Archive for December 2010

Prepare for Snafu's

I will likely be migrating servers for this site this weekend.

New Year's Resolution

In my column this week at Forbes, I discuss my New Year's Resolution, which has not changed over several decades, and how it helped me this year to solve some difficult philosophical issues regarding my business.

Almost exactly thirty years ago, I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, probably the single most influential book I have read in my lifetime.  Before I read it, I was on a path to becoming a traditional Conservative in the mold of my parents, and in retrospect my thinking on a lot of issues was quite muddled.

I am no longer the exclusive Rand fanboy I was back in college, if for no other reason than I have since found many authors who come at the topic of capitalism and freedom from many different angles, but Rand was certainly my gateway drug to liberty.

Like many people, around the new year I set various goals for myself over the coming year.  Some I have achieved (e.g. getting myself out of corporate America and into my own business) and on some I have fallen short (e.g. learning to play the guitar).  But every year I have renewed just one resolution, which I took from Atlas Shrugged.  It is

I swear"“by my life and my love of it"“that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

I then discuss this resolution in the context of approaches my business has had this year from lobbyists.  I discuss how lobbyists have approached me about an effort to make some tweaks to the health care law (it is particularly punitive to our labor model where we hire seniors part time and seasonally) as well as efforts to promote privatization of recreation (my business) and to help me obtain new contracts.    The article has much more discussion about details, but my resolution for a lobbying policy turned out as follows, in a rough parallel to the resolution above:

"We will use lobbyists to defend ourselves when the government is trying to gut us like a fish, but we will attempt to do so with generic amendments rather than through special exemptions for our company alone.  We will not use lobbyists to create new business opportunities, even when the legislation to do so is consistent with our principals."

By the way, I actually sent notes to several readers out there (you know who you are) asking them their opinions on some of the ethical issues I saw in these issues, and I appreciate the feedback from all of you.

Happy new year to all of you.

Opportunity Cost

From New York City Councilman James Genarro's web site:

Gennaro has received numerous accolades for his work as Chairman of the Council's Committee on Environmental Protection, and has authored many of the Council's most progressive environmental bills. Gennaro has spearheaded efforts to cut the city's global warming pollution emissions,... put more "clean air" vehicles on city streets, ...make the city's electricity more reliable, clean, and affordable,... and promote "green buildings".

Thinking about the public and private resources invested in these efforts, I wonder how many snow plows they would have paid for.

A New Bailout?

I just got a note from Bank of America telling me that some of my accounts now have unlimited deposit insurance from the FDIC through 2012, above and beyond traditional limits.   We are worried about reckless banks so we are ...  further reducing and socializing the costs of risk-taking?  Notice I received below, I cannot yet find any info on FDIC site.  As usual click to enlarge.

First Ever Inside Reference to My Novel

This is probably the first ever inside reference to my novel. The funny part is that when I read TJIC's post, I thought "hmm, Preston Marsh, where have I heard that name?"  LOL.  By the way, the business idea Travis has is actually intriguing

Restaurants get napkins and linens as a service "“ every day, they trade huge bags of dirty whites for clean whites. They are in the business of cooking food and hiring wait staff, not in the business of knowing how to bleach things (or in the business of picking out linens that can stand up to bleach).

So what does clothing as a service entail? It could include cleaning, sizing, rotating wardrobes as fashions change, etc.

It removes some hassles, and bundles responsibilities in the place where there are economies of scale "“ people in the fashion industry can and will know more about sizing, cleaning, coordinating, etc. than consumers.

I and others have thoughts on the model in the comments.

By the way, for those who have not read my book, Preston Marsh is an entrepreneur who has made money in a series of sortof odd business models.  Years ago I used to get bored at parties (actually, I still get bored at parties but I no longer use this entertainment technique) and make up occupations for myself.  I remember convincing one woman who had recent evidence that I could not ski well that I was on the Olympic Ski Jumping Team  ("You don't have to turn in ski jumping!")

