Archive for November 2008

Random Thought on Home Ownership

I'm thinking of the three major consumer purchases that are probably at the base of the hierarchy of needs:  Fuel, food, and shelter.  Its interesting how very different the media and public perception is of price changes in these areas.

The reaction to fuel price increases is easy to predict - they are always portrayed as bad.  Rising prices hurt everyone, producers are evil, and speculators who make bets on rising prices are even more evil.

The reaction to rising food prices is more mixed.  That's because we have come to the collective decision that producers of food are sympathetic figures whereas producers of oil are unsympathetic.  So media laments about rising food prices are often tempered by good news stories about rising farm profitability.

And then there is shelter.  For this category of consumer expenditure, everything is flipped on its head.  Rising prices are good, and falling prices are bad.  One might argue that housing is different, because consumers often take an equity position in shelter that they do not take in food or fuel.  But all this means is that home buyers are speculating on the price of shelter, going long on bets that prices will rise.  They could easily just rent, and pay for their shelter month-to-month like they pay for their food or fuel, but many consumers bet on rising rents and shelter prices by buying shelter futures (ie purchasing a home).  In a real sense, home buyers are all speculators (using margin accounts at that!), but this is one case where we encourage speculation, and even have tax subsidies for it.

If the reader finds this a funny way to think of home ownership, here is a thought experiment.  Let's say at the age of 30 I wanted to take an equity stake in my current and future fuel needs.  I take out a loan to buy enough Exxon stock such that the annual dividends will cover my fuel purchases for the year.  If fuel prices go up, the dividends likely go up as well, so I am sheltered from the vicissitudes of worrying about my monthly fuel bill, and all I have to do is pay off a regular and predictable mortgage on my Exxon stock.  In 30 years, when the note is paid off, likely I have a big capital gain in my Exxon stock, which I could cash in at retirement if I want to downsize to less driving and fuel use.  Or I can pass it on to my kids.

The only difference I can come up with, economically, between this example and how we do housing is that in my example, consumer capital is invested in productive enterprises rather than dead real estate.

Fight Price Gouging

LOL, via Phil Miller:

Please join me in support for poor, beleaguered gas station owners, the victims of unconscionable price gouging by ruthless consumers who are taking advantage of market conditions to reduce their demand for gasoline,  riving down the price by nearly $2 per gallon over the last four months. Fortunately, governments are swinging into action. Georgia governor Sonny Perdue issued this statement:

"The financial crisis has disrupted the consumption of gasoline, which will have an effect on prices. However, we expect the prices that Georgian gasoline station owners receive at the pump to be in line with changes in consumers' incomes and the prices of substitutes and complements. We will not tolerate consumers taking advantage of Georgian business owners during a time of emergency."

Concert Review: Trans-Siberian Orchestra

If it's almost December, it must be time for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra tour.  My son describes them as the "rock electronic Christmas band," and that is as fair a label as any.  Many tend to compare TSO to Mannheim Steamroller, the other band that has created a niche for themselves with modern takes on Christmas music, but TSO tends to skew more towards heavy rock than Mannheim Steamroller.  I think TSO is similar in many ways to Emerson Lake and Palmer, both with their tendency to cover classical songs as well as their flirtations with pretentiousness in some of their productions.  For those unfamiliar with TSO, probably their most famous work of late was "Wizards in Winter," parts of whose music video I think was included in a beer commercial last year.

My son and I got tickets to the concert because we had a couple of TSO albums (we tend to like the instrumentals and think less of the vocals).  What we had not realized is that TSO has quite a cult following.  Most of the folks around us in the audience had been to 3,4,5 or more of their shows.  Many go every year, in a ritual similar to how other folks might go to the Nutcracker every year.

There is no doubt that TSO delivers value to its fans.  We saw their second show of the day (!) and they played for a full three hours.  Members of the band at different points went all through the audience, down aisles and up stairs while playing some of the final tunes -- far more intimate contact than you will get in most other bands.  The key band members all were present after the show in the lobby for a meet and greet with their fans. 

OK, so what about the show?  Well, I was a little disappointed.  To be fair, their leader had a knee injury which forced him to play sitting down, and this tended to reduce some of the band's energy.  The music was generally good to very good.   The keyboard solos and the high-energy songs at the end were terrific. 

The problems were twofold.  First, the opening half of the show was stitched together with a narration that was just painful.  The poetry was Touched by an Angel meets Dr. Seuss.  It was a Night Before Christmas crossed with LA noir.  It just did not work for me, and I know it was weak because my 14-year-old son was laughing at it.  We both thought we were watching Spinal Tap 2.

The other problem is one that TSO fans will call me out for, but the light show through all the songs was just too much.  Don't get me wrong, I have never, ever seen anything to rival the floor show here - 6 trillion lights on the fastest-changing programming I have ever seen, zillions of lasers, flames, more flames, a ten-minute snow storm, band members descending from the sky, band members ascending to the sky, etc. etc.  You can get an idea of about 1% of it with this video  but any digital camera image of the show is worthless because the ccd can't possibly keep up.  Seriously, this video grossly understates the full effect.

