Archive for January 2010

Obama's Bosses Say No to Senate Health Care Bill

Our Out of Control County Attorney

Radley Balko has a great article on Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, the wingman for Sheriff Joe Arpaio in any number of abuses of power.  I have tried to write about Thomas before, but some of his exploits are so bizarre and complex that they make simple description difficult, but Balko is clearly a better journalist than I and does a good job summarizing some of his most egregious actions.

The common denominator for both Thomas and Arpaio tends to be their near vendetta responses to anyone who either criticizes them or tries to limit their power (ie by denying a search warrant or dismissing one of their cases).

The most recent mess in Maricopa pits Thomas and Apraio against...well, just about everyone else. The two have been squabbling with members of the county board of supervisors for years over the construction of a $341 million county courthouse tower, which both feel is a waste of money. They might have a point. But Arpaio and Thomas are using criminal law as a cudgel in the dispute.

Last month, Thomas indicted two county supervisors on some petty financial disclosure violations. When Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe issued a ruling pertaining to the court tower investigation that Arpaio and Thomas didn't like, Thomas then indicted Donahoe for bribery, on the absurd premise that as a judge who works in the courthouse, Donahoe (who is retiring soon) would have benefited from the new tower. That indictment came shortly after Donahoe held one of Arpaio's deputies in contempt after a highly-publicized incident in which the deputy was caught on video stealing documents from the file of a defense attorney in open court.

Using criminal charges"”or the threat of them"”to silence political opponents has become something of a habit for Thomas. He has indicted more than a dozen public officials who have criticized him or Arpaio. He has launched or threatened criminal investigations into dozens of others, including politicians, columnists, and other media figures who have dared to criticize him or the sheriff. When Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon asked for a federal investigation of Arpaio's immigration enforcement tactics, Arpaio and Thomas investigated him too, attempting to snoop on Gordon's email, appointment book, and phone records. Thomas even recently threatened to criminally investigate a defense attorney for issuing public statements in support of his client.

These guys are from the bad, statist end of the Republican pond.  Interestingly, Thomas and Arpaio have alienated most of the Republican leadership in Arizona, and rely on their continued popularity with national conservative media and the local populace.   The latter is hard to describe to outsiders.  Its often hard for me to understand.  My best guess is that people ignore Thomas and Arpaio's worst behavior as aimed at people who somehow "don't count," particularly immigrants from Mexico.   Balko quotes Clint Bollack of the Goldwater Institute:

Bolick says their perseverance is also due to the polarizing effects of the immigration debate. Immigration "is extremely divisive," he says. "In the eyes of a lot of people, because they're cracking down on illegal immigrants, Thomas and Arpaio can do no wrong. So there's justification for whatever they do, and any criticism of them on any issue is a betrayal of the cause. It's really unfortunate that it's causing a lot of good people to turn a blind eye to ineffective law enforcement and abuses of power."

I don't want to violate Godwin's law here, but this quote springs to mind about the reactions to Thomas and Arpaio (from a member of the German protestant clergy in the 1930s)

First, the Nazis went after the Jews, but I wasn't a Jew, so I didn't react. Then they went after the Catholics, but I wasn't a Catholic, so I didn't object. Then they went after the worker, but I wasn't a worker, so I didn't stand up. Then they went after the Protestant clergy and by then it was too late for anybody to stand up.

One Year Later

I think my post from Inauguration Day one year ago holds up pretty well, though I caught a lot of grief for it at the time  [a few spelling errors fixed]

OK, I was really going to remain silent today, because no one seems to want to hear a rant about today's imperial coronation.  But as I sit here watching the press coverage and waiting for John the Baptist to show up, and as I observe the general cultish hysteria and the swooning of normally serious adult people, I just can't help myself.  For a libertarian like myself, its like watching people line up at 3am to be the first to be in the store when McDonald's switches its fountain drinks from Coke to Pepsi.   Heck, I was creeped out by the cult following of Ron Paul this year, a politician I agree with a lot, so I certainly am going to get the willies from the love-fest for an admitted statist like Obama.

I am not enough of a historian to speak for much more than the last thirty years, but the popularity of non-incumbent political candidates has typically been proportional to 1) their personal charisma and 2) our lack of knowledge of their exact proposals.  Seriously, can you name any other difference (on the plus side) between Obama and Hillary other than these two?  We forget, but GWB was the unknown newcomer in 1992.  As was Clinton and Carter.  Reagan was an exception, but was running against an incumbent who really had a terrible four years, and Bush I was an exception as well, though he was running against one of the weakest candidates and campaigns the Democrats have fielded in 50 years.  Folks are excited about Obama because, in essence, they don't know what he stands for, and thus can read into him anything they want.  Not since the breathless coverage of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault has there been so much attention to something where we had no idea of what was inside.  My bet is that the result with Obama will be the same as with the vault.

