Thursday, December 25, 2008

Real estate is no good in New York

From the 29 December 2008 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Despite the bursting of the housing bubble, real estate remains one of the smartest investments to make in most of the US. The deepening recession that we’re in is a direct result of an inordinate number of foreclosures in places like California and Nevada where totally-unrealistic home prices finally reached their apex and tanked, taking the homeowners (investors) with them. Only after this caused the financial markets to crash did foreclosures see a slight increase in Western New York. As employers who were affected by the recession cut jobs, many local homeowners, now jobless, found it impossible to keep up with their mortgages.

It’s a study in contrasts: While the foreclosures elsewhere in the US were the direct result of the collective ignorance of gambling homebuyers and the risk-taking banks who lent money to the unlendable, here, in WNY, lost homes were not the result of such ignorance but, instead, were mostly the result of issues beyond anyone’s control.

Because of that and for the fact that at first glance our region’s recessionary woes don’t come close to those of the other locales, WNY’s civic leaders – elected officials, businessmen and news outlets alike – have been wearing this like a badge of honor. They claim that we weathered the burst of the housing bubble and we are in no way responsible for what befell America.

Maybe so, but such glee is quite misguided and it hides the real truth, which is even more horrible than fiscal mismanagement by homeowners. The fact of the matter is we did not have a housing bubble – nor will we ever have one – because New York is one of the few states in the Union in which real estate is not a wise investment. That’s because our elected officials, not our citizens, have for decades mismanaged finances. They have made, and continue to make, property taxes that are much too high. The onerous amalgamation of local, county, and school taxes have stripped real estate of any future returns it might have.

Consider the following…

In Niagara County the median home value is $95,800 and the property tax burden on said home is $2,800. Suppose someone buys that home as a starter home and hopes to sell it off in a decade or two. To come out even, based on taxes-paid alone, he would have to sell that home for $123,800 after 10 or $151,800 after 20 years. That’s completely impossible in the Buffalo-Niagara region. Making matters worse, this basic analysis makes two major assumptions: One, taxes won’t rise in every one of those years and, two, he will put absolutely no money into that home (like remodeling or repairs). Those unaccounted-for factors – both of them 100% guaranteed to happen – have the lack of a payback on housing set in stone.

This is a uniquely-NY problem. Property taxes in the Empire State are 57% higher than the national average. For every $100 other Americans pay, we pay $157. And that’s the average; let’s look at one of the extremes. Recently I was visited by a customer from Tennessee. He pays a paltry $660 per year in property taxes for his 2,800-square-foot suburban new-build. In comparison, my coworker in North Tonawanda has a similar home for which he pays $6,800 in taxes annually. Another coworker pays $5,480 on his like-sized abode in Amherst. Think about it: they will have paid $68,000 and $54,800 in property taxes, respectively, after just 10 years. They will never make that up in resale value. Never. But, the Man From Tennessee will for sure. For him, and many other Americans, it makes complete sense to invest in real estate, be it housing or land, because their taxes are so low.

This takes on greater meaning now that we’ve all lost faith in the stock market. As 401(k)’s and pensions have plummeted, we’ve all looked for other options to save for our retirements and our heirs, things like hard assets such as gold, cash or real estate. Only in New York State is the latter an even poorer investment than a down market. Main Street, NY is absolutely no better than Wall Street, NY. It’s depressing because our homes are the single largest investment that we will ever make in our lifetimes.

Let’s put this into historical perspective. A tea tax, but a pittance, was the straw that broke our colonial backs and jumpstarted the American Revolution. Our property taxes are far more extravagant. Will that someday ignite that same fire of change in New Yorkers? Let’s hope so, and soon. We’ll never be a rich people as long as the depressing status quo is maintained in local and state leadership.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The cow fart tax really stinks

From the 22 December 2008 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

(Warning: this column is totally bound-up with bathroom innuendo)

Excuse me! Everything you’ll read here is true. I’m not full of it….

Don’t let anyone tell you that the old farts in Washington aren’t good with dollars. Sure, they spend them like they’re going out of style, but they really know how to get their dirty hands on them. Tax this. Tax that. It’s an all-around crappy situation.

Because we’re such stinkers with our taxes, good ol’ Uncle Sam is flushed with excitement over the Environmental Protection Agency’s newest idea. The EPA is looking to suppress the (m)ass hysteria over global warming by letting rip with a tax on the production of greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide. It just so happens that those gases are the same gases we live and breathe every day, whether we like it or not…the same gases that every man, woman, and child occasionally lets slip. Yep, The EPA wants to tax farts. No crap! Only from the deepest bowels of Washington could something as stinky as this creep up on us.

