Archive for April 2011

CO2 and Tornadoes

Well, you now have a simple algorithm for sorting flakes and politicized hacks from honest scientists -- anyone who is going around this week saying that the tornadoes in Alabama this week were due to manmade CO2 sit firmly in the former category.  First up, Dr. Roy Spencer

If there is one weather phenomenon global warming theory does NOT predict more of, it would be severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Tornadic thunderstorms do not require tropical-type warmth. In fact, tornadoes are almost unheard of in the tropics, despite frequent thunderstorm activity.

Instead, tornadoes require strong wind shear (wind speed and direction changing rapidly with height in the lower atmosphere), the kind which develops when cold and warm air masses “collide”. Of course, other elements must be present, such as an unstable airmass and sufficient low-level humidity, but wind shear is the key. Strong warm advection (warm air riding up and over the cooler air mass, which is also what causes the strong wind shear) in advance of a low pressure area riding along the boundary between the two air masses is where these storms form.

But contrasting air mass temperatures is the key. Active tornado seasons in the U.S. are almost always due to unusually COOL air persisting over the Midwest and Ohio Valley longer than it normally does as we transition into spring.

For example, the poster child for active tornado seasons was the Superoutbreak of 1974, which was during globally cool conditions. This year, we are seeing much cooler than normal conditions through the corn belt, even delaying the planting schedule. Cool La Nina years seem to favor more tornadoes, and we are now coming out of a persistent La Nina. The global-average temperature has plummeted by about 1 deg. F in just one year.

An unusually warm Gulf of Mexico of 1 or 2 degrees right now cannot explain the increase in contrast between warm and cold air masses which is key for tornado formation because that slight warmth cannot compete with the 10 to 20 degree below-normal air in the Midwest and Ohio Valley which has not wanted to give way to spring yet.

The “extra moisture” from the Gulf is not that important, because it’s almost always available this time of year…it’s the wind shear that caused this outbreak.

More tornadoes due to “global warming”, if such a thing happened, would be more tornadoes in Canada, where they don’t usually occur. NOT in Alabama.

Thus we yet again run into the logic of the marketing campaign to change the effect of CO2 from global warming to climate change, as if CO2 could somehow make for random climate changes without the intermediate step of warming.

We all draw upon fallible memories to come to conclusions about whether events are more or less prevalent today, and in many cases our memories fail us (often due to observer bias, in particular the increasing frequency of an event in the media being mistaken for the increasing underlying frequency of the event).  I will say that my memory is that the seventies were the time in my life with the most severe weather (including horrible regional famines) and the seventies were the coldest decade of my life so far.

Anyway, tornadoes are something we can measure, rather than just remember, so let's go to the data:

In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore and company said that global warming was increasing the number of tornadoes in the US.  He claimed 2004 was the highest year ever for tornadoes in the US.  In his PowerPoint slide deck (on which the movie was based) he sometimes uses this chart (form the NOAA):

Whoa, that’s scary.  Any moron can see there is a trend there.  Its like a silver bullet against skeptics or something.  But wait.  Hasn’t tornado detection technology changed over the last 50 years?  Today, we have doppler radar, so we can detect even smaller size 1 tornadoes, even if no one on the ground actually spots them (which happens fairly often).  But how did they measure smaller tornadoes in 1955 if no one spotted them?  Answer:  They didn’t.  In effect, this graph is measuring apples and oranges.  It is measuring all the tornadoes we spotted by human eye in 1955 with all the tornadoes we spotted with doppler radar in 2000.   The NOAA tries to make this problem clear on their web site.

With increased national doppler radar coverage, increasing population, and greater attention to tornado reporting, there has been an increase in the number of tornado reports over the past several decades. This can create a misleading appearance of an increasing trend in tornado frequency. To better understand the true variability and trend in tornado frequency in the US, the total number of strong to violent tornadoes (F3 to F5 category on the Fujita scale) can be analyzed. These are the tornadoes that would have likely been reported even during the decades before Dopplar radar use became widespread and practices resulted in increasingtornado reports. The bar chart below indicates there has been little trend in the strongest tornadoes over the past 55 years.

So itt turns out there is a decent way to correct for this.  We don’t think that folks in 1955 were missing many of the larger class 3-5 tornadoes, so comparing 1955 and 2000 data for these larger tornadoes should be more apples to apples (via NOAA).

Well, that certainly is different (note 2004 in particular, given the movie claim).  No upward trend at all when you get the data right.  I wonder if Al Gore knows this?  I am sure he is anxious to set the record straight.

The last chart is dated - am I hiding something?  Nope, here is the update (from here)

By the way, note the 2nd to last bar, which I believe it the 2008 bar (this chart is really hard to read, but it is the only way I have found the data from the NOAA).  In spring of 2008, the media went nuts with a spring spate of tornadoes, saying that the apocalypse was here and this was the ultimate proof of global warming.  In particular, ABC ran a story about how the frequency was twice the previous year.  Beyond the insanity of drawing long term trends in a noisy system from 2 data points, notice that the previous year was virtually the lowest number in half a century, and despite being twice as high, 2008 turned out to be an average to lower-than-average tornado year.  This is what the media does with the climate issue, and why you can trust almost none of it.

Update: By the way, 10 of the top 10 deadliest tornadoes occurred before 1955?  An artifact of increasing wealth, better construction, and in particular better warning and communication systems?  Likely -- it is no accident, I think, these all occurred before the popularization of TV.  However, remember this argument when you see charts of increasing property damage from hurricanes.  These are also an artifact of increasing wealth, but the other way around -- more rich people build expensive houses on the beech, the more property damage from hurricanes irregardless of hurricane strength or frequency.

Update#2:  The entire outbreak may be the third deadliest in the century.

Shifting Capital from the Productive to the Sexy

My Forbes column this week focuses on the US rail system, and argues that despite all the angst that we are somehow missing the boat in emulating Europe, Japan and China in building expensive bullet trains, we actually have the best rail system in the world.

