Archive for November 2010

Information and Incentives

I tell folks all the time that  99% of the time the problem with bad governance is not bad people in the government (or at least not bad before they entered government) but bad incentives and information.

Take the recent public reaction against the new TSA search procedures.  Its not that everyone in the TSA aspired for a job where they could grope stranger's nads.  Its that the incentives in government make risk management impossible.

Let's look first at the cost side.  How much do internal TSA evaluation and incentive systems value

  • protection of individual rights and privacy
  • stewardship of taxpayers money

Can we safely say close to zero?  I don't think anyone at the TSA is being denied promotion because they were insufficiently concerned with the fourth amendment.

So what is it that does matter in their incentive system?  I would argue that they have one single, overriding concern -- to avoid an incident for which they can be retroactively blamed as being insufficiently diligent.   If you are confused about how this incentive might arise, Conservatives need only look at themselves.  How many of you have pounded Janey Napolitano for being insufficiently diligent, for example in her "the system worked as it was supposed to" comments.

I spent a lot of time at HBS, in consulting at McKinsey, and in corporate life worrying about incentive systems.  And the absolute first rule, in my mind, is to ignore the official incentive system and explore what really drives behavior.  For example, a company might have a finely balanced set of published performance measures, but if the last three promotions all went to the person who sucked up the most to the boss, the latter will likely influence behavior much more than the published system.

The same is true at the TSA.  I have no idea what their official performance metrics are.  But to a large extent these metrics are irrelevant anyway in an environment where it's impossible to be fired and salaries and promotions have more to do with seniority than performance.   In this environment, unofficial incentives are going to be very powerful, and I am virtually positive the overriding such incentive is avoiding blame due to lack of diligence.

So we should not be surprised if the TSA runs out of control with its diligence in a way that is unchecked by any considerations of cost, privacy, or risk management.  This incentive is so powerful that the only way to override it is either through executive leadership or legislative action.  We'll see if we get either, but trashing privacy and the fourth amendment tend to be bipartisan hobbies so I am not wildly confident much will change.

Health Care Trojan Horse

I have warned many times:

When health care is paid for by public funds, politicians only need to argue that some behavior affects health, and therefore increases the state's health care costs, to justify regulating the crap out of that behavior.

So, don't be surprised to see a lot more of this:

"Too many lives are lost in motorcycle accidents," Christopher A. Hart, NTSB vice chairman, said in announcing that helmets had been added to the board's annual "most-wanted list" of safety improvements. "It's a public health issue."

What Politicians Really Want From Election Laws

This nifty quote from Senator Jay Rockefeller got me to thinking:

"There's a little bug inside of me which wants to get the FCC to say to FOX and to MSNBC: "˜Out. Off. End. Goodbye.' It would be a big favor to political discourse; our ability to do our work here in Congress, and to the American people, to be able to talk with each other and have some faith in their government and more importantly, in their future."

This last election demonstrated exactly what politicians don't like about election law when they complain about things like Citizens United.  No, its not the influx of campaign donations-- politicians are perfectly thrilled to be on the receiving end of more money.  The failure in the eyes of politicians was the large turnover in Congress and the losses suffered by many incumbents.  For most in Congress, election law is about maintaining their incumbency.  Any law that makes it harder for them to be criticized in the press or by challengers is good.  Anything that increases public criticism of them is bad.

Ditto Hamburgers

Apparently, the folks in France are at it again, valiantly trying to retroactively create trademark rights that don't exist.  I saw this link below:

Which leads to this site, which says in part:

When it comes to wine, there is no ingredient more important than location. The land, air, water and weather where grapes are grown are what make each wine unique. That is why we, as wine enthusiasts, demand that a wine's true origin be clearly identified on its label in order for us to make informed decisions when purchasing and consuming wine. This ensures we know where our wine comes from and protects wine growing regions worldwide.

Use the form below to sign the petition to protect wine place and origin names:

I hereby sign the Wine Place & Origin Petition. In doing so, I join the signatories of the Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin - Champagne, Chianti Classico, Jerez, Napa Valley, Oregon, Paso Robles, Porto, Sonoma County, Tokaj, Victoria, Walla Walla, Washington State and Western Australia - and a growing list of consumers in supporting clear and accurate labeling to better ensure consumers will not be misled by wine labels.

