Archive for the ‘The Corporate State’ Category.

An Infrastructure Proposal Where Everyone Gets it Wrong

Since I am on the topic of infrastructure today, let me discuss a project close to home

A major interstate highway must be built between Phoenix and Las Vegas to keep up with the region’s rapid population growth and to facilitate global trade, says a report released jointly Friday by transportation officials in Arizona and Nevada.

The 105-page report offered justification for constructing an Interstate 11, a multibillion dollar project to improve the link between the two metropolitan areas.

The report sets the stage for preliminary route, design and environmental studies ahead of any decision to build I-11, the nation’s most ambitious interstate project in a generation.

As envisioned, the project would convert U.S. 93 into a four-lane divided highway from Las Vegas to Wickenburg, taking advantage of the new Hoover Dam Bypass bridge.

I drive this road all the time, and I have never encountered any congestion.  A lot of it is already four lane divided, and the portions that are not move quite fast.  There is one town (1) between Las Vegas and Wickenburg on the two-lane section that requires one to slow down and has, I think, one stoplight.   I consistently average 75 miles an hour on the road.  Sure, it would be nice if it were an interstate all the way, but the only real problem is the congestion in the outskirts of Phoenix, and that is already being addressed with a new loop freeway.

How can you confirm this makes no sense?  Because neither AZ nor NV are spending their own money on this.  This is basically a marketing proposal to obtain federal funds.  If we actually had to spend our own state money on our own highway, I can't imagine anyone making it a priority over other local demands.  But if the Feds will spend money.....

And as dumb as this idea is, the opposition quoted in the article is even dumber, which is probably why this kind of project actually gets approved.  One group of geniuses, not identified, oppose the plan because they want a bullet train instead.  Yeah, that's the ticket -- there is not enough traffic to fill a two-lane highway and Southwest offers hour long flights for $95, so let's build a dedicated high speed rail line.  This is the eternal Las Vegas fantasy, that someone will spend billions to build high speed rail to whisk folks to their casinos.

Finally, there is the environmental argument:

Environmental advocates like the Sierra Club object to paving hundreds of miles of virgin desert. The area west of the White Tanks is largely open space, with a few isolated communities. Planners say the area could swell in population to 2.5 million, with the help of the freeway.

“We still think it’s a bad idea,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club in Arizona. “The freeway is not needed. It‘s time to look at other ways to look at our transportation needs.”

Opponents say I-11 will promote sprawl at a time when Arizonans are driving less.

I don't think widening of a road from 2-4 lanes is really "paving hundreds of miles of virgin desert", though it is funny to me that the same people who said this likely support enormous solar projects that do just that.  Further, anyone concerned with sprawl being promoted along the route have probably never driven on it.  The definition of "sprawl" is almost impossible to pin down, but I don't see people suddenly building suburbs around Wikieup (home of the single traffic light referenced earlier).  This is a freaking deserted road and people are no more likely to move here because the road is wider than they are to live along I-40 between Flagstaff and Albuquerque (converted to an Interstate from 2-lane Route 66 years ago) .  If you do drive to Vegas, look for someone to offer a prop bet on the population swelling to 2.5 million and take the under.

Seriously, why can't anyone say in print the real problem here -- it is an expensive waste of money to upgrade a highway that has no congestion problems whatsoever and is simply a bid by state government employees to grab some federal highway funds to keep ADOT administrators and engineers employed.

I am driving this highway a week from Monday.   I will try to take some pictures of all the congestion.

Update:  I did the 299 miles from my house to the hotel on the strip in exactly 4.5 hours.  This includes a 15 minutes stop for gas and snacks as well as navigating from my home to the freeway in Phoenix and through Las Vegas traffic around the strip.  I averaged 66 miles per hour, including the stops and traffic and neighborhood streets.

The Problem with Infrastructure

Obama, accompanied by the usual chorus on the Left including Kevin Drum, is yet again trumpeting infrastructure spending as a partial economic solution for what ails us, in part based on a McKinsey Global Institute report.   Infrastructure is like education (the other half of the Obama "plan") -- it's hard to find anyone against it per se, it is easy to find examples of it failing, and it is really hard to craft programs at the Federal level that really improve anything.

Having been inside the McKinsey sausage factor for five years, I was loath to just accept their conclusion without seeing the data, so I read the section of the report on infrastructure.  Having read the report, I still don't see how they got to the under-funding number.  Some of the evidence is laughably biased, such as pronouncements from the American Society of Civil Engineers, who clearly would be thrilled with more government infrastructure spending.  The rest comes from something called the world economic forum, but I simply don't have the energy right now to follow the pea any further.

