Archive for June 2017

Model Railroad Update

I can hear the reaction now:  Finally a break from free speech controversies and economic policy so we can get on with Coyote's promised increased focus on the world's geekiest hobby(tm).  So here is what has been happening on the new model railroad (in my tiny, but dedicated, hobby space)

I finished the main body of the railroad.  The two lines that cross at a junction in this section will actually continue around the walls in a loop, but I will add those narrow shelves later.  I added 1/8-inch lauan plywood on the frame.  In the lower left on my desk I am finishing the double crossing which effectively acts as the keystone of the layout, both visually and in construction.  I will lay that first and work outwards.

I use 2" foam as a base.  This is a good approach for modeling rail in the Phoenix area, which is largely flat in the areas I am modelling, but allows some undulations, washes, and canals to be easily carved out.

I printed the skeleton of the track plan in 1:1 scale and laid it out where it is going to go.  You can see the junction in the distance.  I did not like some of the aesthetics and wall spacing and building locations, and altered the track plan some after this test.  The next step is to reprint the full track plan and transfer it to the foam.  I do this using an older (sewing) pounce wheel, which I can run over outlines in the plan and it leaves a series of dots in the foam.  I say an older pounce wheel because the one I have looks like a very pointy spur, but my wife's new ones are not nearly as pointy and don't really work for this application.

After that, I will be to start laying down homosote roadbed for the main lines and start laying track, working out in all four directions from the junction.  As I do so, I will mostly follow the plan but I tend to adjust exact locations of turnouts and sidings as I go.

One Argument for Old Age Is That I Won't Live Long Enough to See These Morons Do Their Full Measure of Damage

It it were just Evergreen College, which was always a sort of Antioch / Hampshire College nuthouse anyway, I could write it off.  But this is going on at Yale and Wesleyan and Amherst and Middlebury and the Claremont colleges.  The list goes on and on.  Ken White, who has been on the front lines of free speech defense for years, has recently said there are many reasons to be optimistic.  In particular, the Supreme Court has been virtually absolutist in its defense of free speech over the past decades.  But someone said something to me that I have never forgotten -- the Supreme Court tends to reflect the values of college kids two generations earlier.  Without massive new medical interventions (which are unlikely under the coming Sanders-Warren socialized medicine regime) I don't expect to be around to see it.

Too bad Dante is not around because he might have written a nice circle of hell for Evergreen President George Sumner Bridges.  I can't tell if this guy is a complete idiot or if everything we hear from him is some sort of hostage video with him speaking under duress, perhaps with SJW's hiding in his office closet to enforce conformity.

[Fill In Government Program Name or Name of Socialist Country] Would Have Worked if Only the Right People Had Run It

Sent to me by a long-time reader.

Blue State Governance: Illinois Needs A Half Year of Taxes Just to Pay Late Bills

Per the WSJ:

This is what happens when a major American state lets its bills stack up for two years.

Hospitals, doctors and dentists don’t get paid for hundreds of millions of dollars of patient care. Social-service agencies help fewer people. Public universities and the towns that surround them suffer. The state’s bond rating falls to near junk status. People move out.

A standoff in Illinois between Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and Democratic Speaker of the House Michael Madigan over spending and term limits has left Illinois without a budget for two years. State workers and some others are still getting paid because of court orders and other stopgap measures, but bills for many others are piling up.

...Susana Mendoza, the state’s Democratic comptroller, is in charge of doling out limited funds to organizations demanding payment—a job she likens to handing out crumbs to starving children. She predicted unpaid bills will soon top $16 billion. “It is almost hard to say those numbers out loud because they seem so insane, but that’s where we are right now,” she says.

For reference, the entire tax revenue of the state of Illinois is just $32 billion a year, so even if the government were to close tomorrow and fire everyone, it would still take 6 months of taxes to just catch up on the bills.  And you can bet this does not include the most common form of borrowing done by most government agencies -- deferred maintenance.  Pretty much every government agency in the country at every level of government does not fully fund the maintenance of its capital assets (from parks to school buildings) preferring instead to fund the maximum salaries and retirement benefits for the maximum number of headquarters staff.

By the way, you may notice at the budget link that the proposed budget still calls for $6 to $7 billion a year in deficit spending, and does not include any provision for catching up on Illinois's sky-high $130 billion in unfunded retirement benefits (a number that represents a full 4 years of tax revenues).  Illinois is functionally bankrupt, and the only good news is that Illinois favorite son Barack Obama is no longer in the White House to bail them out.

EU Fines Google in a Dose of Net Neutrality Schadenfreude

Via engadget:

The European Commission's long-running investigation into Google has finally come to an end, and it's not good news for the search giant. Commissioner Margrethe Vestager confirmed today that the company has been fined €2.42 billion ($2.72 billion) for unfairly directing users to its own products rather over those of its rivals. It's the biggest financial penalty the Commission has ever handed out, eclipsing the €1.06 billion ($1.4 billion) charge incurred by Intel back in 2014.

In a statement, Vestager said: "Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

Via calls for "net neutrality"** in this country, Google has been arguing that ISPs must act as common carriers of its content and must ignore the fact that nearly half of all US ISP bandwidth investment is used without compensation to support the business model of just two content providers (Google and Netflix).  Google does not want ISP's to somehow favor other content providers over themselves, even though these others cost orders of magnitude less to serve than does Google's Youtube division.

Well, as I wrote before, the EU is bringing karmic justice to Google via this decision.

