Archive for February 2018

My New Favorite Excel Function: INDIRECT

I will confess that somehow I never really learned pivot table mechanics in Excel, so I struggle with three dimensional data.  One example might be a spreadsheet with individual tabs where each tab is a different corporate division, and on each tab is a P&L by month (so three dimensions:  Month, P&L category, Division).  Let's assume the P&L is arranged the same on every page, with, for example, one divisions June's total revenue number in the same cell number as the June total revenue number on every other divisions' tab, ie this field is in cell c8 on every worksheet tab.

Long ago I created a simple way to get a total of a particular cell across all spreadsheets.  I would add a spreadsheet tab in the workbook before all the division tabs and another after all the division tabs.  Let's say I just name these tabs "Posta" and "Postb".  Then the sum of all cells C8 that are located on a spreadsheet tab between tabs "Posta" and "Postb" would be

=SUM(Posta:Postb!C8).

The problem comes when one wants to create a summary worksheet tab that doesn't sum all the values for C8 but summarizes them in a table.  Imagine a table where column A is the division name (that matches the name of the tab for that division) and column B is that division's June revenue, ie the value of cell C8 for that division from its individual spreadsheet.  The only way I knew how to do this before was manually and tediously.

But laziness is the mother of invention, and I finally encountered a workbook that was so tedious to summarize manually that I had to find another way.  I had a spreadsheet of 150 tabs, each worksheet tab being one of our locations containing online customer review scores formatted the same way into the same cells.  That is when I found the INDIRECT function.  Basically it allows one to craft a custom cell reference in a text string, feed that to the indirect function, which will output the contents of that cell.  So if our location names in the first column exactly match the worksheet tab names, then we can write

=INDIRECT("'"&$A3&"'"&"!C$8")

The ampersand symbols are basically text string concatenation operators, and are there to create the text string of a cell reference in the format excel expects.  The funny triple quotes is just to add a single quote mark before and after the tab name.   This particular string will give us the value of cell C8 that is in the worksheet tab with the name that is in cell A3.

You can also use this cell value from the INDIRECT function in more complicated formulas.  For example

=COUNTIF( INDIRECT("'"&$A3&"'"&"!$B$3:$B$500"),D$4)

would look in the spreadsheet tab whose name is in A3 and on that tab count all the values in the range B3 to B500 on that tab that have the value given in cell D4.  For example, if D4 is equal to "5" we could be counting all the reviews that had a score of "5".

Postscript:  This may be my record for the blog post with the niche-iest audience.  Mainly it is aimed at my son, who has the enviable job of being an analyst for a craft beer company in La Jolla.  He has learned not to complain much to me about his job, as my first job was in an oil refinery in Baytown, Texas, so my sympathy level is maybe lower than it should be.  Anyway, as part of a geeky family, he and I compete on Excel knowledge so this post is mainly my way of counting coup on him.

Is The Phoenix Housing Market Peaking?

I am not actually active in the residential home market, so I can (without losing any money) call market tops and bottoms from semi-random variables.  In 2005, I wrote here about a possible housing top when I overheard a dentist tell a doctor about all he money he was making flipping raw land  (I will apologize to dentists here, but when I studied investing at HBS 30 years ago I had a professor who would ask the class, for a bad investment, "who do we sell this to?"  Answer:  Doctors!   And if it is a really, really bad investment, who do we sell this to? Dentists!)

Anyway, I was out on my super-dorky but easy-on-the-knees and fun to ride elliptical scooter the other day and stopped to take a picture of a quiet intersection near my home:

I only got seven of the signs in my picture, but there were eight different open house notices for homes all within an easy walk of this location.  Reminded me of 2009.

Postscript:  By the way, I always feel bad about joking at the expense of doctors and dentists and their investments, so I will share one of my personal great moments in investment savvy.  In 1984 I graduated as a mechanical engineer that had a lot of background in programming and micro-computers (my specialty was control theory and something awkwardly called interfacing microprocessors with mechanical devices, which we just call "robotics" today).  I had lots of good job offers, and most were for about the same amount of money except one outlier that did not pay nearly as much but instead paid in all these crappy pieces of paper called options.  Hah!  I wasn't falling for that, and I turned them down and worked for real money.  That company I turned down was Microsoft and just the options they offered in the offer letter, I remember calculating once, would be worth more today than all my cumulative lifetime earnings to date.

Sex and Gender on the AZ Driver's License

Via the AZ Republic

Two Democratic lawmakers are trying to give transgender and non-binary Arizonans the chance to more accurately represent themselves on state-issued documents — in life and in death.

House Bill 2492 would offer driver's-license applicants a third gender option, "non-binary," to indicate they don't identify as male or female.

House Bill 2582 would require death certificates to reflect gender identity, one's emotional and psychological sense of gender, including when it appears to conflict with a person's anatomy.

This is what happens when you forget what the purpose of something actually is.  The individual descriptive information on a driver's license is for identification purposes -- it is not a Facebook profile page to communicate our sense of self or current emotional state.  One's personal, inner "emotional and psychological sense of gender" is useless on an identification document because a third party can't sense that in any way.

If the argument is that gender is not a useful identification tool, then remove it entirely from the damn license or death certificate and let's move on.  Or replace it with something that is useful and discernible by a third party (how about "has external genitalia y/n" lol).

Postscript:  Well, I just looked at my AZ licence and it does not use the word "gender" anywhere.  It says "sex".  Now, people I know who self-identify as "woke" have explained to me that "sex" is a function of biological plumbing whereas gender is more a function of state of mind and social programming and such.  Well, the license says "sex" so why are we talking about gender at all?

Fourier Transforms

This is as good of an explanation as I have seen of what is going on in a Fourier Transform.  I have not seen this person's videos before but I will have to seek out others of his.

