Archive for December 2006

Overdue DVD Releases

I was thrilled to see that two of my top 5 most wanted DVD releases are finally coming out - by March 6 according to Amazon.

  • Hawaii 5-0:  The greatest TV crime drama ever. 
  • Captain Horatio Hornblower:  I know that the current generation doesn't think there was ever a good adventure movie that did not involved Industrial Light and Magic, but this Gregory Peck movie is an absolute classic.

I was a little worried that both had the identical release date.  I am hoping that this is not just the default date in the Amazon system when the release date is uncertain. 

The Arizona Great Escape

[Note this post is a reprint from prior years]

This week is the anniversary of one of my favorite bits of Phoenix history.  Many people have seen the Steve McQueen movie "the Great Escape",
about a group of 60 or so prisoners who cleverly dug a tunnel out of a
German POW camp and escaped in various directions across Europe, many
of whom where eventually recaptured.

I don't know if such an event occurred in Europe, but an almost
identical real-life POW escape (tunnel and all) occurred right here in
Phoenix, Arizona almost exactly 60 years ago.

Like many isolated western towns in WWII, Phoenix played host to a
number of German POW's, in our case about 1700 in Papago Park.
Phoenix, and in particular Papago Park, with its arid climate and red rocks, must have been quite a culture shock to the Germans.

Anyway, I won't tell the whole story, but it is fascinating and you can read it all here.  A short excerpt:

German prisoners asked their guards for permission to create a
volleyball courtyard. Innocently obliging, the guards provided them
with digging tools. From that point on, two men were digging at all
times during night hours. A cart was rigged up to travel along tracks
to take the dirt out. The men stuffed the dirt in their pants pockets
which had holes in the bottoms, and they shuffled the dirt out along
the ground as they walked around. In addition, they flushed a huge
amount of dirt down the toilets. They labeled their escape route Der Faustball Tunnel (The Volleyball Tunnel).

dug a 178 foot tunnel with a diameter of 3 feet. The tunnel went 8 to
14 feet beneath the surface, under the two prison camp fences, a
drainage ditch and a road. The exit was near a power pole in a clump of
brush about 15 feet from the Cross Cut Canal. To disguise their plans,
the men built a square box, filled it with dirt and planted native
weeds in it for the lid to cover the exit. When the lid was on the
tunnel exit, the area looked like undisturbed desert.

is some dispute about how many people actually escaped -- official
records say 25.  Others argue that as many as 60 escaped, but since
only 25 were recaptured, 25 was used as the official number to cover up
the fact that German POW's might be roaming about Arizona.

The prisoners who led this escape were clearly daring and inventive,
but unfortunately in Arizona lore they are better known for their one
mistake.  Coming from wet Northern European climes, the prisoners
assumed that the "rivers" marked on their map would actually have
flowing water in them.  Their map showed what looked like the very
substantial Salt River flowing down to the Colorado River and eventual
escape in Mexico.  Unfortunately, the Salt River most of the year (at
least in the Phoenix area) is pretty much a really wide flat body of dirt.  The German expressions as they carried their stolen canoes up to its banks must have been priceless.

never occurred to the Germans that in dry Arizona a blue line marked
"river" on a map might be filled with water only occasionally. The
three men with the canoe were disappointed to find the Salt River bed
merely a mud bog from recent rains. Not to be discouraged, they carried
their canoe pieces twenty miles to the confluence with the Gila river,
only to find a series of large puddles. They sat on the river bank, put
their heads in their hands and cried out their frustration.

probably shouldn't make too much fun of these hapless U-boaters, living
in a land so far out of their experience:  Apparently the prison guards
made Sargent Schultz look like Sherlock Holmes:

the men left in the wee hours of Christmas Eve, the camp officials were
blissfully unaware of anything amiss until the escapees began to show
up that evening. The first to return was an enlisted man, Herbert
Fuchs, who decided he had been cold, wet and hungry long enough by
Christmas Eve evening. Thinking about his dry, warm bed and hot meal
that the men in the prison camp were enjoying, he decided his attempt
at freedom had come to an end. The 22-year old U-boat crewman hitched a
ride on East Van Buren Street and asked the driver to take him to the
sheriff's office where he surrendered. Much to the surprise of the
officers at the camp, the sheriff called and told them he had a
prisoner who wanted to return to camp.

of the last to be re-captured was U-boat Commander Jürgen Wattenberg,
the leader of the breakout.  Interestingly, Captain Wattenberg hid out
in the hills just a few hundred yards from my current home.

Lobbying "Reform"

Via Instapundit, Mark Tapscott reports that Nancy Pelosi is cooking up a lobbying "reform" bill that  will be to lobbying what McCain-Feingold was to elections:  A figleaf labelled "reform" behind which politicians can hide while in effect making it more difficult for ordinary citizens to exercise their free speech.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has cooked up with Public
Citizen's Joan Claybrook a "lobbying reform" that actually protects
rich special interests and activists millionaires while clamping new
shackles on citizens' First Amendment rights to petition Congress and
speak their minds....

is bad news for the First Amendment and for preserving the kind of
healthy, open debate that is essential to holding politicians,
bureaucrats and special interests to account for their conduct of the
public business.

