April 13, 2007

The UNT-Dallas enrollment saga: “Already” at 640 or “just” 640?

I guess the full-time equivalent enrollment at UNT-Royce WestDallas all depends on how you look at it.

The way I look at it, the enrollment growth rate is tapering off and it won’t cross the state-set 1,000-student FTE bar to officially open as a four-year university in its own right until after 2010, if not approaching 2015.

And, that Lancaster development on Houston School Road that’s predicated on this? If there’s just, say, 1,200 students at UNT-Royce in 2015, there ain’t gonna be a whole bunch of higher-end development, whether retail and hotel, or the proposed tech/research stuff on the north side of I-20.

Can you say white elephant?

April 12, 2007

Smokey Joe Barton: OK, maybe he has a bit of cause to be right on TXU

The Texas Public Utilities Commission hearing on the would-be TXU buyout by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts alleges TXU has used legal barratry to drive awayanother would-be buyer. Given that this is TXU, anything is possible. And, given Joe Barton, even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while. Of course, given Joe Barton, he might have some connection to Hunt-owned Sharyland Utilities.

OK, so Lancaster ISD is just off $14 mil, not $17 mil

And it’s “just” bad accounting practices, not embezzlement.

The LISD audit still has to be seen as reflecting badly on Superintendent Larry Lewis. After all, former chief financial officer Eugene Smith was a “prize hire” of Lewis’ 18 months ago.

There’s also this:
Eugene Smith is no longer with the school district, but Lewis has said that departure was not connected to the audit.

Well, then to what reason IS his departure connected?

Lewis goes on to cite “rumors” and “naysayers” who will never be satisfied. Well, earlier, more proactive communication would have helped at one time; that train is way out of the station, though, and isn’t coming back.

PBS needs a skeptical thinking cap on the Shroud of Turin

Instead, Secrets of the Dead gives us an episode HUGELY biased in favor of “it’s Jesus” Shroud worshipers.

On the entire hour of showtime, I saw just one actual skeptic, and he got no more than 60 seconds of air time.

All the old bogus arguments got trotted out:
1. There’s bloodstains (no, that’s vermillion pigment).
2. The CO2 dating is off due to “contamination” (no, it would take twice the total CO2 weight of the shroud to throw its dating off by 1,300 years).
3. A sudarion (2,000-year-old style) head cloth from Spain “validates” the Shroud (no, it undercuts it, because how could it have blood and a face image as well as the Shroud itself).
4. Pollen only from the Jerusalem area is on the Shroud (it was lifted with Scotch tape, very likely to have been contaminated itself).

That’s just the top four, for starters. I could easily list half a dozen more. For example, if the Shroud itself were an actual burial cloth, draped over the body of Jesus or whomever from head down, why aren’t the forward and reverse images on the Shroud touching each other at the top of the head?


(Note: Since I posted this, I discovered this was a rerun of a show that originally aired in 2004. If anything, that makes PBS’ crime even more egregious.)

Beware libertarian fine print on global warming

Libertarian op-ed columnist Steve Chapman appears to agree that global warming is real, but strongly opposes government regulations as any part of the solution. Here’s part of why, he says:
The government's fuel economy standards also haven't done much to promote conservation. On average, new vehicles get lower mileage today than they did 20 years ago, thanks to the proliferation of large trucks and SUVs.

That’s the government’s fault ONLY because it kowtowed rather than being more proactive, and cutting SUVs out of “truck” mileage standards and instead putting them in car mileage standards. That said, Chapman is right about this:
Other motorists will keep driving their gas-guzzling cars and trucks for years to come, blissfully spared any incentive to conserve.

His quasi-typical “free market is everything” answer? A carbon tax.

Steve, these aren’t mutually exclusive issues. We actually need both, if we’re going to be serious about global warming, anyway. And, we need the CAFÉ standards for vehicle mileage increased to address Peak Oil issues anyway, which a carbon tax won’t directly touch. And, the part that he’s right about? That means we need to up the CAFÉ now rather than waiting.

“Exotic” non subprime mortgages could also get crunched

Interest-free mortgages and other so-called “exotic” mortgage offerings could also face trouble.

Not as risky as subprime loans, they’re still definite more risky than more traditional mortgages. And the bursting of the housing bubble, especially in California and elsewhere on the West Coast, could spell trouble.
In California, a housing downturn in San Diego, Sacramento and other markets is already pressuring many exotic-mortgage holders — and not just subprime borrowers — to default on their loans or sell their homes, according to Paul Leonard, director of the Durham, N.C.-based Center for Responsible Lending's office in Oakland, Calif.

Even if this sector of the market takes just a mild ding, it reinforces perceptions of a shaky mortgage sector of the economy.

