Posts tagged ‘NOTHING’

If Only We Had One "Sustainability" Number That Summarized the Value of the Time and Resources That Went Into a Product or Service....

From an article about how China's decision to restrict imports of recyclable materials is throwing the recycling industry for a loop:

The trash crunch is compounded by the fact that many cities across the country are already pursuing ambitious recycling goals. Washington D.C., for example, wants to see 80% of household waste recycled, up from 23%.

D.C. already pays $75 a ton for recycling vs. $46 for waste burned to generate electricity.

"There was a time a few years ago when it was cheaper to recycle. It's just not the case anymore," said Christopher Shorter, director of public works for the city of Washington.

"It will be more and more expensive for us to recycle," he said.

Which raises the obvious question:  If it is more expensive, why do you do it?  The one word answer would be "sustainability" -- but does that really make sense?

Sustainability is about using resources in a way that can be reasonably maintained into the future.  This is pretty much impossible to really model, but that is not necessary for a decision at the margin such as recycling in Washington DC.  When people say "sustainable" at the margin, they generally mean that fewer scarce resources are used, whether those resources be petroleum or landfill space.

Gosh, if only we had some sort of simple metric that summarized the value of the time and resources that go into a service like recycling or garbage disposal.  Wait, we do!  This metric is called "price".  Now, we could have a nice long conversation about pricing theory and whether or not prices always mirror costs.  But in a free competitive market, most prices will be a good proxy for the relative scarcity (or projected scarcity) of resources.  Now, I am going to assume the numbers for DC are correct and are worked out intelligently (ie the cost of recycling should be net of the value of materials recovered, and the cost of burning the trash should be net of the value of the electricity generated).   Given this, recycling at $75 a ton HAS to be less "sustainable" than burning trash at $46 since it either consumes more resources or it consumes resources with a higher relative scarcity or both.

Postscript:  I have had students object to this by saying, well, those costs include a lot of labor and that doesn't count, sustainability is just about materials.  If this is really how sustainability is defined, then it is an insane definition.  NOTHING is more scarce or valuable than human time.  We have no idea, really, how much recoverable iron or oil there is in the world (and in fact history shows we systematically always tend to underestimate the amount).  But we do know for an absolute fact that there are 182.4 billion human hours lived in a given day. Period.  Labor is if anything more important than material in any sustainability question (after all, would you be willing to die a year earlier in exchange for there being more iron in the world?  I thought not.)

In fact, it is probably the changing scarcity and value of labor in China that is driving the issues in this article in the first place.  China can't afford the labor any more to re-sort badly sorted American recyclables, likely because the economic boom in China has created much more useful and valuable things for Chinese workers to do than separate cardboard boxes from foam peanuts.  Another way to think of the market wage rate is as the opportunity cost for labor, ie if you use an hour of labor for to do X, what is the value of production you are giving up somewhere else by their no longer having access to this hour of labor.

The Teaching Company (Also Known as Great Courses)

A while back I was writing about something -- the Civil War I think -- and I mentioned that I had been lucky enough to have James McPherson as a professor.  I remember a comment on the post that said something like "yes, yes we know, you went to Princeton."  I certainly was lucky, and that school contributed a lot to what I am.  But as far as attributing sh*t I know to a source, Princeton is in at least second place.   By far the greatest source of what I know about history, art, music and even about the sciences comes from the Teaching Company.  And that is available to all of you, no SAT required.

I just checked my account and I have taken 71 courses from them, including 54 history courses**.  I think I have taken, for example, pretty much all the courses on this list in a Tyler Cowen post.  I began my journey taking courses on things that had always interested me but I knew a fair amount about already, such as the history of Ancient Rome or the Civil War or WWII.  But the most fun I have had has been taking courses on periods I knew little about -- such as Daileader's great histories of the Middle Ages or the History of China.  And I have had the most fun taking courses on things I knew NOTHING about, such as the history of India, of pre-Columbian American civilization, and of nomadic civilizations of Asia.

The key thing to remember is:  never pay rack rate.  Everything goes on sale from time to time.  Today until midnight, for example, they are having a 70% off sale on a subset of their stuff.  You can still get cd's and dvd's if you want but I used to get the digital download for my iPod and increasingly just stream the audio from an android app and stream the video from their Roku app.


** My family thinks I am weird because I listen to these courses as I run and work out (instead of music).  But it turns out this was not nearly as weird as when I have done Pimmsleur language courses while I am running.  If you want to really take your mind off your running, try to diagram a sentence in your head to figure out which of freaking German article you should be using.  Also, it creates a nice reputation around the neighborhood for eccentricity if you babble in foreign languages as you run.

