Archive for September 2009

Three Quarters of A Million Americans Arrested For Marijuana Possession in 2008

In the US last year, 754,224 people were arrested for possession (not dealing or production) of marijuana.  By the logic of US drug laws, all of these folks are better off with an arrest record and possible incarceration that they are from the nominal negative effects of smoking marijuana (FBI report here, via Radley Balko).  These numbers are just insane.  And while the report only gives race numbers for total drug arrests rather than for just marijuana offenses, a hugely disproportionate number are black (over 1/3 of arrests).

And speaking of equal protection, the arrest numbers for gambling are eye-opening (table 43).  75% of all people arrested for gambling last year in the US were black, including 90% of the arrests of those under 18 for this offense.  It seems it is A-OK for whites to play poker at home for money (I'm guilty) or to bet in Super Bowl pools (guilty again) or to clad themselves in polyester and head to the casino boat, but blacks who choose to compete with the state gambling/lottery monopoly will get arrested.  As an aside, I have always laughed at the government piously suing tobacco companies for targeting minorities with their advertising and then using the same techniques themselves to target minorities for their lottery sales.

A Primer on Libertarianism

Democrats: The people in power can't be trusted.  You need to remove them and put our guys in charge

Republicans: The people in power can't be trusted.  You need to remove them and put our guys in charge

libertarians: People in power can't be trusted.  You need to remove their power and be in charge of your own damn self

We Have Got To Get John Scalzi A Movie Production Gig

John Scalzi, via Instapundit

A producer of Creation, the film about Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, starring Paul Bettany and his real-life wife Jennifer Connelly, is griping that the film has no distributor in the US, apparently because so many Americans are evolution-hating mouth-breathers that no one wants the touch the thing; it's just too darn controversial.

Well, it may be that. Alternately, and leaving aside any discussion of the actual quality of the film, it may be that a quiet story about the difficult relationship between an increasingly agnostic 19th Century British scientist and his increasingly devout wife, thrown into sharp relief by the death of their beloved 10-year-old daughter, performed by mid-list stars, is not exactly the sort of film that's going to draw in a huge winter holiday crowd, regardless of whether that scientist happens to be Darwin or not, and that these facts are rather more pertinent, from a potential distributor's point of view. . . . Maybe if Charles Darwin were played by Will Smith, was a gun-toting robot sent back from the future to learn how to love, and to kill the crap out of the alien baby eaters cleverly disguised as Galapagos tortoises, and then some way were contrived for Jennifer Connelly to expose her breasts to RoboDarwin two-thirds of the way through the film, and there were explosions and lasers and stunt men flying 150 feet into the air, then we might be talking wide-release from a modern major studio. Otherwise, you know, not so much. The "oh, it's too controversial for Americans" comment is, I suspect, a bit of face-saving rationalization from a producer

If you think Scalzi is exaggerating, sit and actually write down a synopsis of the plot for "Transformers" and see if you get anything that makes any more sense - just substitute "Jennifer Connelly's bare breasts" with "Megan Fox's bare midriff."

I Finally May Be Understanding Something

This year has been a frustrating year for my business.  As many of you know, I am in the business of privatizing public recreation.  We take over the management of public recreation facilities, and are generally able to run them to the same or better standards as the government for less money.  Whereas before we take over, the government typically loses money on a park, we often can run it at a profit AND pay the government rent for the concession rights.

This year, numerous state parks have been threatened with closure in states all across the country.  In many of these states, I have communicated with everyone I could think of, from the governor to state parks leaders, trying to say that companies like ours could probably keep many of these parks open. I told them I wasn't looking for a sweetheart deal - we weren't afraid to bid against other companies, but it was crazy to close parks that could easily remain open.   We have been told any number of times by numerous state leaders that they would prefer to close the park rather than put it under private concession management.

To some extent, this is due to the pressure of public employees unions, who have every incentive to play brinkmanship and force closure of parks rather than set the precedent of having them managed by a non-union private company.  This is unsurprising.

I also understand that there is a fear of private management of public recreation facilities.  I swear the first think I hear almost every time I present on what we do  is that they fear we would put a billboard or a McDonalds in front of Old Faithful.  I kid you not, this charge is as regular as clockwork.  Fortunately, we manage about 175 public recreation facilities to a pretty high standard, and not one billboard or McDonalds can be found at any of them.  A large part of the bid process for any facility management contract is not just the rate or the rent but also the detailed operating standards to which it will be managed.  So this is a normal, but surmountable hurdle.