These writers worry that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds more stuff.  We are “asleep.”  Well, here is my retort: Most of the great progress in this country occured 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.

In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long 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 and Japan are not even close.  Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan.   As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States.  For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

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.

China Spending Its Way Over a Cliff

Hayekians would argue that both the Japanese lost decade and the recent US housing crash were both caused by massive mis-allocations of capital driven by a variety of government interventions and corrupted price signals (particularly on interest rates).  This may be an early signal of a lulu of a bust coming to China, in an story on the high speed rail system in China

With the latest revelations, the shining new emblem of China’s modernization looks more like an example of many of the country’s interlinking problems: top-level corruption, concerns about construction quality and a lack of public input into the planning of large-scale projects.

Questions have also arisen about whether costs and public needs are too often overlooked as the leadership pursues grandiose projects, which some critics say are for vanity or to engender national pride but which are also seen as an effort to pump up growth through massive public works spending.

The Finance Ministry said last week that the Railways Ministry continued to lose money in the first quarter of this year. The ministry’s debt stands at $276 billion, almost all borrowed from Chinese banks.

“They’ve taken on a massive amount of debt to build it,” said Patrick Chovanec, who teaches at Tsinghua University. He said China accelerated construction of the high-speed rail network — including 295 sleek glass-and-marble train stations — as part of the country’s stimulus spending in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University and a longtime critic of high-speed rail, said he worries that the cost of the project might have created a hidden debt bomb that threatens China’s banking system.

“In China, we will have a debt crisis — a high-speed rail debt crisis,” he said. “I think it is more serious than your subprime mortgage crisis. You can always leave a house or use it. The rail system is there. It’s a burden. You must operate the rail system, and when you operate it, the cost is very high.”

It should be noted that this is the system that has been lauded by folks from Thomas Friedman to Barack Obama as something we should emulate in the US.  By the way, this problem identified in China is in fact endemic to the US -- the cost overruns in every rail system.  In the US, this probably has less to do with outright individual corruption (i.e. the stealing of money for personal gain) but more common political corruption, in the form of purposefully underestimating costs to get public approval, knowing that when inevitable overruns appear, it will be too late to stop the project.

Part of the cost problem has been that each segment of the system has been far more expensive to build than initially estimated, which many trace directly to the alleged corruption being uncovered, including a flawed bidding process.

I wrote earlier on high speed rail as triumphalism rather than real investment here.  Why the US actually has the best rail network in the world is here (hint:  from an energy, pollution, and congestion standpoint, the best thing to put on rails is freight rather than passengers, and the US does that better than China or Europe, by far)

Keynes v. Hayek, Round 2

Update: This is a three-part series on Hayek boom and bust basics by Lawrence White, built around he original rap video;

OK, Can We Declare Victory in the Whole "Failing at Fairness" Thing?

Via Mark Perry

From yesterday's Census report on educational attainment, the chart above shows the college degree gap in favor of women for all levels of higher education for age group between 25-29.  More than 60% of advanced degrees are now held by women for that age group, up by more than three percentage points from the 58.2% reported by Census for 2009.  For African-Americans ages 25-29,  there are 239 women holding advanced degrees for every 100 men with graduate degrees (70.5% female vs. 29.5% male).

See his original for a good chart.

By the way, the answer to the question in the title is probably "no."  Advocacy groups never go away -- they just seek new problems.  Too much money to be gained in achieving victim status.

Congrats to Massachussetts

Apparently, they have had three straight speakers of their state House of Representatives facing criminal charges.  And by the way parents .... unless you want to almost guarantee your kid is going to be investigated for corruption and racketeering by the FBI, don't name him Salvatore.

Lack of Imagination

One of the things I struggle with in arguing for ending the government schools monopoly is a lack of imagination.  In most people's lifetimes, there has never been a robust network of private school options to fit all needs and budgets, so folks assume that that such choices can't exist -- that there is some structural failure of capitalism that would prevent these choices from existing rather than structural government factors that have prevented them from existing.

Don Boudreaux has a nice analogy that helps make the logic of school choice clearer.

Is The Ability To Reality Check Figures A Dead Art?

From the Thin Green Line, an environmental blog I often criticize for it incredible credulity in accepting bizarre figures, comes this whopper:

Is Ganja green? TGL has covered the issue before, but a new study undertaken by a Lawrence Livermore scientist gives us some real numbers (H/T New York Times Green)....

In California, indoor cultivation is responsible for a whopping 8 percent of household electricity usage. But, California grows only about a fifth of the nation's bong hits and much of what we grow goes to out-of-state consumers....

The study, written by Evan Mills on his own (non-government-funded) time, makes the case for legalizing and regulating grow operations, suggesting that if marijuana didn't have to be grown in secret and indoors, efficiency could be improved by as much as 75 percent.

Readers of this blog will know that I am all for marijuana legalization.  But how can anyone accept this figure.  Eight percent?  Really?   This would be larger than the total residential electricity use of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, solely for pot growing in California.  I am calling BS.

New Passport Application -- I Honestly Thought This Was A Joke

It should be a regular feature here -- government programs so silly they sound like a spoof.  Seriously, I thought this was some spoof birther proposal.  Via Radley Balko, from Consumer Traveller

The U.S. Department of State is proposing a new Biographical Questionnaire for some passport applicants: The proposed new  Form DS-5513 asks for all addresses since birth; lifetime employment history including employers’ and supervisors names, addresses, and telephone numbers; personal details of all siblings; mother’s address one year prior to your birth; any “religious ceremony” around the time of birth; and a variety of other information.  According to the proposed form, “failure to provide the information requested may result in … the denial of your U.S. passport application.”

The State Department estimated that the average respondent would be able to compile all this information in just 45 minutes, which is obviously absurd given the amount of research that is likely to be required to even attempt to complete the form.

