Why Tesla Agreed to Pay Elon Musk So Much

Tesla agreed to give Elon Musk what is potentially the richest executive compensation package ever.  I will give my (*gasp*) cynical reason why I think they did this.  I can show you in one chart (Tesla Model 3 production, from Bloomberg):

I would argue that Elon Musk is the only one in the world who can run a company with so many spectacular failures to meet commitments and still have investors and customers coming back and begging for more.  A relatively large percentage of Teslas get delivered with manufacturing defects and their customers sing their praises (even while circulating delivery defect checklists).  Tesla keeps publishing Model 3 production hockey sticks (apparently with a straight face) and consistently miss (each quarter pushing back the forecast one quarter) and investors line up to buy more stock.  Tesla runs one of the least transparent major public companies in this country (so much so that people like Bloomberg have to spend enormous efforts just to estimate what is going on there) and no one is fazed.  Competitors like Volvo and Volkswagon and Toyota and even GM have started to push their EV technology past Tesla and actually sell more EV's than does Tesla (with the gap widening) and investors still treat Tesla like it has a 10-year unassailable lead on competition.

All because Elon Musk can stand up at a venue like SXSW, wave his hands, spin big visions, and the stock goes up $3 billion the next day.   Exxon-Mobil has a long history of meeting promises, reveals its capital spending plans in great detail, but misses on earnings by a few cents and loses $40 billion in market cap.  GE lost over half its market value when investors got uncomfortable with their lack of transparency and their failures to meet commitments.   Not so at Tesla, in large part because Elon Musk is PT Barnum reincarnated, or given the SpaceX business, he is Delos D. Harriman made real.

Disclosure:  I don't currently have any position in TSLA but over the last 2 years I have sold short when it reaches around $350 (e.g. after Elon Musk speaks) and buy to cover around $305 (e.g. when actual operational or financial data is released).  Sort of the mirror image of BTFD.

Cinema Visual Effect Before CGI

I really love this blog about visual effects, particularly various forms of matte painting, in movies before CGI.

This is Genius

Things I May Have Been Wrong About

Ace of Spades writes, in response to a NYT article on the death of a homeless woman:

In Sunday’s NYT there is a long article about a homeless woman who lived on a grate near Grand Central Terminal. She was seemingly intelligent, a Williams grad, and had a promising future snuffed out by mental illness....

What is ironic is that the majority (probably all) of the people involved and interviewed probably support the deinstitutionalization craze that has gripped America since the 1970s. I wonder whether a firm public policy of forced commitment would have helped this woman. My suspicion is that it would have. That is not to say that our institutions were wonderful, but an all-or-nothing approach makes no sense. We have moved the mentally ill out of sometimes awful psychiatric facilities into the revolving door of the street, prison and an early death.

I was among those who has opposed forced institutionalization.  The practice used to be rife with abuse, and when it was really being challenged in the 1970's it was with recent knowledge of how institutionalization for supposed mental health issues had been used in the Soviet Union as a tool against dissent.  And in a world where political partisans still routinely assign negative mental health diagnoses to their political enemies and have even suggested using mental health diagnosis-from-a-distance to unseat the current President, there is still a lot of possibility for abuse.  But seeing that most of those who would have been in state mental hospitals are now in prison or living (and dying) on the streets, I am open to having made a mistake.   I am still not sure, though, who advocates for such people who are without friends and family and would help guard against their abuse.

The Problem With Social Justice Today -- Dividing Rather than Unifying

This article about pronouns on campus embodies all that is wrong with social justice warriors today, but perhaps not for the reason you might guess.

I personally have no particular problem if you want to identify as a male or a female or gender 6 or a zebra.  But here is the real problem:  When I write about you, I don't know how you self-identify.  And when I write about a random hypothetical person, gender is effectively meaningless.  I want one simple third person pronoun that can be applied to everyone.  I currently use "they" even for the singular, rather than the more awkward "he or she" or just picking a random one each time, though this usage is still controversial.  I don't care what the damn word is, just let's agree on one.   The shift in the 1970's from using Mrs. and Miss to just using Ms. was awesome -- if you have ever struggled with trying to guess gender from a name like "pat", think about what a pain in the butt it was to try to guess marital status before addressing someone.   The only thing that would be an improvement would be to just go to M. for everyone, male or female.

But the proposal in the article has, at my count, 11 different third-person pronouns.  Ack.  This is going in exactly the wrong direction.  It is the same thing that social justice warriors have done on race.  Twenty years ago, perhaps even 10, most everyone would have agreed the ideal goal was to have post-racial or race-blind society.   Sure, celebrate your ethnicity and cultural uniqueness, but when dealing with each other we should think of each other first and second and third as humans, with race being as relevant to how we react to people as hair color.   But of course we have gone in the opposite directly, with Progressives actually arguing for more and more separation and barriers between the races.  So now we are doing the same thing on gender.

The whole point of the pronoun things seems to be not to get us to some sort of harmony but just the opposite, to create new opportunities to shame and abuse people.  After all, if we launch tidal waves of outrage at people for picking the wrong pronoun out of two choices, imagine how much vitriol we can vent with 11 choices to get wrong.

