Archive for the ‘The Corporate State’ Category.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elon Musk, America's #1 Crony Capitalist

This is from a couple of years ago, so the numbers will only be larger:

Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.

And he's built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups.

"He definitely goes where there is government money," said Dan Dolev, an analyst at Jefferies Equity Research. "That's a great strategy, but the government will cut you off one day."

The figure compiled by The Times comprises a variety of government incentives, including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits that Tesla can sell. It also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars.

Another Reason to Discuss Government-led Local Business Development

I have written many times about my frustration with cronyist business relocation incentives handed out by most local and state governments.  I have always considered these government incentives to be insanely unproductive spending, often taking taxpayer money to move a company as little as a few miles to get it over some artificial border.  One issue I have not considered in these critiques is whether the sorts of companies selected for relocation are really in the long-term interest of the local community at all.

Almost by definition, most relocation subsidies go to large, well-known companies.  This is for a couple of reasons.  First, large companies have the clout to lobby and demand such subsidies, clout smaller businesses do not have.  Second, politicians are handing out these subsidies in order to get re-elected.  The actual product of these subsidies is a press release and a blurb on the politician's campaign website.  A press release saying that your faithful governor has gotten Joe Smith's Widgets to move to Arizona is a lot less powerful than saying he got a branch of General Electric to move to Arizona.  In fact, the sexier the name the better, which is why politicians fall all over themselves to get Google and Apple and Tesla to come to town (despite the fact that in my observation, it is the staid old companies like Honeywell and Wells Fargo and such that tend to invest a lot more in their local communities).   We have a plant in the Phoenix area that has already had two subsidized sexy companies in it (First Solar and an Apple screen manufacturing partner) and now is empty yet again waiting for the next sexy crony.  Apparently, the state has agreed to subsidize Apple again to use it for a data center, though the move-in may be delayed as there was a large fire at the building when the solar panels on the roof caught fire.  Three sexy press releases for Arizona politicians for the same building!

Anyway, I was thinking about this when I read the piece below from Scott Sumner

This reminded me of a very interesting study that compared two cities in Michigan, Flint and Grand Rapids:

In 1946, sociologist C. Wright Mills and economist Melville Ulmer concluded the fortunes of two of Michigan's largest cities, Flint and Grand Rapids, were headed in opposite directions.Seventy years later, their predictions are getting new notice from academics.

The researchers warned Flint was overly dependent on its big employers even though its workers made 37 percent more than the national average at the time.

The warning seemed out of place. By 1950, Flint was labeled "the happiest city in Michigan" and the "epicenter of the American Dream," thanks to its thriving auto industry.

Grand Rapids, whose economy was defined by its numerous small businesses, was less flashy. But it offered its citizens more mobility and opportunity for its middle class that would help it survive tough times, the researchers concluded.

Flint was still booming in the late 1960s, so it looked like this 1946 prediction was wrong. But then the prediction suddenly came true. Flint's metro population fell from 445,589 in 1970 to 410,849 in 2015. In contrast, Grand Rapids has been booming, with its metro population soaring from 539,225 in 1970 to 1,038,583 in 2015. And both of these places are in the rustbelt state of Michigan.

What A Disaster Nationalization of the US Oil Industry Would Have Been!

Back in the 1970's, there were serious proposals in Congress to nationalize US oil companies.  My dad, who was an executive at a major oil company, was being constantly dragged to DC to testify in front of Congress to try to explain what a bad idea that would be.  This was a time of incredible economic ignorance in Washington, perhaps even more than average, when a Republican President had recently instituted wage and price controls and Congress was looking for ways to "fix" problems with oil supply that they themselves had caused with price control rules and other restrictions on exploration.

Think about what we know about state-run oil companies in Venezuela, Mexico and even Saudi Arabia:

  • They always under-invest capital in well maintenance, preferring to route cash flow to social spending that helps maintain shaky governments in power.  Many folks don't understand this, but production from a well starts falling off almost from the moment you drill it.  Well's must be expensively reworked and maintained and upgrade to keep flowing over their life.  This has gotten so bad in Venezuela that the country with the world's largest oil reserves is running out of gas.  I worked with Pemex for years and, at least in the 1990's, were about 1 step away from Pemex looking just like Venezuela's state oil company
  • They have missed most of the recent revolutions in technology, and do no technology development of their own.  If not for technology developed by private western oil companies, they would barely be ahead of Edwin Drake.
  • They deal with price downturns by forming cartels and attempting to fix prices and reduce output.

Private oil companies at the same time:

  • Reinvest massively in both new and existing fields, often with 20-30 year time horizons
  • Continue to revolutionize technology - the shale boom is just one example
  • Respond to market price downturns with innovation and efficiency improvements.

The link above is gated so here is an excerpt:

Now, with oil currently trading near $50 a barrel, these producers are trying to unleash fracking 2.0, the next step in the technological transformation of the sector that is aimed at extracting oil even faster and less expensively to eke out profits at that level.

The promise of this new phase is potentially as significant as the original revolution. If more producers can follow EOG’s lead and profitably ramp up output from shale drilling even at lower prices, the sector could become a lasting force that challenges OPEC’s ability to control market prices.

For a sector in which the previous era’s success was tied to the rapid expansion of output, the shift toward finding more cost-effective ways to get to that oil and gas is full of challenges. When oil prices dropped, critics wondered if the shale industry—rife with heavily indebted companies that had never turned a profit—would collapse.

EOG, with its longtime focus on low-cost production, is the producer many hope to emulate, thanks to the iSteer app and dozens of other homegrown innovations. Dubbed the “Apple of oil” by one analyst, EOG made its name as a pioneer in horizontal drilling and in finding ways to get oil out of shale—often dense layers of rock that hold oil and gas in tiny pores—a feat many once believed impossible.

Can you imagine people like Gina McCarthy running our state oil company?  Good god, we would have $10 gas and import 80% of our oil.

Losing the Prisoner's Dilemma Game: Economic "Development" Incentives are a Total Waste of Money

From today's WSJ:

The race to woo companies has intensified as state and local governments struggle with a slow economic recovery, sluggish new business formation and job losses resulting from automation. Many older industrial cities see tax incentives as one of the few levers they can pull.