I had two reactions to this plan:

  1. Presumably what infrastructure projects we choose matters, so how can we have any confidence (given things like our green energy investment program) that these investments will be chosen wisely and not based on political expediency?
  2. From my experience, and also from the McKinsey numbers, most of the infrastructure needs are refurbishment and replacement of existing infrastructure, rather than new infrastructure.  But politicians are typically loath to make these kind of investments, preferring to offer new toys to voters rather than saying all that money was spent just to keep their existing toys.  Just look at the DC metro system, which is still pursuing expensive expansion plans at the same time it refuses to perform capital maintenance and replacement on its current crumbling infrastructure.  Or look at Detroit which is falling apart but still wants to spend $400 million on a new hockey rink.

I was pleasantly surprised that McKinsey actually raised both of these issues as critical.  To the point about project selection:

To effectively deploy additional investment in infrastructure, the United States will have to improve its performance on project election, timely delivery and execution, and maintenance and renewal. This could raise the overall productivity of US infrastructure by as much as 40 percent and generate more economic impact for every dollar spent. And there is added pressure to raise infrastructure productivity today: as commodity prices rise, input costs are going up as well. In extreme circumstances, this can even lead to spot shortages of asphalt and other critical materials, making productive use of such assets even more important.

One of the most effective ways to make infrastructure investment more productive is to choose the right mix of projects from the outset. Too often, the primary approval criteria for project selection in the United States are political support and visibility rather than comprehensive cost-benefit analysis.129 Even when economic analysis is used, it is not always rigorous, or it may be disregarded in actual decision making. When state and local governments choose sub-optimal projects, the cost of financing rises, so focusing on those projects with the clearest returns is a crucial part of taking a more cost-effective approach for the nation as a whole.

In addition, planners at all levels of US government tend to have a bias toward addressing congestion and bottlenecks by building new capacity. But rather than immediately jumping to build new infrastructure projects to solve problems,
planners and project sponsors might first consider refurbishing existing assets or using technology to get more out of them. (See “Better maintenance, optimization, and demand management can extend the life of existing infrastructure assets” later in this chapter.)

The McKinsey study is not arguing for Keynesian digging holes and filling them in again.   They are arguing for infrastructure spending but only if it is better targeted than such programs have been in the past.   Anything about this Administration (or any other Administration, really) that gives you confidence this will happen?

In fact, they argue that a large reason for under-developed infrastructure is not the spending level per se but the insanely inefficient way in which government spends the money

Delays and cost overruns are a familiar refrain in infrastructure projects. Boston’s Big Dig, for example, remains the costliest highway project in US history and was plagued by years of delay and shoddy construction. Originally estimated at $2.6 billion, it now has a final price tag estimated by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation at $24.3 billion, including interest on borrowing. More recently, the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge is being completed almost a decade late, and its original budget of $1.3 billion has grown to more than $6 billion.

Finally, their recommendation focuses more on maintenance and the prosaic, rather than expensive sexy headline grabbing investments (cough California high speed rail cough) that politicians prefer

Another major strategy for increasing infrastructure productivity involves maximizing the life span and capacity of existing assets. In many cases, directing more resources to these areas may be a more cost-effective choice for policy makers than new build-outs.

First, there is a need to focus more attention on maintenance, refurbishment, and renewal. This is an increasingly urgent issue for the nation’s aging water infrastructure, much of which was built in the years immediately after World War II; some of the nation’s oldest pipe systems are now more than a century old. Even more recent water treatment plants will need refurbishment: many built in the
1970s after passage of the Clean Water Act will soon require rehabilitation or replacement. Proactive maintenance to upgrade and extend the life of these aging systems is becoming a more urgent priority.

The study uses a GDP multiplier of 1.77 for infrastructure spending, which explains why their claimed GDP impacts are so high.  Using this kind of chicked-in-every-pot high multiplier will of course make infrastructure spending seem like a no-brainer.  Of course those of us with more sympathy towards Austrian economics, wherein recessions are caused by misallocations of capital, will worry that this kind of government spending program, shifting private resources to public decision makers to spend, will only double down on the same crap that caused the recession in the first place.  I grew up with Japan's MITI being praised as a model by the American Left, watched the lost decades that followed this government-directed investment program, and believe that a similar reckoning is coming in China.

Corporate Welfare and the Thin Edge of the Wedge

The other day, the City of Glendale approved a deal which has the city subsidizing (more in a second) the buyers of the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team to get them to actually stay in town rather than move to Seattle.  The deal is arguably better than deals it was offered in the past (it gets shares of parking and naming rights it did not have before) and may even be a rational deal given where it is today.

But that is the catch -- the phrase "where it is today."  At some level it is insane for a city of 250,000 people to pony up even more subsidies for a team that has the lowest attendance in the league.  The problem is that the city built the stadium in the first place -- a $300 million dollar palace for a metropolitan area that already had a major arena downtown and which was built (no disrespect to Glendale) on the ass-end of the metropolitan area, a good 90 minute round trip drive for the affluent Scottsdale and east-side corporate patrons who typically keep a sports franchise afloat.

