Posts tagged ‘US’

A Reminder: Why the US Rail System Is At Least as Good As the European System if You Care About Energy Use

In an article about the French railroad SNCF, Randal O'Toole makes a point I have screamed to the world for years:

Meanwhile, French trains carry less than 11 percent of freight, as more than 86 percent of freight is transported on highways. Those numbers are in sharp contrast to the U.S., where at least a third of freight goes by rail and less than 40 percent goes by truck (and I suspect a bad model has erroneously exaggerated the role of trucks).

American railroads are a model of capitalism, one of the least-subsidized forms of transportation in the world. They are profitable and do far more for the national economy than Europe’s socialized railroads, which mainly serve narrow elites.

Most of the intellectual elites and nearly all the global warming alarmists deride the US for not having the supposedly superior rail system that France and Germany have.  They are blinded by the vision of admittedly beautiful high speed trains, and have frittered away billions of dollars trying to pursue various high speed rail visions in the US.

I know that the supposedly pro-science global warming alarmists sometimes are not actually very focused on science, but this is pretty simple to think about.

First, consider the last time you were on a passenger train.  Add up the weight of all the folks in your car.  Do you think they weighed more or less than the car itself?  Unless you were packed into a subway train with Japanese sumo wrestlers, the answer is that the weight of the car dwarfs that of the passengers it is carrying.    The average Amtrak passenger car apparently weighs about 65 tons (my guess is a high speed rail car weighs more).  The capacity of a coach is 70-80 passengers, which at an average adult weight of 140 pounds yields a maximum passenger weight per car of 5.6 tons.  This means that just 8% of the fuel in a passenger train is being used to move people -- the rest goes into moving the train itself.

Now consider a freight train.  The typical car weight 25-30 tons empty and can carry between 70 and 120 tons of cargo.  This means that 70-80% of the fuel in a freight train is being used to move the cargo.

Now you have to take me on faith on one statement -- it is really hard, in fact close to impossible, to optimize a rail system for both passengers and freight.  In the extreme of high speed rail, passenger trains required separate dedicated tracks.  Most rail systems, even when they serve both sorts of traffic, generally prioritize one or the other.  So, if you wanted to save energy and had to pick, which would you choose -- focusing on freight or focusing on passengers?  Oh and by the way, if you want to make it more personal, throw in a consideration of which you would rather have next to you on crowded roads, another car or another freight truck?

This is why the supposedly-green folks' denigrating of US rail is so crazy to me.  The US rails system makes at least as much sense as the European system, even before you consider that it was mostly privately funded and runs without the subsidies that are necessary to keep European rail running.  Yes, as an American tourist travelling in Europe, the European rails system is great.  Agreed.  I use it every time I go there.  I have to assume that this elite tourist experience must be part of why folks ignore the basic science here.

My original article on all this years ago was in Forbes here.

Postscript #1:  One could argue that what matters is not the weight ratios of freight vs. passenger rail but how those compare to the road alternatives.  I would have to think this through, but it gets way more complicated because you have to start worrying about average occupancy and such since that also differs.  At full capacity say of 4 people, the typical 4000 pound car (US, rest of the world is less) would passenger weight around 12% of the total, higher than for the passenger train.   But average occupies could change the comparison and I don't have the time to work it through.  But for a full analysis we would have to take a lot of other things into account.  For example, trains are a poor fit with customer travel time preferences for longer US distances, even for higher speed options.  In the same way freight pencils out worse for rail in Europe because the last mile transport problems become a bigger percentage in a shorter haul.  I am confident though that for the US, the freight-dominant system is the right solution and it amazes me how hard it is to get anyone to recognize this.

Postscript #2:  Thinking about the SNCF, I actually did a consulting project there 20+ years ago.  I remember two things.   First they had 25% more freight car repair people than they had freight cars.  Which led me to making the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that they could give every one of these folks their own tool bag, assign them their own car to ride around on, and still cut a fifth of their staff.  I have never, ever, ever seen bloated staffing like I did at SNCF.  My other memory was lunches with executives that took place in palatial dining rooms with waiters in white gloves.  We ate for like 3 hours and drank a case of wine and all I could think about doing after lunch was going to take a nap.

Postscript #3:  This is really going to be a random aside, but if you want to bring science to the table, monorails are the dumbest things ever.  The whole advantage of rail is the friction reduction of a metal flanged wheel rolling on a metal rail.   Most monorails (and people movers) are just tires on a concrete beam (e.g this is how the Disney monorails work).  This is no more efficient than a bus and actually less because the train jacks up the vehicle to passenger weight ratio over a bus.  Because of certain geometry issues, monorails also have limited capacity.  Disney has been struggling with this for years at the Magic Kingdom in Florida and their ferry boats seem to move a lot more passengers than the adjacent monorails.  Monorails do look awesome, though, and their tracks are airier and more attractive than traditional elevated rail tracks.

Our Response to GDPR

I have been reading all the articles (and the storm of emails in my inbox) on European GDPR privacy rules implementation with some dispassion.  After all, it does not affect me, right?  I run a camping business all in the US.  But then I got to thinking about it and realized that I had three avenues of exposure  -- my blogs, my jobs mailing list, and my company web site.  I will preface this by saying that I am no expert and I am not really hugely at-risk, but perhaps this will be useful to someone.  More importantly, if you ARE an expert and see something I am screwing up please email me!

The blog exposure strikes me as pretty narrow, particularly since we do not serve up advertisements (except in the comments via Disqus) and do not have a mailing list.  I don't store or have access to any user data (though I wonder if server logs count?) so I assess my main liability as secondary if Disqus screws up something.  I have been reading Disqus's updates and I would evaluate them as working on it but not done.  I suppose if the EU wants to come after me for "up to 4%" of this site's revenue they are welcome to do so.  Sort of like when I was unemployed being told to spend 2 months salary on my wife's engagement ring  (which in fact I did exactly, since it was my mom's ring given to me as a gift for the purpose).

Similarly, I think my liability surrounding the mailing list we maintain for job openings is pretty limited.  First, it would shock me if more than 0.0001% of the people on that list are in Europe, since I can't really legally hire Europeans in most cases and it is unlikely they will drive their RV over here to work in a campground.  More importantly, all the names are there through what I would call extreme opt-in -- they have to click on a special link and go sign up on a dedicated page just to join the mailing list.  The email provider is Constant Contact so again my liability is likely limited to whether they screw anything up in their compliance, but this is probably unlikely in my case.  Again there is no advertising and all people on the list ever get are notifications of new job openings and links where to apply.

Which brings me to our business web site.  There is no log-in or user information entered or advertising on our web site, so we are mostly fine.  With one large exception -- we have our own reservations site that gathers and stores customer reservation information.  Eek!  That sounds like it could be a problem.  The most dangerous piece of data we could potentially have in our hands is a credit card number, which is why our system was set up so our company never has the credit card number in our possession.  Customers are passed over to Stripe (highly recommended company, by the way) who handle all that dangerous stuff on their servers, and just pass us back a confirmation.  But we do have customer name, address, email, and camping stay dates on our server.  Maybe we are compliant already -- we treat that stuff with a lot of care.  Maybe we are not.  But since we really don't get any reservations at all from Europe, it was easier just to go black there, so right now my software guy is working on blocking traffic from European IP addresses.

Postscript:  On some of my posts, people write me and ask, "Why did you even bother to publish that."  And my answer is that I often write to think, so it may be that it is only for my own benefit.  My software guy is a reader of this blog and was probably laughing as he read this post because I stopped a couple times in writing it to fire off new questions or requests to him.

