Archive for May 2009

Cool Trompe L'oeil

Oh, Just Great

Richard Epstein on Sotomayor:

Here is one straw in the wind that does not bode well for a Sotomayor appointment. Justice Stevens of the current court came in for a fair share of criticism (all justified in my view) for his expansive reading in Kelo v. City of New London (2005) of the "public use language." Of course, the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment is as complex as it is short: "Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." But he was surely done one better in the Summary Order in Didden v. Village of Port Chester issued by the Second Circuit in 2006. Judge Sotomayor was on the panel that issued the unsigned opinion"“one that makes Justice Stevens look like a paradigmatic defender of strong property rights.

I have written about Didden in Forbes. The case involved about as naked an abuse of government power as could be imagined. Bart Didden came up with an idea to build a pharmacy on land he owned in a redevelopment district in Port Chester over which the town of Port Chester had given Greg Wasser control. Wasser told Didden that he would approve the project only if Didden paid him $800,000 or gave him a partnership interest. The "or else" was that the land would be promptly condemned by the village, and Wasser would put up a pharmacy himself. Just that came to pass. But the Second Circuit panel on which Sotomayor sat did not raise an eyebrow. Its entire analysis reads as follows: "We agree with the district court that [Wasser's] voluntary attempt to resolve appellants' demands was neither an unconstitutional exaction in the form of extortion nor an equal protection violation."

Maybe I am missing something, but American business should shudder in its boots if Judge Sotomayor takes this attitude to the Supreme Court.

I covered the Didden case back in 2006, where I called it "the worst government abuse I have seen lately," an abuse that has since been Okay-ed by Sotomayor.

Update: I guess given his actions in Chrysler, Obama was happy to nominate a Supreme Court justice who gives a legal pass to outright blackmail.

Nobody I Know Voted for Nixon

From a NY Times review of  "The Goode Family" via Tom Nelson:

But the show feels aggressively off-zeitgeist, as if it had been incubated in the early to mid-'90s when it was still possible to find global-warming skeptics among even the reasonable and informed. But who really thinks of wind power "” an allusion to which is a running visual gag in the show "” as mindless, left-wing nonsense anymore?

My apparently not reasonable and informed climate site is here.  Wind strikes me as the very embodiment of the typical leftish program -- it is very expensive, it makes people feel really good about themselves for supporting it, and it does almost nothing to achieve its stated goals.   To the latter point, wind can produce a lot of power, but it typically does little to reduce fossil fuel emissions as its unpredictability and variablity require a hot bockup that is still likely producing CO2.  As a result, the experience in the two largest wind users in the world - Germany and Denmark - is that huge investments in wind yield little or no reduction in emissions.

Licensing is Anti-Consumer, Health Care Edition

I have written a zillion times that government licensing programs tend to be incumbent protection from competition for the licensees, rather than any real benefit to consumers.  This is particularly true in health care.

Why does a person need to go to school and residency for a decade to put three stitches in a kid's cut?  Why do I have to go to a full dentist's office to get my teeth cleaned?  Why does someone have to go to school for years to tell me my contact lens strength needs to be incremented by another 0.5, when I already knew that and could have just ordered them myself?  The reason is licensing, and it both increases prices by limiting the number of providers and by forcing me to see someone who is often wildly overqualified to handle my problem.

My sense is that this over-licensing for routine functions in medicine is the second largest contributor to costs (the first is the elimination of price-shopping by  making the payor for the services different from the person who receives the services).  But don't expect the government, long in thrall to the AMA, to do anything about this in any health care "reform":

bills and amendments died during the Texas legislative session that would have allowed advanced practice nurses to diagnose and to prescribe for common, minor illness and injures without doctor supervision.

You can blame Texas doctors.

Despite better protections from malpractice lawsuits and lower malpractice premiums, Texas has a doctor shortage. Nevertheless, the Texas Medical Association took every step to ensure physicians will have a tight rein on the activities of well-trained nurses.

The barrier against nurses will continue to keep low-fee retail health clinics, such as those operated by Walgreen and CVS drug store chains, from expanding in Texas. The state law requiring doctor supervision adds too much cost to the clinics.

Texas has only about 85 of the 1,200 retail health clinics in the nation. San Antonio does not have a single one. The clinics are popular wherever they exist because nurse practitioners can treat common ailments and minor injuries with little waiting time and fees that average about $60, much less than emergency rooms. The clinics operate evenings and weekends and accept insurance plans.

The clinics would represent real health care reform, especially in Texas. Most of the state, 179 counties out of 254, is classified as medically underserved. Among them are 45 metropolitan counties, including Bexar.  (hat tip:  Carpe Diem)

Postscript: But Coyote, how can you possibly be against licensing of doctors?  You wouldn't want just anyone doing open heart surgery on you, would you?