It seems likely that only some, not all, applicants will be required to fill out the new questionnaire, but no criteria have been made public for determining who will be subjected to these additional new written interrogatories.  So if the passport examiner wants to deny your application, all they will have to do is give you the impossible new form to complete.

In fact, this text misses some of the real doozies.  Here is a jpg of the 2nd page of the application (click to enlarge)

Dates and locations of your mother's pre-natal doctor visits?  My mom would laugh her ass off if I called her asking for these.  And how can  the government get away with asking for details of religious ceremonies connected to one's birth?

I swear the combination of the religious ceremony stuff and the residence of one's mother before, during, and after birth is so parallel to birther arguments about Obama I thought this was a spoof.

Update: Apparently this form is for people who have lost their birth certificate.  If a person cannot track down his or her birth certificate and can't find his or her birth hospital to get a replacement, I find it hard to believe any of this stuff is answerable either.  To me, this factoid makes the whole Obama/birther irony even funnier.

All Police Officers Should Be Videotaped Every Second They Are On The Job

We give police officers special powers to use force that we allow no other citizen.  As such, they should be subjected to special accountability and monitoring.  One wonders how many people have served time in jail for officers making up BS stories, actually reversing the direction of an assault, and making it stick because the legal system circles the wagons to protect its own.  Thank god for video.

Joe Arpaio, Web Mogul

Joe Arpaio, I suppose seeing how Ben Quayle rode his writing gig for the Dirty into Congress, has decided he wants to compete with all manner of bottom-fishing web sites.  He has created a special web feature in a what he states is an attempt to drive more people to his web site -- the goofy booking photo of the day.

Several local lawyers, including some mental health advocates, are asking if it is appropriate for a sheriff to run online contests to vote for the inmate with the worst booking photos.  This is a great example of a situation (like video surveillance) where public officials have less, rather than more rights and privileges than ordinary citizens.  Kudos to Scott Ambrose for making a point that is seldom made, and we should remind politicians of all the time:

Arpaio says that booking photos are aired in the news media every day. A local alternative weekly even took a page from Arpaio's playbook earlier this year and let readers have fun with some of the sheriff's mug shots.

"Sheriff Joe will argue that 'I can do this because New Times can,' " Ambrose said. "There's lots of things the government can't do that you and I can."

I have another question - for what possible public purpose is Arpaio spending taxpayer money to drive people to his web site?  This is so incredibly self-serving its hard to believe, but fits right in with Arpaio's whole history of taxpayer-funded self-promotion.

PS-  I have always argued that booking photos should not be public information, as they amount to an improper punishment.  The legal system has a technical term for someone who has been arrested but has not gone to trial:  Innocent.

World's Most Dangerous Lizard

It could kill thousands of jobs.

For years I have resisted the meme that environmentalists were anti-energy and anti-industrialists. However, the current strong and growing environmental opposition to natural gas production in the US, probably the cleanest, sanest source of energy that we have, is quickly changing my opinion.  Texas and New Mexico residents fear that the dune sagebrush lizard will get endangered species status specifically as a lever to reduce oil production.

Oil and Speculators

My new column is up at Forbes, and discusses the absurdity of blaming sustained higher oil and gas prices on speculators.

Is there a crime in the current oil prices?  Yes, but it’s not one of speculation.  Prices are a form of communication.  Higher prices tell consumers to use less oil, and producers to go find more.  The real crime today is that while the signal is flashing today to oil companies to go find more crude, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to make such efforts all but impossible.  In fact, the Obama Administration desperately tried and failed to increase oil and gas prices via cap and trade last year.  President Obama is not really against higher oil prices, he just wants them driven higher by the state, not by the markets.

Hey, I Can Like Ice Hockey But Still Hate Subsidies

Spend a few nights listening to the news on TV, and you will quickly discover the one of the bedrock logical fallacies of political discourse:

If it's good, the government should subsidize it.  If it's bad, the government should ban it.  If outcomes are in any way perceived by any group to be sub-optimal, then the government should regulate it.  Anyone who opposes these bans, subsidies, and regulations must therefore be a supporter of bad outcomes, hate poor people, want people to get sick and die, etc.

Just last night, I was watching the local news (something I almost never do) and saw a story of one of those kids' bouncy houses that blew out of someone's backyard into a road.  There was a girl inside who was scared but unhurt  (after all, she was surrounded on six sides by giant airbags).   Of course the conclusion of the story was a call for more government regulation of tie downs for private backyard bouncy houses.  And those of us who think it's absurd for the government to micro-regulate such things, particularly after a single freak accident when no one was hurt -- we just want to see children die, of course.

Which brings me to this little gem in a local blog, which reflects a feeling held by many area sports fans.  Remember that I have supported the Goldwater Institute in their opposition to the city of Glendale giving a rich guy $200 million to buy our NHL ice hockey team and keep it here.    My (and I presume Goldwater's) motivation has been opposition to a huge government subsidy that equates to nearly $1000 for every man, woman, and child in Glendale.  This subsidy appears illegal under the Arizona Constitution.  But that is not how political discourse works.  We are not defending the Constitution, we just hate hockey (emphasis added)

If you believe Canadian newspapers, tonight's game against the Detroit Red Wings will be the Phoenix Coyotes last game in the desert.

Canadians like hockey. Judging by attendance at Coyotes games, Phoenicians don't (at least not enough to drive to west side), which is why Canadians are so optimistic that their beloved Winnipeg Jets will be returning to our overly polite neighbors to the north.

The Coyotes ended the season with the second worst attendance in the NHL. That, coupled with the Goldwater Institute's crusade to drive the team out of the Valley, is not helping the city of Glendale's attempt to keep the team.

