Archive for August 2009

Wow, It Turns Out We do Have A Hereditary Aristocracy in this Country

Should we just change the name now from "Senate seat" to Duke of Massachusetts now?

With Massachusetts having paid its final respects to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the politics of succession begins in earnest this week - candidates will emerge, a race will take shape, and the Kennedy clan will have to reveal whether it wants to keep the seat in the family....

"Joe Kennedy, as emotionally drained as he must be, cannot help but be moved by the outpouring of affection and respect that has come from people all over the country in the last several days,'' said Dan Payne, a longtime Democratic media consultant. "I'm not saying he is going to run, but he wouldn't be human and he wouldn't be a Kennedy if he didn't give serious thought to running for the so-called Kennedy seat.''

I am somehow reminded of this story about George Washington, who turned down power after his army had beaten the British in the Revolutionary War.  All of Europe expected him to claim power.  Instead:

Give the last word to Washington's great adversary, King George III. The king asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, "They say he will return to his farm."

"If he does that," the incredulous monarch said, "he will be the greatest man in the world."

That is what was considered greatness in that age - the willingness NOT to pursue power, even when by military success or family name such power could easily be had.  Unfortunately we celebrate just the opposite today, singing eulogies for a man and a family that do nothing but seek power.

What I Wonder...

I have always wondered - when politicians do something like this, do they actually believe in their hearts they are doing the right thing or do they fully know that they are cynically trying to appear to take action while actually doing absolutely nothing useful. The former may almost be scarier than the latter

OBAMA ASKS FEDERAL WORKERS TO SACRIFICE "” By 0.4 percent! "Citing the current economic recession "” and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks eight years ago "” President Obama says he will use emergency powers to cut the programmed across-the-board January increase in federal employees' pay from 2.4 percent to 2.0 percent, according to a letter he sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi"¦"

I have worked full time for 26 years.  Number of years I have had a programmed, guaranteed annual salary increase to be paid irregardless of my performance:  zero.

Doomed to Repeat

Via Carpe Diem:

Pro-labor policies pushed by President Herbert Hoover after the stock market crash of 1929 accounted for close to two-thirds of the drop in the nation's gross domestic product over the two years that followed, causing what might otherwise have been a bad recession to slip into the Great Depression, a UCLA economist concludes in a new study.

"These findings suggest that the recession was three times worse "” at a minimum "” than it would otherwise have been, because of Hoover," said Lee E. Ohanian, a UCLA professor of economics.

The policies, which included both propping up wages and encouraging job-sharing, also accounted for more than two-thirds of the precipitous decline in hours worked in the manufacturing sector, which was much harder hit initially than the agricultural sector, according to Ohanian.

"By keeping industrial wages too high, Hoover sharply depressed employment beyond where it otherwise would have been, and that act drove down the overall gross national product," Ohanian said. "His policy was the single most important event in precipitating the Great Depression."

After the stock market crash, Hoover met with major leaders of industry and cut a deal with them to either maintain or raise wages and institute job-sharing to keep workers employed, at least to some degree, Ohanian found. In response, General Motors, Ford, U.S. Steel, Dupont, International Harvester and many other large firms fell in line, even publicly underscoring their compliance with Hoover's program. Reluctant to lower wages due to Hoover's entreaties, employers in the manufacturing sector responded by reducing the work week and laying off workers. By September 1931, the manufacturing sector was already hurting: Hours clocked by workers had fallen by 20% (see chart above) and employment by 35%.

Wow, its sure lucky we don't have a President today reacting to a recession with profoundly pro-labor policies. Otherwise we might be doing something stupid, like screwing secured creditors in favor of routing value to unions or protecting union health benefits at the cost of everyone else's health care.

The 93% Subsidy

I wondered today what kind of subsidy a rider on the Phoenix Light Rail system was receiving.  Hillary Foose, the public information officer of Metro light rail, was kind enough to send me a link to this board presentation.   Since the rail system opened mid-fiscal year, I will use their own projections for the 2009/2010 fiscal year.

Public accounting is a pain in the butt for someone used to private finances, because it is all cash accounting rather than accrual and they mix together capital expenditures with operating expenditures.  But the table on page 62 carves out the operating budget for the existing 20-mile line from the development and capital budgets.    Here are the key numbers:

Fare Revenue:  $8,985,159

Operating Expenses:  $33,733,168

So already on an operating basis we have a 73% subsidy.  But we have sunk $1.4 billion of capital money into building the line  (actually this is a little low as Metro has spent tens of millions more this year).  Unfortunately, in government accounting, there is no depreciation or interest charge that shows up.   So I am going to charge them with the payment on a 30-year $1.4 billion 5% note, which would be just over $91 million a year.

Totaling the $91 million with the other operating expenses, we get a 93% subsidy for light rail.  This means the true cost of the $1.75 ticket for a light rail ride is actually $25!  METRO says that light rail riders love the service.  I should think anyone who gets a $25 service for $1.75 should be happy.

Another way to look at the subsidy is on a per rider basis.  So far, METRO has averaged about 17,000 round trip riders per weekday (based on about 34,000 boardings per day).   The $115.8 million annual subsidy (capital+expense minus revenues) works out to just over $6,800 per rider per year that the rest of us (who may not live or work near the line**) pay each current rider.