The fight to attract and retain companies “is probably as competitive as it has ever been in the 30 years I have been doing this type of work,” said Lawrence Kramer, managing partner with Incentis Group, the consulting firm that helped Riddell with incentive negotiations.

Economic-development tax incentives more than tripled over the past 25 years, offsetting about 30% of the taxes the companies receiving incentives would have otherwise paid in 2015, compared with about 9% offset in 1990, according to an analysis of incentives covering more than 90% of the U.S. economy.

By 2015, the total annual cost of these incentives was $45 billion, according to the analysis, by Timothy Bartik, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich. The study looked at 47 cities in 32 states plus the District of Columbia.

Total incentives are likely higher because the analysis didn’t include some used by cities, including Elyria, such as city income tax rebates for companies.

Seriously, how absolutely pointless is this:

When Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda learned that Riddell Inc. was looking to leave this small city in northeast Ohio, she came up with a $14 million package of tax incentives and offered to lease land to the company for $1 a year.

It wasn’t enough. Riddell, which makes the football helmets used by many NFL and college players, decided to move its roughly 320 employees just over 2 miles down the road to a neighboring town, which offered its own bundle of incentives and lower corporate and individual income-tax rates.

You can't even argue you are trying to save jobs for local people, because the same people are working, just with a 2 mile delta in their commute.

One of the very earliest posts on this blog, waaaay back in 2005, was to compare local economic development spending to a prisoner's dilemma game:

politicians who are approached by a company looking for a handout for business relocation face what is called the prisoner's dilemma.  Many of you may know what that is, but for those who don't, here is a quick explanation, via the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Tanya and Cinque have been arrested for robbing the Hibernia Savings Bank and placed in separate isolation cells. Both care much more about their personal freedom than about the welfare of their accomplice. A clever prosecutor makes the following offer to each. "You may choose to confess or remain silent. If you confess and your accomplice remains silent I will drop all charges against you and use your testimony to ensure that your accomplice does serious time. Likewise, if your accomplice confesses while you remain silent, they will go free while you do the time. If you both confess I get two convictions, but I'll see to it that you both get early parole.  If you both remain silent, I'll have to settle for token sentences on firearms possession charges. If you wish to confess, you must leave a note with the jailer before my return tomorrow morning."

The "dilemma" faced by the prisoners here is that, whatever the other does, each is better off confessing than remaining silent. But the outcome obtained when both confess is worse for each than the outcome they would have obtained had both remained silent.

I hope you can see the parallel to subsidizing business relocations (replace prisoner with "governor" and confess with "subsidize").  In a libertarian world where politicians all just say no to subsidizing businesses, then businesses would end up reasonably evenly distributed across the country (due to labor markets, distribution requirements, etc.) and taxpayers would not be paying any subsidies.  However, because politicians fear that their community will lose if they don't play the subsidy game like everyone else (the equivalent of staying silent while your partner is ratting you out in prison) what we end up with is still having businesses reasonably evenly distributed across the country, but with massive subsidies in place.

Of course, garnering positive press releases for politicians' re-election campaigns is part of the equation as well.  Actually, the game is worse than a prisoner's dilemma game because politicians playing it enjoy all the positive benefits while the price is paid by others (taxpayers).

It would be great to ban this stuff entirely.  But you know what, Arizona already did!  In its Constitution no less.  And we still can't stop this BS.  Our Constitution reads that neither the state nor any municipality in it may “give or loan its credit in the aid of, or make any donation or grant, by subsidy or otherwise, to any individual, association, or corporation.”  This seems pretty definitive, but as I wrote here

This has been interpreted by the courts as meaning that if a state or municipal government gives money to a private company, it must get something of value back - ie it pays money to GM and gets a work truck back.  But politicians will be politicians and have stretched this rule in the past out of all meaning, by saying that they are getting "soft" benefits back.  In other words, they could subsidize the rent of a bookstore because reading is important to the community.

The Goldwater Institute in AZ keeps filing suit and has been pretty successful in blocking some of the most egregious subsidies, but it takes constant vigilance, and at the end of the day, if politicians want to throw money at private companies in order to help their re-election chances, they are going to do it.

 

Diesel Emissions Cheating, Regulation, and the Crony State

One of my favorite correspondents, also the proprietor of the Finem Respice blog, sent me a note today about my article the other day about cheating on diesel emissions regulations.   The note covers a lot of ground but is well worth reading to understand the crony-regulatory state.  They begin by quoting me (yes, as I repeat so often, I understand that "they" is not grammatically correct here but we don't have a gender-neutral third person pronoun and so I use "they" and "their" as substitutes, until the SJW's start making me use ze or whatever.)

"My thinking was that the Cat, Cummins, and VW cheating incidents all demonstrated that automakers had hit a wall on diesel emissions compliance -- the regulations had gone beyond what automakers could comply with and still provide consumers with an acceptable level of performance."

Exactly. More importantly, the regulators KNEW it. I was researching energy shorts and had a ton of discussions with former regulatory types in the U.S. I was stunned to discover that there was widespread acknowledgement on the regulatory side that many regulations were impossible to comply with and so "compliance trump cards" were built into the system.

For instance, in Illinois you get favorable treatment as a potential government contractor if you "comply" with all sorts of insane progressive policy strictures. "Woman or minority owned business" or "small business owner", as an example. Even a small advantage in the contracting process for (for example) the State of Illinois puts you over the edge. Competitors without (for instance) the Woman or Minority Owned Business certification would have to underbid a certified applicant by 10-15% (it's all a complex points system) to just break even. It got so bad so quickly that the regs were revised to permit a de minimis ownership (1%). Of course, several regulatory lawyers quickly made a business out of offering minority or women equity "owners" who would take 1% for a fee (just absorb how backwards it is to be paying a fee to have a 1% equity partner) with very restrictive shareholder agreements. Then it became obvious that you'd get points for the "women" and "minority" categories BOTH if you had a black woman as a proxy 1% "owner." There was one woman who was a 1% owner of 320 firms.

Some of my favorites include environmental building requirements tied to government contract approval. The LEED certification is such a joke. There are a ton of "real" categories, like motion detecting lights, solar / thermal filtering windows, CO2 neutral engineering. But if you can't get enough of that, you can also squeeze in with points for "environmental education". For instance, a display in the lobby discussing the three solar panels on the roof, or with a pretty diagram of the building's heat pump system. You can end up getting a platinum LEED certification and still have the highest energy consumption density in the city of Chicago, as it turns out.

