Posts tagged ‘atlas shrugged’

Small Homage to Ayn Rand -- Exiting A California Business on September 2

Today I gave notice that I was exiting another park operations contract in California.  This location has always been marginal, but we kept holding out hope of improving it.  But with rising CA minimum wage, the PPACA, and onerous CA labor and liability laws, operating in CA is so hard that I have to make good money or get out.

I had to pick a termination date at the end of the summer.  I was going to choose Labor Day but looking at the calendar, it gave me a smile to slip the date to September 2, a date that should be familiar to anyone who is a real Atlas Shrugged geek.  It is an inside joke guaranteed not to be recognized by any of the government agency managers we work with there.

Two DVD Reviews of Poorly Rated Movies That Had Some Redeeming Characteristics

I had pretty good experiences this week with not one but two movies rated 6 and under (which is pretty low) on IMDB

Atlas Shrugged, Part II:  A mixed bag, but generally better than the first.  The first episode had incredibly lush, beautiful settings, particularly for a low budget indie movie.  But the acting was stilted and sub-par.  Or perhaps the directing was sub par, with poor timing in the editing and dialog.  Whatever.  It was not always easy to watch.

The second movie is not as visually interesting, but it tossed out most of the actors from the first movie (a nearly unprecedented step for a sequel) and started over.  As a result, the actors were much better.  Though I perhaps could wish Dagny was younger and a bit hotter, she and the actor who played Rearden really did a much better job (though there is very little romantic spark between them).  And, as a first in any Ayn Rand movie I have ever seen, there were actually protagonists I might hang out with in a bar.

The one failure of both movies is that, perhaps in my own unique interpretation of Atlas Shrugged, I have always viewed the world at large, and its pain and downfall, as the real protagonist of the book.  We won't get into the well-discussed flatness of Rand's characters, but what she does really well -- in fact the whole point of the book to me -- is tracing socialism to its logical ends.  For me, the climactic moment of the book is Jeff Allen's story of the fate of 20th Century Motors.  Little of this world-wilting-under-creeping-socialism really comes out well in the movie -- its more about Hank and Dagny being harassed personally.  Also, the movie makes the mistake of trying to touch many bases in the book but ends up giving them short shrift - e.g. Jeff Allen's story, D'Anconia's great money speech, Reardon's trial, etc.

I would rate this as worth seeing for the Ayn Rand fan - it falls short but certainly does not induce any cringes  (if only one could say that about the Star Wars prequels).

Lockout:  This is a remake of "Escape from New York", with a space prison substituting for Manhattan and the President's daughter standing in for the President.  The movie lacks the basic awesomeness of converting Manhattan to a prison.  In fact, only one thing in the whole movie works, and that is the protagonist played by Guy Pierce (who also starred in two of my favorite movies, LA Confidential and Memento).

The movie is a total loss when he is not on screen.  The basic plot is stupid, the supporting characters are predictable and irritating, the physics are absurd, and the special effects are weak.  The movie is full of action movie cliche's -- the hero throwing out humorous quips (ala Die Hard or any Governator movie), the unlikely buddy angle, the reluctant romantic plot.  But Pierce is very funny, and is thoroughly entertaining when onscreen.  I think he does the best  job at playing the wisecracking, cynical hero that I have seen in years.

Flash: European Finances Still Screwed Up

As I predicted, the various highly touted European debt and currency interventions last month did squat.  This is no surprise.  The basic plan currently is to have the ECB give essentially 0% loans to banks with the implied provision that they use the money to buy sovereign debt.  Eventually there are provisions for austerity, but I wrote that I don't think it's possible these will be effective.   It's a bit unclear where this magic money of the ECB is coming from - either they are printing money (which they refuse to own up to because the Germans fear money printing even more than Soviet tanks in the Fulda Gap) or there is some kind of leverage circle-jerk game going where the ECB is effectively leveraging deposits and a few scraps of funding to the moon.

At this point, short of some fiscal austerity which simply is not going to happen, I can't see how the answer is anything but printing and devaluation.  Either the ECB prints, spreading the cost of inflation to all counties on the Euro, or Greece/Spain/Italy exit the Euro and then print for themselves.

The exercise last month, as well as the months before that, are essentially mass hypnosis spectacles, engineered to try to get the markets to forget the underlying fundamentals.  And the amazing part is it sort of works, from two days to two weeks.  It reminds me of nothing so much as the final chapters of Atlas Shrugged where officials do crazy stuff to put off the reckoning even one more day.

Disclosure:  I have never, ever been successful at market timing investments or playing individual stocks, so I generally don't.  But the last few months I have had fun shorting European banks and financial assets on the happy-hypnosis news days and covering once everyone wakes up.  About the only time in my life I have made actual trading profits.

