Archive for August 2015

The Saudis Tried to Kill The Shale Oil Business. It May Turn Out The Other Way Around

This article on Saudi Arabia, shale oil, and oil prices was interesting throughout

Saudi Arabia is effectively beached. It relies on oil for 90pc of its budget revenues. There is no other industry to speak of, a full fifty years after the oil bonanza began.

Citizens pay no tax on income, interest, or stock dividends. Subsidized petrol costs twelve cents a litre at the pump. Electricity is given away for 1.3 cents a kilowatt-hour. Spending on patronage exploded after the Arab Spring as the kingdom sought to smother dissent.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the budget deficit will reach 20pc of GDP this year, or roughly $140bn. The 'fiscal break-even price' is $106.

Far from retrenching, King Salman is spraying money around, giving away $32bn in a coronation bonus for all workers and pensioners.

He has launched a costly war against the Houthis in Yemen and is engaged in a massive military build-up - entirely reliant on imported weapons - that will propel Saudi Arabia to fifth place in the world defence ranking.

The Saudi royal family is leading the Sunni cause against a resurgent Iran, battling for dominance in a bitter struggle between Sunni and Shia across the Middle East. "Right now, the Saudis have only one thing on their mind and that is the Iranians. They have a very serious problem. Iranian proxies are running Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon," said Jim Woolsey, the former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Money began to leak out of Saudi Arabia after the Arab Spring, with net capital outflows reaching 8pc of GDP annually even before the oil price crash. The country has since been burning through its foreign reserves at a vertiginous pace.

Just the Moon Orbiting the Earth...

... but the images are pretty awesome.  via here.  Taken from the DSCOVR satellite orbiting a million miles away from Earth (my guess is that it sits at the Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange point, where the side of Earth it could see would always be in full sun and the back side of the moon would be fully illuminated as it passes Earth)

nasa-captures-dark-side-of-the-moon-as-it-crosses-earth

 

Coyote Cocktails

My guess is that there are no new cocktails under the sun, but I have not found anything similar out there so here is my current favorite homegrown concoction.  Call it a Coyote Cocktail if it has not been named yet.   I suppose it is sort of kind of like a Sidecar but I actually started from an Old Fashioned to get here:

  • 2 parts Bourbon (I think a slightly sweeter one like Makers Mark works well)
  • 1 part Cointreau
  • 1 part fresh grapefruit juice (we have a tree so this is easy)
  • a couple dashes of orange bitters

stir over ice.

A lot of restaurants in my area are serving slightly spicy tequila drinks, making Palomas or Spicy Margaritas with pepper-infused tequlia.  We have home-infused a bottle of tequila with peppers and really like it.  Our first try was a disaster -- we put 2 or 3 small dry peppers in bottle of tequila and let it sit for 5 days.  Mistake!  That is way too long.  A day is all that is needed for a good infusion and a nice level of spice.  We held onto the five-day flamethrower tequila.  It is fun to serve as a shot to friends who think they are manly for pounding Jagermeister.  Really gets their attention.

As an awful aside, apparently my son and his friends at college drink some concoction made of Jagermeister and Red Bull.  I am told this is a standard at clubs nowadays.  gahk.  Possibly even worse than the Schmidt Beer I drank occasionally at college when we were short on cash.

My Interview on Recreation PPPs With the World Bank Blog

The interview is fairly short but covers the most common questions about Recreation PPP's and private operation of public parks.  It is on the World Bank blog here.

We're The TSA. Let Us Entertain You By Showing You All Your Neighbor's Stuff

I am hoping this is fake given the joke name of the author. If not, I would point out that we (reluctantly) give TSA employees power to search our luggage solely for seeking out items that might endanger the aircraft or other passengers. We do not give this arguably extra-Constitutional power to TSA employees so they can write titillating articles on the web exposing our private stuff.

In operating campgrounds, I could create a blog with posts every day showing the goofy things that campers bring with them or try to do, or mistakes they make as novice campers. I do not, though, because hosting folks is a kind of trust. I would expect folks empowered to ransack my luggage to show even more discretion.

A Textbook Government Solution

Problem: Long waits at the DMV

Solution: Triple the size of the waiting room

God forbid anyone would rethink an incredibly dysfunctional process.

Race and Petty Traffic Laws

When you hear that police pulled someone over for the totally BS charge of a "partially obscured license plate with only one light," can't you just assume the driver is probably black or Hispanic?

If I were a Mexican in Phoenix, I would do a full walk-around checking my vehicle before every trip.  A visiting friend once asked me if the fact that Hispanics all seem to drive so slow was a cultural thing and I said that more likely, they know they will get busted for going even a hair over the speed limit.