But even taking into account these usual sources of resistance, I am always just amazed at how vociferous the opposition is to even experimenting with private management.  States like California are simply hell-bent on closing parks a company like ours could easily keep open for the public (to be fair, Ruth Coleman, head of California State Parks, is very open to new models but she gets absolutely no support either within her organization or in the legislature for such new ideas).

But I think I understand this phenomenon better now after reading Kevin Drum today. This is what Drum wrote in response to the DNC ad, which clearly stretched the truth, claiming that Republicans voted to end Medicare:

Why not just tell the truth: Republicans essentially voted in favor of turning Medicare over to private industry.  With only a few words of explanation, this could easily be more effective than the ad that actually ran.  Like so:

Republicans voted to turn Medicare over to private insurance companies!  You heard right: they want to hand Medicare over to the same companies that [insert two or three insurance company outrages here, maybe a Wall Street reference, something about profits over people, etc.].  Democrats will never do that.  Blah blah blah.

Would that really be any less scary than the ad that actually ran?

So for Drum, and I presume for much of the Left, the suggestion that a government service be managed privately is just as bad as the suggestion that the service be ended. In essence, Drum is saying he would almost rather have no Medicare than Medicare provided privately.

It certainly explains a lot, and puts the phenomenon I see in public recreation into a larger context.

Update: A couple of the comments hpothesize the problem is that many in government and on the left just hate profits and the profit motive in general.  One related story -- I was in a meeting with a large state parks organization where a senior person raised the idea of private park management.  Well, everyone hated the idea, but when it looked as if the leadership might still seriously consider the private option, one person in the room said "well could we at least mandate that they can't make a profit."  There was a lot of head nodding at this.

I didn't go off on this and kept a smile on my face.  But I did lose it in an earlier meeting with the head of some government parks we actually did run.  We were discussing park fee increases for the next year (the state had just raised minimum wages about 30% and we were scrambling to make ends meet).  He said he was uncomfortable with the level of profits we made.  I asked him, "Jim (not his real name) does this state pay you more than $25,000 a year to run this park?"  He nodded.  I said, "then you make more profit in this park than I do, and what is more, you didn't have to invest $100,000 in equipment to get your job, nor do you have to rebid for your job every 5 years, nor does you salary go down if for some reason park visitation decreases."

Sometimes I wish I had stood up in that state meeting and said something similar, as in "Why is the money I make in a park somehow tainted because it is the difference between my revenues and expenses and the result of substantial investments and subject to extraordinary risks, while the virtually guaranteed-for-life salary you make, paid for by the same visitors, is somehow pristine?"

Almost Beyond Parody

There is just so much wrong with this news blurb, entitled "LA Mother Who Beheaded Son Was Allowed To Keep Him Despite Signs of Mental Illness."  Here are just the first four I have thought of:

  • Isn't the boy dead, and if so, why is custody an issue?
  • Why would a mom who assaults her child be allowed to retain custody?
  • Does the "despite signs of mental illness" clause apply to the son or the mother?
  • If the mental illness question applies to the mother, can it even be in question?

The article clears some of this up, barely.

So Much For The Tax Pledge

"I can make a firm pledge"¦.no family making less than $250,000 will see any form of tax increase"¦..not any of your taxes"-Barack Obama, September 12, 2008

Oops, well, so much for that, as Obama imposes a 35% tax on Chinese tires, requiring higher prices be paid by the majority of Americans.  This is a broad-based tax aimed at supporting one narrow American industry, as a payoff to the United Steel Workers who have been sad that the UAW has been getting all the political gravy of late.

Suppose the Chinese government is massively subsidizing tire exports -- that they are taking Chinese taxpayer money and directly applying it to tire exports to reduce prices in the US.  What should our response be?  Mine would be:  Thanks, suckers.  If the Chinese really want to tax their people to subsidize lower US consumer prices, why in the world would we want to stop them?

Oh, and remember that Obama pledge to be all lovey-dovey with the rest of the world instead of that nasty confrontational Bush administration?  Well, forget that too:

HONG KONG -- Just two days after the United States slapped Chinese tire imports with hefty tariffs, Beijing has hit back by saying it would launch an anti-dumping investigation into automobile and chicken products from the U.S.

[...]

The "protectionist" policy that seems to have triggered the Chinese tit-for-tat investigation was an order signed on Friday by President Barack Obama that imposes a 35% tariff on tires imported from China on top of the existing import duty of 4%.

