Dear Austin

Dear Austin,

I’ve seen you in the news a lot lately, so I just wanted to check in and say how proud I am of you, little brother. It’s been a while.

You probably saw that “I love you tacos so much” mural goof I did in late 2015. Yeah, a lot of people liked that. God only knows how many have had their picture taken in front of that wall. Like I said, I did it as a goof, but also I meant it as a sign of respect for you and for tacos.Lil Bro

The other day I was trying to remember when the last time was that we really got together on something big. I think it was all the dreaming and planning we did for that commuter rail line that would’ve linked us together. Looking back on it, maybe I wanted it more than you did. But I could tell you wanted it too.

I hope I didn’t annoy you. If I did, I apologize.

Also, in case you heard about one or two news stories where it looked like I was bragging about poaching a couple of your tech companies — just so you know, the reporters took what I said way out of context. I called up them after the stories ran and gave them absolute hell. IT is really just a side hustle of mine. You obviously own that industry. You always had the head for that kind of thing, and the flagship university campus and the rest of the tech infrastructure.

Hey, along those lines, you’ve probably heard about the Adopt-a-City competition that Amazon announced a few weeks ago. Sounds like what they’re talking about is a complete makeover for the winner– a second corporate headquarters and 50,000 new jobs. I was like wow. But still, I didn’t think about it that much until the craziest thing started happening. Friends were coming to me and saying, “Hey, if you and your brother teamed up as a single contestant, you could win!” A couple of them said our pairing up would be “singularly disruptive.” They even came up with a name: San Austin.

Man, I laughed hard. So lame. But it kept coming up again and again and again, until finally I decided I should give it some thought. And you know what? It started making sense to me. Our populations are coming together along I-35 — fastest-growing corridor in the country! And our skills are complementary. I’m a back-office kind of guy — lots of call centers, plenty of high school graduates willing to do the work, lots of bilingual workers. I also have a bunch of server farms — always happy to build more! — and cheap electricity rates. And you — you’d be front-office all the way, the brains of the operation. You’d bring all that flashy IT talent and that cool urban thing you have down. (You know me — just beer and hanging out with friends and family.) The more I think about it, the more I think we’d be unbeatable.

And look, I know you wouldn’t really need me in order to compete. But, honestly, the money and exposure would help me out. You should know, though, I am doing better. I’m working on my weight problem. My high-school and college graduation rates still aren’t great but they’re heading in the right direction. Same with my teen pregnancy rates.  Still don’t really have a mass transit plan or housing policy, but I do have SA Tomorrow, so there’s that. I know what you’re thinking: Make the improvements I need to make, take care of the fundamentals, and the economic growth will come…. Or I could compete for HQ 2 with you now, win it, and let the Amazon magic do its thing. That’s my preference.

If you have time to come visit to talk it over,  I’ll take you to this place I’ve been dying for you to see — the Pearl. I think you’ll love it. Let me know!

In the meantime, keep thinking San Austin, San Austin, San Austin….

 

Love always bro,

San Antonio

 

 

 

A Plan to End VIA’s Pauper Status

As most of you know, VIA Metropolitan Transit is embarrassingly underfunded.

For riders, that means a lot of waiting around for too few buses and too many transfers. Thousands of their hours are wasted every day at VIA’s 7,193 bus stops.

That’s because VIA gets a sliver of the sales-tax dollars that public transit agencies in other major Texas cities receive – one-half cent for every $100 compared to a full cent in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston.VIA

Here’s how the tax works: the state of Texas imposes a sales tax of 6.25 percent; on top of that, cities, counties, transit authorities, and special-purpose districts are allowed to tack on another 2 percent.

Unfortunately, we are maxed out. The city of San Antonio receives 1 percent of the sales tax, VIA gets 0.5 percent, and the remaining 0.5 percent is split between aquifer protection and linear parks (0.125 percent), pre-kindergarten education (0.125 percent), and the Advanced Transportation District (0.25 percent) – for a grand total of 2 percent. The ATD sends half of its tax revenue to VIA, which is better than nothing, but not by a huge amount.

To raise VIA’s funding to where it should be, we’d need to let the other voter-approved uses expire and ask voters to OK giving VIA the combined 0.5 percent.

