Archive for May 2013

Our Great Political Sport: Scoring Points Off Tragedy

If one needs any skill as a politician, it is the ability -- with a straight face -- to, with no evidence whatsoever or even against countervailing evidence, blame any tragedy that occurs on your own personal bete noir.  Thus the Gabriel Giffords shooting was due to un-civil discourse by Conservatives, Benghazi was due to a YouTube video, the Boston Bombings were a results of too lenient immigration policy, the Newtown killings were due to the excess influence of the NRA, and the Gosnell murders were due to the legality of abortion.

In this same vein I received this email from California State Senator Fran Pavley

The recent Ventura County wildfires were just the latest example of the huge costs of climate change to California, serving as a reminder of the need for continued action, Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) said Thursday. Presiding over a hearing of the Select Committee on Climate Change and AB 32 Implementation, Sen. Pavley noted that the unseasonably early wildfire in Ventura County two weeks ago generated $10 million in firefighting costs. The dangers of climate change are no longer an abstraction, Sen. Pavley said.

“We can’t afford extreme climate, and so California doing its fair share to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is incredibly important,” Sen. Pavley said.

Wildfires are one of many costs of climate change, environmental officials and experts said at the hearing. California also faces flooding, heat waves and threats to its drinking water system.

Even before atmospheric levels of CO2 rose, the US had thousands, even tens of thousands of wildfires a year.  So against a backdrop which would expect many fires in California even absent climate change (natural or man-made), it would be heroic to attribute one single fire to the effect of mankind's  CO2 production.  But it is even more astounding given that wildfires in the US are actually down so far this year -- way down.  Here is the data source, and here are two charts the Real Science blog prepared from this data.

She Had Just the Resume They Were Looking For

Via ABC

The Internal Revenue Service official in charge of the tax-exempt organizations at the time when the unit targeted tea party groups now runs the IRS office responsible for the health care legislation.

Sarah Hall Ingram served as commissioner of the office responsible for tax-exempt organizations between 2009 and 2012. But Ingram has since left that part of the IRS and is now the director of the IRS’ Affordable Care Act office, the IRS confirmed to ABC News today.

What Obama most needed in the IRS ACA office was someone willing to ignore the clear language of the PPACA legislation and ram through IRS tax subsidies for insurance policies in the Federal (vs. state) exchanges -- subsidies that were purposefully and explicitly denied in the plain language of the law.

Obama Didn't Need to Order IRS Crackdown on the Tea Party

There won't be any direct order found telling the IRS to go hassle Conservative groups.  That's not the way it works.  Obama's style is to "other" groups he does not like, to impugn their motives, and to cast them as pariahs beyond the bounds of civil society.  Such and such group, he will say, opposes me not because they have reasonable differences of opinion but because they have nefarious motives.  Once a group is labelled and accepted (at least by your political followers) as such, you don't have to order people to harass them. They just do it, because they see it as the right thing to do to harass evil people.  When Joe Nocera writes this in support of Obama in no less a platform as the NY Times, orders are superfluous

You know what they say: Never negotiate with terrorists. It only encourages them.

These last few months, much of the country has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people. Their intransigent demands for deep spending cuts, coupled with their almost gleeful willingness to destroy one of America’s most invaluable assets, its full faith and credit, were incredibly irresponsible. But they didn’t care. Their goal, they believed, was worth blowing up the country for, if that’s what it took...

He concludes by saying

For now, the Tea Party Republicans can put aside their suicide vests. But rest assured: They’ll have them on again soon enough. After all, they’ve gotten so much encouragement.

There are probably some deeply confused people in the IRS right now -- after all they were denying tax exempt status to terrorists, to enemies of America.  They should be treated like heroes, and now they are getting all this criticism.  So unfair.

Postscript:  And they are racists.  Racist terrorists.

But Obama, in his most candid moments, acknowledged that race was still a problem. In May 2010, he told guests at a private White House dinner that race was probably a key component in the rising opposition to his presidency from conservatives, especially right-wing activists in the anti-incumbent "Tea Party" movement that was then surging across the country.

This is totally the Obama way of fighting a political battle.  He is saying, "forget their stated reasons for opposing me, such as opposition to the health care law, to Wall Street bailouts, and to rising government debt.  They really oppose me because they are racists and I am black."  Obama's opposition are absolutely never, ever people of good will who simply disagree.