There is some sort of weird mass self-hypnosis going on, made even odder by the fact that a lot of people seem to know they are hypnotized, at least at some level.  I keep getting shushed as I make fun of friends' cult behavior watching the proceedings today, as if by jiggling someone's elbow too hard I might break the spell.  Never have I seen, in my lifetime, so much emotion invested in a politician we know nothing about.   I guess I am just missing some gene that makes the rest of humanity receptive to this kind of stuff, but just for a minute snap your fingers in front of your face and say "do I really expect a fundamentally different approach from a politician who won his spurs in "¦. Chicago?  Do I really think the ultimate political outsider is going to be the guy who bested everyone at their own game in the Chicago political machine?"

Well, the spell will probably take a while to break in the press, if it ever does "” Time Magazine is currently considering whether it would be possible to put Obama on the cover of all 52 issues this year "” but thoughtful people already on day 1 should have evidence that things are the same as they ever were, just with better PR.   For God sakes, as his first expenditure of political capital, Obama is pushing for a trillion dollar government spending bill that is basically one big pork-fest that might make even Ted Stevens blush, a hodge-podge of every wish-list of leftish lobbyists that has been building up for eight years.  I will be suitably thrilled if the Obama administration renounces some of the creeping executive power grabs of the last 16 years, but he has been oddly silent about this.  It seems that creeping executive power is a lot more worrisome when someone else is in power.

It has been suggested by some that today is less a cultish coronation but a big victory party in the battle against racism.  Well, I am certainly willing to accept it on those terms.  I have been arguing for years that it is time to declare victory on the worst aspects of race and gender discrimination, and move on to problems of interest to all races (like individual freedom or giving kids options to escape crappy public schools).   Unfortunately, I fear that too many folks in power are dependent on the race/gender/class wars continuing, so you and I may think we are declaring victory, but those with power over our lives have not.

Forced Loans

Every year, the government forced nearly every working American to give it an interest-free loan.   Each person pays his taxes (via legally required withholding) as much as 16 months early, with not a cent of interest from the government for this loan of funds.  Several states have been toying of late  (and California actually implemented) schemes in which the required withholding rates are jacked far above any conceivable level of tax liability.  These are desperate financing approaches from entities who are no longer able to borrow (or afford the interest of) money at arms length, and so much use the coercive power of the government to force its citizens to fork over interest free loans.

Apparently, the Obama administration is looking at such a scheme, but on steriods:

The U.S. Treasury and Labor Departments will ask for public comment as soon as next week on ways to promote the conversion of 401(k) savings and Individual Retirement Accounts into annuities or other steady payment streams, according to Assistant Labor Secretary Phyllis C. Borzi and Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary Mark Iwry, who are spearheading the effort.

Whatever their stated justification (I am sure it is somehow for the children), I think Dale Franks gets at the actual motivation:

There literally isn't enough money in the world to float the T-notes the Treasury must issue in order to prop up our unsustainable spending path.  There are, however, about $3.6 trillion in funds just sitting in 401(k) accounts.  If the government can urge"“or force"“you to convert your 401(k) into T-note funded annuities, the Treasury can continue to issue those notes to float the government's deficit.  Essentially, you'll be converting your retirement funds into an IOU from the government"¦just like your social security account has already done.

This will allow the Treasury to keep borrowing money"“from your retirement"“in order to keep issuing more debt that they may or may not be able to pay back to you

Internet Out in Front? Or All Alone?

OK, I am a pathetic loser and was tuned in to sports talk radio all day in my office.  That being said, I have heard nothing about this incident on the radio and a quick Google search shows that only sites on the case are all internet sites.  Hopefully this will get more attention tomorrow in larger outlets, as it is always scary to see what appears to be a pretty substantial abuse of power.  In the video, a Jets fan gets hauled out of the Charger stadium, apparently for too much boisterousness in favor of the visiting team.  Watch in particular the Charger fans sticking up for the guy, which is about as good of evidence as I can think of to say there wasn't any legitimate reason for the arrest.

Climate Interview

Last week I did a very enjoyable interview Stefan Molyneux of FreeDomain Radio. My presence was almost superfluous, as Stefan was incredibly well-informed as well as passionate on climate topics. Our discussion hits on many critical topics related to the science of the skeptics position, from positive feedbacks to urban heat biases to hockey sticks. The interview is embedded below, but I encourage you to check out his site, he seems to get a lot of interesting interviews of which I appear to be the most pedestrian.