Anyway, all the business models in the books are ones I made up for myself on the fly at parties.  One involves building fountains in malls and then recouping the investment by harvesting coins from them.  Another, which is central to the book, is a sort of guerrilla marketing startup which does some lifestyle consulting with teens but makes its money placing products in the hands of the coolest, trendsetting teens at high schools (a model that has since been emulated by a couple of real-life companies).

By the way, the book is still on sale at Amazon and available on the Kindle for download.  Just search "BMOC."

Yogurt Bubble

For some reason, Phoenix is in the midst of frozen yogurt wars.  A few years ago a store opened with a new concept - they set up about 12 self-serve frozen yogurt machines so you could fill your own bowl, and then gave the customer direct access to heaps and heaps of toppings (e.g sprinkles, chocolate sauce, m&m's, gummie bears, etc).  At the end, you weigh your bowl and pay based on weight, exactly as one might do in one of those salad bar restaurants.

Over the last few years, the market has exploded with new stores in the same model.  We must have at least 10 different chains.  We have about 6 within a short drive of our house.  Already, the price per ounce they charge has fallen by over half.

I have learned from my out-of-town visitors that this is not a concept that is common in other parts of the country.  Which leads me to ask why so many restaurants with the same concept are piling into Phoenix.  Is it just people in the local market thinking it is a great idea and deciding to copy the idea in their neighborhood? I can sort of see the appeal - these stores were (initially) popular, had low barriers to entry, and probably elicit dreams of creating a franchisable concept.  Which leads me to two questions:

  • Why is the tenth or twentieth incremental store being opened in Phoenix?  I would find some place like Georgetown or Harvard Square that has not seen this concept yet and open it there.  Or even better, open one on Sand Hill Road or wherever retail investors work.
  • Seeing the low barriers to entry and the quick proliferation in this market, combined with sagging visitation as the novelty wears off and steeply falling prices, why is anyone attracted to this at all?  One guy will probably get out ahead on this and establish a national brand, and everyone else will likely get slaughtered  (and the first mover will probably go bankrupt anyway as many fast-growing franchise model from Jiffy Lube to Boston Chicken have).  Is it the lottery value?  Or am I too much like the joke about Milton Friedman, who refused to pick up a twenty dollar bill on the ground because he argued that the money couldn't be real since in a free market someone would have already picked it up.

Huh

Found by my son Nic on Wikipedia:

The Wilhelm scream is a frequently-used film and television stock sound effect first used in 1951 for the film Distant Drums.[1] The effect gained new popularity (its use often becoming an in-joke) after it was used in Star Wars and many other blockbuster films as well as television programs and video games.[2] The scream is often used when someone is pierced with an arrow, falls to his death from a great height, or is thrown from an explosion.

The Wilhelm scream has become a well-known cinematic sound cliché, and is claimed to have been used in over 216 films

This is the sound.

By the way, Nic thanks everyone for their help on his blog and his writing project.  He is writing a novel over the next year, dealing mixing his interest in sports with dystopian themes.  This entry into the Hayek poster contest actually comes really close to the themes in his book.  I thought he was getting on a wrong track by trying to use Atlas Shrugged too much as a model.  While I love the book and it has had a profound effect on me, as a work of fiction it is pretty limited, with black and white characters and no character movement/development at all.  I am making him read the Fountainhead right now as a better example of having more intriguing characters.

Stimulus Fail

Not that it is really necessary to make this point (as many of us were making it even before the Stimulus bill was passed) but the man tasked with coordinating Vermont's various stimulus programs reports that the stimulus pretty much failed. I thought this was a particularly interesting bit:

Another part of the job was to help Vermont entities win a large share of the "competitive" stimulus money available nationally at the discretion of federal agencies. Our electric utilities jointly applied for money to build a statewide Smart Grid. Our telcos put together applications for broadband money. Vermont received the most money per capita of any state for both broadband and energy. The Green Mountain State will probably benefit from these programs"”yet almost none of this money has been spent, thanks to the many federal approvals required.