Update:  Hah, what timing!   This just appeared on my blog when I scrolled down to the comments so I guess Disqus must indeed be working on this.

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.

US Trade Deficit: Foreigners Are Consuming US Goods, But Consuming Them in the US (So They Don't "Count" As An Export)

Via Don Boudreaux:

Greg Ip writes that “The U.S. runs a trade deficit because it consumes more than it produces while its trading partners, collectively, do the opposite” (“How the Tax Cut President Trump Loves Will Deepen Trade Deficits He Hates,” April 19).

Here is how I like to explain why this is wrong.  The trade deficit exists in large part because foreigners are more likely to consume the American-made goods and services they buy right here in the US, rather than take them back to their home country, while US consumers tend to bring foreign goods back to America to consume them.  Let me unpack this.

First, over any reasonable length of time, payments between countries are going to balance.  If this were not true, there would be some mattress in China that has trillions of dollar bills stuffed in it, and no reasonable person nowadays just lets money sit around lying fallow.  There are some payments between countries for each others' goods.   And there are some payments for each others' services.   And there are some payments for various investments.  All these ultimately balance, which makes fixating on just one part of this circular flow, the payments for physical goods, sort of insane.  If we have a trade "deficit" in physical goods, then we must have a trade surplus in services (which we do) and in investments (which we do) to balance things out.

But what do we mean by an investment surplus?  It means that, for example, folks from China are spending more money in the US for things like real estate and buildings and equipment -- either directly or through purchases of American equity and debt securities -- than US citizens are buying in China.  But note that another name for investment is just stuff that foreigners buy in this country that stays in this country and they don't take back home.  If a Chinese citizen buys a house in Los Angeles (something that apparently happens quite a bit), that is just as much "consumption" as when I buy a TV made in China.  But unlike my TV purchase (which counts as an import), because of the arbitrary way trade statistics are calculated, selling a Chinese citizen a house in LA does not count as an export because they keep and use the house here.  Let's say one Chinese person sells 10,000 TV's to Americans, and then uses the proceeds to build a multi-million dollar house in Hawaii.  This would show up as a huge trade deficit, but there is no asymmetry of consumption or production -- Chinese and American citizens involved in this example are producing and consuming the same amounts.  The same is true when the Chinese build a manufacturing plant here.  Or when then invest capital in a company like Tesla and it builds a manufacturing plant here.

Our bizarre fixation on the trade deficit number would imply that, if trade deficits are inherently bad, then we would be better off if the Chinese person who bought the house in LA dismantled it and then shipped the material back to China.  Then it would show up as an export.  Same with the factory -- if we fixated on reducing the trade deficit then we should prefer that the Chinese buy the equipment for their factory here but have it all shipped home and built in China rather than built here.   Is this really what you want?

I am willing to concede one exception -- when Chinese use trade proceeds to buy US government debt securities.   This is where my lack of formal economics training may lead me astray, but I would say that the US government is the one major American institution that is able to consume more than it produces.  Specifically, by running enormous deficits it is able to -- year in and year out -- allow people to consume more than they produce.  Trade proceeds from foreigners that buy this debt in some sense help subsidize this.

However, I don't think one can blame trade for this situation.  Government deficits are enabled by feckless politicians who pander to the electorate in order to be re-elected, a dynamic that has little to do with trade.  I suppose one could argue that by increasing the demand for government securities, foreigners are reducing the cost of debt and thus perhaps enabling more spending, though I am not sure politicians are at all price sensitive to interest rates when they run up debt -- as a minimum their demand curve is really, really steep.   There is a relation between government borrowing and trade but the relationship is reversed -- Increased borrowing will tend, all things being equal, to increase the value of the dollar which will in turn make imports cheaper and exports more expensive, perhaps increasing the trade deficit.

Business Lesson From the Vietnam War

I just finished watching the PBS series on the Vietnam War and found the experience powerful and educational.  My only disappointment was that every soldier they interviewed and followed through the war ended up in the anti-war movement (or in the case of one POW, his wife did).  I agree with their perspective, and see the whole war as a giant waste, but unlike most people on campus nowadays, I like hearing from people with points of view that are different than mine.  I get nervous just having my expectations reinforced.  Surely there are veterans who thought the war was winnable and the US largely honorable -- I know some of these folks -- but we really do not get to hear their voices very often.   But with this proviso, the series was terrific.

One of the most important -- and hardest -- lessons of business is to think at the margin.  Perhaps the toughest corollary to this is: Sunk costs are sunk.  I don't care how much we have already spent on that factory -- that money is gone -- if it is going to take another $100 million to finish, are the benefits of the factory worth that $100 million? If not let's stop work on it no matter how much has already been spent.   I have worked to teach this to my wife.  I don't care how much the tickets for the show on Sunday night cost -- that money is gone -- isthe enjoyment we expect to get from the show worth the remaining costs we face (getting in the car, fighting for parking, etc)?

Transit projects thrive on the sunk cost fallacy.  Agencies explicitly try to get some money, spend it, and then claim the rest of the money has to be spent because we have already "invested so much".  Here is an example:

But what is really amazing is that Chicago embarked on building a $320 million downtown station for the project without even a plan for the rest of the line -- no design, no route, no land acquisition, no appropriation, no cost estimate, nothing.  There are currently tracks running near the station to the airport, but there are no passing sidings on these tracks, making it impossible for express and local trains to share the same track.  The express service idea would either require an extensive rebuilding of the entire current line using signaling and switching technologies that may not (according to Daley himself) even exist, or it requires an entirely new line cut through some of the densest urban environments in the country.  Even this critical decision on basic approach was not made before they started construction on the station, and in fact still has not been made.

Though the article does not mention it, this strikes me as a typical commuter rail strategy -- make some kind of toe-in-the-water investment on a less-than-critical-mass part of the system, and then use that as leverage with voters to approve funding so that the original investment will not be orphaned.

It amazes me that no politician in California has shut down the insane California high speed rail project, but I will bet you any amount of money that when they do the rail agency will be screaming that it can't be shut down because they have already spent billions of dollars and shutting them down would waste all that money.  Sorry, but that money has already been wasted, the point is to avoid all the additional money that will be wasted going forward.

The government decision-making around the Vietnam War seemed like nothing so much as a series of sunk cost fallacies.  We can't give up now, not after so many brave men have already died!  That last sentence could be the title of about half the episodes.   But sunk costs shouldn't matter in a go-forward decision -- but they do matter to ego and prestige.  Politicians talk about things like "the nation's honor" but what really matters at its heart is their own ego and perception.  Abandoning sunk costs, for the real humans making decisions (whether Presidents or CEOs) is about confessing past errors of judgment.  Its a hard thing to do, so hard a lot of extra people had to die in Vietnam before it could happen.  I can't find a transcript but Kissinger had some amazing quotes in Episode 9 that pretty baldly outline this problem.

 

 

Addressing the Pro-Tariff Arguments

Don Boudreaux and and Mark Perry have been doing a great job making the case against Trump's trade sanctions.  But it is always a danger only to learn about opposing views from those who disagree with you, so in the spirit of Bryan Caplan's "Ideological Touring Test" I wanted to address directly some of the arguments in support of Trump's sanctions.

I followed several links to this article by Spencer Morrison.  After reading the whole thing, I fear I have made the intellectual error of choosing a poor representative of the opposing side's argument, but I am committed now, so here goes.