Problems With Pigouvian Taxes

Pigouvian taxes are taxes meant to help markets and prices better account for certain externalities that wouldn't otherwise be priced in.  A good example is that to the extent one thinks that CO2 is having a deleterious effect on the environment, a carbon tax would be a pigouvian tax.  This brief note at Cato discusses some problems with Pigouvian taxes.  This note reminded me of another issue:  in real life, Pigouvian taxes are more likely to reflect biases and faulty assumptions and virtue signalling of politicians rather than real science and economics.  Here are two situations that come to mind, presented without comment:

Maybe This is Why Model Railroading is Dying

I am a long-time model railroader (yes, I need to post an update soon) but the hobby is basically dying.  It is just not relevant to young people any more.

Maybe it's because no one produces awesome starter train sets any more like these from the 1980's.

The Best New Technologies Don't Just Unseat Incumbents, They Grow the Market

I love Mark Perry's blog but I think he missed an opportunity to point out something awesome in this chart:

We spend a lot of time discussing how Uber and its app-based peers are upending the traditional taxi monopoly.  And no one enjoys seeing a government enforced crony monopoly overturned more than I.  But let's not miss the other story here, which is the tremendous increase in customer well-being and mobility.  Forget the mix for a second and add the two lines.  Monthly passenger rides, which were stuck in the 12-13 million a month range for years, have almost overnight doubled to about 25 million rides with the advent of ride-hailing and the entry of many ordinary folks without taxi medallions into the drive-for-hire business.  This is amazing!

A Failure of Skepticism and Common Sense: Elon Musk's Skepticism Dampening Field

I continue to marvel at the nearly 100% positive press Elon Musk gets for his Hyperloop project.  For those who do not know, that is his concept for a high speed transportation system that can achieve high speeds in part because it is in a vacuum sealed tube.  Here is an update on the project and a picture of a prototype below:

So here is the story so far:  We know that the main barrier to high speed rail projects is that they are astonishingly expensive to build and maintain given the high cost of the right-of-way acquisition and building track to the very high standards necessary to support safe high speeds.   See for example California high speed rail, which is following some sort of crazed Moore's law where the cost estimate doubles every 18 months.

So we are going to fix the cost problem by ... requiring that the "track" be a perfectly smooth sealed pressure vessel under vacuum that is hundreds of miles long?  What about this approach isn't likely an order of magnitude more expensive than rail?  The prototype above which allows only one way travel cost about a billion dollars per mile to build.  And with a lot less functionality, as current prototypes envision 10-20 person sleds, one step beyond even the worst airline middle seat in terms of likely claustrophobia, and less than half the capacity of a bus.  It would take 15-20 of these sleds just to move the passengers from a typical aircraft.   Not to mention the fact that there is no easy way to do switching and a return trip requires a second parallel track.  All to reach speeds perhaps 20% higher than air travel.

Sure, I can be wrong.  For example, if the hyperloop handled grades better than a train, that would reduce costs somewhat.   But why does no one seem to ask obvious questions like this?   It's like Musk exudes some sort of skepticism dampening field around him (look at Tesla:  the company is fraught with issues and the stock price was falling until Musk did one of his hand-waving presentation specials at SXSW and the stock goes back up 30 points).  But if you read carefully, most of the hyperloop progress in the article linked is for getting handouts from government (something Musk excels at) including money for scoping studies of lines that will never exist and money for new buildings and workshops.



It Pays To Have Good PR: Compared to Jeff Skilling, Elizabeth Holmes Gets Slap On the Wrist for Outright Fraud

Jeff Skilling was convicted of fraud and fined $50 million dollars and given 20+ years in jail.  Elizabeth Holmes -- for fraud that is way more obvious and for which she is clearly directly accountable -- will get no jail time, a fine of a half million dollars, loss of some voting shares in the company, and a ten year moratorium on being a director or officer of a public company.  From the SEC press release:

The complaints allege that Theranos, Holmes, and Balwani made numerous false and misleading statements in investor presentations, product demonstrations, and media articles by which they deceived investors into believing that its key product – a portable blood analyzer – could conduct comprehensive blood tests from finger drops of blood, revolutionizing the blood testing industry.  In truth, according to the SEC’s complaint, Theranos’ proprietary analyzer could complete only a small number of tests, and the company conducted the vast majority of patient tests on modified and industry-standard commercial analyzers manufactured by others.

The complaints further charge that Theranos, Holmes, and Balwani claimed that Theranos’ products were deployed by the U.S. Department of Defense on the battlefield in Afghanistan and on medevac helicopters and that the company would generate more than $100 million in revenue in 2014.  In truth, Theranos’ technology was never deployed by the U.S. Department of Defense and generated a little more than $100,000 in revenue from operations in 2014.

These are only the highlights of the many, many repeated knowingly grossly fraudulent statements made by Holmes over a span of several years, and this does not even include her harassment of whistle blowers who tried to go public with the fraud.  This isn't a case of creating an offshore JV that shifted some debt off the balance sheet -- its the case of lying blatantly about the company's technology and financials for years and years.

Addressing the Pro-Tariff Arguments

Don Boudreaux and and Mark Perry have been doing a great job making the case against Trump's trade sanctions.  But it is always a danger only to learn about opposing views from those who disagree with you, so in the spirit of Bryan Caplan's "Ideological Touring Test" I wanted to address directly some of the arguments in support of Trump's sanctions.