The broadband and energy programs, in other words, are hardly examples of successful counter-cyclical spending: The only money spent on them during the recession was for grant-writing. More troubling, private investment in these areas, which might have occurred even during the recession, dried up as companies waited to see if they could build with taxpayer money. Entrepreneurial effort turned from innovation to grant-grubbing.

Wow, someone should coin a name for that.

I find it simply amazing that so many experienced political actors could have been fooled by this:

The acceleration of government projects that had already run the approvals gauntlet"”primarily the paving of roads"”worked. But the building of new infrastructure failed. Due to the time required to apply for grants and receive permits, none of it was done during the recession, and only a little will be done in the next few years.Nothing is "shovel ready" in the U.S. We've created a wall of regulatory obstacles"”environmental, historical sites, etc."”that blocks doing any major project on a predictable or reasonable schedule. Not even all the king's men with all the people's money can build tunnels, railroads, wind turbines, nuclear plants or anything else significant without years or even decades of delay. If permitting were speedy, we wouldn't need government money to have a construction boom.

That's easy to recognize after the fact, but plenty of folks with zero political experience, like me, were saying this before the bill was even passed:

A year from now, any truly new incremental project in the stimulus bill will still be sitting on some planners desk with unfinished environmental impact assessments, the subject of arguments between multiple government agencies, tied up in court with environmental or NIMBY challenges, snarled in zoning fights, subject to conflicts between state, county, and city governments, or all of the above.  Most of the money will have been spent by planners, bureaucrats, and lawyers, with little to show for in actual facilities.

Walter Duranty is Alive and Well

From the WSJ, about a recent "documentary" on PBS's Newshour

Mr. Suarez's report, by contrast, is like a state propaganda film. In one segment, an American woman named Gail Reed who lives in Cuba tells him that the government's claim of its people's longevity is due to a first-rate system of disease prevention. He then parrots the official line that Cuba's wealth of doctors is the key ingredient. What is more, he says, these unselfish revolutionary "foot soldiers" go on house calls. "It's aggressive preventive medicine," Mr. Suarez explains. "Homes are investigated, water quality checked, electrical plugs checked."...

As to doctors checking on water quality and electricity outlets, the PBS reporter might be surprised to learn that most Cuban homes have no running water or power on a regular basis. This is true even in the capital. In 2006, Mr. Botín says, a government minister admitted that 75.5% of the water pipes in Havana were "unusable" and "recognized that 60% of pumped water was lost before it made it to consumers." To "fix" the problem, the city began providing water in each neighborhood only on certain days. Havana water is also notoriously contaminated. Foreigners drink only the bottled stuff, which Cubans can't afford. In the rest of the country the quality and quantity of the water supply is even less reliable.

This is particularly ironic since, at the same moment this show was airing, state department reports leaked by Wikileaks revealed that the Cuban government banned the showing of Michael Moore's "Sicko" in Cuba, despite the film being wildly propagandistic in favor of the Cuban government.  Why?  Because the portrayal of the Cuban medical system, as in Mr. Suarez's PBS report, was so unrealistically favorable that ordinary Cuban citizens would immediately recognize it as BS.

The New Pharaohs: Confusing Triumphalism and State Coercion With Progress

My new Forbes column is up, and it discusses an article by Michael Malone that said in part:

The recent quick fade of the Deficit Commission was the latest reminder that America no longer seems to have the stomach for big challenges.  There was a time "“ was it just a generation ago? "“ when Americans were legendary for doing vast, seemingly superhuman, projects:  the Interstate Highway System, the Apollo Missions, Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, the Normandy invasion, the Empire State Building, Social Security.

What happened?  Today we look at these achievements, much as Dark Age peasants looked on the mighty works of the Roman Era, feeling like some golden age has passed when giants walked the Earth.

My response includes the following:

The list he offers is a telling one "” all except the Empire State Building were government programs, just as were the "mighty works" of the ancient Romans.  And just like the Romans, these and other government projects have more to do with triumphalism than they do with adding real value.

