Friday, August 29, 2008

The TransLink Travesty

For a conservative, I do some fairly left-leaning things from time to time. Mass transit is a particular interest of mine, and so I was pretty excited a year and a half ago when I applied for a TransLink card.

The card is supposed to be a universal fare-card for all the Bay Area's transit agencies. When I got it, the promise was that I'd be able to use it on Bart and Muni in "a couple of months." As with all things governmental, the truth has been far, far worse.

In case you're not familiar with TransLink, here's a link to the relevant Wikipedia page. And here's a nice quote to give you a primer on the system and its problems:
Translink has become something of a boondoggle of governance. The project as initially undertaken in 1993 had a projected capital cost of just $4 million and even in its current conception was expected to cost just $30 million. Since then, however, costs have ballooned tenfold -- current total capital costs are estimated at $338 million. In addition, schedule delays have added up to more than a decade. In 1998, Translink was to be available on all transit agencies by 2001, but today (2008) is operational on just two, and not expected to be available regionwide until 2010.

I guess I should feel lucky that the system even works on AC Transit (one of the two agencies that supports it). Unfortunately, as one of the thousands of people who commute into San Francisco for work, what would really help me would be something that worked on both sides of the bay.

Shockingly, Bart decided to introduce its own competing system, called EZ-Rider, a couple years ago. Apparently the second system is the result of a "bureaucratic turf dispute." Great.

One of my favorite elements of this governmental fraud is the fact that, so far as I can tell, every single bus in San Francisco has either one or two TransLink terminals installed. Unfortunately, every single one of them in non-operational.

The only place the card works is in the Muni subway system, and down there I've had station agents repeatedly try to refuse me entrance and refuse to give me bus transfers. "You don't need a transfer," one said. Good thing I made him give me one, as there was a cop at the other end of my journey checking tickets. Bet he's never even heard of TransLink.

I've tried to use TransLink repeatedly when getting on buses. It's a fun joke with the bus drivers. I ask things like, "To your knowledge, has this card ever worked on your bus?"

The driver usually gives me a perplexed or angry look: "No. They're still testing it."

Perhaps a brief aside into business theory is in order. Everyone knows that the goal of business is to turn a profit. What many don't know is how a business determines whether a given profit is "enough" to justify entering a new line of business.

The novice businessman might think that any profit is enough to justify a business expansion. But this isn't right, because in private industry there is a cost associated with buying the stuff required to enter that business. This is the business' "cost of capital," and it depends on market factors such as interest rates and the value of the business' equity capital.

Typically, a business will not invest money in a new operation unless it expects that operation to return a pretty high annual increment on that investment. Twenty percent is a common number.

So, you can see why it's a complete disaster -- from a business standpoint -- to install a bunch of hardware in buses and then completely fail to use it for years on end. Whatever return Muni might have generated from my fares from using the TransLink card is lost each day they keep the machines turned off. Muni has already paid for the machines, so they're losing money every day on this debacle.

In the business world, management would push to get those machines generating revenue as quickly as possible. Not so in the world of government. Because the government doesn't even know how to measure its cost of capital, it is fundamentally unresponsive when faced with a situation like this. And why should they? They can just set the fare to $1.37 or whatever and tell me it's my fault when I don't have enough pennies with me.

This whole situation is pretty humorous when you think about it. I'm being lectured on television to keep my tires inflated to save gas -- and rightly so. But if the leftists in charge of every Bay Area transit agency care so much about CO2 emissions and oil imports, why did they purposely construct a situation where they'd trick me into getting this card then make sure it only works on two of the region's numerous systems?

In other words, shouldn't these "leaders" want to set up a system that makes it as easy as possible for me to use mass transit? I guess the answer lies somewhere in between Al Gore's Gulfstream jet and his Tennessee mansion.

Leftists have their hearts in the right place, but they are incompetent human beings. It's commonly said that those who can't do, teach. Well, I'm not sure how much of a failure one must be to get involved in governance, but it must be pretty monumental.