A few facts to remember:

  • As the article states, local residents have already voted with their feet, since the team has nearly the lowest attendance in the league despite going to the playoffs both last year and this year.  They have trouble selling out playoff games.
  • The team has lost money every year it has been here.  It lost something like $40 million this year
  • The team is worth $100 million here in Phoenix.  That is the going rate for warm-market teams.  The buyer is willing to pay $100 million of his own money for the team.   So why is a subsidy needed?  The NHL insists on selling the team for $200 million or more.  Though it piously claims to want to keep hockey in Arizona, it is selling the team for price than can only be paid by buyers who want to move the team.
  • The City of Glendale appears to have lied outright in selling this deal to the public.  In particular, it claimed the $100 million was not a giveaway, but a payment for the team's rights to charge for parking.  But many insiders say the City always retained this right, and it strains credulity that while losing money for seven years, the team would not have exercised this right if it really owned it.
  • Glendale has only itself to blame, confounding an already difficult marketing task (ice hockey in the desert) by putting the stadium on the far end of a sprawling city.   The location is roughly the equivalent in terms of distance and relationship to the metropolitan area of moving the Chicago Blackhawks or Bulls stadium to Gary, Indiana.  The stadium ended up in Glendale because neither Tempe, Scottsdale, nor Phoenix was willing to make a $200 million, 30-year taxpayer-funded bet on the profitability of ice hockey.

Licensing is Anti-Consumer

Via Carpe Diem, yet another group of market incumbents using licensing and regulation to limit competition and, in particular, ban business models different than those of the incumbents.

From the Institute for Justice: "Until 2010, sedan and independent limo services were an affordable alternative to taxicabs in the Music City. A trip to the airport only cost $25. But in June 2010, the Metropolitan County Council passed a series of anti-competitive regulations requested by the Tennessee Livery Association - a trade group formed by expensive limousine companies. These regulations force sedan and independent limo companies to increase their fares to $45 minimum.

The regulations also prohibit limo and sedan companies from using leased vehicles, require them to dispatch only from their place of business, require them to wait a minimum of 15 minutes before picking up a customer and forbid them from parking or waiting for customers at hotels or bars. And, in January 2012, companies will have to take all vehicles off the road if they are more than 7 years old for a sedan or SUV or more than 10 years old for a limousine.

Oh My Freaking God! Unregulated Freeze Tag?!

Via Reason from the pathetic hulk that was once the great state of New York

Dodgeball, Red Rover, Wiffle Ball – those time-honored kids' games, along with activities like Steal the Bacon and Capture the Flag – have been deemed dangerous by the state as part of an effort to tighten regulations for summer camps in the area.

Any indoor or outdoor recreational program that offers two or more organized activities, including one that falls on the "risky list" determined by state officials, will be considered a summer camp under the new rules and subject to the associated regulations.

The rules aim to curtail a loophole in previously passed regulations by the state Health Department that count activities like horseback riding and archery among the "risky list," but do not include many activities like Freeze Tag and kickball featured in indoor programs.

Update: They backed off.   Kids will still be at risk from unregulated red rover.

Prior Restraint

National security letters strike me as one of the worst Constitutional abuses to come out of the last 10 years, which is saying a lot given the post-9/11 theories of executive authority from torture to indefinite detention to even ordering people killed.

The national security letters deserve particular scrutiny because they evade the Fourth Amendment while building in a prior restraint on speech that prevents recipients from challenging the letters or even complaining about them.  This is self-sustaining policy -- ie policy that prevents the dissemination of information that might prove it is a threat or a failure -- at its worst.

The Justice Department's inspector general revealed on March 9 that the FBI has been systematically abusing one of the most controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act: the expanded power to issue "national security letters." It no doubt surprised most Americans to learn that between 2003 and 2005 the FBI issued more than 140,000 specific demands under this provision -- demands issued without a showing of probable cause or prior judicial approval -- to obtain potentially sensitive information about U.S. citizens and residents. It did not, however, come as any surprise to me.

Three years ago, I received a national security letter (NSL) in my capacity as the president of a small Internet access and consulting business. The letter ordered me to provide sensitive information about one of my clients. There was no indication that a judge had reviewed or approved the letter, and it turned out that none had. The letter came with a gag provision that prohibited me from telling anyone, including my client, that the FBI was seeking this information. Based on the context of the demand -- a context that the FBI still won't let me discuss publicly -- I suspected that the FBI was abusing its power and that the letter sought information to which the FBI was not entitled.

Anyone want to bet how many of these things really are national security related, and how many are related to other investigations (particularly drugs)?

There are zillions of people involved in these major investigations.  There is no good argument against adding one more who is in on the secret - ie a judge - and a lot of reasons to do so.

Ugh, I Missed This Little Turd

From Dan Mitchell

Called a “debt failsafe trigger,” Obama’s scheme would automatically raise taxes if politicians spend too much. According to the talking points distributed by the White House, the automatic tax increase would take effect “if, by 2014, the projected ratio of debt-to-GDP is not stabilized and declining toward the end of the decade.”

Pretty good evidence that the default mentality in Washington is that "all your money are belong to us" and whatever is leftover that the government does not happen to spend, you are welcome to use for yourself.

Getting Endorsed by Nazis

I often find that my worst enemy in an argument is actually someone trying to agree with me but for completely crazed and illogical reasons.  I call it "getting endorsed by Nazis," after the problem politicians face when they get endorsed by some really wacky fringe group.

I have to almost feel some sympathy today for global warming alarmists who have gotten a prominent new climate change spokesman:

Crazed cult leader Charles Manson has broken a 20-year silence in a prison interview coinciding with the 40th anniversary of his conviction for the gruesome Sharon Tate murders - to speak out about global warming.

The infamous killer, who started championing environmental causes from behind bars, bemoaned the 'bad things' being done to environment in a rambling phone interview from his Californian jail cell.

'Everyone’s God and if we don’t wake up to that there’s going to be no weather because our polar caps are melting because we’re doing bad things to the atmosphere.

