A change in tastes

April 2, 2014 · Posted in Business and industry, Delmarva items · 2 Comments 

What inspired me to write this piece was the recent demise of the Salisbury Famous Dave’s location, which closed up shop after only about a half-decade in business. It’s the second significant restaurant in that area of town to close in the last year or so, with the locally owned Zia’s eatery folding its tents in January 2013. That site was rumored to be the location for a much-desired new Cracker Barrel and the Zia’s building was torn down, but now it’s just an empty lot. In the case of the former Famous Dave’s, reportedly the lease will be taken over by the Greene Turtle – of course, that may mean another empty storefront in that area of town as there’s already a Greene Turtle just down the road in a nearby strip shopping center.

Of course, that’s not to say that end of town is dying – new apartments and shops are being built and other formerly vacant storefronts are being occupied. But I thought this case study would be interesting on three levels.

First of all, the story on the closing of Famous Dave’s noted that about 45 employees would be affected. Was one factor in the decision to close up shop the prospect of thousands more in overhead costs thanks to a higher minimum wage and continuing enactment of Obamacare? Probably not, but the already thin profit margin for some restaurant owners is bound to become even skinnier with these changes. Areas with borderline economic indicators like Salisbury may see more turnover than most.

But I also pondered the thought of whether tastes themselves were changing, and if America’s love affair with barbecue was passing its peak. (Not here, though: if you follow me on Facebook, you know I like my ribs.) When I think of how the eatery business has its cycles, I often think of the rise and fall of Chi-Chi’s. Now maybe this was just a Midwest phenomenon and bypassed this part of the country, but for about a decade a quarter-century ago it seemed like every “casual dining” restaurant wanted to be like Chi-Chi’s. I happened to work next door to one and that place was always packed – lunch, dinner, you name it. But by the end of the 1990s the chain was already in decline and it was gone by 2004. Surely the death blow was a hepatitis outbreak traced to one of their restaurants, but Chi-Chi’s was already in trouble because diners’ tastes had changed. Chi-Chi’s was simply passe – they were flocking to other similar chains like Chili’s or Applebee’s, both of which have tried to change their menu and outward image over the last decade in an effort to stay relevant. The way I look at it, they learned from the mistakes Chi-Chi’s made.

Finally, I took a look at Salisbury itself. I really owe you all a post given the amount of ink used on me a week or two back, but in this case the thought occurred to me that, while Salisbury seems to be doing okay on that side of town despite the inordinate amount of business turnover – and don’t forget the Salisbury J.C. Penney store will be a casualty of that mainstay’s woes by next month – we seem to have a laser-like focus on restoring the downtown area. But as long as the local economy is stagnant or even slowly shrinking, any success downtown will likely be damaging to other commercial centers like the north end of town. Obviously downtown lost its luster when the original Salisbury Mall was built in the late 1960s, and commerce shifted to the east side of town near the old mall – only to move again to the northern edges when the Centre of Salisbury was completed in the late 1980s, (The former Salisbury Mall is no more, razed a few years back for a mixed-use development which never materialized.) We didn’t grow the local economy enough to allow all three to thrive, so they cannibalized each other in turn.

The key to making Salisbury a success is growth. If an area doesn’t grow, it dies – and if it gets complacent and stops competing, it doesn’t grow. I’m sure Famous Dave’s thought it had their niche pretty much sealed up, but either they stopped marketing it or they quit trying to please the customer. Multiply that by Zia’s, J.C. Penney, the owners of the Salisbury Mall – you get the picture?

It’s hard to think a couple decades ahead, but we have to do that. Consider the market for chicken – will people still have a taste for it in a generation? Maybe dark meat will become the new sensation, and all those who centered their marketing around the chicken breast will have to go back to the drawing board. I heard a lot of talk about Wallops Island in the recent NAACP forum, but what was it twenty years ago but a remote outpost – the real space action was in Florida. Perhaps in two decades it will be the terminal for space tourism, or it may all be a mirage of abandoned facilities because someone found it more advantageous to fire rockets someplace else.

In other words, I think a push in the proper direction is a must for any of these situations. And to me, resting on our laurels, or worse – turning up our nose at development for fear we’ll become another Columbia – is a surefire way to make our area look like a rural version of Detroit. We must do better than that.

The real weather effects

March 3, 2014 · Posted in Business and industry, Delmarva items, Radical Green · Comments Off 

As I sit here on what seems like the umpteenth snow day of this winter of our discontent, I ponder what the world was supposed to be like just a decade or so ago. I’d have thought by now the polar ice caps would be melted because the earth would be so warm and I’d be enjoying my tropical beachfront property right here in Salisbury.

Snark aside, one has to wonder if the climate is really changing. For the past several winters, we have endured at least one significant snow event – something I don’t recall dealing with in the first few winters I’ve lived down here. The big blast of snow we had in 2010 was really the first major snowstorm since I’d moved here in 2004, but that was the first of several winters this decade one may consider harsher than normal. This year, though, takes the cake. (While this piece is about two decades old, the average snowfall of about 10-15″ is consistent with the Wikipedia-supplied average of 9.9″ for Salisbury.) Today’s storm threatened a foot of snow, but will likely fall into the 4-6″ range, adding to a winter where snowfall has far exceeded the norm.

If you believe as I do that the sun dictates our climate, we may be in for a long series of cold winters. It seems like as plausible an explanation as any other. But what does that mean for the average family?

First of all, I define how cold a year is by the number of heating degree days used. This is a very simple calculation: the average temperature for a calendar day subtracted from a constant temperature of 65 degrees. I was taught this concept in my architectural training, and it’s a handy way to determine how cold a period of time is. From this site, I found that over the last decade we’ve generally run an average of 4,315 heating degree days, with the years of 2003-2005 being a little colder than average; on the other hand, 2011-2013 were comparatively balmy because we finished under 4,000 heating degree days. So the fact we are running 19% ahead of 2013 on degree days through February really means we may be getting back to a longer-term average, polar vortex or not.

