Archive for April 2011

Thank God for the Internet

Without the Internet, I might have died without seeing Hungarian folk dancers demonstrating a bubble-sort algorithm

via flowing data

This is What Happens When You Continually Excuse a Public Official's Lawlessness

Sheriff Joe Arpaio constantly gets a pass for some of the most outrageous hijinx from Phoenix's conservative population that sees him as the last bastion between them and brown-skinned people.  Tell someone he is above the law, and he is going to act above the law

​As Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio crows this morning about how his agency busted a total of six illegal immigrants for using fake IDs so they could work at a Mesa dry cleaner, county budget officials unveiled the results of a six-month investigation into how his office is misspending your money.

If you pay taxes in Maricopa County, it's not pretty.

In total, the county finds that Arpaio and his cronies misspent $99.5 million over the last eight years, the majority of which came from the sheriff's detention fund.

"For eight years, you have been signing paperwork that says your budget is balanced, but it's not," County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox reportedly told sheriff's officials at this morning's meeting of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

Budget officers reviewed payroll records for 5,700 sheriff's employee salaries from February 2004 to February 2011 and found that much of what employees were actuallydoing was not what they were getting paid to do.

I Thought Instapundit Was A Serenity Fan

But if he were a Serenity fan, he would know that Saffron is quite arousing.

Pray I Don't Alter It Any Further

So a bunch of bloggers agree to write for the HuffPo, a profit-seeking venture, for free.  The HuffPo gets bought by another profit-seeking company, though this one is less successful in shrouding its financial goals in a cloud of feel-good progressivism.  So the bloggers get mad.  But instead of just quitting, they are actually suing the HuffPo for back wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

A few observations:

  • I blog for free at Forbes.  It's not like the arrangement was hard to figure out.  They get some free content, I get some exposure and a bit of cache from being associated with Forbes.   Seemed like a good deal to me.  When it ceases to be so, I will quit.
  • The fact that everyone agreed to the deal in advance and it was completed by both parties to their mutual self-interest is NOT a defense under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  I have employees who beg to work for free all the time (e.g. they have a disability arrangement that allows no outside income).  I have to tell them no.  Any defense from the HuffPo will come through convincing a court that the writers were somehow exempt or not actually employees.
  • This same problem arises with internships as well as in my work.  In short, people sometimes value non-monetary aspects of jobs that are not given any credit in the FLSA.  My son would love to have a good summer job and for the right one would work under minimum wage for the experience.   Even the experience of showing up on time, functioning in an organization, working in a hierarchy, etc.  are important skills those outside of the work force gain from obtaining.  (In an interesting parallel to this, probably the most important skill I am gaining at Forbes is simply writing to a regular weekly deadline.  It's harder than it seems from the outside).

In short, I would say that these folks are utterly without personal honor for filing the suit, but in the current state of labor law they potentially have a case.  How sad that would be.  And what would be next?  A class action suit by product reviewers at Amazon for back wages?

Coyote's Pre-Response to Obama's Budget Speech

No, Mr. Obama, the fecklessness of politicians does not obligate me to send more of my money to the government.

Three times in my life I have lent money to people in serious financial straits.  In every case, they came back to me for more.  "X more dollars and I will be home free and can pay you back."  In a few cases I came up with a second infusion and in one case I (embarrassingly) actually gave money a third time.   In no case was I ever paid back.    I haven't heard this phrase in years, but when I was young stock investors had a saying -- "your first loss is your best loss."  This was just another way of saying don't throw good money after bad.

Obama and Bush (I haven't forgotten your culpability in all this George) sold the country, or at least Congress, on emergency spending for wars and bailouts and stimulus.  This was supposedly one-time spending only for the duration of the emergency.  But now Democrats and Obama are treating the peak of this emergency spending as the new baseline, from which cuts are impossible.

This lack of desire to cut spending and a resetting of norms as to "what is normal" is not just a government problem, it is endemic to every organization.  Private organizations face this problem all the time.  The difference is that when times go bad, private organizations do not have fiat taxation power, so that when they are underwater, they must cut bloated budgets or die.  Either way, the problem goes away.  Private companies differ from government not in that they don't have problems with beauracracy and risk aversion and deadwood and bloat and bad incentives - because they do.  The difference is that private companies cannot get away with allowing this stuff to linger forever, and governments can.

