Posts tagged ‘CA’

Why Do Climate Change Claims Consistently Get a Fact-Checker Pass?

It is almost impossible to read a media story any more about severe weather events without seeing some blurb about such and such event being the result of manmade climate change.  I hear writers all the time saying that it is exhausting to run the gauntlet of major media fact checkers, so why do they all get a pass on these weather statements?  Even the IPCC, which we skeptics think is exaggerating manmade climate change effects, refused to link current severe weather events with manmade CO2.

The California drought brings yet another tired example of this.  I think pretty much everyone in the media has operated from the assumption that the current CA drought is 1. unprecedented and 2. man-made. The problem is that neither are true.  Skeptics have been saying this for months, pointing to 100-year California drought data and pointing to at 2-3 other events in the pre-manmade-CO2 era that were at least as severed.  But now the NOAA has come forward and said roughly the same thing:

Natural weather patterns, not man-made global warming, are causing the historic drought parching California, says a study out Monday from federal scientists.

"It's important to note that California's drought, while extreme, is not an uncommon occurrence for the state," said Richard Seager, the report's lead author and professor with Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. The report was sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The report did not appear in a peer-reviewed journal but was reviewed by other NOAA scientists.

"In fact, multiyear droughts appear regularly in the state's climate record, and it's a safe bet that a similar event will happen again," he said.

The persistent weather pattern over the past several years has featured a warm, dry ridge of high pressure over the eastern north Pacific Ocean and western North America. Such high-pressure ridges prevent clouds from forming and precipitation from falling.

The study notes that this ridge — which has resulted in decreased rain and snowfall since 2011 — is almost opposite to what computer models predict would result from human-caused climate change.

There is an argument to be made that this drought was made worse by the fact that the low precipitation was mated with higher-than average temperatures that might be partially attributable to man-made climate change.  One can see this in the Palmer drought severity index, which looks at more factors than just precipitation.  While the last 3 years was not the lowest for rainfall in CA over the last 100, I believe the Palmer index was the lowest for the last 3 years of any period in the last 100+ years.  The report did not address this warming or attempt to attribute some portion of it to man, but it is worth noting that temperatures this year in CA were, like the drought, not unprecedented, particularly in rural areas (urban areas are going to be warmer than 50 years ago due to increasing urban heat island effect, which is certainly manmade but has nothing to do with CO2.)

Update:  By the way, note the article is careful to give several paragraphs after this bit to opponents who disagree with the findings.  Perfectly fine.  But note that this is the courtesy that is increasingly denied to skeptics when the roles are reversed.  Maybe I should emulate climate alarmists and be shouting "false balance!  the science is settled!"

California Food Sales Tax Rules Are Madness

We have invested a fair amount of time to try to get sales tax treatment on food items in our California stores correct.  But the rules are insane.   Beyond all the crazy rules (e.g. if a customer buys a refrigerated burrito it may be non-taxable, but if he puts it in the microwave in the store to heat it up it becomes taxable for sure) is the fact that sometimes customer intent matters (e.g. will they consume it at one of the picnic tables on site, or take it back to their home or camp site)

When searching for more resources on the topic, I found this flow chart on deciding if CA sales tax applies to food

click to enlarge

Here is more, from the same article

Under California law, foods eaten on the premise of an eatery is taxed while the same item taken to go is not: "Sales of food for human consumption are generally exempt from tax unless sold in a heated condition (except hot bakery items or hot beverages, such as coffee, sold for a separate price), served as meals, consumed at or on the seller's facilities, ordinarily sold for consumption on or near the seller's parking facility, or sold for consumption where there is an admission charge." Exactly which type of foods do and do not fall under the scope of this provision is the frustrating devil in the detail.

Eskenazi notes a few of the ridiculous results of drawing an artificial distinction between hot and cold foods. "A hot sandwich to go would be taxable," for example, "While a prepackaged, cold one would not -- but a cold sandwich becomes taxable if it has hot gravy poured onto it. Cold foods to go are generally not taxable -- but hot foods that have cooled are taxable (meaning a cold sandwich slathered in "hot" gravy that has cooled to room temperature is taxable)."

 

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.

