Archive for May 2018

Trump Likely to Impose New Tariffs Today: Is This Bad Economics or Madman Theory?

Frankly, I do not know how folks like Mark Perry and Don Boudreaux do it.  They are able to keep going, day after day, year after year, refuting the same stupid anti-trade arguments over and over again.  I don't have the patience or endurance.  Long-time readers will remember I used to spend a lot of time on climate.  But the debate never went anywhere.  It was like Groundhog Day.  At some point I just thought "I've said what I have to say, and now I am done"  (though I actually do have a climate update in the works).

Anyway, Trump has put tariffs on Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminum and is poised to do so for European products soon, a tax that will ultimately be paid by every American consumer.  Sigh.  This is just so economically ignorant it is hard to take it seriously, yet here it is.  In the name of 150,000 or so US steelworkers and a bare handful of obviously politically well-connected corporations, we are going to raise prices on essential raw materials that are consumed in one way or another by a huge number of American businesses and hundreds of millions of US consumers.   Two or three years ago when US manufacturers are moving oversees for lower raw material costs, you will know why.

Republicans are really supposed to know better on this sort of thing, which to me is just proof #12,465 that our political parties represent tribal rather than consistent ideological differences.  Republicans have twisted themselves in so many knots trying to support Trump while knowing better on tariffs that some have actually brought back a version of madman theory.

I am not entirely sure of the intellectual and historical origins of madman theory, but I have always ascribed it to Nixon and Kissinger.

President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger believed they could compel "the other side" to back down during crises in the Middle East and Vietnam by "push[ing] so many chips into the pot" that Nixon would seem 'crazy' enough to "go much further," according to newly declassified documents published today by the National Security Archive.

The documents include a 1972 Kissinger memorandum of conversation published today for the first time in which Kissinger explains to Defense Department official Gardner Tucker that Nixon's strategy was to make "the other side ... think we might be 'crazy' and might really go much further" — Nixon's Madman Theory notion of intimidating adversaries such as North Vietnam and the Soviet Union to bend them to Washington's will in diplomatic negotiations

Speaking of Kissinger, the new Conservative explanation of Trump trade (and foreign) policy also includes an element of old-time brinksmanship.  I remember reading something in college from Kissinger, which I can't find now so maybe I have it wrong, but I would paraphrase it as, "it is very dangerous to go to the brink over an issue, but one can never make progress without going to the brink."

Some Conservatives are now arguing that Trump's protectionism is "good" protectionism because it is an opening move in a bargaining game where the US can make headway and perhaps get better rules all around.  As such, Trump's seeming irrationality and willingness to ignore basic economics is a feature, not a bug, supporting the madman model of negotiation.

Ugh.  This might perhaps all be reasonable strategy in a zero-sum game such as, say, negotiating shares of the assets in a bankruptcy settlement (something Trump is actually super experienced at).  Trade, though, is not a zero-sum game.  By definition, trades that are executed voluntarily have to help both parties, or else they would not be agreed to.  As such, anything that reduces the amount of trade between people in two countries is guaranteed to be a net loss for BOTH groups of people.  There are no winners.

The Inevitable Lifecycle of Government Regulation Benefiting the Very Companies Whose Actions Triggered It

Step 1:  Large, high-profile company has business practice that ticks lots of people off -- e.g. Facebook slammed for selling user data to Cambridge Analytica

Step 2:  Regulation results -- e.g. European GDPR (though it predates the most recent Facebook snafu, it was triggered by similar outrages in the past we have forgotten by now so I use the more recent example)

Step 3:  Large, high-profile companies that triggered the regulation by their actions in the first place are the major beneficiaries (because they have the scale and power to comply the easiest).

GDPR, the European Union’s new privacy law, is drawing advertising money toward Google’s online-ad services and away from competitors that are straining to show they’re complying with the sweeping regulation.

The reason: the Alphabet Inc. ad giant is gathering individuals’ consent for targeted advertising at far higher rates than many competing online-ad services, early data show. That means the new law, the General Data Protection Regulation, is reinforcing—at least initially—the strength of the biggest online-ad players, led by Google and Facebook Inc.