I followed several links to this article by Spencer Morrison.  After reading the whole thing, I fear I have made the intellectual error of choosing a poor representative of the opposing side's argument, but I am committed now, so here goes.

Consider that China steals more than half a trillion dollars in American intellectual property every single year. This is one of the reasons America’s trade deficit with China is so massive. For example, in 2010 Chinese companies stole high-speed rail designs from American firms, thereby depriving them of hundreds of billions in potential revenues. Such theft occurs in nearly every industry, whether it’s software programs or branded consumer goods. And the worst part? We let it happen.

I find the author's figure absurd, and likely untrustworthy given his example.  Following his high-speed rail design "theft" link one quickly finds that 1) Americans were not involved at all, which is not surprising since we really don't have high-speed rail manufacturing industry or expertise in this country; 2) the technology seems to have been acquired or copied legally; and 3) the real competitive issue for non-Chinese companies seems to be that the Chinese have extended and improved the technology.

This one paragraph essentially summarized the theme of the article, that technology is the key to increased well-being and that the US is poorer when they cannot monopolize the best technology.  The first is true, the second is dead wrong and flies in the face of 200 years of history.

I won't spend time on the mass of the article where describes the economy in very production-based terms which I don't totally agree with, but his basic point is one I can partially accept -- that real economic growth over time comes from  productivity growth.  I agree that technology is part of the productivity equation, but unlike the author I also see other drivers such as trade (which he calls "noise").  Trade is a critical factor in productivity improvement as specialization and comparative advantage greatly increase productivity.

But where I think he really goes off the rails is to say that because technology is wealth-creating, we need to monopolize that technology in the US.

The core issue remains: we continue to  offshore our advanced industries at an alarming pace, which will only increase the likelihood that the “next big thing” will be invented abroad. If we do not reverse this trend, we will soon be on the outside looking in.

It would be entertaining to discuss the origins of the American textile industry in the late 18th and early 19th century with the author, which were largely based on spinning jenny and powerloom designs that were literally stolen from manufacturers in the UK (countries don't own technologies, only individuals and their companies do).  The UK at the time had strict technology export restrictions of which I am sure the author would have been approving.

So did the UK suddenly become poorer as America built a lively cloth industry?  No, in fact the UK boomed along with the US.  It turns out that spreading new technology and productivity techniques around more widely made everyone richer.  This only makes sense.  Would the West really be wealthier if they had kept all technology from spreading, and thus were surrounded by countries dominated by subsistence farming and medieval crafts?  A skeptic might argue that the UK did eventually become poorer relative to the US and upstart Germany, but Andrew Carnegie could have told you why at the beginning of the 20th century.  He went back and toured manufacturers in his old home and was horrified at how little they reinvested in new technology.

Which brings me back to Chinese high speed rail, the example he started with.  Clearly the Chinese have a growing high-speed rail manufacturing industry, and they DIDN'T invent the technologies originally in China.  This is what trade is all about.  Rather than keep technologies locked up in a secret underground bunker in the Rockies, as the author seems to prefer, it spreads technologies around the world.  Production then shifts around the world based on a variety of factors such as comparative advantage in ways that are hard to predict, but seldom has a strong relationship to the country in which the technology was first invented.  One place production does NOT shift, though, is towards countries whose government has artificially raised critical raw material prices through border taxes on its consumers called tariffs.

Which reminds me, if the problem is China "stealing" things like high-speed rail technology, then why in the hell are we imposing steel and aluminum tariffs?  What the heck does this have to do with technology transfer?  In fact, if the US really had a high-speed rail industry we were worried about, or if one were exclusively concerned with the auto industry, the author is essentially telling them "we are sorry you had your technology stolen so to help you out we going to substantially raise the prices of your two largest purchases (steel and aluminum) so that you can be even less competitive internationally."  Ahh, I can feel the economic growth from that already.

If the author wants better intellectual property protections for US companies and individuals, I am generally supportive of efforts to achieve this (as long as we don't over-specify intellectual property and end up again with endless patent troll suits).  For all its flaws, though, joining the TPP seems to be a better path to this end (it actually addresses, you know, intellectual property protections rather than just raise steel prices for consumers).

To conclude, I love this quote from his article because, despite being anti-trade, he in fact is echoing the pro-trade observation by Steven Landsburg.

Yet our trade policy does exactly the opposite. After the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, U.S. corn exports surged, as did our imports of automobiles. The problem is that automobile manufacturing is much more likely to benefit from disruptive technology than is growing corn—under NAFTA, the preponderance of long-run benefits went to Mexico, not the United States. The same is true with America’s trade relationship with China: America’s advanced goods trade deficit with China now tops $120 billion. Meanwhile, our biggest export is soybeans.

Free trade is, quite literally, turning America into China’s mercantile resource colony: we buy their value-added, manufactured products, and we sell them raw materials.

This is freaking awesome!  We grow and sell soybeans and get back advanced technology products.  Brilliant!  No wonder we are the richest nation on Earth.

