Archive for August 2005

Can't Anyone Reality Check Numbers?

I am constantly frustrated with the media's inability to reality check the numbers they publish.  In many cases, just a few seconds thought would tell them that the numbers make no sense.

Today's example actually comes from a "meth-is-death" web site which is run by the Tennessee state attorneys-general association and is linked prominently from the Federal Government's anti-drug web site  (Hat tip to Reason).  Here are their numbers, copied right from the site:

  • 1 in 7 high school students will try meth.
  • 99 percent of first-time meth users are hooked after just the first try.
  • Only 5 percent of meth addicts are able to kick it and stay away.
  • From the first hit to the last breath, the life expectancy of a habitual
    meth user is only 5 years.

So 14.3% (1 in 7) try meth, 99% of those who try are hooked, and 95% of those hooked stay hooked, and all of those hooked die in five years.  So .143 x .99 x .95  or 13.45% of all kids are dying on average by the age of 23.  Wow.  There must be a really huge conspiracy out there to cover up all these deaths. Given that there are about 17,000,000 high school age kids, that means that in the next 5 years or so nearly 2.3 million of them are going to die.   And adults who run anti-drug programs wonder why kids don't take their warnings seriously. 

Gas Scarce in Phoenix?

This morning, as I drove to work and stopped to get gas, I noticed that they were sold out of two of their three grades (only premium was left).  The manager told me that several folks had come in today saying that this was the fourth or fifth place they looked for gas, though I will say the next two stations down the street seemed to have gas and I did not see lines anywhere.

Phoenix is one of those funny gas markets, where due to government regulations, we have a unique gas blend that can only be made in one place by left handed Eskimos, or whatever.  Several companies have tried for years to get a refinery permitted to serve this market, but the Arizona state government has consistently blocked it.  As a result, we get some strange ups and downs here, including gas lines last year when the only pipeline into town from the only refinery that makes gas that can be sold here broke.

Its a bit too early for Katrina to be actually affecting wholesale gasoline supplies (update:  or maybe not), but it is not too early for Katrina-led expectations to be draining gasoline inventories.  I explained previously about how an expectation among consumers that gas will be short can become a self-fulfilling prophecy:

the example of 1972, and we will use typical numbers of that era.  Lets
say there were 100 million cars each with an average 20 gallon tank.
Lets say normally, people refill their tank when it is ¼ full, so on
average their tank is 5/8 full.  Doing the math, there are 5/8 times 20
times 100 million gallons actually in cars or about 1,250 million
gallons.  That's right - one of the largest single inventories of gas
in this country is in people's tanks.

lets say due to supply panic, everyone suddenly refills at ¾ full. No
one wants to be caught short (I remember in the 1970's, people would
wait in line to put a gallon or two in their tanks -- it was nuts).  In
this case, on average they are 7/8 full or there are a total of 1750
Million gallons in cars' tanks.  So, in the space of what might be two
or three days, people suddenly demand 500 million gallons above and
beyond their normal usage to increase their tank's inventory.  Boom,
stations are out of gas, which causes people to feel even less secure
without a full tank, so they inventory more (many in spare gas cans)
and the problem gets worse.

Here is my previous post on why I am hoping for gas price gouging.

Racial Profiling in the Media

A pretty cynical bit of racial profiling going on here.  White people are borrowing needed food, black people are looting (though there is an interesting contrast here in how each person goes about their carbohydrate intake, lol)

Please, Let There Be Gas Price Gouging

Katrina comes at a very bad time for US gasoline markets.  Supplies are already tight, and now a substantial amount of US oil production and refining capacity are shut in, for an unknown period of time.  Long ago, I worked as an engineer in a refinery and it can take days to get everything restarted from a cold start.  The result will almost certainly be near-term gas shortages.

There are two ways this can play out:  1)  a short term spike in prices, as much as a dollar or more a gallon or 2) long and irritating gas lines.  Lets hope that prices are allowed to reach their level and gas lines can be avoided, but who knows what political stupidities (ala Hawaii) will be proposed. 

I really, really hate gas lines.  I hate the uncertainty of whether or not I can find a station open.  I hate refilling my tank every day to make sure I am not caught short.  And for those of you who say I am arrogant since I can afford higher prices but the poor cannot, I assure you that folks who are paid by the hour are hurt much worse waiting around for hours in gas lines than the mere irritation I encounter.  More on gas line expectations as a semi-self-fulfilling prophecy here.

PS-  Expect to see news of a refinery fire or explosion over the next week.  The risk of accidents is very high when these complex plants have to start up -- they weren't really meant to be turned on and off.

Update:  First signs of a gas shortage?
Update #2:  The Mises Blog has a roundup of economics posts supporting price spikes during spot shortages (popularly known as gouging).
Update #3:  Jane Galt has more in praise of price gouging

What I Love about the South

Having grown up in Texas, I love this:  Their city underwater and possibly joining Atlantis for eternity, the Superdome looking like the Kingdome, the newspapers flooded out of their offices, with no power and no printing presses, probably operating out of a Motel 6 somewhere, the New Orleans Times-Picayune still has time to address life's essentials -- How ARE the Saints going to stop the run this year? (posted at 8:50 PM Tuesday)

One of the major on-field concerns for the Saints is to figure out how
to stop the run. Off the field reports of major flooding back home
occupied the thoughts of many of the Saints players Tuesday in the
second day of practice at San Jose State.

Going into Thursday's preseason finale against the Oakland Raiders, the
Saints have allowed a whopping 535 yards on the ground in the first
three exhibitions with a staggering 6.7 yards per carry for opponents.

You may have to scroll down a few posts, I am not sure their permalinks are working right.

Severe Hurricane Frequency in New Orleans

OK, I warned you, editorials are already blaming the damage in New Orleans on Global Warming in general and George Bush in specific.  Here is what you need to know about this meme:

  • Katrina is the 5th category four or five hurricane to hit within 100 miles of New Orleans since 1899.  This includes the hurricanes in 1948, 1965, and Camille in 1969.  Camille was the real whopper up to this point, one of only 3 class 5 hurricanes to ever hit the US before Katrina.  Note however, after three major (class 4 or 5) hurricanes in 21 years in the area from 1948-1969, there has not been another one to hit this area for 36 years.   It is difficult to figure out how you get an increasing frequency argument from this data.

