Archive for December 2005

Am I Going to Jail?

Per Reason's Hit and Run:

House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who never
saw a criminal penalty that couldn't be improved by making it harsher, has introduced a bill that would impose a three-year mandatory minimum sentence
on anyone who, with an expectation of financial gain, "assists, encourages,
directs, or induces" two or more foreigners to illegally reside in the U.S. The
penalty rises to five years if the encouragement leads to a crime punishable by
more than a year in prison. Families Against Mandatory Minimums notes that "the five-year mandatory minimum will nearly always
apply because the bill would also increase the maximum penalty for illegal entry
to a year and a day and provides mandatory minimum penalties of one to 10 years
for those who reenter the country following deportation." Sensenbrenner's
committee is scheduled to vote on the bill today, without any hearings.

So if I accept paid advertising on my blog, and then I publish this, am I a felon?

Your Cable Bill Is Going Up (and Your Choice is Going Down)

The FCC has reversed course and decided that cable companies bundling channels into packages rather than selling them a la carte is bad and requires coercive action from the government to fix.  This issue was originally pushed by religious groups, who I guess did not want signals from naughty content even accessible from their house (the "just don't watch that channel" solution presumably determined to be too difficult).  However, "progressives" on the left have latched onto this issue as well.  I remember a Kevin Drum post, which unfortunately I can find right now, advocating cable unbundling as an example of an agenda progressives should be jumping on.  Beyond the basic rationale that progressives hate cable companies almost as much as Exxon and Wal-mart so anything cable companies oppose they are for, the ostensible logic is that if I pay $50 now for 165 channels, I should only pay $10 if I choose to watch only 33 of those.  Here is their "logic":

The main obstacle for a la carte: programming contracts.
Programmers routinely bar cable operators from selling channels a la carte.

Why? Advertising rates. Cable programmers base ad rates on
the number of viewers they reach. The more they reach, the more they can charge.
If they allowed a la carte, viewership for many channels would likely

Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union says:"This is the essence
of how they squeeze extra revenues out of consumers."

The problem could worsen, he warns, as cable operators "” as
well as broadcasters and satellite TV "” pack on more channels.

"The bundles get bigger, and prices go up," Kimmelman says.
"A la carte would blow this scam out of the water."

This presumes that the number of channels has anything to do with cable cost or pricing.  Which it really doesn't, since the marginal 100 channels or so at the tail end of the viewership curve all just want to be carried for free, in hopes they can get some ad revenue from corporate America for being on the dial.   From a cost standpoint, beyond a few core channels, it costs cable companies about nothing extra, given the infrastructure of high-bandwidth delivery systems is already in place, to send you 20 channels or 150. 

Pricing, though, is not just set based on costs, but on value.  And the government is about to change the value equation, and maybe not in the consumer's failure.  Up to now, cable's value proposition has been "wide selection", a value proposition supported by the multi-channel bundle for one price.  After making this traditional value proposition illegal, there is no guarantee at all that the value proposition that replaces it will be a better, or even equivalent one.

Most consumer advocates tend to assume that bundles are hosing the customer, because they are being forced to pay for stuff they don't want.  But bundles can more often than not be the opposite - including items of value that the customer is not paying full price for.  The the evolution of cable service tends to confirm this.  Cable on a real basis does not cost that much more than it did 20 years ago when you only got 20 or so channels.  My suspicion, which I can't prove, is that you are paying for those 20-25 core channels, and everything else is a freebie.  In this model, bundling is delivering extra value over a la carte, because you really aren't paying much or anything at all for those incremental 130 channels.

In fact, in my years as a consultant looking at pricing, one of the first things we looked at in a company to increase total pricing and profits was unbundling services.  The issue of concern was that more often than not, bundling provided customers with hidden pools of value that they were not really paying for, and unbundling helped make consumers pay full price for things they were previously getting for free.  Airlines, banks, and numerous others make more money by unbundling today.  My suspicion is that this will be the case with cable.