Government will never, ever, ever, ever cut spending unless all hope of new taxes is removed, and even then they will likely try to cut spending on the most, rather than the least, popular programs to build public support for more taxes.

In the early 90's, after the fall of the Soviet Union, we talked about a peace dividend from reductions in military spending.  I want a sanity dividend.

Postscript: We like to think that financial problems are due to bad luck, but they usually are due to poor management.  The guy I lost the most money with was producing a really interesting boat concept, basically as fun and lithe and fast as a jetski but enclosed so boaters who were less daring would not actually be in contact with the water.  I wanted a bunch for rental service at our marinas.  But he kept asking for money, saying that he had bad luck with this supplier or that supplier.  Eventually, I found out he was in this incredibly expensive commercial lease, and was burning all the money I lent him on useless rent payments.  Stupid.

After I graduated from college, I cashed in about $7000 in savings bonds I had accumulated.  I was going to make a fortune in the market.  After three years I had lost almost all of it -- right in the heart of one of the greatest bull markets in history!  A few years later, I was in a situation where I could have really used this money.  This was not bad luck or circumstances, I did stupid things.  I recognized something that many dentists and doctors never learn - it was possible to be a smart guy who sucked at investing.  I was one of them.  My investing has been in index funds ever since.

Depressing Fact of the Day

From Tim Cavanough

In the eight days preceding the $38.5 billion deficit reduction deal, the national debt of the United Statesincreased $54 billion.

Government Agencies Run For Their Employee's Benefit

About 20 years ago I did a rail transit study for McKinsey & Company with a number of European state rail companies, like the SNCF in France.   With my American expectations, I was shocked to see how overstaffed these companies were.  At the time, the SNCF had more freight car maintenance personnel than they had freight cars.  This meant that they could assign a dedicated maintenance person to every car and still get rid of some people.

Later in my consulting career, I worked for Pemex in Mexico, where the over-staffing was even more incredible.  I realized that in countries like France and Mexico, state-run corporations were first and foremost employment vehicles run for the benefit of employees, and, as  distant second, value-delivery vehicles and productive enterprises.

Over the last 20 years, I have seen more and more of this approach to public agencies coming to the US.  If nothing else, the whole Wisconsin brouhaha hopefully opened the eyes of many Americans to the fact that public officials and heads of agencies feel a lot more loyalty to their employees than they do to taxpayers.

I see this all the time in my business, which is private operation of certain state-run activities (e.g. parks and recreation).  I constantly find myself in the midst of arguments that make no sense against privatization.   I finally realized that the reason for this is that they were reluctant to voice the real reason for opposition -- that I would get the job done paying people less money.  This is totally true -- I actually hire more people to staff the parks than the government does, but I don't pay folks $65,000 a year plus benefits and a pension to clean the bathrooms, and I don't pay them when the park is closed and there is not work to do.  I finally had one person in California State Parks be honest with me -- she said that the employees position was that they would rather see the parks close than run without government workers.

Of course, if this argument was made clear in public, that the reason for rising taxes and closing parks was to support pay and benefits of government employees, there might be a fight.  So the true facts need to be buried.  Like in this example from the Portland transit system, via the anti-planner.

In 2003, TriMet persuaded the Oregon legislature to allow it to increase the tax by 0.01 percent per year for ten years, starting in 2005. In 2009, TriMet went back and convinced the legislature to allow it to continue increasing the tax by 0.01 percent per year for another 10 years. Thus, the tax now stands at $69.18 per $10,000 in payroll, and will rise to $82.18 per $10,000 in 2025.

At the time, TriMet promised that all of this tax increase would be dedicated to increasing service, and as of 2010, TriMet CFO Beth deHamel claims this is being done. But according to John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute, that’s not what is happening.

Poring over TriMet budgets and records, Charles found that, from 2004 (before the tax was first increased) and 2010, total payroll tax collections grew by 34 percent, more than a third of which was due to the tax increase. Thanks to fare increases, fares also grew by 68 percent, so overall operating income grew by about 50 percent, of which about 7 percent (almost $20 million) was due to the increased payroll tax.

So service must have grown by about 7 percent, right? Wrong. Due to service cuts made last September, says Charles, TriMet is now providing about 14 percent fewer vehicle miles and 12 percent fewer vehicle hours of transit service than it provided in 2004 (comparing December 2004 with December 2010). TriMet blamed the service cuts on the economy, but its 50 percent increase in revenues belie that explanation.