Some countries like Germany cannot use "champagne" or "Cognac" to describe similar products.  Do you know why?  These conditions were actually thrown in to the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI.  Since the US never signed the treaty, it and its citizens and growers are not bound by this restriction.

In the same spirit I demand that:  1) Hamburgers only be made in Hamburg 2)  Franfurters can only be made in Frankfort 3) Wiener Snitzel can only be made in Vienna 4) Hollandaise Sauce can only be made in the Netherlands  5) Boston baked beans can only be made in Boston.  Obviously we consumers are all duped, thinking our hamburger was actually made in Germany.  Had I only known!


Wow, What a Jerk!

I have nothing to add to this takedown, but in case you have not seen it you should really this.  A printed magazine called Cooks Source took an online article written by an author (Monica Gaudio) without the author's permission or any payment.  When the author complained and asked for a small bit of compensation (in the form of a donation to the Columbia Journalism School, lol), the magazine editor fired off this amazing email to the author whose work she stole:

Yes Monica, I have been doing this for 3 decades, having been an editor at The Voice, Housitonic Home and Connecticut Woman Magazine. I do know about copyright laws. It was "my bad" indeed, and, as the magazine is put together in long sessions, tired eyes and minds somethings forget to do these things.
But honestly Monica, the web is considered "public domain" and you should be happy we just didn't "lift" your whole article and put someone else's name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me"¦ ALWAYS for free!"

For Monica Gaudio, this must have been a bit like the person who stole your car calling you to complain that the car needed to be washed.  Incredibly, the editor then proceeded to dig the hole even deeper.

More Evidence California is Royally Screwed Up

I was in discussions with California State Parks over the last few days.  Given that their new earmarked funding source was defeated in the last election, they are facing cuts next year.  A number of parks will again face closure.  As I have many times, I said that I could easily keep many of these parks open under our operations using only the gate fees and no public subsidies.

For the first time, someone explained to me why they could not entertain my proposal.  It is illegal in California to replace any function performed by a public employee with a private contractor.   The only way they could consider private operation of a park is to allow it to close, lay everyone off, let it sit closed to the public for a while, and then possibly reopen it with private management.  And even that approach will likely be challenged in the court.  The public employees unions are committed to allowing parks to permanently close rather than establish the precedent of private management.

More on public-private partnerships in recreation and how private management of public recreation works, here.

Just a Cool Picture

San Francisco City Hall, after the 1906 earthquake.  From Shorpy.

Dealing with Tax Agencies

Radley Balko tells his frustrating stories about dealing with the IRS.  These stories seemed totally familiar to me because in my business life, I deal with very similar problems nearly every day.  Doing business in 12 states, I don't just deal with the IRS but 12 sales tax agencies, 12 employment tax agencies, 12 unemployment insurance agencies... you get the idea.   Multiply this story times 100 and that is what I spend most of my time on running my business.

Just as one example, 8 years ago Florida switched our company from quarterly to monthly reporting  for sales taxes.  They did this in the middle of a quarter, so the reporting for that quarter was a funny mix of a partial quarter plus one monthly report.  The next year a letter was triggered automatically from their system saying I hadn't submitted two months of reports.  It took me several hours and multiple phone calls and two faxed letters to get them to understand the situation and promise to update their system.  Frustrating but case closed.  Or not.  Their system again triggered a threatening letter to me over the same issue in December 2004.  And then 2005.  And 2006.  2007.  2008.  2009.  This comes up again every dang year.  Every year after hours of work someone swears I have finally found the right person and I would never hear about it again.  But the next year it pops up yet again.  In 2009 they actually sent a sheriff to our Florida location to start attaching assets over the non-issue.

2081

I watched 2081 on video the other day -- it claims to be based on a Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, which I will have to take on faith because I never read that short story.  The film is only 20 minutes or so long, but I thought it was a pretty powerful statement on egalitarianism.  Recommended.

The Seen and Unseen

I am thinking about renaming the Chevy Volt the Chevy Bastiat.  Because the entire vehicle concept is based on the hope that people will ignore the unseen.  Specifically, those pushing the vehicle are hoping that buyers will just assume the electricity for the vehicle is free (after all it is not separately metered) and that the CO2 footprint is zero (despite the fact that in states like Michigan, an electric car is essentially powered by coal combustion.  From autobloggreen

We often, though sometimes incorrectly, assume that it's cheaper to operate an electric vehicle than a comparable gasoline auto. Hey, who hasn't? While this assumption generally holds true, electrical rates vary widely across the nation and can throw off the numbers. In some instances, like when Inside Line's engineering editor, Jason Kavanagh, drove the Chevrolet Volt out in sunny California, one discovers that operating a vehicle powered by electricity can indeed cost more than running it with the liquid fuel that pours from a pump.