Hah!  I think this is a terrible decision that has nothing to do with economic sanity or even right and wrong -- it has to do with the EU's frequent historic use of anti-trust law as a way to bash foreign competition of its domestic providers, to the detriment of its consumers.  But it certainly is Karma for Google.  The EU is demanding that Google's search engine become a common carrier, showing content from shopping sites equally and without favor or preference.  The EU is demanding of Google exactly what Google is demanding of ISP's, and wouldn't you know it, I don't think they are going to like it.

** I put "net neutrality" in scare quotes because I think it is a term that means exactly the opposite of what it says.  Neutrality is what we had 2 years ago, with no regulation that favored either content providers or bandwidth providers in the typical negotiations and back-and-forth that occurs in every supply chain.  "Net neutrality" actually means tipping the scales and being non-neutral in favor of content providers over ISP's.

Creating Income Inequality in Seattle

So Seattle made a public policy change that caused lower-skill, lower-wage employment to lag way behind employment of wealthier, higher-skill folks.

One would expect the Progressive Left to freak out in opposition to this policy.  But in fact this policy is their absolutely most cherished, favorite public policy intervention -- the minimum wage.  As reported earlier, the city of Seattle engaged an economic study of the minimum wage change using some of the best data ever made available for such a study.  This was the result (table 3, in which I removed low-wage employment from all employment to get low wage and all other employment)

Seattle Minimum Wage Study

The Seattle city government commissioned a study (pdf) to see what the actual effects were of their increasing the city minimum wage to $13 (bless their hearts, politicians actually tried to evaluate the actual effects of a controversial policy change).  The study authors had access to a uniquely rich data set.  Unlike folks like Card and Kruger, who had to use proxies for low-skill labor employment such as employment in the fast food industry, this study's authors had access to individual wage and hour data by person by location.   The result was one of the highest measured negative net effects of a minimum wage yet calculated:

This paper evaluates the wage, employment, and hours effects of the first and second phase-in of the Seattle Minimum Wage Ordinance, which raised the minimum wage from $9.47 to $11 per hour in 2015 and to $13 per hour in 2016. Using a variety of methods to analyze employment in all sectors paying below a specified real hourly rate, we conclude that the second wage increase to $13 reduced hours worked in low-wage jobs by around 9 percent, while hourly wages in such jobs increased by around 3 percent. Consequently, total payroll fell for such jobs, implying that the minimum wage ordinance lowered low-wage employees’ earnings by an average of $125 per month in 2016. Evidence attributes more modest effects to the first wage increase. We estimate an effect of zero when analyzing employment in the restaurant industry at all wage levels, comparable to many prior studies.

Note what this means -- the amount of pay raise some low-skill employees got was less than the pay lost by workers who had their hours reduced or eliminated.  This is against a backdrop of a huge boom in Seattle in total employment, meaning that the minimum wage greatly increased income inequality, reducing income to lower-skill workers at the same time higher-skill workers were making a lot more money.  This is not surprising given the data here, which shows the difference between low-income and middle class to be more than 80% due to hours worked, not wage rates.

To some extent, the severity of these results was influenced by the limited region to which the wage applied (making it easier for customers to run for the border, so to speak, to find lower-priced goods and services).  But it is telling that the study with by far the best data shows the biggest negative effects.  To this end, the authors actually evaluate the Card and Krueger approach of looking narrowly at fast food employment, and actually are able to replicate Card and Krueger's results (of limited employment effect of a minimum wage increase in the fast food industry) in Seattle.  This means that Card and Kruger, with their limited proxy, would have said Seattle had no negative employment effects while better more comprehensive data shows the opposite.

Thus, by using the imprecise proxy of all jobs in a stereotypically low-wage industry, prior literature may have substantially underestimated the impact of minimum wage increases on the target population. Finally, column 5 returns to evaluating effects on total hours, but now for all 34 jobs in NAICS 722. While the estimates continue to be insignificant, they are now more negative, averaging -3.3% in the last three quarters. This result is consistent with Neumark and Wascher’s (2000) critique of Card and Krueger (1994).

Commercial Airline Pilots, African Style

This was a letter from a pilot in answer to the question of why European airports ban flights from certain African airlines

One African airline I know of has the procedure that every landing must be a smooth one. That sounds okay to most people, but hopefully not to the pilots among us. They mandated that landing smoothly was more important than landing in the touchdown zone. They didn’t go around, they would simply touch down in the middle of the runway and slam on the brakes, close their eyes and pray that they didn’t go off the end of the runway. But the passengers never knew any of this, just feeling a smooth touchdown, so that was the most important factor for them.

The same airline would work out the maximum load they were able to safely lift in terms of passengers and freight, complete the load sheet and other paperwork to fit with this maximum, then do the real calculations in-flight, commonly landing more than five metric tonnes over the maximum landing weight.

The same airline made their pilots work 10 days on, one day off. They were not allowed to call in sick and any breach of this would necessitate armed men being sent to the pilots place of accommodation to physically force them onto the aircraft. I believe I know of two First Officers who got away with it — one because he had been arrested for murder, the other because he had been kidnapped. So I guess they weren’t totally unreasonable.

The SOP at my airline is to descend at 700 feet per minute for a three-degree approach and flare at about 20 feet. The SOP for this airline was to descend at 1500 feet per minute — thrust is idle so it saved them fuel — and flare at about 100 feet, floating down the runway to land dangerously, but smoothly, far far down the runway. Maintenance procedures were ignored and reports doctored. Licenses and check rides were given and passed based on bribes.

Eek.

By the way, if you are a frequent traveler interested in airline and credit card frequent flyer programs and benefits, the linked site is a good one.