A more detailed study of hurricane frequency is here and nice graphs here.  It turns out that increasing $ damages from hurricanes have more to do with expensive houses near the coast than increasing hurricane severity.  More on cycles of hurricane activity here

If there is a government failing here, it has more to do with local infrastructure than CO2This blog blames the lack of infrastructure on Bush (of course).  I have no particular problem bash Bush for anything, but my question is,if the locals knew this, as the blog implies, why didn't the locals spend their own damn money on their own infrastructure to protect their own selves.  If New Orleans chooses to build their city below sea level, why should the rest of us bear the cost of their higher-than-average infrastructure costs?

A Voice For Businesses in California

California is one of the toughest states in the country to do business in.  Bill Leonard, a member of the California BOE*, takes a refreshingly free market approach for a left-coast politician.  From looking at his site, he and I may not see eye-to-eye on immigration, but he has been a lone voice of sanity on tax and regulatory policy in California for several years.  If you are interested, his email newsletter is generally filled with news and commentary on how California tax and regulatory law is changing and how these changes may affect local businesses.  You can sign up for his newsletter here.

*  You know your state is in trouble when the department of taxation and revenue calls itself the "Board of Equalization", though I am told this originally referred to equalization of tax policy across counties rather than having the redistributive overtones it has today.

Update on Iraq

Here is my update on Iraq:  We are still there, and will be there for a while.  And we are still spending nearly every available financial and human resource, not to mention all of our national attention and available goodwill, on the effort to make Iraq a prosperous and successful free and independent nation, to the exclusion of being able to bring much change about anywhere else in the world.

I can't tell you whether the effort in Iraq is going well or poorly.  Certainly if I pay attention to the major media alone I would assume it's a disaster, but we all know the media has a bias toward negativity that trumps any political biases it might have (after all, your local news station learned long ago that "your kids are happy and healthy, story at 11" is not a very good way to tease the evening news).  Being familiar with alternate sources on the Internet, I know that there are successes as well as failures on the ground.  In fact, you can even sort of deduce the successes from the major media coverage.  When the NY Times stops writing about blackouts in Iraq, you know that the electrical system is fixed.  When the WaPo stops writing stories about shortfalls in re-enlistment rates, you can infer that the rates are back up.

But to me, all this back and forth over success and failure in Iraq is only peripheral to my main problem with the war.  Let's for the sake of argument posit that things are going swimmingly, and we are able to start removing assets and support from Iraq next year.  That will mean that for four or five years, the entire attention and resources of the only country in the world that is able to substantially influence the behavior of other countries will be focused on just one country. 

During the Iraq war and occupation, we have not had the "bandwidth", either in attention or moral authority or resources, to help stave off Sudanese genocide, to steer Zimbabwe off its destructive path, to influence the course of events in Iran or North Korea, to change the behavior of terrorist sponsors like Saudi Arabia, or even to head off Russia's apparent slide back toward totalitarianism. 

Now, one could easily argue that its not our job to fix these things.  And I go through phases of agreeing with this.  However, our invasion of Iraq is predicated on the assumption that it should be our foreign policy to try to fix the worst of these problems.  And if it is, does it really make sense to invest everything we have and more on one country for four or five years (or more?)  From the first days of the war, I have called this my "cleaning of the Augean stables argument".  There are just too many messes in the world to head them all off by military invasion.  Afghanistan probably justified such a military effort, given its direct connections to 9/11, but I am still confused as to why Iraq justified this attention more than 20 or so other nations I could name.  Afghanistan  convinced the world that the US was ready to use the military if it had to, and helped to reverse the perception of weakness left by Carter's response to the Iranian hostage takers, Reagan's bailing out of Lebanon, and Clinton's running form Somalia and refusing to respond to the Cole attacks.  9/11, for all its horors, gave us a certain moral authority in the world to try to clean things up.  This credibility and authority could have given new life to non-military efforts, but we chose not to use them.

Now that we are there in Iraq, I tend to be in the stay the course camp.  There are too many recent examples, such as those cited above, where bailing out has created a perception of weakness that have encouraged our enemies to more boldness.  The situation we are in with the Iraqi people is much like the obligation the police have to a mafia informant that the police have convinced to turn state's evidence with the promise of protection against retribution.  If you suddenly throw the guy back out on the street to be killed publicly, its going to be really hard to get anyone else to trust you in the future.

I will confess that there are two things that from time to time cause me to have some doubts about my  stance.

The first was the seeming cascade of good news from surrounding countries in the middle east last January, as a successful Iraqi election emboldened opposition forces in a number of countries, including Lebanon, Egypt, and Iran.  If the neocons are right, and successful democracy in Iraq leads to a cascade effect in the surrounding nations, then my argument about spending too much time and effort on one country loses some of its power.

The second and perhaps more powerful input that sometimes causes me to rethink my opposition to the Iraq war is the insanity that tends to emerge from others who are anti-war, and with whom I do not want to be associated.  Take Cindy Sheehan and her beliefs, since she seems to have been adopted as a spokesperson and mascot by much of the vocal anti-war left. (I promised myself I would never mention Cindy Sheehan in this blog, but if she can meet with the president once and later claim that the president won't meet with her, then I guess I can write about her once and then claim I won't ever mention her).

Ms Sheehan has stated, as have many others in the anti-war movement including Michael Moore, at least five reasons for their being anti-war that drive me nuts:

Insurgents are Freedom Fighters:  Sorry, but no.  Most of the insurgents are ex-Baathists or Muslim extremists who want to reinstate a fascist state in the mold either of Saddam's more secular version or Iran's more fundamentalist version.  The insurgency is the equivalent of what Germany would have been like had the SS followed through on its promise to continue fighting a guerrilla war from the Bavarian Alps.  The world is a better place without the Baathists in power, and the insurgents do not have good aims for the Iraqi people.  Period.

Its all a Jewish plot:  Everything old is new again, and this particular brand of anti-Semitism, seeing Jewish cabals everywhere pulling strings of the government, seems to be back in vogue.  However, is there any particular reason Israel would want to shake the tree in Iraq?  After all, the last and only time they were attacked by Iraq directly was the last time the US went to war with Saddam.  Israel is still surrounded by enemies, with or without Saddam in power in Iraq.  In fact, one could argue that what Israel should really want is for Iraq and Iran go back to beating the crap out of each other in war after war.

