Posts tagged ‘Barack Obama’

Government Accounting: The Report That Says Green Loan Program is Profitable is A Total Joke

The government claims to be making huge profits on its greentech loan program, despite losses at companies like Solyndra.

The U.S. government expects to earn $5 billion to $6 billion from the renewable-energy loan program that funded flops including Solyndra LLC, supporting President Barack Obama’s decision to back low-carbon technologies.

The Department of Energy has disbursed about half of $32.4 billion allocated to spur innovation, and the expected return will be detailed in a report due to be released as soon as tomorrow, according to an official who helped put together the data.

The results contradict the widely held view that the U.S. has wasted taxpayer money funding failures including Solyndra, which closed its doors in 2011 after receiving $528 million in government backing. That adds to Obama’s credibility as he seeks to make climate change a bigger priority after announcing a historic emissions deal with China.

Even Kevin Drum calls partial BS on this:

And yet....I'd still remain a bit cautious about the overall success of the program. Out of its $32 billion in approved loans, half represent loan guarantees to nuclear power plant developers and Ford Motor. These are not exactly risky, innovative startups. They're huge companies that could very easily have raised money without government help, and which represented virtually zero danger of default. If DOE is including returns from those loans in its forecast, color me unimpressed.

The genuinely risky half of the loan program is called Section 1705, and it includes everything that most of us think of as real renewable energy projects (wind, solar, biofuel, etc.). DOE hasn't broken that out separately.

I call further BS.  It turns out this program is actually losing money, not making money.

  1. This "study" is a classic case of assuming your conclusion. The reason the risky parts of the portfolio would lose money is if they don't pay off over the next 20 years or so they have to run. But all the study says is "The $5 billion to $6 billion figure was calculated based on the average rates and expected returns of funds dispersed so far, paid back over 20 to 25 years." In other words, if the loans turn out not to be risky, they won't be risky. LOL.
  2. I bet they are not accounting for things like Ivanpah, there the holders of the government loan are looking to pay off the government loan with .. a government subsidy. So if you squint, the loan to Ivanpah looks profitable, but no rational person would come to that conclusion about the program as a whole.
  3. Ivanpah is just a subset of a larger problem. Companies like Tesla get government subsidies (and their customers get subsidies as well) from dozens of sources. Is it really a win for taxpayers if they pay back their government loan with government money?
  4. They count the 37 basis points above treasury rates that they charge as "profit". This is crazy. I run a fairly large business. No business is getting Tbills +37 BP loans. Heck, since Tbills are at about 0%, this means they are loaning money to private concerns at less than 1%. This is a crazy large subsidy.  I could make money in over a 2-5 year period in just about anything if I could borrow at effectively 0%.
  5. Worst of all, they are not using present value.  Let's say their average spread from the Bloomberg article is 100 BP over treasuries.  That means that ignoring loan losses on a $32 billion portfolio they are making a spread of $320 million a year.  Over 20-25 years that is $6-7 billion.  Less some large loan losses that is $5-6 billion.  But notice I never discounted.  This is just adding up nominal interest spreads over 25 years.  This is insane.  Absolutely no private investor on the planet would think like this.  If you discounted the interest spread payments at any reasonable risk-adjusted rate**, then the net present value may already be less than losses in Solyndra and others and thus already in the hole, even without considering future losses.  This report is an embarrassing political exercise, not a serious economic analysis.

All of this leaves out the inherent cronyism of the whole exercise.

 

** I would argue that in many of these loans, and despite interest rates charged in the 0-2% range, the government was taking an equity risk.  Worse than equity risks -- these are essentially venture capital investments risks with T-bill returns (note the one private comment on the returns in the Bloomberg article is from a venture capital investor in greentech).   The taxpayers are bearing all the risk but getting none of the returns.  Any discount rate for these risks under 15-20% is far too low.

Is Their a Guinsess Record for the Longest Correction?

This correction by Michel Taylor of something called the Australian Independent Media Network has got to be the longest correction in history.  You know it is an incredible correction when this is just a tiny part of the errors admitted:

  • Evans does not believe, and has never believed, that 9/11 was an inside job perpetrated by the Rothschild family, that US President Barack Obama is a secret Jew, that the Holocaust never happened or that Jewish bankers and the Rothschild family have assassinated at least two US Presidents.

The author also admits to getting Evans' education, occupation, organization, and sources of funding wrong.

In part I suppose kudos are owed to Mr. Taylor for being so honest, but seriously, how can one be so comprehensively wrong? (I will actually explain why in a minute).  The correction runs on so long in part because he Taylor also has to correct an earlier correction where he blamed one of his original sources for being intentionally misleading.  He also apologizes for that.

I would likely have posted this anyway just because it is sort of funny.  But it just so happens to tie into what I wrote yesterday here.  Because it is clear that Mr. Taylor's core mistake is that he researched the positions of a climate skeptic (Mr. Evans) solely by asking climate alarmists (and climate alarmist web sites) what this skeptic believed.  He felt no need to hear the skeptic case from the skeptic himself.  And what do you know, the descriptions of Mr. Evans' beliefs as portrayed by his ideological enemies were full of errors, exaggerations, straw men, and outright lies.  Who would have thought?

We can laugh at Mr. Taylor, but at least he admitted his mistakes in great depth.  But outlets such as the LA Times and the BBC have recently made it a rule they will never allow skeptic voices into their reporting.  They have institutionalized Mr. Taylor's mistake.

