Archive for September 2012

Looper Was Pretty Good

I am generally skeptical of movies released in late September - after all, if the studio really had much hope for them, they would have released them in summer or waited for Christmas.  But I took my daughter because she is a Joseph Gordon Levitt fan, and it turned out to be solid.  Nitpickers need to put away the inevitable time-paradox-mistake criticisms, but we both enjoyed it.

What Joe Arpaio's PR Activity Has Been Displacing

While Sheriff Joe was pursuing a vendetta against County officials, chasing down Mexicans with broken tail lights, and raiding dry cleaners demanding immigration papers, over 400 sexual assaults were going under-investigated.  According to the article, this was not an accident -- there was a real prioritization that put few resources in the special victims unit and put more and better staff on things like counter-terrorism (Phoenix being a well-known hotbed of terrorist activity).

The understaffing in the special-victims unit was due in part to the Sheriff's Office's priorities -- and the special-victims unit was not one of them, according to a half-dozen current and former sheriff's employees.

Despite a Maricopa County hiring freeze prompted by the faltering economy, the Sheriff's Office from 2005 through mid-2008 was hiring 45 to 50 new deputies annually and tackling initiatives that included counterterrorism and homeland-security enhancements. The office also embraced immigration enforcement, sending 60 deputies and 100 detention officers through a federal immigration-training program and creating a human-smuggling unit with at least 15 dedicated deputies.

Staffing in the special-victims unit remained unchanged during those years: four detectives....

The Sheriff's Office was allocated more than $600,000 in fiscal 2007 for six full-time positions for "investigating cases involving sexual abuse, domestic violence, abuse and child abuse." The Sheriff's Office now says the six new positions were to focus solely on child-abuse cases. In any event, they cannot say where those deputies went to work.

"We don't know," Chief Deputy Sheridan said. "We've looked, and we can't find any of those position numbers which were allocated for child-abuse cases."

This is due in part to the acknowledged misallocation of roughly $100 million in agency funds that had patrol deputies being paid out of an account designated for detention officers.

The department was almost certainly spending more on Joe Arpaio's PR than it was on the special victims unit.  Dozens of cases showed no investigation at all, and hundreds showed that no contact had been made either with the victim or the suspect.   Piles of case files were found random file cabinets and even one officer's garage.

More California Idiocy -- Calpers Scam to Run Private Pension System

A new California mandate on employers I completely missed:

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that permits as many as 6.3 million private workers without a pension plan to set aside retirement money for management by the state.

It is the first state-run pension program for nongovernment employees and may add as much as $6.6 billion to funds managed by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the biggest U.S. pension. Calpers, as the fund is known, has assets of $242 billion.

The law is aimed at businesses with five or more employees that don’t offer pensions or 401(k) savings programs. The law requires companies to contribute 3 percent of a worker’s salary to a retirement account. Workers will be enrolled in the program unless they choose to opt out.

This is just insane, and I don't remember any public debate on it.  Given that the government already has a forced retirement program with a much higher percentage contribution (Social Security with 16% of wages when including the employer piece), my guess is that this is meant as a bone for or a bailout of Calpers.  Calpers wields enormous political power in the state, and it is entirely believable that they alone are behind this.  Calpers is about to be forced to acknowledge that it is billions short of what it needs to cover future pension obligations because it has been assuming unrealistically high returns form its investments.  Without those high returns, more money needs to be put in the fund to cover public employee pensions that march to ridiculous levels.

I have skimmed the law, and there is nothing in there about what returns will be paid to these new private employees.  My guess is that private contributions will be used as a slush fund to make sure public employees get paid, because they DO have defined benefits, as well as a justification to pay Calpers managers more money.  I can absolutely guarantee that when push comes to shove and Calpers is short of money, private employees will see their benefits rolled back and their contributions going to public employees' pockets.

This is also insane for two other reasons:

  1. In California, there has probably been a zillion lawsuits with the state punishing private entities for running "opt-out" rather than "opt-in" systems.   Having to explicitly opt out to keep ones money is a scam only the government is allowed to get away with
  2. In our company, all but a few of our workers are already retired, working part-time for us to keep busy.  The vast majority of our employees, for example, are on Social Security and many also have private pensions.  So why am I forced to set up all the expensive infrastructure to provide 401K contributions to people who are all drawing down their 401k's?