Incidentally, here is the list of transit agencies that supposedly will support TransLink someday. I won't hold my breath:

Alameda/Oakland Ferry, American Canyon Transit, Benicia Breeze, Cloverdale Transit, County Connection, Dixon Transit, Fairfield-Suisun Transit, Healdsburg In-City Transit, Petaluma Transit, Rio Vista Delta Breeze, SamTrans, Santa Clara VTA, Santa Rosa CityBus, Sonoma County Transit, Tri Delta Transit, Union City Transit, Vacaville City Coach, Vallejo Transit, VINE (Napa County), WestCAT, WHEELS and Yountville Shuttle.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Dullums Says "Step Up"; I Say "Step Off"

My favorite Oakland conman is a gentleman who plies his trade in the afternoons by the West Oakland Bart station.

Nattily dressed in a suit and loafers, he approaches commuters as they hurry to their cars. To those who will listen, he weaves a tale of woe, ending with an explanation as to why he needs a few dollars to get his car back home from work.

I miss this man, and not only because of our most recent encounter which ended with a knowing grin and the words, "Wait a minute! I've done you before, haven't I?"

Recently I've made the choice to abandon West Oakland in favor of a safer Bart station closer to my home. Sadly, this has reduced my exposure to petty tricksters and my ability to report on the Mandela Foods debacle.

A man must make such sacrifices to ensure his safety. Certain parts of Oakland have become downright deadly of late, and I'd rather not end up part of Mayor Oswald Bates' next set of talking points.

So it has also become with Oakland eateries. It's very nice that Dullums thinks we should "step up" and help put a stop to those committing takeover robberies on a daily basis throughout the city.

The problem is, I'd rather avoid being pistol whipped while enjoying my dinner. So, while Dullums and his ilk try to encourage bravery -- or perhaps I should call it foolhardiness -- among the citizenry, I plan to take my dollars elsewhere.

Though, I have to admit, Whole Foods' decision to staff its Lake Merritt store with armed guards does intrigue me.

Already, I've taken some extra time to sample the foodstuffs in San Francisco and North Berkeley, and I expect that to continue. I'll avoid eating out in Oakland until the situation improves -- if it ever does.

When I moved to Oakland nearly 10 years ago, I had reasonably high hopes for the city. Given its proximity to San Francisco and its gentrifying population base, it seemed like a sure bet to become a compelling urban area.

While I continue to believe demographic trends will eventually make the difference for Oakland, I am surprised and disappointed by how tightly the city holds on to its ghettoized past and present.

It's tempting to say that this situation is the product of a "few bad apples" who terrorize the rest of us and decrease economic activity by scaring dollars away from the downtown area. Though it is true that these criminals represent a small percentage of the population, their success is a direct result of policy choices made by the city's liberal regime.

The only solution to Oakland's near-term malaise is a significant police crackdown on crime at all levels. But I do not see this happening anytime soon. Too many forces stand in the way: consent decrees related to the Riders scandal, our leaders' opposition to strong policing and the constant siphoning of money toward bloated pay packages and welfare schemes.

No, I think the reality is we all have to sit around and wait for time, gas prices, house prices and whatever other economic forces are out there to move the gentrification process to the next level.

In the meantime, the only thing to do is to keep ourselves safe. If this means avoiding Oakland for eating and shopping, so be it. I realize this may contribute to the problem's worsening in the short term, but we are faced with little choice.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Housing Bubble Humor

I've been meaning to post this video on the site for those of you who haven't seen it. The folks over at and post it frequently.

For those of us thorougly enjoying watching the housing bubble implode, this video is a real hoot.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Disabled Placards Mean Free Parking For Some

Why is there such a strong correlation between living in a liberal city and being a con-man?

I mean, sure, I perpetrate minor cons from time to time – driving a little too fast on the freeway or calling in sick to stay home and watch television – but there's no overarching objective to it all.