It is interesting he should mention the Romans.  There were few grand buildings during the centuries when Rome was a republic.  Only in the later Imperial period, when Rome became an autarky, did rulers begin to build the monumental structures that Malone admires.  Emperors taxed their subjects and marshaled millions of slaves to build temples and great columns and triumphal arches and colosseums to celebrate"¦ themselves.  Twentieth Century politicians have done the same, putting their names on dams and bridges and airports and highways and buildings.  They still build coleseums too, though today they cost over a billion dollars and have retractable roofs.  Are these, as Malone suggests, monuments to the audacity of the greatest generation, or just to the ego of politicians?...

This is the same concern that drives Thomas Friedman to extol the virtues of the Chinese government, where a few men there can point their fingers and make billions of dollars flow from their citizens to the projects of their choice.  This is a nostalgia for coercion and government power, for Lincoln imposing martial law, for FDR threatening to pack the Supreme Court, for the Pharaohs getting those pyramids built.  It is a call for dis-empowerment of the masses, for re-concentrating power in a few smart visionary folks, presumably including Mr.  Malone.

Environmentalists Praising Use of Coal

From environmental blog the Thin Green Line:

McDonald's has been a frequent target on this blog, and many others related to health and environmental issues. But mark it on your calendar: This post is in praise of Micky D's, for installing EV charging stations at a new West Virginia location.

Yes, it's just about the strangest place you could pick, given that the Huntington, WV, location is not on a throughway connecting EV early-adopter towns like New York, D.C., or San Francisco. The location clearly has more to do with its proximity to partner American Electric Power's Columbus, Ohio, headquarters "” but we'll give kudos where kudos are due. With 58 million people eating at McDonald's everyday, the burger chain isn't a bad spot to enable electric vehicle drivers to charge up.

99% of West Virginia's electricity comes from coal, so its interesting to see environmentalists championing the switch from gasoline to coal.  Notwithstanding the fact that the fossil fuel use of electric vehicles is being grossly under-estimated, charging up your EV in WV is a great way to take positive steps to increase your CO2 footprint.

Paul Krugman Weather Forecasting

Paul Krugman has become pretty famous for being able to peer into the complex economy and find something to justify whatever he is promoting.  Higher interest rates, lower interest rates, more growth, less growth, unemployment, or boom times all simultaneously are proof of whatever theory he currently holds (which, in turn, is generally exactly the theory required to support actions by the Democratic leadership).

In the same way -- hot weather, cold weather, drought, wet weather, mild weather, lost of hurricanes, a lack of hurricanes -- are all simultaneously the proof for man-made global warming.  Whatever the weather currently is, someone can use a government grant to build a model to prove that it is due to anthropogenic global warming.  Thus this story -- Global warming causing freezing.

Michael Moore Propaganda Too Much Even for Castro

Via the Guardian.  No commentary really necessary (via Q&O)

Cuba banned Michael Moore's 2007 documentary, Sicko, because it painted such a "mythically" favourable picture of Cuba's healthcare system that the authorities feared it could lead to a "popular backlash", according to US diplomats in Havana.

The revelation, contained in a confidential US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks , is surprising, given that the film attempted to discredit the US healthcare system by highlighting what it claimed was the excellence of the Cuban system.

But the memo reveals that when the film was shown to a group of Cuban doctors, some became so "disturbed at the blatant misrepresentation of healthcare in Cuba that they left the room".

Castro's government apparently went on to ban the film because, the leaked cable claims, it "knows the film is a myth and does not want to risk a popular backlash by showing to Cubans facilities that are clearly not available to the vast majority of them."

In continues:

The cable describes a visit made by the FSHP to the Hermanos Ameijeiras hospital in October 2007. Built in 1982, the newly renovated hospital was used in Michael Moore's film as evidence of the high-quality of healthcare available to all Cubans.

But according to the FSHP, the only way a Cuban can get access to the hospital is through a bribe or contacts inside the hospital administration. "Cubans are reportedly very resentful that the best hospital in Havana is 'off-limits' to them," the memo reveals.