Coke and Pepsi Healthcare Reform -- It's All About the Credit

Over the last several years, when the successes and failures of the PPACA/Obamacare/Health Care reform entirely accrued to Democrats, the Republicans fought against market stabilization funds as unwarranted subsidies for insurance companies.  My understanding is that the original PPACA included a market stabilization method, but it was written as being revenue neutral - ie funds from insurers who had healthier than average subscriber pools would be transferred to insurers who had sicker subscribers.  But soon, all insurers were losing money and premiums were rising and insurers were dropping out of the exchanges.  So President Obama transferred money from other sources to give extra market stabilization funds, e.g. subsidies, to insurers.  Republicans fought this action in the courts.  There was a principled position that Obama's actions were not legal, but Republicans were also happy to see the PPACA failing.  If Democrats in Congress could have made any one change to the PPACA last year, it likely would have been to increase these stabilization or subsidy funds, which I presume the Republicans would have fought.

Now, it is clear the public and the media is going to hang any future PPACA problems around Republican necks.  Whether this is fair or not is almost irrelevant -- one can see from Republican actions that they feel this to be true, at least in the Senate.  Because now Republicans are proposing market stabilization subsidies that are likely higher than Democrats would have even dreamed of asking for:

When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releases its estimate of Senate Republicans’ Obamacare discussion draft this week, it will undoubtedly state that the bill will lower health insurance premiums. A whopping $65 billion in payments to insurers over the next three years virtually guarantees this over the short-term.

Indeed, Senate Republican staff have reportedly been telling members of Congress that the bill is designed to lower premiums between now and the 2020 election—hence the massive amounts of money for plan years through 2021, whose premiums will be announced in the heat of the next presidential campaign....

Section 106 of the bill creates two separate “stability funds,” one giving payments directly to insurers to “stabilize” state insurance markets, and the second giving money to states to improve their insurance markets or health care systems. The insurer stability fund contains $50 billion—$15 billion for each of calendar years 2018 and 2019, and $10 billion for each of calendar years 2020 and 2021. The fund for state innovation contains $62 billion, covering calendar years 2019 through 2026.

This goes against pretty much all of the principled reasons Republicans opposed Obamacare in the first place, but given the choice of following principle or using our tax money to help buy another couple years in power, both parties will always make the second choice.  Of course, being given all that they would have wanted last year, the Democrats will likely not sign on for this as they don't want to bail Republicans out any more than Republicans wanted to bail Democrats out.

What is the Essence of a Two By Four?

Decades ago, common carpentry practice (later set in stone by written regulations) specified that certain applications needed a 2 inch by 4 inch board.   The reason this board was chosen was not due to its size per se (in most cases, for cost and space issues, I am sure folks would love to have gotten away with something smaller).  This size board was chosen for a specific application by its load-carrying ability.   For example, two inch by four inch boards spaced every 16 inches apart created acceptably strong framing for a wall.

Anyway, after many years of making lumber, the timber and lumber industry found ways to make the 2 inch by 4 inch board much stronger.  Well, not always stronger, but more uniform in strength such that the weakest board in a batch was much closer to the average than before.  But for standards, this has about the same effect -- 2 inch by 4 inch boards could be considered to be much stronger since the expected value had to be set at the minimum that might be encountered.

So now, all the standard applications are over-designed.  We can get away with a smaller, cheaper board than a 2x4.  Or, for those of you less focused on capitalism and more focused on environmentalism, we can use fewer trees to build the same house.  But how do we switch an entire industry that is steeped from birth as to what a 2x4 should be used for?  How do we rewrite a myriad of regulations that all call for a 2x4?

Well, in the lumber industry, they redefined the 2x4 to actually be something like 1.5 x 3.5 actual inches, a board which under new production processes has the same predicted strength as the old 2" by 4" boards.  In effect, they decided that the essence of a 2x4 was not its dimensions, but its load-carrying ability.  Almost any engineer can understand this immediately.  This means we still frame walls with 2x4's spaced every 16 inches, but the lumber is smaller and less expensive than it was before.  Standards and training don't have to change.  Architects maybe had to adjust a bit because their wall widths changed slightly, but a 3.5 inch board width actually is a nice number because with sheets of 3/4 inch drywall on both sides it makes for a nice round number 6" thick wall.

All of this is background to this absurd story, that some moronic trial lawyer is using this history to try to commit legal blackmail against a couple large home store chains (via Overlawyered):

Two home improvements stores are accused of deceiving the buyers of four-by-four boards, the big brother to the ubiquitous two-by-four.

The alleged deception: Menards and Home Depot (HD) market and sell the hefty lumber as four-by-fours without specifying that the boards actually measure 3½ inches by 3½ inches.

The lawsuits against the retailers would-be class actions, filed within five days of each other in federal court for the Northern District of Illinois. Attorneys from the same Chicago law firm represent the plaintiffs in both cases. Each suit seeks more than $5 million.

“Defendant has received significant profits from its false marketing and sale of its dimensional lumber products,” the action against Menards contends.

“Defendant’s representations as to the dimension of these products were false and misleading,” the suit against Home Depot alleges.

The retailers say the allegations are bogus. It is common knowledge and longstanding industry practice, they say, that names such as two-by-four or four-by-four do not describe the width and thickness of those pieces of lumber.

