Archive for September 2015

Arizona Near Last in Local Food Consumption -- Good!

Our local fishwrap laments:

The local food movement in Arizona needs just that – movement.

While some shoppers enjoy spending their Saturday mornings at local farmers markets, new research indicates Arizona lacks per-capita sales in the local food industry.

The 2015 Locavore Index found that of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., Arizona has the second lowest per-capita sales for local foods.

Here is a scoop for you:  We live in the middle of the freaking Sonoran desert.   It is a terrible place to grow most foods.  In fact, it is an environmentally awful place to grow food.   Local food folks somehow have gotten locked into transportation costs as the key driver of food sustainability that they want to focus on, but transportation costs are 10% or less of most food costs.  A small savings on transportation is absolutely dwarfed, from a productivity and resource use standpoint, by the productivity of the soil and the fit of the climate with whatever is being grown.

Here is one way to think of it -- yes, locally grown food may not have to be transported very far, but every drop of water for food grown here in the Phoenix area has to be brought hundreds of miles from declining reservoirs to grow that food.

The movement seems to imply that locally grown food is more healthy.  Why?  Why is an Arizona tomato healthier than a California tomato?

Finally, the micro-trade-protectionism is pretty funny:

If local Arizonans start buying more local food, the economy may benefit as well.

When buying local grown food, “the money stays here in the local economy, as opposed to buying something in a national chain,” said R.J. Johnson, a sales representative for Blue Sky Organic Farms in Litchfield Park. “You buy something locally, 75 percent of that money stays here in town.”

This is so economically ignorant as to be beyond belief.  If more people are growing food here locally (something that is likely a fairly unproductive task given our climate), what productive tasks are they giving up.  And this is a national effort -- are they really with a straight face telling every single state that they should buy more locally so their money stays at home?  Isn't that just one big zero sum game (actually a negative sum game because you lose benefits of specialization and comparative advantage).

Megan McArdle on "Washington Issues"

I thought this was a pretty good observation:

Why then, do so many people know about the tax treatment of carried interest? Because it is the epitome of a Washington Issue. A Washington Issue is something that sounds terrible, has little meaningful impact on more than a handful of people, and most importantly, allows you to pretend that you are addressing a different, very difficult issue that would impact a large number of people if you actually tried to make meaningful change -- people who might get angry and do something rash, such as voting for your opponent.

The carried interest issue is thus a convenient way for Democrats making stump speeches to claim that they’re really going to do something about inequality and cronyism, and maybe fund some important new spending on hard-working American families. With the entrance of Jeb Bush and Donald Trump into the arena, it is also a way for Republicans to seem tough on rich special interests while simultaneously proposing tax plans that will help affluent Americans hold on to a lot more of their income and wealth.

As with most Washington Issues, my actual level of concern about carried-interest taxation hovers somewhere between “neighbor’s bathroom grout drama” and “Menudo reunion tour.” Nonetheless, I’m beginning to wish that Congress would get rid of it without demanding anything in return, just to force politicians to talk about something that actually matters.

My tax proposal, as a reminder:

1.  Eliminate all deductions in the individual income tax code

2.  Eliminate the corporate income tax.

3.  Tax capital gains and dividends as regular income.

4.  Eliminate the death tax as well as the write-up of asset values at death

"It's Not Right To Make A Profit on Public Land"

The title of this post is based on the single most common complaint I get from government employees when trying to convince them to allow our company to operate their recreation sites.  Let me retell probably my favorite argument I ever had on this topic.  I will confess I cleaned up some of the verbiage in the retelling.  I will further observe that our company soon after mysteriously lost the bidding for the renewal contract, just about the only time we have ever lost such a renewal in over 40 bids.

 I was having a discussion with one of the many US Forest Service District Rangers who do not like having private for-profit companies operating on public lands, even if we save the taxpayer a lot of money by doing so.  He said to me, "It's not right to make a profit on public land."  I thought a minute and responded, "So you work for free?"

He looked at me confused, "What do you mean?"  