There are a number of ways in which I have likely understated the subsidy:

  1. I used their June revenue projections, which likely will continue to be revised downwards as ridership continues to slump
  2. I used their own expense projections, and we know how often governmental bodies hit their expense numbers
  3. I assumed no new capital spending necessary over a 30 year life.  Rail experience has shown this to be overly-optimistic.  Rail lines have to be rebuilt every 15-20 years or so.  They take tons of capital maintenance dollars.   When we look back twenty years from now, we'll likely come to the conclusion I grossly understated the capital charge.

**Footnote: Since over a third of the capital to build the line came from the Feds, many of the people subsidizing the METRO riders don't even live in this state.

Update: The other thing I left out is lost parking revenue.  The revenue numbers for fares is in fact overstated.  It should net out lost parking revenues, for example at baseball games.  This is the only time I ride the Metro, because I substitute a $2.75 Metro round trip ticket for a $10 city garage parking expense.  But the city has never acknowledged this cannibalization.

Update #2: I have posted an update here

In the Pay of Big Transit?

I am always amazed at the lengths to which some folks will try to put lipstick on the light rail pig.  One example I found today.  Michael Graham Richard wrote on treehugger in June:

The sprawling city of Phoenix, of all places, is showing us how light rail should be done. They just opened a 20 mile line with 28 stops last December, and ridership statistics are beating all forecasts (evidence that the same might be true in other cities where they are afraid to invest because their forecasts are too low) with 40,000 daily riders instead of the 25,000 expected.

But here are the ridership figures from Valley Metro, who runs Phoenix Light Rail.  This is weekday ridership (actually number of daily boardings) -- weekend ridership is much less:

  • Jan:  30,617
  • Feb:  35,277
  • Mar:  34,376
  • Apr:  37,386
  • May:  33,553
  • Jun:   29,469
  • Jul:  26,554

It is hard to see where one gets a 40,000 figure, especially since a true daily rider/boarding figure would have to average in the lower Saturday/Sunday numbers.

And who cares if it meets some sandbagged forecast or not?  Is 40,000 even a reasonable number?  Note that even at the higher 40,000 figure this implies just 20,000 round trip customers.  This higher ridership number would still make the capital cost of the $1.4 billion line to be $70,000 per round trip rider, and ABSURD subsidy.

Update: The ridership numbers will likely pick up when Arizona State is back in school.  ASU and the baseball stadium are about the only major destinations on the line through dispersed, low-density Phoenix (it goes through our "downtown" but that is not saying much  -- it is not a big center of employment).  Did we really build light rail as another subsidy for ASU students?

Update #2: Let's say there are 50,000,000 big city commuters in the US in cities outside of Boston/NY/Chicago with large transit systems.   Serving these commuters at $70,000 each would create a capital cost of $3.5 trillion for light rail.   Who on the planet really thinks this is reasonable?  Sure, you would get some network effects as you built out lines that increased ridership, but these would be offset by diminishing returns (presumably the first Phoenix line was built on the most promising corridor, and all future corridors will be less promising).

This is Easy To Explain

John Stossel has a story on errors found in new textbooks in Texas public schools  (the word "we," for example, was misspelled).

One high school textbook misspelled the word "we." When describing an actor's "role" in a play, the book spells it "r-o-l-l."

A 9th grade literature book refers to a poem as a piece of 21st century literature, even though it was written in 1911 and the author died in 1933.

How do you misspell the word "we"? They spelled it, "wee."

The publishing companies said the textbooks were just first drafts that would be "cleaned up" before they make it into classrooms. But that doesn't wash with the TV station:

(P)ublishers said the same thing about math books... in 2007 that were eventually found to contain more than 100,000 mistakes...

Those math books are now in classrooms, and teachers continue to find errors.

Stossel is usually pretty quick to the jugular, but I think he misses the true reason for the screw-up.  In a private market, suppliers must compete on price and performance because they know that companies will buy their product based on those criteria.  In the government market, however, suppliers often can sidestep that whole product quality hassle and shortcut the process via political lobbying.  Get a few key legislators or other government officials on your side, and that textbook order or military toilet seat contract is yours.  Get John Murtha on your side, for example, and you can make money selling the government just about anything, or even nothing.

I think it's pretty clear that like defense contractors, municipal bond underwriters, and other government suppliers, textbooks suppliers have shifted resources from the product to political lobbying.  Makes one pretty excited about prescription drug procurement under government health care, huh?  Do we really want to see arguments for Viagra vs. Cialis played out on the house floor, as we do today for political footballs like the V-22 Osprey?

Bad Television

I walked in on my wife watching Oprah interview Tania Harding.  Eeeeeeyuk.   I thought -- could there be any TV show I would want to watch less?

Well, actually, it turns out there was:  A three day royal funeral and ongoing slobbery kiss for Ted Kennedy, a man who literally got away with murder and dedicated his life to trying to hide his poor impulse control better than the rest of his family hides theirs.  I watched about 5 minutes of the spectacle and all I could see was a man being revered for, uh, being related to people folks really liked a lot.  What's next, a public funeral for John Lennon's brother?  It is just so weird to me that people revere this family not in spite of, but actually because, they are so relentless in trying to exercise power over us all.

