Archive for March 2005

Coyote's Law and WMD

Coyote's Law states:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity and incompetence

Conspiracy theories have swarmed around the Internet on how the administration may have systematically lied about WMD to create the outcome (invasion) that it wanted in Iraq.  Today, however, the bipartisan presidential commission set to look into these issues unanimously confirms Coyote's Law - it was incompetence!

In a scathing report, a presidential commission said Thursday that
America's spy agencies were "dead wrong" in most of their judgments
about Iraq's
weapons of mass destruction before the war and that the United States
knows "disturbingly little" about nuclear threats posed by many of its
most dangerous adversaries...

The report implicitly absolves the
administration of manipulating the intelligence used to launch the 2003
Iraq war, putting the blame for bad intelligence directly on the
intelligence community.

"The daily intelligence briefings given
to you before the Iraq war were flawed," it said. "Through
attention-grabbing headlines and repetition of questionable data, these
briefings overstated the case that Iraq was rebuilding its WMD
programs."

Hat tip to Captains Quarters for the link.  By the way, this may take Bush off the hook to some extent for past failures, but the responsibility for reform sits squarely in his lap, and so far we have seen little progress in cleaning up the mess.

Kudos to my Congressman

Its never surprising to see Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake or Texas Congressman Ron Paul voting against pork, they are pretty consistent libertarians in their vote.  However, I have only just begun to follow my own Phoenix-area Congressman John Shadegg.  I was pleased to see that he stood up to considerable pressure and opposed the recent pork-filled Highway bill.

Of late, I have felt used by the Republican party, who put on small-government clothes to entice libertarians like me but who have generally abandoned all spending restraint now that they are in the majority.

Enron and the UN

I was wondering if anyone else noticed this.  Greg Scoblete (hat tip: Instapundit)  points out the very different treatment that the Enron and the UN Scandals have gotten in the NY Times:

Notice the care this New York Times editorial takes
when treating Kofi Annan today, all hedged bets and mild condemnation.
It's only Kojo, after all. Confined to those shifty Swiss. Not a big
deal, besides the only people who care are the warmongers angry that
Kofi wouldn't sign on to the Iraq war. Just do better next time.

In other words, par for the Kofi course.*

Now, Enron.  Hang 'em high! Trust no one. Spare no one. Cast the net wide! Wider! The root of all evil. Crush all Imperial CEOs. Ken Lay - why wait for the trial? Even named a disease after it.

They are different:  The UN scandals are much worse:

  • The UN is a far more important institution -- at the end of the day, Enron is just a pipeline company, and no one, except their hosed employees, really has missed it
  • The UN has overseen a far larger amount of corruption in $ terms.
  • Enron enriched some twits in Houston.  UN enriched a brutal dictator who used the money to cement his totalitarian power over his country
  • At least as far as I know, Enron employees were not guilty of mass rape.

Disclosure: When I was a first year associate at McKinsey & Co.,
I worked on a study team led by Jeff Skilling (it was at McKinsey that
Skilling developped many of his ideas for the gas-trading business that
catapulted him into a senior position at Enron).  I had great respect
for Skilling's off-the-chart intelligence and ability to synthesize
tons of detail.  If that causes the reader to be suspicious of Skilling's Congressional testimony
, well, I will leave that to the reader's opinion and future court
decisions.  Remember, though, that the
I-was-too-dumb-to-know-what-was-going-on defense did not even work for Bernard Ebbers, and Skilling is a lot brighter than Ebbers.

Nanny State 911

I am searching around to get confirmation that this is not a hoax (ala blondestar, which is hilarious by the way if you have not ever heard it) but FoxNews.com seems to think it is really a 911 call so check it out, via the Club for Growth Blog.  I won't give any more details, but it is definitely worth a listen if you want to hear the end game for the Ralph Nader regulatory state.

UPDATE:  OK, the transcript was posted here (thanks to Kevin Drum for the link) so I can share a tidbit now:

Operator: "... dept, how can I help you?"
Bitch: "Yeah, I'm over here...I'm
over here at Burger King, over here in San Clemente."
O: Mmm-hmm.
B: Um,
no, not San Clemente, I'm sorry, um I live in San Clemente, um, Laguna Niguel I
think that's where I'm at.
O: Mmm-hmm.
B: I'm at a drive-thru right
now.
O: Uh-huh.
B: I ordered my food THREE TIMES, they're mopping the
floor inside and I understand they're busy, they've not even busy okay I've been
the only car here. I asked them four different times to make me a Western BBQ
burger. Okay and she's given me a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, cheese,
onions. And I'm not leaving, I want a Western burger because I just got my kids
from Tae Kwon Do they're hungry, I'm on my way home and I live in San
Clemente.
O: Uh-huh.
B: Okay. She GAVE me another hamburger, it's wrong. I
said 4 times, I said I want it, she said 'Can you go park out in front' I said
NO, I want my hamburger RIGHT. So then the lady came to the manager or whoever
she is and she came up and she said, um, she said um, 'Do you want your money
back'. I said no, my kids are hungry and I have to jump on that 12 freeway. I
said I am not leaving this spot, and I said I will call the police, because I
want my Western hamburger done RIGHT. Now is that so hard?
O: Okay, what
exactly is it you want us to do for you?
B: Uh, send an officer down here. I
want them to make my order right.
O: Ma'am, we're not going to go down there
and escort your Western bacon cheeseburger.

Believe it or not, there is much more.  Very funny if its a put-on like Blondestar, and even funnier if its real.