Postscript:  So to save the time clicking through to Steven Landsburg, here is a part of what he said (via Carpe Diem):

There are two technologies for producing automobiles in America. One is to manufacture them in Detroit, and the other is to grow them in Iowa. Everybody knows about the first technology; let me tell you about the second. First you plant seeds, which are the raw material from which automobiles are constructed. You wait a few months until wheat appears. Then you harvest the wheat, load it onto ships, and sail the ships eastward into the Pacific Ocean. After a few months, the ships reappear with Toyotas on them.

International trade is nothing but a form of technology. The fact that there is a place called Japan, with people and factories, is quite irrelevant to Americans’ well-being. To analyze trade policies, we might as well assume that Japan is a giant machine with mysterious inner workings that convert wheat into cars. Any policy designed to favor the first American technology over the second is a policy designed to favor American auto producers in Detroit over American auto producers in Iowa. A tax or a ban on “imported” automobiles is a tax or a ban on Iowa-grown automobiles. If you protect Detroit carmakers from competition, then you must damage Iowa farmers, because Iowa farmers are the competition.

The task of producing a given fleet of cars can be allocated between Detroit and Iowa in a variety of ways. A competitive price system selects that allocation that minimizes the total production cost. It would be unnecessarily expensive to manufacture all cars in Detroit, unnecessarily expensive to grow all cars in Iowa, and unnecessarily expensive to use the two production processes in anything other than the natural ratio that emerges as a result of competition.

That means that protection for Detroit does more than just transfer income from farmers to autoworkers. It also raises the total cost of providing Americans with a given number of automobiles. The efficiency loss comes with no offsetting gain; it impoverishes the nation as a whole.

Markets in Everything: Pizza Ordering Sneakers

Since I have not seen Marginal Revolution do this feature for a while, I will try to fill in.  "pie tops" -- sneakers with a button for ordering a pizza.

When You Relax Accountability, Bad Things Happen

For years I have been critical of US Forest Service (USFS) fire suppression operations.  For those who are not familiar, because they own so much land in the very dry west, the US Forest Service is -- by far -- the largest firefighting agency in the country.  It spends billions of dollars a year on firefighting and employs tens of thousands for workers in doing so -- some specifically hired for fire, many others detailed from regular jobs to specific fires.  Basically, in the late summer, Forest Service offices are practically cleared out as everyone is off on fire detail, and those who are still around have no money to spend because it all has been swept into fire.

It is hard to publicly criticize firefighting operations for many of the same reasons that it is hard to criticize the police -- people will say that they are so brave and perform an indispensible service.   Granted.  But the USFS process for managing and funding firefighting is totally broken.  This is not solely the agency's fault -- Congress shares a lot of the blame.  But whatever the cause, firefighting has become (in my observation of the agency) a financial accountability-free zone.  There are no budgets for fire.  No competitive bidding for services and products.   All the rules are lifted, and the agency simply spends like crazy.  People have made small fortunes inventing things fire crews might need (e.g. portable shower buildings) and selling or renting them to the USFS for huge sums of money.  And USFS employees don't care because they understand it to be an environment where the normal rules do not apply.

And the USFS employees love it.  The structure and schedules and requirements of their day jobs are lifted, with little danger except for a very few in the front line crews.  I have always described what I have seen as a cross between a summer camp and a fraternity outing.

And perhaps I was more correct than I knew.  Apparently, once the tone is set for a low-accountability environment -- even if the relaxed rules were really only supposed to apply narrowly to financial issues -- it can spread to other behaviors.

Michaela Myers said she was first groped by her supervisor after a crew pizza party last summer, shortly after starting a new job as a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service. She was 22 and excited about the job. She had worked out diligently to prepare for the season, running and hiking with a heavy pack. She is from the Pacific Northwest, and had always loved the outdoors and a challenge.

She remembers her supervisor, Drew DeLozier, a Forest Service veteran, offering her beers at a crew member’s house after dinner. He told her he was glad she was on the crew because she was “sexy” and had “a nice ass,” she said. According to her account, he led her to a couch, rubbed her butt as she sat down, and slid his hand between her legs. Myers was shocked and upset, but didn’t stop him. She had heard from other crew members that DeLozier could fly off the handle, and didn’t want to make a scene.

“You don’t feel like you can say ‘no’ loudly to your supervisor,” she said. “I keep looking back on it and wishing I could have just punched him or something.”

According to Myers, the harassment and groping continued for the rest of the summer. When she confided in a fellow crew member, he told her this was an unfortunate reality for a female firefighter. She had a choice, she recalls him saying: report it and face retaliation, or do nothing and stay in fire.


A Chinese Consumer's Perspective on Chinese Trade Policy

This is, plus or minus, a reprint of an article on trade policy written 12 years ago at our Chinese sister publication, Panda Blog.

Our Chinese government continues to pursue a policy of export promotion, patting itself on the back for its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the United States. The Chinese government does so through a number of avenues, including:

  • Limiting yuan convertibility, and keeping the yuan's value artificially low
  • Selling exports below cost and well below domestic prices (what the Americans call "dumping") and subsidizing products for export

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers. A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese. So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  We Chinese send our resources, our capital, and the output of our most productive workers overseas to be enjoyed by American consumers, and what do we get in return?  A trillion dollars or so of foreign exchange surpluses that our government invests for 2% returns in US government bonds.  Yes, that's right -- not only are we subsidizing American consumers, but we are subsidizing their taxpayers by financing their government's debt at low interest rates.