Thought problem:  I wish I understood the incentives facing European banks.  It seems like right now to be almost a reverse cartel, where the cartel holds tightly because there is a large punishment for cheating.  Specifically, any large bank that jumps off the merry-go-round described above likely starts the whole thing collapsing and does in its own balance sheet (along with everyone else's).  The problem is that every day they hang on, the stakes get higher and their balance sheets get stuffed with more of this crap.  Ironically, everyone would have been better getting off a year ago and taking the reckoning then, and certainly everyone would be better taking the hit now rather than later, but no one is willing to jump off.  One added element that makes the game interesting is that the first bank to jump off likely earns the ire of the central bankers, perhaps making that bank the one bank that is not bailed out when everything crashes.  It's a little like the bidding game where the highest bidder wins but the two highest bidders have to pay.  Anyone want to equate this with a defined economics game please do so in the comments.

Its All About the Consumer (wink wink)

Countless regulations and laws in the US that are ostensibly consumer protection turn out to be simple power plays by government officials and well-connected corporations.

We see this yet again in Argentina, where a government takeover of the newsprint business was ostensibly justified based on "unfair" business practices by the previous owners.  Of course, the only thing the Argentine government, which recently started prosecuting private economists for disagreeing with government inflation numbers, finds "unfair" is the fact that newsprint is being sold to papers who publish unflattering articles about the government.  More here.

The same Argentine legislation defines a new crime right out of Atlas Shrugged that they call economic terrorism, which in practice will likely be interpreted as 1) businesses that do anything that the current rules do not like or 2) businesses that get just too valuable for government officials to resist grabbing them for themselves.

Licensing Has Nothing to Do With Consumer Protection

Yeah, I know, this is volume one hundred and something in a series, but it is such a crystal clear example of government licensing working primarily to protect incumbent competitors in an industry I have to share it.

Suppose you’re the owner of a taxicab company in a largish metropolitan area. One day you notice some taxis tooling around town—and they’re not yours. They belong to an upstart competitor. His cars are newer, his drivers are nicer, and his fares are lower. Pretty soon your profits start shrinking. What are you going to do about it?

You have a couple of choices. Option A: Invest a lot of money in new vehicles, customer-service training for your drivers, GPS systems to map faster routes and so on. A lot of expense. A lot of effort.

So you go for Option B: Invest a little money in a few politicians, who adopt a medallion law: Only licensed operators with city-issued taxi medallions may operate cabs. The oldest cab companies get first dibs on the medallions, at the lowest rates. Only a few medallions are left over for the new guy, and he can’t afford them anyway. Bingo—your competition problem is solved. The customers might not like it, but what are they going to do—walk?

Apparently this is exactly what is happening in DC

Now it’s the District of Columbia’s turn. Four members of the D.C. City Council have introduced a bill that would create a medallion system for the nation’s capital. Medallion prices would start at $250 for the most established taxi companies and, for the newer entrants, run as high as $10,000. At least initially. As time wore on, it’s likely that the price of a medallion would go up for everyone. That’s what has happened in places such as New York, where a government permission slip to drive a cab costs about $600,000. In Boston, which initially capped medallions at 1,525 in the 1930s—and more than a half-century later had added only 250 more—a medallion will cost you $400,000.

At present the District has more than 10,000 licensed taxi drivers; the proposed legislation would establish only 4,000 medallions. Needless to say, such artificially imposed scarcity also drives up prices. A study by Natwar Gandhi, the District’s chief financial officer, found that fares in cities with medallion systems are 25 percent higher than in cities with open taxi markets.

By the way, for extra points, here is a lawsuit right out of Atlas Shrugged

That story has played out in many cities across the United States, with sometimes amusing variations. A decade or so ago, Minneapolis (population 300,000-plus) allowed a grand total of 343 taxis to operate until Luis Paucar, an immigrant, filed suit. The city council decided to allow another 45 cabs. Then the existing cab companies sued, using the creative legal theory that they had a constitutional right not to face competition. (They lost.)

New Year's Resolution

In my column this week at Forbes, I discuss my New Year's Resolution, which has not changed over several decades, and how it helped me this year to solve some difficult philosophical issues regarding my business.

Almost exactly thirty years ago, I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, probably the single most influential book I have read in my lifetime.  Before I read it, I was on a path to becoming a traditional Conservative in the mold of my parents, and in retrospect my thinking on a lot of issues was quite muddled.

I am no longer the exclusive Rand fanboy I was back in college, if for no other reason than I have since found many authors who come at the topic of capitalism and freedom from many different angles, but Rand was certainly my gateway drug to liberty.

Like many people, around the new year I set various goals for myself over the coming year.  Some I have achieved (e.g. getting myself out of corporate America and into my own business) and on some I have fallen short (e.g. learning to play the guitar).  But every year I have renewed just one resolution, which I took from Atlas Shrugged.  It is

I swear"“by my life and my love of it"“that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

I then discuss this resolution in the context of approaches my business has had this year from lobbyists.  I discuss how lobbyists have approached me about an effort to make some tweaks to the health care law (it is particularly punitive to our labor model where we hire seniors part time and seasonally) as well as efforts to promote privatization of recreation (my business) and to help me obtain new contracts.    The article has much more discussion about details, but my resolution for a lobbying policy turned out as follows, in a rough parallel to the resolution above:

"We will use lobbyists to defend ourselves when the government is trying to gut us like a fish, but we will attempt to do so with generic amendments rather than through special exemptions for our company alone.  We will not use lobbyists to create new business opportunities, even when the legislation to do so is consistent with our principals."

