Monday, September 29, 2008
Congress is hopelessly deadlocked on approving a financial bailout of its buddies on Wall Street, and the gridlock is blinding lawmakers from doing any other real, substantive work on equally important issues…like tax policy, energy policy, and the connections between the two.
Ironically, the financial dilemma facing Congress is one of its own making, through myopic legislation agg’ed on by sycophant lobbyists pandering to willing representatives.
The result has been an economy based upon the creation of nothing tangible, creating services financed by instruments no one understood, and which no one could manage.
It was all fed by personal greed, and a certain level of laziness.
Congress’ inability to act resulted, among other things, in the moratorium against offshore drilling expiring over the weekend. Did you notice the rush by all the oil companies to plunge their drill bits into once sacrosanct geologic formations?
What was that giant sucking sound, anyway?
It was Reality smacking these politicians in their collective backsides as a missed opportunity to lead and guide the nation’s energy policy slipped through their fingers.
For the record, I am for drilling—the more the merrier—fully realizing it is not the be-all, end-all solution for our energy problems.
Thomas Friedman penned a brilliant piece this week for the New York Times in which he correctly pointed out that the solution to one problem could also solve the other: the bailout can’t do what a build-up would for our economy.
That’s what made this country great, and our ability to produce became the envy of the modern world. We even taught the Japanese a thing or two about mass-production.
Somewhere along the line, however, we got the notion that building things wasn’t nearly as providing services…and as the tactile side of our ingenuity began to slip and slide to factories on the other side of the globe, we became more than a debtor nation to financial interests—we became a nation beholden to others to produce the raw goods.
Friedman is calling for a Green Revolution to cure the blues in our economy. Incentives to build structures that are ecologically sensitive would in the long run also be economically sensible: the less energy they require to heat, cool and operate, the less we’d have to produce.
Or buy from someone else.
The key to propping up our economy is to rev up our inventiveness in building structures and machines that are more energy efficient—and that does not necessarily mean such products should cost a premium price.
(Remember, we’re not on the best financial footing these days.)
The less energy it takes to operate our infrastructure, the less dependant we will be on foreign sources of energy. Within the Green building sphere is a wide spectrum of applications…fertile soil indeed in which ideas and innovation could flourish.
By the way--the realtively cheap fuel prices you're enjoying this month are a result of a slackening of demand.
The less we useed, the cheaper it got--even with a major hurricane blowing through.
Monday, September 22, 2008
Much has happened in that time…and little has changed.
The politicians are still fussing and fighting over what to do about the economy and the federal bail out of financial giants deemed too big to fail…
The two Presidential Candidates and their running mates continue to astound and amaze the general public with their wealth of knowledge about why their opponent would make a lousy choice in November…
And here in the Houston-Galveston corridor, the clean-up continues, the lights are coming on slowly but surely, and I am reminded of a phrase that was told me by an acquaintance this summer, Belinda Postman-Kaylani, who said, "not all heroes wear capes."
Think about that.
Not all heroes wear capes.
Some of them wear hard hats and heavy gloves and ride cherry-picker lifts to dizzying heights to clear tangled power lines, or replace blown-out transformer canisters…
Not all heroes wear capes.
Some of them wear ball caps and knee-high rubber boots, and push water, and muck, and mud out the front door of convenience stores, ground-floor apartments, and hotel lobbies that were inundated by Hurricane Ike’s storm surge…
Not all heroes wear capes…
Some of them wear sneakers, shorts and t-shirts imprinted with their employer’s logo, or their college fraternity or sorority letters--or just anything they happened to grab--before they headed out from their house with no electricity or water or roof…and lined up with other volunteers at the POD locations around town to help distribute ice and water and M-R-E’s…
No, not all heroes wear capes.
And not all heroes think themselves to be heroic.
But to each of you who lent a hand, climbed up on a roof to tack down a blue plastic sheet, cooked a meal, washed a load of dirty laundry, or carved up a fallen tree…to someone, you are a hero.