Interview with Bill James

If you were to make a list of 10 people in the 20th Century who had the ability to rethink whole industries, you might come up with names like Sam Walton or Herb Kelleher.  One guy you might not think of, but who should make the list, is Bill James.  James has helped to single-handedly rethink the game of baseball, one of the great bastions of not-invented-here thinking.  Here is an interview of James that is pretty interesting.  Hat Tip to Cafe Hayek, who also has some thoughts on James the economist.

James sounds a lot like Hayek, and more recent authors like Virginia Postrel, when he says things like this:

If I were in politics and presented myself as a Republican, I would be
admired by Democrats by despised by my fellow Republicans. If I
presented myself as a Democrat, I would popular with Republicans but
jeered and hooted by the Democrats.
        I believe in a universe that is too complex for any of us to
really understand. Each of us has an organized way of thinking about
the world"”a paradigm, if you will"”and we need those, of course; you
can't get through the day unless you have some organized way of
thinking about the world. But the problem is that the real world is
vastly more complicated than the image of it that we carry around in
our heads. Many things are real and important that are not explained by
our theories"”no matter who we are, no matter how intelligent we are.
        As in politics we have left and right"”neither of which explains
the world or explains how to live successfully in the world"”in baseball
we have the analytical camp and the traditional camp, or the
sabermetricians against the scouts, however you want to characterize
it. I created a good part of the analytical paradigm that the
statistical analysts advocate, and certainly I believe in that paradigm
and I advocate it within the Red Sox front office. But at the same
time, the real world is too complicated to be explained by that
paradigm.

Or this, closer to the sports world:

Honestly, major league baseball"”and all sports"”would be far better off
if they would permit teams to do more to make one park distinctive from
another"”even so far as making the bases 85 feet apart in one park and
95 in another. Standardization is an evil idea. Let's pound everybody
flat, so that nobody has any unfair advantage. Diversity enriches us,
almost without exception. Who would want to live in a world in which
all women looked the same, or all restaurants were the same, or all TV
shows used the same format?
        People forget that into the 1960s, NBA basketball courts were
not all the same size--and the NBA would be a far better game today if
they had never standardized the courts. What has happened to the NBA
is, the players have gotten too large for the court. If they hadn't
standardized the courts, they would have eventually noticed that a
larger court makes a better game"”a more open, active game. And the same
in baseball. We would have a better game, ultimately, if the teams were
more free to experiment with different options.
        The only reason baseball didn't standardize its park
dimensions, honestly, is that at the time that standardization was a
dominant idea, they just couldn't. Because of Fenway and a few other
parks, baseball couldn't standardize its field dimensions in the
1960s"”and thus dodged a mistake that they would otherwise quite
certainly have made.
         Standardization destroys the ability to adapt. Take the high
mounds of the 1960s. We "standardized" that by enforcing the rules, and
I'm in favor of enforcing the rules, but suppose that the rules allowed
some reasonable variation in the height of the pitching mound? What
would have happened then would have been that, in the mid-1990s, when
the hitting numbers began to explode, teams would have begun to push
their pitching mounds up higher in order to offset the hitting
explosion. The game would have adapted naturally to prevent the home
run hitters from entirely having their own way. Standardization leads
to rigidity, and rigidity causes things to break.

I love it.  Maybe those guys who want to use baseball as a paradigm for life had something after all.

On Google and Losing My Blog Focus

In the beginning,  I tried to write a blog about my day to day experiences as a small business person.  That lasted about a day, mainly because I have the attention span of a 7-year-old boy mainlining Hershey Bars.  I still blog a lot about running a small business, but I also comment on political trends, mainly from a libertarian point of view, and anything else that happens to strike my fancy that day.

However, with Google out there, I have lost even more focus and control of my blog's positioning.  A lot of my traffic is Google hits, and it turns out there are two particular searches that drive a non-trivial portion of my traffic.  That means for many readers, my blog is defined by these two topics:

  • Pocket Doors
  • Spanking

Yes, call me the Pocket Door and Spanking Blog now.  LOL.  Anyway, if only to reinforce my strong Google rankings on these meaningful topics, here is how I became the Pocket Door and Spanking Blog:

Pocket Doors and My Manhood  (December, 2005)

Our bathroom has a pocket door to save space - that's one of those doors that slide on a hidden rail in and out of the wall.
From time to time, usually because my kids go slamming into it, the
door comes off its rails and gets jammed, which is a problem as it can
bottleneck some very critical facilities.

The first time this happened, I tried to get it back on its track,
but I just could not.  The track is up in the wall and it is almost
impossible due to the lack of clearance to do anything with it.  I
checked in the Yellow Pages and saw there was actually a company that
specialized in pocket door repairs, so I called them out.  Well, Joe
(or whoever) shows up with his little tool kit, looks at the door for a
second, grabbed it in a certain way, and then gave it a quick jerk -
kabam - and it was back in its tracks.  It took him like 5 seconds. 

Well, there I stood, completely unmanned, right in front of my
laughing wife and family, by Joe the visible butt-crack guy.  Bummer.

Since that time, I have had the door come untracked two or three
times.  Thinking to save me further embarrassment, my wife tends to ask
any passing stranger to come in and fix it.  I can sit there for hours
fighting the thing, and then my wife brings in the guy painting the
house - kabam - fixed.  Next time she brought in the 60+ year old sales
guy who happened to be there - kabam - fixed.  I swear, if Paris Hilton
was dropping by for a visit she could probably fix that damn door.  It
is humiliating.

Well, this time I would not allow my wife get someone else to fix
it.  Every night, for about 10 minutes, I would take my innings with
the door, struggling to do what everyone else seemed to have learned at
birth.  I actually suggested to my wife that we should call out a
contractor and tear the thing out and install a real door.  She
suggested instead that she could have our 13-year-old baby sitter come
in from the other room to fix it.  Finally, tonight, when I was about
to give up, I tried holding it in a slightly different way and - Kabam
- fixed.  God I feel great.  My manhood is restored and I am at the top
of the world.

