Sounds Exactly Like Climate Alarm

Good excuse as any to relink this funny video on homeopathy

I Still Don't Understand Why Racism is Defined Assymetrically

What if I wrote this:

"For me as a white man, it's really nice to just go out with other white men sometimes," ... "I have to do so much less translation. When you're white around black people, you have to explain every little thing, even with people who are perfectly nice and well-meaning."

My presumption would be that this would be treated as evil and racist.  But what was actually written was this, which by its reception by Kevin Drum and others is apparently perfectly OK

"For me as a black woman, it's really nice to just go out with other black women sometimes," said Sabrina Stevens, an activist and progressive strategist. "I have to do so much less translation. When you're black around white people, you have to explain every little thing, even with people who are perfectly nice and well-meaning."

The answer I generally get for treating racism asymmetrically (e.g. almost anything a white person says about blacks is racist, but nothing a black person says about whites is racist) is that its all about privilege and power imbalances.  But the author, at least in this passage, is not talking about privilege and power imbalances.  She is merely talking about differences in outlook and perspective, which are presumably symmetric.  She is more relaxed around similar people, which is likely true of many of us.

Drum, fortunately, seems to get the point about safe spaces, that there is a huge difference between people privately creating spaces populated only by folks of their own selection (ie freedom of assembly) and public institutions (such as universities) enforcing segregated groups and spaces, particularly spaces meant to avoid contact with ideas an an institution dedicated to spreading ideas.  The first strikes me as fine, the second as generally unacceptable.    Of course women have spent the last 30 years of trying to purge private spaces where men choose to hang out solely with other men, so they shouldn't be surprised if they get a teensy bit of push back when they try to create such spaces for themselves.

The United States Is Doing Better Than Europe on Poverty: An Economics Rorschach Test

Kevin Drum, in commenting on a Binyamin Appelbaum article in the NY Times, writes that the Presidential candidates should be talking more about poverty in part because the US is way behind Europe.  Specifically, Appelbaum quotes a Harvard Sociology (!) Professor as the source for the poverty claim:

“We don’t have a full-voiced condemnation of the level or extent of poverty in America today,” said Matthew Desmond, a Harvard professor of sociology. “We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a
serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda.”

Drum argues that Desmond is right, because of this chart from the OECD:

blog_oecd_poverty

One of the dirty secrets about poverty measurement is that the actual measurement seldom has anything to do with absolute well-being.  And this is the case with the OECD numbers.  The OECD's poverty measurement is based on the country's median income, and is the percentage of people who are below a certain percentage (generally 50%) of the country's own median income.  As such, this is more rightly thought of as a graph of income inequality rather than absolute poverty.

Here is an example.   Image country A with a median income of $50,000 and an income of the 20th percentile at $20,000.  Now imagine country B where the median income is $30,000 and the 20th percentile income is $15,000.  In this example, the poorest 20th percentile in country A are better off on an absolute basis, but the OECD (and most other poverty numbers) will show country B doing better because the poor are closer to the (much lower) median income.  In an extreme example, if everyone in a country were equally impoverished, the OECD would show that country as doing the best on poverty -- Yes, you read that right.  By this metric, the OECD would show a country where every person made just $10,000 a year as having 0% poverty.

Obviously, what one would really like to do is compare across nations the absolute well-being of the lowest 10th or 20th percentile.  On a purchasing power parity basis, which country's poor has, after transfers and taxes, more money?  Unfortunately, you likely have never ever seen this.  Yes, the data comparison is hard, but it is possible, so one has to wonder if there is some ulterior political motive for never showing this quite obvious analysis.

I tried to do this analysis myself for years (I describe some false starts here) but was unsuccessful until I actually identified a data source that would work, ironically from two folks on the Left (Kevin Drum and John Cassidy) who were using data from the LIS Cross-National Data Center to make comparisons of income inequality.  It turned out the data they were using could do what I wanted.

So now we get to the chart I call the poverty Rorschach test.  It is a comparison of the absolute income, by income percentile and including transfers and taxes, of the US vs. Denmark (the country by Drum's chart that should be the "best" on poverty)

click to enlarge

(The date is old, alas, because this kind of cross-country data is only gathered every so often)

This chart shows, on a purchasing power parity basis, that for every single income percentile, all the way to the bottom, an equivalent person in the US has more income than that a similarly situated person in Denmark.  In short, the poor in the US are wealthier than the poor in Denmark.  The only reason Denmark does better than the US in the way the OECD and others measure poverty is that the middle class in the US are a LOT wealthier than the middle class in Denmark.

I call it the Rorschach test because one either sees the US doing a good job, because everyone is better off, or the Danish doing a better job, because everyone is more even.  Proponents of the latter view tend to believe that the size of the economic pie is an exogenous variable, unrelated to the method one chooses to slice it.

I picked the Danish because they were the obvious comparison from Drum's chart, but here is the US vs. all the European countries for which there was data in the survey.  The US is better than all but 3 at the 10th percentile and better than all but one country at the 20th percentile.  And better -- by a huge margin-- for the middle class than any of the countries in Europe.

income_all

Update:  One more note on Drum's chart.  As I said above, the exact definition of the OECD numbers is percentage of people with income less than 50% of the country's own median income.  The US has a median household income, per the OECD, 41% higher than Denmark's.   So the US has 9% more people under a number that is 41% higher.   That is hardly a fair or meaningful comparison.

For reasons that are beyond my understanding, I am banned at Mother Jones so I cannot post the comments directly to his article.  If someone wanted to cut and paste this under his or her own name, I wouldn't complain.

