The Left and Original Sin

Check your privilege.  You are one of the white oppressors.  You are part of the patriarchy.   These are all frequent rhetorical flourishes from the Left today.  What do they have in common?  Well, beyond the fact that they are all ad hominem and have nothing to do with a person's actual arguments or even character, they all work under an assumption of original sin -- that the sins of past generations somehow accrue to individuals of this generation.  If you are male, you are born guilty for the infractions of all past males.  Your maleness or whiteness or the bank balance of your parents creates a stink that can't be washed off.

There is a certain irony to all this, particularly on gender issues, since many of were often justified on Biblical notions of original sin stemming back to the Garden of Eden.  Which all goes, by the way, to demonstrate my contention that "tolerance" today is not about ending out-groups but about shifting the out-group tag to different people.

Don't believe me?  Well, how else to explain this story about Ben Affleck:

Last week we learned that distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. compromised his integrity when actor Ben Affleck — a guest on “Finding your Roots,” the PBS documentary on celebrity lineages that Gates hosts — asked Gates to omit a portion of his ancestry.

Affleck, soon to be seen as Batman on the big screen, learned he had a slave-owning ancestor and promptly pushed Gates to spike that detail.

“We've never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found,” Gates wrote in an email to Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Entertainment, adding: “He's a megastar. What do we do?”

Perhaps I might try to whitewash a story about my parents.  I barely knew my grandparents and can't imagine trying to whitewash their history.  But for what conceivable reason would I whitewash my family history 4 or 5 generations back?  How in the world, unless I were to accept some notion of original sin, would the crimes of a relative more than 150 years ago accrue to me?

A few other thoughts:

  • This concern is also pretty selective.   So an ancestor held opinions about slavery we all would find horrifying today.  But given the times, I can bet that pretty much every relative of Affleck's of that era, slaveholder or no, held opinions (say about women) that we would likely find offensive today.
  • Congrats to Affleck for achieving some negative alchemy here.  He took an issue (his ancestor's slave-holding) that did not reflect on him at all and converted it via some "I am a star" douchebaggery into something that makes him look like a tool.
  • PBS often makes the argument that they somehow have the moral high ground because they are non-commercial and publicly-funded.  Uh, right.  Look at how quickly they caved here.
  • I find it hilarious that any kids in the US feel the ability to say "check your privilege" to someone else.  Even someone at the 20th percentile in the US would be among the richest 20% in many countries.  From the world's perspective, we are all affluent here.

Materials I Use to Teach My 90-Minute Economic Class

I teach one 90-minute class a year in the senior economics elective at my kids' high school.  The teacher gives me a pretty free ability to cover whatever I wish.

Rather than trying to cover some school of thought, I instead focus the class on the seen and unseen (starting with quotes from Bastiat and Hazlitt).  We have about 12 economic problems, where we start with the seen, and then introduce the unseen.  We start with the classic broken window as the first one.

I teach the class with role play.  I give every student a couple of business cards with their role typed on them.  When I call on them I have them advocate for their role.  I have started to give a small food reward at the end of class to the student who best gets into character -- this has helped the role play immensely.   Let's take one example I do towards the end of the class involving price gouging after a hurricane.

We begin with the governor of Florida who has just signed an anti-price-gouging law.  We talk about how everyone hates price-gouging after a disaster.  What could be worse, right?

We then talk about a woman who spends most of her time at home, but rushes out to fill her gas tank right after the storm hits.  She has to wait in line for gas for 2 hours because everyone else has done the same as she, racing to the station, but she doesn't mind because she doesn't have anything else to do and feels better.  If asked if she would have topped off her tank if the price jumped to $6 from $3, she says no way.

Then we have an owner of a roofing company enter the fray.  His men are working 14 hours a day to put roofs on houses.  He is making a lot of money, and doing a lot of good as well.  Nothing is more important to people than fixing the roof before the next rain.  He may be the most important man in Florida at that moment.  But he can't keep up with demand, and worse, his guys are having to sit for 2 hours at a time to fill up their company trucks, when they should be repairing roofs.   He would gladly pay $10 a gallon if he could just keep his men on the job and not in gas stations.

So at this point we discuss "fairness".  It seems fair not to raise prices to "take advantage" of a disaster.  But is it fair to allocate gas away from the busiest and most productive whose time is most valuable to the people who are least productive and have the lowest value for their time?  We discuss how price caps shift rationing from price to queuing, and the people who get the product shift from those who most value it to those who assign the lowest value to their own time.

Finally, we discuss a guy in Georgia who has a tanker of gas he was going to send to a station in Atlanta.  They need the gas more in Florida, but they aren't paying more for it under the new price-gouging law, and so with his higher costs of driving all the way to Florida vs. Atlanta he is going to sell the gas in Atlanta.  If the price of gas in Florida were to rise to $6, he would send his truck of gas to Florida in a heartbeat.

This is the kind of discussion we have.   We will end up in a debate, with kids pointing out all kinds of things -- eg poor people who have a life or death need and might be shut out at $6.  We don't try to resolve things, but want them to understand there are unseen consequences to actions like price-gouging laws that must be considered along with the seen.  They may end up dismissing the unseen as less important than the seen, but it should not be ignored.

If anyone finds themselves in the same situation as me needing to teach a group (it could be adults as well) you are welcome to use my materials.  I actually print the business cards on Avery two-sided business card paper.  Attached are separate files for the front and back of cards as well as a sort of discussion key I use to guide the conversation.  We get into things, at least tangentially, like public choice theory and concentrated benefits / dispersed costs.

If you want to use the materials, you are welcome to email me with questions.  But these are all public domain so help yourself without permission.  (By the way, in trying to match the front to the back of each card in your mind, remember there is a mirroring effect, so the text on the right card on the backs in any given row goes with the front of the card on the left of the same row in the other file).

economics class discussion guide

economics class biz cards front

economics class biz cards back

I Never Listen to Democrats; I Learned Everything I Need To Know About them From Rush Limbaugh

One of my huge pet peeves is when people rely only on their own side for knowledge of their opponents' positions.  The inevitable result of this is that there is a lot of debating against straw men.