I said, "well, if you took a salary, you would be making a profit on public land, wouldn't you? "

He responded that "this was totally different -- a salary is not the same profit.  And besides, my salary is nothing like your huge profits."

I said, "Are you kidding?  My profits on this District are less than half your salary.  And you earn your salary whether visitors are happy or not.  Your salary is guaranteed and unless you are caught having sex with an eight-year-old on your desk, you probably have it until retirement.  My profit is never guaranteed -- I might make it or I might not.   And getting that profit requires investment of tens of thousands of dollars in trucks and such.  And if I don't do a good job, customers stop showing up and I don't make any money at all."

He responded, "but your profits just add cost.  A non-profit doing the same thing, or the government doing the same thing, would save that money."

I said in turn, "that is incredibly naive.   What I do is operate efficiently and at low costs.  So a non-profit or the government does NOT do the same thing, because without the incentive to make a profit they don't operate anywhere near as cost-effectively.  I have never seen an example where the government could operate for less than twice my costs.  So our company can save half the costs of operating the park, which dwarfs the size of my 5% profit margin.  The savings I produce are 20 times my profit -- if anything, I am grossly underpaid.

The New Rich -- Living the High Life Through Your Non-Profit

Several months ago, a lot of folks where shocked to find that the Clinton Foundation only spent $9 million in direct aid out of a total budget of $150 million, with the rest going to salaries and bonuses and luxury travel for family and friends and other members of the Clinton posse.

None of this surprised me.  From my time at Ivy League schools, I know any number of kids from rich families that work for some sort of trust or non-profit that has nominally charitable goals, but most of whose budget seems to go to lavish parties, first-class travel, and sinecures for various wealthy family scions.

But this week comes a story from the climate world that demonstrates that making a fortune from your non-profit is not just for the old money any more -- it appears to be a great way for activists to build new fortunes.

The story starts with the abhorrent letter by 20 university professors urging President Obama to use the RICO statute (usually thought of as a tool to fight organized crime) to jail people who disagree with them in a scientific debate.  The letter was authored by Jagadish Shukla of George Mason University, and seems to take the position that all climate skeptics are part of an organized coordinated gang that are actively promoting ideas they know to be wrong solely for financial enrichment. (I will give the near-universal skeptic reply to this:  "So where is my Exxon check?!"

Anyway, a couple of folks, including Roger Pielke, Jr. and Steve McIntyre, both folks who get accused of being oil industry funded but who in fact get little or no funding from any such source, wondered where  Shukla's funding comes from.   Shukla gets what looks like a very generous salary from George Mason University of $314,000 a year.  Power to him on that score.  However, the more interesting part is where he makes the rest of his money, because it turns out his university salary is well under half his total income.  The "non-profits" he controls pays him, his family, and his friends over $800,000 a year in compensation, all paid out of government grants that supposedly are to support science.

A number of years ago Shukla created a couple of non-profits called the Institute for Global Environment and Security (IGES) and the Center for Ocean Land Atmosphere Interactions (COLA).  Both were founded by Shukla and are essentially controlled by him, though both now have some sort of institutional relationship with George Mason University as well.  Steve McIntyre has the whole story in its various details.

COLA and IGES both seem to have gotten most of their revenues from NSF, NASA, and NOAA grants.    Over the years, the IGES appears to have collected over $75 million in grants.  As an aside, this single set of grants to one tiny, you-never-even-heard-of-it climate non-profit is very likely way higher than the cumulative sum total of all money ever paid to skeptics.   I have always thought that warmists freaking out over the trivial sums of money going to skeptics is a bit like a football coach who is winning 97-0 freaking out in anger over the other team finally picking up a first down.

Apparently a LOT of this non-profit grant money ends up in the Shukla family bank accounts.