No, I wouldn't, but while AMA licensing is overkill for putting in stitches, it falls short of what I would want for heart surgery, or oncology, or major plastic surgery.  I would not just accept any licensed doctor to do these things - I would do research and get referrals.  I would enforce a higher standard.  And this is why broad licensing is so un-helpful.  It is overkill for certain procedures, but falls short for others.  I guess their may be a Goldilocks application for current licensing (maybe for my GP?) but that is almost an accident.

I don't oppose third party certifications per se.  I think that in a free society, many groups, such as the AMA (or consumers reports, or the UL, or whoever) could act as certification or review bodies for different medical practices.  And I would very likely as a consumer find such an organization I trust and insist the providers I used for certain procedures be minimally approved by this group.

Government and Cost-Cutting

Government officials have mastered the cost-cutting game, or should I say the cost-non-cutting game.  The trick they have learned is that whenever budget or tax cuts are proposed, they threaten to cut the most critical expenditures.

Now, as I have pointed out, such behavior in a private company would result in one's termination.

When I was in the corporate world, if I wanted extra funds for my projects, I would have to go in and say "Here are all my projects.  I have ranked them from 1-30 from the most to least valuable.  Right now I have enough money for the first 12.  I would like funding for number 13.  Here is my case."

But the government works differently.  When your local government is out of money, and wants a tax increase, what do they threaten to cut?  In Seattle, it was always emergency services.  "Sorry, we are out of money, we have to shut down the fire department and ambulances."  I kid you not "” the city probably has a thirty person massage therapist licensing organization and they cut ambulances first.   In California it is the parks.   "Sorry, we are out of money.  To meet our budget, we are going to have to close down our 10 most popular parks that get the most visitation."  The essence of government budgeting brinkmanship is not to cut project 13 when you only have money for 12 projects, but to cut project #1.

I can just see me going to Chuck Knight at Emerson Electric and saying "Chuck, I don't have enough money.  If you don't give me more, we are going to have to cut the funds for the government-mandated frequency modification on our transmitters, which means we won't have any product to sell next month."  I would be out on my ass in five minutes.  It just floors me that this seems to keep working in the government.  Part of it is that the media is just so credulous when it comes to this kind of thing, in part because scare stories of cut services fit so well into their business model.

Matt Welch has a great 8-point takedown of similar scare story on the current California budget crisis.  You should definitely read it, but I wanted to add a #9 -- this idea that the core, rather than the marginal, expense is always the first to be cut.  From the LA Times:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed slashing state spending on education by $3 billion to help close the budget gap, and the state would pay dearly for canceling classes, firing instructors, cutting class days and shortening the school year, experts said.

Promising students would go to other states, taking their future skills, earnings and, possibly, Nobel Prizes elsewhere. California companies would then find it harder to attract high-value employees who might be dubious about moving to a state with sub-par schools. [...]

John Sedgwick, co-founder of Santa Clara solar-energy company Solaicx, agreed.

"When you think about the genesis of Silicon Valley, it really started from its superior educational base" at Stanford and UC Berkeley, said Sedgwick, whose company makes the building blocks for photovoltaic cells. "That indicates that you don't want to kill the goose that's laying the golden eggs." [...]

The only way the most "promising" students would be affected is if, when the schools cut back, the best professors (rather than the worst) are fired and the most promising students (rather than the most marginal) are denied admission for limited spots.  Really?  If Berkeley has 10 fewer spots, it's going to start cutting admissions with the Physics wiz kid who had a 2400 on her SAT?

Further, is it really true that California only attracts people to its work force who went to school in California?  A top Michigan or Harvard grad won't do just as well?  I went to college in New Jersey yet have never held a job in that state.

Now, I understand that part of the argument is that workers may not come if the local primary schools for their kids are bad.  And that is true.  But California has had poor performing schools despite years of high and increasing spending.  Matt has much more on this in his piece.

Postscript: Of course, as crazy as it seems, there may be some reality to this threat.  I could easily see the University of California system, when faced with the choice of cutting back on some post-modernist social science program or a physics program that has produced 7 Nobel Laureates, choosing the latter to cut in a fit of outrageous political correctness.

At the primary level, it is very possible that the bloated school administrations filled with rafts of useless assistant principals will choose to fire teachers rather than themselves.  So unfortunately the plans to cut the most useful spending in a crisis and keep the most useless is not just a threat, it is a reality.

Cortlandt Homes

In India, Tata corp.  has a plan to build condos that would sell for as little as $8000 a unit.  Which got me thinking about the cost of regulation in the US.  Take California, a state that has an explicit government goal to promote affordable housing.  My bet is that the permitting alone would cost more than $8000 a unit, and building code mandates would certainly make such a figure impossible.

I have always thought it funny that residents of the San Diego coast, with perhaps the mildest climate in the country, have the most onerous requirements in the country for insulation and air conditioning efficiency.  Its like requiring residents of Seattle to put on sun screen every day.