As an aside, this is why I really like Bryan Caplan's ideological Turing test.  If you are going to seriously debate someone, you need to be able to state their arguments in an unironic way such that that person's supporters would mistake you for one of their own.  If I were to teach anything at all political, I would structure the course in a way that folks would debate and advocate both sides of a question (that is, of course, if any university would allow me to ask, say, a minimum wage advocate to take the opposite position without accusing me of creating an unsafe environment).

Anyway, a while back I asked if the folks who were protesting the showing of American Sniper on campus had actually seen the damn movie.  I suspected they had not, or at least really interpreted film differently than I do.  Though perhaps pro-soldier, I read the movie as having a pretty stark anti-war message.

Anyway, American Sniper has become a favorite target for banning within our great universities the purport to be teaching critical thinking.  This is from one student group's (successful) appeal for a ban on showing the movie on campus:

This war propaganda guised as art reveals a not-so-discreet Islamaphobic, violent, and racist nationalist ideology. A simple Google search will give you hundreds of articles that delve into how this film has fueled anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments; its visceral "us verses them" narrative helps to proliferate the marginalization of multiple groups and communities - many of which exist here at UMD.

This is not the language people would use if they had actually seen the film.  Instead of taking specific examples from the film, they refer to Google searches of articles, perhaps by other people who have not seen the film (as an aside, this has to be the all-time worst appeal to authority ever -- I can find not hundreds but thousands of articles on the Internet about anything -- there are tens of thousands alone on the moon landings being faked).

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

If you want proof that folks are using the phrase "sexual assault" differently than you likely are, check this out:

In California, a new bill would require colleges and universities to impose a mandatory minimum sentence for campus sexual assault: two years school suspension. The rule would apply to both public and private colleges that rely on state funds for student financial aid, the same way California's affirmative consent measure operates.

My definition of sexual assault is rape, that is either using force to have sex with a person who is unwilling or having sex with someone who is physically incapacitated.  By my definition, the penalties established by the California bill are absurdly lenient, particularly since California law already establishes a penalty of 3-8 years in prison for rape.

What is going on here is that opponents of certain other behaviors -- sex while drunk, sex that is regretted later, and possibly even speech that is hurtful to women -- have lumped these behaviors into the term "sexual assault" in order to try to increase the punishment for these things.  In California (on campus but nowhere else) sexual assault is "a failure to obtain ongoing, enthusiastic, affirmative consent at each stage of a sexual encounter"

This is a verbal tactic is increasingly common -- note the trend to many colleges to try to label unwelcome speech with which one disagrees as a physical assault or threat.  But it has decided risks.  While the intention is to increase the punishment for unenthusiastic sex to rape levels, the effect can easily just be the opposite -- to reduce concern and punishment of rape by watering down its definition.

I Thought This Was A Spoof At First: "Bitcoin's Problem with Women"

Felix Salmon, guest-blogging for Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, had a post yesterday titled "Bitcoin's Problem with Women."

Men make up an estimated 96% of the Bitcoin community, which means that if Bitcoin does end up succeeding, as its adherents think it will, and if the people who own Bitcoin see their holdings soar in value, then all of the profits will end up going to what Brett Scott calls the "crypto-patriarchy." Not many men, to be sure: as Charlie Stross says, the degree of inequality in the Bitcoin economy "is ghastly, and getting worse, to an extent that makes a sub-Saharan African kleptocracy look like a socialist utopia." But it's not many men, and effectively zero women.

I guess I don't get it.   Is this the result of some sort of active discrimination, or is it just one of those choices that tend to skew male or female (like the decision to become a lumberjack or a health care worker)?   I know most of the cryptography world is dominated by paranoid men, and many of these same folks were the early adopters of Bitcoin.

Beyond one lame anecdote (where one random guy at some Bitcoin function mistook a female VC for a girlfriend of the real VC), the author does not seem to present any evidence of systematic discrimination and exclusion.  Knowing some of these Bitcoin and cyptography people, though, many are from the family of guys who are socially inept and were shunned by girls in high school, so I would not be surprised if they are awkward around women.

If anything, much of his post seems actually be an exercise in gender stereotyping, arguing that men care about politics and ideology and women about community and practicality.  Seriously, under the guise of somehow defending the equality of women, he bares his gender assumptions:

If you talk about Bitcoin with the people who use it, the language they use is always about technology and finance. Bitcoiners tend to think in terms of how things work, rather than how they're used in the real world. Buying and selling Bitcoin is still much more difficult than it should be, despite many years of development, which implies that people aren’t concentrating enough on real-world ease-of-use....

That's a product design job, and frankly, it's a product design job well-suited for women who aren't approaching the problem while grinding the ideological axes so widely held inside the Bitcoin community. As one woman involved with Bitcoin put it to me, "Money is a political issue for Bitcoiners. It's a human issue for everybody else."...

Let's say you wanted to build a mobile savings app in sub-Saharan African. If you asked male Bitcoin developers to build such a thing for a target audience of young African girls, they might have talked about how to maximize the amount of money saved. But, working on the ground in South Africa, the Praekelt Foundation came from a different perspective. Apps like these aren't really about maximizing savings, so much as they're about empowerment. If you can build a product for girls that ratifies their identity and individuality and gives them self-esteem, then you're creating something much more valuable than a few dollars' worth of savings: you're keeping them in school, and you're keeping them healthy, and you're helping themto not get pregnant. That's the kind of way that cryptocurrencies could change the world. The problem is that the men in Popper's book just don't think that way.

But I digress.  The key point is this:  Bitcoin is a freaking open source, anonymous platform.  Anyone can work with it.  No one even has to know your gender (like the old internet joke about no one online knows you are a dog).

Throughout the piece he talks about the "Bitcoin community" as if it is some structured body, the membership in which is required to work with Bitcoin, like saying that one has to be a long-standing member in good standing of the Communist Party to join the Soviet Politboro.  But the Bitcoin community is no such thing.  A better definition of it is "people who happen to be working with Bitcoin today."  You no more need to be a member of the current bitcoin community, or even be known or liked by them, to create your business or service model in Bitcoin than you need to be pals with Tim Berners-Lee to be able to create an Internet company.

