Archive for September 2011

2011 Conference on Private Management of Public Parks

On November 2, 2011, I am hosting a conference in Scottsdale, Arizona on how public agencies can keep parks open through private recreation management partnerships.

For thirty years, the US Forest Service has seen radically declining recreation budgets, with far greater reductions than places like California is facing, but has not had to close parks and has kept most of their recreation areas well-maintained.

Their innovation was to take advantage of the substantially lower costs of private operators to run their campgrounds and picnic areas.

For the last couple of years, it has frustrated me to no end to watch states like California and Arizona -- really almost every state in the country -- let some parks accumulate deferred maintenance while other are closed when it simply is not necessary.

The event flyer is here, which hopefully you can also forward as an email from the link at the bottom.  If you know anyone in public recreation or in the your state's legislature who is interested in recreation issues, please point them to this site where they can learn about and register for this conference.  We have gotten some sponsorships such that government employees can attend for free, and the rooms in the hotel, a fabulous resort in Scottsdale, can be had for just $105 per night.

Only the Government

Faced with serious questions after the Solyndra failure as to their ability to make intelligent investments, the government is reacting by.... accelerating the approval of other green energy loans.  Again, the difference with the private sector is not that the private sector makes no mistakes, but there is real accountability for those mistakes which lead to changes in behavior.

Prosecutorial Abuse

While nominally about the Gibson Guitar raid, this article is actually a great primer on abusive prosecutorial tactics businesses are increasingly facing

Prosecutors who are looking for an easy “win” know that businesses roll over. A public raid on its offices, or an indictment of its officers, can destroy a business’s reputation and viability. That makes the owners easy to intimidate into a plea bargain.

If they choose to fight, they face the full wrath and fury of the feds. In the Gibson raids, the SWAT teams were deployed even though Gibson had offered its full cooperation to investigators. Such raids are increasingly used to intimidate citizens under suspicion. The orchid importer, a 65-year-old with Parkinson’s, was shoved against a wall by armed officers in flak jackets, frisked, and forced into a chair without explanation while his home was searched

The government also attempts to get low-level employees to “finger” their bosses. For example, the feds threatened Gibson employees with long prison sentences. This is not a search for truth, but an immoral attempt at extortion to win convictions. Investigators examine the lives of “little fish” and use minor, unrelated violations (smoking a joint, or exaggerating income on a loan application) to pressure them to back the government’s case against their employers. Mobsters have experience with threats like this, but a secretary or an accountant is scared to death by the threat of prosecution.

A favorite ploy of prosecutors in these cases is to charge defendants with false statements based on their answers to the investigators. The sentence for this can be five years in prison. No recording is made of the interviews — in fact, the feds prohibit taping the interviews — and the agents are not stenographers. They cannot possibly recall the exact wording of the questions and the answers. Yet after the interview, they will produce a “transcript” replete with quotes throughout. And if a witness says he did not actually say what the agent put in quotes, it is the witness’s word against a fine, upstanding federal agent’s. Staring at a five-year sentence will get most people to say whatever the government wants them to.

The feds also pile up charges. According to Juszkiewicz, the Justice Department warned Gibson that each instance of shipping a guitar from its facility would bring an added charge of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors routinely add extra counts to stack potential prison sentences higher. For instance, faxing invoices for the wood would be charged as wire fraud. Depositing the check for the sale of the guitars would be money laundering. The CEO’s telling the press he is innocent would bring charges of fraud or stock manipulation. The intent is to threaten such long sentences that the targets plead guilty rather than risk decades in prison.

Prosecutors further tighten the screws by seizing the assets of the company, a tactic once used against pirates and drug lords but now routinely used to prosecute white-collar crimes. The federal agents seized six guitars and several pallets of ebony during their initial 2009 raid against Gibson. Federal law allows assets to be seized not just from convicted criminals, but also from those never charged. Owners must prove that the forfeited property was obtained legally; otherwise, the government can keep it. That gives the government incredible leverage, because without the seized inventory and bank accounts, the business will most likely go under. How can Gibson make guitars if the wood is being held by the government? How can it service customers when the government took its computers as evidence? How can it pay lawyers when its bank accounts were seized? Asset forfeitures bring to mind a similar twist on the law uttered by the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland: “Sentence first, verdict afterwards.”

Federal Financing Bank?

Bruce Krasting at Zero Hedge has been on the case of the Federal Financing Bank.  I am still unclear if the agency is actually providing the cash or just the guarantee, but it was the one rolling out the Solyndra loan (under DOE auspices, I suppose).

In July, it was still sending cash of some sort to Solyndra - it may be that this was just a drawdown of money under its original loan commitment, or it may be new money.  A couple of things you can see are:

  • A heck of a lot of money was still going out the door to solar programs, likely with no oversight
  • Ford, the supposedly bailout-free company, sure seems to be gobbling up a lot of government guaranteed loans for something.
  • We were lending to Solyndra at 0.89% interest.
All told, a whopping 3/4 of a billion dollars of government guaranteed loans to private companies went out the door in July alone.
Other observations from the report:  The report is hard to read, as it is hard to correlate the new financing activity to changes in the balance sheet.  But there is just a ton of loan activity to rural electric companies.  Wasn't rural electrification an issue in the 1930's?  Isn't it time to let rural electric companies stand on their own two feet and get their own money from the capital markets?
There is also a lot of activity issuing HOPE for Homeowners money - it looks like the government is lending (to banks?) at 0.01% interest.  What is the difference between a 0.01% thirty year loan and a gift?

