Posts tagged ‘LOT’

Adding Solar to Our House -- Here Is Why

UPDATE:  This article has been heavily edited.  It turns out that solar installations without extensive battery systems do NOT act as a backup to grid outages.  By utility rules, the solar system has to shut itself down when the grid shuts down.  I should have done better research, but frankly I could not believe that the system shuts down EXACTLY when you most need it.  For me this revelation (which came from several readers, thanks!!) was a bit like finding out that your flashlight has software to shut down when it is dark outside. 

Our house has always been a good candidate for solar.  It has a large flat roof, good sightlines to the south, and we live in just about the best solar location in the country (Phoenix).  The problem has been two-fold:

  • Even with large tax rebates and other subsidies (e.g. ability to sell power into the grid at retail rather than wholesale rates), the payback periods are long.
  • Given that we are working in 10+ year paybacks, it has never been clear to me that most panels have the life needed.  All solar panels degrade with time and sometimes fail and I am not sure most economics include those factors.

What finally changed our minds was a question my wife asked me a few months back.  She would really be distressed at losing the A/C during a Phoenix summer, and asked if we should get a backup generator.  I told her such generators were large and expensive, but that if we really wanted some grid backup in Phoenix, solar seems to make sense.  Sure, it only backs up in the day, but that is when we really need it here.  The backup aspect was the cherry on top of the economics that put us over the top.

We knew we did not want some sort of leasing or pay-for-power arrangement that would encumber our home if we ever had to sell it so that meant we could shop for about any sort of panel we wanted.  In shopping for things nowadays, there is seldom consensus on the best, but right now there seems to be a near consensus in solar panels.  The SunPower panels have the best efficiency, the lowest efficiency reduction from high temperatures, the least efficiency drop off with time, and the longest warranty.  You pay for all that of course and they are pricey, but I decided to go with the pricier panels where I could be more sure of the economics in the out years.  We have made other investments in our home that have essentially represented a decision to stay for the long-term, so we invested for the long-term here.  I will say that it is possible we could have gotten better economics with another panel that was cheaper, even considering a shorter life, but I did not do the math for every panel.***  The panels we are buying are a huge step ahead of the old ones, as they have built -in inverters in each panel and so they produce AC directly.  This greatly reduces the wiring and installation costs.

Interestingly, the efficiency did not buy us much (at least today) because our total installation was limited by our service panel limits, which total to 400 amps.  This means that the efficiency really only saved us roof space which we had more than enough of.  However, while I chose not to do a battery system this time around (too expensive and too many safety questions), I may do one in the future so I wanted space for more panels to charge a future battery system.

The total payback comes to just about 10 years for our system.  At historic cost of capital numbers this probably does not pencil out but today with ZIRP it makes sense, especially with the extra benefit of some immunity from outages.  Even to get to these numbers you folks had to chip in to help my economics, in the form of the 30% tax rebate you are giving me and the above-wholesale price you are paying me for power I put into the grid.  This payback is mainly from getting rid of a LOT of our on-peak power usage, which costs us way more per KwH than off-peak.  A second project to add more solar charging batteries for evening use will have more challenging economics and will likely have to be justified purely on grid independence.  On the other hand, your economics in another location may be better, since our off-peak power costs of around 10-12 cents is pretty cheap.  On the gripping hand, you may not have as good of a solar insolation factor where you live.  My summary is that if you live in certain parts of SoCal with high electricity rates, this is a no brainer; if you live where I do it is marginal but works if you value some grid independence; and most everywhere else it is a real stretch and maybe closer to a rich man's toy than a sensible investment**.  However, those of you who have had good economics doing this elsewhere are welcome to comment below.

I will give more reports in the future as we go through this.

**  I would argue that experience from some place like SolarCity does not necessarily count as they never have and (as part of Tesla) likely never will make money, so there is an added subsidy in the equation there from well-meaning but naive stockholders.

*** It is hard also to do the full installation math on every panel as most installers have a limited range they work with and we only had the energy and time to engage a few installers for quotes.

 

Why Tesla ZEV Credits Don't Appear on the Balance Sheet

I asked this question to an accountant friend you runs a web site on accounting technical issues:

Tesla gets Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) credits from about 10 states for selling EV's.  These have a LOT of value and can be sold to other car makers who need them to compete in these states.  In the past Tesla has sold batches of them for upwards of a billion dollars, so they are material.  Tesla tends to horde them for several quarters and then sell them in a big batch to juice a particular quarter.  However, they do not appear on the balance sheet.  Anywhere.  It is a public company but no one in the outside world knows how many of the ZEV credits Tesla has until they show up on the income statement as having been sold and having generated a huge profit.

How is it possible that Tesla is gaining these valuable assets with each sale of a car in certain states but they are not getting put on the balance sheet in any way?
He answered, and for now I am going to leave his name off -- he says he may post on it soon and I will link him then.

I  learned of this a few weeks ago, and was actually thinking about writing a blog post on it because it is so ridiculous.  I’ll try to explain quickly.

One’s first reaction could be that this is a “tax asset,” like tax loss carryforwards.  BUT, GAAP only addresses tax assets that arise from determination of income taxes; hence, the literature on “deferred tax assets” is not directly in the scope of this issue.

The second thought is that this is a contribution from a government that has value.  BUT, GAAP is silent on how to account for donations to a company from the government (ironically, this is addressed by International Financial Reporting Standards, but not GAAP).

In a nutshell, that leaves Tesla with a lot of wiggle room on accounting for this.  The FASB’s definition of an asset in its conceptual framework would pretty clearly include this, but not perfectly.  So, with the permission of its auditors, Tesla gets to treat this as sort of a rainy-day reserve.  It’s utterly ridiculous – classic definition of a loophole.

It's probably a marker of our expanding corporate state that GAAP needs to address more carefully "donations to a company from the government."

IHOP And Modern Marketing

The International House of Pancakes announced the other day that they are changing their name to International House of Burgers, or IHOb.   I am 99% certain that this is just a marketing gimmick, a way to get social media buzz, after which they will "as a result of public pressure" go back to the old name.  A sort of intentional version of what Coke did years ago by accident with New Coke.

So far, I would judge it to be successful.  They were talked about on several national radio shows that I listen to (on sports talk radio, no less) and got a day's worth of media coverage (and presumably another day's worth when they change back).  This is a LOT of free advertising for a brand I have heard absolutely nothing about for years (except from my 21-year-old daughter who still makes me take her there from time to time for funny face pancakes.)

Brand strategy has really evolved a lot from when I was in B-school.  In the 1990's my wife was a brand manager at Frito-Lay and brand management at the time seemed incredibly conservative.  There were very defined, tightly-spaced rails that circumscribed what you could do with a brand.  But that is so boring it gets nowhere on social media.  "Fritos! They are... uh... everything they always have been."  This IHOP gimmick (and Budweiser's temporarily changing its name to America) demonstrate a lot less risk-aversion with core brands in a social media era where one has to be outrageous to get attention.

Postscript:  I was in Santa Monica the other day and saw something where they had a really lame, forgettable tag line for the city.  I wanted to help them with some catchier phrases.  Like, "Santa Monica:  World's Nicest Homeless Shelter" or "Santa Monica:  Watch Out For That Scooter!" or "Santa Monica:  You Want HOW MUCH for Rent??"

Uber Drivers Just Killed All the Parts of the Job They Supposedly Liked the Most

At the behest of a group of Uber drivers, the California Supreme Court has ruled that Uber drivers are Uber employees, not independent contractors, under California law:

In a ruling with potentially sweeping consequences for the so-called gig economy, the California Supreme Court on Monday made it much more difficult for companies to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The decision could eventually require companies like Uber, many of which are based in California, to follow minimum-wage and overtime laws and to pay workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance and payroll taxes, potentially upending their business models.

I believe that this will pretty much kill Uber (though it will take some time to bleed out) for reasons discussed here.  Rather than discuss consequences for the company (everyone is finally doing this, following the general media rule I have stated before that it is OK to discuss downsides of new government regulations only after the regulations have been passed and become essentially un-reversible).