It was all for oil:  How?  People always say this, but they can never explain to me the mechanism.  If it was to put US companies into ownership positions over Iraqi oil, we did a damn bad job since the Iraqi's seem to still own all their own oil (though we did head off the French from grabbing the oil).

War is never justified:  I don't think war was justified in this case, but never?  If you make this statement, then it means you have to be willing to live with anything, from genocide to totalitarianism, up to and including in your home country.  As long as there are people who only know how to live by force and wish to rule me, war always has to be an option.

Iraqis were better off under fascism when they had security:  I am not an Iraqi, so I won't try to make this trade-off for them.  However, I would like to point out a huge irony about the folks, mainly on the left, who make this argument.  The very same folks who make this argument for the Iraqis have been faced with the same choice themselves over the last few years:  Would you rather an increased risk of domestic terrorist attack, or greater security at the cost of reduced freedoms via the Patriot Act, more random searches, profiling, surveillance, etc. etc.  Most on the anti-war left have shouted that they will take the extra risk of violent attack in order to retain their individual liberties.  I agree with them.  The difference is that I don't project exactly the opposite choice onto the Iraqi people.

Update:  Professor Bainbridge seems to be in roughly the same boat.

Do People Want Regulation?

Advocates of the statist web of regulation in California argue that this mass of government control makes California a more desirable place to live.  Andy Roth asks, does it?

Some high income earners are
California because of its punitive tax rates. Could low- and
middle-income workers be leaving as well? One crude measure is to examine the
one-way rental rates for U-Haul vans. Using U-Haul's website, I queried a one-way rental for a 10-foot van
for October 1st, 2005.


One-Way Trip Price
Los Angeles to Las Vegas $454.00
Las Vegas to Los Angeles $119.00

Pre-Columbian Genetic Engineering

This is pretty cool, from Charles C. Mann's new book, and quoted by Marginal Revolution:

...the modern species [of maize] had to have been consciously developed by a
small group of breeders who hunted through teosinte strands for plants with
desired traits.  Geneticists from Rutgers University...estimated in 1998 that
determined, aggressive, plan breeders -- which Indians certainly were -- might
have been able to breed maize in as little as a decade...modern maize was the
outcome of a bold act of conscious biological manipulation -- "arguably man's
first, and perhaps his greatest, feat of genetic engineering," [Nina
Federoff]..."To get corn out of teosinte is so -- you couldn't get a grant to do
that now, because it would sound so crazy...Somebody who did that today would
get a Nobel Prize!  If their lab didn't get shut down by Greenpeace, I mean."

Followup on Vioxx

I wrote about the Vioxx decision here as another defeat for personal choice. Marginal Revolution has a good post on gaps in the anti-Vioxx science.  Here is a taste:

...[E]ven if there actually is an elevated risk of the magnitude the studies
suggest but can't prove, the question is whether I might want to accept a 1 in 4,000 risk of dying
from a heart attack in order to get the only medication timt
makes my pain bearable and a mobile life livable
.  And if I say no to the
Vioxx, I may end up taking something that is less effective for my pain but has
risks of its own.

.... How did we arrive at a system in which 12 random Texans are assigned
responsibility for evaluating the scientific merits of statistical evidence of
this type, weighing the costs and benefits, and potentially
a productive blue-chip American company into bankruptcy protection?

Why Libertarians are Paranoid, Example #12,403

Those on the left and the right often try to laugh off libertarians, ascribing to "paranoia" our fear of the power of government. 

Well, I could argue that if this is paranoia, I share a similar phobia with men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, whose fear of government power permeate all their writings, as well as the Constitution they helped to produce.  They believed that even good men could be corrupted by the government, and they were proven correct in an incredibly short time by John Adams.  Adams is by all accounts a good man, dedicated to freedom and democracy, and one of the chief intellectual architects both of the Revolution and the Constitution.  But it was Adams that signed into law the Alien and Sedition Act, perhaps the worst piece of illiberal and unconstitutional legislation in the history of this country.

Or, if I didn't want to make the founding father's / original intent argument, I could just point to this (hat tip Marginal Revolution):

A federal judge in Texas, calling the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. a "corrupt
agency with corrupt influences on it," awarded a Houston financier $72 million
to cover his legal fees in a decade-long suit involving a failed savings and
loan and the government's efforts to take control of a stand of endangered
California redwood trees in the 1990s.

The FDIC, a regulatory agency that insures deposits at banks and
savings and loans, filed suit against Charles E. Hurwitz in 1995, seeking to
collect more than $800 million because Hurwitz indirectly controlled a Texas
S&L that failed in 1988. The FDIC, after a series of legal setbacks, dropped
its suit against Hurwitz in 2002....

On Tuesday evening, Hughes issued a scathing, 131-page ruling. In it, he cited
evidence that the FDIC brought the case largely because of pressure from
environmental groups, members of Congress and the Clinton administration. The
reason: Hurwitz's Pacific Lumber Co. owned 3,500 acres of endangered redwoods in
Northern California. Hughes found that the FDIC, in close concert with
environmental groups, sued Hurwitz to pressure him into a "debt-for-nature"
swap, in effect giving the government his trees in exchange for his supposed
liability in the failure of the United Savings Association of Texas....

Hughes said FDIC officials and lawyers, in depositions, "ranged from
manipulative evasiveness to plain perjury." He cited records of two years of
communications, including extensive discussions of legal strategy and political
matters, between the FDIC and environmentalists over the proposal to use a
banking-practices lawsuit as pressure on Hurwitz to give up the

Hughes said FDIC officials "discarded the mantle of the American
Republic for the cloak of a secret society of extortionists. If the vice
president called, they responded. If a congressman called, they responded. If a
lobbyist called, they responded. They heeded every call but that of duty and

Wow.  I know many people are paranoid about the lack of accountability of major corporations, and felt vindicated by the Enron case, over which the press spilled acres of ink.  However, Enron is nothing compared to this.  While fraud is bad, Enron at least was never able to use the coercive regulatory and police power that the government has to seek its ends.

Be Prepared

Now that Hurricane Katrina has moved inland, it's time for the next stage of preparation - preparing for the onslaught of global warming activists ready to use New Orleans' devastation to justify government intervention in the economy.  Heck, some global warming activists tried to blame the earthquake induced SE Asian Tsunami on global warming.