Building this stadium was a terrible decision, and I and many others said so at the time.  But once the decision was made, it drove all the future decisions.  Because the hockey team is the only viable tenant to pay the rent in that building, the city rationally will kick back subsidies to the team to keep it in place to protect its rent payments and sales taxes from businesses supported by the team and the arena.  The original decision to build that stadium has handcuffed Glendale's fiscal situation for decades to come.  One can only hope that cities considering major stadium projects will look to Glendale's and Miami's recent experiences and think twice about building taxpayer funded facilities for billionaires.

The deal the other night to keep the team went down in the only way it could have.  As I had written, the NHL was insisting on selling the team for its costs when it took it over in bankruptcy, which were about $200 million, which was well north of the $100 million the team was worth, creating a bid-ask gap.  Several years ago, the city tried to just hand $100 million to a buyer to make up the gap, but failed when challenged by the Goldwater Institute.  The only real avenue it had left was to pass the value over to the buyers in the form of an above-market-rate stadium management contract.

And that is what happened, and I guess I will say at least it was all moderately transparent.  The NHL came down to a price of $175 million, still $75 million or so above what the team is worth.   The City had already sought arms-length bids for the stadium management contract, and knew that a fair market price for that contract would be $6 million per year.  It ended up paying the buying group $15 million per year for the 15-year contract, representing a subsidy of $9 million a year for 15 years.  By the way, the present value of $9 million over 15 years at 8% is... $75 million, exactly what was needed to make up the bid-ask gap.  Again, I think the city almost had to do it, because the revenue stream it was protecting is likely higher than $9 million.  But this is the kind of bad choices they saddled themselves with by building the stadium in the first place.

The Crony Christmas Tree

One item that was part of the (thankfully) deceased farm bill that got little attention was a levy on live Christmas trees.

Apparently, live Christmas tree producers are upset at competition from artificial trees.  And there is nothing to which Congress is more sympathetic than using government coercion to help industry incumbents fight off new competition.

Readers may or may not know that the government often steps into certain agricultural commodities and, at the behest of the largest producers, creates mandatory advertising regimes.  In these regimes, a tax is levied on everyone's product and the money is used to fund advertising campaigns (e.g like the ones for milk and beef).

The most recent farm bill was to create a similar regime for live Christmas trees, requiring all tree producers to pay the per-tree tax whether they wanted or needed the advertising campaign or not.  So, for now, we have escaped holiday government-funded ads like "Pining for Christmas" and "Live Trees:  They are What's Fir Christmas."

The egg industry was silent on whether they would consider a similar step to battle plastic Easter eggs.

This May Finally End NHL Hockey in Arizona

Let me bring you up to speed:  The NHL owns the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team, having taken them over in bankruptcy.  It needs to sell the team and is demanding $200 million for the team, having promised the league owners it would not accept anything less (so they will not take a loss in the investment).  The team is worth, however, something like $100 million, at least if it stays in Arizona.

The team plays in a stadium built by the relatively small city (250,000 people) of Glendale, which put something like $300 million of taxpayer money into the stadium and has provided operating subsidies to the team the last several years that probably total another $100 million, at least.  The city has a bad hand, but keeps doubling down on its bet to try to retain the team.

The problem, of course, is the $100 million difference in the bid-ask for the team.  Glendale first tried to fix this by agreeing in a previous deal couple of years ago to basically give the buyer $100 million of taxpayer money to bridge the bid-ask gap.  The Goldwater Institute sued, saying that the Arizona Constitution pretty clearly states the government can't directly subsidize commercial interests.  They prevailed (before it ever reached court) and the deal died.

The only way left for Glendale to make the deal happen was to give a buyer $100 million in taxpayer money but to do so in a more disguised manner.  The one option they had was in the stadium management contract.  If they agreed, say, to pay the buyer $10 million a year over market rates for the stadium management contract, over 15 years that has about a $100 million present value.  They can get away with this because there is no objective valuation of what a management contract would cost on the open market.

But their ability to do this is, thankfully, about to die.  Under intense pressure, and in a fit of good government that I am sure Glendale regrets, it actually went out and sought arms-length contracts for stadium management from third parties.  It is enormously unlikely the city will accept any of these bids, because it needs the stadium contract as a carrot for someone to buy the Coyotes at the NHL's inflated price.  Besides, I bid on large contracts a lot and I have often been presented with bid packages from an entity that had no intention of awarding, but wanted me to go through all the bid effort just to establish an internal price benchmark or to keep their preferred provider honest.  I can smell these from a mile away now.

The problem Glendale will have, though, is that when these 3rd party bids become public (which they inevitably will), it will then be impossible to hide the implicit subsidy in the management contract.  Presumably, taxpayers then will push back on any future deals using this dodge, though Glendale citizens seem pretty supine so one never knows.  Also, the city can also tweak the responsibilities of the stadium contract, thereby allowing them to claim that comparisons against these past bids are apples and oranges (though this will be hard as I expect arms-length bids around $5 million a year vs. $15 million they propose to pay the team buyer).