Radioactive Speech

We have reached the point that one only needs to mention "radiation" and people go nuts with fear, no matter what the context or concentration (witness all the morons buying Iodine tables in the US after the Japanese nuclear accident).

There are folks today who are trying to do the same thing in the world of First Amendment rights, making any mention of violence, no matter in what context, the cause of a major league freakout.

Witness this story you have probably seen already, about the professor in Wisconsin who had a Mal Reynolds (Firefly) poster that had a quote from one of the show's episodes:

You don't know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you'll be awake. You'll be facing me. And you'll be armed.

To call this a threat is absurd.  In fact, in its original context, it was an anti-threat.  It was a statement of old-fashioned honor by a character who lived in a violent world.  And of course it is freaking fiction, and has no more relevance as a threat to real-life visitors to the professors offices than a picture of the Governator saying "I'll be back."

Not to mention the fact that such actions against speech are seldom enforced in a content-neutral sort of way.  One wonders how many Che Gueverra (a real life killer) posters the university tolerates, or how many "well-behaved women seldom make history" (arguably encouraging women to break the law) bumper stickers can be found in the parking lot.  The professor also had a poster taken down that explicitly advocates against violence, and had that poster taken down as well.  One wonders how many similar posters with eye-catching graphics one might find around campus advocating against violence against women or violence in Darfur.

Paying More Now So We Can Pay More Later

From the Goldwater Institute, on the amount of money we in Phoenix are paying in taxes to support union management costs

Phoenix taxpayers spend millions of dollars to pay full salary and benefits for city employees to work exclusively for labor unions, a Goldwater Institute investigation found.

Collective bargaining agreements with seven labor organizations require the city to pay union officers and provide members with thousands of additional hours to conduct union business instead of doing their government jobs.

The total cost to Phoenix taxpayers is about $3.7 million per year, based on payroll records supplied by the city. In all, more than 73,000 hours of annual release time for city workers to conduct union business at taxpayers’ expense are permitted in the agreements.

The top officials in all of the unions have regular jobs with the city. But buried in the labor agreements are a series of provisions for those employees to be released from their regular duties to perform union work.

For top officers, the typical amount of annual release time is 2,080 hours, a full year of work based on 52 weeks at 40 hours each. They continue to draw full pay and benefits, just as if they were showing up for their regular jobs. But they are released from their regular duties to conduct undefined union business.

Union officials say the time is a good investment that leads to a more productive workforce. Critics say it amounts to an illegal gift of taxpayer money.

The "more productive workforce" line is just hilarious.  99.9% of the this work very likely is against the best interests of taxpayers, either raising future salaries or enforcing productivity-killing work rules or preventing the termination of incompetent employees.

I understand that there are similar provisions in some private union contracts, but if I was a shareholder in these companies I would be outraged about those as well.  As it turns out, private companies that have these deals tend to be among the most dysfunctional and uncompetitive in the country (e.g. GM).

What's particularly ugly about this is that it is so reminiscent of a number of Soprano's episodes, with the mafia guys all sitting around in no-work and no-show jobs at taxpayer expense.

Politicians and Entrepeneurship

Don Boudreaux asks:

Here’s a quick question for anyone who takes seriously politicians’ pronouncements about what particular industries are “vital” or are “of the future” or are “crucial to meeting consumers’ needs”: Why do virtually none of these politicians, when they leave office, found their own non-political firms? Why do virtually none of these politicians, when they leave office, found their own non-political firms – firms that specialize neither in granting clients access to incumbent politicians nor in projects that depend upon getting subsidies or other favors from those same politicians?

This question occurred to me a few days ago upon hearing that former president Bill Clinton was off somewhere talking about something to some group concerned about some issue.  His career now is to make lots of money as a sort of high-brow social healer – to emit platitudes, attend state funerals, and (pardon my switch of imagery) be a show-pony for politically correct causes.  The post-Oval Office careers of every other recent president – to the extent that they haven’t simply retired to the golf course or the study – have been largely the same, with the groups and causes served by their attentions differing only as one former president’s political affiliations differ from those of another former president.

One guy comes to mind who had a sniff of the White House and then went on to run his own business:  George McGovern.  And though its just a small Inn that will never be even a blip on the economic radar screen, it has driven McGovern dangerously close to being a libertarian.  Actually, that might be a misnomer.  He probably is still a liberal, but from the days when liberals actually cared about individual freedom and saw aggregations of power in the government to be at least as scary as those in the private world.  Take this for example:

Under the guise of protecting us from ourselves, the right and the left are becoming ever more aggressive in regulating behavior. Much paternalist scrutiny has recently centered on personal economics...

Since leaving office I've written about public policy from a new perspective: outside looking in. I've come to realize that protecting freedom of choice in our everyday lives is essential to maintaining a healthy civil society.