 

Leveraging Up The World in Good Times -- The Madness of Modern Central Banking

From the WSJ:

The European Central Bank’s corporate-bond-buying program has stirred so much action in credit markets that some investment banks and companies are creating new debt especially for the central bank to buy.

In two instances, the ECB has bought bonds directly from European companies through so-called private placements, in which debt is sold to a tight circle of buyers without the formality of a wider auction.

It is a startling example of how banks and companies are quickly adapting to the extremes of monetary policy in what is an already unconventional age. In the past decade, wide-scale purchases of government bonds—a bid to lower the cost of borrowing in the economy and persuade investors to take more risk—have become commonplace. Central banks more recently have moved to negative interest rates, flipping on their head the ancient customs of money lending. Now, they are all but inviting private actors to concoct specific things for them to buy so they can continue pumping money into the financial system.

The ECB doesn’t directly instruct companies to create specific bonds. But it makes plain that it is an eager purchaser, and it lays out the specifics of its wish list. And the ECB isn’t alone: The Bank of Japan said late last year it would buy exchange-traded funds comprising shares of companies that spend a growing amount on “physical and human capital,” essentially steering fund managers to make such ETFs available to buy.

Note that none of the criteria for the debt purchases is anything like, "the company has sensible plans for investing the money."  It is merely buying debt for debt's sake.  In the US, private companies are using most of their debt issues to buy back stock, a nearly pointless exercise that channels money from central banks to propping up equity valuations.  I wouldn't be surprised if European companies do the same.

Folks, it may not feel like it, but we are at the top of the economic cycle.   We have negative interest rates and central banks buying up every available debt issues in relatively good times, when these were formerly considered tools for the deepest point in a recession.  I am not a big believer in government stimulus, but these folks are.  What are they counting on in the bad times, when nothing will be left in the tank?

But now, we see central banks going one step further, encouraging private companies to lever up at the top of the business cycle.   Historically, this has been a formula for disaster.  The oil industry has been a preview of this.  Take ExxonMobil (XOM).  XOM, given its size, has never been very good at developing certain sorts of plays (e.g. the shale boom).  What it has done historically is use its size and balance sheet to swoop in during inevitable periods of low oil prices and producer losses to buy up developed fields at good prices.  But this time around, XOM has only had limited ability to do this, because it spent the boom years levering up its balance sheet and buying back stock.  Other large oil companies are in even more dire straights, facing real cash flow crises because, again, they levered up to repurchase stock when they should have been cleaning up their balance sheet.

Phoenix Light Rail Update: Half Billion Dollars More Spent, Transit Ridership Continues to Fall

Valley Metro, the agency that operates light rail and most bus service in the Phoenix area, has published its 2016 annual ridership numbers, and they are awful (the agency is on a july-june fiscal year).  Over the past year, they have opened two extensions of the current light rail line, spending $o.5 Billion to extend the line 6.2 miles.  So what did we get for this?  Falling transit use.

Valley_Metro_Fiscal_Year_Ri

To begin with, we must again look past Valley Metro's downright bizarre chartsmanship, where differences in bar length bear absolutely no relationship to the values graphed (just try to figure out the bar lengths for the last three years of light rail data).

We see that light rail ridership is up 9%.  This appears low, given that the line and total investment were increased by about 33%, but the new extensions were not available for the whole year.  My guess correcting for opening dates is that on a full year basis this represents about a 20% increase.  For May, June, and July light rail ridership has been running 19%, 26%, and 20% above the same month last year (before either extension was opened).  This is well below the increase in line length (31%) and line total investment (36%)

I have always argued that the first 20 miles of the light rail line cut through the densest part of the city, including the downtown area (such that it is), the two highest visitation sports stadiums, and ASU  -- and as such any future expansions were going to have a much harder time justifying themselves (ie, as in this case, a 31% expansion in length would yield something less than 31% increase in ridership).  Light rail supporters have argued in return that I had things exactly backwards, that network effects would mean that ridership increased faster than route length.  My sense is that this argument will pretty clearly tip in my direction by the time we have 2017 data.

By the way, with total investment up to over $2 billion and average weekday round trip ridership at about 23,500 in fiscal 2016, then the total capital cost (not including annual operating subsidies) of the line sits at about $85,000 per round-trip rider.   Whenever Valley Metro supporters defend the line against my attacks, they will often quote various riders saying how much they love it.  Of course they do!  They damn well should love it -- we taxpayers spent $85,000 for each one of them to open the line AND subsidize every single one of their rides.

But if you really want to see the cost of these subsidies, look at the bus and total transit ridership in the chart above.   Total transit ridership in the area has fallen to the lowest point since before the light rail line was first opened, despite the fact the city it serves is still growing.  This is because bus ridership has fallen off the map.   Just last year, for every 1 rider gained to the light rail line expansions, 3.6 were lost on busses.   To see how far bus ridership has fallen, you have to go back further than the chart above shows.  Here is an older Valley Metro chart I annotated for a previous article:

click to enlarge

You can see from this that bus ridership in Phoenix fell to a level we have not seen since 2003!  This is despite the fact that the Phoenix MSA has added about a million people since that time.

As it does in every city, light rail costs are starving the rest of the transit system.   By shifting transit dollars into a mode that requires 10x  more money to move a single passenger, the numbers of passengers served has to fall.  You can see from the chart that Phoenix transit ridership was rising steadily from 1997 to 2009.  But once light rail was completed, transit ridership absolutely stopped growing, despite population increases and large increases to total transit budgets.  Without light rail, we might very well have seen transit ridership as high as 90 million today, if past ridership growth trends held.