I've been aware for some time of the handicapped-license-plate scheme that seems to be all the rage in Bay Area cities. In case you weren't aware of this one, here are the parameters:

  • Somehow, perfectly healthy people get these plates from doctors, or they use a car owned by a disabled relative. Either way, I can't remember the last time I saw someone who actually looked disabled get out of a car with the blue tag.

  • Not only do they park in the few handicapped spots in parking lots, they also get free, unlimited parking at all parking meters in Oakland and San Francisco.

So, little surprise that people somehow scam their way to get these things. Why pay $40 a day to park at Embarcadero Center when you can get free street parking courtesy of our “compassionate” government?

I was shocked this morning to read in Matier & Ross' column that the situation has reached the point where “50,000 placards are held by San Francisco drivers.”

Just as an FYI, San Francisco only has around 750,000 residents. Some percentage of them are under the driving age, and some percentage don't even have cars. This must mean that between 10 and 15 percent of the people in San Francisco are disabled. Is that even possible?

Of course it's not. It's just one more example of the everyday cons we've come to expect from our fellow citizens. And, heaven forbid the government do anything about this. That might risk offending the small but important voting constituency of disabled people.

I can't be the only one who has a problem with this whole situation. Every time I go to downtown Oakland to take care of one matter or another (I avoid it whenever possible), I have a terrible time finding parking. And, inevitably as I walk down the streets toward my destination, I see lines of cars parked at expired meters with blue tags hanging from their rear-view mirrors.

So what then is the solution? Let's pretend for a moment that we don't live in a Marxist state and something might actually be done about this:

  1. Any time someone is caught using someone else's disabled permit, the penalties should be severe. Not the $100 mentioned in the Chronicle. Violators should be prosecuted in a meaningful way.

  2. Placards should not entitle holders to free parking at meters. There's just no rational explanation for this policy.

  3. Probably, the disabled person should lose his or her placard upon more than one infraction. I realize there is some possibility that the disabled person is being terrorized into allowing the placard's use, but my guess is in general they allow it because they see no downside.

  4. Standards for giving out disabled placards should be much, much more restrictive. A city the size of San Francisco should have maybe 5,000 of them issued, not 50,000.

I realize this problem has less import than the violence plaguing the East Bay, but it's these sorts of quality of life issues that make a place less livable and set up the preconditions for anti-social behavior. It's a simple fix, and it should be implemented.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Strange World Of The Berkeley Daily Planet

Let me warn readers in advance -- this post promises to be pretty dry. But I read a commentary piece in the Berkeley Daily Planet today that I felt I had to spend some time refuting.

I'm not sure who selects these pieces, but I want to renew my call that this paper seek some kind of balance. These pieces make all sorts of unrebutted assertions -- many of which range from the nonfactual to the downright uneducated.

The article in question is a piece titled "The Legacy of President George W. Bush," by Marvin Chachere of San Pablo. It appeared in the August 14-20 issue of the Daily Planet. Here is a link to the article. I will quote from it here, but I encourage readers to check it out in its entirety.

Chachere's basic contention is that Bush is a terrible president. This is not something that many would debate these days, and I don't have the inclination to do so at this point. However, I will say that I predict Bush will be viewed as a fairly ordinary president -- 50 years from now, that is.

I'd like to spend some time on Chachere's arguments. I'll use a point-counterpoint format.
Congressional representatives, for example, are not representative; "close to half" are millionaires.... The links 'of,' 'by' and 'for' between government and people have been permanently severed.

I doubt Chachere knows or cares, but George Washington was the wealthiest man in the country when he became president. No one -- not one person at the constitutional convention -- expected Congress to be truly "representative" of the nation's people. Quite the contrary. They anticipated a pair of patrician bodies mirroring those in Great Britain. They feared the "tyranny of the majority," and created numerous constructs to limit direct democratic rule. Examples include senators who were elected by state legislatures and an indirect election process for the president. While our founding documents contain grandiose language about the common welfare, it was understood that this was best protected by a high-IQ, high-income class of elites.
The [nation] has a fourth branch [of government], de facto unchecked and unbalanced, a cartel of corporate entities that has attained sui generis powers broad and strong enough to have its way with the other three.

