Archive for August 2013

Meet the Person Who Wants to Run Your Life -- And Obama Wants to Help Her

I am a bit late on this, but like most libertarians I was horrified by this article in the Mail Online about Obama Administration efforts to nudge us all into "good" behavior.  This is the person, Maya Shankar, who wants to substitute her decision-making priorities for your own



If the notion -- that a 20-something person who has apparently never held a job in the productive economy is  telling you she knows better what is good for you -- is not absurd on its face, here are a few other reasons to distrust this plan.

  • Proponents first, second, and third argument for doing this kind of thing is that it is all based on "science".  But a lot of the so-called science is total crap.  Medical literature is filled with false panics that are eventually retracted.  And most social science findings are frankly garbage.  If you have some behavior you want to nudge, and you give a university a nice grant, I can guarantee you that you can get a study supporting whatever behavior you want to foster or curtail.  Just look at the number of public universities in corn-growing states that manage to find justifications for ethanol subsidies.  Recycling is a great example, mentioned several times in the article.  Research supports the sensibility of recycling aluminum and steel, but says that recycling glass and plastic and paper are either worthless or cost more in resources than they save.  But nudgers never-the-less push for recycling of all this stuff.  Nudging quickly starts looking more like religion than science.
  • The 300 million people in this country have 300 million different sets of priorities and personal circumstances.  It is the worst hubris to think that one can make one decision that is correct for everyone.  Name any supposedly short-sighted behavior -- say, not getting health insurance when one is young -- and I can name numerous circumstances where this is a perfectly valid choice and risk to take.
  • The justification for this effort is social science research about how people manage decisions that involve short-term and long-term consequences

Some behavioral scientists believe they can improve people's self-control by understanding the relationship between short term memory, intelligence and delay discounting.

This has mostly been used to counter compulsive gambling and substance abuse, but Shankar's entry into government science circles may indicate that health insurance objectors and lapsed recyclers could soon fall into a similar category

I am sure there is a grain of truth in this -- all of us likely have examples of where we made a decision to avoid short term pain that we regretted.  But it is hilarious to think that government officials will somehow do better.  As I have written before, the discount rate on pain applied by most legislators is infinite.  They will do any crazy ridiculous thing that has horrible implications five or ten years from now if they can just get through today.  Why else do government bodies run massive sustained deficits and give away unsustainable pension and retirement packages except that they take no consideration of future consequences.  And it is these people Maya wants to put in charge of teaching me about delay discounting?

  • It probably goes without saying, but nudging quickly becomes politicized.  Is nudging 20-something health men to buy health insurance really in their best interests, or does it help keep an important Obama program from failing?

Postscript:  Here is a great example of just how poorly the government manages delay discounting.  In these cases, municipalities are saddling taxpayers with almost certainly bankrupting future debt to avoid paying any short-term costs.

Texas school districts have made use of another controversial financing technique: capital appreciation bonds. Used to finance construction, these bonds defer interest payments, often for decades. The extension saves the borrower from spending on repayment right now, but it burdens a future generation with significantly higher costs. Some capital appreciation bonds wind up costing a municipality ten times what it originally borrowed. From 2007 through 2011 alone, research by the Texas legislature shows, the state’s municipalities and school districts issued 700 of these bonds, raising $2.3 billion—but with a price tag of $23 billion in future interest payments. To build new schools, one fast-growing school district, Leander, has accumulated $773 million in outstanding debt through capital appreciation bonds.

Capital appreciation bonds have also ignited controversy in California, where school districts facing stagnant tax revenues and higher costs have used them to borrow money without any immediate budget impact. One school district in San Diego County, Poway Unified, won voter approval to borrow $100 million by promising that the move wouldn’t raise local taxes. To live up to that promise, Poway used bonds that postponed interest payments for 20 years. But future Poway residents will be paying off the debt—nearly $1 billion, all told—until 2051. After revelations that a handful of other districts were also using capital appreciation bonds, the California legislature outlawed them earlier this year. Other states, including Texas, are considering similar bans.

Or here is another example, of New York (the state that is home to the mayor who tries to nudge his residents on everything from soft drinks to salt)  using trickery to consume 25 years of revenue in one year.

Other New York deals engineered without voter say-so include a $2.7 billion bond offering in 2003, backed by 25 years’ worth of revenues from the state’s gigantic settlement with tobacco companies. To circumvent borrowing limits, the state created an independent corporation to issue the bonds and then used the money from the bond sale to close a budget deficit—instantly consuming most of the tobacco settlement, which now had to be used to pay off the debt.

By the way, I recommend the whole linked article.  It is a pretty broad survey of how state and local governments are building up so much debt, both on and off the books, and how politicians bend every law just to be able to spend a few more dollars today.

Mergers and Acquisitions for Entrepeneurs

The original purpose of this blog nine (eek!) years ago was to share lessons learned in my foray into entrepreneurship.   I still try to post some things on this topic, though we obviously have moved a bit away from this original concept.  But to this end, I wanted to link Walt Lipski's new small business M&A web site.  I think of Walt as a entrepreneur who happens now to do investment banking.   He was the one who helped me  ten years ago get into this business (the entire business acquisition and start-up process described here), and I still go to him from time to time for advice.  He is as straight forward and as trustworthy as anyone I have met in the M&A business.