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and eighties. It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers in the domestic market while subsidizing exports. Japanese consumers had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods. Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously outdated retail sector that were all protected by government regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses. And surpluses they did create. Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US, and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars) in the world. And what did this get them? Decades of recession, from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions, seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

We at Panda Blog believe it is insane for our Chinese government to continue to chase the chimera of ever-growing foreign exchange and trade surpluses. These achieved nothing lasting for Japan and they will achieve nothing for China. In fact, the only thing that amazes us more than China's subsidize-Americans strategy is that the Americans seem to complain about it so much. They complain about their trade deficits, which are nothing more than a reflection of their incredible wealth. They complain about the yuan exchange rate, which is set today to give discounts to Americans and price premiums to Chinese. They complain about China buying their government bonds, which does nothing more than reduce the costs of their Congress's insane deficit spending. They even complain about dumping, which is nothing more than a direct subsidy by China of lower prices for American consumers.

And, incredibly, the Americans complain that it is they that run a security risk with their current trade deficit with China! This claim is so crazy, we at Panda Blog have come to the conclusion that it must be the result of a misdirection campaign by the CIA-controlled American media. After all, the fact that China exports more to the US than the US does to China means that by definition, more of China's economic production is dependent on the well-being of the American economy than vice-versa. And, with well over a trillion dollars in foreign exchange invested heavily in US government bonds, it is China that has the most riding on the continued stability of the American government, rather than the reverse. American commentators invent scenarios where the Chinese could hurt the American economy, which we could, but only at the cost of hurting ourselves worse. Mutual Assured Destruction is alive and well, but today it is not just a feature of nuclear strategy but a fact of the global economy.

Setting Up Your TV Correctly

I have been a home theater hobbyist for years, though with projection TV's rather than LCD panel TV's.  However, from what I know, this appears to be a good list of things to do and not do in setting up your TV.  TV's have historically been set up to look good in very bright showrooms under fluorescent lighting, but this is not how you likely watch the TV at home.  In fact, the best thing you can do to improve the look of your picture for cinematic content actually has nothing to do with the TV -- darken your viewing room.  They key to a really good picture is in the dark areas of the picture, not the bright areas.  Tricks to up the contrast and brightness of the TV can kill the detail in the dark areas.  The only way to really see what is there is to watch in a dark room.

The hardest thing to do at first is to get the color temperature correct.  Thankfully, most TV's today generally have a color temperature setting that is correct (20 years ago one had to have a technician do a manual re-calibration).  The right color temperature is around 6500K but TV's and computer monitors often ship with color temperatures boosted way up above 9000K, well up into the blue range because this makes the TV appear brighter in a TV showroom (at higher temperatures a neutral grey will look bluer, at lower temperatures it will look redder).  Unfortunately, your eyes are used to looking at high temperature monitors and TVs and so when you first change to the correct setting things may look to red.  Live with it a while.

Update on the Bubble

This morning on my short drive to work I heard a commercial that reminded me of the glory days of 2005.  First, it was a commercial for a home equity loan, a pitch that largely disappeared for a decade or so.  Second, though, the pitch said that you could take the money and put in in the stock market or -- I am not kidding on this, I think I got it word for word -- "buy the dip in the Bitcoin market".    There you have it:  Borrow against the theoretical unrealized price gain in your home and use it to market-time Bitcoin prices.  Take your paper gain in one bubble and apply it to a bigger bubble.  Nothing could go wrong there.

Average People Used To Understand That Protectionism Was Welfare for Special Interests That Hurt Consumers. When Did This Change?

I have been watching the second season of Victoria on PBS (quite good, I think) and much of it has covered the famines of the 1840's and the debate over the Corn Laws.  At the time, it seems that average people understood that the British tariffs on imported food were in place solely to protect the agricultural profits of aristocratic (and by definition well-connected) landowners while hurting the country as a whole by raising food prices for every consumer and contributing to the famines that were sweeping Ireland and parts of England.

Trump's proposed tariffs are simply a disaster.  A lot of the media seems to believe the biggest reason they are bad is that they will incite retaliatory tariffs from other countries, which they almost certainly will.  But even if no one retaliated, even if the tariffs were purely unilateral, they would still be bad.  In case after case, they are justified as increasing the welfare of a certain number of workers in targeted industries, but they hurt the welfare of perhaps 100x more people who consume or work for companies that consume the targeted products.  Prices will rise for everyone and choices will be narrowed. This is Bastiat's classic seen and unseen -- the beneficiaries (say in the steel industry) are easy to identify, but the individual consumers who change their purchasing plans or industries that change their investment plans are frequently invisible.  It is the height of childish public policy to pretend those hurt by this don't exist merely because they can't easily be interviewed on TV.

Well, not completely invisible:

 A proposed expansion of an Exxon Mobil Corp oil refinery could be impacted by the Trump administration’s plan to place a 25 percent tariff on imported steel, a source familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

Exxon has been considering increasing its North American crude refining capacity since at least 2014, the company has said, but has not disclosed a final decision. An Exxon spokeswoman was not available for immediate comment.