According to the FSHP, a more "accurate" view of the healthcare experience of Cubans can be seen at the Calixto Garcia Hospital. "FSHP believes that if Michael Moore really wanted the 'same care as local Cubans', this is where he should have gone," the cable states.

A 2007 visit by the FSHP to this "dilapidated" hospital, built in the 1800s, was "reminiscent of a scene from some of the poorest countries in the world," the cable adds.

The memo points out that even the Cuban ruling elite leave Cuba when they need medical care. Fidel Castro, for example, brought in a Spanish doctor during his health crisis in 2006. The vice-minister of health, Abelardo Ramirez, went to France for gastric cancer surgery.

Possible Coyote Cameo

I hear rumor that a few snippets from a series of interviews I did on the minimum wage with John Stossel's crew may have appeared on his "Politicians' Top 10 Promises Gone Wrong" show tonight.  I have it TIVO'd but have not been able to watch it yet.  It is being replayed (in Hannity's usual time slot) at 9pm and Midnight on Sunday (EST).  Even if I am not in it, it still looks like a great show and I can't imagine that readers of this blog would not enjoy it.   More here.

My Friday Entertainment

I love to watch groups dedicated to victimhood argue with their peers over whose group constitutes the biggest victims.  I enjoy it, that is, until I remember that they are fighting over the division of loot plundered from me.

Business Buzzword Bingo

When I was at HBS, a bunch of us who sat in the back row (the "skydeck" in HBS parlance) would play buzzword bingo based on the class discussion.

Google books has a way of querying their books database for word frequency.  I laughed when I saw this chart for "incentivize."  It's the hockey stick!

Obama Meets With James Taggert and Oren Boyle

Amanda Carey via the Daily Caller:

On Wednesday, President Obama met with a group of about 20 CEOs in a five-hour long summit, reportedly in an attempt to soothe the souring relationship between big business and big government. From almost all accounts, the "charm offensive" was successful.

By the end, Boeing CEO John McNerney is reported to have said, "We all wanted to move beyond the talk that made this confrontational environment. We made our apologies." Honeywell International CEO David Cote said after the meeting, "Government is the enabler of business"¦Government and business need to work together."

What Cote did not mention is that his company has already been working closely with the Obama Administration, and was a major beneficiary of the Recovery Act "” as were many of the other companies represented. According toRecovery.gov, Honeywell received over $44 million in grants from the Department of Energy (DOE) for renewable energy initiatives. Honeywell also raked in more than $24 million in a variety of different government contracts from agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Defense.

Can the Aviation Equalization of Opportunity Act be far behind?  The meeting of 19 CEO's and a leading VC (who feeds noisily at the green energy trough) sounds like the corporate state round-table.

Fact vs. Myth

I have this same problem all the time now in Arizona:

To understand how badly we're doing the most basic work of journalism in covering the law enforcement beat, try sitting in a barbershop. When I was getting my last haircut, the noon news on the television"”positioned to be impossible to avoid watching"”began with a grisly murder. The well-educated man in the chair next to me started ranting about how crime is out of control.

But it isn't. I told Frank, a regular, that crime isn't running wild and chance of being burglarized today is less than one quarter what it was in 1980.

The shop turned so quiet you could have heard a hair fall to the floor had the scissors not stopped. The barbers and clients listened intently as I next told them about how the number of murders in America peaked back in the early 1990's at a bit south of 25,000 and fell to fewer than 16,000 in 2009. When we take population growth into account, this means your chance of being murdered has almost been cut in half.

Its almost impossible to convince folks that AZ is not in the middle of some sort of Road Warrior-style immigrant-led wave of violence.  In fact, our crime levels in AZ have steadily dropped for over a decade, in part because illegal immigrants trying to hang on to a job are the last ones to try to stir up trouble with the law (charts here, with update here)

In Phoenix, police spokesman Trent Crump said, "Despite all the hype, in every single reportable crime category, we're significantly down." Mr. Crump said Phoenix's most recent data for 2010 indicated still lower crime. For the first quarter of 2010, violent crime was down 17% overall in the city, while homicides were down 38% and robberies 27%, compared with the same period in 2009.