 

Being A Victim Apparently Has More Status Now Than Being A Gold Medal Winner -- Ryan Lochte Channels "Jackie"

There appears to be no rational way to explain Ryan Lochte's bizarre need to make up a story about being the victim of an armed robbery.  The media seems to be pushing the notion that he made up the story to cover up his own vandalism at a gas station, but that makes zero sense.  He had already defused the vandalism incident with a payment of cash to the station owner.  The rational response would be to just shut up about the whole thing and let it be forgotten.

But instead, he purposely made a big deal about the incident, switching around the facts until he was a victim of an armed assault by men posing as police officers, up to and including harrowing details of a cocked gun being jammed into his forehead.  The incident, likely ignored otherwise, suddenly became a BIG DEAL and subsequent investigation (including multiple video sources) showed Lochte to be a bald-faced liar.

The only way I can explain Lochte's motivation is to equate it with the lies by "Jackie" at the University of Virginia, whose claims of being gang-raped as published in the Rolling Stone turned out to be total fabrications.  Like Lochte, she dressed up the story with horrifying details, such as being thrown down and raped on a floor covered in broken glass.  The only real difference I can see, in fact, between Lochte and Jackie  is that the media still protects Jackie (via anonymity) from well-deserved humiliation for her lies while it is piling on Lochte.

I can sort of understand Jackie's motivation -- she was by all accounts a frustrated, perhaps disturbed, certainly lonely young woman who was likely looking for some way to dramatically change her life.  But Lochte?  Ryan Lochte has won multiple Olympic medals, historically in the sports world a marker of the highest possible status.  But in today's world, Lochte viewed victimhood as even higher status.

Canada May Fine Me $42,000

Via Steven Green at Instapundit, comes this story of a comedian getting fined $42,000 by Canada for telling a joke:

Canadian comedian Mike Ward was fined a whopping $42,000 by Quebec’s Human Rights Tribunal for jokes he made about a disabled boy.

The child, Jérémy Gabriel, who suffers from Treacher Collins Syndrome, is a bit of a national celebrity in Canada after he sung for the pope in 2006 essentially because everyone thought he did not have long to live. Ward’s joke was a rant about how the child was supposed to die, that he “stole a wish” and is unkillable.

Hmm, I believe I have made this same joke about Keith Richards at least a hundred times in the context of messing up my dead pools.  I better not travel to Canada.

Uncertainty Intervals and the Olympics

If I had to pick one topic or way of thinking that engineers and scientists have developed but other folks are often entirely unfamiliar with, I might pick the related ideas of error, uncertainty, and significance.  A good science or engineering education will spend a lot of time on assessing the error bars for any measurement, understanding how those errors propagate through a calculation, and determining which digits of an answer are significant and which ones are, as the British might say, just wanking.

It is quite usual to see examples of the media getting notions of error and significance wrong.  But yesterday I saw a story where someone actually dusted these tools off and explained why the Olympics don't time events to the millionths of a second, despite clocks that are supposedly that accurate:

Modern timing systems are capable of measuring down to the millionth of a second—so why doesn’t FINA, the world swimming governing body, increase its timing precision by adding thousandths-of-seconds?

As it turns out, FINA used to. In 1972, Sweden’s Gunnar Larsson beat American Tim McKee in the 400m individual medley by 0.002 seconds. That finish led the governing body to eliminate timing by a significant digit. But why?

In a 50 meter Olympic pool, at the current men’s world record 50m pace, a thousandth-of-a-second constitutes 2.39 millimeters of travel. FINA pool dimension regulations allow a tolerance of 3 centimeters in each lane, more than ten times that amount. Could you time swimmers to a thousandth-of-a-second? Sure, but you couldn’t guarantee the winning swimmer didn’t have a thousandth-of-a-second-shorter course to swim. (Attempting to construct a concrete pool to any tighter a tolerance is nearly impossible; the effective length of a pool can change depending on the ambient temperature, the water temperature, and even whether or not there are people in the pool itself.)

By this, even timing to the hundredth of a second is not significant.  And all this is even before talk of currents in the Olympic pool distorting times.

Demand Curve? What Demand Curve?

Today's little slice of economic ignorance comes from tech site Engadget, a frequent contributor of such morsels.  Apparently California is considering new penalties on auto makers for not selling enough electric cars, penalties which by their structure will be fed right into the pocket of Tesla, already a gaping maw of government subsidy consumption:

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke tells the Associate Press that she's introducing a bill requiring that car manufacturers sell at least 15 percent zero-emissions free vehicles within a decade. Companies operating in the state already have to hit yearly emissions targets and get credits for sales, but this would require that they embrace electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars in a big way -- not just one or two novelty models. And if they don't sell enough eco-friendly cars, they'd have to either pay a fine to the state or pay rivals that meet the targets. Yes, they might inadvertently help the competition.

If the bill becomes law, it could light a fire under car makers that have so far been slow to adopt emissions-free tech. Only 3 percent of all California car sales are either electric or plug-in hybrids.

The underlying assumption, both by Ms. Burke as well as the article's author, seems to be that lack of electric car sales is entirely a supply-side problem -- low sales are because auto makers don't make enough of them.  While I have no doubt that there would be incrementally more sales if auto makers had a larger variety of models with different combinations of features, all of this seems to ignore the demand side.  Automakers, who are constantly locked in a death struggle over tiny increments of market share, and who already pay penalties for not selling as many electric cars as politicians would wish them to, have every incentive to sell as many as they can.  The issue strikes me as one of demand rather than supply - given current technology limits and costs, and despite large financial incentives from the government in the form of tax subsidies, most buyers have eschewed electric vehicles to date.  Neither Ms. Burke nor the author even pretend that this law will change this demand situation.