Arizona Parks Privitization

The AZ Republic has an editorial today saying that privatization is not the answer for the Arizona State Parks budget woes.   On the plus side, they did actually call me for my opinion yesterday before they published it.  On the down side, they ignored everything I said.  Here is my response:

I run one of the larger private parks management companies in the country, which is based right here in Phoenix. Like many Arizona residents, I am a frequent visitor to our state parks and am sympathetic to their current budget pain. Further, I am not one to offer up privatization as a panacea for all the park's woes -- the state parks organization fulfills a variety of public missions that cannot be undertaken well privately. But I think you missed a couple of important considerations in your editorial today counseling against privatization options.

First, from my experience with public recreation agencies around the country, these budget pressures on parks organizations never really end. Recreation is almost always a key pawn in budget fights, and even if Arizona State Parks funding is restored this year, we likely will be fighting the same battles in a few years. Private concession management of parks has the advantage of taking parks off the budget, so they no longer can fall victim to budget fights. For example, in the famous 1995 federal government shutdown, private concession run facilities in the US Forest Service were the only federal recreation options that remained open through the whole budget battle.

Second, while small low-visitation parks, on a standalone basis, may not represent a very good business opportunity, there are a variety of ways to handle privatization of smaller parks. We run approximately 175 public parks and campgrounds across the country, and well fewer than half of these stand on their own as private business opportunities. But many public agencies have learned to package smaller, low-visitation parks with higher-visitation parks into multi-park packages that both provide operators a business opportunity as well as meet the public's goal of keeping all of its parks open. Further, states like California have found many creative ways to keep historic sites open using private management. These solutions, at places like Columbia State Park, not only keep historic buildings open to the public but also create events and services that bring history alive and make it more interesting, particularly to children.

I know that private management is often sloughed off with statements like, "they would just build a McDonald's or put in a bunch of billboards." But thousands of parks nationally are managed privately, and this never happens. In part, this is because business people should get some credit for intelligence, and they understand what attracts people to outdoor parks in the first place and don't want to mess with the ambiance. In addition, we often have 100+ page operating agreements in place that carefully set out the quality of our services and the approvals we must obtain to make any changes to the facilities.

Further, it is sometimes suggested that private companies would just jack up the price. Well, Arizona State Parks is proposing to raise the Slide Rock entrance fee to $20. In contrast, we run nearby picnic and day use areas at places like Grasshopper Point and we rapacious capitalists only charge $8.

I am not advocating that Arizona State Parks turn off the lights and throw the keys to a private company; but I do think that private concession management could offer a piece of the long-term solution to keeping state parks open, both now and in future budget battles.

US vs. Europe: Standard of Living

NY Times | Paul Krugman | Learning From Europe

Europe's economic success should be obvious even without statistics. For those Americans who have visited Paris: did it look poor and backward? What about Frankfurt or London? You should always bear in mind that when the question is which to believe "” official economic statistics or your own lying eyes "” the eyes have it.

This is just silly.  Its like walking out on a single day and saying, "well, it doesn't seem any hotter to me" as a rebuttal to manmade global warming theory.  I am sure I can walk the tourist and financial districts of a lot of European cities with their triumphal centuries-old architecture and somehow be impressed with their wealth.  But the number of upscale shopping options on the Champs-Élysées has little to do with the standard of living of the average Frenchman.

South Bend Seven put it well:

Okay, where did you go in London? Covent Garden? St. James? Soho? Westminster? The City?

Oh, you didn't go to North Peckham, or Newham, or Hackney? You went to the rich areas of the most prosperous city in the country, and not, I don't know, Liverpool, or Leicester, or Middlesbrough? No, you've never been to those places, have you?

Well several million people live there, and no offense to them, but they're not quite as charming as the tourist districts in London. I don't think they'd look to kindly on some rich American spending a vacation watching the Changing of the Guard and taking in a show on Haymarket and concluding he knows about their country and their life.

This really gets back to my post the other day on triumphalism.  This is EXACTLY why states build pretty high-speed trains and grand municipal buildings and huge triumphal arches  -- as a way to distract both their own citizens (and outsiders) from their own well-being relative to others.  Its the magician waving something shiny around in his left hand to take your eyes off the right.  And it is pathetic that not only does a former Nobel Laureate fall for it, but he doubles down by telling everyone else to fall for it.

Relevant actual data, via Mark Perry (click to enlarge, this is 1999 data from a 2004 Swedish study but I don't think the relative positions have changed):

EUUSAHOUSEHOLDS

Triumphal arches and high-speed trains don't make people wealthy.  Wal-Mart has done far more to make the average person wealthier than any number of government projects you can mention.