You are heroic.
And Houston-Galveston is home to some of the most heroic people on earth.
One of those heroic groups is The Lighthouse Charity Team, which is one of the non-profit 501 (c) 3 organizations that has been providing the behind the scenes support for those providing support behind the scenes. That means The Lighthouse has been providing 3-meals a day for the Office of Emergency Management, City Employees, Police, Fire and EMT crews as they responded to the community of Friendswood.
The Lighthouse teams and equipment are now stationed at the Del Papa Distribution Center in Galveston, providing 2 meals a day for 250 emergency workers, including Galveston Police, Fire fighters, National Guardsmen, and other recovery groups.
These are heroes helping heroes…and they are in need of—and worthy of—your financial support. Those of you with your lights on, you can still help. If you, your business, your neighbors, or anyone else you know is in a position to donate time, contact The Lighthouse today.
Volunteers are the strongest asset of The Lighthouse. If you’ve got your hands full, putting your own life back together, but can provide financial assistance, you can be a hero in that way, too. Pay Pal is set up now on The Lighthouse website—or you can call Scott Gordon this morning at 281-482-9400.
There are lots and lots of our neighbors still in need of help.
There are lots and lots of ways that you can provide help.
This is your opportunity to be a hero, too.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
The Clanton Hacienda remains in al-fresco mode as well. As the temps start to creep upward, the hammock in the back yard is going to look more and more appealing.
The damage in the area is beyond comprehension. Repairs for Kemah alone will top $50-million.
The cost of hauling off the ruins and trash for the metropolitan area is estimated to hit $128-million.
How much trash is that?
The Army Corps of Engineers figure up to ten-million cubic yards of debris will have to be hauled and disposed of.
If you’re still waiting for the power to return…get ready to take it slow. It’s a good idea to disconnect the larger appliances from their power sources until the grid in your area is energized and stabilized. We recommend un plugging the refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers…and especially the big-screen TV until everything else has been on for at least an hour---take it slow. The last item you should power-up is your A/C.
While we were riding out the storm this weekend, there were storm clouds over Wall Street…
How big is too big to fail?
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: Too big to fail.
Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers: sorry.
Now there's American International Group: gonna have to that company on life support:
The Federales are stepping in with an $85 billion bailout of AIG to prevent the bankruptcy of the nation's biggest insurer and the worst financial collapse in history.
According to Bloomberg, the Federal Reserve will provide a two-year loan, take over 79.9% percent of the company's stock and replace its management because "a disorderly failure of AIG could add to already significant levels of financial market fragility.''
AIG unraveled as the housing crisis resulted in more than $18 billion of losses in the past year. What would an AIG meltdown have cost? Hard to tell, but a close guestimate is somewhere in the $180-billion range, because AIG provides insurance on more than $441 billion of fixed-income investments held by the world's biggest institutions. $57.8 billion of that is in securities tied to subprime mortgages.
Here’s something of a surprise: After Hurricane Ike knocked several drilling rigs and oil refineries offline this weekend, Oil prices continue to retreat. On Tuesday oil plunged $10 a barrel in a violent, two-day slide.
Here’s why: The messiness on Wall Street looks like HWY 146 through Kemah…and any hopes for a swift economic recovery are dimming. That typically means another drop in U.S. energy demand. Crude, which shot up near $150 a barrel only two months ago, is now down 8% for the year.
While gas prices are notching higher at the pump, topping $3.85 a gallon amid the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, with the continuing slide of crude prices, retail gas is expected to turn lower within a few weeks.
The House has done an about-face and approved a package of energy initiatives. Carefule, the devil is in the details. There are elements that would allow oil drilling as close as 50 miles off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and in a nod to renewable energy proponents, provision to finance the long-term development of alternative energy sources.
However, most Republicans rejected the Democratic-sponsored legislation because it would prohibit exploration of much of the known oil reserves closer to the coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico.
The legislation next heads to the Senate, where three competing alternative ideas await. What are the odds Congress will pass it before the November elections? If they do, what are the odds it's something you can live with?