This is utterly predictable, so much so that many folks were predicting exactly this outcome months ago.

My "favorite" example of this phenomenon is toy regulation that was triggered a decade ago by a massive scandal and subsequent recall by toy giant Mattel of toys with lead paint sourced from China.

Remember the sloppily written "for the children" toy testing law that went into effect last year? The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) requires third-party testing of nearly every object intended for a child's use, and was passed in response to several toy recalls in 2007 for lead and other chemicals. Six of those recalls were on toys made by Mattel, or its subsidiary Fisher Price.

Small toymakers were blindsided by the expensive requirement, which made no exception for small domestic companies working with materials that posed no threat. Makers of books, jewelry, and clothes for kids were also caught in the net. Enforcement of the law was delayed by a year—that grace period ended last week—and many particular exceptions have been carved out, but despite an outcry, there has been no wholesale re-evaluation of the law. Once might think that large toy manufacturers would have made common cause with the little guys begging for mercy. After all, Mattel also stood to gain if the law was repealed, right?

Turns out, when Mattel got lemons, it decided to make lead-tainted lemonade (leadonade?). As luck would have it, Mattel already operates several of its own toy testing labs, including those in Mexico, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and California.

The million bucks was well spent, as Mattel gained approval late last week to test its own toys in the sites listed above—just as the window for delayed enforcement closed.

Instead of winding up hurting, Mattel now has a cost advantage on mandatory testing, and a handy new government-sponsored barrier to entry for its competitors.

Volcanoes and Home Ownership

I have seen several web sites where folks looked at the neighborhoods getting devastated by lava in Hawaii and asked "why did the government let them build their homes there?"  I have three responses:

First, nature is hard to predict.  And even if it were, it tends to operate on really long cycles that are longer than most of our attention spans.  This style and location of eruption  has not happened in recent memory so folks treat it as impossible.  For a good example of this phenomenon see:  stock market.

Second, I laugh when I see the "why does the government allow homes built in dangerous areas" question.   In fact, in many cases, the government subsidizes construction of homes in dangerous areas.  Federal flood insurance is notorious for continuing to rebuild people's homes practically for free on dangerous coasts and in known flood plains.

Third, there are private entities who do take a hand in preventing construction in dangerous areas:  mortgage lenders and insurers.  Lenders do not want a lien on an asset that is underneath 20 feet of new rock, and insurers do not want to take on expensive risks in known danger areas (particularly if there are no federal guarantees as in #2).

I actually own some land on the Big Island, a long way away on the Kohala Coast.  And in the process of getting a mortgage and insurance, we had to go through a lava risk review.  There are apparently maps of risk zones similar to flood plain maps.   Obviously, these neighborhoods that are being consumed slowly (see:  Deadpool Zamboni scene) likely cleared this hurdle.  I am not sure how.  Perhaps the developer used pull to get the maps changed.  Perhaps the people who made the maps just predicted risk incorrectly (see #1).  Perhaps lenders ignored the maps and took on the mortgages anyway despite the risks (see: 2008).

A Reminder: Why the US Rail System Is At Least as Good As the European System if You Care About Energy Use

In an article about the French railroad SNCF, Randal O'Toole makes a point I have screamed to the world for years:

Meanwhile, French trains carry less than 11 percent of freight, as more than 86 percent of freight is transported on highways. Those numbers are in sharp contrast to the U.S., where at least a third of freight goes by rail and less than 40 percent goes by truck (and I suspect a bad model has erroneously exaggerated the role of trucks).

American railroads are a model of capitalism, one of the least-subsidized forms of transportation in the world. They are profitable and do far more for the national economy than Europe’s socialized railroads, which mainly serve narrow elites.

Most of the intellectual elites and nearly all the global warming alarmists deride the US for not having the supposedly superior rail system that France and Germany have.  They are blinded by the vision of admittedly beautiful high speed trains, and have frittered away billions of dollars trying to pursue various high speed rail visions in the US.

I know that the supposedly pro-science global warming alarmists sometimes are not actually very focused on science, but this is pretty simple to think about.