By 2030, according to TriMet’s financial forecast (not available on line), the agency will have collected $1.63 billion more payroll taxes thanks to the tax increase. Yet the agency itself projects that hours and miles of service in 2030 will be slightly less than in 2004.

Where did all the money go if not into service increases? Charles says some of it went into employee benefits. TriMet has the highest ratio of employee benefits to payroll of any transit agency. At latest report, it actually spends about 50 percent more on benefits than on pay, and is the only major transit agency in the country to spend more on benefits than pay. This doesn’t count the unfunded health care liabilities; by 2030, TriMet health care benefits alone are projected to be more than its payroll.

Bolivia Passes Law to Make Poverty Permanent

Via JoNova:

Bolivia is set to pass the world’s first laws granting all nature equal rights to humans. The Law of Mother Earth, now agreed by politicians and grassroots social groups, redefines the country’s rich mineral deposits as “blessings” and is expected to lead to radical new conservation and social measures to reduce pollution and control industry.

The country, which has been pilloried by the US and Britain in the UN climate talks for demanding steep carbon emission cuts, will establish 11 new rights for nature. They include: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.

Controversially, it will also enshrine the right of nature “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities”.

“It makes world history. Earth is the mother of all”, said Vice-President Alvaro García Linera. “It establishes a new relationship between man and nature, the harmony of which must be preserved as a guarantee of its regeneration.”

Hmmm.  There is a big gap between thoughtful conservation and fetishism for the primitive.

Update:  By the way, the article says this is being driven by climate change already experienced in Bolivia.  I suppose it is possible that rainfall has changed, I don't have the numbers for Bolivia, but temperatures in the tropics have shown no trend up or down for decades.   Most of the warming the Earth has seen over the last 50 years (whatever the cause) has been in the Northern Hemisphere and in fact in the upper portions of the Northern Hemisphere.  Here are the temps for the tropics.   The spikes in 1998 and 2010 are El Ninos years.

Forget the Financial Settlement. Why Aren't These Guys on Trial for Attempted Murder?

This is just a sick, scary, amazing story of a man who came within days of execution because prosecutors knowingly withheld exculpatory evidence.  And not something arcane and equivocal, but blood tests that were the wrong type and witness testimony that contradicted the main witness.

The Supreme Court has upheld the effective immunity of prosecutors from any penalties for not following the most basic rules.  Forget sanctions or lost law licenses - why aren't these prosecutors on trial for attempted murder?  Obviously, with the Supreme Court decision a legislative solution is required, but don't hold your breath -- there is nothing more bipartisan than being "tough on crime" when running for re-election so it is unlikely any safeguards of defendants will be improved.

Turning Cellular Phone Networks into Common Carriers

Hey, why make expensive investments when the government will just give you access to your competitor's infrastructure?

Federal Communications Commission has decided to mandate data roaming by a 3-2 vote. Simply put, major carriers like AT&T and Verizon will be required to let you check your email and perform VoIP calls over their federally-licensed airwaves even if you're actually paying a regional carrier for your cellular coverage instead -- just as they've been required to do for voice and messaging since 2007. As you can imagine, Big Red and Ma Bell aren't exactly jumping for joy at the news, with both threatening to slow expansion into niche markets if they'll be forced to share their infrastructure. The victorious members of the FCC claim that this doesn't constitute common carriage because the big boys still get to negotiate "commercially reasonable" rates. Considering that two dissenting commissioners say that it is, indeed, common carriage, though, and thus beyond the powers granted to the FCC, we imagine we haven't heard the last of this debate.

By the way,  the commercially reasonable rate piece is so much BS.  I can say from experience that there is no such thing as a true price negotiation when one party is forced to make a deal.  In one of my great moments in not reading the fine print, I signed a commercial lease with the National Park Service in which the fine print demanded that I buy the personal property used in that operation from the former tenant.

Well, you can imagine what happened.  The contract said I had to buy it at a reasonable market price, but at the end of the day, if they guy insisted on selling me a pile of useless junk for $100,000, my negotiation options were limited because I could not just walk away.  Just to really hammer the lesson home to me about being careful in such deals in the future, the former tenant really went the extra mile in taking advantage of the provision.  He stripped out every good asset from the operation and shipped in every non-working piece of junk equipment he could find in his other operations -- after all, I seem to have given him an open-ended "put".  Only his, shall we say, excessive creativity in the latter eventually saved me, as trying to sell property from other operations (there was even some old couches from someone's house sitting in the boat repair shed) was considered by the NPS to be a violation of the rules and they eventually released me from the requirement.

