Archive for March 2009

More on Inflation

If I have not been convincing enough, Q&O has more on why you really, really should be planning for inflation.

Earth Hour Embarassment

Have you been reading all the follow-up stories documenting the huge cuts in electricity use during Earth hour?  Yeah, neither have I.  That is because there weren't any, at least in the US.  Apparently our local Arizona utilities couldn't really find any statistically significant drop in usage.

But here is the embarrassing fact for the City of Phoenix, though the fact appears to be one year old:

The drop-off in participation might be tied to Phoenix not being a key participant like it was in 2008.

The city spent $3,000 in overtime for employees to run around and shut off lights last year, said the mayor's spokesman Scott Phelps.

We seriously paid for that last year?  Unbelievable.

Somehow the lack of participation was spun in the article as "It was a global vote for action on climate change."  Probably why I could never be a media flack - no way I could say that with a straight face.

By the way, the Coyote family celebrated Earth hour by consuming big slabs of methane-producing cow at Ruth's Chris.

Update: The feed header for the AZ Republic article linked above reads "Arizona shrugged off Earth Hour while much of the rest of the globe turned off lights Saturday night."  Really?  Much of the rest of the globe turned off lights?  I must have missed the evidence, or even mention of this, in the article.

Why Electric Cars Are Not Really The Answer

Look, I would love to have a good all-electric vehicle with a 100-mile range.  I love the torque of electric motors, and have had a blast every time I have driven a Prius.  But to get over-focused on all this mess is to miss the real problem American auto manufacturers have failed to deal with (via Carpe Diem)

cars1

If went back in time and showed US auto makers this chart in 1995, they would have said "holy cr*p!  We're screwed!"  And they were.  American auto makers still made cars like they were in the 1950's auto industry.  Asian manufacturers made cars like they were in the modern PC industry.

Only 3-1/2 More Years Until We Go To The Polls To Select A New GM CEO

Russel Roberts deconstructs Obama's auto speech.  Well worth the read.

I have worked with folks in the government for years.  One of the common syndromes I see in government officials of all levels is something I call "arrogant ignorance."  I see a lot of it in this administration.

Why These Guys Are Not Working In A Real Business

You start to get a sense of why green reporters might not make it in the actual value-creation world when you read stuff like this.  Is it really possible that someone is so pareto challenged that in a bid to make the world a cleaner place, they focus on ... excercise balls?  It is utterly unsurprising after reading this that when Bjorn Lomberg approaches environmental improvement from a prioritization perspective (ie where can we get the biggest improvement bang for the least bucks), greenies look at him like he is from Mars (or worse, Hades).

A New Low, Even for Sheriff Joe

Our local county Sheriff's deputies arrested four people in a County Board of Supervisor's meeting whose only "crime" was applauding for a speaker who criticized Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Friction between Maricopa County government officials and a vocal coalition of activists who oppose Sheriff Joe Arpaio reached a new level when authorities arrested four people during a County Board of Supervisors meeting Wednesday.

Sheriff's deputies and county Protective Service officers arrested two men and two women in the middle of the meeting when they stood and applauded a speaker who criticized Arpaio.

Joel Nelson, Jason Odhner, Monica Sanschafer and Kristy Theilen all were charged with suspicion of disorderly conduct and trespassing, said sheriff's office spokesman Lt. Brian Lee....

The crackdown brought the anti-Arpaio activist arrest tally to nine in the past four months.

The article includes video, so you can judge for yourself just how disorderly these people were.  Readers of this site continue to heap on me examples of Arpaio's positive public press (via PR staff paid with my tax dollars) as evidence I am too hard on Joe.  Look, I don't care how inspired his program is for caring for lost dogs with prisoners, at his core he has no respect for basic civil rights.  He is a government thug who distracts potential critics, like a magician, with pink underwear and bologna sandwiches.

Special big props to County Supervisor Max Wilson, who effectively eschewed any civilian control of the police, confirming to Arpaio that he is a law unto himself and accountable to no one:

Supervisor Max Wilson. R-District 4, declined comment on whether he was comfortable with the arrests. "I don't tell the police how to do their job. I don't instruct them to do it or when to do it. They're professionals at it and that's the way they handle it," he said.

J Edgar Hoover would have been quite comfortable with this model.

Mussolini-Style Fascism

Megan McArdle did not like this from David Henderson:

President Obama has done something far more serious. He has already, in less than 100 days, moved the U.S. economy further towards fascism. Sean Hannity and other critics keep criticizing Obama for his socialist leanings. But the more accurate term for many of his measures, especially in the financial markets and the auto market, is fascism.