The whole point of why we wacky (male) libertarians get all excited about bitcoin is not that it somehow ends gender or racial or any other sort of discrimination, but that it helps makes all of these more irrelevant.  I won't pretend to read Salmon's mind, but if I had to guess, he is frustrated because he sees the capability of Bitcoin to help end discrimination.  If that is true, great.  But many of us assume that bad people with bad motives will always exist, so we seek out anonymous currencies and cryptography so we can live our lives without the permission or even knowledge of these people.

 

It's Hard to Find Partisan Blogs that Actually Try to Engage with the Opposition

I try really hard to read some partisan blogs from the Left and Right so I see what they are saying and don't wallow in some libertarian echo chamber.  I have read Kevin Drum on the Left for year because, while I often disagree with him, he is willing to engage with opposition arguments rather than just dismissing them as the rantings of racist cis-gendered Koch-funded, uh, whatevers.

Unfortunately his guest bloggers seem to be cut from a different cloth (by the way, best wishes to Drum who is struggles with some awful health issues).  Here is Max Sawicky today:

In this post from just last weekend, Kevin links to a bit from Tyler Cowen. That was your first mistake, Brother Drum. I realize linking is not endorsing, though KD offers a limited, tentative 'interesting possibility' type of approval. You see, the prolific and very smart Tyler hails from the zany economics department of George Mason University. No good can come from referencing him. These characters spend all their time excoriating Government and social protection for the working class from tenured, Koch-subsidized positions at a public university. Sweet.

This is unfortunately what substitutes for debate nowadays.  His conclusion seems to be "don't read people that disagree with me, read only folks who work off the same assumptions.  Stay in the echo chamber!"  This is exactly what I try to avoid, but the ubiquity of this sort of ad hominem argumentation is making it really hard.

Bring Back Concubinage!

Until they were purged by the Medieval Catholic Church, many western cultures had marriage alternatives -- legal, contractual, long-term relationships within which children could be reared but which were not until-death-do-us-part marriage.  Ironically, Church father Augustine had a child in just such a relationship.**  Reading articles like this one, it strikes me that it is time for some modern innovation here.

We are in a position where we have just two alternatives -- marriage, which is a full-blown legal merger of two people into one for what is theoretically life -- and nothing.  Given the rise of childbearing in these no-long-term-commitment-whatsoever relationships, the state has taken a few halting actions to bridge the gap, but most of these have been ham-fisted and fraught with problems (our efforts to impose financial responsibility on fathers is one example).

If this were a market, I would say that there is clearly a consumer demand for an alternative product that fits between marriage and nothing, and allows two people to make long-term commitments to child rearing without necessarily commingling assets or making lifetime sexual monogamy vows.

 

** At the time, such concubinage relationships were often to satisfy class issues -- people of certain classes simply were not allowed to marry each other.  In Augustine's case, it allowed him to pursue a 15-year relationship with a woman who was not wealthy but left him available to marry when a rich woman later came along.  In short, it was used for reasons that are mostly irrelevant today.  But that doesn't mean we can't invent marriage alternatives of our own for our own modern reasons.

The Clinton Foundation Appears to Be A Terrible Charity

From the Federalist

Between 2009 and 2012, the Clinton Foundation raised over $500 million dollars according to a review of IRS documents by The Federalist (2012,2011, 2010, 2009, 2008). A measly 15 percent of that, or $75 million, went towards programmatic grants. More than $25 million went to fund travel expenses. Nearly $110 million went toward employee salaries and benefits. And a whopping $290 million during that period — nearly 60 percent of all money raised — was classified merely as “other expenses.”

Now it may be that the "other"expenses are directly benefiting someone but the numbers here are not encouraging.  There are a number of sham charities out there whose income goes mostly to supporting  the lifestyle of their directors and employees so that they can make good money but simultaneously be self-righteous.   I do not know that this is the case here but I think you can be pretty sure the reason they get most of their donations is to curry favor with the Clintons rather than because the organization is particularly efficient or adept at deploying charitable resources.

Best Campgrounds of the West

Sunset Magazine just had its annual "Best Campgrounds of the West" issue and we have four of the campgrounds we operate on the list -- pretty good considering we only operate in two of the four regions they cover (we operate 4 of the 54 campgrounds they recognize in CA, AZ, and NM).

On the list were Sabrina (CA), Big Pine Creek (CA), Cave Springs (AZ) and Sleepy Grass (NM).  We always love getting positive feedback, of course, but are particularly thrilled in this case since the frequent criticism of private operation of public campgrounds is that private companies will somehow ruin the recreation areas for profit.  Exactly how we would make money by destroying the natural beauty which draws paying visitors to these parks is never explained.  But it is good to have confirmation that we private operators are doing a good job.

Consensus Science

The invaluable Carpe Diem blog has a compendium of 18 forecasts of doom that were made on or around the first Earth Day in 1970 -- all of which turned out wrong.   Here is an example:

8. Peter Gunter, a North Texas State University professor, wrote in 1970, “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.”

9. In January 1970, Life reported, “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”

Participants in the global warming debate today will surely recognize the formulation of these statements as representing a consensus scientific opinion.

For those of you too young to actively follow the news in the 1970s, Mark Perry is not cherry-picking cranks.  These fearful quotations are representative of what was ubiquitous in the media of that time.

My school (Kinkaid in Houston) took speech and debate very seriously and had a robust debate program even in middle school.  In 1975-1976 the national debate topic was this:

Resolved:  That the development and allocation of scarce world resources should be controlled by an international organization

The short answer to this proposition should realistically have been:  "you have got to be f*cking kidding me."  But such were the times that this was considered a serious proposal worth debating for the entire year.  In fact, in doing research, it was dead-easy to build up suitcases of quotations of doom to support the affirmative;  it was far, far harder finding anyone who would argue that a) the world was not going to run out of everything in a few decades and b) that markets were an appropriate vehicle for managing resources.   I could fill up an hour reading different sources predicting that oil would have run out by 1990 or 2000 at the latest.

Putting Neville Chamberlain in Historic Context

One of the hardest things to do in history is to read history in context, shutting out our foreknowledge of what is going to happen -- knowledge the players at the time did not have.

Apparently Neville Chamberlain is back in the public discourse, again raised from the dead as the boogeyman to scare us away from any insufficiently militaristic approach to international affairs.