People don't always seem to have a good grasp of cause and effect.  I don't know if this is a general problem programmed into how humans think or one attributable to the sorry state of education.  My favorite example is all the people who flee California due to the high taxes, housing prices, and stifling regulation and then  -- in their new state -- immediately start voting for all the same things that caused them to flee California.

One of the aspects of being an Uber driver that supposedly attracts many people to it is the flexibility.  I summarized the advantages in an earlier post:

Here are some cool things about working for Uber:

You can work any time you want, for as long as you want.  You can work from 2-4 in the morning if you like, and if there are no customers, that is your risk

You can work in any location you choose.  You can park at your house and sit in your living room and take any jobs that come up, and then ignore new jobs until you get back home (I actually have a neighbor who is retired who does just this, he has driven me about 6 times now).

The company has no productivity metrics or expectations.  As long as your driver rating is good and you follow the rules, you are fine.

This all ends with the California decision.  You drivers are all thinking you won this big victory because you are going to have the same job you loved but you will just get paid more.  This is not going to happen.  As I implied above, in the long-term this job will not exist at all, because Uber will be dead.  But in the near-term, if Uber tries to make this work **, Uber is going to excercise a LOT more control of your work.

That is because if Uber is on the hook for a minimum cost per hour for your work, then they are going to damn well make sure you are productive.  Do you enjoy sitting around near your suburban and semi-rural home at 3AM waiting to get some business?  In the future, forget it, Uber is not going to allow this sort of thing now that Uber, rather than its drivers, is carrying the risk of your being unproductive.  They are going to take a lot more control of where and when you can drive.  And if you do not get with the program, you are going to be kicked out.  It won't be three months before Uber starts tracking driver productivity and kicking out the least productive drivers.

Congratulations Uber drivers, in the quest to try to use the power of government to extract more money for yourselves from the company, you just killed your jobs as you know it.  You may have had freedom before but now you are working in Office Space like the rest of us.

This whole case just goes to support my frequent contention that the only labor model the US government will fully accept is an hourly worker working 9-5 punching a time clock.  Every new labor model that comes along eventually runs head-on into the government that tries to pound that square peg into the round hole of a time-punching factory worker.  The Obama administration even did its best to force a large number of salaried workers into punching a time clock.

 

** If I were the leader of Uber, I would announce today that we are exiting California.  This is an existential issue and the only way to fight it is right now on your home turf.  Any attempt to try to muddle through this is going to lead to Uber's death, and would thus be a disservice to its shareholders.   Whether this happens will be interesting.  Uber is owned by a bunch of California VC's who generally support exactly this sort of government authoritarian interventionism.  It will be interesting to see if a bunch of California progressives let $50 billion in equity go down the drain just to avoid offending the sensibilities of their fellow California progressives.

Government Housing Policy: Restricting Supply and Subsidizing Demand

I am always amazed that folks, say those in government in places like San Francisco, consistently support restricting the supply of new housing while subsidizing home buyers and then are surprised when prices and rents keeps rising.  From the Market Urbanism Report via Walter Olson.

But a look at the numbers shows that, on the contrary, housing construction (or lack thereof) seems to be the driving factor behind whether or not large U.S. metros remain affordable.

This would be the conclusion from 7 years of data from the Census Bureau, which publishes annual lists on the number of new privately-owned housing units authorized in each metro area. Between 2010 and 2016, when overall national housing permits ticked up each year following the recession, most major metros have issued housing permit numbers in the high 4- or low 5-figures annually. But three metros have stood far above the rest.

The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington MSA issued 273,853 housing permits over this 7-year period; New York-Newark-Jersey City issued 283,814; and Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land topped every metro with 316,639 permits. Combined, the 3 metros accounted for 13.5% of the nation’s approved housing units.

Other metros weren’t even close to these three....

These statistics are glaring, and show that the urban housing affordability crisis, and its solution, is far simpler than many pundits suspect. In their ongoing quest to satisfy their anti-growth biases, they’ve settled on demand-side responses (read: government subsidies) that ignore or worsen the fundamental problem of under-supply; while they continue to blame various third party boogeymen, including developers, landlords, Airbnb hosts, techies, hipsters, Asian families buying second homes, and migrants in general.

But, again, the Census data sheds light on the actual nature of the issue: some metros in America are building a LOT of housing. Other metros may think they are, but actually are not. And housing prices within given metros are either stabilizing or skyrocketing based on this decision.

 

Banning Racists From Social Media Is Just Helping Them By Reducing Transparency on Their Distasteful Views

Via Engadget

Twitter is continuing to act on its promise to fight hate speech, however imperfectly. The site has banned Wisconsin Congressional candidate Paul Nehlen after he posted a racist image that placed the face of Cheddar Man (a dark-skinned British ancestor) over actress and soon-to-be-royal Meghan Markle, who's mixed race. The company said it didn't normally comment on individual accounts, but said the permanent suspension was due to "repeated violations" of its terms of service.

Nehlen, who's hoping to unseat Paul Ryan in the 2018 mid-term elections, has a long history of overtly expressing his racist views. Twitter suspended him for a week in January over anti-Semitic comments, and he has regularly promoted white supremacist ideology. In private, he used direct message groups to coordinate harassment campaigns. Breitbart supported Nehlen's ultimately unsuccessful run against Ryan in 2016, but distanced itself from him in December 2017.

As the title of the post implies, I am torn on this.  On the one hand, there is an argument that removing a powerful communications tool from bad people makes it harder to spread their, um, badness.  On the other hand, I am not sure that driving these folks underground is the right approach.  Sure, Nehlen has likely rallied some people of a similar mind to his side, but the flip side is that he has advertised himself to  LOT of people as having distasteful views.  I know that from my point of view, my awareness that awful folks like this still exist on the peripheries of power has grown from social media, whereas without it I likely might have convinced myself this sort of stuff was a thing of the past.

It reminds me what I wrote a while back about putting the Confederate flag on license plates:

Which brings me back to license plates.  If a state is going to create a license plate program where people can make statements with their license plates, then people should be able to make the statement they want to make.  ... Let's assume for a moment that everyone who wants to display this symbol [the Confederate battle flag] on their car is a racist. Shouldn't we be thrilled if they want to do so?  Here would be a program where racists would voluntarily self-identify to all as a racist (they would even pay extra to do so!)  What would be a greater public service?

To take this to an extreme, think about the effort to de-platform certain college speakers.  I like to imagine who the most extreme example of such a controversial college speaker would be, and I come up with that old standby, Adolf Hitler.  So what if in 1938 Adolf Hitler came to the States for a college speaking tour in 1938.  Couldn't that have been a good thing?  Many of the mistakes made by the world in 1938-1945 was underestimating both Germany's appetite for expansion and its ruthlessness in its approach to the Jews.  Wouldn't it have been better to listen to a bad guy and potentially get some clues to this future?

Model Railroad Update #2

Yes, I know you are excited, because it is time to document progress on my model railroad.  In the last episode I had build most of the benchwork and was starting to lay out the track.  Since then I have made a fair amount of progress.

So as we were saying last time, I printed the track plan full size, and then traced the lines onto the foam below using a pounce wheel, a sewing tool that looks like a spur.  You can see below that the traced lines were a bit wavy so I thin used an 8 foot long straight edge and a sharpie to draw the final centerlines for the track.  Then, I started putting down the sub roadbed, which are pre-milled pieces of homosote.

I wanted to hand lay some track, but I also wanted to get started and have some basic track up and running, so I have decided to use use code 55 flex track for the main lines and to hand lay code 40 track for the spurs, branches, and yards.  You can see below I am starting to lay the mainline flex track.  As mentioned in the last episode, I started from the crossings in the distance and started working outward from them in all four directions.

Below, more progress.  You can also see wires poking through as I start the tedious process of wiring power to all the track.  Also in the foreground you can see a code 40 turnout I built.  I am using it to figure out how to do the transitions from code 55 to code 40 track.