Real Climate Change We Might Want to Worry About

The sun follows an (approximately) 11-year cycle as sunspots ebb and flow.  The peak of these cycles, ie the number of sunspots at the cycle's maximum, is thought to correlate with the strength of the sun's output.  In the past, periods with very low sunspot activity through an entire cycle have correlated with very cold temperatures (e.g. the Maunder Minimum and the Little Ice Age).

Well, NASA has updated its forecast for this cycle and it does not look good:

Current prediction for the next sunspot cycle maximum gives a smoothed sunspot number maximum of about 62 in July of 2013. We are currently over two years into Cycle 24. The predicted size would make this the smallest sunspot cycle in nearly 200 years.

The low cycle 200 years ago coincided with a decade or more of wicked-cold temperatures, particularly in Northern Europe  (think Napoleon's army freezing to death in 1812).

One of the reasons this probably has not gotten much coverage is that climate scientists have worked hard in the media to attribute the vast majority of past warming, particularly in the period 1978-1998, to ppm changes in CO2 concentration.  But this same 2-decade period saw extremely high solar activity (as measured by sunspots) and ocean cycles like the PDO in the warm phase.  To maximize how much past warming was attributed to CO2, warming alarmists had to take the fairly absurd position that these ocean cycles and changes in solar output had only trivial effects on temperatures (much more here).

Well, we may find out over the next few years just how trivial Mr. Sun is or is not to the climate.  And we may well find out something else many skeptics have said for years -- for activities like agriculture, cooling is way more damaging than warming.  In the Middle Ages, agriculture boomed from 1100-1300 even as temperatures rose higher than they are today (at least in Europe).  In the first decades of the 1300's, cooling led to agricultural failure and famine, famines that are often credited for weakening the population and thus increasing the mortality from the Black Death a few years later.

Budget Explained, In One Chart

Arizona Sheriff Exaggerating Immigration Crime, and its Not Even Joe Arpaio

Electing law enforcement officers is a terrible idea, but like most of the country, we do it here in Arizona.  We shouldn't be surprised, then, when Sheriff's try to pump up their image by portraying themselves as the last bastion against an invading horde.

When it was over, Sheriff Paul Babeu issued a news release declaring that Pinal County is "the No. 1 pass-through county in all of America for drug and human trafficking."

It's a line the sheriff has used countless times - most recently on Thursday in testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security - as he criticizes the federal government for failing to secure the border.

There's just one problem: There is no data to support the assertion.

In fact, an Arizona Republic analysis of statistics from local, state and federal sources found that, while sheriff's officials do bust smugglers and seize pot, Pinal County accounts for only a fraction of overall trafficking.

The newspaper also found that other headline-grabbing claims by Babeu are contradicted by statistical evidence or greatly exaggerated.

Babeu's County, for example, does not even touch the border.   And crime rates in AZ have fallen faster over the last 10 years than the national average, right during the period of high illegal immigration.

I Can Die a Happy Blogger Now. George Will Quoted Me in a Column

Those of you who are regular readers are probably tired of hearing me rant about the proposed Glendale, Arizona subsidy of the Phoenix Coyote's team (here, here, here), a subsidy that runs afoul both of our state Constitution and of common sense.  This week, George Will enters the fray, and actually quotes me at the bottom of his column.  Most of the column should be familiar to those following the story here, but of course being George Will it is so much pithier than I could tell the story.  I liked this bit:

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman agrees with McCain that the world is out of joint when people can second-guess the political class: “It fascinates me that whoever is running the Goldwater Institute can substitute their judgment for that of the Glendale City Council.” He will learn not to provoke Olsen, who says, “It happens to fascinate me greatly that the commissioner thinks a handful of politicians can substitute their judgment for the rule of law.”

Observation on the Government Shut Down

From a commenter at Instapundit

It seems to me that whenever there is a threat of a government shutdown, it’s portrayed as just this side of a tsunami-level disaster. When government workers – teachers, sanitation workers, etc – go on strike, it’s portrayed as the middle-class worker sticking up for himself. Why is it that a government shut-down caused by a desire to spend less money is different than a government shutdown caused by workers failing to do their jobs – isn’t the effect the same?