There is no doubt that Neville Chamberlain sold out the Czechs at Munich, and the Munich agreement was shown to be a fraud on Hitler's part when he invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia just months later.  In retrospect, we can weep at the lost opportunity as we now know, but no one knew then, that Hitler's generals planned a coup against him that was undermined by the Munich agreement.

But all that being said, let's not forget the historic context.  World War I was a cataclysm for England and Europe.   It was probably the worst thing to happen to Europe since the black death.   And many learned folks at the time felt that this disaster had been avoidable (and many historians today might agree).  They felt that there had been too much rush to war, and too little diplomacy.  If someone like Britain had been more aggressive in dragging all the parties to the bargaining table in 1914, perhaps a European-wide war could have been avoided or at least contained to the Balkans.

There simply was no energy in 1938, no collective will to start another war.  Even in France, which arguably had the most to lose from a reinvigorated Germany, the country simply could not face another war.   As an illustration, one could argue that an even better and more logical time to "stop Hitler" occurred before Munich in March of 1936 when Hitler violated the Versailles Treaty and reoccupied the Rhineland with military forces.  France had every right to oppose this occupation, and Hitler's generals said later that their forces were so puny at the time that the French could have stopped them with a brigade and sent them running back across the Rhine.  And the French did nothing.

In addition, Britain and France had very little ability to do much about Hitler's ambitions in Eastern Europe anyway.  How were they going to get troops to the Sudetenland?  We saw later in Poland how little ability they had to do anything in Eastern Europe.

And finally, everyone was boxed in by having accepted Woodrow Wilson's formula of "self-determination of peoples."  Building the entire post-war realignment on this shoddy building block is what really led to disaster.  Emphasizing this essentially nationalist formulation as the fundamental moral principle of international relations -- rather than, say, the protection of individual rights of all peoples -- really empowered Hitler.  In the Saarland, in the Rhineland, in Austria, and in the Sudetenland, it lent him the moral high ground.  He was just fulfilling Wilson's formulation, wasn't he?  These were all majority-German lands coming home to Germany.

Postscript:  Years ago in my youth I used to excoriate FDR for caving into Stalin at Yalta, specifically in giving away most of Eastern Europe.  I still wish he hadn't given his moral authority and approval to the move, but even if we stood on the table and screamed at Stalin in opposition, what were we going to do?  Was there any appetite for extending the war?  Zero.  That is what folks who oppose the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan get wrong in suggesting there were alternatives.  All those alternatives involved a longer war and more American deaths which no one wanted.

Kevin Drum Claims "We" Haven't Learned Anything from Deepwater Horizon. What you mean, "we," Kemo Sabe?'

Kevin Drum claims that "we" haven't learned anything from the Deepwater Horizon disaster (the BP oil rig that exploded five years ago in the Gulf, killing a number of people and creating a large oil spill).

What is his evidence?  Has he looked at oil company drilling practices and found them unchanged since the disaster?  No, he does not mention any evidence based on observed drilling practices one way or another.  His sole evidence that "we" have not learned anything is that the US Government has not shut down drilling in the Gulf and has not passed any new laws.

This is almost a caricature of progressive thinking -- nothing matters except what the government does.  But presumably oil companies have been influenced by the cost of the disaster on BP.  So far BP has paid out about $30 billion (billion with a B) in reparations and restoration expenses and may be facing another $20 or so billion in fines based on a 2014 court decision.  All this ignores the loss of the platform itself, of access to the resource below the platform, and of BP's reputation.

One would presume that the prospect of losing $50+ billion would be enough to get the attention of private companies and cause them to make changes to their procedures.  I suppose it is also possible that they completely ignored this, but Drum offers no evidence one way or another.  To him, anything not done by the government is irrelevant.

Yes I Sprayed Graffiti on Your House. I Now Demand You Clean It Up

I received a link removal request the other day from Upskilled.edu.au pointing to a link in a comment back at my old typepad blog site.  In part the email said: "We appreciate your efforts to promote our website; however, we are trying to bring our website within Google’s guidelines."

This is hugely insulting.  The link in question is obviously from a spambot marketing campaign they had years ago.  If they had just confessed that and said they were sorry I might not be ticked off, but to imply that I somehow put up this spam comment and therefore am obligated to take it back down is infuriating.  Anyway, I would have to pay Typepad hundreds of dollars to get back into my account so I can't do it anyway.

I sent them this:

I must say I have only limited sympathy.  Your company obviously engaged in a marketing campaign where you used automated programs to leave spam comments on blogs -- in this case the comment your bot left was just a quote of some of the text in the post itself.  Such spam comment bots are the bane of us blog owners' existence and we spend a lot of time and money fighting the behavior you engaged in.  In trying to promote your business, you vandalized my blog with digital graffiti.  Now that Google has changed its search ranking rules to penalize this behavior, you want me again to spend time and effort doing your cleanup for you.

No thanks.

Who's Subsidizing Whom? And Should We Oppose All New Anti-Poverty Programs as Crony Giveaways?

Well, the new meme on the Left in favor of higher minimum wages seems to be that since many minimum wage workers also receive government benefits, those benefits "subsidize" the employers paying minimum wage.  Example from Kevin Drum here.  This is utter madness.  A few responses:

  • The implication is that the choice is between a job at $8 an hour or a job at $15 an hour.  But this assumes the jobs still all exist at $15 an hour.  Clearly, many would disappear over time, either as companies automate or as consumers reduce purchases at now higher cost establishments.  If the alternative to offering a $8 an hour job is in fact offering no job at all, then minimum wage employers are reducing government benefits payouts.
  • The Left has pushed eligibility for many programs (e.g. the changes in Obamacare to Medicaid) into higher income bands of people making more than 100% of the poverty line.  How is this creeping up of transfer program eligibility somehow the fault of employers?
  • Does this mean that all right-thinking Americans should oppose any future expansions of transfer programs as crony giveaways?  And if you say no, that they should not be thought of crony giveaways in advance of their passage, why should they be considered such afterwards?
  • The whole point of many of these programs, like the EITC which is listed among the programs in Drum's post, is exactly this -- to provide transition assistance from not working to supporting oneself.  The Left's view on this is, as usual, entirely static.  What are the folks who are on benefits and working in food service doing 5-10 years from now?  Would they look back on that time as a stepping stone to something better?
  • If you require that all employers pay a salary such that none of its workers are on assistance of any sort, which is the logical conclusion of this meme, then you divide the world into two classes -- those 100% employed and those 100% on benefits, with most people in the latter having little or no prospect of moving to the former.
  • My company pays minimum wage to the vast majority of our 300+ campground workers.  But who is subsidizing whom?  Most of these folks are over 60 and on Social Security and find that they need or want more money than their Social Security can provide.  One reason for this is that Social Security is a horrible retirement savings program, essentially paying a negative interest rate on the money contributed to the system in the retiree's name.  If Social Security were a private retirement plan, its proprietors would be in jail by now.  Because Social Security is so lame, older people seek work, and come to me, happy to stay active and earn money to supplement their government checks.  So am I subsidizing the SSA's inability to provide a fair return?