Which is why critics rightly argue that this is just another way to funnel other people's money into Elon Musk's pocket, without his actually having to sell any more cars.  Tesla already depends on payments from other auto makers for electric vehicle indulgences for much of its revenue, and this can only go up under this kind of law.

Wow, With This Level of Understanding of How Government Works, It's Hard To Believe We Struggle to Have Meaningful Public Discourse

I don't have any particular comment on the Supreme Court decision in Voisine v. United States, but I have to highlight the headline that was just shared with me on Facebook:

Another Big Win: SCOTUS Just Banned Domestic Abusers From Owning Firearms

Um, pretty sure that is not what happened.

First, convicted domestic abusers generally are already banned from owning firearms.

Second, I am fairly certain that SCOTUS did not ban anything (not surprising since they don't have a Constitutional power to ban anything).  There was some legal uncertainty in the definitions of certain terms in a law (passed by Congress and signed by the President) that restricted gun ownership based on certain crimes.  This dispute over the meaning of these terms bounced back and forth in the courts until the Supreme Court took the case and provided the final word on how the terms should be interpreted by the judicial system.

This decision strikes me as a pretty routine sort of legal result fixing a niche issue in the interpretation of terms of the law.  How niche?  Well apparently Voisine was convicted (multiple times) of "“intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” hurting his girlfriend.  The facts of the case made it pretty clear that he was beating on her on purpose, but he argued that due to the "or" in the wording of the crime he was convicted of, as far as the law is concerned he might have only been convicted of recklessness which shouldn't be covered under the gun ownership ban.  Really, this silliness should never have reached the Supreme Court, and did (in my interpretation) only because second amendment questions were involved, questions stripped off by SCOTUS.  Freed on any Second Amendment implications, SCOTUS rightly slapped his argument down as stupid and said he was subject to the ban.  Seems sensible to me, and this sort of thing happens literally constantly in the courts -- the only oddball thing in my mind was how this incredibly arcane niche issue made it to the SCOTUS.

Instead, the article is breathless about describing this incredibly niche case as closing a "gaping loophole."  It is written as if it is some seminal event that overturns a horror just one-notch short of concentration camps  -- "This is a win for feminism, equality in the home, and in finally making movements on reigning in this country’s insane, libertarian approach to gun-owning."    And then of course the article bounces around in social media, making everyone who encounters it just a little bit dumber.

Markets in Not Quite Everything: IP Address Shortage

I migrated my server and in the process lost a block of 10 dedicated IP addresses I had.  So I tried to sign up for the 10 addresses again, and got this:

Due to the global shortage of IPv4 addresses, we are now required to request justification for dedicated IP address requests. Each dedicated server comes with 4 dedicated IP addresses, in addition to the primary shared IP address. Additional IP addresses must be requested in blocks of 4 IPs ($16.00/month for each block of 4). Please be aware, at this time, the only acceptable justification for a dedicated IP address we can accept is for use with an SSL certificate. You will need to provide at a copy of the certificate(s) which will be installed, however, we do not need to install the certificate for you.

Obviously IPv6 is meant to relieve this but it is still a minority of Internet traffic.

Phone Scam

Perhaps this has been going on for a while but it is the first I have had it happen to me.  Over the last two days I have had robocalls from two numbers - 626-265-4560 and 413-356-4173.  The robot says in a menacing way that this is the final call I am going to get and that the IRS is about to file a lawsuit against me.  I knew better than to believe this and did not call back, but several websites report that if you call these numbers, you get an operator who demands personal information without giving out any explanation.  Beware.  This is obvious phishing and should be avoided.

Update:  Add 213-447-4831 and 802-673-0582 to the list.

Example of the Impact of Minimum Wages on Consumer Prices

I thought folks might be interested in a letter I just wrote to the US Forest Service.  I have left some of it out, but these are the guts of it.  As many of your know, we manage parks and campgrounds under concession contract for public entities.  As such, we typically must get changes to customer fees approved in advance by the agency.  This is a version of a letter we just wrote to a number of US Forest Service offices in California explaining the substantial increases to camping rates that must occur over the coming years to accommodate the new California minimum wage laws.

2017 Fee Proposal & Impact of California Minimum Wage Increases on Camping Rates

The purpose of this letter is to make you aware of the substantial effect that the recent increase in California minimum wages will have on use fees. I will get into details below, but in short the newly-legislated 50% increase in the state minimum wage is likely to increase our costs by about 22%, even ahead of inflation in other categories of expenses. Just to stay at parity and to avoid cuts in service, we (and other California concessionaires) are going to need substantial increases in fees over the next five years. Frankly, this does not make me very happy – our company will have to struggle with public resentment of the new fees without making an extra dollar in profit – but it is the reality we must face together. The only other alternative would be large cuts in service (e.g. bathroom cleaning frequency) which frankly I am not going to accept.

Background on the Minimum Wage Increase

California minimum wages have already risen over the last three years by 25% from $8 to $10 an hour. The new California law, which will apply to most concessionaires, demands the following timetable for minimum hourly wages (smaller companies with fewer employees than we have will have one extra year to comply):

2016: $10.00

2017: $10.50

2018: $11.00

2019: $12.00

2020: $13.00

2021: $14.00

2022: $15.00

Note that given the terms of other portions of labor law, these same sorts of percentage increases must trickle up to all managers and salaried employees in California as well.