Its been a long day here.  As many of your know, my company privately operates public recreation facilities.  We operate nearly 150 campgrounds and other parks on US Forest Service land, helping to reduce the cost of these facilities and keep them open despite declining budgets.

Because we pay all the expenses for the campgrounds and do not accept any government money (we operate solely using the gate fees paid by visitors), keeping these facilities open is not at all dependent on government appropriations.  As such, the facilities we operate have never been subject to closure in past government shut downs.  The Grand Canyon has to close because it is operated with government employees, but the public recreation areas we operate do not.

Or at least that was the position of the Forest Service until last night.  However, this morning, the USFS began to take the position we had to close, despite the fact that the law does not require it.  Through most of the day I have had to be on the phone pushing back against this bad idea.

At first, I thought it was some sort of scheme to purposefully make the cost of the shutdown worse, by shutting down public recreation facilities that did not need to be shut down.  However, I have come to understand that this is likely driven by a need for "consistency."  Senior administration officials were concerned it would be confusing to the public if the National Park Service was totally closed but a substantial number of US Forest Service sites remained open.  I have spent a lot of time trying to convince folks that it was dumb to close literally thousands of the most popular recreation sites in the country merely in the name of mindless consistency.

Hopefully we will win the day, and we are starting to see some evidence the Forest Service will see it our way, and allow private operators who do not take Federal money or use Federal employees to remain open serving the public during the busy Easter week.

Dollhouse Review

Yeah, I am a Joss Whedon fan-boy, but I just finished watching both seasons of Dollhouse.  I will say that my expectations were low -- I was sort of expecting a revamped Alias with various weekly missions, with the highlight of having Eliza Dushku rather than Jennifer Garner.

The first 3-5 episodes were entertaining but really fell right in line with my expectations.  After that, the show got much better.  As a whole, the entire show is like a long essay on the banality of evil.

The pace gets a bit crazed at the very end, but that was because Whedon working in three or four years of planned plot development in half a season when he found out the show was being cancelled.  A couple of other random notes -- Whedon works in a fresh high-tech take on zombies (really, it makes sense in context) in the season-ending episodes.  We also get a couple of guest appearances from the new first lady of sci-fi TV, Summer Glau.

Recommended.

NCAA Bracketology Winner

Our winner was Scott Strattner, congratulations!  It was a weird year, obviously.  Scott won despite getting only one team right out of the final four, though that was pretty much par for the course this year.  Here is the top 10:

Leaderboard after 63 games - See full standings
BracketRankPoints
strattner21120
Chris Smith2115
Kevin Spires #23107
Paul Dubuc492
Chuck Jones #2592
BracketRankPoints
Grant Smith #2691
strattner1790
Jimbeaux Evans #2889
Mark Horn / Barack Obama988
Alex Sylvester1088

I managed to come in 61st, or exactly in the middle.  That's actually pretty good since I only got 6 of the sweet-16 right.  I lost, though, to every other member of my family.

Imagining Washington Budget Shenanigans Played Out in a Corporate Board Room

For all the criticism by the Left of corporate corruption, nothing that goes on in even the most dysfunctional corporations matches business as usual budgeting in Washington.  This week in my column at Forbes I present a few vignettes imagining Washington budget logic in a corporate board room.  A sample:

Board Member: Let’s get started.  After an absolutely disastrous year, financially, we’re now five months into our fiscal year and you still have not presented us with a budget for this year.  Why?

CEO Obama: My staff was waiting until their employment contracts were renewed before we presented a budget.

Board Member:  Excuse me?

CEO Obama: You remember — many of my associates in the company had their contracts up for review in November.  They were afraid they might lose their job if you did not like their budget work, so they delayed introducing any budgets until after you renewed their 2-year employment contracts.

Board Member: That seems unbelievably deceptive and feckless.  But let’s leave that aside for a moment.  November was still several months ago, why have we seen no budget since then?

CEO Obama: Well, as you know, I have a number of rivals for my job in this company.  I want to force one of them to suggest a budget first.

Board Member: Why is that?  It seems to me it is your job as leader of this organization to define the budget, particularly given the unprecedented fiscal challenges we face.

CEO Obama:  If I propose a budget first, everyone will just shoot holes in it.  If I let someone else come forward with the budget, I can snipe at it and make my rivals look worse.  In particular, I think that Ryan guy down in Finance may be dumb enough to create a plan.  If he does, I can spend so much time making him look bad you will forget I never submitted a plan of my own.