PS#2:  It's pretty hilarious the NY Times published Nocera's "Tea Partiers are Terrorists" editorial just 6 months after they editorialized against incivility in the context of the Giffords shooting, which by the way had as much to do with civility in public discourse as the Benghazi attacks had to do with a YouTube video.  In fact, it sure seems like this administration has a history of falsely blaming tragedies on their political opposition's speech.

A Note on 501(c)4 Corporations

This whole notion that  501(c)4 groups are receiving some kind of huge implicit tax subsidy whose use needs to be policed is simply absurd.  I am a board member of several 501(c)6 trade associations, which have roughly the same taxation rules as 501(c)4.

The largest tax subsidy, by far, available to some non-profits is the deductibility of donations to the group.  This is available to 501(c)3 groups (traditional charitable organizations) but NOT to  501(c)4 or  501(c)6 groups.  Whether the Tea Party of Cincinnati is a  501(c)4 or not, you cannot deduct your donations to them.

The one tax break that  501(c)4 corporations get is that they do not pay taxes on any surplus they accumulate in a year.  In general, non profit groups like this collect donations and spend them.  So in general, their outlays match their revenues, such that they tend to show very little income anyway, even if it were taxable.  The only thing the non-profit status brings to  501(c)4 organizations is that they don't have to spend a lot of time and effort trying to make sure, at the end of the fiscal year, that expenditures and revenues exactly match.  Basically, the one benefit granted is that these groups can collect money in November for expenditure in January without paying taxes on this money.  This is hardly much of a subsidy, just a common sense provision.  (By the way, at least in a  501(c)6, there is no break from the paperwork.  We will have to pay an accountant to file a tax return for the Feds and the state of California.

This actually comes up from time to time in my industry.  A couple of my competitors are actually non-profits.  My for profit competitors always complain that these non-profits have an advantage, arguing that they are really for-profit, but just paying their "owners" large salaries rather than dividends.  My general answer is, so what?  My company is a subchapter S corporation, and it does not pay taxes either -- I pay taxes on the profits as regular income in my personal tax return, exactly as if I had paid out all the profits as salary.  Sure, it would be nice to accumulate profits in the company tax free, but seeing the shoe-string way my non-profits competitors run, I don't think that is what they are doing.  It used to be that as non-profits, they considered themselves immune to certain laws, like the Fair Labor Standards Act and minimum wage, but the courts have disabused them of that notion.  So it is hard to see what advantage they enjoy, but folks love to complain none-the-less.

The only real business advantage I have ever found these non-profits have is in perception among leftish politicians -- they are considered "clean" while as a for-profit company I am considered "dirty".  Which is why in California, early laws allowing outside companies to operate public parks allowed non-profits but not for-profits, and almost every state who goes this route tries non-profits first for the same reason.  This no longer bothers me -- anyone who had ever been part of a non-profit can probably guess the reason.  They really are not set up to operate a 24/7/265 service business, and within a year typically fall short, and I, with a bit of patience, then get my chance.

Spam Masquerading as Official, Important Mail: Paramount Merchant Funding

It's been a while since I have received a fake "check" whose cashing obligates me to a four year contract, or a deceptive yellow pages solicitation, or even my favorite, the board minutes services that masquerade as an official government form.  So I will highlight Paramount Merchant Funding for this over the top message on the front of their envelope they sent me, again in an apparent bid to masquerade as some sort of official mail that must be opened.

The scam here is clever -- I don't have time to bother looking it up, but my guess is that this message is literally true - for all mail sent through the USPS.  But it is obviously meant to virtually force someone to open it thinking it is official, which I was dumb enough to do.

They seem to have a perfect 1-star review record over at Yelp, a fact I could have called in advance sight unseen.  They have more BBB complaints in the last year (5) than my company has in our whole history (0).

Congrats to Amherst Baseball

My son's team the Lord Jeffs (simultaneously the worst and most awesome team name in college sports) made the NCAA baseball playoffs this year.  Don't have a team to root for?  Why not choose the one named after an early advocate of biological warfare against Native Americans?