By the way, I actually sent notes to several readers out there (you know who you are) asking them their opinions on some of the ethical issues I saw in these issues, and I appreciate the feedback from all of you.

Happy new year to all of you.

Huh

Found by my son Nic on Wikipedia:

The Wilhelm scream is a frequently-used film and television stock sound effect first used in 1951 for the film Distant Drums.[1] The effect gained new popularity (its use often becoming an in-joke) after it was used in Star Wars and many other blockbuster films as well as television programs and video games.[2] The scream is often used when someone is pierced with an arrow, falls to his death from a great height, or is thrown from an explosion.

The Wilhelm scream has become a well-known cinematic sound cliché, and is claimed to have been used in over 216 films

This is the sound.

By the way, Nic thanks everyone for their help on his blog and his writing project.  He is writing a novel over the next year, dealing mixing his interest in sports with dystopian themes.  This entry into the Hayek poster contest actually comes really close to the themes in his book.  I thought he was getting on a wrong track by trying to use Atlas Shrugged too much as a model.  While I love the book and it has had a profound effect on me, as a work of fiction it is pretty limited, with black and white characters and no character movement/development at all.  I am making him read the Fountainhead right now as a better example of having more intriguing characters.

Starnesville, Greece

One of the things that Ayn Rand did particularly well in Atlas Shrugged was to set the rules of collectivism in motion and see them carried to their logical extreme.  To this end,  I have always considered the hobo's tale to Dagny on the train about 20th Century Motors to be the climax of the book.  It pulls a lot of plot threads in the book together, and the story represents the ultimate expression of how a true socialist society would evolve.  "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is taken to its extremes, and rather than brotherhood, everyone ends up hating and resenting their fellow workers.  In retrospect, it seems dead-on prescient of this bit about Greece:

The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting. Once you saw how it worked you could understand a phenomenon which otherwise made no sense at all: the difficulty Greek people have saying a kind word about one another. Individual Greeks are delightful: funny, warm, smart, and good company. I left two dozen interviews saying to myself, "What great people!" They do not share the sentiment about one another: the hardest thing to do in Greece is to get one Greek to compliment another behind his back. No success of any kind is regarded without suspicion. Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.

The structure of the Greek economy is collectivist, but the country, in spirit, is the opposite of a collective. Its real structure is every man for himself. Into this system investors had poured hundreds of billions of dollars. And the credit boom had pushed the country over the edge, into total moral collapse.

The Anti-Responsibility Law

Congress just passed a new $26 billion payoff to state governments, easing the pressure on states to institute some sort of fiscal responsibility.  The follows on the heals of last year's tens of billions of dollars in direct aid to state budgets in the original stimulus bill.

Taking the pressure off states for real fiscal reform is bad enough, but this is worse:

Maintaining the salaries and generous benefit plans for members of teachers unions is indeed a top Democratic priority. That's why $10 billion of the bill's funding is allocated to education, and the money comes with strings that will multiply the benefits for this core Obama constituency.Specifically, the bill stipulates that federal funds must supplement, not replace, state spending on education. Also, in each state, next year's spending on elementary and secondary education as a percentage of total state revenues must be equal to or greater than the previous year's level.

This is roughly equivalent to the government telling mortgage holders that took on too much debt that the government will bail them out, a clear moral hazard.  But then it goes further to force the mortgage-holder to promise to take on a bigger mortgage next year.  Unbelievable.

In a move right out of Atlas Shrugged, Texas is singled out for special penalties in the law because, well, it seems to be doing better than all the other states economically and is one of the few that seem comitted to fiscal responsibility

For Texas, and only Texas, this funding rule will be in place through 2013 [rather than 2011]. This is a form of punishment because the Beltway crowd believes the Lone Star State didn't spend enough of its 2009 stimulus money.

So much for equal protection.  This Congress sure has set an incredible record for itself in choosing to reward and punish individual states (remember Nebraska and Louisiana) in its legislation.

The WSJ thinks perhaps a different kind of multiplier, other than the Keynesian one, is behind this legislation.

Keep in mind that this teacher bailout also amounts to a huge contribution by Democrats to their own election campaigns. The National Right to Work Committee estimates that two of every three teachers belong to unions. The average union dues payment varies, but a reasonable estimate is that between 1% and 1.5% of teacher salaries goes to dues. The National Education Association and other unions will thus get as much as $100 million in additional dues from this bill, much of which will flow immediately to endangered Democratic candidates in competitive House and Senate races this year.

I'm Pretty Sure We Are Not Going to Get Any Deficit Reduction

Via Reason, from the man Obama personally appointed to lead the Deficit Commision

"America needs a 21st century economic plan because we now know the market-worshipping, privatizing, de-regulating, dehumanizing American financial plan has failed and should never be revived, worshipping the market again," Stern said in remarks at the annual conference of the liberal activist group Campaign for America's Future in Washington on Monday."It has failed America and everyone that works here," Stern said.