The “subprime crisis” is creeping out of the subprime sector

Nope, it’s starting to creep up into higher-rated mortgages.
Now the so-called Alternative-A mortgage sector, which loans to borrowers with better credit than subprime borrowers but not quite prime, is starting to hurt.

One Alt-A lender, American Home Mortgage Investment Corp. of Melville, N.Y., announced late last week that it was having trouble selling its mortgages into the secondary market and would have to cut its earnings forecast for the quarter and the year. At least five analysts downgraded the stock on Monday, and its shares fell more than 15 percent on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares dropped $2.37, or 11 percent, on Tuesday to close at $19.55.

Other Alt-A lenders that have taken hits in the market in recent days are First Horizon National Corp. of Memphis, Tenn., which some analysts predict may be forced to sell out to a bigger bank, and M&T Bank Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y.

Sure, this is only a small percentage of the loan market, as the story goes on to say. (That said, it is not so small as to be about one-third or so the size of the subprime market.) Nonetheless, the potential fallout is multifold.

First, it increase the jitter factor in the entire market.

Second, if Alt-A lenders are taking hits, they may feel compelled to raise rates on new mortgages they right, which itself will further ping the market.

Third, if many of these Alt-A mortgages are also ARMs, with or without shady rider clauses, economic instability that jacks up their interest rates will have its own ripple effects.

That’s just a few thinking points for starters.

How the H-2B visa system gets abused; warnings for “guest worker” legislation

H-2B visas were created in 1986 under Congressional immigration reform. They are supposed to allow companies to bring in non-agricultural labor for specifically targeted needs.

However, in light of President Bush wanting to restart a guest worker program in agriculture and perhaps a few other areas of totally unskilled labor, we ought to ask whether there are any problems with, or abuses of, the H-2B system.

Problems? Abuses? From our benighted corporate behemoths?

You betcha.

Here’s one, for starters:
Created under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the H-2B program is supposed to peg workers' pay to the prevailing wage in a particular industry. But since the U.S. Department of Labor claims that it lacks the authority to enforce prevailing wage standards, employers routinely pay much less.

Well, you can imagine what this might cause.

But here’s a specific example, in case your imagination didn’t reach this far:
(A) March 16 walkout by workers at the Signal International marine fabrication company highlighted the stakes in the upcoming ongressional debate over the vast expansion of guest-worker programs.

The protest by the Signal workers in Pascagoula, Miss., took place following a pre-dawn raid by company security guards on the workers' living quarters--in which six workers were seized and locked in a room, until pressure from immigrant rights and labor activists forced their release.

The company told the men — who were among 300 guest workers brought to the shipyard in December by the company on H-2B guest-worker visas — that they were terminated and would be transported out of the U.S.

The firings took place after workers complained about their living conditions. The workers say that 24 men were packed into 12-by-18-foot metal barracks, with only two toilets and four sinks. For this, the men were forced to pay $35 a day in rent. When the workers responded by organizing Signal H-2B Workers United, the company cut several of their $18.50 an hour pay in half — and fired six men who were at the center of the organizing.

But the six who were imprisoned by the company remain terminated. They still have debts of $14,000 to $20,000 at home.

OK, $18.50 an hour is more than I make on salary, especially if they’re getting overtime.

But, if you’re paying double my rent, you’re not coming out ahead.

And, if you’re paying that for your bit of space that is about what you’d get in a medium-security, or higher, prison, well money just isn’t worth it. It’s no wonder these folks walked off the job.

And, seeing how exploitative Signal International is of its employees, can you just see the double whammy ahead?

Signal can’t get American-born workers because it’s obviously treating them like shit. So it argues to Washington that it has to have imported labor. The Labor Department officially says, in essence, we can’t regulate their wages, and unofficially uses that as an excuse to not regulate their working or living conditions.

It’s no wonder Bush and corporate GOP friends want to expand on something like this.

April 11, 2007

Smokey Joe Barton: Time, once again, to smell the coffee

Joe, instead of demanding the Texas Public Utilities Commission review the TXU sale, which you probably don’t like because of its “green” edge, why don’t you instead ask yourself why TXU rates are 50 percent higher than those in Oklahoma, as you mention.

Could it be that TXU is gaming the deregulated electric system you got Kid Craddick and state lege buddies to pass?

John Wiley Price, meet Larry Lewis, fellow blog censor

Apparently, the Dallas County Commissioner and Lancaster schools superintendent have something in common; an inordinate desire to control their employees’ online reading.

Yep, JWP, like Larry, is officially blocking his minions and peons from reading. JWP’s policy says access is limited to sites “potentially harmful to Dallas County,” but refuses (yes, “refuses” and not just “fails”) to describe what “potentially harmful” might be.