Punitive Bombing

I grew up in the 1970's, a time when a lot of Americans post-Vietnam were questioning the value, even the sanity, of war.  Opinions were certainly split on the subject, but one thing I remember is that the concept of "punitive bombing" was widely mocked and disdained.  Which is why I find it amazing to see bipartisan, multi-country support for exactly this tired old idea as applied to Syria.  Has bombing ever done anything but radicalize the bombed civilian population against the bombers?  The reaction to the London Blitz was not to have the English suddenly decide that they had been wrong in supporting Poland.  Nor did Germans or Japanese generally reprimand their leaders for the past policies as as result of our firebombing Tokyo or Dresden.  Or look at drone strikes in Afghanistan -- do you get the sense anyone there is saying, "Boy, have we ever been taught a lesson."

In the comments, readers are welcome to contribute examples of countries who "learned their lesson" from punitive air strikes and changed their behavior.

PS-  Apparently the reason we "must" have at least air strikes is that we have established a policy that we will "do something" if countries use chemical weapons.  And if we don't have air strikes, the world will think we are weak, right?  But the problem is that this logic never ends.  If the country then ignores our air strikes and behaves as before, or perhaps performs an FU of their own by using chemical weapons openly, then what?  Aren't we obligated to do something more drastic, else the world will think we are weak?

Fetishizing An Enormous F*ckup

From the location of the Yarnell fire deaths:

"We are going to hallowed ground," says Jim Paxon, spokesman for the Arizona Forestry Division, moments before leading reporters and TV crews to the site where 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in a June 30 wildfire.

"They are almost superhuman," Paxon drawls to reporters gathered on the morning of July 23. "As we go up there, there's a Granite Mountain Hotshots shirt on a cactus. We would ask that you touch the shirt . . . in reverence to the loss."

Darrell Willis, the Granite Mountain Hotshots direct supervisor in the Prescott Fire Department said that their deaths were God's will

"The voice of what actually happened, we'll never know," Willis says. "We're not going to have that information from [the dead men]."

Willis continues, "It was just one of those things that happened. You can call it an accident. I just say that God had a different plan for that crew at this time."

I don't know how much this tragedy gets covered nowadays outside of Arizona, but it still dominates the news here.  I have no problem sending all the sympathy in the world to the young families of these men.  But I am exhausted with the fetishizing as heroic of what looks to be a total screw up.  An experienced crew had absolutely no business being where they were, or in this day and age so badly out of communication.   They either blundered into, or were incompetently led into (the facts are still coming out) an absurdly dangerous position.   At best, they were there to protect a ranch house that had already been evacuated and was likely insured a lot better than the lives of many of the crew members.

From my observations operating for years in the US Forest Service and other wilderness areas, wildland firefighting needs a serious housecleaning.  I thought for sure this tragedy would be a stick driven into that particular anthill, almost guaranteeing scrutiny and accountability might follow.  Now I am not so sure.

Do Reporters Even Look At Their Own Charts?

A Wall Street Journal article today looks at problems at Sears in their critical appliance business.  I have no problem believing that Sears is in trouble, and at various times over the past decade (full disclosure here) have held small short positions in Sears.  The author argues that the Sears appliance business has had a number of missteps, and is contributing to Sears growing losses, propositions with which I cannot argue, in part because there is no data provided to confirm or deny the connection between problems in the appliance business and Sears' profitability woes.

The other theme of the article is that recent missteps in the appliance business, particularly the 2009 switch from Whirlpool to Samsung and LG to manufacture its in-house Kenmore brand, is hurting its market share in the retail appliance business, and leading the the growth in market share at Home Depot and Loews.   But the author's own data belie this conclusion.  Here is the market share chart she includes:



While Sears may have lost a couple of points of market share since 2008, and 2013 does not look like a particularly good year so far, the vast majority of its market share loss occurred from 2002-2008, long before most of the recent problems profiled in the article.  In fact, its more likely that the loss coincided with Sears reorganization with Kmart a decade ago, events referred to only briefly in the article.

Look, I have no insider knowledge here, just a pet peeve that trends referenced in an article should match trends in the data.  But Sears is a tired old retailer.  Many of its peers from the same era are dying or dead.  People are shifting their shopping away from the malls where Sears is located.  Lowes and Home Depot were both juggernauts during this period.  I would have said that a story could equally well have been written that despite all the confusion in their business, they have done a pretty descent job arresting the decline in their market share over the last five years.  Of course they are likely dead in the long run.

Postscript:  Oddly, I witnessed a similar Sears private label fracas when I worked for Emerson Electric over a decade ago.  For years and years, Emerson (not the folks who make the cheap radios and TVs) manufactured many of the Sears Craftsman hand tools and power tools.  Sears got tough one year, and negotiated a better deal of some sort with someone else, and an entire division of Emerson saw its sales basically going to zero.  So Emerson bought a bunch of orange paint and plastic, went to Home Depot, and cut a deal for a private label tool line at Home Depot (Emerson separately owns the Rigid tool company, so a lot of the items were branded Rigid).  Emerson ended up in potentially better shape (I did not stay long enough to see how it turned out), partnered with a growing rather than a declining franchise.