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
--Ken Hoffman, The Houston Chronicle
The Great Storm of 2008 had a name: Ike. It’s been compared to The Great Storm of 1900 in many ways, and from the accounts I have seen, may have done more damage to Galveston than the earlier storm did—only because there were more dwellings now than then.
In our neighborhood, 75-miles from the coast, Ike cut us some slack. There are many roofs on my block that are damaged, but our houses are still standing, and we have shelter. The subtle sounds of suburbia have been replaced by the droning of portable generators from all quadrants, and in the distance, the buzz of chainsaws still at work, clearing fallen trees.
On Sunday morning we met for church services in a darkened auditorium, sang hymns by flashlight, and fanned the stale air with last week’s church bulletins.
The message was even more poignant because the words were spoken without the aid of a PA system , and punctuated without an overhead slide show. Within our group of saints, I am aware of no loss of life, no catastrophic damage.
We were blessed.
Adversity brings out the best in some people, and the worst in others. I heard some of the most insipid, rude, and disrespective tones from reporters directed towards our local leadership, as they asked questions that most of the rest of us already knew the answer to (why isn’t there enough ice, and why don’t you know when it will be here?)
In contrast, as Sunday became Monday, and the ice withered, frozen food began to thaw, neighbors all over the city came together on clearings in their driveways and pooled their cookers and meats and threw one of the biggest post-storm cook-outs in recent memory.
All was shared with all.
Monday turned to Tuesday, and the sour food was bagged and carried to the curb. The refrigerator and freezer stood open-mouthed, gaping in their sterile emptiness, waiting for the power to be restored. I filled up my fuel tank in the evening, hoping the wait would be shorter (it was) and the temperature a little cooler.
I think I waited in line all of 10-minutes.
No sweat, literally.
Tuesday is drawing to a close.
The house is still dark, but still cool, thanks to the mild autumn-like weather.
I have gotten to know my neighbors better, been fed well from a non-FEMA community chest of food, and found a peacefulness that can only be achieved by recognizing what is really important in life…
and not being able to turn on the TV.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Wind and rain wracked our neighborhood all through the night, and the power finally failed around 3am.
As daylight begain to reveal the storm's damage, I realized how blessed we are to have come through the storm safely, and our home intact.
Neighbors on either side sustained roof damage; trees in yards around ours were toppled by the hurricane-force winds as they raked across the open spaces between houses.
But we're unharmed.
God is great.
Daylight is revealing the effects of what has been a massive storm, a system almost the size of Texas.
We're hearing reports of damaged buildings in downtown Houston, Brennan's Restaurant, a venerable establishment for over 40-years, burned out of control during the night.
A wall of the Westin Galleria Hotel came crashing down into a guest's room--just moments after he'd awakened and gotten out of bed.
There will be many, many such stories to relate as Saturday gets underway.
Friday, September 12, 2008
The Great Storm of 1900 that devastated Galveston Island was a Category-5 storm...they think. Isaac Kline, the meteorologist on duty on the island at the time, lost his instrumentation at some point in the storm. Before his barometer and aerometer were blown away, the instruments recorded astounding wind speeds and barometric pressures. The story of his experiences is chronicled in "Isaac's Storm," written by Eric Larson.
In 1900 Kline was one of only a handful of people knew that storm was coming. Tragically, most of the ignorant ones perished in the storm. The massive storm surge from the 1900 hurricane had no seawall to restrain it, and the island was quickly inundated with a 17-foot surge.
Hurricane Ike has similar capabilities, and forecasters are warning of a massive storm surge of 20-feet, sweeping over Galveston Island, into the bay, and up the Houston Ship Channel.
Earlier this evening, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst estimated storm damages from Ike to exceed $100-million because of the numerous low-lying towns along the coast, and the concentration of petroleum refineries along the upper Texas coast.
Tonight, while hundreds of thousands are without power as Hurricane Ike approaches, millions have been made aware of the storm's arrival. Its coming is no surprise.