Here's what Sheldon Richman writes about "Fascism" in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:

Where socialism sought totalitarian control of a society's economic processes through direct state operation of the means of production, fascism sought that control indirectly, through domination of nominally private owners. Where socialism nationalized property explicitly, fascism did so implicitly, by requiring owners to use their property in the "national interest""“that is, as the autocratic authority conceived it. (Nevertheless, a few industries were operated by the state.) Where socialism abolished all market relations outright, fascism left the appearance of market relations while planning all economic activities. Where socialism abolished money and prices, fascism controlled the monetary system and set all prices and wages politically. In doing all this, fascism denatured the marketplace. Entrepreneurship was abolished. State ministries, rather than consumers, determined what was produced and under what conditions.

She replied

How is this helpful?  Has clarifying the distinction between fascism and socialism really added to most peoples' understanding of what the Obama administration is doing?  All this does is drag the specter of Hitler into the conversation.  And the problem with Hitler was not his industrial policy"“I mean, okay, fine, Hitler's industrial policy bad, right, but I could forgive him for that, you know?  The thing that really bothers me about Hitler was the genocide.  And I'm about as sure as I can be that Obama has no plans to round up millions of people, put them in camps, and find various creative ways to torture them to death.

I'm confused.  It appears to me that McArdle, and not Henderson, was the one who introduced rounding up people in camps into the discussion.  In fact, the prototype example of fascism, in Italy, never went in the genocide direction.   Genocide per se was not a defining feature of fascism, any more than it was in communism.  In both cases genocide was the result of handing immense unchecked power to a small group of people.  And I am not clear why, after Stalin and the Kmer Rouge, McArdle thinks that fascism is any more loaded with genocide associations than socialism.

To avoid this whole confusion, I usually use the term "Mussolini-style fascism" since we do seem blinded and incapable of looking past Hitler whenever that word fascism is mentioned.  But I think the discussion of Mussolini-style fascism is as least as relevant as the frequent discussions on McArdle's other sites of the causes of the Great Depression.  While Italy adopted the model before the Depression, many nations considered emulating it as a response to the Depression.  I think the evidence is fairly clear that FDR was an admirer of certain aspects of this model, and his National Industrial Recovery Act emulated many mechanisms at the core of Mussolini's model.

I actually think the Henderson is correct - Mussolini style fascism, and the modern European corporate state, are may be better analogs to describe where this Administration is heading than socialism.

An Enormous Blunder

It is becoming increasingly clear that Obama has made an enormous blunder, driven in part by his best-and-the-brightest-style hubris, in taking personal ownership of GM.  Not because it will be an enormous waste of taxpayer money, because I don't think he cares about a few tens of billions of our money.  It is a blunder because GM may not be fixable, and if it is salvageable in some smaller format, it will require painful compromises by politically powerful groups Obama really does not want to square off with.

Obama's stepping forward and claiming ownership for GM's success strikes me as roughly equivalent to someone stepping forward in March of 1945 to take ownership of the German war effort.   The decision is all the dumber because there was a perfectly good alternative -- ie the bankrupcy courts -- with far more experience (not to mention authority and legislative mandate) to handle these type of situations.

Megan McArdle has a good roundup of what challenges face GM and the Obamacrats.

Update: Obama seems to be hinting that a bankruptcy may still be in the cards.  The key challenge for him will be to deal with the obvious accusation of why he didn't allow this before spending $20 billion or so of taxpayer money.  Expect the administration to be focus-grouping and trial-ballooning various euphamisms for chapter 11 to disguise this problem.

And This Is Better, How?

Critics of high executive pay on the soft-core / moderate left (as opposed to the hard-core socialist left) often argue that they are not against large incomes per se.  However, they argue that high executive pay is often the result of a failure in the structure of corporate governance, where a group of cozy insiders on the board and management hand each other compensation packages to which the rank and file of shareholders would be opposed  (a subset of the agency cost problem).

I am somewhat sympathetic to this argument, as I have personally observed instances where I thought boards and management were too cozy by far.  However, no one has really succeeded at proving this hypothesis on executive pay, and in fact shareholders when they have had a chance to vote on such packages have never really made a meaningful dent in them, and one can find a number of private companies where such governance issues presumably don't exist but high executive compensation packages can exist.

Just as an aside, a classic example of this can be found in the fabulous book "Barbarians at the Gate" about the RJR Nabisco takeover fight.  The book does a great job of portraying a company with horrible corporate governance issues that seemed to be used to enrich managers with both salaries and perks, but then observed that the new private owners of the company gave their new CEO a compensation package that might have made the previous executives blush.

Anyway, I am yet again off the point.  My point was to observe that the mainstream left seems to believe that there are corporate governance issues at large corporations that disenfranchise the majority of shareholders vis a vis key decisions involving the company executives.  So I have to ask myself, if this is a real fear, then how does one justify having the President of the United States effectively fire the GM CEO, without any vote or substantial input from shareholders?