Arizona's major cities all registered declines. A perceived rise in crime is one reason often cited by proponents of a new law intended to crack down on illegal immigration. The number of kidnappings reported in Phoenix, which hit 368 in 2008, was also down, though police officials didn't have exact figures. [see charts above, these are continuation of decade-long trends]

But over Thanksgiving my niece visited from the Boston area for a national field hockey tournament and her teachers and coaches had carefully counselled them that they were  walking into a virtual anarchy, and kidnapping or murder would await any teen who wandered away from the group.

Emperor's New Clothes

OK, I have to call bullsh*t on a certain cultural phenomenon.  At the risk of uttering a blasphemy, I have to say that In and Out Burger is simply not very good.  It seems to be hot among teens, so I get dragged to it from time to time by my kids, but the burgers are just meh and the fries are simply bad.  Among fast food joints, Wendy's is much better and we have a veritable explosion of gourmet burger places here in Phoenix  (a trend I applaud as mightily as I did the craft beer phenomenon) that are all much better.  As a regional phenomenon that builds a cult following as it spreads east, it reminds me of nothing so much as the similar Coors beer craze in the 70's, where easterners used to illegally carry Coors over state lines to bring some back home (e.g. Smokey and the Bandit).  And Coors sucks too.

Gun Control = Having to Bring a Purse to a Gun Fight

See brave but under-armed woman around the 0:50 second mark.  And we should all be embarrassed by the shoddy state of handgun skills in this country if this guy is is representative.  The average housewife in turn of the century Arizona could have shot better than this guy.

Phoenix / Valley Metro Light Rail Report Card: F

Folks who read this site know I have been critical of Phoenix light rail since well before it was opened.  So often, folks just willfully misinterpret my criticisms.   The actual rail line and its service is pretty nice, and the facilities are quite attractive (lets see what they look like in 10 years though).  If Santa Claus had just delivered the Phoenix light rail system for free to Phoenix, I would be thrilled with it.   But Santa unfortunately was not involved, and instead the rail line was paid for by area residents, and it cost them over $75,000 per daily roundtrip rider to build, plus annual operating deficits infinitely into the future.   I would be thrilled if an Aston Martin Vanquish showed up in my garage tomorrow, but I am not going to fork over a quarter of a million bucks for one.  Ditto the light rail system.

Anyway, the 2009 FTA transit database is out, and Randal O'Toole has helpfully summarized it in spreadsheet form, which you can download here.  You can peruse your own local system.  Probably the hardest thing to figure out are the mode codes, which are deciphered here.  Since 2009 was the first full year of operation for Phoenix light rail, we can finally look at data for Phoenix on an apples to oranges apples basis with other transit systems  (it is really, really hard to squeeze useful information out of the data Valley Metro posts on their site).

I am just going to highlight two numbers for Phoenix light rail (TRS_ID 9209 in the data).

  • The public subsidy per individual trip (that is one person boarding and riding one way) is $32.73!!   No one would pay this amount if it were the fare.   This equates to a public subsidy (beyond the fares paid) of $3.82 per passenger mile.  Remember, this is not a hostile analysis, but based on the numbers Valley Metro itself submits to the FTA.   Note the IRS reimbursement rate for the total cost (capital and incremental expense) of driving a car is 50 cents per mile, which drops even lower per passenger mile when the car has more than one person in it.  The average occupancy of a car is something like 1.5, which would make the cost per passenger mile of the average car to be about 33 cents per mile.  Ignoring the passenger fares, the public subsidy alone for light rail in Phoenix is 11.6 times larger [note: and yes, this includes the gas tax, so it includes a lot of the maintenance of the road infrastructure.  To include full cost of maintaining and building highways, it might have to be a few cents higher, but its not going to come anywhere in the ballpark of the light rail number].
  • But we are paying more for rail to save the environment, right?  Well, the BTUs expended per passenger mile for Phoenix light rail was 4402.  This compares to the average for passenger cars as determined by the DOE at 3437 BTU/PM.  So the train actually uses 28% more energy to move one rider one mile than does the average car.