If I had even the smallest desire to play such games, I might suggest that this would be a really fun article to Google bomb with some frequently-searched global warming phrase.

I Have Heard of Congress Exempting Itself From Regulations...

From the folks who exempt themselves from minimum wage, OSHA, and much of environmental law, comes the news that while shutting down online poker for most Americans, the District of Columbia is starting up its own online poker site for federal officials and other DC residents.

On the Radio

I will be on the Radio at 9:00PM Arizona/Pacific time to discuss the Glendale / Coyotes subsidy.  I will be appearing on the Terry Gilburg show on 550 KFYI in Phoenix, also streaming here.

The Silly Oil Speculation Meme

Apparently, the leftish-progressive talking point du jour is that oil speculators  (and wouldn't you know it, those apparently include new libertarian uber-villains the Koch brothers) are artificially raising prices above what a "natural" market clearing price would be.

I have always presumed this to be possible for short periods of time - probably hours, perhaps days.  But if, for any longer period of time, market prices (I am talking here about prices for current oil and immediate delivery, not futures prices) stay above the market clearing price one would normally expect from current supply and demand, then oil has to be building up somewhere.  People would be bending over backwards to sell oil into the market, and customers would be using less.

If futures speculation has somehow unanaturally driven up current prices, where is the oil building up?  I understand the price can go up for future oil, because in futures the inventory is just paper.  But the argument is that futures trading is driving up current oil prices.  When the Hunt brothers tried to corner the silver market, they had to buy and buy and keep buying to sop up the inventory.

Sure, some folks may be storing oil on speculation (and by the way most oil companies are inventorying oil and gasoline this time of year in the annual build up between heating oil season and summer driving season) -- but storing physical oil is really expensive.  And the total capacity to do so incrementally is trivial compared to world daily demand.  A few tanker loads sitting offshore is not going to mean squat (total world crude inventory is something like 350 million barrels at any one time, so adding a million barrels into storage only increases inventory by 0.3% or about.   Another way to look at it is that storing a million barrels of oil represents about 17 minutes of daily demand.   If the price is really being held above the market clearing price, then we are talking about the necessity of buying millions of barrels of oil each and every day and storing them, and to keep doing so day after day after day to keep the price up.  And then once you stop, the price is just going to crash before you can sell it because of the very fact that word got out you are selling it.

I dealt with this in a lot more depth here.  I want to repost it in full.  It's a bit dated (different prices) but still relevant.  Note in particular the irony of my friends point #5 -- this was a real view held by many on the progressive Left.  Ironic, huh?

I had an odd and slightly depressing conversation with a friend the other night.  He is quite intelligent and well-educated, and in business is probably substantially more successful, at least financially, than I.

Somehow we got in a discussion of oil markets, and he seemed to find my position suggesting that oil prices are generally set by supply and demand laughable, so much so he eventually gave up with me as one might give up and change the subject on someone who insists the Apollo moon landings were faked. I found the conversation odd, like having a discussion with a fellow
chemistry PHD and suddenly having them start defending the phlogiston
theory of combustion. His core position, as best I could follow, was this:

  1. Limitations on supply in the US, specifically limitations on new oil field development and refinery construction, are engineered by oil companies attempting to keep prices high.
  2. Oil prices are set at the whim of oil traders in London and New York, who are controlled by US oil companies.  The natural price of oil today should be $30 or $40, but oil traders keep it up at $60.  While players upstream and downstream may have limited market shares, these traders act as a choke point that controls the whole market.  All commodity markets are manipulated, or at least manipulatable, in this manner
  3. Oil supply and demand is nearly perfectly inelastic.
  4. If there really was a supply and demand reason for oil prices to shoot up to $60, then why aren’t we seeing any shortages?
  5. Oil prices only rise when Texas Republicans are in office.  They will fall back to $30 as soon as there is a Democratic president.  On the day oil executives were called to testify in front of the Democratic Congress recently, oil prices fell from $60 to $45 on that day, and then went right back up.

Ignoring the Laws of Economics (Price caps and floors)

While everyone (mostly) knows that we are suspending disbelief when the James Bond villain seems to be violating the laws of physics, there is a large cadre of folks that do believe that our economic overlords can suspend the laws of supply and demand.   As it turns out, these laws cannot be suspended, but they can certainly be ignored.  Individuals who ignore supply and demand in their investment and economic decision making are generally called "bankrupt," at least eventually, so we don’t always hear their stories (the Hunt brothers attempt to corner the silver market is probably the best example I can think of).  However, the US government has provided us with countless examples of actions that ignore economic reality.

The most typical example is in placing price caps.  The most visible example was probably the 1970′s era caps on oil, gasoline, and natural gas prices and later "windfall profit" taxes.  The result was gasoline lines and outright shortages.  With prices suppressed below the market clearing price, demand was higher and supply was lower than they would be in balance.

The my friend raised is different, one where price floors are imposed by industry participants or the government or more likely both working in concert.   The crux of my argument was not that government would shy away from protecting an industry by limiting supply, because they do this all the time. The real problem with the example at hand is that, by the laws of supply and demand, a price floor above the market clearing price should yield a supply glut.  As it turns out, supply guts associated with cartel actions to keep prices high tend to require significant, very visible, and often expensive actions to mitigate.  Consider two examples:

Realtors and their trade group have worked for years to maintain a tight cartel, demanding a 6% or higher agency fee that appears to be increasingly above the market clearing price.  The result of maintaining this price floor has been a huge glut of real estate agents.  The US is swimming in agents.  In an attempt to manage this supply down, realtors have convinced most state governments to institute onerous licensing requirements, with arcane tests written and administered by… the realtor’s trade group.  The tests are hard not because realtors really need to know this stuff, but because they are trying to keep the supply down.   And still the supply is in glut.  Outsiders who try to discount or sell their own home without a realtor (ie, bring even more cheap capacity into the system) are punished ruthlessly with blackballs.  I have moved many times and have had realtors show me over 300 houses — and you know how many For Sale By Owner homes I have been shown?  Zero.  A HUGE amount of effort is expended by the real estate industry to try to keep supply in check, a supply glut caused by holding rates artificially high.