Which won’t happen because it would be a real pain in the ass. Pre-K, the ATD, and aquifer protection have ardent supporters who would raise hell. Besides, voters approved each of these initiatives. And I’m pretty sure zero is the number of officials willing to stand up and say, “Pre-K for SA is great, but mass transit is actually closer to a core function of local government.”

By the way, don’t even think about touching the city of San Antonio’s 1-percent slice.

But, look, we’re not about hard choices at SanAntoniomizer. We want you to be happy, your brow unclouded. So we’ve come up with a work-around.

Here’s what we’re proposing: Disguise VIA as something that we really care about and in which we are willing to invest significant public dollars.

The following are the steps VIA’s board of trustees need to take:

  1. Hire an expensive brand consultant to come up with a new name that totally obscures what the bus agency does. Maybe something like VeloCity or, even better, VeloCity Human. By making the name incomprehensible, you’ll give people the impression that this is a company on the move, with big, undefined changes afoot. Who knows? Maybe it’ll even move its headquarters.
  2. Work out a deal with developers to build a breathtaking new office building at the Pearl, preferably a structure so green the walls will actually be fashioned out of native grasses. Think about it. How many millions of public dollars, through incentives and bond financing, have flowed into the Broadway corridor over the Decade of Downtown so far? It’s VeloCity Human’s turn to scoop up some of that beautiful money with a Pearl HQ.
  3. This is probably the most crucial step: VeloCity Human’s trustees must convince one of the suburban cities in which the company operates – say, Elmendorf – to put together a relocation package for its headquarters, which is currently located on San Pedro Avenue. Suddenly it’s a competition! What are you going to offer, San Antonio and Bexar County peeps? After all, you surely don’t want to be the ones accused of “losing” VeloCity Human to Elmendorf. It’s true that such a move would have no impact on the regional economy. Economics aren’t that parochial. But good news for VeloCity Human – relocation politics are.
  4. Work out a hefty package of giveaways to secure your move to the Pearl. This will be tricky. Because VeloCity Human is a public-owned entity, it doesn’t pay property taxes. So no tax abatements or tax rebates. Instead, the company will have to negotiate a bunch of big grants and zero-interest loans.
  5. Once the deal is done, and VeloCity Human has settled into its new home at the Pearl, trustees will be in an excellent position to go to the city and county, and say: “As you know, what we do is very important to the community. It must be because we’re headquartered at the Pearl, and you spent millions of taxpayers’ dollars to help us get there. Also, as our new name hints, we’re changing our business model. Just consider these nine words: Technology platform, multi-modal things, disruption, millennials, and driverless stuff. We’ll leave these duffel bags on your desk. Please pack them with tax revenue, and we’ll drop by tomorrow to pick them up. Thank you.”

There’s no reason to think this scheme won’t work. It’s certainly more compelling than blathering on about making life better for people who have to take buses to get to work, school, or the doctor.

A Gallon to Kill For

You are not in good shape, pal.

You’ve been trolling for gasoline for your Jeep Patriot for five days without luck. You poured the last of your lawnmower gas into your tank this morning. You remember stirring some kind of oil into the lawnmower gas because that’s what Snapper ordered you to do in the owner’s manual. At first, you try not to think about what kind of mischief the oily gas is getting into in the engine. Then you realize you don’t really care as long as the Patriot starts.

If worse comes to worse — and worse is already within earshot of worse — you have a plan to beat your neighbor to death with a baseball bat, siphon the gas from his huge SUV, and steal his lawnmower gas. It’s a riding lawnmower. Yes, of course you know you could siphon his SUV gas and steal his lawnmower gas in the middle of the night without killing him. But the plan as originally envisioned just feels right. It would be both a statement and a way to get the gas you need to go on living the life you’re entitled to.

What’s the statement?

It is this: You would rather kill your neighbor with a baseball bat than ride a VIA bus.

VIA Buses of Doom

The public service announcement comes on. Imagine it as a voice actress taking the seat next to you, and saying: “Thank you for choosing to ride VIA.”

That’s nice, you think. Plain-vanilla nice, but OK. What the voice actress lacks in professional gloss, she makes up for in politeness.

After a few minutes of silence between the two of you, the voice actress speaks again.

“For your safety and the safety of the VIA (bus) operator, cameras are installed on all VIA vehicles.” She also informs you ­­­plainclothes cops could be hiding in plain sight among the other riders, just waiting for the first little tremor of trouble.