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 Business Realities I Underestimated in My Youth

1.  Its all about having the right people.  When I was in b-school, I honestly laughed at statements like this.  I thought it was new age bullsh*t.  I was totally enamored of quantitative analysis and business strategy.  After running a business for 10 years, I now know that people are everything.  Everything - our ability to grow, to handle difficult compliance issues, to work safely, to reduce costs - relies entirely on my finding the right people in the right spots.  Everything else is a rounding error.

2.  There is only a very limited number of things you can deploy to the field at any one time.  It took me a really long time to realize that my mind - in fact, any manager's mind - likely works way faster than the bandwidth that exists to actually deploy new things to the field.  Putting customer initiative X on hold because compliance issue Y needs to be deployed first is really frustrating, but trying to do too much means nothing gets done.

I would observe relative to #2 above that over the last few years the combination of the Feds + legislatures like in CA are generating new compliance issues faster than we can deploy solutions and train for them.   In California, we have put most all new customer initiatives on hold because we are simply overwhelmed with management and employee training relative to various local government mandates.

Last Justification for Closing Private US Forest Service Concessionaires is in Tatters

The last remaining justification that anyone has given me for the need to close privately-funded concession-run parks in the US Forest Service is that the Forest Service must close to all uses on its lands.  But this justification is now in total tatters, making it all the more clear that closure of private concessionaires was an arbitrary and unjustified action.  Here is why:

  • As reported earlier, the US Forest Service is still allowing many recreation uses on its lands.  Individuals can still camp and hike in non-developed areas.  Many US Forest Service campgrounds till seem to be open (example Oak Flats near Globe, AZ).  And many state parks, such as Fool Hollow and Slide Rock in AZ and Burney Falls in CA that operate on US Forest Service land have been allowed to remain open and still use Forest Service land for recreation.  In fact, the only groups that seem to be closed in the US Forest Service are private concessionaires, which increasingly appear to have been singled out for rough treatment by the Administration.
  • We have received emails from the US Forest Service that these closures are required to be consistent with the NPS, but the NPS is allowing its parks to be reopened if they are funded by outside agencies.  Both Arizona and Utah have reached agreements to reopen National Parks in their states through use of state funding.  So why can't private parks on Federal lands be reopened through the use of private funding, which is how we operate anyway?  Its almost as if this Administration has some sort of bias against private activity.

Still Open, But....

Our concession operations on Federal lands are still mostly open today (we had two US Forest Service local offices ask us to close, but these are both offices that have a tradition of interpreting the rules in odd ways).

By all the rules, being open to the public is the right decision.  We are tenants on US Forest Service land and operate entirely outside of the government budget, receiving no money from the government and we employ no government workers.  No government employee has a duty station in any of the parks we operate.   There is no more reason to close our operations than to, say, ban cars from Federal highways during a shutdown.

However, apparently we have been told by several local folks in the Forest Service that the higher ups (this tends to mean folks up in the Administration) are re-evaluating our status.  I do not know what is going on today, but in the past this has often meant that the administration is considering closing us to make the government closure as painful as possible.  After all, as I have written here and here, parks closures seem to be one of the few things anyone notices in a government shut down.

Update:  Our most recent guidance:  "1.  The Forest Service is allowing concessionaires to continue to operate as long as no Forest Service personnel is needed to ensure safety."  It looks like we may have to close a few sites that are dependent on USFS operated water systems, but otherwise most of our locations will be open.  I am hoping to get out a press release and update our web site but things are still fluid this morning.

Update #2:  Definitely still open everywhere but in one location (Laguna Mountain, CA) where we depend on a USFS-operated water system that will close.  no closure press release 2013

Liberal Douchebag vs. Liberal Douchebag: Google Employees Invade San Francisco

This is an article a reader described as being from the "screw them all" category, and I am inclined to agree.  There are many funny bits in the piece, but I particularly liked the San Francisco lefties arguing that these new Google millionaires should act more like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts.  LOL for sure.

Incredibly, no one asks the obvious question -- why is home supply in San Francisco treated as zero sum, such that a Google millionaire moving in by necessity kicks some  poor people out.  The reason is that no place in the country does more than San Francisco and the Bay Area to make it impossible to build new housing.  San Francisco has some unique geographic constraints but you don't hear people complaining about this in Houston (which is in fact a much larger city).  In fact, I am trying to imagine Houston complaining about too many rich people moving in.  I just can't seem to focus that image in my head.