Previewing the President's College Rankings

Today, President Obama sort-of kind-of acknowledged a problem with Federal college student lending:  Federal loans are doing nothing to improve the affordability of colleges, as colleges are just raising tuition in lockstep with increased lending, thus leaving students massively in debt for the same old degree.

His proposed solution is to somehow tie the availability of Federal funds to some type of government scoring system for colleges.  The probability that this will do anything to reign in student debt is exactly zero.  But it will potentially give the Feds another vehicle for control (similar to what Title IX has given them) of even the most mundane university policies.  Why not, for example, give high scores to universities with the restrictive and politically correct speech codes this Administration favors, thus effectively denying money to students of universities that don't have Eric Holder-sanctioned speech policies?

If you think I am exaggerating, look at the recent Washington Monthly college rankings as a prototype for the Obama scoring system.  In their system, colleges are ranked higher if they have a higher percentage of Peace Corps*** graduates, if more of their Federal work-study grant money is used for jobs at non-profits rather than for-profits**, and if their school reports more community service hours.  This latter points to another issue -- a number of schools rank really low on community service hours, effectively all tied with zero.  This is obviously a reporting issue.  The Obama plan just about guarantees that universities will start to game all these metrics -- does no one pay attention to the fraud that has been found in the law school rankings?

They also have a ranking of the schools providing the best value.  The good news, I suppose, is the school my son attends is #1.  The bad news is that my alma mater Princeton is not even on the list.  I found this odd, because while the authors explicitly laud Amherst's generous program that helps fund students through grants rather than loans, Princeton actually was one of a few schools that did this first (update:  Princeton was the first school to eliminate loans from financial aid packages of low income students, and since has eliminated loans altogether from all financial aid packages.  If you can get in, you can graduate debt-free).

It says this of Amherst:

 It chose to tap its sizable $1.6 billion endowment to provide tuition discounts so generous that the annual net cost to students with family incomes below $75,000 is only $843, less than a third of the sticker price of a year at the average community college. Another elite liberal arts college, Williams, also makes our list. But instructively, none of the other prestigious, well-endowed private colleges and universities in America—not Harvard or Yale, Swarthmore or Smith, none of them—can make that claim.

Actually, we don't know if that last sentence is true because the authors left Harvard and Yale off the list entirely.   My impression is that Princeton makes is very inexpensive for families making less than $75,000 as well, so I could not understand the claim -- perhaps even without debt the tuition charges to low-income families are still unreasonably high.  But we will never know, because apparently Princeton is not even on the list -- not because it does not direct a lot of its endowment to need-based scholarships, but because it has only 10% students on Pell grants, and the authors decided that you could not be on the list unless that number was at least 20% "to make sure they aren’t just catering to the affluent."  This just points to how quickly such a system gets politicized.  What does "catering to the affluent" have anything to do with bang for the buck?  If they really trust their methodology, they would have included these schools and if they are really just over-priced rich kids' playgrounds, that should have come through in the ranking.  Instead, the author's have explicitly invented an unrelated criteria to weed Ivy League schools out, a criteria more related to admissions requirements than to financial aid requirements and affordability and value (the ostensible bases for the rankings).

By the way, if you want to get a really good laugh, this is supposed to be a value or "bang for the buck" ranking, but they only rank the costs.  There is absolutely no ranking of "bang".  Bizarre.  It is as if any degree of any type from any institution is equally valuable.  Which, by the way, is part of the problem in the student loan bubble -- just this assumption.


** This is EXACTLY the kind of incentive that will help pay off those future college loans -- lets make sure to encourage every student to work in non-profits rather than for-profits jobs.

*** Why the Peace Corps?  Why not a myriad of other useful and productive occupations?  If you want to have a service metric, why is Peace Corps there and, say, Teach for America not?

Police Unions Channel Tony Soprano

How Can People Say This Stuff With A Straight Face?

Joane Hayes-White has no shame:

San Francisco's fire chief has explicitly banned firefighters from using helmet-mounted video cameras, after images from a battalion chief's Asiana Airlines crash recording became public and led to questions about first responders' actions leading up to a fire rig running over a survivor.

Chief Joanne Hayes-White said she issued the order after discovering that Battalion Chief Mark Johnson's helmet camera filmed the aftermath of the July 6 crash at San Francisco International Airport. Still images from the footage were published in The Chronicle.

Filming the scene may have violated both firefighters' and victims' privacy, Hayes-White said, trumping whatever benefit came from knowing what the footage shows.

"There comes a time that privacy of the individual is paramount, of greater importance than having a video," Hayes-White said.

Any 5-year-old can figure out here that this has nothing to do with victim privacy -- this is all about shielding her organization from accountability from future screw-ups.  Somehow we have ended up in a completely backwards world where surveillance is aimed at private citizens doing private things but is banned for public officials doing public things.  Ms. Hayes-White is obviously just a puppet for the firefighters union, and she be treated with contempt.