The key provision of the 2006 bill was its
redefinition of grassroots lobbying to include small citizens groups
whose messages about Congress and public policy issues are directed
toward the general public, according to attorneys for the Free Speech

All informational and educational materials produced
by such groups would have to be registered and reported on a quarterly
basis. Failure to report would result in severe civil penalties (likely
followed soon by criminal penalties as well).

In addition, the
2006 bill created a new statutory category of First Amendment activity
to be regulated by Congress. Known as "grassroots lobbying firms,"
these groups would be required to register with Congress and be subject
to penalties whenever they are paid $50,000 or more to communicate with
the general public during any three-month period.

In other words,
for the first time in American history, potentially millions of
concerned citizens involved in grassroots lobbying and representing
viewpoints from across the entire political spectrum would have to
register with Congress in order to exercise their First Amendment

There is even more bad news here, though, because the
Pelosi-Claybrook proposal includes loopholes big enough to protect Big
Labor, Big Corporations and Big Nonprofits, as well as guys with Big
Wallets like George Soros. Big Government, you see, always takes care
of its big friends.

The Pelosi-Claybrook proposal builds on the
restrictions on free speech created by campaign finance reform measures
like McCain-Feingold that bar criticism of congressional incumbents for
30 days prior to a primary and 60 days before a general election.

It should be no surprise that Common Cause, whose main cause is to champion unlimited government power, is behind both bills.

Counting Coup for CO2

New numbers for US vs. European CO2 growth have been making the rounds, based on a Wall Street Journal article today.  Jonathon Adler at Volokh has the key numbers for CO2 growth rates:

U.S. E.U.
1990-1995 6.4% -2.2%
1995-2000 10.1% 2.2%
2000-2004 2.1% 4.5%

The Wall Street Journal tries to make the point that maybe the US somehow has a better approach to CO2 reduction.  Here is the reality:  Neither the US or the EU has done anything of substance to really reduce CO2 production, because at the end of the day no one can tolerate the political and economic costs associated with severe reduction using current technology.

But there is a story in these numbers.  That story goes back to the crafting of the Kyoto treaty, and  sheds an interesting light on what EU negotiators were really trying to achieve.

The Kyoto Treaty called for signatories to roll back CO2 emissions to 1990 levels.  Since Kyoto was signed in the late nineties, one was immediately led to wonder, why 1990?  Why not just freeze levels in place as they were currently?

The reason for the 1990 date was all about counting coup on the United States.  The date was selected by the European negotiators who dominated the treaty process specifically to minimize the burden on Europe and maximize the burden on the US.  Look at the numbers above.  The negotiators had the 1990-1995 numbers in hand when they crafted the treaty and had a good sense of what the 1995-2000 numbers would look like.  They knew that at that point in time, getting to 1990 levels for the EU was no work -- they were already there -- and that it would be a tremendous burden for the US.  Many holier-than-thou folks in this country have criticized the US for not signing Kyoto.  But look at what we were handed to sign - a document that at the point of signing put no burden on the EU, little burden on Japan, no burden on the developing world, and tremendous burden on the US.  We were handed a loaded gun and asked to shoot ourselves with it.  Long before Bush drew jeers for walking away from the treaty, the Senate voted 99-0 not to touch the thing until it was changed.

But shouldn't the European's get some credit for the 1990-1995 reduction?  Not really.  The reduction came from several fronts unrelated to actions to reduce CO2:

  • The European and Japanese economies were absolutely on their backs, reducing economic growth which drives CO2 growth.  I have not looked up the numbers, but the 1990s are probably the time of the biggest negative differential for the European vs. US economy in my lifetime.
  • The British were phasing out the use of carbon-heavy domestic coals for a variety of reasons unrelated to carbon dioxide production.
  • German reunification had just occurred, so tons of outdated Soviet inefficient and polluting industrial plant had just entered the EU, and was expected to be shut down and modernized for economic reasons over the 1990's.  The negotiators went out of their way to make sure they picked a date when all this mess was in their base number, making it easier to hit their target.
  • The 1990 also puts Russia in the base.  Since 1990, as the negotiators knew, the Russian economy had contracted significantly.
  • At the same time the American economy was going gangbusters, causing great envy among Europeans.

Kyoto was carefully crafted to make America look like the bad guy.  The European's goal was to craft treaty responsibilities that would require no real effort in Europe, with most of the burden carried by the US.  But times change, and the game is catching up with them.