JWP, if this were the Dallas PD, or former Dallas County DA Bill Hill, putting out something like this as a criminal arrest policy, you’d call it the prior restraint that it is. Stop being a hypocrite and a titty baby.

Texas high school steroid bill is too weak

The Texas State Senate passed a high school steroid testing bill that could result in a lifetime ban for high school athletes.

First positive test would be a 30-day suspension, the second a 1-year suspension and the third a lifetime ban.

Biggest loophole? No sanctions on schools. What if you get four positives out of the same school’s football program? Come on, we know top athletic school districts “recruit” players and bend residency to the breaking point. If you don’t think coaches and athletic directors somewhere in the state will (with suitable “distance”) set up some “help” for “growing young men,” then I’ve got some El Paso swampland to sell you.

Second biggest loophole? The 3 percent testing level. Gee, I think Major League Baseball only tests 3 percent of its players and look at the hypocrisy level there.

BushCo’s lust for snooping on Americans gets ever-more addictive

National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell has circulated a draft bill that would expand the government's powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, liberalizing how that law can be used.

Here’s the details:
According to officials familiar with the draft changes to FISA, McConnell wants to:

• Give the NSA the power to monitor foreigners without seeking FISA court approval, even if the surveillance is conducted by tapping phones and e-mail accounts in the United States.

• Clarify the standards the FBI and NSA must use to get court orders for basic information about calls and e-mails - such as the number dialed, e-mail address, or time and date of the communications.

Civil liberties advocates contend the change will make it too easy for the government to access this information.

• Triple the life span of a FISA warrant for a non-U.S. citizen from 120 days to one year, allowing the government to monitor much longer without checking back in with a judge.

• Give telecommunications companies immunity from civil liability for their cooperation with Bush's terrorist surveillance program. Pending lawsuits against companies including Verizon and AT&T allege they violated privacy laws by giving phone records to the NSA for the program.

• Extend from 72 hours to one week the amount of time the government can conduct surveillance without a court order in emergencies.

Remember, this all while the government is facing a lawsuit over past alleged FISA violations related to domestic snooping.

These guys are a piece of work.

Once again, Warren Chisum outdoes himself

The Texas Senate's windbag of the windy Panhandle shows why we should consider other legislative ideas of his, such as the “Bible as literature” book, with much skepticism: his plan for free marriage licenses for couples that do premarital counseling.

We can only guess how Chisum would apply the Bible, the next step past Bible as literature, to this counseling about a legally secular institution.

It's not only intrusion into private lives, as the newspaper story said; knowing Chisum, it's another attempt to tear down the First Amendment wall separating church and state.

Plus, a two-year wait on divorce for non-covenant marrieds might fall under some version of prior restraint, restraint of trade, or similar, on its constitutionality - not that that would stop Chisum, or even cross his mind.

April 10, 2007

Ban banks: As usual, Ted Rall hits one out of the park

In his latest offing, the usually spot-on, hard-hitting Rall details how corrupt much of the “lending industry” has become over college student loans. Read for why we should, indeed, ban banks, at least from the student loan process.
The current student loan scandal highlights just how corrupt the system has become. It began when Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced that New York State is investigating a company called Student Loans Xpress for sweetheart-deal stock transactions designed to enrich the company and corrupt financial aid officers at the expense of clueless college kids and their parents. (Student Loan Express' corporate parent is the CIT Group. CIT is a former subsidiary of Tyco, which itself became embroiled in a corporate scandal a few years back.)

According to Cuomo, financial aid officials at Columbia University, the University of Texas and the University of Southern California were paid kickbacks as compensation for steering students to them. (Disclosure: I'm a Columbia alum.) The three bought stocks and options at insider prices in Education Lending Group, the parent company of Student Loan Xpress until 2005, when it was sold to CIT. They then sold them at a profit that would make Donald Trump drool. David Charlow, executive director of financial aid at Columbia, paid $1 for each of 7,500 shares of ELG and dumped the stock two years later at $10 a share--a 450 percent annual rate of return on his "investment."

Student Loan Xpress, which uses phone-forwarding wizardry to masquerade as some institutions' financial aid offices, is recommended to students as a “preferred lender” at the three universities enmeshed in the scandal. As young, novice borrowers--most kids sign their first loan document at the tender age of 17--they trust their colleges' recommendations. "There's an implicit assumption that the financial aid office is an impartial, informed intermediary," says education expert Michael Dannenberg of the New America Foundation. “What we're finding out now is that some colleges and some financial aid administrators may not be so impartial.”

The mess is spreading. The Johns Hopkins University admits that its director of student financial services collected $65,000 in cash and tuition payments from Student Loan Xpress. The dean of financial aid at Widener University in Pennsylvania took in $80,000. John Ryan, chancellor of the 64-campus State University of New York (SUNY)system, is under scrutiny for his spot on the board of directors of CIT, where he collects $150,000 a year on top of his $340,000 salary from SUNY.