But, they know full well that we financially-strapped taxpayers usually don’t go down without a fight as we strain to fill the pot. So, the politicians, who have a nose for bloated government, have trained their sights on the derrieres that make dairy air. They’ve put serious thought into to taxing cows for supposedly dumping on all of us with their noxious fumes.

This dark cloud of taxation reeks of disrespect for our farmers and has them asking, “what kind of ass would do this?!” Oh, the irony of the words!

They can thank the United Nations. In 2006 the organization issued a BS report about BS called “Livestock’s Long Shadow” that anal-yzed the environmental impact of cattle rearing. According to those blowhards, cows are the most significant producer of human-related greenhouse gases, far exceeding the fumes that cars spew into the air. They say livestock creates 9% of the CO2, 37% of the methane, 64% of the ammonia, and 65% of the NO2. They believe the last one to be the worst because it has 296 times the global warming impact of CO2. It’s obvious they find cow farts to have a silent but deadly effect on the environment.

What really stinks is the fact the EPA might be unstoppable because it has the Supreme Court bringing up the rear on this one. Last year the Court let us know they weren’t behind the times by upholding the Clean Air Act of 1970 which they say allows the EPA to regulate gases (greenhouse and outhouse) if it concludes the gases will affect public welfare and health. Basically, the high court will turn their noses up at any farmer who comes to them looking to give the EPA a good ol’ kick in the behind.

You can’t blame the farmers for being mad. They are already struggling to make ends meet and this will serve only to pinch-off more profits, unless the marketplace can accept higher costs. It won’t be a cheap endeavor, either. The EPA must have done a lot of pondering while on the porcelain because the impact is ass-tronomical: They would like to tax all farms that have more than 25 dairy cows, 50 head of beef, or 200 pigs. The rate would work out to be $175 for a farting cow, $87.50 for every bull and its bull, and $20 for every piggish pig. The manure and farts from a 500-head dairy farm would cost that farmer $87,500 per year in taxes. How do you like them (road) apples?

Thankfully, a lot of people have caught wind of this idea and are poo-pooing the concept. Even Senator Chuckie Schumer, usually one to be full of hot air, makes scents - I mean sense - when it comes to the fart tax. He recently let his constituents know that the he thinks the EPA is full of it when he belched this classic line: "This goes in the category ‘you can't believe this.' This will impact New York from one end to the other." God bless that stinker.

Hopefully, the EPA and our more-liberal elected officials will wipe the slate clean and toss this legislation into the sewer where it belongs. Butt – I mean but - you never know…these smelly politicians might pass this like a good movement. Why? It’s usually like pulling teeth to bring in new tax revenues, but if they have their way it will be as easy as pulling a finger. To them this fart tax is almost too good to be true. One man’s garbage really is another man’s treasure.

How can they take themselves seriously? I sure the heck can’t!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Remembering the Forgotten War

From the 15 December 2008 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Here’s an experiment in the study of US military history: Ask anyone to list in order the three US military involvements of the past 75 years that had the highest number of casualties.

Most respondents will answer incorrectly. They will respond in a hurry, and correctly, with number 1 (World War II) and number 2 (the Vietnam Conflict). After some stumbling over a response for the third slot, most everyone – be they students or adults – will come back with the nation’s current war in and occupation of Iraq, responsible for over 4,200 deaths. That is the wrong answer. As horrific as that death toll is, it is dwarfed by that of the Korean War. The bloody conflict accounted for the death of more than 34,000 Americans and the wounding of over 103,000 more from 1950 to 1953.

That experiment shows the flaw in our society’s understanding of America’s role in global affairs. Through no fault of their own, people are deeply affected by news and entertainment media and their understanding of historical context becomes skewed by the messages and images they are bombarded with on a daily basis. We are led to live and perceive only the present, never the past and future. (In a similar vein, the media leads folks to believe that the current economic downturn is as bad as the Great Depression. It’s not even close).

It doesn’t help that the participants of the Korean War were already disrespected long before the Iraq War began. For many years this Asian conflict has been known as “the Forgotten War” because, collectively, we have ignored it and its meaning because it was bookended by the epic World War and the immensely-controversial Vietnam War.