Postscript: I am confused on the military service qualifications to be buried in Arlington, as was Ted Kennedy.  My sense is that Arlington is pretty full, and that being buried there is reserved as a special honor for those with unique or heroic service (like that of Ted's brother).  I am having a  hard time in this Wikipedia description of Ted Kennedy's military service finding what put him over the top for burial at Arlington:

Kennedy enlisted in the United States Army in June 1951.   Following basic training at Fort Dix, he requested assignment to Fort Holabird for Army Intelligence training, but was dropped after a few weeks without explanation. He went to Camp Gordon for training in the Military Police Corps.  In June 1952, he was assigned to the honor guard at SHAPE headquarters in Paris. His father's political connections ensured he was not deployed to the ongoing Korean War.  While stationed in Europe he travelled extensively on weekends and climbed the Matterhorn.  He was discharged in March 1953 as a private first class.

I suppose that managing not to get oneself killed pursuing a rich-kid hobby like mountain climbing is an accomplishment within the Kennedy family, but I am not sure it merits an Arlington burial.

eBay Has Lost Its Mind

I suppose it is difficult maintaining a platform like eBay in a world of ever more sophisticated security intrusions.  But last night eBay went over the line, at least for me, making the platform so secure that I could not use my account.

We have an enormous pile of stuff we have tagged to sell on eBay, but just have not done it yet.  Yesterday, I convinced my son to do all the selling work on eBay in exchange for a revenue split.  As we sat down on his computer to sell the first item together so he could learn the process, eBay refused to let me use my account because I was on a computer it did not recognize or had not used before  (we'll forget for now the basic creepiness of eBay tracking me well enough to know I was on a new computer it had not seen me on before).

It turns out the whole confirmation process is keyed to the phone number I put in when I started the account.  The problem is that I was an eBay early adopter.  I have had an account for at least 12 years.  In trying to remember the phone number, it was probably not my home number.  That made it either a work number from 4-5 jobs ago or else a fake (remember, in 1997 eBay was just another little startup -- I may well have given it a fake phone number).

Anyway, the first verification process involved a phone call.  Whoever owns that phone right now is probably pretty confused.  The second involved an online chat.  I verified my name and account user name and address and all kind of other details, but apparently we just could not get past the agent's need for me to verify my 12 year old phone number.  She started trying to give me hints - like the area code and the last digit.  I told her that unless she gave me all 10 digits, we weren't going to get there.

We never did get the account opened on my son's laptop, he never did learn how to use eBay, and I guess I will still have a big pile of unsold stuff in my garage building up.  At some point I will find a computer eBay recognizes and I guess put in a better phone number, but all momentum with my teenage son is lost  (you know how that goes).

Update: So I did the logical thing, I found a computer that eBay would let me use with my account and changed my phone number in the account page to my new number.  Unfortunately, when I went back through the account verification process back on my son's laptop, they still wanted me to be able to come up with the old phone number (that number was x-ed out in the account page so I couldn't just look it up).  Somehow they have come up with a process that appears to be keyed to the phone number you used when you created the account, fine for relatively new users but a broken process for some of us with 12-year-old accounts.  Eventually, by the way, after about 30 minutes I was able to come up with some piece of information that they accepted and I got access to eBay on that computer.

Health Care Opposition Not About Being Uncharitable

I have seen several folks of late testing out a meme that opposition to health care reform is mostly about churlish unwillingness to help people.  My sense is that this is dead wrong.

As a strong libertarian, that may well be my motivation.  But the vast majority of Americans accept and support the government safety net and generally will support reasonable expansions of it to address true need.   I think most Americans would be willing to help people who honestly need financial aid to pay the health care bills.  This is particularly true for children -- you don't remember people going ballistic over SCHIP, do you?

I am not representative.  The vast center of this country is willing to accept, even embrace, increased government interventions in the right cause.  I forgot to blog on it, but remember that poll a few weeks ago that a majority of Americans think the government should required that women take their husbands last name after marriage?  I think the notion that there is any kind of sizable block of small government libertarian type folks out there is simply a myth.

So health care intervention and spending can be sold - again remember SCHIP but also the prescription drug bill.  I think the Administration is having trouble selling it in this case for two reasons:

  • They are having difficulty showing people who truly are not getting care.  Sure there are a lot of people who are uninsured, but I think that meme has been around enough for people to deconstruct.  Who isn't getting care?   Sure, for some folks getting care is a real hassle, but there are arguments to be made that accepting charity should not be that easy (remember the old Welfare?)  And sure, some folks have financial straights and can even face bankruptcy over health care bills, but our bankruptcy laws are incredibly generous and when tens of thousands are facing bankruptcy because they bought too many TV's on their credit cards, it almost seems honorable to face bankruptcy over your wife's cancer treatment.
  • The second problem is what I call the public housing problem.  In the late 1960s, Americans were concerned about the poor and homeless and spent billions to build housing projects for them.  It turns out that this doesn't work out so well, but that is not my point.  My point is that Americans could be convinced to spend money to build poor people government homes.  BUT their position would have been very different if investments in public housing required the rich and middle class who were paying for the program to move out of their homes and into public housing as well.That is the fear that I think much of America has today.  If asked, they would likely pay to provide government health care in an instance where it was demonstrated that health care was entirely lacking.  They would likely suspect that such care, like much of public housing, would suck, but as it was being offered to someone who supposedly had nothing, it would represent a net improvement.  But they don't want to move into the projects themselves, and frankly don't understand why agreeing to help poor people afford more health care also means they have to move into the government system themselves.