This One Simple Trick Will Send a Lot of Municipalities Into Bankruptcy

The "trick":

Democrats in the state House have proposed issuing $107 billion in bonds to backfill the state’s pension funds, which are short $129 billion. Annual state pension payments are projected to increase to $20 billion in 2045 from $8.5 billion—not including interest on $17 billion in debt the state previously issued to pay for pensions.

At the request of state retirees, a University of Illinois math professor performed a crack analysis showing how the state could use interest-rate arbitrage to shave its pension costs. Under the professor’s math, the state could sell 27-year, fixed-rate taxable bonds and invest the proceeds into its pension funds. This would supposedly stabilize the state’s pension payments at $8.5 billion annually, save taxpayers $103 billion over three decades and increase the state retirement system’s funding level to 90% from 40%. Can the mathemagician make House Speaker Michael Madigan disappear too?

So what exactly does this mean? What is the trick?  Essentially, the trick is... investing using margin.  The professor's math was based on borrowing at 5% and then investing at 7.5% returns (the returns the pension funds have gotten over the last several years' bull market).    Ignore the fact that this rickety scheme probably will not be able to borrow at 5%, but likely at a higher rate.  Even at 5%, the problem is that if returns fall below the interest being paid on the bonds, the state and the pension funds are in worse shape than they were before.  If you saw a friend who was in the hole after a night of losing gambling who was trying to borrow more money from the house to try to make it all back, you would stop him, right?

Given the risk of falling short of covering the margin interest, one also has to worry about the portfolio asset allocation incentives here.  You certainly can't borrow at 5% or more and expect to make any money investing long-term in almost any sort of reliable bonds.  This is going to push the pension managers into riskier all-equity portfolios and even beyond into trying even riskier investments that have almost never worked out well for government pension funds.

I write all this because apparently this insanity is coming to Phoenix. ugh.

Update on the last point:  From today's WSJ:

A decade of low bond yields pushed some of the most stability-minded investors to dabble in risky investments that depended on markets being orderly. Now, those bets are looking problematic.

In the past, pension funds, endowments and family offices pursued relatively safe investments. After interest rates collapsed on the heels of the financial crisis, they ran into challenges paying pensioners and filling university budgets, and added riskier bets on hedge funds and venture capital in the hopes of winning better returns.

More recently, some of these investors also made big, unpublicized wagers seeking to benefit from what had been an unusually long period of low volatility, according to pension-fund consultants and others who deal with these institutions. The strategies, often involving the writing of complicated options contracts, were for years a source of easy money. Markets hadn’t been so calm since the 1950s.

Among those making such bets were Harvard University’s endowment, the Employees’ Retirement System of the State of Hawaii and the Illinois State Universities Retirement System.

Yet volatility has now returned to markets, with a vengeance. When the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 2,400 points in a week, intraday market swings also surged. The Cboe Volatility Index, or VIX, a measure of expected swings in the S&P 500, closed at its highest level last week since August 2015, recording its biggest one-day jump ever on Feb. 5 as it surged to 37.32 from 17.31 the prior day.

The $16.9 billion Hawaii fund in 2016 began earning money selling “put” options—essentially a bet that markets would stay calm or rise. When markets fall, Hawaii is on the hook to pay out.

 

Banning Racists From Social Media Is Just Helping Them By Reducing Transparency on Their Distasteful Views

Via Engadget

Twitter is continuing to act on its promise to fight hate speech, however imperfectly. The site has banned Wisconsin Congressional candidate Paul Nehlen after he posted a racist image that placed the face of Cheddar Man (a dark-skinned British ancestor) over actress and soon-to-be-royal Meghan Markle, who's mixed race. The company said it didn't normally comment on individual accounts, but said the permanent suspension was due to "repeated violations" of its terms of service.

Nehlen, who's hoping to unseat Paul Ryan in the 2018 mid-term elections, has a long history of overtly expressing his racist views. Twitter suspended him for a week in January over anti-Semitic comments, and he has regularly promoted white supremacist ideology. In private, he used direct message groups to coordinate harassment campaigns. Breitbart supported Nehlen's ultimately unsuccessful run against Ryan in 2016, but distanced itself from him in December 2017.

As the title of the post implies, I am torn on this.  On the one hand, there is an argument that removing a powerful communications tool from bad people makes it harder to spread their, um, badness.  On the other hand, I am not sure that driving these folks underground is the right approach.  Sure, Nehlen has likely rallied some people of a similar mind to his side, but the flip side is that he has advertised himself to  LOT of people as having distasteful views.  I know that from my point of view, my awareness that awful folks like this still exist on the peripheries of power has grown from social media, whereas without it I likely might have convinced myself this sort of stuff was a thing of the past.

It reminds me what I wrote a while back about putting the Confederate flag on license plates:

Which brings me back to license plates.  If a state is going to create a license plate program where people can make statements with their license plates, then people should be able to make the statement they want to make.  ... Let's assume for a moment that everyone who wants to display this symbol [the Confederate battle flag] on their car is a racist. Shouldn't we be thrilled if they want to do so?  Here would be a program where racists would voluntarily self-identify to all as a racist (they would even pay extra to do so!)  What would be a greater public service?

To take this to an extreme, think about the effort to de-platform certain college speakers.  I like to imagine who the most extreme example of such a controversial college speaker would be, and I come up with that old standby, Adolf Hitler.  So what if in 1938 Adolf Hitler came to the States for a college speaking tour in 1938.  Couldn't that have been a good thing?  Many of the mistakes made by the world in 1938-1945 was underestimating both Germany's appetite for expansion and its ruthlessness in its approach to the Jews.  Wouldn't it have been better to listen to a bad guy and potentially get some clues to this future?

Do We Really Have to Craft Legislation With the Stupidest 0.0001% in Mind?