For the last couple of years, the meme has circulated that hurricanes are getting worse, and that this is a predictable result of global warming.  More destructive hurricanes may or may not be a result of global warming -- I don't know, and I challenge any climatologist who thinks they can make a definitive prediction on hurricane forces based on a half degree change in global temperatures. 

What is fairly clear is that hurricanes are not actually getting worse.  Damage from them is getting worse, but that is more of a function of building a lot of expensive structures close to the water over the last 30 years.  And it is particularly true in New Orleans, which relies on massive pumps operating 24 hours a day to keep the city above water on a good day.  Patrick Michaels has more on the hurricane meme here, including a disturbing tale of the religion of global warming trumping good science.  Where I am on global warming here.  More on global warming activism overcoming the scientific method here.  I will never forget this quote from Steve Schneider of the NOAA:

We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic
statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us
has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and
being honest.

How to Get an SBA Loan

Note that this article is one in a series of articles on small business how-to's.  Past series have covered how to buy a business, labor audits, sales taxes, and workers comp.

I recently went through the process of obtaining an SBA (Small Business Administration) loan.  These are loans that are what I call "cash flow" loans, secured more by the companies earnings rather than collateral (though collateral may be required, see below).  SBA loans are written by private banks to standards set by the government.  If these standards are met, then bank loans under this program get a partial guarantee from the US government.

Before I go on to describe the process, I feel compelled to note that as a libertarian who does not believe the SBA should even exist and who believes that such loan guarantees are a subsidy program that should be eliminated, I was obviously conflicted by whether to seek out such a loan.  What finally made the decision for me is that this government program has crowded out all other private options.  Banks get about the same rate for an SBA loan as they would for a commercial loan without the guarantee.  Since the guarantee is out there and doesn't cost the bank anything, the bank has no reason not to insist on it?  Therefore, as a small company in the SBA size range, there just are not any banks willing to lend without the SBA guarantee.  This does not mean that in a free market without the SBA there would be no loans - it just means that when such a free subsidy program exists, banks are going to take it.

Types of Loans

The following is a gross simplification, but for a small company, there are basically two types of loans: secured loans and cash flow loans.  Secured loans are by far the most common for small businesses.  I, like nearly every entrepreneur I know, have had to pledge my house at various times as collateral for loans.  While it is fairly easy in today's market for a small company to get an equipment loan (typically lease-finance of a purchase) secured by hard assets, few lenders will provide loans for general business and working capital needs unless they are secured by something tangible -- homes, vehicles, receivables, etc. 

However, most businesses need capital for more things than just to buy hard goods.  Seasonal businesses may need loans to pay the rent in off-seasons, retail businesses need money to grow inventory and pre-pay for new leases, while opening new divisions may require paying salaries well in advance of first revenues.  Unfortunately, most businesses that claim to be business banks have no desire or talent to understand a business well enough to make a cash flow loan.  I am not talking about just Ethyl's Bank, but large banks like Bank of America and Wells Fargo who were stumped when I wanted to discuss some unique financing needs in my business.  I know people with a half million dollars a year in free cash flow out of their business who have trouble getting bankers to make unsecured cash flow loans.  And, as mentioned above, those who do make cash flow loans typically insist on having the SBA guarantee.

How an SBA Loan Works

I will not pretend to be an expert on all the intricacies and rules.  The SBA has a number of programs, offering loans of different lengths of time and for different purposes.  The SBA has programs for both revolving lines of credit as well as standard 10-15 year loans.  Each of these programs has different under-writing criteria, fees, and limitations, which your banker will have to explain to you.  Most SBA loans, including mine, fall under the section 7(a) program.  The SBA site tries to explain some of this.

As stated in the intro, an SBA 7(a) loan actually is issued by a bank, but to SBA underwriting criteria and with an SBA guarantee.  The SBA only guarantees a portion of the loan, something like 50-75% depending on the exact loan type, with the bank taking the rest of the risk.  These loans are issued at a floating rate of prime plus a percentage, and the SBA has rules that caps the rates as well as fees the bank can charge.  The SBA charges a substantial fee, in the 2-3% of total loan value, up front to the borrower for the guarantee.

Banks participate in the program in one of two ways.  Most any bank can originate an SBA loan, collecting all the (very substantial) paperwork needed by the SBA and forwarding it to the SBA for approval.  In addition to the underwriting time at the bank, the SBA can take many weeks to complete this analysis.   A smaller subset of banks have been pre-approved by the SBA to act as their underwriting agent - called a preferred lender or PLP.  This means that they can do the SBA's analysis for them.  This often greatly accelerates the process.  My total time form the bank's first data request to the final loan closing was less than a month, which is very fast.

Choosing the Bank is Critical

From the section above, it should be obvious that you should strongly consider working through a bank that has the preferred lender status with the SBA.  Note that having  or not having this status does not necessarily correlate with bank size.  The "expert" I was hooked up with at Bank of America (my main bank) was useless, and told me in so many words that it would be impossible for me to ever get an SBA loan.  I ended up working with Silver State Bank, a relatively new business bank out of Nevada.  They had the whole process automated, and when combined with a very knowledgeable banker on the front end named Jerry Woods here in Phoenix, the process was as smooth as silk and very, very fast.  In fact, I got the whole loan done in less time than it took BofA two years ago to do my line of credit.

Costs and Other Considerations

SBA loans are not cheap, and I would strongly urge you to pursue secured asset-backed loans as far as you can.  My total fees, including the cost of the guarantee, ran to about 3% of the total loan value.  In addition, I STILL had to put up collateral to back the non-guaranteed portion of the loan.  In retrospect, I think I did a bad job of negotiating with my banker on this.  No matter how good they are, bankers are still bankers and are going to attach every asset that can sit still for collateral whether they really need it or not.  I should have pushed back harder on this issue.  Overall, though, I am excited that I now have the capital to continue to grow my business.

PS-  If you want to enjoy some of this capital at work, come to Lake Havasu and rent a jet ski for a day!  All those other entrepreneurs out there are investing money in dead-end stuff like microchips and improved manufacturing --  Ha!  There is nothing like being able to tear around a big lake on 110HP to really make America competitive!