PS-  It is hilarious to see worried comments from Gary Bettman (NHL Commissioner) about how hard on Glendale it will be if the Coyotes leave town.  Merely lowering his asking price to something less than 2x the market price would solve the problem in an instant.

Crony of the Month

In barely a month, Dianne Feinstein's husband has scored 1) The first ever national exclusive real estate broker's contract to sell USPS buildings and 2) The multi-billion dollar contract to construct the first leg of California "high speed" rail.

Film Production -- The Strangely Favored Industry

My son and I were watching a TV show and at the end there was a blurb about it being made in Georgia.  I said to him "I guarantee that "filmed in Georgia" translates to "subsidized by Georgia."  He did not believe me, and could not understand why anyone would subsidize film production.  After all, we can argue about whether any government subsidized jobs make sense or just cannibalize investment in other areas, but film jobs are the most temporary and fleeting of all jobs.

Turns out I was right (I followed a web link from the credits):

Georgia production incentives provide up to 30% of your Georgia production expenditures in transferable tax credits.

The program is available for qualifying projects, including feature films, television series, commercials, music videos, animation and game development. With one of the industry’s most competitive production incentive programs, the Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office can help you dramatically cut production costs without sacrificing quality.

Highlights from the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act include the following:

  • 20% across the board, transferable flat tax credit with a minimum of $500,000 spent on qualified production and post production expenditures within Georgia
  • Additional 10% tax credit if a production company includes an imbedded Georgia promotional logo in the qualified feature film, TV series, music video or video game project
  • Provides same tax credits to all instate and out-of-state labor working in Georgia, plus standard fringes qualify
  • No limits or caps on Georgia spend; no sunset clause
  • For commercials and music videos, a production company may group multiple projects together to meet the $500,000 minimum spend on qualified expenditures

This is just insane.  WTF is the state doing subsidizing 30% of the cost of making commercials?  What could possibly justify this, except that this is a sexy business and it gives politicians a chance to rub shoulders with film people?   Why are Georgia business people taxed in order to hand money film producers?   What makes film production a "good" industry and, say, campgrounds a bad one?

Well, I suppose it could be argued that filming in Georgia would help advertise Georgia by showing scenes filmed on location in the state.  Except that the show we were watching was Archer, an animated series about spies based in New York City.  Not one second of the TV show has ever shown or ever will show a live image of Georgia, and I am almost all the way through the second season and not one location in the state of Georgia has been mentioned  (though they might have mentioned the one in Asia).

 

Electric Vehicle Welfare Queen

No, we are not talking today about Elon Musk (though the name fits) but about this electric car buyer profiled in the WSJ:

Bronson Beisel, 46, says he was looking last fall for an alternative to driving his gas-guzzling Ford Expedition sport utility around suburban Atlanta, when he saw a discounted lease offer for an all-electric Nissan Leaf. With $1,000 down, Mr. Beisel says he got a two-year lease for total out-of-pocket payments of $7,009, a deal that reflects a $7,500 federal tax credit.

As a resident of Georgia, Mr. Beisel is also eligible for a $5,000 subsidy from the state government. Now, he says, his out-of-pocket costs for 24 months in the Leaf are just over $2,000. Factor in the $200 a month he reckons he isn't paying for gasoline to fill up his hulking SUV, and Mr. Beisel says "suddenly the car puts $2,000 in my pocket."

Yes, he pays for electricity to charge the Leaf's 24-kilowatt-hour battery—but not much. "In March, I spent $14.94 to charge the car" and a bit less than that in April, he says. He also got an electric car-charging station installed at his house for no upfront cost.

"It's like a two-year test drive, free," he says.

I hope you all enjoy Mr. Beisel's smug pride a driving a car using your money.

In my next post, I am going to dive deeper in the operating cost numbers here.  By the article, Mr. Beisel has cut his monthly fuel costs from $200 to $14.94, a savings of over 90%.  If these numbers are real, why the hell do we have to subsidize these cars?  Well, while it turns out that while the Leaf is a nice efficient vehicle, these numbers are way off.  Stay tuned.

Licensing and Cronyism

This is a depressing but all too familiar story of crony protections for incumbent operators

Only one company is competing for Tempe’s lucrative contract for ambulance services to support the Fire Department.

The Tempe City Council chose to allow only Professional Medical Transport to compete for the contract because city officials believe that the state’s approval last year of Rural/Metro Corp.’s purchase of that company effectively ended competitiveness in the market.

Indeed, the Ambulance market used to be competitive. State law makes it nearly impossible to start an ambulance company, or for an existing company to get access to the Arizona market. However, this used to be ok, because there once were a handful of companies competing in the market. That meant that having a statute that artificially blocked new entrants wasn't a huge problem.