But degree days don’t equate to snow; I tend to believe colder winters aren’t generally as snowy. Usually the biggest snowstorms brew in from our south, which implies a warmer flow of air colliding with cold air from the west. A more westerly clipper system isn’t usually a big snow producer here.

Now snow, in and of itself, isn’t such a big deal aside from perhaps a one- or two-day disruption in routine. And all this snow is great for some people: those who have plowing businesses on the side (or get overtime from the state/local government for plowing) are making out like bandits this year, and ski resorts are cheering these storms on as well. Kids get to play in the snow. But on the other side of the ledger: tourism could be down a little at spring break because kids may have to make up all those wintry days missed, local governments have to dig into their contingency funds to secure more salt for the roads, and so forth. Overall, the effects are fairly minor.

Conversely, cold weather is difficult for most families on a budget; in particular, the need to find more money for electricity, natural gas, or heating oil. And while Eastern Shore summers can be torturous without air conditioning, they’re more manageable than dealing with a cold spell without heat. That can be deadly.

And on a long-term axis, a cooldown may make food more expensive as yields decline and certain staples become harder to find. For example, over the course of several decades, orange production in Florida has retreated southward due to too-frequent bouts of freezing weather. Obviously some of that migration comes from pressure from development, but orange groves aren’t a fixture in the state’s northern half anymore. By the same token, the area where wheat production is possible becomes smaller as a large percentage of the world’s land mass lies in northern subpolar regions where a few miles of retreat turns into a lot of lost acreage.

So the question is whether this unusually lionlike start to March is an anamoly or a sign of winters to come. Florida may seem like a better and better bet to many who get tired of shoveling year after year, but there are only so many people it can support and food has to be grown by someone someplace. Maybe those broken chunks of polar vortex which have swirled in our direction will go someplace else next winter, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that all who warned us about global warming were the only ones creating the hot air – it sure wasn’t the bright sunshine.

Twenty bucks is twenty bucks

The “rain tax” is probably coming to Salisbury.

Eager to jump on that bandwagon, the Daily Times reports that Salisbury City Council unanimously agreed to move a bill to create a stormwater utility forward for final approval at a future meeting, a date to be determined but likely in the next 60 days. All five of the Salisbury City Council members are Democrats, as is Mayor Jim Ireton, who backs the proposal. Jeremy Cox’s story quotes City Council president Jake Day as saying “There’s no good argument for not having this in place, to have a funding system to pay for things.”

Bull.

There’s a great and very simple argument: we have no idea if what we would be doing will have any significant impact on Chesapeake Bay. As vague as the Phase II Watershed Implemetation Plan for Wicomico County is in terms of how many assumptions it makes, there are two things it doesn’t tell me: the overall impact of Wicomico County presently on the health of the Bay, and the economic impacts following the plan will have on business and our local economy. Does the $20 I would spend each year make a dent, or is it just another way for government to reach into my pocket for dubious benefit? Less than national average fee or not, it takes away from my less-than-national-average salary.

The argument by Brad Gillis also rings true. Because  the state requires most new development to adhere to overly strict stormwater guidelines, those who have will still be paying the rate on top of the expense others didn’t put out. Stormwater retention isn’t cheap.

And, of course, there’s the very real possibility that the $20 of 2015 will be $35 after 2017 or $100 sometime after that. Once enacted, I’ve rarely met a fee or a tax that’s decreased and because the goal is so open-ended this just seems like another excuse to reach into our pockets in perpetuity.

This is a state where I pay bridge tolls to subsidize a superhighway I’ll probably never drive, pay a gasoline tax out here in the hinterland to prop up a boondoggle of a public transit system in the urban core (complete with pie-in-the-sky light rail lines many of those along the route don’t want), and get to watch a governor for whom I didn’t vote – twice – play whack-a-mole with expenses that pop up by “borrowing” from dedicated state funds and floating bonds to make up the difference. Why should I trust the city of Salisbury to be prudent with my money when the regulatory goalposts are sure to shift? Ask David Craig about the state and what happens when they change their mind.

Several years ago I proposed a moratorium on new Chesapeake Bay regulations so we could figure out whether all that we had put in place would work. Of course, for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Town Creek Foundation, and other denizens of Radical Green there’s too much money for their coffers at stake to ever agree to such an idea – and it’s such fun to figure out new offensives along our flanks in the War on Rural Maryland.

Needless to say, my reasoning probably won’t change any minds on Salisbury City Council, or that of the mayor. I know Jim Ireton, Jake Day and Laura Mitchell to a greater or lesser extent, and they’re decent enough people, but they seem to have this idea in their head that government central planning is the solution and for every need there has to be a new fee to pay for it. When the “need” is a mandate from on high, that’s where I object. Twenty bucks is twenty bucks for the tapped-out homeowner, but those who are job creators will likely pay a whole lot more and it’s just another incentive to locate elsewhere, in my estimation.

No minimum of debate

I noticed this week that the Maryland Reporter website had competing views on a statewide minimum wage increase from longtime Maryland political observer Barry Rascovar and from Benjamin Orr, who heads the Maryland Center on Economic Policy – one of those reliably leftwing advocacy groups with an innocent-sounding name. Rascovar warns about the “law of unintended conseqences” in his piece while Orr would like to have his cake and eat it too by also increasing Maryland’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). I don’t claim to be an economic expert, but the EIC seems to me a handy method for wealth transfer since people using the EITC can receive a larger refund than they actually paid in taxes – instead of zeroing out tax liability, they receive additional money above and beyond a rebate on what the government originally confiscated from their checks via backup withholding.

And the reason this EITC change is important to Orr is the reason he doesn’t state – an increase in minimum wage earnings for a single person could push them over the limit to claim the EITC. Let’s do some simple math.

According to the IRS, for 2014 the EITC phases out at an earned income of $14,590 for a single person, so someone who works 40 hours a week at minimum wage isn’t going to qualify anyway. They would have to work fewer than 38.7 hours a week as a single person to fall under that threshold. Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour means the person could only work 27.7 hours a week before earning their out of the free government handout – obviously the MCEP wants to keep the goodies flowing.

