to suggest that the mortgage crisis isn't real. The statistics show that numerous East Bay residents took out risky subprime mortgages and will pay the consequences either through high payments or foreclosure.

For starters let's take a look at government officials' claims about what set off the mortgage crisis in the first place. Supposedly, a set of unscrupulous lenders "took advantage" of completely innocent and ignorant borrowers, most of them with low incomes, and a disproportionate number of them Black or Latino (that latter charge is one I suspect to be false, but I don't really feel like following up on it at the moment).

The neo-racist-Leftist logic here is probably that mortgage brokers, being committed racists, preferentially targeted minorities for toxic loans. Even worse, maybe they're suggesting that minorities are somehow less able to understand what they're signing. Naturally, this is completely illogical. More probably, those in minority communities were more likely not to have been homeowners in 2003 when interest rates plunged and the housing bubble began to inflate. They took the opportunity to buy homes with low payments, choosing to take the risk of rates resetting later, and the rest is history.

I also reject the notion that subprime "victims" are in any way blameless. Every one of us knows at least one person who was drawn into the housing bubble, and in nearly every case that person is not some victim who was forced under duress to sign documents they could not understand. No, these people were either greedy, hoping to sell the property and make a quick buck, or they simply willfully ignored the financial peril, just like those who pulls out credit cards to that handbag or flat-screen TV they can't afford.

So I'm not really sure what the point of this community meeting was, other than to reinforce in people's minds the importance of having government around to come bail you out of trouble every time something bad happens. Short of a disastrous government bailout, these people will wind up exactly where they belong -- ex-homeowners with poorer credit records who return to the ranks of the renting.

Our local Congresswoman Barbara Lee blamed the problem on George Bush, suggesting that he's stopping Congress from doing something to "solve" the "problem." I find this argument humorous, considering it was pretty obvious starting in 2003 that a housing bubble was inflating, and I don't recall seeing Lee running around trying to prevent people from getting into trouble. No, just like Hurricane Katrina and countless other examples, Leftist government officials get a free pass on being proactive.

The crux of the forum appeared to be the suggestion that troubled homeowners not try to "go it alone" in dealing with their lenders. "Make sure," our local leaders said, "to have someone such as a credit counselor advocate on your behalf." Here we meet another Leftist trick designed to make people as dependent on the government, or its agents, as possible. Wasn't it people's reliance on bad advice that supposedly got them in this mess to begin with?

The East Bay is rife with this mentality that people -- particularly poor people -- need the government to come in and help them out, or potentially even run their lives for them. That was the basic message of this forum, from the staff memos to the meanderings of Oakland's do-nothing mayor Ron Dellums. No one mentions the potential positives of people taking personal responsibility for what transpired and moving on.

No one deserves a bail-out here, and there is no reason why a lender should "step up" and change loan terms unless doing so is in the lender's best interest. From the borrowers' perspective, facing foreclosure offers a difficult but not intractable opportunity to take control over their lives.

And, by the way, Dellums knows this. He doesn't care. He just wants to get the right quote in the papers so he can continue to slow down the "recall Ron Dellums" movement and keep his access to the perks of the mayor's office.

But more on that later.