On Not Having A Clue

It would be tough for me to single out my single least favorite member of my alma mater Princeton's faculty.  However, Peter Singer would certainly be in the running.  TJIC fisks some of Singers recent writing in the NY Times.  I will leave you to read his thoughts, except I wanted to comment on this paragraph of Singer's:

"¦The rich must - or so some of us with less money like to assume -
suffer sleepless nights because of their ruthlessness in squeezing out
competitors, firing workers, shutting down plants or whatever else they
have to do to acquire their wealth"¦

I could probably write a book just from this quote, but let me just focus on two responses:

  • It helps prove my long-time observation that politicians, artists, and academics of a socialist bent who frequently criticize business have absolutely no idea what they do day to day or how they make money or create value.  Most have been an artist/academic/politician since the day they left school, and if they have held a real job in the value-creation part of the world, it is seldom as any type of manager or supervisor.  Singer knows no more about wealth creation than I do about sub-atomic particles.  The amazing thing, though, is that the NY Times would never quote me on sub-atomic particles but frequently gives Singer a platform to hold forth about wealth creation.  Economics is a science too, just as much as physics.  As I said in that linked post:

Economics is a science.  Willful ignorance or emotional
rejection of the well-known precepts of this science is at least as bad
as a fundamentalist Christian's willful ignorance of evolution science
(for which the Left so often criticizes their opposition).
fact, economic ignorance is much worse, since most people can come to
perfectly valid conclusions about most public policy issues with a
flawed knowledge of the origin of the species but no one can with a
flawed understanding of economics.

  • Read the statement, and really think about what he says, remembering that he really believes these exact words.  Forget about the squeezing out competitors part -- presumably we capitalists are just bashing each other so this is likely the least of his arguments (not to mention how many people Singer likely "squeezed out" in the competition for scarce tenure and professor positions at Princeton).  Think about his statement that the way wealth is created is by "firing workers" and "shutting down plants."  So the logical implication is that the corporation who ends up with no workers and not assets will be the richest?  And here all this time I have been stupidly growing my company by trying to hire more good people and add on productive assets. 

Singer is as qualified to write about business practices as I am to write about South East Asian mating rituals.  Each of us is equally experienced and knowlegeable about these topics.  Somehow, though, the NY Times sees fit to publish Singer and my beloved University pays him to teach.  Unbelievable.

Dead On

Sean Lynch of Catallarchy is dead on with this:

The headline showing on Google News reads: "NJ's Move Toward Same-Sex Unions Called Undemocratic." My first thought upon reading that was, "Duh!"

It seems to me that civil rights are undemocratic by their very
definition, since they are rights that cannot be taken away, even by
the will of the majority, at least in theory. The whole reason our
Constitution even contains anything other than voting procedures is
that it was clear to the framers that if they left everything to the
will of the majority, they'd end up with an even worse tyranny than the
one they just threw off.

As much as some libertarians may complain, the fact that civil
rights today are in as good of a state as they are is a testament to
what a great job the framers did at making the USA an
"undemocratic" country. Heck, even the Second Amendment survives mostly
intact in most states. And the rate at which technology seems to be
empowering individuals seems to be outstripping the rate at which
democracy is attempting to take away our rights, even using that same

Terrific!  I shared similar thoughts but from a different angle when I wrote that "the right to vote" is the least of our freedoms.

Ve Have Vays of Making You Conform

I am not sure this even needs an introduction.  Comparisons to "1984" are invoked in political discourse almost as much as those to Nazi Germany, and most are overblown, but the George Orwell novel is all I can think of when I see this:

It may be almost 2007, but it feels more like "1984" at Michigan
State University. The university's Student Accountability in Community
Seminar (SAC) forces students whose speech or behavior is deemed
unacceptable to undergo ideological reeducation at their own expense.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is challenging
Michigan State to dismantle this unconstitutional program, which
presents a profound threat to both freedom of speech and freedom of

"Michigan State's SAC program is simply one of the most invasive
attempts at reeducation that FIRE has ever seen, yet it has been
allowed to exist at the university for years," FIRE President Greg
Lukianoff said. "As bad as it is to tell citizens in a free society
what they can't say, it is even worse to tell them what they must
say. Michigan State's program is an immoral and unconstitutional
program of compelled speech, blatant thought reform, and
According to the program's materials,
SAC is an "early intervention" for students who use such
"power-and-control tactics" as "male/white privilege" and
"obfuscation," which the university cryptically defines as "any action
of obscuring, concealing, or changing people's perceptions that result
in your advantage and/or another's disadvantage." Students can be
required to attend SAC if they demonstrate what a judicial
administrator arbitrarily deems aggressive behavior, past examples of
which have included slamming a door during an argument or playing a
practical joke. Students can also be required to attend SAC for
engaging in various types of constitutionally protected speech,
including "insulting instructors" or "making sexist, homophobic, or
racist remarks at a meeting." When participation in SAC is required,
"non-compliance typically results in a hold being placed on the
student's account," an action that leaves the student unable to
register for classes and thus effectively expelled from the university.
Students are required to pay the cost of the SAC sessions.
Once in the program, students are instructed to answer a series of
written questionnaires. In their answers, students must specifically
describe how they are taking "full responsibility" for their offensive
behavior and must do so using language that the director of the session
deems acceptable. Most students will be asked to fill out this
questionnaire multiple times, slowly inching closer to what
administrators deem to be "correct" responses.