Obama's Demand for Wage Rules for Salaried Workers Will Have Far More Impact Than Proposed Minimum Wage Changes

The $10.10 minimum wage discussion has gotten a lot of attention.   But in 2011 only 3.8 million workers made at or below the minimum wage, and of these, at least half earn substantially more in reality through tips.

Obama's announcement yesterday that he wanted to substantially change the way salaried workers will likely have far more negative impacts on employment than his minimum wage proposals.

President Barack Obama is expected to order a rule change this week that would require employers to pay overtime to a larger number of salaried workers, two people familiar with the matter said.

Currently, many businesses aren't required to pay overtime to certain salaried workers if they earn more than $455 a week, a level that was set in 2004 and comes to roughly $24,000 a year. The White House is expected to direct the Labor Department to raise that salary threshold, though it is unclear by how much.

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, and Jared Bernstein, a former White House economist, recently proposed the limit be increased to $984 a week, or roughly $50,000 a year.

"That would mean between five- and 10-million people could be affected, but they might choose a lower number," Mr. Eisenbrey said about the White House plans.

5-10 million is potentially 3x or more the people affected by a minimum wage change.  But in some sense, this still underestimates the impact.  Here is one example.  Last year the average starting salary of college graduates is about $45,000.  The median is likely lower.  This means that over half of all college graduates going into the work force will be taking hourly jobs that used to be salaried.   Teachers will be hourly.  Budget analysts will be hourly.  Etc.

So all these folks are saying - Yeah!  I get overtime!   Wrong.  They will be eligible for overtime.  But companies will quickly restructure their work processes to make sure no one works overtime.  And since their new hires are working just a straight 40 hours (with mandatory unpaid lunch break time in CA), they will likely pay less.   If I am paying $40,000 a year for someone who will work extra hours for me, I am not going to pay that amount to someone just punching a time clock.  And the whole psychological relationship is changed - a salaried person is someone on the management team.  A person punching a timeclock may not be treated the same way.

Further, when someone gets switched from salary to hourly, they lose a minimum pay guarantee.  When I get a $3,500 a month offer, I know that no matter how slow things are, until I am fired I get $3500 a month.  There is a floor on my earnings.  As an hourly worker, my hours can be adjusted up or down constantly.  There is no floor at all.

Oh, and by the way, remember Obamacare?  The PPACA penalizes companies who do not provide a health plan that meets certain (expensive) criteria.  But that penalty is not applied for workers who are "part-time" or work less than 30 hours a week.  Salaried workers are automatically full time.  But once you convert all those people to hourly and make sure they are working no more than 40 hours a week, is it really so large a step to getting them under 30 hours a week?

PS-  Well, for those who think schools assign too much homework, this could well be the end of homework.  The most dangerous possible thing with hourly workers is to give them the ability to assign themselves unlimited overtime.  Teachers could do this at home with grading papers.  If I were a school, I would ban teachers from doing any grading or schoolwork prep at home -- after all, it's hourly and probably overtime and they could work unlimited hours at home and how would you get it under control?  The only way to manage it would be to ban it entirely.

PPS- What about travel?  Would you ever let workers paid hourly travel?  You would have to pay all the travel time and maybe part of the hotel time and there would be huge potential for ending up with overtime bills so better to just ban travel all together.  I know this seems knee-jerk to ban something that might impose a lot of extra labor costs seems extreme, but just look at California.  In California, employees have the right to a half-hour lunch break without work.  They can work through lunch if they choose, but courts have imposed enough onerous reporting standards around this that most companies (like mine) have just banned working through lunch.  It is a firing offense in my company, and in many others in CA, to be caught working during lunch.  We are going to see the same thing working from home.  In fact, we already see this, as there are class actions right now against companies who provided employees with cell phones saying that giving them a cell phone put them "on call" and subject to overtime hours that had to paid at home.  Companies are now making it a firing offense to take one's company cell phone home.

Sorry this post is so disorganized, but this initiative caught be by surprise and I have not been thinking about it for very long.  I will try to work out a more rigorous article in the next few weeks.

In Case You Are Not on Twitter...

...This is the sensation of the moment, from Barack Obama's Twitter account (apparently real and not a spoof)

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Expect this to be the most photo-shopped image of the next 24 hours.  My guess is that this is the new punishment for not being insured -- they send this guy to your house to watch MSNBC with you all day.

 

Waaaaaaaay Too Late, And I Bet Obama Knows It

Via the WSJ:

President Barack Obama said Thursday that insurers will be able to continue health-insurance coverage next year for current policy holders that otherwise would be canceled under the new health-care law....

"Insurers can offer consumers the option to renew their 2013 health plans in 2014 without change, allowing these individuals to keep their plans," a senior White House official said, previewing Mr. Obama's announcement. These consumers will be given the opportunity to re-enroll, the official said, essentially extending the so-called grandfather clause in the 2010 health overhaul that allowed people to keep their plans if they were in place before the law passed.

"This step today is in the interest of fixing some of the challenges that have arisen" since then, the official said.

Under the plan, insurers are required to notify consumers whether their renewed plans don't include coverage that was required under the new health law, which set minimum coverage standards. They must tell consumers that new insurance options and possibly tax subsidies may be available for policies bought through online federal marketplace.