The problem was that my eyes could not keep up either.  I have walked away from concerts thinking I had a perforated ear drum, but never before thinking I had a burned-out optic nerve.  My son said he needed to wear eye-plugs.  90% of the effects would have been OK had it not been for the direct audience facing lights at about 6 trillion candle power they kept insisting on flashing in my face.  Anyway, we both are quite experienced with loud, heavy metal concerts and we both walked away with a headache from this one.

Anyway, it was interesting and I am glad I went.  And I may even go back next year, but I will be prepared - I am bringing my RayBans next time.

Additional Thoughts on Letting GM Die

I have gotten a lot of email on my posts about allowing GM to die.  Here are a few thoughts:

  1. No matter what our mutual preferences, GM is not actually going to die.  It will go in to chapter 11 and reorganize, and, as that law intends, will continue to operate through that reorganization.  While Lehman and Enron liquidated, they were really special cases having more to do with financial than operating assets.  In the last 20 years, Texaco, PG&E, Worldcom, Delta, and UAL have all passed through chapter 11, and all operated their businesses through bankruptcy.  In fact, all of Enron's pipelines and other operating assets are running A-OK right now, just under new ownership.  Do you remember all those news stories about massive natural gas shortages because Enron's pipelines all stopped operating when it declared bankruptcy?  Yeah, neither did I.
  2. You are welcome to write me about how I suck because your job at GM (or retirement, or health care, or all of the above) is important to you if that helps you psychologically to manage a terrible and stressful time.  But, to cause me to back off my opinion about GM and the bailout, you need to tell me why your job is more important than someone else's job.  Because, unlike private enterprise, the government does not create wealth, but can only move it around (with a leaky bucket, at that).  GM has wasted hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, so having the government invest money to save your job will likely cost >1 job somewhere else.  Just because we don't, and may never know, who that specific person is does not make this an ethical choice. 
  3. I too, all things being equal, value having a healthy auto industry in the US  (which in fact we still have -- it just happens the headquarters of many of the companies that run the plants are over in Japan).  However, if you wish to argue that the bailout is necessary to save a US auto industry, you in fact need to argue that the current set of managers/contracts/systems/performance measures/organization/etc. of GM are better able to manage the employees and assets of GM than a different owner with different managers and approaches.  Because having GM fail does not make the assets or trained people disappear, it merely makes it more likely they will be managed by a different entity.  So all a bailout does is save the GM entity that manages these assets and people.

Perversity of Government-Selected Winners

Technocrats love to pick winners.  Leftish technocrats, in particular, love to believe that the complex operations of the entire economy choose technologies that are inferior to those the technocrat would have imposed on the economy had she been in charge.  But here is what happens when they try, in a cautionary tail that is particularly relevant given the number of specific technologies Barack Obama has said he would promote (e.g. a million plug-in hybrids by 2015) (via Tom Nelson)

The federal government has invested billions of dollars over the past 16 years, building a fleet of 112,000 alternative-fuel vehicles to serve as a model for a national movement away from fossil fuels.
But the costly effort to put more workers into vehicles powered by ethanol and other fuel alternatives has been fraught with problems, many of them caused by buying vehicles before fuel stations were in
place to support them, a Washington Post analysis of federal records shows.

"I call it the 'Field of Dreams' plan. If you buy them, they will come," said Wayne Corey, vehicle operations manager with the U.S. Postal Service. "It hasn't happened."

Under a mandate from Congress, federal agencies have gradually increased their fleets of alternative-fuel vehicles, a majority of them "flex-fuel," capable of running on either gasoline or ethanol-based E85 fuel. But many of the vehicles were sent to locations hundreds of miles from any alternative fueling sites, the analysis shows.

As a result, more than 92 percent of the fuel used in the government's alternative-fuel fleet continues to be standard gasoline. A 2005 law -- meant to align the vehicles with alternative-fuel stations -- now requires agencies to seek waivers when a vehicle is more than five miles or 15 minutes from an ethanol pump.

The latest generations of alternative vehicles have compounded the problem. Often, the vehicles come only with larger engines than the ones they replaced in the fleet. Consequently, the federal program --
known as EPAct -- has sometimes increased gasoline consumption and emission rates, the opposite of what was intended....

The Postal Service illustrates the problem. It estimates that its 37,000 newer alternative-fuel delivery vans, which can run on high-grade ethanol, consumed 1.5 million additional gallons of gasoline last fiscal year because of the larger engines.

The article does not even mention that E85 ethanol made mostly from corn does absolutely nothing to reduce total CO2 production (it just shifts it around, due to the amount of energy required to grow corn and convert it to ethanol) while raising food prices.