Earlier, I took down the absurd initial advertising that the Volt got 230 MPG.

An Additional Thought on QE2

Here is a simpler explanation of QE2:  The same people who always get us out of recessions, eg private business people, will eventually get us out of this one.  However, the government has an incredible stake in trying to convince everyone that they actually drive the economy.  Therefore, it is important for the feds to be able to claim credit for any recovery.  Since some sort of natural recovery from the recession is likely in 2011 (and per Mark Perry may already be in progress) the government needs some program that it can credit for the recovery.  Since Congress will not pass Obama's (or Krugman's) desired son-of-stimulus bill, then the Fed must step up to create a plausible high-profile program.

Paying Doctors is Fun

It is a really weird mental block we have against paying out of pocket for medical bills, particularly since this is probably the most, not the least, important thing we can spend our money on.  Having a high-deductible health insurance plan has been a real eye-opener for me.  As in this post from Maggie's Farm, I too have found doctors will very often give a discount for cash.  My son has a great sports medicine guy (he plays 3 varsity sports so we seem to be at the doctor a lot for one injury or another) who gives us a $40 cash rate for a visit.  Further, when he needs X-rays, the radiology place downstairs usually does 2-3 films of the injured appendage du jour for around $35.  The X-ray place has a special cash price book they pull out when I show up.  I shudder to think what rate they charge insurance companies.  And t just think of the piles of infrastructure from my doctors office to the insurance company to Washington DC that would have had to come into play had I sought 3rd party payments for these bills.

And when it comes to the expensive things, it is amazing what price cuts you can find with just a little shopping.  Previously, I had spent less time in my whole life shopping medical care prices than I had price-shopping my last hard drive.  But when my son had to get a CT scan on his head (yes, another sports injury) we saved hundreds of dollars just calling a second place for a quote.  In fact, even mentioning that we were going to price shop the first quote got a few hundred dollars knocked off.  The lack of any rigor in health care pricing is just appalling, and will only get worse as government / single payer solutions crowd out approaches like mine under Obamacare.

Starnesville, Greece

One of the things that Ayn Rand did particularly well in Atlas Shrugged was to set the rules of collectivism in motion and see them carried to their logical extreme.  To this end,  I have always considered the hobo's tale to Dagny on the train about 20th Century Motors to be the climax of the book.  It pulls a lot of plot threads in the book together, and the story represents the ultimate expression of how a true socialist society would evolve.  "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is taken to its extremes, and rather than brotherhood, everyone ends up hating and resenting their fellow workers.  In retrospect, it seems dead-on prescient of this bit about Greece:

The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting. Once you saw how it worked you could understand a phenomenon which otherwise made no sense at all: the difficulty Greek people have saying a kind word about one another. Individual Greeks are delightful: funny, warm, smart, and good company. I left two dozen interviews saying to myself, "What great people!" They do not share the sentiment about one another: the hardest thing to do in Greece is to get one Greek to compliment another behind his back. No success of any kind is regarded without suspicion. Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.

The structure of the Greek economy is collectivist, but the country, in spirit, is the opposite of a collective. Its real structure is every man for himself. Into this system investors had poured hundreds of billions of dollars. And the credit boom had pushed the country over the edge, into total moral collapse.

Yep, That's Me

Jeff Wilser via TJIC:

Let's say a man needs to buy a new pair of shoes. Left to his own devices, he would simply buy shoes in bulk, stuffing his closet with fifty identical pairs of sneakers that will last until he dies.

Since I got plantar fasciitis a number of years ago, about the only shoes I can wear without pain are ASICs running shoes.  Since I work for myself, I can get away with wearing whatever the hell I want to work.  Anyway, every few years, I look up the model number of the shoes I like (it changes a bit each year) and order 2 of each color ASICs has, usually 6-8 pair in all.  This tends to last me about 3 years.

Similarly, when I start running low on shirts, every few years I go to a Lacoste or Polo outlet (whichever I find first) and buy about 10 shirts, one of each color I can find.  This usually keeps me out of the stores for years.  For going out, my wife buys me a new Robert Graham shirt for each birthday and Christmas (much more fun than getting a tie) and this satisfies my need for dressier stuff.  Not sure how I buy jeans -- I have a whole pile of identical pairs I bought some time in the distant past that still seem to do the job.