By the way, look under the hood of any business regulation proposed as "consumer protection" and you will usually find the fingerprints of corporations trying to use the government to sit on their competition.  And yes, we have that here.  New entrants AT&T and Verizon want the government to ban the current cable companies' business model, thereby putting them on equal footing in entering the market.  By the way, speaking of these phone companies, does anyone out there really think they are getting a better deal when they pay for call waiting and answering service and long distance and local separately rather than in one of the advertised bundles?

So here are my predictions:

  • Assume an average cable bill today is $50 a month for 150 channels.  If the average person watches and really is willing to pay for 15 of those a la carte, then the new pricing is going to result in a $50 bill for those 15 channels.  Count on it.  People will be paying the same amount as before, but for fewer channels.  Or, if they want the same number of channels as before, they will be paying more
  • In one year, leftish backers of the bill will realize the above, and will publicly criticize the cable companies for their rational reaction to the coercive government program.  They will propose new pricing regulations to "fix" the problem they say stems from private enterprise, but in fact came from unintended consequences of the original regulation.  This use of negative consequences of regulation to justify further regulation is one of the most important tools in the statist's bag.
  • A number of smaller cable channels will go bust.  Even those wanting and willing to pay a la carte for the full 150 channels they got before will not be able to, because many will not exist any more.
  • Fewer niche or idiosyncratic channels will exist.  Today, cable companies want to sell the package of 150 channels.  At the margin, adding a channel that caters to a niche not reached by the other channels is better for them than adding yet another channel that caters to the median viewer, because it makes the package as a whole attractive to more viewers.  However, if every channel is sold a la carte, cable programmers will add channels and content aimed at the mass market to maximize sales of each channel.  Each channel must stand on its own. Oddball niches need not apply.  Interestingly, many of these will be things like the Gay Vegan Channel
    that tend to be particularly popular among "progressives".
  • Innovation in terms of new cable channel offerings will die, because a la carte pricing will substantially increase the cost for a new entrant to get going.  In the past, they just had to sell 2-3 cable company programming buyers that they should try the new channel in their lineup, and they were off and running.  Now, they not only have to convince cable companies to be on the menu, but have to sell consumers one by one to get into homes.  This is orders of magnitude more expensive.  The stock of current cable companies will go up, because competition will be harder.  In another ironic unintended consequence for "progressives", only large corporations will be able to start new cable channels in the future, increasing media consolidation that progressives decry.
  • In one year, religious backers of the bill will be upset that so many people still opt for naughty content, and will propose legislation to increase the difficulty in signing up for certain channels (e.g. physical presentation of proof of age) and to regulate advertisement and promotion of these channels.

Reason's Hit and Run has more along the same lines.

Postscript:  In the past, FCC and Congressional rules have actually mandated bundling.  For example, still on the books are must-carry laws that say that cable companies have to carry every local broadcast channel.  It will be interesting to see if I can opt out of ABC.  I bet I won't be able to - legislation pre-empts FCC rule-making.  Which will create an interesting discriminatory aspect to the regulation, which is that the cable companies must bundle in companies that also broadcast their content over airwaves but must unbundle non-broadcast content.  Which also leads to the irony that cable will have to include content that consumers have an alternative source for (e.g. ABC via an antenna) but have to be ready to exclude content that consumers have no alternative source for (e.g. the History Channel).

Final Thought: What's next from the FCC?  If I only listen to FM 93.3 on my radio, are radio makers going to be required to unbundle the capability to receive all those other stations to give me a radio that only gets 93.3?  And does anyone think that radio would be cheaper?

Streaming Music, Plus A Blogger Vanity Toy

I wanted to stream digital music from my main computer in my home office to my main stereo system in the den.  After some research, I chose version 3 of Squeezebox from Slim Devices.  They have taken an open architecture approach that I like, and have a proven history of steadily improving their product.  Most true audiophiles I sought advice from use this device (this is an audio-only device, no video or jpegs streamed).  I am currently converting my entire CD collection to lossless FLAC format audio files using EAC, which seems to be the audiophile favorite for ripping (and it is free).  FLAC compression seems to result in albums 250-450 meg, meaning my 400 CD's will need about 140 gig, which I have available.  I will ditch most of my mp3 files, saving only a subset for iPod rotation.  New mpg files, or whatever rules in the future, can be made directly from the FLAC.