More Map Fun

Lately I have been playing with Google Earth - I love flying from outer-space right down to my house.  However, this caught my eye yesterday.  As the risk of being the last person who has seen it, A9 (owned by Amazon) has a mapping program that shows pictures of the ground level view wherever you put the cursor.  Not all roads, by any means, are covered, so turn on the "mark streets containing images" box to see with blue lines where they have pictures.  I found the user interface for scrolling the maps around and zooming pretty counter-intuitive, so its kind of immature, but it is an interesting idea to be able to know what your destination looks like and maybe look at landmarks for key intersections.  A9's original product was a yellow pages that showed what your search results looked like and plotted them on a map.

Channeling my Grandparents

You know how when you grew up, your parents and grand-parents always said stuff like "I remember when I was a kid, we didn't even have X", where X was airplanes, or TV's or ice or whatever.  I actually found myself having one of those moments in the OfficeMax store today.  I remember when I got my first hard drive for my IBM PC in the very early 80's.  It was 10MB, cost about $500, and my one thought at the time was "I'll never be able to fill up this thing".

Today at the office supply store at the register I made an impulse purchase for a new USB memory key.  My son stole mine to use to take stuff back and forth to school, and I wanted a larger capacity drive anyway.  So here I was buying a 1GB key, with 100x the storage of that first hard drive in a package about 1/100 of the size of that hard drive, and I was buying it at the cash register from a rack next to the gum.  Pretty cool.

However, I am not going to let scientists totally off the hook.  I am still waiting for my hover car, my jet pack, and my vacation on the moon, which I expected to have long before now.

Cool Web Neighborhood Tool

I played with this tool this weekend, and it makes some pretty cool web relationship maps.  I am not sure it is authoritative, but it is fun.  It maps relationships between sites and pages based on Google forward and back link data.

The Ever-Widening Search For Deep Pockets

I could fill this blog with litigation horror stories, but there is no need when Walter Olson does such a good job.  If you read his blog much, one of the themes than runs through the cases he highlights is the ever widening search in every case to find the deep pockets.  Unfortunately for trial lawyers, the person who is truly at fault, ie the drunk driver that runs down a pedestrian, seldom has deep enough pockets to produce a really satisfying fee.  So you gotta be creative.  This is to be expected.  What is not to be expected is the lengths to which the judicial system goes to validate this search (via Overlawyered):

The state Supreme Court has ruled that store owners can be sued for causing
injuries in a drunken driving accident if they sold gas to an intoxicated

The court ruled in a lawsuit filed by two men who were severely
injured in 2000 when they were struck head-on by Brian Lee Tarver, who later
pleaded guilty to vehicular assault and driving under the influence.
Before the accident, Tarver bought gas at an Exxon owned by East
Tennessee Pioneer Oil Company.

Fortunately, I guess, Exxon is used to getting sued for damages by drunk drivers

This case I wrote about previously is one of the best examples I have seen of how liability goes to the deep pockets, not the guilty:

Car veers into
truck's lane...and so a jury has ordered the trucking company, Auction
Transport Inc., to pay $22.5 million over the resulting injuries to a
young passenger in the accident, which occurred at rush hour on Kansas
City's I-435. Mary Coleman's car, allegedly sideswiped by a third
vehicle, had careened in front of the truck, but attorneys argued that
the truck driver had been "driving too fast in congested traffic and
not watching the road." The jury found the trucking company responsible
for just less than half the fault of the accident -- a greater share of
fault than the allegedly sideswiping driver -- and Coleman for hardly
any of it.

So, surprisingly enough, three
vehicles involved, two with limited resources and one with deep
pockets.  Guess who is liable - the deep pockets of course, despite the
fact that he was the only driver among the three who stayed in his lane!

Now, here is the thought experiment.  Move the truck with
deep pockets into any of the other two roles.  Imagine first that it
was the car that nudged the plaintiff into the other lane.  Imagine
next that the truck was the one nudged into oncoming traffic and hit
the plaintiff.  In these two cases, if they had gone to trial, who
would have gotten the blame?  I would bet you that in either case, the
truck with the deep pockets would have been given most of the blame in
either of these cases.

So where is the fairness?  Why should blame be based on
bank account size, and not actual actions?  Is there anything more than
coercive wealth transfer going on here?  Does this constitute justice?

More on Gasoline Prices

Lynne Kiesling is on fire, with a series of posts on gasoline pricing over at the Knowledge Problem.  She has posts here and here showing how gasoline purchases have fallen steadily as a percentage of household income, and she also has a nice summary post about the recent runup in prices here.

She is now headed up to the Boundary Waters - hopefully she is camping the Boundary Waters here.

Peoples Republic of Hawaii

Well, our most socialist state is attempting to repeal the laws of supply and demand:

Hawaii issued a list of wholesale price caps for gasoline, the
state Public Utilities Commission said, amid this month's
record-breaking run up in retail gas that saw island residents paying
some of the highest prices in the nation.

This marks the first state cap on gasoline prices since the 1970s
energy crisis, when the average inflation-adjusted price of a gallon of
regular unleaded hit $3.

Hawaii's recently enacted gas cap law goes into effect on September 1, with the pre-tax wholesale cap in Honolulu set at $2.1578

Gee, I bet this will work out really well.  Either the price cap will be set high, such that it is meaningless, or it will be set low, such that Hawaii will likely get this:

update:  given the structure of the price caps, the result could actually be higher rather than lower prices at the pump -- see update #2 below.

It's good to know that Hawaii is looking to China for economics ideas.

The Chinese government and its state-owned oil companies are locked
in battle over artificially low gasoline prices at the pump that has
caused a massive shortage in the southern manufacturing province of

The crisis
highlights the persistent problems Beijing faces as the economy is
transformed to a more market-based system but that is often retarded by
authorities who fear loosing political control in the face of
full-fledged capitalist rules.

Beyond the obvious run-up in world-wide oil prices and Hawaii's logistical isolation that raises all of the prices on the island, the article on CNN identified one other possible culprit for high prices: the state government

Higher-than-average taxes on gasoline in Hawaii contribute to those
high prices. The state levies a 16 cent per gallon tax, and various
local authorities add on other taxes.

In Honolulu, for example, total state, federal and local gas taxes
amount to about 53 cents per gallon, one of the highest rates in the
United States. The national average, according to the American
Petroleum Institute, is about 42 cents per gallon

It seems like only a few days ago I was pointing how governments have a hard time resisting meddling in oil markets, and that this meddling never works out well.