A Thought on the Trade Deficit

Most of the time when folks lament about the US's trade deficit, I just yawn.  That is because to a large extent the trade deficit is simply an artifact of an arbitrary accounting definition.  Basically, we define a certain fairly arbitrary subset of total commerce and commercial activity between two countries, and then throw tantrums when that arbitrary account is unbalanced.  At the end of the day, the payments loop has to close - the dollars come back to the US somehow.  Historically, most money from such trade deficits have come back to the US as foreign investments in US assets (think, for the example, Japanese investments in the late 80's in US real estate and high profile companies).

It is amazing that we would complain about such a situation.  First, we should be thrilled that foreigners choose to invest in our productive assets rather than just our manufactured goods.  Second, think about it this way -- if we export a product, we get the foreign money but the product goes overseas.  When foreigners invest in our fixed assets, we get the money and the assets remain here.  It is the outsized political influence of shareholders and workers in a few export-oriented industries  rather than economic rationality that keeps the US Congress so fixated on the "trade deficit."

The one issue I have with the trade deficit is it is in large part tied closely to the budget deficits run by the Feds.   Think about it this way -- let's take the definition of the balance of trade and keep it intact, adding just one single additional export product to the calculation:  US Government debt securities.   Certainly these are products we export, and there is nothing wrong with thinking about them as an alternative way for foreigners to spend dollars vs. buying US exports  (just as we all face the choice of investing for savings or buying consumer goods with our own incremental income).

Last year the US trade deficit was between $400 and $500 billion per year.  In 2009 the US government deficit was something like $1.4 trillion.  Assuming they issued debt securities to fund this deficit (ignore QE for now) and assuming foreigner bought 40-50% of these bods, then we exported as much as $700 billion in US government bonds to foreign buyers.  Now, suddenly, when we consider this one additional export product in the mix, we are running a trade surplus.  This is why currencies like the yuan are not necessarily as undervalued as people (including President Obama) may assume -- the issuance of government bonds creates a huge demand for the dollar, and keeps the value high.  If exporters are truly pissed off about the high value of the dollar vs. the yuan, they should not complain to the Chinese, they should complain to Obama and the US Congress for competing with them in foreign markets.  Though we tend to go through phases where we forget it, saving is a competitive product to consumer goods.

Update: Scott Grannis via Carpe Diem

"The Chinese sell us mountains of cheap goods, then turn around and invest most of the proceeds (equivalent to our trade deficit with China) in U.S. Treasury securities. We get the goods, and we get to keep the money. Then we devalue the dollar, and they lose on their investment. Why we would want them to stop doing this is beyond me, though if I were a Chinese citizen, I would be furious with my government for directing such massive quantities of my country's export earnings to Treasuries.

My First Novel Now on Kindle

My first novel, "BMOC," is now on Kindle for $4.99, a substantial discount off the  $17.95 price Amazon has for the dead tree version.  Incredibly, my author royalty is WAY more for the Kindle version even at that price than for the paper version.

Anyway, if you like this site, you might check it out.  The novel is part murder mystery, party comedy, and part business book.   I used to have fun with my friends at business school and later in nconsulting thinking up odd new business models (e.g. coin harvesting from fountains) and this book embodies some of the odder ones we came up with.  Though as wacky as the business model of the main company in the book (called "BMOC" appropriately enough) was supposed to be, since writing it I have had a number of people send me stories of startups pursuing eerily similar approaches to marketing.  Anyway, the book is a light read though with adult language and a tiny bit of sex.

Permanently Bonded Leisure Suit

A Marginal Revolution reader asks:

How would you pick a tattoo, if you decided you were going to get one? How would you pick something that your future self is most likely to be glad to have? A favorite piece of art? Follow Leeson's lead and get an economics-related tattoo? Names of family members are off-limits, as are answers like "get a small dot in my armpit that nobody would see."

I could argue that it is impossible to make a political, religious, or personal statement one is 100% sure will still be relevant 30 years hence.  Here is the solution I teach to my kids -- never, ever make a fashion you can't remove (e.g. piercing OK, tattoos not OK).   I have lived through leisure suits and grunge, wide ties and narrow, short skirts and long, tie dye and soft pastels.  Think of tattooing as having a leisure suit permanently bonded to your body.