The box itself is small and well-designed.  Setup was a breeze, once I fixed a setting on my firewall.  Now I can point my remote at this box and scroll easily through my music collection (along with a number of Internet radio stations).  No flipping through CD's or yelling at the kids for not alphabetizing them right.  You can browse or search by title, artist, or album.

In addition to controlling it with a remote, I can control it with any computer on the network.  Right now, I choose songs on a laptop in the kitchen, which sends music from the computer in the office to the amp and speakers in the den.  Awesome.  Their web site says that you can also browse your music and choose what's playing from a web enabled PDA, but I have not tried it yet.

Here is the blogger vanity part:  In addition to an array of other screensavers, you can have the device connect to any online RSS feed and scroll the contents marquee-style across the screen.  All day I have had my blog feed scrolling across the device, interspersed with NY Times and ESPN headlines.

Technocrats and GM

Frequent readers of this blog know that I have a particular disdain for technocrats and the damage they do via government coercion.  Just to make sure that I am not subject to the Princess Bride accusation of "You keep using that word -- I do not think it means what you think it does", I will define my terms.

In my parlance, a technocrat is someone who believes that individuals, either acting alone or in groups, are making the wrong decisions and that a few very smart people can make things better for everyone by overriding everyone else's decision-making. 

Technocrats sometimes have a "macro" flavor, focusing on the broad sweep of the economy, seeing market failures everywhere that they feel they could override if only someone would follow their "plan".  This hubris was of course one of the foundations for that juggernaut Soviet Russian economy, and was in fact the thinking behind America's closest brush with fascism, Roosevelt's NRA, which was modeled on Mussolini's economic work.  My college roommate Brink Lindsey has a lot of background on the early 20th century roots of technocratic opposition to capitalism in his book Against the Dead Hand: The Uncertain Struggle for Global Capitalism.

Technocrats also can have a "micro" flavor, focusing on individuals who they feel are making bad decisions for their own selves.  Classic examples are helmet and seat belt laws, where "smarter" people use government coercion for your own good.  We typically call these micro technocrats nannies.  I discussed governments overriding individual decision-making here.

Just the other day I mentioned in this post that I had had a conversation with a technocrat who was:

lamenting that allowing a company like GM to die is dumb, and that a
little bit of intelligent management would save all those GM jobs and
assets.  Though we did not discuss specifics, I presume in his model
the government would have some role in this new intelligent design (I
guess like it had in Amtrak?)

I went on to describe why it was OK to let GM fail.  In particular I noted that it was bad for everyone to artificially force quality assets (people and facilities) to remain in an under-performing corporate structure, which is what the government in effect does when it tries to override the market's decision that a corporation needs to die.

I bring this all up because I saw this classic example of technocratic statism from David Ignatius in the Washington Post

Economist Philip Verleger was traveling in Asia last month when the news
broke that General Motors was slashing 30,000 jobs to try to reverse its death
spiral. A Japanese economist he had known for many years asked him a stark
question: "What great nation will allow its major manufacturing company to

The convulsions wracking GM are scary, but they're getting surprisingly
little attention amid America's sea of other troubles. Certainly, we've heard
barely a peep out of the Bush administration, which evidently worries more about
keeping energy companies happy than Rust Belt manufacturers. Commentators have
blamed GM management for being too shortsighted and its workers for being too
greedy. But few people seem to appreciate that the nation as a whole has a stake
in maintaining a dynamic industrial base, or that government policies could help
reverse our industrial decline....

But suppose we took GM's near-death experience as a national wake-up call and
decided to get serious about reviving the long-term health of the U.S.
manufacturing sector. What if political leaders treated this as a fundamental
national mission, equivalent to President John F. Kennedy's call to put a man on
the moon? Could government make any difference?