A few years ago I wrote vis a vis our infamous SB1070

When Kris Kobach says "In four different sections, the law [SB1070] reiterates that a law-enforcement official 'may not consider race, color, or national origin' in making any stops or determining an alien's immigration status," he is ignoring reality.  The law asks police to make a determination (e.g. probable cause that one is an illegal immigrant) that is impossible for actual human beings to make without such profiling.  It's like passing a law that says "police must drive their cars 30 miles a day but can't drive their cars to do so."  The reality on the ground here in Arizona is that, illegal or not, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been using racial profiling to make arrest sweeps for years, and his officers have become masters at finding some pretext to pull over a Mexican they want to check out  (e.g. the broken tail light).   Words in this law about racial profiling are not going to change anything.

Update:  I forgot this story from 2008, which is a great example of what I am talking about here

Arrest records from crime sweeps conducted by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office add substantial weight to claims that deputies usedracial profiling to pull Latino motorists over to search for illegal immigrants....

even when the patrols were held in mostly White areas such as Fountain Hills and Cave Creek, deputies arrested more Latinos than non-Latinos, the records show. In fact, deputies arrested among the highest percentage of Latinos when patrols were conducted in mostly White areas.

On the arrest records, deputies frequently cited minor traffic violations such as cracked windshields and non-working taillights as the reason to stop drivers.

"These are penny-ante offenses that (police) almost always ignore. This is telling you this is being used to get at something else, and I think that something else is immigration enforcement against Hispanic people," Harris said....

Hiroshima in Historical Context

Well, its that time of year again and folks on the Left are out there with their annual rants against the bombing of Hiroshima as a great crime against humanity.

All war is a crime against humanity by those who start them.  And I am certainly uncomfortable that we let the atomic genie out of the steel casing in August of 1945.  But I think much of what is written about Hiroshima strips the decision to drop the bomb from its historical context.  A few thoughts:

  1. We loath the Hiroshima bombing because we in 2015 know of the nuclear proliferation that was to follow and the  resulting cloud of fear that hung over the globe for decades as most everyone was forced to think about our new ability to destroy humanity.  But all that was in the realm of science fiction in 1945.  And even if they knew something of the Cold War and fear of the Bomb, would many have had sympathy, living as they were through a real war that represented possibly the worst self-inflicted catastrophe man has ever faced?
  2. Several other bombing raids, notably the fire-bombing of Tokyo, took more lives than Hiroshima.  Again, we differentiate the two because we experienced the Cold War that came after and thus developed a special fear and loathing for atomic weapons, but people in 1945 did not have that experience.
  3. The ex post facto mistake many folks make on Hiroshima is similar to the mistake many of us make on Yalta.  Lots of folks, particularly on the Right, criticize FDR for being soft on Stalin and letting him get away with Eastern Europe.  But really,what were they going to do?  Realistically, Russia's armies were already in Eastern Europe and were not going to leave unless we sent armies to throw them out.  Which we were not, because folks were absolutely exhausted by the war.  This war exhaustion also plays a big part in the decision at Hiroshima.  Flip the decision around.  What would have happened if a war-weary public later found out that the government had a secret weapon that might have ended the war but refused to use it?  They would have been run out of office.
  4. I once heard a government official of the time say that it was odd to hear people talking about the "decision" to bomb Hiroshima because there was not a decision to make.  We were in a long, horrible, bloody war.  We had a new weapon.  It was going to be used.
  5. The Japanese were not showing a willingness to negotiate.  Yes, some members of the Japanese state department were making peaceful overtures before Hiroshima, but they had no power.  None of the military ruling clique was anywhere in the ballpark of surrendering.  Even after Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and the Russian declaration of war, the government STILL would not have voted for surrender except for the absolutely extraordinary and unprecedented  intervention of the Emperor.  And even then, the military rulers were still trying to figure out how to suppress the Emperor or even take him hostage to stop any peace process.
  6. It is argued sometimes that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were irrelevant and that the Japanese surrendered when the Russians declared war.  The Russian declaration was certainly an important part of the mix, but I find it hard to believe the Emperor would have taken his unprecedented actions without the atomic bomb attacks.  Besides, even if the Russian declaration was critical, it could be argued the bombs played a huge role in that declaration.  After all, we had tried to get the Russians to make such a declaration for years, and it suddenly came coincidentally a couple of days after the atomic bombs start dropping?  I doubt it.  A better theory is that the Russians were waiting for signs that the war was nearly won so they could jump in and grab some costless booty from defeated Japan, and the bombs were that sign.
  7. It is argued that the invasion of Japan would have cost fewer lives than the bomb.  This is a crock.  Sorry.  There is absolutely no way to look at military and civilian casualty figures from Iwo Jima and Okinawa and come to any conclusion other than the fact that the invasion of Japan would have been a bloodbath.
  8. It is argued that we could have blockaded Japan to death.  This is possible, but it would have 1. Taken a lot of time, for which no one had any patience; 2. exposed US ships to relentless Kamikaze attacks and 3.  likely have cost more Japanese civilian lives to continued conventional bombing and starvation than the atomic bombs did.
  9. It is argued that we dropped the bombs on Japan out of some sort of racial hatred.  We can't really test this since by the time the bombs were ready, Japan was our only enemy left in the field.  Certainly, as a minimum, we had developed a deep hatred of Japanese culture that seemed so alien to us and led to atrocities that naturally generated a lot of hatred.  For the soldier, the best simple description of this culture clash I ever heard (I can't remember the source) was a guy who said something like "for us, the war was about winning and going home.  For the Japanese, the war just seemed to be about dying."   In a time where racism was much more normal and accepted, I would say that yes, this cultural hatred became real racism.  But I would add that it was not like we entered the war with some sort of deep, long hatred of Asians.  If anything, we stumbled into the Pacific War in large part because Americans felt a special friendship and sympathy with China and would not accept Japan's military interventions there.