1.  The President announced this today to try to head off Congressional legislation to do the same thing.  Have we just given up on the rule of law?  Can the President unilaterally modify any law he pleases?  Shouldn't a modification in existing legislation have to come from the Legislature?  Can we just make it official and change the Constitution to say that the President can alter any legislation he wants as long as his party originally passed it?

2.  How is this even going to be possible?   My understanding is that insurance companies spend months preparing the pricing and features of their products for the next year.  The have done no preparation to offer these plans in 2014, because, you know, they were (and still are, whatever the President says in a news conference) illegal.   Its like your wife telling you to take the next exit when you are in the left lane driving 75 miles an hour in heavy traffic and the exit is about 100 yards away.  With 31 business days between now and the new year, how are they supposed to do this?  Or are they even expected to be able to do so?  Is this the President's way to blame shift to insurance companies?

Update:

The Real Health Insurance Shock Is Coming Next Fall

Obviously, the whole Obamacare implementation is in disarray.  Some of this I expected -- the policy cancellations -- and some of it I did not -- the horrendous systems implementation.  But I actually thought that most of this would be swept under the rug by a willing media.

What I really expected was for the true shock to come next fall.  And I think it is still coming.  I believe that despite rate increases, insurers are likely being overly optimistic about how much adverse selection and cost control issues they are going to have.  As a result, I expected, and still expect, huge premium increases in the fall of 2014.

Why?  The main benefit of Obamacare is for people who cannot afford health insurance but want it, and for people who are very sick and have lost their insurance.   Obamacare is a terrible plan as implemented because it futzes with virtually everything in the health care system when a more limited plan could have achieved the same humanitarian coverage goals.

Anyway, one reason Obamacare is so comprehensive is that it is based on a goal of cost control for the whole system.  Unfortunately, most all of its cost control goals are faulty.  From Megan McArdle, in an amazing article covering a huge range of Obamacare issues:

But I think it’s also clearly true that the majority of the public did not understand this. In 2008, the Barack Obama campaign told them that their premiums would go down under the new health-care law. And the law’s supporters believed it.

Q. Obama says his plan will save $2,500 annually for my family. How?

A. Through a combination of developing efficiencies in the system, expanding coverage to all Americans, and picking up the cost of some high-cost cases. Specifically:

-- Health IT investment, which will reduce unnecessary and wasteful spending in the health care system. Examples include extra hospital stays because of preventable medical errors and duplicative diagnostic tests;

-- Improving prevention and management of chronic conditions;

-- Increasing insurance industry competition and reining in the abusive practices of monopoly insurance and drug companies;

-- Providing reinsurance for catastrophic cases, which will reduce insurance premiums; and

-- Ensuring every American has health coverage, which will reduce spending on the “uncompensated” care of uninsured people who end up in emergency rooms and whose care is picked up by institutions and then passed through higher charges to insured individuals.

The part about reinsurance was always nonsense; unless it’s subsidized, reinsurance doesn’t save money for the system, though it may reduce the risk that an individual company will go broke. But the rest of it all sounded entirely plausible; I heard many smart wonks make most of these arguments in 2008 and 2009. However, it’s fair to say that by the time the law passed, the debate had pretty well established that few to none of them were true. “We all knew” that preventive care doesn’t save money, electronic medical records don’t save money, reducing uncompensated care saves very little money, and “reining in the abusive practices” of insurance companies was likely to raise premiums, not lower them, because those “abuses” mostly consist of refusing to cover very sick people.

The result?  Many of these things that supposedly reduced costs actually increase them.  So if you think the shock is high now, wait until next fall.  We will see:

  • Rates going up
  • Less choice, as insurers pull out of many local markets
  • Narrowing of doctors networks, and reduced choice in doctors
  • Companies dropping health care and dumping workers (and retirees if they can get away with it) into the exchanges and Medicare.

Ignoring Syria is Like Penn State Ignoring Child Molesting

That is according to our senior Arizona Republic columnist EJ Montini  (via Expresso Pundit)

The U.S. is big enough and strong enough to act on behalf of the innocent victims, including children, who were killed in Syria by the chemical weapons. But those who are against it say this is not our fight. That we shouldn’t go it alone. That the chemical attack wasn’t against Americans. That we can’t be sure what we’d be getting ourselves into. And that there is no clear objective, other than acting in response to an atrocity.

I understand the reasoning.

Given all that, however, I wonder why was so many Americans were furious with former Penn State assistant football coach Mike McQueary.

Remember him?

He was the guy who saw the now imprisoned former coach Jerry Sandusky raping a boy in a Penn State shower.

McQueary was vilified for not acting to stop the attack.

This is an absurd comparison for any number of reasons.  The most obvious is that no one would have been put in danger, and the financial costs were nil, for the Penn State coaches to stop Sandusky's abuse.  Further, Penn State officials had a clear legal obligation for the safety of folks on their property.  Finally, Penn State had the ability to easily stop and prevent the illegal activity.

None of these statements are true for Syria.  The costs in lives and property, both to ourselves and to the citizens of Syria, are potential enormous.  It's not clear it is the US's job to police the area, and in fact history has proven that unilaterally adopting the policeman role, even with the best of intentions, can hurt our country's reputation and relations in the long-term.  Finally, its not at all clear that we could stop Assad from doing whatever he wishes, short of sending in troops to remove him from power, and even then his replacement may likely be just as bad.  Oddly for a liberal in the foregin policy sphere, Montini seems to be making a form of the "might makes right" argument, that the US is obligated just because it is big and strong.