In 2001, the earliest year thus far publicly available, in 2001, in addition to his university salary (not yet available, but presumably about $125,000), Shukla and his wife received a further $214,496  in compensation from IGES (Shukla -$128,796; Anne Shukla – $85,700).  Their combined compensation from IGES doubled over the next two years to approximately $400,000 (additional to Shukla’s university salary of say $130,000), for combined compensation of about $530,000 by 2004.

Shukla’s university salary increased dramatically over the decade reaching $250,866 by 2013 and $314,000 by 2014.  (In this latter year, Shukla was paid much more than Ed Wegman, a George Mason professor of similar seniority). Meanwhile, despite the apparent transition of IGES to George Mason, the income of the Shuklas from IGES continued to increase, reaching $547,000 by 2013.

Grant records are a real mess but it looks like from George Mason University press releases that IGES and its successor recently got a $10 million five-year grant, or $2 million a year from the government.  Of that money:

  • approximately $550,000 a year goes to Shukla and his wife as salaries
  • some amount, perhaps $90,000 a year, goes to Shukla's daughter as salary
  • $171,000 a year goes as salary to James Kinter, an associate of Shukla at George Mason
  • An unknown amount goes for Shukla's expenses, for example travel.  When was the last time you ever heard of a climate conference, or any NGO conference, being held at, say, the Dallas-Ft Worth Airport Marriott?  No, because these conferences are really meant as paid vacation opportunities as taxpayer expense for non-profit executives.

I don't think it would be too much of a stretch, if one includes travel and personal expenses paid, that half the government grants to this non-profit are going to support the lifestyle of Shukla and his friends and family.  Note this is not money for Shukla's research or lab, this is money paid to him personally.

Progressives always like to point out examples of corruption in for-profit companies, and certainly those exist.  But there are numerous market and legal checks that bring accountability for such corruption.  But nothing of the sort exists in the non-profit world.  Not only are there few accountability mechanisms, but most of these non-profits are very good at using their stated good intentions as a shield from scrutiny -- "How can you accuse us of corruption, we are doing such important work!"

Postscript:  Oddly, another form of this non-profit scam exists in my industry.  As a reminder, my company privately operates public recreation areas.  Several folks have tried to set up what I call for-profit non-profits.  An individual will create a non-profit, and then pay themselves some salary that is equal to or even greater than the profits they would get as an owner.  They are not avoiding taxes -- they still have to pay taxes on that salary just like I have to pay taxes (at the same individual tax rates) on my pass-through profits.

What they are seeking are two advantages:

  • They are hoping to avoid some expensive labor law.  In most cases, these folks over-estimate how much a non-profit shell shelters them from labor law, but there are certain regulations (like the new regulations by the Obama Administration that force junior managers to be paid by the hour rather than be salaried) that do apply differently or not at all to a non-profit.
  • They are seeking to take advantage of a bias among many government employees, specifically that these government employees are skeptical of, or even despise, for-profit private enterprise.  As a result, when seeking to outsource certain operations on public lands, some individual decision-makers in government will have a preference for giving the contract to a nominal non-profit.   In California, there is even legislation that gives this bias a force of law, opening certain government contracting opportunities only to non-profits and not for-profits.

The latter can have hilarious results.  There is one non-profit I know of that is a total dodge, but the "owner" is really good at piously talking about his organization being "cleaner" because it is a non-profit, while all the while paying himself a salary higher than my last year's profits.

Blood on the Moon

We pretty much had a full lunar eclipse tonight with clear skies.  Of course my Nikon with the tripod and the 300mm lens had to have a dead batter, so I used the Canon Sx260 I had such good luck with at concerts.  The results are grainy but pretty good for a pocket camera.  This is about 5 minutes after the peak.  No tripod, just sitting on top of my trash can in the driveway.

 

Here it was a bit before the peak

Modern pocket cameras use some sort of multi-shot HDR process to take low light photos.  My Sony RX100-III does even better at night but does not have the zoom to do justice to the moon.  It s a better camera, and I still intend to share pictures from my trip to Europe but just have not gotten around to it, but here is what the Sony saw:

Sort of apropos to this blog, the local coyotes went absolutely apesh*t right at the peak of the eclipse.  Howling from every direction.