Spanking Employees  (November, 2005)

Well, just when you think you have seen every way to screw up in a small business, there comes this story.

The owner of a shaved ice business was arrested after two employees claimed he spanked them for making mistakes at work.

And more...

One
of the women told police that on her first day at the Tasty Flavors Sno
Biz, Levengood made her sign a statement that said: "I give Gene
permission to bust my behind any way he sees fit."

Hat tip to Jim Rome, as I first heard this on his radio show, and to the Mises Institute,
of all places, where I found the link.  This story has been out and
about for a while, but I wanted to give it a few days to make sure it
was not a hoax.

To make this more bizarre, I did a Google search to see if
anyone had called this out as a hoax, and found that there have been
many similar stories in other places, including here and here.

Sigh.  Oh well, I guess a weird identity is better than no identity at all.

Arizona School Vouchers

The Arizona legislature has passed a school voucher bill, though the Democratic governor is likely to veto it.  The MSM generally hates vouchers - just check out this Google news search on the bill.  I have not even linked to a cached version - I just have complete confidence that any time you click on the link the preponderance of headlines will be negative.

I think that the legislature did make a tactical mistake in crafting this bill.  While over time, everyone should be eligible, it is much more intelligent politically to phase the law in with a means test.  Otherwise what happens is the initial beneficiaries in the first year of the plan, before new private schools begin to develop, are the rich who are already sending their kids to private school who will get back some of their tax money that went to public schools they did not use.  The optics of this are terrible, as seen in arguments like this that play on this effect, even if I find the class warfare elements of this extremely tedious.

If the bill were crafted to squelch this argument, the rest are easy to fight.  For example, the same article complains about:

the very different mandates and requirements public schools must comply with and private schools do not

Duh.  If private schools had to follow all the same stupid rules as public schools they would be bloated celebrants of mediocrity as well.

Another argument is that kids leaving public schools will drain the schools of money.  This is a huge scare headline by opponents of choice.  It also makes no sense.  In 2004, the average pending per pupil in Arizona (according to the teachers union, opponent #1 of choice) was $5,347.  Per the proposed law, the average voucher size per pupil is $4000.  So, for every student that leaves, the state will spend $4000 but save $5347, meaning that every student that leaves actually increases the money per pupil that can be spent on those left behind.  (by the way, more on the absurdity of NEA positions here and here).

The other argument that gets made is that private schools are all very expensive.  Again, duh.  Today, the only market
for public schools is to people who can afford to pay for their kids to
go to public school and then pay again for private school.  However,
private schools at the $3500 to $4500 level will appear if people have
a voucher in their hand and are looking for alternatives.  My kids
private school is awesome, and does not charge in the five figures - in
fact it is just a bit over $5000 a year.  Here is more on why more private schools don't exist today.

I would love to find a way to get the left, who in other circumstances seem to be all for choice, onto the school choice bandwagon.  This post had an invitation to the left to reconsider school choice:

After the last election, the Left is increasingly worried that red
state religious beliefs may creep back into public school, as evidenced
in part by this Kevin Drum post on creationism.
My sense is that you can find strange things going on in schools of
every political stripe, from Bible-based creationism to inappropriate environmental advocacy.
I personally would not send my kids to a school that taught creationism
nor would I send them to a school that had 7-year-olds protesting
outside of a Manhattan bank.

At the end of the day, one-size-fits-all public schools are never
going to be able to satisfy everyone on this type thing, as it is
impossible to educate kids in a values-neutral way.  Statist parents
object to too much positive material on the founding fathers and the
Constitution.  Secular parents object to mentions of God and
overly-positive descriptions of religion in history.  Religious parents
object to secularized science and sex education.  Free market parents
object to enforced environmental activism and statist economics.   Some
parents want no grades and an emphasis on feeling good and self-esteem,
while others want tough grading and tough feedback when kids aren't
learning what they are supposed to.

I have always thought that these "softer" issues, rather than just
test scores and class sizes, were the real "killer-app" that might one
day drive acceptance of school choice in this country.  Certainly
increases in home-schooling rates have been driven as much by these
softer values-related issues (mainly to date from the Right) than by
just the three R's.

So here is my invitation to the Left: come over to the dark side.
Reconsider your historic opposition to school choice.  I'm not talking
about rolling back government spending or government commitment to
funding education for all.  I am talking about allowing parents to use
that money that government spends on their behalf at the school of
their choice.  Parents want their kids to learn creationism - fine,
they can find a school for that.  Parents want a strict, secular focus
on basic skills - fine, another school for that.  Parents want their
kids to spend time learning the three R's while also learning to love
nature and protect the environment - fine, do it.

Case Studies on the Minimum Wage

OK, I will begin this post with what I guess is, for some, a damning admision:  My company pays many of its employees minimum wage. 

I believe that I have a very honorable relationship with my employees, but for many, particularly on the left, the fact that I pay minimum wage puts me at the approximate moral level of a forced labor camp gaurd.  For those of you that feel that way, you might as well move on now because this post will just irritate you further.

I want to present four case studies from my own business as to what happens to workers and consumers when minimum wages go up.  For the purpose of this post, I will leave out the philosophical argument of why voters or politicians should even have the right to interfere in the free decision-making between employer and employee, but I certainly addressed it here, in this post.  Unfortunately, a large number of voters accept the argument that there is a power imbalance between employer and employee that needs to be moderated by measures like the minimum wage  (folks who believe this obviously never have tried to attract and retain quality wokers). Many politicians support minimum wage measures, mainly because it is one of those measures, like protectionism, where the benefits (e.g. Joe got a raise) are much easier to identify than the costs (e.g. Mary lost her job).