Obviously being married with a non-working spouse would increase the income limit, but making minimum wage in such a situation makes the couple eligible for a total of just $587 between the state and federal EITC. On the other hand, raising the minimum wage puts the married couple over the threshold as well, thus Orr’s argument that we need both. But I think we need neither.

Raising the minimum wage may be good for the small number of workers who would be swept up in the eventual, phased-in increase, but it will be bad for those who would be considered working class but lie just beyond the $10.10 hourly threshold. No one is necessarily going to give a raise to the factory worker who makes, say, $14 an hour just because the minimum wage went up, but those who can still afford to employ workers will have to raise their prices to cover the increased cost of labor. The Dollar Menu at McDonald’s will have to become a $2 menu sooner or later. How does that benefit the middle class or those on a fixed income?

In a time when the employment market features dozens of candidates for each open position, forcing a wage increase is counterintuitive. Conversely, in those few truly booming areas such as energy-rich North Dakota or the Permian Basin in Texas, the market has determined a much higher minimum wage.

Closer to home, choices will have to be made by consumers who are being pinched by price increases everywhere they go, and prudent families may have to reduce their budgets for fun things like vacation or eating out. Using Salisbury as an example, we just lost another sitdown family restaurant this week when Mister Paul’s Legacy suddenly closed up shop. (This puts a dent in our Republican Club as well, as we’ll have to find a new location for our Christmas party. I also recall attending meetings of the Wicomico Society of Patriots and other fundraisers there as well.) Now some will blame the intrusion of national chain restaurants such as Buffalo Wild Wings or Longhorn Steak House (to name a couple which have opened here in the last two years) for the demise of this locally owned eatery, and they may have a point because they may be able to weather a localized wage increase better by raising prices across the board. Surely we pay for a little extra here at these chains for the people who work for them in areas where the wage level is higher. But I contend the overall pie is shrinking because fewer have jobs and increasing the minimum wage will further erode our local job market.

It’s all a question of value to the employer. One offshoot of the recent drive to unionize fast food workers and get them a $15 an hour wage was learning about automation overtaking that industry – for example, at Royal Farms you enter your order on a kiosk rather than speak to a counter person. By the same token, going to Walmart now can be done with little human interaction since the local stores have adopted self-serve checkouts. On a national scale, Applebee’s is bringing tablets to the table. While business has always trended toward automation and other ways to drive up efficiency, increasing the minimum wage may be a tipping point for new technology which replaces the fast-food worker or even wait staff.

In a perfect market-based world, people would be paid exactly what they are worth, a number determined by the value an employee’s labor brings to the employer. I have jobs for which I receive a wage which is agreeable to both me and the employer, and I have this enterpreneurial outlet which manages to pay for itself but is otherwise a loss leader, as I use it to showcase my writing talents. (How do you think I earned some of my paying jobs? And hitting the tip jar or advertising on this site is always encouraged.) Some in this avocation take the work even further than I do because their mortgage depends on it. Instead of a single employer, those of us who write in this arena depend on building a market share and making it economically viable somehow as writers, or as consultants, or in some other manner.

It’s all about what the market can bear, and the problem with the government putting its finger on the scale is that it makes a lot of hard-working people lose economic ground to benefit a select few. Until recent years, we had a thriving middle class which was upwardly mobile on a large scale, living a lifestyle comparable to those among their parents who were well-off. Raising the minimum wage simply accelerates the vicious cycle in which we are now trapped, for those who are deserving would earn their way off the minimum in due course anyway – they’re being forced, though, to carry a lot of excess baggage with them.

Let the market work its magic.

A look ahead: 2014 in Maryland

Yesterday I looked at how 2014 looks in Wicomico County, but much – too much, as I see it – of their decision-making is truly made in Annapolis. And with current governor Martin O’Malley attempting to burnish his credentials for a position inside Hillary Clinton’s administration – oh wait, he’s supposedly running himself, isn’t he? – it’s important to him that he establish himself with the progressive crowd.

What this means for us is that no tax increase is off the table, but it’s more likely we will see renewed efforts at green energy, gun control, and salvaging the failed Obamacare rollout in Maryland – but if worse comes to worse, it’s Anthony Brown who will be thrown under the bus. In the decision between a Maryland legacy and a White House bid, well, no lieutenant governor has succeeded his boss anyway.

Brown is probably the conventional wisdom favorite to succeed O’Malley and become Maryland’s first black governor; of course there are other main contenders on both sides. Attorney General Doug Gansler seems to be the Democrats’ backup plan but has endured a rocky start to his campaign; meanwhile Delegate Heather Mizeur seems to be the one establishing a number of truly far-left issues in the campaign – witness her idea for marijuana legalization.

On the Republican side, three top contenders seem to be out to appeal most to the conservative crowd, with a fourth joining the field in January. Harford County Executive David Craig obviously has the most well-rounded political resume, but Delegate Ron George represents a more populous area around Annapolis. Charles Lollar is running the most populist campaign, but he may receive a run for his money once the social media-savvy Larry Hogan formally enters the race next month. His Change Maryland Facebook page claims over 70,000 supporters of all political stripes – in a four-way Republican race, 70,000 votes might be enough.

There are only two other statewide races this year, since there’s no Senate race this cycle. With Attorney General Gansler abandoning his post to try for governor, there are four Democratic members of the General Assembly out to succeed him – Aisha Braveboy, Jon Cardin, Bill Frick, and Brian Frosh all seek the seat, and all but Cardin have officially filed. No one has yet filed on the GOP side, but 2012 U.S. Senate candidate Richard Douglas seems to be leaning toward a run, allowing the Republicans to avoid the ignominy of whiffing on a statewide race for the second cycle in a row.

Things are shaping up as a rematch of 2010 in the Comptroller’s race, as Republican William Campbell is again challenging incumbent Peter Franchot.

With so many members of the General Assembly attempting to move up to higher offices, it creates a cascading effect in the various General Assembly races. While the GOP is probably not going to see a General Assembly majority in the 2015-18 cycle – and has the headwind of being redistricted in such a manner to try and cut their minority – being on the wrong side of a lot of issues may make it tricky for Democrats to not lose seats. Republicans have a goal of picking up seven Senate seats, giving them 19 and allowing them to filibuster, and wouldn’t be unhappy with picking up the four House seats required to possibly bypass committee votes on key issues.