Dispatches from the Crony State

From the Daily Beast

For some wealthy donors, it doesn’t matter who takes the White House in 2016—as long as the president’s name is Clinton or Bush.

More than 60 ultra-rich Americans have contributed to both Jeb Bush’s and Hillary Clinton’s federal campaigns, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by Vocativ and The Daily Beast. Seventeen of those contributors have gone one step further and opened their wallets to fund both Bush’s and Clinton’s 2016 ambitions.

After all, why support just Hillary Clinton or just Jeb Bush when you can hedge your bets and donate to both? This seems to be the thinking of a group of powerful men and women—racetrack owners, bankers, media barons, chicken magnates, hedge funders (and their spouses). Some of them have net worths that can eclipse the GDPs of small countries.

Ideology, policy prescriptions, legislative plans -- nothing matters except influence.  This will always happen as long as we give politicians so much power.  Its why the Coke and Pepsi party look so similar today.   At least a few people are noticing:

Is there a single person alive who believes that corporations, trade associations, NGOs, unions, and the like pay the Clintons enormous sums for speeches because they believe their members actually want to hear the Clintons say the same tedious talking points they have been spewing for years? If that were the only value received no profit-minded enterprise would pay the Clintons these vast fees because they would earn, well, a shitty rate of return.

No, the Clintons are not paid to speak. Businesses and other interest groups pay them for the favor of access at a crucial moment or a thumb on the scale in the future, perhaps when it is time to renew the Ex-Im Bank or at a thousand other occasions when a nod might divert millions of dollars from average people in to the pockets of the crony capitalists. The speaking is just a ragged fig leaf, mostly to allow their allies in the media to say they “earned” the money for “speaking,” which is, after all, hard work.

We have such people as the Clintons (and the tens of thousands of smaller bore looters who have turned the counties around Washington, D.C. in to the richest in the country) because they and their ilk in both parties have transformed the federal government of the United States in to a vast favors factory, an invidious place that not only picks winners and losers and decides the economic fates of millions of people, but which has persuaded itself that this is all quite noble. Instead, the opposite is true: This entire class of people, of which the Clintons are a most ugly apotheosis, are destroying the country while claiming it is all in the “public service.” It is disgusting. We need to say that, at least, out loud. . . .

Tear down the aristocracy of pull. This may be our last chance.

Phoenix Light Rail: We Spent $1.4 Billion (and Growing) To Subsidize ASU Students

The AZ Republic has some of the first information I have ever seen on the nature of Phoenix light rail ridership.  The first part confirms what I have always said, that light rail's primary appeal is to middle and upper class whites who don't want to ride on the bus with the plebes

Light rail has changed the demographics of overall transit users since the system opened in 2008, according to Valley Metro.

Passengers report higher incomes than bus riders, with more than a quarter living in households making more than $50,000 a year. Many riders have cars they could use.

The 20-mile system running through Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa recorded more than than 14 million boardings last year. Still, census data estimate less than one-third of 1 percent of Phoenix commuters — or about 2,000 people — use rail as their main transportation to work.

.0033% huh?  If we built similar facilities to serve everyone, it would only cost us about $420 billion at the rate of $1.4 billion per third of a percent.

But I thought this next bit was the most startling.  I always had a sneaking suspicion this was true but never have seen it in print before:

While the much larger bus system reaches most corners of the Valley, light rail connects specific destinations along a single line. Nearly half of light-rail riders are enrolled in college.