Even in the US, which is typically more comfortable with the operation
of the laws of supply and demand than other nations, the government has
been loathe to actually allow these laws to operate on oil.  During the
70's, the government maintained price controls that limited demand side
incentives to conserve, thus creating gas lines like the ones we are
seeing in China today for the same reason.  When these controls were
finally removed, a "windfall profits tax" was put in place to make sure
that producers would get none of the benefit of the price increases,
and therefore would have no financial incentive to seek out new oil
supplies or substitutes.  Within a few years of the repeal of these
dumb laws, oil prices fell back to historical levels and stayed there
for 20 years.

Like the gas rationing and price controls in the 1970's, this occurs in a Republican administration (Hawaiian Governor Lingle).  It continue to be difficult to take the Republican Party's professed support for free markets seriously.

Hawaii's Star Bulletin reported that Governor Linda
Lingle (R) is an opponent of the caps. The newspaper said Lingle
believes it would be better to force oil companies to open their books
and show consumers how much money they make at each stage of business.

If she is so opposed to it, why didn't she veto the bill?  And is having government officials marching into private offices to confiscate accounting data really her preferred "free market" alternative?

Update:  Apparently the cap in Hawaii was passed pre-Lingle, and she fought to reverse it, so I will cut her some slack. Lynne Kiesling has more details on the plan, which includes how the cap will be calculated week to week.  Politicians there are calling it a "market-based price cap".  LOL.  Next we will see freedom-based speech limitations and privacy-based telephone taps.  Note that how the cap is calculated does not change the statement I made before:  Either the price cap will be set high, such that it is meaningless, or
it will be set low, such that Hawaii gets gas lines.

PS- Lynn is the economic goddess of energy markets, so if energy and power markets and regulation interest you, I recommend her blog.

Update #2:  Jane Galt makes the good point that the Hawaiian price caps are on wholesale gasoline prices, so while there may be gas shortages at the wholesale level, retail prices may be able to float higher to close the supply gap.  This would ironically lead to higher, not lower prices at the pump, and large profits for gasoline retailers.  Since wholesale sources of gas tend to be out-of-state corporations, and gasoline retailers tend to be smaller, locally owned businesses, I wonder if this is a case of rent-seeking by gas station owners.

What is a Bad Choice?

My Vioxx post below got me thinking about choices, and in particular, how we "grade" other people's choices.

My first thought on this topic is that assessing the "right" choice for an individual, when a decision affects only that one individual, can only be made by that person.  That seems like a dumb and obvious statement, but actually its fairly relevant to public policy nowadays.  Want to ride your motorcycle without a helmet?  Sorry, we think that is a bad decision and we aren't going to let you make it.   Want to reduce excruciating pain even at the risk of future heart problems?  Sorry again, can't let you do that.  Want to let Florida State continue to use your tribe's name (Seminoles) for their mascot?  Sorry, but that is degrading to you, even if you don't know it.  Want to enjoy some french fries (maybe even some Snuffers cheese fries, for those who have ever lived in Dallas) at the risk of a future heart attack - well, you can still do that, but we're working on it.  I wrote much more on this topic here.

Beyond the moral problem I have with having the government limit our ability to make decisions for ourselves, the fact is that we are generally really bad at assessing other people's choices.  I will make the analogy using blackjack.  I remember sitting at a table in Vegas and watching some woman take a hit on 18.  For those who don't know blackjack, trust me - you are always statistically reducing your odds of winning when you hit an 18.  Anyone, the woman draws a three, for a perfect 21, the dealer reaches 20, and she wins the hand.  Several people around the table said to her "great decision to take another card".  No it wasn't!  It was stupid!  It was a bad decision that, in this particular case, she was bailed out of by good fortune, but over the long haul of hitting 18's, she's going home broke.

Lets take a second example.  I buy liability insurance for my company every year.  Because I am in a public contact business, which makes us a particular target of the litigation industry, we pay nearly $100,000 a year for the policy.  Last year, we had no claims.  Does this mean that I made a bad decision buying insurance last year, because it turned out that we had no claims?  No, of course not.  It would be irresponsible in today's litigious environment to engage in unprotected business.   The insurance is a smart decision, even in years without claims.

But juries always assess choices based on the outcomes, not on the inputs the individuals involved were facing when they made the choices.  In the hands of a good litigation attorney, a jury will always find that hitting on a 12 in blackjack and drawing a king was a bad decision, even when the dealer is showing an ace and the odds say you HAVE to draw. 

Which brings us back to Vioxx.  Lets imagine ten thousand people who have excruciating pain, pain that prevents them from actively participating in and enjoying life, that choose to take Vioxx, knowing that there is a tiny risk of heart problems.  9,999 live a better life.  One man dies.  A jury eventually decides that the one man made a bad decision (since he died).  I would argue that the man who died did not make a better or worse decision than the other 9,999.  He made what he thought was a good decision, the same decision all the others made; he just happened to be the one who came out unlucky, but they all knew going in that someone in their group would probably draw the short straw.

Postscript:  Of course, no one ever thinks its going to be them who draws the short straw.  There is a famous story from WWII about a soldier being told with his company that two out of every three of them would likely die in the coming D-Day invasion.  The soldier looked to his comrade on his left, and then the man on his right, and thought "poor bastards".

Another Limitation on Individual Choice

I won't go too much into the details of the recent Vioxx jury verdict.  Professor Bainbridge has a complete roundup which is worth reading, and Reason had an analysis of the merits of the case a while back.  Though its not really the point of this post, I can't resist a few snippets:

Jurors who voted against Merck said much of the science sailed right over their
heads. "Whenever Merck was up there, it was like wah, wah, wah," said juror John
Ostrom, imitating the sounds Charlie Brown's teacher makes in the television
cartoon. "We didn't know what the heck they were talking about."

One juror considered the fact that the CEO, whose company faces thousands of law suits, didn't show up as an admission of guilt:

... [juror] Ostrom, 49, who has a business remodeling homes, was also disturbed
that former Merck Chief Executive Raymond Gilmartin and another top Merck
official gave videotaped testimony but weren't in the courtroom. "The big guys
didn't show up," said Mr. Ostrom. "That didn't sit well with me. Most definitely
an admission of guilt."

And of course there is this now famous gem:

One juror, Ms. Blas, had written in her questionnaire that she
loves the Oprah Winfrey show and tapes it. "This jury believes they're going to
get on Oprah," Ms. Blue told Mr. Lanier. "They only get on Oprah if they vote
for the plaintiff."