Background on Concessionaire Cost Structures

Not surprisingly, as a labor-intensive service business, a substantial portion of concessionaire costs are directly tied to wage rates. The minimum wage increase will increase at least three categories of our costs:

  • Wages
  • Payroll taxes (which are calculated as a percentage of wages, so will go up by the same percentages as wages go up)
  • Workers compensation insurance premiums (which like payroll taxes are calculated as a percentage of wages and go up by the same percentage wages go up)

Looking at our financials for our California permits (we have three large permits in the Inyo NF and one in the Cleveland NF) these three categories make up 44% of our total costs.

Preliminary Estimated Fee Impacts

Let’s look, then, and how much our costs may rise between now and 2022.

For the labor and labor-related charges discussed above, we know that costs will rise 50% between now and 2022. A 50% price increase on 44% of our costs raises our total cost structure by 22% (0.5 * 0.44).

But all of our other costs will also continue to rise during this period by at least the national rate of inflation. It is very possible that these costs will increase faster in the future due to this minimum wage increase – for example, our waste disposal costs will almost certainly go up as the labor costs of waste disposal companies rise. For a starting point, we will assume 3% general inflation in 2016 and 2017 and 4% in the years after that. This would yield a 24% increase in the other 56% of our costs for an impact on our total costs of 13.4% (0.24*0.56). Combining these two effects, we can expect a total cost increase to operate campgrounds in California by 2022 of 35.4%.

Note that though we bid based on trying to earn a profit margin around 9%, our actual profit margin in the USFS campgrounds we operate in California has been between 3% and 7% of revenues (5% in 2013, 7% in 2014, 3% in 2015). There is simply no room in that margin to absorb a 35.4% cost increase. We are going to have to therefore seek fee increases over the next 6 years in the 35% range, or between $6 and $8 on the $18-$23 camping rates that currently obtain. This is about a dollar or year, or two dollars every other year.

Competitor Analysis

We understand that the USFS wants to justify fee increases based on market conditions. One problem we will have is that even though we don’t open until April or May at seasonal locations, we need to get fee approval the previous September or October. We fully expect private operators will have to pursue fee increases of a similar magnitude; however, they may not announce their new higher rates in time for our very early fee-setting process. This makes local competitive analysis misleading.

Fortunately, in California we have another large public campground provider, California State Parks (CSP), that has many of the same public service and land management goals as has the US Forest Service. They therefore make a very good comparison. While rates vary by park, CSP is typically charging $35 a night for a no-hook-up campsite in parks that are very comparable in their natural settings to USFS campgrounds.

We currently charge no more than $23 for a no-hook-up site in the USFS in California (both in the Inyo and Cleveland NF). Even with a $6 fee increase, we would still be offering no-hookup campsites at 17% lower cost than does the State of California today (and presumably even lower in 6 years given that CSP is likely to continue to increase its camping fees).

[Rest of the letter on exact fee recommendations and other contract issues omitted]

China Doesn't Kill American Jobs, Politicians Do

I am simply exhausted with the notion that seems to have taken over both political parties that trade with China is somehow the source of US economic woes.

Remember that voluntary trade can't happen unless both parties are benefiting from each trade.  Remember the masses of academic evidence that the (largely hard to see) benefits of trade in terms of lower costs and more choice tend to be greater than the (easier to see) job losses in a few trade-affected industries.  But even if none of that is compelling to you, consider that our trade deficit with China is just 2% of GDP.  It's almost a rounding error.

If politicians want to know why lower-skilled laborers struggle to find employment, they need to look past imports from China and Mexican immigration and look at their own policies that are making it more and more expensive for businesses to hire people in this country.   I have written about this many times before, but some of the most prominent include:

  • minimum wage laws, rising to $15 an hour in many parts of the country, and increasingly draconian overtime rules, both of which substantially raise the cost of hiring someone.
  • minimum benefit laws, including expensive health care requirements in Obamacare and a myriad of other state-level requirements such as mandatory paid sick leave or family leave
  • payroll taxes that act as sales taxes on labor  -- we understand that cigarette taxes are supposed to reduce cigarette purchases but don't understand that payroll taxes reduce purchases of labor?
  • employment regulations, such as chair laws and break laws in California, that make employing people more expensive and risky
  • employer liability laws, that make employers financially responsible for any knuckleheaded thing their employees do, even when these actions violate company policy (e.g. making racist or sexist statements)**
  • laws that make hiring far more risk, including those that limit the ability to do due diligence on potential employees (e.g. ban the box) and those that limit the ability of employers to fire poor performing employees.

And this is just employment law -- we could go on all day with regulations that make life difficult for lower income workers, such as the numerous laws that restrict the housing stock and drive up housing prices and rents for these same folks who are struggling to find a job.

Let's say you live in California.  Who has killed more jobs in your state -- China or the California legislature?  The answer is no contest.   The California legislature wins the job destruction race in a landslide.   While California's high-tech community enjoys a symbiotic relationship with China that has created immense wealth, the California legislature works overtime to make sure low-skilled workers in the state don't benefit.

 

**Postscript:  Of all the factors here, I won't say that this is the largest but I think it is the most underrated and least discussed.  But think about it.  If you are going to be personally financially libel for ignorant, insensitive, or uncouth remarks made by your employees, even when you have explicitly banned such behavior in company rules and don't personally tolerate it, how likely are you going to be to hire a high school dropout without a good work history to interact with customers?