Bullet Dodged

It looks like the simply awful 1099 provision from Obamacare will be repealed.

Damning Wind Power Study

Wind is not the worst form of alternative energy -- that probably has to go to corn ethanol.  But it is close.  The consistent experience of European countries that have more wind power than the US is that, because wind is so unreliable, hot backup fossil fuel generation capacity nearly equal to wind capacity needs to be maintained.  This means that even when the wind is blowing, it is not reducing fossil fuel consumption in any meaningful way.  In other words, billions are spent on wind but without any substitution of existing power sources.  Its just pure wasted money.

Anyway, here is a recent study by an environmental group, no less, that found that Britain's wind generation plants are running well under the promised efficiency.  That is, of course, when they are even operable and not just broken down.  In the latter case, companies go for the quick bucks of up front subsidies, then find that the units are not worth the repair costs when they break.

CBS Anchor Suggestions

These were the suggestions I made 6 years ago to replace Dan Rather.  Some of the names are a bit dated, but I think many would have worked out as well as Couric.  I think the last suggestion is, if anything, even more timely.

Improve ratings approach #1:  Finally get rid of the pretense that anchors are journalists rather than pretty talking heads.  Hire Nicollette Sheridan, or maybe Terri Hatcher.  Or, if you feel CBS News deserves more gravitas, in the Murrow tradition, how about Meryl Streep?

Improve ratings approach #2:  Go with comedy.  Bring in David Letterman from the Late Show to anchor the evening news.  "Tonight, we start with the growing UN oil for food scandal.  Uma – Anann.  Anann – Uma."  Or, if you want to segment the market differently, how about Tim Allen and the CBS News for Guys.  Or, if CBS wants to keep hitting the older demographic – what about Chevy Chase – certainly he already has anchor experience from SNL.

Improving Credibility Choice:  No one in the MSM really has much credibility left after the last election, but there is one man who would bring instant credibility to CBS News — Bob Costas.  CBS should hire him away from NBC, like they did with Letterman.  Make him the evening news anchor.  Heck, if Bryant Gumbell can make the transition to the news division, certainly Costas can.

Become the acknowledged liberal counterpoint to Fox:  Hire Bill Clinton as anchor.  Nothing would generate more buzz than that hire, and he is at loose ends anyway (and think about all those wonderful business trips away from home…)  If Bill is not available, try James Carville.  I might even have to watch that.

Let the public decide:  Forget making a decision, and just create a new reality show like ESPN’s Dream Job to choose the next anchor.  Each week the 12 finalists can be given a new task.  In week one, they have to pick up incriminating evidence about the President at a rodeo.  In week 2, they have to forge a believable set of documents from the early 70′s, and survive criticism from about 10,000 bloggers.  They can kick one off the island each week based on the viewers votes.

Really This Much Value Left?

Dish Network is going to buy Blockbuster out of bankruptcy for $320 million.  I am frankly floored there is that much value.  I have found that one can make a surprising amount of money riding an obsolete business down over the years if it is managed correctly -- but this is generally for product businesses.  Retail businesses are really hard to ride down because you need to be closing stores every year and that is hard to do cost-effectively given typical lease terms.  Never-the-less, I expected the winning bid to be from a liquidation company, someone like the folks who took wound down Circuit City.

But the purchase by Dish Network implies that the buyer wants to continue operating Blockbuster in some form, and the identity of the buyer implies some sort of on-demand or streaming service.  But what does Blockbuster offer?  Is the brand valuable in this context, or a liability?   Does it have customer loyalty with a segment (old people?) who have so far shied away from Netflix / Hulu?  Does Blockbuster have favorable royalty / licensing contracts with studios that are transferable to other video delivery models?