Is This Supposed to Be Irony?

John Hinderaker had an article titled "THE TIMES GOES KNOW-NOTHING ON IMMIGRATION".  In it, he criticizes the New York Times' for being too supportive of open immigration.  He proceeds to point out what he believes to be serious negatives of immigration.

I won't go back to my defenses of immigration today.  But I did find his article title ironic.  Was it purposefully so?  I can't imagine that it was.  The word "Know-Nothing" is most associated in American History with the Know Nothing party, formerly the Native American party (meaning "native" white folks, not indigenous peoples).  As you might guess from the name, their main rallying cry was to limit or stop immigration -- at the time their ire was mainly aimed at the Irish.

This is obviously ironic because from historical use, it is Hinderaker that is going know-nothing, not the Times.   And further ironic because the Irish, whom the Know Nothings wanted to keep out, now are considered by most Conservatives to be part of the backbone of America that is being threatened by all these new immigrants.  Most of the arguments he uses against immigrants are virtually identical to those used, and since proven incorrect, by the Know Nothings in the 19th century.

Postscript:  The term Know-Nothing, if I remember right, came not because they were ignorant, but because they tended to be very secretive.  When asked about their party, they would answer that they know nothing (this works best for those who watched Hogan's Heroes and can say this in a sergeant Schultz voice; if you are too young for Hogan's Heroes, then imitating Ygritte in GOT is acceptable).

Please, I Would Like Answer

States all require that you register your corporation to do business in that state.  Most all states require that you have a registered agent in that state.  Sometimes this can be an employee, but since we are a seasonal business we have no full-time employees in many states to nominate.  This means that we have to pay an outsider a fee every year just to be this named agent.

And in my experience this person does ... NOTHING.  Zero.  Nada.  Bupkis.  But it is worse than that.  In many states like Minnesota, the secretary of state (who generally manages corporate registrations) absolutely insists that they will send no mail to your corporate headquarters, they will only send mail to your in-state registered agent.  Its like they don't have mail service or phone service that goes out of state in Minnesota.  Unfortunately, many of my agents repeatedly fail to forward this mail to me.  I just paid a $300 fine to Minnesota because I did not respond to an annual renewal notice that was sent to my local agent and never forwarded.

I have asked this question of my readers before but never gotten an answer.  My question is simple:

In this day of modern communications, what is the justification for requiring a corporation to have a registered agent in that state?

Is there any justification?  Or is this just a holdover from some past era when communication was by horse and telegraph.

Are Prosecutors Going Too Far?

I have been following the Lay/Skilling Enron trial fairly closely, if only because in a past life I worked briefly with the principles, having worked with Jeff Skilling at McKinsey & Co. before he went to Enron.  By the way, if this causes you to assume this makes me particularly sympathetic to the gentlemen, think again.  Jeff Skilling is one of the brightest and most detail-oriented people I have ever worked with, giving me near certainty that his testimony before Congress where he imitated Sargent Shultz (I know nothing... NOTHING) was perjurous.   So I am not entirely neutral, but maybe not in the way you might imagine.

However, all that being said, Tom Kirkendall (whose blog is here and is doing a great job keeping up with the trial) has a very interesting post on the fairly scary tactics the Enron prosecution task force has brought to bear on a number of Enron and Enron-related defendants:

In an unprecedented move, the Task Force has named over 100 co-conspirators
in the case. So, the potential definitely exists for substantial
testimony about out-of-court statements going to the jury without the
defense ever having an opportunity to cross-examine the persons who
made the alleged statements. Moreover, fingering unindicted
co-conspirators is an equally effective technique for the Task Force to prevent testimony that is favorable to the defense
because persons named as unindicted co-conspirators are likely to the
assert their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and
thus, not be defense witnesses during the trial. Thus, the Task Force's
liberal use of the co-conspirator tag has a double-whammy effect -- not
only does it allow the Task Force to use out-of-court statements
against defendants without having the declarant of the statements
subjected to cross-examination, it has also effectively prevented
previous Enron-related defendants from obtaining crucial exculpatory
testimony from alleged co-conspirators who have elected to take the
Fifth and declined to testify.

