Archive for March 2013

Problems at UPS

I continue to have shipments lost - badly lost - recently at UPS.  After 10 years of not a single foul-up, UPS has now lost or mis-routed five important shipments of mine in just 3 months.  In several of these cases, shipments that were supposed to be overnight did not get delivered for 4 or 5 days.  More worrisome, the packages seemed to sit (according to the tracking) in random locations until I called and forced something to happen -- there did not seem to be any sort of automatic intervention to save or reroute them.  In the most disturbing case, a woman in Arizona called our office to tell us that our Florida payroll had just been delivered by UPS to her house.

This is particularly worrisome because most of our shipments are date critical - payroll that has to be somewhere on a particular date or bids that must be delivered by a certain time or be voided.  Recently we have taken to paying extra and shipping everything one day faster than we need to give UPS room to screw up - ie overnight when we actually have two days to the due date.  But even so, UPS has fouled two shipments up so badly they were late even with an extra day to spare.

My statistics memory is rusty, but my guess is that my very few samples of a very large system don't necessarily indicate a process problem to any significance.  Still, we are worried.  The problem is I don't know who to switch to -- we left Fedex when they screwed up two of our first three shipments.

But A Minimum Wage Hike is A-OK?

I don't know how I got onto blogging all Steven Rattner, all the time, but here I go again.  Mr. Rattner is complaining that the sequester is costing his son a chance at a government internship for which he had wanted to apply.

So perhaps Mr. Rattner's son could go work in a productive field instead?  Oops, probably not, because rising minimum wages and Obama Administration crack-downs on unpaid private internships have made it harder for all the rest of us to get our little preciouses an internship.  I will bet any amount of money that the number of internships killed by minimum wage laws is at least two orders of magnitude larger than the number of internships killed by the sequester.

And besides, we should be thrilled that  one less young person is having their formative organizational experiences (from conflict resolution to productivity expectations) in government.

Oh, and by the way, that bit about the Obama Administration cracking down on unpaid internships?  Well, that only applies to you private employers who are teaching useless skills like innovation and wealth creation.  Jobs that teach Congress's organizational and productivity secrets don't have to be paid because of all the valuable lessons taught.

An Insane Theory of Product Liability

Via the WSJ today:

Can a drug company be held liable for damages caused by generic drugs it didn't produce? That's the expansive new theory of "innovator liability" on parade in Alabama, where a recent ruling by the state Supreme Court could do damage throughout the U.S. economy.

In Wyeth Inc. et al., v. Danny Weeks et al., Mr. Weeks says he suffered from side effects from taking the generic version of an acid-reflux drug called Reglan. He sued Wyeth for fraud and misrepresentation, though the company didn't make the drug he took and had exited the Reglan market in 2002, five years before he took it. The court ruled 8-1 that Wyeth could be held liable for injuries because the generic manufacturer couldn't change the warnings on the product it copied.

First, this is nuts -- being held liable for problems with a product you did not make, simply because you invented it years before.   Are we going to start suing the estate of Thomas Edison every time someone buys a bad lightbulb?

But second, note how helpless Wyeth is now.  Drug makers are used to insane law suits that drain all the profit from helping millions of people to pay off a few folks who had adverse side effects (this same process literally destroyed the vaccination business until the government gave them special liability protection).

But let's accept the court victory - perhaps the drug really has a problem that has been discovered.  If the maker was being sued, he could just pull the drug from the market (as has happened any number of times after adverse suits) either forever or until the FDA will approve new warning language.

But in this case, Wyeth can't do this.  The generic drug makers will keep on selling the product - after all, they are not getting sued, and Wyeth will keep paying.  Wyeth does not even have standing to try to get the FDA to change the warnings on the drug.  If Wyeth tries to buy out the generic maker and shut it down, and new seller will simply takes its place.    If this case stands, Wyeth can be steadily bled to death and there is nothing they can do to stop it.

Finally, I don't want to get away without a mention of just how broken the FDA drug regulation regime is.  The original Supreme Court decision that led to the generic maker being immune to suits really turned on the impossibility of getting the FDA to change even one word on a drug's warning label.

Cardinals Make A Mess of Choosing Their New Leader

No, not the Pope.  The AZ Cardinals QB.   Anyone with some high school experience might want to send in a resume.