Spying on the Press

Well, the silver lining of this story is that the press, who until now have generally yawned at libertarian concerns about warrantless searches and national security letters, particularly since that power has been held by a Democrat rather than a Republican, will now likely go nuts.

You have probably seen it by now, but here is the basic story

The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news.

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP.

In all, the government seized those records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown but more than 100 journalists work in the offices whose phone records were targeted on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.

The AP believes this is an investigation into sources of a story on May 7, 2012 about a foiled terror attack.  This bit was interesting to me for two reasons:

The May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of the CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot occurred around the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.

The plot was significant because the White House had told the public it had "no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the (May 2) anniversary of bin Laden's death."

The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once government officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot because officials said it no longer endangered national security. The Obama administration, however, continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.

First, it seems to fit in with the White House cover-up over Benghazi, in the sense that it is another example of the Administration trying to downplay, in fact hide, acts of organized terrorism.  I have criticized the Administration for throwing free speech under the bus in its Benghazi response, but I must say their reasons for doing so were never that clear to me.  This story seems to create a pattern of almost irrational White House sensitivity to any admission of terrorist threats to the US.

Second, note from the last sentence that the White House is bending over backwards to investigate the AP basically for stealing its thunder before a press conference.  Wow.  Well if that were suddenly illegal, just about everyone in DC would be in jail.

Update:  Some thoughts from Glenn Greenwald

how media reactions to civil liberties assaults are shaped almost entirely by who the victims are. For years, the Obama administration has been engaged in pervasive spying on American Muslim communities and dissident groups. It demanded a reform-free renewal of the Patriot Act and the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008, both of which codify immense powers of warrantless eavesdropping, including ones that can be used against journalists. It has prosecuted double the number of whistleblowers under espionage statutes as all previous administrations combined, threatened to criminalize WikiLeaks, and abused Bradley Manning to the point that a formal UN investigation denounced his treatment as "cruel and inhuman".

But, with a few noble exceptions, most major media outlets said little about any of this, except in those cases when they supported it. It took a direct and blatant attack on them for them to really get worked up, denounce these assaults, and acknowledge this administration's true character. That is redolent of how the general public reacted with rage over privacy invasions only when new TSA airport searches targeted not just Muslims but themselves: what they perceive as "regular Americans". Or how former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman -- once the most vocal defender of Bush's vast warrantless eavesdropping programs -- suddenly began sounding like a shrill and outraged privacy advocate once it was revealed that her own conversations with Aipac representatives were recorded by the government.

Hopefully, The Phoenix Police Won't Find You Odd

Raymond Rodden was arrested and dragged to the police station for interrogation for a) taking pictures of the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Court Building (not a crime) and b) walking down an alley (also not a crime).  The police followed him for an hour on foot (how creepy would that be), tore his car apart, have impounded and will not return his phone and computer, and contacted the man's boss to make sure Rodden would get fired from his job.  Eventually they released him, because he had done nothing illegal.  They kept repeating this to him in the interrogation:

“I told them I was not doing anything illegal by taking photos and they kept saying, ‘we’re not disputing that it’s illegal, we just find it odd,’” he said.

Sorry, but people cannot be arrested, detained, and have their property searched and seized for being odd.

This seems to be a typical police state reaction after a terrorist incident or public crime.  If we had just hassled that guy earlier for being odd, this may never have happened.  The problem is that for every one person who does odd things in the runup to a horrendous crime, another hundred thousand people do odd things because either they are odd or because we simply do not understand their motives.

Progressives Suddenly Support Health Insurance Marketing

For years Progressives, led by President Obama during the legislative process for the PPACA, have attacked health insurance companies for their profits and overhead.  I never understood the former -- at generally 5% of revenues or less, even wiping health insurance profits out altogether would offset less than a year's worth of health care inflation.  The Progressive hatred for health insurance overhead was actually built into the PPACA, with limits on non-care expenses as a percent of premiums.

Progressive's justification for this was to compare health insurer's overhead against Medicare, which appears to have lower overhead as a percentage of revenues.  This is problematic, because lots of things that private insurers have to pay for actually still are paid for by the Federal government, but just don't hit Medicare's books due to funky government accounting.  Other private costs, particularly claims management, are areas that likely have a real return in fraud reduction.  In this case, Medicare's decision not to invest in claims management overhead shows up as costs elsewhere, specifically in fraudulent billings.