Stupid Regulatory Games

The US Government has various rules on insurance companies that include a notification requirement if they are not going to renew a policy.  However, apparently this requirement is for a date earlier than most insurance companies have made their annual underwriting decisions (in my case often because I have not gotten them all the information they need).  So every year, like clockwork, I get notices on all my business insurance policies that they are not going to renew, and then like clockwork they (mostly) all renew.  Insurance companies comply by sending, it appears, everyone a non-renewal notice.  That way, they can't get in trouble for not informing you in time on the off-chance it actually does not renew.  So in practice, the regulatory requirement is both expensive and worthless.

Actually, it is worse than worthless, as the two times I was non-renewed for a policy it was impossible to differentiate their actual warnings that I might have an underwriting problem from these pro forma ones.  By forcing insurance companies to cry "wolf" constantly, I missed the real dangers.

Venezuela's Directive 10-289

I have written before that the best way to read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is not as a character-based novel, but as an extended exposition taking socialism to its logical conclusion.  That ultimate conclusion in the novel is directive 10-289, whose first two points are these:

Point One. All workers, wage earners and employees of any kind whatsoever shall henceforth be attached to their jobs and shall not leave nor be dismissed nor change employment, under penalty of a term in jail. The penalty shall be determined by the Unification Board, such Board to be appointed by the Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources. All persons reaching the age of twenty-one shall report to the Unification Board, which shall assign them to where, in its opinion, their services will best serve the interests of the nation.

Point Two. All industrial, commercial, manufacturing and business establishments of any nature whatsoever shall henceforth remain in operation, and the owners of such establishments shall not quit nor leave nor retire, nor close, sell or transfer their business, under penalty of the nationalization of their establishment and of any and all of their property.

When I first read this at age 18, I thought this was a bit over the top.  But I have seen similar things in my lifetime, even in the US.  I remember years ago a law in Oregon where companies could not go out of business without the state's permission.

More recently, Atlas Shrugged has started to become redundant -- we don't need it to see the logical conclusion of socialism, we can just watch Venezuela.  Here is a brief dispatch from that country via Glen Reynold's, showing that Venezuela has gone full 10-289

This is not a joke nor even an exaggeration. I just found out that my sister in law’s other brother-in-law was arrested in Venezuela at the airport while trying to leave the country. His crime, he was an employee for a company that went out of business. Waiting for more? There isn’t any. Maduro has decreed that any business that goes out of business has committed economic treason and its employees are subject to arrest. They had already arrested numerous owners and managers but this is the first time they went after rank and file worker bees.

Feel the Bern, suckers.

Another Problem With the National Minimum Wage

Beyond the basic lunacy of attempting to help the poor by mandating that they sell their labor for more than most businesses are willing to pay, I am reminded of another problem with proposals for a higher national minimum wage.

This problem is related to one that is seldom discussed in the context of most economic statistics, and that is the differences in the cost of living in different parts of the country.   The Tax Foundation looks at the cost of living by state, showing the value of $100 ($100 is worth more in states with lower prices and cost of living, since one's money will go further).  Magenta states are lower cost of living, yellow states are higher.

$100 Map-state-01

I have written before that not taking this into account messes up our view of things like poverty and income by state.  Well-being of folks in high cost states like California and New York are often exaggerated, as is poverty in states like those in the deep south.

But another issue is that this large variation in cost of living changes the effective value of a minimum wage.  Based on these numbers, a $15 minimum wage in Washington DC becomes, effectively, a $20.43 minimum wage in Mississippi.  Employment effects are likely to be much worse in these lower costs states.  Since the higher cost states all vote Democrat in Presidential elections, and the lower cost states all vote Republican, one wonders if this is a bug or a feature of Democrat-proposed $15 minimum wage plans.

The Lifestyle Charity Fraud

For decades I have observed an abuse of charities that I am not sure has a name.  I call it the "lifestyle" charity or non-profit.  These are charities more known for the glittering fundraisers than their actual charitable works, and are often typified by having only a tiny percentage of their total budget flowing to projects that actually help anyone except their administrators.  These charities seem to be run primarily for the financial maintenance and public image enhancement of their leaders and administrators.  Most of their funds flow to the salaries, first-class travel, and lifestyle maintenance of their principals.

I know people first hand who live quite nicely as leaders of such charities -- having gone to two different Ivy League schools, it is almost impossible not to encounter such folks among our alumni.  They live quite well, and appear from time to time in media puff pieces that help polish their egos and reinforce their self-righteous virtue-signaling.  I have frequently attended my university alumni events where these folks are held out as exemplars for folks working on a higher plane than grubby business people like myself.  They drive me crazy.  They are an insult to the millions of Americans who do volunteer work every day, and wealthy donors who work hard to make sure their money is really making a difference.  My dad, who used his substantial business success to do meaningful things in the world virtually anonymously (like helping save a historically black college from financial oblivion), had great disdain for these people running lifestyle charities.

So I suppose the one good thing about the Clinton Foundation is it is raising some awareness about this kind of fraud.   This article portrays the RFK Human Rights charity as yet another example of this lifestyle charity fraud.

The Wages of Communism -- The Chinese Catastrophe Under Mao

Apparently new Communist Party archives are becoming available to scholars in China, and the true story of the Great Leap Forward appears to be even worse than we imagined.