:( Google Reader to End

Perhaps I am the last one to get the word on this, but I have happily depended on Google Reader for years for my blog and news reading.   Recommendations for an alternative would be greatly appreciated, but I am not optimistic anything will be a good replacement, particularly since I frequently use the simply link in Reader to Gmail to send stories to friends and family.

I blame Twitter.

Update:  As an aside, Google's behavior here seems to be exactly the opposite of the fears people usually have vis a vis monopolies.  Google gained a dominant market share by leveraging off other strong products and under-cutting prices (ie free).  I would be thrilled if they did what monopoly-phobes fear, which is raise prices.   I would happily pay, say, $10 a month to keep the service.  But in fact, Google, having subsidized its way to market leadership, is simply liquidating.

 Update #2:  Lots of alternatives out there.  In the end, this may be a positive since Google Reader had not really innovated much of late.

Update on Steve Rattner, Friend of Investors (as long as they are rich or voted for Obama)

Last week, I noted a piece by Steve Rattner who was horrified that individual investors, empowered by companies like Kickstarter, might one day be able to invest in startups without paying a fee to Goldman Sachs.

I noted that Mr. Rattner's concern for investors seemed to be coming rather late, given that "he was the primary architect of the extra-legal screwing of GM and Chrysler secured creditors in favor of the UAW and other Obama supporters."

A Detroit News piece by my Princeton classmate Henry Payne has more:

The administration has treated obstacles to its agenda with ruthless tactics. In April 2009, that agenda was to hand an outsized, 55 percent majority interest of embattled Chrysler to the United Auto Workers in a government-orchestrated bankruptcy. But by law secured creditors are first in line in bankruptcy, and bondholders — representing their working-class pension clients — refused to accept Obama's unfair deal for a measly 29 cents on their investment dollar.

Send in the muscle.

"One of my clients was directly threatened by the White House and in essence compelled to withdraw its opposition to the deal under threat that the full force of the White House press corps would destroy its reputation if it continued to fight," said Tom Lauria, lawyer for Perella Weinberg investment firm, on Frank Beckmann's Detroit radio program. Lauria later said the brass knuckles belonged to White House Auto Task Force leader Steve Rattner. Lauria's account was disturbing, too, in revealing the confidence that the White House has in its press allies to aid Obama's agenda. Sure enough, Washington reporters quickly attacked the messenger. "(Lauria's) charge is completely untrue," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told ABC News' Jake Tapper, "and there's obviously no evidence to suggest that this happened in any way." Actually, there was plenty of evidence. Jim Carney of Business Insider corroborated Lauria's account, reporting that "sources familiar with the matter say that other firms felt they were threatened as well." The White House escalated the threats when Obama himself singled out creditors for obstruction, accusing them of being "speculators" preying on an American auto icon — bullying words from a man with the IRS and SEC at his disposal.

"The sources, who represent creditors to Chrysler, say they were taken aback by the hardball tactics that the Obama administration employed to cajole them into acquiescing to plans to restructure Chrysler," continued the Insider. "One person described the administration as the most shocking 'end justifies the means' group they have ever encountered."...

"The president's attempted diktat takes money from bondholders and gives it to a labor union that delivers money and votes for him," wrote Cliff Asness, a managing partner at AQR Capital Management. "Shaking down lenders for the benefit of political donors is recycled corruption and abuse of power."

Another California Coastal Commission Horror Story

This is a guest post from Gregg Stevens.  His story resonates with me in particular because he is in the same business as I am, running campgrounds.  The story begins with the proverbial tree falling in the forest.  

I used to think there wasn’t much a hole in the ground could do. The hole could get bigger, or it could get smaller. And that’s about it. But I’ve recently learned that a hole in the ground can not only suck an enormous amount of money, time and energy from a fellow, it can drive him to the edge of madness as well.

I run a small campground on a river in northern California, and one winter day a big old fir tree blew over into the water. It’s fairly common for trees to fall here on the heavily wooded, storm-battered Mendocino Coast. But this particular tree was a bit different than most. For it fell under the benevolent gaze of the California Coastal Commission.

Continue reading ‘Another California Coastal Commission Horror Story’ »

SimCity 5 Now Has 1402 1-Star Reviews on Amazon

As of tonight, the new SimCitygame is still unplayable due to overloaded servers and numerous bugs even when one is on the server.  Today, the manufacturer purposely defeatured the product in a patch to try to get it to work.  As I predicted the other day, this product was not ready for market.

