Archive for February 2009

My Fervent Hope

That I never get my business in a situation where I have to spend $45,000 just to lay off a worker.

General Motors is offering buyouts to virtually all of its remaining hourly workers, becoming the latest automaker to try to cut labor costs by giving nervous workers an incentive to leave the company.

The move follows a similar move by Chrysler LLC, which made an offer to its hourly workers on Monday.

The GM (GM, Fortune 500) offer, which takes effect Friday, is less lucrative than the deal proposed by Chrysler, or even offers that GM has made to its hourly staff in the past. The automaker will give most of its 62,000 U.S. hourly workers $20,000, as well as a voucher good towards the purchase of a GM car worth $25,000.

In the past, GM offered between $45,000 to $62,500 to workers to retire early, and $140,000 to employees who left the company and agreed to give up post-retirement health care coverage. Those offers were all cash.

Seriously, is this driven by GM contracts, or is this just GM's choice as an alternative to firing everyone?  There are cases when it makes sense for a company to go through the added expense of worker buyouts vs. layoffs.   The buyouts avoid the bad press of a layoff, they help maintain the company's reputation in the remaining workforce and community, and may not be a bad investment for a company temporarily on hard times that knows good times, and the need to hire more quality employees, are just around the corner.

But seriously, do automakers really have anything to lose at this point to lose?  And if the main reason for buyouts over layoffs is reputational, is this really what we want our tax money funding, the maintenance of the good name of GM management?

Vegas, Baby

Apparently Wells Fargo is catching grief for having an internal conference in Las Vegas.  Tigerhawk defends Wells Fargo.  I don't know if the meeting if the meeting made business sense to hold in the first place (and I don't want to be in the business of caring which is yet another really good reason for the government not to be investing my money in these companies).  But I can tell you that Vegas makes tons of sense for a business conference.

My company has managers located all across the country, which makes it sound like we might be a really big company but in fact we are not.  It just turns out that we have a process that allows us to accept relatively small contracts around the country and still turn a profit.  Being small, and with profit margins well under 10% of revenues, I can assure you that we do not spend any money on items or events that are frivolous or superfluous boondoggles.  Against this backdrop, here are two things I can say with confidence:

  • You have to physically gather all you key managers and/or employees in one place from time to time.  No amount of teleconferencing and email can substitute for occasional face-to-face meetings.  We get all of our managers together for a week once every two years, and I wish I could afford to do it more often.
  • Given the fact that we have to meet somewhere, Vegas is just about the cheapest place in the country to hold a national meeting.  There are tons of cheap flights there from everywhere.  And since the hotels have  away of earning money from visitors that most other hotels in the country do not have (ie from gambling) they discount the rooms below equivalent quality rooms in most other large cities.  On top of this, every hotel I have used for a meeting in Vegas had great meeting facilities and really knew how to provide meeting and catering services.  Finally, many (but not all) of my employees love to go to Vegas, and consider the trip a treat/reward.  So, I get a positive reaction from my employees for taking them to one of the cheapest possible places.  A win-win for sure.

Update on Light Rail Alternative

Yesterday I posted on a new bus system Phoenix is implementing but that appears to cost 30x less than the light rail system we just built.  I wrote Randal O'Toole of Cato, also known as "the AntiPlanner," to see what he knew about this system.  Here is what he was wrote back"

Yes, I've written about it a lot. The best system is in Kansas City, where they didn't feel they had to spend $750,000 to make a $300,000 bus look futuristic.

Take a look at my blog, and search for "bus rapid transit" to see some articles on better bus service. Here is the article about Kansas City BRT:

Here is an article about Eugene's bus-rapid transit, which was a stupid waste of money:

The only thing good about it is that it didn't waste as much money as light rail. But that's like saying you'd rather be stabbed in the heart with a three-inch knife than a six-inch one.