Bait and Switch

Bruce McQuain points out this statement by Obama that is just staggering in its mendaciousness (emphasis added)

In a sobering holiday interview with C-SPAN, President Obama boldly told Americans: "We are out of money."

C-SPAN host Steve Scully broke from a meek Washington press corps with probing questions for the new president.

SCULLY: You know the numbers, $1.7 trillion debt, a national deficit of $11 trillion. At what point do we run out of money?

OBAMA: Well, we are out of money now. We are operating in deep deficits, not caused by any decisions we've made on health care so far. This is a consequence of the crisis that we've seen and in fact our failure to make some good decisions on health care over the last several decades.

WTF?  The current deficit is because of health care decisions?  What happened to TARP and that crazy-large trillion dollar "stimulus" package and Chrysler and AIG and GM and all those other bailouts?  Sure, there is a looming Medicare bankruptcy, but that has little to do with the deficit numbers quoted.

We libertarians have always warned that the modus operandi of government is the following:  The government creates a problem.  Then the government uses that problem as justification for more government action.  Repeat.  Is there any clearer evidence than this from Obama?  He wastes a couple of trillion dollars in his first months in office propping up the constituent groups who got him elected, and then blames the spending on health care, which gives him an entree to ... spend more money on health care.

I couldn't be more depressed about the state of our country than I am right now.

Again, the Problem Is Not Gitmo per se...

...the problem is indefinite detentions.  But in its general sloppiness, the press over the last 8 years has branded the problem as "Guantanamo Bay," giving Obama the ability to claim progress by closing Gitmo, while still maintaining the right to indefinite detention at the Administration's pleasure.

I guess we have to take our allies where we find them in defending the Constitution, so I will quote Russ Feingold's thoughts here (despite his history of legislative attacks on the First Ammendment).  Via Q&O:

While I recognize that your administration inherited detainees who, because of torture, other forms of coercive interrogations, or other problems related to their detention or the evidence against them, pose considerable challenges to prosecution, holding them indefinitely without trial is inconsistent with the respect for the rule of law that the rest of your speech so eloquently invoked. Indeed, such detention is a hallmark of abusive systems that we have historically criticized around the world....

Once a system of indefinite detention without trial is established, the temptation to use it in the future would be powerful. And, while your administration may resist such a temptation, future administrations may not. There is a real risk, then, of establishing policies and legal precedents that rather than ridding our country of the burden of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, merely set the stage for future Guantanamos, whether on our shores or elsewhere, with disastrous consequences for our national security.

Bruce McQuain concludes:

Anyone monitoring what Barack Obama has been saying since taking the oath of office who doesn't see a rather large authoritarian streak in the man hasn't been paying attention. What he is suggesting is blatantly worse than what the Bush administration did. Unfortunately, it is mostly being lost in the ground clutter of the financial crisis. But it is certainly there for those who take the time to look.

Update:  This Rachel Maddow video on Obama's speech is great. She calls it the Department of Pre-Crime based on the Phillip K Dick novel and Tom Cruise movie:

It's Not A Tax Problem, It's A Spending Problem

Via Matt Welch, in response to a Paul Krugman editorial lamenting that California's fiscal problems are all due to prop 13.

Here is where the traditional liberal argument loses me. The California budget "emergency" isn't a tax problem, it's a spending problem. State spending in the past two decades, as this Reason Foundation report [PDF] spells out, has increased 5.37 percent a year (and nearly 7 percent for the past decade), compared to a population-plus-inflation growth rate of 4.38 percent. If the budget growth rate had been limited to the population-inflation growth rate, the state would be sitting on a $15 billion surplus right now. Surely enough to dip into during a real emergency. What's more, despite this alleged tax straightjacket, Californians manage to still pay 21.9 percent in state and local taxes, compared to 14.5 percent for Texas.

Friday Picture

I thought this was really cool.  I am not really into caption contests, but there seem to be so many possibilities for this one.   The first 9/11 that wasn't?  An early Air Force One photo op?


via Shorpy

The Inevitable Result of Government Bailout of Newspapers

A great morality play is running in southern California that gives a pretty clear view into where government funding of newspapers will lead.  Unfortunately, the article I have (via Glen Reynolds) is not written very clearly.  Here are the key facts:

  1. New ownership buys San Diego Union-Tribune, apparently the city's largest newspaper
  2. The new ownership group is funded in part by investments from public pension funds
  3. Public officials argue that since the paper is owned in part with some of their money, the newspaper should no longer be allowed to criticize public officials

Here is their demand:

As [police union] League President Paul M. Weber views it, that makes the League part owner in the flagging Tribune and League officials are none to happy with the paper's consistent position that San Diego lawmakers should cut back on salaries and benefits for public employees in order to help close gaping budget deficits.