Stern said the changes that Obama and Democrats in Congress have made are nothing short of a "revolution" that will move the American economy from national to international.

"This not our father's or our grandfather's economy," Stern said. "We're as far today from the New Deal as the New Deal was from the Civil War. And we cannot drive into the future looking in the rear view mirror."

He said the progressive movement must build on the past and look to the future as the economy is transformed "from a manufacturing base, to a service, finance, knowledge, green, Internet, and bio-science economy."

"This revolution's going to only take 30 years," Stern said. "No single generation of people have ever witnessed this much change in a single lifetime. [...] And as we've witnessed now in the absence of a simple and realistic way forward, people "“ even us "“ sometimes resist the future or try to turn back the clock to days that are now long gone."

I am not sure I have ever heard anyone sound more like a scabby beauracrat in Atlas Shrugged.  Can you believe this dweeb along with Barrack and the gang who can't shoot straight taking credit for the transformatoin of the economy?  As if these guys have anything to do with the rise of new industries and technologies, except to make their birth and growth more difficult through strangling regulation and taxes.

The last paragraph about progressives and change is an interesting one in the context of this old post of mine, where I discuss how progressives most hate free markets for their constant change and unpredictability. Here is an excerpt:

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount. ...

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services.

In fact, here is a sure fire test for a progressive.  If given a choice between two worlds:

  1. A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic, chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly distributed, or"¦
  2. A "progressive" society where everyone is poorer, but income is generally more evenly distributed.  In this society, jobs and pay and industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances that they will continue to have what they have today, with little downside but also with very little upside.

Progressives will choose #2.  Even if it means everyone is poorer.  Even if it cuts off any future improvements we might gain in technology or wealth or lifespan or whatever.  They want to take what we have today, divide it up more equally, and then live to eternity with just that.   Progressives want #2 today, and they wanted it just as much in 1900 (just think about if they had been successful "” as just one example, if you are over 44, you would have a 50/50 chance of being dead now).

Update: What does the line about shifting form a national to international economy mean?  It must be some kind of progressive code phrase that does not mean what it sounds like, since most progressives and this administration tend to be opposed to free trade and have a strong tendency towards protectionism.  After all, these are the same guys that sympathize with the anti-globalization rioters at various G8 conferences.

Someone in Massachussetts Has Been Reading Atlas Shrugged

How else could they have gotten the idea for the hospital unification plan, except by modeling it after the steel and railroad plans in Ayn Rands novel.

The Massachussetts plan:

In hopes of bringing down the state's skyrocketing health care costs"”which are currently growing about 8 percent faster than the state's GDP"”the Massachusetts Senate is reportedly considering a bill that, among other things, would "require hospitals in better financial shape to put money back into the health care system to lower premiums." At first glance, this might sound like an easy way to bring down prices: Cut into provider profits to bring down insurance premiums. And the AP article doesn't provide much in the way of detail about how the provision would work, so it could be basically harmless. But it looks to me like the Senate is pushing for a system in which hospitals that set prices and contain costs successfully enough to find solid financial footing subsidize those that don't. Does this strike anyone else as an odd way to attempt to curb costs?

From the Atlas Society, describing a scene from Atlas Shrugged:

In one scene government dictators explain to steel magnate Hank Rearden how they intend to save his industry as a whole"”read his incompetent competitor"”through a Steel Unification Plan. All income from steel producers will be placed into a common pool and distributed to manufacturers based on how many furnaces each company owns. Follow the math here for a moment as an incredulous Rearden explains their own plan to them:

"Orren Boyle's Associated Steel owns 60 open-hearth furnaces, one-third of them standing idle and the rest producing an average of 300 tons of steel per furnace per day. I own 20 open-hearth furnaces, working at capacity, producing 750 tons of Rearden Metal per furnace per day. So we own 80 "˜pooled' furnaces with a "˜pooled' output of 27,000 tons, which makes an average of 337.5 tons per furnace. Each day of the year, I producing 15,000 tons, will be paid for 6,750 tons. Boyle, producing 12,000 tons, will be paid for 20,250 tons"¦ Now how long do you expect me to last under your plan?"

Rearden can't believe that these bureaucrats actually believe such nonsense. And their only answers are "In times of national peril, it's your duty to serve" and "You must make certain sacrifices to the public welfare" and "You'll manage."

Something for Atlas Shrugged Readers

Do you remember the State Science Institute report on Rearden Metal?  If you were like me, you thought that this ridiculous report was an exaggeration, a literary device to make a point.  But as in so much of Atlas Shrugged, I am finding that it was no exaggeration at all.

Check out this real life example of "science."  From the real state science folks at the Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health.

There are potential impacts on cancer both directly from climate change and indirectly from climate change mitigation strategies. Climate change will result in higher ambient temperatures that may
increase the transfer of volatile and semi-volatile compounds from water and wastewater into the atmosphere, and alter the distribution of contaminants to places more distant from the sources, changing subsequent human exposures. Climate change is also expected to increase heavy precipitation and flooding events, which may increase the chance of toxic contamination leaks from storage facilities or runoff into water from land containing toxic pollutants. Very little is
known about how such transfers will affect people's exposure to these chemicals"”some of which are known carcinogens"”and its ultimate impact on incidence of cancer.  More research is needed to determine the likelihood of this type of contamination, the geographical areas and populations most likely to be impacted, and the health outcomes that could result.