Along these lines, I have said for years that one of the reasons we spend more on health care than Europe is because we can.  We are wealthier, and (rationally in my mind) people choose to spend this incremental wealth on their health and well-being.

More on the Thomas/Arpaio RICO

I will say that I have a certain fondness for the idea of tossing everyone in Congress in jail on a giant RICO prosecution.  So Thomas and Apraio's crazy RICO suit naming most everyone of any importance in the county government and judicial system as conspirators has a certain appeal.  Unfortunately, unlike my dream RICO suit, the basis for the suit is that Arpaio and Thomas were consistently prevented from excercising unchecked power

In essence, the lawsuit alleges that any county official who at any point attempted to stop Thomas and Arpaio from doing anything -- whether it's prosecuting Don Stapley, "investigating" the $341 million court tower project, or repeatedly suing Thomas' own clients -- is part of a criminal enterprise. That includes judges who ruled against them, attorneys who opposed them in court (like Ed Novak and Tom Irvine) and county employees who attempted to stop the insanity.

Hostage Crisis

The Florida sales tax auditor has been in my office for 2 days and shows no sign of leaving.  Most of the audit is as expected and I ceased long ago getting ticked off about it;  but the new focus on use tax - ie, not just did you collect and pay sales tax on your retail sales but did you pay proper sales tax on every purchase, is really annoying.  We are going to have to be pulling invoices and xeroxing for weeks.  Somehow, if as a retailer I don't collect enough sales taxes, I am liable for the shortage.  But if someone else sells me something and there is not enough sales tax collected, I am again apparently liable for the difference.  The latter makes no sense to me.    Apparently I owe taxes in this non-symmetric way based on the deep philosophic principle that he is sitting in my office, not theirs.

Update: Now he suddenly thinks that I am getting over because there is no sales tax shown on my liability insurance premiums.    AAArrrrggghhh.  Two entire days lost.

Pink Jumpsuit for Sheriff Joe

Via Expresso Pundit:

It's becoming increasingly clear that Sheriff Joe--and probably County Attorney Andy Thomas--are going to be indicted on multiple felony counts.Maricopa County Manager David Smith issued this statement today.

Today's grand jury appearance was a welcome opportunity to tell our story on behalf of County employees.  Dozens and dozens of County employees, and some County vendors, have been targeted by Sheriff Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas with retaliatory criminal investigations without cause, and disruption of their working lives without justification.

Sandi Wilson and I expect to return to the grand jury to give even more detailed testimony in three or four weeks about the many abuses of power by Sheriff Arpaio and his office that were generally described to the grand jury today.  We look forward to that next opportunity in the interests of justice.

Heroic Assumptions

Previously, I have criticized the proposed California high speed rail line (from San Diego to San Francisco) as grossly underestimating potential costs.  Brian Doherty has an article this week reality-checking its projected ridership, after the California legislative analysts' office questioned the contingency analysis in the high-speed rail plan.

Eric Thronson, a fiscal and policy analyst for the office, called a risk assessment in the business plan "incomplete and inappropriate for a project of this magnitude.''

Thronson warned that there is no backup plan to keep the rail system solvent if it fails to draw 41 million people yearly. A bond measure approved by voters to help pay for the train network prohibits public funds from being spent on operating costs.

Doherty provides this reality check:

The future: where all of California's fiscal messes wait to be addressed! By the way, that ridership figure of 41 million averages to over 112,000 train riders every single day of the year. The average daily usage of I-5--the entire road--is around 71,000, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Here are a couple of other reality checks

  • The entire passenger traffic from LAX to and from every other city in the country is 44 million a year (excludes international passengers)
  • The current air passenger traffic between LAX and SFO is 2.7 million a year
  • The passenger traffic of Amtrak in its entire national network is 28.7 million (including local commuter operations)

But What Happens if People Actually Change Their Behavior?

The Senate health care bill relies for much of its funding on a tax on so-called "Cadillac" health care plans.  But what happens when employees and employers inevitably change their behavior in the face of different incentives?

History teaches us that tax policy has a huge effect on behavior.  Witness the fact in health care the non-nonsensical fact so many people rely on their employer for health care.  As we see today, this is a really bad idea, but it was hatched because tax law provided incentives for paying compensation in the form of health insurance premiums, since these are not subject to either income or payroll taxes.