A second example of price floors is in agriculture.  The US Government, for whatever political reasons, maintains price floors in a number of crops.  The result, of course, has been a supply glut in these commodities.  Sopping up this supply glut costs the US taxpayer billions.  In some cases the government pays to keep fields fallow, in others the government buys up extra commodities and either stores them (cheese) or gives them away overseas.  In cases like sugar, the government puts up huge tarriff barriers to imports, otherwise the market would be glutted with overseas suppliers attracted by the artificially high prices.  In fact, most of the current subsidy programs for ethanol, which makes almost zero environmental or energy policy sense, can be thought of as another government program to sop up excess farm commodity supply so the price floor can be maintained.

I guess my point from these examples is not that producers haven’t tried to impose price floors above the market clearing price, because they have.  And it is not even that these floors are not sustainable, because they can be if the government steps in to help with their coercive power and our tax money to back them.  My point is, though, that the laws of supply and demand are not suspended in these cases.  Price floors above the market clearing price lead to supply gluts, which require very extensive, highly visible, and often expensive efforts to manage.  As we turn now to oil markets, we’ll try to see if there is evidence of such actions taking place.

The reasons behind US oil production and refining capacity constraints

As to his first point, that oil companies are conspiring with the government to artificially limit oil production and refining capacity, this certainly would not be unprecedented in industry, as discussed above.  However, any historical study of these issues in the oil industry would make it really hard to reach this conclusion here.  There is a pretty clear documented record of oil companies pushing to explore more areas (ANWR, offshore) that are kept off-limits due to environmental pressures.  While we have trouble imagining the last 30 years without Alaskan oil, the US oil companies had to beg Congress to let them build the pipeline, and the issue was touch and go for a number of years.  The same story holds in refining, where environmental pressure and NIMBY concerns have prevented any new refinery construction since the 1970′s (though after years and years, we may be close in Arizona).  I know people are willing to credit oil companies with just about unlimited levels of Machiavellianism, but it would truly be a PR coup of unprecedented proportions to have maintained such a strong public stance to allow more capacity in the US while at the same time working in the back room for just the opposite.

The real reason this assertion is not credible is that capacity limitations in the US have very clearly worked against the interests of US oil companies.  In production, US companies produce on much better terms from domestic fields than they do when negotiating with totalitarian regimes overseas, and they don’t have to deal with instability issues (e.g. kidnapping in Nigeria) and expropriation concerns.  In refining, US companies have seen their market shares in refined products fall since the 1970s.  This is because when we stopped allowing refinery construction in this country, producing countries like Saudi Arabia went on a building boom.  Today, instead of importing our gasoline as crude to be refined in US refineries, we import gas directly from foreign refineries.  If the government is secretly helping oil companies maintain a refining capacity shortage in this country, someone forgot to tell them they need to raise import duties to keep foreign suppliers from taking their place.

What Oil Traders can and cannot do

As to the power of traders, I certainly believe that if the traders could move oil prices for sustained periods as much as 50% above or below the market clearing price, they would do so if it profited them.  I also think that speculative actions, and even speculative bubbles, can push commodity prices to short-term extremes that are difficult to explain by market fundamentals.  Futures contracts and options, with their built in leverage, allow even smaller players to take market-moving positions.  The question on the table, though, is whether oil traders can maintain oil prices 50% over the market clearing prices for years at a time.  I think not.

What is often forgotten is that companies like Exxon and Shell control something like 4-5% each of world production (and that number is over-stated, since much of their production is as operator for state-owned oil companies who have the real control over production rates).  As a point of comparison, this is roughly the same market Toshiba has in the US computer market and well below Acer’s.  As a result, there is not one player, or even several working in tandem, who hold any real power in crude markets.  Unless one posits, as my friend does, that NY and London traders somehow sit astride a choke point in the world markets.

But here is the real problem with saying that these traders have kept oil prices 50% above the market clearing price for the last 2-3 years:  What do they do with the supply glut?  We know from economics, as well as the historic examples reviewed above, that price floors above the clearing price should result in a supply glut.  Where is all the oil?

Return to the example of when the Hunt’s tried to corner the silver market.  Over six months, they managed to drive the price from the single digits to almost $50 an ounce.  Leverage in futures markets allowed them to control a huge chunk of the available world supply.  But to profit from it (beyond a paper profit) the Hunts either had to take delivery (which they were financially unable to do, as they were already operating form leveraged positions) or find a buyer who accepted $50 as the new "right" price for silver, which they could not.  No one wanted to buy at $50, particularly from the Hunts, since they knew the moment the Hunt’s started selling, the price would crash.  As new supplies poured onto the market at the higher prices, the only way the Hunt’s could keep the price up was to pour hundreds of millions of dollars in to buy up this excess supply.  Eventually, of course, they went bankrupt.  But remember the takeaway:  They only could maintain the artificially higher commodity price as long as they kept buying excess capacity, a leveraged Ponzi game that eventually collapsed.

So how do oil traders’ supposedly pull off this feat of keeping oil prices elevated about the market clearing price?  Well, there is only one way:  It has to be stored, either in tanks or in the ground.  The option of storing the extra supplies in tanks is absurd, especially over a period of years – after all, at its peak, $60 of silver would sit on the tip of my finger, but $60 of oil won’t fit in the trunk of my car.  The world oil storage capacity is orders of magnitude too low.  So the only real option is to store it in the ground, ie don’t allow it to get produced.