At the same time I am starting to build the turnout controllers.  I will be using the FastTracks bullfrog control, which is basically a manual control using flexible control rods.

At this point I realized I should have really mounted the backdrop before I started laying track so I paused and got the backdrop up.  I have used masonite before but it is really heavy.  This time I used 0.09" thick styrene sheet.  There are lots of vendors on the Internet (people use the large sheets for signs) and I was able to order sheets cut to 24" x 8 feet.  I then had to splice two together.   I used a 6" wide piece of styrene and plastic weld (bought a big can from Amazon).  It was sort of awkward, particularly to butt them exactly square.

Here it is starting to go up.  I screwed thin hardwood shims into the joists, and then glued the styrene to the wood with E6000 (I tested liquid nails but the joint was not very strong).  I put in screws to hold it at the very top and bottom.  The bottom ones will be hidden by the scenery and the top by the upper valence.

 

It turned out that near the corners, the shim spacing was not close enough.  I had to slip some extra shims in from above after it was installed to get the backdrop reasonably flat.  In retrospect, this was a LOT easier than masonite, though masonite is stiffer and would not have needed as much support to be flat.

Why not just paint the walls, you might ask?  Well the styrene sheet is a lot smoother even than drywall, but the payoff is really in the corner.  Here is the corner with and without the sheet.  Sky does not have corners.

     

The next step was to start on the wiring.  I find the wiring to be extremely tedious, but it is easier for this layout than on my past efforts because the benchwork is relatively high so I can sit in a chair and work on the wiring underneath.

Thank god for suitcase connectors, it makes wiring leads to the bus wire way easier.  And here is the growing proliferation of switch machines.

 

And the payoff - the first train!

 

In-Cabin Laptop Ban to and from Europe Seems to be Coming

From the terrorists-have-won department:  Apparently, the current in-cabin ban on laptops and tablets the applies to flights originating in certain Middle Eastern countries will soon be extended to flights from Europe.  I am pretty sure that if the US bans laptops on flights from Europe, the EU will ban them in the opposite direction, if nothing else as tit for tat retaliation.  This will make long distance flight a LOT worse, at least for me.  Unlike most folks, apparently, I have no interest in onboard entertainment systems and spend most of my time on these long flights getting work done on my PC or reading books on my iPad.  This will make me a lot less likely to schedule a vacation in Europe, and frankly I am relieved we decided at the last minute not to go there this summer.

After the "Science" March, We Will Do Some Science

Many of the folks who participated in the science march this weekend seem to have a view of science seem to have a definition of science that involves a lot of appeals to authority and creation of heretics.  Unfortunately, the video below relies on the old-fashioned cis-gendered white male definition of science, which involves using theory to establish hypotheses which are confirmed or denied through observation.  In this dated definition, there is no such thing as heresy in science.

Let me tell one of my favorite stories about scientific consensus.

Perhaps the most important experiment of the last 150 years was Michelson and Morley's interferometer study trying to measure the aether drift.  What is this?  Think of bullets fired from a moving airplane.  From the perspective of someone standing on the ground, bullets will initially travel much faster when fired forward rather than backwards, as the velocity of the plane is added (or subtracted) from the velocity with which they leave the gun.  Everyone, and I mean virtually everyone in the scientific community (WAY more than 97%) assumed the same happened with light.  M&M's hypothesis in their experiment was that light "fired" in one direction will travel at a different speed than light fired at a 90 degree angle to that, due to the Earth's movement through the universe, filled with some sort of aether (yet another of a long line of imponderable fluids proposed to explain various physical phenomena).   They found no such difference -- the speed of light was identical in every direction.   M&M has been called the most important negative result in the history of science.  Einstein and special relatively explained the result a few years later.

While we are on the topic, I want to mention something that always makes me crazy when you see popular articles about Einstein.  You will frequently see stories about Einstein being turned down for a promotion at the patent office or turned down for a teaching job or that he got bad grades.  The point of these stories is always something like, "ha, ha look how stupid these other folks were to give bad grades to the greatest mind of the 20th century."  But Einstein was never a great mathematician.  One always hears that relativity involves all this crazy math, and that is true for the later general relativity, but one can derive the basic equations for special relativity using nothing more than algebra and the Pythagorean theorem.  Seriously, I had to do it on a test when I was 17, it is not that hard.  Perhaps I will show it in a post one day if I am really bored.  Later, better mathematicians wrote papers cleaning up the math of special relativity and making it more robust, and later Einstein had to get a LOT of help with the non-Euclidean geometry involved in general relativity.

I believe (and this is a personal conclusion from reading a lot about him and not necessarily a widely held belief) that a lot of Einstein's greatness came from the fact that he had the mind of a rebel.  He was willing to consider things the science establishment simply would not consider.  It is STILL hard, even a hundred years later, for many of us laymen to accept that time is somehow non-absolute, that it changes depending on one's frame of reference -- so imagine how hard it was for someone in Einstein's time.  In the 19th century, the world of physics had become split into two worlds that folks had come to think of as incompatible and separate -- the world of physical objects governed by Newtonian physics, and the world of light and waves governed by Maxwell's equations.   Maxwell's equations implied light always had a fixed speed.  Everyone assumed this had to be fixed vs. some frame of reference.  The assumption of an aether or fixed point of reference against which light's speed was fixed was the 19th century solution for uniting these two worlds, but M&M demolished this.  It seemed that light had to be a fixed speed in every direction and every frame of reference.  Eek! Einstein asked himself how to explain this result, and thereby re-united Newtonian and wave physics, and he concluded the only way to do so was if time was variable, so he ran with that.  That is not an act of math, that is an act of a flexible, rebellious mind. And flexible rebellious minds do not do very well in schools and patent office bureaucracies.

 

The United States Is Doing Better Than Europe on Poverty: An Economics Rorschach Test

Kevin Drum, in commenting on a Binyamin Appelbaum article in the NY Times, writes that the Presidential candidates should be talking more about poverty in part because the US is way behind Europe.  Specifically, Appelbaum quotes a Harvard Sociology (!) Professor as the source for the poverty claim:

“We don’t have a full-voiced condemnation of the level or extent of poverty in America today,” said Matthew Desmond, a Harvard professor of sociology. “We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a
serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda.”

Drum argues that Desmond is right, because of this chart from the OECD:

blog_oecd_poverty

One of the dirty secrets about poverty measurement is that the actual measurement seldom has anything to do with absolute well-being.  And this is the case with the OECD numbers.  The OECD's poverty measurement is based on the country's median income, and is the percentage of people who are below a certain percentage (generally 50%) of the country's own median income.  As such, this is more rightly thought of as a graph of income inequality rather than absolute poverty.

Here is an example.   Image country A with a median income of $50,000 and an income of the 20th percentile at $20,000.  Now imagine country B where the median income is $30,000 and the 20th percentile income is $15,000.  In this example, the poorest 20th percentile in country A are better off on an absolute basis, but the OECD (and most other poverty numbers) will show country B doing better because the poor are closer to the (much lower) median income.  In an extreme example, if everyone in a country were equally impoverished, the OECD would show that country as doing the best on poverty -- Yes, you read that right.  By this metric, the OECD would show a country where every person made just $10,000 a year as having 0% poverty.

Obviously, what one would really like to do is compare across nations the absolute well-being of the lowest 10th or 20th percentile.  On a purchasing power parity basis, which country's poor has, after transfers and taxes, more money?  Unfortunately, you likely have never ever seen this.  Yes, the data comparison is hard, but it is possible, so one has to wonder if there is some ulterior political motive for never showing this quite obvious analysis.

I tried to do this analysis myself for years (I describe some false starts here) but was unsuccessful until I actually identified a data source that would work, ironically from two folks on the Left (Kevin Drum and John Cassidy) who were using data from the LIS Cross-National Data Center to make comparisons of income inequality.  It turned out the data they were using could do what I wanted.