U.S. automakers have been just as bad. There's been a fuel computer "test mode" for emissions testing in every GM car since... whenever. Also, often the makers have gotten away with "fleet standards" where the MPG / emissions criteria are spread across the "fleet." Guess how powerful / "efficient" the cars that get sent to Hertz or Avis are.

Like so many other things in the crony capitalist / crudely protectionist United States, (e.g. banking prosecutions) foreign firms will get crucified for industry-wide practices.

Gee, I wonder if state-ownership of GM has been a factor in sudden acceleration / emissions prosecutions?

BTW, I wrote about the silliness of LEED certification here, among other places, after my local Bank of America branch got LEED certified, scoring many of their points by putting EV-only spaces (without a charger) in the fron of the building.  In a different post, I made this comparison:

I am not religious but am fascinated by the comparisons at times between religion and environmentalism.  Here is the LEED process applied to religion:

  • 1 point:  Buy indulgence for $25
  • 1 point:  Say 10 Our Fathers
  • 1 point:  Light candle in church
  • 3 points:  Behave well all the time, act charitably, never lie, etc.

It takes 3 points to get to heaven.  Which path do you chose?

The MPAA Responds, Urges that Taxpayers Continue Paying for Their Movie Productions

The MPAA wrote me back in response to my post here thanking our local paper for actually considering (for the first time I have ever seen locally) that subsidizing movie production locally might not be a good idea.  The MPAA sent me a response, which in full is online here.

I will state in general that the whole academic sub-field of making net economic contribution calculations (always full of fact juicy multipliers) is a total write-off in my mind.  You can pretty much throw out everything you read as crap.  Because most are funded by the folks (e.g. sports team owners) who want the subsidy, so the analyses almost always miss the unseen:  Here are all the job gains and benefits in our industry!  But these studies almost always miss the opportunity cost effect of taking tax money and revenues from other industries.  Besides, I truly believe the economy is far too complicated to pull out one single variable out of billions and forecast changes to overall economic numbers from changes in that single variable.

Here is the email I wrote back:

Sorry, but all industry-specific government subsidies are a total useless gravy train for the politically-connected industries that are able to obtain them.

  1. These state subsidies are only shifting jobs from state to state.  Why should Americans be paying taxes just to move companies to different places around the country?
  2. The implication is that somehow your jobs you provide are better than the jobs my company provides, since you get taxpayer money handed to you and I don't.  Why?  Can you really make an academic argument that your multiplier of your jobs is somehow higher than my employees' multiplier?  Your jobs last 3 months or so in my state, and the highest skilled and highest paid jobs go to people who travel only temporarily in from out of state.    My jobs in my company have lasted for over 25 years.  Remember -- you are essentially demanding that I be forced to pay money from my business to yours.
  3. Markets do a really good job of allocating capital.  No industry, I suppose, feels like investors give them all they deserve.  But what you are doing in effect is demanding that the market's allocation of capital be interrupted, and capital that would have been used for other purposes should be forced to be used for your purposed instead.  What basis do you have for claiming this?  And do your analyses ever consider the opportunity cost of what that tax money you are using would have been used for if it were not grabbed away for you?
  4. Your problem is basically that your movies don't make enough money on their own to cover costs and you need taxpayers to make up the difference.  After all, you are arguing that less activity would occur without these subsidies so these subsidies must be the difference between losing and making money (and thus between greenlighting and turning down certain projects).  To which I would provide a suggestion -- you need to do what all the rest of us business owners who don't have access to Uncle Sugar's money spigots must do when revenues don't cover costs:  Fix your costs or increase your revenues.  Make better movies or get your costs under control.  Don't demand that I, as a taxpayer, have to make up the difference because you are too lazy or greedy to fix your own financial problems.
  5. I can't prove it, but I am not at all convinced subsidies make more movies.  I think that subsidies tend to just increase the income of those in the movie production chain with the most bargaining power, such as actors and producers.  This certainly is what has happened with sports subsidies.  We insanely subsidize every pro sports team in America.  Do you really think we would have fewer pro sports teams without the subsidies?  No -- the subsidies have simply flowed to increasing the income of the top athletes and team owners.

At the end of the day, your industry is particularly good at getting this money forced out of taxpayer hands for two reasons.  The first  is that politicians hope for financial support from you in the next election.  Hell, you might even convince me that local small-time politicians do it entirely just for a photo op with some actor or celebrity.    And the second is that you make for a sexier press release.   Politicians like saying they funded Apple or Tesla or highbrow art like "Sausage Party" -- it makes for a better soundbite in their campaigns than saying they funded a call center or a machine shop.

Update:  The Tax Foundation has also replied to the MPAA

This is A First: Our Local Paper Actually Questions Movie Tax Incentives

I find that the local newspaper in most towns is generally a strong supporter of most every business relocation subsidy or tax incentive that comes along -- whether it be for Apple or an NHL team or a movie production, the local paper benefits from having more newsworthy activity in town.

But the AZ Republic actually ran an article this weekend questioning movie tax incentives, perhaps the only government subsidy dumber than buying sports stadiums for billionaires

States, including Arizona, that don't offer movie and television tax breaks usually are smart not to do so, a researcher contends.

Nearly all states have lured Hollywood productions at one time or another with special tax incentives, but a University of Southern California professor says such spending fails to deliver the long-term economic benefits promised by industry lobbyists and lawmakers.

“The subsidies are a bad investment," said Michael Thom, an assistant professor in USC's Price School of Public Policy, in a prepared  statement. "States pour millions of tax dollars into a program that offers little return."

Arizona doesn't currently offer tax incentives for the industry but spent $23.7 million on subsidies between 2005, when the program started, and 2010, when incentives ended amid a state budget crisis.

Thom, who has led two recent studies on the topic, looked at job growth, wage increases, entertainment-industry output and other factors for each state.  "On average, the only benefits were short-term wage gains, mostly to people who already work in the industry," he said. "Job growth was almost non-existent. Market share and industry output didn’t budge.”

Demand Curve? What Demand Curve?