Years before the light rail system was completed, I made my light rail bet:  That with the capital cost, I could easily buy a Prius for every daily rider, and still save money.  And for less than the annual operating subsidy, I could give all the new Prius owners free gas each year.  Already my bet has proved more than correct.  But now we know that under my Prius plan, we also would have saved energy, since the Prius uses less than 1700 BTU/pm, less than a third of what Phoenix light rail consumes.

History Repeats Itself

This was a real time warp for me: (NY Times via Cato@Liberty)

As President Obama prepares to release a review of American strategy in Afghanistan that will claim progress in the nine-year-old war there, two new classified intelligence reports offer a more negative assessment and say there is a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border.

The reports, one on Afghanistan and one on Pakistan, say that although there have been gains for the United States and NATO in the war, the unwillingness of Pakistan to shut down militant sanctuaries in its lawless tribal region remains a serious obstacle. American military commanders say insurgents freely cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan to plant bombs and fight American troops and then return to Pakistan for rest and resupply.

The findings in the reports, called National Intelligence Estimates, represent the consensus view of the United States' 16 intelligence agencies, as opposed to the military, and were provided last week to some members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. The findings were described by a number of American officials who read the reports' executive summaries.

Perhaps someone who knows better can accuse me of making a shallow comparison, but doesn't this sound exactly like the situation that plagued the US Army in Vietnam, where enemy fighters would hide out across the border in Cambodia?  From Wikipedia:

The People's Army of Vietnam had been utilizing large sections of relatively unpopulated eastern Cambodia as sanctuaries into which they could withdraw from the struggle in South Vietnam to rest and reorganize without being attacked. These base areas were also utilized by the communists to store weapons and other material that had been transported on a large scale into the region on the Sihanouk Trail. PAVN forces had begun moving through Cambodian territory as early as 1963

Help Help, We Are All Going to Die! Oh, Wait, Never Mind

I don't know why I have so much fun fact checking the "science" at green blog "the Thin Green Line," but I do.  Today's exercise:

There are, right now, at least half a million pieces of junk in orbit around our cosmic Pig Pen of a planet. Space junk isn't just an aesthetic problem, either: Even tiny pieces of junk orbit at speeds above 15,000 miles per hour, so even the tiniest bit of debris can cause serious damage to anything it comes into contact with. Space junk threatens satellites, manned space missions and even the International Space Station.

While certainly space junk can be a problem in certain instances, I am constantly left helpless with laughter at the absolute urgency this type of blog approaches every problem.  Here are a couple of things that might help you sleep better at night:

  • The speed space junk is traveling is largely irrelevant.  It could be 15,000 mph or 50,000.  The important variable is the closing speed of two objects, not their absolute speed.  And (thanks to our friend Newton) we know that objects in the same stable orbits have to be moving at the same speed.  Now, orbits don't all have to parallel and can cross, yielding real relative velocities, but recognize that since over 95% of these half million objects are less than 4 inches in diameter, its a bit like you and your friends firing guns and having the bullets meet in mid-air.
  • The drawing he shows makes the sky seem really cluttered.  But let's just take a small portion of this space.  Let's consider the volume of space between 100 and 500 miles above the Earth's surface.  Using a bit of geometry, this space works out to be 93 trillion cubic miles of volume.  Which means one object, generally less than 4 inches in diameter, in space per every 186,000 cubic miles, which for scale is the equivalent volume to a building 40 stories tall that covers the entire continental United States.

Certainly avoiding these objects is a navigation concern for powered spacecraft, which is why all these pieces of junk are watched in the first place.  But the idea of a space superfund to clean this stuff up is so hilariously expensive (given current tech) and such a staggering waste of resources compared to other uses of those funds that one would only expect to find it on, well, an environmental blog.