Try this thought exercise: Suppose a government plan could revitalize the
automobile industry and the rest of the transportation sector, encouraging it to
leapfrog several generations of technology; suppose this same plan could cut
U.S. dependence on foreign oil to zero; and suppose, finally, that the plan
could develop new technologies that would bump our economy to a higher growth
path and foster U.S. economic leadership in the 21st century. Would that idea be
worth exploring?

Yes, good idea, lets hand over the automobile industry to the same folks who built and maintained the levees in New Orleans.  It is interesting he quotes a Japanese economist chiding the US for letting its major companies fail.  The author is basically advocating the Japanese MITI approach, making technology choices and managing industries and preventing large organizations in which national pride is somehow tied up from failing.  Which, of course, has resulted in a 15 year recession in Japan.  And Europe.  Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek responds further:

I'm tempted to do a long riff here on all the details that Ignatius misses "“
such as, for example, the fact that it's simply not true that as goes GM so goes
America; such as the fact that there is
nothing at all special or inherently better about manufacturing
manufacturing jobs over service-sector production; such as the fact that
infecting decisions about investment and production with politics will reward
political appeal at the expense of genuinely economically sound uses of

But it's late, so I'll just point you to Ignatius's closing paragraph:

I'm no technologist, so I can't evaluate the technical details of Lovins's
proposal. What I like is that it's big, bold and visionary. It would shake an
America that is sitting on its duff as foreign competitors clobber our
industrial giants, and it would send a new message: Get moving, start
innovating, turn this ship around before it really hits the

This paragraph reflects an attitude that is rich soil for totalitarianism to
take root. It ignores individual freedom; it ignores the possibility that the
admired Big Plan might be flawed, either technologically or economically or
both. Ignatius is all orgasmic simply because The Plan is centralized and Big
and (allegedly) will compel or inspire the masses once again to behave in ways
that promote national greatness.

Heaven help us.

If you think he is exaggerating, as many people do, by invoking the threat of fascism, go back and read what the fascists of the 1930's were writing.  It is nearly identical to Ignatius's words.

There are two lessons technocrats never learn:  1) Their grand plans never work and 2) The statist machinery they create via their grand plans is always taken over from the well-meaning by the power-hungry and corrupt.  As I stated before:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel
good at first when the trains start running on time, but the
technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of
idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the
technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys
take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on
another man.  Everything after that was inevitable

And, in fact, you are seeing just this today, as technocrats on the left lament that the machinery of state control they created, from the FDA to public schools, is being taken over by their political enemies.  Unfortunately, they lament the loss of control, not creating the all-powerful state in the first place.  Much more on this topic here and here.

Postscript:  I tossed off the statement above about letting the same organization that built the New Orleans levees fix the automobile industry.  That quick joke makes a valid point, but I should mention that Ignatious does try to preempt this argument:

But then, who can expect individuals to act responsibly when we have an
administration that asserts, in apparent sincerity, that the proper response to
our massive deficits is more tax cuts that plunge us even deeper into debt?
We've become so inured to public-sector mismanagement that the idea of
government solving problems is almost laughable.

In effect, he is arguing that yes, the government has mismanaged things, but this is only because they did not let the really smart people run things.  This is a particularly seductive argument for the left, where most technocrats reside, since it lets them say that government is inefficient only because that idiot Bush is in charge. 

But this ignores the fact that the stupid and corrupt always take over the machinery of state.  Technocrats love railroads, and think America is stupid for not riding the train, like those brilliant Europeans are.  Many supposedly smart people, both Democrats and Republicans, have had their shot at Amtrak, and it still sucks and loses money.  One reason among many for this failure is that incentives matter.  The government has the incentive to patronize powerful voting blocks, not to run an efficient operation or serve customers well.  That's why we get half-billion dollar bridges in Alaska to islands with populations of fifty people.  That's why scientific decisions at the FDA get politicized.  That is why have the government backing a technology ostensibly to reduce fossil fuel use (ethanol) that has been proven to actually increase fossil fuel use.  In effect, government always turns smart people stupid.  More on the specific dangers of government industry building here.