Today's little slice of economic ignorance comes from tech site Engadget, a frequent contributor of such morsels.  Apparently California is considering new penalties on auto makers for not selling enough electric cars, penalties which by their structure will be fed right into the pocket of Tesla, already a gaping maw of government subsidy consumption:

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke tells the Associate Press that she's introducing a bill requiring that car manufacturers sell at least 15 percent zero-emissions free vehicles within a decade. Companies operating in the state already have to hit yearly emissions targets and get credits for sales, but this would require that they embrace electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars in a big way -- not just one or two novelty models. And if they don't sell enough eco-friendly cars, they'd have to either pay a fine to the state or pay rivals that meet the targets. Yes, they might inadvertently help the competition.

If the bill becomes law, it could light a fire under car makers that have so far been slow to adopt emissions-free tech. Only 3 percent of all California car sales are either electric or plug-in hybrids.

The underlying assumption, both by Ms. Burke as well as the article's author, seems to be that lack of electric car sales is entirely a supply-side problem -- low sales are because auto makers don't make enough of them.  While I have no doubt that there would be incrementally more sales if auto makers had a larger variety of models with different combinations of features, all of this seems to ignore the demand side.  Automakers, who are constantly locked in a death struggle over tiny increments of market share, and who already pay penalties for not selling as many electric cars as politicians would wish them to, have every incentive to sell as many as they can.  The issue strikes me as one of demand rather than supply - given current technology limits and costs, and despite large financial incentives from the government in the form of tax subsidies, most buyers have eschewed electric vehicles to date.  Neither Ms. Burke nor the author even pretend that this law will change this demand situation.

Which is why critics rightly argue that this is just another way to funnel other people's money into Elon Musk's pocket, without his actually having to sell any more cars.  Tesla already depends on payments from other auto makers for electric vehicle indulgences for much of its revenue, and this can only go up under this kind of law.

Progressivism is Not Caring. It is Authoritarianism

The city of Seatac (a small area of land around the Seattle-Tacoma Airport) gained national attention a while back for passing a $15 minimum wage.  Many other groups, including the city of Seattle itself, as well as this year's Democratic platform committee, cited the Seatac example as an impetus for higher minimum wages everywhere.

In today's politics, there is no better way for a Leftish politician to virtue-signal than to advocate for a $15 minimum wage.  It is a classic case of a government law that helps a few easy to identify people and hurts a whole bunch of people in ways that are hard to attribute to the law, such as reduced employment for low-skill workers and higher prices for consumers.

So the City of Seatac has been taking a victory lap over the last year, patting itself on its back for how caring it is of its citizens.  Oh, and it has also been doing this:

A three-month-long civil trial revealed the shadowy subterfuge behind a secret land grab that was orchestrated by the city of SeaTac, replete with backroom deals, baldfaced deceptions, and a mayor intent on driving Somali refugees from the neighborhood.

The aim of it all: to wrestle 4.23 acres of prime real estate from entrepreneurs Gerry and Kathy Kingen, according to the judge and jury who heard the case.

The West Seattle couple sued the city and won, proving in court that SeaTac officials intentionally sabotaged their development plans, strong-armed them into giving up their property and then violated the state’s Public Records Act by withholding city emails and documents proving the deception.

The trial judge also concluded the former SeaTac mayor wanted condos built on the site, believing they would price out Somalis who had moved into “his neighborhood.”...

In March 2004, K&S Developments [the Kingen's investment vehicle] began working with SeaTac’s planning department to get approval for [a] park-and-fly, and city officials “voiced support and encouragement” for the proposal. The judge noted there “was never any public opposition” to the plan.

But unbeknown to the Kingens, SeaTac’s planning director, city manager and other staff decided in late 2005 they didn’t want K&S to build the park-and-fly because it would create competition for a park-and-fly the city wanted to build about a mile south at South 176th Street.

So in February 2006, city staff “devised a secret plan” to get the City Council to pass a moratorium designed to kill the Kingens’ park-and-fly project, the judge wrote. After learning of the permanent ban, Gerry Kingen met with members of the City Council and then-Mayor Gene Fisher, who “promised to make things right.”

 

The Corporate State, In One Chart

James Bessen has a terrific article in the Harvard Business Review on the estimated contribution to corporate profits of rent-seeking, or the acquisition of special favors, subsidies, and protections from the government that shelter a company from the normal competition of a free market.  Bessen argues that such rent-seeking is major explanatory factor for recent rises in corporate profits.

W160518_BESSEN_WHATSDRIVING-1200x805

This topic will be a familiar one to Coyoteblog readers.   Show me a regulation and I will show you the large corporation that is able to use it to throttle competition.  I remember when everyone claimed the retail minimum wage was going to hurt Wal-Mart, but in fact Wal-Mart actually supported it because it was paying a higher wage than its smaller upstart competitors and thus the minimum wage would tend to hurt Wal-Mart's competition worse than it would be hurt.  Taxi service is one of the most regulated businesses in the country (at least in relation to the complexity of the business) and we are seeing just how much these regulations have supported taxi profits as we watch the taxi companies use the regulations to try to hammer Uber and Lyft.

According to Bessen, the effect is both large and on the rise:

I find that investments in conventional capital assets like machinery and spending on R&D together account for a substantial part of the rise in valuations and profits, especially during the 1990s. However, since 2000, political activity and regulation account for a surprisingly large share of the increase....

The pattern around the 1992 Cable Act is representative: I find that firms experiencing major regulatory change see their valuations rise 12% compared to closely matched control groups. Smaller regulatory changes are also associated with a subsequent rise in firm market values and profits.

This research supports the view that political rent seeking is responsible for a significant portion of the rise in profits. Firms influence the legislative and regulatory process and they engage in a wide range of activity to profit from regulatory changes, with significant success. Without further research, we cannot say for sure whether this activity is making the economy less dynamic and more unequal, but the magnitude of this effect certainly heightens those concerns.

Two characteristics make these changes particularly worrisome. First, the link between regulation and profits is highly concentrated in a small number of politically influential industries. Among non-financial corporations, most of the effect is accounted for by just five industries: pharmaceuticals/chemicals, petroleum refining, transportation equipment/defense, utilities, and communications. These industries comprise, in effect, a “rent seeking sector.” Concentration of political influence among a narrow group of firms means that those firms may skew policy for the entire economy. For example, the pharmaceutical industry has actively stymied efforts to address problems of patent trolls that affect many other industries.