PC indoctrination at our nation's universities is alive and well.  It just astounds me that a group of adults thought this was acceptable.

More on My Light Rail Bet

Thanks to Tom Kirkendall for the link to my light rail post.  For quite a while, he has been "railing" against Houston's light rail proposals (where I was born and raised).  By the way, he is right that Phoenix is even less amenable to a rail-based system than Houston.  Houston has low population density and its downtown area is small compared to metro-friendly cities like New York, making rail an iffy proposition.  But Phoenix is even less dense and its downtown is tiny compared even to Houston.

A previous post of Tom's also gives me data to feel even more confident about my proposed bet, which was this:

If we take the entire cost of the system's construction, plus its
annual operating losses/subsides, I will bet that we could have bought
every regular rider of the rail system a nice car instead and gas for
life cheaper than the cost of the rail system.

Obviously we don't have Phoenix numbers yet, but he links an LA Times story with Los Angeles numbers:

Three light-rail lines have been added to L.A. county's transit system
in the last 20 years. Together, these cost $2.5 billion in capital
costs, they serve about 125,000 passengers per day and account for a
fiscal loss of approximately $252 million per year -- if one
acknowledges that capital costs are real, something that transit
operators and boosters often neglect.

Note that LA's system is actually a more desirable system from a rider standpoint than the one in Phoenix, since in some areas the trains avoid traffic lights, making them closer to heavy rail, and thus have a faster speed.  So lets run my bet against LA's numbers.  We don't really know what the core ridership numbers are.  Certainly its less than the 125,000.  And we don't know if an out in the morning and back at night commute counts in these numbers as one passenger or two (From here, it looks like 125,000 passengers making 2 trips each).

If the core ridership number is 125,000, the highest possible choice, then the total capital cost of the system per rider is $20,000 per rider.  This means I was right, that we could have instead bought ever rider a car for the same money.  Since the real ridership is probably less than that number, this means we could have bought ever rider a car and had money left over.  Concerned about the environment?  Then make every car a Prius, which the money would just about cover even without the volume purchasing discount they would likely get.

But what about gas?  Well, they say they have a $252 million per year operating loss.  This subsidy, which is above and beyond ticket sales, equates to $2,106 (!) per daily rider, even using the higher 125,000 figure.  At $2.50 per gallon, this equates to 15.5 gallons of gas per rider per week. 

So you can see with the LA numbers, even using the largest possible interpretation of their ridership numbers, the money used for the train could have instead bought every passenger a new car and filled the tank up with gas once a week for life.

Yes, I know, the argument is that the train reduces congestion.  Supposedly.  I have two responses:

  • Rail has never reduced congestion in any city.  Go see London and Manhattan.  In fact, rail seems to encourage urban density that increases congestion. 
  • In Phoenix, where rail will often replace existing lanes of roads, the train will likely carry fewer people than the lanes of traffic used to, so congestion will increase.

Reason 1397 That I Can't Stand Politicians

A man is fighting for his life, and the jackals and vultures of both parties are trying to figure out how his death might affect their own political power.

Sure. Totally Reasonable. Not.

Via Overlawyered, from the nanny's at the British Medical Journal:

Clothes made in larger sizes should carry a tag with an obesity
helpline number, health specialists have suggested. Sweets and snacks
should not be permitted near checkouts, new roads should not be built
unless they include cycle lanes and food likely to make people fat
should be taxed, they say in a checklist of what we might "reasonably
do" to deal with obesity.

I know a number of larger folks who already get huge self-esteem hits everytime they shop for clothes.  I am sure they would love to see a tag that says "If you are trying this on, you are fat.  Get help" on their clothes.  Oh, and thanks for all the help with girls that have a tendency towards anorexia.  I am sure all this media and government obsession with body size and losing weight will be a big help (when I was younger, I had two acquaintances both die from complications associated with anorexia and bulimia).  What's next?  Special tags on small-size condoms saying, well, never mind.

BMOC, Chapters 1 and 2

As a way to celebrate the holidays and perhaps compensate for a more relaxed pace of blogging for a while, I am beginning a serialization of my new novel BMOC.  If there is interest, I will keep it going for a while.  So, lets get started.  Enjoy!  (You didn't really feel like doing any real work today, did you?).   By the way, for you prospective business school students, though it may seem un-serious, embodies my best advice for you.  Chapters 3 and 4 continue here.

chapter one

Gladstone, multi-millionaire CEO of the M Group, looked around the
room at his fellow conspirators and longed for the piranha

Continue reading ‘BMOC, Chapters 1 and 2’ »

Welcome 2006 Weblog Awards (Sticky)

Note to readers:  This post is sticky through 12/15.  There are new posts just below this one!