So now we get to the chart I call the poverty Rorschach test.  It is a comparison of the absolute income, by income percentile and including transfers and taxes, of the US vs. Denmark (the country by Drum's chart that should be the "best" on poverty)

click to enlarge

(The date is old, alas, because this kind of cross-country data is only gathered every so often)

This chart shows, on a purchasing power parity basis, that for every single income percentile, all the way to the bottom, an equivalent person in the US has more income than that a similarly situated person in Denmark.  In short, the poor in the US are wealthier than the poor in Denmark.  The only reason Denmark does better than the US in the way the OECD and others measure poverty is that the middle class in the US are a LOT wealthier than the middle class in Denmark.

I call it the Rorschach test because one either sees the US doing a good job, because everyone is better off, or the Danish doing a better job, because everyone is more even.  Proponents of the latter view tend to believe that the size of the economic pie is an exogenous variable, unrelated to the method one chooses to slice it.

I picked the Danish because they were the obvious comparison from Drum's chart, but here is the US vs. all the European countries for which there was data in the survey.  The US is better than all but 3 at the 10th percentile and better than all but one country at the 20th percentile.  And better -- by a huge margin-- for the middle class than any of the countries in Europe.

income_all

Update:  One more note on Drum's chart.  As I said above, the exact definition of the OECD numbers is percentage of people with income less than 50% of the country's own median income.  The US has a median household income, per the OECD, 41% higher than Denmark's.   So the US has 9% more people under a number that is 41% higher.   That is hardly a fair or meaningful comparison.

For reasons that are beyond my understanding, I am banned at Mother Jones so I cannot post the comments directly to his article.  If someone wanted to cut and paste this under his or her own name, I wouldn't complain.

 

The Trade Deficit is Not A Debt

If you search Coyoteblog for the title of this post, you will see a number of others with the same title.  It seems to be a theme we keep having to come back to.  Here is one example of where I tried to explain why the trade deficit is not a debt.

Take the Chinese for example.  One thing that people often miss is that the Chinese buy a LOT more American stuff than the trade numbers portray.  The numbers in the balance of trade accounts include only products the Chinese buy from the US and then take back to China to consume there.  But the Chinese like to buy American stuff and consume it here, in the US.  They buy land and materials to build factories and trade offices.  They buy houses in California.  They buy our government bonds.  None of this stuff shows up in the trade numbers.  Is it somehow worse that the Chinese wish to consume their American products in America?  No.  How could it be.  In fact, its a compliment.  They know that our country is, long-term, a safer and more reliable place to own and hold on to things of value than their own country.

Dollars paid to a Chinese manufacturer have to get recycled to the US -- they don't just build up in a pile.   If I am a construction contractor in LA and build that manufacturer a new office or a local home and get paid with those recycled dollars, I am effectively exporting to the Chinese, only the goods and services I sold them never leave the country and so don't show up in the trade numbers.  So what does this mean?   In my mind, it means that the trade deficit number is a stupid metric to obsess over.

Another way I think about it is to observe that the US is winning the battle of stuff.   Money as money itself does not improve my well-being -- only the stuff (goods and services) I can purchase with it can do so.   So i t turns out that other countries ship far more stuff to the US than we ship out. And then these folks in other countries take the money they earn from this trade and buy more stuff in the US and keep keep that stuff here!

I am reminded of all this because several other folks are taking a swing at trying to make this point to the economically illiterate.   Don Boudreaux does so here, and Dan Ikensan here.  And here is Walter Williams as well.

Follow-up Thoughts on Immigration "Amnesty" And the Need for a New Category of Legal Presence

A while back I got a LOT of feedback when I asked if Republicans really wanted to create 12 million refugees.  My assumption was that if one opposed substantially liberalizing immigration quotas (ie making the quota near unlimited) and one opposed "amnesty" for the 12 million currently illegal immigrants in this country, the only alternative was to try to deport them all.

I got a lot of responses back from all over the political spectrum, but the one I found the most surprising was to say that I was setting up a false choice.  The only alternative to amnesty was not deportation.  Many advocated for what I would call an "illegal but tolerated" status for these 12 million people, sortof a parallel to how marijuana is treated in many states.  I have a few reactions to this:

  1. Isn't this the status quo?  People got really angry with me in the comments for trying to create a straw man position (deportation) for Republicans by not considering this "illegal but tolerated" status.  But I can say with all honesty it never crossed my mind.  The one theme I get from every Republican candidate and nearly every Conservative pundit is that the current immigration situation is broken and intolerable.  So I am still confused.  If "amnesty" is still intolerable and the current situation is intolerable and deportation is not what they want (or at least not what they are willing to admit to in public) -- then what is it that Republicans want?
  2. To avoid charges of racism or economic Luddite-ism (since both history and most economic studies show immigration to be a strong net positive), immigration restrictionists often argue that what they are really defending is the rule of law.  Immigration is illegal and what they can't abide is seeing so many people flaunt the law.  But what could possibly be more corrosive to the rule of law than an "illegal but tolerated" status?  We give effective amnesties all the time.  Colorado didn't wait to legalize marijuana until every past illegal user had been prosecuted.
  3. "illegal but tolerated" is a license for abuse and harassment.  It is why organized crime flourishes in narcotics and in alcohol when it was illegal but tolerated.  It is why women get abused in prostitution.  It creates unpersons with limited access both to the legal system and to the basic plumbing of the modern world (e.g. banking).  It drives people underground, pushing people who at worst committed a victim-less crime (ie illegal immigration) into crimes with real victims (e.g. identity theft).
  4. I continue to argue that Conservatives are abandoning their free market principles when they advocate for strict limits on immigration.  I have heard folks like Sheriff Joe say that these folks are "trespassing" in the US.  Well, they are only trespassing if we are Marxists and adopt the view there is no such thing as private property and everything belongs to the government.  In a free society, the actual questions involved are whether an immigrant can rent an apartment from me, or work for me, or bank with me, etc.  Those are supposed to be private decisions.   In effect, Conservatives are arguing that I can only hire from or rent to people on a government-approved list.  That does not sound like free markets and small government to me.

I am not blind to the problems that our generous welfare policies have on immigration.  I would argue that what is needed is a new immigration status.  In a sense, those who want 12 million people to be "illegal but tolerated" are essentially arguing for the same thing, but frankly that solution sucks for everyone.  I would argue for institutionalizing a new level of legal presence in this country, well short of "citizen" but beyond "illegal but tolerated."

As an aside, for years the Roman Empire was really good at this, at least in its early years.  It grew and adopted and eventually commanded the loyalty of a broad range of peoples and cultures in part because it was incredibly flexible in thinking about citizenship status.   It had many custom levels, such as Civitas sine suffragio (citizenship without the vote).  Many Conservatives argue that Barbarian immigration brought down the Roman Empire and use that as an argument for modern restrictions.  But in fact, I believe just the opposite -- that it was the Romans losing their knack for citizenship flexibility and integrating new cultures that contributed to their downfall.

Here is a plan I posted nearly 10 years ago for a new, legal, less-than-full-citizen ability to be present in this country.  I am still mostly OK with it:

 

  1. Anyone may enter or reside in the US. The government may prevent entry of a very short list of terrorists and criminals at the border, but everyone else is welcome to come and stay as long as they want for whatever reason.  Anyone may buy property in the US, regardless or citizenship or residency.  Anyone in the US may trade with anyone in the world on the same terms they trade with their next door neighbor.
  2. The US government is obligated to protect the individual rights, particularly those in the Bill of Rights, of all people physically present in our borders, citizen or not.  Anyone, regardless of citizenship status, may buy property, own a business, or seek employment in the United States without any legal distinction vs. US "citizens"
  3. Certain government functions, including voting and holding office, may require formal "citizenship".  Citizenship should be easier to achieve, based mainly on some minimum residency period, and can be denied after this residency only for a few limited reasons (e.g. convicted of a felony).  The government may set no quotas or numerical limits on new citizenships.
  4. All people present in the US pay the same taxes in the same way.  A non-citizen or even a short term visitor pays sales taxes on purchases and income taxes on income earned while present in the US just like anyone else.  Immigrants will pay property taxes just like long-term residents, either directly or via their rent payments.
  5. Pure government handouts, like Welfare, food stamps, the EITC, farm subsidies, and public housing, will only be available to those with full US citizenship.  Vagrancy and squatting on public or private lands without permission will not be tolerated.
  6. Most government services and fee-based activities, including emergency services, public education, transportation, access to public recreation, etc. will be open to all people within the US borders, regardless of citizenship status, assuming relevant fees are paid.
  7. Social Security is a tough beast to classify - I would put it in the "Citizen" category as currently structured (but would gladly put it in the "available to everyone" category if SS could be restructured to better match contributions with benefits, as in a private account system).  But, as currently configured, I would propose that only citizens can accrue and receive SS benefits.  To equalize the system, the nearly 8% employee and 8% employer social security contributions will still be paid by non-citizens working in the US, but these funds can be distributed differently.  I would suggest the funds be split 50/50 between state and local governments to offset any disproportionate use of services by new immigrants.  The federal portion could go towards social security solvency, while the state and local portion to things like schools and medical programs.