Before I get into the case studies, it may be helpful to describe my workers, because in some ways their situation is unique.  To run our campgrounds, we mainly employ retired people.  Of my 500 workers, well over half are over 60 years old, more than 150 are over 70, some 25 or so are over 80 and a few are even over 90!  Most are on social security and medicaire, and many have pensions and retirement health plans.  A good number are disabled and have some sort of disability support.  While they work slower, they make up for their low productivity in part by their friendliness with customers and their life experience.

Most of  my employees travel the country in their RV.  They take most of the year off, but many like to work over the summer to make a little money and to pay for their camping site.  I give many of them a free or subsidized campsite, worth about $500+ a month, plus all their utilities and then pay them minimum wage for the hours they work.  Many are thrilled with these terms - so many that I have a waiting list now of over 300 names of people who are looking for this type work.  This list is currently growing by about 10 names a day.

There may be employers somewhere who have a power imbalance over their employees.  Some days, I envy them.  My employees most all have independent means of support.  Further, they all have wheels on their houses, so they can and do pick up and leave if they aren't enjoying their job.  And, if they don't like our company, there are thousands of other campground operators who are looking for help.

So why are so many people lining up for minimum wage jobs when lefties and progressives are telling them that they should not want those jobs?  Here are some reasons:

  • They value the amenities that come with the job, including living for free in a beautiful outdoor setting, something it is impossible to value under minimum wage laws
  • They have other means of support, so the money is incidental.  In fact, I get more inquiries from employees asking me to reduce their hours so as not to mess up their social security or diabiloity payments as I do people asking for more pay
  • They get to work with their spouse as a team.  There are not many employers out there that let a husband and wife split up work between them any way they want or even work together - can you imagine such a situation on a GM assembly plant?
  • They would have a hard time getting hired by anyone else.  Very few employers will hire new workers in their sixities, and certainly not older than that.  Older workers can be slower and less productive.  For $12 an hour, I would have to hire younger workers too, but at minimum wage, I can afford the lower productivity of older workers and gain the benefit of their experience and trustworthiness.

This last point help set the stage for our cases.  I love hiring older workers at $5.15 an hour, and they love the job and line up for it.  But what happens when I have to pay these less productive workers $6.00 an hour?  What about $7.50?  What about at $12.00 an hour?  Here are some examples of what happens:

Case 1:  The jobs just go away

Washington State has one of the higher minimum wages in the country, at $7.35 an hour.  What makes the Washington minimum particularly hard to manage is the fact that it has a built-in escalator, such that it rises each year based on an inflation index (as you might imagine, since labor is a major component of most goods and services, this creates a positive feedback loop). 

We run a number of campgrounds in Washington under concession contract from the US Forest Service.  Most of these campgrounds are both small and very isolated, and are therefore labor intensive.  Given local market conditions, it is increasingly difficult to raise fees fast enough to keep up with rising labor rates (as well as labor-linked costs such as workers comp and unemployment) since we are competing against larger private campgrounds that are designed more efficiently and may be closer to local labor.  We have effectively given up trying to make money in this area, and will very likely not rebid the contract when it expires.  Given USFS experience on other similar contracts in the area, there is a good chance that no private company will bid for the contract, and the campgrounds will revert to USFS operation.  In this case, many will likely be closed, and instead of having minimum wage jobs, there will be no jobs left at all.

Case 2:  The jobs get outsourced to contractors

In a number of locations, we have been forced by rising minimum wages and associated costs (particulalry workers comp.) to switch some of our cleaning and landscaping duties from our live on-site employees to local contractors.  These contractors may pay their workers more than minimum wage, but the workers are often twice as productive as ours, yielding a cost savings for us.  When minimum wages are $5.15 an hour, these contractors can't compete with our own workers, but when minimum wages rise over $7.00, as they are across the west coast, this option starts to become attractive.

Case 3:  The jobs get automated away

One of the more frustrating situations we have is one government concesion contract where the government has continued to insist that the Service Contract Act (SCA) applies.  Like the Davis-Bacon act, the SCA sets minimum wages that contractors have to pay to employees when serving the government (for example, on a contract to clean the bathrooms in a goverment office building).  These rates, while ostensibly the market prevailing wages, are in almost every case FAR higher than what a private company would have to pay in the market to get good employees.  By specific Labor Department regulation, the SCA typically does not apply to concession contracts (I won't bore you with the details, but more in this series here or email me if you need help in a similar situation, I have been forced to become an expert).

Anyway, on this particular concession we have to pay our living-on-site workers based on the SCA.  This means, for example, that someone who sits in a parking lot booth collecting parking fees must be paid something like $12.50 an hour, which translates to a bit over $15.60 when you factor in FICA, SUI and workers comp.  Over 2000 hours a year that is $31,200 a year. 

A fully automated fee collection machine (which actually does more than the attendent, since it takes credit and debit cards as well as makes change for cash) costs $23,000.  Plus, the machine never will sue over wrongful termination, never will discriminate against or sexually harass a customer, never will steal, and never will fail to show up for work. 

What would you do?  I would prefer to have the person there, and if we put the machine in I will still  probably staff the booth on busy summer weekends to help customers out, but over 5 years the machine may save us over $100,000.

Case 4:  Prices go up to customers

Last election, Floridians voted themselves a minimum wage increase of $1.00, and worse, voted that the wage will increase each year by a cost of living factor.  As a result, on the May 2 effective date, our costs will go up by about 15% in managing the swim areas and campgrounds in that area.  Since this is well over our profit margin, prices will also go up by the same amount on the same day.  This is unfortunate, because it tends to be lower income people who most enjoy the recreation opportunities we offer, since historically we have been able to keep our costs, and therefore the pricing, so much lower than outrageously expensive attractions like Disney and Universal Studios.