Why do we think we are helping adult consumers by taking away their options? We don't take away cars because we don't like some people speeding. We allow state lotteries despite knowing some people are betting their grocery money. Everyone is exposed to economic risks of some kind. But we don't operate mindlessly in trying to smooth out every theoretical wrinkle in life.

The nature of freedom of choice is that some people will misuse their responsibility and hurt themselves in the process. We should do our best to educate them, but without diminishing choice for everyone else.

The only other place I have heard this recently on the Left was, perhaps not coincidentally, from that other child of 60's liberal politics, Jerry Brown

To the Members of the California State Senate:

I am returning Senate Bill 105 without my signature.

This measure would impose criminal penalties on a child under the age of 18 and his or her parents if the child skis or snowboards without a helmet.

While I appreciate the value of wearing a ski helmet, I am concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state. Not every human problem deserves a law.

I believe parents have the ability and responsibility to make good choices for their children.

Edmund J. Brown

Postscript:  The answer to Don's question is one of two.  Either a)  They are not up to it.  And/or b) There is a hell of a lot more wealth that can be captured through the exercise of government power than through private enterprise.

Anatomy of a Scam

Ken at Popehat has a great series on spotting and reporting scams.  I have tried to make a habit of reporting on this blog about scams I have encountered, and some of my most Googled posts are where I posted scans of scam letters I have received.  I hope other bloggers will do the same.  I have benefited any number of times from Googling a suspicious letter or company and finding bloggers who have already posted warnings or information.

More on Solyndra

I was going to leave this topic behind, but I just couldn't resist after Krugman's bit of snark on the topic.   Please see my new Forbes column here.  One bit, actually off topic from the rest of the article, that I added as a postscript:

Perhaps the worst Administration decision of the entire Solyndra affair has yet to receive adequate scrutiny.  Just 6 months before Solyndra failed, the Administration allowed Argonaut, the largest shareholder, to grab the senior debtor position from the US taxpayer in exchange for $75 million in new financing.  The Administration’s argument was the loan was needed to buy time, but buy time for what?  Solyndra’s relative cost position was getting worse, and it was experiencing a huge loss on every unit sold.  No one involved has been able to say what the company was counting on to save it in the 6 months this loan bought it, except perhaps the opportunity to cajole another half billion out of the US taxpayer.

But the loan did accomplish two things.  First, it gave Solyndra time to sell every liquid asset it owned that might have been of value to…. Argonaut.  And once this bit of self-dealing was complete and the company was cleaned out, the bankruptcy process could be entirely controlled by Argonaut such that it will likely end up with all the assets, most important of which seems to be a $500 million dollar tax loss carryforward.  If Argonaut can take advantage of these tax shelters, it will end up costing the US taxpayer an additional $150 million or so.

In short, the taxpayer got rolled.  Again.

Update:  Marc Morano:

 'When we had (Gulf) oil spill, we immediately had moratorium on off shore drilling. The oil industry was demonized & literally shut down'

'But after the green energy debacle, they are being feted and rewarded -- $9 billion more is being sent out to 14 more companies...Solar power is less than 1% of our electricity, yet this is being feted'

Krugman Misses the Point (Is that An Evergreen Headline or What?)

Krugman snarks:

But [Solyndra] is indeed a terrible scandal, because the private sector never ever puts money into ventures that end up failing:

And then he puts up an ad from, a very famous private equity disaster.  My quick thoughts

  • As I have said over and over (specifically comparing Solyndra to weeks before Krugman thought to) did not take my money.  Solyndra did, and without my permission too.  Yes, the fact that it was my wealth Solyndra destroyed matters.
  • If my money manager had invested in, I would have been pissed at him and demanded accountability.  In fact, the entire VC sector and most of the stock market started to entirely rethink their approach to Internet investing after blew up so spectacularly.  So it is odd that Krugman would use the example as an excuse that this Administration NOT face any accountability for Solyndra and NOT rethink its approach to investing in private companies.
  • was an investment made after hundreds of other Internet companies had been funded - it was the marginal investment, in some sense, after the low-hanging fruit had been funded.  Solyndra, on the other hand, was the first company funded by this Administration under this program.  It was their #1 choice.
  • Public loan guarantees are always going to go systematically to the worstinvestments.  As I wrote in the article linked above

...government loan guarantees go only to those companies who the free market has chosen NOT to fund.  If the free market was willing to toss another half billion into Solyndra, its owners would not have been burning a path back and forth to Washington.  So by definition, every single government loan guarantee in this program is to a company or a technology that the free market, knowledgeable investors, and industry insiders have rejected as a bad investment.  For the program to work, one has to believe that Obama, Chu, and some career energy department bureaucrats have a better understanding of commercializing technologies than do private investors (who are investing with their own money) and industry experts.

  • If it were the job of the President to be the venture-capitalist-in-chief, would you have chosen Barack Obama for this position?  Would he even be in your top, say, 20 million choices?  If I gave you a choice of Barack Obama or a random person snatched off the street of lower Manhattan, who would you choose to make these investment choices?