Welcome!  This year we are in the blogs ranked 1751-2500.  Please cast your vote for Coyote Blog hereYou can vote once per day!  For those new to the site, here is some of what I do here:

Real-life small business experiences:  Buying a companyWorking with the Department of Labor; Case Studies on the Minimum WageWhat's on my Desk TodayGetting an SBA Loan

Economics:  The myth of Zero-sum Economics; 60 second refutation of socialism; Business Relocation and the Prisoners Dilemma; Technocrats, government and disasters; Advice for the Reality-Based CommunityRoosevelt's NRA: America's Flirtation with Fascism; the Trade Deficit is not a Debt; A Challenge to Lou DobbsIn Praise of Robber Barons

Libertarian political commentary:  Respecting individual decision-making, The real implications of a Privacy Right, Technocrats get their comeuppance, A defense of Open Immigration, New Alien and Sedition laws, Conservatives, let your enemy speak, Liberals, let your enemy speak(and here), Iraq war, The Kelo decision,  

Climate Science:  The skeptical middle ground on warming; A skeptics guide to An Inconvenient Truth

Frustration with runaway torts:  Jackpot Litigation; Coyote vs. ACME

Camping (my business):  New American nomadsThis RV is just wrong

Attempts at humor: How to spot a dictatorship; Coyote's LawMaking fun of the UN and the Internet;

Sports: The Baseball Closer Role is Nuts; I hate penalty kicks; Pre-season college football rankings are the most important

ACME Products:  Instant Girl; Ultimatum Gun; Earthquake Pills

How I Married Well:  My Wife, the Fashion DivaMy Wife's Fashion Awards (and here)

Oh, and I promote my new novel, BMOC, a little bit.

BMOC by Warren Meyer


Bad Science Remembered

Worst Government Abuse I Have Seen Lately

I didn't think much could top some of the ridiculous stuff I have read of late on the government abuse and rent-seeking front;  the milk cartel, for example, seemed hard to top.  But I think this has jumped into the lead:

In Didden v. Port Chester, the government decided to redevelop
an area of the city, and chose a developer who drew up development
plans. One of the property owners, Bart Didden, owned a piece of
property that he wanted to lease to CVS to build a pharmacy. The
developer, on the other hand, wanted to use the land for a Walgreen's
instead. So the developer told Didden that if he would pay the
developer $800,000 and give him a percentage in the CVS, that he
wouldn't condemn the property. Didden, of course, rejected this
offensive offer, and the next day, the city condemned the land to give
to the developer.

This is much worse than Kelo, and I thought that case was bad.  Didden lost his appeal, but is trying to get the Supreme Court to hear the case:

"What the developer and Village of Port Chester did is nothing short of
government-backed extortion," said Didden. "I had an agreement to
develop a pharmacy, a plan fully approved by the Village, and in the
eleventh hour I was told that I must either bring this developer in as
a 50/50 partner or pay him $800,000 to go away. If I didn't, the City
would condemn my property through eminent domain for him to put up a
pharmacy. What else can you call that but extortion? I hope the Supreme
Court sets things right."

I guess the case has a bit of utility -- it does set a market value on government pull.  In this case, the developer has priced his "in" with the local city establishment at $800,000.   

To my untrained eye, this case seems not to be covered by the Kelo logic.  In Kelo, the justices (insanely) decided that a valid public purpose for eminent domain was to replace one landowner with another who will pay more sales and property taxes.  But its hard to argue that a CVS pharmacy would pay more or less than a Walgreen's pharmacy.  In addition, Didden's supporters are hoping that the Supreme Court will finally rule on the more general issue of "exactions":

What's interesting is how this case parallels something called
"exactions," which we see in a lot of cases involving building permits:
government demands that a property owner give up some value to the
government"”a portion of the land, or sometimes outright cash"”in
exchange for a building permit. Now, this case didn't involve a
building permit, but the issue is the same: in exchange for the right
to use the property, you have to give up your property rights. That is
what the "an out and out plan of extortion."

These exactions are rampant throughout America. They're causing housing prices to soar.
And yet despite PLF's repeated requests, the Supreme Court has refused
to take one of these cases to clarify that they do violate the
Constitution. Meanwhile, we hear that the Supreme Court can't find
cases to fill up its docket! Here's hoping the Court grants cert. in
this case and declares once and for all that government can't use its
power to regulate land use as leverage to demand money from property

Peak Pricing

I know there are folks who get seriously bent out of shape by this type thing (Gouging!), I think this is pretty cool, from Market Power:

I wouldn't have thought this would
happen, but it appears that a gas station I pass during my commute
practices time-of-day pricing, charging more during the peak period and
charging less during the off peak.

For the past two months, every time I have passed the station in the
evening, the price of gasoline has been at least three cents/litre
lower than it was in the morning on the way to work. This station is
very convenient for people to pull into on the way into London, but it
is very inconvenient for people who are leaving the city at the end of
the workday.