 The nation’s largest oil producer has been weighing adding new processing capacity to its 362,000 barrel-per-day Beaumont, Texas, plant that could make it the nation’s largest. (Reporting by Erwin Seba Editing by James Dalgleish)

NCAA: The World's Last Bastion of British Aristocratic Privilege

It is incredible to me that we still fetishize amateurism, which in a large sense is just a holdover from British and other European aristocracies.  Historically, the mark of the true aristocrat was one who was completely unproductive.  I am not exaggerating -- doing any paid work of any sort made one a tradesman, and at best lowered ones status (in England) or essentially caused your aristocratic credentials to be revoked (France).

The whole notion of amateurism was originally tied up in this aristocratic nonsense.  It's fine to play cricket or serve in Parliament unpaid, but take money for doing so and you are out.  This had the benefit of essentially clearing the pitch in both politics and sports (and even fields like science, for a time) for the aristocracy, since no one else could afford to dedicate time to these pursuits and not get paid.  These attitudes carried over into things like the Olympics and even early American baseball, though both eventually gave up on the concept as outdated.

But the one last bastion of support of these old British aristocratic privileges is the NCAA, which still dedicates enormous resources, with an assist from the FBI, to track down anyone who gets a dollar when they are a college athlete.  Jason Gay has a great column on this today in the WSJ:

This is where we are now, like it or not. College basketball—and college football—are not the sepia-toned postcards of nostalgia from generations past. They’re a multibillion dollar market economy in which almost everyone benefits, and only one valve—to the players—is shut off, because of some creaky, indefensible adherence to amateurism. Of course some money finds its way to the players. That’s what the details of this case show. Not a scandal. A market.

Don’t look for the NCAA to acknowledge this, however. “These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America. Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement that deserved confetti and a laughing donkey noise at the end of it.

I am not necessarily advocating that schools should or should have to pay student athletes, though that may (as Gay predicts) be coming some day.  But as a minimum the ban on athletes accepting any outside money for any reason is just insane.   As I wrote before, athletes are the only  students at a University that are not allowed to earn money in what they are good at.  Ever hear of an amateurism requirement for student poets?  For engineers?

When I was a senior at Princeton, Brooke Shields was a freshman.  At the time of her matriculation, she was already a highly paid professional model and actress (Blue Lagoon).  No one ever suggested that she not be allowed to participate in the amateur Princeton Triangle Club shows because she was already a professional.

When I was a sophomore at Princeton, I used to sit in my small dining hall (the now-defunct Madison Society) and listen to a guy named Stanley Jordan play guitar in a really odd way.  Jordan was already a professional musician (a few years after he graduated he would release an album that was #1 on the jazz charts for nearly a year).  Despite the fact that Jordan was a professional and already earned a lot of money from his music, no one ever suggested that he not be allowed to participate in a number of amateur Princeton music groups and shows.

My daughter is an art major at a school called Art Center in Pasadena (where she upsets my preconceived notions of art school by working way harder than I did in college).  She and many, if not most of her fellow students have sold their art for money already, but no one as ever suggested that they not be allowed to participate in school art shows and competitions.

I actually first wrote about this in Forbes way back in 2011.  Jason Gay makes the exact same points in his editorial today.  Good.  Finally someone who actually has an audience is stating the obvious:

In the shorter term, I like the proposals out there to eliminate the amateurism requirement—allow a college athlete in any sport (not just football or basketball) to accept sponsor dollars, outside jobs, agents, any side income they can get. The Olympics did this long ago, and somehow survived. I also think we’ll see, in basketball, the NBA stepping up and widening its developmental league—junking the dreadful one-and-one policy, lowering its age minimum, but simultaneously creating a more attractive alternative to the college game. If a player still opts to go to college, they’ll need to stay on at least a couple of seasons.

If you still think the scholarship is sufficient payment for an athlete in a high-revenue sport, ask yourself this question. There are all kinds of scholarships—academic, artistic, etc. Why are athletic scholarship recipients the only ones held to an amateurism standard? A sophomore on a creative writing scholarship gets a short story accepted to the New Yorker. Is he or she prohibited from collecting on the money? Heck no! As the Hamilton Place Strategies founder and former U.S. treasury secretary Tony Fratto succinctly put it on Twitter: “No one cares about a music scholarship student getting paid to play gigs.”


OK, Brief Break for Cute Animal Blogging

I know this is not my usual schtick here, but I have to confess I have a soft spot for baby hippo pictures.  This is Augustus, who was just born at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida.  More here.

Greatest Bar TV Ever

Was at a bar in the new Andaz Hotel in Scottsdale, at a restaurant called Warp and Woof.  I like the contemporary vibe of a lot of Andaz hotels, including this one in particular.

Anyway, over the bar, rather than some random college basketball game, they had Bob Ross painting shows on a loop.  Excellent.

Updated:  I am thinking of an Anchorman - Bob Ross mashup here:  "See the happy, happy scotch.  Scotchie Scotchie Scotch.  Oh, look, I didn't realize I ordered a double.  We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents."

"Water Is The Most Mispriced Commodity In The World". I agree

A few years ago there was a contest here in Arizona to see who could submit the best water conservation marketing campaign.   I submitted a picture of my water bill with the price photo-shopped so it was doubled.  Politicians here in Arizona subsidize the hell out of water, block or refuse to fund infrastructure projects that would produce more, and then blame consumers for shortages.