Arizona's Real Immigration Issue: Californians

Some libertarians, who would normally be all for open immigration, have expressed concern about -- in the name of liberty -- allowing into the country people who will generally vote against it.  I have at times shared this concern but in the end find it wanting.

However, I have personally observed this happening in both of the recent states in which I have lived (Arizona and Colorado).  But the source of the problem has not been immigration from Mexico or any other country but from California.  Californians seem hell-bent to escape the mess they have made of their state.  They run to other states complaining of the disaster they are escaping.  And then they proceed to vote for the same taxation and regulatory policies that screwed up California.

Arizona state politicians are excited to get all that new income tax money.  While I am happy to see new wealth and talent flowing into our state, I fear that these new immigrants are plague carriers, bringing the virus of out-of-control state power to heretofore only mildly infected states.

Customer Service Fail

I called Bank of America to stop payment on a check -- for some reason this seems to be one function that cannot be performed online.  I got right through to their business banking number.  However, they told me my account actually qualified for their special preferred, presumably premium, customer service number.  So they transferred me.  And I am still on hold, having waited now for over 10 minutes.  I have no idea why they couldn't solve my simple problem at the regular number without a transfer and long hold.

Further Proving the Point of Modern Journalism is To Generate Clicks, And Not Necessarily to Be Accurate

I don't like tribal red-blue politics, but I read a couple of blogs both from team elephant and team donkey to at least make sure I am not living in a libertarian echo chamber.  From that I know that bloggers on the Right were complaining for years about Maureen Dowd's dishonest editing of quotations to make Republicans look bad.  Apparently, bloggers on the Left, in this case Kevin Drum, have had it with Dowd's dishonest quote manipulation as well.

Which all means that Dowd likely has a job for life at the New York Times, as journalism today seems more about generating controversy and clicks rather than delivering facts -- and controversies like this that send everyone running in circles on Twitter certainly generate attention.  From the New York Times : We have met TMZ and they are us.

Obama's "Nixon Goes to China" Moment

Barack Obama is the worst possible thing that could have happened for civil liberties in this country.  Not necessarily because he promotes the worst possible policies -- As bad as he has been (drone strikes, domestic spying, aggressive prosecuting of whistle blowers, indefinite detentions, executive orders, arbitrarily ignoring legislation, cutting myriad special favors, and overturning the rule of law in the auto bankruptcies), I could imagine others being worse  (Lindsey Graham -- eek!).

But Obama is the worst because he is beloved almost unconditionally by the very factions who are the natural defenders on the Left of civil liberties and opponents of creeping (non-economic) state control.  With all this insane cr*p coming from Obama, the opposition one would expect to these policies has been slow and muted.  The anti-war movement, for example, effectively dissolved once George Bush was in office -- the ACLU and a few others continue to public reports on civilian drone deaths but the stories don't make the front page now that Obama is President.  Only recently, with the press itself under attack, has anyone woken up, but even with recent revelations about the NSA and harassing leakers, the last press conference was still dominated by softballs everyone in the room would have been embarrassed to have asked George Bush.

The Left seems to believe that this is all OK as long as their guy wields the power, but that cannot last forever.  And you can be damn sure that neither President Hillary or the next Republican in the White House is going to eschew or reverse the precedents established by Obama.  We have to end them right now, or we are stuck with them forever.  It may be too late already.


** The title refers to the idea that only Nixon, an anti-communist Republican, could have opened up relations with Communist China in the early 1970's and defused opposition to the move by the Right, the natural opponents of such a move at the time.  A President McGovern would have been skewered.  In the same way, Republican President Bush was rightly attacked whole-heartedly by the Left for intrusions on civil liberties and military activities.  On the other hand, having these same type of actions taken -- really much worse actions -- taken by a Liberal President has mostly diffused the opposition.

Government Intrusion A-OK at the Guardian When It Was Aimed At Their Competitors

From Brendan O'Neill via JD Tuccille

If there was a Nobel Prize for Double Standards, Britain’s chattering classes would win it every year. This year, following their expressions of spittle-flecked outrage over the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda by anti-terrorism police at Heathrow airport, they’d have to be given a special Lifetime Achievement Award for Double Standards.

For the newspaper editors, politicians and concerned tweeters now getting het up about the state’s interference in journalistic activity, about what they call the state’s ‘war on journalism’, are the very same people – the very same – who over the past two years cheered the state harassment of tabloid journalists; watched approvingly as tabloid journalists were arrested; turned a blind eye when tabloid journalists’ effects were rifled through by the police; said nothing about the placing of tabloid journalists on limbo-like, profession-destroying bail for months on end; said ‘Well, what do you expect?’ when material garnered by tabloid journalists through illegal methods was confiscated; applauded when tabloid journalists were imprisoned for the apparently terrible crime of listening in on the conversations of our hereditary rulers.