Via Zero Hedge:

A pair of New York politicians has introduced legislation that would force consumer goods corporation Procter & Gamble to make their Tide Pod product less appetizing to human beings.

If passed, Senate bill S100A would require liquid detergent packets sold in the state of New York to be “designed in an opaque, uniform color that is not attractive to children and is not easily permeated by a child’s bite.”

The bill further states that each Tide Pod packet should be “enclosed in a separate, individual, non-permeable, child-resistant wrapper” and that the package they come in should have a warning label saying the product is “harmful if swallowed.”

These two legislators get their one news cycle of fame from this and 24 hours of virtue signalling how much they care, and the rest of humanity has to live with their stupidity for decades.

Even beyond the self-serving stupidity of even introducing such legislation, its specifics are even dumber, making sense only if the recent Tide pod consumption was somehow accidental, like an infant putting it in her mouth.  This regulation would have done pretty much zero to stop the recent insane social media challenge that drove a few people to eat these things.  Now when I put my little pod in the dishwasher, am I really going to have to struggle to get the thing out of some child-proof wrapper?  We can't just put every one in unopenable blister pack and be done with it?

Why Infrastructure is Really "Crumbling" -- It's Unauthorized Borrowing by Government Agencies Against Public Infrastructure

I am mostly going to leave highways out of this post.  Most evidence I have seen is that the numbers do not actually show highway infrastructure to be getting worse.  To the extent highways are underfunded, in my mind it is because gasoline taxes paid by drivers and meant for highway repair and construction have been shifted to grand projects like light rail that get politicians excited but carry at least an order of magnitude fewer passengers per dollar spent than do highways.

But in worlds I am more familiar with - government transit agencies and parks agencies - there has been a real deterioration of infrastructure.   Systems like the Washington Metro clearly are falling apart and most public parks and recreation areas have huge deferred maintenance accounts that are growing every year.  California State Parks and the National Parks Service alone have deferred maintenance tallied well into the tens of billions of dollars.

Most of these agencies will argue the problem is -- wait for it -- that they are underfunded by their legislatures.  But this is not the case in my experience.  My company routinely takes over public parks that some government agency said were too expensive to remain open and profitably reopens them to the public -- not only keeping up with the maintenance but paying to catch up on all the maintenance the agency let slide when it was operating the park.

The problem is that most agencies, whatever their stated public purpose and mission, tend to be run for the benefit of their employees.  I understand some but not all the reasons for this, but it is simply an observable fact that this happens time and time again.  This means that the priority is to build up large staffs with good pay and large benefits and retirement packages.   Worse, the preference is usually to build up headquarters and administrative staff, rather than staff that actually does stuff like serve the public or fix things.  When cutbacks need to occur, the priority order always is: cut maintenance first; cut field staff actually doing useful things second; cut administrative staff only in case of the apocalypse; cut benefits packages never.

Deferred maintenance is the way that agency's can borrow without transparency and without any outside authorization to do things like maintain staff in the face of cutbacks.  In effect, the agency is borrowing against the infrastructure the public has built to help fund staffing levels and benefits.  What is deferred maintenance?  It is all kind of things.  It is having one out of three toilets in a bathroom break and just roping it off rather than fixing it.  It is allowing potholes to multiply in the road without repair.  It is constantly chasing more and more leaks in an underground water line and not just replacing it.  It is an acknowledgement that all manmade things have a fixed life.   Take picnic tables.  Let's say a type of picnic table in a campground, of which there might be hundreds, lasts about 10 years.  That means a responsible person should budget to replace 10% every year.  But what if we skip a year?  No one will probably notice if some old tables slide from 10 to 11 years old, and we save some money.  But really we are only borrowing that money, because we will need to do twice as many next year.  But then we do it again the next year, to borrow more, and the bill just increases for the future.  Before you know it, the NPS has $12 billion in deferred maintenance, a $12 billion debt for which there is little transparency and no legislative approval -- and the interest on which all of us in the public pay when we have to live with these deteriorating public facilities.

I have written about this many times, but here is what I wrote about Arizona State Parks several years ago:

At every turn, [Former Arizona State Parks Director Ken] Travous made decisions that increased the agency's costs.  For example, park rangers were all given law enforcement certifications, substantially increasing their pay and putting them all into the much more expensive law enforcement pension fund.  There is little evidence this was necessary -- Arizona parks generally are not hotbeds of crime -- but it did infuriate many customers as some rangers focused more on citation-writing than customer service.  There is a reason McDonald's doesn't write citations in their own parking lot.

What Mr. Travous fails to mention is that the parks were falling apart on his watch - even with these huge budgets - because he tended to spend money on just about anything other than maintaining current infrastructure.  Infrastructure maintenance is not sexy, and sexy projects like the Kartchner Caverns development (it is a gorgeous park) always seem to win out in government budgeting.  You can see why in this editorial -- Kartcher is his legacy, whereas bathroom maintenance is next to invisible.  I know deferred maintenance was accumulating during his tenure because Arizona State Parks itself used to say so.  Way back in 2009 I saw a book Arizona State Parks used with legislators.  It showed pictures of deteriorating parks, with notes that many of these locations had not been properly maintained for a decade.  The current management inherited this problem from previous leaders like Travous, it did not create it.

So where were those huge budgets going, if not to maintenance?  Well, for one, Travous oversaw a crazy expansion of the state parks headquarters staff.    When he left, there were about 150 people (possibly more, it is hard to count) on the parks headquarters staff.  This is almost the same number of full-time employees that were actually in the field maintaining parks.  As a comparison, our company runs public parks and campgrounds very similar to those in Arizona State Parks and we serve about the same number of visitors -- but we have only 1.5 people in headquarters, allowing us to put our resources on the ground in parks serving customers and performing maintenance.  None of the 100+ parks we operate have the same deferred maintenance problems that Arizona State Parks have, despite operating with less than a third of the budget that Travous had in his heyday.