Postscript: It is all well and good to be cognizant of agency costs.  Everyone should understand when an employee (or contractor or whatever) has different incentives than they themselves possess.  For example, on my recent backyard renovation, I always kept in mind that my architect wanted to create a showplace that would advance his business and possible get into a magazine.  In general, this alligns our interests, but there were times he pressed for things I did not value and I had to be insistent we were not going to do those things.

However, many folks seem to want to run off to government to do something about agency costs whenever or wherever they are found.  This is hugely dangerous, as Congress tends to have the highest agency costs one will ever be likely to find.

A Trillion Dollars? No Problem

The answer to all of Obama's spending in trillion dollar chunks is obvious.  All we have to do is make our currency work just like that of Zimbabwe, and we will be fine.  We could pay off a trillion dollars with 10 bank notes (I bought just one the other day on eBay for $30 or so).

zimbabwe-trillion

The problem, of course, is that this is what the Obama administration actually appears to be doing.

My First Ever Investment Advice

I don't generally give investment advice, because I am not really qualified to do so and I make enough mistakes with my own investments that it seems silly to give other people advice.

But these are extraordinary times, and I do want to pass on one general piece of advice: Be ready for inflation.  If you are under forty, you probably don't even remember any real inflation, so you may need to seek advice as to how to handle it.

I just do not see how there is going to be any way to avoid a substantial uptick in inflation over the next couple of years. Crazy-large deficit spending, huge inflation of the money supply, absurdly low interest rates, massive government money-printing efforts, and government-mandated tilts in the balance of power between labor and management towards the unions can only add up to inflation,

Now, if we were really in the next Great Depression, as the Obama administration tried to tell us in its early weeks (mainly in order to pass pet legislation in a mood of total panic), then we might not see much immediate inflationary pressure. But I think most of us are realizing that the whole depression thing was over-sold. We are likely already on the first steps towards a recovery (if the Administration does not keep doing stupid stuff to kill it) and this recovery will become obvious by the third quarter (for their budget, the Obama administration is forecasting this now to be a milder-than-average recession). When the recovery starts, inflation is going to slam home hard and fast.

The smart money already knows this. That is why the government (as is the UK government) is having a hard time finding takers for long-term government bonds fixed at 4 or 5 percent. Such low rates could easily be under water after inflation.

So, find ways to hedge inflation.  Here are some general ideas:

  • If you need to borrow money, now is a great time if you can borrow long and fixed (as with 30-year mortgages).  With high inflation, the amount you owe effectively goes down every year.  Borrowers love inflation!
  • Avoid buying long-term bonds at fixed rates like the plague.  Again, you want to be issuing such bonds, not buying them.
  • Consider various US government inflation-adjusted bonds, or shorter maturities on traditional bonds
  • Equities tend to be a good inflation hedge.  Revenues and earnings go up with inflation, so equity prices and dividends tend to as well.  There will be, though, certain industries and companies that will not manage well in this environment.
  • Gold is OK, but I have always thought of gold as dead value.  Sure, it can hedge inflation, but it gives no real return.  Commodity producer stocks (e.g. oil companies) may be a better bet.
  • International stocks are really dicey in this kind of environment.  Added to the underlying risk of investing in less developed markets is the currency question, which basically boils down to -- we know the US is screwing up its currency, but will other countries screw theirs up worse?  If you think there is a country out there who is less likely to inflate their currency, by all means consider equities and bonds denominated in that currency.  You get the underlying return plus an exchange rate boost   (all things being equal, if the US has a lot of inflation and others don't, the value of the dollar will fall.  Thus investment returns in, say, Euros will return more dollars in the future.)

These are just some ideas, and I am not positive they are all good ones.  Talk to someone more knowledgeable than me, but whatever you do, I think you need to be planning for inflation.

Falling Short of Standards in a Profession with No Standards

Ward Churchill's civil suit to be reinstated to his teaching post is apparently in court.  Churchill is arguing that the nominal reasons for his termination (mostly shoddy academic work) were not alone enough to have normally justified his termination, and that he was in fact fired for his remarks about 9/11.  This is an important distinction, because tenured professors can generally not be fired for exercise of first amendment rights, no matter how wacky their statements.

In a post that spawned a number of angry emails, I actually said I thought Churchill was fired improperly.  There is plenty of evidence that the Native American studies department at Colorado, and gender/racial studies departments in general, have never enforced any sort of academic rigor, and it is hypocritical to suddenly discover such rigor for this case.  Churchill has been rewarded and promoted historically for much of the same work he is nominally getting fired for now.  Further, examples are legion of heads of various elite university racial and gender studies departments who exercise the same or less academic rigor as Churchill but whom no one is criticizing.   As I mention in my earlier post, Cal State Long Beach hired a paranoid schizophrenic who had served prison time for beating and torturing two women as the head of their Black Studies department.

Frankly, Colorado is getting exactly what they hired.  They weren't looking for a research mastermind.  They were looking for a politically correct hire to fill a void and create a department that made them look nice and progressive on paper.  And that is exactly what they got.