Some will say this is evading the question, so I will actually provide an answer.  The only thing I might have conceivably chosen to ink my body with at 20 that I could probably still live with today at 48 would be something having to do with my undergrad college (Princeton).   Call it the George Shultz rule.

Liberty or Voting: I'll Take Liberty

Couldn't agree more with the thoughts in this post from TJIC:

I was discussing this with Dan Geer the other day "“ the fact that individual liberty (social, economic, etc.) is the goal, and democracy (political "liberty") is just a tool to get there "¦ and not even a particularly good tool.

I'd be all in favor of a limited constitutional monarchy, if the result was "“ integrated over time "“ more social and economic freedom....

Leftists don't understand this at all "“ they think that the freedom to vote for your choice of bully who will lord it over everyone else is the paramount right, and they don't recognize economic liberty at all.

I said something similar in this post on why I don't necessarily treasure the right to vote.

Now, don't get me wrong, the right to vote in a representative democracy is great and has proven a moderately effective (but not perfect) check on creeping statism.  A democracy, however, in and of itself can still be tyrannical.  After all, Hitler was voted into power in Germany, and without checks, majorities in a democracy would be free to vote away anything it wanted from the minority "“ their property, their liberty, even their life.   Even in the US, majorities vote to curtail the rights of minorities all the time, even when those minorities are not impinging on anyone else.  In the US today, 51% of the population have voted to take money and property of the other 49%.

I go on to discuss what things are more important to a good government than voting.

Retirement, From An Entrepeneur's Perspective

A while back another entrepreneur/blogger wrote and asked me about investment choices for retirement.  My philosophy on retirement seems to be a lot different than that of others, and I think owning one's own company changes some of the dynamics of retirement investing.   Note that this advice is not right for everyone, and maybe no one, so read at your own risk.  I publish it because the person I wrote suggested I do so, and after weeks of crazy intense work schedules I finally have the time.

A blogger wrote me about his despair at finding appropriate investment vehicles for his retirement savings.   With relatively equal chances of 1) a long period of Japan-like slow growth or 2) a high inflationary period triggered by trying to avoid #1, both bonds and equities looked bad, and while real estate may have some value plays when things finally bottom out, neither of us has the time to pursue that.  [since our emails, International equities are something I have moved money into, both as a diversification play as well as a way to short the dollar].

As I wrote him in one email

There is still a good chance of returning to normal growth in the middle somewhere, but both those bookends [inflation and stagnation] loom much larger than they might have, say, in my calculations five years ago.  I have trouble figuring out what to invest in when both are possibilities.  Equities?  Great for hedging inflation but suck if there is a lost decade.  Bonds would make sense in that case, but their interest will be low and they will be awful if inflation ramps up.  If I really knew we would get inflation and devaluation, I would be leveraging like crazy because inflation transfers wealth from creditors to debtors.

As a result, I said that my main investment for my free capital was debt reduction and de-leveraging of my own business.  Paying down debt has the advantage of having an absolutely predictable return and it reduces risk.   This makes double sense for me as I have put new expansion investments in my business on hold until a variety of government issues from health care to tax rates become clearer.  (For example, in health care, because my company is an oddity, with seasonal part time workers mostly on Medicare already, no one can yet tell me what my future costs will be.  Estimates range from +0 to +20% of revenues!)

The key to my business, which may be very different from others, is that I make big investments to gain long-term contracts, but once captured, these contracts give my business a fair amount of stability and predictability.  Further, in the latest recession, my business has proved to be either counter-cyclical or at least recession-proof to some extent, as 2009 was actually a blow-out record year for us.  Given these facts, I am able to put a higher percentage of my net worth into my own business as an investment, without having to diversify as much in case of business trauma.  And I prefer this.  Given the choice of investing in a company I barely know on the NYSE or mine, which I understand and control, I prefer the latter.  Also, returns on capital from buying or investing in private small businesses can be much higher (with higher risk of course) than in traditional equities -- see my whole series on buying a small business.

But here is where I really differ from most people:
I take a very different view of retirement.   When I worked in grinding corporate jobs (e.g. up until I was about 40) I was very focused on retirement.  Now that I am doing something that is not brutally stressful,  I hardly think about retirement.   The whole concept of retirement now seems weird.  I have, after a lot of hard work, gotten my business to the point where I can generally work as hard as I want to -- if I don't work hard, the business does not grow but I have good people such that it doesn't fall apart either.  I compete with people who are running businesses in their late 70's who are still having a good time.  I can take nice trips when I want to, take the day off if I need to, or whatever.  My business actually has an off-season so I can be more relaxed part of the year.