Yelp's Way of Caving to Corporate Pressure and Hiding Reviews While Saying They Didn't Delete Anything

A few days ago I posted a negative review of Applied Underwriters, and linked to this post on my blog for much more detail.  Yelp promptly pulled the review, saying I violated their terms of service by linking to a commercial web site.  I thought that bizarre, since my blog has absolutely nothing commercial about it.   But it made more sense when I received a letter from Applied Underwriters demanding that I take down my negative Yelp review or they would sue me for libel.  I don't know for sure what happened, but I suspect that Applied Underwriters sent Yelp a similar demand and they used the link in the review as an excuse to delete it and avoid legal entanglements.

So I posted an updated review with more detail and no link.  Now, Yelp is hiding the review, along with most of the other negative reviews, behind a nearly invisible link at the bottom that says "other reviews that are not currently recommended".  Scroll down to the bottom of this page and you may see it if you have a keen eye.  It is not even clear it is a link, but if you click on it, you get all the bad reviews Yelp is hiding.

Let's dismiss all the reasons why Yelp might say they do this.  One is clarity, to reduce clutter.  But go to your favorite restaurant Yelp page.  Likely you will not see this link / hidden review phenomenon.  You will see pages and pages of reviews, far more than they would have to show if they just displayed all the reviews for Applied Underwriters.

So there must be another reason.  They say in their note there is a quality algorithm.  Anyone who has read a lot of Yelp reviews will know that if this is so, their quality algorithm is not working very hard.   They have a number of reviews that they "recommend" that are nothing more than a rant like "I will never use these guys again" while my unrecommended review includes paragraphs of detail about the service.  They say it is based on your review volume as well, but I have more Yelp review volume than several of the others who seem to pass the screen.

All of which leads me to believe that this is Yelp's purgatory where they hide reviews based on corporate pressure.  They have gotten a lot of cr*p publicly about deleting bad reviews from sponsors and from corporations that pressure them to do so.   They have a zillion self-righteous FAQ's asserting that they don't delete anything.   So imagine Applied Underwriters sends Yelp loads of threats to take down each negative review that comes up.  What do they do?  They put them in the not-recommended purgatory.  They can claim that they haven't deleted anything, but absolutely no one will ever likely see the review.  And they don't count any longer to the company's review count, so for all intents and purposes they are gone.

All of this is a guess, because it is absolutely impossible to contact Yelp about these issues.  No phone numbers.  The ones in general directories for San Francisco don't work for them.  You can't email or chat or contact their customer support in any way.  For a company in the transparency business, they avoid it like the plague.

But do you want to know what makes me doubly sure of my analysis?  Because there is no way to up-rate any of the "not recommended" reviews.  I would have thought the whole up-rating system was how they sorted reviews to present the most relevent at the top, but you can't do that with the ones they have put in purgatory.  Why?  Because these reviews are being put in purgatory not for some customer benefit but to protect corporations able to put pressure on Yelp.  Yelp doesn't want them uprated.  They are supposed to disappear.    If I had time, I would compare the number of "not recommended" reviews for corporations with powerful legal staffs like Applied Underwriters to the number for Joe's local business  (AU has 17 recommended reviews but a 28 full reviews that have been "disappeared" as unrecommended).

Applied Underwriters Is Threatening Me With Lawsuits If I Don't Remove Negative Reviews About Them

About a week or so ago I wrote a long and detailed post (with frequent updates as I discovered new information) about my extreme dissatisfaction with my workers compensation insurance from Applied Underwriters, a Warren Buffet-owned insurance company.  I also wrote a shorter, parallel review on Yelp** (where Applied Underwriters already has an abysmal rating).  For reasons I will guess at in the next post, Yelp keeps marking my post as "not recommended" despite the fact that it is one of the few that is not just a rant of the sort "this company sux" but actually has real details.  There is a tiny almost invisible link at the bottom to see other reviews not recommended.

Yesterday, I received a letter from Applied Underwriters (Letter here (pdf)) demanding that I take down the Yelp review and my blog post or else they will sue me for libel.  Based on my understanding of libel law, the content of my posts (which are all legally protected opinion), and recent court cases, Applied Underwriters has essentially no chance of ever winning such a suit.  But my guess is that this is not their intention.  I presume they are hoping that the fear of legal action, and the expense of legal defense, will cause me to stop my perfectly valid public criticism of their product.

I am seeking legal advice from a well-known First Amendment attorney, so Applied Underwriters will get my final response after I have had advice of counsel.  But here are a few thoughts:

You can read the attorney's letter in full if you are a fan of such things, but if you read sites like Popehat much, you can pretty much predict what you will see.

The gist of their complaint, from the only paragraph of mine quoted in the letter, seems to be the word "scam".  By the text of their letter, they seem to believe that "scam" is libelous because their company is well-rated financially and that they provide reasonable claims service.  I concede both these facts.  However, I called it a "scam" because there is a big undisclosed cost to their product that was never mentioned in the sales process, and that could only be recognized by its omission in the contract I signed -- that there is nothing in the contract committing them to any time-frame under which to return deposits and excess premiums I have paid, which may well amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.  This fact about the contract is confirmed by their customer service staff, who have said further that the typical time-frame to return such over-collections and deposits is 3-7 years after the contract ends, or at least 6-10 years after the first of the deposits was made.