Raising Medicare Taxes

Glen Reynolds writes:

The concern is that when people perceive the cost of government to be cheaper than it really is, they will demand ever more government benefits because they either don’t feel the cost directly or believe that others will be paying those costs.”

Social Security taxes are set at about the right level - the reason we have a problem with the program is that we spent the "trust fund" ages ago on everything but Social Security.  But Medicare is a different story.  Medicare taxes cover just a third of the benefits a participant can expect to eventually receive.  Of course everyone thinks it's a great deal, it's like they are buying Mercedes sedans for $15,000.

Update:  I know there are people who are horrified I would suggest raising a tax, that we should work the spending side or eliminate the program all together or replace it with a hybrid voucher system.  I would like to see any and all of that.  But there is absolutely no momentum for doing so.  Even Paul Ryan only fiddles around the edges in a barely meaningful way, and he is labelled as one step away from Hitler for doing so.

If the government is going to offer an "insurance" program, then the "premiums" need to be priced correctly.  If those "premiums" rise to absurd levels because the government is incompetent at management, then we might have some pressure to replace the program with something else.

If the post office were still charging 15 cents for a stamp, and then burying the resulting deficits in the budget somewhere, there would be a hell of a lot less pressure for reform.

The Coming State Government Budget Implosion

State debt and unfunded liabilities have risen to an estimate $4.2 trillion, much of it in unfunded pension obligations.  That is nearly six times total state tax collections of all sorts (license fees, property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, etc) putting the states close to Greek territory.  And I cannot tell from the methodology here, but $4.2 trillion likely underestimates unfunded obligations because many states have unrealistically high return expectations for their pension investment portfolios.

Obama Disappointment to Libertarians

We expected Obama to be a dumpster fire on economic issues and commercial liberty.  And he has been.

But here are two charts showing how the traditional libertarian choice in two-party electrions of "liberty in the bedroom or liberty in the boardroom" has broken down.  First, Bush was a mess on economic issues.  Now, Obama is a wreck on civil liberties issues.   Here is use of domestic surveillance tools, many times without warrants:


And here are drone strike casualties:


This Administration has increased the frequency of drone strikes by a factor of 8 over George Bush.  It has claimed that any civilian deaths from these strikes are combatant deaths because, well, civilians shouldn't have been hanging around near people we want to kill.  The Administration has claimed the right to assassinate Americans without any sort of due process, continues rendition and indefinite detainment, and has ramped up Federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in places like California where they are legal under state law.

Update:  While I was writing this, Ken at Popehat was saying something similar:

The United States government, under two opposed increasingly indistinguishable political parties, asserts the right to kill anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror. It asserts the right todetain anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror, and to do so based on undisclosed facts applied to undisclosed standards in undisclosed locations under undisclosed conditions for however long it wants, all without judicial review. It asserts the right to be free of lawsuits or other judicial proceedings that might reveal its secrets in the War on Terror. It asserts that the people it kills in drone strikes are either probably enemy combatants in the War on Terror or acceptable collateral damage. It asserts that increasing surveillance of Americans, increasing interception of Americans' communications, and increasingly intrusive security measuresare all required by the War on Terror.

But the War on Terror, unlike other wars, will last as long as the government says it will. And, as the MEK episode illustrates, the scope of the War on Terror — the very identity of the Terror we fight — is a subjective matter in the discretion of the government. The compelling need the government cites to do whatever it wants is itself defined by the government.

We're letting the government do that. We're putting up with it. We're even cheering it, because that's more comfortable than opposing it or thinking about how far it has gone.

Update 2:  And let's not forget that whole transparency thing.  The Obama Administration may be perhaps the worst Administration in decades in complying with FOIA requests for what should be public information.

Streambed on Mars?

This is pretty cool -- what look like rounded river rocks and sedimentary conglomerates on Mars.