For these cheerleaders of the state’s two-year war on redtop journalism now to gnash their teeth over the state’s poking of its nose into the affairs of the Guardianis extraordinary. It suggests that what they lack in moral consistency they more than make up for with brass neck.

Everything that is now being done to the Guardian has already been done to the tabloid press, a hundred times over, and often at the behest of the Guardian.

They Buried the Lede

I thought the more interesting part of this story was the prisoners in Missouri were reading the Economist

Pigovian Tax on Sex

As I linked in an earlier article, Kevin Drum and his commenters are justifying the Obamacare tax on tanning salons based in part on the fact that tanning (via skin cancers) adds to future health care costs, which now (via Obamacare and Medicare) will likely have to be born by taxpayers.

Frequent readers will know that I have opposed government paying for health care for years in part due to the incentive it gives the government to micromanage individual behaviors to reduce its costs (I call this the health care Trojan Horse).

But here is the simple question for today.  If individual choices and behaviors should be taxed if they add to health care costs (a proposition Drum sees as so self-evident that Republicans are Neanderthals for opposing the idea), then why isn't anyone suggesting a tax on sex?   I can't think of any discretionary behavior that has more implications for health care costs than sex.  There's contraception, abortion, STD's, pre-natal care, birth, and at least 18 years of juvenile health care with no taxes being paid.  Not to mention a new future Medicare recipient who, by current law, will pay in far less to the system than he or she will take out.

Thinking About Risk

Kevin Drum preahces against the evils of teen tanning, which he follows with a conclusion that obviously Republicans are evil for opposing a tanning tax

Indoor tanning, on the other hand, is just plain horrifically bad. Aaron Carroll provides the basics:indoor tanning before age 25 increases the risk of skin cancer by 50-100 percent, and melanoma risk (the worst kind of skin cancer) increases by 1.8 percent with each additional tanning session per year. Despite this, the chart on the right shows the prevalence of indoor tanning among teenagers. It's high! Aaron is appalled:

This is so, so, so, so, so, so, so bad for you. Why don’t I see rage against this in my inbox like I do for diet soda? Why can’t people differentiate risk appropriately?

And who would fight a tax on this?

I am not going to get into the argument here (much) about individual choice and Pigovian taxes (by the way, check out the comments for a great example of what I call the Health Care Trojan Horse, the justifying of micro-regulation of our behavior because it might increase government health care costs).

I want to write about risk.  Drum and Carroll are taking the high ground here, claiming they are truly the ones who understand risk and all use poor benighted folks do not.  But Drum and Carroll repeat the mistake in this post which is the main reason no one can parse risk.

A key reason people don't understand risk is that the media talks about large percent changes to a small risk, without ever telling us the underlying unadjusted base risk.   A 100% increase in a risk may be trivial, or it might be bad.  A 100% increase in risk of death in a car accident would be very bad.  A 100% increase in the risk of getting hit by lightning would be trivial.

In this case, it's probably somewhere in between.  The overall lifetime risk of melanoma is about 2%.  This presumably includes those with bad behavior so the non-tanning number is likely lower, but we will use 2% as our base risk understanding that it is likely high.  The 5-year survival rate from these cancers (which by the way tend to show up after the age 60) is 90+% if you are white -- if you are black it is much lower (I don't know if that is a socio-economic problem or some aspect of the biology of darker skin).

So a teenager has a lifetime chance of dying early from melanoma of about 0.2%.  A 50% increase to this would raise this to 0.3%.  An extra one in one thousand chance of dying early from something likely to show up in old age -- is that "so, so, so, so, so, so, so bad"?  For some yes, for some no.  That is what individual choice is all about.

But note the different impacts on perception.

  • Statement 1:  "Teen tanning increases dangerous melanoma skin cancer risk by 50".
  • Statement 2:  "Teen tanning adds an additional 1 in 1000 chance of dying of skin cancer in old age."

Both are true.  Both should likely be in any article on the topic.  Only the first ever is included, though.

Officious Insanity in Alabama

I got a crazy inquiry from the state of Alabama today.  I can't reproduce it without redacting a lot of confidential numbers and such, but essentially they said that we had originally filed to pay unemployment taxes in Alabama in March of 2009, but our first payroll report was not until April of 2009.  I said, sure, once we knew we were going to start business in Alabama, I applied for all my Alabama registrations at one time to make sure they were in place for the start of operations (this includes corporate registration with the secretary of state, request for a taxpayer ID number,  eGov account, state sales tax, state lodging tax, state boat rental tax, County sales tax, county boat rental tax, unemployment tax, and employee tax withholding).  I am sure I am forgetting a few, and to make things more fun, every state is different.  Tennessee, for example, has an entirely different set of tax types for businesses that I still do not fully understand.

Anyway, apparently most of these registrations must be obtained in advance, before starting business.  BUT, at least in Alabama, I was told today it is ILLEGAL (yes, they used that word) to register for the unemployment tax system before your first payroll in the state.  Apparently, one must register in arrears.  Because of this, I was told my account has to be shut down and I have to be issued a new account number  (which of course means more paperwork for me making the switch at my payroll company).   All of this over 4 years later because I did not have any payroll in one month and had the naive notion that it was better to have all my government wastepaper in place before I started operations.  I got the strong impression that this was the results of bureaucrats searching hard for something to keep themselves busy.