"Since the very public employees they continually criticize are now their owners, we strongly believe that those who currently run the editorial pages should be replaced," Weber wrote in a March 26 letter to Platinum CEO Tom Gores.

Seems pretty plain to me.  And I see no reason why government officials, who always long to avoid criticism, wouldn't use investments of public funds to exercise the same leverage.  By the way, I loved this line:

"It's just these people on the opinion side. There is not even an attempt to be even-handed. They're one step away from saying, "˜these public employees are parasites,' " Weber said.

OK, if they won't say it, I will: "Those public employees are parasites."

GM = Chrysler Redux

I have not blogged much in the last week on the Obama takeover of GM, but you can take all my old Chrysler posts and just substitute "GM" for "Chrysler" and you will have it pretty much straight.   Having gotten away with hammering secured creditors in favor of the UAW at Chrysler, Obama is setting the same course at GM.  Via Q&O:

The United Auto Workers retiree health fund is set to own as much as 39 percent of the restructured GM, in exchange for giving up its claim to at least $10 billion that the company owes it....

The chief obstacle to an out-of-court settlement for GM remains: There has been no agreement between the company and the investors who hold $27 billion worth of GM bonds.

Under orders from the Obama administration, GM has offered to give the bondholders a 10 percent equity stake in the restructured company in exchange for giving up their bonds.

Hmmm...  let's give unsecured creditor the UAW a 10x better deal than the secured creditors.  No wonder Obama wants to keep this out of bankruptcy court -- laws and contracts and stuff actually would have to be applied there.   But the company will be set for the future -- the US and Canadian governments will control a majority of the board seats, with the rest presumably controlled by the UAW.  Does everybody believe me now when I say we are heading toward a European-style corporate state?

The only thing standing in the way, of course, is those pesky secured creditors, who are actually holding out for what they are legally and contractually due.   Obama's got a bit more difficulty here at GM than at Chrysler because a smaller percentage of the secured creditors are TARP recipients, and therefore he has less leverage to make them give up their rights  (at Chrysler, the TARP majority was pressured successfully into selling out their non-TARP brethren among the creditors).

Of course, Obama has the advantage of Chrysler as a precedent, which makes it pretty clear why he set Chrysler up as the first to be intimidated, as he had the most leverage over them with TARP recipients in the creditor group.  Interestingly, this is very similar to how the UAW has always dealt with the Big 3, targeting the most vulnerable for pressure in contract talks, and then using that settlement as a precedent in the rest of industry.  One wonders if the UAW hasn't been whispering in his ear through this whole process.

Linking Your Fate to Obama

When purchasing some Amtrak tickets earlier today, I encountered a link to an organization selling carbon offsets.  Does anyone else think, after looking at this organization's logo, that they have decided to hitch their wagon to Obama's coattails?  I guess there is an "O" in their name, but groups seldom adopt the fifth letter of a ten-letter word as their initial.

Don't miss some of my past criticisms of double and triple counting in the offset world here and here and here and here.

Phoenix Light Rail Fail -- Half My Light Rail Bet Settled

When Phoenix was building its light rail system, I made the following two-part bet:

  1. I could take all the money spent on construction and easily buy a Prius for every single daily rider, with money to spare
  2. I could take the operating deficits for light rail and buy everyone gas to run their Prius 10,000 miles per year and still have money left over.

This bet has been tested in a number of cities, including LA and Albuquerque, and I have not lost yet.  Now the numbers are in for Phoenix initial ridership, and I am winning the first half of my bet in a landslide.

The other day, Phoenix trumpeted that its daily ridership had reached 37,000 boardings per weekday.  Since most of those people have two boardings per day (one each direction) we can think of this as 18,500 people making a round trip each day.

Well, if we bought each of these folks a brand new Prius III for $23,000 it would cost us just over $425 million.  This is WAY less than the $1.4 billion we pay to move them by rail instead.   We could have bought every regular rider a Prius and still have a billion dollars left over!  And, having a Prius, they would be able to commute and get good gas mileage anywhere they wanted to go in Phoenix, rather than just a maximum of 20 miles on just one line.  Sure, I suppose one could argue that light rail is still relatively new and will grow, but even if ridership triples, I still win the fist half of my bet.  And as the system expands, my bet just looks better, as every single expansion proposal has been at a cost of $100 million a mile or more, more expensive than the first 20 miles.

So now, all we have to do is wait to see the operating results to settle the second half of my bet.  If common practice is followed from other metro areas, this will be extremely difficult to prove because the authority will do everything it can to hide the huge operating dollar hole light rail is creating.

But Coyote, what about congestion?

I am glad you asked.  Folks will argue that rail reduces congestion.  Normally, I would agree but argue that it reduces congestion at way too high of a price.  But for Phoenix light rail, it may even be that rail makes congestion worse.