If I had gotten any descriptions of their service terms wrong, I would have been happy to correct them.  Hell, given that apparently Applied Underwriters will hold over $200,000 of my money for as many as ten years before they maybe return it to me, I am hoping I somehow have misunderstood.  Unfortunately, their staff is pretty adamant that I understand these terms perfectly, and you will see that the letter sent by the attorneys does not attempt to refute any of the specific issues that drive my negative review.  And of course none of this was ever disclosed in the sales process.  The company attorneys point to the fact that I read the agreement and signed that I understood, but in fact this issue is only in the agreement by its omission.  In its 10 pages of arcane boilerplate, the agreement never includes any clause giving them any legal obligation to return your deposits and excess premiums in an defined timeframe.  It is that omission that I missed.   Would you have caught it?  Is this a substantial enough issue that you would expect disclosure in the sales process?

So is this a "scam"?  I believe that this issue is costly enough, and hard enough to detect, and far enough outside of expected business practices to be called such.  You may have your own opinion, but ask yourself -- When you enter into, say, a lease and have to put down a security deposit, is it your reasonable expectation that the landlord has the right in your lease to keep your deposit for 3-7 years (or more) after you move out?  Oh, and by the way, how might your evaluation of something as a "scam" be affected by the knowledge that the company is threatening to sue anyone who writes a negative review?

Anyway, I take responsibility for my own failure as a consumer here.  But in a free society it is perfectly reasonable to communicate issues one has with a product or service to help others avoid similar mistakes.  Which is what I have done.

 

**  I have problems with Yelp as well.  What is linked is not my original review.  My original review linked to my blog post.  Yelp took it down.  I will tell that saga in a future post.

Two Steps Back for Free Speech in Nevada

Until now, Nevada has had one of the strongest anti-SLAPP protection laws in the US.  As a reminder, SLAPP suits are ones aimed at silencing speech by intimidating it with legal threats and overwhelming it with legal defense costs.  Anti-SLAPP laws provide legal protection to speech through a variety of means, including the ability to get quick dismissals of suits whose sole intention is to quash legal speech and in the best cases reimbursement of attorneys fees.

As you can imagine, politicials, the wealthy, and the powerful don't like these suits.  Nevada is in the process of gutting these protections.  Ken White has the story.

I have a new-found interest in such matters, as I was threatened by a major corporation this week with a libel suit if I did not remove my negative reviews of them on Yelp and on this blog.  More on that in the next post.

 

Kudos to Jeff Flake on Cuba

I missed this story originally but saw it pop up on our local news again.

Mr. Flake, who has spent a decade in a lonely battle against his party to push for easing restrictions on Cuba, is the chief Republican defender of the new Obama policy. White House officials are counting on him to make their case to his party’s rank and file, even as Republican leaders and Cuban-American lawmakers, like Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, threaten to keep the president from appointing an ambassador or funding an embassy in Havana.

At a Capitol Hill hearing presided over by Mr. Rubio on Tuesday, the two men sat next to each other, somewhat awkwardly, as Mr. Rubio grilled administration officials on a policy he has called a “concession to tyranny.” But even before the hearing, Mr. Flake had moved ahead: Last week he filed a bill to end the decades-old ban on American travel to the Communist island nation.

Good.  The Cuba embargo has been a big, obvious, sustained failure.  While we have embargoed them they have moved no closer to freedom, while scores of countries with which we actively engage have become more free, in large part due to the effect of engagement by their citizenry with the West.

Flake really is an engaging guy.  I watched him at a taping of the NPR game show "Wait, wait, don't tell me" and he charmed an audience of NPR Democrats.

Why Presidential Candidates are Lame

Don Boudreaux loves to try to teach with analogies.  Sometimes they work for me, sometimes they don't.  I really liked this one.    Suppose you were tasked with selling a food product that 100,000,000 people would buy.  Anything at all interesting - sushi, a spicy southwestern dish, a nice pork tenderloin - would only appeal to a niche.  To get something that appeals to 100,000,000 you have to hit some lowest common denominator.

Eventually, you settle upon something that is unquestionably bland and common and uninspiring – something like a plain hamburger, or perhaps a dish of mild meatloaf with mashed potatoes topped only with butter.  Anything more exotic than such offerings will, while being much preferred by a few million of the people whose patronage you’re trying to win, will be rejected by a majority of the people.

The same rules, he argues, apply to Presidential candidates

No one should be surprised that candidates for the U.S. presidency transact mostly in platitudes and are forever performing deeds on the campaign trail that any self-respecting person with independent judgment and a genuine sense and appreciation of his or her uniqueness would never in a million years dream of doing.  And the closer a candidate gets to the political promised land, the more intense becomes the pressure for him or her to be the political equivalent of a Bud Lite.

It's Impossible to Make This Stuff Up

Yes, people write that sort of headline all the time.  But in this case, I know.  In my novel BMOC, I pondered for quite a while trying to make up outrageously lame torts that ignored the true guilty parties and instead targeted deep pockets only tangentially connected to the harm or loss.  But nothing I made up, which I thought to be over the top, beats this one from reality.  Via Walter Olson, of course:

Prison inmate orders attack on guard at guard’s home in Bishopville, South Carolina. Surviving guard Robert Johnson and wife “did not, however, sue the typical defendants – i.e., the shooter or any prison inmate or employee. Rather, the Johnsons sued several cellular phone service providers and owners of cell phone towers.

Why?  Because they have the most money of anyone involved.  Of course, that is not the logic in the legal briefs.  Apparently, gasp, the criminals made use of cell phones to plan the crime and for some odd reason the cell phone companies were not monitoring every second of every single call on their networks and failed to prevent the crime.

 

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).

New Star Wars Teaser

Yes, hints from the first teaser are confirmed -- there does appear to be a second black guy in the Star Wars universe (third if you count the now decades deceased Mace Windu). Bonus points for the first media outlet that calls this man who lived "a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" an African-American. I always get a laugh when the media refers to a black man in Jamaica or Britain as South Africa as "African American".

Kidding aside, I presume the thing that will have geek nation atwitter is the use of the present rather than past tense when talking about Darth Vader.  Not to mention the fact that wookies apparently age much better than humans.

Rental Market in San Francisco

One of the problems with making predictions about bad public policy is that sometimes you have to wait 20-30 years until after the policy was passed to see all the negative consequences play out, by which time people have forgotten about the initial policy changes that caused all the disruption.