Sheriff Joe Is Finally in Jeopardy

Dictator of Their Immediate Area

I have argued before that police often behave as if they are legally dictator of their immediate area, and frequently assume they can issue orders, however asinine, to anyone in their visual range.  Of course this is legally not true (though I suppose it is legally true if you take into account that courts and the minimal accountability processes that exist for cops never punish them for such behavior).

Here is a great example.  The 2-minute TSA freeze drill, with the TSA yelling at people -- already through security -- within their visual range for moving.  I think they are ripping off Heinlein - was this in Starship Troopers?

Screwed Up And Updated to iOS6

This weekend I was driving all over the NYC area when I saw that iOS6 was available.  Stupidly, without reading reviews, I updated hoping to get the new verbal turn-by-turn directions  (the old iPhone navigation app was pretty much worthless if you are alone in the car as it did not have any verbal output).

I then spent the rest of the weekend following bizarre side roads, on tiny dirt roads, or getting instructions to turn a couple of hundred yards after I had passed the intersection.  At one point I got send off the highway on a 3 mile detour through some housing tract only to eventually be put right back on the same highway I started, about 100 yards from where it had me turn off.  I am sure that it will improve in the future, but right now the new Apple nav program is a half-baked mess.  My old Android phone was better for navigation three years ago, and I am sure Google has improved it since.  If I had to drive a lot on business trips, I would be back on Android in a second.

Conference Invitation: Private Management of Public Parks

For those who may be interested, we are having a one-day conference on public-private partnerships for park operations on November 7 in Reno, Nevada.  The US Forest Service and those of us in the business have gotten a lot of inquiries from recreation agencies over the last year or so.  These folks are trying to keep parks open despite declining budgets.

The USFS figured out a way to do this over 30 years ago, and only now are other agencies starting to copy the model  (California State Parks just started using it this year, for example).  The USFS, like most agencies, charges a fee for the public to visit certain parks or to use campgrounds.  They found that they could not cover their high operating costs with just these user fees, and so had to use a lot of general fund money to keep the parks open.  Many complain that public recreation user fees are too high, but typically they cover only about half the agency's costs to run the park.  When general fund money started to go away, the USFS faced park closures, exactly the situation today in many state and local parks agencies.

The USFS found that private operators with a lower cost position and more flexibility could keep these parks open using just the user fees, and in fact actually pay the USFS some rent.  So instead of having to subsidize the park's operation with tax money, the parks began to generate funds for the USFS.

It took decades to get this right.  The USFS made mistakes in how they grouped parks into contracts, how they wrote the contracts, and how they did oversight.  The private companies made operating mistakes and some failed financially at awkward times, since when this program started there did not exist a pool of experienced operators.  But over the years, many of these problems have been worked out, and most privately-run sites operate to a standard at least as high as publicly-run parks.  Here in Arizona, three of the top five highest-rated public campgrounds are operated by private companies in the USFS program.

At this conference, both private operators and agency people experienced with this model will describe how it works as well as years of hard-won lessons learned.

The conference is free to most government agency officials, academics, and media and we have obtained a really inexpensive $49 hotel rate  (since by definition the agencies most interested in the model don't have much money).   The web site that describes the agenda and logistics is here.  Readers of this site who don't fit one of these categories but would still like to attend can email me at the link in the above site and I will get you in.

The Media's Role in Promoting the Corporate State

I found this article in the Arizona Republic, our local rag, almost criminal.  As far as it goes, I think the facts are correct.  What is amazing is what it leaves out.  First, the article:

Glendale administrators propose cutting nearly a quarter of the city's employees, or 249 positions, if voters approve a ballot measure in November to repeal a sales-tax hike.

Repeal of the 0.7 percentage-point tax hike that took effect last month would mean the loss of $11 million this year and $25 million annually through 2017, according to city estimates.

The City Council had approved the temporary increase to shore up its deficit-ridden general fund after laying off 49 employees and cutting $10 million from departments at the start of this fiscal year....

Proposed cuts include shuttering two of the three city libraries, one of its two aquatic centers, the TV station and all city festivals, including Glendale Glitters.