Here is why:  In building Phoenix light rail, the city along most of the line had to remove two lanes of traffic (one each way) to build the line.  So here is the comparison:

  • Light rail carries 37,000 trips per day or about 2,000 per hour  (1,000 each way) through its 18-hour operating day, though certainly there are peaks and valleys around this average
  • A typical lane of road has a capacity of 2000 cars per hour, so light rail removed 4,000 cars per hour of road capacity (2,000 each way).  Its unclear how many riders this equates to, but the average car in the city has 1.5 passengers, so we will call this a road capacity of 6,000 trips per hour (3,000 each way).

So, we have replaced roads that can carry 6,000 trips per hour with train tracks carrying 2,000 trips per hour.  Sure, the train carries more than 2,000 in some peak periods, but probably not more than the road it replaced was capable of carrying.  Further, I can attest from personal experience that the complexity of trains on the road and passing through intersections screws up the timing of lights and results in lost capacity on the roads in the area that remain.

A Thought on Sports Team Subsidies

I would love to see the ridership of the light rail on days with and without a baseball game or basketball game downtown.  My sense is that a significant portion of the ridership is from game attendees (its the only time I have found it useful to ride the train).  If this is the case, then this massive overspending for light rail represents yet another subsidy for professional sports teams.

By the way, I just realized that I am underestimating the financial cost to the city of the train.  Most sports fans ride it not as a transit substitute per se but as a parking substitute -- the train allows one to park cheaply away from downtown and ride the the game without traffic hassles.  I wonder how much the lost $15 a pop parking in city lots by the stadium due to the train is costing the city?

Light Rail Hurts the Working Poor

I think it is always important to reiterate why light rail is such a threat to the working poor who depend on transit.  As I wrote the other day:

"¦light rail is simply not transit for the working poor. It is transit for yuppies that happens to be used by some working poor.  They are built for white collar workers commuting to town who are too high and mighty to be caught dead in a "grubby" bus.  But since light rail is orders of magnitude more expensive than buses, two things happen in every city that ever builds light rail.

1) Light rail fares skyrocket to cover their immense operating deficits and capital costs, giving the lie to politicians that sold these systems as helping working poor.

2) Bus service, the form of transit that serves most of the working poor even today in the Bay Area, is cut back to help pay for rail.

Light rail is the worst enemy of providing transit services to the working poor ever devised in this country.

Paging Bill Simon

I am terrified that Obama will feel the need to bail out California.  I can't possibly think of  a worse use of my money, nor a worse precedent for the future.   Does anyone think that, in retrospect, Bill Simon's refusing to bail out New York City was the wrong decision.  NYC is not what I could call financially responsible, but they are paragons of virtue compared to what they were in the 1970's, and would have been had they not been forced to take ownership of their budget problems.

Postscript: My prediciton if Obama intervenes:  bondholders will get 10 cents on the dollar, and the SEIU will be given 55% ownership of California.

You Must Subsidize My Unrealistic Choices

I found this a fairly typical example of the thinking by the modern victim class.

Stimulus dollars for new fare boxes strikes me as very close to the extreme in Keynes's insight that stimulus from the gov't can be needed and serve well, when he said something like that a "stimulus" could be burying bottles of dollars under a field and people digging them up - his point being that ANY stimulus would help. 50+ yrs later, surely the thought that "yeah, but, a smarter-placed stimulus would have more effect." Stimulate the company (and its employees) that make fare boxes, or allow SF residents to not be yet further pressed for money? I think the latter is smarter, and am stunned that the former seems to be going to happen.

I beg you to write and publish something on this. Raising fares at Muni also has a ripple effect on local business -- I won't ride the bus on the wkend out into the neighborhoods and maybe use my little splurge money to buy something there. In addition to that, for MTA, I will be overall paying less to them (while feeling a lot more confined, riding a lot less). The fare increase will get less money from me, while imposing more hardship on me, and I will be putting less money into local business.

Thank you for noticing and writing of we "the working poor." We're increasing in number. I'm well-educated and under-employed, and right now just trying to get by each month. I am desperately trying to avoid having to move out of SF.

So here is the situation:

  • He is well-educated, presumably with portable skills, but insists on staying in San Francisco where he cannot find full employment.  My sense is he has not tried to find a job anywhere else in the country
  • He considers himself to be poor, but refuses to entertain the idea of living in the most expensive city in the country (save possibly Manhattan)
  • He wants the rest of us via stimulus money to to subsidize his rail transport to help him better live in a city that has no work for his skills and which is too expensive for him to afford

I am OK with helping out folks who have tried everything they can to make ends meet and still need help to survive.  But should I really be thrilled to rush to the aid of someone who refuses to take even the first and most obvious step to address their poverty?