California did something like this years ago, putting the force of subsidies and state law behind zero-emission vehicles.  This wasted a lot of money on electric and hydrogen vehicles that were not yet technologically mature enough to prosper, while missing out on low (but now zero) emissions approaches that could have had much more impact because they were technologically ready (e.g. CNG for fleet vehicles).

Y'all know where I stand on the dangers of CO2.  But if we really have to do "something", then the only efficient way to do it is with a carbon tax.  But politicians hate this idea, because they don't want to be associated with a tax.  But the fact is, that every other action they are proposing is a tax of some sort too, but just hidden and likely less efficient.  There is no magic free lunch that Barack Obama and his folks can think of and impose, no matter how smart they are.  In fact, to some extent, smarts are a hindrance, because it tempts people into the hubris of thinking that they are smart enough to pick winners.

Postscript: If you are reading this and thinking "well, if I were in charge, I would not be that stupid and I could make it work" then you don't get it.  1)  No one can make it work, for the same reasons the Soviets could not plan their economy from the top -- its just too complex.  At best, policy-makers are choosing between a handful of alternatives to back.  In contrast, every individual has a slate of opportunities to reduce his/her CO2 production at the least cost, and when you add up all these individual portfolios, that means there are hundreds of millions of individual opportunities that must get prioritized.  That is what pricing signals do, but government bureaucrats cannot.  2) The morons and knaves ALWAYS take over.  Even if you are brilliant and well-motivated, your successor likely will not be. For years, folks have generally been comfortable with the outsized role of the Federal Reserve because they thought Greenspan  (and Volker before him) ran it brilliantly.  Well, there are arguments to be made about this, but even if we accept this judgment, what happens when the next guy is in charge and is not brilliant?

Postscript #2: If you want a specific example, let's take plug-in hybrids.  How can anyone be against these?  I personally like the concept of cars being driven by electric traction motors (I like the performance profile of them) and would love a good plug-in hybrid.  But what happens when we find out that many of these cars were bought in coal-burning areas where electricity is particularly cheap, and discover coal-fired electricity pollutes more than an internal combustion engine?  Or when we use a cap and trade system to cut back on coal fired plants, and find that the huge number of plug-in hybrids are exacerbating brown-outs and electricity shortages?  Or we find that the billions of dollars of capital diverted by the government to expanding plug-in hybrids could have easily yielded far more CO2 reduciton had it been applied in another area?  That is why a carbon tax is the only way to go (if we are going to do anything) because it allows individuals to make capital expenditure decisions to reduce CO2 based on their vastly higher knowlege of the opportunities and the pricing signal of the tax.

One Word

Are We All Incapable of Doing Anything For Ourselves Any More?

Apparently for some reason having to do with screw-ups and protests in contracting, the State of Arizona is not going to publish a Visitor's Guide.

I run a decent-sized business in Arizona, and have never paid much attention to these guides.  Every state and city and town and county and school district seems to put out some kind of visitors guide, and I could go bankrupt paying for ads in all the ones who hit me with marketing calls.  Customers have a jillion ways to find out about our business, either from Internet searches or private guidebooks and directories.  Heck, when I travel, I usually hit places like TripAdvisor and then run down to Borders to pick up whatever Fodor's guide covers my destination.  I have never even thought about calling the government and asking them to send me a visitors guide, but perhaps some of y'all have.

Anyway, what do I know?  I am just a little small business trying to run a few campgrounds.  Just because I can handle my own marketing needs doesn't mean that billion dollar multinational hotel chains are capable of doing so without the government:

Greg Hanss, director of sales and marketing for the new InterContinental Montelucia Resort and Spa in Paradise Valley, couldn't believe it. "For me, the fact that we don't have a state visitors guide in what is the most challenging economic time of our tourism lives is really disappointing."

Pathetic.  It is interesting to see that, for every 20-something anxiously awaiting the government's takeover of healthcare because they are really bummed about all the work it takes to find the right health care plan, there is a corporation waiting for the US govenrment to do its work for them.

WordPress as a Content Management Tool

My company has over 20 URL's for various recreation facilities we manage.  I do all the design and maintenance of these myself, generally using a shared core design with some color and content changes.  Since this is just a side job for me, I often put it off and unfortunately things get dated fast.

For a while now I have been wanting to experiment with a content management system to ease the maintenance of multiple web sites.  So over the past couple of weeks, I have played around with various CMS's.  I was intrigued for a while by ExpressionEngine, but the fact it was not public domain (ie it charges per site licenses that would be prohibitive for me) finally killed the deal.  I also looked at Joomla and Drupal. 