We Can't Spy Internally With the CIA, So We Will Use the Fed

Tyler Durden finds a creepy RFP at the Fed:

the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States, ... in a Request for Proposals filed to companies that are Fed vendors, is requesting the creation of a "Social Listening Platformwhose function is to "gather data from various social media outlets and news sources." It will "monitor billions of conversations and generate text analytics based on predefined criteria." The Fed's desired product should be able to "determine the sentiment [ED:LOL] of a speaker or writer with respect to some topic or document"... "The solution must be able to gather data from the primary social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Forums and YouTube. It should also be able to aggregate data from various media outlets such as: CNN, WSJ, Factiva etc." Most importantly, the "Listening Platform" should be able to "Handle crisis situations, Continuously monitor conversations, and Identify and reach out to key bloggers and influencers."

I'm Back

Been away a bit, and trying to catch up today.  Here is something to tide you over - wow

Owning Solyndra

Kevin Drum makes a pleas for liberals to, in effect, rally around Solyndra and be proud of the investment.  I am sure Republicans would give the same advice to liberals.  I want to look at a few of his arguments.

First, for libertarians like myself, the argument that Republicans did it too, or the Republicans started it, are a non-starter.  In particular, I actually thought the Obama Administration's attempt to blame Bush for Solyndra was an Onion article, since its almost a caricature of this administrations refusal to take responsibility for anything.  Unlike Republicans, I don't see this so much as an Obama failure as a government failure, and I don't really care if it is of the red or blue flavor.

Second, the fact that private investors put their own money into it is irrelevant.  Private investors poured money into too.  Obama was pouring my money into Solyndra, and yes the fact that it is my money makes a difference.

Further, private investors put their money into Solyndra years before the taxpayer did.  It may well have been that they had a reasonable expectation at that time of investment returns.  That is their problem.  Our problem is that by the time Obama put our money into the company, it was pretty clear to everyone in the industry that Solyndra was going nowhere.

Drum and his source, Dave Roberts, attempt to argue that the drop in silicon prices and addition of low-cost solar capacity in China didn't occur until months after Obama's decision to fund Solyndra.  But that is a tortured argument.  In point of fact, everyone in the industry saw this coming - after all, the capacity Roberts describes as coming online in June was under construction months and years before that, and was known to be coming by everyone in the industry.  When I was in a global manufacturing business, we kept up with everyone's plans for capacity additions -- I can't even imagine waking up one day and saying, "huh, a bunch of capacity just opened in China."  (by the way, it is pretty typical of liberals to see prices as a given, rather than as a part of a feedback system where high prices lead to actions that might well lower prices over time).

This timeline is therefore pretty disingenuous

March 2009: The same credit committee approves the strengthened loan application. The deal passes on to DOE’s credit review board. Career staff (not political appointees) within the DOE issue a conditional commitment setting out terms for a guarantee.

June 2009: As more silicon production facilities come online while demand for PV wavers due to the economic slowdown, silicon prices start to drop. Meanwhile, the Chinese begin rapidly scaling domestic manufacturing and set a path toward dramatic, unforeseen cost reductions in PV. Between June of 2009 and August of 2011, PV prices drop more than 50%.

I am sure that this is wildly logical to a journalism major, but someone in business would laugh off the implication that what happened in June was wholly unforeseeable in March.  Want more proof?  The loan guarantee itself is proof.   Years earlier, the company attracted a billion dollars of private capital.  Now it takes a government guarantee to get capital?  And you think nothing had changed with the insider's perception of the opportunity?

A good analogy might be if I invested in Greek bonds today.  And then in 3 months the Greek government defaults and I lose all my money.  I suppose I could craft a timeline that said the default did not happen until months after my investment, but could anyone living right now say that I really had no reason on September 16, 2011 to expect a Greek default?

The real howler in the article is this one:

There was no scandal in the loan process, and there's nothing unusual about having a certain fraction of speculative programs like this fail. It's all part of the way the free market works.

First, I agree there is no scandal here if one defines scandal as something out of the norm.  Republicans want to count political coup on Democrats so they want to say this is fraudulent.  But fraudulent implies that we could find honorable technocrats who could have avoided this problem.  We can't.  This kind of failure is fundamental and inseparable from the act of government trying to pick winners, and would exist no matter what people were in place.

Second, calling this "the way free markets work" is obscene.   Free markets don't use force on investors to make them put money into certain investments.

But more importantly, government loan guarantees go only to those companies who the free market has chosen NOT to fund.  If the free market was willing to toss another half billion into Solyndra, its owners would not have been burning a path back and forth to Washington.  So by definition, every single government loan guarantee in this program is to a company or a technology that the free market, knowledgeable investors, and industry insiders have rejected as a bad investment.  For the program to work, one has to believe that Obama, Chu, and some career energy department bureaucrats have a better understanding of commercializing technologies than do private investors (who are investing with their own money) and industry experts.

Postscript:  I have to also comment on this from the timeline:

February 2011: Due to a liquidity crisis, investors provide $75 million to help restructure the loan guarantee. The DOE rightly assumed it was better to give Solyndra a fighting chance rather than liquidate the company – which was a going concern – for market value, which would have guaranteed significant losses.