The co-conspirator tactic has had a huge impact on two of the previous Enron-related trials. During the Nigerian Barge trial,
the Task Force used out-of-court statements of co-conspirators
regarding the key factual issue in the case -- that is, what was said
during a conference call between several Merrill and Enron executives,
including former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow -- without ever having to put
a witness on the stand who actually participated in the call.
Similarly, none of the dozens of unindicted co-conspirators testified
on behalf of the defendants during that trial, so the Task Force's use
of the tactic effectively prevented the Merrill Lynch executives in
that case from providing the jury with exculpatory testimony. Not
surprisingly, the Task Force's liberal use of the co-conspirator tactic
has become a key appellate point for the Merrill executives in the appeal of their convictions.

Similarly, the importance of the co-conspirator issue on freezing
out exculpatory testimony was brought into full focus during the trial
of the Enron Broadband case last year. In a trial that, at the outset, appeared to be a sure-thing for the prosecution, the Task Force's case unraveled quickly as witnesses Lawrence Ciscon and Beth Stier
both testified to a riveted jury about how the Task Force's threats of
prosecution against them gave them second thoughts about providing the
exculpatory testimony that they gave during the trial. That trial ended
in a disastrous mix of acquittals and jury deadlock on the prosecution's charges.

The ability to face and cross-examine your accusers is a fundamental part of the American legal system.  Even well-intentioned relaxing of this principle has in the past led to innocent people going to jail.

Update:  Kirkendall writes that the same issue is being addressed on appeal in the Worldcom trial of Bernard Ebbers.

Maybe He Should Have Worn a Cardigan

Truck and Barter is not very impressed with Bush's call for us all to drive less. 

I'd like to know just why I should conserve. We supposedly live in a
capitalist society based on property-rights and free-trade; why, all of a
sudden, do you ask that I not trust that the price of fuel incorporates all the
scarcities at every level of production? What economic lever broke in the past
month? Why do you think the price system is failing so bad that we need to
"conserve" more than the price signal warrants?

I won't pretend that market prices don't exist, or that markets have suddenly
stopped working; I won't pretend that prices are inefficient allocators of
resources; I won't pretend that I cannot buy as much gasoline as I can afford at
current prices.

Furthermore, Mr. President, I will not pretend that you have legal or moral
authority to tell me how much gasoline I may purchase. I will not pretend that
your feeble call to use less has any impact whatsoever on my psyche. I will not
pretend that the Federal Government knows better than me how much gasoline I
should purchase.

Awesome, well said.  Maybe if Bush had worn a cardigan, like Jimmy Carter did when he asked the same thing, he might have been more successful.  Or then again, maybe Bush should have thought twice about channeling Jimmy Carter on any energy or economics related issue.

By the way, there is much more to the post - make sure to read it all.

Update: This one attracted a number of comments fast.  Here are some additional thoughts

Doesn't it make sense to conserve gas?  Isn't what Bush said correct?

Sure it makes sense, but I didn't need Bush to tell me.  Seeing my average 15 gallon fillup go from $30 to $45 nearly overnight told me everything I needed to know.   I adjusted my driving behavior based on how I value various types of trips.  And so, apparently, did everyone else, as gas consumption in this country dropped almost 10%.  Bush doesn't have to tell you to refinance your home when mortgage rates drop, or to buy less OJ when the orange crop failed -- prices signal these things quite nicely.

By the way, I limited my driving years ago (e.g. I live 1 mile from my office) but not because of gas prices.  Lets say 1 hour of driving gets me 30 miles in the city, and requires 1.5 gallons of gas.  The recent increase in gas prices has increased the cost of that 1 hour of driving by about $1.50.  That is NOTHING compared to how I have increased how I value my free time as I have grown older.  That hour may use up five bucks of gas but hundreds of dollars of my leisure time.  I have often told people that the biggest change you go through getting older is how much your internal valuation of your own free time goes up.  In college, I would wait for 8 hours in a line to get concert tickets at face value.  Today, I buy them market up at eBay, because that 8 hours is now worth far, far more to me than the markup.

Wouldn't voluntary conservation beyond what you have already cut back help reduce gas prices in the US?

Sure, if everyone cut back some percentage more than what they would have already done due to the price increase, then yes that might help push prices down.  Of course every person who did this would lose from doing so.  When the price increases, everyone eliminates their marginal use of gasoline, ie every use or trip that is worth less to them than the cost in fuel.  That means that the trips that remain are worth more to them than the gas (and other)  costs.  Therefore, remaining trips are a net increase to their well-being.  If a remaining trip is then eliminated voluntarily, or the cost of that trip is increased due to the increased hassle of carpooling or using public transit, then their well-being is reduced. 