It may be possible to earn-in to benefits in #5 and #7 based on some cumulative tax payment history.  For example, unemployment taxes are really close to an insurance policy, such that a couple of years of payments into the system could make one eligible for benefits.   Given how much fraud I see on this from citizens**, I can't believe immigrants would be any worse.

 

 

Unemployment Insurance Fraud Tricks

Typically, I see a LOT of people with no intention of working or looking for work collecting unemployment insurance payments.  For example, we have summer workers who take the winter off but still collect unemployment in the winter as if they were looking for work.  Most state governments have no desire to hear about this.  In fact, in California (at least a number of years ago) if you call the unemployment fraud number the only kind of complaint they take is reports of employer fraud.  You can't actually report employee fraud, and the one time I tried to do so I was threatened by a California State employee with dire legal consequences for "harassment" and "retaliation".

The new dodge I saw the other day is when Company A goes to an employee of Company B and offers to hire them away for higher pay.  When the employee leaves B for A, A tells them that they should file for unemployment, claiming they were forced out rather than quit (essentially constructive termination).  In most states, if an employee says one thing (I was forced out!) and an employer says another (She quit!), the employee is almost always believed unless the employer can bring an absurd amount of written evidence to the table to prove otherwise.

Anyway, having convinced the state the employee was terminated rather than quit, the employee collects unemployment benefits.   Then, company A pays the employee in cash under the table an amount per hour less than minimum wage but which in combination with the state unemployment payments does indeed add up to more than they were making at B.  They end up paying less than minimum wage and pay no employment taxes (since it is cash under the table) and the state makes up the difference with an unemployment check.  Company B, by the way, sees its unemployment taxes go way up because these rates are experience-based.

Minimum Wage, American vs. European Restaurants

In reading reviews of European restaurants to try to find places to dine, I saw a lot of criticisms of their service.  There seems to be a meme among travelers that Austrian restaurants in particular often have bad service.

I am not sure I can agree with this -- we had a lot of good wait-staff in Austria  But I can say that they had to service a LOT more tables than a typical American waiter.  I don't know what the standard is today, but it used to be that 4-6 tables was the max American restaurants considered that a waitperson could cover and still provide acceptable service.  In Austria, the number was often double that.  I watched one gentleman memorably service almost 20 tables during the busy lunch hour at a museum cafe in Vienna.  I can tell you he was working his butt off but we still had to wait for basic service like ordering or paying our bill or getting our food delivered.

I pair this information with a second factoid from a travel book we read when trying to figure out what tipping policy was over there.  The book, as well as most other sources we consulted, said that tips for waiters in Austria and Germany could be less generous because waiters were paid much more than in the US -- a fact that the source considered a point of superiority over the US for the Europeans.

That may or may not be -- personally, I have never like the US tradition of restaurants outsourcing the paying of their staff to the customers.  But it may well be that these higher wages have their cost in the form of reduced customer service, as restaurants are forced to minimize their higher cost staff to keep prices reasonable.

Must Make for Interesting Family Dinners: If Anything, Ellen Pao's Husband is In The Middle of An Even Bigger Mess

Ellen Pao has had some career problems of late, but as I wrote yesterday, if she takes some responsibility for her own mis-steps and stops blaming it all on misogyny, she might learn something useful and build positive things on the experience.

A very loyal reader gives me a heads up that her husband, who is never mentioned in recent stories, actually faces a LOT more serious trouble (it is probably journalistically appropriate to leave her husband out of the recent stories, but one wonders if the New York Times would show the same scruples on a story about the CEO of Exxon if, say, his wife were independently in the midst of some sort of scandal).

Ellen Pao's husband is Buddy Fletcher, former Wall Street Wunderkind and now subject of a LOT of regulator scrutiny and pension fund lawsuits.  Here is one:

The firefighters’ system eventually said yes, and along with two other pension funds — the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System and the New Orleans Firefighters’ Pension and Relief Fund — invested a combined $100 million in one of Mr. Fletcher’s funds, FIA Leveraged. As they understood it, the fund would invest in liquid securities that could be sold in a matter of weeks.

The details sounded, as one board member put it, “too good to be true.”

In fact, they were.

Mr. Fletcher’s hedge fund has since been described by a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee as having elements of a Ponzi scheme, and four retirement systems are fighting to recover their money. A federal judge is scheduled to rule in March on a plan to liquidate the fund’s assets, which the trustee deemed “virtually worthless” in a report last November.

And another:

New York investment manager Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher Jr. is being sued by the MBTA Retirement Fund and some of his own hedge funds on accusations that he defrauded them of more than $50 million.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in New York, accuses Fletcher and his firm, Fletcher Asset Management , and other parties of conducting a “long-running fraud” in which they misused money for their own benefit, inappropriately took inflated management fees, and overstated the value of assets.

As previously reported, the MBTA pension fund invested $25 million with Fletcher in 2007 on the advice of the fund’s former executive director, Karl White.

White pitched the investment to the pension fund just nine months after he had resigned to work for Fletcher.

The pension fund’s holding is now worthless, and the bankruptcy trustee investigating the case has alleged that Fletcher never invested the money as promised.

And here is an older, in-depth look at Fletcher.

It is starting to look like most of the money went to his family (e.g. $8 to his brother to fund a film), to buffing his image (e.g. $4+ million donation to Harvard), and to an incredibly opulent lifestyle (e.g. 4!! apartments in the Dakota).

Despite the fact that he seems to have grossly overstated income and assets of his funds, no one -- regulators, clients, auditors -- figured it out.  The most interesting part to me was the first group to detect the potential fraud was, of all groups, the governing board of the Dakota.  This group, full of successful Wall Streeters, looked at his financial statements and turned down his application to buy yet another apartment, coming to the conclusion he not only did not have the funds to buy this apartment but they were unsure how he was paying the vig on the $20 million loan securitized by his existing apartments.

One thing Fletcher apparently has in common with his wife is that he seems to respond to every negative business decision with a discrimination lawsuit.  This one backfired, however, and only served to point public attention to the fact that a group of savvy financiers thought Fletcher's wealth was potentially imaginary.  Government investigations and lawsuits have followed.

He still has a chance to escape, though.  Despite Jon Corzine's outright theft of funds from MF Global commodity investor accounts, he got off scott-free due to his close ties to the Democratic Party.  Time for Fletcher to start giving any free assets he still holds (if there are any) to Hillary's campaign.