The author glosses over it, but this is the $75 million I discussed the other day that dropped the US out of the senior position and guaranteed that the taxpayer would lose everything rather than only a portion of the investment

The notion of giving it more time was absurd.  Even closed with everyone laid off the company is burning a million a week in cash.  How much was it burning when open? And if it was totally clear at this point that the market had fundamentally shifted and the company could not compete, what the hell was the time going to help?  Maybe they were hoping to win the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes?  I suppose it could have been to give them time to try to sell the company, but there is no evidence any such discussions were taking place.

In fact, it is pretty clear that the US Government got played with that $75 million investment.  Any private lender who had allowed someone else to grab the senior position for a trivial investment in a company on the express train to chapter 7 would be fired immediately.

And if you want fraud, you might look at Solyndra's summer asset sales.  All the company's assets of any liquidity and value were sold over the summer to Argonaut, who also happens to be the owner of the majority state AND the company who invested $75 million in return for the senior position.  Depending on the sale price for this self-dealing, one could argue that the time the $75 million bought was merely the time needed to loot the company of any valuable assets before it went bankrupt.

Postscript #2:  I have written before about how much expertise about business tends to be claimed by liberal journalists and places like Think Progress.  I had a funny thought trying to imagine the Think Progress business school and what it would teach.  Might be a parody I need to write sometime.

New Speakers

I really enjoyed my first foray into building speakers  (the first ones were here, and were an L-C-R for the home theater).   So I tried building a new pair.

The home theater speakers are behind the projection screen (the big gray thing in the picture).  The speakers definitely lose something behind the screen.  Though it is no big deal on movies, for music I wanted speakers outside the screen.  I needed something with high WAF  (a term very common on audio discussion boards, it stands for wife acceptance factor) but that sounded good.  In effect, I needed something relatively small that filled a big room.

These are bipolar speakers, which does not mean they are good at playing Rage Against the Machine albums.  It means they have two drivers, usually at 180 degrees from each other.  The advantage if well designed can be more full, room-filling sound.  These have the second driver mounted on top, rather than in back.  The reason for this is that I knew they would be close to the wall, and bipoles with rear-mounted drivers need space I did not have.   I built them roughly to this design, though I used MarkAudio Alpair 7.3 drivers instead of those in the design, and I moved the port to the front from the bottom.

These are full range driver speakers.  The driver actually runs from about 60-ish Hz to over 20,000 Hz and is pretty dang flat over that range.  The advantage of this is we get rid of the electronic crossovers between the woofer, mid, and tweeter.  Often the crossover frequencies sit right in the most sensitive range of the ear, as well as in vocal range, such that even small irregularities degrade the sound.  Also, the sound is coming from a single point source, which sounds great, and the speaker is more efficient.  The downside, of course, is that it is asking a lot of a driver to cover this wide range.

These speakers sound amazing  (I will spare you the audio review-speak that sound so eerily similar to wine-snob-speak).  You would simply not believe the sound that comes out of these little drivers.  The bass is pretty solid too, though I think I will add a subwoofer on the bottom.  The bass reinforcement comes from the quarter-wavelength transmission line design, the theory of which is discussed in great depth here.   You can find a lot of this sort of design in stores, as the tall thin tower look is aesthetically appealing, and has the fortunate side effect of working well for bass reinforcement (probably the number one role of any cabinet).   I spent a lot of time in Mathcad on these.  I am starting to reach my goal of eventually building speakers of my own design -- for these I modeled and then modified an existing design.

The boxes are built out of 3/4-inch baltic birch plywood, again with all large saw cutting done by the lumber yard, while I did the rest at home.  This is my first experience with veneer, which i in this case is black-dyed ash and it came out great, though I put the satin polyurethane coating on a bit too think and got them a bit glossier than I wanted.  They are well braced on the inside and the back is removable to tune them with more or less fiber stuffing -- at first I only had a bit and the bass was too boomy, but adding more along the length of the speaker tightened the bass as well as the mids a bit.

This was a very easy project, much easier than the first speakers I built.  As I learned the first time, with router jibs, round holes are actually easier than square ones.  If someone is looking for a great starter project, these speakers, with just one driver, would be my choice.  Markaudio is a great driver manufacturer, not only because they are making what may be the best full-range drivers out there, but their proprietor spends a ton of time on the boards interacting with the DIY community to find out what they would like to see changed.

In Honor of Today's Gore-Fest, My Climate Video

Al Gore is doing his best Jerry Lewis imitation by holding an all day climate telethon today.  In honor of this, let me repost my climate video for those who have not seen it.

Catastrophe Denied: The Science of the Skeptics Position (studio version) from Warren Meyer on Vimeo.

Other viewing options, as well as links to download the powerpoint presentation, are here.

These Are The Folks Who Are Wrapping Themselves in the Mantle of "Science"

Oops.  Accounting error seriously overestimates benefits of biofuels.  

The European Union is overestimating the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions achieved through reliance on biofuels as a result of a “serious accounting error,” according to a draft opinion by an influential committee of 19 scientists and academics.

The European Environment Agency Scientific Committee writes that the role of energy from crops like biofuels in curbing warming gases should be measured by how much additional carbon dioxide such crops absorb beyond what would have been absorbed anyway by existing fields, forests and grasslands.