Read the Bainbridge post, it has much more.

Anyway, the point of this post is that this verdict represents a very dangerous assault on individual choice.  Recognize that there are many, many activities in life where individuals are presented with the following choice:

If I choose to do X, my life will be improved in some way but I may statiscally increase my chance of an early death.

You may react at first to say that "I would never risk death to improve my life", but likely you make this choice every day.  For example, if you drive a car, you are certainly increasing your chance of early death via a auto accident, but you accept this risk because driving allows you to get so much more done in your life (vs. walking).  If you ride a bike, swim, snow ski, roller blade, etc. you are making this choice.  Heck, everyone on the California coast is playing Russian Roulette with an earthquake in exchange for a great climate, beautiful scenery, and plentiful jobs.

The vast majority of drugs and medical therapies carry this same value proposition:  A drug will likely improve or extend your life in some way but carries a statistical chance of inducing a side effect that is worse than the original problem, up to and including death.  The problem is that we have structured a liability system in this country such that the few people who evince the side effects can claim more money in damages than the drug was worth to all the people it helped.  For example, if a drug helps 999 people, but kills the thousandth, and that thousandth person's family is awarded $253 million in damages (as in this case), the drug is never going to be put on the market again.  Even if the next 1000 people sign a paper saying we are willing to take the one-in-a-thousand risk to relieve the pain that is ruining our lives, they still are not going to get the drug because the drug companies know that some Oprah-loving jury will buy the argument that they did not understand the risk they were taking and award the next death another quarter of a billion dollars.

This exact same effect nearly killed the vaccination industry.  In the end, Congress had to pass legislation  immunizing (ha ha) vaccine makers from lawsuits when known 1-in-10,000 side effects occur.  While I am not a big fan of the FDA, if it is going to exist and put drugs through 20 years of tests and a forest full of paperwork to get approved, I think that approval process should confer some sort of litigation immunity. 

By the way, have you noticed the odd irony here?  Robert Ernst (the gentleman who died in the Vioxx case) is assumed, both by the FDA and the litigation system, to be unable to make informed decisions about risk and his own health.  But a jury of 12 random people who never experienced his pain can make such decisions for him?  And us?

Richard Epstein said it better than me, in the WSJ but I will like to Reason which is free:

I would like to send my message to [plaintiff's lawyer Mark] Lanier and
those indignant jurors. It's not from an irate tort professor, but from
a scared citizen who is steamed that those "good people" have imperiled
his own health and that of his family and friends. None of you have
ever done a single blessed thing to help relieve anybody's pain and
suffering. Just do the math to grasp the harm that you've done.

Right now there are over 4,000 law suits against Merck for Vioxx.
If each clocks in at $25 million, then your verdict is that the social
harm from Vioxx exceeds $100 billion, before thousands more join in the
treasure hunt. Pfizer's Celebrex and Bextra could easily be next.
Understand that no future drug will be free of adverse side effects,
nor reach market, without the tough calls that Merck had to make with
Vioxx. Your implicit verdict is to shut down the entire quest for new
medical therapies. Your verdict says you think that the American public
is really better off with just hot-water bottles and leftover aspirin

Ah, you will say, but we're only after Vioxx, and not those good
drugs. Sorry, the investment community won't take you at your word. It
realizes that any new drug which treats common chronic conditions can
generate the same ruinous financial losses as Vioxx, because the flimsy
evidence on causation and malice you cobbled together in the Ernst case
can be ginned up in any other. Clever lawyers like Mr. Lanier will be
able to ambush enough large corporations in small, dusty towns where
they will stand the same chance of survival that Custer had at Little
Big Horn. Investors can multiply: They won't bet hundreds of millions
of dollars in new therapies on the off-chance of being proved wrong.
They know they'll go broke if they win 90% of the time.

Your appalling carnage cries out for prompt action. Much as I
disapprove of how the FDA does business, we must enact this hard-edged
no-nonsense legal rule: no drug that makes it through the FDA gauntlet
can be attacked for bad warnings or deficient design.

More on the Housing Bubble

I can't check the guy's methodology, but Robert Shiller claims in the NY Times to have built a better, more accurate measure of housing prices.  You might ask, don't we already have that - I always see things like "median home sales price" in the paper?  The problem with existing metrics is that they don't correct for mix.  If a lot of large houses in the pricey part of town sell, median home prices will rise just given the mix shift of the sample.  What you really want is a price index for equivalent home sales, something that corrects for things like square feet, inflation, and perhaps zip code.  This is what Shiller claims to have done, and the results are dramatic.  He shows that real housing prices have been flat for most of the century, right up until the last decade, where they have increased dramatically.


I can't think of any structural change that would explain this (except maybe a change in relationship between mortgage rates and inflation) so it certainly creates a flashing red light saying "bubble". 

By the way, isn't it interesting that people can see the graph above and immediately think "prices are due to crash" but when they see this very similar chart:


...and think that prices will keep going up and up and up.

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.  Other posts on housing prices here, here and here.  More on oil prices here.

Inside 9/11 Documentary

Last night I watched the four hour Inside 9/11 documentary on the National Geographic channel.  I really enjoyed the show.  They took the plot step by step and at times day by day and minute by minute.  The final "zero hour" segment was tremendously emotional.  Highly recommended - I believe it will be replayed September 8.

More on Peak Oil

Everything old is new again.  Back in the late 70's, all the talk was about the world running out of oil.  Everywhere you looked, "experts" were predicting that we would run out of oil.  Many had us running out of oil in 1985, while the most optimistic didn't have us running out of oil until the turn of the century.  Prices at the time had spiked to about $65 a barrel (in 2004 dollars), about where they are today.  Of course, it turned out that the laws of supply and demand had not been repealed, and after Reagan removed oil price controls and goofy laws like the windfall profits tax, demand and supply came back in balance, and prices actually returned to their historical norms.

Today, as evidenced by the long article on "peak oil" in the NY Times Magazine this weekend, we are apparently once again headed for imminent disaster.  The Freakonomics blog has already chimed in with a partial rebuttal, but I wanted to share some of my own thoughts.