First, consider the last time you were on a passenger train.  Add up the weight of all the folks in your car.  Do you think they weighed more or less than the car itself?  Unless you were packed into a subway train with Japanese sumo wrestlers, the answer is that the weight of the car dwarfs that of the passengers it is carrying.    The average Amtrak passenger car apparently weighs about 65 tons (my guess is a high speed rail car weighs more).  The capacity of a coach is 70-80 passengers, which at an average adult weight of 140 pounds yields a maximum passenger weight per car of 5.6 tons.  This means that just 8% of the fuel in a passenger train is being used to move people -- the rest goes into moving the train itself.

Now consider a freight train.  The typical car weight 25-30 tons empty and can carry between 70 and 120 tons of cargo.  This means that 70-80% of the fuel in a freight train is being used to move the cargo.

Now you have to take me on faith on one statement -- it is really hard, in fact close to impossible, to optimize a rail system for both passengers and freight.  In the extreme of high speed rail, passenger trains required separate dedicated tracks.  Most rail systems, even when they serve both sorts of traffic, generally prioritize one or the other.  So, if you wanted to save energy and had to pick, which would you choose -- focusing on freight or focusing on passengers?  Oh and by the way, if you want to make it more personal, throw in a consideration of which you would rather have next to you on crowded roads, another car or another freight truck?

This is why the supposedly-green folks' denigrating of US rail is so crazy to me.  The US rails system makes at least as much sense as the European system, even before you consider that it was mostly privately funded and runs without the subsidies that are necessary to keep European rail running.  Yes, as an American tourist travelling in Europe, the European rails system is great.  Agreed.  I use it every time I go there.  I have to assume that this elite tourist experience must be part of why folks ignore the basic science here.

My original article on all this years ago was in Forbes here.

Postscript #1:  One could argue that what matters is not the weight ratios of freight vs. passenger rail but how those compare to the road alternatives.  I would have to think this through, but it gets way more complicated because you have to start worrying about average occupancy and such since that also differs.  At full capacity say of 4 people, the typical 4000 pound car (US, rest of the world is less) would passenger weight around 12% of the total, higher than for the passenger train.   But average occupies could change the comparison and I don't have the time to work it through.  But for a full analysis we would have to take a lot of other things into account.  For example, trains are a poor fit with customer travel time preferences for longer US distances, even for higher speed options.  In the same way freight pencils out worse for rail in Europe because the last mile transport problems become a bigger percentage in a shorter haul.  I am confident though that for the US, the freight-dominant system is the right solution and it amazes me how hard it is to get anyone to recognize this.

Postscript #2:  Thinking about the SNCF, I actually did a consulting project there 20+ years ago.  I remember two things.   First they had 25% more freight car repair people than they had freight cars.  Which led me to making the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that they could give every one of these folks their own tool bag, assign them their own car to ride around on, and still cut a fifth of their staff.  I have never, ever, ever seen bloated staffing like I did at SNCF.  My other memory was lunches with executives that took place in palatial dining rooms with waiters in white gloves.  We ate for like 3 hours and drank a case of wine and all I could think about doing after lunch was going to take a nap.

Postscript #3:  This is really going to be a random aside, but if you want to bring science to the table, monorails are the dumbest things ever.  The whole advantage of rail is the friction reduction of a metal flanged wheel rolling on a metal rail.   Most monorails (and people movers) are just tires on a concrete beam (e.g this is how the Disney monorails work).  This is no more efficient than a bus and actually less because the train jacks up the vehicle to passenger weight ratio over a bus.  Because of certain geometry issues, monorails also have limited capacity.  Disney has been struggling with this for years at the Magic Kingdom in Florida and their ferry boats seem to move a lot more passengers than the adjacent monorails.  Monorails do look awesome, though, and their tracks are airier and more attractive than traditional elevated rail tracks.