 

AP Writes Over 1300 Words on the Loss Of Summer Jobs for Teens, Never Mentions Minimum Wage

If one is curious why the public is economically illiterate, look no further than our media.  The AP's Paul Wiseman managed to write 1300 words on the loss of teenage summer jobs, and even lists a series of what he considers to be the causes, without ever once mentioning the minimum wage or the substantial restrictions on teen employment in place in many states.  I do not know Paul Wiseman and so I will not guess at his motivations - whether ignorance or intentional obfuscation - but it is impossible to believe that this trend isn't in part due to the minimum wage.  As I wrote in the comments on the AZ Republic:

How is it possible to write over 1300 words on the disapearance of teenage summer jobs without once mentioning the minimum wage?

Two of the most substantial criticisms of the minimum wage are 1. it prices low-skilled workers out of the market (and there is no one more unskilled than an inexperienced teenager) and 2. it put 100% emphasis on pay as the only reward for work, while giving no credit for things like gaining valuable experience and skills. We clearly see both at work here, and it is likely no coincidence that we are seeing this article in the same year minimum wages went up by 25% in AZ, as they have in many other states.

By the way, in addition to the minimum wage, AZ (as has many other states) has established all sorts of laws to "protect" underrage workers by adding all sorts of special work rules and tracking requirements. In our business, which is a summer recreation business, we used to hire a lot of teenagers. Now we have a policy banning the hiring of them -- they are too expensive, they create too much liability, and the rules for their employment are too restrictive.

Without evidence, he treats it entirely as a supply problem, ie that teens are busy and are not looking for work. But the data do not support this.  The teen unemployment rate, defined as employment by teens actively looking for work, is up.  The workforce participation rate for teens is down, but the author has nothing but anecdotal evidence that this is a supply rather than a demand issue.  It could be because teens are busier or buried in their cell phones or whatever or it could be because they have given up looking for work.

What Differentiates Republicans and Democrats

I saw this chart from Cato a while back (click to enlarge)

With the proviso that it is super dangerous to analyze this sort of data by eyeballing a scatter chart, it sure looks to me like the difference between Republicans and Democrats is mainly on economic rather than social issues.  This is surprising, I suppose, because Democrats and the media focus most of their criticism on Republicans for being social dinosaurs, but it looks like the social issues are not as much of a discriminator.  I also find it surprising given recent the Republican affinity for what strike me as liberal economic ideas, including Trump's protectionism and the strong vote for a minimum wage in red-state Arizona.

I will say however that Bryan Caplan has been on this for years.  As he reiterated the other day,

I regretfully invoke my Simplistic Theory of Left and Right.  The heart of the left isn't helping the poor, or reducing inequality, or even minority rights.  The heart of the left is being anti-market.... The second half of my Simplistic Theory says: The heart of the right is being anti-left.

I like the way he puts the last bit, because I SURE would struggle to call modern Republicans pro-market.

In this post, by the way, Caplan is skeptical about the feasibility of progressive-libertarian concerted action on certain issues.  I know my friend Brink Lindsey is working on a book to be released in the fall which will make a case for such areas of cooperation.

I will say from my personal experience that as a libertarian I was able for years to make common cause with the Left on certain issues and on the Right for other issues.  I found, starting a couple of years ago when I tried to participate in the leadership of a pro gay marriage effort, that it was increasingly hard for me to work with the progressive Left.  To work with me, they demanded not just that I agree with the issue at hand, but that I also had to pass any number of other litmus tests unrelated to the issue we were working on -- ie I could not be allowed to work for gay marriage given that I had expressed skeptical opinions on the minimum wage and catastrophic man-made climate change.

Recent Harvard Business School Grads Hardest Hit

Apparently, European investment banks will have to start charging for research that, apparently, no one reads (emphasis added)

"The global investment research market is on the cusp of major disruption," said Benjamin Quinlan, CEO of Hong Kong-based Quinlan & Associates and author of a report on the challenges facing the research sector.

Forcing the change are new rules, known as Markets in Financial Instruments Directive, or MiFID II, due to take effect in January 2018 aiming to make European securities markets more transparent.

A key aspect of these rules is that investment banks must charge fund managers an explicit fee for research rather than bundling the cost into trading commissions charged to clients, as at present.

...For example, about 40,000 research reports are produced every week by the world's top 15 global investment banks, of which less than 1 percent are actually read by investors, according to Quinlan.

When I was there, an enormous number of Harvard Business School grads got their first post-b-school job as analysts writing just such reports.

Where Have All The Public Companies Gone?

From the WSJ today, this interesting bit:

In less than two decades, more than half of all publicly traded companies have disappeared. There were 7,355 U.S. stocks in November 1997, according to the Center for Research in Security Prices at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Nowadays, there are fewer than 3,600....

“Twenty years ago, there were over 4,000 stocks smaller” than the inclusion cutoff for the Russell 2000, says Lubos Pastor, a finance professor at the University of Chicago. “That number is down to less than 1,000 today.”

The article discusses the trend in the context of stock pickers having a smaller palette to work with, as it were, but obviously there are likely some economic implications here as well.  The first words the popped into my head were "Dodd-Frank" but for all the problems with that law, the chart makes clear that most of the decline occurred long before that law was passed.

Postscript:  The title of the article is "Stock Picking Is Dying Because There Are No More Stocks to Pick."  Maybe, but I would have been less charitable by saying that it was because as a group stock pickers have never been able to out-perform the market averages, even when there were twice as many stocks to choose from.

Update:  A reader writes:

Matt Levine, Bloomberg writer, has suggested recently that the reason this has happened is not that regulations on public companies have become especially onerous, it's that access to private money is easier now.

Public company regulations were always kind of onerous, but it was worth it to get access to the money only available in the public market. These days, when you can raise billions of dollars without ever going public, why bother?