Health Care "Rationing"

The whole "health care rationing" debate is reaching new levels of absurdity.  In part, this is because the very term "rationing" is a confusing misnomer.

So here is what it boils down to:  For every product or service purchase, someone makes a price-value trade-off to determine if that product or service should be purchased for a given price in that particular instance.

One option for making this decision is to have the person who actually will consume the product or service -- and whose money will also be used to complete the transaction -- make this price-value tradeoff.  This is how we make these decisions for just about, um, absolutely everything that gets purchased.  Since it is your money and you are the one who will enjoy whatever is being purchased, it makes sense that you make the decision - is the price worth it?  Do you buy a cheaper substitute?  Do you do without?

A second way to do this would be to have someone who has you specifically in mind make the price value tradeoffs for you.  This might be like your wife volunteering to go out to buy you some new underwear.  While results may be superior for this approach in a few cases (e.g. my wife buying me clothes), in most cases this approach is fraught with information asymmetries that will likely lead to a suboptimal purchase.  Consider, for example, my wife buying me the cheap 28" TV when I had wanted to drop the big bucks on a 60" beauty.

If one were sloppy, he might say that this second approach is the role that exists with insurance companies or is being proposed for the government.  But this isn't the case.  Because these third parties are NOT making the decision with me and/or my personal preferences in mind.  They can't.  While my wife may have an imperfect understanding of my preferences, a government health board has none.

So a third model, and almost certainly the worst in terms of individual satisfaction, is to have a third party make price-value tradeoffs for me only with some notion of average preferences for average people, or worse, with an incentive system that has absolutely nothing to do with my satisfaction at all.  This is clearly the case for the government, and is probably the case for many private insurers today -- though at least in the latter case one could imagine a regulatory regime that allowed for much more competition and a range of offerings with different service levels and pricing, such that I was more likely to find a pairing close to my preferences than I would in a one-size-fits-no-one government regime.

Skeptics worry that such a range of choices would not exist under private competition, but in fact it does in every single market where the government allows it.  Take grocery stores, since the President of Whole Foods has come into so much criticism from government health care promoters.  The choices in grocery shopping are simply staggering -- just think what different price/value points Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Safeway, AJ's, and the farmers market offer.

I am constantly amazed when people say that government health care is no different than private competitive models because there will always be rationing.  If you cannot see the difference between "rationing" for yourself based on your own budget and preferences and "rationing" by government committee, well I suppose you deserve what you get.  Except for the problem that unfortunately, I will be forced to take it too.

This Is Too Much -- The Smearing of Jim Balsillie

Harvard Business School has (or at least had in 1987) its own equivalent of the show Big Brother.  During the first year, a new student gets locked in a classroom for a year with 88 other high-strung, type-A overachievers in an explicitly zero-sum process (there are a fixed number of each grade to be handed out) conducted by sometimes sadistic professors bent on eeking out the maximum amount of stress, fear, and verbal conflict.  Think John Housman's class in the movie "Paper Chase."  Students for some reason react to this process by, instead of branching out and meeting the other 800 students in the class, spending most of their social time with these same 88  (the rugby team saved me to some extent from such narrowness).

By no means are all these folks my "friends," in part because I have a fairly limited definition of that word, but they all became pretty close associates.  I knew most all of them pretty well -- well enough that both the couple that ended up in jail and the couple that became spectacularly successful were no real surprise.

One of those 88 I spent a year with was a guy named Jim Balsillie, now famous as billionaire CEO of RIM (Blackberry) and, more recently, for trying to buy an NHL franchise.  Jim is not a close friend, and in fact I probably haven't exchanged a hundred words with him since we graduated.  But over the period of a year I feel like I had the measure of him, as quiet, bright, kind and fairly humble.   Jim was a much, much nicer guy than I was -- certainly I was far, far more likely in class to rip into another student for being an idiot in class discussion.   I once got so frustrated with a teacher that I went to the front of class and took over.  I can't even imagine Jim doing something like that.

I write this all because I just have to make a public statement concerning a recent statement about Jim Balsillie by the NHL.  The NHL recently chose to vote against letting Balsillie buy the Phoenix Coyotes.  Fine.  I think they are idiots - they should be begging to have a guy of his talents and money in their fraternity - but whatever.  What ticks me off, though, is that instead of dicussing the controversial business reasons for the vote and they choose to smear Jim:  (via Market Power)

"We voted to deny approval to Mr. Balsillie because we concluded he lacks the good character and integrity required of a new owner" under NHL bylaws, said Boston Bruins Owner Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of the league's board of governors.

I suppose it is possible that Jim is some kind of evil smiling sociopath and managed to fool 88 of us for over a year, despite living in close proximity.  I seriously doubt it, but it is remotely possible.  But even if that were the case, there is no way the NHL suddenly figured this out when those who know him better have not.

Matt Nestor has some fun with this:

The NHL owners are obviously good judges of character. Some that have been approved:

● William "Boots" Del Biaggio (Nashville Predators), now headed to jail on fraud charges.

● Henry Samueli (Anaheim Ducks), now awaiting sentencing on SEC violations.

● John Rigas (Buffalo Sabres), currently in jail on embezzlement charges.

● Sanjay Kumar (New York Islanders), now serving time for conspiracy.