Adjusting the Temperature Records

I have been getting inquiries from folks asking me what I think about stories like this one, where Paul Homewood has been looking at the manual adjustments to raw temperature data and finding that the adjustments actually reverse the trends from cooling to warming.  Here is an example of the comparisons he did:

Raw, before adjustments;

puertoraw

 

After manual adjustments

puertoadj2

 

I actually wrote about this topic a few months back, and rather than rewrite the post I will excerpt it below:

I believe that there is both wheat and chaff in this claim [that manual temperature adjustments are exaggerating past warming], and I would like to try to separate the two as best I can.  I don't have time to write a well-organized article, so here is just a list of thoughts

  1. At some level it is surprising that this is suddenly news.  Skeptics have criticized the adjustments in the surface temperature database for years.
  2. There is certainly a signal to noise ratio issue here that mainstream climate scientists have always seemed insufficiently concerned about.  For example, the raw data for US temperatures is mostly flat, such that the manual adjustments to the temperature data set are about equal in magnitude to the total warming signal.  When the entire signal one is trying to measure is equal to the manual adjustments one is making to measurements, it probably makes sense to put a LOT of scrutiny on the adjustments.  (This is a post from 7 years ago discussing these adjustments.  Note that these adjustments are less than current ones in the data base as they have been increased, though I cannot find a similar chart any more from the NOAA discussing the adjustments)
  3. The NOAA HAS made adjustments to US temperature data over the last few years that has increased the apparent warming trend.  These changes in adjustments have not been well-explained.  In fact, they have not really be explained at all, and have only been detected by skeptics who happened to archive old NOAA charts and created comparisons like the one below.  Here is the before and after animation (pre-2000 NOAA US temperature history vs. post-2000).  History has been cooled and modern temperatures have been warmed from where they were being shown previously by the NOAA.  This does not mean the current version  is wrong, but since the entire US warming signal was effectively created by these changes, it is not unreasonable to act for a detailed reconciliation (particularly when those folks preparing the chart all believe that temperatures are going up, so would be predisposed to treating a flat temperature chart like the earlier version as wrong and in need of correction. 1998changesannotated
  4. However, manual adjustments are not, as some skeptics seem to argue, wrong or biased in all cases.  There are real reasons for manual adjustments to data -- for example, if GPS signal data was not adjusted for relativistic effects, the position data would quickly get out of whack.  In the case of temperature data:
    • Data is adjusted for shifts in the start/end time for a day of measurement away from local midnight (ie if you average 24 hours starting and stopping at noon).  This is called Time of Observation or TOBS.  When I first encountered this, I was just sure it had to be BS.  For a month of data, you are only shifting the data set by 12 hours or about 1/60 of the month.  Fortunately for my self-respect, before I embarrassed myself I created a spreadsheet to monte carlo some temperature data and play around with this issue.  I convinced myself the Time of Observation adjustment is valid in theory, though I have no way to validate its magnitude  (one of the problems with all of these adjustments is that NOAA and other data authorities do not release the source code or raw data to show how they come up with these adjustments).   I do think it is valid in science to question a finding, even without proof that it is wrong, when the authors of the finding refuse to share replication data.  Steven Goddard, by the way, believes time of observation adjustments are exaggerated and do not follow NOAA's own specification.
    • Stations move over time.  A simple example is if it is on the roof of a building and that building is demolished, it has to move somewhere else.  In an extreme example the station might move to a new altitude or a slightly different micro-climate.  There are adjustments in the data base for these sort of changes.  Skeptics have occasionally challenged these, but I have no reason to believe that the authors are not using best efforts to correct for these effects (though again the authors of these adjustments bring criticism on themselves for not sharing replication data).
    • The technology the station uses for measurement changes (e.g. thermometers to electronic devices, one type of electronic device to another, etc.)   These measurement technologies sometimes have known biases.  Correcting for such biases is perfectly reasonable  (though a frustrated skeptic could argue that the government is diligent in correcting for new cooling biases but seldom corrects for warming biases, such as in the switch from bucket to water intake measurement of sea surface temperatures).
    • Even if the temperature station does not move, the location can degrade.  The clearest example is a measurement point that once was in the country but has been engulfed by development  (here is one example -- this at one time was the USHCN measurement point with the most warming since 1900, but it was located in an open field in 1900 and ended up in an asphalt parking lot in the middle of Tucson.)   Since urban heat islands can add as much as 10 degrees F to nighttime temperatures, this can create a warming signal over time that is related to a particular location, and not the climate as a whole.  The effect is undeniable -- my son easily measured it in a science fair project.  The effect it has on temperature measurement is hotly debated between warmists and skeptics.  Al Gore originally argued that there was no bias because all measurement points were in parks, which led Anthony Watts to pursue the surface station project where every USHCN station was photographed and documented.  The net result was that most of the sites were pretty poor.  Whatever the case, there is almost no correction in the official measurement numbers for urban heat island effects, and in fact last time I looked at it the adjustment went the other way, implying urban heat islands have become less of an issue since 1930.  The folks who put together the indexes argue that they have smoothing algorithms that find and remove these biases.  Skeptics argue that they just smear the bias around over multiple stations.  The debate continues.
  5. Overall, many mainstream skeptics believe that actual surface warming in the US and the world has been about half what is shown in traditional indices, an amount that is then exaggerated by poorly crafted adjustments and uncorrected heat island effects.  But note that almost no skeptic I know believes that the Earth has not actually warmed over the last 100 years.  Further, warming since about 1980 is hard to deny because we have a second, independent way to measure global temperatures in satellites.  These devices may have their own issues, but they are not subject to urban heat biases or location biases and further actually measure most of the Earth's surface, rather than just individual points that are sometimes scores or hundreds of miles apart.  This independent method of measurement has shown undoubted warming since 1979, though not since the late 1990's.
  6. As is usual in such debates, I find words like "fabrication", "lies",  and "myth" to be less than helpful.  People can be totally wrong, and refuse to confront their biases, without being evil or nefarious.

To these I will add a #7:  The notion that satellite results are somehow pure and unadjusted is just plain wrong.  The satellite data set takes a lot of mathematical effort to get right, something that Roy Spencer who does this work (and is considered in the skeptic camp) will be the first to tell you.  Satellites have to be adjusted for different things.  They have advantages over ground measurement because they cover most all the Earth, they are not subject to urban heat biases, and bring some technological consistency to the measurement.  However, the satellites used are constantly dieing off and being replaced, orbits decay and change, and thus times of observation of different parts of the globe change [to their credit, the satellite folks release all their source code for correcting these things].   I have become convinced the satellites, net of all the issues with both technologies, provide a better estimate but neither are perfect.

Yawning Through the Outrage

There are a lot of things out there that generate tons of outrage that do about zero to work me up.  A good example is the recent kerfuffle over a school district assigning kids a debating assignment to argue both sides of the question "Was there actually a Holocaust?"

Certainly this was a fairly boneheaded topic to choose for such an assignment out of the universe of potential topics.   But I will say that this assignment is the type of thing that should be done a LOT more in schools, both in primary schools and in higher education.  Too often we let students make the case for a particular side of an argument without their even adequately understanding the arguments for the other side.  In some sense this brings us back to the topic of Caplan's intellectual Turing test.

I did cross-x debate all the way from 6th grade to 12th.  There is a lot to be said for the skill of defending one side of a proposition, and then an hour later defending the other (that is, if cross-x debate had not degenerated into a contest simply to see who can talk faster).

I remember a few months ago when a student-producer called me for a radio show that is produced at the Annenberg School at UCLA USC.   She was obviously smart and the nature of her job producing a political talk show demanded she be moderately well-informed.  She had called me as a climate skeptic for balance in a climate story (kudos there, by the way, since that seldom happens any more).  Talking to her, it was clear that she was pretty involved in the climate topic but had never heard the skeptic's argument from an actual skeptic.  Everything she knew about skeptics and their positions she knew from people on the other side of the debate.  The equivalent here are people who only understand the logic behind Democrat positions insofar as they have been explained by Rush Limbaugh -- which happens a lot.   We have created a whole political discourse based on straw men, where the majority of people, to the extent they understand an issue at all, only have heard one side talking about it.

I think the idea of kids debating both sides of key issues, with an emphasis on nudging them into trying to defend positions that oppose their own, is a great process.  It is what I do when I teach economics, giving cases to the class and randomly assigning roles (ie you are the guy with the broken window, he is the glazier, and she is the shoe salesman).  The problem, of course, is that we have a public discourse dominated by the outrage of the minority.  It would take just one religious student asked to defend abortion rights or one feminist asked to defend due process rights for accused rapists to freak out, and the school would probably fold and shut down the program.