We Are 95% Confident in a Meaningless Statement

Apparently the IPCC is set to write:

Drafts seen by Reuters of the study by the U.N. panel of experts, due to be published next month, say it is at least 95 percent likely that human activities - chiefly the burning of fossil fuels - are the main cause of warming since the 1950s.

That is up from at least 90 percent in the last report in 2007, 66 percent in 2001, and just over 50 in 1995, steadily squeezing out the arguments by a small minority of scientists that natural variations in the climate might be to blame.

I have three quick reactions to this

  • The IPCC has always adopted words like "main cause" or "substantial cause."  They have not even had enough certainly to use the word "majority cause" -- they want to keep it looser than that.  If man causes 30% and every other cause is at 10% or less, is man the main cause?  No one knows.  So that is how we get to the absurd situation where folks are trumpeting being 95% confident in a statement that is purposely vaguely worded -- so vague that the vast majority of people who sign it would likely disagree with one another on exactly what they have agreed to.
  • The entirety of the post-1950 temperature rise occurred between 1978 and 1998 (see below a chart based on the Hadley CRUT4 database, the same one used by the IPCC

2013 Version 3 Climate talk

Note that temperatures fell from 1945 to about 1975, and have been flat from about 1998 to 2013.  This is not some hidden fact - it was the very fact that the warming slope was so steep in the short period from 1978-1998 that contributed to the alarm.  The current 15 years with no warming was not predicted and remains unexplained (at least in the context of the assumption of high temperature sensitivities to CO2).  The IPCC is in a quandary here, because they can't just say that natural variation counter-acted warming for 15 years, because this would imply a magnitude to natural variability that might have explained the 20 year rise from 1978-1998 as easily as it might explain the warming hiatus over the last 15 years (or in the 30 years preceding 1978).

  • This lead statement by the IPCC continues to be one of the great bait and switches of all time.  Most leading skeptics (excluding those of the talk show host or politician variety) accept that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and is contributing to some warming of the Earth.  This statement by the IPCC says nothing about the real issue, which is what is the future sensitivity of the Earth's temperatures to rising CO2 - is it high, driven by large positive feedbacks, or more modest, driven by zero to negative feedbacks.  Skeptics don't disagree that man has cause some warming, but believe that future warming forecasts are exaggerated and that the negative effects of warming (e.g. tornadoes, fires, hurricanes) are grossly exaggerated.

Its OK not to know something -- in fact, that is an important part of scientific detachment, to admit what one does not know.   But what the hell does being 95% confident in a vague statement mean?  Choose which of these is science:

  • Masses are attracted to each other in proportion to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their distance of separation.
  • We are 95% certain that gravity is the main cause of my papers remaining on my desk

Is Arpaio Running a Protection Racket?

This weekend the Feds raided the Phoenix-area's largest car wash chain "Danny's" for a variety of unspecified immigration issues, and carried a number of folks off to jail or away for deportation.   This is a very high profile and upscale business (I am looking at one outside my office window).  These are not your father's car washes -- they are large and well-appointed and tailored to an upscale crowd.

Given that this is easily the highest profile car wash chain in town and each location is staffed with scores of folks of Hispanic origin**, my first thought on reading this story was to wonder why Sheriff Joe Arpaio had not conducted the raid.  After all, he has practically made a career of immigration raids on car washes (here is just one raid, note by the way the horrific comments saying things like "God bless Arpaio" just under a video of normal, regular human beings being hauled off in handcuffs for ... working.)

Well, other folks in the Phoenix area wondered the same thing, and have observed that by some odd coincidence, the most obvious immigration target not raided by Sheriff Arpaio is also the largest donor to Arpaio's Sheriff's charities, and its founder can often be seen palling around with Arpaio at public events.   Note Danny's prominently displayed on Arpaio's web site.

From our local sheriff all the way up to the President, we are increasingly a country of arbitrary laws and special crony exemptions.  If you are not friends with Wesley Mouch, good luck to you.


** Not trying to profile here, just trying to think like the Sheriff

For the Left, Do Asians "Count"?

I was filling out my EEO-1 forms the other day (that is a distasteful exercise where the government is leading us towards a post-racial society via mandatory reporting on the race of each of my employees).  For each employee there are five non-white categories:  Black, native American, native Hawaiian, Hispanic, and Asian.  I started to think how interesting it is that the Left supports numerous government interventions in support of the first four, but never mentions Asians.

This can't be solely due to lack of past discrimination.   Watch a movie from the 1930's or 1940's and you will see Asians shamelessly stereotyped** as badly as any other race.  And generations who lived and fought WWII had many members, even a majority, that harbored absolute hatred against one Asian people, the Japanese.  We only sent one group to concentration camps in the 20th century, and it was not blacks or Hispanics.  Of course "Asians" is an awfully broad categorization.  It includes Chinese, with whom we have had a complicated relationship, and Indians, for whom most Americans until recently probably have had little opinion at all one way or another.