The article continues with the usual panic about cuts in police and firefighters and libraries and parks,  etc. etc.  What the article does not mention except in passing in paragraph 12 is the reason for the tax increase and the budget problems in the first place.  Over heated opposition in the community, the City Council, which has enjoyed pretending to be big shot Donald Trumps over the last few years with taxpayer money, handed a private individual $25 million a year to keep the ice hockey team in town, an ice hockey team that has the lowest attendance in the league despite doing fairly well the last few years.  This is on top of years of other subsidies and the taxpayer-funded $300 million stadium.   The numbers line up exactly -- a new $25 million a year subsidy and a new $25 million a year tax, and the paper cannot even connect these dots, even when they were directly connected in real time (ie the tax was specifically justified to pay for the subsidy).

What the article entirely fails to mention is that, given no voice in these corporatist extravagances in Glendale (the tiny town of 250,000 has also subsidized an NFL franchise and a couple of MLB teams), the only way the citizens of this town have any way to exercise accountability is to vote down the tax that enables this corporate handout.  They were not allowed to vote on the deal itself.  This is not a bunch of wacky red-staters voting to decimate the parks departments, as the city and the paper would like you to believe, but a citizenship that is tired of the idiotic corporate cronyism in the Glendale city council and are looking for some way, any way, to enforce some accountability.

This is the media and the state in bed together promoting the larger state.  Glendale's problems are entirely self-imposed, spending huge amounts of tax money on subsidizing sports teams and real estate ventures.  When these all failed like so many Solyndras, they are trying to make this out to be a tax shortfall, when in fact it is spending idiocy.

The media always seems to participate as a cheerleader in this statism, but local papers have a special interest in promoting this sort of sports corporatism.  Just about the only thing that sells dead-tree newspapers any more is the sports section.  I would love to see what would happen to circulation rates if they cut the sports section.  So any state actions that add professional sports franchises or keeps them in town contribute directly to the newspapers' survival.

Life In The Corporate State

This strikes me as typical of life in the corporate state.  

  1. The Administration champions a plan to save $11.5 billion through lower Medicare reimbursement rates  (we can argue about whether this is simply sensible procurement strategy or a mindless price control, but won't today).
  2. The Administration gives back $8 billion, or 70%, of these savings to the providers through another program.  It is unclear what criteria are used to select who gets the money and who does not, so I think we can assume political ass-kissing probably comes into play

Through this right-hand-left-hand game, the Administration can claim $11.5 billion in savings that don't actually occur; claim that the "cuts" are not hurting service, since they are giving the cuts back; while creating yet another multi-billion dollar fund that can be distributed to friends and supporters.

A Good Reason To Get Obama Out of Office

OK, there are lots of reasons to get Obama out of office.  The problem is, that for most of them, I have no reasonable hope that Romney will be any better.  Corporatism?  CEO as Venture-Capitalist-in-Chief?  Indefinite detentions?  Lack of Transparency?  The Drug War?   Obamacare, which was modeled on Romneycare?  What are the odds that any of these improve under Romney, and at least under Obama they are not being done by someone who wraps himself in the mantle of small government and free markets, helping to corrupt the public understanding of those terms.

But here is one issue Obama is almost certainly going to be worse:  Bail outs of states.  States will start seeking Federal bailouts, probably initially in the form of Federal guarantees of their pension obligations, in the next 4 years.  I had thought that Obama would be particularly susceptible if California is the first to come begging.  But imagine how fast he will whip out our money if it is Illinois at the trough first?

Now that Chicago's children have returned to not learning in school, we can all move on to the next crisis in Illinois public finance: unfunded public pensions. Readers who live in the other 49 states will be pleased to learn that Governor Pat Quinn's 2012 budget proposal already floated the idea of a federal guarantee of its pension debt. Think Germany and eurobonds for Greece, Italy and Spain.

Thank you for sharing, Governor.