None of these areas of costs make for particularly fertile ground for demagoguing, so the Progressive argument against health insurance overhead usually boils down to marketing.  This argument makes a nice fit with progressive orthodoxy, which has always hated advertising as manipulative.  But health insurance marketing expenses mainly consist of

  1. Funding commissions to brokers, who actually sell the product, and
  2. Funding people to go to company open enrollments and explain health care options to participants

Suddenly, now that Progressives have taken over health care via the PPACA and federal exchanges, their tune has changed.  They seem to have a near infinite appetite for marketing money to support construction of the exchanges (which serve the role of the broker, though less well because there is no support)  and information about options to potential participants.  That these are exactly the kinds of expenses they have railed against for years in the private world seems to elicit no irony.  Via Cato

Now we learn, from the Washington Post’s Sara Kliff, “Sebelius has, over the past three months, made multiple phone calls to health industry executives, community organizations and church groups and directly asked that they contribute to non-profits that are working to enroll uninsured Americans and increase awareness of the law.”

This follows on from revelations in California (revelations that occurred before a new California law that makes PPACA costs double-secret).

[California] will also spend $250 million on a two-year marketing campaign [for its health insurance exchange]. By comparison California Senator Barbara Boxer spent $28 million on her 2010 statewide reelection campaign while her challenger spent another $22 million.

The most recent installment of the $910 million in federal money was a $674 million grant. The exchange's executive director noted that was less than the $706 million he had asked for. "The feds reduced the 2014 potential payment for outreach and enrollment by about $30 million," he said. "But we think we have enough resources on hand to do the biggest outreach that I have ever seen." ...

The California Exchange officials also say they need 20,000 part time enrollers to get everybody signed up––paying them $58 for each application. Having that many people out in the market creates quality control issues particularly when these people will be handling personal information like address, birth date, and social security number. California Blue Shield, by comparison has 5,000 employees serving 3.5 million members.

New York is off to a similar start. New York has received two grants totaling $340 million again just to set up an enrollment and eligibility process.

These are EXACTLY the same sorts of marketing costs progressives have railed on for years in the private world.

Progress on an Amp

I was looking for a 4-channel amp to drive a pair of bipole speakers.  For fun, I decided to try to build one.  I bought a broken amp off eBay just for the case for about $30.  In retrospect, I probably should have bought an inexpensive blank case they sell to hobbyists.  At the time, I was intimidated by drilling and tapping a lot of holes in a metal case.  Since then, I have found this to be easy, easier in fact that ripping all the guts out of the old amp.

Anyway, I finished the power supply.  The big fat over-sized torroid delivers 35 volts AC to the diode bridges and the smoothing capacitors on the back end, which in turn delivers about 48.5 volts DC for my amp (this measured dead-on the expected 35*sqrt(2)-1 one would expect).  I tried to save some of the old amp's 110V circuitry (such as some filter capacitors).  It had a relay with some sort of delay circuit in parallel with a big resistor as a soft-start mechanism, to prevent a big inrush current.  I could never make it work right, so I replaced it with the poor man's alternative, which is a couple of thermistors that have high resistance cold but quickly heat up and lose their resistance when the power is on.

The capacitors and RC network are in an absolutely beautiful empty board I bought from someone on eBay who etched boards for First Watt kits (an amp series that the designer has generally put into the public domain).  I cribbed the power supply off the design for an F5 amp, though I had to adjust wattage and voltage values to match the voltage I needed.  I spent a week dithering on what capacitors to use -- audiophiles go on an on about capacitors.   Finally, though I am sure all these folks will swear to God they can hear the difference between two brands of capacitor in the power supply, I finally decided I probably would not notice and bought some well-regarded but reasonably priced ones (similar to my approach on that other audio equivalent of wine-snobbery, speaker cables).

What you don't see are two big aluminum heat sinks, which will fill much of the space on either side of the power supply.  The diode bridges and amps will be connected to these.  I have circuits both for a Class A amp, which will need every inch of the cooling, and a class D amp, for which the heat sinks will be an unnecessary overkill.  But they came with the box and I have the space.