As I noted above, though, the key issues will be revealed once O’Malley introduces his legislative package to the General Assembly in mid-January, shortly before his annual State of the State address. Last year he got his gas tax increase to build the Red Line and Purple Line, authorization for offshore wind, and his onerous gun restrictions in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, so this year’s agenda will probably pivot back to measures he believes will help the state’s economy but in reality will probably redistribute even more wealth from the productive to the slothful, growing government at an even faster pace. Many of those dollars will address perceived shortcomings in education and health care.

That seems to be how O’Malley’s last package of revenue enhancements has worked, because the state once again is facing a structural deficit despite rosy predictions to the contrary. Old chestnuts like increasing the cigarette tax or combined reporting of business income will probably jostle for primary position with new initiatives like a mileage tax, additional penalties for cell phone usage, or a higher toll for being caught by speed cameras.

It’s somewhat difficult to predict the direction of the General Assembly before it begins, as items not on the radar in early January become bills introduced late in the session, some of which pass muster. The gasoline tax in its adopted form was one of those last year, since conventional wisdom predicted a straight per-gallon increase rather than the adoption of a partial sales tax which will increase regularly. Another dynamic which will affect timing is having the filing deadline for the 2014 ballot come during session – surely some will wait and see what their path to re-election looks like before introducing certain controversial bills. In previous elections the filing deadline occurred well after the session was over.

Once we get beyond the session in April, the primary campaign will ramp up immediately because of the new experience of a June primary. The Democrats tried to change this eight years ago, fearing a bruising primary fight between Doug Duncan and Martin O’Malley, but succeeded this time because of changes in federal law requiring longer lead times for overseas military voters. Instead of pushing the primary back a couple weeks to comply, though, they decided on a full 2 1/2 months.

At this point there are three main contenders on the Democratic side, and I think that number will stay the same – my thought is either Dutch Ruppersberger will pass up the race (more likely) or, if Dutch gets in, the damaged goods of Doug Gansler will drop out. Obviously there will be more than three on the ballot but some fall under the auspices of perennial candidates who I think are just working on that line in their obituary where it says so-and-so ran for governor five times.

For the GOP, the same is true. In their case, I don’t think there’s enough money out there for four main contenders and whoever raised the least in 2013 is probably the one who exits the race after Larry Hogan makes it formal. In Hogan’s 2010 gubernatorial bid he lent his campaign $325,000 so presumably Hogan has the personal wherewithal to use as seed money; perhaps the dropout will agree to be the running mate of another contender.

It’s interesting, though, that the problems Maryland faces – at least the ones not of their own making, a category in which I’d include the overregulation of local county and municipal governments – are very similar to those faced right here in Wicomico County. Maryland has the “benefit” of being the host state for thousands of federal government worker bees, but little industry to speak of. It’s notable the campaigns are now paying lip service to the concept of re-establishing a manufacturing base, but the process will take at least a couple terms of office and will certainly be at odds with the stated goals of some among the Radical Green who desire a pristine Chesapeake Bay. Development and a reasonably clean Bay can co-exist, but if you want circa-1600 conditions that won’t happen.

And because there are so many who depend on government for their livelihood as workers – or survival as dependents – the concept of “One Maryland” is laughable on its face. The needs of Baltimore City or Somerset County residents don’t often coincide with the desires of your average denizen of Takoma Park or Chevy Chase, but supposedly they are all “One Maryland.” I think there are at least four Marylands – the energy-rich areas of the state’s panhandle, the I-95/I-270 corridors stretching from Harford County on the north to the Beltway suburbs hard by the District of Columbia and back towards Frederick, the bedroom suburbs of southern Maryland which are rapidly changing in political posture, and the Eastern Shore, where agriculture and tourism coexist, but in an occasional state of hostility. One can’t even say that their needs are similar because jobs are plentiful around D.C. but tougher to come by on the Eastern Shore and in Baltimore proper.

It’s not likely one man (or woman) can unite these areas, but the question is which coalitions will hold sway. Finding the right combination will be the key to success for the state in 2014.

A monoblogue year in review

Having a holiday schedule based on Wednesday holidays seems to play havoc with the news cycle, as there’s not much going on with Maryland politics right now. By the time the holiday hangover is done, it’s the weekend.

So over the next four days I’m going to provide for you a look back and look forward. As part of that, tonight’s post will be the look back, with some of the highlights of my political coverage – and a couple other items tossed in for fun as well. This is the first time I’ve tried this, so I’ll see how it goes.

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The year began, as it always does, in January. As will be the case even moreso this year, political fundraising was in the news as there was a surprise leader in the gubernatorial money race on the GOP side. Another highlight of the month was a spirited and enlightening discussion of state issues at the Wicomico Society of Patriots meeting – something all too infrequent this year, unfortunately.

But the highlight of the month was my two-part coverage of the Turning the Tides conference in Annapolis. which had a plethora of good speakers and discussion. It was so good I had to post separately on the morning and afternoon events.

In February my attention was turned to several topics, particularly providing coverage of the financing and the events surrounding the Salisbury municipal elections, for which the primary was February 26th. A key issue brought up was a state mandate for the city to help pay for cleanup of Chesapeake Bay, to the tune of $19 million a year.

Another state mandate took center stage in February, as the Wicomico County Council held a Tier Map forum to find out citizens weren’t exactly enamored with the idea. As part of that I read from my written testimony on a Tier Map repeal bill, which wasn’t the only testimony I wrote – I also put in my two cents on the gun grab bill.

We also found out that month that the Maryland GOP would get new leadership following the resignation of Chair Alex Mooney.

March found me continuing my coverage of the Salisbury city elections, but only backing one candidate. More important were local developments on the state level, where the Second Amendment was a hot topic for a local townhall meeting and our county’s Lincoln Day Dinner.

But the highlight for me, by far, was my day at CPAC. That turned out to be a two-part set of posts.