I would add two other industries to this list -- medicine and legal.  The reason it likely does not show up in his study is that the returns in these businesses show up to individuals or small private firms.  But heavy regulation, and in particular a licensing process wherein one must get permission from the incumbents in order to compete with them, has always kept prices and returns in these businesses artificially high.

Note by the way that the breakpoint year of 2000 makes this a bipartisan issue, occurring in equal measure in Republican and Democratic Congresses and Presidencies.

And I don't think I need to remind folks, but both of our Presidential candidates are absolutely steeped in and committed to this cronyist, corporatist system

My Nomination for Corporate State of the Year: Napa County, California

Last week I went on a wine-tasting tour in the Napa Valley with a bunch of friends who are passionate about wine.  It was an odd experience, because I am not passionate about wine and do not have the tasting ability to discern many differences between the wine.  I could tell it was a red wine, and maybe if it was dry or fruity, but hints of tobacco and blackcurrent?  Not so much.  It was also weird to be in a place where I really was not very passionate (wine is behind both beer and cocktails in my drinking hierarchy) but I was surrounded by people with a an excess of passion -- by people who seem to build their whole life around wine.  There was a lot of competitive one-upsmanship and virtue signalling going on around wine that I only barely understood.  I would equate the whole experience with my wife's experience at Comicon, standing in line behind two guys passionately arguing about comic book hero backstories.  I tried my hardest to be tolerant of those who had really different interests than I have, though I will say that this tolerance was NOT shared by most wine enthusiasts who treated me as demonstrably defective when I admitted that wine did not do that much for me.

Anyway, at each tour we typically got the whole backstory of the business.  And the consistent theme that ran through all of these discussions was the simply incredible level of regulation of the wine business that goes on in Napa.   I have no idea what the public justification of all these rules and laws are, but the consistent theme of them is that they all serve to make it very hard for small competitors or new entrants to do business in the county.  There is a board, likely populated by the largest and most powerful entrenched wine makers, that seems to control the whole regulatory structure, making this a classic case of an industry where you have to ask permission of your competitors to compete against them.  There are minimum sizes, in acres, one must have to start a new winery, and this size keeps increasing.   Recently, large winemakers have started trying to substantially raise this number again to a size greater than the acreage of any possible available parcel of land, effectively ending all new entrants for good.  I forget the exact numbers, but one has to have something like 40 acres of land as a minimum to build a structure on the land, and one must have over 300 acres to build a second structure.  You want to buy ten acres and build a small house and winery to try your hand at winemaking? -- forget it in Napa.

It took a couple of days and a bunch of questions to put this together.  Time and again the guide would say that the (wealthy) owners had to look and wait for a long time to find a piece of land with a house on it.  I couldn't figure out why the hell this was a criteria -- if you are paying millions for the land, why are you scared to build a house?   But it turned out that they couldn't build a house.  We were at this beautiful little place called Gargiulo and they said they bought their land sight-unseen on 3 hours notice for millions of dollars because it had a house AND a separate barn on it grandfathered.  Today, it was impossible to get acreage of the size they have and build two structures on it, but since they had the barn, they could add on to it (about 10x the original size of the barn) to build the winery and still have a separate house to live in.

This is why the Napa Valley, to my eye, has become a weird museum of rich people.  It seems to be dominated by billionaires who create just fantastically lovely showplaces that produce a few thousand cases of wine that is sold on allocation for 100+ dollars a bottle to other rich people.   It is spectacularly beautiful to visit -- seriously, each tasting room and vineyard is like a post card, in large part because the owners are rich enough to care nothing about return on capital  invested in their vineyards.  The vineyards in Napa seem to have some sort of social signalling value which I don't fully understand, but it is fun to visit for a few days.  But in this set-piece, the last thing the folks who control the county want is for grubby little middle-class startups to mess up their carefully crafted stage, so they are effectively excluded.

I know zero about wines, but from other industries this seems to be a recipe for senescence.  It would surprise me not at all to see articles get written 10 years from now about how Napa wines have fallen behind other, more innovative areas.  I have never been there, but my friends say newer areas like Paso Robles has an entirely different vibe, with working owners on small plots trying to a) actually make a viable business of it and b) innovate and try new approaches.

Postscript:  The winner of the cost-no-object winery award had to be Palmaz.  Created by one of the folks who invented the heart stent, it was a wonderfully eccentric place.   The owner theorized years ago that pumping wine (something that is done at many steps to transfer it between process steps) hurts the wine by breaking up longer chain tannin molecules (search me if this is true).  Anyway, he wanted everything gravity fed, but that meant you needed grapes to come in at the top, with fermenters below that, and filters below that, and wine barrels for aging below that.  Well, if you have been reading this post, you can guess that a building tall enough for this certainly can't be built in Napa.  So he carved it out of a mountain.  Seriously, this place is like NORAD, with probably a mile of underground passages stacked 18 stories deep from top to bottom.  In the center of the mountain is this room:

click to enlarge

In a circle behind the railing are fermenters on a train track that can rotate as a group all around like a giant carousel to position them under the grape chute or over the filters.  The room is carved out with a giant dome, and on the dome are projected process control data about each grape or wine batch.  It was truly incredible.  (More about it online here)

Don't get me wrong, I love this.  It is a pleasant eccentricity, from which others can benefit.  And the wine was good, at least to my admittedly weak evaluation skills.  I just hate it that the arbiters of the Napa Valley feel the need to exclude others who want to use their own land in different ways.

Update:  A Coyote Blog reader writes that they ARE doing things differently making wine in Paso Robles.  Here is his web site and story.

Contact Lenses and Cronyism

Hooray for Veronica de Rugy, who is criticizing prescription requirements for contact lenses.

What makes the contact lens market unique — and also leaves it extra vulnerable to crony intervention — is the fact that customers are required by federal law to obtain a prescription from a licensed optometrist in order to purchase lenses.

It is a rare instance where prescribers are also sellers, which leads to a cozy relationship between manufacturers and the doctors who can steer patients toward their brand.

Prescriptions are brand-specific, which makes it difficult for consumers to shop around. Choosing a different brand would require paying for another exam in order to obtain a new prescription.