A catastrophe of gargantuan proportions ensued. Extrapolating from published population statistics, historians have speculated that tens of millions of people died of starvation. But the true dimensions of what happened are only now coming to light thanks to the meticulous reports the party itself compiled during the famine. My study, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe (2010), relies on hundreds of hitherto unseen party archives, including: secret reports from the Public Security Bureau; detailed minutes of top party meetings; unexpunged versions of leadership speeches; surveys of working conditions in the countryside; investigations into cases of mass murder; confessions of leaders responsible for the deaths of millions of people; inquiries compiled by special teams sent in to discover the extent of the catastrophe in the last stages of the Great Leap Forward; general reports on peasant resistance during the collectivisation campaign; secret police opinion surveys; letters of complaint written by ordinary people; and much more.

What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier is a tale of horror in which Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers in history, responsible for the deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten kilogram stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool – punishment for digging up a potato.

There is more like this in the article.  When I read this, I can't help thinking about Hannah Arendt and her classic "Origins of Totalitarianism."  During the 60's and 70's, this fabulous work was targeted for marginalization by the academic Left because many in academia were admirers of Stalin and the Soviet Union and deeply resented the parallels Arendt raised between European fascism and Soviet communism.   Arendt's partial rehabilitation came after 1989, when Eastern European scholars and historians coming out from under communism looked around for a framework to describe their experiences under communism, and found Hannah Arendt to be most compelling.  This new wave of scholarship on communist China likely will vindicate Arendt as well.

American university campuses, in their current orgy of admiration for socialism, will have to work extra hard to whitewash this, but I am sure they are up to the task.

Update:  Venezuela goes full Great Leap Forward.

 

Something Bordering on Fraudulent Definitely Going On With Amazon Delivery Estimates

I reported before of clicking on the "today" one-click button at Amazon, meaning that I would pay a premium to get it here today (an option in the Phoenix area but not all locations) and having the item delivered one, two, or even three days later, rather than same day as promised.   This is happening with my Amazon orders more often than not - they are showing up days after they were promised when the sale was made.

It has now happened two more times.  On Tuesday evening I bought two small items I needed for an emergency computer rebuild, clicking in both cases on the button for delivery on Wednesday.  Neither showed up on Wednesday.  Neither showed up on Thursday.  The tracking on the site now says Friday. (By the way, all the rest of the stuff ordered from Newegg on a one day delivery showed up exactly as promised).

I went back and looked and the order confirmations sure enough say delivery on Friday.  I would never have ordered the item for Friday delivery, and in fact skimmed through multiple similar items until I found one that could be delivered on Wednesday.  I am positive I clicked Wednesday delivery, but a day later I got confirmations for a Friday delivery, without so much as an apology or even acknowledgement that this was not what I was promised.  I am sure Amazon will just call this user error on my part, but it now has happened on 8 or my last 10 rush shipments.  I GUARANTEE I know how to use Amazon, and have the order history to prove it, LOL.

I am convinced Amazon is executing a bait and switch, luring me into the purchase with the promise of a quick delivery and then delivering it several days late when it is too late for me to do anything about it.  Next time I do a rush order, I am going to take full screenshots of every step I take to prove what is going on.  Anyone else having similar experiences?  Amazon was dead-on reliable on these types of things until about 6 months ago, and then started to go off the tracks recently.

The Media's Role in Generating Polarization

A while back, I was asked to write a short essay answering the question of whether the National Parks should be privatized.  Here is my full answer.

Let me show you the first paragraph and a half of my answer, because I want to use it to make a point:

Should National Park’s be privatized, in the sense that they are turned entirely over to private owners?  No.  Public lands are in public hands for a reason — the public wants the government, not, say, Ritz-Carlton, to decide the use and character and access to the land.  No one wants a McDonald’s in front of Old Faithful, a common fear I hear time and again when privatization is mentioned.

However, once the agency determines the character of and facilities on the land, should their operation (as opposed to their ownership) be privatized?  Sure.   The NPS faces hundreds of millions of dollars in capital needs and deferred maintenance.  It is crazy to use its limited budget to have Federal civil service employees cleaning bathrooms and manning the gatehouse, when private companies have proven they can do a quality job so much less expensively....

It goes on from there, but I think that is a fairly nuanced and balanced answer, particularly given that I am probably the most vocal advocate in the country for public-private partnerships in public recreation.

But that nuance is not really interesting to the media.  They like point-counterpoint polarization.  So a web site called Blue Ridge Outdoors reprints me answer, but they edit it:

YES

No one wants a McDonald’s in front of Old Faithful, a fear I hear time and again when privatization is mentioned. However, once the government determines how to manage a particular park, should its operation be privatized? Sure. The National Park Service faces hundreds of millions of dollars in capital needs and deferred maintenance. It is crazy to use that limited budget for federal employees to clean bathrooms and man the gatehouse, when private companies have proven they can do a quality job much less expensively.

So my answer, which is pretty much "no" gets edited to a "YES" and the entire first paragraph of nuance is deleted.    And we wonder why the world seems polarized?

My Thought Watching the Dems Bash Trump Tonight

Hillary is hugely unpopular and embroiled in one scandal after another. She is not statist enough for her own party and statist in the wrong ways for Republicans. She is dogged by scandal. But Trump has allowed everyone to stop having to sell Hillary -- they can just bash Trump.

From Kevin Drum's summary of the evening:

Tonight's speech roundup:

  • Michael Bloomberg: Trump is a con man.
  • Tim Kaine: Trump is a liar.
  • Joe Biden: Trump is a sociopath.
  • Barack Obama: Trump is an asshole.

Progressivism is Not Caring. It is Authoritarianism

The city of Seatac (a small area of land around the Seattle-Tacoma Airport) gained national attention a while back for passing a $15 minimum wage.  Many other groups, including the city of Seattle itself, as well as this year's Democratic platform committee, cited the Seatac example as an impetus for higher minimum wages everywhere.