Although the exact mechanisms of cancer in humans and animals are not completely understood for all cancers, factors in cancerdevelopment include pathogens, environmental contaminants, age, and genetics. Given the challenges of understanding the causes of cancer, the links between climate change and cancer are a mixture of fact and supposition, and research is needed to fill in the gaps in what we know.

One possible direct impact of climate change on cancer may be through increases in exposure to toxic chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer following heavy rainfall and by
increased volatilization of chemicals under conditions of increased temperature. In the case of heavy rainfall or flooding, there may be an increase in leaching of toxic chemicals and heavy metals
from storage sites and increased contamination of water with runoff containing persistent chemicals that are already in the environment. Marine animals, including mammals, also may suffer
direct effects of cancer linked to sustained or chronic exposure to chemical contaminants in the marine environment, and thereby serve as indicators of similar risks to humans.64 Climate impact
studies on such model cancer populations may provide added dimensions to our understanding of the human impacts.

Remember, the point of this all is not science, but funding.  This is basically a glossy budget presentation, probably cranked out by some grad students over some beers, tasked to come up with scary but marginally plausible links between health issues and climate change.   Obama has said that climate is really, really important to him.  He has frozen a lot of agency budgets, and told them new money is only for programs that supports his major initiatives, like climate change.  So, every agency says that their every problem is due to climate change, just as every agency under Bush said that they were critical to fighting terrorism.  This document is the NIH salvo to get climate change money, not actual science.

Hair of the Dog?

WTF is this designed to accomplish, except to give Obama something to crow about in one or two news cycles while doubling down on the same kind of practices that got the housing market and banks into the current mess?  This reminds me so much of the final days of the government in Atlas Shrugged.  Fannie and Freddie are bankrupt?  Well, lets do the same thing to the FHA, just to save our sorry government jobs for a few weeks longer.

The Federal Housing Administration is heading toward a taxpayer bailout, yet the president's latest mortgage modification plan would further increase the agency's exposure to risky mortgages. Mark Calabria calls it a "Backdoor Bank Bailout."The administration's plan would encourage borrowers who owe more than their house is worth to refinance into FHA-insured mortgages. Therefore, the risk of a future foreclosure on these mortgages would fall to the government and taxpayers instead of private lenders.

A recent study from economists at New York University found that the FHA is underestimating its risk exposure. One of the problems is that the FHA isn't properly accounting for the risk to underwater FHA mortgages that have been refinanced into new FHA mortgages. So it's hard to see how the president's plan to refinance private underwater mortgages into FHA mortgages won't further exacerbate the situation.

Only The Taggart Building Will Be Spared

One of the images I remember form reading Atlas Shrugged was of darkened skyscrapers, as the government forced the closure of the upper stories of buildings to save energy.  Only building owners with political pull were excepted.  It seems San Francisco is following a similar plan:

Turn the lights out -- or pay.

That's the message of legislation being revived by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who will introduce a measure Tuesday mandating that skyscrapers turn off all nonemergency lights at night as a way to save energy. The introduction comes just days before Earth Hour Saturday, in which people are urged to turn off their lights for an hour at 8 p.m.

The legislation is essentially a new run at a law introduced a year ago by former board president Aaron Peskin that ultimately withered after strong opposition by the Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco. (We couldn't reach them by press time Monday). Peskin's proposal mandated building owners turn the lights out, or face administrative fines, but it was criticized as difficult to enforce. Chiu actually pushed Peskin to introduce that legislation, he said.

I would have assumed that if electricity consumption were really so high and so useless, that building owners would have had sufficient reason on their own to turn lights off.  After all, isn't it already turn the lights out or pay?  Unless of course electricity is free in SF.

One problem poorly understood by academics and government officials is that many folks outside of government actually work longer than a 9-4 work day.  As it happens, I am in my office tonight, likely until midnight, catching up on some things I could not with the phone ringing off the hook all day.  The only time I have ever occupied prime downtown real estate in an office tower was when I consulted with McKinsey & Co., and I can say for sure that there was seldom if ever a night when there weren't people in the office working well past midnight  (unfortunately, I was often one of them, which explains why my consulting career outlasted the birth of my first kid by only as long as it took me to find a new job).

Postscript: There is an incentive mis-match at work here in most leases.  Few commercial leases include individual metering for utilities, since most buildings are not set up for it  (it would actually be moderately hard, since office space is often reconfigured over time, shifting from one suite to another).  As a result, there is a kind of tragedy of the commons where renters pay their share of average use for all occupants, diluting the effect of their own usage on their own bills.  I am not sure how fining building owners when their tenants work late is going to help, though.

At the end of the day, this is all micro-managed bullsh*t.  If you want less electricity usage, raise rates, and let individuals figure out how to get the savings.  Just because a particular use (eg night lights in skyscrapers) is the most visible to policy makers does not make it the marginal use or the low hanging fruit for energy savings.