The simplest solution would be to do away with the gatekeepers altogether and allow the purchase of contact lenses without a prescription.

It works just fine that way in Europe and Japan

I feel like I have been the lone voice in the wilderness on this one, writing about my frustration with contact lens prescription requirements way back in 2007:

I drive into my local Shell station to fill up, and stick my card in the pump, but the pump refuses to dispense.  I walk into the office and ask the store manager why I can't get gasoline.  She checks my account, and says "Mr. Meyer, your Volvo fuel prescription has expired."  I say, "Oh, well its OK, I am sure I am using the right gas."  She replies, "I'm sorry, but the law requires that you have to have a valid prescription from your dealership to refill your gas.  You can't make that determination yourself, and most car dealerships have their prescriptions expire each year to make sure you bring the car in for a checkup.  Regular checkups are important to the health of your car.  You will need to pay for a service visit to your dealership before we can sell you gas."  I reply, "RRRRRRR."

OK, so if this really happened we would all scream SCAM!  While we all recognize that it may be important to get our car checked out every once in a while, most of us would see this for what it was:  A government regulation intended mainly to increase the business of my Volvo dealership's service department by forcing me to pay for regular visits.

So why don't we cry foul when the exact same situation occurs every day with glasses and contact lenses?

Net Neutrality: I Told Your So

From the WSJ (emphasis added):

Netflix now admits that for the past five years, all through the debate on net neutrality, it was deliberately slowing its videos watched by users on AT&T and Verizon’s wireless networks. The company did so for good reason—to protect users from overage penalties. But it never told users at a time when Netflix was claiming carriers generally were deliberately slowing its service to protect their own TV businesses—a big lie, it turned out.

All this has brought considerable and well-deserved obloquy on the head of Netflix CEOReed Hastings for his role in inviting extreme Obama utility regulation of the Internet. Others deserve blame too. Google lobbied the administration privately but was too chicken to speak up publicly against utility regulation.

But Netfix appears to have acted out of especially puerile and venal motives. Netflix at the time was trying to use political pressure to cut favorable deals to connect directly to last-mile operators like Comcast and Verizon—a penny-ante consideration worth a few million dollars at best, for which Netflix helped create a major public policy wrong-turn.

This is what I wrote about net neutrality a couple of years ago:

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

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

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

I am still pretty sure the net effect of these regulations, whether they really affect net neutrality or not, will be to disarm ISP's in favor of content providers in the typical supply chain vertical wars that occur in a free market.  At the end of the day, an ISP's last resort in negotiating with a content provider is to shut them out for a time, just as the content provider can do the same in reverse to the ISP's customers.  Banning an ISP from doing so is like banning a union from striking.

 

When You Give Up On Allocating Resources via Markets and Prices, All That is Left is Interest Group Politics

One of the ugly facts about how we manage water is that by eschewing markets and prices to allocate scarce water, all that is left is command and control allocation to match supply and demand.  The uglier fact is that politicians like it that way.  A golf course that pays a higher market rate for water doesn't help a politician one bit.  A golf course that has to beg for water through a political process is a source of campaign donations for life.

In a free society without an intrusive government, it would not matter whether California almond growers were loved or hated.  If people did not like them, then they just wouldn't buy their product.  But in California, the government holds the power of life or death over businesses through a number of levers, not least of which is water.

Almonds have become the Left's] new bête noir. The nut is blamed for exacerbating the California drought, overtaxing honeybee colonies, starving salmon of river water, and price-gauging global consumers. Almonds may be loved by consumers, but almond growers, it seems, are increasingly despised in the media. In 2014, The Atlantic published a melodramatic essay, “The Dark Side of Almond Use”—with the ominous subtitle, “People are eating almonds in unprecedented amounts. Is that okay?” If no one much cared that California agriculture was in near depression for much of the latter twentieth century—and that almonds were hardly worth growing in the 1970s—they now worry that someone is netting $5,000 to $10,000 per acre on the nut.

It is almost too much to bear for a social or environmental activist that a corporate farm of 5,000 acres could in theory clear $30 million a year—without either exploiting poor workers or poisoning the environment, but in providing cool people with a healthy, hip, natural product. The kind of people who eat almond butter and drink almond milk, after all, are the kind of people who tend to endorse liberal causes.

As for almonds worsening the drought: The truth is that the nut uses about the same amount of water per acre as other irrigated California crops such as pasture, alfalfa, tree fruit, pistachios, cotton, or rice. In fact, almonds require a smaller percentage of yearly irrigation use than their percentage of California farmland calls for. Nonetheless, the growth of almond farming represents to many a greedy use of scarce collective resource.

Love This Chart

Local Media Still Trying to Save the Phoenix NHL Team

No one loves local sports teams more than the local media.  I think they know, but probably won't admit, that they would lose a huge chunk of their remaining readership / viewership for their news products if they did not have local sports to report on.  So you will almost never, ever, ever see local media reporting reporting on the true cost (in terms of handouts of taxpayer money) to retaining pro teams.

My coverage of the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes hockey team goes way back, including even to a mention in a George Will column.  I won't repeat all of that.  I just want to point to this article entitled "Glendale selects AEG to manage Gila River Arena; Arizona Coyotes' future unclear."

Glendale selected facilities-management company AEG Facilities to operate Gila River Arena, likely hastening the city's split with the Arizona Coyotes hockey team.

The telling thing about the article is that it never once explains to readers why this bid award might hasten the split with the Coyotes.  They mention that the Coyotes chose not to bid on the contract.   So why is this award a problem for them?  Do they hate AEG for some reason?  If you really were new to the issues here, you would have to scratch your head and wonder why the two issues were connected.

Oddly enough, everyone knows the reason, but the local media really wants to avoid mentioning this reason.  Here is the elephant in the room no one will recognize:  The Coyotes struggle to make money in this market, a fact made worse by the terrible location of the stadium at the far end of town from most of the potential corporate ticket buyers and wealthy people.   As a result, the team languished in bankruptcy for years, in part because the NHL (who took over the team) refused to sell it at a reasonable market price.

