Archive for December 2017

The Good and Bad of Unions

Private employees unions (I will leave out public employee unions from this discussion, as they are a different animal) enter the public discourse a lot less frequently than they did in my youth, say in the 1970's.  At that time, union power and actions and negotiations and strikes were very frequent stories on the evening news.  However, one thing I have noticed throughout my life is that commentators seems to be either all-in for or against unions.  I actually think the issues are more subtle, and that unionization is a mixed bag.

On the pro side, unions are basically free association.  It is the right of any set of individuals to band together for negotiating leverage.

On the pro and con side is the role of government.  Early on, the government acted to stop individuals from exercising their free association rights and forcibly break up unions and bar their activities.  Today, I would probably argue the government has slid the other way by writing rules to tilt negotiating power away from employers towards unions (the obvious counter to this is if it is true, why have private unions withered over the last two decades).

On the con side, and it is a big con, is the tendency of unions to push beyond just wage and working condition negotiation into advocating for productivity destroying rules (e.g. featherbedding, strict job categories, etc).  These productivity destroying rules have helped to undermine whole industries, and, ironically, the unions themselves.  They embody an inherent contradiction in that the wages gains the union wants require productivity gains to support, productivity gains which are impossible under union-preferred work rules.

Here is a great example of the negative side of these union rules, from a NYT report on why New York subways cost so much more to build than do similar projects in the rest of the world

It is not just tunneling machines that are overstaffed, though. A dozen New York unions work on tunnel creation, station erection and system setup. Each negotiates with the construction companies over labor conditions, without the M.T.A.’s involvement. And each has secured rules that contractors say require more workers than necessary.

The unions and vendors declined to release the labor deals, but The Times obtained them. Along with interviews with contractors, the documents reveal a dizzying maze of jobs, many of which do not exist on projects elsewhere.

There are “nippers” to watch material being moved around and “hog house tenders” to supervise the break room. Each crane must have an “oiler,” a relic of a time when they needed frequent lubrication. Standby electricians and plumbers are to be on hand at all times, as is at least one “master mechanic.” Generators and elevators must have their own operators, even though they are automatic. An extra person is required to be present for all concrete pumping, steam fitting, sheet metal work and other tasks.

In New York, “underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia, or Europe,” according to an internal report by Arup, a consulting firm that worked on the Second Avenue subway and many similar projects around the world.

That ratio does not include people who get lost in the sea of workers and get paid even though they have no apparent responsibility, as happened on East Side Access. The construction company running that project declined to comment.

The article also touches on one of my frequent themes, about why Progressives still support huge public sector payrolls when these actually reduce the government services they are passionate about:

Public officials, mired in bureaucracy, have not acted to curb the costs. The M.T.A. has not adopted best practices nor worked to increase competition in contracting, and it almost never punishes vendors for spending too much or taking too long, according to inspector general reports.

At the heart of the issue is the obscure way that construction costs are set in New York. Worker wages and labor conditions are determined through negotiations between the unions and the companies, none of whom have any incentive to control costs. The transit authority has made no attempt to intervene to contain the spending.

“It’s sad, really,” said Lok Home, owner of the Robbins Company, which manufactured much of the tunneling equipment used for East Side Access. “Because if they controlled the costs, they could do twice as many expansion projects and still have more money for maintenance.”

The Government Loves to Make Us All Criminals

Here in Phoenix, we use our fireplace pretty much once a year -- on Christmas Day, more as an aesthetic aid to the atmosphere and festivities rather than out of any real need for added warmth.  I bought a box of fire logs several years ago and there are still three left.

So of course the Arizona government, for seemingly the hundredth year in a row, has banned fires on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  They always have some story about some special weather condition or whatever, but oddly enough year-in and year-out these special conditions only seem to occur on Christmas.  Clearly, the ban is in place on these days because the government knows these are the only days people are interested in making fires, but the media every year credulously reports the situation like it is a total coincidence.

Two Stories of Christmas Procrastination and Redemption

For a variety of reasons, I was pretty late going out to find a Christmas tree and did not actually begin the search until last Sunday  (I had a conference the week before and my kids were not in town and it is not that much fun to shop for trees without my kids).  Anyway, it turns out that there is some sort of Christmas tree shortage, at least in this area.  All my go-to inexpensive spots (the grocery store, Costco) were out.  The usually high-cost tent location at the plant nursery had trees but double and triple the usual costs -- starting at $250 for a 6 foot tree.  I am a big supporter of allowing price "gouging" during shortages and in this case the pricing mechanism worked just fine -- I passed on these trees at this price, presumably allowing someone who valued these trees more than I to find some still available.

Finally, I went to the Home Depot and they were apparently out as well - they were just selling some miscellaneous branches to people to wanted to make wreaths.  But way in the back was one tree -- and a tall one at that, at least 9 feet.  No one had wanted to buy it because it looked like something out of Dr. Seuss -- it had nice foliage at the bottom, then a completely open 2 foot gap, then nice foliage, than another large gap, etc.   Anyway, my daughter the artist and the undisputed right-brain flag bearer in the family, immediately loved it and insisted I buy it.  The guys there thought they were out of business and did not even have their price list any more.  I said, "hey guys, no one wants this, you have to give me a discount."  We agreed on $40 and we had a tree.