In today's politics, there is no better way for a Leftish politician to virtue-signal than to advocate for a $15 minimum wage.  It is a classic case of a government law that helps a few easy to identify people and hurts a whole bunch of people in ways that are hard to attribute to the law, such as reduced employment for low-skill workers and higher prices for consumers.

So the City of Seatac has been taking a victory lap over the last year, patting itself on its back for how caring it is of its citizens.  Oh, and it has also been doing this:

A three-month-long civil trial revealed the shadowy subterfuge behind a secret land grab that was orchestrated by the city of SeaTac, replete with backroom deals, baldfaced deceptions, and a mayor intent on driving Somali refugees from the neighborhood.

The aim of it all: to wrestle 4.23 acres of prime real estate from entrepreneurs Gerry and Kathy Kingen, according to the judge and jury who heard the case.

The West Seattle couple sued the city and won, proving in court that SeaTac officials intentionally sabotaged their development plans, strong-armed them into giving up their property and then violated the state’s Public Records Act by withholding city emails and documents proving the deception.

The trial judge also concluded the former SeaTac mayor wanted condos built on the site, believing they would price out Somalis who had moved into “his neighborhood.”...

In March 2004, K&S Developments [the Kingen's investment vehicle] began working with SeaTac’s planning department to get approval for [a] park-and-fly, and city officials “voiced support and encouragement” for the proposal. The judge noted there “was never any public opposition” to the plan.

But unbeknown to the Kingens, SeaTac’s planning director, city manager and other staff decided in late 2005 they didn’t want K&S to build the park-and-fly because it would create competition for a park-and-fly the city wanted to build about a mile south at South 176th Street.

So in February 2006, city staff “devised a secret plan” to get the City Council to pass a moratorium designed to kill the Kingens’ park-and-fly project, the judge wrote. After learning of the permanent ban, Gerry Kingen met with members of the City Council and then-Mayor Gene Fisher, who “promised to make things right.”

 

Are Your Kidding Me? Democrats Aren't Going to Drop Superdelegates, In Fact Republicans Are Going to Adopt Them

Apparently, Democrats voted down Bernie Sander's plan to eliminate superdelegates.  Duh.  Since the whole point of the superdelegate process was to prevent outsider candidates such as himself from winning, the Democrats are hardly likely to eliminate the process just after it demonstrated itself to be a success.  In fact, with the Donald as the GOP candidate, I can bet you there are a hell of a lot of Republicans running around in back rooms trying to figure out how they can have superdelegates too.

The Corporate State, In One Chart

James Bessen has a terrific article in the Harvard Business Review on the estimated contribution to corporate profits of rent-seeking, or the acquisition of special favors, subsidies, and protections from the government that shelter a company from the normal competition of a free market.  Bessen argues that such rent-seeking is major explanatory factor for recent rises in corporate profits.

W160518_BESSEN_WHATSDRIVING-1200x805

This topic will be a familiar one to Coyoteblog readers.   Show me a regulation and I will show you the large corporation that is able to use it to throttle competition.  I remember when everyone claimed the retail minimum wage was going to hurt Wal-Mart, but in fact Wal-Mart actually supported it because it was paying a higher wage than its smaller upstart competitors and thus the minimum wage would tend to hurt Wal-Mart's competition worse than it would be hurt.  Taxi service is one of the most regulated businesses in the country (at least in relation to the complexity of the business) and we are seeing just how much these regulations have supported taxi profits as we watch the taxi companies use the regulations to try to hammer Uber and Lyft.

According to Bessen, the effect is both large and on the rise:

I find that investments in conventional capital assets like machinery and spending on R&D together account for a substantial part of the rise in valuations and profits, especially during the 1990s. However, since 2000, political activity and regulation account for a surprisingly large share of the increase....

The pattern around the 1992 Cable Act is representative: I find that firms experiencing major regulatory change see their valuations rise 12% compared to closely matched control groups. Smaller regulatory changes are also associated with a subsequent rise in firm market values and profits.

This research supports the view that political rent seeking is responsible for a significant portion of the rise in profits. Firms influence the legislative and regulatory process and they engage in a wide range of activity to profit from regulatory changes, with significant success. Without further research, we cannot say for sure whether this activity is making the economy less dynamic and more unequal, but the magnitude of this effect certainly heightens those concerns.

Two characteristics make these changes particularly worrisome. First, the link between regulation and profits is highly concentrated in a small number of politically influential industries. Among non-financial corporations, most of the effect is accounted for by just five industries: pharmaceuticals/chemicals, petroleum refining, transportation equipment/defense, utilities, and communications. These industries comprise, in effect, a “rent seeking sector.” Concentration of political influence among a narrow group of firms means that those firms may skew policy for the entire economy. For example, the pharmaceutical industry has actively stymied efforts to address problems of patent trolls that affect many other industries.

I would add two other industries to this list -- medicine and legal.  The reason it likely does not show up in his study is that the returns in these businesses show up to individuals or small private firms.  But heavy regulation, and in particular a licensing process wherein one must get permission from the incumbents in order to compete with them, has always kept prices and returns in these businesses artificially high.

Note by the way that the breakpoint year of 2000 makes this a bipartisan issue, occurring in equal measure in Republican and Democratic Congresses and Presidencies.

And I don't think I need to remind folks, but both of our Presidential candidates are absolutely steeped in and committed to this cronyist, corporatist system