Tellingly, I don't see Montini advocating for use military force to help citizens in any other of the scores of countries where they are being mistreated.  It is more likely that what Montini is really concerned about is the loss of the prestige and credibility of Barack Obama.  A lot of blood has been spilled for thousands of years for the prestige of state leaders.  I for one am happy if this country is finally wising up to this game.

Cost and Benefit and the Fourth Ammendment

From Reuters via Zero Hedge:

The Obama administration on Thursday acknowledged that it is collecting a massive amount of telephone records from at least one carrier, reopening the debate over privacy even as it defended the practice as necessary to protect Americans against attack.

The admission comes after the Guardian newspaper published a secret court order related to the records of millions of Verizon Communications customers on its website on Wednesday.

A senior administration official said the court order pertains only to data such as a telephone number or the length of a call, and not the subscribers' identities or the content of the telephone calls.

Such information is "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States," the official said, speaking on the condition of not being named.

"It allows counter terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," the official added.

The revelation raises fresh concerns about President Barack Obama's handling of privacy and free speech issues. His administration is already under fire for searching Associated Press journalists' calling records and the emails of a Fox television reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.

A few thoughts:

  1. I have no doubt that this makes the job of tracking terrorists easier.  So would the ability to break down any door anywhere and do random house searches without a warrant.  The issue is not effectiveness, but the cost in terms of lost liberty and the potential for abuse.  The IRS scandal should remind us how easy it is to use government power to harass political enemies and out-groups
  2. The FISA court is a bad joke, as it seems willing to issue "all information on all people" warrants.  I think there is little doubt that similar data gathering is going on at all the other carriers.
  3. Luckily, Susan Rice is now the National Security Adviser.  I am sure with her proven history of not just being a political puppet but really digging in to challenge White House talking points that she will quickly get to the bottom of this.

Environmentalist vs. Environmentalist

The confrontation may be coming soon in the environmental community over wind power -- it certainly would have occurred already had the President promoting wind been Republican rather than Democrat.  I might have categorized this as "all energy production has environmental tradeoffs", but wind power is so stupid a source to be promoting that this is less of a tradeoff and more of another nail in the coffin.  As a minimum, the equal protection issues vis a vis how the law is enforced for wind companies vs. oil companies are pretty staggering.

“It happens about once a month here, on the barren foothills of one of America’s green-energy boomtowns: A soaring golden eagle slams into a wind farm’s spinning turbine and falls, mangled and lifeless, to the ground.

Killing these iconic birds is not just an irreplaceable loss for a vulnerable species. It’s also a federal crime, a charge that the Obama administration has used to prosecute oil companies when birds drown in their waste pits, and power companies when birds are electrocuted by their power lines.”

“[The Obama] administration has never fined or prosecuted a wind-energy company, even those that flout the law repeatedly. Instead, the government is shielding the industry from liability and helping keep the scope of the deaths secret.”

“Wind power, a pollution-free energy intended to ease global warming, is a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s energy plan. His administration has championed a $1 billion-a-year tax break to the industry that has nearly doubled the amount of wind power in his first term. But like the oil industry under President George W. Bush, lobbyists and executives have used their favored status to help steer U.S. energy policy.”

“The result [of Obama energy policy] is a green industry that’s allowed to do not-so-green things. It kills protected species with impunity and conceals the environmental consequences of sprawling wind farms.”

“More than 573,000 birds are killed by the country’s wind farms each year, including 83,000 hunting birds such as hawks, falcons and eagles, according to an estimate published in March in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin.

The Plan For Universities to Raise Tuition to Infinity

Via the WSJ, President Obama is proposing debt forgiveness for student borrowers

The White House proposes that the government forgive billions of dollars in student debt over the next decade, a plan that cheers student advocates, but critics say it would expand a program that already encourages students to borrow too much and stick taxpayers with the bill.

The proposal, included in President Barack Obama's budget for next year, would increase the number of borrowers eligible for a program known casually as income-based repayment, which aims to help low-income workers stay current on federal student debt.

Borrowers in the program make monthly payments equivalent to 10% of their income after taxes and basic living expenses, regardless of how much they owe. After 20 years of on-time payments—10 years for those who work in public or nonprofit jobs—the balance is forgiven.

Already, it's pretty clear that many students pay little attention to size of the debt they run up.  Easy loans for students have essentially made them less price sensitive, however irrational this may seem (did you make good short - long term trade-offs at the age of 18?)  As a result, tuition has soared, much like home prices did as a result of easy mortgage credit a decade ago.  The irony is that easier student debt is not increasing access to college for the average kid (since tuition is essentially staying abreast of increases in debt availability), but is shifting student's future dollars to university endowments and bloated administrations.  Take any industry that has in the past been accused of preying on the financially unsophisticated by driving them into debt for profit, and universities are fifty times worse.

So of course, the Progressives in the White House and Congress (unsurprisingly Elizabeth Warren has a debt subsidy plan as well) are set to further enable this predatory behavior by universities.  By effectively capping most students' future financial obligations from student debt, this plan would remove the last vestiges of price sensitivity from the college tuition market.  Colleges can now raise tuition to infinity, knowing that the bulk of it will get paid by the taxpayer some time in the future.  Just as the college price bubble looks ready to burst, this is the one thing that could re-inflate it.