Consider that China steals more than half a trillion dollars in American intellectual property every single year. This is one of the reasons America’s trade deficit with China is so massive. For example, in 2010 Chinese companies stole high-speed rail designs from American firms, thereby depriving them of hundreds of billions in potential revenues. Such theft occurs in nearly every industry, whether it’s software programs or branded consumer goods. And the worst part? We let it happen.

I find the author's figure absurd, and likely untrustworthy given his example.  Following his high-speed rail design "theft" link one quickly finds that 1) Americans were not involved at all, which is not surprising since we really don't have high-speed rail manufacturing industry or expertise in this country; 2) the technology seems to have been acquired or copied legally; and 3) the real competitive issue for non-Chinese companies seems to be that the Chinese have extended and improved the technology.

This one paragraph essentially summarized the theme of the article, that technology is the key to increased well-being and that the US is poorer when they cannot monopolize the best technology.  The first is true, the second is dead wrong and flies in the face of 200 years of history.

I won't spend time on the mass of the article where describes the economy in very production-based terms which I don't totally agree with, but his basic point is one I can partially accept -- that real economic growth over time comes from  productivity growth.  I agree that technology is part of the productivity equation, but unlike the author I also see other drivers such as trade (which he calls "noise").  Trade is a critical factor in productivity improvement as specialization and comparative advantage greatly increase productivity.

But where I think he really goes off the rails is to say that because technology is wealth-creating, we need to monopolize that technology in the US.

The core issue remains: we continue to  offshore our advanced industries at an alarming pace, which will only increase the likelihood that the “next big thing” will be invented abroad. If we do not reverse this trend, we will soon be on the outside looking in.

It would be entertaining to discuss the origins of the American textile industry in the late 18th and early 19th century with the author, which were largely based on spinning jenny and powerloom designs that were literally stolen from manufacturers in the UK (countries don't own technologies, only individuals and their companies do).  The UK at the time had strict technology export restrictions of which I am sure the author would have been approving.

So did the UK suddenly become poorer as America built a lively cloth industry?  No, in fact the UK boomed along with the US.  It turns out that spreading new technology and productivity techniques around more widely made everyone richer.  This only makes sense.  Would the West really be wealthier if they had kept all technology from spreading, and thus were surrounded by countries dominated by subsistence farming and medieval crafts?  A skeptic might argue that the UK did eventually become poorer relative to the US and upstart Germany, but Andrew Carnegie could have told you why at the beginning of the 20th century.  He went back and toured manufacturers in his old home and was horrified at how little they reinvested in new technology.

Which brings me back to Chinese high speed rail, the example he started with.  Clearly the Chinese have a growing high-speed rail manufacturing industry, and they DIDN'T invent the technologies originally in China.  This is what trade is all about.  Rather than keep technologies locked up in a secret underground bunker in the Rockies, as the author seems to prefer, it spreads technologies around the world.  Production then shifts around the world based on a variety of factors such as comparative advantage in ways that are hard to predict, but seldom has a strong relationship to the country in which the technology was first invented.  One place production does NOT shift, though, is towards countries whose government has artificially raised critical raw material prices through border taxes on its consumers called tariffs.

Which reminds me, if the problem is China "stealing" things like high-speed rail technology, then why in the hell are we imposing steel and aluminum tariffs?  What the heck does this have to do with technology transfer?  In fact, if the US really had a high-speed rail industry we were worried about, or if one were exclusively concerned with the auto industry, the author is essentially telling them "we are sorry you had your technology stolen so to help you out we going to substantially raise the prices of your two largest purchases (steel and aluminum) so that you can be even less competitive internationally."  Ahh, I can feel the economic growth from that already.

If the author wants better intellectual property protections for US companies and individuals, I am generally supportive of efforts to achieve this (as long as we don't over-specify intellectual property and end up again with endless patent troll suits).  For all its flaws, though, joining the TPP seems to be a better path to this end (it actually addresses, you know, intellectual property protections rather than just raise steel prices for consumers).

To conclude, I love this quote from his article because, despite being anti-trade, he in fact is echoing the pro-trade observation by Steven Landsburg.

Yet our trade policy does exactly the opposite. After the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, U.S. corn exports surged, as did our imports of automobiles. The problem is that automobile manufacturing is much more likely to benefit from disruptive technology than is growing corn—under NAFTA, the preponderance of long-run benefits went to Mexico, not the United States. The same is true with America’s trade relationship with China: America’s advanced goods trade deficit with China now tops $120 billion. Meanwhile, our biggest export is soybeans.

Free trade is, quite literally, turning America into China’s mercantile resource colony: we buy their value-added, manufactured products, and we sell them raw materials.

This is freaking awesome!  We grow and sell soybeans and get back advanced technology products.  Brilliant!  No wonder we are the richest nation on Earth.

Postscript:  So to save the time clicking through to Steven Landsburg, here is a part of what he said (via Carpe Diem):

There are two technologies for producing automobiles in America. One is to manufacture them in Detroit, and the other is to grow them in Iowa. Everybody knows about the first technology; let me tell you about the second. First you plant seeds, which are the raw material from which automobiles are constructed. You wait a few months until wheat appears. Then you harvest the wheat, load it onto ships, and sail the ships eastward into the Pacific Ocean. After a few months, the ships reappear with Toyotas on them.

International trade is nothing but a form of technology. The fact that there is a place called Japan, with people and factories, is quite irrelevant to Americans’ well-being. To analyze trade policies, we might as well assume that Japan is a giant machine with mysterious inner workings that convert wheat into cars. Any policy designed to favor the first American technology over the second is a policy designed to favor American auto producers in Detroit over American auto producers in Iowa. A tax or a ban on “imported” automobiles is a tax or a ban on Iowa-grown automobiles. If you protect Detroit carmakers from competition, then you must damage Iowa farmers, because Iowa farmers are the competition.

The task of producing a given fleet of cars can be allocated between Detroit and Iowa in a variety of ways. A competitive price system selects that allocation that minimizes the total production cost. It would be unnecessarily expensive to manufacture all cars in Detroit, unnecessarily expensive to grow all cars in Iowa, and unnecessarily expensive to use the two production processes in anything other than the natural ratio that emerges as a result of competition.

That means that protection for Detroit does more than just transfer income from farmers to autoworkers. It also raises the total cost of providing Americans with a given number of automobiles. The efficiency loss comes with no offsetting gain; it impoverishes the nation as a whole.

A Chinese Consumer's Perspective on Chinese Trade Policy

This is, plus or minus, a reprint of an article on trade policy written 12 years ago at our Chinese sister publication, Panda Blog.

Our Chinese government continues to pursue a policy of export promotion, patting itself on the back for its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the United States. The Chinese government does so through a number of avenues, including:

  • Limiting yuan convertibility, and keeping the yuan's value artificially low
  • Selling exports below cost and well below domestic prices (what the Americans call "dumping") and subsidizing products for export

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers. A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese. So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  We Chinese send our resources, our capital, and the output of our most productive workers overseas to be enjoyed by American consumers, and what do we get in return?  A trillion dollars or so of foreign exchange surpluses that our government invests for 2% returns in US government bonds.  Yes, that's right -- not only are we subsidizing American consumers, but we are subsidizing their taxpayers by financing their government's debt at low interest rates.