I have moved 9 times in my life trying to make things work for me and my family. I loved Boulder CO the best, and would love to live there, but there is no work for me that fits my skills. I guess I could have stayed and lived their in a financial situation that is less than I desire, but if I did so, it would be hard for me to imagine that I would lash out at the rest of the world for not subsidizing my choice.

Postscript: These guys are on drugs thinking light rail is the answer for the working poor.  As I wrote in the comments:

...light rail is simply not transit for the working poor. It is transit for yuppies that happens to be used by some working poor.  They are built for white collar workers commuting to town who are too high and mighty to be caught dead in a "grubby" bus.  But since light rail is orders of magnitude more expensive than buses, two things happen in every city that ever builds light rail.

1) Light rail fares skyrocket to cover their immense operating deficits and capital costs, giving the lie to politicians that sold these systems as helping working poor.

2) Bus service, the form of transit that serves most of the working poor even today in the Bay Area, is cut back to help pay for rail.

Light rail is the worst enemy of providing transit services to the working poor ever devised in this country.

Government Regulates to the Mean, Plus More on Hidden Taxes

One of the seldom discussed problems with government regulation is that typical regulation is aimed at the "mean"  -- the mean worker, the mean industry participant, the mean driver, whatever.  The problem is that there are 300 million of us with vastly different lives and different preferences.  One-size-fits-all regulations are often a poor fit for many of those regulated.

Take the Fair Labor Standards Act (which includes minimum wages, maximum work weeks, record-keeping requirements, etc).  The Fair Labor Standards Act is written for factory workers who come in the door at 9AM, punch a time clock, work under the direct supervision of management, and punch out at 5PM.

Many of my workers are running isolated campgrounds.  They work out of their home (their RV).  While they have scheduled tasks, like cleaning the bathrooms, many of their hours come in spurts (e.g. someone comes to their RV and asks them a question).  The nearest manager from the company might be hundreds of miles away, and there may not even be electricity to power a timeclock.  All of this adds up to a hugely awkward compliance problem for many of the details of the FLSA.  But comply we must.

Yesterday's new proposed CAFE regulations on car fuel economy is another example.   It appears that the average MPG requirement for new cars will increase from 27.5 today to 42MPG in 2016.  The obvious question is -- of all the actions we could take to reduce CO2 emissions, is this the least costly and/or most efficient?

Well, nobody knows, and I don't think that anyone in the "science-based" Obama administration has even tried to put pen to paper on this question.  And, even if they did, their answer would be largely irrelevant because they would likely, again, be regulating to the mean.

I am sure the folks passing this kind of stuff picture a mean commuter driving 25-30 miles each day each way to work.  But what about me?  I drive 2 (actually 1.9, but we will round up).  That makes a 4 mile daily roundtrip commute.  Assuming I drive a car at the CAFE standard, this new regulation will save me 0.05 gallons of gas per day, or ten cents per day at $2.00 gas prices.

Obviously, it makes zero economic sense for me to be regulated in this way.  The fuel economy of my car for my daily commute is virtually irrelevant, because I chose to locate my house and my business within a few miles of each other.  It is a terrible investment for me to pay, both in higher costs and lost features, for a car with higher MPG.  Though my decision-making was not driven by gas consumption (it was driven by my time, which is way more valuable to me than a gallon of gas**) one could argue that I have already made a huge gas-use-reduction investment in terms of the location of my home, and thus a further investment in gas-use-reduction via my car is not necessary.

On Hidden Taxes

We can tease one other lesson from this regulation.  In regulating CO2 in transportation, the Obama administration had another choice -- a carbon tax.   A carbon tax on fuel would easily cause CO2 emissions to be reduced over time from cars  (in fact, it probably would do a better job, as history has shown that higher MPG standards actually lead to increased driving and thus have equivocal impacts on CO2 emissions).

Further, a carbon tax would have the advantage of putting 300 million people to work figuring out the most productive ways to reduce emissions.  Those who drive most, or have the greatest ability to cut back on driving and shift transportation modes, are going to be the ones to preferentially reduce emissions.

So why not a carbon tax?  Well, the politicians have all explained this pretty directly -- because they do not want to pay the political cost of raising taxes, particularly on something like gas whose price gets so much media attention.  Having demagogued oil companies as evil for so many years for raising gas prices, politicians were not able to bear the irony of themselves being responsible for higher gas prices.

So instead, they will force cars to be built more fuel efficiently, which will almost certainly raise the price of cars (as well as reduce choice and certain features).  These higher costs and reductions in choice are most certainly a tax on consumers, but they are an indirect tax.  They show up as rising prices and perhaps falling attractiveness of auto makers' product lines, which consumers will blame on auto makers, not the Congress or Obama.

So Obama will continue to say he has never raised taxes on the middle class, when in fact he has just made their cars $1500 more expensive.  Some day, we may live in a world where politicians are called to task for this kind of bait and switch, but my guess is that Obama gets away with it.