One problem for many on the Left is the fact that Asians are considered a serious threat (both as immigrants and as exporters) to the Left's traditional blue collar union base.  Another is that they are an emerging threat to their little darlings trying to get into Harvard.  I have heard the squeakiest-clean, most politically correct liberals utter to me the most outrageous things about Asian kids.  Which is why I was not really surprised that white parents in California who claim to support merit-based college admissions immediately change their tune when they find out that this will mean that far more Asia kids will get in.

I have been working with some data on state voting and voter registration patterns by race in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision vis a vis the Voting Rights Act.  The Left went nuts, saying that blacks and Hispanics would again be discriminated against in the South, and the Obama Administration vowed to get on the case, saying that it would begin with Texas.

By the way, Texas may make perfect sense politically for Obama but is an odd choice based on the data.  Minority voter registration and voting rates as compared to the white population are usually used as an indicator of their election participation and access.  In the last election, according to the Census Bureau in table 4B, blacks in Texas both registered and voted at a higher rate than whites.  In Massachusetts, by contrast, in that same election blacks registered at a rate 10 percentage points lower than whites and voted at a rate about 7 points lower.

But if you really want something interesting in the data, look at the data and tell me what group, if we accept that low participation rates equate to some sort of covert discrimination, deserves the most attention (from the same table linked above):

US Voter Registration Rates (Citizens Only)

White:    71.9%

Black:    73.1%

Hispanic:     58.7%

Asian:     56.3%

US Voting Rates (Citizens Only, last Presidential election)

White:    62.2%

Black:    66.2%

Hispanic:    48.0%

Asian:    47.3%


** Postscript:  I am not an expert on discrimination, but I watch a lot of old movies and read a lot of history.  To my eye, stereotyping of Asians has been more similar to anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews than to stereotyping of blacks or Hispanics.  Blacks and Hispanics have most often been stereotyped as lazy and unintelligent.  Asians and Jews are more frequently stereotyped as scheming, plotting, and intelligent-but-evil.  Frank Capra, who directed a lot of good movies also directed a series of heavy-handed propaganda movies for the government during the war.  The one on Japan is interesting -- your gardener's quiet mien is actually masking a nefarious scheme.  Even in the 1940's Japan was portrayed as economically frightening to us.

Update:  Over the last couple of elections, Asians have shifted to voting fairly heavily Democratic.  So a cynical person would suggest that they might suddenly "discover" this group.  We shall see.

Earth to California

From our paper this morning:

California regulators have launched an investigation into offshore hydraulic fracturing after revelations that the practice had quietly occurred off the coast for the past two decades.

The California Coastal Commission promised to look into the extent of so-called fracking in federal and state waters and any potential risks.

Hydraulic fracturing has been a standard tool for reinvigorating oil and gas wells for over 60 years.  While it gets headlines as something new, it decidedly is not.  What is new is its use in combination with horizontal drilling as a part of the initial well design, rather than as as a rework tool for an aging field.

What California regulators are really saying is that they have known about and been comfortable with this process for decades**, but what has changed is not the technology but public opinion.  A small group of environmentalists have tried to, without much scientific basis, demonize this procedure not because they oppose it per se but because they are opposed to an expansion of hydrocarbon availability, which they variously blame for either CO2 and global warming or more generally the over-industrialization of the world.

So given this new body of public opinion, rather than saying that "sure, fracking has existed for decades and we have always been comfortable with it", the regulators instead act astonished and surprised -- "we are shocked, shocked that fracking is going on in this establishment" -- and run around in circles demonstrating their care and concern.  Next step is their inevitable trip to the capital to tell legislators that they desperately need more money and people to deal with their new responsibility to carefully scrutinize this decades-old process.


**Postscript:  If regulators are not familiar with basic oil-field processes, then one has to wonder what the hell they are going with their time.  It's not like anyone in the oil business had any reason to hide fracking activity -- only a handful of people in the country would have known what it was or cared until about 5 years ago.

What Microsoft Windows Has in Common with [Original Cast] Star Trek Movies

Skip every other release.

Here are the original cast Star Trek Movies:

VI:  OK, kind of

V: Bad

IV:  Goofy but enjoyable

III:  Truly terrible

II:  Awesome, to the point that the two Chris Pine et al reboot movies have drawn more heavily on the Wrath of Khan than the original show

I:  Flat, boring


Here are the recent Windows releases:

Windows 8:  Sucks

Windows 7:  Excellent

Windows Vista (6?):  God awful

Windows XP :  Very Good

Windows ME:  God awful

Windows 98/2000:  OK

Do you see the pattern?  Windows 7 redeemed the awful Vista in the same way XP redeemed the awful ME.  I can only hope the to-be-released-in-October Windows 8.1 fixes some of the awful mistakes in Windows 8, not the least was the grafting of a butt-ugly touchscreen tablet interface to a PC OS most of us use with mouse and keyboard.  Until then our company is still only buying Windows 7  computers.  Some of my employees buy their own computers -- I provide all the company's tech support and have told them they are on their own if they buy Windows 8 and then can't find the control panel.