Another Postscript: By the way, people smarter than me do change industries all the time.  The are called "entrepeneurs" and they raise capital from people voluntarily and they succeed or fail only if individuals choose to do business with them.  I find it fascinating to compare Sam Walton with Mr. Ignatius.  Sam Walton raised money voluntarily to support a different vision of retailing, and was successful because many, many people have chosen voluntarily to shop at his stores.  Mr. Ignatius wants to change the automobile industry at the point of a gun, using government's coercive power to force companies to adopt certain technologies and build cars in certain ways, funding the effort with tax dollars taken unwillingly from productive Americans.  Isn't it amazing that "progressives" will want to rally around Mr. Ignatius's vision while excoriating Wal-mart at every turn? 

OK, another Postscript:  At the heart of many of Mr. Ignatius's concerns, and of many people on the left, is that America is "losing" to other countries.  Could someone on the planet please provide maybe just one single fact to support what they mean by this.  I mean, I hear this all the time, but what is it referring to?  Other than, of course, the lamentable fact that 43-year-old Ivy League educated men still can't stop ending sentences with a preposition.

Since 1990, the US economic growth rate has dusted that in most of Europe and Japan.  Only developing nations like China have growth rates that outpace us, and I guess that is what these folks are worried about.  But this is what is never said:  If you don't want countries like China to "catch up" with the US in technology and economy, then you have to be willing to consign billions of people to eternal poverty.  It is amazing to me that "progressives"  who ostensibly care about the poor get so upset when countries like China develop real capabilities that can finally pull themselves out of poverty.  Inevitably, as they do this, they will do some things better than we do.  Over time, our economies will shift, as we do the things we are good at and vice versa.  I know this is kind of novel for some - its an idea that has only been around for 200 years or so.  Having other people get wealthier is only a threat if you believe economics are zero-sum, another urban legend popular on the left that can be demolished with about 5 seconds thought.

One of the virtues of being a bit older is that you can start personally observing history repeating itself.  In the late 80's and early 90's everyone was running around screaming that we were "losing" to Japan and we had to imitate their statist technocratic approach.  Fortunately we did not.  Only in politics could you hear people like Mr. Ignatius being taken seriously when they scream "our economy is losing - lets go out and imitate the people losing even worse"

Update: Sorry this is getting so long, but I can't ignore Virginia Postrel on the same topic of technocrats:

Competition provides not only useful criticism but a continuous
source of experiments. It gives people...the ideas with which to create still
more progress and encourages them, too, to come up with incremental
improvements. By picking winners, stasist protectionism eliminates this learning
process, which includes learning what does not work.

"Premature choice," warns the physicist Freeman Dyson, "means betting all
your money on one horse before you have found out whether she is lame."
Protecting established interests from new challengers is one form of premature
choice. But technocratic planners also sometimes kill existing alternatives to
force their new ideas to "succeed." To protect the space shuttle, NASA not only
blocked competition from private space launch companies, it also eliminated its
own expendable launchers. Such pre-emptive verdicts often mark public works
projects. Planners pick an all-purpose winner, squeeze out alternatives, and
eliminate any real chance of experiment and learning.

Consider the infamous Denver International Airport. Aviation officials touted
the $4.9 billion project as essential to keep up with the region's growth. They
promised it would be a vast improvement over the old Stapleton Airport, which
was often socked in by bad weather. But its sponsors foisted DIA on unwilling
customers. The airport is 25 miles outside Denver, pretty much in the middle of
nowhere, while Stapleton was just 15 minutes from downtown. To make matters
worse, there are no hotels near DIA. And the new airport's cost per passenger is
somewhere between $11.75 and $18.14, depending on how you count--substantially
more than either the $4.59 at Stapleton or the $9.91 promised by former Mayor
Federico Pena. Frequent travelers resent the inconvenience and the generally
higher ticket prices. "I liked Stapleton better," one told The Denver Post. "You
could literally leave about 45 minutes before your plane departed. With DIA, you
have to leave an hour and a half before." A flight attendant expressed a common
sentiment: "It's a beautiful airport. But we hate it."