● John Spano (Islanders), who deliberately misled the NHL and the Islanders about his net worth.

● Bruce McNall (Los Angeles Kings), who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and defrauding six banks of $236 million.

Why would you want a successful businessman to taint such a group?

Update on Joe Romm Oil Bet

I realize I did not comment on the Joe Romm oil price bet per se.  Here are two reasons I don't like the bet:

1.  Romm is making a catastrophic forecast (ie oil >$200) but wins his bet at $41, what one might consider a fairly normal current oil price.  This is very equivalent to Romm forecasting a 15F increase in world temperatures in the next century (which he has) but making a bet that he would win if temperatures go up by only 0.1F.  Clearly, a 0.1F increase over the next century would be considered by all a thorough repudiation of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming forecasts.  So why should he win the bet at this level?

2.  The bet, particularly in the next few years, has more to do with the current government's actions than Exxon's or Saudi Arabia's.  To bet that oil prices will stay low in nominal dollars, one must bet that Obama's deficits won't destroy the value of the dollar, that the Fed's expansionist monetary policy won't lead to inflation, that Congress won't pass some kind of legislative restrictions making oil production more expensive, and that the world won't sign a treaty to restrict carbon.  In short, Congress will have more effect in the near term on oil prices than flow rates in Saudi fields, and I am certainly not going to make a bet in favor of Congressional or Presidential restraint.

Postscript: Here is what you have to believe to accept Romm's 15F global warming forecast.   Here is how I opened that post.  It is interesting how similar the forecasting issues are:

For several years, there was an absolute spate of lawsuits charging sudden acceleration of a motor vehicle "” you probably saw such a story:  Some person claims they hardly touched the accelerator and the car leaped ahead at enormous speed and crashed into the house or the dog or telephone pole or whatever.  Many folks have been skeptical that cars were really subject to such positive feedback effects where small taps on the accelerator led to enormous speeds, particularly when almost all the plaintiffs in these cases turned out to be over 70 years old.  It seemed that a rational society might consider other causes than unexplained positive feedback, but there was too much money on the line to do so.

Many of you know that I consider questions around positive feedback in the climate system to be the key issue in global warming, the one that separates a nuisance from a catastrophe.  Is the Earth's climate similar to most other complex, long-term stable natural systems in that it is dominated by negative feedback effects that tend to damp perturbations?  Or is the Earth's climate an exception to most other physical processes, is it in fact dominated by positive feedback effects that, like the sudden acceleration in grandma's car, apparently rockets the car forward into the house with only the lightest tap of the accelerator?

So Why Does Joe Romm Even Bother With Cap and Trade?

Joe Romm of Climate Progress is a leading climate alarmist, telling the world that burning fossil fuels will increase CO2 concentrations by 0.04% of the atmosphere over the next century and thus destroy mankind.  As such, he is a supporter of the current cap-and-trade bill in Congress, whose purpose is to raise the price of fossil fuels (either directly as a tax or by restricting their supply) so that less will be used.

On a different but related topic, Joe Romm is also apparently a peak oil alarmist.  As I have written, I suspect real oil prices will rise steadily over the coming decades, but we aren't going to fall off some cliff and see a sudden hyperinflation of oil prices (temporary spikes are a different story).  He writes

The IEA's work makes clear that for oil to stay significantly below $200 a barrel (and U.S. gasoline to be significantly below $5 a gallon) by 2020 would take a miracle

I tend to doubt it, in part because I have seen so many very similar predictions ever since the mid-1970s, but I suppose some day someone will be right with one of these.   I wonder if there is some kind of psychological profile that causes people to see positive feedback-driven accelerating curves everywhere.

But here is my confusion -- he is absolutely convinced that oil is going up by $140 a barrel or more.  Let's look at this in the context of Co2.  The CBO estimates the clearing price for a ton of Co2 emissions under the current bill will be between $20-$30 a ton.  Since a barrel of oil creates about a third of a ton of CO2 emissions, this implies the cap and trade bill might increase the price of oil by $7-$10 per barrel.  But if Romm think oil is going up by natural market forces by $140+, why even bother?  Why not just put a tax on coal and be done with it?

I congratulate Mr. Romm, however.  If he is so sure of 2020 oil prices, there are all kinds of fabulous ways to become ridiculously wealthy with this knowledge.

Postscript:  There are two reasons why people have been making this same forecast for 30 years and have been wrong most of the time.

First, there is a very human tendency to assume current conditions and trends will go on forever.  Everyone is subject to this bias, even the smartest analysts.  Romm might argue that these are savvy, detail-oriented commodities analyst, but I only have to point to the recent behavior of savvy detail-oriented debt security analysts.

Second, analysts tend to apply current understandings of what technologies and substitutes are economic at $60 oil to a world where oil is priced at $160.  It just doesn't work that way.   The market for petroleum and its substitutes is enormously multi-variate and complex.  A $100 bump in prices will do things that are sometimes hard to predict in detail to the markets for exploration, new technologies, substitutes, conservation, etc.  But in all this complexity, the one thing we do know is that time and again, such changes have occurred quickly and decisively in response to rising oil prices, and have acted to mitigate and reverse price increases.