Sooner or later, we knew it would come to this since the Democrats who are running Illinois into the ground can't bring themselves to oppose union demands. Illinois now has some $8 billion in current debts outstanding and taxpayers are on the hook for more than $200 billion in unfunded retirement costs for government workers. By some estimates, the system could be the first in the nation to go broke, as early as 2018....

For years, states have engaged in elaborate accounting tricks to improve appearances, including using an unrealistically high 8% "discount" rate to account for future liabilities. To make that fairy tale come true, state pension funds would have to average returns of 8% a year, which even the toothless Government Accounting Standards Board and Moody's have said are unrealistic....

Look no further than the recent Chicago teachers strike. The city is already facing upwards of a $1 billion deficit next year with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual pension costs for retired teachers coming due. But despite the fiscal imperatives, the negotiation didn't even discuss pensions. The final deal gave unions a more than 17% raise over four years, while they keep benefits and pensions that workers in the wealth-creating private economy can only imagine.

As a political matter, public unions are pursuing a version of the GM strategy: Never make a concession at the state level, figuring that if things get really bad the federal government will have no political choice but to bail out the pensions if not the entire state. Mr. Quinn made that official by pointing out in his budget proposal that "significant long-term improvements" in the state pension debt will come from "seeking a federal guarantee of the debt."

I had not paid much attention to the Chicago teacher's strike, except to note that the City basically caved to the unions.  The average teacher salary in Chicago, even without benefits, will soon rise to nearly $100,000 a year for just 9 months work.  But I am amazed at the statement that no one even bothered to challenge the union on pensions despite the fact that the system is essentially bankrupt.  Illinois really seems to be banking on their favorite son bailing them out with our money.

You Get What You Subsidize

An interesting set of data I read the other day:

In 2011, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, Arizona's Medicaid program, paid for 53 percent of the state's 84,979 births, while private insurance paid for 42 percent, according to state statistics. The remainder were paid for by individuals....

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, estimated that including pre- and postnatal care, it costs Arizona about $7,500 per birth for a delivery with no complications. Using those estimates, the 2011 deliveries would have cost Arizona taxpayers nearly $338 million....

In 2010, 58 percent [of Arizonans] had private insurance and 18 percent were on Medicaid.

So, 18% of Arizonans are having 53% of all births.  Another way to put this is that the 18% of people who get this procedure from the government for free account for half the demand, despite the fact that these folks are the ones who, if rational, should be the least likely to have a lot of births because they presumably have the most difficulty affording an extra mouth to feed.

God forbid I start sounding like some crotchity Conservative, but I continue to be amazed that pregnancy is treated as an "emergency procedure."  It strikes me that unlike, say, cancer, individuals can choose to avoid this condition fairly easily if they can't afford it.  I certainly know my wife and I put FAR more deliberation into having children than we did any other decision in our lives.  There is a terrible tension here - no one wants to turn away an expectant mother and endanger her child, but freely giving away an expensive procedure without any sort of restrictions nearly begs for a baby boom.  Those who try to argue that Obamacare won't increase health care expenses (in other words, arguing that demand curves don't upward) only have to look at these numbers.

PS-  Apparently, our state legislature is appalled by these numbers.  This is the same legislature that has proposed about a zillion abortion restrictions over the last year.  It will be interesting to see if fiscal issues change anyone's thinking on the abortion issue now that there is suddenly a $7500+ incentive to allow an abortion.

Update -- Thinking about this, I think the 18%/53% comparison is directionally correct but the difference is exaggerated due to Medicare.  I doubt Medicare delivers many babies, but a large part of the AZ population is on Medicare.  If the numbers were reset to show the percentage of Arizonans of child-rearing age on Medicaid, the number would be north of 18% but likely well below 53%.

Great Moments In Lawsuits

I have mixed feelings about Groupon.  Having been an executive at Mercata 10+ years ago, I recognize that they have gotten further than we did with the group buying model by a) waiting for there to actually be social media and b) delivering electronic goods (coupons) rather than hard goods.  As a customer, I have satisfactorily participated in several groupons and as a business we have used it a couple of times as a promotional program.  As an investor, I was short Groupon for quite a while, convinced that they had no particular barrier to entry for competitors like Amazon who could grab the market if there was enough money at stake.