Can anyone say, "Smoot-Hawley."  I am sure happy we all learned from the one unequivocal lesson that every economist, left-right-Keynsian-monetarist, took away from the Great Depression -- that starting an international trade war is the best way to exacerbate a recession.  Obama has  done just about the only thing everyone agrees shouldn't be done in response to a major economic downturn.

Update: More good analysis here

Postscript: I wrote this hypothetical post from the Chinese perspective a couple of years ago:  From "Panda Blog:"

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

  • Limiting yuan convertibility, and keeping the yuan's value artificially low
  • Imposing strict capital controls that limit dollar reinvestment to low-yield securities like US government T-bills
  • Selling exports below cost and well below domestic prices (what the Americans call "dumping") and subsidizing products for export

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers.  A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese.  So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  And limiting foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government, saddling China with extraordinarily low yields on our nearly $1 trillion in foreign exchange.   Every single step China takes to promote exports is in effect a subsidy of American consumers by Chinese citizens.

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

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

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

The Future of Newspapers

I couldn't really get up enough energy to post about the whole Van Jones kerfuffle.  Apparently, as one of Obama's 129 czars, this guy whose job it is to redistribute billions of dollars from one group of individuals to another and issue diktats to be followed by private citizens and businesses, is *gasp* a communist.  Well, no sh*t.  All of these various czars have communist roles so why is it surprising Obama might have picked a communist to hold one of them.  The only surprise was that Van Jones was dumb enough to admit it in print rather than hiding it in leftish double-speak like most of the rest of the administration.

Anyway, all that aside, you gotta love the NY Post, which has no problem dropping any pretense of statesmanship and is perfectly willing to skewer its cross town rival.  This editorial is pretty dang funny.  An excerpt:

Newspaper of record? The Times isn't so much a newspaper as a clique of high school girls sending IMs to like-minded friends about their feuds and faves and raves and rants. OMFG you guys! It's no more objective than Beck is....

The Times continues to treat communism as a cute campus peccadillo like pot smoking or nude streaking. A Times think piece (Sept. 9) worried that Jones' fall was "swift and personal." Being a communist is personal but being the pregnant teen daughter of a vice presidential candidate is public business?

In a quasi-related post, Virginia Postrel says the Washington Post lost $1.10 per copy of their newspaper last quarter.  Wow!

I have to disagree with Ed Driscoll, though.  He like many conservatives argues that this economic problem of newspapers is somehow because the Times has dropped its objectivity.  I am not sure anyone has evidence that is true.  One could make, I think, an equally strong case that the Times should be less objective and go openly partisan.  After all, this notion of politically neutral newspapers is a pretty recent phenomenon in the US.

I actually think the problem with newspapers like the Washington Post is the "Washington" part.  Local business models dominated for decades in fields where technology made national distribution difficult or where technology did not allow for anything but a very local economy of scale.  Newspapers, delivery of television programming, auto sales, beverage bottling and distribution, book selling, etc. were all mainly local businesses.  But you can see with this list that technology is changing everything.  TV can now be delivered via sattelite and does not require local re-distribution via line of sight broadcast towers or cable systems.  Amazon dominated book selling via the Internet.  Many of these businesses (e.g. liquor, auto dealers, TV broadcasting) would have de-localized faster if it had not been for politicians in the pocket of a few powerful companies passing laws to lock in outdated business or technological models.

Newspapers are ripe for a restructuring.  How can one support a great Science page or Book Review section or International Bureau on local circulation?  How much effort do the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, SF Chronicle, etc. duplicate every day?  People tell me, "that's what the wire services are for."  Bah.  The AP is 160 years old!  It is a pre-Civil War solution to this problem.  Can it really be that technology and changing markets have not facilitated a better solution?

The future is almost certainly a number of national papers (ala the WSJ and USA Today) printed locally with perhaps local offices to provide some local customization or special local section.  Paradoxically, such a massive consolidation from hundreds of local papers to a few national papers would actually increase competition.  While we might get a few less stories about cats being saved from trees in the local paper, we could well end up not with one paper selection (as we have today in most cities) but five or six different papers to choose from  (just look at Britain).  Some of these papers might choose to sell political neutrality while some might compete on political affiliation.

If I were running the Washington Post, I would think very seriously about creating a national news offering, a USA Today with substance.   If you offered me a Washington Post re-branded as a national paper, with some strong side offerings like the NY Times Science section and a good local sports section and a local news section, I'd toss my Arizona Republic in a second.  Its going to take some good thought as to how to weave together the national offering with locally customized content and to manage local vs. national advertising accounts, but with technology this is doable -- Clear Channel does something similar in radio.