Then a strange thing happened...Rural Metro bought all the other companies. Then they hired a team of the best lobbyists in the state in order to prevent the law from being changed. Frankly, it's a brilliant move.

This session, I worked with a client that wants to break into the inter-facility transfer market. Inter-facility transfers are scheduled transports of stable patients who aren't able to ride in cabs, private cars or stretcher vans. They are by definition, non-emergency transfers, but they still require an ambulance. And that ambulance has to be licensed as an "ambulance". The problem is that it is statutorily impossible to break into the market...which like I said, was fine until Rural Metro bought the other companies.

Our bill to open up the market to competition didn't even get a hearing.

The one disagreement I have is that it was somehow "OK" to prevent competition when there were three competitors but not when there is one.  This reminds me of why Republicans can't be trusted to make a case for free market capitalism.  New competitors can bring just as much to the table in already crowded markets as they can to monopolies.  Were we "OK" when there were just 3 major networks, or are we better off with competition from 600 cable channels?  Were we "OK" with just the big 3 auto makers or are we better off with Toyotas and Kias as choices?

One of the great under-reported stories of the health care field has been the certificate of need process for hospitals which, in most communities, has prevented construction of competing hospitals.  So then, like in this example, all the hospitals in a local community buy each other, and an instant monopoly is created.  Capitalism is blamed, but in fact the resulting high prices are a result of government action.

Florida Reduces Yellow Light Times to Generate Red Light Camera Revenue

Via Crony Chronicles

The 10 News Investigators found a number of communities shortened their already-safe intervals to the new minimums. In some cases, FDOT mandated longer yellow lights, but seemingly only at intersections that hadn’t been in compliance for years.  Around Greater Tampa Bay, the yellow interval reductions typically took place at RLC intersections and corridors filled with RLC cameras.

FDOT’s change in language may have been subtle, but the effects were quite significant. The removal of three little words meant the reduction of yellow light intervals of up to a second, meaning drastically more citations for drivers. A 10 News analysis indicates the rule change is likely costing Florida drivers millions of dollars a year.

When I lived near Denver, the government (not sure if city, state or county) reduced the speed limit and messed up the traffic light timing of a free road that paralleled a new toll road to try to generate more money for itself and its private toll operator.

Who is the Largest Source of New Consumer Credit?

Consumer Credit Holdfers_0

 

That's right, it's you.  That taxpayer.  So when the student loan bubble bursts, taxpayers are on the hook.

source

Cyprus and the Rule of Law

There was no particularly good way to resolve the banking mess in Cyprus.  But what worries me about how things played out is that there appears to be no rule of law that applies to bank failure in Europe.  There should be some clear principle that guides a bank resolution - e.g. equity holders and bondholders get wiped out first, then uninsured depositors, then insured depositors.  Or perhaps there is some ratio of pain between insured and uninsured depositors.

It is clear that no such rule exists across Europe (or if it does, it does not enjoy any particular force such that folks feel free to ignore it in real time).  That is the real danger here.  Results, however bad, should be transparent and predictable in advance, which is far from what happened in Cyprus.  Without a rule of law, one gets a rule of men -- in other words, rules are set by individual whim, often based on which government or corporate interests wield the most influence.

Think I am being too cynical?  Here is a detail that was new to me about the depositor haircuts in Cyprus:

A few weeks ago, the Central Bank of Cyprus published a curious set of "clarifications for the better understanding of the resolution measures." The principle of a bail-in—that uninsured creditors should suffer losses before taxpayers are on the hook—turns out to contain a few lacunae. "Financial institutions, the government, municipalities, municipal councils and other public entities, insurance companies, charities, schools, and educational institutions" will be excused from contributing to the depositor haircuts, though insurers later were removed from the exempt list.

Apparently, individual parties are lining up for special exemptions as well (much like connected corporations did with the Obama Administration to get exemptions from early provisions of the PPACA).  Essentially, all bank losses will be assigned to depositors who don't have access to powerful friends in the government.

A Crony Gift By Any Other Name is Still The Same

Via the AZ Republic

The true cost to operate Jobing.com Arena ranges from $5.1 million to $5.5 million a year, which is about $10 million to $20 million a year less than the Glendale City Council has agreed to pay hockey-related interests to manage the facility in recent years.

The net management costs, included in documents recently published on the city’s website, are bundled in the city’s solicitation for a new company to operate the city-owned arena.

Glendale council members interviewed by The Arizona Republic said they hadn’t reviewed the documents and were surprised by the figures.

“I wasn’t aware of that,” Mayor Jerry Weiers said. “Then again, I know damn good and well that the way it’s been run, they’re not putting anything extra into it whatsoever.”