Which is too bad.  Such discourse, along with Caplan's intellectual Turing test, would be centerpieces of any university I were to found.  When we debated back in the 1970's, there was never a sense that we were somehow being violated by being asked to defend positions with which we didn't believe.  It was just an excersise, a game.  In fact, it was incredibly healthy for me.  There is about no topic I can defend better than free trade because I spent half a year making protectionist arguments to win tournaments.    I got good at it, reading the judge and amping up populism and stories of the sad American steel workers in my discourse as appropriate.  Knowing the opposing arguments backwards and forwards, I am a better defender of free trade today.

Unionizing NCAA Players: A Simple Question in a Free Society, But A Total Mess In Ours

This week, the NLRB agreed to allow the players on the Northwestern University football team to unionize.   This is one of those issues that is simple and straightforward in a free society and a total mess in our less-than-free society.  Here are a few thoughts:

  1. In a free society, this is a no-brainer.  The Northwestern players are welcome to create an association among themselves and call it anything they like, including "union".  That association is free to try to negotiate with the university for better terms  (they are also free to fail at this and make no progress).
  2. However, it is clear that we are not a free society because the players had to go to the government and ask permission to form this particular type of association.  The reason is that associations called "unions" have been granted special powers and privileges under the law not available to other associations.  There are also a large body of very particular rules for how such associations may conduct business and how other groups (in this case the University) can or cannot interact with it.  It is a very tricky legal and philosophical question whether this package of benefits and privileges should be accorded to a group of college football players
  3. In a free society, the fact that the players don't get paid cash and that their universities make millions off the football program would be irrelevant.  The players freely agreed to the deal (in most cases, playing in exchange for free tuition and perhaps a chance to land an NFL job) so there is nothing inherently unfair about it.
  4. However, in our society, we have all sorts of government interventions.  I consider many of these interventions to be counter-productive, even occasionally insane.  But if one is to navigate such a society (rather than, say, go off and live in Galt's Gulch), I think the principle of equal protection is critical.  Arbitrary government interventions in free exchange are FAR worse when applied unevenly.  From an equal protection standpoint, I think the players may have a good case.
    • The law generally does not allow profit-making businesses (and the NCAA and college footfall are certainly those) to accept unpaid labor.  Many folks who don't deal with the Fair Labor Standards Act every day will say: "players are paid, they get free tuition."  But this is not how the FLSA works.  It counts non-cash wages only in very specific circumstances that are enumerated in the law (e.g. lodging).  Think of it this way -- McDonald's could not legally just pay all its employees in french fries and claim to be compliant with the law.  Also, large numbers of Division 1 football and basketball players never graduate, which shows a fair amount of contempt by players for this supposedly valuable "free tuition" compensation.
    • On the other hand, most college athletics are not profit-making.  My son plays baseball at Amherst College -- it would be laughable to call this a profit center.  I am not sure there are but a handful of women's teams in any sport that generate profits for their school, and even on the men's side money-making is limited to a few score men's football and basketball teams.   But the few that do make money make a LOT.  University of Texas has its own TV network, as do most major conferences.
    • The law generally does not allow any group of enterprises to enter into agreements that restrict employment options.  Google et. al. are getting flamed right now, and likely face criminal anti-trust charges and lawsuits, for agreements to restrict hiring employees from each other's firms.  The NCAA cuts such deals all the time, both severely restricting moves between schools (transfer provisions in Division I are quite onerous) and preventing poaching at least of younger players by professional leagues like the NBA and NFL.   The notion that top players in the NCAA are playing for their education is a joke -- they are playing in college because that is what they have to do in order to eventually be allowed in a league where they can get paid for their skills.
    • Actually trying to pay players would be a real mess.  In a free society, one might just pay the ones who play the most profitable sports and contribute the most value.   But with Title IX, for example, that is impossible.  Paying only the most financially valuable players and teams would lead to 99% of the pay going to men, which would lead to Title IX gender discrimination suits before the first paycheck was even delivered.  And 99% of college athletes probably don't even want to be paid
    • Part of the pay problem is that the NCAA is so moronic in its rules.  Even if the university does not pay players, many outsider would if allowed.  Boosters love to pay football and basketball players under the table in cash and cars and such, and top athletes could easily get endorsement money or paid for autographs by third parties.  But NCAA rules are so strict that athletes can be in violation of the rules for accepting a free plane ticket from a friend to go to his mother's funeral.  When I interview students for Princeton admissions, I never buy them even a coffee in case they are a recruited athlete, because doing so would violate the rules.
    • Much of this is based on an outdated fetish for amateurism, that somehow money taints athletic achievement.  It is hilarious to see good progressive college presidents spout this kind of thing, because in fact this notion of amateurism was actually an aristocratic invention to keep the commoners out of sports (since commoners would not have the means to dedicate much of their life to training without a source of income).  The amateur ideal is actually an exclusionist aristocratic tool that has for some reason now been adopted as a progressive ideal.   Note that nowhere else in college do we require that students not earn money with their skills -- business majors can make money in business over the summer, artists can sell their art, musicians can be paid to perform.  When Brooke Shields was at Princeton, she appeared in the school amateur play despite making millions simultaneously as a professional actress.  Only athletes can't trade their skill for money in their free time.

I am not sure where this is all going, but as a minimum I think the NCAA is going to be forced to allow athletes to earn outside income and accept outside benefits without losing their eligibility.

Back in 2011 I wrote an article in Forbes on this topic

How Did Obamacare Authors Ever Fool Themselves Into Believing They Were "Bending the Cost Curve" With These Kind of Incentives?

I guess I never really paid much attention to how the Obamacare "risk corridors" work.  These are the reinsurance program that were meant to equalize the risks of various insurers in the exchanges -- but as exchange customers prove to be less healthy than predicted, they are more likely to become a government subsidy program for insurers.

I never knew how they worked.  Check out the incentives here:

According to the text of Obamacare, the health law's risk corridors—the insurance industry backstop that’s been dubbed a bailout—are only supposed to last through 2016. For the first three years of the exchanges, insurers who spend 3 percent more on health costs than expected will be reimbursed by the federal government. It’s symmetrical, so insurers who spend less will pay in, but there’s no requirement that the program be revenue neutral

So what, exactly, are the incentives for cost control?  If you lose control of your costs, the government simply pays for the amount you overspent.  Combine this with the fact that Obamacare puts caps on insurer non-patient-cost overhead spending, and I don't think you are going to see a lot of passion for claims management and reduction.  Note after a point, excess claims do not hurt profits (via the risk corridor) but more money spent on claims reduction and management does reduce profits (due to the overhead caps).

Nice incentives.

Postscript:  There is one flaw with my analysis -- 3% is a LOT of money, at least historically, for health insurers.  Why?  Because their margins are so thin.  I know this will come as a surprise with all the Obama demonization of insurance profits, but health insurers make something like 3-5% of revenues as net income.  My Boston mother-in-law, who is a very reliable gauge of opinion on the Left, thinks I am lying to her when I say this, even when I show her the Google finance pages for insurers, so convinced is she by the NYT and PBS that health insurer profits consume a huge portion of health care spending.

All that being said, I am pretty sure if I were an insurer, I could raise prices slightly, cut back on claims overhead, and make a guaranteed profit all while the government absorbs larger and larger losses.

Masked Credit Cards

I wrote the other day about shifting to unique passwords for every single web site I visit (there were 300 I had to change!) to limit the damage from a data breach such as that at Adobe.  The irony was that to make this work, I adopted a password vault program to remember all these 300 strings of random characters.  Which means that I am putting a LOT of trust into one site, instead of a moderate amount of trust into multiple sites.

The same sort of approach is being investigated with credit cards, where intermediaries are providing masked credit cards with one-time numbers (hat tip to a reader).  In some ways Paypal has a masked approach where the transaction is settled off the retailer's site entirely, though I am not sure I am entirely comfortable with Paypal's security.