On the airport's first anniversary, journalists had trouble reaching a simple
verdict on DIA. There were complaints all right--lots of them. But some
passengers liked the spiffy new airport, with its marble floors and inviting
shops. And flight delays had in fact dropped dramatically. The first-anniversary
stories were confused, lacking a central theme.

The reporters had missed the main problem: The city had eliminated the most
obvious source of feedback--competition from the old airport. It had made DIA a
protected monopoly rather than an experiment subject to competitive trial. By
shutting down Stapleton, DIA's political sponsors had made it impossible to rule
the new airport a definite error. No matter how many complaints passengers
lodge, officials can always point to other advantages. At the same time,
however, DIA's monopoly keeps it from becoming an accepted success. Without a
genuine trial, we simply have no way to tell whether travelers (or airlines)
would rather trade a convenient location for fewer weather-related delays. One
airport must fit all: Love it or hate it, if you're flying from Denver you don't
have a choice.

Technocrats often decry competition as wasteful, and always use examples of failed companies and poor private technology choices (e.g. dot com bust companies) as an example of inefficiency of a competitive marketplace that technocrats could avoid.  As Postrel points out, though, these individual failures are not failures of the system, but rather are triumphs.  In the immortal words of the Microsoft tech center, they are a feature, not a bug, and a critical feature at that.

Gas Prices, Minimum Wage, Wal-mart

Some days, I just don't have the energy to issue yet another rebuttal of serial economic ignorance.  But the folks at Cafe Hayek never seem to get tired.  You can find thoughtful rebuttals to accusations that Oil prices are too high, Wal-Mart prices are too low, and the minimum wage needs to be raised.

Scott Adams Explains Humor

Its been linked around quite a bit, but if you haven't seen it, Scott Adams, creator of "Dilbert", has a blog.  Most of the posts are humorous, but in this post he provides a framework for thinking about humor:

The core of humor is what I call the 2-of-6 rule. In order for something to be
funny, you need at least two of the following elements:

(as in kids and animals)




(You've been there)



invented this rule, but you can check for yourself that whenever something is
funny it follows the rule. And when something isn't, it doesn't. One
of the reasons comics are such a popular form of humor is that they often get
the cute part automatically. Calvin and Hobbes is widely considered the best comic ever, but the few times it featured the parents doing the main action, it
fell flat. Whenever it combined Calvin and Hobbes (both exceedingly cute), with
some witty dialog (clever), a dangerous wagon ride (cruel), Calvin acting like a
typical kid (recognizable), and thinking about adult philosophy (bizarre) it
fired on 5-of-6 humor elements, which is virtually unheard of.

I spent WAY too much time in business school and as a consultant deconstructing businesses and industries into processes and frameworks.  It is interesting to see something we geeks think of as unstructured and creative (e.g. humor) deconstructed scientifically as well. 

Back from Hawaii

Well, I am nursing some jet-lag but am working on a post for later this week on the alleged CIA secret overseas prisons.  This is one of those issues where my pragmatic frequent-flying persona is all over Jenifer Garner violating the crap out of terrorist civil rights to protect me, but my intellectual-libertarian persona knows better.  If you want a preview of where I am going with this, you can see this post on immigration, noting the argument that our individual rights pre-date, rather than flow from, the government, and therefore citizenship shouldn't matter in assessing what rights a person has vis-a-vis Uncle Sam.

I had the opportunity to look at some land while I was in Hawaii, thinking about maybe having a retirement home in the future, at least to escape the Phoenix summers.  My wife and I would like to be on a coast.  I don't like the Northeast, and neither of us like the Gulf coast or Northwest coast.  That leaves SoCal and Hawaii (if you limit it to the US).  What worries us is that though we expect some appreciation in our real earnings over the next decade, we fear that waterfront property in these areas may appreciate even faster, leading us to the conclusion that we may be able to afford a nicer piece of land now than when we retire.  We worry about bubble pricing but being willing to hold an asset for 20-30 years alleviates some of that problem.  The Big Island seems to be a better value than the other islands, but even there, its freaking expensive.  Sigh.  Maybe if it was a big enough lake, that would do?