Instead, the European Union has been “double counting” some of the savings, according to the draft opinion, which was prepared by the committee in May and viewed this week by The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.

The committee said that the error had crept into European Union regulations because of a “misapplication of the original guidance” under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“The potential consequences of this bioenergy accounting error are immense since it assumes that all burning of biomass does not add carbon to the air,” the committee wrote.

Duh.  This has been a known fact to about everyone else, as most independent studies not done by a corn-state university have found ethanol to have, at best, zero utility in reducing atmospheric CO2.

It is worth noting that the EU would likely have never made this admission had it solely been under the pressure of skeptics, for whom this is just one of a long list of fairly obvious errors in climate-related science.  But several years ago, environmental groups jumped on the skeptic bandwagon opposing ethanol, both for its lack of efficacy in reducing emissions as well as the impact of increasing ethanol product on land use and food prices.

Weird Coincidences

I spent four days last week trying to get my online backup file restored for Quickbooks, our accounting software.

One morning, we woke up and found our entire QB file corrupted.  I would insert cautions to QB users about such occurrences, but I think everyone already knows the problem.  Such a warning would be like reminding a New York resident about street crime.  We QB users always feel like we are walking on eggshells with QB, ready at any moment for everything to go haywire.  We live with it, because the program is useful and ubiquitous.

So I perform a backup every day, but recently started using the QB online backup facility.  This automatically backs up the file every day.  I still make a local backup from time to time, but I have gotten lazy.  When things went south the other day, my online backup was 10 days old, an eternity in our business.  I sent QB our file to try to execute a repair, but in the mean time I went to the restore command to restore the most recent online backup before the corruption.

Fail.  Fail.  Fail.  Fail.  After four tries, each 3 hours each, I got the idea maybe it was not going to work.  So I called QB and got their Phillipines tech support desk.  They walked me through some steps.  Fail. Fail. Fail.

Through all this time, we were entirely shut down accounting-wise.  Finally, in exasperation, I asked them to just post my backup file on an FTP server somewhere.  After all, we could both see the file exists, and it was just the QB proprietary file transfer protocol that was failing to restore it.  Well, three countries and four departments later, no one could post the file on an FTP server.  Or to my Amazon S3 account.  Or to a password-protected web page.

For God sakes, this is a software company?  Finally, they agreed to have someone at the third party contractor who runs the servers try to put the file on a DVD and mail it to me, LOL.

It was almost exactly at this point that I opened this XKCD comic:

I tell you, sometimes that site is totally dialed into my brain.  (by the way, as I blog, a signed version of this comic on the wall behind my monitor).

PS- eventually the Quickbooks people rebuilt my corrupted file before I could ever get the backup in my hands.  Object lesson here - don't ever give up on the original file, the Intuit guys have twice in my life fixed a file that seemed corrupted beyond all hope of recovery.

Guess the Source

Social Security is a Ponzi Game:

Social Security is structured from the point of view of the recipients as if it were an ordinary retirement plan: what you get out depends on what you put in. So it does not look like a redistributionist scheme. In practice it has turned out to be strongly redistributionist, but only because of its Ponzi game aspect, in which each generation takes more out than it put in. Well, the Ponzi game will soon be over, thanks to changing demographics, so that the typical recipient henceforth will get only about as much as he or she put in (and today's young may well get less than they put in).

Paul Freaking Krugman, 1997.  Incredible how much his beliefs change depending on which party occupies the White House.

Solyndra Bankruptcy Process

I thought this article from Zero Hedge was a pretty good window into the bankruptcy process for those of us unfamiliar with what goes on.  The most interesting point is that by allowing Argonaut to cut ahead of taxpayers as the senior creditor, the Obama Administration virtually ceded control of the bankruptcy process to Argonaut.  Argonaut has put up the debtor-in-possession financing as well, and the combination of these two positions gives it pretty tight control of the process going forward

The plan put forward is a four-week sale of the company. The logic behind this very rapid schedule is that Solyndra is still burning cash at the rate of $1mm a week. How long will the $4mm DIP financing last? Four weeks. The terms of the DIP makes it a sure thing that Solyndra is going to be sold ASAP. That sounds good. But not for the DOE.

The one-month period is a very short time frame. The likely result will be that no serious alternative buyer will appear. Should that happen, the senior creditor will get all of the assets of the company at the end of 30 days. That would be Argonaut. It's possible that Argonaut will end up owning a company that lists $850mm in assets for less than $100mm.

I am not sure taxpayers were ever going to get anything out of this mess -- the combination of a high-cost manufacturing plant with me-too technology in a commoditized business was never going to be wildly valuable -- but the Administrations decision to allow Argonaut to jump the seniority line has pretty much assured that whatever value that might be there will go to Argonaut and not the taxpayers.

Postscript:  Someone might argue that the decision in February to allow Argnaut the senior position was required to get them to put up the $75 million that was necessary at the time to keep operating.  I am positive this is true, given the condition of Solyndra finances at the time.  However, the right answer at the time was to shut the thing down then, while the US had seniority and before Argonaut cleaned out all the assets of value (as they did this summer, selling inventories and receivables to themselves).  The company had no real prospects of ever making money when it was first financed two years ago and certainly did not in February.  The $75 million in February was less financing and more a pre-emptive bid for the company's carcass in the inevitable bankruptcy, and it will likely play out exactly this way.