** Postscript: The one constant of all leftish regulation is that it puts about zero value on my personal time.  Every regulation seems to be about my spending more of my time in exchange for conserving some other supposedly scarce resource.  But I have never panicked that we are going to run out of oil or tungsten or iridium or whatever.  But I do know that I am going to run out of time, just like everyone else.   It is the only commodity I am positive is zero sum.

Double Dip

In 1933 and 1934, America was on a trajectory to recover from the Depression.  But, before recovering, the economy was to nose dive again, and never really did recover until the next decade.  Historians and economists argue endlessly about this, but I am convinced that the arbitrary and capricious meddling in the economy by the Roosevelt administration caused many folks who would have started investing and bargain hunting with their capital to sit on the sidelines.  The National Industrial Recovery Act (thankfully killed by a mercifully non-packed Supreme Court) was just the most egregious example of the US government making it impossible to evaluate long-term business proposals because the basic foundations of the rule of law were shifting so much.

I fear we are facing a similar danger.   Everything continues to tell me that had we taken our medicine late last year, we would be entering a recovery over the next few months.  However, the Obama administrations economic interventions have gotten so egregious that there is a real danger investors are going to sit on the sidelines with their capital.  Who knows when your industry will get targeted with compensation restrictions, or higher taxes, or even forced changes in ownership?  Who could possibly feel comfortable making 20-year investments in this environment?  Dale Franks quotes Thomas Cooley:

Many investors are sitting on the sidelines, as is much money. Why? Because it is impossible to know what the rules of the game are. And that's because the administration and the Congress keep changing the rules in capricious ways in pursuit of larger political objectives.

Postscript: There is legislation pending in Congress to restrict the ability of lenders  (e.g. credit card issuers) from changing rates on existing debt.  They ask if it is fair for someone who took on a debt thinking it would be at 15% to suddenly find it is at 25%.  But how are tax increases any different.  I make 10-20 year investments in my company, and the expected tax rate is a hugely important assumption in whether it makes any sense for me to put my capital in a particular venture.   How is a large increase in taxes on returns from my past investments any different than changing the interest rate on an existing debt?

This is a Feature of Nearly All Regulation

Via Overlawyered:

Sponsored by Congress' most senior member, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), HR 759 amends the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to include provisions governing food safety. The bill provides for an accreditation system for food facilities, and would require written food safety plans and hazard analyses for any facilities that manufacture, process, pack, transport or hold food in the United States.

It also calls for country of origin labeling and science-based minimum standards for harvesting fruits and vegetables, as well as establishing a risk-based inspection schedule for food facilities. "¦

The [Cornucopia] institute claims the preventative measures [on handling of food on farms] are designed with large-scale producers and processors in mind and "would likely put smaller and organic producers at an economic and competitive disadvantage."

You hear this all the time from proponents of certain regulations -- "even _____ corporation supports it."  GE supports global warming regulation.  Large health care companies support heath care regulation.  The list goes on forever.  That is because regulation always aids the large established companies over smaller companies and future upstart competitors.  Larger companies have the scale to spread compliance investments over larger sales volumes, and the political muscle to lobby Congress to tilt regulation in their favor (e.g. current cap-and-trade lobbying in Congress).  Regulation creates a barrier to entry for potential new competitors as well.

I hate to admit it, but regulation in my own business (which I neither sought nor supported) has killed off many of my smaller competitors and vastly improved our company's competitive position.  It is no accident that the list of the largest companies in heavily-regulated Europe nearly never change, decade after decade, whereas the American list has always seen substantial turnover.

The State of Tort Law

I haven't written that much lately about tort law, but it certainly has not gotten better.  Here is an example set of facts:

19-year-old Sidney Odom happily went along when 20-year-old Travis Kirby and 18-year-old Riley Strickland asked "Who wants to go to the Beacon?""”a bar in Terry, Mississippi. A long night of drinking and driving came to an end at about 3 am when Kirby's Camaro hit a tree at about 90 mph. As none of the three were wearing seatbelts, all were ejected from the vehicle. Kirby, whose blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit at 0.25%, died at the scene; the other two were injured.

Think for a moment about who you reasonably believe to be at fault for the accident.  Now, here is who actually was forced to accept liability:

  • The dealer who sold them the car
  • The shop that installed their tires
  • Goodyear tire company

All you can say is, huh?  When looking at modern tort outcomes, a much better predictor of legally assigned liability than trying to decide who was trully at fault is to look at the net worth of everyone who had any relation to the victims, and assuming those with the highest net worth will end up being heald "liable."

The Health Care Trojan Horse May Now Have Its Achilles

Via Jacob Sullum:

Today President Obama appointed Thomas Frieden, New York City's crusading health commissioner, as head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frieden, an infectious disease specialist who is known mainly as an enthusiastic advocate of New York's strict smoking ban, heavy cigarette taxes, trans fat ban, and mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menu boards, embodies the CDC's shift from illnesses caused by microbes to illnesses caused by lifestyle choices.