This is unbelievably easy to understand .  It is a hidden subsidy, and everyone knows it.  The pictures of politicians running around saying "what, we had not idea" is just hilarious.  The Phoenix Coyotes hockey team has the lowest attendance in the league, and loses money.  In addition, the NHL, which owns the team, has committed to its members that it will not take a loss on the team, meaning that it needs to sell the team for north of $200 million.  The team is worth over $200 million, but only if moved to Canada.  In Glendale, it is worth $100 million or less.

The city was close to a deal a few years ago to sell the team.  It tackled the team value problem by basically throwing $100 million in taxpayer money into the pot for the sale (to make up for the difference in value between the asking price and actual worth).  When this encountered a Constitutional challenge (under the AZ Constitution corporate welfare is illegal though you would never know it living here) the city council disguised the subsidy in the form of an above-market-rate payment for running the arena.

So absolutely everyone knows what is going on here.  This has become a massive black hole for the town of 250,000 people that achieves nothing but the self-aggrandizement of the local politicians, who feel like bigshots if they have a real major sports franchise in town.  Oh, you heard that this all actually pays for itself in tax money?  Hah!

The justifications for previous management deals revolved around a commitment to keeping the team in Glendale. Loyal fans pleaded with council members for the team’s future. And a council majority saw advantages, including thousands of fans trekking to their city 41 nights a year to watch hockey and spend money in the city’s restaurants and shops.

The city collects revenue associated with the team and arena through leases, parking fees and tax collections for food and merchandise sales in the nearby Westgate Entertainment District. Those figures have been on the upswing, particularly since an outlet mall opened last fall.

Total collections were $4.7 million in fiscal 2011, and reached $6.4 million through just the first eight months of the 2013 fiscal year, according to the city. That money helps pay, but doesn’t fully cover, the city’s debt to build the arena.

The town spent $300 million on a stadium and subsidized the team between $25 and $40 million a year, depending on how you count it, all to get an "incremental" $6-8 million in tax money.  And by the way, just because they collect it in this area does not make it incremental -- these sales could well have cannibalized another area of town.

Licensing is Anti-Consumer

From a reader, comes this story of St. Louis so far refusing to grant a license to a woman who wants to operate a clothing sales truck (in a parallel to the growing food truck business).  What is the official explanation for denying her a license?  These government folks are refreshingly honest, not even bothering with the BS about consumer protection and jumping right to the real reason - incumbent businesses don't want new forms of competition.

NewsChannel 5 received this written explanation from Maggie Crane, the communications director for Mayor Francis Slay:

"We like the idea of fashion trucks a lot, but we still need to find out if there is a way to license mobile boutiques that does not put brick and mortar stores, who have already made substantial investments in their neighborhoods, at a disadvantage. We will also need to identify neighborhoods that will welcome them.

"We went through that process with food trucks a few years ago. Food trucks, for example, must abide by an enforceable set of rules outlining everything from safety regulations to where and for how long they can park.

"Our prediction is that the region's first legal fashion trucks will be here in the City. But, for now, they are pirates."

Note by this same logic Amazon should have been banned by St. Louis, as certainly bookstores in St. Louis had made substantial investments in their neighborhoods.  In fact, one of my favorite book stores used to be in Clayton, near St. Louis, though I fear it has died  (anyone know, I can't remember the name, was a large independent).  In fact, that is an advantage of the Internet I had never considered -- it allows new businesses to challenge old ones without harassment by local licensing and zoning authorities.

Corporate Welfare Feedback Loop

John Ross discusses the absurd tax exemption enjoyed by major sports leagues like the NFL

I was particularly struck by this

as a tax-exempt entity, [the NFL] doesn’t pay taxes on the income that it earns. The NFL has managed to keep its income earnings a little on a low side by paying its top executives corporate-level salaries—eight NFL execs took home compensation of $51.5 million in 2010. The teams get to write off their NFL membership dues, roughly $6 million per team, for the privilege of belonging to this unusual trade association, and that money is put into a stadium fund that provides interest-free loans to teams so long as they get taxpayer financing on stadium construction and improvement costs.

So NFL teams pay dues to the NFL, and get to write the cost of those dues off on their taxes.  But the NFL pays not taxes on the dues it receives   It then puts these dues in a fund that the teams can use, but ONLY if they go out and extort further taxpayer gifts for their stadiums.  Ugh.

Tesla Actually Strikes a Blow Against the Corporate State

Tesla Motors and Elon Musk, the folks who seem to perennially have their hands out for special government favors and taxpayer money, may have actually struck a small blow against the corporate state:

Tesla Motors Inc. says it’s won another round in its fight with established car dealers who want to stop the company from selling its electric luxury cars directly to consumers.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk says, via Twitter, that a New York judge has tossed out a suit brought by New York auto dealers who challenged Tesla’s direct sales model as a violation of the state’s franchise laws.

Mr. Musk spent Wednesday in Texas making the case for a legislative proposal to change the law to allow direct sales of electric vehicles by U.S.-based manufacturers.  Texas car dealers have opposed the measure, saying it would open the door for other car makers to sell electric cars direct to customers –  which could undermine the value of their franchises.