If you're reading this from other points on the globe, you might want to take a look at this composite of local TV feeds and weather radar (thanks to Michael Garfield for the link!)
A personal note: We are riding out the storm in our home in northwest Harris county.
The rule of thumb for such storms is to "run from the water, hide from the wind."
The Clanton Hacienda has been transformed into the Clanton Bunker.
As I write this, one of the family mascots is hunkering down next to my thigh in my chair.
She's got the right idea.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
History suggests that:
The Great Fire of London occurred in September 1666. King Charles II had a baker that liked French cooking, apparently.
In September 1894, the Great Hinkley Fire killed 800 and burned 200,000 acres of Minnesota forest land in 4-hours.
The Great Storm of 1900 wiped most of Galveston off the island in September of that year.
And in September 2001, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City were toppled by Al Qaida thugs commandeering two jet liners and flying them into the buildings.
The co-conspirators hijacked two other jets, crashing one into the Pentagon in Washginton, D. C., and the other augured into a cornfield in Shankstown, Pennsylvania.
I’ve written six columns about 9/11 in the Septembers following that fateful, horrible day. I never grow weary of the telling of that gruesome tale, because it embodies all that is good about America: sacrifice, honor, bravery, valor, flag, and country.
A past column of mine appears in today’s edition of an on-line publication, The Cypress Times.
From the ashes of the World Trade Center arose renewed patriotism and purpose in this country. I fear we have allowed that ardor to cool over the past seven years. Oh, it’s still there, and just you try to take a swipe at us and you’ll still see what Americans are made of. But the public outpouring has diminished somewhat, I fear. Perhaps that’s just the Septemberness showing in those emotions…
Is it now the autumn of our expression of appreciation, gratitude, and reverence for those who were taken from us, those who gave themselves to save them, and those who remain behind, and bear the scars even today of that ignoble date in our nation’s history?
How ironic on this 9/11 Day we along the Gulf Coast of Texas are bracing for another one of those natural disasters that are a part of life in these climes.
Will we again be called upon to sacrifice?
Will we again be asked to persevere as we suffer?
Will we be up to the task as Hurricane Ike bears down upon us?
I think so.
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
But you're here, and I thank you.
Here are some Things in the News today that make you ponder...
Don't Tase de Bro'
A study by the City of Houston notes that the local constabulary, armed with pistols, billy clubs, batons and tasers, discharged these latter forms of personal protection against Black suspects more often than other ethnicities in our fair city.
67% of such confrontations, to be precise.
My first impulse question was, "what's the demographic breakdown of bad guys in H-town?"
In other words, was there an inordinately higher number of infractions committed by one ethnic group than another?
Houston's finest confronted more Blacks than Latino's, 46% to 28%. But the incidents of Tasering (aha, a Noun becomes a Verb!) per demographic group were lop-sided. 67% of Blacks were zapped, while only 24% of Latinos required jolting into compliance.
I would love to see the video clips of those arrests so that we might observe the initial demeanor and resulting behaviors in these cases.
Compare and contrast, as it were.
Interestingly, Anglo arrests clocked in at 24%, but only 9% of those required a shocking reminder of who was in charge.
So to speak.
These numbers were culled from a survey of 1,400 arrests between December 2004 and June of last year in which Tasers were deployed. The good news is, the cops tased the bro's in stead of shooting them. The not so good news from HPD's numbers is that the use of tasers has not appreciably dented the rate of police shootings.
The Politics of Ice Queens
Sen. Hillary Clinton is showing uncharacteristic restraint in her comments regarding Gov. Sarah Palin. You'd think someone would have already booked an arena with a mud pit in which the pair might square off.
Gov. Palin praised the efforts of Mrs. Clinton, and the Senator from New York commended the accomplishment of Mrs. Palin in receiving the GOP nod for Veep.