They finally found a buyer who agreed to buy it for an above-market price, but did so only because there was an implicit promise by the town of Glendale to subsidize them the $100 million difference between the actual and market price of the team..  The Goldwater Institute called foul on this subsidy and got it stopped.  So the town found a way around it, promising to award the team the stadium management contract for a price  $8-$10 million a year above market rates for the service.   The present value of this above-market pricing over the life of the proposed contract nearly exactly matched the earlier subsidy proposal Goldwater killed.  Various folks cried foul again, seeing through this sham, and got that stopped.

So the reason this award of the stadium management contract to AEG is so devastating to the Coyotes is that this contract represented the last hope of exacting a hidden subsidy from the city.  With this contract awarded to an arms-length third party at market rates, the last chance of making the Coyote's business viable on the taxpayer's backs seems to have escaped.

Update:  I am hearing now that another reason the Coyotes are done in Glendale is that they think the city of Phoenix or Scottsdale will build them a new stadium.  ugh.  Will it never end.

Why Did GE Leave For Another High-Tax State? Do Corporate Giveaways Trump Tax Rates in a HQ Move?

General Electric (GE) has complained for years about Connecticut's (its current corporate home) taxation and regulatory policies.  Recently, it said it was moving for greener pastures, and was leaving for... Massachusetts?

Seriously?  This is like moving from North Korea to China to get more freedom of speech.  Boston's top state income tax bracket is perhaps a point lower than CT's but Florida or Texas have rates of zero, and a much lower cost of living and real estate.

Granted that Boston has its attractions for a company trying to change its public perception to being a technology company.  But I can't shake the suspicion this has something to do with a relocation giveaway to GE from the city and state.  GE has become one of the biggest supporters and beneficiaries of crony capitalism in the country.   I have to believe they cut some sweetheart deal that will eventually funnel a bunch of Massachusetts taxpayer money into GE coffers.  After all, if cities will throw away a half billion dollars in taxpayer money to attract an NFL team that does business for just 24 hours a year in the city (8 games x 3 hours per game), how much will politicians pay of their citizens' money to be able to list "attracting GE" as a lead bullet in their re-election talking points?

Buggy Whip Manufacturers Sue Ford Over Lost Revenues

Via Reason and the St. Louis Post Dispatch:

Four taxi drivers are suing Uber and seeking class-action status, alleging they’ve seen up to a 40 percent dip in business since the ride-hailing service began operating in violation of local regulations.

My Wish for the Republican Debates: Less Talk on Taxes, More Talk on Regulation

I would be all for reductions in tax levels, but I don't think that current Federal tax rates are particularly a barrier to growth and prosperity.  A much bigger, and ever-growing barrier to growth is regulation.

5-10 years ago, in my small business, I spent my free time, and most of our organization's training time, on new business initiatives (e.g. growth into new businesses, new out-warding-facing technologies for customers, etc).  Over the last five years, all of my time and the organization's free bandwidth has been spent on regulatory compliance.  Obamacare alone has sucked up endless hours and hassles -- and continues to do so as we work through arcane reporting requirements.  But changing Federal and state OSHA requirements, changing minimum wage and other labor regulations, and numerous changes to state and local legislation have also consumed an inordinate amount of our time.  We spent over a year in trial and error just trying to work out how to comply with California meal break law, with each successive approach we took challenged in some court case, forcing us to start over.  For next year, we are working to figure out how to comply with the 2015 Obama mandate that all of our salaried managers now have to punch a time clock and get paid hourly.

Greg Mankiw points to a nice talk on this topic by Steven Davis.  For years I have been saying that one effect of all this regulation is to essentially increase the minimum viable size of any business, because of the fixed compliance costs.   A corollary to this rising minimum size hypothesis is that the rate of new business formation is likely dropping, since more and more capital is needed just to overcome the compliance costs before one reaches this rising minimum viable size.  The author has a nice chart on this point, which is actually pretty scary.  This is probably the best single chart I have seen to illustrate the rise of the corporate state:

decline of new business employment

 

Postscript:  I had thought that all the difficult years converting all of our employees from full to part time to avoid Obamacare sanctions would be the end of our compliance hassles (no company will write health insurance for us, so our only defense against the mandates and penalties is to make everyone part-time).  But the hassles have not ended.  For every employee, next year we must provide a statement that has a series of codes, by month, for that employee's health care status.  It is so complicated that knowledgeable people are still arguing about what codes we should be using.  Here is a mere taste of the rules:

  A code must be entered for each calendar month January through December, even if the employee was not a full-time employee for one or more of the calendar months. Enter the code identifying the type of health coverage actually offered by the employer (or on behalf of the employer) to the employee, if any. Do not enter a code for any other type of health coverage the employer is treated as having offered (but the employee was not actually offered coverage). For example, do not enter a code for health coverage the employer is treated as having offered (but did not actually offer) under the dependent coverage transition relief, or non-calendar year transition relief, even if the employee is included in the count of full-time employees offered minimum essential coverage for purposes of Form 1094-C, Part III, column (a). If the employee was not actually offered coverage, enter Code 1H (no offer of coverage) on line 14.  For reporting offers of coverage for 2015, an employer relying on the multiemployer arrangement interim guidance should enter code 1H on line 14 for any month for which the employer enters code 2E on line 16 (indicating that the employer was required to contribute to a multiemployer plan on behalf of the employee for that month and therefore is eligible for multiemployer interim rule relief). For a description of the multiemployer arrangement interim guidance, see Offer of health coverage in the Definitions section. For reporting for 2015, Code 1H may be entered without regard to whether the employee was eligible to enroll or enrolled in coverage under the multiemployer plan. For reporting for 2016 and future years, ALE Members relying on the multiemployer arrangement interim guidance may be required to report offers of coverage made through a multiemployer plan in a different manner.

Here are some of the codes:

  • 1A. Qualifying Offer: Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to full-time employee with employee contribution for self-only coverage equal to or less than 9.5% mainland single federal poverty line and at least minimum essential coverage offered to spouse and dependent(s).

    This code may be used to report for specific months for which a Qualifying Offer was made, even if the employee did not receive a Qualifying Offer for all 12 months of the calendar year. However, an employer may not use the Alternative Furnishing Method for an employee who did not receive a Qualifying Offer for all 12 calendar months (except in cases in which the employer is eligible for and reports using the Alternative Furnishing Method for 2015 Qualifying Offer Method Transition Relief as described in these instructions).