Our Response to GDPR

I have been reading all the articles (and the storm of emails in my inbox) on European GDPR privacy rules implementation with some dispassion.  After all, it does not affect me, right?  I run a camping business all in the US.  But then I got to thinking about it and realized that I had three avenues of exposure  -- my blogs, my jobs mailing list, and my company web site.  I will preface this by saying that I am no expert and I am not really hugely at-risk, but perhaps this will be useful to someone.  More importantly, if you ARE an expert and see something I am screwing up please email me!

The blog exposure strikes me as pretty narrow, particularly since we do not serve up advertisements (except in the comments via Disqus) and do not have a mailing list.  I don't store or have access to any user data (though I wonder if server logs count?) so I assess my main liability as secondary if Disqus screws up something.  I have been reading Disqus's updates and I would evaluate them as working on it but not done.  I suppose if the EU wants to come after me for "up to 4%" of this site's revenue they are welcome to do so.  Sort of like when I was unemployed being told to spend 2 months salary on my wife's engagement ring  (which in fact I did exactly, since it was my mom's ring given to me as a gift for the purpose).

Similarly, I think my liability surrounding the mailing list we maintain for job openings is pretty limited.  First, it would shock me if more than 0.0001% of the people on that list are in Europe, since I can't really legally hire Europeans in most cases and it is unlikely they will drive their RV over here to work in a campground.  More importantly, all the names are there through what I would call extreme opt-in -- they have to click on a special link and go sign up on a dedicated page just to join the mailing list.  The email provider is Constant Contact so again my liability is likely limited to whether they screw anything up in their compliance, but this is probably unlikely in my case.  Again there is no advertising and all people on the list ever get are notifications of new job openings and links where to apply.

Which brings me to our business web site.  There is no log-in or user information entered or advertising on our web site, so we are mostly fine.  With one large exception -- we have our own reservations site that gathers and stores customer reservation information.  Eek!  That sounds like it could be a problem.  The most dangerous piece of data we could potentially have in our hands is a credit card number, which is why our system was set up so our company never has the credit card number in our possession.  Customers are passed over to Stripe (highly recommended company, by the way) who handle all that dangerous stuff on their servers, and just pass us back a confirmation.  But we do have customer name, address, email, and camping stay dates on our server.  Maybe we are compliant already -- we treat that stuff with a lot of care.  Maybe we are not.  But since we really don't get any reservations at all from Europe, it was easier just to go black there, so right now my software guy is working on blocking traffic from European IP addresses.

Postscript:  On some of my posts, people write me and ask, "Why did you even bother to publish that."  And my answer is that I often write to think, so it may be that it is only for my own benefit.  My software guy is a reader of this blog and was probably laughing as he read this post because I stopped a couple times in writing it to fire off new questions or requests to him.

Update:  Hah, what timing!   This just appeared on my blog when I scrolled down to the comments so I guess Disqus must indeed be working on this.

FOIA Needs A Major Overhaul and Reboot

I received some documents the other day as the result of a FOIA request, and as has been my experience in past requests, a lot of stuff is blacked out that I suspect is redacted merely to protect the agency and its managers from embarrassment rather than for reasons actually allowed in the FOIA rules.  Despite President Obama's claims to run the most transparent administration in history, I believe the problems have only gotten worse over the last decade.  The Administration even limited its own inspectors' general access to information  [how the hell does one punctuate the possessive of the plural of inspector general??].

Generally I do not have the time or resources to get to the bottom of these things, but folks in Congress do.  One of the patterns we have observed in the wrangling of Republicans in Congress with the Department of Justice over the last year have been releases of documents that are initially heavily redacted, and then latter re-released with fewer redactions.  The pattern we are finding is that many of the first redactions were not justified under any of the privilege rules that exist.  They were merely things the agency did not want anyone else to know.

My favorite example comes from Eric Felton in the Weekly Standard:

Some of the questionable redactions, by contrast, are charming efforts at bureaucratic butt-covering. Lisa Page, for example, was discussing with Peter Strzok the challenge of having an intimate meeting in Andrew McCabe’s conference room, given the size of his grand new conference table. “No way to change the room,” Page texts in the version provided by Justice. “The table alone was [REDACTED]. (You can’t repeat that!)” Hmmm, what classified, top-secret, national-security information could possibly have been redacted? The blacked out bit, it seems, was a simple “70k.” The DoJ—and can you blame them, really?—didn’t want Congress to know they were in the habit of spending $70,000 on a conference table.