How do traders pull this off?  I have no idea.  Despite people’s image, the oil producer’s market is incredibly fragmented.  The biggest companies in the world have less than 5%, and it rapidly steps down from there. It is actually even more fragmented than that, because most oil production is co-owned by royalty holders who get a percentage of the production.  These royalty holders are a very fragmented and independent group, and will complain at the first sign of their operator not producing fast and hard enough when prices are high.  To keep the extra oil off the market, you would have to send signals to a LOT of people.  And it has to be a strong and clear signal, because price is already sending the opposite signal.  The main purpose of price is in its communication value — a $60 price tells producers a lot about what and how much oil should be produced (and by the way tells consumers how careful to be with its use).  To override this signal, with thousands of producers, to achieve exactly the opposite effect being signaled with price, without a single person breaking the pack, is impossible.  Remember our examples and the economics – a sustained effort to keep prices substantially above market clearing prices has to result in visible and extensive efforts to manage excess supply.

Also, the other point that is often forgotten is that private exchanges can only survive when both Sellers AND buyers perceive them to be fair.  Buyers are quickly going to find alternatives to exchanges that are perceived to allow sellers to manipulate oil prices 50% above the market price for years at a time.  Remember, we think of oil sellers as Machiavellian, but oil buyers are big boys too, and are not unsophisticated dupes.  In fact, it was the private silver exchanges, in response to just such pressure, that changed their exchange rules to stop the Hunt family from continuing to try to corner the market.  They knew they needed to maintain the perception of fairness for both sellers and buyers.

Supply and Demand Elasticity

From here, the discussion started becoming, if possible, less grounded in economic reality.  In response to the supply/demand matching issues I raised, he asserted that oil demand and supply are nearly perfectly inelastic.  Well, if both supply and demand are unaffected by price, then I would certainly accept that oil is a very, very different kind of commodity.  But in fact, neither assertion is true, as shown by example here and here. In particular, supply is quite elastic.  As I have written before, there is a very wide range of investments one can make even in an old existing field to stimulate production as prices rise.  And many, many operators are doing so, as evidenced by rig counts, sales at oil field services companies, and even by spam investment pitches arriving in my in box.

I found the statement "if oil prices really belong this high, why have we not seen any shortages" to be particularly depressing.  Can anyone who sat in at least one lecture in economics 101 answer this query?  Of course, the answer is, that we have not seen shortages precisely because prices have risen, fulfilling their supply-demand matching utility, and in the process demonstrating that both supply and demand curves for oil do indeed have a slope.  In fact, shortages (e.g. gas lines or gas stations without gas at all) are typically a result of government-induced breakdowns of the pricing mechanism.  In the 1970′s, oil price controls combined with silly government interventions (such as gas distribution rules**) resulted in awful shortages and long gas lines.  More recently, fear of "price-gouging" legislation in the Katrina aftermath prevented prices from rising as much as they needed to, leading to shortages and inefficient distribution.

Manipulating Oil Prices for Political Benefit

As to manipulating oil or gas prices timed with political events (say an election or Congressional hearings), well, that is a challenge that comes up all the time.  It is possible nearly always to make this claim because there is nearly always a political event going on, so natural volatility in oil markets can always be tied to some concurrent "event."  In this specific case, the drop from $60 to $35 just for a Congressional hearing is not even coincidence, it is urban legend.  No such drop has occurred since prices hit 60, though prices did drop briefly to 50.  (I am no expert, but in this case the pricing pattern seen is fairly common for a commodity that has seen a runup, and then experiences some see-sawing as prices find their level.)

This does not mean that Congressional hearings did not have a hand in helping to drive oil price futures.  Futures traders are constantly checking a variety of tarot cards, and indications of government regulatory activity or legislation is certainly part of it.  While I guess traders purposely driving down oil prices ahead of the hearing to make oil companies look better is one possible explanation;  a more plausible one (short of coincidence, since Congress has hearings on oil and energy about every other month) is that traders might have been anticipating some regulatory outcome in advance of the hearing, that became more less likely once the hearings actually occurred.  *Shrug*  Readers are welcome to make large short bets in advance of future Congressional energy hearings if they really think the former is what is occurring.

As to a relationship between oil prices and the occupant of the White House, that is just political hubris.  As we can see, real oil prices rose during Nixon, fell during Ford, rose during Carter, fell precipitously during Reagan, were flat end to end for Bush 1 (though with a rise in the middle) and flat end to end for Clinton.  I can’t see a pattern.

If Oil Companies Arbitrarily Set Prices, Why Aren’t They Making More Money?

A couple of final thoughts.  First, in these heady days of "windfall" profits, Exxon-Mobil is making a profit margin of about 9% – 10% of sales, which is a pretty average to low industrial profit margin.  So if they really have the power to manipulate oil prices at whim, why aren’t they making more money?  In fact, for the two decades from 1983 to 2002, real oil prices languished at levels that put many smaller oil operators out of business and led to years of layoffs and down sizings at oil companies.  Profit margins even for the larges players was 6-8% of sales, below the average for industrial companies.  In fact, here is the profitability, as a percent of sales, for Exxon-Mobil over the last 5 years:

2006:  10.5%

2005:  9.7%

2004:  8.5%

2003:  8.5%

2002:  5.4%

2001:  7.1%

Before 2001, going back to the early 80′s, Exxon’s profits were a dog.  Over the last five years, the best five years they have had in decades, their return on average assets has been 14.58%, which is probably less than most public utility commissions allow their regulated utilities.  So who had their hand on the pricing throttle through those years, because they sure weren’t doing a very good job!  But if you really want to take these profits away (and in the process nuke all the investment incentives in the industry) you could get yourself a 15 to 20 cent decrease in gas prices.  Don’t spend it all in one place.

