Archive for November 2015

A Keystone Hack

Well, we have reached another milestone in our permission-based economy with the Administration's rejection of the Keystone Pipeline.  We have zillions of miles of pipelines and are actually wasting energy and creating environmental messes moving the same oil by the inferior option of rail, but somehow this one pipeline had to be opposed.

Actually, the only reason this project is in front of the administration at all is because it crosses the Canadian border, which requires  State Department sign-off.  Which leads me to wonder if there is a hack.  Why not take the pipeline right up to the border from both sides and create a rail line across the border using a continuous loop of tank cars.  Its kludgy and inefficient, but probably less so than moving the oil long distance by rail.

I am reminded of this from a story long ago off Santa Barbara.  Exxon had gotten permission to drill in Federal waters, but local state/county folks wanted to find a way to stop the oil development.  Plans were (as is typical for any offshore oil) for a separation facility on shore that would separate oil, gas, and water from the mix that usually comes up out of the ground.    The state or local folks (can't remember which) refused to permit the separation facility, thinking that would kill the project.  But Exxon built what I believe was a unique separation facility on a boat and anchored the boat offshore.  No land permits necessary.

This is very similar, in my mind, to the pipeline decision.  California's attempt to block oil development altogether proved futile, just as Obama's decision will have little effect on long-term Canadian oil development.  But it did, in both cases, force a workaround (rail and the separator ship) that were almost certainly environmentally worse solutions than those that were halted.

Gift Idea for Readers

T-shirts with the entire text of great books printed on them.  Here is the one for Kafka's The Metamorphosis.  My son wanted a George Orwell one but there are none available as of yet.  Most seem to be books old enough to be in the public domain, which is likely no accident, though there are a few newer books.

Yale Literally Has Its Choice of Any High School Senior in the County. And It Picked These Folks?

Via Reason, but the story is all over

After giving Holloway his comeuppance, they moved on to Nicholas Christakis, master of Silliman College. What was Christakis’s crime? His wife, an early childhood educator, had responded to a campus-wide email about offensive Halloween costumes by opining that it was inappropriate for the college to tell students how to dress. According to The Washington Post:

“Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that,” wrote Erika Christakis, an early childhood educator and the wife of Nicholas Christakis, the Silliman College master. Both later took to social media to defend the e-mail, incensing students by tying it to debates about free speech and trigger warnings. At a Wednesday night forum hosted by the Afro-American Cultural Center, Erika Christakis sought to leave the meeting during a discussion of her e-mail, further provoking student anger. …

Students grew distressed, with one shouting at Nicholas Christakis to be quiet and questioning why he took the position at the university. “You are a poor steward of this community,” the student said. “You should not sleep at night.”

I guess the question is whether colleges like Yale are preferentially choosing students with this authoritarian mindset, or whether they are training them to be authoritarian.  In either case, they seem to be reaping what they sowed.

This story reminds me of two past observations I have made about universities.  The first is that their diversity programs, despite Universities being intellectual institutions, focus on absolutely everything (from skin pigmentation to reproductive plumbing) except diversity of ideas.  Perhaps this is because the only way to achieve "safe space" as defined by these students is either to create an intellectual mono-culture (the opposite of diversity) or to suppress speech and idea sharing so much that no intellectual discourse happens at all.  Definitely your classic "reap what you sow" situation.

The second observation is that I once thought that a key goal of "diversity" was to eliminate the in-group/ out-group dynamic that has been so destructive through all of history.  But I am increasingly convinced that the true objective of diversity programs as practiced on university campuses is to simply shift the "out-group" tag from one set of people to another.  More horrible things are said on campus about whites, males, Asians, wealthy people, straights, frats, etc than I ever heard in my entire lifetime from anyone about, say, African Americans.

Just look at how most Ivy League schools treat Asians.  The discrimination that occurs against Asian students is amazing, with Asians having to produce SAT scores hundreds of points higher than any other group to have an equal chance of admission.  This is why, despite all my support over the years for my alma mater, I quit doing college interviews for Princeton -- I got tired of being a part of hosing all the hard-working Asian kids I was interviewing.

Chip Card Transition, And Life as A Small Business Owner

Well, per the new rules, we replaced all of our old credit card readers (dozens) with new ones that can take chip cards (EMV).  Here is the bone pile of all the old technology, many of which were bought less than 2 years ago:

This illustrates both the best and worst of running one's own company.

The bad:  As CEO, I am actually futzing with distributing credit card terminals to the field and collecting the used ones to be recycled.

The good:  I have total control.  I was just in Washington DC, and in one meeting the National Park Service was there talking about some multi-year, multi-million dollar study to figure out their electronic payments "strategy" at their parks.  My payments strategy discussion went literally something like this:

Merchant guy:  Do you want to pay an extra $100 for the terminals to accept NFC payments (e.g. Apply pay, Android pay).

Me: Um, sure seems like the future.  Does it cost more to clear a transaction that way?

Merchant guy: no

Me:  They yes, I'll take it.

Now, we can take smart phone payments at dozens of public parks my company operates, all decided and implemented in about 30 days.

By the way, I am amazed at how many large companies like CVS appear to have the chip card readers but the store clerk tells me that they are not turned on yet whenever I try to stick my card in that slot (for those of you who don't know, the chip side goes head into a slot like an ATM slot on the front).  October 1 was the date that there was a liability shift, where merchants bear more liability for fraud if they don't take the chipcards.  Not sure how I was able to get this done in my little company but they can't manage it.