If I had to guess, I would bet on the latter.  There have been examples of whole businesses built from legacy contracts.   One of the best examples is a little noticed contract Carl Icahn had with TWA, which spawned a huge new travel agency and later really helped to build Priceline.com.  Here was the story:

When TWA got a loan from Carl Icahn, an almost unnoticed part of the deal was that a certain travel agency owned by Icahn, small at the time, would be guaranteed TWA tickets at a healthy discount off the lowest published fares.  This agency, with this boondoggle, grew to enormous size as Lowestfare.com.  TWA, beyond the reasons listed above, therefore had a second reason for not wanting to publish their lowest possible fare.  Normal limitations that most airlines could set on how many seats would be available at their lowest fare could not be enforced by TWA.  If they offered a new $100 fare, Lowestfare.com could blow out an unlimited number of tickets at $80 or less and TWA would have to accept it.  Therefore, by offering discounts unpublished via Priceline, TWA prevented the travel agency from getting inventory even cheaper.  And so, a huge portion of the early Priceline inventory was TWA.  (ironically, after the American Airlines acquisition of TWA killed the deal, the Lowestfare.com URL was bought by … Priceline.

I wonder if Blockbuster has something of similar value in their royalty / licensing agreements?

Statistics and Risk

XKCD is freaking awesome today, making fun of the media and food-risk scare stories. Absolutely dead-on.

Wherein I Actually Praise Republicans

I have been told that the first person in a negotiation that mentions a number will lose.  Something similar is at work with the US federal budget.  When they controlled Congress, Democrats never even proposed a budget for this fiscal year (which began last October, months before they lost control of the House).  Obama's budget is simply a bad joke, a non-effort,  that simply extrapolates current trends without any real change or exercise of control.

Its amazing to me that all the news reports today are about the "risk" Republicans are taking by actually proposing a plan into this vacuum.   It is amazing to me that actually trying to exercise adult supervision when everyone else is voting "present" could be "political suicide," but I have to accept that the political experts know their stuff.

This situation is in fact exactly what Democrats have been hoping for -- they have purposefully hoped to avoid suggesting any solutions in order to force the Republicans to be the first and only ones to the table with suggestions.  Democrats have zero desire to actually close the multi-trillion dollar deficit;  rather, they see it as a huge opportunity that traps Republicans into trying to actually, you know, solve the problem.  These proposed solutions can then be demagogued against to electoral victory.  Or so goes the theory.

So, I want to thank the Republicans for actually producing a budget plan that actually attempts to bring some fiscal sense to the government.  I would have like to see other changes (less defense spending, elimination of Dept. of Education in favor of block grants, zeroing out of all farm and ethanol subsidies, etc) and Ryan's numbers seem screwy, but let us be happy there is at least one adult in Washington.

Peak Poop Theory

Donna Laframboise discusses 18th century transportation issues, and particularly the horse manure problem:

The Superfreakonomics authors draw heavily on the work of Eric Morris, whose urban planning Masters thesis explored the reality of horse-based transportation in 19th-century cities. A user-friendly encapsulation of his research appears in an 8-page article here. (It was published in Access, a U of California transportation publication. The entire issue is available here.)

Morris points out that, by the late 1800s, large urban centers were “drowning in horse manure.” Not only were there no solutions in sight, people were making dire predictions:

In 1894, the Times of London estimated that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. One New York prognosticator of the 1890s concluded that by 1930 the horse droppings would rise to Manhattan’s third-story windows.

The automobile helped solve this growing ecological problem.  Back in 2006, I had considered the same thing with a hypothetical blog post from 1870 which is pretty close to the Times of London article quoted above (which I had never seen):

As the US Population reaches toward the astronomical total of 40 million persons, we are reaching the limits of the number of people this earth can support.    If one were to extrapolate current population growth rates, this country in a hundred years could have over 250 million people in it!  Now of course, that figure is impossible – the farmland of this country couldn’t possibly support even half this number.  But it is interesting to consider the environmental consequences.

Take the issue of transportation.  Currently there are over 11 million horses in this country, the feeding and care of which constitute a significant part of our economy.  A population of 250 million would imply the need for nearly 70 million horses in this country, and this is even before one considers the fact that "horse intensity", or the average number of horses per family, has been increasing steadily over the last several decades.  It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that so many people might need 100 million horses to fulfill all their transportation needs.  There is just no way this admittedly bountiful nation could support 100 million horses.  The disposal of their manure alone would create an environmental problem of unprecedented magnitude.

Or, take the case of illuminant.  As the population grows, the demand for illuminant should grow at least as quickly.  However, whale catches and therefore whale oil supply has leveled off of late, such that many are talking about the "peak whale" phenomena, which refers to the theory that whale oil production may have already passed its peak.  250 million people would use up the entire supply of the world’s whales four or five times over, leaving none for poorer nations of the world

To the last point, my article on how John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil saved the whales is here.