My advice to this particular entrepreneur was to maybe reconsider the paradigm of "retirement."  After all, the the long history of the world, retirement is a new concept that is barely 100 years old.

Are you the shuffleboard and golf type?  What do you imagine yourself doing after retirement?  I think you need some protection against becoming infirm or senile, but if you are healthy and vigorous, are you the type to get bored fast?  As an example, nearly all of my 400 employees are retired, but they all got bored and wanted something to do.

Here is an alternative, entrepreneur's way to think about planning for retirement:  How do I work really hard building a business that in 10 years will have a position such that it spits out some level of cash without effort on my part and can still grow if I want to spend time on it.  I am surrounded in Scottsdale by people who have done exactly this after giving up a corporate job.  At some point they took their savings from their 30s and 40s and dumped it into a business where they could still have the lifestyle they wanted.  Buying or building the right company is sort of like buying a bond with an attached warrant whose value is related to how hard you want to work.

As I implied earlier, this is not an appropriate approach for every small business.   The problem with technology businesses, for example, is that they never seem to mature into that latter predictable-cash-flow-stable-market-share phase.  One is always running in place.  One lesson I never forgot from my corporate years:  In the industrial sector, I often saw people making loads of money selling bushings or some such whose design hadn't changed since 1920.  It led me to this strategy:  Find a market with barriers to entry, which may well not be very sexy, and spend ten years battering you way in, and then relax behind those walls.  (As to sexy, the very first two classes of the first year Harvard Business School strategy course were a sexy cool software business and a boring stable industrial product business.  Of course,the boring stable water meters made a fortune, while the software business never made a good return on capital.  Beware of sexy businesses -- see: Airlines).

One other paradigm I would challenge is the notion everything you do as an entrepeneur has to be started from scratch.  Many entrepreneurs have fun doing this but the prospect of doing a bootstrap startup when you are 70 years old is exhausting.   Such entrepreneurs who have had a life of serial startups might consider a new phase in their business career as they get older, when they have saved enough assets to perhaps buy into an existing business rather than starting from scratch.  I cannot tell you how many interesting small businesses there are that come up for sale with a guy who has an interesting product and has made some progress but can't manage his way out of a paper bag and thus hits some growth ceiling.  I bought just such a core to my current business 8 years ago.  These businesses require a lot of due diligence, because they are a real mixed bag, but I bought mine in an asset sale for 3.5 times EBITDA (which is an entirely typical price).  Try buying Wall Street equities for 3.5 times EBITDA!  If you pick the right business, and you are a good manager, there is not a better investment out there.  Again,  see my whole series on buying a small business.

Of course this investing-for-retirement is higher risk, because one bets a substantial portion of his net worth on his own business.  But for those with confidence in their own ability, I find it a lot more compelling to bet my capital on myself rather than on guys I don't know running the Fortune 500.

Getting the Feds to 20% of GDP

I thought this Federal budget proposal by TJIC was interesting for a couple of reasons.  Not the least of which is the sight of TJIC trying to be reasonable and compromising.  Libertarians (as with other political extremists, and make no mistake we are extremists) tend to skew between those who want anarcho-capitalism and will accept no less and those who seek for improvements at the margin, believing that the world is only going to change so much.  I would normally put TJIC in category 1 but it is interesting to seem him delve into category 2.  Even I, normally a category 2 guy, can't totally get behind this plan as there are just two many programs, in the words of David Stockman, that need to be zeroed out.

Great Moments in Government Paternalism

Not sure this even requires comment.

Chandler's new City Hall comes with some features that have municipal workers and visitors scratching their heads. Like the restroom signs that tell people not to drink out of the urinals and toilets.

...

A few employees have been cracking jokes and speculating about what it would take to make them slurp from potties when water fountains and sinks are a few feet away.

"I'm glad that I saw that sign because I was very thirsty and looking for a means to quench my thirst," Mayor Boyd Dunn quipped. "Seriously, I'm certain there's some regulation out there that requires that type of sign."