I Don't Get Light Rail

Phoenix is in the process of tearing up half the city to put in its first light rail line.  There seems to be a hard core of people out there who get a huge hard-on for light rail, and I just don't get it.  Some random observations:

  • We are building light rail that is essentially a "trolley."  This means it runs at street levels, often down the median strips of roads, and has to stop at stoplights just like cars and buses.  My question is, in this configuration, how is light rail any different than a bus?  Except for the fact, of course, that it is far more expensive and far less operationally flexible. 
  • The system is not up and running yet, so I have not seen ridership numbers, but I will make a bet:  If we take the entire cost of the system's construction, plus its annual operating losses/subsides, I will bet that we could have bought every regular rider of the rail system a nice car instead and gas for life cheaper than the cost of the rail system.
  • It looks to me like the rail system will actually increase congestion.  For most of its route, it is removing lanes from busy roads, and by running down the middle it will make left turns more difficult and complex. 
  • Supporters of these systems point to NY or London as examples of what we can achieve.  Bullshit.  No city that has embarked on this light rail stuff has had the success or the political will or the money to build out a network with the critical mass that these larger cities have.  Most end up with orphaned routes (see LA, for example) that don't tie into anything. 
  • Phoenix is the last city on the planet that a rail based system should work for.  I don't have the book in front of me, I will have to get it from home, but I remember a book on urban development that showed Phoenix had the flattest population density distribution of any city studied.  What this means is that we don't have a city center and suburbs - it means that we are basically all one big suburb.  So there are no single routes (for example in Chicago from the northern suburbs into downtown) that have any critical mass of traffic.  People are driving from everywhere to everywhere.  In fact, my suspicion has been that there are a group of politicians and business people who want to try to create a downtown area, and are using massive public funds in the form of light rail lines converging on the city center to try to jump-start such development.
  • The Commons Blog has a link-rich post on the failure of the Portland light rail system, supposedly the model all light-rail promoters point to.

Update:  Jackalope Pursuivant has more on Phoenix light rail

Should Juries Be Able to Ban Products?

I have written on this before on the context of Vioxx, but is it really rational public policy to have juries be allowed to effectively ban products, products that both legislatures and regulatory bodies have explicitly or implicitly deemed as legal?  Ted Frank takes this on at Overlawyered in a nice follow-up post on a $31 million jury verdict against Ford:

SUVs are designed to have high clearance to traverse rugged terrain.
This raises the center of gravity and affects the handling: it's a
known tradeoff of the laws of physics. There are a wide variety of
tests of varying degrees of scientific merit one can use to suggest a
vehicle is "too prone" to roll over, and plaintiffs have the benefit of
cherry-picking which tests to apply to which vehicles. You'll find lots
of lawyers complaining that the Bronco II allegedly responded poorly in
"J-turn tests", where the steering wheel is turned 330 degrees in one
third of a second and held there for another 4.67 seconds. Ford
designed the Explorer to pass the J-turn test to take away this claim,
and the trial lawyers started using different methodologies to claim
that the Explorer was too prone to roll over.

Empirically, however, the Bronco doesn't roll over more than several
other SUVs on the market, which is why NHTSA, in both the Bush I and
Clinton administrations, refused to recall the Bronco when the
plaintiffs' bar asked it to. When I say Ford was held liable for
producing an SUV, I'm not spinning: it was because it was held liable
for producing an SUV.

Moreover, a vehicle should be viewed in totality: an auto that is
more likely to roll over may be safer in other particulars that more
than compensate for that increased propensity. So I question the
premise. One can't change the rollover propensity without creating a
different vehicle entirely. The vehicle should be viewed holistically,
and holistically, the Bronco is a safe car when used as designed.

Perhaps we as a society would be better off taking the nanny-state
step of banning SUVs, forbidding people from wildnerness driving
because too many drivers don't know how to drive SUVs in highway
conditions, but that's a decision that not only would end the American
auto industry, but should be made other than by a 12-person jury of
laypeople. This vehicle rolled over because the driver drove off the

I had similar thoughts about the Vioxx cases:

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.

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....

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?

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution said it even more succinctly:

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?

The Stagnating Wage Myth

Prior to the election, folks on the left were pushing the idea that US wages had been stagnating.  Often this argument was a subset of a zero-sum class warfare rant, complaining that though the economy has grown, the "rich" have taken all the gains.

There were always two problems with the hypothesis that real wages were stagnating:

  1. "Wages" are only a part of total compensation.  In fact, I don't think anyone denies that real compensation (wages plus benefits) has been growing, and it would not surprise me that non-wage compensation, like health care, has grown much faster than wages.  A discussion about only one component of total compensation is nearly irrelevant.
  2. Even if the average is stagnating, that does not mean that the wages for individuals is stagnating.  What is actually going on is that everyone's real wages are improving, but new low-skill low-wage immigrants and teenagers move in behind them and bring the average down.  If you showed real wages for people who were in the work force in 1980 without any entrants after that, average wages would be way up.  The average is less important, from a general well-being standpoint, than what is happening to individuals.