Arizona State Parks has a new Director, but its the same old story.  They have complained about deferred maintenance in the parks for years, but when times are good (and I can tell you all of us in public recreation are having visitation records the last few years) they use the extra money to add headquarters staff and pay headquarters staff more.

State Parks, which receives no state general-fund money, saw a record 2.78 million visitors come to its parks for the fiscal year that ended June 30. The agency generated nearly $17.9 million largely from park fees, another record.

The result: Black has been generous with pay for people she has brought on staff. Some salaries are up to 32 percent higher than what her predecessor paid for the same positions. And she has approved raises of up to 25 percent for some carry-over staff as more money rolls into the agency's coffers....

Meanwhlile, records show [former director Bryan] Martyn's top two deputies were paid $110,250, while Black pays her top assistant $142,000 — 29 percent more. Black brought in a new development chief at nearly $105,000, a 32 percent bump over what the position paid under Martyn.

Black also boosted the pay of the natural-resources chief, who also worked for Martyn, by 25 percent, to $84,000 a year.

State Parks payroll records show Martyn, around the time he left, had 41 staffers making more than $50,000 [incredibly this is apparently personal staff, not the total headquarters staff]. Black had 58 staff members in March making more than $50,000. Black also brought in staff at higher salaries than what Martyn paid, giving some holdovers significant raises.

An agency spokeswoman said Parks is increasingpay to recruit and retain talent, and staffers are dealing with more visitors.

Black said she also has increased the pay of those in the field.

So, as we see some really good years in public recreation, Arizona State Parks is using the extra money to pay staff rather than address fundamental infrastructure issues.   Anyone want to guess what will happen when the next downturn comes?  Will administrative pay be cut?  Will headquarters staff be cut?  Or will maintenance be cancelled and parks closed?  Place your bets.

When companies or other entities get into debt holes they cannot climb out of, their debt is restructured and perhaps partially forgiven or even bailed out, but rules are put in place to ensure more responsible financial behavior in the future.  The same needs to be true of infrastructure spending.  These agencies got themselves into the deferred maintenance holes they are in.  They cannot get out without a bailout, but we should understand that it is a bailout of these agencies and there need to be conditions attached to the funding tied responsible maintenance spending by the agency itself.

On the List of Good News Under-Reported By the Media, This is Near The Top of the List

This is really staggeringly good news.  Malaria has, through history, been one of the deadliest infectious diseases (though of late my understanding is that it has been surpassed by HIV).  One of the problems with malaria is that for every death, many more are rendered unable to work for long periods of time, a drag on productivity in economies that already have trouble producing sufficient food and other goods.

It Is Interesting to Note that High School Debate is as Broken as When I Did it 35 Years Ago

From the WSJ:

For weeks, high school debater Benjamin Waldman rehearsed his argument affirming the resolution that the criminal-justice system should abolish plea bargaining. Now that it was time to speak, he took a deep breath and let it rip.

“...thecriminaljusticesystemisareflectionofandapplicationofthelawandimpositionofpunishments.Pleabargainingwasamechanismforthesejudgestomaintaintheirvastpoweranddiscretion…”

After six minutes of speaking at this blinding pace, topping out at 300 words a minute, the 15-year-old sat down, ready for his foe’s cross-examination.

To impress judges, they had to pack into that brief time arguments of intellectual depth and complexity, complete with citations of legal scholars or philosophers. Any point left unrebutted could be deemed conceded. Every word had to be read aloud for the judges to score it. The result was speech at roughly the pace of a cattle auctioneer.

Rather than focus on logical arguments made cogently and elegantly, the approach in my day (and it appears today) was to carpet bomb the other side with as many arguments as possible and claim victory on any points that were not rebutted.  The standard for both argumentation and rebuttals was lame, with a quote from some source, likely both weak and quoted out of context during summer camps where evidence is compiled, usually good enough to check the box.  The skills taught are apropos of pretty much nothing.

The other problem that existed in my day, and which I am told still obtains in various forms, was that every argument had to save us from a nuclear war.  You couldn't win with intelligent but modest policy tweaks.  We actually had a big poster with an atomic mushroom cloud on which we would keep score of the number of nuclear wars saved or caused by our teammates.  I swear I heard debates about things like ocean fishing and mineral rights where most of the discussion was around avoiding a nuclear war.  It was simply nuts.

Another Reason I Live In Phoenix

SpaceX Landing Two Falcon Heavy Boosters Side by Side -- Gorgeous

Y'all know I have a certain distaste for Elon Musk's rent-seeking, but as I have written before there is nothing much cooler than several billionaires competing at space travel.   The video below is of today's apparently succesful Falcon Heavy launch, but while the launch is as cool as always, what was really new and beautiful was the near simultaneous side by side landing of the two booster rockets.   Booster landing starts around the 36:30 minute mark.

I will say that Musk's promotional abilities do remind me sometimes of DD Harriman.

Advice: Do Not Give Your Kids a Visa or Mastercard for Travel, Give Them An Amex

I am a flaming hypocrite on this topic, because my company does not accept Amex, but for travel, particularly if it is a shared family card you are giving your kids, don't use Visa or Mastercard.  Most banks have systems now that are simply hair-trigger in freezing an account if they see a charge they don't expect, which generally means a charge in a new city, ie when you are travelling.  It is merely irritating on my own card, as I have to call and get it turned back on (which can be a pain in certain foreign lands) but it creates a real problem for my kids.  Twice my son has been travelling and twice they have immediately shut down his card.  When he called, they would not talk to him so he had to find me somewhere and I had to call them to verify a charge.  But since I did not make the charge I have to call my son back and then call the credit card company back.  All the while my kids are without any way to charge because this likely is their only card.