Twitterbot

Once upon a time, years ago, I actually had one of the original twitter accounts.  I had  (I guess I still have it) a really short name, sort of the equivalent of having a 2-letter URL.  I quickly gave it up for a variety of reasons, the most compelling of which is I find it impossible to say anything I want to say in 140 characters.  I am just not a master of the glib and witty little phrase.  Even one of my shortest blog posts ever, which read

My summary on the immigration debate:  Republicans want immigrants who work but don't vote.  Democrats want immigrants who vote but don't work.

does not make the cut.   These thoughts return to me when I see this:

Nigel Leck, an Australian software developer, grew tired of debating climate realists on Twitter so he created a spambot to "wear down" his opponents. The bot, @AI_AGW, scans Twitter every five minutes looking for key phrases commonly used by those who challenge the global warming orthodoxy.  It then posts one of hundreds of canned responses hoping to frustrate skeptics. CFACT's Twitter account @CFACT (follow us!) often receives many of these unsolicited messages each day. Since the bot became active on May 26, 2010, it has sent out over 40,000 tweets, or an average of more than 240 updates per day!

Technology Review gushed that Leck's bot "answers Twitter users who aren't even aware of their own ignorance." Leck claims that his little bit of trollware is commonly mistaken as a genuine Twitter user leading the unsuspecting to sometimes debate it for days. Eventually it wears people down.

Here is a good rule of thumb:  Anyone on either side who thinks anything substantive can be argued for or against the science behind the hypothesis of catastrophic man-made global warming in 140 characters can be safely ignored.

Fiat Garbage

Radley Balko has a fascinating discussion about a switch in government policy in Fountain Hills, AZ  (a suburb of Phoenix and a town I visit for various reasons all the time).  Apparently, residents of the town got to actually select from competing trash vendors (lucky folks!) until recently when the town selected and enforced a monopoly trash provider.  Balko has a fascinating discussion of why progressives seem to universally support this decision and oppose the previous choice-based approach.

It may be odd at first to see a self-styled progressive mocking someone for criticizing a corporation for exercising too much power.  John Cole writes sarcastically:

My GAWD. I feel so violated. I'm going through my bills before the Steelers game and I just realized that Allied Waste is contracted to pick up my trash, so my personal liberties have been impinged by the creeping totalitarianism of nanny-statism. To show solidarity with the oppressed Fountain Hills trash protesters, I am going to dress up in my "Don't Tread on Me" t-shirt, stand at the edge of my driveway at dawn during trash pick-up on Thursday, and throw pocket constitutions at the sanitation workers. We shall overcome, patriots!

This from a progressive bunch who runs to the government for legislation when their Big Mac has one too few pickles on it.  If you can understand why progressives attack any corporation that they voluntarily do business with for having too much power, but defend any corporation backed by government authority, you will start to figure out exactly what progressives are really after.  Just remember that progressives have a deep distrust of individual choice related to any activities that don't touch on sex.  And they are much more comfortable with lines of accountability that run through government officials (elected or not) rather than accountability enforced by competition and individual choice  (more on progressives here).

I will just add this to the story -- Fountain Hills is a suburb to which the verbs tony, wealthy, and exclusive could all apply.  Given its position in the foothills around Phoenix, it is perhaps one of the most attractive suburbs in the metropolitan area.  It is the last place one would point to as having some sort of problem with unkept houses and rotting garbage.  This is entirely a power play by the city -- it has nothing to do with the quality of the area.

Brad Warbiany has even more on the story here.

Mostly unrelated facts about Fountain Hills

  1. Fountain Hills was a development of the McCulloch family (of chain saw fame) as was parts of Lake Havasu City.  Both developments had a centerpiece attraction.  Fountain Hills has a spectacular fountain (one of the five highest in the world) while Lake Havasu City has the transplanted London Bridge.  As to the latter, the story goes that McCulloch thought he was buying the much more dramatic Tower Bridge, which American tourists often confuse with London Bridge.  As a further aside, I met the guy once who did the gunnite on the bottom of the transplanted London Bridge.  He was a pool guy and applying it over his head rather than under his feet was fairly new to him.  He said he never allowed his little kids to sing "London Bridge is Falling Down" in his presence, it made him too nervous.
  2. Our egregious Sheriff Joe Arpaio lives in Fountain Hills.  On a recent crime sweep of his home town, which he claimed had nothing to do with immigration, he arrested (or at least detained) almost all people of Mexican decent, in fact more Mexicans than I thought one could find in Fountain Hills, even on a bet.