So, all that aside, I was fascinated by the recent settlement of a class action lawsuit.  Prior to the lawsuit, all customers could get a full refund of their Groupon through a simple contact with Groupon customer service.  After the lawsuit, customers during the class action period can only get a partial refund and then only by going to a separate class website and hassling with forms and doing a lot of waiting.  The plaintiffs will actually get less than they would have had the lawsuit not gone forward, the difference being the millions required to pay off the tort lawyers to go away.

Having just had to pay the fees of a tort lawyer who brought a frivolous suit against our company just to make him go away, I am sympathetic.  Had the plaintiff approached me directly, I might have given her a few bucks just to settle and avoid getting lawyers involved.  But instead the lawyer got part of his fees paid in the settlement and the plaintiff got zip.  Basically just legal blackmail, with the plaintiff as unpaid pawn.

A Great Day in Manhattan for $20

I had a great day on Friday in Manhattan for the price of a $20 subway pass.  I did a lot of wandering around and people-watching, but here are three great free activities:

1.  Central Park.  Probably the greatest urban park in the world.  It is gorgeous, and everyone overlooks it.  If you have never strolled the Ramble, you will not believe you are in the middle of Manhattan.

2.  Walk the high-line park.  Another fabulous piece of landscape architecture, an old elevated rail line running north from about 14th street (just a bit south of the Chelsea Market) along the West Side that has been turned into a park and an amazing escape.  You can stroll the waterfront and urban New York without encountering a single car.  It is also incredibly quiet.  And train-lovers will appreciate that the architects kept a lot of the complex track-work as part of the landscape, almost like industrial art.

3.  Walk the Brooklyn Bridge.   I don't know that there is any similar experience anywhere else.  Something New Yorkers and tourists have enjoyed for over a hundred years.

I couldn't stay until magic hour but the view was still tremendous.

In the evening, I did whip out the wallet again and took my daughter to Ellen's Stardust Diner, near 51st and Broadway.  Total tourist trap.  Terrible food.  But an absolute blast every time.  All the waiters are out-of-work Broadway singers and they take turns singing show tunes for the restaurant as they serve.  We have walked out smiling and feeling good every time we have gone.


Diamond Age

3D desktop printers are really making progress.  My sense is that soon this will be absolutely essential for my hobby (model railroading).

Update:  You don't have to own one, a number of companies emerging that will print your designs for you.  About 5 seconds after I posted the hypothesis that I would soon need a 3D printer for model railroading, I read a model railroad blog post about ordering a custom locomotive shell from this site.  From that site saw an idea I had not thought of - custom Legos!  How often in my young Lego-obsessed days did I long for a special piece of a certain shape that did not exist.  Now, make your own!

Government Pollution and Risk Prioritization

A number of times in the past I have pointed out that government bodies in the US tend to be among the worst polluters.  While we sit around and argue about parts per billion of CO2 in the atmosphere, billions of gallons of raw sewage are being dumped into rivers.  I remember when I lived in Boston, the city just piped sewage out into the harbor.  When it got to disgusting and finally garnered a bit of negative media attention, they solved the untreated sewage problem by ... building a longer pipe and dumping it further out in the  ocean.   I worked at an Exxon refinery for a few years and it was always frustrating the regulatory attention we got on the smallest discharge (in general, the water we discharged had to be cleaner than the body of water we were discharging into) when local municipalities were dumping untreated sewage during storms into the same water, without consequence.

Anyway, here is a post from John Hanger via the Unbroken Window blog

A main goal of this blog is to help its readers prioritize the biggest threats to water quality and to understand that, though gas drilling impacts are real, they are well down the list of the most serious causes of pollution of Pennsylvania’s waters.  A must read is yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post Gazette front page story about the massive amounts of sewer overflows that reach rivers in the Pittsburgh region multiple times each year. annual volume of untreated sewage reaching rivers and streams is reported as 9 billion gallons per year and occurs in 30 to 70 storms annually, according to the Post Gazette.  And the bill for stopping this pollution and cleaning up is a staggering $2.8 billion.To make matters worse, the same problem of untreated sewage flowing into rivers and streams that the Pittsburgh region is confronting is found in many communities across Pennsylvania as well as in New York and other states.  While America’s sewage overflow problem dwarfs the impacts of gas drilling on water quality, it normally attracts little media attention or sustained public concern.  There are no Hollywood stars campaigning to stop these huge amounts of sewage from going into rivers.  There are no HBO movies on the problem.