There are things you can try to do to avoid this, such as remember to contact the card issuer to warn them when you will be out of town, but this only has mixed success and trying to have my kids remember to do this is a tough proposition.  In my experience, perhaps due to their background as a travel company, Amex is far, far less likely to have travel to new lands trigger these sort of pre-emptive account shutdowns.

Postscript:  I don't get a commission, but I have the Starwood Hotels Amex.  One Starwood point per dollar spend on the card is a great deal.  Starwood points are very valuable, as loyalty points go.  Now that they are merged with Marriott, they can be traded 1 starwood point for 3 amex points.  Also, they can be exchanged for most airline points for 1 starwood point to 1.25 airline points.

My New Favorite Entertainment

Reading dueling analyst reports on Tesla.  I can't think of another high-profile stock where there is so little consensus, where the range of opinions covers the whole spectrum.  With their quarterly earnings call tomorrow, it should be a most entertaining day.

I Have Deleted My Twitter App. It's An Impossible Platform for Political Discourse (at Least For Me)

Those who have read this blog for a while know that I have an up and down history with Twitter.  I think it is a perfectly valid platform for sharing breaking news, following celebrities, posting cute animal pictures, and notifying folks that blog posts or longer articles are available.  I have always used Twitter for the latter function, and for those who follow me there, I will still use it to automatically publicize my blog posts.

From time to time, though, I have dived deeper into Twitter and tried to use it to actually have conversations and discussions about certain topics.  The first time I tried this I had to get off after a month.  I reported here that Twitter was making me both unhappy and a worse person, the latter because I fell quickly into the Twitter trap of going for zingers and gotchas rather than treating people's arguments civilly and with nuance.  A few days ago I gave it one more try, perhaps unfortunately the day after Trump's state of the union.  In the process I came to a final conclusion that Twitter is an impossible platform for political discourse, at least for me.  I am open to considering that the failure is in part my own, that I am simply incapable of making the kind of arguments I want to make within the Twitter character limit.   Never-the-less, I have deleted my twitter app from my phone so I will not be tempted to dive back in when I am stuck in the doctor's waiting room.  I will still scan it to see what is going on, but if I want to respond to something, I will do it here.

Just for fun, I thought I would dig through the detritus of my last 48 hours on Twitter and see if I could pull up a few examples of just what drove me crazy.  I want to make it clear that I am not leaving because people *gasp* disagreed with me, but because that disagreement was embodied in really poor discourse, the poverty of which I think is necesarily related to the nature of the platform.  After considering several, here is a good example of why I left.

It started with my seeing this post in my feed from a guy named Nick Searcy.  I don't really know who that is, but he is not just some rando with 8 followers, he has almost two orders of magnitude more followers than I.  He wrote:


While there are some solid arguments for why truly open borders might not work in today's USA, I have always considered this analogy of a country's borders to private property boundaries to be a really weak argument.  Not only weak, but one that dangerously undermines the meaning of private property and makes it harder to defend the property rights that Conservatives say they support.   I actually wrote hundreds of words on this argument here, so you can probably guess I struggled to respond to this in one tweet.  I tweeted:

(lol, the unmentioned problem I also have with Twitter is the inability to edit after the fact.  In a socialist ... what?  Dammit Coyote, learn to self-edit)

So I will confess the property rights argument is a subtle one for most people, and a difficult one to make in part because even strong defenders of property rights often don't have a very clear understanding of them.  The picture I think many property rights defenders have in their head is the old coot sitting on his front porch with a shotgun across his lap yelling "get off my land."  But for property rights to be meaningful, one needs to not only be able to protect the borders of that property but also hire whom they like to work on their property, sell to whom they like, rent to whom they like, entertain whom they like, etc.  Its not just about one's ability to exclude people, but also one's ability to associate with people of one's choice.

Now, I can imagine a number of reasonable rebuttals.  Someone might argue that this is all fine and good when 100 people want to come and seek a job from folks like me, but what if the number is a billion?   Anyway, we could have an interesting discussion along those lines.  But instead I got this:

Uh, what?  This makes about zero sense in context.  He was criticizing a open border policy, which would represent a change in current law.  I offered a partial defense of open borders and why I thought his property rights analogy for border restrictions was a bad analogy.  And so he answers "because laws".  Honestly, this may be my failing, but I really did not understand how laws were the reason we could not change immigration laws (he may have an implicit assumption that immigrants are dangerous and laws are thus necessary to protect us from them, but if this is his core assumption driving this comment it goes entirely unstated).   So I assumed I had not explained myself well, and made the mistake of trying to clarify my point (instead of just walking away as I should have).  I will confess that the 40+ likes he got for a tweet which was true on its face but made zero sense in context influenced my decisions to try again.  Perhaps if I clarified, so would he, so I tweeted:

 

And here you go, the payoff for reading so far into this post, the true WTF moment of the thread

and here, because repetition using slightly different insults just reinforces the point

I am not even sure how to parse this.  More than even the statement itself, the 60 likes and 4 retweets just sort of floored me.  "Yeah, Nick, you showed that guy!"  Anyway, I assume what is going on here is that rather than understand my actual argument, he assigned to me the same package of both real and straw man arguments Conservatives assign to all immigration supporters and then started arguing some of those, rather than the actual issue we were arguing.   Anyway, just to make sure I had the full Twitter experience in this thread we had an appearance by the super Internet sleuth who has figured it all out:

lol, nice job.  The few folks who were reading my blog at the beginning -- which had its first post in 2004 a full 18 months before the first tweet on Twitter -- will know the blog is named after the Warner Brothers animation character, who in my mind should be one of the patron saints of small business owners -- he works his *ss off to achieve a goal and something unexpected screws his quest up every time.