I wonder, in fact, why no one has done this yet -- when you look at the circulation numbers, only the USA Today and WSJ, the two papers pursuing this path, are seeing growth.  My only thought is that news is one of those businesses dominated by passionate people who are tied deeply, emotionally into the industry in a way that makes it impossible to envision or consider new models (aviation is another such business, in my opinion, and the US auto business is probably another).  What we need is for the Post and a few other major papers to fail and then let some really bright, right people from outside the business come and shake it up.  This is, by the way, one of the unsung benefits of bankruptcy, is that it takes assets out of the hands of the people who got the company in the mess to begin with -- a benefit we short-circuited when we spent billions of taxpayer dollars in the auto industry to keep GM and Chrysler assets out of new and potentially more innovative hands.

A Tribute to Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug, the founder and driving force behind the revolution in high-yield agriculture that Paul Ehrlich predicted was impossible, has died at the age of 98 95.  Like Radley Balko, I am struck by how uneventful his passing is likely to be in contrast to the homage paid to self-promoting seekers of power like Ted Kennedy who never accomplished a tiny fraction of what Borlaug achieved.  Reason has a good tribute here.  Some exceprts:

In the late 1960s, most experts were speaking of imminent global famines in which billions would perish. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971." He insisted that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."

But Borlaug and his team were already engaged in the kind of crash program that Ehrlich declared wouldn't work. Their dwarf wheat varieties resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times more grain than the traditional varieties. In 1965, they had begun a massive campaign to ship the miracle wheat to Pakistan and India and teach local farmers how to cultivate it properly. By 1968, when Ehrlich's book appeared, the U.S. Agency for International Development had already hailed Borlaug's achievement as a "Green Revolution."

In Pakistan, wheat yields rose from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 8.4 million in 1970. In India, they rose from 12.3 million tons to 20 million. And the yields continue to increase. Last year, India harvested a record 73.5 million tons of wheat, up 11.5 percent from 1998. Since Ehrlich's dire predictions in 1968, India's population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold. Soon after Borlaug's success with wheat, his colleagues at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research developed high-yield rice varieties that quickly spread the Green Revolution through most of Asia.

The contrast to Paul Ehrlich is particularly stunning.  Most folks have heard of Ehrlich and his prophesies of doom.   But Ehrlich has been wrong in his prophesies more times than anyone can count.  Borlaug fed a billion people while Ehrlich was making money and fame selling books saying that the billion couldn't be fed -- but few have even heard of Borlaug.   Today, leftists in power in the US and most European nations continue to reject Borlaug's approaches, and continue to revere Ehrlich (just this year, Obama chose a disciple of Ehrlich, John Holdren, as his Science czar).

Continuing proof that the world moves forward in spite of, rather than because of, governments.

Update: More here.

Update #2: Penn and Teller on Borlaug

Things I Didn't Know

As both a computer geek and a WWII buff, I of course know something of Alan Turing's incredible contributions to both.  I also knew he was gay, but didn't think much about it.  What I didn't know was how horribly he was abused by the British government, actions for which the government has now appologized:

In 1952, he was convicted of "Ëœgross indecency' -- in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence -- and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison -- was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

A lot more at the link.  I am constantly amazed at how we tend to elevate the mediocre while treating the truly great so shabbily.

Postscript: The most entertaining way to learn something about Turing, albeit in fictionalized form, is to read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, one of my favorite books.  The story is good (not great, but good) but the writing is just fabulous.  Who else could entertain one for page after page on the physics of eating Cap'n Crunch cereal?

When Geeks Drink Too Much Coffee

8 Years Ago

I have told my story before of finding myself a visitor to Manhattan on 9/11.  I watched much of the disaster unfold from the roof of the W Hotel, and spent a weird Omega Man-like evening as some of the only people walking around a deserted Manhattan (police were letting people leave the island but not come back).  And the surreal drive around a still car-free Manhattan the next morning, as police would admit there was one way off the island, but out of some bizarre notion of security would not tell us where it was, so we drove much of the perimeter until we got out via the GW at the north end.

We were lucky in about  a zillion ways that day.  Our kids were being watched back in Seattle by someone with the flexibility to watch them for the four more nights it took us to get home.  We randomly bumped into a friend who had the last rent car in Manhattan and was headed west.  And, of course, my meeting was in midtown, unlike several friends of mine who had meetings in the WTC and never got out.