As the area began to wake up from a winter slumber in April, so did the political world as it turned from the General Assembly session to the 2014 campaign. The Salisbury city elections went as expected, so I turned my attention to the race for state party chair. Interim Chair Diana Waterman ran a campaign which was at times embroiled in some controversy, but prevailed on enough supporters to make it through the lengthy grind of campaign forums (including one in Cambridge on the eve of the state convention) and win the remainder of Alex Mooney’s unexpired term. But even the convention itself had its share of ups and downs, particularly a chaotic ending and a rebuff to new media.

While that was happening, the 2014 election was beginning to take shape, with familiar names both trying their luck again and trying for a promotion. Others had interesting endorsements as feathers in the cap.

But it wasn’t all political in April. The outdoor season began with two local mainstays: Pork in the Park and the Salisbury Festival. I also found out I was immortalized on video thanks to Peter Ingemi, better known as DaTechGuy.

Those things political slowed down in May, with just a little reactionary cleanup to the state convention to begin the month, along with other reaction to the recently-completed General Assembly session. In its wake we also had turnover in Maryland House of Delegates GOP leadership.

But one prospective candidate for governor announced other intentions, leaving another to confirm what we knew all along.

On the fun side, I enjoyed Salisbury’s Third Friday celebration with some friends and stopped by to see them at another barbecue festival, too.

June began with a visit from gubernatorial candidate David Craig, who stopped by Salisbury and in the process gave me an interview. And while he didn’t make a formal tour, fellow Republican Ron George made sure to fill me in on his announcement and establish tax cutting bonafides. We also picked up a Republican candidate for an important local seat and found out political correctness pays in the Maryland business world.

A local doctor gave us his perspective on Obamacare and our area celebrated the chicken in June, too. I also learned of a special honor only a handful of political websites received.

As is often the case, our wallets became a little lighter in July. In the aftermath, we found out who David Craig picked as a running mate and welcomed both of them to our Wicomico County Republican Club meeting. I also talked about another who was amassing a support base but hadn’t made definite 2014 plans at the time.

On the other side of the coin, we found the Democratic field was pressing farther away from the center, a place the GOP was trying to court with the carrot of primary voting. Meanwhile, the political event of the summer occurred in Crisfield, and I was there.

There were some interesting developments in the new media world as well – a plea for help, a shakeup in local internet radio, and my annual monoblogue Accountability Project all came down in July.

The big news in August was the resignation of State Senator E.J. Pipkin, and the battle to succeed him. And while one gubernatorial candidate dropped out, another made his intentions formal and stopped by our Wicomico County Republican Club meeting as well. Even Ron George stopped by our fair county, although I missed him.

It seemed like the gubernatorial campaign got into full swing in September – Charles Lollar announced in an unusual location, the Brown/Ulman Democratic team came here looking for money, Ron George tangled with Texas governor Rick Perry and showed up to make it three Wicomico County Republican Club meetings in a row with a gubernatorial candidate, and Doug Gansler decided to drop by, too. On the other side, Michael Steele took a pass. I also talked about what Larry Hogan might do to fill out the puzzle.

Those up the Shore made news, too. Steve Hershey was the survivor who was appointed State Senator, and I attended the First District Bull Roast for the first time. I’ve been to many Wicomico County Republican Club Crab Feasts, but this year’s was very successful indeed.

September also brought the close of our local baseball season. As is tradition I reviewed the season, both to select a Shorebird of the Year and hopefully improve the fan experience.

October was a month I began considering my choice in the gubernatorial race. That became more difficult as Larry Hogan took an unusual trip for a businessman and Charles Lollar’s campaign worked on self-immolation, while Doug Gansler needed his own damage control.

I also had the thought of going back to the future in Maryland, but a heavy dose of my political involvement came with the tradtional closing events to our tourist season, the Good Beer Festival and Autumn Wine Festival.

Most of November was spent anticipating the Maryland GOP Fall Convention; in fact, many were sure of an impending announcement. Honestly, both may have fallen into the category of “dud.” But all was not lost, as the month gave me the chance to expound on manufacturing and share some interesting polling data.

Finally we come to December. While the month is a long runup to the Christmas holiday, I got the chance to again expound on manufacturing and come up with another radical idea for change. We also got more proof that our state government is up for sale and those who are running for governor place too much stock in internet polling. My choice is still up in the air, even after compiling an 11-part dossier on the Republicans currently in the race.

Locally, we found a good candidate to unseat a long-time incumbent who has long ago outlived his political usefulness. And the incumbent will need to watch his back because Maryland Legislative Watch will be back again to keep an eye on him and his cohorts. I’ll be volunteering for a second year,

And while I weighed in on the latest national diversion from the dreary record of our President and his party, I maintained two December traditions, remarking on eight years of monoblogue and days later inducting two new players into the Shorebird of the Week Hall of Fame.

You know, it was fun going down memory lane for 2013. But tomorrow it will be time to look forward, beginning with the local level.

More restaurant business

Seeing how successful the original was – at least in making for a good story – a political activist is trying to recreate the grassroots magic which punctuated the Chick-fil-A business surge in 2012.

The brainchild of Eric Odom, who is the Managing Director of a media site called the Liberty News Network and also acts as the Director of Interactive Media for Grassfire Lab, the intent of Chick-Phil-A Day seems to be recreating the same atmosphere as the 2012 protests in the same locale, desptite the fact Chick-fil-A has nothing to do with the Robertson family and isn’t an active participant in the protest. Odom notes this on the Facebook page announcing the effort, which is scheduled for Tuesday, January 21.

Obviously this comes in the wake of the entire ‘Duck Dynasty’ controversy, and participants are urged to “Stand For Free Speech. Sit For Good Food.” They’re also asked to arrive in Duck Commander or camoflauge clothing. As of this writing, over 55,000 have signed up with earlier press reports claiming a number in the 45,000 range. So it’s growing rapidly.

But there are a number of differences between the Odom effort and the 2012 protest, which was led by onetime Presidential candidate and media personality Mike Huckabee. For one, Huckabee’s call had a very short lead time of about a week, so the idea was fresh on people’s minds; moreover, it was in the middle of the summer of a presidential election year, when activists are most rabid.  This effort is being put together far more slowly at a time when news is slow and people are still in holiday mode.