Already, employers are offering employees what are effectively buy-outs of health care -- higher pay in return for reduced health care benefits.  For employers, the upside risk on health care costs now outweigh the tax advantages of health insurance as a compensation tool.  Given this trend, what do you think will happen when employees suddenly have the same incentive, to roll back health care coverage to get under whatever bar is set for an insurance package Congress thinks is too rich (hint:  wherever the bar is set, it will be below the health insurance Congress provides itself).  Employers and employees are now going to have a shared incentive to back off on health care benefits in exchange for more cash.  Think of the sharp minds on both sides of a UAW contract negotiation - does anyone really think that these guys won't figure out a win-win to avoid paying the surtax?

Three to five years from now, even before the system goes bankrupt from inevitably expanding costs  (you didn't really buy that stuff about the operator of Amtrak and the Post Office improving the industry's efficiency, did you?), we are going to be talking about the gross shortfall in tax revenues to support these programs, all because people change their behavior in the face of changing incentives.

Top Arizona Campgrounds

Camp Arizona has put out its list of the top 10 campgrounds in ArizonaMy company runs three of the top five  (#2 Christopher Creek, #4 Cave Springs and #5 Manzanita).

The Timeless Appeal of Triumphalism

What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects?  Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.  First it was Thomas Friedman, and now its Joel Epstein in the Huffpo, eulogizing China.    These are the same folks who tried, disastrously, to emulate Mussolini's "forward-thinking" economic regime in the National Industrial Recovery Act.    These are the same folks who wanted to emulate MITI's management of the Japanese economy (which drove them right into a 20-year recession).  These are the same folks who oohed and ahhed over the multi-billion dollar Beijing Olympics venues while ignoring the air that was unbreathable.  These are the same folks who actually believed the one Cuban health clinic in Sicko actually represented the standard of care received by average citizens.  To outsiders, the costs of these triumphal programs are often not visible, at least not until years or decades later when the rubes have moved on to new man crushes.

Epstein, like Friedman, seems to think that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds much more stuff.  We are "asleep."  Well, I have a big clue for him.  Most of the great progress in this country was built when the government was asleep.  The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry  -  all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

Epstein in particular thinks we need to build more trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that Epstein in fact does not have the dictatorial powers he longs for.   High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution.   But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this:  The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China's, 1/8 of Germany's).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe is not even close.

modalsplieuusjapan (source)

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail -- not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes.   Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars.  Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make an energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full.  I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel -- especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

The real efficiency comes from moving freight.  More of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves.  Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail.    One reasons for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

Freight is boring and un-sexy.  Its not a government function in the US.  So intellectuals tend to ignore it, even though it is the far more important, from and energy and environmental standpoint, portion of transport to put on the rails.  In fact, the US would actually probably have even a higher rail modal percentage if the US government had not enforced a regulatory regime (until the Staggers Act) that favored trucks over rail.   If the government really had been asleep the last century, we would be further along.

The US has not been "asleep"  -- at least the private individuals who drive progress have not.  We have had huge revolutions in transportation over the last decades during the same period that European nations were sinking billions of dollars into pretty high-speed passenger rails systems for wealthy business travelers.   One such revolution has been containerization, invented here in the US and quickly spreading around the world.  Containerization has revolutionized shipping, speeding schedules and reducing costs (and all the while every improvement step was fought by the US and certain local governments).  To the extent American businesses are not investing today, it has more to do with regime uncertainty, not knowing what new taxes or restrictions are coming next from Congress, than any lack of vision.

I would argue that the US has the world's largest commitment to rail where it really matters.  But that is what private actors do, make investments that actually make sense rather than just gain one prestige (anyone know the most recent company Warren Buffet has bought?)  The greens should be demanding that the world emulate us, rather than the other way around.  But the lure of shiny bullet trains and grand passenger concourses will always cause folks like Epstein to swoon.

Update #2: The author Joel Epstein emailed me a response to this post.  I will give it to you in its entirety:  "You should get out of the country more often."  Wow, he played the provincial American card on me.  Except that I have been to about 20 countries, from Singapore to Argentina to Hungary.  Besides, I really don't understand what the hell he means by this in the context of my post, except as a bid for some sort of intellectual superiority.   Anyone else understand?

Postscript

Boring, but environmentally friendly and cost-effective:

10.9.2004-04

Sexy, but environmentally useless (at best) and tremendously costly:

high-speed-rail21

So, explain to me what drives these guys investment thinking.  Can it be anything but triumphalism?

Update: Energy use comparison of passenger modes. Note how close rail transit and cars, both at average occupancies, are in this analysis.  The differences in freight are much larger:

transenergy

Good for Google

Hopefully this is true, but it appears that Google is fed up with Chinese hijinx and is considering either pulling out of the country or insisting on being more open and less filtered.  I have given Google a lot of grief here for enabling Chinese censorship, so kudos if they are starting to rethink their relationship with China.