Hillary quipped this week that "anyone who believes the Republicans can fix the mess...probably believes the iceberg could have saved the Titanic." Actually, Senator, the Titanic was sunk not by an iceberg, but by the structural failure of the vessel, due to sub-quality steel in her hull and rivets, made brittle by the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. The iceberg was the instrument by which that flaw was revealed.
An interesting analogy, since neither party has yet to produce enough lifeboats or flotation devices to save the citizenry; nor could they correct some of the fundamental flaws in our national course to avoid hitting metaphorical bergs that could be the undoing of our ship of state.
Monday, September 08, 2008
So this afternoon, I dropped by the closest toilet tank spare part emporium, and quickly selected from the array of parts on display what I believed would be just the part to replace my broken one.
The Plumbing gods mocked me even as I left the store, mis-fitting part in hand.
Of course, I did not know this until I had completed my roundtrip from home to store and back, where upon I discovered the lever thingy intersected the arc described by the float thingy as it sank and rose on the water level in the tank. Sir Thomas Crapper snickered in his grave.
I glanced at the clock, and called ahead to my friendly, helpful hardware store, to be informed that they were open until 8pm. With 55-minutes to burn, I cheerfully dropped the top on The Silver Bullet, and leisurely drove through a dozen neighborhoods to the hardware store.
It was closed.
Some teenager in a work vest was sweeping the lot behind a padlocked iron gate barring entry.
Appealing to his sense of reason was a lost effort.
There would be no even exchange for a flush lever that did not cross swords with the float arm tonight.
I returned home...dejected...and then inspired.
Ladies and gentlemen, you are witness to the spark of creative genius that has propelled mankind forward ever since Barney Rubble fell through the floorboard and Fred Flintstone discovered the parking brake. I brilliantly constructed in my mind a solution that would not only allow me to easily flush, but also save time and gallons of water used. The Clanton Hacienda would go green first in the water closet!
Think for a moment--what's the first thing you do after completing your business in the water closet?
Alright, what's the first thing your mother TOLD you to do after completing your business?
"Wash your hands with soap and water."
What if you could complete your business, wash your hands, and flush, all at the same place?
May I present the ACME Toilet Tank Convertible Flush and Wash Kit:
It's actually pretty ingenious, if I say so myself.
After completion, simply dip your hand into the tank, grab the soap from the attractive, chrome wire shelf, rinse in the tank, and flush by grasping the easy-to-reach flush line, attached to the handsome fishing float near the top of the open tank.
A convenient towel holder is mounted adjacent to the soap holder. The entire assembly sits atop the open tank, where no longer will mold fester and blacken the ceramic, and the mysteries of toilet tank mechanics are revealed to all. A simple one-two-three, and you're empty, cleaned, and flushed in seconds. Spit-spot and you're done, as Mary Poppins might remark.
You don't think this will catch on?
Fortunately, I still have my receipt for the mal-aligned part.
The lid goes back on the tank tomorrow.
Oh, by the way--to all you hardware store operators reading this.
It is neither helpful or friendly to have some ditz answering the phone who doesn't know when the store closes.
Allowing the government sponsored enterprises to fail would have been catastrophic to financial markets. Allowing them to continue to operate with business-as-usual would have been no less damaging, and possibly a dereliction of duty. To be sure, hatchets will fall on the heads of individuals charged with the fiduciary responsibility of running these companies in a sound and prudent manner. For now, however, the conscientious thing to do is make sure the cancer of corrupted accounting does not creep any further than it already has.
It’s been said when US markets sneeze, the rest of the world catches the flu. The global mortgage markets have been coughing and wheezing since our domestic mortgage meltdown began to infect the foreign markets with a fever. Here’s why I believe the Treasury Dept. did the right thing on Sunday.
Somewhere, somehow, someone must be held accountable for the stupidity, laxity, and greediness that has brought us to an environment in which there are more mortgage loans on the skids than at any time since The Great Depression.
Yes, it’s an election year.