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The VIA Primo Mayhemobile

She apparently wants to put you at ease. But you were already at ease. You were reading Tweets on your phone and eavesdropping on the lady behind you with all the drama about that asshole. Now, after this second PSA, you’re like, Huh?

You look up. Yup. There are the cameras. You look around for the cop, and catch the eye of the exhausted nurse in maroon scrubs. Probably not, you think.

A few more minutes pass, and you’ve gone back to the drama the lady’s narrating behind you. That guy really is an asshole. No joke. Why did she put up with that for so long?

Then the voice actress speaks again.

“Assaulting a VIA operator is a crime that can be prosecuted as a felony.”

Wow – there are so many things wrong with that sentence. But what bothers you most is its pointlessness. Its only discernible purpose is to spook anyone who’s about to punch, stab, or shoot the driver. Because of course anyone who’s about to punch, stab, or shoot the driver would stop at the sound of a cool, even voice explaining the legal consequences.

The message is clearly not intended to make anybody else on the bus feel safer.

You’re riding to work on the VIA Primo, the bus rapid transit line along Fredericksburg Road between the Medical Center and downtown. Started in December 2012, the service was supposed to attract people like you – professionals who’d never thought about riding the bus before. Part of the big BRT idea was to get these people to finally experience mass transit, to see that it’s not bad, and then who knows – maybe light rail and increased spending on our bus system wouldn’t seem so far-fetched. To reel them in, VIA offered Wi-Fi, more space than you’d get on a regular bus, frequent service, and speedy rides. Some of the seats – two rows facing each other near the midsection of the long, “articulated” (or “bendy”) buses – are even elevated so that they look kind of like thrones. You might be wrong about that, but maybe not.

None of that worked. You’re usually either the only one on the Primo who looks like they’re going to work in a downtown office, or you’re one of only two or three.

But VIA officials aren’t easily rattled. They won’t let failure stop them from doing the same thing elsewhere in San Antonio. At this very moment, they’re planning new bus rapid transit routes around the city.

Undoubtedly, this new service will launch with a beefy advertising and marketing budget, and therefore a lot of fanfare. That’ll initially attract a small crowd of higher-income, higher-education commuters.

But you really want to be there the first time the voice actress of doom sits next to them and hints that mayhem has a yearly bus pass and a lot of time on its hands. She might as well tell them the VIA bus fleet runs on compressed natural gas and the blood of drivers and innocent bystanders.

With their darkest fears about public transportation reinforced, you suspect the professionals will simply say nope and end the experiment. You have little faith in your tribe.

And you? You’re getting back into the habit of riding the bus because 1) you have a new job at City Hall, and it’s right on the Primo’s route; 2) you don’t want to pay a bunch of money for monthly parking; and 3) you tend to forget about your parking meters and therefore get a lot of tickets. You’re trying to reduce your financial footprint.

But those aren’t the reasons you originally took the bus. You started riding the Primo several years ago because you wanted to be a pioneer, one of the early-adopter professionals of San Antonio’s 2,000-year-old bus system. In other words, you didn’t want to be one of those cunt creatives prattling on about how San Antonio needs a real transit system, but who never sets foot on a bus.

You also had a gauzy notion that people from different classes should regularly share the same space, and sometimes make small talk, as they’re doing something as mundane as getting to work, home, the store, or wherever. You believe that without mass transit, whether it’s buses and trains or just buses, San Antonio will continue to bump along as the most economically segregated city in the country.

This is the kind of moment you believe is necessary for San Antonio to get better: Earlier this week, you watched a skinny guy in his forties lug two hampers of clean, folded laundry onto and off the bus. You remembered when you couldn’t afford a washer and dryer, and how much that sucked.

It’s only later that it occurs to you that you could’ve offered to help him with the hampers.

It’s even later than that when you wonder what the skinny guy thinks when the voice actress of doom speaks to him.

Well, it’s a start.

 

 

What’s the Matter with Trump’s Biz Supporters? — a Two-Part Tantrum

PART ONE

I hated What’s the Matter with Kansas?

It’s a book about why everyday Kansans voted for right-wingers who thrilled them with attacks on abortion rights, for example, but then screwed them with economic policies that decimated the middle class. It was wildly popular among lefties when it was published in 2004, and still comes up when the subject is values versus economic self-interest.