And a Forgotten War it is. It’s rare that that we discuss it. It’s rarer yet that we give the participants their just recognition and appreciation. Everyone can readily identify the center point of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington…the restrained yet powerful Vietnam Wall. How many people can identify the primary image of the Korean War Memorial? For those who don’t know, it’s a collection of 19 statues of American soldiers trudging across rough terrain, harried looks on their faces anticipating the next surprise attack.

That haunting memorial perfectly represents the Korean experience. It was a frightening war, full of dreadful fighting reminiscent of WWI’s close-quarters bloodbaths. It started off horribly as over a thousand inexperienced and underequipped young soldiers were cut down in one of the first American battles of the war, US and UN forces greatly underestimating the power of the North Koreans. The body count remained high throughout the three-year occupation when battles in extremely rugged and dangerous mountain terrain became the norm. None of us today can imagine the stress of scaling a steep hill, wondering if the barrel of an enemy’s gun will be at your head at the next rise. Our soldiers paid a heavy price in life and limb and those who survived saw things on a daily basis that no one should ever see, memories they carry with them to this day. The war was so violent that come 1953 - after both sides each lost over a million soldiers – it ended with an armistice, a cease-fire that left a ravaged land and its two parties in no better shape than before the war.

The proper honoring of our Korean vets and their sacrifices in this ugly war are long past due. Highlighting the differential in respect versus other wars, if you travel across the States, you will find that Vietnam War memorials – all of them well-deserved - outnumber Korean War memorials at a 2.5 to 1 rate, despite the casualty difference being just 1.3 to 1. It’s surprising if not disheartening that public and private investments in Korean remembrance have been so comparatively low. Even the 50 year anniversary ceremonies held earlier this century went by with no fanfare, barely a blip on the radar of our media, our elected officials, and our citizens. Adding to this, our schools tread lightly on war studies. It’s really a travesty that most Americans are grossly uninformed in regard to something so great in scale and importance.

That lack of respect can be corrected. But, it’s important that any and all Korean memorials and ceremonies occur as soon as possible, before it is too late. The participants are in their twilight years and they won’t be with us much longer. The youngest of the soldiers turned 73 this year. As a country, we need to give them the love that is due.

You can do your part by sharing a heartfelt “thank you”. They haven’t been told those simple words enough in their lifetimes.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Salivating over Salvia

From the 08 December 2008 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

When drug users quibble over what hallucinogenic drugs create the strongest trips they generally rate LSD as number one, followed closely by Salvia divinorum.

Most everyone is familiar with LSD. It’s a storied substance that routinely makes the headlines, getting a fair amount of well-deserved bad press. On top of that, it’s a Schedule 1 drug that is illegal to manufacture, possess, buy, or distribute in the United States. Despite the image and the laws, in 2006 some 23 million Americans were estimated to have used the drug in their lifetimes.

Salvia, on the other hand, is a relatively unknown drug. It gets almost no major media attention and is legal to distribute and posses in all but a dozen states. You may not know about Salvia, but there’s a very good chance your children do, maybe even intimately.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Salvia is the latest craze in the youth drug culture, quickly becoming the drug of choice. Word about its dissociative abilities has spread like wildfire on the web and kids find themselves amused by – and therefore curious of – its effects after viewing any one of the thousands of Salvia trip videos that are available on YouTube, Google Video, and the like. They’re easily able to see their peers acting erratically, aggressively, and dangerously, even driving while under the influence of the herb. Go online and give it a look. If you have even a modicum of maturity you’ll find these videos disturbing.

The net not only promotes Salvia, but it sells it, too. This makes it ungodly easy for youth to get their mitts on a potent drug. No longer do they have to worry about breaking a law or dealing with questionable and dangerous drug pushers. It’s all just a mouse-click away.

A quick search will show hundreds of internet companies selling Salvia. A relatively cheap high, anyone can buy it for as little as $9 gram to as much as $64 per gram depending on the strength. And, unfortunately, it’s delivered incognito. In most cases it arrives via standard mail in an envelope or as a package from what appears to be a reputable supplement/health company along the lines of GNC. Few parents would question their children on either count.

Because of the congruence of all these factors, use of Salvia has exploded. In the past twelve months alone, over 750,000 have used it for the first time. One online vendor brags that his sales to New York State have increased by 1,000 percent in the past half-year.

Yes, you read that right. The Empire State, usually the state to have more laws than any other, has no restrictions on Salvia. So, there’s a very good chance that high school and college students you know have used the stuff.