In the context of stock-picking, I suppose all the good ones have moved to private equity firms.  As I suppose, have gone the good industry analysts

How The Media Exaggerates to Scare You -- Often In Support of Growing the State

I find the WSJ to be more readable than most modern newspapers, but that does not mean it doesn't play exactly the same silly media games every other media outlet does.

This article is about a legitimately dangerous dam in California that is being rebuilt to accommodate new learning about how earthen dams behave in seismic events.  The authors attempt to extrapolate from this example to highlight a larger threat to the nation.  They use this chart:

A reader who is not careful and does not read the fine print, which means probably most all of them, will assume that "dangerous" and "hazardous" as used in this chart refers to dams that are somehow deficient.  But in fact, these terms in this chart refer only to the fact that IF a particular dam were to fail, people and property might be at risk.  The data here say nothing about whether these dams are somehow deficient.  Actually, if anything, I am surprised the number by this definition is as small as 30%.

The actual number of deficient dams that are dangerous to human life is actually an order of magnitude smaller than these numbers, as given in the text:

An estimated 27,380 or 30% of the 90,580 dams listed in the latest 2016 National Inventory of Dams are rated as posing a high or significant hazard. Of those, more than 2,170 are considered deficient and in need of upgrading, according to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The inventory by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t break out which ones are deficient.

So if we accept the ASCE numbers as valid (and I am always skeptical of their numbers, they tend to exaggerate in order to try to generate business for their profession) the actual numbers of dams that are really hazardous is no more than 2,170.  That strikes me as a reasonably high number, and certainly a good enough reason to write a story, but the media simply cannot help themselves and insist on exaggerating every risk higher than it is.

Examples of Why Government Infrastructure Projects Are So Hard To Get Done

As most of you know, my company operates public recreation facilities for a variety of public agencies under concession contracts.  These contracts are mostly similar to each other in their structure, but one key difference among them is the contract length -- we have both short-term contracts of say 5 years and long-term contracts up to 30 years.  When we have longer-term contracts, we are expected to do all the maintenance, even capital maintenance such as repaving roads and replacing roofs (more on that approach here).  The US Forest Service tends to prefer much shorter contracts where they retain responsibility for capital maintenance -- this tends to work out as we pay a higher concession fee on these (since we have fewer expenses) and the Forest Service has a process to use the concession fee to perform capital maintenance.  In fact, generally the FS asks us to do the maintenance because it is way easier for us to get it started (avoids the government contracting processes) and then we get credit for our costs against the fees we owe.

Anyway, I have a fair amount of experience with performing small to medium-sized infrastructure projects on public lands.  Here are a few examples, starting from the sublime and proceeding to the ridiculous, of projects we have not been able to proceed with and why.  In all these examples, my company was going to fund the project so availability of funds was not an issue.

  • In TN, we had already begun an expansion to add more campsites to an existing campground, a project already approved by our government landlord.  A disgruntled ex-employee, on his way out, claimed we had disturbed a rock pile and he thought the rock pile was some sort of Native American artifact.  Despite the fact there was no evidence for this, and that the construction was no where near the rock pile, construction was halted and my contractor had to go home while an investigation was begun.  As we speak, scores of acres surrounding the campground have been put off-limits to development until the rock pile is thoroughly studied, but of course no funding currently exists to study the rock pile so it is not clear how long this will take.  I am proceeding internally on the assumption that we will never be given permission and am cutting losses on materials bought for the project.
  • In AZ, we operated a snow play area in what was essentially a gravel pit.  The slopes we used were what was left from years of mining gravel, and essentially the whole area had been disturbed.  We wanted to add a real bathroom to replace scores of portable toilets and to bring power to the area rather than use generators.  All the work would be performed on already disturbed land in the gravel pit.  We were told we could not proceed without a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) study to assess environmental impacts of the work, which could easily take years or longer if its results got tied up in the courts, as they often do.  Since the government had no money or manpower to do the NEPA study, it was pointless to even try to proceed.  This year, without the ability to construct necessary facilities for visitors, we exited the concession contract and the Forest Service has not be successful yet in finding anyone else to reopen it.
  • In CA, just this week, I was discussing two maintenance projects with the government in a series of campgrounds we run near the Owens Valley.  In one, we wanted to dig up a water line that runs under a dirt road to repair a leak.  In the second, we desperately needed to replace some leaky roofs on bathrooms.  Both projects are now delayed.  In the case of the water line, digging up the road was going to require an archaeological study - yes, any digging basically requires such a study, and there is no exception for utterly absurd situations like this.  We eventually decided to open the campground without water this year, to the detriment of campers.  In the other case, the replacement of roofs on some old 1950's campground pit toilet buildings (think bathrooms at a highway rest area but not as nice) have to first be evaluated to make sure they are not historic buildings that should be protected.  Since this is a safety issue, I used up my favors on this one to try to get it to proceed.  In my experience, once a building in a park or campground has been labelled historic, that is pretty much its death sentence.  It becomes impossible to do any work on them and they simply fall apart.  For example, years ago there were some really neat old travel cabins in Slide Rock State Park in AZ.  I tried to get permission to fix them up and reopen them, but was told they were historic and they had to wait for special permissions and procedures and materials.  Today, the cabins are basically kindling, having fallen apart completely.

Recognize that these are projects entirely without NIMBY, funding, permitting, licensing, or procurement issues.  But they still face barriers from government rules.