Government protections of middle men in the auto business (states generally do the same in the liquor business) are a classic example of crony capitalism.  Car dealers tend to have a lot of sway with politicians, not to mention with local media for who they are generally the largest advertisers, so they are able to engineer special privileges for themselves.  Congrats to Tesla for taking this on.

How Much Is Sucking Up To The Government Worth in the Corporate State

One potential gauge can be seen in, of all places, advertising during the Masters golf championship.

I am not a huge golf fan, but enjoy watching the Masters and the British Open (if you have never been in Britain during the Open, it is a fun experience -- people are in bars at 9AM watching).  The Masters is unique among sporting events in that it eschews getting the maximum advertising check, and instead only accepts a tasteful 2-3 corporate sponsors, who run just a few minutes of advertising an hour.  This year the sponsors were AT&T, IBM, and ExxonMobil.

AT&T and IBM had generally non-specific ads that played up their companies' innovativeness, telling well-heeled golf viewers that they would be a good business partner on technology issues.  Exxon did something very different.  They ran ads over and over about how much they cared about education, and in particular in support of common core curriculum.

In our modern mixed economy, the worst thing you can have as a corporation is a bad image.  It means that politicians will look to score points for the next election by gutting you like a fish.  ExxonMobil is the perennial leader on this dimension, though Walmart occasionally grabs the number one spot.  So one purpose of the ads is clearly to improve its image and make people like it.  It is telling that ExxonMobil does not bother to do so in its core business.  There is a great story to be told about how much technology and capital must be invested over long time horizons to get gasoline as cheap as three or four dollars to the pump, but ExxonMobil has obviously given up on this message.  Instead, it works to be liked on a subject, education, largely tangential to its core business.

But its strategy at the Masters seemed to go further.  By actively shilling for the common core curriculum, an Obama-favored initiative to further Federalize k-12 education, they are essentially sucking up to this administration.

I and most of my family worked for Exxon.  I only worked a few years at Exxon (in beautiful Baytown, Texas) but members of my family worked for Exxon their entire lives, and I have known and still know a number of Exxon execs.  And I can say with good confidence that few if any of them really believe that shifting control of education from local agencies close to parents to Washington is really going to help education very much.

So, if you watched yesterday, you saw a multi-million dollar suck-up. And the pathetic thing is that it was probably a useless exercise. The bullied often try to end bullying by sucking up to the bully -- it seldom works.

Alabama Defines Favored Industries in the Corporate State

If you want to get special privileges and crony handouts in Alabama, you need to have a company in one of these industries:

automotive, automotive-industry related, aviation, aviation-industry related, medical, pharmaceutical, semiconductor, computer, electronics, energy conservation, cyber technology, and biomedical industry

For example, if you are in one of these businesses, you don't need to bother to accumulate a block of land for your plant the old-fashioned way, by buying it from the current owners.  Companies in these industries can now get the government to seize the land by eminent domain and hand it to them.

I am not sure why these are the favored few industries, but this list matches similar lists in other states of industries that get special tax breaks, relocation incentives, subsidies, protection from new competitors, etc.  The rest of us who run unfavored businesses have to pay towards the profitability of these industries, because for some reason they are particularly good at re-electing politicians.

PS-  I would add liquor wholesalers, professional sports teams, car dealers, and media companies to the list of locally favored industries.

Ugh, Another Crony Enterprise Born

When I read this in our local paper, alarm bells immediately went off:

A friendship cemented while working together on the state’s economic development efforts has led to a new partnership linking Roy Vallee, the former Avnet Inc. chairman and chief executive officer, with private developer Don Cardon.

Great, two folks who have focused on bringing crony corporatist benefits to selected local businesses and business relocations are going into business together.  I don't know these guys, I am sure they are fine folks, but my first thought was a business that leveraged their connections with government to create private profits.

Reading further, this seems like a good guess:

The two metro Phoenix business leaders say they will collaborate on large commercial developments, including those with a special public-interest focus and those with special complexities....

Cardon spent three years at the Arizona Commerce Authority, a public-private partnership, and the predecessor Arizona Commerce Department. Aside from that, he perhaps is best-known as a driving force behind CityScape, the three-block, $1.2 billion mixed-use development in downtown Phoenix. He cites as a strength his ability to bring private and public interests together on a project.

Yep, I definitely think I am on to something:

The firm will strive to encourage a “collective vision” and “make sure projects are worthy of investment and will be successful,” Cardon said. “Everything we do will involve public value, enriching the quality of life.”

You know the type of project -- the ones where the city / state / Feds justify investing millions of taxpayer money into private projects because "they create jobs" (like those at Solyndra).  In fact, the two partners are already polishing up this mantra, which I am sure we will hear over and over:

Deals typically will exceed $100 million and will create hundreds of jobs, both in the development stage and when complete, he said. The company , however, will maintain a fairly lean staff.