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered"“combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web"“have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

A CoyoteBlog First -- Foodblogging!

OK, I am not a foodie.  I enjoy good food, but have never really appreciated sophisticated food or food that takes hours of preparation.   The steak on the grill is at least as appealing as the veal dish that took all afternoon to put together.

I know other bloggers often publish recipes.  If I were to do so, it might look like this (from an, unfortunately, actual experience)

1 bowl of Cap'n Crunch

Substitute 1/2 cup cheap vodka for milk

Preparation notes:  Never, ever do this again

That being said, we had the opportunity to have a world famous chef and writer, Hugh Carpenter, over to our house last night.  Hugh is a friend of my wife's from his summer cooking school and was kind enough to help us host a dinner party for some friends when he was in town in exchange for his room and board.   The fun part was he agreed to whip up a dinner with whatever we had in the house, which was pretty amazing.  Sort of an Iron Chef Arizona, with everything as the secret ingredient.   I would still be agonizing over how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon in the first recipe item in the time he whipped up a couple of sauces and some appetizers.

DSC_0705

Here is Hugh with my wife.  Our guests are chipping in to help make the wontons  (Hugh actually is a big believer in this, and often advocates getting the guests to chip in on the preparation like this - its fun, a great icebreaker, and reduces pre-party stress on the host.

DSC_0699

The list of folks Hugh has cooked for is amazing.  I find his cookbooks to be easy and down to earth and have good food in them.  They are here, and he has a new book entirely dedicated to chicken wings which may actually get me in the kitchen.

What people like my wife who are really into cooking really rave about is his cooking school in the Napa Valley.  There is a lot of cooking and wine drinking, of course, but the venues are great, often in the private homes of many of his friends and associates.  Highly recommended if you are into that sort of thing.

Oh, and since I am foodblogging, I guess I should tell you about our meal.  We had these pork wonton thingies in some sort of brown sauce.  We had black cod in some kind of chutney stuff with some sort of mixed rice thingie and this other vegetable deal.  We drank some sort of white wine except when we were drinking some sort of red wine.

Rachel Ray, watch out.

batter-blaster-can

PS-  OK, I was actually able to introduce Hugh to a new food product.  He asked what I usually made the kids for breakfast, and I said "spray pancakes."  He had never heard of this, and so I proudly showed him my spray can of pancake batter (from Whole Foods, no less).  I couldn't tell if he was shocked or amazed.

Mistaken Identity

I guess its lucky they didn't send the SWAT team in for her, as she might be dead now:

[Victoria] Aguayo has filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court, after she was arrested, indicted, and nearly prosecuted for her "role" in the infamous "Desert Divas" prostitution ring.

One problem: Aguayo was not a "desert diva" and the evidence suggesting she was is laughable at best.

On one of the "Desert Divas'" many Web sites, the agency advertised an "escort" named "Tia." "Tia" is described on the site as being "thin, white, and blonde" and has a tattoo on her stomach that is clearly visible in the topless photo of the "diva" Aguayo's lawyer was kind enough to send New Times.

Phoenix Police Detective Christie Hein identified Aguayo as "Tia" based on the photo on the Web site when she arrested her on August 28, 2008, the lawsuit claims.

We've seen pictures of both "Tia" and Aguayo and we gotta say if Aguayo can be identified as "thin, white, and blonde," so can Aretha Franklin.

Aguayo is -- to put it politely -- more of a "plus-sized" woman, she's black, and is missing the tattoo that is so clearly visible in the photo of "Tia" on the "Desert Diva" Web site.

Simple, um, mistake, right?

After being arrested, Aguayo spent nearly two months in jail before she was granted a supervised release pending an upcoming trial.

While she was in the clink, Aguayo lost custody of her daughter, Jasmine, and has since been unable to get her back.

How Is This For Fiscal Responsibility?

I received a sales tax audit notice for Alabama today.  I found this odd, as it is a three year audit and we have only operated in the state for 6 months.  In fact, all four of the audit sample months they chose had zero sales.  I have never even heard of anyone being audited with this little history.

So, I call the auditor, and explain all of the above, expecting an answer like "oops, no point in proceeding."  How naive I am.  He says we have to proceed with this, and listed a pile of documents he has to see which will take me about 6 hours of my time to track down and Xerox.  Included in this, in addition to all the revenue records, he wants to see every single invoice we paid in Alabama to make sure we didn't secreatly buy stuff out of state and avoid their use tax (the tax you are supposed to pay, ha ha, if you buy items out of state with no sales tax.  You guys all file your use tax reports on Amazon purchases, right?)