Cable Unbundling Will Reduce Niche Channel Choices

I wish I could remember where I read this to give proper credit, but it is funny that the folks who are absolutely bending over backwards to bundle health care want to unbundle cable TV.  Think about it -- the person who just wants MSNBC but has to buy the whole cable package to get it is getting hosed far less badly than the young person next year who needs no medical care but will have to buy a pre-paid medical plan designed for a 65-year-old.

But I believe that cable unbundling will achieve the opposite effect from what most people expect.  And the key to my analysis rests, as do all important economic issues, on the difference between average and at the margin.  This is a repost from 2007

[A la Carte cable pricing] will reduce the number of interesting niche choices on cable.

For some reason, it is terribly hard to convince people of this.  In fact, supporters of this regulation argue just the opposite.  They argue that this is a better plan for folks who only are passionate about, say, the kite-flying channel, because they only have to pay for the channel they want rather than all of basic cable to get this one station.   This is a fine theory, but it only works if the kite-flying channel still exists in the new regulatory regime.  Let me explain.

Clearly the kite-flying channel serves a niche market.  Not that many people are going to be interested enough in kite flying alone to pay $5 a month for it.  But despite this niche status, it may well make sense for the cable companies to add it to their basic package.  Remember that the basic package already attracts the heart of the market.  Between CNN and ESPN and the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, etc., the majority of the market already sees enough value in the package to sign on.

Let's say the cable company wants to add a channel to their basic package, and they have two choices.  They have a sports channel they could add (let's say there are already 5 other sports channels in the package) or they can add the Kite-flying channel.  Far more people are likely to watch the sports channel than the kite flying channel.  But in the current pricing regime, this is not necessarily what matters to the cable company.  Their concern is to get more people to sign up for the cable TV.  And it may be that everyone who could possibly be attracted to sports is already a subscriber, and a sixth sports channel would not attract any new subscribers.  It is entirely possible that a niche channel like the kite-flying channel will actually bring more incremental subscribers to the basic package than another sports channel, and thus be a more attractive addition to the basic package for the cable company.

But now let's look at the situation if a la carte pricing was required.  In this situation, individual channels don't support the package, but must stand on their own and earn revenue.  The cable company's decision-making on adding an extra channel is going to be very different in this world.  In this scenario, they are going to compare the new sports channel with the Kite-flying channel based on how many people will sign up and pay for that standalone channel.  And in this case, a sixth (and probably seventh and eighth and ninth) sports channel is going to look better to them than the Kite-flying channel.   Niche channels that were added to bring greater reach to their basic cable package are going to be dropped in favor of more of what appeals to the majority.

I think about this all the time when I scan the dial on Sirius radio, which sells its services as one package rather than a la carte.  There are several stations that I always wonder, "does anyone listen to that?"  But Sirius doesn't need another channel for the majority out at #300 -- they need channels that will bring new niche audiences to the package.  So an Egyptian reggae channel may be more valuable as the 301st offering than a 20th sports channel.  This is what we may very likely be giving up if we continue down this road of regulating away cable package pricing.  Yeah, in a la carte pricing people who want just the kite-flying channel will pay less for it, but will it still be available?

Note the key to this analysis is the limited channel capacity of cable or satellite.  This is not a pure free market, where there is always room for another niche offering to try their hand with consumers.   Cable channels are more like products competing for limited floor space at Costco - to make the cut in an a la carte world, a channel has to do a lot of business.

Six Years Later, My Question is Answered

You would have to be a Coyote Blog old-timer to remember back in January of 2007 when I asked

Is there any state where a college men's football or basketball coach is not the highest paid state official?

Robert Fischer-Baum, via Ilya Somin, has the answer.  In forty states, the highest paid state employee is a university football or basketball coach.  In all fifty states, the highest paid public employee works for a state university.   Which brings us back to my post earlier today.   Government student loans are to university payrolls as quantitative easing is to stock prices.

Well, At Least TMZ Will Be OK

Via Walter Olson

Can websites be forced to change to accommodate the disabled — by using “simpler language” to appeal to the “intellectually disabled or by making them accessible to the blind and deaf at considerable expense?

Apparently, the White House is gearing up to force costly changes on websites in the name of ADA compliance.   The implications could be staggering, and in certain scenarios would basically force me to certainly close down this site, and likely close down many of my business sites.