One ironic way of looking at it, since this is Joe Romm, is to say that there are negative feedbacks that cut in to slow and even reverse sharp rises in oil prices.  Romm seems to reject these negative feedbacks, in favor of a price model that rapidly accelerates.  This is all ironic, since this issue of negative vs. positive feedback is what separates climate alarmists like Romm from many climate skeptics like myself.

That'll Teach 'Em

More evidence the British police forces seem to be losing their minds at least as fast as American police:

To teach motorists who leave their cars unlocked a lesson, police in Richmond upon Thames, a borough of London, have begun taking their stuff. The victims beneficiaries of these thefts educational efforts return to their cars and find that expensive items such as cameras, laptops, and leather jackets have been replaced by notes instructing them to retrieve their valuables at the police station. Not to worry, though: "If items are needed urgently," the London Times reports, "police will return the goods immediately." Which suggests that if you can't show an urgent need for, say, your computer, they'll take their own sweet time. The justification offered by Superintendent Jim Davis: "People would be far more upset if their property really was stolen."

Woe be to people who actually trust that the police are doing their job reducing crime and fail to secure all of their belongings from petty theft.   One hopes that the police of Richmond on Thames never start to percieve a problem with rapes in their fair city.

Hurricane Wake

I thought this was an interesting image.  Hurricanes tend to extract energy from warm sea water and transport it into the atmosphere.  The image below, via Watts Up With That, shows the cooler "wake" left by Hurricane Bill as it passed north along the Atlantic coastline.

anomw.8.27.2009

Best Argument Against the Death Penalty

I agree with TJIC:

If we can't trust the government to enforce the speed limit or issue liquor licenses fairly, how can we trust it to kill citizens fairly ?

It strikes me as odd that law-and-order conservatives can distrust every single department of the government except the guys who carry guns.  The post office and the police are run by the same organization.

More extensive thoughts on the death penalty here and here.

Google Reader Problems

I love Google Reader, but over the last several days have had problems with hundreds, or even thousands of old, already read posts suddenly being marked "unread."  Anyone else having this problem?

Why Does Everything Seem To Need A Freaking Subsidy

Today's issue in Arizona:  Should our public utility be required to provide line extensions to new homes "for free" (meaning paid for by existing rate payers) or should homebuilders, developers, and home buyers have to pay the real marginal cost of their utility infrastructure.

It is another of those subsidy issues where "visible" jobs (ie jobs in new home construction) are held out as justification, while "invisible job losses (ie from higher electricity rates to existing customers) are not even mentioned.

One of the biggest sticking points in the case is whether it is fairer to charge new developments the cost of new lines or simply charge the existing 1.1 million APS customers higher monthly rates to fund free lines.

Proponents of free lines said it would only cost customers 80 cents a month for APS to reinstate free lines, but APS officials said that if growth picks up as the economy recovers, customers could be charged an average of $45 a year to fund free lines.

Why is this even a point of discussion?  A small group of people are attempting to make the majority buy them some goodies. The argument, as always, is that when the price of these goodies is spread across lots of people, its not really very much per person.  It is almost as if the rest of us are being made to feel churlish for not agreeing to fund their next housing development.

I am far, far, far from being an anti-growth guy.  But I agree with the anti-growth guys in one respect - it is perfectly reasonable for new developments to pay for the full incremental infrastructure cost of their development.

Update on Government Salaries

Over 700 employees of San Francisco's BART transit agency make over $100,000 just in cash wages.  This does not include lucrative benefits that probably add $30,000 or more to total compensation for most employees.  (SF Chron, via Thin Green Line)

Peak Oil Update

I haven't written about Peak Oil lately, but there is a pretty good editorial on the topic in the NY Times today.  Michael Lynch makes a technical point I have been making for years:

Let's take the rate-of-discovery argument first: it is a statement that reflects ignorance of industry terminology. When a new field is found, it is given a size estimate that indicates how much is thought to be recoverable at that point in time. But as years pass, the estimate is almost always revised upward, either because more pockets of oil are found in the field or because new technology makes it possible to extract oil that was previously unreachable. Yet because petroleum geologists don't report that additional recoverable oil as "newly discovered," the peak oil advocates tend to ignore it. In truth, the combination of new discoveries and revisions to size estimates of older fields has been keeping pace with production for many years.

But Lynch's editorial misses two issues I think are important.

First, nothing ever flat runs out.  If supply declines over time while demand continues to rise, prices increase.  The increased prices cause some buyers to conserve or to find substitutes.  On the supply side, higher prices make recovery of incrementally more difficult oil economic, and provides a higher price umbrella under which substitutes can compete.  This is particularly true in oil, where there is never a fixed limit to the amount of oil recoverable -- estimates are always based on price expectations.  Higher prices mean more investment can be justified, generally allowing more oil recovery.

Second, I think Lynch is misguided in some of his discussion of political risk.  While I am not hugely worried about an OPEC-like embargo in the future, the fact is that more and more of the world's future oil supplies are controlled by public rather than private oil companies.  For countries like Mexico, the state-run oil company is the post office, comparable both in terms of its management competance (or lack thereof) and its focus on non-economic missions (like providing jobs for key political supporters).  Ronald Bailey wrote a while back:

The problem arises because 77 percent of the world's known oil reserves are in the hands of state-owned oil companies. Such "companies" do not respond with alacrity to market signals and so are under-investing in new production technologies and even in maintaining the production facilities that they currently have. I have earlier pointed out that an "oil crisis," that is, a steep rapid run up in the price of oil may occur at any time due to government incompetence or maliciousness.