Thank You

I don't think I was effusive enough in my previous post in thanking everyone who left such nice comments and/or sent me the great emails.  I really appreciate all the support and it makes a big difference.  Happy Fathers Day.  I am spending mine on the road for business, but in the outdoor recreation business there is no such day as a holiday during the summer time.

My New Rules

Well, I guess it should be obvious that I have not totally given up blogging.  I thank everyone for the nice emails and the nice comments.

However, I am going to try some new rules for the next month, less on my blogging and more on how I engage with the news.

  1. No more Twitter.  For those of you who use Twitter as a news aggregator, my posts will still appear on twitter and from time to time I will post things there that fit on twitter better than in a full blog post.  But I am not going to read my feed, and I am really not going to engage with things in my feed.  Everyone is trying to piss me off, and worse, a few times they have been successful and I have posted juvenile retorts that I later regretted.  I am going to keep a Civ 6 game on my computer and every time I am even tempted to open twitter I will play a couple of turns of Civ 6, worrying instead how to keep Gandhi from nuking me again.  Ironically, I just today ticked over 1000 followers on Twitter, so thanks very much for the support, but if you tweet at me over the next month I won't see it.
  2. Paring down my RSS feed.  I have read partisan political blogs on both sides of the aisle for years.  In fact it has been a point of pride that I read from both sides.  But these folks are all crazy, all the more so because they waste so many electrons arguing their side is sane and the other is crazy.  Everyone on these blogs is trying to just make me angry or afraid.  I am not going to play.  I can get angry and afraid all by myself.  All the political blogs are going out the window for the next month.  The more polemical climate blogs are going out.  Anyone who uses the words "Comey" or "Russia" or "Impeach" or "Benghazi"  in two out of three posts is gone.  Unfortunately, this means, at least for this month, that I cast off Instapundit as well, which is hard for me because Professor Reynolds really gave me my first traffic and helped promote my book.
  3. I have been reading the same stuff for years.  Over time I need to find some like-minded folks interested in discussing policy while still capable of assuming that folks who disagree with them may actually be people of good will.  But I don't want to spend my time in full wonk mode either.  I will call Megan McArdle my benchmark of what I am looking for, and I am accepting recommendations for folks Left and Right of her to read.  Kevin Drum for example on the Left was pretty good on this dimension when his guys were in office but he is much more in team politics mode now (Mother Jones banning me didn't help, particularly since they banned me for referring to the "NRA" in a comment -- particularly funny since I was referring to FDR's National Industrial Recovery Act and not to the much-hated-by-progressives National Rifle Association).

My wife never reads my blog and probably is not too in touch with my existential blogging angst of late, but out of the blue the other day she suggested it would be fun to set up a salon where we could bring together folks across the political spectrum to have discussions of issues of the day.  I thought this was a great idea and have been thinking about how to pull this off.  Unlike what seems to be fashionable today, we actually have friends across the political spectrum -- something that has been easy considering one of our families consists of Massachusetts Progressives (from Antioch, no less!) one is of Texas Conservatives (with oil company executives, no less!).  Our families always got along great but I worry that a few of my friends my be at each others' throats if we have them talking politics in the same room.  So we have to figure out how to discuss policy, not politics.

My Philanthropy Idea for Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos is apparently crowdsourcing philanthropy ideas from the public at large.  I wish him well, and hope he finds some interesting and useful outlets for his excess cash.  I would however encourage him to find something whose model can grow and still remain robust.  I have found that there are many charitable activities that work great because of the passion and vision of one person, but are not easy to grow (many examples of local successful public school reforms fall in the same category).  If Jeff Bezos gives money, a charity is likely to see a huge increase in resources, both from Bezos's money and, because his decision is going to be public and high-profile, from money from others who donate because Bezos did.

Any decision he makes will likely be more to satisfy his inner need to be involved with something new and different rather than the optimal approach to help the maximum number of people.  Because he is presumably uniquely good a creating businesses, probably the best way for him to maximize the use of his money and time in improving the lives of a maximum number of people is to go start another business.  Certainly Amazon has created value for the rest of us that dwarfs the amount he has earned from it.  Taken another way, via Amazon he has hugely improved the lives of many, many people and in turn taken just a small commission for himself on this value created. He has lowered prices for us, he has saved us time, he has brought us many more choices.  He has created a platform for small businesses to sell their product that they could never duplicate themselves.  He has nearly single-handedly created the self-publishing business and provided an outlet for a ton of new authors (myself included).  He helps keep Apple and Google honest (and vice versa) from his competition with them.

Of course, he is likely tired of doing only this kind of stuff so he wants to do something more traditionally charitable, and that is fine, but I am exhausted with the notion that charity helps people but business and commerce do not.  Learning from this, one decision criteria might be that he looks for something that not only needs his money, but needs his expertise and vision as well.  The latter is likely way more valuable than the former.

If I had a billion dollars for philanthropy, I might start a new university with a totally new approach.  I would call Brian Caplan and I'd see if we could build a curriculum and an entire educational approach out of engaging multiple perspectives on each issue.   Admissions essay question #1:  "Tell us about a time you encountered a perspective or opinion on an issue very different from you own and tell us how you responded."

 

Best Thing I Have Read This Week, From Arnold Kling

From Arnold Kling:

My understanding of post-modernism is based pretty much on what I have read from its critics. What is the best defense of post-modernism that is out there?

These brief two sentences embody nearly everything that has been lost and desperately needs to return to public discourse and in particular to universities.  The equivalent bleg from much of current academia is:

Though I have not read anything he has written, someone is apparently dissenting from my views on post-modernism. Can someone please have him run off campus ASAP, or at least provide me with a safe room wherein I have no chance of his opinions reaching my brain?