Anyway, Zero Hedge quotes a guy named Rick Rule, who I don't know, on a variety of commodities but his bit on water really struck me:

Following their discussion of nuclear energy and the future of uranium pricing, Townsend posed a much broader question: What will be the most important themes in the natural resources market in the coming years and decades.

Rule's answer might reinforce readers' anxieties over the availability of water - something that's already been widely discussed because of Cape Town's looming "Day Zero." Rule even went so far as to call water "the most mispriced commodity on Earth".

The third place – and this is very much more difficult to implement – is water. Water is the most mispriced commodity in the world. Because water is allocated politically. It is believed to be a right, as opposed to a commodity. The consequence of that – as an example, here in the US Southwest, we have taken sources of water, like the Colorado River, and we have allocated approximately 130% of the flow of the river to various claimants. This is sort of hard on the river. You have a circumstance where water flows uphill to votes rather than downhill for money. And you can’t allocate something that doesn’t exist.

And also because of the structure of the American water business. Because of the fact that most of it is delivered politically rather than via markets. The rents that go to water, while they are insufficient to maintain supply, go to municipalities. And they go to fund current political goals as opposed to maintaining the infrastructure for the production and distribution of water.

It is believed, on a country-wide basis, that we have deferred as much as 3 trillion dollars in sustaining capital investments in the water business. I can’t tell you when this theme comes home to roost. But when it does come home to roost, this might be one of the great resource themes of all time.

So You Think You Have Property Rights in This Country?

You do have property rights ... right up to the point where someone with political pull wants to change the use of your property.

In Tempe, AZ, an intersection has been empty for a number of years after a gas station went out of business.  A local entrepreneur acquired rights to the land to build a car wash.  The city approved all his various permits and he was just starting to build when a powerful local developer who owned a strip mall next door decided he did not want a car wash next door to his businesses, and sought to rally the local community against the car wash with fears of traffic and poisonous chemicals.  The result?

After nearly three hours of debate, the Tempe City Council revoked permits for a Quick Quack Car Wash planned at Baseline Road and McClintock Drive.

The Council Chamber was standing-room only Thursday as more than 40 residents spoke. Opponents were in the majority by a 3-to-1 margin.

The residents' concerns largely revolved around noise and traffic. Those residents in favor of the development said a car wash was an upgrade from the old gas station that use to be at the corner.

Michael Pollack, who owns the nearby Peter Piper Pizza Plaza along with other commercial properties in the East Valley, hired an attorney to appeal the city's Design Review Board decision to grant permits for the car wash.

"I have nothing against ducks," Pollack told the council. "I would love to see something that harmonizes with that area."

Like residents, Pollack was concerned about noise and how a car wash would impact property values — points that representatives from Quick Quack said were unfounded.

Of course they are being generous here to the real influencer, pretending that Pollack was merely one more person in the community with concerns rather than the person who likely organized much of the opposition.

By the way, here is the Mr. Pollack's super-lovely strip mall he is concerned about "harmonizing" with

Don Boudreaux has a great quote from Bastiat today that seems to apply:

Admit it, what is worrying you is right and justice; what is worrying you is ownership – not yours, of course, but that of others.  You find it difficult to accept that others are free to dispose of their property (the only way to be an owner); you want to dispose of your property . . . and theirs.


As I Predicted, Another Diesel Emissions Shoe Drops

Back in November of 2015 I wrote:

I would be stunned if the Volkswagen emissions cheating is limited to Volkswagen.  Volkswagen is not unique -- Cat and I think Cummins were busted a while back for the same thing.  US automakers don't have a lot of exposure to diesels (except for pickup trucks) but my guess is that something similar was ubiquitous.

My thinking was that the Cat, Cummins, and VW cheating incidents all demonstrated that automakers had hit a wall on diesel emissions compliance -- the regulations had gone beyond what automakers could comply with and still provide consumers with an acceptable level of performance.

Since then Fiat-Chrysler has been accused of the same behavior, and GM has been accused as well, though only in  a civil suit.

Now, most recently, Daimler is being accused of the same behavior

Daimler has been under suspicion of cheating on US emissions tests for quite a while now -- in 2016, a number of customers even sued the automaker, claiming their cars had sneaky software made to trick testers similar to Volkswagen's. Now, according to German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, US authorities investigating the Mercedes maker have discovered that its vehicles are equipped with illegal software to help them pass United States' stringent emission tests. Citing confidential documents, the publication said Daimler's employees doubted their vehicles would be able meet US standards even before Volkswagen's diesel scandal blew up. Internal testing apparently revealed that some Mercedes models emit ten times the country's nitrogen oxide limit.

Daimler reportedly developed software with several functions to be able to trick US regulators. One called "Bit 15" was designed to switch off emissions cleaning after 16 miles of driving, while another called "Slipguard" can detect if the car is being tested based on speed and acceleration. Bild am Sonntag said it found emails from Daimler engineers questioning whether those functions were legal.