So I’m not sure just what to expect considering how quickly the Phil Robertson story blew up, and maybe the question is why not support Cracker Barrel since they readjusted their stance on the Duck Dynasty items after consumer blowback. Obviously the effect is more noticeable at a Chick-Fil-A, though, and the restaurants are far more common. (In this area, the closest Cracker Barrel is about 75 miles away. One was rumored to be planned for Salisbury but it apparently fell through.)

I sort of suspect that people may have moved on to other diversions once the holidays are over because reruns of ‘Duck Dynasty’ are still being aired and the newest Season 5 episodes – all but one of which were already taped with Phil Robertson – premiere January 15. There may be a small bump in the traffic for Chick-fil-A but I don’t think it will be anywhere near as large as the August 2012 protests were.

And that’s a good thing, because the innocent lady who happens to have a very similar Twitter handle to the event name (as I found out when I did the Google search for the term) will probably like not to have tons of traffic.

Our latest generation

December 23, 2013 · Posted in Business and industry, Personal stuff · 2 Comments 

Despite what many consider a less-than-successful holiday shopping season, there apparently is one category doing quite well. The recently-released Microsoft Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4 game consoles are hard to come by because they’re flying off shelves worldwide, with both selling over 2 million units according to this New York Times story.

Both are driving customers away from the Nintendo Wii U console, which came out in 2012 but has suffered from “meager sales.” My impression on this is that the serious gamers decided to wait until the new generation Microsoft and Sony products came out the next year, and the kids who seem to be Nintendo’s biggest market moved from their DS handhelds to tablets rather than to the Wii U. (At least that’s the path my fiance’s nephew took.) Our household has a Wii unit which is rarely used – I guess it’s just so 2006 – and the leading gameplayer tends to play on her phone while my fiance prefers a tablet.

This is just a small sample size, though. I want to talk about a trend.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that everyone has a Christmas budget to spend. Given the $499 price point of the Xbox One and $399 retail for the Sony PlayStation 4 – although would-be entrepreneurs who pre-ordered extra units are charging more online, taking advantage of supply shortages – it’s clear that the Christmas lists get a lot shorter for those looking to purchase these units as a key component. Factor in another $100-$150 for games and you may have a sparse-looking set of presents under the tree. Many people went to GameStop or Best Buy to purchase the units and pretty much wrapped up their Christmas shopping in one stop.

To the extent that I don’t participate in online or offline computer gaming, you can call me a Luddite. I understand, though, that electronic gadgets have surpassed actual social interaction as the leisure-time preference of those in the Millennial Generation. Even I’ve fallen into that trap because I spend a good portion of my waking hours sitting in my chair with my laptop, reading or creating more content for you to enjoy.

Yet it’s amazing how far we’ve come in the last century, since leisure time itself is more or less the end result of technological advances in that period. That’s not to say there wasn’t a little bit of time for frivolity in the 1800s, but those brief stretches tended to simply punctuate a life otherwise filled with drudgery and back-breaking toil to keep a family fed, clothed, and housed in a three-room hovel. In this day and age there are still those who don’t have enough food, shelter, and clothing to thrive but the vast majority are pretty much assured of three hots, clothes to wear, and a place to call home. Some of those common household items those in “poverty” own, such as air conditioning, microwaves, and cell phones, might well have been considered living like a king just a half-century ago and still would in many blighted regions of the globe.

Speaking of a half-century, in less than a year I reach the Big 5-0 myself. So I was a youngster when the home version of Pong first came out – the one we received was actually a competitor called Odyssey. We wired this bulky white console to the television in our living room (which was the spare room in our house at the time, since the family watched the other television in the family room) and marveled that we could manipulate that little dot on our screen with the rectangles we could move up and down, even back and forth!

My memory on this is hazy, but my recollection is that the Odyssey was a gift from our parents to the three of us, and probably was the one large item we received that year. Back then we probably opened six to eight presents apiece, a total which included clothes. But we had new clothes to wear, a newly-built house with five acres of yard to play ball on, and plenty of food – definitely your prototypical middle-class family, which for the majority of my childhood had my dad as the sole breadwinner. (My mom began working part-time when I was in middle school.)

The point is that things sometimes evolve in unexpected directions. Aside from the advance in technology, the Christmas we had in 1976 or 1977 when we got the Odyssey isn’t going to be all that different than this year’s edition when the kids find an Xbox One or Sony PS4 under the tree. But the world in which we find ourselves is a whole lot different, because the kids of today may be shuttled to and from the homes of various parental units and generations rather than spending Christmas at one place with the entire family. Mom might have to work late at one of her jobs on Christmas Eve, so no getting up before dawn to open presents on Christmas morning.

I suppose that if there’s anything I wish for this Christmas, I would like to see the next generation of gaming consoles be purchased and given in homes where the family units are strong because people are enabled to enjoy the blessings of liberty in such a way that only one earner is required, and that the decision to have children isn’t one taken lightly as a “choice” rather than a child. I don’t think I was deprived of a thing growing up as I did, even if my mom and dad didn’t always cater to our every whim and money was occasionally tight. We didn’t get all we wanted, but looking back I received most of what I needed. (Some of it you just have to learn on your own.)

The old adage is that the family that plays together, stays together. I suppose it matters not whether the game is Monopoly or on the Xbox, just that the family is together.

The gradual takeover

It’s been awhile since I talked about the concept of Smart Growth, but some relatively recent developments caught my eye and I figured it was time to talk about them. One of these items has been sitting on my top bookmarks for a few weeks now.

Last spring, against my advice, the voters of Salisbury elected Jake Day to their City Council. Since that time, Day has joined with nine other local elected officials around the state as part of an advisory board for Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. This is a collaboration between the rabidly anti-growth 1,000 Friends of Maryland and Smart Growth America.

Now allow me to say that downtown development is just fine with me. My problem with so-called Smart Growth legislation – such as the Septic Bill which mandated counties provide tier maps for approval by the state, usurping local control – is that it eliminates options local landowners may choose to use. If there is a market for people who wish to live in a rural area, it should be served; moreover, many parts of the region are already off-limits to development because the land doesn’t drain properly. At least that restriction makes sense.