Karmic Justice: EU Does to Google What Google Did To Others With Net Neutrality

Google was (and is) a big supporter of Net Neutrality.  Content providers like Google (Google owns Youtube, among other large content sites) want to make sure that other content providers are not somehow given special treatment by the ISP's that provide the bandwidth for consumers to view these sites.  In particular, sites like Youtube and Netflix, which consume a HUGE percentage of the bandwidth at many ISP's, don't want to somehow pay any extra costs that might be imposed on content sites that use a lot of bandwidth.   I wrote this on net neutrality a few years ago:

Net Neutrality is one of those Orwellian words that mean exactly the opposite of what they sound like.  There is a battle that goes on in the marketplace in virtually every communication medium between content creators and content deliverers.  We can certainly see this in cable TV, as media companies and the cable companies that deliver their product occasionally have battles that break out in public.   But one could argue similar things go on even in, say, shipping, where magazine publishers push for special postal rates and Amazon negotiates special bulk UPS rates.

In fact, this fight for rents across a vertical supply chain exists in virtually every industry.  Consumers will pay so much for a finished product.  Any vertical supply chain is constantly battling over how much each step in the chain gets of the final consumer price.

What "net neutrality" actually means is that certain people, including apparently the President, want to tip the balance in this negotiation towards the content creators (no surprise given Hollywood's support for Democrats).  Netflix, for example, takes a huge amount of bandwidth that costs ISP's a lot of money to provide.  But Netflix doesn't want the ISP's to be be able to charge for this extra bandwidth Netflix uses - Netflix wants to get all the benefit of taking up the lion's share of ISP bandwidth investments without having to pay for it.  Net Neutrality is corporate welfare for content creators.

A typical ISP would see this relative usage of its bandwidth.  You can be assured everyone on this list is a huge net neutrality supporter.

Essentially, Google wanted to force ISP's to be common carriers, to be legally required to carry all traffic equally, even if certain traffic (like Google's Youtube) is about a million times more expensive to serve than other people's content.

But the point of this story is not about my issues with Net Neutrality.   The point of this story is Karma, or as we used to say it in the South, what "goes around, comes around."

The European Union’s antitrust watchdog in the coming weeks is set to hit Alphabet Inc.’s Google with a record fine for manipulating its search results to favor its own comparison-shopping service, according to people familiar with the matter.

The penalty against Google is expected to top the EU’s previous record fine levied on a company allegedly abusing its dominance: €1.06 billion (about $1.18 billion) against Intel Corp.in 2009.

The fine could reach as high as 10% of the company’s yearly revenue, which stood at $90.27 billion last year.

But more painful to Google than a sizable fine could be other consequences that come with the European Commission’s decision, including changes not only to the tech giant’s business practices with its shopping service but with other services as well. The EU’s decision could also embolden private litigants to seek compensation for damages at national courts.

The EU is likely to demand Google treat its own comparison shopping service equally with those of its competitors, such as Foundem.co.uk and Kelkoo.com Ltd., possibly requiring the search giant to make rival services more visible on its own platform than they are at present. Such companies rely on traffic to their site from search engines like Google’s.

Hah!  I think this is a terrible decision that has nothing to do with economic sanity or even right and wrong -- it has to do with the EU's frequent historic use of anti-trust law as a way to bash foreign competition of its domestic providers, to the detriment of its consumers.  But it certainly is Karma for Google.  The EU is demanding that Google's search engine become a common carrier, showing content from shopping sites equally and without favor or preference.  The EU is demanding of Google exactly what Google is demanding of ISP's, and wouldn't you know it, I don't think they are going to like it.

Media Matters Provides A Great Reason to Defund Public Television

In response to PBS's airing of Andrew Coulson's pro-school-choice documentary, Brett Robertson of Media Matters writes:

Why would a public broadcast channel air a documentary that is produced by a right-wing think tank and funded by ultra-conservative donors, and that presents a single point of view without meaningful critique, all the while denigrating public education?

Well, if public funding means that PBS should not air anything critical of public institutions, its time to end the public funding.  Robertson simply confirms what critics have been saying for years, that public funding makes PBS an agent of the state, and there is not much we need less today than state-sponsored television**

 

** I will add that I watch way more PBS than the average person and donate to it every year.  I often don't agree with their editorial policy and if it really ticked me off enough I suppose I would stop donating.  My opposition to state funding of PBS has nothing to do with my enjoying its product.  Ironically, I actually think that it might be worse without state funding because I think the shaming about lack of balance that goes with the funding tends to put a small brake on its management's tendency to go hard Left.  But that is irrelevant to the principle that state-funded media is a bad idea.

Thinking About Checking Out of Blogging

I am not sure I am able to continue blogging in the current environment.  When I began blogging over 12 years ago, it was to report on my various adventures in trying to run a small business.  It soon morphed into a platform for me to think out loud about various policy issues.  For example, while I didn't really understand this when I started, it became a platform for me to think through mistakes I made in my initial enthusiasm for the Iraq War.  You can see me in the early years evolve from a kind of knee-jerk global warming absolute denier to a lukewarmer with much more understanding of the underlying science.  I think of myself as an intellectual (though one who cannot spell or proof-read) who likes to discuss policy.

But I am not sure this is the time for that.  The world seems to be moving away from intellectualism.  I say this not because Trump voters were somehow rejecting intellectualism, but because intellectuals themselves seem to be rejecting it.  They act like children, they are turning universities into totalitarian monoculters, and they compete with each other to craft mindless 140-character "gotchas" on Twitter.  I challenge you to even find a forum today for intellectual exchange between people who disagree with one another.  In politics, Trump clearly rejects intellectualism but for whatever reasons, the Democratic opposition has as well.