  • 1B. Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to employee only.
  • 1C. Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to employee and at least minimum essential coverage offered to dependent(s) (not spouse).
  • 1D. Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to employee and at least minimum essential coverage offered to spouse (not dependent(s)).
  • 1E. Minimum essential coverage providing minimum value offered to employee and at least minimum essential coverage offered to dependent(s) and spouse.
  • 1F. Minimum essential coverage NOT providing minimum value offered to employee; employee and spouse or dependent(s); or employee, spouse and dependents.
  • 1G. Offer of coverage to employee who was not a full-time employee for any month of the calendar year (which may include one or more months in which the individual was not an employee) and who enrolled in self-insured coverage for one or more months of the calendar year.
  • 1H. No offer of coverage (employee not offered any health coverage or employee offered coverage that is not minimum essential coverage, which may include one or more months in which the individual was not an employee).
  • 1I. Qualifying Offer Transition Relief 2015: Employee (and spouse or dependents) received no offer of coverage; received an offer that is not a qualifying offer; or received a qualifying offer for less than 12 months.

Koch on Cronyism

Robert Bradley at Master Resource has a great pair of posts with some of the writings, past and present, of Charles Koch on cronyism.  Part 1 has past writing, part 2 has quotes from Koch's new book.

I find it telling the progressives have chosen the most vocal and one of the most eloquent opponents of cronyism and corporate welfare as their particular bogeyman.

How Deeply Rooted is Cronyism in American Government? 2nd Circuit Calls it The Essence of Politics

A teeth whitening service in Connecticut sued the state, arguing that the state regulatory rule banning anyone but dentists from performing the simple whitening procedure should be overturned because its only purpose was to shield one favored group from competition.

The Court sided with Cronyism, ruling in part:

"Even if the only conceivable reason for the LED restriction was to shield licensed dentists from competition," the 2nd Circuit declared, "economic favoritism" is a sufficient justification all by itself. "Much of what states do is to favor certain groups over others on economic grounds," the court said. "We call this politics."

When I went to school, our system was described to me as "majority rule with minority protections".  The American system was never supposed to allow for the arbitrary sacrifice of one group to another just because the first group can manufacture more votes.

The Problem with Elon Musk

When first presented with the idea of the Hyperloop (a train running in vaccuum in an underground tube), I was extremely skeptical it made any sense.   Sure it might work (after all the London tube started out as a pneumatic system much like those that older ones of us remember sending receipts around department stores).   But did it make any economic sense.  Was it really likely that, if we can't afford rail lines above ground easily, we could afford to build thousands of miles of air-tight large-diameter tubes?  Honestly, it looked to me like any other silly idea on the cover of Popular Mechanics, right next to the titanium zeppelin the size of Connecticut that would someday be doing construction work.

So enter Elon Musk, who is very passionate about the idea, claims to be convinced it will work, and appears to be putting some money behind it.   With his support, the idea must immediately be treated as more credible, and it does indeed get a lot of press.  But here is the problem for me with Musk:  With him, the idea must also be treated as very probably another attempt by him to drain money out of the taxpayers' pockets into his.  Because that is what he does in so many of his enterprises.

Dispatches from the Crony State

From the Daily Beast

For some wealthy donors, it doesn’t matter who takes the White House in 2016—as long as the president’s name is Clinton or Bush.

More than 60 ultra-rich Americans have contributed to both Jeb Bush’s and Hillary Clinton’s federal campaigns, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by Vocativ and The Daily Beast. Seventeen of those contributors have gone one step further and opened their wallets to fund both Bush’s and Clinton’s 2016 ambitions.

After all, why support just Hillary Clinton or just Jeb Bush when you can hedge your bets and donate to both? This seems to be the thinking of a group of powerful men and women—racetrack owners, bankers, media barons, chicken magnates, hedge funders (and their spouses). Some of them have net worths that can eclipse the GDPs of small countries.

Ideology, policy prescriptions, legislative plans -- nothing matters except influence.  This will always happen as long as we give politicians so much power.  Its why the Coke and Pepsi party look so similar today.   At least a few people are noticing:

Is there a single person alive who believes that corporations, trade associations, NGOs, unions, and the like pay the Clintons enormous sums for speeches because they believe their members actually want to hear the Clintons say the same tedious talking points they have been spewing for years? If that were the only value received no profit-minded enterprise would pay the Clintons these vast fees because they would earn, well, a shitty rate of return.

No, the Clintons are not paid to speak. Businesses and other interest groups pay them for the favor of access at a crucial moment or a thumb on the scale in the future, perhaps when it is time to renew the Ex-Im Bank or at a thousand other occasions when a nod might divert millions of dollars from average people in to the pockets of the crony capitalists. The speaking is just a ragged fig leaf, mostly to allow their allies in the media to say they “earned” the money for “speaking,” which is, after all, hard work.

We have such people as the Clintons (and the tens of thousands of smaller bore looters who have turned the counties around Washington, D.C. in to the richest in the country) because they and their ilk in both parties have transformed the federal government of the United States in to a vast favors factory, an invidious place that not only picks winners and losers and decides the economic fates of millions of people, but which has persuaded itself that this is all quite noble. Instead, the opposite is true: This entire class of people, of which the Clintons are a most ugly apotheosis, are destroying the country while claiming it is all in the “public service.” It is disgusting. We need to say that, at least, out loud. . . .

Tear down the aristocracy of pull. This may be our last chance.

Thanks Vancouver For Banning Uber So I Could Wait In 30-Minute Taxi Lines

no-uber-in-vancouver

This picture was taken at my hotel in Vancouver, BC on Saturday.  This is only about a third of the mob trying to get a taxi, a process that took me over 30 minutes.  The whole thing was made doubly frustrating by another bit of government interference -- about half the taxis that showed up dropping folks off left the hotel empty despite the huge mass of people waiting.  Why?  Apparently certain airport taxis are not allowed to pick up people in certain areas.  So the taxis had to go all the way back to the airport empty, despite the fact that people there were waiting to go to the airport.  Absolute madness of crony government intervention.

Yes, I understand that Saturday is "cruise day" and there is a huge spike in demand as these boats load and unload.  But this is exactly why Uber would make so much sense.  Think about all the folks that have weekday jobs that would love to earn some extra money driving on a Saturday.  Uber allows for just this sort of flexibility.