The Eugene mess he refers to has the city building a dedicated bus lane, something Phoenix fortunately is not considering, opting for a traffic light transponder approach rather than dedicated lanes to try to hold schedules.  Here is a snippet of what he wrote about Kansas City:

In 2005, Kansas City did a wonderful thing: It started a bus-rapid transit system the way bus-rapid transit ought to be done. The transit agency didn't spend hundreds of millions of dollars building exclusive bus lanes. It didn't buy million-dollar buses just to have a semi-futuristic look.

Instead, it simply began running buses on existing streets on rail schedules. That is, the buses stop only once per mile and the operate three to four times every hour from 4:20 am to 11:20 pm. The greater frequencies and faster buses increased ridership by 25 to 30 percent (see page 11), and most of these new riders were new to transit.

The city built inexpensive but easily identifiable transit stops for the route. The buses were regular buses but were "branded," that is, painted in an easily recognizable style. In short, Kansas City achieved the kind of ridership increases that light rail would achieve for a tiny fraction of the cost.

In other words, the basic idea makes great sense, but spending a million bucks a bus (as Phoenix plans) just to make the bus look like a train is crazy.

All true, but I might be willing to give in on the more expensive busses if thats what it takes to kill this crazy infatuation with steel rails.   In the Phoenix Mesa Link example, they are probably spending $4.5 million too much for the train-like busses, but if that gives public officials the ability to walk past the light rail buffet and save the $800 million extra rail would have cost, I might consider that a good investment.

Light Rail Alternative

Apparently, Phoenix is experimenting with a new style of bus transport that looks and operates like a train:

The Mesa Link debuted the same week as light rail. For now, Link involves a fleet of 10 buses. Each $756,000 vehicle carries a transponder to coordinate traffic lights and keep the bus on schedule for a 12-mile run in 45 minutes.

It's the start of a much more ambitious program.

Over the next few months, the Regional Public Transportation Authority, which coordinates Valley Metro bus service, will build stations and add technology to the Mesa line to give it more of the pace and feel of a train.

Basically, they are building the thing to look and operate like a light rail train, only running on tires on the existing road.    The travel time may seem slow, but it is nearly identical to the average speed of our light rail line (20 miles in a claimed 70 minutes, though a number of riders say its slower).  And the capacity is nearly identical.

So with the same speed and the same capacity and similar scheduled service with similar style stations, here is the real appeal:

In 2010, a second line will be created to run 12 miles along Arizona Avenue in Mesa and Chandler. It will feature 10 stations and cost $28 million for construction and the purchase of nine buses. Future lines are planned for Scottsdale Road, Baseline Road and Chandler Boulevard.

The 20-mile light-rail line cost $1.4 billion to build.

Holy cr*p.  $70 million a mile for light rail vs. $2.3 million a mile for this system.   That is 30x cheaper.  The only discernible difference is one runs on steel rails and the other on tires.  Oh, and the rail line, in most places it was built, completely removed up to two lanes of existing roadway capacity, while the bus-type system leaves the roadway intact and just uses a fraction of one lane's capacity.

Now, I would have to sit down and look at the numbers and the service profile to decide if this new bus system made sense financially vs. the old bus system, but why are we even considering extending light rail?  And why oh why did we build this white elephant in the first place.

Conservatives and Police

Radley Balko is having a back and forth with a guest blogger at Patterico over the drug war and violent crime.  Balko is always worth checking out, because while many of us bloggers may call ourselves the new media, we are mostly just a bunch of op-ed pages.  Balko is one of the few major bloggers out there doing real reporting.

One part of the discussion caught my attention:

Second, JRM leaves out the rest of my discussion of police militarization in the piece, which includes the very real, not-made-up statistic based on police department surveys done by Peter Kraska showing the number of SWAT deployments in the U.S. jumping from a few hundred per year in the 1970s to 50,000 or more per year today. Most of these SWAT deployments are to serve drug warrants. JRM can disagree, but my point is that even if these raids don't produce a single gun shot (though we know that's far from the case), that's a disturbing trend. The image of state agents dressed in black, kicking down doors, and wresting people out of bed at gunpoint in order to police nonviolent crimes just isn't one I associated with a free society (oddly enough, some prominent conservatives agree, at least when other countries do it).