Update: Here is a good example of the academic standards in many racial and gender studies departments, where political activism substitutes for scholarship.  Churchill, by being slack on his research work and publishing but making high-profile and incendiary statements in public, was merely following the template of many such department heads.

What About the Rest of Us?

Via Hit and Run:

The Obama administration recently filed a somewhat encouraging amicus curiae brief in the Supreme Court case involving Savana Redding, the girl who was strip-searched when she was in eighth grade by Arizona public school officials looking for contraband ibuprofen. The brief (PDF) argues that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit was right to conclude that the search violated Redding's Fourth Amendment rights but wrong to allow a lawsuit that seeks to hold the school officials personally liable. "The school officials are entitled to qualified immunity because the law was unclear at the time they acted," says the brief, which was signed by Acting Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler, joined by lawyers for the Education Department, the Defense Department, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

I won't comment on the case per se, except to say that we have to be insane to be placing adults in positions of responsibility who think it makes sense to strip search young girls looking for Advil.

But I will observe that the Obama administration's position in the last sentence is NOT the one it takes with my business any time or any place.  Qualified immunity because the law was unclear?  Hell, most of the regulations we deal with are wildly unclear -- everything from anti-trust law, which is anything a jury says it is, to how many sinks I need in my store.  No one has ever suggested that I have qualified immunity because the law is unclear.  In fact, the government makes very clear that I am absolutely liable for whatever they think the law says, even if this opinion changes from day to day.

Not the Onion

A reader sent me this, and I was just floored.  The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is asking for legislation to ban black cars in California

The California legislature is considering regulating the color of cars and reflectivity of paint to reduce the energy requirements to cool them. A presentation on the proposed legislation by the California Air Resources Board is below.

The problem isn't the color per se, but the reflectivity of the paint overall. And dark colors just don't reflect well, so they are likely out. "Jet black remains an issue," says the report.

Anyone who's ever entered a very hot car knows that it can be cooled down immediately by driving a few feet with the windows open, effectively neutralizing any color-caused heat issues before engaging the air conditioner. But whatever, black is evil.

Un-freaking-believable.  This is what happens when you satisfy an emissions reduction goal (in this case CO2) via complex command-and-control legislation rather than simpler price mechanisms.   Earlier, I told the story of how California adopted an increasingly sprawling CARB micro-management of their economy to reduce CO2 rather than implementing earlier proposals for a simple carbon tax.

Dude, The Market Figured That Out 6 Months Ago Before You Started Shoveling My Money At Them

After giving tens of billions of dollars of our money to the auto makers, Obama has now figured out what I and many others knew years ago:

Obama, responding to a question during an online town hall meeting, said the current business model for U.S. carmakers was unsustainable and the Big Three would need to change their ways.

From the article, however, it is still clear that Obama has no intention of allowing GM to go into chapter 11, as they should have 6 months ago.   There is a good political reason for this -- remember what I explained before.   Obama is working to equate chapter 11 with the disappearance of the American auto industry, clearly an untrue and facile proposition.  Many large companies, from airlines to energy companies to equipment manufacturers, have gone bankrupt over the last several decades and continued operations or at least had their productive assets taken over by other companies.  GM's assets are not just going to go poof.

However, there is a clear set of winners and losers in a bankruptcy -- and there is enough case law on it that all the players at GM know it and they know into which category they fall.  Those who are lower down the food chain are hoping that putting the restructuring in Obama's hands rather than those of the bankruptcy process will improve their outcomes.  And, to get those higher on the food chain (ie senior debt holders) to accept this they need the government to bring taxpayer money to the table.  The whole point of an Obama-led restructuring, then, is not to somehow preserve the US auto industry but to improve the financial position of certain GM stakeholders at the expense of US taxpayers  (and probably consumers, and some sort of protectionism is likely to be part of this deal).

But here is the most interesting point that was really hammered into me in reading this article.  If you were to rank Obama as to where he stood vis a vis all American adults in terms of his knowledge of business and what it takes for a company to be successful, where would you rank him?  I don't think very many would put him in the top half.  In fact, given that he has never, to my knowledge, had any real job in business of any sort (not even a high school job at McDonald's or something similar), I am not sure I would put him above the 10th percentile.  Anyway, put your own number to this question, and then read these quotes from the linked article

The president said he planned to announce decisions on the future of the industry in the coming days.

"But my job is to measure the costs of allowing these auto companies just to collapse versus us figuring out - can they come up with a viable plan?" he said.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama will announce his strategy for the auto industry before he leaves for Europe on Tuesday.

Seriously, would you hand over your business or your stock portfolio for Obama to manage?  I didn't think so.  It takes years of experience to be able to read a business plan skeptically.  And even people who are experienced at it fail a lot.