But here is the part that really pissed me off.  When I asked him why I was being audited after just 6 months, he said he knew the audit was senseless but his office is desperately trying to keep everyone employed during recent budget cuts so that no one would lose their job.  Also he said is was good training for him.  Great.  I have to do 6 hours of extra work so that later I can pay higher state taxes to support more government workers.  What a deal.

Why Is the Media So Much Smarter About Legislation After it is Passed

I have decided there is something that is very predictable about the media:  they usually are very sympathetic to legislation expanding government powers or spending when the legislation is being discussed in Congress.  Then, after the legislation is passed, and there is nothing that can be done to get rid of it, the media gets really insightful all of a sudden, running thoughtful pieces about the hidden problems and unintended consequences of the legislation.  I remember that they did this with the ethanol mandates, when I summarized:

All this stuff was known long before Congress voted for the most recent ethanol mandates.  Why is it that the media, who cheerled such mandates for years, is able to apply any institutional skepticism only after the mandates have become law?

And now we are seeing it with the stimulus bill:

A federal spending surge of more than $20 billion for roads and bridges in President Barack Obama's first stimulus has had no effect on local unemployment rates, raising questions about his argument for billions more to address an "urgent need to accelerate job growth."An Associated Press analysis of stimulus spending found that it didn't matter if a lot of money was spent on highways or none at all: Local unemployment rates rose and fell regardless. And the stimulus spending only barely helped the beleaguered construction industry, the analysis showed.

With the nation's unemployment rate at 10 percent and expected to rise, Obama wants a second stimulus bill from Congress including billions of additional dollars for roads and bridges "” projects the president says are "at the heart of our effort to accelerate job growth."...

Even within the construction industry, which stood to benefit most from transportation money, the AP's analysis found there was nearly no connection between stimulus money and the number of construction workers hired or fired since Congress passed the recovery program. The effect was so small, one economist compared it to trying to move the Empire State Building by pushing against it.

Well, better late than never.  And actually moderately timely in this case because we are considering a second stimulus bill.  It even includes this insight which is almost NEVER raised in stimulus-related discussions:

"As a policy tool for creating jobs, this doesn't seem to have much bite," said Emory University economist Thomas Smith, who supported the stimulus and reviewed AP's analysis. "In terms of creating jobs, it doesn't seem like it's created very many. It may well be employing lots of people but those two things are very different."

Exactly.  Stealing $10 million from Peter so Paul can hire three more people doesn't net increase jobs until you understand what Peter would have done with the money.  One has to argue that the market did a poor job in allocating capital to Peter and that the government will employ this capital more productively (hah!)

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defended the administration's recovery program Monday, writing on his blog that "DOT-administered stimulus spending is the only thing propping up the transportation construction industry."

Well, as the article goes on to say, this turns out not to be the case.  But even if it were true, what industries were gutted by having their capital taken away so that one government-favored industry could be stimulated.

By the way, never underestimate the power of politicians to use every tool up to and including malfeasance to get more money and power for themselves (because that is exactly what the stimulus bills are -- a substitution of the markets with Congress in the capital allocation process).

It is also becoming more difficult to obtain an accurate count of stimulus jobs. Those who receive stimulus money can now credit jobs to the program even if they were never in jeopardy of being lost, according to new rules outlined by the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

The new rules, reported Monday by the Internet site ProPublica, allow any job paid for with stimulus money to count as a position saved or created.

Consider the Incentives

Consider the incentives for a bank trying to set the risk profile of its investments.  Should it go for higher returns at higher risk, or dial back the risk at a cost to near-term profits?  Now consider this decision in the context of two actions from the past year:

  • Large banks that took on too much risk are bailed out and management mostly preserved
  • Banks that eschewed higher profits by avoiding bad risks are now forced to pay for the bailout of those that went wild:

Obama administration officials and lawmakers are scrambling to find a way to funnel some of the financial industry's record earnings back to the taxpayers who helped rescue the industry from looming disaster.The White House is considering a fee on banks and other financial companies

as one approach, with revenues earmarked to help recoup any losses from the government's $700 billion bailout fund, a senior administration official said.

Some in Congress want to add a new tax on bonuses or assess a small fee on all stock transactions, which would hit large banking companies the hardest.

Note that there is no attempt here to only charge banks who received bailout money, but all banks will be charged equally.  To each according to his need, from each according to his ability.  This is moral hazard in spades.

Cutting the Right Expenses

In 2003, my company was in some serious financial problems.  Post 9/11 commercial insurance premiums had just risen substantially, so much so that my premiums went up more than my total annual profits.  At the same time I found out that a number of operations I had just acquired were profitable only because they were not in compliance with labor law, and my crash program to bring them into compliance was going to put me deeply in the red for that year.