This legal impasse is not for a lack of trying. For the past five legislative sessions the State Senate has passed a series of bills that make the sale and or possession of Salvia on offense in New York State. In each and every session the Assembly has put them out to die in committee. This year was no different. Bill S.695, sponsored by Senator Flanagan of Long Island, would make it illegal to peddle the plant in NY. It was overwhelmingly passed by the Senate back in February. Since then, the Assembly has let the bill (as A.610) sit idle in the economic development committee. Other bills, like Senator Maziarz’s attempt to identify Salvia as an LSD-type controlled substance (S.7736) have been met with disdain. That said, it’s imperative that you contact your assemblyperson and ask him or her to support such legislation when it returns to the floor in 2009.

If they fail to make headway yet again, which is likely and unconscionable, it might be up to our local elected officials to succeed where Albany has failed. The county legislators would need only to follow the lead of Suffolk County. There, back in April of this year, it was signed into local law that possession or sale of Salvia in the county is a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

As long as the laws allow it, kids will continue to use this weed, putting them and their companions in peril. It’s up to you as a parent or friend to make yourself aware of this insidious, easily-acquired drug. With no laws on the books it will be up to you to make law in your home.

Obama discriminates against gun owners

From the 01 December 2008 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

If you count yourself as a gun owner and are among the hundreds of thousands who are applying for any one of the 7,000 job openings in the Obama Administration, do yourself a favor. Throw the application out.

Don’t bother applying because it will be an exercise in futility. You won’t have a chance based upon the line of questioning posed in question 59 (out of 63). It reads as follows: “Do you or any members of your immediate family own a gun? If so, provide complete ownership and registration information. Has the registration ever lapsed? Please also describe how and by whom it is used and whether it has been the cause of any personal injuries or property damage."

Intrusive. Offensive. Unprecedented. Pick any adjective of negative connotation and it will apply here. This method of vetting is really that bad.

It’s disconcerting, even amusing, that a man whose supporters pride themselves on being non-discriminatory is he himself discriminatory. The President-Elect obviously finds fault with those who believe in practicing their natural right to self defense, one that is duly noted in the Second Amendment of the Constitution, the document he has sworn to uphold and protect as Senator. Obama will make that same promise but with even greater zeal and meaning when he is sworn in as our forty-fourth president. It can be argued that his oaths of office – past and future - are but outright lies based on his neglect of duty to our nation’s bible.

The Second Amendment, as other amendments, will suffer under his rule. When all is said and done he will go down as the most anti-gun president in the history of the United States. We can predict this now with relative certainty because the employment application offers a telling glimpse into his mind, something the electorate weren’t made privy to during his campaign when his responses to gun-related questions were like those he provided to most all other inquiries, meandering and uninformative. Obama’s slick talk of change and his unwillingness to answer questions masked his true intentions of wanting to deny us the individual right to bear arms, something he has a proven track record of.

His most horrific commentary occurred back in 1996 – a scant 12 years ago - when he first ran for the state senate of Illinois. Then he wrote in a candidates’ questionnaire that he supported a total ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of handguns. That highly-unconstitutional belief manifested itself again earlier this year when over 300 congressmen and senators signed a brief for the now-classic District of Columbia v. Heller case, asking that the Supreme Court to support the individual right to bear arms. Obama was not among the signers.

If he is unable to make an outright ban happen, Obama will do his best to take away certain nuances of ownership. Among the most odious of such desires would be to deny the right to self-protection. Most states now have a Right-to-Carry so a firearm can used as a means to suppress a criminal attack or rape. In 2004, just before he came to Washington, he let it be known that he has and will oppose all such legislation and, if he had his chance, he would push federal legislation that would allow only law enforcement personnel to legally carry guns. Bills like this only serve to empower the criminals.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He supports the resurrection of the Clinton Gun Ban. He wanted to drive up by 500% the federal excise tax on guns and ammunition. He wants all gun owners to be licensed and registered. He also would like them to be no younger than 21. His list of anti-gun sentiments is endless and incriminating.

Right now, there aren’t too many people who voted for him who understand the horrible significance of his Constitutional onslaught. But, those who did not vote for the man know better and are preparing for his regime. While the rest of the economy has slipped into a meltdown not seen since the days of the Great Depression, gun shops have experienced a boom not seen since the days of the Old West. In the two months leading up to the election and the month since, gun sales at many stores across the US have grown in excess 100% and in some cases 400%. People are stocking up on weapons while they can, now before the Obama Administration goes into power and makes buying a gun just like trying to get a federal job were you to own a gun…nearly impossible.