By the way, for those who suspect that decisions will not be based on actual market realities but satisfaction of pet political goals, you are probably correct:

The president said even as the economy bounces back, Detroit can't focus on "trying to build more and more SUVs and counting on gas prices being low."...

Gibbs said Obama still thinks U.S. automakers build cars that Americans want to buy. Both he and the president own Ford Escape hybrids. "It's a nice car," Gibbs said. "It really is."

So, for example, one can assume its likely the Obama strategy for GM success will include lots of hybrids.  Of course, the market reality is this:

the slowdown has been particularly brutal for hybrids, which use electricity and gasoline as power sources. They were the industry's darling just last summer,  but sales have collapsed as consumers refuse to pay a premium for a fuel-efficient vehicle now that the average price of a gallon of gasoline nationally has slipped below $2.

"When gas prices came down, the priority of buying a hybrid fell off quite quickly," said Wes Brown, a partner at Los Angeles-based market research firm Iceology.

I personally believe that a meer restructuring of GM is unlikely to create a turnaround, as I discussed here.

Postscript- It is a bit apples and oranges for me to say that Obama is evaluating business plans here.  In fact, he is not.  Though he calls them that, if the Chrysler retructuring plan they put on the web is any guide, these are political plans, not business plans.  No real business plan, for example, seeking to attract private capital would prioritize the goals "Commitment to Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability", "Compliance with Fuel Economy Regulations," and "Compliance with Emissions Regulations" ahead of "Achieving a Competitive Product Mix and Cost Structure."  In fact, the section about costs and competitive products comes dead last in the Chrysler plan, almost as an afterthought.

Update: This sad story about athletes and their difficulty in managing their money seems relevent.  These guys, who have spent their whole life getting really good at one thing, don't even have the basic financial vocabulary to understand money management, and absolutely no ability to parse a business plan:

It began in the winter of 1991 when he sank $300,000 into the Rock N' Roll Café, a theme restaurant in New England designed to ride the wave of the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood franchises. One of his advisers pitched the idea as "fail-proof, with no downsides," Ismail recalls. He never recouped his money and has no idea what became of the restaurant.

Lesson learned? If only. After that Ismail squandered a fortune funding not only that inspirational movie but also the music label COZ Records ("The guy was a real good talker," says Rocket); a cosmetics procedure whereby oxygen was absorbed into the skin ("We were not prepared for the sharks in the beauty industry"); a plan to create nationwide phone-card dispensers ("When I was in college, phone cards were a big deal"); and, recently, three shops dubbed It's in the Name, where tourists could buy framed calligraphy of names or proverbs of their choice ("The main store opened up in New Orleans, but doggone Hurricane Katrina came two months later"). The shops no longer exist.

You might say Ismail had a run of terrible luck, but the odds were never close to being in his favor. Industry experts estimate that only one in 30 of the highest-caliber private investment deals works out as advertised. "Chronic overallocation into real estate and bad private equity is the Number 1 problem [for athletes] in terms of a financial meltdown," Butowsky says. "And I've never seen more people come to me about raising money for those kinds of deals than athletes."

Doesn't this sound like the current administration in microcosm?  Does Obama have any better chance with his GM investment?

Norman Borlaug on Organic Farming

Reason asked Norman Borlaug about the claim that organic farming is better for the environment and human health and well-being.  His answer:

That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive...

I want to add a big "ditto" to this answer in reference to the whole food miles and locally grown food movement.  There is a lot of evidence that trying to get all of our food locally will actually increase energy use.  It will certainly harm the environment by increasing land use.

Why?  Because currently, economic incentives push farming of a particular food item towards the land that is best-suited and most productive for that item  (government subsidies, both direct, e.g. farm programs, and indirect, e.g. subsidized water for agriculture in arid areas like Arizona and SoCal, interfere with this, but that is a different subject).  The locally grown food movement seeks to shift crops from large productive farms located in the best soils and climates for that crop to smaller farms located in sub-optimal growing areas.  This HAS to increase agricultural land use, prices, and in many case, energy use.  More here.

Prices Matter

On September 12 last year, I linked an article in the Arizona Republic that I declared to be ridiculous wishful thinking on the part of the author, completely disconnected from how people have responded to price changes in the past:

The worst oil shock since the 1970s has put a permanent mark on the American way of life that even a drop in oil's price below $100 a barrel won't erase.

Public transportation is in. Hummers are out. Frugality is in. Wastefulness is out....

As prices come falling back to earth, Americans aren't expected to drop their newfound frugality. The jarring reality of $4-a-gallon gasoline stirred up an unprecedented level of consumer angst that experts say will keep people from reverting to extravagant energy use for years to come - if ever again....

"I see a permanent shift," said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at San Francisco's Golden Gate University who has studied how high oil prices have affected Americans' buying behavior. "Historically, when gas prices come down, people use more. But we've learned a lot of new things during this period and it will be hard to go back to our gas-guzzling ways."