Update:  Via Game Skinny, this may be an example of some of the worst customer service I have ever seen.  The makers of SimCity in a press release tells users they may request a refund.  When a customer requests the refund, he is told that he can request it, so the press release is not lying, but they are not going to process it.  Unbelievable.  Extra credit for the fact that those who bought from Amazon can get a prompt and immediate refund, but those who bought directly from the manufacturer, like me, are stuck.

Further, it is becoming increasingly clear that the multiplayer capabilities that supposedly require the server login are a sham - a very very thin shell of functionality that adds almost nothing to the game but provides the excuse for always-online DRM.

 

Sequester Horror Story

Courtesy of a reader, what happens when the sequester cuts maintenance funding for critical infrastructure?

This is an older video that someone has re-purposed, I think, to make fun of progressives but it is funny none-the-less.  It reminds me of the movie Live Free or Die Hard, when the villain sent all of America into a panic because the government might not be immediately available to help with every little thing.

Soviet Spy Harry Dexter White

I thought this was an interesting article on Harry Dexter White, an important American architect of the post-war monetary system who spied for the Soviets for over a decade.  The one disconnect I had was this:

Over the course of 11 years, beginning in the mid-1930s, White acted as a Soviet mole, giving the Soviets secret information and advice on how to negotiate with the Roosevelt administration and advocating for them during internal policy debates. White was arguably more important to Soviet intelligence than Alger Hiss, the U.S. State Department official who was the most famous spy of the early Cold War.

The truth about White's actions has been clear for at least 15 years now, yet historians remain deeply divided over his intentions and his legacy, puzzled by the chasm between White's public views on political economy, which were mainstream progressive and Keynesian, and his clandestine behavior on behalf of the Soviets. Until recently, the White case has resembled a murder mystery with witnesses and a weapon but no clear motive.

Only in academia could folks see a "chasm" between admiration for the Soviets and an American progressive who grew up a supporter of Robert La Follette and later of the New Deal.  The problem, I think, is that White seems to have shared the gauzy positive view of Soviet economic progress and success that was also rooted deeply in American academia (not to mention the NY Times).  I don't know what the academic situation is like today, but as recently as 1983, for example, I had a professor at Princeton who went nuts at the mere mention of Hannah Arendt's name, apparently for the crime of lumping Stalin's communism in with Hitler's fascism as two sides of the same totalitarian coin.

Massive SimCity 5 Fail

First, I have always enjoyed the SimCity games.  Sure, I know that these games take a planning and technocratic control approach that I find distasteful in real life, but I enjoy playing first-person shooters as well despite being a pacifist.

So I have been extremely disappointed in their implementation of their new version.  In this sort of mad rush to be like all the other games out there, SimCity built in a multi-player mode where you play online interacting with neighboring cities run by other players.   This is all fine as far as it goes, thought the appeal escapes me so far.

But the true fail is that they require players to log in and play online on their servers, even when playing solo.  What was an irritant yesterday became an enormous mess today, as every North American server for the game is full.  Run the game, and you immediately get hit with a pop-up window with a counter forcing you to wait in what is at least a 20-minute queue before you can play.  There is no offline mode - even if your intent is to play solo, you have to wait for a spot to open up on their multi-player servers.

At this point I would seriously recommend that you wait before buying this game.  Combined with other irritants (the game is not available on Steam, you have to use Origins far inferior proprietary clone), and the game's high price, I am sorry I pre-ordered and did not wait for reviews to come in.  It may eventually be a good game, but I am not going to pay $70 to stare at a 20-minute count down clock every time I want to play.

Update:  Most online games allow players to pre-load the game several days prior to when the servers are turned on.  This smooths out the load on the download servers.  Apparently Origin did not do this, and the servers for downloads crashed yesterday (these are different from the play servers which are full today).  Apparently Origin was still "polishing" the code right up to the hour of launch, which is code for, "this is likely still a bug-filled mess."

Let Them Eat Trinkets

Steven Rattner, investment banker and former member of the Obama Administration,  is terrified that under a proposed law companies will be able to raise money without investment bankers.

Most troublesome is the legalization of “crowd funding,” the ability of start-up companies to raise capital from small investors on the Internet. While such lightly regulated capital raising has existed for years, until now, “investors” could receive only trinkets and other items of small value, similar to the way public television raises funds. As soon as regulations required to implement the new rules are completed, people who invest money in start-ups through sites similar to Kickstarter will be able to receive a financial interest in the soliciting company, much like buying shares on the stock exchange. But the enterprises soliciting these funds will hardly be big corporations like Wal-Mart or Exxon; they will be small start-ups with no track records.