Developing Salisbury’s downtown is important for the city, but not squeezing rural development is important for Wicomico County.

Another recent development in the city is the adoption of designated bicycle pathways, which in Salisbury are marked by “sharrows.” Since I frequently drive in Delaware, I’m familiar with their custom of designating bicycle lanes on the shoulder of the highway, as that state seems to take the concept farther than their Maryland neighbors. But sharrows have a different purpose, simply denoting the best place to ride in a shared lane. In theory, however, a group of bikes moving along the shared lane could slow traffic down to their speed. It may seem extreme, but this has happened in larger cities.

Granted, the designated bicycle ways in Salisbury are somewhat off the beaten path of Salisbury Boulevard, which also serves as Business Route 13 in Salisbury. But the anti-parking idea expressed in the American Spectator article is a dream of Salisbury bicyclists, who want to eliminate one lane of on-street parking when downtown is revitalized. With the lower speed limits common along downtown streets, the bigger danger for bicyclists comes from a driver of a parked car unwittingly opening a car door in the path of a bicyclist rather than the large speed difference common on a highway with a bike lane.

This also works with an anti-car movement called the Complete Streets Coalition, which believes that “incomplete streets (are) designed with only cars in mind.” Instead, they fret that:

(Incomplete streets) limit transportation choices by making walking, bicycling, and taking public transportation inconvenient, unattractive, and, too often, dangerous.

Changing policy to routinely include the needs of people on foot, public transportation, and bicycles would make walking, riding bikes, riding buses and trains safer and easier. People of all ages and abilities would have more options when traveling to work, to school, to the grocery store, and to visit family.

Making these travel choices more convenient, attractive, and safe means people do not need to rely solely on automobiles. They can replace congestion-clogged trips in their cars with swift bus rides or heart-healthy bicycle trips. Complete Streets improves the efficiency and capacity of existing roads too, by moving people in the same amount of space – just think of all the people who can fit on a bus or streetcar versus the same amount of people each driving their own car. Getting more productivity out of the existing road and public transportation systems is vital to reducing congestion.

Just think of how much control we can have over people’s movement if we could only get them out of their cars. Oh, sorry, was I reading between the lines?

Many of these concepts were outlined in Day’s plan for Salisbury. It’s not that the city doesn’t need changes, but it’s my belief that giving too much weight to less efficient modes of transportation or those who create the need for dependency on the schedule of public transportation is counter-productive to good development. Retail, for example, depends on the ability of customers to have close, convenient parking.

But more important to me is liberty – the freedom to do what you wish with your property or to move about as you desire. Regulations from our overlords in Annapolis enacted over the objections of local government usurp the principle that the best government is the one closest to the people. The push toward mass transit at the expense of the automobile removes a vital travel option from the traveling public – Maryland already spends a disproportionate share of gasoline tax dollars on mass transit as opposed to maintenance and improvement to the highway system, and that inequity threatens to become more pronounced with the Red Line and Purple Line in Maryland’s urban core.

Above all, these should be local decisions. The problem with Smart Growth and its tentacles creeping into government at higher levels is its reliance on central planning. Maybe we’d trust Annapolis more if we thought they had our best interests at heart, but past performance doesn’t bode well for future results.

Update: I was researching a more recent post and came across this nugget from Montgomery County, which wants to usurp a car travel lane for buses on certain routes.

Another study showing energy job creation

My friends at API alerted me to yet another study touting the benefits of offshore drilling, but this one was more localized because they discuss energy exploration in the heretofore moribund Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). This rather lengthy research, sponsored by API and the National Ocean Industries Association, showed that Maryland and Delaware could expect an economic bump of over 12,000 jobs and nearly $1 billion over the cumulative 18-year period (2017-2035) covered in the report. It obviously assumes the case that exploration is opened up at the first opportunity, which will arrive in 2017.

Considering state employment in Maryland alone is about 3 million, with over 212,000 unemployed, these numbers may seem like a drop in the bucket. (Delaware adds about 430,000 and 30,000 to the respective totals.) But it’s worth mentioning that these jobs would be created by private investment, so they’re a net gain to the economy as opposed to simple redistribution of confiscated wealth which typifies government jobs, even those in infrastructure like roads and bridges.

And if there’s one thing I have noticed in the past few years about projections for the amount of oil to be found in a particular place, it’s that the initial estimates are far too low. This is more likely in the Atlantic region, which hasn’t been properly explored with the newest technology yet because there was no prospect for securing leases.

While there was a period where Atlantic leases were granted, no area has been leased out in the last thirty years. Furthermore, the seismic information is also three decades old, which is an eternity in this day and age of computer mapping – that was an era where the conventional wisdom was that many portions of America were played out insofar as oil was concerned. But recent technological advances and methods of exploration have determined there’s still a lot of life in these fields. The same may well be true for the Atlantic OCS, which could have double or triple the expected capacity. (The model used in the study essentially doubles the government’s most recent estimate, but that calculation is based on fields in areas where modeling was more constant than it was in the Atlantic OCS. So it wouldn’t be out of the question to see yet another doubling.)

Regardless, it’s more ammunition for the argument that allowing more energy exploration would be a job creator, with the added benefit of energy self-sufficiency. Drill, baby, drill!

Competing views on manufacturing

As a follow up and way to revise and extend remarks on Friday’s post about the Alliance for American Manufacturing, I decided to dig a little bit more into who they are and what they are proposing. The idea of “Made in America” is a sound one, for a number of reasons, but as I pointed out the AAM seems to have many of its eggs in the protectionist basket. To some extent, they have a case: even their attempt to furnish their Washington, D.C. office with exclusively American-made goods fell a little short:

Our tour began in one of the small offices, where (AAM executive director Scott) Paul showed off a desk from Washington state. But things took a turn downhill from there, when we got to the products on the desk.

“You can’t find phones, video display terminals,” says Paul. “I mean, none of that is American-made.” Paul couldn’t find American-made computers, either, though that may change following Apple’s announcement that it plans to make some Macs in the United States.