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and eighties. It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers in the domestic market while subsidizing exports. Japanese consumers had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods. Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously outdated retail sector that were all protected by government regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses. And surpluses they did create. Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US, and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars) in the world. And what did this get them? Decades of recession, from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions, seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

We at Panda Blog believe it is insane for our Chinese government to continue to chase the chimera of ever-growing foreign exchange and trade surpluses. These achieved nothing lasting for Japan and they will achieve nothing for China. In fact, the only thing that amazes us more than China's subsidize-Americans strategy is that the Americans seem to complain about it so much. They complain about their trade deficits, which are nothing more than a reflection of their incredible wealth. They complain about the yuan exchange rate, which is set today to give discounts to Americans and price premiums to Chinese. They complain about China buying their government bonds, which does nothing more than reduce the costs of their Congress's insane deficit spending. They even complain about dumping, which is nothing more than a direct subsidy by China of lower prices for American consumers.

And, incredibly, the Americans complain that it is they that run a security risk with their current trade deficit with China! This claim is so crazy, we at Panda Blog have come to the conclusion that it must be the result of a misdirection campaign by the CIA-controlled American media. After all, the fact that China exports more to the US than the US does to China means that by definition, more of China's economic production is dependent on the well-being of the American economy than vice-versa. And, with well over a trillion dollars in foreign exchange invested heavily in US government bonds, it is China that has the most riding on the continued stability of the American government, rather than the reverse. American commentators invent scenarios where the Chinese could hurt the American economy, which we could, but only at the cost of hurting ourselves worse. Mutual Assured Destruction is alive and well, but today it is not just a feature of nuclear strategy but a fact of the global economy.

As I Predicted, Another Diesel Emissions Shoe Drops

Back in November of 2015 I wrote:

I would be stunned if the Volkswagen emissions cheating is limited to Volkswagen.  Volkswagen is not unique -- Cat and I think Cummins were busted a while back for the same thing.  US automakers don't have a lot of exposure to diesels (except for pickup trucks) but my guess is that something similar was ubiquitous.

My thinking was that the Cat, Cummins, and VW cheating incidents all demonstrated that automakers had hit a wall on diesel emissions compliance -- the regulations had gone beyond what automakers could comply with and still provide consumers with an acceptable level of performance.

Since then Fiat-Chrysler has been accused of the same behavior, and GM has been accused as well, though only in  a civil suit.

Now, most recently, Daimler is being accused of the same behavior

Daimler has been under suspicion of cheating on US emissions tests for quite a while now -- in 2016, a number of customers even sued the automaker, claiming their cars had sneaky software made to trick testers similar to Volkswagen's. Now, according to German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, US authorities investigating the Mercedes maker have discovered that its vehicles are equipped with illegal software to help them pass United States' stringent emission tests. Citing confidential documents, the publication said Daimler's employees doubted their vehicles would be able meet US standards even before Volkswagen's diesel scandal blew up. Internal testing apparently revealed that some Mercedes models emit ten times the country's nitrogen oxide limit.

Daimler reportedly developed software with several functions to be able to trick US regulators. One called "Bit 15" was designed to switch off emissions cleaning after 16 miles of driving, while another called "Slipguard" can detect if the car is being tested based on speed and acceleration. Bild am Sonntag said it found emails from Daimler engineers questioning whether those functions were legal.

To this day, I wonder how much European officials knew about all this as it was happening.  European officials really went all-in on promoting diesel years ago as an approach to combating climate change.  This has, by the way, turned out to be a great example of the danger of government picking winners, as diesel has really turned out to be one of the worst approaches for reducing emissions in transportation vehicles, both economically and environmentally.  Never-the-less, given the big commitment by European regulators in promoting diesel as a key part of their climate change plans, I wonder how much they were looking the other way through all of this -- such that their current "shock" at all this cheating might be equivalent to Reynault's shock that there was gambling going on in Rick's Cafe in Casablanca.

2017 Northern Hemisphere Hurricane Activity Pretty Much Totally Normal

Philip Lotzbach of Colorado State University tweeted this summary chart of the 2017 hurricane season.  The numbers in parenthesis represent the historical average.

After an unusual number of years of being missed by major hurricanes, the US was hit by several large hurricanes in an above-average Atlantic hurricane season in 2017.  But as is typical of weather, while the Atlantic had more hurricanes than average, other parts of the world had fewer than average, such that overall for the northern hemisphere as a whole, it was a pretty average year.

Here Are the Two Problem With EV's

There are two problems with electric vehicles.  Neither are unsolvable in the long-term, but neither are probably going to get solved in the next 5 years.

  1.  Energy Density.  15 gallons of gasoline weighs 90 pounds and takes up 2 cubic feet.  This will carry a 40 mpg car 600 miles.   The Tesla Model S  85kwh battery pack weighs 1200 pounds and will carry the car 265 miles (from this article the cells themselves occupy about 4 cubic feet if packed perfectly but in this video the whole pack looks much larger).  We can see that even with what Musk claims is twice the energy density of other batteries, the Tesla gets  0.22 miles per pound of fuel/battery while the regular car can get 6.7.  That is a difference in energy density of 30x.  Some of this is compensated for by heavy and bulky things the electric car does not need (e.g. coolant system) but it is still a major problem in car design.
  2. Charge Time.  In my mind this is perhaps the single barrier that could, if solved, make electric cars ubiquitous.  People complain about electric car range, but really EV range is not that much shorter than the range of traditional cars on a tank of gas.  The problem is that it is MUCH faster to refill a tank of gas than it is to refill a battery with a full charge.    Traditionally it takes all night to charge an electric car, but 2 minutes at the pump to "charge" a gasoline engine.   The fastest current charging claim is Tesla's, which claims that the supercharger sites they have built on many US interstate routes sites will charge 170 miles of range in 30 minutes, or 5.7 miles per minute.   A traditional car (the same one used in point 1) can add 600 miles of range in 2 minutes, or 300 miles per minute, or 52 times faster than the electric car.  This is the real reason EV range is an issue for folks.

Interestingly, Fisker (which failed in its first foray in to electric cars) claims to have a solid state battery technology that gets at both these issues, particularly #2

“Fisker’s solid-state batteries will feature three-dimensional electrodes with 2.5 times the energy density of lithium-ion batteries. Fisker claims that this technology will enable ranges of more than 500 miles on a single charge and charging times as low as one minute—faster than filling up a gas tank.”

Forget all the other issues.  If they can really deliver on the last part, we will all be driving electric vehicles in 20 years.  However, having seen versions of this same article for literally 30 years about someone or other's promised breakthrough in battery technology that never really lived up to the hype, I will wait and see.

Though It Would Benefit Me Greatly, the Proposed Pass-Through Entity Tax Cut Is A Bad Idea

In the most recent version of a tax "reform" proposal in Congress, there was a provision for a reduced personal income tax rate on income from pass-through entities.  A pass-through entity is usually an S-corporation or an LLC, where the entity fills out a corporate tax form but pays no income taxes -- instead the income passes through to the individuals who own the entity, and taxes are paid on the individual return.  This was a great innovation because it provides an alternative to the double taxation of income that still exists with traditional C-corporations  (ie tax is paid by the corporation on income and again on the same income when it is passed through as capital gains or dividends to the owners).

I own an S-corp and would benefit greatly from a reduced tax rate on S-corp pass through income.  But I oppose it.  The basis of this tax proposal is a familiar one -- there is some type of economic behavior that Congress thinks is either meritorious or counter-productive, and there is a great urge to tweak the tax code to promote or hinder these behaviors.  We get sold on the idea that owning a home is better than renting and thus we have the mortgage interest deduction.  There are thousands of such tweaks in the tax code, and most have little to do with economic reality and more to do with some special interest rent-seeking with Congress.