Final Thoughts

I'm not going to cry that my business is doomed by minimum wage increases, because it is not.  As you can see above, we have many options for dealing with these changes.  What I fear may be doomed, though, is the special relationship our company has always had with older, retired workers. For now, the business model is OK, but there is a point, somewhere between about $7.00 and hour and $10.00 an hour, where rising minimum wages will push us to look for other ways to staff our parks rather other than our traditional use of live-on-site retirees.  And that would be sad for everyone.

For more on the topic, Powerline has a nice article today on minimum wage increase proposals in Minnesota.  It is astounding to me that people still want to believe the notion that minimum wages don't affect employment.  Just look at France and Germany for living proof.  Or, consider any other commodity in the market.  If the government set a price floor for gasolene, say at $3.00 a gallon, would anyone out there argue that people wouldn't use less gas?  But when we try to raise the price floor on labor, the media and politicians with a straight face try to argue that businesses won't use less labor.  Or, for the reverse, look at the experience with natural gas and airline travel - the government removed price floors on these commodities in the lates 70s / early 80s and look at how demand has skyrocketed.  (update: Powerline has a second post on the topic here)

For even more good reading, Cafe Hayek is always a good source for defense of free market economics, including this good post on French work week laws.  More on minimum wage here.

Fascinating Data on Earnings by Race (maybe)

Michelle Malkin pointed out this AP story:

Census Bureau findings show black and Asian women with bachelor's
degrees earn slightly more than similarly educated white women, and
white men with four-year degrees make more than anyone else.

According to the data, a white woman with a bachelor's degree typically
earned nearly $38,000 in 2003, compared with nearly $44,000 for a
college-educated Asian woman and $41,000 for a college-educated black
woman.

If true, this is really good news.  Unfortunately, as I have said in the past, if journalists had been any good at math and science in school, they probably wouldn't have been journalism majors.  Never, ever trust stats at first blush in the newspaper.  My guess is that the pool of people in these stats is "all women" as opposed to "women currently in the workforce".  This would mean that stay-at-home moms would average in as "0", distorting any conclusions one might draw about actual salaries since the prevalence of stay at home moms may vary from race to race.   However, this is still good news, especially given the increase in black women going to college.

Looking for Pyramid Lake Help from SoCal Readers

I have gotten some nice, supportive feedback from my earlier post on my frustration with the recent oil spill at Pyramid Lake, California.  So much so that I would like to ask any readers who are familiar with Pyramid Lake (the one in LA county, not the larger one in Nevada) to send me an email -- We are considering a few new services at the park and some approaches to cut down on the long waits to get on the boat ramp, and I would like to discuss them with a few smart blog readers.

The Credit Card Prank

This a pretty funny story from Zug about just how little security the signature on a credit card slip provides.  Hat tip: Instapundit

Ups and Downs of a Small Business

Running a small business can be quite "interesting".  Last summer we dealt with 4 hurricanes that shut down our Florida operations for over a month.  This winter we have had great success winning new contracts, including one we are very excited about at Pyramid Lake, California.  We got all our investments made to support this contract, got all the necessary staff on payroll, and wham, a local pipeline company spills over 100,000 gallons of crude oil into the lake and it is now closed for weeks, with a substantial loss of revenue in prime spring boating season.  Sigh.

Why Court Decisions Involving Death Make Us Nervous

Twenty years ago, I was a fairly hard core death penalty proponent.  I never could muster up much respect for the life of someone who had themselves shown so little respect for life in committing the heinous crimes that incur the death penalty.

Over the years, I have not gained any additional respect for a killer's right to life, but I have had growing doubts about our ability to mete out this penalty fairly.  To some extent this is based on the accusations that certain groups are more likely to get the death penalty than other groups.  For example, its fairly clear that men committing heinous crimes are more likely to get the death penalty than women.  I am also mostly willing to accept the notion that blacks are more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime as whites -- I hesitate to fully embrace this conclusion only because the people making this case are the same people who play the race card on everything, from OJ's guilt to fan reaction to Sammy Sosa's corked bat, so it has an element of the boy crying wolf.

However, discrimination is not the main reason I no longer support the death penalty for anything but the most extreme cases (there is still a need for an ultimate penalty in certain cases - without it, people who have already earned life in prison might see nothing to lose in killing a policeman or prison guard).  I have come to believe that the death penalty impairs a person's right to appeal. 

Now, certainly people sentenced to the death penalty get many layers of appeal.  However, while these appeals may cover many years, at some point the convicted person is put to death, and any further appeals or introduction of new evidence is no longer possible.  A multi-decade vindication process is not without precedent, for a number of reasons:

  • Racial mores may have to change:  How many black men were put to death unfairly in the south up through the 1960's?  Yes, they got to have all their appeals, but their appeals all occurred in the same place and time-frame as their conviction.  Only a generation later, long after many were dead, could a legal system run by a society with a different outlook on blacks look at some of these cases in a new light.
  • Public hysteria may have to calm down:  Though none that I know were sentenced to the death penalty, look at how many teachers and day care workers were convicted in the child molestation panics of the 1980's, only to be release decades later after the hysteria had passed, and in some cases after the original ego-driven prosecutors had retired.  The Gerald Amirault case is a great example.
  • Technology may have to change:  A number of people who had exhausted nearly all their appeals prior to being put to death have been vindicated, sometimes many years after the fact, by new DNA testing technologies.

We all know that courts make mistakes, some of which take decades to fix.  What if we never had a chance to change the flawed Plessy vs. Ferguson decision?  Criminal cases are no different - mistakes and abuses happen.  In most cases, these can be fixed, even decades after the fact.  The wrongly accused, like Mr, Amirault, loses a piece of his life, but still has some left.  Once put to death, though, the wrongs can't be fixed.