Anyway, I guess I should make clear that my position on Twitter is roughly the same as it is on incentives.  In the case of incentives, bad organizations don't have bad people, they have ordinary average people with bad incentives.   As far as Twitter goes, I am more than willing to believe that, despite what he thinks of me, that Nick Searcy is not a dolt or a loser.  He is likely a reasonably smart guy on a platform that turns everyone on it into morons and *ssholes.

So I will use twitter to publish so people can find my articles in their feed there, and I will look at it from time to time if I need a blogging topic, but otherwise I am going to limit my discourse to places I can write in long form.

Postscript: OK, I figured out who this guy is.  I have not seen him in a lot of things but he played Deke Slayton in the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon and that entire series, including his contribution, was excellent.  I give him kudos as an (apparently) vocal Conservative in the entertainment world, as I think the constant drumbeat of unthinking Leftism in that industry tends to cause most of the Conservatives to just go into turtle mode to protect their careers and sanity.   Still don't agree with him on immigration.

Whoever Introduces the Word "Treason" Into An Argument Automatically Loses

Here is Coyote's 37th (or so) rule for public discourse:  He who introduces the word "treason" into an argument automatically loses.  For two reasons:

  1. In real life, it's never treason.  Trust me.  It may be disrespectful.  It may be counter-productive.  It may reveal things the government would rather not revealed.  It may be insufficiently committed to values many other Americans hold.  It may be inflammatory. It may be offensive.  It's not treason.  Whatever it is.
  2. Accusing someone of treason means one has run out of good arguments.  Accusations of treason are a substitute for a good argument, not a good argument in and of themselves.

A few other words come close to having this rule applied -- "racist" comes to mind.  But though the racism accusation is way overused, and frequently is used as a substitute for making good arguments, unlike treason racism actually does exist and is sometimes an accurate description.

Topology Question

Is there some sort of metric for the complexity of a boundary like this one for PA Distric 7, among those invalidated in PA (in a decision the Supreme Court today refused to review)?

I keep wondering whether there is an objective standard we can set, rather just the sort of "I know it when I see it" one that everyone seems to use.

One way I can imagine testing is to do it Monte Carlo style by drawing a series of lines from one random point in the shape to another random point in the shape and calculating which percentage of the lines cross the boundary at least once.  That metric for a circle or a rectangle would be zero, but would be very high for this shape.

 

Automation, or Perhaps Not (At Least for a While)

I thought this letter from Dan Hanson to Tyler Cowen was really thought provoking:

I wonder how many of the people making predictions about the future of truck drivers have ever ridden with one to see what they do?

One of the big failings of high-level analyses of future trends is that in general they either ignore or seriously underestimate the complexity of the job at a detailed level. Lots of jobs look simple or rote from a think tank or government office, but turn out to be quite complex when you dive into the details.

For example, truck drivers don’t just drive trucks. They also secure loads, including determining what to load first and last and how to tie it all down securely. They act as agents for the trunking company. They verify that what they are picking up is what is on the manifest. They are the early warning system for vehicle maintenance. They deal with the government and others at weighing stations. When sleeping in the cab, they act as security for the load. If the vehicle breaks down, they set up road flares and contact authorities. If the vehicle doesn’t handle correctly, the driver has to stop and analyze what’s wrong – blown tire, shifting load, whatever.

In addition, many truckers are sole proprietors who own their own trucks. This means they also do all the bookwork, preventative maintenance, taxes, etc. These people have local knowledge that is not easily transferable. They know the quirks of the routes, they have relationships with customers, they learn how best to navigate through certain areas, they understand how to optimize by splitting loads or arranging for return loads at their destination, etc. They also learn which customers pay promptly, which ones provide their loads in a way that’s easy to get on the truck, which ones generally have their paperwork in order, etc. Loading docks are not all equal. Some are very ad-hoc and require serious judgement to be able to manoever large trucks around them. Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge.

I’ve been working in automation for 20 years. When you see how hard it is to simply digitize a paper process inside a single plant (often a multi-year project), you start to roll your eyes at ivory tower claims of entire industries being totally transformed by automation in a few years. One thing I’ve learned is a fundamentally Hayekian insight: When it comes to large scale activities, nothing about change is easy, and top-down change generally fails. Just figuring out the requirements for computerizing a job is a laborious process full of potential errors. Many automation projects fail because the people at the high levels who plan them simply do not understand the needs of the people who have to live with the results.

Take factory automation. This is the simplest environment to automate, because factories are local, closed environments that can be modified to make things simpler. A lot of the activities that go on in a factory are extremely well defined and repetitive. Factory robots are readily available that can be trained to do just about anything physically a person can do. And yet, many factories have not automated simply because there are little details about how they work that are hard to define and automate, or because they aren’t organized enough in terms of information flow, paperwork, processes, etc. It can take a team of engineers many man years to just figure out exactly what a factory needs to do to make itself ready to be automated. Often that requires changes to the physical plant, digitization of manual processes, Statistical analysis of variance in output to determine where the process is not being defined correctly, etc.

A lot of pundits have a sense that automation is accelerating in replacing jobs. In fact, I predict it will slow down, because we have been picking the low hanging fruit first. That has given us an unrealistic idea of how hard it is to fully automate a job.

Based on this I can still think of some labor-saving, but not labor-eliminating, automation roles in trucking.

  • Convoying, allowing one driver to lead multiple additional automated trucks
  • Reduction in team driving.  Currently Federal rules (e.g. for rest breaks and maximum driving times) have created incentives for teams of two drivers to move priority freight that needs to be moving constantly and not parked while the driver sleeps.  Automation might allow one person plus the automated driver to keep trucks moving continuously and safely.