Someone in Congress thinks it's good that business people own small businesses and they should get a lower tax rate.  That's me, so thanks. But we end up with craziness, exactly as we do every time Congress tries to pick winners and losers.  Here would be effective tax rates (corporate + individual) for income earned in different ways under the new plan:

  • The lowest rate would be for income to a passive investor in a pass-through
  • The next lowest rate would be for income to an active investor in a pass-through -- yes, from a tax point of view it is less meritorious to actually work at the pass-through entity than just collect checks.  The logic is that part of one's pass-through income is for "labor" and thus needs to be taxed at the higher regular income tax rate.  How anyone can separate how much of my profits are from my labor and how much is from -- what?  unicorns? -- I have no idea
  • The next higher rate would be paid on passive income from a C-corporation like ExxonMobil, which would be taxed at the corporate rate and then taxed at the dividend rate (currently 15%) on the individual return but the combination would likely be less than the maximum personal rate.  For people without a lot of other income, this might be the highest taxed activity.
  • The highest rate would be for people simply working and earning income, assuming they are in the upper tax brackets.

All of this makes zero sense, or to the extent it makes sense to anyone is based on economic theories that likely don't hold a lot of water.  It reminds me of the old efforts to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor when giving out relief.  Every person in Congress seems to have a personal vision of deserved and undeserved income.  Just because the current folks have me in the deserving category doesn't mean that the next batch won't put me in the opposite category.

I think the entire corporate tax system needs to be junked.  The amount of effort that goes into compliance, and perhaps more importantly, the number of distortions is creates, make finding an alternative well worth the effort.  My tax plan has always been:

  1. Eliminate all deductions in the individual income tax code except for a single personal deduction
  2. Eliminate the corporate income tax.
  3. Tax capital gains and dividends as regular income.
  4. Eliminate the death tax as well as the write-up of asset values at death

Corporate income all eventually passes through to individuals as capital gains or dividends, so eventually they do get taxed.  The same is true of inherited assets -- because they would not get written up in value at death, they would still trigger large capital gains once tapped by those who inherit the assets.  As far as rates are concerned, I actually don't see a strong need for a flat tax -- I can live with the progressive rates we have now.

I have heard people of late saying that we can't eliminate the corporate income tax because foreign investors would never get taxed.  First, they would get taxed, just in their home country.  And second, who cares?  There have got to be a lot of things worse than a rush of foreign capital into the US.

Most College-Age Kids Probably Can't Remember A Major Hurricane Landfall

Most folks, even those who say they are data-driven, are not data-driven.  They react to their perception.  If some sort of activity suddenly makes the news more, we assume that activity is increasing, even if all that is happening is that the activity is simply making the news more.

A lot of the folks who want to blame this year's landfalling hurricanes on global warming are making this mistake.  If you are 20, the last major hurricane landfalls were in 2005 when you were 8.  The last decade has seen a nearly unprecedented drought in US major hurricane landfalls, so against the backdrop of this drought, several major Atlantic storms seems highly unusual.  But I grew up in the 1960's to the 1980's on the Gulf Coast and hurricanes were a regular part of our life then.  When I lived in Clear Lake City, Texas, we had so many in a few years in the 1980's that I had a special spot picked out to park my car to keep it above flood waters.  In the 1990's, we had a memorable vacation where we rented a house on the North Carolina coast for a month and got hit by three hurricanes -- we spent the whole trip hiding in the laundry room from tornado warnings and evacuating back and forth to the interior of the state.

For those who like simple charts, the WSJ had a good one the other day:

Making this a chart of hurricane landfalls deals with the public perception issue, as landfalls tend to be the only ones we really remember.  But this is actually a terrible metric (even though it makes my point about Irma and Harvey not representing any sort of upward trend) because landfalls are random and may not really represent actual hurricane activity.  A better metric is accumulated cyclonic energy of tropical storms, which looks at a sort of integral of storm strength over time.  This does not show a trend either, but since I cannot find a chart of ACE updated with recent activity I am not going to put it up here.   Here it was as of June of this year, and this chart only goes back to 1970 -- if we had good data early in the 20th century it would have been much higher.

 

 

My View on the Source of Wealth in the Modern World

About 15 years ago, I wrote something I wanted to repeat here just because I keep looking for it and a lot of my old Typepad blog era stuff is hard to find.  The original post is gone but I quoted from it in 2005.

Since 1700, the GDP per capita in places like the US has risen, in real terms, over 40 fold.  This is a real increase in total wealth, created by the human mind.  And it was unleashed because the world began to change in some fundamental ways around 1700 that allowed the human mind to truly flourish.  Among these changes, I will focus on two:

  1. There was a philosophical and intellectual change where questioning established beliefs and social patterns went from being heresy and unthinkable to being acceptable, and even in vogue.  In other words, men, at first just the elite but soon everyone, were urged to use their mind rather than just relying on established beliefs
  2. There were social and political changes that greatly increased the number of people capable of entrepreneurship.  Before this time, the vast vast majority of people were locked into social positions that allowed them no flexibility to act on a good idea, even if they had one.  By starting to create a large and free middle class, first in the Netherlands and England and then in the US, more people had the ability to use their mind to create new wealth.  Whereas before, perhaps 1% or less of any population really had the freedom to truly act on their ideas, after 1700 many more people began to have this freedom. 

So today's wealth, and everything that goes with it (from shorter work hours to longer life spans) is the result of more people using their minds more freely.

At the time, perhaps to my shame, I had never even heard of Deirdre McCloskey nor her work that has been published in three volumes called the Bourgeois Era explaining what she calls the "great enrichening" (which I am slowly plowing through).  My thinking when I wrote this seems reasonably consistent with her conclusions, though she has obviously been a lot more systematic in thinking about it.  This exchange with Gregory Waymire is a short but quite readable window on her thinking.  She writes in part:

You're adopting a conventional and somewhat silly view that the bourgeoisie were especially diligent, when it is not true as fact and is anyway not the character of the bourgeoisie that
mattered to the Great Enrichment (which by the way was a factor of 30 per capita in countries that fully adopted economic liberalism, not the factor of 10 you quote: look at the passage again, and read slower and longer). Weber sometimes got this right, sometimes wrong. But people tend to read him as saying that higher savings and more diligence, Ben Franklin style (and even Ben did not actually do it), is what made us rich.

One trouble which such a conventional argument is an economic one that Solow-type models (and Smith- and Marx- and Weber- type models) that reduce growth to savings and labor effort are radically mistaken. What matters is human creativity released from ancient trammels....

What made us rich, I argue at no doubt tedious and unreadable length in the Bourgeois Era trilogy, is imagination, ingenuity, radical ideas released. They were released in turn by liberalism, Smith's "liberal plan of [social] equality, [economic] liberty, and legal [justice]."

Shifting Mix is Often Ignored as the Reason Behind A Shifting Mean

I have written about this mix effect many times, eg here.  Imagine a corporate division that sells tables and chairs.  The CEO is reviewing this division's performance, and sees that their revenues are increasing but their profit margin is falling.  He asks his analyst to look into it - is it the tables or the chairs or both that are showing falling margins.  Our poor harassed analyst comes back and says, uh, neither.  The profit margins for both tables and chairs went up last year.  Well, the CEO asks, if revenues are up and all their component margins are going up, how is their total margin falling?  It turns out that tables make a much higher margin than chairs, and over the last year the company has seen a much higher growth in chair sales than table sales.  The mix is shifting towards a lower margin product and is bringing the averages down.  By the way, I can say with authority that this conversation is much harder when the analyst is yours truly and the CEO is famed tough (but talented) boss Chuck Knight of Emerson Electric.