 

 

 

Wherein Coyote Learns to Troll

I have never made for a particularly good Internet troll.  Seeing too much nuance can disqualify one.  I have made a number of climate posts that have gotten a lot of attention and backlash, but that is a debate where saying even obvious things like "20 degrees C is not twice as warm as 10 C" will get one a swarm of comments labeling one as an extreme Koch-funded denier [as an editorial aside, this is not a joke example -- I have actually had experiences like this multiple times, trying to correct media articles that say that, say, an increase of 3C over current average temperature 12C represents a 25% increase.  Mark Steyn has a great riposte to this, arguing that if they would just switch to Fahrenheit, then the percentage warming would be reduced.  The same journalists making this mistake have likely labelled skeptics as "anti-science".]

All that being said, and I am not sure why I can't produce a simple one sentence post, I have hit some sort of record for this blog, with over 200 comments on this immigration fence question.

Dear Americans: You Are All Rich

I have made the point a number of times that the bottom 20th percentile (in term of income) of US families would actually be in the 80th percentile in many nations.  In fact, it turns out that the 20th percentile person in the US would not just be relatively rich in many other countries, but on a global scale sits around the 85th percentile of world income.  Virtually no one in the US would even be in the bottom half of world income. This chart from a recent study was shared by David Henderson:

 

The axes are not well labelled here.  How to read this is the X axis is the income percentile of a person in their home country.  Then one reads up, and the Y axis is the income percentile that person would be at for the whole world.  So a person who is at the 20th percentile in the USA is around the 85th percentile worldwide.  It is interesting that by hugging the 45 degree line, China mirrors the world average.  If you want to envision the distribution of absolute incomes around the world, think of China.

This raises a certain question for American redistributionists.  Ayn Rand used to point out that redistributionists always love the idea because they feel like they got to pick the pocket of the guy wealthier than them, forgetting that someone poorer gets to pick their pocket.  Essentially, in a truly global redistribution scheme, everyone in the US would be paying rather than receiving.

A better way to achieve global income equality would be to have more countries emulate the American rule of law, property rights regime, and relatively free markets.  Ironically, most American redistributionists support the opposite, arguing that in many was the USA should emulate the authoritarianism of these poorer countries.  Which I suppose will achieve global income equality as well, though in a much less attractive way.

These 20 Scientists Want to Make it A Crime to Disagree with Them

I think it is important to publicize these names far and wide:

  • Jagadish Shukla, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
  • Edward Maibach, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
  • Paul Dirmeyer, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
  • Barry Klinger, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
  • Paul Schopf, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
  • David Straus, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
  • Edward Sarachik, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
  • Michael Wallace, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
  • Alan Robock, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
  • Eugenia Kalnay, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
  • William Lau, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
  • Kevin Trenberth, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO
  • T.N. Krishnamurti, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
  • Vasu Misra, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
  • Ben Kirtman, University of Miami, Miami, FL
  • Robert Dickinson, University of Texas, Austin, TX
  • Michela Biasutti, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
  • Mark Cane, Columbia University, New York, NY
  • Lisa Goddard, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
  • Alan Betts, Atmospheric Research, Pittsford, VT

These 20 people, who nominally call themselves "scientists", have written a letter to President Obama urging him to use the RICO statute to prosecute people who disagree with them on climate science, essentially putting scientific disagreement in the same status as organized crime.  If they can't win the scientific debate with persuasion, they will win it with guns.  From the letter:

One additional tool – recently proposed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America’s response to climate change.

Of course "deceive the American people" is defined by these folks in practice as "disagreeing with us".

A Fundamental Shift in the Economy, At Least for Entrepreneurs and Small Business

When politicians argue about small business growth, they argue about stuff like taxes and access to capital and, god help me, completely irreverent (to small business) stuff like the ExIm Bank.