Normally, this huge source of pollution that threatens public health and safety is ignored or draws a yawn.

Good risk prioritization is virtually impossible in the current state of the media and political dialog.   Mike Rizzo, writing at the blog, makes a good point:

if you asked people if the government should allow an odorless, tasteless, highly explosive gas to be piped into your house, where a small leak in a pipe could cause the entire house to explode, they would surely say No Way! But then ask them if natural gas stoves should be permitted in their homes and to a man they’d all say, “Of Course.”

The New Deal and Black Ghettoization

I have been watching the old PBS documentary series (in that Ken Burns style but I don't think by Ken Burns) and found this an interesting story of government policy fail that I had never heard much about.  Much like segregated train and bus service, racial redlining that is commonly blamed on private enterprise in fact began as government policy

Government policies began in the 1930s with the New Deal's Federal Mortgage and Loans Program. The government, along with banks and insurance programs, undertook a policy to lower the value of urban housing in order to create a market for the single-family residences they built outside the city.

The Home Owners' Loan Corporation, a federal government initiative established during the early years of the New Deal went into Brooklyn and mapped the population of all 66 neighborhoods in the Borough, block by block, noting on their maps the location of the residence of every black, Latino, Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Polish family they could find. Then they assigned ratings to each neighborhood based on its ethnic makeup. They distributed the demographic maps to banks and held the banks to a certain standard when loaning money for homes and rental. If the ratings went down, the value of housing property went down.

From the perspective of a white city dweller, nothing that you had done personally had altered the value of your home, and your neighborhood had not changed either. The decline in your property's value came simply because, unless the people who wanted to move to your neighborhood were black, the banks would no longer lend people the money needed to move there. And, because of this government initiative, the more black people moved into your neighborhood, the more the value of your property fell.

The Home Owners' Loan Corporation finished their work in the 1940s. In the 1930s when it started, black Brooklynites were the least physically segregated group in the borough. By 1950 they were the most segregated group; all were concentrated in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, which became the largest black ghetto in the United States. After the Home Owners Loan Corp began working with local banks in Brooklyn, it worked with them in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens.

The state also got involved in redlining. (Initially, redlining literally meant the physical process of drawing on maps red lines through neighborhoods that were to be refused loans and insurance policies based on income or race. Redlining has come to mean, more generally, refusing to serve a particular neighborhood because of income or race.) State officials created their own map of Brooklyn. They too mapped out the city block by block. But this time they looked for only black and Latino individuals.

The academics interviewed in the series argued that nearly every black ghetto in the country was created in the 1930's by this program.

Oliver Wendell Holmes' Free Speech Jurisprudence

I found this history from Ken at Popehat to be incredibly useful background on free speech jurisprudence from OW Holmes, particularly of the oft-abused "yelling fire in a crowded movie house."

Perhaps the worst modern threat to free speech is this notion that "hate speech" is somehow a class of speech that should be banned.  Well, I would ask advocates of this position to remember that nearly every bit of political speech is hate speech to someone.  Those who advocate for such a restriction generally imagine themselves defining what is hateful.  Which leads me back to my #1 legal test:  if one supports some sort of government-rule-making legislation, imagine the politician you like the least making the rules.  If that makes you queasy, you shouldn't be supporting that legislation.

How Government Interventions Affect Health Care Supply and Demand

My son is in Freshman econ 101, and so I have been posting him some supply and demand curve examples.  Here is one for health care.  The question at hand:  Does government regulation including Obamacare increase access to health care?  Certainly it increases access to health care insurance, but does it increase access to actual doctors?   We will look at three major interventions.