I did a whole bunch of things to right the ship, but the two most important were 1)  I eliminated a whole layer of management, slashing 5 vice-presidents and having all the front line managers report directly to me; and 2)  I eliminated the smallest and worst performing business units.

Now, contrast this to what governments do in the same situation.  Their first response, of course, is to do something I could not do - compel more revenue for themselves by increasing taxes.  Those of us who make our living by the free decision making of others don't have this dictatorial option.

The second thing that governments do is cut their MOST important, MOST valuable operations.  In Seattle, it was always fire and ambulance services that would be cut.  Because the whole game was to find the cuts that would most upset the public to try to avoid the necessity of having to make cuts at all.  Its an incredibly disingenuous process.  Any staffer of a private company that made cost savings prioritization decisions like government officials would be fired in about 2 minutes.

The third thing that governments do if forced to actually, really cut costs (meaning that every other stalling tactic, taxation method, and accounting trick has been exhausted) is to cut field staff who actually do the work rather than high-paid, bloated administrative staffs.  This means teachers get cut but not vice-principals.  And it means that preventative maintenance gets cut and not transit staffers:

Having removed a mere 25 employees so far, and having just suffered its deadliest year ever, Metro officials now want to raid $10 million from the agency's preventive maintenance fund in order to cover operating expenses, including salaries and benefits. Metro managers would rather skimp on passenger safety and reliability than clear out the system's deadwood and force serious concessions by the transit union.

Moreover, even as it asks riders to sacrifice, Metro is fattening itself up, hiring two new "senior planners," one to a newly created position. According to Metro's official job description, they will be "responsible for participation in the development of an annual business plan ... identifying opportunities for future growth and development" and "defining future strategies."

Blue Fremen

I thought this was pretty good.  I was so focused on the Dances with Wolves parallels that I missed this one.    Via the South Bend Seven, who has other review notes on Avatar.

An Apt Analogy

In his regular email, Bill Leonard recounts a story told by the California governor to the legislator that may be even more apt than he intended:

The Governor told a delightful story to the Joint Session of the Legislature regarding the animals at his home.  It seems that the pet pony and the pet pot-bellied pig work together to knock the dog's food canister off the kennel then using feet, hooves and snout, they pry the lid off to get to the food.  The Governor's message: if my pony and pig can co-operate like this, then certainly the Governor and the Legislature can cooperate.

But I got to thinking about the dog.  His food was gone, taken without his permission.  So who is the dog in the Governor's analogy?  I am hoping it is not me and the millions of other taxpayers who lose our canisters of food every time the Governor and the Legislature cooperate on taxes.

I am afraid the dog is probably the rest of us, and this is exactly how politicians think - how can we all cooperate to get down to the real business of government -- taking more of the dog's food.

Wow! Nancy Pelosi Cuts Auto Development Cycle From 6 Years to 6 Months

It used to be that it took something like 5-6 years to develop a new vehicle from scratch.  Apparently, though, GM has accelerated this to 6 months, as Nancy Pelosi is taking personal credit for the recently released GM vehicles.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Obama administration officials defended last year's federal bailout of automakers on Monday, pointing to new vehicles at the Detroit auto show as a sign of the industry's rebirth. ...

"We've seen ideas turned into policy turned into product," Pelosi said.

Pelosi and company fawned over cars like the Volt, expected to be a money-loser from the get-go, while ignoring the trucks and larger family cars where GM actually makes money.  Bob Lutz steps up to take on the Orren Boyle mantle:

GM vice chairman Bob Lutz said Sunday that Washington's interest in the auto industry was welcome after being ignored by U.S. lawmakers for decades while other nation's backed their carmakers.

He said he had always thought the U.S. "was the only car-producing nation in the world where the administration and the politicians ... didn't know about American car companies, didn't care about American car companies - none of the politicians drove American cars."

"It's like we were the stepchild of the American industry and the American economy," Lutz said.

This is hilarious - few other industries have been the subject of more government bailouts and protection and subsidies than the auto companies.  Remember all those DOE and DOT grants?  Remember Chrysler bailout #1?  Remember the tariffs and import quotas?  But wait, it gets even more barf-inducing:

"Unfortunately it took the financial failure of the American automobile industry to make the whole country aware of the importance of the American automobile industry," Lutz said at a Society of Automotive

Analysts event.

See, its all of our fault they went bankrupt, not their crappy management, crappy designs, and crappy labor agreements.  All our fault.  I feel so terrible.