I would argue that there has been a fundamental shift in the economy relative to small business over the last four years, but it has nothing to do with any of that stuff.  I would summarize this shift as follows:

Ten years ago, most of my company's free capacity was used to pursue growth opportunities and refine operations.  Over the last four years or so, all of our free capacity has been spent solely on compliance.

Let me step back and define some terms.  What do I mean by "free capacity?"  In a small, privately-held company, almost all the improvement initiatives spring from the head of, or must heavily involve, the owner.  That would be me.  I have some very capable staff, but when we do something new, it generally starts with me.

So OK, our free capacity is somewhat limited by my personal capacity as owner and President.   But actually, I have a head full of ideas for improving the company.  I'd like to do some new things with training that takes advantage of streaming video.  I'd like to add some customer service screening to our application process.  But my time turns out not to be the only limit -- and this is one of those things that HBS definitely did not teach me.

In the real world, there are only so many new things I can introduce and train my line managers to do, and that they can then pass down to their folks.  An organization can only accept a limited amount of new things (while still doing the old things well).  This is what I mean by "free capacity"  -- the ability to digest new things.

Over the last four years or so we have spent all of this capacity on complying with government rules.  No capacity has been left over to do other new things.  Here are just a few of the things we have been spending time on:

  • Because no insurance company has been willing to write coverage for our employees (older people working seasonally) we were forced to try to shift scores of employees from full-time to part-time work to avoid Obamacare penalties that would have been larger than our annual profits.  This took a lot of new processes and retraining and new hiring to make work.  And we are still not done, because we have to get down another 30 or so full-time workers for next year
  • The local minimum wage movement has forced us to rethink our whole labor system to deal with rising minimum wages.  Also, since we must go through a time-consuming process to get the government agencies we work with to approve pricing and fee changes, we have had to spend an inordinate amount of time justifying price increases to cover these mandated increases in our labor costs.  This will just accelerate in the future, as the President's contractor minimum wage order is, in some places, forcing us to raise camping prices by an astounding 20%.
  • Several states have mandated we use e-Verify on all new employees, which is an incredibly time-consuming addition to our hiring process
  • In fact, the proliferation of employee hiring documentation requirements has forced us through two separate iterations of a hiring document tracking and management system
  • The California legislature can be thought of as an incredibly efficient machine for creating huge masses of compliance work.    We have to have a whole system to make sure our employees don't work over their meal breaks.  We have to have detailed processes in place for hot days.  We have to have exactly the right kinds of chairs for our employees.  We have to put together complicated shifts to meet California's much tougher overtime rules.  Just this past year, we had to put in a system for keeping track of paid sick days earned by employees.  We have two employee manuals:  one for most of the country and one just for California and all its requirements (it has something like 27 flavors of mandatory leave employers must grant).  The list goes on and on.  So much so that in addition to all the compliance work, we also spent a lot of work shutting down every operation of ours in California, narrowing down to just 3 contracts today.  There has been one time savings though -- we never look at any new business opportunities in CA because we have no desire to add exposure to that state.

Does any of this add value?  Well, I suppose if you are one who considers it more important that companies make absolutely sure they offer time off to stalking victims in California than focus on productivity, you are going to be very happy with what we have been working on.  Otherwise....

I fully understand the dangers of extrapolating from one data point**, but for folks who are scratching their head over recent plateauing of productivity gains and reduced small business origination numbers, you might look in this direction.

By the way, it strikes me that regulatory compliance issues set a minimum size for business viability.  You have to be large enough to cover those compliance issues and still make money.  What I see happening is that as new compliance issues are layered on, that minimum size rises, like a rising tide slowly drowning companies not large enough to keep their head above water.  We are keeping up, but at times it feels like the water is lapping at our chin.

 

**Unrelated Postscript:  I have found that in the current media/political world, people love to have only one data point.  Why?  Well, with two data points you are are stuck with the line those points define.  With just one, you can draw any line you want in any direction with any slope.

Investing with Coyote

In short, don't ever ever ever take my investment advice.  However, I will note that when I tongue-in-cheek called the market top on May 27, the S&P closed at 2123 and has not closed higher than 2128 since.