Eventually, I settled on what many will consider an odd choice:  WordPress.  Yeah, I know, its a blogging engine.  I know quite well, because I am in the process of converting both my blogs from Typepad to WordPress.  I chose WordPress for a few reasons:

  • I understand the blogging paradigm, and so I have a good sense for how the content will be handled, and the limitations.
  • I am, having messed around with my blogs, comfortable with the WordPress templating system.  Though certainly more limited than ExpressionEngine, it does what I need to do. I am moderately facile in CSS and PHP, the two real requirements to make a good template.
  • Most of my sites are simple.  The only two API's I really need to plug in to are Google Maps and Flickr, and I have tested and am comfortable with the available WordPress plugins for these.
  • I want to begin, carefully, to let some of my employees be able to add and edit some content (e.g. changing store hours).  I think the wordpress interface is pretty accessible to some folks who may be new to online content and gives me the amount of control I need as an editor.  For a noob content contributor, WordPress is far more accessible than other CMS's.
  • With a static site, I have an advantage over a blog in that I can turn on full site caching to speed up the site (via WP-super-cache).  I also added an SEO plugin to make my permalinks and pages more SEO friendly, something I don't care that much about on my blog.

I think that the first site came out pretty well, and I don't think its obvious that it is built on a blogging engine (site here, for our Arizona snow play area).  The biggest internal debate I had was whether to go with fixed or variable widths.  I actually went the opposite way of most modern programmers, moving from variable to fixed rather than vice versa.  Most of my customers, as shown by my server logs, have slow and dated computers and monitors, so I think fixed width makes sense. 

Yeah, I know that no one will ever consider me a l33t h4x0r for using WordPress, or even for using a CMS at all, but I was absolutely thrilled how fast the second site is going up now that I have built all the templates and functions I need.  More reports to come  (and hopefully this site will soon be on WordPress, but I am not holding my breath.  Still having trouble with brinking over the permalinks so they all work right).

Wikipedia's Highest and Best Use

Wikipedia is virtually useless as a source for anything controversial, such as global warming.  However, it is absolutely fabulous as a dictionary of pop culture.  Where else can you find 5500 words on h4x0r l33t speech?

Garden Art

My wife and I went to see the opening of Dale Chihuly's new exhibit at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.  Chihuly is, if not the leading, certainly the most famous modern glass artist  (he is perhaps best known for the lobby at the Bellagio, though this is far from my favorite work).  He has done garden exhibits before, but the shapes and colors were perfect for the desert landscape.

I don't have pictures yet from Arizona (we saw the exhibit at night), but here are some examples of his work:

glass1

And from a garden show in New York:

glass2

Information on the exhibit is here.  Highly recommended for anyone visiting Phoenix this winter.  I think one of the reasons my wife and I like his work is that his work is in some way reminiscent of the handbags she designs.

The Original 9/11, Except it was on 9/16

This was a bit of history I never knew:

wall-street-bomb

"Wall Street bomb." Aftermath of the explosion that killed dozens of people in New York's financial district on September 16, 1920, when a horse wagon loaded with dynamite and iron sash weights blew up in front of the J.P. Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street. The attack, which was attributed to Italian anarchists, was never solved. 5x7 glass negative, George Grantham Bain Collection.

This is from Shorpy.com, a blog that has daily posts with really nice photography from the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The photo above is actually just a thumbnail - go to the original post and click on the full size image.  All of their photos are posted in huge, high-resolution scans.

Yep, This Is The Perfect Antidote for a Recession

Kevin Drum is off his meds, and is generating a lot of good fodder for me today. I made a couple of small edits in the name of intellectual honesty:

The news keeps getting better and better. The House Democratic caucus just voted 137-122 to replace John Dingell (D"“General Motors) as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. The new chair will be Henry Waxman, who cares deeply about [0.01% changes in atmospheric composition] and will be a huge ally in the fight to get serious[ly high fuel and electricity prices] next year. This is change we can believe in.

I am willing to put my disagreement with a lot of the world on whether on not global warming is dangerous into the "reasonable people can disagree" category.  But it just strikes me as outright insanity to try to push forward and pretend that anything that makes a meaningful dent in CO2, and so which has to make a meaningful dent in fuel and electricity consumption, will require either massive shortages or much higher prices.  Even a third-way plan that says we will evade this trade-off with new technologies  (whatever the hell those are) faces the massive dead-weight-loss of having to obsolete perfectly good power generation or transportation infrastructure and replace it wholesale with trillions of dollars of new stuff.  If we found out tomorrow that exposed brick caused global warming, and all of our houses had to be knocked down and rebuilt, would anyone really think we were all richer for that?

The amazing thing to me is that the left has all gotten on the "this will be a net positive for the economy, 5 million jobs, blah blah" message.  This is nuts.  This is the broken windows fallacy on Barry Bonds' entire steroid inventory.  Folks often respond to me, "but we will gain because we will reduce the cost of global warming."  But reasonable, non-loony folks don't really honestly think we are incurring any costs right now from global warming.  There is an argument that they might exist 50 years from now and that they might be high enough to get started on now, but for the next 10 years or more, there is just cost, no benefit.