What a bizarre contention. Since the mid-1930s, the broad trend of governance in our country has been toward more regulation and more state control over day-to-day activities. In spite of this trend, corporations have continued to prosper and offer jobs to our citizens. And, by the way, this oft-repeated argument presupposes that corporations are beings in and of themselves. That claim is false. Most Americans own stock in a wide variety of US corporations. Most Americans work for US corporations. So, when our author attacks corporations, he is attacking a broad swath of our country's citizenry.

And, I'll ignore the fact that the author's use of the term sui generis makes no sense whatsoever. But it sounds good!
The Supreme Court assumed a legislative role at the end of 2000 in voting for the 43rd president and again in reducing the amount of fine imposed for the Exxon Valdez oil spill (1989) to 10 cents on the dollar.

First, the Court's decision in Bush v. Gore was not legislative in the slightest. The court did what courts do -- deciding between two disputing parties. Same thing for the Valdez situation. Reducing a penalty is not a legislative act. It's a judicial one.
Congress gives tax breaks to the rich, fails to control corporate excesses ... and generally privatizes matters of public interest.

I'm not sure what country Chachere is living in. In America, the rich pay more than 75 percent of income taxes every year. Corporate excesses do exist, but what would he prefer? A command economy in which he would more than likely live in a slave-labor camp? And, as pointed out earlier, the trend in America has decidedly favored socialism and making private matters public, not the other way round.
The [country] is, nevertheless, infected with a stultifying two-party system that Washington dimly foresaw....

Well, now Chachere shows his true colors. Obviously he'd prefer a single-party state like that on such public display these days in China. I, for one, am grateful for the freedoms that flow from the dynamic tension created by a two-party system.

And, again Chachere has no idea wha he's talking about. Washington's comment was made in light of the presumption that the government would be run by a narrow set of elites. In essence, he was warning future Americans against allowing "the rabble" to participate too much in the process.


I realize the foregoing was pedantic. There were far more points I could have refuted in Chachere's article, but I just wanted to make a point. The Planet needs more balance. More intellectuals, fewer nutjob neo-Marxists.

What say you, Planet? You have my address.

Memo To Allen-Taylor: Dellums' Police Plan Insufficient

I had a good laugh this weekend as I relaxed at House of Curries in Elmwood and read the latest "UnderCurrents" column in the Berkely Daily Planet. Apparently author Allen-Taylor can't figure out why people don't find Mayor Oswald Bates' actions on policing to be sufficient.

I'll explain this conundrum in a minute, but first I'd like to challenge the Daily Planet to include some semblance of balance in its coverage. And, I'd like to formally offer my services as a columnist to balance out Mr. Allen-Taylor. I do live in the area, and I'm willing, ready and able to write if the Daily Planet is interested. I even have journalism experience!

But back to the matter at hand. Allen-Taylor is mystified as to why Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson seemingly switched sides and opposed Dellums' call for a new parcel tax to pay for 100 new police officers.

Allow me to clear this one up.

The problem is that Johnson called for this kind of action nearly a year ago. The mayor did literally everything he could to ignore the issue and even blame it on the law-abiding citizens of Oakland for having such a big problem with criminals.

In fact, even after finally admitting we have an issue, Dellums still describes it in the wrong terms -- characterizing criminals as economic "victims" instead of the anti-social element they truly represent.

Dellums seems to have made a career out of being late to the party. He didn't even consider running for mayor until standing in front of a crowd of people chanting his name. He completely ignored the obvious mismanagement under Deborah Edgerly until the last possible moment and he's late on this police initiative as well.

In other words, the man doesn't lead anything. He follows. That's a serious problem when you're -- well -- supposed to be the leader of the city.

Johnson also took issue with the specifics of Dellums' proposal. Now, as you all know, I actually favor the initiative because of its regressive tax structure. But, I can respect the opinion of Johnson, City Council President De La Fuente and others that the city can't bear another tax.

So, here we have another issue where Dellums is pretty much guaranteed to be late to the party: wasteful city spending which steals money away from vital services such as police.