It turned out great.  The large gaps in the tree have become more of a feature than a bug, allowing a 3D ornament display impossible on normal trees.  It is tall and thin and looks great in our tall room.

Then, on the same day we had our tree adventure, we realized that no one had done anything about a Christmas card.  It was always my job in the past to design the card, but last year I passed the mantle on to my daughter.  But we had not explicitly assigned responsibility this year so nothing got done.  At this point my daughter disappears into her room with her laptop for what we supposed was a nap.  But she exited two hours later with our card design.  She didn't have all the fancy Wacom tablets and such she had at art school, only the trackpad on her laptop, so she said she just used the circle tool a lot but to my eye it came out great, and allows the Coyote family to continue its 25+ year run of never buying an off-the-shelf Christmas card.


Bank of America's Absurd Telephone Security

So I called Bank of America to send a new credit card to me (the chip was screwed up, which has now happened to three of my cards).  The automated system asked me for the card number and zip code (the latter being a good idea since it is information not on the card itself).  The automated system then gave me some information, trying to head off standard phone requests I suppose.  It told me my current balance, my total credit limit, and my available credit.

I then jammed "0" and said "agent" over and over until I could get a real person.  Once I got a real person, they asked me my name, and then said they had to ask me a security question.  So they asked me ... what is the credit limit on my card.  LOL, their system just told me the number.  Had it not, I probably would not have even known the number.  I asked her how in the world this could possibly be a reasonable security question when their system just told me the answer.  I got a sort of "I just work here" answer and gave up and got my new card.

A Couple of Vegas Notes

Was in Vegas last week for a conference at the Cosmopolitan. A couple of notes:

  1.  IMO the best bar in Vegas is the bar in the sky lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.  Quiet, intimate, and with a drop-dead gorgeous view of the strip.  Honestly, the picture in the link understates how dramatic the view is.  Expensive drinks, of course, but the sliders they sell at the bar are excellent.
  2. Vegas is preparing itself for the sorts of terrorist attacks where trucks drive through crowded streets and sidewalks (the posts in the shrink-wrapping are all new).  Seems like a reasonable precaution given the pedestrian numbers and their likely terrorist target ranking

  3. First time I have ever had a business meeting in a room with strippers on the carpet.  Stay classy, Las Vegas.  One attendee said "I am glad my HR director is not attending, she would probably call an alert and order an evacuation."

  4. Hey - a cigarette machine re-purposed to vend little bits of art.

Some Good News This Morning -- The Prosecution of David Bell

Today I received a victim notification from the DOJ that the Feds were prosecuting David William Bell for fraud.  I encountered his fraud attempts here, where I described how a fake bill from UST or US Telecom was actually a scam contract in disguise.  Apparently Ken White has been on this guys case for years and described the two different investigations against him here (one for the scam I was presented with, and a second one involving payroll companies).  I was actually a victim of neither, because I saw the trap before I fell into it, but I guess since I wrote a letter to the Feds informing them of the fraud they added me to the database (actually they informed me of the wrong fraud -- the payroll company fraud -- rather than the one I was tangentially involved with, but that's the government).  Ken White always says that the wheels of justice in such cases turn slowly but they do turn, and once the Feds get you in their sights, they can be relentless (for good and for bad).

Update:  Not sure why I am getting this now when Ken White reported that David Bell pled guilty in both cases in August.

First, and Last, Marathon

About 18 months ago I was diagnosed with osteo-arthritis in both my knees, though of course I had been experiencing some pain before that.  The condition has become increasingly irritating not just because of the knee pain, but because the pain leads to a second condition called a Bakers Cyst (also known as water on the knee) that adds new pains in the back of both my upper and lower legs.

For years my exercise of choice has been running.  I have run in many of the world's cities (except for Bangkok -- only a crazy person would run the streets there) and find the experience synergistic -- the new sights keeps me from being bored in my runs and the running helps me see details of a city I might have missed.  I am not really competitive, but I have run four or five half-marathons and a number of shorter races.

It has become clear I have to give this all up.  So I decided to go out with a bang, and run my first and last marathon, which will be January 7 at Disneyworld (I love the Disney marathons because the vibe is pretty chill, there are lots of fun things to look at as you run through the parks and past characters and bands, and the medals are really nice).  I usually run in costume for the Disney races but I think not for this race -- I will be shedding every pound;  I am considering cutting off the ends of my shoelaces to save weight 😉

The big event comes in the next few weeks when my doctor is going to shoot me up with cortisone in each knee and drain my Bakers cysts.  From past experience, this will help a ton.  Even without the cortisone I have done a couple of 16-18 mile runs in addition to my daily running of 6-ish miles so I am fairly sure I will make it.

The first question I always get is what time am I shooting for.  Timing for my distance race performances is generally by google calendar.   I did my last half in around 2:30 so extrapolating that I will likely be far behind Oprah's time of 4:29, but I think my ego can survive.