I wrote about Mexico in particular:

Kevin Drum is concerned that projected drops in Mexican oil production are a leading indicator that the "Peak Oil" theory is coming true.  I would argue that, in fact, it is a trailing indicator of what happens when you let governments run producing assets.  Drum says:

The issue here isn't that Cantarell is declining. That began a couple
of years ago and had been widely anticipated. What's news is that, just
as many peak oil theorists have been warning, when big fields start to
decline they decline faster than anyone expects. So far, Cantarell
appears to be evidence that they're right.

Actually, fields in the US do not tend to decline "all of a sudden" like that.  Why?  Because unlike about any other place in the world, oil fields in the US are owned by private companies with capital to make long-term investments that are not subject to the vagaries of political opportunism and populism.  There are a lot of things you can do to an aging oil field, particularly with $60 prices to justify the effort, to increase or maintain production.  In accordance with the laws of diminishing returns, all of them require increasing amounts of capital and intelligent management.

Unfortunately, state owned oil companies like Pemex (whose assets, by the way, were stolen years ago from US owners) are run terribly, like every other state-owned company in the world.  And, when politicians in Mexico are faced with a choice between making capital available for long-term investment in the fields or dropping it into yet another silly government program or transfer payment scheme, they do the latter.  And when politicians have a choice between running an employment meritocracy or creating a huge bureaucracy of jobs for life for their cronies they choose the latter.

Ditto in Venezuela.

No one sees an immediate crisis at Petróleos de Venezuela. But its windfall from high oil prices masks the devilish complexity and rising costs of producing heavy oil. Meanwhile, the company acknowledged last month that spending on "social development" almost doubled in 2006, to $13.3 billion, while its spending on exploration badly trailed its global peers. And Petróleos de Venezuela's work force has ballooned to 89,450, up 29 percent since 2001 even as production declined"¦ Petróleos de Venezuela's cash is said to be running short as Mr. Chávez uses its revenue to cement political alliances with Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua.  The company has borrowed more than $11 billion since the start of the year, a rapid debt buildup that reflects a wager by Mr. Chávez that oil prices will remain high indefinitely.

The oil industry in these countries follow the following cycle:

1.  US companies invest huge amounts of capital and know-how to build oil industry
2.  Once things are producing, local government steals it all
3.  Oil fields go into extended decline due to short-term focused and incompetent government management
4.  US companies invited back int to invest huge amounts of know-how and capital
5. repeat

Editorializing in the News Section

The AZ Republic is at it again, cheer-leading any program that spends more taxpayer money, even to the extent of blatant editorializing in a news article.  From an article on cash for clunkers (emphasis added):

The program leveraged $3 billion in clunker rebates into $20 billion-plus in new-car sales. That far exceeded the initial goals for what is arguably the most successful of the government's recent economic-stimulus programs.

Here are the sum total of the sources quoted to reach this conclusion:

  • Scott Gruwell, general-sales manager of Courtesy Chevrolet in Phoenix
  • U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood
  • Bobbi Sparrow, president of the Arizona Automobile Dealers Association
  • Arizona MVD spokesman

So lets see -- the article quoted three groups that receive money from the program plus the administrator of the program.  Can't get more balanced than that.  I am not really good with the pithy 200-word letter to the editor, but I sent this in today:

Max Jarman and Betty Beard wrote that the cash for clunkers program "is arguably the most successful of the government's recent economic-stimulus programs."  Admittedly this is a low bar, but what evidence do they have of "success?"

Car buyers, they argue, really like the program.  Edmunds.com estimates that the government has been paying $3500 to $4500 for vehicles that have a blue book value averaging just under $1500 each.  Of course participants are happy "“ the government is effectively buying dollar bills for three dollars each!  But is this really a reasonable way to spend taxpayer money?

Car dealers also seem to be ecstatic about the program.  I would be too if the government gave my customers $3 billion of other people's money to buy products from my business.  But why are auto dealers more worthy of such largess than appliance dealers, or home builders, or even massage therapists?

Not mentioned in the article are the other 99% of car owners and business that did not participate in the program.  Unseen and unspoken for are the businesses and individuals who are $3 billion poorer because the government has chosen to divert this money to a more politically-favored industry.

Wow, You Mean There's Actually A Point to All These Ingredients?

Sometimes, greens and organic-proponents act as if the only point of chemicals is to ... uh... I don't know what they think.  They act as if the chemicals are added simply as an evil conspiracy by corporate America to both make the product less efficacious and simultaneously more expensive and complex to make.  Somehow this behavior is all driven by the profit motive, though the logic sort of escapes me.

Well, at least one green seems to be starting on a voyage of discovery:

Good news and bad news at the dentist this morning. The good news is, my teeth are fine. The bad news is, the dentist told me I should give up Tom's of Maine and Nature's Gate in favor of Crest and Colgate.

I pressed him on it because I know sometimes people have knee-jerk reactions about green products, and he insisted that he's only come to the conclusion after observing many people's teeth. In fact, he went so far as to say that I'd be better off brushing my teeth with just water. He said the big C's of dental care have "lots of artificial ingredients in them that are great for your teeth."