V Smoothe published an excellent blog post recently about this very issue. Apparently Oakland pays its city employees around 120 percent of the regional average. That's particularly interesting considering our crime rate and the dearth of the kinds of services most cities expect out of their governments.

All this is to say that Johnson is probably right that the city should be looking for ways to devote more money to police without raising taxes. Dellums' plan, while nice in that it shows he's finally acknowledged the issues we had in 2007, completely fails to account for the realities of 2008.

Of course, maybe sometime in mid-2009 he will catch up with Johnson's logic and propose some budget cuts. Given his liberal credentials, it seems pretty unlikely.


As an aside, if my readers did click the link to Allen-Taylor's article at the top of this post, I suggest you read carefully his discussion of Councilmember Desley Brooks' summertime entertainment events. Does it make anyone else a little worried that the Nation of Islam is policing these events?

And, while I'm at it, what's the deal with Allen-Taylor spilling so much ink about Brooks and Dellums -- Oakland's top black politicians? Is this some sort of racism at work?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Dellums: Poor Criminals Just Need A Better Economy

Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums appears intent on digging the hole he's standing in as deep as possible.

Today, this man claimed that the recent rash of restaurant-takeover robberies should be blamed on people desperate due to economic circumstances, not on the real culprit: anti-social men with no sense of normal human decency (sound familiar?).

I have a few things to say about this matter. First, I strongly suggest my readers click the first link above and actually listen to the mayor's statement. The man sounds like Oswald Bates. Don't know who that is? Well, here's a video for you courtesy of YouTube:

Mayor Dellums, is that you back in 1991? No, it's actually Damon Wayans. Ironically, it was the Wayans family who recently grabbed Dellums' ear to try and earmark part of the old Oakland Army Base for their loony movie studio project about a year ago. A coincidence?

Second, I take issue with Dellums using language like "daring" to describe these felons.

For one thing, it's not like these are clever criminals. Now some sort of cybercriminal who hacks into databases might be someone worthy of intellectual admiration. These guys are just low-class thugs and should be treated as such.

But regardless, our mayor should not be making statements which even remotely glorify those who terrorize our community.

I've had enough of this. It's time for people to stop trying to polish this turd of a mayor. It's time to flush the toilet.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Mr. Dellums, Have You Left No Sense Of Decency?

Readers have come to expect me to poke fun at Oakland's city government, but even I base my commentary on the assumption that they are at least trying to do what's best for those who elected them.

Now I'm starting to question that very basic assumption.

Take a look at the latest article from the East Bay Express about the LLAD tax increase.

For those of you who don't know the back-story on this, the tax increase passed by a disputed mail-in vote of property owners. To their credit, the City Council rescinded the increase a couple weeks ago, citing a recent court ruling.

The entire core of the dispute over the LLAD increase related to the fact that the city allowed government-owned properties to vote on the tax. The problem there is that, since taxes are paid to the government, it doesn't really mean anything when the government-owned properties must pay a tax.

This trick was used, in part, to pass the 2004 Wildfire Prevention District. So, I didn't find it that surprising to see it return this time around.

What I do find surprising, however, is the Express' well-researched allegation that Dellums lobbied the Peralta school district to vote yes on the LLAD measure by essentially promising that they would not have to pay the tax.

This move goes beyond mere campaigning or even trickery to out-and-out deception. Dellums appears to want to sidestep the entire democratic process to achieve his objectives.

At this point I wonder whom Mr. Dellums even claims to represent.

He obviously does not hope to represent the citizens of Oakland, or its property owners. He's shown that by actively working to subvert the popular will, apparently going so far as to try and steal money from us via a sham election. And what for? He doesn't even have any concrete plans for spending the money. I don't even think he lives here.

He doesn't appear to represent himself. These past two years he's made a complete fool of himself. Not one single action he has taken as mayor has brought credit on himself. Whatever legacy he might have had from his days in Congress is now destroyed.