Thank God for consumer psychologists.  From the LA Times last week:

Americans have cut back on buying vehicles of all types as the economy continues its slide. But the slowdown has been particularly brutal for hybrids, which use electricity and gasoline as power sources. They were the industry's darling just last summer,  but sales have collapsed as consumers refuse to pay a premium for a fuel-efficient vehicle now that the average price of a gallon of gasoline nationally has slipped below $2.

"When gas prices came down, the priority of buying a hybrid fell off quite quickly," said Wes Brown, a partner at Los Angeles-based market research firm Iceology.

45613269

Prices matter.  Nearly every other form of communication, from advertising to public education to presidential fireside chats to go-green guilt promotion campaigns pale in comparison to the power of prices to affect behavior.

Postscript: I studied a lot of marketing in business school and was a marketing guy for years in corporate America.  I wonder how a marketing guy and a "consumer psychologist" differ?  The only differences I can think of are 1) a marketing guy's pay will suffer over time when he is this wrong and 2) I found in marketing that bringing facts to the table often yielded better forecasts than simply applying my personal biases and wishful thinking.  About 10 seconds of looking at how consumer focus reverted away from conservation after the oil price collapse in the 1980's might have given these guys a hint.   Particularly since the price shock of 2008 was far shorter and less severe than the shocks of the 1970's.  Here is my measure of gas price pain (I have not updated it for the recent price collapse):

gas_prices_2

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You

MaxedOutMama echoes many of my thoughts on recent economic activity and the shameless way our President has been manipulating these issues:

In January, I was writing that fundamentals had taken an upswing, and that the US economy was going to try to resurge in the third quarter.

The numbers that came in for January and February did show what P-Nat projected, which was a gradual bottoming pattern overall and the beginning of some upticks. Bloomberg today:

Orders for U.S. durable goods unexpectedly rose in February on a rebound in demand for machinery, computers and defense equipment.
...
Combined with reports showing improvements in retail sales, residential construction and home resales, the figures indicate the economy is stabilizing after shrinking last quarter at the fastest pace in a quarter century. Stepped-up efforts by the Obama administration and Federal Reserve to ease the credit crunch may help revive growth later this year.

Last night Obama took credit for these events, but the stimulus package had nothing to do with it - the effects of that haven't even hit the economy yet. Very little of that package will be felt in the first half of 2009, in fact, and less than 25% of the effect will be felt in 2009. I would also like to point out that at the time the stimulus bill was being debated, the administration was claiming that the economic emergency was so dire that the representatives and senators shouldn't even be allowed to read the thing before they voted on it. Instead, this was what was really going on in the economy.

She also shares my concerns that the recovery may in fact be undone by recent government actions, not the least of which is the Weimar Republic-like printing of money to buy back government bonds and help fund a mushrooming deficit.  In fact, she and I must be fairly attuned, as she wrote:

Last week I was so sick at heart that I didn't think I could continue writing this blog.

I too felt almost exactly the same last week.  Never have I been so depressed about the direction of domestic policy (I might have felt about the same around 1978, but I was only 16 and had other things on my mind).  Every day last week there seemed to be a new policy directive crazier than the last.  I had a real feeling like I was living through the last half of Atlas Shrugged, where an increasingly desperate government initiates a series of policies with disastrous long-term effects crafted just to survive a little longer in office.  The only difference was several years in the book seemed to have been compressed into about a week of real time.

Fortunately, I am basically a happy soul and I seldom stay depressed long.  I just did what I always do when I despair for the world - spent some time with my family and concentrated on what I could fix, namely the health of my own business.

Sinking Under Regulation

I tell folks all the time -- there are very few bad people in government, just people with very bad incentives.   Government inspectors are no exception.  They look around them and see falling government tax revenues.  They know that state and local governments are looking to cut costs, and they know further that lawmakers are likely to look at falling construction starts and reduced business activity and say "I bet we could do with fewer inspectors."

So state inspectors, naturally, want to hold onto their jobs, so they have to go out and look busy.   One way to look busy (and to further look like one is being useful) is to be more picky about small, meaningless violations. Writing up more violations makes it look like one is needed (after all, if there are so many violations out there, surely we need inspectors to find them).  Also, violations demand return visits and follow-up inspections, which again create the illusion of activity.

Which leads to stuff like this:

Sherrie Nielson owns two Chandler bars, antique-filled Priceless Too at Alma School and Elliot roads, and Priceless Primetime at Dobson and Elliot.

An inspector with the county department of environmental services has told her she needs to install a sink at the bar so it's convenient for the bartenders to wash their hands

Nielson has one sink in the bar area, but that's for washing glasses. County regulations say employees can't wash their hands in the same sink that they wash dishes.