“We’re not a big employer, but we’ll be a job creator,” he said.

I want to make a couple of quick points:

  • Investments whose primary return is "jobs" are not investments, because jobs are a cost, not an income stream.  Investing public money to create jobs means that one is investing money now so that it incurs costs later. 
  • All successful capitalist enterprises that make  a profit by definition create "public value" and "enrich the quality of life."  Otherwise no one would buy their product or service and they would fail.  In fact, only publicly-funded projects can evade this sort of accountability.  When it is said that these projects deliver "public value," what is meant is that they deliver benefits that a few self-selected people have defined as somehow interesting to the public, but which it turns out the public (when given a choice) is unwilling to pay for.  Which is how we get the local town of Glendale continuing to subsidize an ice hockey team for $25 million or so a year.

Fisker Flashback: Ray Lane Touts Obama As Greatest Venture Capitalist-In-Chief Using Solyndra as Evidence

You can't make this up.  Ray Lane, the very nicely politically-connected investor whose connections to Obama are often credited with Fisker scoring millions of taxpayer money, made a video several years ago praising Obama as a great new model of venture-capitalist-in-chief.

I can't believe any intelligent human being would think that the right role for the President is to be a venture capitalist with taxpayer money, or that even if this were so that Obama would be the right person with the right skills to do it well, but I suppose trying to score hundreds of millions in taxpayer money changes your perspective.

But the funny part is the example he uses - he thinks the best evidence of Obama being a swell investor is ... Solyndra.  Obviously filmed before Solyndra failed  (and the US government allowed all the remaining assets to go to another set of Obama cronies), this video is hilarious.

Fisker Flashback: Karma Gets Worse Mileage Than An SUV

Even in all-electric mode, the Fisker Karma gets worse mileage than an SUV  (only a deeply flawed EPA MPGe rating, purposely designed to over-state electric car efficiency, hides this fact).

Fisker Considering Bankruptcy

What a surprise -- apparently forced to make their case to private investors now rather than just DOE bureaucrats whose main criteria is "did this company support President Obama in the last election", Fisker is having trouble raising money and may declare bankruptcy.

We've Gotta Keep Bailing Out Banks Because...

...uh, just because

Iceland vs Greece

via Zero Hedge

 Update:  Whenever I argue with people about this, I find out that we share different assumptions.  Those who seem to support the bailouts assume that given some breathing space, the reckoning in Europe can be avoided.  I assumed the reckoning is unavoidable, and will come either soon or at best in the next cyclical downturn.  And it will be far worse in, say, 2015 than it would have been in 2010.  Every time we delay the reckoning, we make it far worse.

And then there are politicians.  I don't think they honestly know or care if the reckoning is unavoidable. They only care if it does not happen this minute.  For politicians, the discount rate on pain is infinite.  Future pain is thus always better than current pain.

End Sports Cronyism

Florida editorial via the Crony Chronicles

The problem with [the theory that sports subsidies help the economy] is that there is scant evidence that such economic benefits actually occur. Numerous studies done over the last 25 years have found that professional sport teams have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy. Usually, a new team or a new stadium location doesn’t increase the amount of consumer spending, it merely shifts it away from other, already existing sources. Entertainment dollars will be spent one way or another whether a stadium exists or not. Plus, the increase in jobs is often modest at best — nowhere near enough to offset the millions invested in the projects.

It's amazing they got the local paper to print this.  Most local papers would be defunct without a sports page.  As a result, local newspapers generally bring to bear tremendous pressure in favor of subsidies to attract and keep new professional sports teams.   Our local paper the AZ Republic tends credulously publish every crazy, stupid benefit study of sports teams on the road to promoting more local subsidies for them.

Incredible Level of Cronyism

I am simply amazed at this level of cronyism enjoyed by the sugar industry -- import restrictions on cheaper world sugar, price supports, and government loans that can be paid back with excess product rather than cash.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is likely to buy sugar in the domestic market this year in order to drive prices up and prevent defaults on loans made to sugar processors, according to a USDA economist.

The USDA estimates it would need to buy 400,000 tons of sugar to boost prices to an “acceptable level,” said Barbara Fecso, an economist at the department. A purchase of 400,000 tons would amount to about 4.4% of projected U.S. sugar production in the marketing year that ends Sept. 30.

Domestic sugar prices have been trading at about 20 cents a pound, their lowest level in nearly four years, putting companies that make sugar from cane or beets at risk of defaulting on loans they received from the USDA when prices were higher.

People talk about these supposed government subsidies for oil companies, but every time I see a list of them they are dominated by things like depletion allowances, FIFO accounting, and investment tax credits, which are either standard accounting rules that apply to all industries or tax credits that apply to all manufacturers.  But Big Sugar gets real heavy-duty subsidies no one, except maybe ethanol companies and other farmers, get.