Travel Report from the Big Island

My wife's cousin is in management of a beautiful resort (Mauna Kea / Hapuna)  on the Kohala coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.  I was asking him if it was OK to visit and you can feel the frustration of a resort executive in his reply:

Absolutely ZERO impact from Volcano….

Volcano is 120 miles away and has zero impact on MK. Since it has been rumbling we have had nothing but beautiful sky, perfect air and perfect water temperature.

Web site with air quality… MK is about the same as Kihei in Maui… Kona occasionally gets not great with some Vog… So Kihei and MK are both at 14 right now. Kona is the worst at 46 on the west side (Still good) Phoenix is at 71; St. Louis right now seems the worst in the nation at 119. Worst are on the Big Island right now is Ocean View a little south west of the lava flows at 82.

Unfortunately, CNN makes it seem like everyone is wearing a gas mask and there is acid rain falling all over the place. The volcano is limited to a tiny area on the south-east coast and all Island in Hawaii and 90% of the big island and all of the Kohala Coast are not impacted. The impact from the Volcano for me is the same as you in Phoenix… ZERO….. Also no matter what it does it will not impact us… It is a shield volcano, not Mt. St. Helene so it can’t blow up and there is not enough lava in the chamber to cause any big issues other than right at its base…

The only time to “pay attention” is if Mauna Loa or Hualalai started to rumble. Both of those could have an impact on the west side of the island.


Well, I Got Another Threat and Takedown Demand Today

I received this email this morning, from a hotmail account no less

Subject:  Unlawful Use of Name


I am writing on behalf of [redacted], whose name you published on your blog citing the PBS article about harassment in the Forest Service.

You do not have legal permission to publish his name. Please remove it immediately to avoid legal action.


Heather Appelhof

I didn't really have to, but I redacted the gentleman in question's name, at least until Ms. Appelhof has a chance to respond.  Here was my response:

Ms. Appelhof:

Mr. _____'s name was quoted on my blog in the context of a much longer verbatim quote from the PBS website as it appeared on March 5, 2018. This sort of quotation taken directly from a respected national media outlet is a speech activity that is highly protected in this country. In particular, your argument that I did not have "legal permission to publish his name" is completely specious. There is no such legal requirement in this country to obtain prior permission before publishing someone's name, particularly in the case of a public figure in a leadership position of a public agency. As an example, I publish all takedown requests my blog receives so your name will get published on my blog as part of the email.

Few things irritate me more than people who threaten me with laws that do not exist. However, since Mr. _____'s name was really incidental to the point I was trying to make, I am open to a valid legal or ethical argument for removing it and will give you a second chance to provide one. Note that "this gentleman is upset about all the negative media coverage and has engaged me to try to intimidate people into removing his name" is not a valid reason.

There are obviously niche legal situations in which it is illegal to publicly reveal names -- a doctor revealing his patients' names and medical information is highly restricted under HIPAA, for example. However, I am not aware of any such situation that obtains here. I suppose there could be some sort of specific court order in play here, but if that is the case it should be easy to share it with me and I will respect it. It is possible Mr. _____ believes he was libeled by PBS, but that hardly applies to my merely quoting their story, particularly since I can't have had any malice towards him since I have not given him a second thought before or after publishing that post, at least until your email arrived.

This leaves ethical arguments, and I can certainly be swayed by such arguments more quickly than by empty threats. For example, if the accuser in the story has recanted her accusation, or if PBS had confused Mr. ______ with someone else, those would certainly be good reasons to remove his name.

You are welcome to try again.


The original PBS story I quoted is here.  After I sent Ms. Appelhof this response, I noted that PBS had removed this gentleman's name from the article with a note at the bottom saying:

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated. The name of the Forest Service supervisor in Oregon has been removed. We stand by our reporting and thank the multiple women who went public for this story.