This is absolutely, classically representative of the technocratic arrogance of the Obama Administration and the investment bankers that inhabit it.  I have three quick thoughts:

  1. Rattner's concern for individual investors comes rather late.  After all, he was the primary architect of the extra-legal screwing of GM and Chrysler secured creditors in favor of the UAW and other Obama supporters.
  2. God forbid investors get actual, you know, ownership in a company for their capital rather than just trinkets.  This is so bizarrely patronizing that I had to read it twice just to make sure I wasn't missing something.  But no, he is explicitly preferring that you and I get trinkets rather than ownership  (ownership, apparently, to be reserved for millionaire insiders like himself).
  3. We have truly entered the corporate state when leftish opinion makers argue that large corporations like Exxon and Wal-Mart get preferential access to capital and that smaller startups that might compete with them be shut out of the market.

I predict that over that Internet entrepreneurs running such crowd-sourcing sites would develop reputation management and review tools for investors (similar to those at Amazon and eBay).  Over time, it may be that these become far more trustworthy than current credit agency reports or investment bank recommendations.  After all, which do you trust more -- a 5-star Amazon review with 35 responses or a Goldman Sachs "buy" recommendation on an IPO like Facebook or Groupon?  Besides, it would take a very long time, like eternity, for fraud losses in a crowd-sourcing site to equal 1/100 of the investor losses to heavily regulated Bernie Madoff.

Modest Proposal on Same Sex Marriage

I have never understood the argument that allowing same sex marriage would weaken marriage.  I couldn't possibly fathom why allowing two men to marry made my marriage worse.  This same argument was made by John Stossel arguing with Ann Coulter on his show.   Coulter said it was not an issue about one's own marriage getting worse, but about a general loss of respect and strength for the institution as a whole.

I am still not buying it.  But I want to help.  If we really want to improve the general respect for the institution of marriage, here is my modest proposal:  Allow gay marriage and ban Kardashian marriage.

You're welcome.

Precautionary Principle in One Chart

The ultimate argument I get to my climate talk, when all other opposition fails, is that the precautionary principle should rule for CO2.  By their interpretation, this means that we should do everything possible to abate CO2 even if the risk of catastrophe is minor since the magnitude of the potential catastrophe is so great.

The problem is that this presupposes there are no harms, or opportunity costs, on the other end of the scale.  In fact, while CO2 may have only a small chance of catastrophe, Bill McKibben's desire to reduce fossil fuel use by 95% has a near certain probability of gutting the world economy and locking billions into poverty.  Here is one illustration I just crafted for my new presentation.  As usual, click to enlarge:

 

A large number of people seem to assume that our use of fossil fuels is an arbitrary choice among essentially comparable options (or worse, a sinister choice forced on us by the evil oil cabal).  In fact, fossil fuels have a number of traits that make them uniquely irreplaceable, at least with current technologies.  For example, gasoline has an absolutely enormous energy content per pound of fuel.  Most vehicles - space shuttles, and more recently electric cars - must dedicate an enormous percentage of their power production just to moving the weight of their fuel.  Not so in gasoline engine cars, something those who are working with electric cars must face every day.

By the way, if you want to see the kick-off of version 3.0 of my climate presentation, it will be at my son's school, Amherst College, this Thursday at 7PM.  More here.

Update: By the way,  I was careful in the chart to say the two " are correlated".  I actually do not think one causes the other.  In this case, I think there are a third, and fourth, and fifth (etc.)  factors that cause both.  For example, economic development leads to (and depends on) increased fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions, and it leads to longer lives.

When I use this slide, my point is to get folks thinking about Bill McKibben's plea to reduce fossil fuel use by 95%.  I was looking for one slide to say, hey, maybe if CO2 emissions go away, some other stuff goes away with it.  Like technology, hospitals, agriculture, development ... and long lives.   McKibben paints this picture of virtually costless energy transformation, which is naive to the point of being malpractice committed against the poor of developing nations.