Good Money After Bad

I was absolutely astounded several years ago when the city of Glendale (a suburb NW of Phoenix) agreed to shell out $180 million to build an arena to try to keep a pro hockey team (the Coyotes) in town.   Now, they are considering doubling their investment:

Will the Glendale City Council vote to shell out nearly $200 million in a deal aimed at keeping the Coyotes in town for at least 30 years?

But there is nothing simple about the decision facing elected officials in the West Valley city that has yearned to build its reputation as a sports and entertainment hot spot.

The deal involves Glendale taxpayers giving $100 million to Matthew Hulsizer, a Chicago businessman poised to buy the Phoenix Coyotes from the National Hockey League.

And, the Arizona Republic's Rebekah Sanders reports that "Glendale would pay Hulsizer $97 million over the next 5 1/2 years to manage the arena, schedule concerts and other non-hockey events."

Unbelievable.  The value destruction here is amazing.  A few years ago, the Coyotes were only valued at $117 million.  So the government will have subsidized an entity worth just north of $100 million with $400 million in taxpayer dollars?  Nice investment.  Of course they have a BS study about net economic impact of the Coyotes, with a sure-to-be exaggerated figure of $24.5 million a year.  But even accepting this figure, they are spending $400 million for at most $24.5 million in economic impact, which at best maybe translates into $2-3 million a year in extra taxes.  That works, how?

Losing more than 40 major events, that is hockey games, per year at the arena would be a punch-in-the-gut to bars, restaurants and retail shops that also call Westgate home.

Here is a hint:  I pretty much guarantee the buyout value or moving cost of these businesses is less than $200 million.  But here are the most amazing "economics"

that would only further jam up Glendale, which counts on sales tax revenues those businesses generate to pay off the debt it has amassed in trying to build its sports empire.

So we are going to spend $200 million to make sure we can keep up the debt service on the previous $180 million?  So where does the $200 million come from.  I am increasingly buying into Radley Balko's theory that the media is not liberal or conservative, just consistently statist.  Here is the comment on the Goldwater Institute's legal challenge

City officials also may face a legal challenge from the Goldwater Institute over the conservative think-tank's belief that the deal Glendale has cooked up violates state laws that prohibit government subsidies to private entities.

That, of course, means that the city will rack up untold legal fees to defend their deal.

Waaaaa!  More legal fees.  Is that really their biggest concern?  How about the strong possibility that Goldwater is correct, or a mention that they have won in court recently in similar cases.  But we will end with this happy thought:

Now, if they say yes to the $200-million giveaway, they may keep the team in town but are only piling on to that massive debt.

And as their initial deal with the team and previous team owners has proven, there are no guarantees that the $200 million will be enough.

Postscript: Local papers have never seen a sports team subsidy or new stadium they did not love.  Given the quality of their news departments, local sports teams sell newspapers.

PS#2: Long ago I wrote a post on subsidies for business relocations and the prisoners dilemma.

Who Cares

Apparently Google is getting accused of skewing its search results to favor its own products.   To which I say, so freaking what?   When did Google suddenly become a common carrier?  The implication is that by their very success (evidenced by a high market share) they have imposed on themselves more onerous rules than others operate under.  When I stay in the Marriott, and I ask the concierge about local dining options, don't I expect him or her to list the hotel's restaurant options first?

I suppose consumers might have a mild beef if Google is misrepresenting its service, but for gods sakes its free -- if you are suspicious of the results, there are like a zillion competitors.

This complaint is basically coming from businesses.  I know from past experience that seeing one's page rank drop with one of the regular Google algorithm tweaks is frustrating, but companies that through good SEO have climbed to the top of the search rankings are not owed anything, and in particular they are not owed that search ranking that they got for free.  In fact, these are businesses that are basically free riders on Google whining about Google's actions.  If they want to complain Google is not abiding by its terms of service on its paid listings, fine.  That is potentially a legitimate complaint.  But can't we agree that, as a foundation principle, government consumer protection action is never required for a free service somehow falling short of expectations?