I still think the two best works of journalism on 9/11 I have seen are National Geographic's "Inside 9/11," which is airing off and on this week, and the Onion's 9/11 issue.  I know the latter choice seems weird, but the Onion was easily the first place anywhere to try to make people laugh when everyone was being so serious.  They did a great job of being funny without being disrespectful.  A bunch of the articles are still funny, and this one seems dead on in retrospect:

"America's enemy, be it Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, a multinational coalition of terrorist organizations, any of a rogue's gallery of violent Islamic fringe groups, or an entirely different, non-Islamic aggressor we've never even heard of... be warned," Bush said during an 11-minute speech from the Oval Office. "The United States is preparing to strike, directly and decisively, against you, whoever you are, just as soon as we have a rough idea of your identity and a reasonably decent estimate as to where your base is located."...

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the war against terrorism will be different from any previous model of modern warfare.

"We were lucky enough at Pearl Harbor to be the victim of a craven sneak attack from an aggressor with the decency to attack military targets, use their own damn planes, and clearly mark those planes with their national insignia so that we knew who they were," Rumsfeld said. "Since the 21st-century breed of coward is not affording us any such luxury, we are forced to fritter away time searching hither and yon for him in the manner of a global easter-egg hunt."

Standing in opposition to Bush and Congress is a small but growing anti-war movement. During the president's speech Tuesday, two dozen demonstrators gathered outside the White House, chanting and waving placards bearing such slogans as "U.S. Out Of Somewhere" and "No Blood For Whatever These Murderous Animals Hope To Acquire."

Here is some footage of the disaster that was not released until years after the event.

Libertarian Oddity of the Day

I found this a bit odd.  In Arizona, you can actually make a voluntary contribution to certain causes or political parties via your tax return.  This is not a checkoff, but an amount that is added to the amount you owe in taxes and then passed on by the state to a short list of approved organizations.  As a libertarian, I find it unsettling that the state acts as a collection or sales agent for certain political causes.  In particular, how can the state make fair and reasonable choices as to who is on and not on the list of eligible recipients?

I found this data for 2009 FY giving:

taxes

What was odd for me is that of all the political giving, libertarians had the highest average donation.  I find it weird that libertarians would want to financially support the libertarian cause but they want to do it via the mechanism of the state income tax return.

The good news here is that the combined $28 thousand or so in political donations was dwarfed by every other cause.

From Our Department of WTF

Under what theory of government is this a proper activity of government with our tax dollars?

Gov. Jan Brewer took the stage Thursday with rocker and restaurateur Alice Cooper to persuade Arizonans that dining out is good for the state. Announcing a three-month public-awareness campaign called Dine 4 AZ, they said going to restaurants supports businesses and helps preserve jobs. Brewer noted that restaurants generate 10 percent of Arizona's tax revenues.

"We are working hard to lead the Grand Canyon State forward and out of this recession, and Dine 4 AZ fits perfectly into our plan," she said. "Please treat your family to a meal and we'll get through this together."

It is just seriously freaking frustrating to see the government spend my money promoting other people's businesses.   And since when has dining out been a sign of patriotism?  Why is buying food from a restaurant more stimulative than buying food from a supermarket? On the plus side of all this is the spectacle of politicians taking the stage with Phoenix favorite son Alice Cooper to make a policy speech.  The only thing that would be better would be for the governor to appear with Phoenix-area resident Jenna Jamison to promote the, uh, stimulative effect of spending an evening at your local strip club.

Postscript - by the way, there is almost no point in challenging the numbers in such a stupid article, but I will bet anything I own that restaurants do not generate 10 percent of Arizona's tax revenues.  Update - In fact, based on this report, restaurants were 9.4% of sales tax collections which in turn are 61% of major state taxes, which makes restaurants and bars about 5.7% of state tax revenue, which I will admit is higher than I would have guessed but still well off the number in the article.

Update #2: OK, I am probably overworking this, but the same report referenced above showed Arizona individual income taxes dropping 32.4% in 2009, presumably due to large drops in income.  However, sales taxes only dropped 13.9% in that period.  And within sales taxes, restaurant and bar sales taxes only dropped 5.8%.  I say only, because except for some stable utility and telecom categories, this is the lowest drop of any business sector subject to sales taxes.   General retail down 12.2%.  Amusements down 8.1%.  Hotel/Motel down 11.9%.  So, in response to the down economy, the state government has thrown their weight behind shifting business to... the single retail category that has been least hurt by the recession.

Health Care Budget Games

Bruce McQuain points out something I think has not gotten enough attention in the health care bill.  The new taxes being proposed start in 2010, but the benefits don't begin until 2013 and are phased in through something like 2018.  That means for any 10-year budget look, there are 10 years of taxes but only 6-7 years of benefits.  And even with this trick, the plan STILL adds a trillion dollars to the deficit, even before the certainly more pessimistic CBO numbers come in.