Generally, the First Amendment gives you the right to choose who to talk to and how, without government interference. There is no obligation to make your message accessible to the whole world, and the government can’t force you to make your speech accessible to everyone, much less appealing to them. The government couldn’t require you to give speeches in English rather than Spanish …

But now, the Obama administration appears to be planning to use the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to force many web sites to either accommodate the disabled, or shut down.

The Plan For Universities to Raise Tuition to Infinity

Via the WSJ, President Obama is proposing debt forgiveness for student borrowers

The White House proposes that the government forgive billions of dollars in student debt over the next decade, a plan that cheers student advocates, but critics say it would expand a program that already encourages students to borrow too much and stick taxpayers with the bill.

The proposal, included in President Barack Obama's budget for next year, would increase the number of borrowers eligible for a program known casually as income-based repayment, which aims to help low-income workers stay current on federal student debt.

Borrowers in the program make monthly payments equivalent to 10% of their income after taxes and basic living expenses, regardless of how much they owe. After 20 years of on-time payments—10 years for those who work in public or nonprofit jobs—the balance is forgiven.

Already, it's pretty clear that many students pay little attention to size of the debt they run up.  Easy loans for students have essentially made them less price sensitive, however irrational this may seem (did you make good short - long term trade-offs at the age of 18?)  As a result, tuition has soared, much like home prices did as a result of easy mortgage credit a decade ago.  The irony is that easier student debt is not increasing access to college for the average kid (since tuition is essentially staying abreast of increases in debt availability), but is shifting student's future dollars to university endowments and bloated administrations.  Take any industry that has in the past been accused of preying on the financially unsophisticated by driving them into debt for profit, and universities are fifty times worse.

So of course, the Progressives in the White House and Congress (unsurprisingly Elizabeth Warren has a debt subsidy plan as well) are set to further enable this predatory behavior by universities.  By effectively capping most students' future financial obligations from student debt, this plan would remove the last vestiges of price sensitivity from the college tuition market.  Colleges can now raise tuition to infinity, knowing that the bulk of it will get paid by the taxpayer some time in the future.  Just as the college price bubble looks ready to burst, this is the one thing that could re-inflate it.

Postscript:  By the way, let's look at the numbers.  Let's suppose Mary went to a top college and ran up $225,000 in debt.  She went to work for the government, averaging $50,000 a year (much of her compensation in government is in various benefits that don't count in this calculation).  She has to live in DC, so that's expensive, and pay taxes.  Let's say that she has numbers to prove she only has $20,000 left after essential living expenses.  10% of that for 10 years is $20,000 (or about $13,500 present value at 8%).  So Mary pays less than $20,000 for her education, and the taxpayer pays $205,000.  The university makes a handsome profit - in fact they might have given her financial aid or a lower tuition, but why bother?  Mary doesn't care what her tuition is any more, because she is capped at around $20,000.  The taxpayer is paying the rest and is not involved in the least in choosing the university or setting prices, so why not charge the taxpayer as much as they can?

Postscript #2:  It is hard to figure out exactly what Elizabeth Warren is proposing, as most of her proposal is worded so as to take a potshot at banks rather than actually lay out a student loan plan.  But it appears that she wants to reduce student loan interest rates for one year.  If so, how is this different from teaser rates on credit cards, where folks -- like Elizabeth Warren -- accuse credit card companies of tricking borrowers into debt with low initial, temporary rates.  I  find it  a simply astounding sign of the bizarre times we live in that a leading anti-bank progressive is working on legislative strategies to get 18-year-olds further into debt.

Problems Fixed

In the end, required a SQL database rebuild.  Now I have to put the site back together again.

Weird WordPress Problem, Site May Be A Mess

For some reason the insert image functionality broke the other day on this website.  Basic troubleshooting involved reverting to the standard theme and turning off plugins, so things may be a mess off and on.   This is what i get when I try to insert an image:  two lakes   Wordpress is inserting an image tag but leaving off the source URL for the image, so thus the broken image.

Who is the Largest Source of New Consumer Credit?

Consumer Credit Holdfers_0

 

That's right, it's you.  That taxpayer.  So when the student loan bubble bursts, taxpayers are on the hook.

source

Update on the Economic Story of 2013

Yes, more evidence that the PPACA is ending full-time work in the American retail service sector

Circle K Southeast joined a growing list of national companies shifting workers to part-time status this week, in order to avoid paying Obamacare’s mandatory benefits, CBS-WTOC reports.