We have a tribal war going on in this country that has officially gone beyond any real policy issues.  While the US and the Soviet Union had real differences in philosophy and approach, most of their confrontations were in proxy wars which bore little resemblance to these values.  That is what politics are now -- a series of proxy wars.  We spend several days focusing attention on Jeff Sessions, but spend pretty much zero time talking about real issues like approaches to the drug war, and police accountability, and sentencing reform.  Instead all we can focus on is the political proxy war of this stupid Russia hacking story.   Obama's birth certificate and Hillary's servers and Russian hacking and Trump's real estate sales -- all we fight are proxy wars.

And like most tribal warfare, the two tribes are incredibly similar.  I have called them the Coke and Pepsi party for years.  Go talk to the the rank and file and sure, one group may like Nascar and barbecue while the other likes Phish concerts and kale, but you will see them asking for the same sorts of things out of government.   Take the minimum wage, a traditional blue tribe issue.  In Arizona, a heavily red state (we have a super-majority in the legislature of the red team), a $10 minimum wage referendum passed by nearly 60% of the vote last year.  The members of the two tribes absolutely hate each other, but they support the same laws.  I guess I should be happy they don't get together, since as a libertarian I think many of these things they want are bad ideas.

People tell me I need to just deal with the adversity.  But I don't mind opposition per se.  I love when I get a chance to respond to real criticism.  Hell, I wrote 5000 words or so here in response to such criticism.  It's fun.  But more likely nowadays I will write a couple thousand words on school choice and the response will be, in total, "Your a Trump cuckservative."  Several years ago I wrote a long article on rail in response to a Joel Epstein piece.  Epstein had argued the US rail rail system was inferior to those in Europe and Asia because we don't have enough passenger rail.  I argued with a series of charts and analysis that the US rail system was superior because it focused on freight over passengers, and that shifting freight to rail had far more environmental benefits than shifting passengers to rail.  Epstein's entire response to my article was, "You should get out of the country more often."  This is the classic intellectual argument of our day.  It was smug.  It implied my article was based on being part of the wrong tribe, the narrow-minded denizens of flyover country rather than the coastal set that have been to Gstaad but not Tulsa.  At it did not even bother addressing the issues raised.

Or look at Black Lives Matter.  BLM actually had what looked to me to be the outlines of a pretty good plan.  To really achieve their goals, though, was going to take a lot of work jurisdiction by jurisdiction, establishing some model legislation and best practices and bringing it to various municipalities.  It didn't even try.  It abandoned this plan in favor of just disrupting sh*t and shaming the unwoke for saying that "all lives matter."  Today, invocations of BLM consist pretty much 100% of virtue signalling for one's own tribe or shaming of the other tribe.  Its the equivalent of dueling fans at a game yelling "Yankees suck!" "No, Red Sox suck!"

People also tell me to just deal with it, that if I love the policy stuff I should ignore these problems.  But let me give you an analogy.  Let's say you absolutely love English Premier League football, but every time you try to go to a game, you miss most of what happens on the field because hooligans are fighting around you in the stands.  Do you keep going for your love of football or at some point is the mess that surrounds it just too much?

Anyway, I am highly tempted just to say "screw it" for a while and focus on something else entirely.  I am trying a different approach as a change of pace, trying to write a more formal policy piece for a think tank, but I am having a surprising amount of trouble doing it well.  Writing such pieces was not really my forte at McKinsey when I was a consultant and I am not sure it is now.  Not disciplined enough in my writing, I think.

Anyway, on a positive front, I now have a dedicated (though very small) room for my model railroad and I installed the first bit of benchwork.  This is sort of like laying the keel for a new ship.  Coyoteblog readers, I know, will be hanging on the edges of their seats for further updates.

From Parks and Recreation:

Jean-Ralphio: Why don’t you use that time to go after one of your passions? Like model trains, or toy Gandalfs or something.

Ben: I don’t know why you jumped straight to model trains. I mean, it’s accurate…

Some Approaches to Reforming Congress and Its Budget Process

I thought this Megan McArdle interview of Yuval Levin explained a lot about how the Congressional budgeting process has gone off the rails.   It does not blame anyone as somehow guilty of being bad actors, but merely looks at shifting incentives for parties and legislators and how these have gotten us where we are.  One example:

The process began to decay in the mid-1990s, when something very important changed in Congress. After 40 years of Congress understanding itself as an institution run by Democrats, with Republicans exercising power by putting pressure on internal Democratic divisions (and making demands in return for giving votes to measures that couldn’t quite get enough Democrats), Republicans took control.

When Republicans took control, Congress didn’t settle into a new partisan pattern, but instead settled into a sense that control could switch with the next election -- always.

So it's not that Republicans failed to run the budget process, but that both parties started thinking very differently about Congress. Now, the minority party tends to think the imperative is to keep the majority from getting anything it wants, instead of making trades in order to get something from its own to-do list, because that list would be much easier to achieve after the next election if control changes hands. And the 1974 process is a poor fit for that set of incentives.

Me In My Actual Day Job

Given that this blog is a net financial loss to me, I do other things to put food on the table.  My actual day job, as some of you know, is running a company that privately operates public recreation areas.  I presented at a conference on new ideas for public recreation a couple weeks back in Washington.  This was my presentation:

All the presentations are grouped here.