Once the race is over, I have already found my new preferred form of excercise.  The eliptical machine feels good with my knees but I hate excercising indoors.  Biking can be fun but my *ss always falls asleep.  So I bought one of these bad boys and am already having a lot of fun with it.  Super expensive, but hopefully prices will come down if they get popular.

Moving the US Embassy in Israel

From a pragmatic point of view, it is in the worst possible policy box.

My Wife Loves Me

She gave me this bourbon Advent calendar today.  A different two-ounce flight each day until Christmas!

Politics, Peer Virtue-Signalling, And the Agency Problem

The other day Megan McArdle wrote an article entitled "The CFPB Fight Is Completely Pointless...Why is either side spending political capital for brief control over this agency?"  In short, the the folks on the Left who mostly populate the Elizabeth Warren / Barrack Obama created agency argue that deputy director Leandra English should become acting director after the current director stepped down.  President Trump argues he should be able to appoint the acting director (as the President would for any other agency) and appointed CFPB critic Mick Mulvaney.

My heart thrills as readily as anyone’s to the sight of a doomed soldier playing Horatius at the Bridge. But at least Horatius Cocles had a purpose: He secured an orderly retreat, allowing the army to live to fight another day. What, exactly, do [Leandra] English and her supporters hope to achieve, other than a spectacle for wonky Washingtonians?

The most they can get is a brief period of business as usual, during which it will be hard to enact binding decisions because the legitimacy of her leadership will be in doubt. At worst, they get a humiliating smackdown from the courts, cementing their place in history as elitists who thought they were above petty restraints like elections or the Constitution.

And in the broader political picture, if you think Mulvaney is a bad, dangerous man who will privilege the interests of rich bankers over those of ordinary Americans, you’d probably rather have him running the CFPB than in his current job -- overseeing the entire federal budget. Even if English wins and sends him back to OMB, this seems like a Pyrrhic victory for the left.

While most everyone else on the Internet seems to be able to automatically intuit everyone else's internal motivations, I don't claim to have that ability.  So I will offer one possible motive why Leandra English might see personal benefit from this otherwise pointless struggle.

It is no news to say that the US has arrayed itself into multiple tribes that hate each other.  The election of President Trump has only accelerated this.  Trump is so disliked by those on the Left that folks on the Left can score major points with their tribe by publicly opposing him, even when their effort is doomed and ultimately pointless.   Wendy Davis is a good example of a politician who greatly increased her status in the Left-tribe with an ultimately doomed filibuster of an abortion bill in Texas (so much so that a hagiographic movie is being made about her).  I have wondered whether several of the judges who have temporarily halted controversial but probably legal executive actions by Trump were not motivated as much by playing to the audience in their tribe as they were by making a thoughtful legal decision.

Which brings me to the agency problem, which Wikipedia defines thus:

The principal–agent problem, in political science and economics, (also known as agency dilemma or the agency problem) occurs when one person or entity (the "agent") is able to make decisions on behalf of, or that impact, another person or entity: the "principal".[1] This dilemma exists in circumstances where agents are motivated to act in their own best interests, which are contrary to those of their principals, and is an example of moral hazard.

Common examples of this relationship include corporate management (agent) and shareholders (principal), politicians (agent) and voters (principal), or brokers (agent) and markets (buyers and sellers, principals).[2] Consider a legal client (the principal) wondering whether their lawyer (the agent) is recommending protracted legal proceedings because it is truly necessary for the client's well being, or because it will generate income for the lawyer. In fact the problem can arise in almost any context where one party is being paid by another to do something where the agent has a small or nonexistent share in the outcome, whether in formal employment or a negotiated deal such as paying for household jobs or car repairs

I think too often people define the agency problem only about economic incentives, e.g. my broker only recommends the stocks that pay him the highest commission.  But most of us are motivated by many things in addition to money.

Consider the example of a media conglomerate with multiple cable channels.  The managers of this media conglomerate are mostly of the Left.  One of their channels is called the shooting channel and focuses on gun reviews and the shooting sports.  The channel needs a new president, and it hires Hannah Progressive, either internally or from another successful media company.  Hannah is a talented media person with a proven track record of building cable channels and a perfect fit in every way except that she is disdainful of the shooting sports and groups like the NRA.  But let's say that Hannah is a true professional and can put that aside.  But what may be harder to put aside is the reaction of her peers.  She is going to get teased, maybe even bullied, by folks in her social circles.  Her peers are going to look down on her, even if she is successful (maybe especially if she is successful).  There is going to be tremendous pressure on her, both from her social circle as well as well as when she thinks about future job prospects an the industry dominated by the Left, to virtue-signal to others on the Left.  She could be tempted to shift content, alliances, advertisers,etc. in ways that signal virtue to her tribe but might alienate her current viewers and actually hurt the financial results of her company.

I frequently think about this in the context of how university presidents respond to protests, or how the NFL does so, or when seeing ESPN programming changes.  I have even seen it with programmers, working harder to impress their peers with the elegance of their code than to try to actually write things that serve the company and the customer.