Whether the media mentions this effect or not, it is happening all the time.  Here is an example from the WSJ:

One mystery of this economic expansion is that wage growth has remained slow even as the labor market has finally tightened. One widely cited culprit is historically low productivity growth. But a new analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco adds a more optimistic, albeit paradoxical, explanation.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that median weekly earnings had risen in July by a healthy 4.2% on an annual basis, the fastest growth in a decade. As labor markets tighten, employers typically increase wages. Until this past year, however, median weekly earnings growth had hovered near 2%, which is significantly less than the 3.25% average from 1983 to 2015.

So why haven’t wages risen faster amid an increase in hiring and unfilled jobs? One answer is that wages have actually been growing at a faster clip—around 4% to 5%—at least for full-time workers with steady jobs. But new full-time workers who are generally paid less than the retirees they replace are dragging down the average wage increase.

Researchers at the San Francisco Fed this week updated their 2016 paper that disaggregated the wages of full-time workers with steady employment from recent entrants—that is, new workers or those returning to full-time work. Their earlier analysis showed that average wage growth had slowed less than expected during the recession while staying relatively flat during the recovery.

That’s because workers who lost jobs during the recession were generally lower skilled and lower paid, so average weekly wages didn’t fall significantly. However, many of those workers have since been rehired at below-average wages, which has depressed the aggregate.

In prior expansions, wage growth has been driven mostly by continuously full-time employed workers, and the researchers find that’s still the case. Wage growth for these workers is now close to the pre-recession 2007 peak. But there are now many more workers who have been on the labor-force sidelines who are moving to full-time employment, thus creating a drag on wages.

This is frequently how mix shifts play out in the news.  Notice that there are actually two pieces of good news here:  1.  Wages for full-time workers who have been employed for a while are growing well and 2.  lower-skilled and less experienced workers who left the labor force are now getting jobs and returning to work.  However, when these are combined, the net is portrayed as bad news, ie wage growth in the US is sluggish.  Because the mix was ignored.

Well, The World Polarizes Just A Bit More

In my mailbox today is a press release some firm in town called Spectrum Experience.  This press release begins:

 The Tempe-based communications firm, Spectrum Experience, released an email statement yesterday informing clients the firm will no longer work with companies, candidates or causes that are unwilling to publicly state: Black lives matter. Spectrum works with dozens of political candidates and legislators in Arizona, as well as nonprofits and corporations throughout the US; the firm said it does not wish to provide communications support to these clients if they shield White supremacy.

Hmm.  I am pretty sure that the specific phrase "Black lives matter" has become loaded with a lot of political baggage such that failing to entirely endorse it is not the same as shielding white supremacy.  Sort of like refusing to say "I'm with Her" is not really the same as shielding misogyny.  But I will say that this is beautifully representative of the flavor of politics today.  One wonders how a company that claims on its website to "craft innovative strategies for companies, causes, and campaigns dedicated to changing the world" does so while refusing to engage with anyone who disagrees with them.

My take on BLM is here, which is critical of it as I share many of their goals but think their tactics have devolved into unproductive virtue-signaling at the expense of actual progress (sort of exactly like this email).

So Where Is The Climate Science Money Actually Going If Not To Temperature Measurement?

You are likely aware that the US, and many other countries, are spending billions and billions of dollars on climate research.  After drug development, it probably has become the single most lucrative academic sector.

Let me ask a question.  If you were concerned (as you should be) about lead in soil and drinking water and how it might or might not be getting into the bloodstream of children, what would you spend money on?  Sure, better treatments and new technologies for filtering and cleaning up lead.  But wouldn't the number one investment be in more and better measurement of environmental and human lead concentrations, and how they might be changing over time?

So I suppose if one were worried about the global rise in temperatures, one would look at better and more complete measurement of these temperatures.  Hah!  You would be wrong.

There are three main global temperature histories: the combined CRU-Hadley record (HADCRU), the NASA-GISS (GISTEMP) record, and the NOAA record. All three global averages depend on the same underlying land data archive, the Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN). Because of this reliance on GHCN, its quality deficiencies will constrain the quality of all derived products.

The number of weather stations providing data to GHCN plunged in 1990 and again in 2005. The sample size has fallen by over 75% from its peak in the early 1970s, and is now smaller than at any time since 1919.

Well, perhaps they have focused on culling a large poor quality network into fewer, higher quality locations?  If they have been doing this, there is little or no record of that being the case.  To outsiders, it looks like stations just keep turning off.   And in fact, by certain metrics, the quality of the network is falling:

The collapse in sample size has increased the relative fraction of data coming from airports to about 50 percent (up from about 30 percent in the 1970s). It has also reduced the average latitude of source data and removed relatively more high-altitude monitoring sites.

Airports, located in the middle of urban centers by and large, are terrible temperature measurement points, subject to a variety of biases such as the urban heat island effect.  My son and I measured over 10 degrees Fahrenheit different between the Phoenix airport and the outlying countryside in an old school project.  Folks who compile the measurements claim that they have corrected for these biases, but many of us have reasons to doubt that (consider this example, where an obviously biased station was still showing in the corrected data as the #1 warming site in the country).  I understand why we have spent 30 years correcting screwed up biased stations because we need some stations with long histories and these are what we have (though many long lived stations have been allowed to expire), but why haven't we been building a new, better-sited network?

Ironically, there has been one major investment effort to improve temperature measurement, and that is through satellite measurements.  We now use satellites for official measures of cloud cover, sea ice extent, and sea level, but the global warming establishment has largely ignored satellite measurement of temperatures.  For example, James Hansen (Al Gore's mentor and often called the father of global warming) strongly defended 100+ year old surface temperature measurement technology over satellites.  Ironically, Hansen was head, for years, of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), so one wonders why he resisted space technology in this one particular area.  Cynics among us would argue that it is because satellites give the "wrong" answer, showing a slower warming rate than the heavily manually adjusted surface records.

As Predicted Here 2 Years Ago, More Diesel Emissions Cheating Alleged

Back in November of 2015 I wrote:

I would be stunned if the Volkswagen emissions cheating is limited to Volkswagen.  Volkswagen is not unique -- Cat and I think Cummins were busted a while back for the same thing.  US automakers don't have a lot of exposure to diesels (except for pickup trucks) but my guess is that something similar was ubiquitous.

My thinking was that the Cat, Cummins, and VW cheating incidents all demonstrated that automakers had hit a wall on diesel emissions compliance -- the regulations had gone beyond what automakers could comply with and still provide consumers with an acceptable level of performance.

Since then Fiat-Chrysler has been accused of the same behavior, and now GM is accused as well, though only in  a civil suit.

A class-action lawsuit accuses General Motors of rigging emission-control systems on 2011–2016 Chevrolet Silverado HD and GMC Sierra HD pickups with GM’s Duramax turbo-diesel 6.6-liter V-8 engine. If the allegations are proved true, the environmental damage from these 705,000 trucks, which the lawsuit said emit two to five times the legal limit of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in typical driving conditions, could easily exceed that of Volkswagen’s emission-test-cheating TDI engines.

Of course, people can say any thing they want in a civil suit, so this needs to be proved, but I think it probably is true.

A while back a reader with some inside knowledge explained what was going on.