Update:  I have read that Argonaut may be interested in the $500 million of tax losses.  These are tricky to use, and only Argonaut of all potential buyers could reasonably make use of them.  These might be worth $150 million in avoided taxes, so the $75 million price might make sense.  If Argonaut pulls this off, it would mean that the decision to accept their $75 million in financing is even more costly to the taxpayers.  Not only did they miss out on whatever value might be in the company, but it also created the opportunity for $150 million in tax avoidance that comes right out of Uncle Sam's coffers.

The Three Bubbles

If I asked you what three major American consumer products saw the largest steady price rises in the last decade (as opposed to price volatility, as we see in commodities like gasoline) one might well answer "housing, medical care, and college tuition."

Two or more of each of these share a number of features in common

  • Long, sustained government programs to increase access / ownership / usage
  • Substantial portion of pricing paid by third parties.
  • Easy to obtain, government subsidized debt financing.

The housing bubble has of course burst.  Obamacare, by further disconnecting individual use from the true costs of the services, will likely push health care costs ever higher.  And then there is the college bubble.  I am a bit late on this, but this is truly a remarkable chart:

I have already heard the leftish talking point on this, which is that this increase in debt is the fault of (surprise!) private lenders and loan originators.   This is a similar argument to the one made in the mortgage bubble, arguing that all the bad loans are the results of unscrupulous private originators and securities packagers.

And certainly there were many private companies originating awful mortgages and selling them to Fannie and Freddie.   But what we forget in hindsight is that the government was begging for them to do so.  Fannie and Freddie had active programs where they were encouraging mortgages with Loan-to-value of 97% or more.  This kind of leverage is absurd, particularly for American-style no-recourse home mortgages.  Sure, it was crazy to write them, but they were getting written only because the government was asking for them to be written and buying them all up.

In fact, in student loans, almost all of this loan growth is eagerly being underwritten by the Feds, not by private lenders.  Note the only consumer credit line really growing below is the "federal government" line (in red), which is primarily being driven by federally backed student loans.

One might argue that this is once again due to private originators going crazy.  But the Feds took over origination of all federal student loans in 2010.  You can see that much of the growth has occurred after the Feds took over origination.  In fact, I think most of us can understand that when the origination decision is shifted from being a business decision to a political decision, student lending standards are certainly not going to get tougher.  We can see that in home lending, where Fannie and Freddie have already returned to most of their worst pre-crash origination standards (here is an example of government promotion of these low down payment programs).

The other day my mother-in-law argued that the student lending business (particularly private lenders) needed reform because some students were being charged exorbitant rates.  Having not been in the market for student loans lately, I wondered if this were the case.  But the first thing that caught my eye was this stat:  The 2-year default rate (not lifetime, but just in the first 2 years) of student loans was 8.8% last year, and 12% if one looks at the first 3 years.  Compare that to credit card default rates which are around 6%.  And recognized that these are apples and oranges, the student loan numbers actually understate lifetime default rates.

Based on that, the interest rate on student loans should be in the twenties.  Against this backdrop, the rates I see online seem like a screaming deal.  Probably too good of a deal.  Which is why so many people are piling into these loans on the explicit promise society has made to them that their college degree will pay off, no matter what the cost.
Beyond the absurd price increases in both public and private education, here is the 900 pound gorilla in the room -- some majors are simply more valuable than others.  A computer programming grad is going to have a lot more earning potential than the average poetry or gender studies major.

What we really need is tiered lending standards based on a student's major.  Banks don't treat the earning potential of a dog-grooming business and a steel mill the same, why treat a mechanical engineering degree the same as a sociology degree?  But, of course, this is never, ever going to happen.

Years ago I had these thoughts along this line, in response to a Michelle Obama rant about the cost of education

This analogy comes to mind:  Let’s say Fred needs to buy a piece of earth-moving equipment.  He has the choice of the $20,000 front-end loader that is more than sufficient to most every day tasks, or the $200,000 behemoth, which might be useful if one were opening a strip mine or building a new Panama Canal but is an overkill for many applications.  Fred may lust after the huge monster earth mover, but if he is going to buy it, he better damn well have a big, profitable application for it or he is going to go bankrupt trying to buy it.

So Michelle Obama has a choice of the $20,000 state school undergrad and law degree, which is perfectly serviceable for most applications, or the Princeton/Harvard $200,000 combo, which I can attest will, in the right applications, move a hell of a lot of dirt.  She chooses the $200,000 tool, and then later asks for sympathy because all she ever did with it was some backyard gardening and she wonders why she has trouble paying all her debt.  Duh.  I think the problem here is perfectly obvious to most of us, but instead Obama seeks to blame her problem on some structural flaw in the economy, rather than a poor choice on her part in matching the tool to the job.  In fact, today, she spends a lot of her time going to others who have bought similar $200,000 educations and urging them not to use those tools productively, just like she did not.

Postscript:  Kids who find they cannot pay their student debts and think bank home foreclosures are the worst thing in the world are in for a rude surprise -- home mortgage default consequences are positively light in this country.  The worst that happens is that you lose the home and take a ding on your credit record.  Student debt follows you for life, with wage garnishments and asset losses.  People walk away from home debt all the time, the same is not true of student debt.