The alternative is to pay a $2,000 fine per fulltime worker who is not covered, leading Circle K to become the latest in a long line of companies to slice employee hours to avoid increased costs.

Here was my article several weeks ago in Forbes, though I have been predicting this since last year (when my own company started planning for the same change).

My Problem With Benghazi...

... was not the crisis management but Obama's throwing free speech under the bus.

I can live with poor crisis management.  I have been a part of enough to understand that things are different in real time than they look when monday-morning quarterbacking the events.  In particular, it can be very hard to get reliable data.  Sure, the correct data is all likely there, and when folks look back on events, that data will be very visible and folks will argue that better choices should have been made.

A great example of this is when historians sort through data to say that FDR missed (or purposely ignored, if you are of that revisionist school) clear evidence of the Japaneses surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  Sure, the correct clues stand out like flashing lights to the historian, but to the contemporary they were buried in 10,000 ostensibly promising false leads.

In real time, good data is mixed in with a lot of bad data, and it takes some time -- or a unique individual -- to cut through the fog.  Clearly neither Obama nor Clinton were this individual, but we should not be surprised as our selection process for politicians is not really configured to find such a person, except by accident.

No, the problem I have with Benghazi is that when push came to political shove, the President threw free expression under the bus to protect himself.  I am a sort of city on the hill isolationist, who prefers as much as possible for the US to have influence overseas by setting a positive example spread through open communications and free trade.  In this model, there is nothing more important for a US President to do than to support and explain the values of individual liberty, such as free expression, to the world.

Instead, it is increasingly clear he blamed some Youtube video, an exercise in free expression, for the tragedy.  And not just in the first confused days, but five days later when he put Susan Rice on TV to parrot this narrative.  And when the Feds sent a team to arrest and imprison the video maker.  And days after the Rice interviews when Hillary parroted the same message at the funeral, and days after that when Obama spoke to the UN, mentioning the video 6 or 7 times.    Obama took to his bully pulpit and railed against free speech in front of a group of authoritarians who love to hear that message, and whose efforts to stifle speech have historically only been slowed by America's example and pressure.

Why Some Products Suck

This came to me via a reader.  Apparently, after working to make sure that toilets, shower heads, and washing machines no longer work as well as they used to, government regulators have ruined the gas can.  I still (thankfully) use my old plastic can that is about 20 years old, but apparently two changes have been mandated

  • There is a self-closing mechanism at the end of the spout that work fine in modern cars designed for this technology but don't work at all in lawnmowers and boats.   By my own observation, most gas cans are used to fill machinery other than cars.
  • There is no vent.   Yes, there is no way to let air smoothly into the can as gas is poured out, meaning for gas to pour at all air must come in through the spout.  This results in slow and erratic flow rates.

Users report that they are spilling far more with the new design than the old.

Readers may remember my showerhead hacking.  Though I had not heard of the new gas cans, several of my employees had.  It turns out that to run a business, there is no way you want your folks filling a boat motor with one of these new cans, it takes forever.  Fortunately my folks have already figured out how to hack the cans.  It is easy to drill and tap a hole in the soft plastic, and insert a screw plug.  Then, this plug can be removed to vent.  Of course this is less safe than the old cans with a simple, non-removable snap on plug cover -- it is easy for someone to forget to plug the vent.

Cyprus and the Rule of Law

There was no particularly good way to resolve the banking mess in Cyprus.  But what worries me about how things played out is that there appears to be no rule of law that applies to bank failure in Europe.  There should be some clear principle that guides a bank resolution - e.g. equity holders and bondholders get wiped out first, then uninsured depositors, then insured depositors.  Or perhaps there is some ratio of pain between insured and uninsured depositors.

It is clear that no such rule exists across Europe (or if it does, it does not enjoy any particular force such that folks feel free to ignore it in real time).  That is the real danger here.  Results, however bad, should be transparent and predictable in advance, which is far from what happened in Cyprus.  Without a rule of law, one gets a rule of men -- in other words, rules are set by individual whim, often based on which government or corporate interests wield the most influence.