More Union Payback

Mark Mix has an article in the WSJ on various paybacks to unions buried in the current health care bill.  The steps range from forced-unionization of certain health care professions to direct subsidies of union health care funds to exemption of union health care plans from the rules everyone else will have to follow.

Update: The Greg Conko study also looks good, but I am only part way through it.

Blaming the Free Market for Government Actions

The leftish political strategy for over 100 years has been

  1. Regulate something
  2. Blame the free market for inevitable disruptions caused by the regulation
  3. Use the above to justify more regulation
  4. Repeat

Obama's speech has a classic example of this:

So let me set the record straight. My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition. Unfortunately, in 34 states, 75% of the insurance market is controlled by five or fewer companies. In Alabama, almost 90% is controlled by just one company. Without competition, the price of insurance goes up and the quality goes down. And it makes it easier for insurance companies to treat their customers badly "“ by cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest; by overcharging small businesses who have no leverage; and by jacking up rates.

This is ENTIRELY a situation manufactured by government and specifically state regulations.  States prevent out of state insurance companies from competing in the health insurance market.  Think you have the same Blue Cross/ Blue Shield I have (or used to have)?  Wrong.  I have Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Arizona.  You have Blue Cross/Blue Shield of whatever state you are in.  If Amazon.com had to create 50 separate state entities all with wildly different regulatory structures, you can bet they would focus on just a few states and there would therefore be a lot less competition.  Obama HAS to know this is true, so this is just a cynical argument aimed at the ignorant and uninformed.

By the way, what evidence is there that having 75% of the market in 5 companies is too concentrated?  I have been in a lot of industrial markets that were far more concentrated than that which were brutally competitive.

Totally Inconsistent

Two excerpts from Obama's speech:

That's why under my plan, individuals will be required to carry basic health insurance "“ just as most states require you to carry auto insurance.

Oh, jeez, I sure wish that were true.  Auto insurance covers only catastrophic damages, such as totaling your car or incurring serious liability by hurting someone.   It does not cover regular repairs, preventative maintenance, etc.  Also, state-mandated auto insurance has a range of coverage caps -- if you want a higher cap, you can pay for it.  No one expects their company to pay their auto insurance, and if a company were to provide it it would be considered a taxable benefit.  Compared to our current health insurance system, auto insurance-like health insurance would be a brilliant improvement.  Despite his making this analogy, this is absolutely NOT what he is suggesting.  Also from his speech:

Under this plan, it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition. As soon as I sign this bill, it will be against the law for insurance companies to drop your coverage when you get sick or water it down when you need it most. They will no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage you can receive in a given year or a lifetime. We will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses, because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they get sick. And insurance companies will be required to cover, with no extra charge, routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies

Update: OK, here is another good pairing, from the same source -- first, he says that a public option will not be subsidized:

They argue that these private companies can't fairly compete with the government. And they'd be right if taxpayers were subsidizing this public insurance option. But they won't be. I have insisted that like any private insurance company, the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects.

But then he makes this comparison:

It would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities.

See?  The public option will not be subsidized and will work just like public universities which are highly subsidized.

By the way, it is almost impossible for government NOT to subsidize such an entity, in part because of the way government accounting differs from private accounting.  Government accounting is on a cash basis, so large up front investments show as a first year loss with no future expense implications.  In operation, it means capital spending is pretty much free.  And numerous charges that private firms take on, such as liability insurance, are not charged for on government books.   I compete with the government a lot, and have investigated this dynamic in depth.  Even why my costs are lower, the government, because of the way it accounts for things, often thinks its costs are much lower than mine and they under-price us.

Uninsured Math Becoming Clearer

Tonight, Obama reduced the number of "uninsured" Americans he is trying to help from 47 to 30 million.   Megan McArdle hypothesizes that he has dropped immigrants and illegal aliens from the number to avoid the political fallout from paying for these groups.

But we can also further drop the number from 30 million to 18 million, because 12 million people are in a category "reform" supporters say could afford insurance today but choose not to buy it.  Rather than being helped by the plan, these 12 million will be expected to either buy insurance they don't want or need or else face severe penalties from the feds:

Under the plan, people who earn between 100% and 300% of the poverty level (or between about $22,000 a year and $66,000 a year for a family of four) would face fees ranging from $750 to $1,500 a year.