The reason I think about all this today is because of the Terri Schiavo case.  I am at a loss as the the right thing to do is here, and am amazed that so many people on both sides are so certain they are right -- the facts in this case are just so messy.  I am willing to accept that the court in Florida has done their job in plowing through all this mess and making the best decision they could under the law, and I am not about to advocate setting some really bad constitutional precedents just to second-guess them.

However, I am left with the same worry that I think many Americans are in cases like this.  Courts do make mistakes, what if they are wrong here?  After next week, there will be no more chances to appeal.

When Peace Prize Winners Actually Helped People

Instapundit has several links to biographies of Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace prize for starting the green revolution and perhaps single-handedly saving hundreds of millions from starvation.  This is a particularly interesting one.

Borlaug won his prize, of course, back when the Nobel Peace prize was actually given to people who made the world a better place.  Today the prize is typically given to whatever person did the most to appease a major dictatorship or terrorist or to whoever was most vocal worldwide in their socialism or  anti-Americanism.  This description of the Nobel committee's criteria may sound flippant, but it is clear to me that the committee is dominated by those who favor peace ahead of anything else.  Which, in real life, means that you have to be ready to live with ... anything else, including murder, rape, genocide, totalitarianism, etc. 

Just look at the list of recent winners.  In 1985 they gave the peace prize to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, who as a group systematically opposed everything the US was doing at the time which in 5 years would result in a true reduction in the risk of nuclear war.    In 1988 they gave the award to the serial rapists in the UN peacekeeping forces.    For God sakes in 1994 Yasser Arafat won, perhaps the single person most responsible for chaos in the Middle East.  In 2001 Kofi Anan won, at the very time he was out-Enroning Ken Lay by helping Saddam Hussein steal $20 billion while enriching his own son with contractor kickbacks.  And of course in 2002 Jimmy Carter won for appeasing just about every dictator in the world, but North Korea in particular (interestingly, Jimmy Carter is the only US president since Woodrow Wilson to win the award.  Can you think of any president in the last 60 years who has done less than Jimmy Carter to create a free and peaceful world?)

As a footnote, it would be impossible for Norman Borlaug to win the Peace prize today.  Greens and environmentalists have never liked him, and the politically correct Nobel Committee would never make a choice today that would irritate these groups.  People like Wangari Maathai who fit into the progressive-green sustainable development camp are preferred, even if they don't have nearly the same impact in actually saving or improving lives.

AZ Elected Official Bounced for Overspending in Campaign

The Arizona Republic noted today:

In a historic move, the Citizens Clean Elections Commission voted
Thursday to oust state Rep. David Burnell Smith from office for
overspending his public campaign limits by more than $6,000.

The 5-0 vote marks the first time in the United States that a
legislator has been ordered to forfeit his office for violating a
publicly financed election system.

I don't know anything about Mr. Smith, so I don't know if I would agree with any of his politics or not -- I suspect though that he and I would not see eye to eye on a number of issues.  This case nevertheless leaves me with mixed feelings.

On one side, Mr. Smith signed on to the clean elections program (he doesn't have to) and accepted public funding, and thereby accepted spending limits.  He was obviously sloppy (as a minimum) in his accounting, or at worst flaunted the restrictions.

However, on the opposite side, I hate this type of campaign law. I don't like any restrictions on spending, which equate to limitations on first amendment speech rights.  I don't even like voluntary programs like this, because they use public money - read that as MY money - to finance candidates and viewpoints that I don't necessarily agree with.  In these voluntary programs, candidates are effectively being offered a publicly funded bribe to waive their first amendment rights, as argued in this suit.  I don't like seeing this next step in the arms race to limit political speech.  The ability of an unelected commision of busybodies and nitpickers to actually invalidate free elections and toss out elected officials merely because they used $6000 too much free speech is scary.  Would anyone in their right mind wish to grant this power to the FEC?

By the way, the language in the Republic article is funny, and shows their bias in this.  Note this line, emphasis added:

The commission's vote comes after three months of scrutiny in what has
been billed as the biggest test for Arizona's popular but controversial
system of taxpayer-funded political campaigns.

Here is a hint: whenever a reporter calls a program "popular", it means that it is a program that the reporter or the paper's editorial staff supports.  It does not mean that they have polling data backing up this claim.  Don't believe me?  Then note this line from the same article:

Some commissioners admitted they were reluctant to attempt to overturn
the wishes of voters in a legislative district but said it was more
important to uphold the wishes of the state's voters, who narrowly
approved the Clean Elections initiative
in 1998.

Ahh, so this "popular" program was only "narrowly approved".  In fact, I looked it up.  Smith won his election by a far larger margin of victory than did the Clean Elections initiative.  Should the AZ Republic be calling him the "popular" legislator? 

A Bit More on Academia

I have tried to resist the temptation to blog much on the whole Ward Churchill situation.  In part this is because it has been kicked around so thoroughly in other venues, and in part because I just knew I would get emails purposefully misunderstanding my point.  I have instead tried to focus some positive attention on emerging examples of scholarship where none existed before.  That said, I would like to try to add my own postscript on the whole Churchill fiasco.

First, while he has made some truly egregious statements that point to his moral bankruptcy,such as those he made about the 9/11 attacks and victims, I don't think that UC has grounds to fire him for these comments, at least based on the accepted rules and purpose of tenure.  One of the reasons for tenure is to give academics the freedom to pursue scholarship in any direction, without threat of political retribution.