Gut Them Like Trouts

Kevin Drum is glad the Democrats are ready to body-slam the health insurance companies, and is rooting them on:

It means the health insurance industry is scared that we might actually do something in 2009 and they want to be seen as something other than completely obstructionist. That means only one thing: they've shown fear, and now it's time to bore in for the kill and gut them like trouts. Let's get to it.

Because everyone knows that most of the costs of healthcare reform can be paid for by ripping the excess profits out of the health insurance business like a liver from a fish.  Just to remind everyone, these are net profit margins reported by Google Finance for 3Q2008 of the largest health care providers and insurers:

Cigna: 3.50%
United Health Group: 4.56%
Aetna: 3.64%
WellCare:  4.08%
Amerigroup: 3.51%
Humana 2.56%
WellPoint: 5.49%

Napolitano to Homeland Security

Yeah, I know it is not a done deal, but the rumors are that our governor Janet Napolitano will be Obama's choice for Homeland Security.

On its face, this both makes a ton of sense, and simultaneously is odd.  It makes sense because Napolitano is one of those rising Democratic stars who get special love in part for not being white males.  It is odd because pulling her up to Washington would, by law, pass the governorship for the next two years to the Republicans (the Secretary of State completes the term, and she is a Republican).  It also strikes me as odd because I think Homeland Security would be an absolutely awful platform for launching a run for higher office.  That job has no upside - it is all downside.

But the final reason in the end that this may make sense can be seen in this table below from Paul Kedrosky on projected state budget deficits as a percentage of state revenues:

state_deficits

Arizona is almost in as bad of shape as California, and California is a disaster area.  So the financial chickens are about to come to roost here in Arizona for the drunken spending spree the state has been on, presided over by Napolitano.  To preserve her from going to the Gray Davis Memorial Retirement Home for Failed Governors, Obama is likely to beam her up to Washington.

Last One -- Thank God

My kids' middle school has a tradition among 5th and 6th graders that once a year each student creates a science model out of food.  The kids love it, because they get to eat them after each presentation.  But all we parents know how stressful science fair projects can be.  Trying to create a meaningful science display from only edible materials is really a pain.  We pretty much nuked the kitchen this Sunday and spent all day with this.  But it's the last one!  And it came out pretty well -- this is my daughter's "physics of the circus."

edible

PS - TGFF - Thank God For Fondant, a material used in making fancy cakes that you can think of as edible clay.  The materials here are graham cracker, Hershey bar, and sugar wafer stands, gum drop and lemon ball audience, frosted vanilla cake for the platforms, pretzels for the posts, licorice for the ropes, donuts for the cannon and the hoop, and fondant for the animals and people.  And two full pounds of royal icing to glue everything together.

PSS - One of the things you discover about food is that despite the incredible amount of quality control on its composition and taste, there is not much quality control on its construction properties.  Pretzel rods that always seemed straight enough turn out to be, when you come to actually build something from them, more warped than picked-over Home Depot lumber.  Ditto graham crackers.  Mini donut sizes vary tremendously.  Licorice tensile strength that always seemed fine turns out to be woefully inadequate.  And don't even get me started on gumdrop repeatability.

A Thought on Global Warming Action

Here is the hard truth for those of us who believe that, since CO2 has had little effect on global temperatures to date, expensive abatement plans will similarly have little if any measurable effect:  They are coming anyway.  It is actually probable that the Republicans could combine with heavy industrial states like Michigan in the Senate to block dramatic new legislation.  But President Obama already has the legal and legislative authority to enact sweeping and expensive CO2 mandates without going back to Congress. 

So with that depressing thought, here is a bit of good news:  The media may well come over to the skeptics' side soon, at least partially.  Here is why:  The media is extraordinarily loath to really challenge policy proposals in advance that are popular with the center-left.  They are even less likely to challenge said proposals when they touch on a story of doom.  There is nothing the media enjoys more than piling on a good public scare. 

But history has shown that the media will turn on these proposals once they are implemented, and sometimes quite soon after.  Remember ethanol subsidies?  The press were behind this crap all the way, until Congress passed enhanced subsidies a while back, and then the press suddenly starting "discovering" the effect on rising food prices, the environmental problems with land use, the ugliness of some of the subsidy politics, the fact that few scientists think corn ethanol will actually reduce CO2, etc.  Yeah, I know, all of this was entirely predictable (and predicted by many of us) in advance.  But this just seems to be how the media works.

Because the only thing the media loves more than fear-mongering a crisis that is 20-years away is fear-mongering one that is visibly upon us.  The press freaked at the California energy crisis a few years ago, peppering the public with stories of rising prices and rolling blackouts.  And what has happened since then?   Electricity demand has risen, no one can build electrical capacity, wind and solar are a joke, and Obama is only going to make it harder and more expensive to produce enough power (I think Obama's exact words were "bankrupt the coal industry.") 