Thomas Frank, a liberal journalist and the book’s author, portrayed voters who have religious values and act on them as stooges, easily taken in by nefarious free-marketeers. He saw it as nothing more than a bait-and-switch for dummies: you buy Old Testament fundamentalism and everything that follows from that, but receive the new religion of unfettered global trade.

Frank refused to acknowledge even the possibility that moral values matter greatly to many voters, sometimes more than how a candidate might hurt or help their financial well-being in the long run.

Progressives are still generally terrible about addressing voters’ values. They’re like a lawmaker who makes a well-reasoned, fact-filled argument for his bill, thinks that’s sufficient to win votes, and is shocked when the measure goes down in flames. He didn’t appeal to hearts, and he didn’t bother to press the flesh and build support.

Is it really that hard to make a case for taking care of the least among us, and that kind of stuff? In a way that grabs voters?

Frank is a native Kansan who managed to write a book about his home state like a New York liberal who thinks of most of the country as “fly-over states.”

So eff you, Thomas Frank.

PART TWO

And yet

His book came to mind when I read in the Express-News that Donald Trump will return to San Antonio for a high-dollar fundraiser at the Grand Hyatt downtown on October 11.

I think about the wealthy donors who will show up for the event like Frank thinks of those poor Kansans. What dupes. They’ll cut checks for a candidate they know is hostile to free trade and their economic interests.

We are way past the point where anybody can reasonably say Trump is dumping on trade agreements only to appeal to the pissed-off middle class — that once he’s in the Oval Office, it’ll be business as usual. No. He intends to trash or rewrite NAFTA. Really truly.

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Trump laughing malevolently

That has to be a big concern for San Antonio and South Texas businesses. It’s certainly a threat to jobs and the regional economy.

Among U.S. metro areas, the San Antonio MSA is the 21st largest exporter, according to the International Trade Administration, an arm of the U.S. Commerce Department. Companies in the area exported $16 billion worth of goods and services in 2015. About three-quarters of those sales were made to countries covered by free-trade agreements with the United States.

San Antonio’s biggest trading partners, by a mile or two, were Canada ($5.1 billion in sales) and Mexico ($3.9 billion). You may recognize them as NAFTA countries.

So, what the hell, donors?

They’re certainly not responding to Trump’s moral outlook, which he cobbles together before talking to religious audiences, trying to remember what he said the last time. He speaks religion as convincingly as he appeals to African Americans.

Is it Trump’s other values that attract business donors? The demonization of immigrants from Mexico and Muslims? The disdain for women?

Or are they — like many of Trump’s hardcore supporters — demoralized, ground down by globalism? By years of stagnant wages and exploding health-care costs? Is death their retirement plan?

Think I’ll just put that down as a “no.”

So, what is Trump’s appeal?

Maybe it’s his commitment to cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans. Or maybe it’s his desire to slash regulations on environmental protection, banking and finance, and workplace protections.

Maybe both.

As I end this post, I just want to point out how much restraint and good taste I’m showing in not saying that for these donors, economic self-interest trumps values.

You’re welcome.

 

Enjoying That Roasted Scapegoat?

[Editor’s note: A San Antonio executive writing under the pen name Felix Culpa graces our blog with his fourth post.]

Haters of evil, greedy corporations: good news! You have a new target to vilify!

It’s Wells Fargo, which agreed to pay $190 million in fines after creating fake accounts and forging documents in order to sell unwanted services to customers without authorization.

In addition to the record-high fine, the company is suffering severe damage to its carefully crafted reputation. Lawsuits are likely to follow. And all of you who demonize corporations get to roast a scapegoat.

Bravura performance at this week’s hearing, Senator Warren!

Elizabeth Warren speaks with voters as she campaigns after announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Framingham
Sen. Elizabeth Warren brutalizes some executive with her large index finger

But one wonders whether you’re aware of the irony at work here.

After all, one imagines that many of you lining up to take action against Wells Fargo earned your anti-capitalist cred via your outrage over the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which confirmed that certain organizations — like corporations — share some of the constitutional rights that citizens have. In that case, it was the right of political speech.