The reason market timing is virtually impossible is because the actual timing can be so skewed .  You can be sure the market is overvalued but it can take years for that to play out, particularly when governments (e.g. US, China) are pumping liquidity into the markets to keep them afloat.

A good example is China.  I (and many other much smarter people) were recognizing the China market was overvalued years ago, but had one shorted the China market back then you would have been short-squeezed into oblivion before the actual crash came about this year.

While fundamental investing isn't worthless, the effects of fundamentals seem to get easily swamped by government actions, such that predicting government actions is far more important to investment success than figuring out corporate fundamentals.  I learned to tear apart company financials from one of the best back at HBS, but I have no ability to figure out when the Fed will or will not stop dumping money into the markets.  So I buy a few index funds and try not to look at them too much.

Further Thoughts on Immigration -- Why Invoking the Romans to Justify Immigration Restrictions is Dead Wrong

One of the reasons, I think, that we struggle so much with the immigration question is that we really only have two options to offer -- not letting people in, or giving them close to full citizenship rights.  I think we would have the same debates on whether we should let people drive if the only two speeds a car could go were zero and 90 MPH.

For most of the people who are trying to get into this country illegally, the issue is not necessarily that they want full citizenship -- they just want to be present.  They want to be able to live, and drive, and accept employment.   While they would like it, they don't necessarily need to vote or be eligible for social security disability payments.   We need new statuses that allow for presence and productivity but are short of full citizenship.

In this sense, I think many Conservatives are 180 degrees wrong when they invoke the experience of the Roman Empire.  The modern argument is that the Romans are an example of what happens when you allow yourself to be overwhelmed by "barbarians" from the outside.  But in fact, I have argued many times that the real Roman failure was that they lost their early ability to flexibly absorb people of other cultures.  Here is what I wrote in my take on five reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire:

3.   The Romans lost their ability to be innovative in including new peoples in their Empire.  The Romans had a bewildering array of citizenship and tax statuses for different peoples who joined or were conquered by the empire.  For hundreds of years, this innovation was hugely successful.   But by the 4th and 5th centuries they seemed to have lost the trick.  The evidence for this is that they could have solved multiple problems -- the barbarians at the gates and the abandonment of farm land and the need for more soldiers -- by finding a way to settle barbarians on empty farm land.  This is in fact exactly what the barbarians wanted.  That is why I do not include the barbarian invasions as one of my five, because it did not have to be barbarian invasions, it could have been barbarian immigration.  Gibson's thesis was that Christianity killed the Roman Empire by making it "soft".  I don't buy that, but it may have been that substituting the Romans' earlier incredible tolerance for other religions in their Pagan period with a more intolerant version of Christianity contributed to this loss of flexibility.

And if you really want a modern parallel with the fall of the (western) Roman Empire, try this other point I made:

4.   Hand in hand with #3, the Roman economy became sclerotic.  This was the legacy of Diocletian and Constantine, who restructured the empire to survive several centuries more but at the cost of at least an order of magnitude more state control in every aspect of society.  Diocletian's edict of maximum prices is the best known such regulation, but in fact he fixed most every family into their then-current trades and insisted the family perform the same economic functions in all future generations.  Essentially, it was Ayn Rand's directive 10-289 for the ancient world, and the only reason these laws were not more destructive is that the information and communication technologies of the time did not allow for very careful enforcement.

A Question for Immigration Restrictionists

The current refugee surge into Europe has caused a lot of my friends who are immigration restrictionists to say this proves that I am naive.

During the Cold War, we (including most Conservatives) considered it immoral that Communist countries would not let their people leave (Berlin Wall, etc.).  Now, however, it is argued by many of these same folks that it is imperative that the Western democracies build walls to keep people out.

So here is a question -- not of practical consequences, but of pure morality.  Consider this picture of people being prevented from crossing the border.