Two Americas

Two Americas:  Those who use the coersive power of the government to take money for themselves, and those who have to earn it by giving value for money in non-coerced , arms-length transactions.

Via Carpe Diem, which has more thoughts on the trend

Note:  I have seen folks defend this type of chart by saying it is just the function of  the inflection point of a normal distribution creeping by inflation across a dividing line.  But look the $180K+ in 2010 vs. the $150K+ in 2005.  By inflation, a $150,000 salary should not have increased to more than $165,000, but we see more than twice as many people making $180K plus today than made $150K plus five years ago.

Quantitative Easing: Wacky Progressive Economics or Financial Annealing?

This post is based on playing around with some analogies to try to understand quantitative easing in my own mind.  I can't decide if this approach is helpful or just wanking.  I fear it is the latter, but if we banned all banned all intellectual wanking in blogs,  my feed reader would be virtually empty.

I haven't really written much about the Fed's latest round of quantitative easing, dubbed QE2.  Basically they plan to print some significant fraction (I see different numbers in different articles) of a trillion dollars and use the newly created money to buy government bonds  (they don't actually print the money but create it out of thin air in the memory banks of computers).  As I understand it, the theory is that this will boost the price (and thus reduce yields) on the government bonds on the balance sheets of private banks.  This will in turn have two effects:  improve (at least on paper) the balance sheets of banks, hopefully making it more likely to lend; and it will reduce the yield on the bonds on their balance sheets, hopefully making private loans look like a better investment in comparison.

I am not an economist, and so won't get embroiled in issues I don't understand, but it strikes me that even if one accepts the theory of QE, it will be difficult to have any measurable impact as long as Congress  and the administration keeps generating new debt at astounding rates.

But what is really happening here is that the dollar is being devalued.  This is one of the semantic quirks that make me laugh -- when Argentina or Zimbabwe do this, its called devaluation.  When a western nation does it, it is called quantitative easing.  Because, uh, we are much smarter or something.   But I have to believe that a lot of progressives have hitched their wagon to QE2 out of the hope for some inflation (wow, the revenge of William Jennings Bryant).   Because inflation and dollar devaluation would nominally achieve some of the goals they are hoping for, including:

  • making Chinese imports more expensive, creating a wealth transfer from consumers to a few politically powerful exporters
  • re-inflating the housing bubble while devaluing long-term fixed rate mortgages, creating a wealth transfer from creditors to debtors
  • continuing the wealth transfer from average workers (who typically don't have COLA's) to government and union workers (who typically do have COLA's)
  • acts as wealth transfer from individuals to government since it creates an effective income tax rate increase, as key income levels in the tax tables, particularly where AMT kicks in, are not indexed for inflation

It is impossible to argue that devaluing a currency is a path to wealth generation.  It can't be, though progressives, as always, are willing to tolerate a total reduction of wealth as the price for the type of re-distributions discussed above.

But excepting the re-distribution arguments, it strikes me that the only possible argument for this devaluation is that the economy is somehow trapped in a local minima from which the escape energy is too high.  This would make QE a bit like annealing in a metal, where metal that is heated up and cooled too fast can be hard and brittle.  The only way to get it to be ductile is to re-heat it and then allow it to cool slower.

This is kind of a pretty comparison, but in large part it is probably BS.  The economy is way, way, way more complex and multi-variate than crystallization in a metal.  Even if we were trapped in a local minima, which by the way it is pretty much impossible to determine, we don't know what kind of energy should be applied to the system to move it out.  In fact, if we wanted to use this analogy, it would make far more sense to me to remove barriers to entrepreneurship and wealth creation which likely form a large part of the energy barrier that keeps us in such a local minima.  In fact, the annealing analogy would likely point one in the direction of decalcifying markets and increasing labor mobility rather than massive government interventionism.  It is much easier for me to argue that the missing energy is entrepreneurship rather than liquidity.  Apparently, the German finance minister agrees with me:

The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. "¦I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don't recognize the economic argument behind this measure. "¦The Fed's decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. "¦It's inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

Update: Chinese bond rating agency downgrades US treasuries

The United States has lost its double-A credit rating with Dagong Global Credit Rating Co., Ltd., the first domestic rating agency in China, due to its new round of quantitative easing policy. Dagong Global on Tuesday downgraded the local and foreign currency long-term sovereign credit rating of the US by one level to A+ from previous AA with "negative" outlook.