Prices in Healthcare

Had an interesting discussion with my favorite New England liberal this weekend about the Time Magazine article on Hospital pricing and charges.  We both found the articles to be excellent.  But drew completely different conclusions.  She saw this all as a failure of capitalism, a sign of the inherent corruption that occurs that demands more goverment intervention.  I saw it as a totally screwed up market, from the dominance of third party payers to government-enforced monopolies (e.g. certificates of need), that killed any incentive of consumers to shop. The entire pricing mechanism is broken, and simply replacing it with a set of fiat prices from the government is not going to make things better.

Megan McArdle has a good interview with Bart Wilson on this very topic.  Here is a small excerpt:

Megan: Okay, so let me ask the obvious question: if a whole lot of health care wonks think that government-rate setting would fix health care costs, why should I be skeptical?

Wilson: Who knows the conditions of who values what and the opportunity costs of supplying health care? What set of minds in the government has the knowledge needed to make tradeoffs, to know who is best to supply this service or that one?

The values and costs of healthcare have to be discovered.

Megan: The wonks who favor rate-setting argue that health care simply isn't like any other market. For one thing, there's an information problem: how do I know if I want a heart bypass or not?

Why not let an expert who has read all the studies on heart bypasses make that decision?

Wilson: Right now, the doctor recommends to the patient what the insurance company will pay for. What incentive does the patient have to find alternatives? (None.)

There is the assumption that an expert knows all the alternatives. Doctors are not interchangeable. They know different things.

The function of a market is let us learn who will serve us sufficiently well.

Megan: So let's step back even farther, to 30,000 feet or so, for a second. What does the price do in a market? Why should I want to put a price on my lung transplant?

Wilson: A price is like a symbol at any moment of what millions of people are willing and able to do. All of the technology and services of the doctors have to be weighed against whatever else they could be applied to.

The prices of alternatives to lung transplants are doing the same thing. The difficulty is assuming that a lung transplant is "inelastic". What a price system does is find what part of say, healthcare, is on the margin.

“Inelastic” means that I’m relatively indifferent to the price. The last glass of water in a desert is the quintessential inelastic good; people will pay all they have to get it. Things can be more or less inelastic, which is to say, that demand can be more or less responsive to changes in price. Health care is often thought to be very inelastic.

Megan: But this is precisely the argument that health care wonks make: when I need a lung transplant, I don't have the time, or the emotional ability, to comparison shop. So there's no price discovery mechanism.

Wilson: Does the government know or have the ability to comparison shop for me? Do they know my circumstances?

Also, for some healthcare services, you do have the ability to comparison shop. Those services will then discipline the healthcare market in general.

Uh Oh.

For One Brief Moment, I Thought Reason Might Enter the Discourse on Budgets

Kevin Drum quoted this from James Fallows in a post labelled "threat inflation"

As I think about it this war and others the U.S. has contemplated or entered during my conscious life, I realize how strong is the recurrent pattern of threat inflation. Exactly once in the post-WW II era has the real threat been more ominous than officially portrayed

I thought, "wow, someone from the Coke or the Pepsi party is finally going to call BS on all the apocalyptic forecasts from both parties over the sequester."  But alas, he was just discussing foreign policy.  That is not to say I don't agree with the basic point, that foreign policy prescriptions are often accompanied by exaggerated horror stories of imminent threats -- I just wish they would recognize the same dynamic on the domestic front, whenever the smallest cut in government spending growth rates suddenly mean we are are going to put grandma out on an ice flow to freeze.

Good News of the Day

Via Mark Perry

I reached drinking age (mercifully 18 in those days) in 1980 and I can tell you from experience that the early 80's were a beer wasteland.  Spent a lot of time learning foreign beers at a great little pub I discovered entirely by accident called the Gingerman in Houston (near Rice University).  The beer landscape in the US today is awesome by comparison.

Got Skills

The Sequester in One Chart

sequester-cut-debt

 

source (and don't miss the Maxine Waters classic about 150 million jobs at stake, at the link).

Via Maggies Farm

ohnoes

On Purchasing in Bulk

My son ordered a book from my Amazon account (the Way of Baseball by Shawn Green) and accidentally had it sent to my house rather than to his dorm.  Looking at my shipping costs on UPS to get it up to him, it was cheaper to buy a new copy for him and have Amazon ship it for free with my Prime membership than it was for me to ship the other copy to him.  I would love to see what Amazon pays UPS.  This is a $24 list price hardback book that Amazon sells for $9.60 and then packages and ships for free.