Immigration Law as a Precursor for Work Permits

I have made this same point before -- immigration restrictions on who can and can't work in the US is effectively a Federal work permit requirement, one that could easily be expanded over time:

E-Verify, if implemented nationwide, would be a system of work permits. If you started a new job, you would need the federal government to verify that you are legally allowed to have that job. How long would it be before the government started making judgements about who should be allowed to work? Convicted sexual predators, even those who were, say 19, and sleeping with a consensual 16-year-old, have to register for life and are told that they can't live in certain parts of a city. Is it entirely inconceivable that some would ultimately be told that they can't work?

I can imagine far worse than that in today's society.   One must complete a certain number of hours of training and pass a series of tests to get a driver's licence.  How long before someone suggestions mandatory diversity testing and a woke-ness test before being allowed to work?

Reversing Cause and Effect?

I hate to quibble about a paper that supports my preconceived notions, but I am bothered by this as linked by Tyler Cowen

We quantify the amount of spatial misallocation of labor across US cities and its aggregate costs. Misallocation arises because high productivity cities like New York and the San Francisco Bay Area have adopted stringent restrictions to new housing supply, effectively limiting the number of workers who have access to such high productivity. Using a spatial equilibrium model and data from 220 metropolitan areas we find that these constraints lowered aggregate US growth by more than 50% from 1964 to 2009.

Isn’t it possible that cause and effect are being reversed here? I accept that zoning in places like SF make it more expensive. I would have concluded that this higher cost of living allows only the most productive to live there — less productive folks can’t afford it. So the high average productivity of these cities might partially be a result of their higher costs, not because the zoning somehow increases productivity, but because the zoning creates a sorting process where only the most productive may enter, which brings up the averages.  So a reduction in zoning and living costs would cause the productivity numbers for the city to average down as lower-productivity earners can move in.

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.

Scooped George Will By A Decade

George Will has a good article making the point that you are almost certainly richer today, in terms of the products and services you have access to, than a billionaire was in 1916.  Loyal Coyote Blog readers will have read roughly this same article over a decade ago.  In that nearly ancient post, I compared a middle class home-owner in my neighborhood to the owner of one of the largest mansions in America in the late 19th century:

House1aHouse2b

One house has hot and cold running water, central air conditioning, electricity and flush toilets.  The other does not.  One owner has a a computer, a high speed connection to the Internet, a DVD player with a movie collection, and several television sets.  The other has none of these things.  One owner has a refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner, a toaster oven, an iPod, an alarm clock that plays music in the morning, a coffee maker, and a decent car.  The other has none of these.  One owner has ice cubes for his lemonade, while the other has to drink his warm in the summer time.  One owner can pick up the telephone and do business with anyone in the world, while the other had to travel by train and ship for days (or weeks) to conduct business in real time.

I think most of you have guessed by now that the homeowner with all the wonderful products of wealth, from cars to stereo systems, lives on the right (the former home of a friend of mine in the Seattle area).  The home on the left was owned by Mark Hopkins, railroad millionaire and one of the most powerful men of his age in California.  Hopkins had a mansion with zillions of rooms and servants to cook and clean for him, but he never saw a movie, never listened to music except when it was live, never crossed the country in less than a week.  And while he could afford numerous servants around the house, Hopkins (like his business associates) tended to work 6 and 7 day weeks of 70 hours or more, in part due to the total lack of business productivity tools (telephone, computer, air travel, etc.) we take for granted.  Hopkins likely never read after dark by any light other than a flame.

If Mark Hopkins or any of his family contracted cancer, TB, polio, heart disease, or even appendicitis, they would probably die.  All the rage today is to moan about people's access to health care, but Hopkins had less access to health care than the poorest resident of East St. Louis.  Hopkins died at 64, an old man in an era where the average life span was in the early forties.  He saw at least one of his children die young, as most others of his age did.  In fact, Stanford University owes its founding to the early death (at 15) of the son of Leland Stanford, Hopkin's business partner and neighbor.  The richest men of his age had more than a ten times greater chance of seeing at least one of their kids die young than the poorest person in the US does today.

Hopkin's mansion pictured above was eventually consumed in the fires of 1906, in large part because San Francisco's infrastructure and emergency services were more backwards than those of many third world nations today.

Here is a man, Mark Hopkins, who was one of the richest and most envied men of his day.  He owned a mansion that would dwarf many hotels I have stayed in.  He had servants at his beck and call.  And I would not even consider trading lives or houses with him.  What we sometimes forget is that we are all infinitely more wealthy than even the richest of the "robber barons" of the 19th century.  We have longer lives, more leisure time, and more stuff to do in that time.   Not only is the sum of wealth not static, but it is expanding so fast that we can't even measure it.  Charts like those here measure the explosion of income, but still fall short in measuring things like leisure, life expectancy, and the explosion of possibilities we are all able to comprehend and grasp.

I have a similar reaction every time I tour the mansions in Newport, RI.  They are magnificent in their way, but they are also cold, and to my modern eye, unlivable.  Think of it this way -- You are trapped alone on a desert island.  A plane airdrops you a crate of diamonds.  You are rich, right?

 

 

What A Disaster Nationalization of the US Oil Industry Would Have Been!

Back in the 1970's, there were serious proposals in Congress to nationalize US oil companies.  My dad, who was an executive at a major oil company, was being constantly dragged to DC to testify in front of Congress to try to explain what a bad idea that would be.  This was a time of incredible economic ignorance in Washington, perhaps even more than average, when a Republican President had recently instituted wage and price controls and Congress was looking for ways to "fix" problems with oil supply that they themselves had caused with price control rules and other restrictions on exploration.

Think about what we know about state-run oil companies in Venezuela, Mexico and even Saudi Arabia:

  • They always under-invest capital in well maintenance, preferring to route cash flow to social spending that helps maintain shaky governments in power.  Many folks don't understand this, but production from a well starts falling off almost from the moment you drill it.  Well's must be expensively reworked and maintained and upgrade to keep flowing over their life.  This has gotten so bad in Venezuela that the country with the world's largest oil reserves is running out of gas.  I worked with Pemex for years and, at least in the 1990's, were about 1 step away from Pemex looking just like Venezuela's state oil company
  • They have missed most of the recent revolutions in technology, and do no technology development of their own.  If not for technology developed by private western oil companies, they would barely be ahead of Edwin Drake.
  • They deal with price downturns by forming cartels and attempting to fix prices and reduce output.

Private oil companies at the same time:

  • Reinvest massively in both new and existing fields, often with 20-30 year time horizons
  • Continue to revolutionize technology - the shale boom is just one example
  • Respond to market price downturns with innovation and efficiency improvements.

The link above is gated so here is an excerpt:

Now, with oil currently trading near $50 a barrel, these producers are trying to unleash fracking 2.0, the next step in the technological transformation of the sector that is aimed at extracting oil even faster and less expensively to eke out profits at that level.

The promise of this new phase is potentially as significant as the original revolution. If more producers can follow EOG’s lead and profitably ramp up output from shale drilling even at lower prices, the sector could become a lasting force that challenges OPEC’s ability to control market prices.

For a sector in which the previous era’s success was tied to the rapid expansion of output, the shift toward finding more cost-effective ways to get to that oil and gas is full of challenges. When oil prices dropped, critics wondered if the shale industry—rife with heavily indebted companies that had never turned a profit—would collapse.

EOG, with its longtime focus on low-cost production, is the producer many hope to emulate, thanks to the iSteer app and dozens of other homegrown innovations. Dubbed the “Apple of oil” by one analyst, EOG made its name as a pioneer in horizontal drilling and in finding ways to get oil out of shale—often dense layers of rock that hold oil and gas in tiny pores—a feat many once believed impossible.