Despite this email ticking me off with its tone and absurd legal opinion, I actually want to do the right thing so I have reached out to the PBS editorial team on this story to see if I can get a hint why the name was removed.  A reason good enough for PBS is probably going to be good enough for me, since, again, the story was more about accountability issues on Forest Service fire teams than it was about this person in particular.

Update:  I can't get the details, but there were apparently legal charges and settlements at PBS that led to their taking down the name.  I will defer to their judgement and do the same, because honestly the name was just incidental to my post anyway.  Ms. Appelhof wrote me back with a MUCH more compelling and intelligent email outlining a lot of investigation that has occurred since and she claims cleared the man in question.  I am not sure who is wrong or right but I am happy to retreat from this particular fray.  Having had to fight a number of takedown requests in the past, her initial email was worded in a way to rub my fur all the wrong ways.

More on The Poor State of Automobile Cockpit Interfaces

A while back I wrote that automobile dashboard design in modern cars sucks.  I drive many different cars as I am frequently renting cars on the road and I concluded:

If car designers are getting rid of physical buttons in favor of multilayered menu systems because it saves them a bunch of money, fine.  Bad trade-off in my mind, but there is at least a reason.   But if they are getting rid of physical buttons because they think that modern users prefer navigating multiple screens to access commonly used functionality, this is simply insane.  No one can top me for pure technophilia, but technical wizardry should not come at the expense of reduced usability.

No one listens to me but they do listen to Consumer Reports, and that magazine dinged the new Tesla Model 3's for exactly this problem:

"Another major factor that compromised the Model 3’s road-test score was its controls. This car places almost all its controls and displays on a center touch screen, with no gauges on the dash, and few buttons inside the car. This layout forces drivers to take multiple steps to accomplish simple tasks. Our testers found that everything from adjusting the mirrors to changing the direction of the airflow from the air-conditioning vents required using the touch screen."

Postscript:  This is not really the point of this post, but how is this even possible in a small car like the Model 3?

"The Tesla’s stopping distance of 152 feet from 60 mph was far worse than any contemporary car we’ve tested and about 7 feet longer than the stopping distance of a Ford F-150 full-sized pickup," reads the review based on tests on different Model 3s.

My Wife Is Ahead of Her Time

As "Stand By Me" is now teed-up to become the #1 wedding song in the English-speaking world, at least for a time, my wife actually chose it for our wedding almost 30 years ago.  It is really one of the great songs, and should be ranked well higher than the 122nd place Rolling Stone Magazine gave it.  I didn't watch the royal wedding this morning but my breakfast was interrupted by my wife screaming at me to "come see this" as "Stand by Me" was sung.


Postscript:  I remember years ago the Police's "Every Breath You Take" dominated weddings for a while.  At one point Sting did an interview where he told everyone -- I will paraphrase but I think this is close -- "stop playing that song at your weddings. Have you listened to the lyrics?  It is a super-creepy song about stalking."  I would add a big ditto to this for everyone in the 90's that was using at their weddings the Dolly Parton / Whitney Houston tune "I'll Always Love You," which is actually a break-up song.

Uber Drivers Just Killed All the Parts of the Job They Supposedly Liked the Most

At the behest of a group of Uber drivers, the California Supreme Court has ruled that Uber drivers are Uber employees, not independent contractors, under California law:

In a ruling with potentially sweeping consequences for the so-called gig economy, the California Supreme Court on Monday made it much more difficult for companies to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The decision could eventually require companies like Uber, many of which are based in California, to follow minimum-wage and overtime laws and to pay workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance and payroll taxes, potentially upending their business models.

I believe that this will pretty much kill Uber (though it will take some time to bleed out) for reasons discussed here.  Rather than discuss consequences for the company (everyone is finally doing this, following the general media rule I have stated before that it is OK to discuss downsides of new government regulations only after the regulations have been passed and become essentially un-reversible).

People don't always seem to have a good grasp of cause and effect.  I don't know if this is a general problem programmed into how humans think or one attributable to the sorry state of education.  My favorite example is all the people who flee California due to the high taxes, housing prices, and stifling regulation and then  -- in their new state -- immediately start voting for all the same things that caused them to flee California.