Explain to me why this scene is immoral if the wall and police forces were put there by the country at the right (the leaving country) but suddenly moral if the same wall with the same police force were put there by the country on the left (the receiving country).  Don't they have exactly the same effect?  Same wall -- How are they different?

When I Grew Up, We Just Called These "Election Campaigns"

Local AZ water district offers manure share program.

 

** This post is the result of an email exchange with a reader where we joked about a blog Turing test.  So this is my attempt to imitate Glenn Reynold's style.  How did I do?

Thanks Obamacare!

I just got the first year bill from my payroll company for the extra reporting we have to do each year vis a vis Obamacare:  $7195.50 for 2015.  Note that this adds absolutely no value -- this is not the cost of insurance or cost of any extra taxes sent to Uncle Sam.  This is merely the cost to handle all the new paperwork required in the law.

I will repeat what I have said before -- the Republicans tend to focus narrowly on taxes and often tend to miss or downplay the regulatory issues, which I think actually loom larger in destroying economic growth.

Cecil the Lion's Problem: No One Owns Him

99% of the examples you will ever hear of resources being "raped" result from lack of property rights on those resources or insufficient legal protections for those rights.  This video says it all (starting at 1:00 but the whole thing is funny).  Money line: "There might be a few more polar bears left if people wanted one for breakfast"

The Utter Economic Ignorance of Tech Web Sites

Despite my advancing years, I still like to stay on the bleeding edge of tech, at least tech gadgets (in fact I would argue that I am of an age I have a hard time taking anyone seriously who calls themselves a hard-core programmer that hasn't had to write in assembly language, as I did back in college).

So I enjoy having 20-something's regale me on new tech goodies at sites like Gizmodo and Engadget.  But a running theme through all these sites is their shocking economic ignorance.  A good example was yesterday at Engadget with Sean Buckley writing on a decision in California to declare Uber drivers as employees of Uber rather than independent contractors.  Months ago I described a similar decision as signalling the death of Uber.  Buckley writes: (my emphasis added)

If you ask Uber, none of their drivers are employees -- just independent contractors who happen to use their network to get fares. If you've been watching the news though, you know some drivers disagree: filing lawsuits both in California and the UK for the right to be recognized as employees. Those drivers just got some vindication, by way of the California unemployment office. According to the Employment Development Department, at least one former Uber driver qualifies for unemployment benefits.

According to Reuters, the EDD decided that a former Uber driver in southern California was an employee; the decision was held up twice by a administrative law judge when Uber appealed. Apparently, Uber's control over the driver was a deciding factor -- the company gets to define fares, bar drivers from picking non-Uber passengers and can even charge drivers a cancellation fee for choosing not to pick up a fare. That's "in fact an employer / employee relationship," according to the decision.

Uber says this ruling doesn't have any impact on pending litigation, but it's certainly a feather in the hat of drivers who want a more traditional relationship with the company. We'll have to wait and see how that turns out as the class-action lawsuit moves forward.

I won't repeat what I wrote here, but suffice it to say that I think Uber is a dead duck in the long run if forced to treat drivers as employees.

The amazing line to me is the highlighted one.  What gives the author confidence that most Uber drivers "want a more traditional relationship with the company."  Is that what you want, more timeclock-punching and 100-page employee manuals?  My experience is that most Uber drivers value the fact that it is not a traditional job environment, and gives them a ton of flexibility on work hours, productivity rates, etc.    And why, by the way, is it assumed that every job must offer the same kind of employment relationship?  If someone doesn't like Uber, there are plenty of companies that will happily treat them like a mindless drone if that is what they like rather than being treated as an independent actor.

By the way, beyond the economic and liberty issues involved, I also think the California decision is just plain wrong in terms of the control Uber exercises.  Sure Uber sets standards for its drivers, but everyone does that for their contractors.  They key thing it does not do is set work hours and productivity rates.  They don't care when you work and they don't care how many passengers you carry in an hour, because you just get paid when you drive a customer.  Can you imagine a company that doesn't care when its employees show up for work or how hard they work when they do show up?  Neither can I, which tells me that this is NOT an employer-employee relationship.