The New York Sun (Hat tip: Most all the libertarian blogosphere) that also takes on these issues.  The author makes the further distinction between individual and family income, and argues you also need to correct for changing family sizes.

The American family has
shrunk due to changes in society, such as more divorces, longer
life-expectancy for women, and fewer children. So family income in 2004
cannot correctly be compared to family income in 1964 "” today's family
income is spread around fewer people.

Adjusting for decreasing family size, real median family income is
13% higher than in 1994, 22% higher than in 1984, 37% higher than in
1974, and 88% higher than in 1964. That's a significant increase.

Indefinite Detentions

Conservative pundits often observe that "this is a new type of war -- shouldn't the president have new powers to fight it?"  Well, maybe.  But I think there is a question that is at least as valid:  "Given that enemy combatants don't wear uniforms any more, shouldn't we exercise more care than in the past in how we designate people as combatants?"  The much greater ambiguity in naming combatants would seem to demand extra layers of process protection and appeal rights for such persons.

Unfortunately, this Administration, with the aid and comfort of the US Congress, has gone exactly in the opposite direction.  As Jim Bovard writes, via Cato-at-Liberty:

The MCA awarded Bush the power to label anyone on earth an enemy
combatant and lock then up in perpetuity, nullifying the habeas corpus
provision of the Constitution and "turning back the clock 800 years,"
as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) said. While only foreigners can be tried
before military tribunals, Americans accused of being enemy combatants
can be detained indefinitely without charges and without appeal. Even
though the Pentagon has effectively admitted that many of the people
detained at Guantanamo were wrongfully seized and held, the MCA
presumes that the president of the United States is both omniscient and
always fair.

Sixty years ago, when the military hauled in a guy dressed in a gray Wermacht uniform captured in the Ardennes Forest, you kindof gave them the benefit of the doubt that he was an enemy combatant.  How long until merely exercising free speech rights in favor of a terrorist group gets one labeled a "combatant."

Here We Go Again

It looks like my local and state governments are gearing up to take money from my business and give it to US Airways.  Because, you see, politicians don't have problems in elections if they lose a few anonymous small businesses, but they do feel vulnerable if their city loses a major corporate headquarters:

Metropolitan Phoenix has not faced losing such a significant hometown
company since America West Airlines went bankrupt in 1991.

"The decision will be driven by what's in the best interest of
the stakeholders, which includes the creditors, the shareholders and
our employees," said C.A. Howlett, US Airways' senior vice president of
public affairs.

Tempe may have the hometown advantage, but Atlanta will no doubt vigorously and publicly fight to capture the headquarters....

Valley lawmakers, business leaders and economic development officials,
who have been largely silent in public, are having informal, quiet
discussions with the airline. They say they want to keep the
headquarters local but disagree about how to accomplish that goal and
when to move forward with a plan.

"I don't think we're at a phase where we should be panicking," said
Darcy Renfro, Gov. Janet Napolitano's policy adviser on higher
education and economic development. "The governor is very engaged.
We've jumped on this as soon as we could to make sure that we are

Even as Napolitano and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon plan to meet with US
Airways CEO Doug Parker, possibly this week, some maintain it is too
early to devise a strategy.

Just great.  If they don't want to stay, let them go.  They can have Atlanta.  I have lived both places and wouldn't move from Arizona to Atlanta for any reason.  By the way, the Arizona politicians are downright subdued in their response vs. this craziness from Atlanta:

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin opposes the merger and recently blasted US Airways' customer service in a column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

What theory of government could possibly make it Ms. Franklin's job to opine about the relative merits of various private company's products in her official capacity as mayor?  Why does the Atlanta city government need to have an official position on a merger of two private companies?  The last time I remember public authorities vociferously opposing a merger, it was the Pennsylvania government trying to stop (successfully, in the end) the buyout of local company Amp by AlliedSignal.  And what did this achieve?  It allowed Amp to be bought by Tyco, which has been rocked by scandal.  Pennsylvania stockholders who ended up with Tyco rather than AlliedSignal (now Honeywell) stock were much worse off several years later, as were Amp employees who traded AlliedSignal for Tyco as their boss.

One of the reasons I like Arizona is that we actually have a pretty strong libertarian streak here, going back to Barry Goldwater and extending today with Congressman Jeff Flake.  So I must admit that this made me feel better, and is something you would hear from a politician in very few states:

"We would like to have that company here, but it will not make or break
Arizona. We have companies that are moving all the time," said Barrett
Marson, director of communications for the Arizona House of
Representatives. "We're growing by leaps and bounds. Arizona does not
have many headquarters, but it does just fine, thank you very much."

I have written about government subsidies of corporate relocations here and here, among many other places.