Passwords

I am registered at a LOT of sites - blogs, hosting accounts, stores, message boards, etc.  A few years ago I started using the Lastpass Chrome add-in to track and remember all these passwords.

One problem though: like most people I was using the same few passwords over and over.  I had fixed, mostly, the most egregious mistakes, such as using the same password for low-trust sites like bulletin boards as for critical sites like banks.  But Lastpass showed me was that I still had a lot of password duplication.

The Adobe security breach finally got me off my butt.  My user name and password were among those that Adobe lost (which was particularly irritating because Adobe was one of those software companies that demanded a registration even when one should not have been necessary).  There was nothing at Adobe of mine they could screw up -- the registration was obviously to try to sell me more stuff but I never bought anything.  But there were possibly other sites using the same password they could screw up.

So I began a mission to change my passwords to 12-digit randomly generated strings of letters and numbers.  Having Fastpass helped a ton, as I would never have remembered all the sites with which I had registrations.  There were hundreds.

This was a real slog, a task so boring it was equaled only by the month when I ripped all my CD's to my hard drive and surpassed only by the 3 months when I ripped all my DVD's to hard drives.  The problem was that every web site was essentially a little portal-like adventure puzzle, trying to figure out where the hell the options for password change could be found.  I challenge those of you who have registered at WhiteHouse.gov to sign a survey to find the place to change your password.  At JetBlue, there is no such option in the user accounts -- you have to log off and click "forgot my password" at the logon screen and then click on the option to reset the password, but the reset email never shows up.  At two or three sites I had to email the site web manager to send me a link to the password change page.

Anyway, it's finally done now.  There are a couple of sites I use from my iPad for which I had to create unique memorable passwords because iOS does not have very good support mechanisms for such services as Lastpass, though as Chrome for iOS gets better, I expect that to make the problem easier to manage.  I had forgotten how many of these passwords (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) were plugged into things like my Roku.  It was irritating with the crappy remote to enter these random strings of characters as new passwords.

Of course security of the Lastpass account becomes a problem.  I guess I have to trust them.  My password for them is unique and never has been used anywhere else and contains no real English words.  I use 2-step verification at all times to log into it, so hopefully I am moderately well-protected.

My Corporate Tax Plan

Some folks on the Left are starting to question the corporate income tax, recognizing what economists have known for years, that a lot of the tax is paid by consumers, making it more regressive than just (say) punishing Exxon for being large and productive.

There are many other reasons to hate the corporate income tax

  • It does not raise very much money
  • Its administrative costs (think corporate tax attorneys) is very high
  • It is hugely distortive.  The tax preference for debt over equity helped drive the LBO boom, for example
  • It is the font of much corporate welfare and cronyism.  A LOT of political paybacks get made within the corporate tax system

So here is my simply two-point plan

  1. Eliminate the corporate income tax.  Entirely
  2. Tax dividends and capital gains as regular income on individual tax returns

Done.  All corporate profits get taxed but only when they pass through to individuals as capital gains or dividends.  I think this would actually raise more money but rates could be adjusted (or better yet deductions eliminated) if needs to keep it neutral.

I believe the economic benefits of this would be immediate and substantial.

Of course, corporate tax attorneys are rich and powerful and would cut their throats to stop this.  It would be enormously entertaining to see them try, and in turn see what the reaction of their clients was to this.

 

Obamacare Not Only Raising My Rates, But Making The Process Much Harder

On September 26 of this year, President Obama said this of the new Obamacare exchanges:

“If you’ve ever tried to buy insurance on your own,” he said, “I promise you this is a lot easier.”

Well, let's see.  Here are some notes on my previous health insurance buying decision

  • I was able to price shop policies online without creating an account, without giving up my social security number.  The websites to do so worked and operated quickly
  • A broker who had decades of experience in health care (rather than being a former Obama campaign worker with a few hours of training) walked me through the options and how they worked.
  • Once we chose a policy, the application process online was quick and easy

Here is one thing that was likely worse

  • I had to provide medical history information, which probably is not required under Obamacare because of community rating (though I am not sure)

And here is one thing that was better for me but I guess must be worse for the Left since they complain about it so much

  • There was a lot more choice.  If the process was "harder" in any way before, it was because there were far more choices.  It was harder in the same way that it is generally harder to shop in the US than, say, in the old Soviet Union.  Obamacare circumscribes policies such that a large package of benefits are mandated, not optional (I have to pay for mental health coverage and probably aromatherapy) and the size of one's deductible is capped.

It is also this latter difference that will make my next policy substantially more expensive.  In standardizing options, the Congress standardized on the most expensive options (broadest possible benefits, smallest possible deductible).

By the way, this is not proven yet but there is probably one other way my Obamacare policy will be worse than my last one:  the doctor network in my policy will very likely be a LOT smaller.  We could almost be sure this would happen precisely because Obama promised it wouldn't  (his promises on health care are pretty good "tells" that the opposite will happen).

Great Book for Movie Fans

Save the Cat.  It is actually a book on screenwriting, but you don't need to be a writer to enjoy it.  I zipped through it in a few hours.  I just downloaded the sequel, which is perhaps more targeted at movie buffs in that it takes his framework from the first book and shows how 30 famous movies follow it.

The reason it is compelling is that it lays out the script formula -- down to the minute -- followed by a LOT of modern movies.  I have seen the structure discussed in this book repeated in enough other books to be convinced that it is indeed the formula used by most writers, taught to most amateurs, and eschewed only by the most confident.

My wife's first reaction was: how limiting, to turn movies into repetitious formulas.  There is in fact a substantial school of thought that Save the Cat has singled-handedly killed movie-making creativity.    I understand and sympathize with that response, but remember that symphonies and sonnets and Shakespeare plays and Greek tragedies all have a defined "standard" formula as well.   Here, for example, is the typical structure of a Sonata (many or even most first movements of symphonies are in this format) (source)

sonataform

 

Even when artists violated these forms, they were familiar with the forms and knew they were violating them and were doing so for a reason.  When you take Music 101, a lot of the time is learning these forms.  So why shouldn't one do something similar in trying to appreciate film?

Save the Cat presents the movie version of this.  Other books like this book provide a separate take.  But what is amazing is not that they are different -- they use different terminology -- but how absolutely similar they are when you cut through the jargon, down to the script page numbers for each event.

PS-  This may be one of those if you can't do, teach things.  His book on writing screenplays is a bestseller, though he only had two movies produced from his work (he died fairly young) and one of these won a Razzie for worst screenplay of the year.  To some extent, it all depends on how you define "success".  He sold a couple of dozen spec scripts, which is the very definition of "not easy".

Photoshop Practice

I am working on a couple of euro-style strategy card games at the moment.  The first is a business start-up game, and the second is a space-themed game loosely based on my experiences playing the Traveler role-playing game years ago.   A good stock image account (I use Shutterstock) gets me everything in terms of card images I need for the first game, but royalty-free space images are harder.  However, it is actually possible to start with prosaic industrial and other images and hack them to look futuristic, but it takes some work.

So I have been working on Photoshop skills.  If I could digitally paint, I would paint beautiful concept art, but I cannot.  So my Photoshop training has focused not on painting per se but on hacking images together and overlaying effects.   A LOT of the work is learning to do selections well to mash up images and then overlaying a few effects.   I can make a really good laser beam now, for example.  Take a modern weapon, have a laser beam come out, wala a pretty functional sci fi gun  (Don't believe me?  Look at the Death Star Turrets in the original Star Wars movie and tell me those aren't essentially current-era battleship turrets with green and red light coming out).  I wrote earlier about the lessons I followed in making custom planets.

As an example, here is the lesson I did last night.  It is not production value because it started with a low-res iPhone photo my daughter sent me and as you can tell from the edges and especially the hair, I did not spend much effort getting the edge selection just right.  But my daughter liked being a cyborg:

Click to enlarge

 

She has dark brown hair and dark brown eyes, so she is not the ideal model for this because those are hard to colorize well.  Blondes may or may not have more fun, but they are much easier to colorize.  The downsize of the exercise is that she loved the hair and now wants to color it that way for real.