The Terrorists Have Won

Victory courtesy of the freaking TSA.  Making a mockery of the Fourth Amendment for nearly 10 years now.

The Onion, September, 2001

Ten years ago today, we were arguing over whether it was appropriate to even hold professional football and baseball games, much less enjoy ourselves in any way, in the aftermath of 9/11.

No one even contemplated trying to deal with it humorously.  Heck, I am not sure I have seen many attempts even a decade later to do so.  But just days after 9/11, the Onion published an amazing issue dedicated to 9/11.  It was funny without being disrespectful of the victims, and in many ways still on point.  They should have had a Pulitzer for it.  The articles are archived here.

Ten Years Ago Today

Ten years ago, for the first and only time in my life, I invited my wife to come along on a business trip from Seattle to New York.

On 9/11, I was sitting in the restaurant at the W hotel in Midtown Manhattan having breakfast with some bankers. I had recently been hired to see if I could make something out of a startup that was trying to manage aircraft parts sales and inventories over the web. My incredibly ill-timed pitch to the bankers was that the commercial aviation business, which had been somewhat in the doldrums, was on the verge of a turnaround. Oops.

My wife came down to breakfast to tell us something funny was going on in the news. We ended up going to one of the banker's hotel rooms -- he had a penthouse suite with a balcony from which we watched the now-famous and horrible events play out.

The rest of the day was odd to say the least. People on the street flinched whenever a plane flew over. The entire island emptied out, such that in the evening, we walked through Times Square and not a single care came through in 5 minutes. Someone was skateboarding in lazy circles, I suppose just because he could.

For us, 9/11 fortunately was only a hassle. We scrambled to find someone to watch our kids in Seattle, and found the last rent car in the city and ended up driving all the way back to Seattle from New York. We still made it back before air travel resumed.

Many of our friends were not so lucky. As both my wife and I were grads of the Harvard Business School, we knew scores of people who worked in the WTC. Over the coming weeks, word floated in of friends that had died that day, including our friend Steve who did not work there but got talked into going to a training session he really did not want to be at. I actually think of him many times, when I am asked to do tedious business trips I see not value in. I have learned to skip a lot of them. Life is too short.

I Don't Think This is Settled

For those who have read my climate work or seen the video, the key question in climate science revolves around the feedback effects in the climate system to Co2 warming.

Skeptics, like alarmists, generally agree that a doubling of Co2 concentrations might warm the Earth about a degree Celsius, absent any other effects.  But we can imagine all sorts of feedback effects, the most important of which are in water vapor and cloud formation.  Warming that forms more clouds might have negative feedback, as clouds offset some of the warming.  Warming that increases humidity could lead to more warming, as water vapor is a strong greenhouse gas.

The difference, then, between minor warming and catastrophe is in the feedbacks, and most importantly in clouds and water vapor.  All the research the government is funding on whether warming will cause sterility in tree frogs is tangential to this key question.

And this question is far from decided.  I won't get into all the arguments here, but to the extent there is any consensus, it is that man' CO2 is probably causing some warming.  Whether this is a catastrophe or a nuisance depends on feedbacks which are not well understood.

This week there has been a lot of interesting back and forth over a paper by Roy Spencer several months ago arguing that cloud feedback was negative and would serve to limit the total amount of man-made warming.  Just how central this issue is can be seen in the fuss this paper has caused, including editors forced to resign for even daring to publish such heresy, and the speed with which a counter-paper flew through peer review.

I won't get into the depths of this, except to show two charts.  The first is from Dessler in the alarmist camp, the second is the same chart but using a different data series.  I won't explain the axes,  just trust the relationship between these two variables is key to diagnosing the size and direction of feedback.

So we get opposite results (the slope of the regression) simply by using temperature and radiative flux data from to different agencies.  And note how thin the fit is in both -- basically drawing a line through a cloud.  Neither of these likely has an R-squared higher than about .05.

So there you have it, the most important question in climate - really, the only important question associated with anthropogenic global warming.  Settled science, indeed.

Shopping with Maxed Out Credit Cards

My Forbes column is up this week and it presents some quick reactions to the Obama jobs speech last night.  A brief excerpt:

Overall, I found the package to be an incredible mish-mash of already tried and failed steps to rejuvenate the economy.   Even if I were to buy into the Keynesian stimulus logic, everything in this package is so under-scale as to be rounding errors on the larger economy.  This is basically a smaller version of the last failed stimulus repeated.

This plan is absolutely in the Obama style, offering goodies to many constituencies without a hint of how they will be paid for.  Presidents often offer a chicken in every pot when they are campaigning, but usually are forced into reality once they enter office.  Not Barack Obama.  Time and again, from health care to the most recent budget fight and last night’s speech, Obama wants to be loved for offering perks, and then wants someone else to take the fall for the unpopular steps required to pay for them.  He is like grandma endearing herself to the grandkids by buying them Christmas presents on dad’s maxxed out credit cards, leaving dad to later figure out later how to pay for them or face the ire of the kids by returning the gifts.