Even the feds couldn't resist dipping their paws into the student loan jar. Matteo Fontana, the federal Education Department official charged with overseeing student lending, made a cool $100,000 from a sale of ELG stock. The Bush Administration shouldn't be too surprised at Fontana's conflict of interest. (No pun intended.) It hired him straight out of Sallie Mae, a student loan mill that rakes in spectacular profits on 10 million student loans worth $126 billion.

I have to say I am so glad I got done with college more than 20 years ago, and grad school for a useless professional degree 15 years ago.

Yet more subprime fallout: Fraud, pressure tactics on appraisers and more

Yes, that's a bit of the laundry list of the subprime loan crisis, and its dirty laundry leading up to this point, with details here.

It includes shady mortgage brokers forcing appraisers, or trying to, to raise home prices; fraud committed on electronic documents; last-minute surprises (which, in my opinion, have been the modus operandi for a certain part of the real estate profession for years but have gotten worse); suspicious activity reports up 9 times since 2001 and doubled in the last year; and more.

Here's the root of the problem:
Unlike banks, many of which are supervised by federal regulators, mortgage brokers are regulated state by state. And state rules and licensing procedures vary widely. In about half the states, a single mortgage broker with a license can open an office staffed by an unlicensed sales staff, according Hagar.

Worse, bad mortgage brokers who are banned in one state can move to another relatively easily - without being detected by regulators in their new home state. Though many lenders maintain their own private databases of bad actors, what's needed is a national database to track the worst offenders, according to Capouano.

It's exacerbated by this:
Federal regulations do apply to so-called “conforming” loans sold to quasi-government agencies like Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae. Loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration, the Depression-era agency set up to manage the world's largest mortgage fund, also carry strict guidelines.

But oversight of those loans has been getting looser, according to HUD Inspector General (Kenneth) Donohue. Beginning about a year ago, FHA began allowing approved lenders to keep their mortgage application files on site instead of forwarding them to the FHA, which now spot checks about 6 percent of those applications, he said.

“We live by the review,” said Donohue. “It's at that point - often we get tips and we have a hotline - but it's at that point that the referrals are made to us. So if you find a red flag in that loan file, it might take you back to a bad lender. You track it backwards.

“Do I think that a 6 percent review of the total universe is acceptable? You can only imagine how much you might be missing in the process,” he said.

Donohue himself said this could become like the 1980s S&L crisis. Problem was, other than the taxpayer bailout, it didn't hit middle-class families as much as this likely will.

Yes, it does sound alarmist, and I've been accused of being so, but this thing looks big.

And, what if gas prices do an inflation-adjusted 6 percent climb each of the next three summers? By 2010, real gas prices are up 20 percent in the middle of this mess. A 7 percent per year climb, compounded, puts us at a 25 percent overall hike.

April 09, 2007

Sad to see a woman still living her husband’s identity

Got an obit at the paper today. The deceased woman was in her 70s, and identified ONLY as “Mrs. William …” as if she never had a first name of her own to leave for posterity at her own death.

Have I mentioned that this place is probably too conservative for me socially, or sociologically, as well as politically?

April 08, 2007

More worries on the subprime crunch: property taxes

Now Texas does not have a state property tax, unlike some states, but local cities and school districts do. So, the fact that Florida will have state tax revenuesdrop for the first time since the 1970s energy crises should get government officials everywhere to pay attention.

Plus, sales taxes get affected:
New home sales nationally fell in February to the lowest rate in seven years, and homeowners who tapped into plentiful home equity and spent extravagantly during the real estate boom have started to cut back.

Those events not only threaten revenue streams for things like building materials and labor, but also affect spending on big-ticket items like cars and furniture, which many homeowners financed with home equity lines of credit. …

In one hint of how much Floridians were relying on property wealth during the real estate boom, 16 percent of new car purchases here were being made with home equity loans in 2006, compared with 7 percent nationally, according to CNW Marketing Research, an automotive research firm in Bandon, Ore. In California, the percentage was even higher — about 30 percent, said Art Spinella, the firm’s president.

During the last few years, families in much of the country have relied on the cash from mortgage refinancing, made possible by rising house values, low interest rates and a bevy of creative new loans, to make up for stagnant wages. From 2001 to 2005, even as the economy was growing at a healthy clip over all, the pay of most workers failed to keep pace with inflation. Now the housing slowdown is making it more difficult to take equity out of a house, and an improved job market is finally causing wages to rise.

I’ve heard educated people say they’re not worried about this issue. I keep telling them: start worrying.