Postscript:  By the way, let's look at the numbers.  Let's suppose Mary went to a top college and ran up $225,000 in debt.  She went to work for the government, averaging $50,000 a year (much of her compensation in government is in various benefits that don't count in this calculation).  She has to live in DC, so that's expensive, and pay taxes.  Let's say that she has numbers to prove she only has $20,000 left after essential living expenses.  10% of that for 10 years is $20,000 (or about $13,500 present value at 8%).  So Mary pays less than $20,000 for her education, and the taxpayer pays $205,000.  The university makes a handsome profit - in fact they might have given her financial aid or a lower tuition, but why bother?  Mary doesn't care what her tuition is any more, because she is capped at around $20,000.  The taxpayer is paying the rest and is not involved in the least in choosing the university or setting prices, so why not charge the taxpayer as much as they can?

Postscript #2:  It is hard to figure out exactly what Elizabeth Warren is proposing, as most of her proposal is worded so as to take a potshot at banks rather than actually lay out a student loan plan.  But it appears that she wants to reduce student loan interest rates for one year.  If so, how is this different from teaser rates on credit cards, where folks -- like Elizabeth Warren -- accuse credit card companies of tricking borrowers into debt with low initial, temporary rates.  I  find it  a simply astounding sign of the bizarre times we live in that a leading anti-bank progressive is working on legislative strategies to get 18-year-olds further into debt.

Cargo Cult Social Engineering

Once upon a time, government officials decided it would help them keep their jobs if they could claim they had expanded the middle class.  Unfortunately, none of them really understood economics or even the historical factors that led to the emergence of the middle class in the first place.  But they did know two things:  Middle class people tended to own their own homes, and they sent their kids to college.

So in true cargo cult fashion, they decided to increase the middle class by promoting these markers of being middle class.  They threw the Federal government strongly behind promoting home ownership and college education.  A large part of this effort entailed offering easy debt financing for housing and education.  Because the whole point was to add poorer people to the middle class, their was a strong push to strip away traditional underwriting criteria for these loans (e.g. down payments, credit history, actual income to pay debt, etc.)

We know what happened in the housing market.  The government promoted home ownership with easy loans, and made these loans a favorite investment by giving them a preferential treatment in the capital requirements for banks.  And then the bubble burst, with the government taking the blame for the bubble.  Just kidding, the government blamed private lenders for their lax underwriting standards, conviniently forgetting that every President since Reagan had encouraged such laxity (they called it something else, like "giving access to the poor", but it means the same thing).

A similar bubble is just about to burst in the college loan market, and this time it will be much harder for the government to blame private lenders, since the government effectively nationalized the market several years ago and for years has been the source of at least 90% of all college loans.  In the Wall Street Journal today, it was reported that student loans are now the largest component of consumer debt, and growing

Further, a Fed report yesterday said that student loan diliquencies have jumped substantially of late

The scary part was found by Zero Hedge in the footnotes of the report, which admit that this number is understated by as much as half, meaning the true delinquency rate of student debt may be north of 20%.

The Journal article linked above explains why this is:

Nearly all student loans—93% of them last year—are made directly by the government, which asks little or nothing about borrowers' ability to repay, or about what sort of education they intend to pursue.

President Barack Obama championed easy-to-get loans during the campaign, calling higher education "an economic imperative in the 21st century." A spokesman for Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the goal is "to make student loans available to as many people as possible," and requiring minimum credit scores would block many Americans

Any of this sound familiar?  I seldom learn much from anecdotes in new stories since it is too easy to craft a stirring anecdote on either side of just about any issue.  But I was amazed at the story of the woman who was issued $184,500 in student debt to send her son to college when her entire income is a $1600 a month disability check.

Can the Majority Vote to Have A Minority Send Them Money?

Barack Obama argues that the last election gave him a mandate to raise taxes on the rich.  Put another way, he is arguing that 52% of the people voted to raise taxes on 2%.  Did they?

Well, they certainly did something like this in California.  Let's take a look at two propositions:

  • Prop 30, which propose to raise taxes on on the rich to help close the deficit (there was a token 0.25% sales tax increase for cover, but everyone knew it to be a tax on the rich).
  • Prop 39, which was a broad-based income tax increase which raised taxes on most everyone (or at least on the 50% or so who pay income taxes).

So, let's look at the results:

  • Raise taxes on only the very rich:  PASS
  • Raise taxes on everyone (including me):  FAIL

The California election was a crystal clear mandate:  People want more taxes as long as they are on somebody else.  By targeting the richest few percent, we can get a lot of money but make sure the people taxed don't have any hope of fighting the increase, even if they vote as a block.

So I think Obama clearly has a mandate to raise taxes on not-me.  The question is, do we think we have, or do we want, a government where this is possible?  Where majority votes can do anything they wish to minorities?

I should hope not.  I will remind you of a famous quote, from a different context, but entirely relevant:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.*

 

* there seem to be many variations on this out there, you may have heard other similar versions.

State of the Union: Apparently, Hugh Hefner is Responsible for Abstinence

My column for this week is up at Forbes, and inevitably, deals with the State of the Union address last night.