But I got to skip those 30 years in San Francisco.  I never really paid that much attention to the city until I read a book called "Season of the Witch" written by a progressive about life in San Francisco in the 60's and 70's.  As I wrote previously:

What struck me most were the policies these folks on the Progressive Left had on housing.  They had three simultaneous policy goals:

  1. Limit San Francisco from building upward (taller).  San Francisco is a bit like Manhattan in that the really desirable part where everyone wants to live is pretty small.  There was (and I suppose still is) a desire by landowners to build taller buildings, to house more people on the same bit of  valuable land.  Progressives (along with many others across the political spectrum) were fighting to have the city prevent this increased density as a threat to San Francisco's "character".
  2. Reduce population density in existing buildings.  Progressive reformers were seeking to get rid of crazy-crowded rooming houses like those in Chinatown
  3. Control and cap rents.  This was the "next thing" that Harvey Milk, for example, was working on just before he was shot -- bringing rent controls to San Francisco.

My first thought was to wonder how a person could hold these three goals in mind without recognizing the inevitable consequences, but I guess it's that cognitive dissonance that keeps socialism alive.   But it should not be hard to figure out what the outcome should be of combining: a) some of the most desirable real estate in the country with b) an effective cap on density and thus capacity and c) caps on rents.  Rental housing is going to be shifted to privately owned units (coops and condos) and prices of those are going to skyrocket.  You are going to end up with real estate only the rich can afford to purchases and a shortage of rental properties at any price.  Those people with grandfathered controlled rents will be stuck there, without any mobility.

Since reading the book, I have paid attention to stories on the rental market in San Francisco.  In short, it is just as screwed up as would have expected 40 years ago when both density and rent caps were put in place.

As San Francisco's housing crisis continues to pit long-term residents against the recent influx of affluent tech employees, Airbnb and other short-term rentals have become a source of tension. Today San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Mark Farrell hoped to ease some of that tension by introducing reforms to the city's short-term rental laws that put a 120 day yearly cap on all short-term rentals. The package of amendments also introduced the creation of a new Office of Short-Term Rental Administration and Enforcement for the city staff to "coordinate in the administration and aggressive enforcement of the law."

Airbnb and other short-term rental services have come under fire in San Francisco because they take rental units off an already limited housing market. The current law caps short-term rentals at 90 days when the host is not present. If the host is present -- for example a room rental in an occupied home -- there is no yearly cap. Today's amendment package sets caps for both types of rentals. Mayor Lee said in a statement, "this legislation will help keep our City more affordable for homesharers, preserve rental housing for San Franciscans, protect neighborhood character and streamline permitting and enforcement under a fair set of regulations."

This is from a tech site that has developed a reputation, at least with me, for being astoundingly ignorant of even basic economics, so one has to make some guesses at what is going on here.  For example, it seems odd to say that renting a space on a short term lease rather than long-term somehow takes rental units off the market.  They are still being rented, are they not?  How could one describe them as being taken off the market?

My guess at what is going on here is that short-term rentals are likely exempt from some of the most onerous portions of San Francisco tenant law.   Likely, renting short-term allows one to bypass rent controls and charge more.  It also likely gives one some relief from the city and the state's horrendous tenant protections that make it virtually impossible to evict a tenant.  You lease to someone in SF, and you are stuck with them for life like a shark with a remora on his back, even if that tenant refuses to pay rent for years or constantly trashes the apartment.

San Francisco has created a system where they are absolutely guaranteed to have a shortage of rental properties.  Rather than address those laws that create the problem, politicians put their whole effort -- creating brand new agencies, no less -- to stop entrepreneurs from circumventing the madness and trying to provide housing.

Postscript:  The war against wealthy tech workers in SF is in full swing.  What SF would really like to do, I think, is close its borders and institute immigration controls to keep these folks out.  I know there are many parts of the world, including unfortunately our country, that work to keep poor uneducated immigrants seeking opportunity out.  But has there ever been a time or place in history where a particular place worked so hard to keep out rich educated immigrants seeking only to spend their money?

Why Prostitution Should Be Legal

Folks often use the abuses in the prostitution industry as evidence of why it should be illegal.  But these abuses are actually a result of the illegality.  Sex workers in illicit industries cannot use the police and legal system to address abuses without risking arrest.  Essentially, they are cut off from access to the legal system and its protections that we take for granted.

People act like the abuses are inherent to the fact that prostitution is a sex work industry, but here is an example of (legal) sex workers protecting themselves and addressing abuses through the legal system, just like all the rest of us do.  If prostitution were legal, then prostitutes could do the same.

Three Valley strip clubs are being sued by exotic dancers with the help of a Texas law firm over alleged unpaid tips and wages....

Hodges' firm and the strippers are suing to make the strippers official employees. Their new system would be similar to that of restaurant wait staff, who typically earn a sub-minimum salary (Arizona allows as low as $3 an hour for tipped employees) while pooling tips among their fellow workers. If no customers come in, the staff is still guaranteed to make at least minimum wage, plus time-and-a-half for any overtime worked.

I'm not a big fan of the premise of the lawsuit (trying to force businesses to change their employment model from dancers as independent contractors to dancers as employees) but it is their free access to the legal system that is the point here.  One could never imagine such a lawsuit with a group of prostitutes arguing that the people they worked for were not paying them fairly.

Q: What's The Difference Between GE and Enron? A: GE Got Bailed Out

I am going to oversimplify, but the essence of bank risk is that they borrow short-term and invest/lend long-term.   This is a money-making strategy in that one can often borrow short-term much cheaper than one can borrow long term.  This spread between long and short term rates is due to people valuing liquidity.  You probably have experienced it yourself when buying a certificate of deposit (CD).  The rates for 5 or 10 year CD's are higher, but do you really want to tie your money up for so long?  What if rates improve and you find yourself locked into a CD with lower rates?  What if you need the money for an emergency?  Your concern for having your money locked up is what a preference for liquidity means.

So banks live off this spread.   But there are risks, just like you understood there are risks to locking your money in a long-term CD.  Imagine the bank is lending for mortgages and AAA corporate customers at 6%.  To fund that, they have some shareholder money, which is a long-term investment.  But they make the rest up with things like deposits and commercial paper (essentially 90-day or shorter notes).  We will leave the Fed out for this.  There are two main risks

  1. Short term interest rates rise, such that the spread between their short term borrowing and long-term investments narrows, or even reverses to negative
  2. Worse, the short term money can just disappear.  In panics, as we saw in the last financial crisis, the commercial paper market essentially dries up and depositors withdraw their money at the first sign of trouble (this is mitigated for small depositors by deposit insurance but not for large depositors who are not 100% covered).