You probably held up signs and chanted that “corporations aren’t people.” But, in fact, by incorporating under the law, companies have always been granted certain rights and protections. The irony is that these rights include things like the right to pay taxes, the right to be sued, the right to be forced into bankruptcy, and the right to be held accountable for misdeeds. Just like Wells Fargo.

Yes, individuals at the company can be held accountable too. At Wells Fargo, more than 5,000 people have been fired for violating the rules. Prosecutors are probably exploring the possibility of criminal charges. Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andy Fastow of Enron went to jail. In the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, a company engineer has pleaded guilty, and there’s speculation that the Justice Department is building criminal cases against other top officials. Going after individual bad actors is always part of the process.

But the main target always is the corporation itself, and rightfully so. Especially where fines are concerned, a corporation has much deeper pockets than even the highest-compensated CEO.

You may argue that corporations can’t be sent to prison, but they can receive a death penalty verdict – like Arthur Andersen did – and they can even be wrongly convicted – like Arthur Andersen was.

So next time you get the urge to occupy Wall Street or whatever to protest against corporations’ rights, keep in mind that those rights work both ways, and right now they’re working in your favor.

Hil, Please Stop Daring Me

Hillary still has my vote, but Christ why does she have to make it such a challenge? She might as well say, during one of those awkward pauses in her speeches, “Hey, motherfuckers, I dare you to not vote for me. Trump? Good luck living with yourself.”

First her “basket of deplorables” comment. Yeah, yeah. We know what you meant. White supremacists, run-of-the-mill racists, nativists, women haters — all that. Got it. What’s troubling is that she believes they make up half of Donald Trump’s voters.

Congrats, Hillary. Your comment will deservedly take its place alongside Barack’s bit about gun-and-bible clingers and Mitt’s quote about how 47 percent of Barack’s supporters would vote for the president no matter what because they were professional victims, dependent on the government, kind of bummy.

All three statements were the sweaty, claustrophobic exaggerations of political and economic elites. The only difference is that two of them were coming from the left side, the other the right side. And shocker — Clinton, Obama, and Romney spit up that bile in the safe zones of high-dollar fundraisers, not in high school gymnasiums stuffed to the rafters with supporters.

Suggestion: To get honest, unvarnished answers out of our presidential candidates, let’s stage all of the general-election debates in exclusive clubs that charge the audience thousands of dollars per plate. Dinner theater for the elites, and real insights into our candidates for the rest of us.

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Hillary, making that face

Clinton doesn’t get the middle class or the working poor any more than Romney, the private-equity buccaneer and son of American Motors Corp. chairman and Michigan Governor George Romney. I’m leaving Obama out of this formulation because of his life story and his amazing power of empathy, and, mostly, because I have a soft spot in my heart for him. In my household, we call him Obambam.

At heart, Clinton is a free trader who only opposes the Trans Pacific Partnership because Bernie Sanders would have continued bludgeoning her with it if she hadn’t flipped her position. Robert Rubin and Larry Summers are her homies. Wall Street is another one of her safe zones.

Suggestion: To get honest, unvarnished answers out of our presidential candidates, let’s stage all of the general-election debates in exclusive clubs that charge the audience thousands of dollars per plate

She can’t quite understand what all the fuss is about in the hinterlands. Say again? What’s this about stagnant wages and a declining standard of living? (For a glimpse of what unfettered trade has done to my hometown of Muncie, Indiana, click here.)

Nevertheless, I will vote for Clinton because, while Trump has a feel for the legitimate grievances of the middle class, he’s exploiting them, not addressing them, and he brings out the worst in us across the political spectrum. Also, while Senators Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and their supporters wouldn’t stay Clinton’s hand as president, they would force her to remember the great unwashed, as they did during the primaries, and moderate accordingly. Finally, she wouldn’t radically depart from Obama’s economic policies because they’ve worked by and large.

Sharp increase in household incomes and decreased poverty? Yes, please!

Yet, sadistically, she’s forcing the non-Clintonites who will vote for her in November to crawl through the muck to do it.

Not to belabor the point, but the second clear indication that she just doesn’t get it arrived yesterday in her Facebook post about her recovery from pneumonia. It included this line: “Like anyone who’s ever been home sick from work, I’m just anxious to get back out there.”

Stop binge-watching Netflix and surfing Facebook and YouTube to rush back to work? Really, I want to know — what planet is she from?