But the portion that really floored me was Obama’s taking credit for the increase in US oil and gas production over the last several years.  It is certainly true that, against all predictions of peak oil, new technologies have helped drive a surge in US hydrocarbon production.  Combined with a recession-driven drop in demand, America’s oil imports as a percentage of its total use has dropped to 45.6%, the lowest level in over 15 years.

This surge in energy production is a fabulous reminder of how markets work.  For years I have written that the peak oil folks were missing something fundamental by performing an overly static analysis.  They looked at current “proven” reserves of oil and gas and projected forward how many years it would take for these to run out.  But oil and gas reserve numbers only make sense in the context of a particular set of technologies and pricing levels.  As hydrocarbons run short, rising prices tend to spur both innovation and new, more expensive exploration activity.  Oil and gas companies are once again proving Julian Simon’s addage that the only true scarcity is human brain power, and they should be given a lot of credit for the recent production boom.

The one person who deserves no credit for this boom is Barack Obama....

Read it all.

Shopping with Maxed Out Credit Cards

My Forbes column is up this week and it presents some quick reactions to the Obama jobs speech last night.  A brief excerpt:

Overall, I found the package to be an incredible mish-mash of already tried and failed steps to rejuvenate the economy.   Even if I were to buy into the Keynesian stimulus logic, everything in this package is so under-scale as to be rounding errors on the larger economy.  This is basically a smaller version of the last failed stimulus repeated.

This plan is absolutely in the Obama style, offering goodies to many constituencies without a hint of how they will be paid for.  Presidents often offer a chicken in every pot when they are campaigning, but usually are forced into reality once they enter office.  Not Barack Obama.  Time and again, from health care to the most recent budget fight and last night’s speech, Obama wants to be loved for offering perks, and then wants someone else to take the fall for the unpopular steps required to pay for them.  He is like grandma endearing herself to the grandkids by buying them Christmas presents on dad’s maxxed out credit cards, leaving dad to later figure out later how to pay for them or face the ire of the kids by returning the gifts.

Patriot Act Renewed

Per Julian Sanchez several days ago:

They'll let these provisions lapse right after they pass the Puppy Strangulation Act of 2011. Nobody wants to be accused of 'weakening' Patriot if another attack happens, even though there's little evidence added safeguards would seriously hamper intel gathering.

And, of course, they just did.  Increasingly the fourth amendment is joining the 2nd and the 10th in the "just kidding" category of Constitutional provisions not taken seriously.    From Al Franken to Barack Obama, Democrats who once opposed the most egregious portions of the Patriot Act now voted for its rushed renewal without even a floor debate or possibility of amendment.

If GOP Candidates Can't Make It Here, They Can't Make It Anywhere

It's hard to see populist, wacky GOP candidates making much progress nationally if they can't get any traction in Arizona.

A poll of 623 Arizona voters released today reflects a couple things -- almost nobody likes Donald Trump, and most people would prefer Sarah Palin not move here.In the poll -- from Public Policy Polling -- opinions are recorded about possible GOP nominees for the 2012 presidential election, and how they'd vote if they ran against President Barack Obama.

Donald Trump was the most unfavorable of five possible GOP candidates -- with a full 2/3 of people dissin' the Donald with an "unfavorable" ranking.

Remember that whole thing about former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin moving to Arizona for a possible Senate campaign?

Most people would prefer that not happen.

Palin was the second-most-disliked candidate -- with 62 percent having unfavorable opinions -- and a later question revealed 57 percent of people would prefer that she not move to Arizona.

Trump also suffered the biggest blowout in a hypothetical match-up against Obama, garnering votes from only 36 percent of respondents.

China Spending Its Way Over a Cliff

Hayekians would argue that both the Japanese lost decade and the recent US housing crash were both caused by massive mis-allocations of capital driven by a variety of government interventions and corrupted price signals (particularly on interest rates).  This may be an early signal of a lulu of a bust coming to China, in an story on the high speed rail system in China

With the latest revelations, the shining new emblem of China’s modernization looks more like an example of many of the country’s interlinking problems: top-level corruption, concerns about construction quality and a lack of public input into the planning of large-scale projects.

Questions have also arisen about whether costs and public needs are too often overlooked as the leadership pursues grandiose projects, which some critics say are for vanity or to engender national pride but which are also seen as an effort to pump up growth through massive public works spending.

The Finance Ministry said last week that the Railways Ministry continued to lose money in the first quarter of this year. The ministry’s debt stands at $276 billion, almost all borrowed from Chinese banks.

“They’ve taken on a massive amount of debt to build it,” said Patrick Chovanec, who teaches at Tsinghua University. He said China accelerated construction of the high-speed rail network — including 295 sleek glass-and-marble train stations — as part of the country’s stimulus spending in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University and a longtime critic of high-speed rail, said he worries that the cost of the project might have created a hidden debt bomb that threatens China’s banking system.

“In China, we will have a debt crisis — a high-speed rail debt crisis,” he said. “I think it is more serious than your subprime mortgage crisis. You can always leave a house or use it. The rail system is there. It’s a burden. You must operate the rail system, and when you operate it, the cost is very high.”