Vagrant Economy, Dodging Garnishments

I have zero desire to comment on Tawana Brawley, but this article raised an issue at the end that has always been interesting to me.  After literally decades of court action, Brawley finally had a garnishment order enforced on her paycheck to start making good on a defamation suit by the man she victimized with her false rape allegations  (Which in fact demonstrates another point I have made before -- you can win a judgement in court but that can often be less than half the battle.  It can be harder to get the judgement actually paid).

Anyway, apparently as soon as the garnishment order was applied by her employer, she quit the job without a forwarding address (the headline says "loses her job" as if she was fired but the text seems to say she quit, presumably to dodge the garnishment).  This happens in my business all the time.  On our 400+ employees, we probably get 5-10 new garnishment orders a year, often tax liens or child support payments.  These take a while to catch up with people, so while the orders may be years old, the employees might work for me 3-6 months before the order shows up in our office to enforce.  (For those who don't know, each state typically requires some sort of new employee notification by our business to the state, so they can run the employee's name and social security number against various data bases to generate these orders).

Once the first garnishment hits their paycheck, at least 80% quit immediately, moving on like Brawley to get another 6 months of work somewhere else before the garnishment presumably catches up to  them again.  I have no idea how large this group of job vagrants is that are constantly moving to dodge garnishments, but from our sample it is pretty large.

My Predicted Biggest Economic Story of 2013

Last year I predicted that the biggest economic story of 2013 would be the end of full-time work (due to Obamacare) in the retail service industry.  I seldom make predictions, but wrote that at the time because I was amazed that this shift to part time work was all we were talking about in the small business world, since for technical reasons in the law we had to have these changes in place in 2013, well before the 2014 start of the employer mandate.

The media world is finally catching up, particularly after recent jobs reports where the totality of net new job creation (and more) was in part time jobs.  Here is yet another story from the media finally noticing a business conversation that has been going on for almost a year:

Employers around the country, from fast-food franchises to colleges, have told NBC News that they will be cutting workers’ hours below 30 a week because they can’t afford to offer the health insurance mandated by the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

“To tell somebody that you’ve got to decrease their hours because of a law passed in Washington is very frustrating to me,” said Loren Goodridge, who owns 21 Subway franchises, including a restaurant in Kennebunk. “I know the impact I’m having on some of my employees.”

Goodridge said he’s cutting the hours of 50 workers to no more than 29 a week so he won’t trigger the provision in the new health care law that requires employers to offer coverage to employees who work 30 hours or more per week. The provision takes effect in 16 months....

The White House dismisses such examples as "anecdotal." Jason Furman, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors, said, “We are seeing no systematic evidence that the Affordable Care Act is having an adverse impact on job growth or the number of hours employees are working. … [S]ince the ACA became law, nearly 90 percent of the gain in employment has been in full-time positions.”

But the president of an influential union that supports Obamacare said the White House is wrong.

"It IS happening," insisted Joseph Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has 1.2 million members.  "Wait a year. You'll see tremendous impact as workers have their hours reduced and their incomes reduced. The facts are already starting to show up. Their statistics, I think, are a little behind the time."

This has to be spin by the Obama Administration and not an honest belief.  There is no way they could have missed this:

In June, the household survey reported that part-time jobs soared by 360,000 to 28,059,000 – an all time record high. Full time jobs? Down 240,000.  And looking back at the entire year, so far in 2013, just 130K Full-Time Jobs have been added, offset by a whopping 557K Part-Time jobs.

I have written before that I think these changes are here to stay.  In some cases it is actually easier for businesses to stitch together full service coverage from part-time workers, as I discussed in this article at Forbes.

Summer of the (Flaming) Shark

Give me a quick answer - are forest fires above average this year?  Is this an unusually bad fire season?

You could be forgiven for saying "yes".  In fact, it is an unusually quiet fire season.  Via Real Science

ScreenHunter_241 Jul. 26 22.14

source:  National Interagency Fire Center

It is such a disconnect with news reporting that you may have to click the source link yourself just to make sure I am not having you on, but 2013 is an unusually quiet fire season (2012 was worse but still under the 10 year average).  This tendency to judge trends by frequency of the media coverage rather than frequency of the underlying phenomenon is one I have written about before.

let’s take a step back to 2001 and the “Summer of the Shark.”  The media hysteria began in early July, when a young boy was bitten by a shark on a beach in Florida.  Subsequent attacks received breathless media coverage, up to and including near-nightly footage from TV helicopters of swimming sharks.  Until the 9/11 attacks, sharks were the third biggest story of the year as measured by the time dedicated to it on the three major broadcast networks’ news shows.

Through this coverage, Americans were left with a strong impression that something unusual was happening — that an unprecedented number of shark attacks were occurring in that year, and the media dedicated endless coverage to speculation by various “experts” as to the cause of this sharp increase in attacks.

Except there was one problem — there was no sharp increase in attacks.  In the year 2001, five people died in 76 shark attacks.  However, just a year earlier, 12 people had died in 85 attacks.  The data showed that 2001 actually was  a down year for shark attacks.