He doesn't even appear to represent the status quo and the bureaucracy. Otherwise, he would have found some way to collude with Deborah Edgerly and avoid firing her.

Not to say that he didn't try. The man did try to do the wrong thing. Unfortunately, he failed at that too.

In fact, I doubt I've ever seen another political leader who was such an utter and total failure. This man reminds me of the Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, repeatedly scheming against his citizens and constantly too stupid to actually carry out his plans.

His only redeeming value lies in watching him jump off the cliff, slam to the desert floor, then have a conveniently placed boulder fall on top of him.

Well, here he goes again.

If the man had a shred of decency or pride, he would resign. But he will not. Like most charlatans, he'll play his part until the final scene of the final act, then bow out.

Perhaps Oakland doesn't deserve any better than this sad, sad, pathetically sad little man.

Still, those of us who remain here can wish for something more.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Crystal Ball Says: Higher Taxes For Oakland

Ok, I admit it. My "crystal ball" consists of an old Coke can wrapped in a piece of paper that says "taxes will rise."

I agree with V Smoothe that this summer has been a pretty bleak time for Oakland, but I'm going to go ahead and address our taxation future.

I do this as a public service to help my readers discern their financial future, even as Oakland resolutely refuses to plan rationally for its own.

We all know that Mayor Dellums intimated that the city's budget deficit will likely exceed the May suggestion of $15M. I don't put a whole lot of stock in this figure, or any numbers that come out of the city. I think it's fair to say that the deficit will be "a lot," and that the city will be completely unwilling to cut any of its silly pet projects to pay for necessary services.

A government's only real source of income is taxation. Cities can't run deficits, ours won't cut its budget, so the only thing left is our checking accounts.

True to form, the city council hastily called an emergency meeting for last Wednesday to discuss taxing us more.

They definitely want to place a parcel tax on the ballot for more cops, a measure which I don't really oppose since parcel taxes are regressive.

The other item on the agenda was the "Kids First" initiative. I was going to go look up what that is, but then I got kind of bummed out and decided not to.

The thing that bummed me out was this article in the Oakland Tribune about another $120 parcel tax headed for the ballot. This one is for teacher pay. Interestingly, the Oakland teachers' union opposes it, which suggests to me that they have some cleverer trick up their sleeve to bilk us out of still more money later.

Let me remind readers that the only time in my memory a parcel tax actually failed was the one to convert the Kaiser convention center to a main library. Everything else passes. Always.

So, get ready for some nice juicy property tax hikes. I am glad that all the proposals seem to be regressive, so in some senses I might come out on top here. But, it would be still nicer to see our government look for places to cut.

Governor Proposes Higher Sales Taxes

I was disappointed, though not terribly surprised, to read today that the governor has proposed raising sales taxes by a penny to deal with the state's budget deficit. He's characterized the increase as temporary, but anyone who has paid any attention to politics in the past couple decades knows that's a complete joke.

California already has one of the highest sales tax rates in the country, and Alameda County is one of the worst in the state. With this increase, we'd be looking at a nearly 10 percent sales tax rate. It's seriously hard to imagine how we can possibly attract new businesses and non-welfare-recipient residents in such a situation.

I'm really not sure how this budget deficit will play out. It's obvious to me, and most right-thinkers, that the simple solution is to change the state's practices as regards civil servants and indigent medical care. In other words, we need to follow Nevada's lead and actually cut the budget.

But that won't happen -- not on any meaningful scale anyway.

The thing I think will be interesting is to see how the state handles this situation. My guess is we'll follow the lead of places like Canada, where they simply continually pile on new taxes without any regard for driving off residents and jobs.

At the same time, I'd assume California will attempt to turn its balance of payments with the federal government from negative to positive, consuming more spending per dollar of federal taxes paid.

But all these things won't work if we keep increasing spending on core budget items such as salaries (plus benefits) and health care at rates dramatically higher than inflation plus population growth. The miracle of compound interest is working against us, and I see no near-term solution.

So, I guess we should all get ready to enjoy the highest sales tax rates in the country.