Remember the conversation a few weeks ago over the NY Times article that tried to make Amazon out to be some kind of employer ogre because it sets tough productivity standards for employees?  That is what companies do when they have to pay by the hour (which is essentially how all employees, especially after Obama's most recent changes, must be paid).  So if you don't like companies that set tough productivity standards for workers, then why are you trying to kill labor models that don't require those kinds of standards?

Your Public Unions at Work, in One Chart

From Mark Perry

If you have ever been at, say, a kids sporting event and had an ambulance or paramedics called for one of the kids, you likely also had a fire truck accompany the ambulance or paramedics.  Did you wonder why they needed a firetruck with a 6 man crew to handle a broken leg in an open field?   Its because most public firefighters unions have gotten local laws passed that require a fire engine to always accompany the paramedics.  Why?  No reason other than they are trying to make firefighters look busy so no one starts to question why we have so many sitting around doing nothing.

Union leaders and fire department chiefs have found new ways to justify their growing budgets and payrolls. In a February 2001 report, the Wall Street Journal noted that 90 percent of firehouse calls in Los Angeles, Chicago and certain other cities were to accompany ambulances to medical emergencies. “Elsewhere, to keep their employees busy, fire departments have expanded into neighborhood beautification, gang intervention, substitute-teaching and other downtime pursuits,” the newspaper added.

My New Worst Business Ever: YP

YP is the modern name for what used to be the Yellow Pages.  Obviously, yellow pages are a dying business.  Ten years ago the Phoenix Yellow Pages had to be broken up into two books, each a couple inches think.  I happened to see one the other day, and it was the size of a short novel.  They tried to move to the web, but who goes to Yp.com (vs. google or Yelp) to find a business?

Even in the glory days of yellow pages, it was always hard to cancel their service.  If you did not tell them by like August, they would start billing you for the next year and sic a collection agency on you if you disputed it.

However, it appears that now that YP is a dying business, and knows that each lost customer will likely never be replaced, it has turned into the Hotel California.

In 2013, I left a location in Ventura County.   We had advertised in the Yellow Pages for years (back when it made sense) and had never been able to cancel it in time -- by the time we remembered it each year it had already auto renewed.   Soon after we left, I notified them that we needed to cancel.  At the time, I tried to negotiate a reduction in the 2014 charges but figured I probably would have to pay them, which I did.

Then, in 2015 I started getting bills.  I called each month patiently explaining and sending letters that we had already cancelled.  They would say that they had no record of my ever calling, but they swore they would mark the account as closed and that it would be fixed.  Then the next month it would all repeat -- a bad customer service Groundhog Day.

Finally this week I started getting legal threats and collection agency notices that I owe $499 for 2015 and that my life would be left in ruins with the ground salted if I did not pay immediately.  So I called today and AGAIN they had no record of my cancelling -- in fact, it was on a path to renew again for 2016.

Look, I am the first to tell folks to never chalk up to conspiracy what can as easily be explained by mass incompetence.  But at some point one has to suspect there is fraud going on here to retain customers as long as possible for a dying service.

So here is what I am left with -- I found someone in their organization who may be willing to settle my non-debt for non-services for a couple of hundred.  I told them this was absurd, since I did not owe it, but that I would pay a couple hundred dollars if they would give me a letter that said the account is closed and fully settled.  From the outside, this may seem a bad trade.  But I have enough lawyers in my life and hiring lawyers would be the only way to solve this any other way.  And besides, $200 is cheap compared to the thousands of dollars of my personal time I have spent farting with this.

Update 9/27/15:  God, this is Groundhog Day!  YP said that I should send a certified letter to such and such address to make absolutely sure that my account was cancelled.  I sent it to that exact address, braving a 30-minute line at the post office to do so.   So of course, the letter just came back undeliverable.  I have held off saying this, but these guys are total scam artists.  They seem to have no intention of ever letting me leave.