Race-Based Tenant Restrictions

I am on the Big Island of Hawaii today doing some business (yes, I know, lets hear all those violins).  I encountered a program here called Hawaiian Home Lands.  Apparently the state makes long-term leases of land for homes available at $1 a year to native Hawaiians.  Recipients of this largess may either get a lot with an existing home, or just an undeveloped lot they can build on (using special subsidized loans and with a number of special exemptions from building and development codes).  People may pass on the lease and the improvements they have built to their kids as long as their kids qualify for the program as well.

On its face, this appears to be one of those well-meaning government programs designed to deal with a problem that many resort destinations face, that locals who work in the resort communities often get priced out of the market for homes in the area where they work (Vail is the classic example of this problem).  Unfortunately, as with many government programs, this program has some perverse results.

Qualifying for the program requires that the recipient pass a strict racial test, which the HHL web site says is "50% or greater native Hawaiian blood".  Setting eligibility for a government program based on racial tests is pretty outlandish in and of itself, but it gets worse.  People taking advantage of the program need to think carefully about the race of their mate before they decide how much to invest in their home.  A 75% Hawaiian who marries a full-blooded Hawaiian will be able to pass the improvements on to their children (since the children will be more than 50% Hawaiian), and thus can justify a large home investment.  The same person who marries a full-blooded Japanese or African or Anglo-Saxon will not be able to pass their home on to their kids, since their kids will fail the race test.  So, not only is there a race-test for a government program, but the government is providing strong financial incentives not to "dilute" a certain race.  Hawaii über alles.

By the way, those who don't think that passing assets to one's kids is an important part of long-term investment thinking should compare the houses built by program participants who know their kids cannot inherit to those built by those who will be able to pass the investment to their kids -- there is no comparison.  This would make a very fertile ground for an economics graduate student trying to quantify the value people assign to the of passing assets to one's kids in long-range investment planning.

Congress Has Totally Lost It

Anyone who is still trying valiantly to take our Congress seriously can stop now:

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, chairman of the
Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, will conduct a
hearing next week about the BCS....

When asked to explain the timing of the hearings, a spokesman for
Barton referred to BCS history. Before this season, four of the seven
BCS years have resulted in championship game controversy.

"The BCS system was created to identify a broadly accepted national
champion, but 57 percent of the time it has failed to do so," Barton
said in the news release. "Most coaches who lose 57 percent of their
games would also lose their jobs. Yet that's what we settle for in
determining a champion today."

Wow, it must be the 30th Amendment:  Congress shall make no law abridging the right of Division 1 college football fans to have a clear national champion.  I wonder if this is just a ploy to get free Rose Bowl tickets?

Everyone in Congress.  Go home.  Now.  Don't come back.

Why Its OK if GM Dies

I had a conversation the other day with a person I can best describe as a well-meaning technocrat.  Though I am not sure he would put it this baldly, he tends to support a government by smart people imposing superior solutions on the sub-optimizing masses.  He was lamenting that allowing a company like GM to die is dumb, and that a little bit of intelligent management would save all those GM jobs and assets.  Though we did not discuss specifics, I presume in his model the government would have some role in this new intelligent design (I guess like it had in Amtrak?)

There are lots of sophisticated academic models for the corporation.  I have even studied a few.  Here is my simple one:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.  Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one. 

I don't know if GM will fail (but a lot of other people have opinions) but if it does, I am confident that the end result will be positive for America.

* Those who accuse me of being more influenced by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash than Harvard Business School may be correct.
** Gratuitous reference aimed at forty-somethings who used to hang out at the mall.  In my town, Merry-go-round was the place teenage girls went if they wanted to dress like, uh, teenage girls.  I am pretty sure the store went bust a while back.