I must have missed this in the original sales pitch for the light rail line: "Let's pay $1.4 billion so ASU students can get to more distant bars."   Note that by these numbers, students likely outnumber commuters 10:1.  Doesn't bode well for light rail extensions that don't plow right through the middle of the most populous college campus in the country.

Postscript:  They don't break out people riding to get to sporting events downtown, but sporting events make up most of the largest traffic days on the system.  From my personal acquaintances, many people use light rail as a substitute for expensive downtown parking at sporting events, parking (often semi-illegally) near light rail stops and taking the train the rest of the way in.  On the whole, its not very compelling as a taxpayer to be helping to subsidize someone else's parking.  And from a municipal fiscal standpoint, it means that light rail fares may be cannibalizing (on a much greater ratio than 1:1 given the price differential) parking fees at municipal parking lots.

Why Valley Metro (Phoenix Light Rail) Can't Be Trusted and Shouldn't Be Given More Tax Money to Play With

I was reading this article in the Arizona Republic (which is generally an unskeptical cheerleader for light rail investments) and looking at the claim that Valley Metro (the operator of Phoenix light rail) had a 45% fare recovery ratio in 2013.  One would think that means that their fares cover 45% of their costs -- which would be awful for any real enterprise but is pretty good for government-run rail systems.

But in fact, Valley Metro (along with rail supporters in the Administration) stack the deck by defining most of the costs out of this metric so it looks far better than it really is.  In fact, by my reading of their financial statements, the true fare recovery is at best 15.2% and likely much worse.

Here are the Valley Metro financials for 2013, from their annual report

 

Look at their costs of $75+ million and fares of about $12.8 million.  How do they get to 45%?  Simple -- they leave the majority of their costs out.  They exclude administrative costs, financing costs, and depreciation (essentially their capital cost) from the equation.  This means that their fare recover is 45% -- IF you ignore their large administrative costs and you ignore the $1.4+ billion the line cost to build.   Further, because of the way the government does its finances, it is also missing any financing costs (interest and such on debt).

So the true cost recovery, stated in a way that  a reasonable person would think about such a number, is 16.8% at best.  If one takes into account the $8.28 million in "non-operating expenses" the number is 15.2%.  And it is even lower if you were to include interest and other financing costs.

I am sure Valley Metro will argue that this is the way the Feds measure it.  I don't care.  It has an obligation to accurately report its financial position to the public who is paying for it, particularly when the public is considering further investments in the form of higher taxes.  The 45% is a meaningless number that is crafted solely to make light rail look financial stronger than it really is.

This, by the way, is why total ridership of rail + buses has stalled since the construction of the light rail line.  Light rail is so expensive per rider that it is starving cash from the rest of the system.

RRRRR, I Don't Want Another Device I Have to Remember to Charge -- In Praise of the Removable Double A Battery

After years and years of happy service, my Logitech MX Anywhere mouse finally gave up the ghost.  So I bought a new one, though I purchased the new MX 2 thinking it would be new and improved.

Wrong!  At least for me.  The old mouse used a single AA battery that lasted months and months.  By keeping 1 extra AA battery in my backpack, I was able to make sure my mouse would always work.  Now, though, the new MX 2 mouse has a built in battery that has to be charged with a charging cable.  And if it runs down (which is always possible since there is no charge indicator)?  Then you have to plug it in with a cable to recharge, and the mouse does not work while charging.  Basically, if you were planning to work in your hotel room that night, you are out of luck.

Already, I have to remember to plug in my cell phone, my iPod, my iPad, my TV remote, my Jabra earphone, etc.  I don't want to have to charge something else!!

A plug-in rechargeable battery is NOT necesarily better than using a couple of double A's.  I have the same problem with my home theater remote (also Logitech).  My old versions used to use replaceable batteries, so I could just leave it on the coffee table.  The new remote require a charger.  But I have no outlets within 10 feet of my coffee table, so now I have to keep the remote in the kitchen, one room over.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Thanks Vancouver For Banning Uber So I Could Wait In 30-Minute Taxi Lines

This picture was taken at my hotel in Vancouver, BC on Saturday.  This is only about a third of the mob trying to get a taxi, a process that took me over 30 minutes.  The whole thing was made doubly frustrating by another bit of government interference -- about half the taxis that showed up dropping folks off left the hotel empty despite the huge mass of people waiting.  Why?  Apparently certain airport taxis are not allowed to pick up people in certain areas.  So the taxis had to go all the way back to the airport empty, despite the fact that people there were waiting to go to the airport.  Absolute madness of crony government intervention.

Yes, I understand that Saturday is "cruise day" and there is a huge spike in demand as these boats load and unload.  But this is exactly why Uber would make so much sense.  Think about all the folks that have weekday jobs that would love to earn some extra money driving on a Saturday.  Uber allows for just this sort of flexibility.