Thanks Alot, Amazon

First, on the good side, I thought this linkage was fine on the product page for my novel BMOC:


But this one made me laugh out loud:


Fart pen?  That's what I get for appealing to libertarians, I guess.  The tie with Glenn Reynolds is cool though.

By the way, you can buy a pdf of BMOC for $3.46* here.

* Don't ask why $3.46.  I don't know either.

Economic Question

Mickey Kaus says:

And I was excited about Windows XP,
because I thought its sturdier code would stop it from crashing. I was
wrong, at least for the early version of XP that I bought. Now I can't see a thing Vista's going to do for me that seems worth braving the inevitable Microsoft early teething problems.... Needless
to say, if everyone has this attitude Vista (and the need to buy new
computers powerful enough to run Vista, etc.) won't provide much of a
boost to the economy

Does upgrading an operating system just to fix bugs and flaws in the old version ever really "boost the economy?"  I mean, isn't that the broken Windows fallacy?

[sorry, I couldn't resist.  You don't get many chances at an economics joke]

Its All Monopoly Money

A lot of bad legislation has been passed to protect consumers from the "scourge" of monopoly.  The most common fear is that some company will lock up the market and then start raising prices.  This never happens in real life, because entry in most markets is far easier than most people imagine, particularly in modern America where there are so many accumulations of capital looking for a way to be spent.  In fact, the only time such price-gouging monopolies are ever sustainable is when they are backed by the coercive power of government.

The milk market, for decades one of the most egregious examples of government price-fixing for the benefit of producers over consumers, provides us with a perfect example of this phenomena:  A cartel charging too high of prices that is taken on by a maverick price-cutting outsider, who was on a path to success until the feds slapped him down.

In the summer of 2003, shoppers in Southern California began getting a break on the price of milk.

maverick dairyman named Hein Hettinga started bottling his own milk and
selling it for as much as 20 cents a gallon less than the competition,
exercising his right to work outside the rigid system that has
controlled U.S. milk production for almost 70 years. Soon the effects
were rippling through the state, helping to hold down retail prices at
supermarkets and warehouse stores.

That was when a coalition of giant milk companies and dairies, along
with their congressional allies, decided to crush Hettinga's
initiative. For three years, the milk lobby spent millions of dollars
on lobbying and campaign contributions and made deals with lawmakers,
including incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

March, Congress passed a law reshaping the Western milk market and
essentially ending Hettinga's experiment -- all without a single
congressional hearing.

The most hilarious (or disgusting, depending on my mood) part is listening to the statements of other milk producers complaining about the new competition and price-cutting, something the rest of us in business face as a matter of routine, but from which the privileged few in the dairy business are shielded:

Hettinga's operation was "damaging to the marketplace," said Elvin
Hollon, director of economic analysis for Dairy Farmers of America.
"Nobody ever envisioned there would be such large handlers" outside the

"So," Hollon said, "the regulations had to change."

and this:

In an interview later, Nunes called the milk legislation a victory for
"every dairy farmer in America except those who were gaming the
system." He added, "People out there were making millions of dollars a
year off the backs of America's dairy farmers . . . that was a wrong
that was finally righted.

That last paragraph is so brazen you may not even get it ... he is referring to competitors that are charging lower prices.  They are "making millions of dollars off the backs of America's dairy farmers" the same way the Honda Civic made millions of dollars off the back of the Yugo.  Under the new law passed by the dairy industry's cronies, Hettinga can still operate like he has been, as long as he pays $400,000 each year to his competitors to make up for the fact that he is out-competing them.

I will say I probably would like this guy -- he is able to look on the bright side:

"I still think this is a great country," Hettinga said. "In Mexico, they would have just shot me."

Yeah, we're much better here.  The government only rapes rather than kills you.

Shameless Appeal

The 2006 Weblog Awards continue -- this year we are in the blogs ranked 1751-2500.  Please cast your vote for Coyote Blog hereRemember that you can vote once per day! 

Proposal: No New Federal Funds to Louisiana

We have a federal system in this country, so Louisianans are welcome, I guess, to run their state any way they please.  However, in light of recent events, I propose that the US Government stop sending any of our federal tax money to the state.  Maybe we could send the money instead to a country with a better government that is more likely not to use it corruptly, like maybe Haiti.

All of this is in light of recent events.  I guess most will consider the 1991 gubernatorial election between a convicted felon and a Klansman old history (the felon won).  More recently I think anyone who isn't just looking to blame every problem in the world on GWB would come to the conclusion that local Louisiana government had more to do with the worst aspects of Katrina (both before, in the corrupt levee districts and after, in the pathetic disaster response) than any other public entity.  The final straw comes today as the Congressman who was found with $90,000 in bribe money in Tupperware in his freezer (and god knows whatever he carried off with the aid of the National Guard during Katrina) was apparently reelected. 

Maybe we can find a better investment than sending our money to Louisiana.  Anyone have any Enron stock for sale?