One of the aspects of being an Uber driver that supposedly attracts many people to it is the flexibility.  I summarized the advantages in an earlier post:

Here are some cool things about working for Uber:

You can work any time you want, for as long as you want.  You can work from 2-4 in the morning if you like, and if there are no customers, that is your risk

You can work in any location you choose.  You can park at your house and sit in your living room and take any jobs that come up, and then ignore new jobs until you get back home (I actually have a neighbor who is retired who does just this, he has driven me about 6 times now).

The company has no productivity metrics or expectations.  As long as your driver rating is good and you follow the rules, you are fine.

This all ends with the California decision.  You drivers are all thinking you won this big victory because you are going to have the same job you loved but you will just get paid more.  This is not going to happen.  As I implied above, in the long-term this job will not exist at all, because Uber will be dead.  But in the near-term, if Uber tries to make this work **, Uber is going to excercise a LOT more control of your work.

That is because if Uber is on the hook for a minimum cost per hour for your work, then they are going to damn well make sure you are productive.  Do you enjoy sitting around near your suburban and semi-rural home at 3AM waiting to get some business?  In the future, forget it, Uber is not going to allow this sort of thing now that Uber, rather than its drivers, is carrying the risk of your being unproductive.  They are going to take a lot more control of where and when you can drive.  And if you do not get with the program, you are going to be kicked out.  It won't be three months before Uber starts tracking driver productivity and kicking out the least productive drivers.

Congratulations Uber drivers, in the quest to try to use the power of government to extract more money for yourselves from the company, you just killed your jobs as you know it.  You may have had freedom before but now you are working in Office Space like the rest of us.

This whole case just goes to support my frequent contention that the only labor model the US government will fully accept is an hourly worker working 9-5 punching a time clock.  Every new labor model that comes along eventually runs head-on into the government that tries to pound that square peg into the round hole of a time-punching factory worker.  The Obama administration even did its best to force a large number of salaried workers into punching a time clock.


** If I were the leader of Uber, I would announce today that we are exiting California.  This is an existential issue and the only way to fight it is right now on your home turf.  Any attempt to try to muddle through this is going to lead to Uber's death, and would thus be a disservice to its shareholders.   Whether this happens will be interesting.  Uber is owned by a bunch of California VC's who generally support exactly this sort of government authoritarian interventionism.  It will be interesting to see if a bunch of California progressives let $50 billion in equity go down the drain just to avoid offending the sensibilities of their fellow California progressives.

The Dangers of Trying To Reinvent An Industry, And A Few Notes on Tesla

I am often critical of Elon Musk and Tesla, and will be again later in this post, but I wanted to start by sympathizing with Tesla's plight.  As you may know, Tesla set out not only to produce a leading electric car (which it did) but also to reinvent automobile manufacturing (which it is struggling to do).  One of the hard parts about reinventing an industry is being correct as to what parts to throw out and what parts to keep.  Musk, I think, didn't want to be captive to a lot of traditional auto industry thinking, something anyone who has spent any time at GM would sympathize with.  But it turns out that in addition to all the obsolete assumptions and not-invented-here syndrome and resistance to change and static culture in the industry, there is also a lot of valuable accumulated knowledge about how to build a reliable car efficiently.  In Tesla's attempt to disrupt the industry by throwing out all the former, it may have ignored too much of the latter, and now it is having a really hard time ramping up reliable, quality production.  Musk even recently admitted it may have gone overboard on factory automation.

I don't agree with all the conclusions, but I thought this was an interesting article on Tesla vs. Toyota production practices and the industry lessons Tesla may have been too quick to ignore.  One quote I liked, “Machines are good for repetitive things… but they can’t improve their own efficiency or the quality of their work.”  I sympathize with Musk on this one.  You CAN"T upend an industry by copying everything it does -- you have to go off in a different direction, at least on some things.  It may be that Musk eschewed the wrong bits of industry practice, but this is an understandable mistake.