So Wrong, I Almost Wish It Would Pass

Sometimes a proposed law is so wrong and so destructive, but so typical of a certain philosophical bent, that I almost wish it would pass, if for no reason than to have an Atlas Shrugged-type object example of disastrous results.  Such is the case for a California ballot initiative that has qualified for the signature-gathering stage.  The initiative, in part:  (full text linked here)

  • Imposes one-time tax of at least 55% on property
    exceeding $20 million of a California resident or held in California by
    nonresident.  [note that this is an asset tax, not an income tax]
  • Imposes one-time tax (between 36.5% - 54.3%) on income exceeding $10 million when resident dies or leaves California.
  • Imposes
    additional 17.5% tax on total incomes of taxpayers with income
    exceeding $150,000 if single, $250,000 if married; 35% if incomes
    exceed $350,000 if single, $500,000 if married.
  • The proceeds of this money will be used to:
    • To
      purchase 30% to 51% of the outstanding shares of stock in ExxonMobil,
      Chevron, General Motors, Ford, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and
      Citigroup, in order to ensure California has an uninterrupted source of
      energy and financial capital.
    • To drain and restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley to it's condition at the beginning of the 20th century.
    • Use
      any Surplus funds to combat Global Warming, make infrastructure repairs
      and improvements, and to research alternative energy sources.

Beyond the unbelievably Marxist confiscation going on here, it begs the question of just what supply of energy and financial capital that California is not getting today that this will somehow ensure.  The implication seems to be that ExxonMobil, GM, and Citigroup are too fair-minded, selling their wares too even-handedly, and that California would prefer their attention tilted towards California.

Of course this initiative is profoundly immoral, so I can't do anything but deride it, but it would make for a spectacular object lesson (though one would have thought the Soviet Union's experience to be sufficient to this task, but apparently not).  I am sure GM's troubles would be greatly helped by replacing its board of directors with the California State Legislature  (the only American organization running a bigger deficit than GM) and replacing Citigroup's credit analysists with California social services beauracrats.  I would kind of like to see this in the same way I would love to see what happens if I threw a crate of flourescent tubes off a 10th-floor roof  -- I would never actualy do it, because it would be unsafe and destructive, but I can still dream about how compelling the disaster would be.

Postscript: One could probably label this the Arizona and Nevada economic stimulation act and probably not be far off the mark.

Atlas Shrugged at 50

Apparently Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged is turning 50, a fact I know only because my fairly libertarian-tilted feed reading list has been deluged of late with retrospectives. 

One of the oddities of posts on Ayn Rand is that every author seems to feel required to say something like "I like her work but I am not in total agreement with everything she says."  Uh, OK.  I'm not clear why this proviso seems so necessary.  I have never heard someone saying "I am a big fan of Mozart" and then following up with "but I don't like all of his works."  I am sure that is true, but they don't bother saying so.   I am a big fan of Ayn Rand, in particular with her non-fiction essays, but of course there are parts of her writing I don't agree with.  For example, I would be less likely to take her advice on managing my love life than I would to eat out of Hannibal Lecter's cookbook.

What Rand did so well in Atlas Shrugged was to take collectivist and anti-rational philosophy and play it forward in practice in a very compelling way. She demonstrated with almost mathematical precision the end results of collectivist philosophy.   The entropic United States in Atlas Shrugged, running down under the weight of socialism, has turned out to be repeatedly prescient.  For this reason, I find her anti-heros to be more memorable.  I see analog's to the Jim Taggerts and Lee Hunsackers and Starnes children nearly every day in the news.  Through these analogs, Rand still helps me place current events in their philosophical context. 

By the way, if you enjoyed her novels but have never read her essays, I encourage you to do so.  The Virtue of Selfishness is a reasonable place to start.  She was not the first person to voice many of these messages (Hayek and others were saying many of the same things) but because of her novels, I, like many others, heard them first from her.

Mississippi Considering Directive 10-289

First, Mississippi regulated flood insurance rates down to a level that it was impossible to make money, so State Farm's property coverage on the coast did not cover flood/storm damage.  Then, after Katrina, Dickie Scruggs and company sued State Farm, and others, forcing them to cover storm damage from Katrina that their policies explicitly did not cover and were not priced to cover.  So, facing a state government that, by fiat, forces their fees lower and their coverage higher, State Farm is trying to exit the property insurance business in Mississippi, and the state legislature is considering legislation to prevent them from leaving.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said Friday he will seek
legislation aimed at blocking State Farm Insurance Cos. from refusing
to write new homeowners and commercial policies in the
hurricane-battered state.

Hood's plan would require any company
that writes automobile insurance in Mississippi and also writes
homeowners policies in other states to offer homeowners and commercial
properties throughout Mississippi....

Hood also said he his urging Gov. Haley Barbour to issue an executive
order that would force the insurer to continue writing new policies
until the Mississippi Legislature can deal with the issue.