Explanation of the health care Trojan Horse here.  More articles here.

Why Chrysler is Closing Dealers

I had a question the other day:  Why is closing dealerships a cost savings for Chrysler?  My understanding is that dealers were independently-owned businesses that bought inventory from the manufacturer, and then sold and serviced the cars.

I came up with only two answers:

  1. Auto makers finance dealer inventory in some way (either as financing or putting the inventory on consignment) such that cutting back on dealers cuts back on financing needs.  Yes, with fewer dealers, the others are likely to need more inventory, but basic inventory theory says the total in the system will still be less with fewer outlets.  Also, they might preferentially cut weaker dealers more likely to need financing in favor of larger dealers who can self-finance
  2. Having too many dealers competing against each other with the same product undermines pricing in the market.  Dealers cut pricing to the bone in order to get the servicing income stream after the sale.  While this should not directly affect the pricing to the manufacturer, it might be argued that retail discounting is a negative for the brand over time  (electronics manufacturers have debated this point for years, and there is certainly no consensus on this).

Megan McArdle provides her own answers to this question, some similar and some different:

A number of readers have asked a simple, obvious question:  why do the dealers cost Chrysler so much money that they want to shut them down?  I don't have a complete answer to it, but here's what I understand:

  • Inventory:  Chrysler often has to take back unsold inventory.  A lot of dealers selling a little inventory is costly, because you have to ship a minimum number of cars to each dealer
  • Financing:  Chrysler helps many dealers float their purchases (though to be fair, those dealers also tap their own credit for things like advertising, expanding the company's effective spending)
  • Brand costs:  Shabby, run-down dealerships don't improve the image of the firm, and if they are the only game in town, drive users to other cars.

She follows with a good analysis of why independent dealers exist in the first place.

It will be interesting to see how this goes down.  Frequent readers will know that I often have said that the power base of many small-medium size towns is made up of 1) the auto dealers, 2) the beverage wholesalers and 3) the owners of the local TV stations and newspapers.  Auto dealers wield a lot of local political power - they are often the largest single financial supporter of local politicians and even some Congressional reps.  They also wield power as typically the largest single advertiser in local media, so they get sympathetic coverage.  Over the years, they have translated this into a lot of legislative help (such as limitations on Internet competition).

No Shame

I can't even believe he can say this with a straight face:

President Barack Obama, calling current deficit spending "unsustainable," warned of skyrocketing interest rates for consumers if the U.S. continues to finance government by borrowing from other countries.

"We can't keep on just borrowing from China," Obama said at a town-hall meeting in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, outside Albuquerque. "We have to pay interest on that debt, and that means we are mortgaging our children's future with more and more debt."

Holders of U.S. debt will eventually "get tired" of buying it, causing interest rates on everything from auto loans to home mortgages to increase, Obama said. "It will have a dampening effect on our economy."

No duh.   And whose name is scribbled on the bottom of the stimulus bill?  Isn't this the type of concern one expresses before spending a couple of trillion dollars?  Obama reminds me exactly of the young students he lectured at ASU the other day about not getting into too much debt.  He already sounds like kids calling their dad -- it wasn't my fault!  I didn't know!  The only difference is there is no one left out there to bail out the US - no dad, no friendly government, nobody.

By the way, if you are worried about current deficits, read this post Q&O calls "fun" with charts -- there is absolutely nothing fun about it.  A sample:


More Expensive Than Welfare

Obama and Congressional Democrats seem to have hit upon a way of helping the unemployed that is even more expensive than Welfare.  Many of the stimulus-related jobs programs turn out to spend millions of dollars to preserve just a few jobs.  Their only net benefit is to politicians -- by making certain preferred corporations the intermediary for these funds, these corporations will in turn line politicians' campaign coffers with money, something welfare recipients were never very good at.

A good example is the ongoing fight by Congressman Maurice Hinchey to force the Obama Administration to accept a new helicopter as part of an $835 million dollar program that supports 800 jobs in Mr. Hinchey's district.  TJIC has a very apt counter-proposal:

Instead of spending $835 million, why not just cancel the program and hand each of the workers a $500,000 check with the memo line "welfare - because you produce something no one wants" ?

That'll put food on the table of these 800 workers (for a decade), save us $435,000,000 and maybe teach 800 workers and 1 Democratic politician something about economics.

Yes, but Travis, in your model, who is going to write checks back to Mr. Hinchey?

Sennheiser PX 100

Glen Reynolds repeats a past recommendation for the Sennheiser PX-100 headphones, and I want to give that recommendation a big ditto.  I have three pair at home and love them.  They are inexpensive, rugged, sound great, and fold up cleverly (though there is a learning curve to getting them back in the case).