What is not understandable is Musk's lack of transparency, his self-dealing, his wild and unfulfilled promises, and his unprofessional behavior.  Some notes:

  • A few months ago, at the Tesla truck launch, I wrote:

But Tesla needs to stay hot. California is considering new vehicle subsidy laws that are hand-crafted to pour money mainly into Tesla's pocket. Cash is burning fast, and Musk is going to have to go back to the capital markets again, likely before the end of the year. So out came Musk yesterday to yell SQUIRREL!

Tesla's main current problem is that they cannot seem to get up to volume production of their main new offering, the Model 3. The factory appears to be in disarray and out of production and inventory space. They can't produce enough batteries yet for the cars they are already making. So what does Musk do? Announce two entirely new vehicle platforms for tiny niche markets.

I saw the truck launch as a cynical ploy to distract from Tesla's operating problems and perhaps to get a bit of financing in the form of customer deposits (a growing percentage of Tesla's available cash is from customer advance deposits).  There was no way it could do anyting with this truck, given its operating problems and lack of capital.  It seems that I was on target, because not even 6 months later Tesla has tired of pretending the truck is going anywhere.  After Telsa did not even mention the semi in their earnings conference call, Musk said in answer to a question:

I actually don't know how many reservations we have for the Semi. About 2,000? Okay. I mean, we haven't really tried to sell the Semi. It's not like there's like an ongoing sales effort, so sales – orders for Semi are like opportunistic, really companies approaching us. Yeah, it's not something we really think about much.

  • Elon Musk proved himself on the same conference call to be a spoiled brat who has spent too much of his time having people kiss his feet and compare him to Tony Stark.

One week ago, Elon Musk entered the history books for his unprecedented, petulant handling of "boring, boneheaded" questions from two sellside analysts, who merely wanted more details about the company chronic cash/rollout issues.  And no phrase captures Musk's descent better than "These questions are so dry. They're killing me."  That's what Musk told RBC analyst Joseph Spak in response to a question about Model 3 reservations.

My older readers will know that my dad was President of Exxon from the early 70's (a few weeks before the Arab oil embargo) until the late 1980's.  In that job he never had to do analyst calls, but he did about 15 annual shareholders meetings.  I don't know how they run today but in those days any shareholder with a question or a rant could line up and fire away.  Every person with a legitimate beef, every vocal person who hated oil companies and were pissed off about oil prices, every conspiracy theorist convinced Exxon was secretly formulating chemtrail material or whatever, and every outright crazy would buy one share of stock and show up to have their moment on stage.  My dad probably fantasized about how awesome it would be to just get asked dry financial questions about cash flow.  And through all the nuts and crazy questions and outright accusations that he was the most evil person on the planet, dad kept his cool and never once lost it.

If you asked him about it, he likely would not have talked about it.  Dad -- who grew up dirt poor with polio in rural Depression Iowa -- was from that  generation that really did not talk about their personal adversity much and certainly did not compete for victim status.  He probably would just have joked that the loonies at the shareholder meeting were nothing compared to Congress.  My favorite story was that Scoop Jackson once called him to testify in the Senate twice in 6 months or so.  The first time, just before the embargo, he was trying to save the Alaska pipeline project and Jackson accused Exxon of being greedy and trying to produce more oil than was needed.  The second time was just after the embargo, and Jackson accused Exxon of being greedy and hiding oil offshore in tankers to make sure the world had less oil than it needed.

Through all of this, the only time I ever saw him really mad was when Johnny Carson made a joke about killing the president of Exxon (he asked his audience to raise their hands if they thought they would actually get convicted for killing the president of Exxon) and over the next several days our family received hundreds of death threats.  These had to be treated fairly credibly at the time because terrorists were frequently attacking, kidnapping, and bombing oil company executives and their families.  We had friends whose housekeeper's hand was blown off by a letter bomb, and I was not able to travel outside of the country for many years for fear of kidnapping.  (For Firefly fans, if you remember the scene of Mal always cutting his apples because he feared bombs in them from a old war experience, you might recognize how, to this day, I still open packages slowly and carefully.

This is a long way of saying that Elon Musk needs to grow the hell up.