Perhaps because I read this as my inbox is filled with Minuteman missives (I don't know how they got the impression I was somehow sympathetic to their cause) asking me to send a valentine to agents Compean and Ramos, but I sometimes really wonder about conservatives.

Conservatives distrust government and government bureaucrats.  Many understand public choice theory.  Many understand how faulty incentives within government can turn even good, smart people into stupid bad actors.

So I am left to wonder why conservatives feel ever so much better about the situation when the government employee is given a gun, and the unique authority to use it on the citizenry?

Coyote Blog First Ever Roundup Post

I don't really do news roundup posts, because losts of other folks do them better.  But there were a few things I wanted to blog on today and just don't have time, and rather than lose them, here they are briefly:

  1. Twitter seems to be the data mining tool of the future.  I have seen a number of dynamic maps and graphs of late using Twitter data.  The NY Times has as good of an example as any with this dynamic map showing twitter content by city and time during the SuperbowlFlowing Data has a bunch more.   Just remember the rules before you data mine:   Cool, trendy application run by hip Internet guys  -- data mining OK.  Bad evil credit card company trying to make billion dollar credit decisions -- data mining not OK.
  2. This is one of the first times I have seen an Internet contest like this go on for so long without a  winner.  Twelve structures, you just need to say which is a church and which is not.
  3. There has always been a certain cognitive dissonance between a) media portrayals of employment at Wal-Mart as equivilent to a new ring in Dant's inferno and b) the reality of lines hundreds of persons long for just a few job openings at Wal-Mart.  Charles Platt was curious about this too, and so set out to work at Wal-Mart to see what it was like.

HT:  Maggie's Farm for the second two.

Repeating Mistakes Over, and Over, and Over...

I have come to the conclusion that politicians believe Americans all have Alzheimers.  And, given the lamentable state of the media, they may be right.

Example 1

We can argue about stimulus and the Depression all we want, but I had, until the last few days, thought the absolute one thing we all 100% agreed on is that the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and the trade war they sparked were one of the leading causes of the worldwide economic death spiral in the late 20's and 30's.  Or not:

The stimulus bill passed by the House Wednesday contains a controversial provision that would mostly bar foreign steel and iron from the infrastructure projects laid out by the $819 billion economic package. A Senate version, yet to be acted upon, goes further, requiring, with few exceptions, that all stimulus-funded projects use only American-made equipment and goods.

Here is a nice story of another "Buy American" steel fiasco.

Example 2

Last year -- I am talking about just 3 months ago -- I thought it was fairly clear that the immediate cause for the financial meltdown for which the TARP bailout was being crafted was the systematic relaxation of underwriting standards that led to large numbers of loans (and their lenders, securitizers, etc) going belly-up.  Folks could argue whether this was because of deregulation or greed or government distortions and interventions, but I thought there was not doubt that poor credit judgment and excessively free credit were at the heart of the problem.  Or not:

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank said President Barack Obama will require banks receiving government aid to lend more to businesses and consumers, saying the Bush administration "made a mistake" by not setting stricter rules for institutions getting funds from the $700 billion financial-rescue package.

"I think you're going to see the Obama administration, having learned from that, push for much more lending," Frank said today on ABC's This Week. "There are going to be some real rules in there."

So Frank and Obama are upset that the bailout of banks that were overgenerous on credit did not include provisions to force them to be more generous with credit?

Final thought: At the end of the day, businesses and individuals have a felt need to deleverage.  That is going to cause a recession, end of story.  The Congress's and Obama Administration's obsession with short-circuiting this sensible desire to reduce debt is not only counter-productive, it is offensive.  Banks are sensibly trying to strengthen their balance sheets, but the government wants to stop them.  Individuals are trying to cut back on spending, reduce debt, and save more.  Again, the government wants to stop them, by going to debt and spending for them if consumers won't do it on their own.