It should be noted that this is the system that has been lauded by folks from Thomas Friedman to Barack Obama as something we should emulate in the US.  By the way, this problem identified in China is in fact endemic to the US -- the cost overruns in every rail system.  In the US, this probably has less to do with outright individual corruption (i.e. the stealing of money for personal gain) but more common political corruption, in the form of purposefully underestimating costs to get public approval, knowing that when inevitable overruns appear, it will be too late to stop the project.

Part of the cost problem has been that each segment of the system has been far more expensive to build than initially estimated, which many trace directly to the alleged corruption being uncovered, including a flawed bidding process.

I wrote earlier on high speed rail as triumphalism rather than real investment here.  Why the US actually has the best rail network in the world is here (hint:  from an energy, pollution, and congestion standpoint, the best thing to put on rails is freight rather than passengers, and the US does that better than China or Europe, by far)

NCAA Bracketology Winner

Our winner was Scott Strattner, congratulations!  It was a weird year, obviously.  Scott won despite getting only one team right out of the final four, though that was pretty much par for the course this year.  Here is the top 10:

Leaderboard after 63 games - See full standings
Bracket Rank Points
strattner2 1 120
Chris Smith 2 115
Kevin Spires #2 3 107
Paul Dubuc 4 92
Chuck Jones #2 5 92
Bracket Rank Points
Grant Smith #2 6 91
strattner1 7 90
Jimbeaux Evans #2 8 89
Mark Horn / Barack Obama 9 88
Alex Sylvester 10 88

I managed to come in 61st, or exactly in the middle.  That's actually pretty good since I only got 6 of the sweet-16 right.  I lost, though, to every other member of my family.

You Thought I Was Joking About Dictator Retirement Island

Via the Guardian

Efforts appear to be under way to offer Muammar Gaddafi a way of escape from Libya, with Italy saying it was trying to organise an African haven for him, and the US signalling it would not try to stop the dictator from fleeing....

A senior American official signalled that a solution in which Gaddafi flees to a country beyond the reach of the international criminal court (ICC), which is investigating war crimes charges against him, would be acceptable to Washington, pointing out that Barack Obama had repeatedly called on Gaddafi to leave.

Quote of the Day

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

--  Barack Obama, December, 2007

NCAA Bracket Challenge Update

Here is the top 10 in the bracket challenge after the first week.  Sadly, both of my brackets are in the bottom half.  Apparently, it is statistically impossible for me to do better than 15th place  (thank God for technology so that hope is dashed and I can no longer fool myself about my future chances).  Even worse, my son made the top 10.  More results here.

Bracket Rank Points Correct
Games
Upset
Risk %
Possible
Games
Kevin Spires #2 1 98 31 26.6 43
strattner2 2 82 35 27.8 48
Chuck Jones #2 3 80 35 15.4 46
Ron Coker 4 75 35 20.3 48
Paul Dubuc 5 73 37 15.8 46
Mark Horn / Barack Obama 6 71 39 5.4 51
Chris Smith 7 70 32 30.9 45
Kevin Spires 8 68 34 17.6 42
Grant Smith #2 9 68 31 46.3 41
Nic Meyer 10 67 33 23.7 41

It is good to see the President take time out of his busy schedule to submit a bracket in our competition.

Hope and Change

Via the WSJ, discussing the US's Siberian Gulag in the Caribbean:

The Obama administration on Monday announced plans for new Guantanamo Bay military trials and for the first time laid out its legal strategy to indefinitely detain prisoners who can't be tried but are too dangerous to be freed.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order to conduct periodic reviews of the cases of the nearly 50 detainees who will be detained indefinitely.

It used to be that people who had never been convicted of any crime but that certain people in the government considered dangerous were called "free men."

Green Jobs & Public Investment = Corporate Welfare

The recent naming of GE's Jeffrey Immelt to head a presidential commission on, err, something or other seems to have been an occasion for bipartisan gnashing of teeth about what I call the growth of the American corporate state.  I was encouraged by the bipartisan negative reaction from the left, right, and of course the libertarians, the latter of whom have always understood the difference between being pro-capitalism and pro-business.

But all it takes is a nomenclature change of this corporate welfare to "green jobs" or "investment in the future" or "bridge to the future" or similar bullsh*t and suddenly many of the exact same people, at least on the left, are swooning again.  Why is it not obvious that, for example, green energy subsidies are just the same old corporate welfare?

Here is one aggravating example

Despite millions in government grants and subsidies, the Manitowoc company President Barack Obama called a glimpse of the future lost $4.2 million last year and cannot promise shareholders it will be profitable in the foreseeable future....

“We may continue to incur further net losses and there can be no assurance that we will be able to increase our revenue, expand our customer base or be profitable,” the report indicates.

Investors have responded to the company’s volatility, and Orion stock has plummeted in the past four years.  It closed 2007 at $18.82 a share.  By the end of 2010 it was $3.34.

Regardless, President Obama is putting his, and the U.S. taxpayers’, money on companies like Orion.

“It’s important to remember that this plant, this company has also been supported over the years not just by the Department of Agriculture and the Small Business Administration, but by tax credits and awards we created to give a leg up to renewable energy companies,” Obama said at the Orion plant on Wednesday.

The State of Wisconsin has also given its share trying to help Orion to succeed.  Since 2005, the state has given the company $350,000 in community development zone tax credits, $506,000 in economic development funds, and $420,000 from the Wisconsin Energy Independence Fund.  Plus the company got another $260,000 in stimulus funds for a State Energy project.