"I've owned 'Too' for 30 years," Nielson said. "The sink we use is probably 20 feet in a different direction. . . . I have a dishwashing sink; (the inspector) wants a hand sink next to it."

Nielson says counting the sinks in the kitchen and the restrooms, she has four sinks available for washing hands. But the key point is that it has to be convenient for the bartender.

"If I don't comply, they will start proceedings to shut me down," she said.

Johnny Dilone, a spokesman for the county environmental services department, verified that Nielson's license could be revoked if she doesn't install the new sink.

This story resonates with me, as we have had to fight the sink battle in a number of locations as well.  Take one small store we run in a state park in northern California.  Because we make coffee there, we must comply with food preparation rules (including 8 hours annually of training, lol.  I am not a coffee drinker, but for all that I sure hope we have good freaking coffee).  We eventually had to install:  A three sink dishwashing station, a sink in the employee bathroom, a separate sink for handwashing in the store a few feet from the sink in the bathroom, and a mop sink.

The problem is that the regulations are confusing, and no one in the local health department would look at our plans in advance.  Obviously, it is a lot easier to fix missing sinks and such at the planning stage, but the health department in this county would only inspect actual facilities, so would only tell us if our design met their requirements once it was built!

Generation Skipping

Glen Reynolds linked this a while ago, but I was fascinated that two of President Tylers grandsons are still alive.   President Tyler was born in 1790 and died before the Civil War was over.  The younger of the two is profiled here. The key seems to be that his father was conceived when President Tyler was in his 60's, and he was conceived when his father was about 75.

I Don't Get It

Just a few days ago I wrote about proposals for government subsidies / bailouts / partial control of print media. Already, it seems that bills are popping up in Congress. I guess this is not surprising -- as Congress loves to throw pork at particular industries in exchange for help getting elected, the temptation to make the newspaper industry, with its unique political muscle, beholden to the political class must be overwhelming.

But I must say this makes zero sense to me:

With many U.S. newspapers struggling to survive, a Democratic senator on Tuesday introduced a bill to help them by allowing newspaper companies to restructure as nonprofits with a variety of tax breaks.

"This may not be the optimal choice for some major newspapers or corporate media chains but it should be an option for many newspapers that are struggling to stay afloat," said Senator Benjamin Cardin.

I don't see how allowing organizations (whose problem is that they are making no profits) to avoid income taxes on their non-existent profits is really going to solve much. Is the thought that donations will save the day? Are we to endure endless pledge drives in print media?  Or maybe Democrats are hoping ACORN will use its stimulus funds to start buying up local papers?

This is classic government in the corporate state.  Economics and new technologies are driving huge changes in an influential business.  These changes will force survivors to adopt new business models, and will force formerly dominant competitors who refuse to change out of business.  Rather than face these changes and deal with risks to their leading positions, powerful incumbents run to government to try to get the state to lock in historic business models and prevent new entrants for poaching on what they consider their protected market preserves.

Bracketology

After the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, here are the standings:

Leaderboard after 48 games - See full standings
Bracket Rank Points
Moses Medrano 1 91
Chuck Jones #2 2 88
Jim Furey #2 3 85
Matt Deeks 4 84
Steve Anonymous 5 84
Bracket Rank Points
Will Mischler #2 6 82
Warren Meyer 7 80
Steve Jones 8 77
David Damore 9 77
Jim Furey 10 77

Note your humble scribe in 7th place.  Moses has led right from the starting gate, and still has a decent chance of ultimate victory, but his chances fell a lot when the Longhorns couldn't quite pull out the win the other day.

You can look at your best possible finish here.  Retain hope -- even Andrew Ivey, at #137, still has a statistical chance of victory, as do many others.  A large majority of the top 75 current brackets still have a statistical chance of victory.

Update: If you wonder why so many folks have a chance, from this point forward there are 32,768 different possible bracket outcomes.  After this weekend, there will only be 8.

Only The Taggart Building Will Be Spared

One of the images I remember form reading Atlas Shrugged was of darkened skyscrapers, as the government forced the closure of the upper stories of buildings to save energy.  Only building owners with political pull were excepted.  It seems San Francisco is following a similar plan:

Turn the lights out -- or pay.

That's the message of legislation being revived by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who will introduce a measure Tuesday mandating that skyscrapers turn off all nonemergency lights at night as a way to save energy. The introduction comes just days before Earth Hour Saturday, in which people are urged to turn off their lights for an hour at 8 p.m.

The legislation is essentially a new run at a law introduced a year ago by former board president Aaron Peskin that ultimately withered after strong opposition by the Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco. (We couldn't reach them by press time Monday). Peskin's proposal mandated building owners turn the lights out, or face administrative fines, but it was criticized as difficult to enforce. Chiu actually pushed Peskin to introduce that legislation, he said.