However, Churchill should be fired for his complete lack of quality scholarship or principled academic research.  Churchill, through his poor scholarship, plagiarism, and outright fabrications have helped to set back historic studies about Native Americans and their tragic interaction with Western Civilization.  Churchill has become the poster boy for one of the leading problems in academia today, that is the ability of certain individuals to substitute vocal leftist politics and minority status for intellectual rigor and true scholarship in getting tenure at major universities.   A non-protected group white male of moderate politics with the same body of academic work as Churchill couldn't get a job teaching at any self-respecting university, but put the same work under the banner of radical leftist native American, and suddenly he has tenure at the University of Colorado.

Anyway, Victor David Hanson has a great piece in NRO summarizing why Ward Churchill represents what is wrong in academia today.

More Nutty Tort Decisions

Frequent readers of this site will know that I am a strong opponent of how the current tort system works.  However, I am not a big supporter of damage caps.  Damage caps may limit the harm of a broken tort system, but they don't fix the root problem - the jackpot justice that seeks wealth transfers from wealthy parties irrespective of who was really at fault.  For example, note this case, where teens who were not wearing their seat belts were killed by a driver breaking the speed limit and with a blood alcohol level over twice the legal limit.  The jury decided the accident was 90% the fault of... Ford, for designing a car with the same glass used by everyone else in the auto industry.  But the unfairness of the decision is only the beginning of the outright nuttiness and fraud by the plaintiff in this case.  Make sure to go to this article - you have to scroll to the article on Ford appealing frontier justice, but the extra finger work is justified.

Notice to Britain

To avoid any potential confusion, here is a notice to Britain and my British readers (all 10 or so of them):  I do not consider myself, my statements, or this blog to be subject to British law, and in particular your libel law.  Now, since I am an American citizen living and publishing in Arizona, you may be confused why this clarification is necessary.  If so, note this article, via Captains Quarters.

The decision today, by Mr Justice Eady, has cleared the way for a libel trial in London sometime this year [against Arnold Schwarzenegger]

Miss Richardson alleges she was libelled by Schwarzenegger and two
campaign workers in an October 2003 article in The Los Angeles Times,
which also appeared on the internet.

The trial is going forward in London later this year.

Let me say that there are many, many things wrong with the tort system in the US, but one of the things we have done right is consistently protected free speech rights (at least until McCain-Feingold), and part of this protection has been resistance to onerous European, and particularly British, libel laws.

The obvious result, if this type of suit becomes successful and pesky, is of course for media to start blocking Internet traffic from British URLs.  Maybe this is a secret plan to have just this happen, so the Beeb can get their monopoly back.

UPDATE:  (via Overlawyered.com)  It appears that US litigator Samuel Hirsch is making his own interpretation of US libel law by suing Morgan Spurlock, the maker of the film "supersize me".  Though one could argue that the film ostensibly was on Mr. Hirsch's side (Mr. Hirsch makes a living in part by suing McDonalds for his clients who lack the ability to control their eating habits), it caught Mr. Hirsch on film making some comments he would rather not have been made public:

Ostensibly, this would make
Mr. Hirsch a prime ally in Mr. Spurlock's quest to edify the nation as
to the adverse affects of eating junk food. The film, however, was not
flattering to Mr. Hirsch in his brief cameo. In his only appearance on
camera, Mr. Spurlock asks Mr. Hirsch about his motivation for being
involved in the McDonald's litigation. Mr. Hirsch's reply? "You mean,
motive besides monetary compensation?" He then added, "You want to hear
a noble cause?"

Mr. Hirsch is suing for

Negligence, Unauthorized Use
of Likeness, Disparagement to Reputation, and Defamation of Character,
Fraudulent Inducement, False Misrepresentation, Damage to Business
Reputation.

Mr. Hirsch must know that he stands little chance of winning in US court, particularly since the film used his own words against him.  So this is intimidation, pure and simple.

It is interesting to note that McDonalds, the main target of the film, has not been dumb enough to sue Spurlock, no matter what they thought of the film.  And imagine if George Bush had tried to sue Michael Moore for the same stuff.  Suits like this are intimidation to shut down criticism, and it is good and right that they cannot win in the US.

 

Harvard Economist Roland Fryer

Many universities over the last several decades have created race and gender studies programs.  One of the problems with many of these programs has been the appalling quality of scholarship.  The recent broohaha around Ward Churchill at Colorado is but one example -- there are many others.  For example, look how Cal-State Long Beach chose the head of their Black Studies Department:

On September 17, 1971, Karenga was sentenced to one to ten years in prison on counts of felonious assault and false imprisonment. The charges stemmed from a May 9, 1970 incident in which Karenga and two others tortured two women who Karenga believed had tried to kill him by placing "crystals" in his food and water.
       

A year later the Los Angeles Times described the events: "Deborah Jones, who once was given the title of an African queen, said she and Gail Davis were whipped with an electrical cord and beaten with a karate baton after being ordered to remove their clothes. She testified that a hot soldering iron was placed in Miss Davis' mouth and placed against Miss Davis' face and that one of her own big toes was tightened in a vice. Karenga, head of US, also put detergent and running hoses in their mouths, she said."       

The shooting at UCLA caused Karenga to become deeply paranoid and spurred his bizarre behavior. At his trial, the question of Karenga's sanity arose. The psychiatrist's report stated, "This man now represents a picture which can be considered both paranoid and schizophrenic with hallucinations and elusions, inappropriate affect, disorganization, and impaired contact with the environment." The psychiatrist observed that Karenga talked to his blanket and imaginary persons and believed that he had been attacked by dive-bombers.

Eight years later California State University at Long Beach made Karenga the head of its Black Studies Department.