However, this is the great thing about America:  If you personally value voluntarily reducing your gas consumption to help reduce prices for others, in a free society, no one is going to stop you.

By the way, here is the reason I don't worry about it:  I am old enough to have been driving in the late 1970's.  And I know from experience that allowing prices to shoot up for a period of time, without government price caps or windfall profit confiscation silliness, is going to lead to more supply and lower prices in the future.

Don't you think its unethical not to conserve in times like this?

No.  I don't associate consumption and ethics.  If it is sold legally at a certain price, and I can afford and wish to pay that price, then I don't see that morality or ethics come into play.  While there certainly can be ethical problems spending money unwisely (e.g. blowing money on coke or gambling that was needed to feed your kids), that is a different situation.  I don't feel guilty about consuming gas.

Isn't it a security issue?  Shouldn't we be asked or forced to conserve more to make the US independent of foreign oil?

There is only one time this argument makes any sense - if the world is in a full scale shooting war and all foreign trade and international markets are halted, and then we would have much bigger problems.

Short of the breakdown of world trade and markets, being "independent of foreign oil" is a mirage, an impossible non-goal.  Lets say that the world energy supply and demand was exactly the same as it was today, except that the US produced domestically exactly enough oil to satisfy domestic demand.  But in this case there is still a world market for oil.  The price of oil and gas in this country would not be more or less than it is today, except maybe for a few cents of transportation cost differences.  And if there is an oil supply shock, the pricing in the US will be virtually the same in this hypothetical situation as it would be in today's structure.

Shouldn't the President be doing something?

Sure.  Get the hell out of the way of the people who can fix the problem.  Rethink the regulatory regime that is preventing refinery construction.  Revamp the licensing approach for nuclear power.  Open up oil drilling in proscribed areas.  And find his lost veto pen and ax any dumbshit regulation out of Congress managing energy prices, taxing windfall profits, or attempting to pick winners via subsidies.

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My Most and Least Favorite Business Activity

In the span of one hour this morning, I got to "enjoy" both my most and least favorite business activity.

My least favorite activity is always paying taxes, but within that broad category (remember that being in 10 states and 25 counties means that I file over 50 different tax returns or one sort or another every year) my least least favorite are business property tax returns.  If you have not run a small business, you may not be aware of what a pain these are (individuals don't have to file them, and large companies have poor schleps in accounting to do it). 

First, business property tax statements usually have to be filed by county, so I have to do a zillion of them.  Second, governments require that you report every year and in great detail on essentially every asset your business owns in a state or county.  A business must report these assets, usually with a description, date purchased, original purchase price and estimate current market value.  Imagine as an individual if you had to report this information on everything in your house - furniture, computers, appliances, tools, etc.  Now imagine doing it for a business, which owns a lot more miscellaneous stuff than you have in your house.

What really irritates me is that filing some of these statements requires the person filling out the statement to take a chance.  Clearly, no one is going to list every asset, down to the last pencil and paper clip -- you are going to establish some reasonable cutoff, and group similar assets into catch-alls like "miscellaneous tools" or "office supplies".  Note however, that this is taking a chance:  In counties that require detailed asset listings, there is never any statutory language like "you can ignore items under $100 as de minimis" or "you can group similar items".  Technically, you are supposed to list them all.  Take my word for it, this is very, very tedious.

But wait, as the Ginsu knife guy would say, for our business there is more aggravation.  We do business as a concession holder on federal lands.  For example, we might run a US Forest Service campground.  By US law, states and counties may not charge the US government property taxes on these facilities.  BUT, certain of the most acquisitive states, including California and Washington, have devised taxes that get around this requirement.  These two states make me pay the federal government's property taxes for them at the facilities I operate.  This is kind of like being forced by law to pay your landlord's taxes for him.  I always find this terribly irritating, all the more so since now that I know the game, when time comes to bid on concessions in these states, I just subtract the estimated taxes from what I am willing to pay the government in rent, in effect ensuring that the US government ends up paying the tax. 

This whole enterprise left me feeling depressed, when a couple who I had called about a manager position at a new store concession of ours at Clear Lake State Park in California called me back.  It turned out this couple is incredibly entrepreneurial, has great business experience, and are very well-suited to running my operation with minimal supervision.  I was thrilled to find them, and they were in turn thrilled to find an outdoor summer job opportunity in a nice location which could be flexible enough to accommodate a person with a disability (one of the couple has Parkinsons).  There is NOTHING I enjoy more than finding great people to work for me, and finding such people is all the sweeter if I can offer them an opportunity that uniquely fits their own needs.