I would have assumed that if electricity consumption were really so high and so useless, that building owners would have had sufficient reason on their own to turn lights off.  After all, isn't it already turn the lights out or pay?  Unless of course electricity is free in SF.

One problem poorly understood by academics and government officials is that many folks outside of government actually work longer than a 9-4 work day.  As it happens, I am in my office tonight, likely until midnight, catching up on some things I could not with the phone ringing off the hook all day.  The only time I have ever occupied prime downtown real estate in an office tower was when I consulted with McKinsey & Co., and I can say for sure that there was seldom if ever a night when there weren't people in the office working well past midnight  (unfortunately, I was often one of them, which explains why my consulting career outlasted the birth of my first kid by only as long as it took me to find a new job).

Postscript: There is an incentive mis-match at work here in most leases.  Few commercial leases include individual metering for utilities, since most buildings are not set up for it  (it would actually be moderately hard, since office space is often reconfigured over time, shifting from one suite to another).  As a result, there is a kind of tragedy of the commons where renters pay their share of average use for all occupants, diluting the effect of their own usage on their own bills.  I am not sure how fining building owners when their tenants work late is going to help, though.

At the end of the day, this is all micro-managed bullsh*t.  If you want less electricity usage, raise rates, and let individuals figure out how to get the savings.  Just because a particular use (eg night lights in skyscrapers) is the most visible to policy makers does not make it the marginal use or the low hanging fruit for energy savings.

It's About Control

Government health care initiatives are not about cheaper or better care.  They are about control, and increased power for government officials.

First, via Carpe Diem:

The state is trying to shut down a New York City doctor's ambitious plan to treat uninsured patients for around $1,000 a year. Dr. John Muney (pictured above) offers his patients everything from mammograms to mole removal at his AMG Medical Group clinics, which operate in all five boroughs. His patients agree to pay $79 a month for a year in return for unlimited office visits with a $10 co-pay.

"I'm trying to help uninsured people here," he said.But his plan landed him in the crosshairs of the state Insurance Department, which ordered him to drop his fixed-rate plan - which it claims is equivalent to an insurance policy. Muney insists it is not insurance because it doesn't cover anything that he can't do in his offices, like complicated surgery. He points out his offices do not operate 24/7 so they can't function like emergency rooms. The state believes his plan runs afoul of the law because it promises to cover unplanned procedures - like treating a sudden ear infection - under a fixed rate. That's something only a licensed insurance company can do.

"I'm not doing an insurance business," he said. "I'm just providing my services at my place during certain hours." "If they leave me alone, I can serve thousands of patients," he said.

Expect similar efforts by Wal-Mart and CVS to run afoul of the government soon, under some pretext.   Massachusetts debated for over a year before allowing just two licenses for this type of clinic.   I have already observed lefty bloggers turning their nose up at this trend, and sense they are scrounging around for some kind of meme or message to consolidate around to oppose this kind of care.  Because having people find private solutions to their problems is the last thing they want to see.  (Seriously - is this the goofiest indictment of the US medical system you have ever seen? How deep are we reaching here?)
Anyway, should you think I am exaggerating, I will leave you with this story I saw on Radley Balko's site:

The five plaintiffs, who now include former House Majority leader Dick Armey, are challenging a policy of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that denies Social Security benefits to anybody who refuses to enroll in Medicare.

Read that again: As the policy now stands, if you want to pay for your own health care rather than let taxpayers finance it through Medicare, government will not let you receive the Social Security benefits for which you have spent a lifetime paying taxes.
Note that nobody is trying to avoid contributing to Medicare. The plaintiffs merely want to decline the tax-funded benefits for which they already have paid. None of them want the bureaucracy, the governmental intrusions into their privacy, and the rationing of care they believe Medicare entails - so they volunteer to let taxpayers off the hook by providing their own health care coverage.

But DHHS won't let them. Or at least not if they want to receive Social Security benefits. Forfeit Medicare, says DHHS, and you must also forfeit Social Security even if you've paid for it for half a century.

The Ultimate Story

Here is a real journalistic triumph -- the story of a multi-party conflict in which I immediately dislike absolutely everyone in the story on all sides of the conflict, up to and including the jury and the third parties quoted.  Via Overlawyered.

Update: I failed to make clear that what really makes the article special is that the writer herself is at least as bad as everyone involved.  She writes in the first paragraph, "If you are black, you probably call the act of disciplining a child with corporal punishment 'a whupping.'"  Really?  What's next, is she going to tell us that they all like watermelon too?  Is this kind of blanket unsupported supposition about the habits of a particular race really in the the Chicago Sun-Times style manual on how to open a news feature?  I grew up in Texas and "getting a whupping" was a term favored right across racial lines.  Anyway,  I gotta go now and chase some varmints away from my cement pond out back.

Update #2: I just got an email that said "If you are white, you probably trade jars of Grey Poupon out the windows of your Rolls Royce."  LOL.