These risks are made worse when banks or bank-like institutions try to improve the spread they are earning by making riskier investments, thus increasing the spread between their borrowing and investing, but also increasing risk.  This is particularly so because these risky investments tend to go south at the same time that short-term credit markets dry up.  In fact, the two are closely related.

This is exactly what happened to GE.  Via MarketWatch:

GE’s news release announcing its latest and greatest reduction of GE Capital summed up the move beautifully, saying “the business model for large wholesale-funded financial companies has changed, making it increasingly difficult to generate acceptable returns going forward.”

“Wholesale-funded” refers to GE Capital’s traditional reliance on the commercial paper market for liquidity. The problem with this short-term funding model for a balance sheet with long-term assets is that during a financial crisis, overnight liquidity tends to dry up as it did for GE late in 2008. When the company had difficulty finding buyers for its paper, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. stepped in and through its Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP) was covering $21.8 billion of GE commercial paper. GE Capital registered for up to $126 billion in commercial-paper guarantees under the TLGP.

If you have a AAA credit rating, you can always, always make money in the good times borrowing short and investing long.  You can make even more money borrowing short and investing long and risky.  GE made their money in the good times, and then when the model absolutely inevitably fell on its face in the bad times, we taxpayers bailed them out.

Which leads me to think back to Enron.  Enron is associated in most people's minds with fraud, and Enron played a lot of funky accounting games to disguise its true financial position from its owners.  But at the end of the day, that fraud was not why it failed.  Enron failed because it was essentially a bank that was borrowing short and investing long.  When the liquidity crisis arrived and they couldn't borrow short any more, they went bankrupt.   Jeff Skilling didn't actually go to jail for accounting fraud, he went to jail for making potentially inaccurate positive statements to shareholders to try to head off the crisis of confidence (and the resulting liquidity crisis).  Something every CEO in history has done in a liquidity crisis (back in 2008 I wrote an article comparing Bear Stearns crash and the actions of its CEO to Enron's; two days later the Economist went into great depth on the same topic).

So the difference between GE and Enron?  The government bailed out GE by guaranteeing its commercial paper (thus solving its problem of access to short term funding) and did nothing for Enron.  Obviously the time and place and government officials involved differed, but I would also offer up two differences:

  • Few really understood what mad genius Jeff Skilling was doing at Enron (I can call him that because I actually worked with him briefly at McKinsey, which you can also take as a disclosure).  With Enron so opaque to outsiders, for which a lot of the blame has to be put on Enron managers for making it that way, it was far easier to ascribe its problems to fraud rather than the liquidity crisis that was well-understood at Bear or Lehman or GE.
  • Enron failed to convince the world it posed systematic risk, which in hindsight it did not.  GE and other big banks survived 2008 and got bailed out because they convinced the government they would take everyone down with them.  They followed the strategy of the Joker in The Dark Knight, who revealed to a hostile room a coat full of grenades with this finger ready to pull the pins if they didn't let him out alive.

TDK-joker-grenades

 

 

Artist's rendering of 2008 business strategy of GE Capital, Citicorp, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, GMAC, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postscript:  For those not clicking through, I though this bit from the 2008 Economist article was pretty thought-provoking:

For many people, the mere fact of Enron's collapse is evidence that Mr Skilling and his old mentor and boss, Ken Lay, who died between hisconviction and sentencing, presided over a fraudulent house of cards. Yet Mr Skilling has always argued that Enron's collapse largely resulted from a loss of trust in the firm by its financial-market counterparties, who engaged in the equivalent of a bank run. Certainly, the amounts of money involved in the specific frauds identified at Enron were small compared to the amount of shareholder value that was ultimately destroyed when it plunged into bankruptcy.

Yet recent events in the financial markets add some weight to Mr Skilling's story"”though nobody is (yet) alleging the sort of fraudulentbehaviour on Wall Street that apparently took place at Enron. The hastily arranged purchase of Bear Stearns by JP Morgan Chase is the result of exactly such a bank run on the bank, as Bear's counterparties lost faith in it. This has seen the destruction of most of its roughly $20-billion market capitalisation since January 2007. By comparison, $65 billion was wiped out at Enron, and $190 billion at Citigroup since May 2007, as the credit crunch turned into a crisis in capitalism.

Mr Skilling's defence team unearthed another apparent inconsistency in Mr Fastow's testimony that resonates with today's events. As Enronentered its death spiral, Mr Lay held a meeting to reassure employees that the firm was still in good shape, and that its "liquidity was strong". The composite suggested that Mr Fastow "felt [Mr Lay's comment] was an overstatement" stemming from Mr Lay's need to "increase public confidence" in the firm.

The original FBI notes say that Mr Fastow thought the comment "fair". The jury found Mr Lay guilty of fraud at least partly because it believed the government's allegations that Mr Lay knew such bullish statements were false when he made them.

As recently as March 12th, Alan Schwartz, the chief executive of Bear Stearns, issued a statement responding to rumours that it was introuble, saying that "we don't see any pressure on our liquidity, let alone a liquidity crisis." Two days later, only an emergency credit line arranged by the Federal Reserve was keeping the investment bank alive. (Meanwhile, as its share price tumbled on rumours of trouble onMarch 17th, Lehman Brothers issued a statement confirming that its "liquidity is very strong.")

Although it can do nothing for Mr Lay, the fate of Bear Stearns illustrates how fast quickly a firm's prospects can go from promising to non-existent when counterparties lose confidence in it. The rapid loss of market value so soon after a bullish comment from a chief executive may, judging by one reading of Enron's experience, get prosecutorial juices going, should the financial crisis get so bad that the public demands locking up some prominent Wall Streeters.

Our securities laws are written to protect shareholders and rightly take a dim view of CEO's make false statements about the condition of a company.  But if you owned stock in a company facing such a crisis, what would you want your CEO saying?  "Everything is fine, nothing to see here" or "We're toast, call Blackstone to pick up the carcass"?