Get Bob Cratchitt to Do It

The Town of South Attleboro, MA sent out wildly threatening past due letters for folks with balances as low as 1-cent  (thereby investing at least 42 cents to get one back).  In response to charges that this was stupid, City Collector Debora Marcoccio responded:

A computer automatically printed the letters for any account with a balance remaining, and they were not reviewed by staff before being sent out, Marcoccio said.

"It would be fiscally irresponsible for me to have staff weed through the bills and pull out any below a certain amount," Marcoccio said. " And what would that amount be?"

What, are we living in the 19th century with clerks in a musty room preparing bills by hand?  This fix probably requires one whole entire line of program code in the billing system to fix.  I could probably teach myself to code whatever language the payroll system is written in (my guess is COBOL, which, god help me, I already know) in less time than this woman has spent fielding complaints and media inquiries.  Compare this to what TJIC has to do just to get the mail out.

And don't you love people who don't even have enough spine to make a simple decision about the cutoff for minimum bill size.  I have found this is one of those things the government is really, really bad at -- making decisions under uncertainty  (which covers about all decisions, except routine ones embodied in SOP).  Government has no incentives, in general, for productivity, or production, or customer satisfaction.  The only time government employees get feedback at all is when they get negative feedback from having someone yell at them for making a decision that some higher-up didn't like..  So if a decision is not justifiable either by past precedent/SOP or explicitly by the rules, it is not made.

By the way, I had a personal programming milestone last night.  I finally built a website without using a WYSIWIG editor that formatted the way I wanted it to all in CSS without a single table.  I predict that now that I have finally gotten a decent handle on CSS, which mainly consists of learning all the workarounds for when it doesn't work as you would expect, that someone is about to introduce a whole new system for formatting web pages.

Thanks Bush Family

Update:  Chart below is not correct.  It's enough in error that I have deleted it.  Author explains here.

William Biggs has a bunch of charts showing historic federal outlays, but below is his chart for year-over-year changes in federal outlays per capita, adjusted for inflation:

CHART DELETED

Random Entertainment Notes

I feel I need to clarify one thing.  I am a huge fan of the old Bond movies.  Goldfinger, Thunderball, Diamonds are Forever, Goldeneye -- all great.  Despite my comments above, I even like most of the Roger Moore films, though you have to take a different approach to them.  But the formula was tired.  The Survivor formula was hugely popular at first, but in season 9 or 10 or whatever, it's just done.  You either are repeating the same tired cliches, because you feel locked into a formula by your fans who will get pissed (as they did with Casino Royale) when you violate any minute detail the Formula, or you fall into the trap of trying to top yourself with goofier and goofier plots.  I actually thought the series was dead around about View to a Kill, but Pierce Brosnan really brought new life to the series for a while.

Oh, and I wanted to really make fun of the plot in the new movie, because it really is a great WTF moment, but I didn't want to include a spoiler, since there is some mis-direction in the movie.  However, the spoilers have already come out in the comments, so if you are interested, I reveal the incredible world-shaking evil plot around comment #6 here.

  • I saw a trailer for the upcoming Star Trek movie, which could essentially be called "young Spock and Kirk."  It could be good.  Talk about a franchise, though, that has been milked to death.  A new take would be refreshing.  We'll see.  Never forget Battlestar Galactica - from the ultimate in goofiness came one of the better science fiction series to hit television.
  • The note above reminds me of an idea I have for a movie that I think would be a no-brainer.  The Star Wars clone wars stuff has pretty much lost me  (actually the dialog in episodes 1-3 pretty much lost me).  But I always thought a young Han and Chewie movie - how they met, various pirate adventures, young Lando, etc.  would be almost a layup to make succesful.  I am increasingly convinced that that the Star Wars movies were good almost in direct proportion to how much Han Solo was on the screen  (well, maybe pre-dryfreeze Han Solo -- after he was unfrozen, he was a little goody-two-shoes for my taste.)

Humiliating Your Pet

My COO reports that his dog Ranger was slashed pretty badly in brawl with a javelina near the family home.  The dog is doing fine, and should be proud he defended his territory against the evil interloper.

So why is the poor dog being humiliated?  OK, he has to wear one of those funnel things that keep the dog from picking at his stitches.  These are kind of embarrassing, but after being nearly emasculated in the field of battle, does he really need this indignity, courtesy of my friend's daughter?

dog_flower

Poverty Is Not Sustainable

This article from Climate Resistance about the sustainability movement is terrific.  I want to excerpt a relatively long chunk of it:

It is our belief that Oxfam's increasingly shallow campaigns reflect the organisation's difficulty in understanding development and poverty, and the relationship between them. In other words, it seems to have lost its purpose. This is a reflection of a wider political phenomenon, of which the predominance of environmentalism is a symptom. We seem to have forgotten why we wanted development in the first place. It is as if the lifestyles depicted in Cecil's painting were to be aspired to, were there just a little more rain. Development is a bad thing. It stops rain.