Can you imagine people like Gina McCarthy running our state oil company?  Good god, we would have $10 gas and import 80% of our oil.

More Folks Climb Onto the US Royal Family Bandwagon

Back on Inauguration Day I wrote:

Wow, it sure does seem useful to have a single figurehead into which the public can pour all the sorts of adulation and voyeurism that they seem to crave.  That way, the people get folks who can look great at parties and make heart-felt speeches and be charismatic and set fashion trends and sound empathetic and even scold us on minor things.  All without giving up an ounce of liberty.  The problem in the US is we use the Presidency today to fulfill this societal need, but in the process can't help but imbue the office with more and more arbitrary power.  Let's split the two roles.

Last week, Andrew Heaton made a similar proposal in the Federalist, but explained the logic better than I did:

We threw the baby out with the bathwater when we kicked the monarchy out of America, and we ought to bring it back. To be clear, I do not mean the sort of hereditary tyrants who rule North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or the New York Yankees. Rather, I’d like for us to get one of those cute, ornamental throne warmers the Europeans trot around to cut ribbons at events.

In America we’ve combined power and reverence in the office of the presidency, but legal authority and veneration compliment each other about as well as Scotch and back pain medication. It’s safer to ingest them separately....

In America our head of government and head of state both problematically reside in the president. We can see that unholy union in full force during the spasm of pageantry which is the State of the Union address. President Jefferson rightly viewed the whole affair as pompous and monarchical, and sent Congress a letter instead.

Unfortunately the nimbus of deference surrounding the presidency has swelled with time. In 1956 a political scientist named Clinton Rossiter published “The American Presidency,” a tome sopping wet with sycophantic notions about the Oval Office. He described the commander-in-chief as “a combination of scoutmaster, Delphic oracle, hero of the silver screen, and father of the multitudes.”

Gag me. The president is the top bureaucrat, and there’s nothing more American than despising bureaucrats. The government is basically a giant Human Resources Department with tanks, and the president is in charge of it.

My only response to this is to quote from just about every comment section on the internet:  "first!"

The Continuing Climate Disconnect and the Climate Bait and Switch

I am at an impasse.  Here is my dilemma:  I don't know if the media is purposely obfuscating the climate debate or whether they are just ignorant and scientifically illiterate.  For now, because I am a happy soul that does not like making dark assumptions about other people's motivations, so I am going to give the media the benefit of the doubt and just assume they are ignorant.  But it is getting harder to reach this conclusion, because for it to be ignorance, it has to be serial ignorance lasting many years and crossing thousands of people.

The other day, in response to an article at Skeptical Science, I wrote about the typical media myths in the climate debate that make actual conversation about the theory so difficult.  The first one I listed was this:

  • "Climate deniers are anti-science morons and liars because they deny the obvious truth of warming from greenhouse gasses like CO2"

In fact, if you read the article, most of the prominent climate skeptics (plus me, as a non-prominent one) totally accept greenhouse gas theory and that CO2, acting alone, would warm the Earth by 1-1.2C.  What we are skeptical of is the very net high positive feedbacks (and believe me, for those of you not familiar with dynamic systems analysis, these numbers are very large for stable natural systems) assumed to multiply this initial warming many-fold.

This is just tremendously frustrating, in part because climate alarmists (at least in the media) don't seem to understand their own theory.  I constantly have to patiently explain that the theory of catastrophic man-made global warming (or climate change if you prefer) is a two part theory, and that warming forecasts are based on two independent chained theories:  First, CO2 acting as a green house gas incrementally warms the earth and second, large net positive feedbacks in the Earth's climate multiply this initial warming many times.  The majority of the warming actually comes from the second theory, not greenhouse gas theory, but every time I am in a debate or interview situation one of the early questions is "how can you deny greenhouse gas theory, it is settled science?"   This is what I call the climate bait and switch -- skeptics have issues with the second theory but the media and climate alarmists only want to argue about the first.

Robert Tracinski at the Federalist highlights a really good example of this:

In a CNBC interview, the host asked, “Do you believe that it’s been proven that CO2 is the primary control knob for climate?” Pruitt answered: “No, I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet. We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.”

This is a pretty reasonable answer.  It is simply absurd to argue that CO2 (at a current atmospheric concentration of 0.04%) is the "primary control knob for climate".  CO2 is obviously part of a large and complex equation with many, many variables, but calling it the primary control knob is like saying that the sugar industry is the primary control knob for the US economy.

But back to the issue of the climate bait and switch.  Here is NPR responding to Pruitt's comments.  Can you guess what they say?

Those statements are at odds with an overwhelming body of scientific evidence showing that humans are causing the climate to warm by releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. The view that CO2 is a major heat-trapping gas is supported by reams of data, included data collected by government agencies such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Greenhouse gas theory is settled science!  But Pruitt has never, in anything I have read, disagreed with greenhouse gas theory.  He just thinks the effects have been exaggerated.  But here is the media, yet again, ignoring the actual arguments of skeptics and trying to recast their position as denying greenhouse gas theory.  The media sets up this false dichotomy that either you accept that CO2 is "the primary control knob of climate" or you deny CO2 is a greenhouse gas at all.  They allow no intermediate position, despite the fact that both of these choices are scientifically absurd.

Mr. Tracinski goes on to make the same point I often make, so I will let him do it in his own words since I don't seem to have any success explaining it:

The question is not whether carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. The question is whether it is the “primary control knob for the climate.” The question is whether it is the greenhouse gas, the one factor that dominates all other factors.

There is good reason for skepticism. For one thing, just on the “basic science,” Pruitt is absolutely correct. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but it is not the most powerful greenhouse gas, by a long shot. Water vapor is far more effective at trapping heat and releasing it back to the atmosphere, primarily because it absorbs a lot more radiation in the infrared spectrum, which is released as heat.

That’s why all of the climate theories that project runaway global warming use water vapor to juice up the relatively small impact of carbon dioxide itself. They posit a “feedback loop” in which carbon dioxide increases temperatures, which increases the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, which increases temperatures even more. These models need a more powerful greenhouse gas to magnify the effect of carbon dioxide.

But does it really work that way? By how much does water vapor magnify the impact of carbon dioxide? And is that effect dampened by other factors? Consider cloud formation: more water in the atmosphere means more clouds, which reflect sunlight back into space and have a cooling effect that counteracts the warming effect. But by how much?

The answer is that nobody really knows. There are varying estimates for “climate sensitivity,” that is, how sensitive global temperatures are to increases in carbon dioxide. They range from a relatively trivial impact—less than one degree Celsius warming from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide—to more than five degrees.

 

 

Quest Complete, Achievement Unlocked

About a year and a half ago when I was in Asia, I saw a lot of folks has laundry racks that were essentially lifts, where one could put the laundry out to dry and then lift it up out of the way.  I thought this would be awesome for our laundry room, which unusually for a laundry room has a 12 foot ceiling.   Since we live in Arizona, I hand a lot of things like my cotton shirts to dry, it reduces the wrinkles and in our 4% humidity it tends to be bone dry after just a few hours.

But it was impossible to find one in the US.  I even had a contest on this web site to try to find one, with no real luck.  So after nearly a year of searching, multiple false starts, language issues, shipping issues, disappearing orders, and a general contractor who had absolutely no idea how to install the thing, we finally meet with success:

It is awesome for us -- lowers to about 5 feet above the ground to make it easy to hang things on it, and then raises high enough that the laundry clears me head.  Down & Up:

      

I'd buy the US distribution rights for this thing if I thought anyone else had similar applications for it over here.