Are the Saudis hiding a reserve shortfall?  Much of the peak oil phenomena consists of Paul Ehrlich type doom-saying that takes pains to ignore the laws of supply and demand.  However, the question of Saudi behavior is an interesting one.  Lets for a moment hypothesize that the Saudis were indeed somehow running out of oil.  One thing the article misses is how bad a thing this would be for the Saudi leadership.  The author notes that the ruling family shouldn't care, since it is already rich, so declining oil revenues won't hurt it.  But that misses the point.  With a large percentage of the world's oil, the Saudis are a country that must be treated with respect and deference.  Without oil, Saudi Arabia becomes that Arab nation that virtually enslaves half its population (ie the females) and that funds much of the world's terrorism, including the 9/11 attacks.  Suddenly, without oil reserves, the Saudi's might find themselves moving up the Bush-Rumsfeld priority list for a little visit from the US military.  I have no way of knowing if the Saudis are hiding anything -- the fact that some Saudi fields are using secondary and tertiary recovery methods (as noted in the article) really does not mean much.  But if they were losing reserves, they sure would have the incentive to hide it.

Reserve accounting is a tricky thing.  The vagaries of reserve accounting are very difficult for outsiders to understand.  I am not an expert, but one thing I have come to understand is that reserve numbers are not like measuring the water level in a tank.  There is a lot more oil in the ground than can ever be recovered, and just what percentage can be recovered depends on how much you are willing to do (and spend) to get it out.  Some oil will come out under its own pressure.  The next bit has to be pumped out.  The next bit has to be forced out with water injection.  The next bit may come out with steam or CO2 flooding.  In other words, how much oil you think will be recoverable from a field, ie the reserves, depends on how much you are willing to invest, which in turn depends on prices.  Over time, you will find that certain fields will have very different reserves numbers at $70 barrel oil than at $25.

Trust supply and demand.  Supply and demand work to close resource gaps.  In fact, it has never not worked.  The Cassandras of the world have predicted over the centuries that we would run out of thousands of different things.  Everything from farmland to wood to tungsten have at one time or another been close to exhaustion.  And you know what, these soothsayers of doom are 0-for-4153 in their predictions.  Heck, they are about 0-for-five on oil alone:

Most experts do not share Simmons's concerns about the imminence of peak oil. One of the industry's most prominent consultants, Daniel Yergin, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about petroleum, dismisses the doomsday visions. ''This is not the first time that the world has 'run out of oil,''' he wrote in a recent Washington Post opinion essay. ''It's more like the fifth. Cycles of shortage and surplus characterize the entire history of the oil industry.'' Yergin says that a number of oil projects that are under construction will increase the supply by 20 percent in five years and that technological advances will increase the amount of oil that can be recovered from existing reservoirs. (Typically, with today's technology, only about 40 percent of a reservoir's oil can be pumped to the surface.)

One of the problems with oil is that governments have a real problem with allowing supply and demand to operate.  I have wondered for a while why Chinese demand has kept growing so fast in the face of rising prices.  The reason is that the Chinese government still is selling gasoline way below market rates, shielding consumers from incentives to reduce consumption.  On the supply side, I also wondered when I was in Paris why gasoline prices as high as $6 per gallon were not creating incentives for new sources of supply.  It turns out that nearly $4 of the $6 are government taxes, so none of this higher price goes to producers or creates any supply-side incentives.  Instead, it goes to paying unemployment benefits, or whatever they do with taxes in France.

Even in the US, which is typically more comfortable with the operation of the laws of supply and demand than other nations, the government has been loathe to actually allow these laws to operate on oil.  During the 70's, the government maintained price controls that limited demand side incentives to conserve, thus creating gas lines like the ones we are seeing in China today for the same reason.  When these controls were finally removed, a "windfall profits tax" was put in place to make sure that producers would get none of the benefit of the price increases, and therefore would have no financial incentive to seek out new oil supplies or substitutes.  Within a few years of the repeal of these dumb laws, oil prices fell back to historical levels and stayed there for 20 years.

But meddling with prices is not the only way the government screws up the oil market.  I laugh when I see people with a straight face say that we have not opened up any big new fields in this country since Prudhoe Bay.  This is in large part because the three most promising oil field possibilities in this country -- ANWR, California coast, and the Florida coast -- have all been closed to exploration by the government.

In addition, the government has, through a series of energy bills that are each stupider than the last, managed to divert valuable energy investment capital into a range of politically correct black holes.  All we seem to get are unsightly windmills in Palm Springs that always seem to be broken and massive ethanol subsidies that actually increase oil consumption rather than decrease it.  It should come as no surprise that  despite government subsidies for a range of automotive technologies like fuel cells and all-electric cars, the winning technology to date has been hybrids, which weren't on the government subsidy plan at all.

Don't Ignore Substitutes.  All the oil doomsayers tend to define the problem as follows:  Oil production from current fields using current methods and technologies will peak soon.  Well, OK, but that sure defines the problem kind of narrowly.  The last time oil prices were at this level ($65 in 2004 dollars), most of the oil companies and any number of startups were gearing up to start production in a variety of new technologies.  I know that when I was working for Exxon in the early 80's, they had a huge project in the works for recovering oil from oil shales and sands.  Once prices when back in the tank, these projects were mothballed, but there is no reason why they won't get restarted if oil prices stay high.  At $65 a barrel, even nuclear starts looking good again, though we would have to come up with a more sane regulatory environment.  Look for venture capital to steer away from funding the next and start looking for energy investments.

Dueling Catastrophes.  As a final note, its funny seeing the New York Times crying "disaster" over the peak oil scenario.  Those who read this blog know that I am skeptical that the harm from man-made global warming is bad enough to justify large, immediate Kyoto-like reductions in hydrocarbon consumption.  However, the New York Times is on record as a big believer in and cheerleader for immediate cuts in hydrocarbon consumption to head off global warming.  So why is peak oil so bad?  Shouldn't they be celebrating an ongoing drop in oil availability, which would force the world to produce less CO2?  Along the same vain, it is funny seeing a publication that has decried over and over again our dependence on Saudi Arabian and other foreign oil at the same time lamenting the fact that Saudi Arabia is running out.  If that's true, won't Saudi reserve declines solve the whole dependence problem, one way or another?

Postscript:  The other day, I found one of Paul Ehrlich's doomsday books from the 70's in a used book store.  When I have a chance, I am going to post some of its predictions, which were treated with breathless respect by most of the media, including the NY Times.