Or, check out the scholarly discussions around choosing the head of Black Studies at UCLA:

In 1965 Karenga founded the United Slaves Organization (US), a group that would rival the Black Panthers on the UCLA campus. The US was more radical than the Panthers, setting off quarrels between the two.
       

The biggest dispute between the US and the Panthers centered around the leadership of the new Afro-American Studies department at UCLA; both groups backed a different candidate. On January 17, 1969, 150 students gathered to discuss the situation. Panthers John Jerome Huggins and Alprentice Carter used the meeting to verbally attack Karenga, much to the dismay of his followers. Two US members, George and Larry Stiner, confronted Huggins and Carter in a hallway after the meeting and shot and killed them.

Universities all raced to create new race and gender-based studies departments, and tenured many  based on their strong opinions and the positive response they would get out of the relevant community, rather than normal academic guidelines.

Anyway, I have, as often happens, gotten away from the point of my post.   The NY Times has a good article on Roland Fryer, who appears to be the leading edge of a new generation set on bringing real scholarship and fact-based analysis to these programs.  (hat tip:  marginal revolution)  I don't necessarily agree with him, for example on paying cash for good grades in school, but I am happy to see his dedication to real analysis and challenging conventional wisdom.

Another Child Sick on Vacation

I am not sure what causes this, but my otherwise healthy children always seem to get violently ill on vacation.  On various "vacations" past we have had several trips to the emergency room, on 3-day stay in intensive, and any number of barfing incidents.  Sure enough, my poor daughter is now vilently ill.

Off Skiing this Week

Doubt I will blog much - it is my kids' spring break and we are off skiing in Utah. 

A Very Different Perspective

As the owner of a small blog as well as of a number of small commercial websites, I spend a lot time trying to Google to index me higher (hey, you, down here, look at me).  So its strange to me when I see this:

WASHINGTON : Agence France-Presse has sued Google Inc. for
copyright infringement, alleging that the Internet search engine
included AFP headlines, news summaries and photographs published
without permission.

In a suit filed in a Washington court, AFP sought damages and interest
of at least 17.5 million dollars (13.1 million euros) and an
interdiction on the publication of its text and photos without prior
agreement.

I know several news agencies have tried this.  My guess is that this is a bid for payment rather than delisting.  It would be interesting to test them and see what their reaction would be if Google said "OK, we'll drop you".  My guess is that if Google purposely did not include AFP in their news index, they would probably get sued instead for anti-trust.  Damned if you do, damned if you don't.  Something Walmart is probably coming to understand nowadays.

 

Proud Holder of a Kentucky Egg Liscence

One of the eye-opening experiences of being a small business person is finding all the licenses you need - sales tax license, witholding license, unemployment, occupancy, food handling, alcohol, tobacco, prescription drug sales, etc etc.  This gets multiplied for us since we are in 10 states.

This week I got my new favorite:  My Kentucky Retail License to Handle Eggs.

I was afraid that there might be some special training that went with this - something like walking a hundred yards with an egg on a spoon without dropping it - but fortunately all they wanted was our name and $5.  Note that there is a $100 a day fine for selling eggs without a liscence in KY, so beware all you black market egg purveyers.

How to Convince Congress to Limit Free Speech

Ryan Sager has interesting revelations in the NY Post about who supported Campaign Finance "Reform".  There is not a lot of confirmation yet on his story, though he has transcripts from some interesting insider speeches linked. 

I bet every one of the groups who financed this effort and that Mr. Sager lists would piously swear that they are supporters of civil rights and the first amendment.  It is interesting to see the hypocrisy in their assault on political speech.

Can Entrepeneurship Survive at Harvard?

Its pretty clear that open academic discourse is on life support at Harvard in the wake of the recent Larry Summers vote of no confidence.  Now, there is a question about whether simple entrepreneurship can survive.   Via Cafe Hayek, several Harvard students created dormaid to provide maid services to dorm students that wanted to pay for it.  Seemed like a great idea to me, which I would have loved at school, but the Harvard student magazine has hammered the entrepreneurs:

By creating yet another differential between the haves and have-nots on
campus, Dormaid threatens our student unity.... We urge the student
body to boycott Dormaid

Socialism has been rejected by countries around the world.  It seems like it is still alive and well at Harvard.  Here is the angst coming through of a frustrated top-down Stalinist planner:

A service like Dormaid can bring many levels of awkwardness into this
picture. For example, do two people sharing a double split the cost?
What if one wants the service and the other does not? What if one
cannot afford it? Hiring someone to clean dorm rooms is a convenience,
but it is also an obvious display of wealth that would establish a
perceived, if unspoken, barrier between students of different economic
means.

Here is the Cafe Hayek response:

This episode is too typical. An enterprising soul perceives a need
and creatively offers a product or service -- at his own financial risk
-- to satisfy that need. Everything is voluntary. No one is forced to
buy the service; no one is forced to work for it. But well-read
ignoramuses, infatuated with their own imaginary higher capacity for
caring for others, viscerally react against commercial exchange. In
this case, those opposed to Dormaid worry that because some but not all
students will find it worthwhile to buy maid service, "inequality"
among the Harvard student body will increase.

Is the typical Harvard student so immature that he suffers envy when
some of his fellow students buy maid service that he chooses not to
buy? (Bonus question for economics students: Why did I say "that he
chooses not to buy?" rather than "that he can't afford?")  Is he so
sensitive, so very, very tender, that he loses emotional stability at
the sight of a friend's dorm room freshly cleaned by maids?  Is he so
intellectually and socially inept that he can't work out an amicable
arrangement with his roommate if one wants to use Dormaid and the other
prefers not to do so?

Read the rest - Cafe Hayek has links to the original Harvard Crimson article.  I will tell you that my roommates would have been fine if I had used this service in college.  In fact, I was such a mess that they might have paid for it for me!