If we were to add a city skyline into the background of Cecil's painting it might ask a very different question of its audience. Why are people living like that, with such abundance in such proximity? Of course, in reality, many miles separate the two women from any such city, but the question still stands; there is abundance in the world, and there is the potential for plenty more. Yet Oxfam have absorbed the idea from the environmental movement that there isn't abundance. This changes the relationship between development and poverty from one in which development creates abundance into one in which development creates poverty; it deprives people of subsistence. But really, the city (not) behind the two women could organise the infrastructure necessary to irrigate the parched landscape, the delivery of fertiliser, and a tractor. The field could be in full bloom, in spite of the weather. The two women could be wealthy.

Oh no, says Oxfam. That's not sustainable....

The myth of sustainability is that it is sustainable. The truth is that drought and famine have afflicted the rural poor throughout history "“ before climate change was ever used to explain the existence of poverty. Limiting development to what "˜nature' provides therefore makes people vulnerable to her whims. Drought is "˜natural'. Famine is "˜natural'. Disease is "˜natural'. They are all mechanisms which, in the ecologist's lexicon are nature's own way of ensuring "˜sustainability'. They are checks and balances on the dominance of one species. To absorb what Hitler called "˜the iron logic of nature' is to submit to injustice, if famine, drought and disease characterise it. We can end poverty, but not by restricting development. Yet that seems to be Oxfam's intention. That is why we criticise it.

Hat tip:  Tom Nelson.

Intellectual Network Effects

John Scalzi writes:

I do get occasionally amused at being a poster child for Science Fiction's Digital Future when I live in a rural town of 1,800 people with agricultural fields directly to my east, south and west, and Amish buggies clopping down the road on a daily basis. It's, like, three cheers for cognitive dissonance.

I responded in the comments:

I would have had exactly the opposite reaction, that your situation is entirely representative.  For 500 years,  from the Italian Renaissance through the 20th century, intellectual thought moved forward mainly hand in hand with urbanization.  I am not really an expert in describing the ins and outs of this, but there is clearly a density and network effect to intellectual advancement, and given past communication approaches, this required physical proximity.  The promise of modern IT technology is that it may allow us to achieve this density without physical proximity.

A Bit More Hope Than I Thought

GM, as reported by Reason's Hit and Run, has actually already had something of a breakthrough in labor costs, at least for new employees:

The current veteran UAW member at GM today has an average base wage of $28.12 an hour, but the cost of benefits, including pension and future retiree health care costs, nearly triples the cost to GM to $78.21, according to the Center for Automotive Research.

By comparison, new hires will be paid between $14 and $16.23 an hour. And even as they start to accumulate raises tied to seniority, the far less lucrative benefit package will limit GM's cost for those employees to $25.65 an hour.

So this puts GM in the position of shoving experienced employees out the door as fast as they can, to make way for lower cost employees hired under this new deal.  Apparently GM also has more flexibility to manage costs in a downturn.  Good news, assuming they can accelerate a 20 year demographic transition to about 6 months, avoid giving away too much to these newer workers when times are good again, and arrest market share declines with better cars. Oh, and I presume the UAW has not abandoned seniority, which means that in recession-driven layoffs over the next year, GM must being by laying off these much cheaper younger workers.  Layoffs will actually mix their labor cost upwards.

I still don't want to bail them out.  Like numerous other industries, from steel to airlines, there is no reason GM shouldn't have to pass through Chapter 11 on the road to recovery.  However, the argument that GM is turning a corner if we just give them a little help seems to be persuasive with many folks around me, so much so I am tempted to buy some GM stock as a way to go long on my prediction of the creeping corporate state.

Update: On the other hand, this is a sign that GM may be scraping the bottom of the barrel for cash:

Cash-strapped General Motors Corp. said Monday it will delay reimbursing its dealers for rebates and other sales incentives, an indication that the company is starting to have cash-flow problems....Erich Merkle, lead auto analyst at the consulting firm Crowe Horwath LLP, said GM wouldn't delay payments if it had enough cash.

In the third quarter of this year, GM's operations burned through $7.5 billion in cash, offset somewhat by asset sales and financing activities.  But this is really a pre-recession burn rate.  What will the burn rate be over the next 6 months?  There is an argument to be made that $25 billion is not going to last even a year, particularly given the dynamic that layoffs will hit mostly the lower-cost workers, and a Democratic Congress and Administration that is handing over the money may well restrict GM's freedom of movement on layoffs anyway.  I can see the Obama administration now -- don't lay them off, lets put them all in a factory making green energy, uh, stuff.

"I don't even think they've got 60 days," Merkle said. "Their cash position is probably getting pretty weak right now, and it's cutting into those minimum reserves that they need on hand."