One thing not mentioned by Mr. Hanson is the role of regulation.  Safe automated trucks will likely exist LONG before Federal regulatory changes will occur to allow them much use.  This is not just because there is some delay with regulators getting comfortable with the safety aspects, but because affected groups with political pull who wish to keep the status quo will use safety concerns, real or imagined, to hold up the regulatory process.

If you think I am being too pessimistic, here is a story.  The typical steam engine of the 1930's needed a driver and a fireman -- the latter's job was to make sure the furnace was correctly fueled and operating well.  When diesel locomotives came along, one benefit among many was that the fireman was no longer needed.  Seeing this on the horizon, the fireman's union was ready to dig in their heals.  They actually, boldly, took the position NOT that a diesel locomotive needed a fireman, but that it should be required to have 2 firemen!  This was partially a subject for union negotiation, but in the dysfunctional world of railroad labor regulation, it also required some regulatory changes  (as the first industry with large workforces, the government took its first shot at labor regulation in a railroad-specific manner and the result was largely dysfunctional; fortunately for the rest of industry it did a better job with labor regulation later for everyone else).  It took years to totally eliminated fireman from diesel engines.  In fact, nearly every railroad labor saving technology like this (e.g. automatic brakes rather than men on roofs turning break wheels) led to regulatory foot-dagging that allowed the new technology but resisted the reduction in personnel.

History Sure Does Repeat Itself

Who would have thought we would be replaying the 11th and 12th century investiture controversies a thousand years later in China:

Pope Francis has decided to accept the legitimacy of seven Catholic bishops appointed by the Chinese government, a concession that the Holy See hopes will lead Beijing to recognize the pope’s authority as head of the Catholic Church in China, according to a person familiar with the plan.

For years, the Vatican didn’t recognize their ordinations, which were done in defiance of the pope and considered illicit, part of a long-running standoff between the Catholic Church and China’s officially atheist Communist Party.

The pope will lift the excommunications of the seven bishops and recognize them as the leaders of their dioceses, according to the person familiar with the situation.

The Best Thing For Low-Skill Workers Would Be To Make It Enormously Profitable to Employ Them

I am constantly amazed how little people understand about economics and prosperity.  I have to give some background first.  Yesterday Mickey Kaus tweeted, "Isn't point of 'Americans are dreamers too' that there *are* zero-sum aspects: American lo-skill workers, who haven't done well for decades, have to compete for jobs/wages w/ DREAMers and (more important) new illegals a big DREAM amnesty will attract."

People talking about zero-sums in economics always get my hackles up, because they are frequently feared and seldom actually exist.  There is a lot of research that immigration does not reduced native-born unskilled employment, but it is impossible to discuss such things on Twitter without devolving into dueling appeals to authority.  Instead I wrote:

So what about a bipartisan compromise that increases immigration while simultaneously repealing labor regulations that make profitably employing low-skill workers difficult?

This was towards the end of my time on Twitter when I was mad that it was making me a worse person and I resolved to instead focus on trying to bridge differences.  But this proposal got a response I had not expected.

I am willing to believe I don't understand his point or Twitter is limiting his ability to explain himself, but this just seems really ignorant of how markets work.  How are jobs for low-skill workers going to exist if it is NOT profitable to employ them?

Here is how the world works:  Profits attract investment.  Profits are the fresh blood in the water that attracts sharks.   If I am making a good profit employing low-skill workers, then I am likely to reinvest those profits to grow and get more of those profits next year.  But even if I don't, at the same time other people will start to notice my profits and want to copy what I am doing.  Through all of this, we will all be hiring more and more unskilled workers.  None of this growth, none of this investment, none of this job creation happens without the profits.

This is why I have said for years that the greatest thing that could ever happen to low-skill workers in America is for entrepreneurs to find ways to make a fortune employing them.  I always get folks who consider this statement grossly exploitative, but it is the literal truth.  There are tons of well-paying jobs for programmers because a bunch of companies like Google are very visibly making a ton of money employing them.  Unfortunately, it is harder and harder to make the economics of a business that hires low-skill workers a success, something I know well because I run such a business.  The local, state and Federal governments are layering on more and more labor regulations that make it increasingly difficult to viably employ lower-skill workers.   I have a lot to say on this, and hopefully a paper I have written on the topic will soon be published and we can talk about it more.

Postscript:  Margaret Peters argues that one reason the Republican Party is more nativist is that the business sectors of the party that traditionally lobbied in support of immigration have reduced their support, at least for unskilled immigration, because they just don't have as much demand for unskilled labor any more.

As part of my research, I checked to see whether businesses are indeed lobbying less often on immigration. To find this out, I examined which groups testified before Congress on immigration, using that as one measure of lobbying.
Here's what I found. In the 1950s, on average, more than eight businesses used to testify before Congress at each hearing on immigration. By 2010, that number had dropped to two, as you can see in the figure below. The decline has been even steeper for industries that have been exposed to increased imports from foreign countries -- from eight businesses that produce goods that can be traded per hearing in the 1950s to less than one today.

Some industry groups have increased their lobbying for more immigration -- but those are in the tech sector and others that use high-skill labor. We should expect, then, that Trump will continue to push in his State of the Union address Tuesday for a "merit-based system" in which immigrants with high skills get priority.

In contrast, lobbying by nativist groups has hardly increased.

Google beats the doors down in DC lobbying for more immigration spots for programmers.  If someone were making good money hiring unskilled labor, they would be doing the same for unskilled immigration.

I Saw a Lot of Arguments Against Immigration on Twitter Yesterday, But Most of Them Are Poor

Against my recent personal resolutions, I spent the last 24 hours active on Twitter.  My memory of the platform turned out to be largely correct -- it took only a little while on Twitter before I became a worse person, abandoning rational argumentation in favor of clever "gotcha" zings at people whose minds aren't going to be changed anyway. So I am going to respond to some of the things I saw here on the blog, rather than on Twitter.