Think I am being too cynical?  Here is a detail that was new to me about the depositor haircuts in Cyprus:

A few weeks ago, the Central Bank of Cyprus published a curious set of "clarifications for the better understanding of the resolution measures." The principle of a bail-in—that uninsured creditors should suffer losses before taxpayers are on the hook—turns out to contain a few lacunae. "Financial institutions, the government, municipalities, municipal councils and other public entities, insurance companies, charities, schools, and educational institutions" will be excused from contributing to the depositor haircuts, though insurers later were removed from the exempt list.

Apparently, individual parties are lining up for special exemptions as well (much like connected corporations did with the Obama Administration to get exemptions from early provisions of the PPACA).  Essentially, all bank losses will be assigned to depositors who don't have access to powerful friends in the government.

I Am Starting To Believe Most Studies Are Crap

I spent years, before I burned out on the task, picking over bad climate studies, and at the time reached the conclusion that there was something about the climate science field that was anomalous,  tolerating so much bad science, bad sampling methodology, and bad statistical approaches.

However, now I am coming to the conclusion that perhaps most studies in every field are dominated by this same crap.  Here is an example, from the NTSB on busses.

EEEK -- Bleg Related to Google Feedproxy Links

For years I have been blogging from articles in my Google Reader, which is going away in a month.  When I cut and paste the article URL from the reader, I get a Google shortcut like "http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Twistedsifter/~3/BohimNYue3Y/".  This resolves to "http://twistedsifter.com/2013/04/strangely-similar-movies-released-around-the-same-time/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Twistedsifter+%28TwistedSifter+%29".  The links are written in my wordpress data base, in many cases, as the feedproxy version.  So they depend on this Google service remaining live to work.

Does anyone know if the Google feedproxy servers are going away with Reader?  If so, about a zillion links on my site are about to break.  My hope is that Google uses these for more than just reader.  Perhaps at Feedburner? (though if Google is bailing on RSS that might be next on the kill list).

I would normally just do a Regex search to fix this, but there is no systematic way to do it, you have to resolve the link and then replace the resolved URL.  Someone seems to have an app for this, but I am not sure it is ready for prime time and I do not want to use it unless I have to.  But once the servers are turned off, it will be too late.

Anyone know about this or have advice?  Obviously, I have been trying not to use these feedproxy URL's if I can remember not to do so.

One Problem With the Internet

I had some problems on the site when my credit card failed at my caching / proxy server company Incapsula and my account got deleted.  I think all is well now.  But there is a certain problem I never know how to address on the Internet -- after all, its not really of much use to post something here and ask people to email me if they are having trouble reading it.  But maybe a Twitter or Facebook reader will let me know if there is a problem.

Discrimination: The All-Purpose Accusation

Today I got three letters with a subject line and/or opening sentence accusing me of discrimination.  Here are the three complaints:

  1. A camper did not get the $8 senior discount to which he was entitled, in large part because my new employee did not recognize his very old-style government recreation access card (I processed a refund immediately).
  2. A 20-year-old accused me of age discrimination when we told her she was too young to work in a store, despite the fact our manager explained patiently several times that we are prevented by law from hiring minors to sell alcoholic beverages
  3. A camper accused me of discrimination because we would not let him occupy a site clearly marked as having been reserved by another camper (who had not yet arrived).  This obviously is odd -- I am discriminating against people without reservations for reserved sites?

None of these folks appear to be a part of a legally protected group, nor did they site any treatment they received that was different from similarly situated people at the same location.  They just didn't like a particular policy and wanted to complain, but have been taught by society that the best way to get attention is to claim DISCRIMINATION -- sort of like a witchcraft accusation in the 17th century.

All of this is to answer the question of why someone like myself who has vocally supported gays and gay marriage for decades would oppose legislation naming homosexuals as another government-protected class.  I have defended openly gay employees of mine against ignorant accusations that their homosexuality somehow posed dangers to the kids camping at the park they helped to maintain.   But discrimination law makes me crazy.   Think of it this way -- bad things happen to everyone from time to time.  I am a white male, but despite this status I have gotten turned down for jobs, have been laid off from jobs, and frequently have received bad, even rude customer service.  Everybody does.     Discrimination law often takes these typical day-to-day indignities we all face and converts them, literally, into a Federal case.