Neither party is blameless in turning a blind eye to the financial shenanigans that resulted in loan packaging that is so convoluted and so corroded no one can figure out what’s going on, beyond the fact that they stink. It is in the best interest of the country to lock the doors on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, figuratively, sweep out the trash, literally, and begin with a clearer picture of how these companies will operate, hand-in-hand with the Treasury Dept.
Because Fannie and Freddie operated with the implied support of the Government, investors assumed the GSE’s were bullet proof. As the mortgage meltdown reached a boiling point and foreign investors became skittish about the paper they were holding, fewer were willing to buy additional contracts, which had the effect of shutting down liquidity in the marketplace.
With the gloves off, the government stepping in, and no question going unanswered, confidence should return.
It won’t happen overnight.
If you’re in a stable mortgage, hold onto it.
If you’re in trouble, talk to your lender, because they don’t really want your house back. They’ve got plenty already, thankyouverymuch.
In fact, the odds are that mortgage lenders are going to be even more flexible in the future in the ways that they create workouts for troubled loans. The modus operandi will be “keep them in their homes; we don’t want another REO.”
What happens with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will be key to the survivability of the domestic mortgage markets, and the financial credibility of the US on the global stage.
Fannie Mae CEO Daniel Mudd is out; so is Richard Syron, CEO of Freddie Mac.
They will be replaced by men who have faced similar challenges in the past: former TIAA-CREF Chairman Herb Allison will wield the broom at Fannie Mae, and former U.S.Bancorp CFO David Moffett will muster the assets at Freddie Mac. They’ve got their work cut out for them as they clean house, shore up morale, re-establish trust in these institutions, and eventually, wean them completely off the public teat.
Shareholders of Freddie and Fannie probably aren’t going to be too happy with their stock performance in the near term. While I am not recommending you run right out and buy any more, it would be interesting to watch the price of those shares just after the companies emerge from their reorganization. Warren Buffet was observed snapping up beaten-down shares of other troubled financial companies early in the meltdown. His behavior through all of this has been worthy of observation and emulation.
Am I happy my tax dollars are going to bail out two of the biggest dawgs in the tall grass?
However, I consider this a relatively cheap price for maintaining and repairing the integrity of the domestic mortgage markets.
I am not in the market for a home loan now, but I will be in the future, and frankly, I don’t want to kow tow to a foreign lender for my next mortgage.
Sunday, September 07, 2008
Facing a plumbing repair.
On the weekend.
With no hardware stores open.
Yeah, great way to cap off a weekend: fixing a stubborn toilet fixture on Sunday night.
You know the drill, don’t you?
Getting ready for a big week ahead.
Getting ready for bed.
Doing the toilet thing…and you flush…and the handle comes off in you hand.
I would rather have to jam a plunger clear to China than have to face fixing a toilet on a Sunday night.
I think the plumbing gods knew this when I was born.
“Here’s a sucker,” they laughed to one another.
“We will confound his thinking and put stumbling blocks in his way by creating multiple-sized fittings, and cursing the PVC fixtures in his house with stripped threads and rounded corners on all critical parts,” they gurgled back and forth on Mt. American Standard.
Or was it Mt. Kohler?
All my life, my patience has been tested, and at times my language tinged by the plumbing puzzles thrown my way.
I should be able to field-strip and re-assemble a toilet valve fixture blind folded, with one arm pinned behind my back. I’ve felt that way many times, trying to repair a leaky valve, noisy tank, or in tonight’s exciting episode, a broken flush lever.
Who in their right mind would mount a toilet in a space with about three inches clearance either side of a wall? I know, I know…some rich architect who can afford to pay a plumber to come out and fix it for him.
On a Sunday night?
I doubt it.
Here is one chore that’s going to just have to fester until Monday afternoon, after I’ve had time to finish my planned appointments with important people and places doing constructive things…then I’ll trudge into the plumbing aisle of the hardware store and fall on the mercy of the shop keeper there.
I’ll probably buy two of everything, because with my record, nothing ever works the first time. Can you feel me?
Thanks for reading.
This was very therapeutic for me.