Much of the traffic in my feed, the day after the President's State of the Union speech, centered around immigration.  As many of you know, I grew up an immigration restrictionist, but morphed over time into a largely open immigration supporter because I simply cannot come up with a moral justification for a free society restricting anyone's freedom of movement and association.  I became convinced (more on this in a second) that not only did immigration restrictions limit the rights of those trying to immigrate, but despite being native born, they limited my property and association rights.

Yes I have concerns and I think there are some valid arguments out there.  It is, for example, really hard to square open immigration with our current definitions of citizenship and various government benefit programs.  In addition, I am frequently concerned that we libertarians are being suckers on immigration, justifying immigration on the grounds of individual liberty and then having waves of immigrants who vote for things that limit personal liberty.  I see that already with "immigrants" moving from California to Arizona, who leave California because of the effects of the crazy regulation regime there and then come to Arizona and vote for all the same crazy stuff that ruined California.

But I actually saw neither of these arguments made all day.  Instead, I saw one form or another of these four arguments:

1.  There are individual examples of immigrants who did bad things. Trump's invocation of the MS-13 gang certainly set the tone for this, but I saw it all day.   This is a classic Conservative civilization-barbarism argument and tends to have immense appeal in that community.  But here is what is funny to me.  Conservatives (rightly in my opinion) oppose using tail-of-the-distribution individual weather events to "prove" climate change.  But those same Conservatives sure like to use rare individual acts of criminal behavior to "prove" immigration is dangerous.  Tied in with this is an observer bias -- the media only presents us with the extreme examples.  When the media only puts the weather on the news when it is extreme, it leads to a false impression that the weather is becoming more extreme.  When Fox News fills the news with crimes committed by immigrants, rather than say crimes committed by natives or acts of kindness committed by immigrants, it leads to a false impression that immigrants are all criminal barbarians making us less safe.  Which leads to #2:

2.  Immigrant crime is 100% preventable because we could just have kept them out.  This is a variation of the Skittles immigration meme that went around before the election, asking if one would voluntarily eat from a bowl of 1000 Skittles if one knew 2 or 3 were poisonous.  An example I saw of this yesterday was this:

I suppose this is correct on its face.  Because in any group of 10,000 randomly-selected human beings some will be criminals, such that banning any group from the country would also ban some criminals.  But the problem is that you could make this argument for any group.  Heck, you could use this equally well as an advertisement for abortion, because every 10,000 births you prevent will likely eliminate some criminals.  Because this argument is equally valid for any group one might ban from the country, it is not a valid argument against immigration.  You still have to say why you want to pick on immigrants vs. some other group.  The first thing Conservatives would say is, "Because they are illegal!" and I will deal with the rule of law argument below in #4.  But the other thing they might say is that immigrants commit crimes at a higher rate than natives, an impression formed by wall-to-wall Fox News coverage over every alleged immigrant crime (see #1 above).  But this impression is simply not the case.  Study after study shows that immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native born Americans.  If you really care about crime, immigrants are the last group you want to send away.  Here is one such study from Cato, but there are many.

3.  You lock the front door of your house, don't you?  An example of this argument is here:

The first problem with this argument is that it is fundamentally socialist.  Only in a socialist country is the entire country one entire single block of property.

I really hate the house analogy but if you simply have to use it, then don't think of the country as a house, think of it as a giant apartment building with 100 million apartments.   Each apartment has its own door and then there is a door into the building itself.  When people talk about immigration restrictions, they are talking about limiting who I can and cannot buzz into the front door to come up and visit me.

Bad analogy?  Well, I wasn't the one who started the whole stupid building analogy. Anyway, the correct way to put it is that if I want to hire someone from Mexico in my business, and I want to rent that person a place to live on my property, why do you get to lock the door barring that person from doing these things with me?  That is why I said above that immigration restrictions don't just limit the rights of immigrants, they limit my association and property rights as a native-born American.  I can't hire anyone I want.  I can't have anyone I want come visit me.  I can't rent my property to anyone I like.  I can only do all those things with a person who has been licensed by the Federal government to be able to interact with me in this country.  And those licenses are very scarce and hard to get.

4.  They're illegal!

I will admit the rule of law argument is seductive, but I have a couple of thoughts on it.

First, do you file and pay state use tax whenever you buy things over the Internet that have not had sales tax applied?  Do you pay all the proper employment taxes for your household help, or if they are contractors, file 1090's for what you paid them each year?  Do you always stay under the speed limit and come to a full and complete stop at every red light and stop sign?  Do you always have your dog on a leash in public areas that require it?  If the answer is "no", then stop lecturing me on the rule of law.

I know that the answer to the queries above is typically that those things are all trivial sh*t compared to breaking immigration laws.  Hmm, maybe or maybe not -- they are all basically victim-less, often paperwork crimes.  But here is another way to think of it.  You are breaking the law for some trivial reason, because you want to get to work 30 seconds faster or can't be bothered with an hour of paperwork.  Illegal immigrants are often breaking the law for life and death reasons.  Which of you is more admirable?  More than anything else about the immigration system, I hate that it takes people with qualities we generally admire -- they are trying to improve themselves, trying to make a better life for their kids, trying to find better jobs and schools -- and we turn them into criminals.  Trump is right about one thing -- many of these countries have been turned into sh*tholes by their governments.  I would like to think that if I were born in one, I would be doing everything I could to get out, laws or no laws.

Finally, I would observe that the statement "I am not against immigration, just illegal immigration" is just a cover for most people who say it.  If that were really true, we could fix it in a second -- just make it legal.  But few on the Conservative side are suggesting any such thing.