Great Report on Earmarks

The Seattle Times has done a ton of work on earmarks, and has a report here.  Nothing here will be much of a surprise for earmark critics.  This was probably my favorite bit:

Last year, Congress promised to shed light on the secretive process. But the lists of earmarks are still buried in obscure documents that are difficult to find and search. Until Congress put them online a couple of weeks ago, the House disclosure letters, linking lawmakers to companies, were thick volumes of paper kept in a cabinet in the offices of the House Appropriations Committee.

When a reporter for the Congressional Quarterly pointed out how difficult it remains to pull all the information together, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the committee that drafts the defense bill, had a quick answer: "Tough shit."

Murtha, for those who don't know, consistently leads the earmarking numbers, and came in #1 among Congressmen in reaping campaign donations from earmark recipients, bringing in over $1.6 million.  They have a database here where you can look up your Congressman (mine, John Shadegg, was one of the few with zero).  My sense is that this database is only from the military appropriation and that there are many more earmarks hidden out there in other bills, but it is a good start.  (hat tip Hit and Run)

The new, but not surprising, information for me was how Congress easily sidesteps the new disclosure rules.

After months of investigating the $459 billion 2008 defense bill, The Times found:

  • The hidden $3.5 billion included 155 earmarks, among them the most costly in the bill. Congress disclosed 2,043 earmarks worth $5 billion.
  • The House broke the new rules at least 110 times by failing to disclose who was getting earmarks, making it difficult for the public to judge whether the money is being spent wisely.
  • In at least 175 cases, senators did not list themselves in Senate records as earmark sponsors, appearing more fiscally responsible. But they told a different story to constituents back home in news releases, claiming credit for the earmarks and any new jobs.

The Times includes several irritating but entertaining stories of rent-seeking.  Take Cyberlux, for example.  What do you do when your company has sunk $50 million into a new product, has a $18 million a year burn rate, and only has $300,000 is revenues for the first six months of the year?  Why, you call your Congressman and generate revenues via earmarks, with a quick thank you in the form of company-sponsored fundraising for said representative.

And this certainly is a feel-good story for those rooting for the government to re-engineer the American auto industry:

Latrobe Specialty Steel of Latrobe, 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, makes specialty steel for aircraft parts.
In 2006, its parent company, Timken, spent $2.9 million lobbying Congress on various issues and persuaded lawmakers to ban the Defense Department from buying any products using foreign-made specialty steel. As the sole U.S. producer of certain kinds of specialty steel, Latrobe saw its orders climb. Timken then sold Latrobe to a group of investors in a $250 million deal.

But the buy-American restrictions for specialty steel caused serious problems for the Air Force, creating a 17-month lag in getting spare parts for aircraft used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In May 2007, Latrobe said it needed to expand but complained of high electric bills and publicly threatened to build a new plant in Virginia or West Virginia instead. Pennsylvania offered grants and tax credits to the company worth $1.2 million.

In Congress, lawmakers were quietly lining up a much sweeter package.

In the defense bill passed in December, someone had inserted language that ultimately directed $18.4 million for "domestic expansion of essential vacuum induction melting furnace capacity and vacuum arc remelting furnace capacity."

"Latrobe Specialty Steel is the only domestic producer of that steel," Army Lt. Gen. William Mortensen said at a hearing.

A month after the bill passed, Latrobe began a $62 million expansion in its home state.

No one in Congress has admitted sponsoring the Latrobe earmark.

One congressman's fingerprints, however, weren't so easy to conceal. Latrobe sits in the congressional district of Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat who chairs the subcommittee that drafts the defense bill and wields the most power over defense earmarks.

Latrobe's officials have given $5,000 to Murtha's re-election fund in the past two years.

Also, Murtha had talked about giving taxpayer dollars to Latrobe. "We're trying to get together to see how we can work out an increased capacity for that particular company," Murtha said at a subcommittee hearing in April 2007. "I've talked to that producer. And what I'd like to see is them put some money in, us put some money in, and reduce the time it takes to get those spare parts out."...

The company would not comment on any discussions it had with Murtha. A spokeswoman defended getting the grant, saying it had been competitively bid. Even so, she acknowledged that Latrobe is the sole U.S. producer of certain specialty steels, a requirement for getting the money.

You Mean It Was Just A Money Grab? I'm So Disillusioned

Via the Liberty Papers:

U.S. states have not lived up to their commitment to devote a major portion of their huge legal settlement with the tobacco industry a decade ago on anti-smoking efforts, health advocacy groups said on Tuesday.

In the 10 years since the landmark deal, the states have received $79.2 billion of the settlement and another $124.3 billion from tobacco taxes, but have spent only about 3 percent of it "” $6.5 billion "” on tobacco prevention and cessation programs, the groups said in a report.

Gee, I really thought the settlement was about health care and tobacco education, and now I find out it was just a crass money grab?  Who could have ever predicted that?

Those who have read my novel will recognize the sarcasm.