To this day, I wonder how much European officials knew about all this as it was happening.  European officials really went all-in on promoting diesel years ago as an approach to combating climate change.  This has, by the way, turned out to be a great example of the danger of government picking winners, as diesel has really turned out to be one of the worst approaches for reducing emissions in transportation vehicles, both economically and environmentally.  Never-the-less, given the big commitment by European regulators in promoting diesel as a key part of their climate change plans, I wonder how much they were looking the other way through all of this -- such that their current "shock" at all this cheating might be equivalent to Reynault's shock that there was gambling going on in Rick's Cafe in Casablanca.

This is The Right Way To Encourage Local Investment: Regulation Reform, Not Subsidies

Via Zero Hedge:

Waymo, a unit of Alphabet, is set to launch a ride-sharing service similar to Uber, but with no human driver behind the wheel. Officials in Arizona granted Waymo a permit to operate as a transportation network company (TNC) across the state on Janurary 24, following the company’s initial application on Janurary 12, Bloomberg  reported.

The imminent release of a robotic fleet of fully autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans could be flooding the highways of Arizona, causing major headaches for Uber.

Since April of last year, Waymo has been experimenting with its self-driving fleet on the human guinea pigs of Phoenix, offering residents 24/7 access to the free ridesharing service. TNC status is a significant step for Waymo, because it now authorizes the company to start charging its passengers.

Waymo’s vehicles in the Phoenix area have driven more than 4 million miles on public roads. In November, the company said a portion of its cars in the Phoenix area were operating in fully autonomous mode, what’s known in industry parlance as level four autonomy.

My understanding is that Phoenix has become the world's center for testing and refining self-driving vehicles mainly by simply allowing it to happen when other municipalities threw up numerous regulatory hurdles (not just to self-driving cars but also, like Austin and Las Vegas, to ride-sharing companies).  I wish more business relocation competition among municipalities was on this basis rather than competing subsidy proposals.

I have seen driver-less Waymo vans a number of times around town, mostly around Tempe and Chandler.  They seemed to do fine once one gets over the shock of seeing the driver's seat empty.  I tried to sign up for their early rider program but apparently they are focusing on Phoenix's southeastern suburbs (e.g. Mesa, Tempe) right now.  I will try again as the program rolls out so I can publish a ride report here.  Probably I will hate it because the car will faithfully stay within the speed limit and thus drive me crazy.

My New Favorite Excel Function: INDIRECT

I will confess that somehow I never really learned pivot table mechanics in Excel, so I struggle with three dimensional data.  One example might be a spreadsheet with individual tabs where each tab is a different corporate division, and on each tab is a P&L by month (so three dimensions:  Month, P&L category, Division).  Let's assume the P&L is arranged the same on every page, with, for example, one divisions June's total revenue number in the same cell number as the June total revenue number on every other divisions' tab, ie this field is in cell c8 on every worksheet tab.

Long ago I created a simple way to get a total of a particular cell across all spreadsheets.  I would add a spreadsheet tab in the workbook before all the division tabs and another after all the division tabs.  Let's say I just name these tabs "Posta" and "Postb".  Then the sum of all cells C8 that are located on a spreadsheet tab between tabs "Posta" and "Postb" would be


The problem comes when one wants to create a summary worksheet tab that doesn't sum all the values for C8 but summarizes them in a table.  Imagine a table where column A is the division name (that matches the name of the tab for that division) and column B is that division's June revenue, ie the value of cell C8 for that division from its individual spreadsheet.  The only way I knew how to do this before was manually and tediously.

But laziness is the mother of invention, and I finally encountered a workbook that was so tedious to summarize manually that I had to find another way.  I had a spreadsheet of 150 tabs, each worksheet tab being one of our locations containing online customer review scores formatted the same way into the same cells.  That is when I found the INDIRECT function.  Basically it allows one to craft a custom cell reference in a text string, feed that to the indirect function, which will output the contents of that cell.  So if our location names in the first column exactly match the worksheet tab names, then we can write


The ampersand symbols are basically text string concatenation operators, and are there to create the text string of a cell reference in the format excel expects.  The funny triple quotes is just to add a single quote mark before and after the tab name.   This particular string will give us the value of cell C8 that is in the worksheet tab with the name that is in cell A3.

You can also use this cell value from the INDIRECT function in more complicated formulas.  For example

=COUNTIF( INDIRECT("'"&$A3&"'"&"!$B$3:$B$500"),D$4)

would look in the spreadsheet tab whose name is in A3 and on that tab count all the values in the range B3 to B500 on that tab that have the value given in cell D4.  For example, if D4 is equal to "5" we could be counting all the reviews that had a score of "5".

Postscript:  This may be my record for the blog post with the niche-iest audience.  Mainly it is aimed at my son, who has the enviable job of being an analyst for a craft beer company in La Jolla.  He has learned not to complain much to me about his job, as my first job was in an oil refinery in Baytown, Texas, so my sympathy level is maybe lower than it should be.  Anyway, as part of a geeky family, he and I compete on Excel knowledge so this post is mainly my way of counting coup on him.

Update:  I totally agree with the comments that a relational database is needed.  Unfortunately, at the time I did this work, we had only within weeks been given access to the review data from the government recreation reservations database, and it was all in excel.  Faster to do the analysis in excel than to figure out how to read the sheets into something like mysql (of which I am positive there are a million simple tools for doing so).  But I will accept it as a challenge for this year.