I was told by one person at CVS, a store manager but they may be off base, that they don't take the chip cards yet because they take longer than swiping.  This seems dumb.  First, many retailers for swipe cards waste time asking for the last four digits of your card, which is not necessary with the chip cards.  Further, CVS wastes a TON of time at the register with their stupid loyalty program.  Yes, I know it is a pet peeve of mine I rant on from time to time, but I have spent a lot of time waiting for people in front of me to try different phone numbers to see which one their account is under, or to waste time signing up for a loyalty card with 6 people in line behind them.  Makes me crazy.  If they can waste 30 seconds each transaction on stupid loyalty cards they can wait three extra seconds for a more secure credit card transaction.

Postscript:  It really should have been chip and pin rather than chip and signature

PS2:  Never, ever lease a credit card machine.  You pay about 4x its retail price, even present value.  I got roped into doing this for a few machines on the logic that this equipment transition was coming, and they would switch out my equipment.  But then they sold their leasing portfolio and the new owner wouldn't honor this promise, so I ended up overpaying for the old terminal (and having to pay $1000 each just to get out of the lease) and then buying the new terminals.  Live and learn.

Three Reasons It May Be Time To Short Automobile Stocks

As always, take this with a grain of salt given my past history of investment advice.  I am frequently correct on my calls to short something, but tend to be really early, such that a person (ie me) can likely be short-squeezed into oblivion before the fall takes place.

That being said, I think autos would be a good short.  Why?

  1. They are riding positive sentiment, based on a strong October.  But October was strong because it had 5 weekends rather than 4 and recent results reflect a lot of channel stuffing.   Shorting means finding the top, and this feels like the top
  2. I would be stunned if the Volkswagen emissions cheating is limited to Volkswagen.  Volkswagen is not unique -- Cat and I think Cummins were busted a while back for the same thing.  US automakers don't have a lot of exposure to diesels (except for pickup trucks) but my guess is that something similar was ubiquitous.  **
  3. Apparently, the recent rebound in auto sales has been driven by a huge spurt of sub-prime lending that looks remarkably similar to the housing market 7 years ago:

This comes against a backdrop of rising US auto sales (see the numbers for October, out earlier today) and it's not difficult to explain the gains. Just take a look at the following data from Experian on the lunatic loan terms being extended to borrowers (from Q1):

  • Average loan term for new cars is now 67 months — a record.
  • Average loan term for used cars is now 62 months — a record.
  • Loans with terms from 74 to 84 months made up 30%  of all new vehicle financing — a record.
  • Loans with terms from 74 to 84 months made up 16% of all used vehicle financing — a record.
  • The average amount financed for a new vehicle was $28,711 — a record.
  • The average payment for new vehicles was $488 — a record.
  • The percentage of all new vehicles financed accounted for by leases was 31.46% — a record.

** Postscript:  The biggest problem with the emission cheating is that it caused the world to under-estimate the cost of emissions mandates.  When performance of cars starts to drop noticeably when emissions cheating is fixed, it will be an eye-opener

Flattery is Death for an Organization

The WSJ wrote the other day about Hillary Clinton's emails:

A common thread running through the tens of thousands of emails that landed in Hillary Clinton’s in-box in her time as secretary of state is that aides and assorted advisers believe she is, well, awesome.

With a few exclamation points tacked on.

In notes sent to the private email account Mrs. Clinton used, various advisers routinely heap praise on the person who gave them their jobs or elevated them to her inner circle. Email flattery of this sort is a common tactic in the everyday workplace, but the Clinton emails show how it comes into play at the highest levels of government.

Employees tell Mrs. Clinton she is doing a “spectacular job,” that she has many admirers and that her remarks were “pitch perfect.” They assure her she looks “gorgeous” in photos and commend her clothing choices.

Look, I guess everyone has their own leadership style but from my experience it is a terrible idea to promote this kind of thing in one's organization.

Why?  Well, my organization has 350 people in it.  We can either think with just one person (me), working to improve our operations, or we can think with 350.  Those 349 other people know many of the ways in which we are screwing up and can improve -- the problem is getting them to come forward with those ideas.  And getting them to do so is far less likely if we are maintaining some sort of North Korean style personality cult of the CEO.

I have written about this before, but it's why I consider my Ivy League degrees to be a negative in running the company.  Many of my employees have only a high school education (at best) and are intimidated in bringing up an idea or telling me I am screwing up because they assume since I have these Ivy League degrees I must be smarter than they are and know what I am doing.   But in their particular job, in terms of my knowledge of what they see every day from customers and operationally, I am dumb as a post and completely ignorant.

Anyone who has worked for me for more than a few months can likely quote my favorite line which I use in most of my employee talks -- "If you see something that seems screwed up, don't assume Warren is smarter than you and wants it that way, assume that Warren is screwing up and needs to be told."

Postscript:  This sort of flattery also makes me deeply uncomfortable on a personal level, so much so I have a hard time understanding people who revel in it.  I once had an employee that could not stop with this sort of personal flattery, and eventually we ended up terminating them.  We terminated them for other good reasons, but I must admit to being relieved when they left.

Quote of the Day -- On Intellect in Politics

From Chris Dillow via Arnold Kling:

I would rather have second-rate politicians who know they are duffers than ones who believe they are brilliant.

I am sympathetic with this statement but for a reason that Dillow does not mention.  No one is smart enough to try to manage certain complex systems, like the economy.  They don't have the information or the ability to set prices, fix (or even correctly identify) "market failures, assess the preferences of 300 million individuals, or any of the other things politicians try to do -- no matter how freaking brilliant they are.   Really smart people in politics (or people who think they are really smart) also have a tendency to want to substitute, by force, their judgement and decision-making for my own.