** One of the odder and forgotten pieces of legislation during and after the 1972 oil embargo was the law that divided the country into zones (I don’t remember how, by counties perhaps).  It then said that an oil company had to deliver the same proportion of gas to each zone as it did in the prior year  (yes, someone clearly took this right out of directive 10-289).  It seemed that every Representative somehow suspected that oil companies in some other district would mysteriously be hoarding gas to their district’s detriment.  Whatever the reason, the law ignored the fact that use patterns were always changing, but were particularly different during this shortage.  Everyone canceled plans for that long-distance drive to Yellowstone.  The rural interstate gas stations saw demand fall way off.  However, the law forced oil companies to send just as much gas to these stations (proportionally) as they had the prior year.  The result was that rural interstates were awash in gas, while cities had run dry.  Thanks again Congress.

Get Over It

As much as I enjoy seeing Yale circling the drain of self-destruction, I am simply flabbergasted by the most recent discrimination suit it faces from a group of current and former female students.

The Yale group's confidential Title IX complaint to the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reportedly includes testimony about sexual assaults, but the hostile-environment charge against the university rests as well on a litany of complaints about offensive exercises of First Amendment freedoms. A December 2010 draft complaint letter, obtained by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), focuses on these "incidents": In 2006, a group of frat boys chant "No means yes, yes means anal" outside the Yale Women's Center. In 2010, a group of fraternity pledges repeat this obnoxious chant outside a first-year women's dorm. In 2008, pledges surround the Women's Center holding signs saying, "We love Yale sluts." In 2009, Yale students publish a report listing the names and addresses of first-year women and estimating the number of beers "it would take to have sex with them."

There are few adults who would not recognize these incidents as stupid, boorish frat-boy behavior not to be emulated.  But taking Yale to court, in effect seeking to force the University to punish such speech, takes the current college trend of protection the right not to be offended to absurd extremes.

Consider for a moment that there are radical women's organizations on most college campuses that take it as an article of faith that all men are rapists and all men are complicit in violence against women.   How is this speech any less aggressive, though it is treated with complete respect by universities.  In fact, many integrate this point of view into required Freshman sensitivity training.   Women on compuses routinely engage in speech saying that every man is a guilty felon complicit in awful crimes, and I don't see any men whining and running to Uncle Sugar to protect their delicate ears from offense.  At least the frat boys were probably drunk and joking -- the women are sober and dead serious.

Don't not be mistaken -- this is not about rights or freedom, but about a bid for totalitarian control of campuses by a niche group.  From Wendy Kaminer

Sad to say, but feminism helped lead the assault on civil liberty and now seems practically subsumed by it. Decades ago, when Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and their followers began equating pornography with rape (literally) and calling it a civil-rights violation, groups of free-speech feminists fought back, in print, at conferences, and in state legislatures, with some success. We won some battles (and free speech advocates in general can take solace in the Supreme Court's recent decision upholding the right to engage in offensive speech on public property and public affairs). But all things considered (notably the generations of students unlearning liberty) we seem to be losing the war, especially among progressives.

This is not simply a loss for liberty on campus and the right to indulge in what's condemned as verbal harassment or bullying, broadly defined. It's a loss of political freedom: the theories of censoring offensive or hurtful speech that are used to prosecute alleged student harassers are used to foment opposition to the right to burn a flag or a copy of the Quran or build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero. The disregard for liberty that the Obama administration displays in its approach to sexual harassment and bullying is consistent with its disregard for  liberty, and the presumption of innocence, in the Bush/Obama war on terror. Of course, the restriction of puerile, sexist speech on campus is an inconvenience compared to the indefinite detention or show trials of people suspected of terrorism, sometimes on the basis of un-reviewed or un-reviewable evidence. But underlying trivial and tragic deprivations of liberty, the authoritarian impulse is the same.

PS-  The last part in the first quote about rating women as related to sex is ironic, as, if memory serves, Yale was the location around 1980 when a group of female students created a guide rating male students on their sexual talents.  When women do it, it is a brave act of liberation.  When men do it, it is sexual harassment.

PPS-  My son is going through the college admissions process.  All these schools stress how much they are looking for future leaders.  How can Yale be so selective that it has an admissions rate around 7% of applicants but still end up with so many people who cannot function in the world as an adult?  The women are begging to have a daddy to protect them and the men seem to need a daddy to kick their ass until they act like adults.

Not Just Leadership, But Anti-Leadership

My column this week in Forbes is a response to yesterday's Presidential budget speech.  An excerpt:

President Obama is working from the assumption that the political leader who suggests painful but necessary budget cuts first, loses.   He had every opportunity to propose and pass a budget when he had Democratic majorities in Congress.   But Democrats feared that showing leadership on the hard budget choices they faced would hurt them in the November election, so they punted.

Even when Obama did produce a budget, it was the closest thing to a non-entity as could be imagined.   A budget that doubles government debt over 10 years and raises interest costs (under optimistic assumptions) to a trillion dollars a year would likely be controversial in any year, but is a non-starter given fresh memories of debt crises in Greece, Ireland and a number of other countries.

Of course there is an 800-lb gorilla in the room that no one wants to acknowledge:  Three programs —  Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — grow in the next 10 years under current rules to at least $2.7 trillion dollars a year.  Recognize that this figure excludes all the other so-called non-discretionary payments (unemployment, food stamps, etc.) as well as everything else the government does including the military and Obamacare. The 2021 spending on just those three programs is 25% higher than the total revenue of the federal government from all sources in 2011.

Later in the article, I suggest ten principles that should be the foundation of a budget deal.

If Social Security Were Medicare

Paul Ryan is catching grief for his proposal to convert Medicare from "all the medical care you wish to consume" to grants of $X per year.  This seems unimaginable to people (forgetting for a moment that the US functioned for nearly 200 years without it at all).

But what if Social Security were Medicare.  What if, instead of giving $X per year, Social Security made an open-ended promise to fund whatever consumption one thought necessary to maintain his or her lifestyle.  Can you imagine the fiscal disaster?  The horrible incentives

And if Social Security had been structured that way, and we were now trying to change it to fixed grants, what would people be saying?  They would say, "what if something unexpected happens - won't that just leave people in the cold?"