Quoting from directive 10-289 (Atlas Shrugged):

Point Two: All industrial, commercial, manufacturing, and business
establishments of any nature whatsoever shall henceforth remain in
operation, and the owners of such establishments shall not quit, nor
leave, nor retire, nor close, sell or transfer their business, under
penalty of the nationalization of their establishment and of any or all
their property.

So I ask you, is the following statement ridiculous  over-the-top regulator-speak from Atlas Shrugged, or was it actually made by a US state AG?

"We're looking at a robber baron in the face that is trying to make an example of Mississippi," Hood said of State Farm.

OK, so lets see:  The state government decides what rates you can charge.  The state government decides what your policy has to cover.  The state government decides if you will be allowed to go out of business.  But State Farm is the robber baron.  LOL.

Hat tip:  Tom Kirkendall

Great Moments in Labor Relations

My previous post joking about potential union opposition to unmanned military aircraft reminded me of one of my favorite labor relations stories.   Until just the last few years, most railroads continued to pay a "fireman" to ride in the cab of their diesel locomotives, despite the fact that the role of the fireman to shovel coal into a steam boiler was totally obviated fifty years ago by diesel technology.  How this came about is an interesting story.

Railroads were the first heavy or large industry in this country.  For years, if you were to talk about "big business", you were really talking about railroads.  So it is not surprising that when the government succumbed to the pressure of interfering legislatively into the relationship between employer and employee, their first target was the railroad industry.  In a sense, the US has two bodies of labor law.  The first body of law is railroad labor law, and the second is the law that applies to every other industry. 

As much as we can complain about the labor law most of us operate under, it is nothing compared to the hash that the government made of railroad labor law.  From an early stage, details about work days and work rules that would normally be part of a private labor contract between a company and their union or employees were actually embodied in the law.  For example, back in the steam-engine era when trains moved fairly slowly, a full "day" for a train crew was defined by statute as 100 miles (about the distance a steam engine could go without taking on more water).  Once a train crew had traveled that distance, they were owed a days pay.  Other portions of the law gave the unions incredible power, such that the bargaining table at every negotiation with management was always tilted, by statute, in their favor.

Beginning in the late 1930's, but really gaining momentum in the late 1940's, railroads began to replace steam locomotives with diesel engines.  Diesel locomotives were more reliable, easier to maintain, easier to operate (no coal to shovel) and could go much longer distances without service (steam engines stopped frequently for more water).  As this transition occurred, railroad companies very reasonably sought to eliminate the position of "fireman" on diesel trains.  After all, without a boiler and coal to shovel, the fireman role was totally redundant on a diesel engine.  Railroad unions were nothing if not gutsy, and in response they argued that not only would they not accept elimination of the fireman position, but they campaigned for an addition of a second fireman on diesel engines.  Railroads found themselves in the position of actually having to fight a nearly successful effort to increase the number of firemen on crews.  As a result, they ended up accepting the fireman role, and generations of railroad men cruised about the country on engines for the next 40 years, doing virtually nothing for their pay.  Railroads were still fighting to eliminate the fireman in the 1990's.  In some cases, railroads were actually forced to pay "lonesome pay" to some engineers when the firemen were removed from their crew.  LOL.

Other labor statutes and work rules prevented full use of the diesel's capabilities.  For example, the 100 mile rule was now absurd - an inter-modal or other long-distance freight train could cover this in less than two hours.  But US law still insisted that railroad workers be paid a full days pay for 100 miles.  By 1990, after four decades of lobbying and negotiation, the 100 miles had been increased all the way to ... 108 miles.

This article from Regulation is a bit dated, but it still gives a good overview of some of the historical insanities in railroad labor.  An excerpt:

The rail unions deserve the labor equivalent of an Oscar for best sustained performance in reducing industrial efficiency. Restrictive work practices are legendary from firemen on diesel locomotives to train-limit laws. During the 1980s the railroads made minor progress against these practices, but they still have a long way to go. Some crews receive an extra day's pay every time they turn a locomotive around (yard and line haul crews have rigid separations of duties despite identical skills). Carriers are forced to employ three- to five-person crews, while nonunion carriers (Florida East Coast Railway and regional and short-line carriers) use two people. Crew members receive a full day's pay after a train moves 108 miles, even if the trip requires only a few hours. (The current three-member board appointed by Congress may impose a 130-mile rule by 1995.) Some union members have guaranteed lifetime incomes and must only work a few days per month. Some engineers receive "lonesome pay" for giving up the full-time company of a fireman. Until 1987, some Burlington Northern crews received "hazardous pay" for traveling through Indian territory in Montana. Management studies show that work forces could be cut in half, and according to some estimates, labor restrictions cost the industry some $4 billion a year. Despite union concessions on work rules, shippers continue to complain about the carriers' inability to achieve efficient and economical labor contracts. Overall, the RLA and its government-backed unions combine to double labor costs and therefore drive up freight rates from 20 to 25 percent, a very serious handicap in the competition with trucks and barges.