But then I found an entire AAM-backed legislative agenda, for which they linked to this subpage on the website of Delaware’s junior Senator Chris Coons. In it, we find a number of top-down legislative proposals in the areas of skills training, exports, access to capital, and “conditions necessary for growth.” At the time of its last update, about half of these proposals hadn’t been introduced as bills, with the last introduced bill being S.1400 in July of this year – either the website is not often updated or these proposals have languished on the back burner of a do-nothing, obstructionist Senate. This to me is quite telling as most of the sponsors are Democrats, who have the majority in the body.

It should be pointed out, too, that the Alliance for American Manufacturing is the brainchild of the United Steelworkers union and a “select group of America’s leading manufacturers.” The list of this select group isn’t widely disseminated, but the AAM describes that:

Leo Gerard, the International President of the United Steelworkers, and CEOs of Steelworker-represented manufacturers understood that. These leaders launched AAM in 2007 to build on the success of the “Stand Up For Steel” coalition.

The roots of that coalition date back to the 1990s, so this fight is an old one under a relatively new name since the AAM was founded in 2007. Essentially it’s a union partnership with the closed shops under its wing; a business-labor pact in name only.

Now that you understand its roots, it becomes more clear why they prescribe their menu of solutions. The steel industry is long known as a bastion of protectionism, given the charges of foreign steel dumping a decade or so back.

So are there any other solutions out there? The competing group to AAM is the National Association of Manufacturers, a group whose board is representative of over 200 industrial leaders. Their vision is somewhat different than that of the union-backed organization, although there are elements of protectionism and top-down dictates in their plan as well. Most worrisome to me is their advocacy for immigration reform, which is needed but must be done in such a manner that law-breaking is not rewarded at the expense of those who went about it in the correct manner.

Yet NAM makes one sound point:

Because of our tax, tort, energy and regulatory policies, it is 20 percent more expensive to do business in the United States than it is in the countries that are our nine largest trading partners — and that excludes the cost of labor.

And it’s not like the problem is new, particularly here in Maryland. I mentioned Friday that Ron George is perhaps the gubernatorial candidate most attuned to the problem (David Craig has his own plan as well), although all but one of the players involved at the time had their say at an October manufacturing summit. Moreover, outgoing Governor Martin O’Malley was even forced to pay lip service to the issue.

But we have had this discussion for several years, and the prescriptions which were suggested a half-decade ago languished on the bookshelf while Maryland developed a growing reputation as a state hostile to business. It’s sort of strange that what I wrote on Friday – as a person who had never seen this report – nailed their first point about “a competitive and stable business environment.” They also talked about the need for a “balanced approach” to energy rather than the heavy emphasis on renewables, which is another pet peeve of mine. (Little did they know at the time the report was compiled – just five short years ago – that America and a portion of Maryland were sitting on an energy gold mine.)

In short, the solutions to the problem seem to be there and many fall into the conservative, pro-liberty camp. If we tell the radical environmentalists and regulators to go pound sand because we have work to do, chances are more of us would indeed have more work to do and more prosperity to spread around.

An American Black Friday

While Black Friday has spilled over into Thanksgiving Day for some retailers, the bulk of merchants still open extremely early on the Friday after Thanksgiving, promising loss leaders which normally fall into the realm of electronics. Sadly, practically all of these items are made overseas which means Americans aren’t making them or generally raking in the profits from their sale. More than anything, this change in operations over the last half-century has been blamed for the decline of the middle class.

Last year Scott Paul, who heads the Alliance for American Manufacturing, penned an op-ed for the Huffington Post where he noted:

The day after Thanksgiving, “Black Friday,” is also an American tradition, albeit a more recent one. Shoppers sometimes maim and maul each other to find bargains at big box stores and shopping malls. It’s ugly. And in a way, it represents the very worst of America.

Black Friday is also the most visible symptom of what’s really dragging down our middle class: we consume too much from overseas, and we don’t produce enough here to make up the difference. That burdens us with debt, and leaves us fewer options for jobs.

There is a solution, and it may sound quaint, but it’s never been truer than it is today: this Black Friday: Buy American.

They’ve also put out a list of American-made gift ideas from each state, a unique collection which features everything from lip balm to motor homes. (Representing Delaware is local brewery Dogfish Head – not a bad choice for someone like me although I prefer 16 Mile. Dogfish Head was selected based on nationwide distribution.)

Obviously I’m of the opinion Americans need to make more things; the same can be said of Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ron George, who has spent the most time of his cohorts touting the idea of bringing manufacturing to Maryland. Recently he pointed out the state is dead last in the country in certain key metrics.

The way I see it, there are certain things state and local government can do to accomplish this: among them are a stable and predictable regulatory regime, a corporate tax rate that’s fair and doesn’t punish achievement or investment, and the transportation infrastructure required to whisk goods to market in the most rapid fashion possible. Hopefully all these work to a point where counterproductive incentives like tax abatement or abuse of eminent domain aren’t necessary.

Unfortunately, it seems the AAM has a different idea on how to achieve the goal. Most of their federal advocacy is barely-veiled protectionism, which in the long run discourages innovation and results in fewer opportunities for the consumer. Of course I think trading partners should deal with us in a fair way, but one also has to figure out that there has to be some reason an American company can manufacture goods overseas, load them on a ship and wait a week or two for them to arrive – paying for that service – and still make more money on the products than they would in an American factory with American workers. It can’t all be labor costs.

It would be nice to be able to go to a Walmart or Best Buy and find American-made electronics rather than support a regime with missiles pointed at us. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to want to change the system to make this happen and protectionism isn’t the answer.

It’s funny because automakers from around the world set up shop in America to build their cars, so it’s obvious some industries prefer our workers. Granted, putting together a television exhibits nothing close to the complexity of building an automobile, but if the complex assembly of a car or truck can be made here profitably we should be able to make anything cheaper and better. Now that we know we have enough inexpensive energy reserves to last us for generations, let’s make our future Black Fridays more prosperous by encouraging the return of manufacturing.

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