In addition to direct aid, public policy has also helped the struggling company.  Wisconsin law requires that 10 percent of all electricity sold in the state come from renewable sources by 2015.  Orion knows that without government intervention like that, there would be little prospect for the green economy.

“The reduction, elimination or expiration of government mandates and subsidies or economic or tax rebates, credits and/or incentives for alternative renewable energy systems would likely substantially reduce the demand for, and economic feasibility of, any solar photovoltaic and/or wind electricity generating products, applications or services and could materially reduce any prospects for our successfully introducing any new products, applications or services using such technologies,” the SEC report states.

By the way, in 2010, while the government was pouring taxpayer money into Orion, its founder and CEO was pulling his out, selling (by my count of SEC filings) 130,000 shares, despite equity prices that were at a five year low.    It is dangerous to draw conclusions form insider sales (we don't know what personal financial issues may be driving their actions) but it is interesting that the president and founder is taking the exact opposite point of view on the company's prospects than is President Obama.

Ground Zero Mosque and Limited Government

It appears that for a principled defense of property rights, the exercise of religion in America, and limited government we have to turn to ... liberal blogger Kevin Drum

We already know that a large majority of Americans are opposed to building it, but here are the results of an Economist poll on a slightly different question:

Whether or not you think the Islamic cultural centre and mosque should be built near the World Trade Center site, do you think that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque there?

Technically, I think the wording of this question should have been turned around: not whether Muslims have the right to build a mosque on Park Place, but whether the government has the constitutional right to stop them from building a mosque on Park Place.

Still, I think everyone probably understands what this means, and it's just depressing as hell. It's one thing to oppose the mosque just because you don't like the idea, but to deny that Muslims even have a constitutional right to build it? That should be a no-brainer. Of course they do.

Seriously, this is from a man who probably does not think you have the Constitutional right to choose your own doctor. Why are Republicans ceding the high ground on this to Democrats? Well, it turns out that is the theme of my new column this week in Forbes.

...prospective mosque-banners would argue that I simply don't understand how utterly, deeply offensive the proposed location of this mosque is to them. But that is not the case. I am offended as well by what might be a laudatory memorial to a terrorist incident. But the question for me is, do we have a right not to be offended?

The irony is that for the last decade or so, conservatives have fought the political correctness movement over exactly this issue. Conservative commentators, rightly I think, were up in arms over the "hate speech" trial of Mark Steyn in Canada, and more recently the cancellation of Ann Coulter's Canadian speaking tour. In both cases Canadian government and university officials argued that Steyn's and Coulter's criticisms of radical Islam were too divisive, too defamatory to Muslims, and in general too offensive to be allowed public voice....

This is what truly floors me about the Ground Zero controversy: Republicans all over the country are standing up and begging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama to void the property rights of a private entity, shut down the construction of a church, and do so to protect some mythical right not to be offended, a right that, until recently, conservatives argued did not exist. Do Republicans really want to encourage the federal government to tear up property rights and First Amendment protections, all in the name of hurt feelings? If conservatives set this precedent today, they are almost certainly not going to like how it is used tomorrow.

Postscript: I notice something in this poll that I have seen several times lately.  Traditionally, poll results for independents always fell somewhere between Republicans and Democrats.  In this poll, as in several others I have seen, Independent responses actually fell outside of these bounds.  Increasingly independents are shedding the "moderate" label and actually pacing the two political parties.  I find this encouraging, though it is probably too much to hope for that this is the leading indicator of some type of radical ideological restructuring of the Coke and Pepsi parties.

Government Decision-Making in the Gulf

My first column at Forbes.com is up here (and on the opinion home page, which is kind of cool), and extends on some thoughts I have already posted on my blog about why government decisions in multi-agency task forces, such as those running the Gulf cleanup effort, seem to be made in such a stupid manner.

As most scientists know, one of the best tests of a theory is whether it makes correct predictions about future events.  Since I wrote this article several days ago, we have seen this new story which is absolutely consistent with the decision-making paradigm I describe in the article (from Q&O)

Louisiana has been busily building berms about a mile out from the coast to halt the infiltration of oil into its sensitive marshes, wetlands and prime fishing areas. This process was greatly delayed by federal red tape, and now that the state has permits in hand it's being order to stop because, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, it's doing it wrong:

The federal government is shutting down the dredging that was being done to create protective sand berms in the Gulf of Mexico.

The berms are meant to protect the Louisiana coastline from oil. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department has concerns about the dredging is being done.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who was one of the most vocal advocates of the dredging plan, has sent a letter to President Barack Obama, pleading for the work to continue.

[...]

Nungesser has asked for the dredging to continue for the next seven days, the amount of time it would take to move the dredging operations two miles and out resume work.

Work is scheduled to halt at midnight Wednesday.

Pat Austin is trying to understand the federal obstruction, but finds that political reasoning is the only thing that makes sense of it all:

I'm trying to see both sides here; I'm trying to understand the "coastal scientists" who contend that the berms will "change tidal patterns" and lead to more long term erosion of the islands, but if the islands are killed off by the oil what difference does it make? To borrow from Greta Perry's analogy, if my house is on fire, what does it matter what room I try to extinguish first? It's all doing down.

Read the Forbes article -- why exactly this decision was not only possible but inevitable is discussed in detail.