One railroad stood up to the union, and eventually won, but had to withstand a violent 11-year strike, all the while the taking continuous grief in the union-friendly press:

The Florida East Coast Railways, a line long known as "America's most efficient railroad," highlights the woeful labor inefficiencies of the major carriers. Its primary operation is transporting freight from Jacksonville to Miami. When Edward Ball took over the operation in 1961, the unions required the use of three five-man crews-each receiving a day's pay for each 100 miles traveled on the 366-mile trip. Ball failed to see the sense of this scheme and decided to try th change it. Union officials could not see the sense in any change and called a strike in 1963. The violence and vandalism that continued for eleven years demonstrated to other carriers the cost of defying the unions. The railway won, however. The company used two-man crews who were "cross-trained" and paid them a day's pay for eight hours' work rather than for 100 miles traveled. During the 1970s, the railroad's labor costs were 40 percent of total costs compared with 64 percent for all class I railroads, and Florida East Coast Railway earned the highest return of any class I railroad. In addition, the railway consistently won safety awards that fended off another pretext for government control and continues to retain customers while other railroads lose out to trucks.

Read the whole article.  If you have ever read Atlas Shrugged, you will find that a lot of the outrageous legislation in that story that seemed too stupid to be true actually have a basis in the history of US railroad law.  Even the "railroad unification act" that seems totally over-the-top toward the end of the book is based on actual railroad law after WWI:

The Transportation Act of 1920 gave the Interstate Commerce Commission complete control over pricing, issuance of securities, expenditure of proceeds, consolidations, and the construction, use, and abandonment of facilities. The act set up a Railway Labor Board to mediate disputes. Its "recapture" provision required a portion of a company's earnings in excess of an allowable "fair return" to be diverted to railroads with relatively low earnings. Except for the most routine administration, almost everything owners might do was subject to federal regulation or dictation.

More on the transition of steam to diesel here.  I am not very well versed on the subject, but apparently this specialized railroad labor law was later applied to airline pilots, with predictable results.  It is interesting that the two industries covered by the RLA (railroads and airlines) have both seen every major carrier in their industry bankrupted over the last 50 years.

Update:  I have been a fan of railroads for years.  One of my frustrations with my current house is a don't have room for a model railroad layout.  I had one back in St. Louis, where I had a basement, but there are not very many basements in Phoenix.  Here are some photos of that old layout, which was still under construction when I had to tear it down and move.

New Year's Resolution

Beyond the usual promises to work out more and shave off 15 pounds or so, I can't think of a better New Year's Resolution than this one, from Atlas Shrugged:

I swear--by my life and my love of it--that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

The only exception to this is my immediate family, which is really not an exception - I think the very definition of family is those people you move under the umbrella of your own self, to join you as part of your "I".

Happy New Year!

Maryland Doctors Strike (and the whiny reaction)

Maryland doctors are finally starting to shrug under the weight of the current tort system.  Apparently about 50 doctors have canceled elective procedures for a number of days to protest skyrocketing malpractice premiums.  (hat tip: Club for Growth)

What struck me is not necessarily the doctors' actions, which are representative of the state of mind of doctors across the country, but the whiny reaction:

"Actually what they`re doing is going against their doctor`s oath. The patient is more important than malpractice insurance and they have to realize that," said Washington County Hospital patient Brian Levasser.

Remember, these doctors have stopped doing elective surgeries.  So Mr. Levasser's penis enlargement or whatever will have to wait a few days.  He sounds just like Kip Chalmers on the train in Atlas Shrugged.

OK, here is something Mr. Levasser can try:  Go to work each day, work long hours, and do your absolute best in a critical profession.  Then, each day, just before you go home, roll three dice.  If the result is anything but 1-1-1, go home, have  a beer, and relax with your family.  However, on that unlucky day when you roll three ones, you lose everything - your job, your house, your savings, your reputation and your ability to work again in your chosen profession.  Note that you lose everything not because you did a bad job, but because something unlucky but inevitable happened (e.g. child born with a birth defect) and you were the one standing closest.  On the day after you rolled that 1-1-1 and lost everything, tell me malpractice insurance isn't important. 

Doctors used to be the people we looked up to and admired, the pillars of society; now, we treat them like galley slaves.  We keep you alive to serve this patient. So operate well and live.

(By the way, I am sympathetic to the first comment on the Club for Growth post.  Those of us in general business can sometimes get frustrated that doctors seem to be able to get attention on their frivolous suits where the rest of us cannot.  But I refuse the begrudge them that, and wish them well)

Favorite Fiction Book about Business

First, I will say there are no books out there about what business is really like, probably because reality can be pretty grim -- I don't think that people would be hanging on the edge of their seat reading about a manager arguing with the Department of Labor about a fine for his minimum wage poster not being in the right location.  Maybe if Dave Berry wrote it.

Anyway, most fiction that involves a business is either about some rapacious capitalist who is stealing or killing or destroying the environment or whatever or it is a sort of Machiavellian opera ala Dallas or Dynasty. Few actually portray a business leader as a hero.

For business people that are heroic and multi-dimensional, and exempting Atlas Shrugged as in a class by itself, I recommend James Clavell's Noble House.  This zillion page book covers but 8 days of time in early 1960's Hong Kong, but is epic none-the-less.  I just finished reading it a second time and I enjoyed it even more than the first time.