The first and oldest is the imposition of strong, time-consuming, and costly professional licensing requirements for doctors.  At this point we are not arguing whether this is a good or bad thing, just portraying its inevitable effects on the supply and demand for doctors.

I don't think this requires much discussion. For any given price for doctor services, the quantity of doctor hours available is certainly going to increase as the barriers to entry to the profession are raised.

The second intervention is actually a set of interventions, the range of interventions that have encouraged single-payer low-deductible health insurance and have provided subsidies for this insurance.  These interventions include historic tax preferences for employer-paid employee health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, the subsidies in Obamacare as well as the rules in Obamacare that discourage high-deductible policies and require that everyone buy insurance rather than pay as they go.  The result is a shift in the demand curve to the right, along with a shift to a more vertical demand curve (meaning people are more price-insensitive, since a third-party is paying).

The result is a substantial rise in prices, as we have seen over the last 30 years as health care prices have risen far faster than inflation

As the government pays more and more of the health care bills, this price rise leads to unsustainably high spending levels, so the government institutes price controls.  Medicare has price controls (the famous "doc fix" is related to these) and Obamacare promises many more.  This leads to huge doctor shortages, queues, waiting lists, etc.  Exactly what we see in other state-run health care systems,  The graph below posits a price cap that forces prices back to the free market rate.

So, is this better access to health care?

I know that Obamacare proponents claim that top-down government operation is going to reap all kinds of savings, thus shifting the supply curve to the right.  Since this has pretty much never happened in the whole history of government operations, I discount the claim.  When pressed for specifics, the ideas typically boil down to price or demand controls.  Price controls we discussed.  Demand controls are of the sort like "you can't get a transplant if you are over 70" or "we won't approve cancer treatments that only promise a year more life."

Most of these do not affect the chart above, since it is for doctor services and most of these cost control ideas are usually doctor intensive - more doctor time to have fewer tests, operations, drugs.  But even if we expanded the viewpoint to be for all health care, it is yet to be demonstrated that the American public will even accept these restrictions.  The very first one out of the box, a proposal to have fewer mamographies for women under a certain age, was abandoned in a firestorm of opposition from women's groups.  In all likelihood, there will be some mish-mash of demand restrictions, determined less by science and by who (users and providers) have the best lobbying organizations.

My longer series of three Forbes articles on this and other economic issues with Obamacare begin here:  Part 1 Information, Part 2 Incentives, Part 3 Rent-Seeking

Update:  Pondering on this, it may be that professional licensing also makes the supply curve steeper.  It depends on how doctors think about sunk cost.

Comparative Advantage

Sometimes I have odd reactions to things.  For example, my immediate reaction to this comic book cover was, "comparative advantage fail."

I am sure that Superman would be a super-productive gardener, but there are likely much better tasks to assign him for which his comparative advantage is much greater.

Eeek! PBS Showed a Skeptic

Apparently PBS planned to air a few minutes with climate skeptic Anthony Watts, which they previewed in a blog post.  This caused a major freak out among its viewers, who are not used to being confronted with views that don't comfortably align with those of their peer group.  Apparently PBS viewers distrust their own judgement so much that they can't let themselves even view skeptical material, I suppose because it is like that alien on Star Trek that drove anyone who looked at it insane.

PBS is apologizing like crazy, and felt the need to link nine past shows and articles where it has totally conformed to the climate gospel, so there is absolutely no cause to question their ideological purity.

Bank Advice

This is a note for small businesses that deposit a lot of cash and small checks, perhaps from a retail operation.  We have found that the fees of the large banks are simply awful for retail deposit accounts.  Bank of America, Wells Fargo, US Bank, and Zions are all fairly large banks who have raised fees as high as $100+ a month just for a checking account into which we make a weekly deposit of cash and small checks. In particular, US Bank has taken over two of our small deposit banks recently, and raised our fee from $7 on one account to over $120 last month.

Even if your main banking relationship is with someone else, look for a small local bank or credit union for deposit accounts.  I have a number of such small banks around the country that charge us zero a month for our deposit account, and at worst up to $10.  Anything more, and you can probably do better.