Really?   I am sure that if we get Obamacare the government will be willing to provide him some Tom's of Maine all natural homeopathic cancer remedy should he ever contract that dreaded disease.  What?  Don't tell me homeopathic remedies with one molecule of active ingredient in a glass of water don't work either.

I Normally Don't Comment on Political Strategy, But...

As I don't really have a horse in the two party Coke-Pepsi horse race, I don't usually get into the endless discussion of political tactics one can find in the media or on various political blogs.

But I must say that I am scratching my head over ardent Democrat Kevin Drum posting this chart on his blog:

Blog_Stimulus_Goose_Egg

Does he really think this will embarrass Republicans?  Heck, Republicans  may soon be running this as a TV ad.

Real Options for Health Insurance

Two large drivers of high health insurance costs in certain states is 1) bans on interstate competition for health insurance and 2) state-by-state mandates for minimum coverage.  These two government actions lead to some states having remarkably higher health insurance prices than others.  Via Carpe Diem:

The average health insurance ranges from a low of $1,254 in Wisconsin to a high of $8,537 in Massachusetts, and the national average is $2,613. That kind of variation couldn't exist in a competitive market for health insurance. Interstate competition for health insurance would go a long way towards bringing health insurance costs down.

That Massachusetts model sure is doing wonders, huh?  If reimportation of drugs from Canada makes sense, why not of policies across state lines? See where your state ranks here.

What "Progressives" Are Really After, Part 2

Climate activist Adam Sacks at Grist:

We must leave behind 10,000 years of civilization; this may be the hardest collective task we've ever faced.  It has given us the intoxicating power to create planetary changes in 200 years that under natural cycles require hundreds of thousands or millions of years"”but none of the wisdom necessary to keep this Pandora's Box tightly shut.  We have to discover and re-discover other ways of living on earth.

We love our cars, our electricity, our iPods, our theme parks, our bananas, our Nikes, and our nukes, but we behave as if we understand nothing of the land and water and air that gives us life.  It is past time to think and act differently.

If we live at all, we will have to figure out how to live locally and sustainably.  Living locally means we are able get everything we need within walking (or animal riding) distance. We may eventually figure out sustainable ways of moving beyond those small circles to bring things home, but our track record isn't good and we'd better think it through very carefully.

Likewise, any technology has to be locally based, using local resources and accessible tools, renewable and non-toxic.  We have much re-thinking to do, and re-learning from our hunter-gatherer forebears who managed to survive for a couple of hundred thousand years in ways that we with our civilized blinders we can barely imagine or understand.

Yep, let's all return to that sustainable world of 8000BC, scrap the worldwide division of labor and all our technology, and go back to subsistance farming and travelling by horse.  Gee, what a happy time that was...

Interestingly, this guy is making an incredibly common failure among physical scientists -- the attempt to apply conservation of mass/energy physical models or bacteriological growth models to economic growth:

Endless growth is an impossibility in the physical world, always"”but always"”ending in overshot and collapse.  Collapse: with a bang or a whimper, most likely both.  We are already witnessing it, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.Because of this civilization's obsession with growth, its demise is 100 percent predictable.  We simply cannot go on living this way. Our version of life on earth has come to an end.

Here is what I wrote, in a post titled "Physics, Wealth Creation, and Zero Sum Economics"

My guess is that this zero-sum thinking comes from our training and intuition about the physical world.  As we all learned back in high school, nature generally works in zero sums.  For example, in any bounded environment, no matter what goes on inside (short of nuclear fission) mass and energy are both conserved, as outlined by the first law of thermodynamics.  Energy may change form, like the potential energy from chemical bonds in gasoline being converted to heat and work via combustion, but its all still there somewhere.

In fact, given the second law of thermodynamics, the only change that will occur is that elements will end in a more disorganized, less useful form than when they started.  This notion of entropic decay also has a strong effect on economic thinking, as you will hear many of the same zero sum economics folks using the language of decay on human society.  Take folks like Paul Ehrlich (please).  All of there work is about decay:  Pollution getting worse, raw materials getting scarce, prices going up, economies crashing.  They see human society driven by entropic decline....

[But] the world, as a whole and in most of its individual parts, is wealthier than in was in 1900.  Vastly more wealthy.  Which I recognize can be disturbing to our intuition honed on the physical world.  I mean, where did the wealth come from?  Out of thin air?  How can that be?

Interestingly, in the 19th century, scientists faced a similar problem in the physical world in dating the age of the Earth.  There was evidence all around them (from fossils, rocks, etc) that the earth had to be hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of years old.  The processes of evolution Darwin described had to occur over untold millions of years.  Yet no one could accept an age over a few million for the solar system, because they couldn't figure out what could fuel the Sun for longer than that.  Every calculation they made showed that by any form of combustion they understood, the sun would burn out in, at most, a few tens of millions of years.  If the sun and earth was so old, where was all that energy coming from?  Out of thin air?

It was Einstein that solved the problem.  E=mc2 meant that there were new processes (e.g. fusion) where very tiny amounts of mass were converted to unreasonably large amounts of energy.  Amounts of energy so large that it tends to defy human intuition.  Here was an enormous, really huge source of potential energy that no one before even suspected.

Which gets me back to wealth.  To balance the wealth equation, there must be a huge reservoir out there of potential energy, or I guess you would call it potential wealth.  This source is the human mind.  All wealth flows from the human mind, and that source of energy is also unreasonably large, much larger than most people imagine.