For taxpayers with incomes above 300% of poverty, the penalty starts at $950 a year and reaches as high as $3,800 for families. Nearly 12 million people fit in this category, according to the National Institute for Health Care Management.

The idea behind the penalty is that those who can afford insurance but don't buy it are imposing costs on the entire health system. Under the proposal, nearly 12 million people who currently have no insurance could be subject to such fines, according to figures compiled by the National Institute for Health Care Management.

It is hard to argue these 12 million are being helped.  In fact, they are the milch cows helping to pay for the program, giving the lie to Obama's promise not to raise taxes on the middle class.

But of these remaining 18 million, as many as 10-14 million are eligible for Medicare, Medicaid, or SCHIP and are simply waiting until they need medical care before signing up.

Every time anyone counts it, there are about 8-10 million truly hard core poor and uninsured.  So we are going to screw up the medical care for the other 290 million of us to help these guys?   As I said before, this country is generous and if one were to point out a segment in true need, the money would likely be made available.  What concerns most people is not the libertarian fears I have of more spending and government, but the fear that helping a few folks will mean worse care for everyone else.  The analogy I have used many times is that people don't have a problem contributing to public housing for the poor (even if it turns out to suck), but they do have a problem if they are forced to leave their own home and enter the crappy public housing as well, in the name of some misplaced notion of egalitarian "fairness."

If We Just Spent More Money On Education...

200909_blog_coulson1

From Andrew Coulson.  Math and reading scores probably underestimate changes in learning (e.g. doesn't account for increased need to teach computer skills in this timeframe).  But discourse on education often seems to assume the blue line is flat to down.    It is interesting that among the left, this chart is proof that we need to spend more money while the exact same chart in health care (say with scores replaced by life expectancy) is proof we need to spend less money.  In fact, the health care chart would look better, because at least there the key metric of quality has increased over time.

Update: Here are the life expectancy stats, showing much more progress than education (despite being suppressed by an increasing murder rate in the period -- to really make it a metric of health care you need to pull out accidents and homicides).  So both health care and education spending go up a lot.  Education results show no improvement.  Health care results show strong improvement.  But education needs more money and health care less?  You'd almost think people's opinions on this were based more on feeding government run institutions and starving private ones, irregardless of results.

Potential Phoenix Climate Presentation

I am considering making a climate presentation in Phoenix based on my book, videos, and blogging on how catastrophic anthropogenic global warming theory tends to grossly overestimate man's negative impact on climate.

I need an honest answer - is there any interest out there in the Phoenix area in that you might attend such a presentation in North Phoenix followed by a Q&A?  Email me or leave notes in the comments.  If you are associated with a group that might like to attend such a presentation, please email me.

Comment of the Day

From Ken at Popehat, commenting on Mike Duvall of California:

But I have to ask: seriously, if you are going into politics for a steady supply of ass (of whatever gender) "” and plenty of people do "” would it kill you to just shut the fuck up about family values?

Changing Face of Patronage

I was listening to a lecture on the politics of reconstruction when I encountered something that seemed quite quaint.   By 1877, a lot of the country was tiring of reconstruction, and was ready to move on.  Southern Democrats were taking the opportunity to re-take control of their states (through voter intimidation and outright murder) and, unfortunately, institute a race-based social system that would be enforced by government officials for almost a hundred years.

In this background, enter the contested Presidential election between Republican Hayes and Democrat Tilden.  The electoral college vote turned on three close southern races that no one to this day probably knows who really won, particularly if one factors in the voter intimidation in those states.  Never-the-less, Republicans found themselves in control of the vote counting and later the special committee to investigate and certify the election, and predictably Republican Hayes was certified the winner.

Southern Democrats were ticked off, and threatened to throw every wrench they could into seating the new government.  So, in a back room compromise, Democrats exchanged agreement on accepting Hayes as President for agreement by Republicans to pull troops out of the South and effectively allow Southern Democrats leeway to do whatever they liked with blacks in the South.

This is all grossly simplified, but what caught my attention was one side-bargain of the deal.  The Southern Democrats wanted a cabinet position under Hayes.  What did they want?  State, maybe War?  No, they wanted the Postmaster position.  The reason was that the Postmaster had by far the most patronage positions to award of any of the Cabinet positions, because it employed so many civil service positions.

Doesn't handing out a few jobs as rewards to your political supporters seem such a quaint form of political corruption today?  Now, of course, with the power to tax or regulate whole industries out of business, or to step on one group of competitors in favor of another set in a high-stakes market, this seems so benign.  I wish that were all we had to worry about today.  Instead, we have a President who can, without any enabling legislation, take two of the largest corporations in American (GM and Chrysler), cancel the debts owed to their secured creditors, and then hand control of these companies to his strongest political supporters (the UAW) -- an act of political patronage that makes a joke of selling a few postmaster positions.

Update: Don Boudreaux discusses the rise of government-controlled fire fighting in the context of political patronage.

More On Rising Health Care Spending

I posted the other day that one explanation of rising health care expenditures in the US is rising wealth.  As we are wealthier than other Western nations, doesn't it make sense we would spend more on our health than other nations.

James DeLong adds:

Robert Fogel, in his NBER paper, which has more detail than his American article (and will cost you $5), looks at changes in U.S. consumption patterns from 1875 to the present. A striking number is the reduction in the costs of the basics -- food, shelter, clothing took 74% of income in 1875; 13% in 1995. This has freed up a lot of income, and one of the great gainers has been health. In 1875, it took only 1% of consumption, largely because there was little to be bought, except for patent medicines loaded with alcohol and opiates, or a saw to lop off an injured limb. By 1995, it was 9%.Leisure was another big gainer -- 17% in 1875; 68% in 1995.

So if improvements in medical technology lead people to reallocate money toward health, fine.

Yeah, That's Me All Right

I was a consultant for McKinsey & Co. for about 5 years in Dallas.  This was NOT me:

Through conversations with several staffers who have endured the McKinsey interviews, we've assembled a portrait of the typical consultant. First, they're quite young! Despite the early perception that they'd look like pasty lawyers wielding big-wheeled suitcases, they're apparently a plucky, charming bunch.

"They're kind of hot," said one source.

Crisp shirts, no jackets, freshly pressed pants"”not unlike the fresh-faced boys who posed for the Harvard fashion shoot in the Styles pages of The Times this past weekend. They jot notes down on legal pads and in marble notebooks.

Though I will say, much to my kids' ever-lasting amusement, McKinsey did send me to a sort of executive charm school when I started managing teams, because I was such a hopeless geek.  Actually, my main problem was that I was adult-ADD, and couldn't sit still in a meeting.  It's fine roaming around the room in hyperactive fashion when its your own company (ala Steve Jobs) but it is not OK when you are a 25-year-old consultant to the CEO of a Fortune 50 company.

My personal style didn't work any better in any of the other companies I worked for.  Aerospace was probably the biggest mis-match.  There is just no place for a hyperactive marketing guy in a business that takes 10 years to close a sale.  So I now run my own company, and there is no one above me to complain.

Pigovian Tax on Carelessness

Kevin Drum links to a NY Times article that, mainly through annecdote, seems to be trying to fabricate the "next" consumer crisis, over debit card overdraft fees.  The key chart, containing about all the real non-annecdotal data in the article is below:

Blog_Overdraft_Fees

I wrote in the comments:

Wow, the NY Times almost fooled me with this chart. Yet again they play games with scale and timeframes to make a point that is not correct. For example, it looks like overdraft fees may have risen faster than transactions, but that is because the overdraft fee revenue chart goes back to 1992 and the transaction chart only goes back to 2000.

If we look at both from 2000, we see overdraft fees on debit cards have gone from $20 billion to $38 billion today, or about a 90% increase. At the same time, dollar amount of purchases on debit cards went from $0.3 trillion to $1.3 trillion (as well as I can read the graph) or an increase of 333%. I understand that there may be a mix shift I am missing - the overdraft numbers include charges for checks as well as NSF fees, but the article does not have the changing mix. This is another topic, but why can't reporters even at the Times include all the numbers you really need to analyze this stuff - don't they try to do these calculations? They have graphs side by side, implying one should compare trends, but they have apples (debit card transaction volume) next to oranges (all overdraft charges, including debit cards but other stuff too) on completely different time scales.

Anyway, by the article's own numbers, the overdraft fee volume has grown 3.5 times slower than transactions, meaning that overdraft fees have dropped from 6.7% to 2.9% of debit card transactions. This shift may be less dramatic if there are mix changes in the fees, but never-the-less, why isn't this good news? The world is never going to make the price of carelessness=0, if for no other reason that the moral hazard would be so large. But the high price on carelessness in this case seems to be reducing the frequency of people being careless (if the price of an overdraft has really gone up as implied anecdotally in the story, then the frequency must be way down -- sure missed that data in the article). We want to raise the price of Co2 to produce less of it - why don't we applaud when we raise the price of carelessness and we get less of it?