Actually, the article does very briefly consider the supply side of the equation, but of course no one mentions government development and zoning restrictions -- its the fault of capitalist speculators!  My reader highlights this paragraph:

Though he doesn’t much care for the start-up douchebags, Redmond blames not individual tech workers for the current crisis, but property speculators and the lawmakers who have let them take advantage of their precious commodity: space. “If we had a major earthquake in San Francisco, the water mains all broke, and some guy showed up with a water truck and started selling water for $10 a gallon, people would be pissed,” he says. “That guy would be ridden out of town; he’d be attacked with sticks and pitchforks. But that’s what the real estate people are doing right now – and they’re getting away with it.”

Memo to speculators:  If I have lost all access to water and am dying of thirst, you are welcome to come to my house and sell water to me for $100 a gallon.  I promise no pitchforks at my house.

PS-  One thing I did not know is that tech companies seem to be running large private bus systems

The Google buses, which often stop in spaces supposedly reserved for public transport, are a particular point of contention. This growing fleet of unmarked luxury coaches carries some 14,000 people on their 35-mile trip from the city to Silicon Valley and back. Since the search giant introduced the buses a decade ago, Facebook, Apple, eBay and almost 40 other companies have followed suit. Each new route quickly becomes a corridor of hip clothing stores and restaurants.

This is an interesting exercise in privatization.  For riders, it certainly would be nice to have routes custom designed to match your needs (ie exactly from your origin to your destination without changing trains or busses), something that is often an issue with public transport networks.  Als0- and this is going to sound awful but it is from many public surveys and not my own point of view - these private bus networks get around the social mixing issue that turns a lot of middle class riders off on bus systems.

This is obviously expensive but I understand why some companies do it.  As someone wrote a while back, no one in their right mind would put Silicon Valley in California today if it were not already there.  It is absurdly expensive to do business in CA and it is expensive to live there as an employee.  However, tech companies have found that  a certain good called "access to San Francisco" is quite valuable to the types of young smart employees they want to hire and can overcome these negatives.  So the bus system is a way for companies to better provide this good.  The irony of the article is that as so many tech companies are selling this good (ie access to San Francisco) they may be changing the character of San Francisco in a way that makes the good less valuable over time.

Health Insurance NOT the Same As Access to Health Care

Most of the Left wants to measure access to health care by the percentage of people who have health insurance, implying that those without insurance have no access to care.  But in fact the uninsured in the US have access to better health care than most other people in the world.

And it will soon become apparent that the converse is not true either - even with insurance, in a top-down rules-driven government-controlled health care system, one may not have access to health care.    For example, one of my employees was complaining that she was having trouble with workers comp getting care for her injury.  This is a follow-up email I received today from my insurance agent (redacted only for privacy issues):

I talked to [valued employee of my company, call her Jane] this morning regarding her lack of attention from [our workers comp insurer].

I then followed up immediately with [representative of workers comp insurer] working on her account, in Sacramento, CA.

It seems the problem is her injury occurred in CA and she's now in MO.  The doctors in MO don't want to see her due to the paperwork and issues required under the CA laws. 

Jane advises she gets relief from going to a chiropractor.  I told her to keep going and I would get [insurance company] to approve those visits, which [workers comp insurer rep] said she would.

So, it comes down to [our insurance company] trying to find an Orthopedic Doctor who will take her and comply with the CA requirements, which the Drs. don't like.

There is no issues on coverage, it's a political issue.

Already, Medicare and Medicaid patients have trouble finding doctors to treat them.  Enjoy the cozy feeling of being "insured" via Obamacare.  Let's hope that when you are sick, there is a doctor who will see you.

Workers Comp. and Unemployment

Breaking news from California:

The Workers' Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau (WCIRB) made it official and submitted a mid-year filing for a 9.1% increase in the pure premium advisory rate that Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones approved less than six months ago. The proposed July 1 increase follows the 37% increase that Jones approved for January 1 that was hidden by the change in benchmarks for pure premium rates that was made at his request....

The Bureau insists that an increase of this magnitude is necessary to combat the continued deterioration in the claims experience, as well as an uptick in claim frequency in the 2010 accident year. Much of the increase will also go to pay for the higher loss adjustment expenses carriers are incurring fighting liens and litigating permanent disability claims. Projected ALAE costs are up to $11,403 per indemnity claim for the 2011 accident year compared to $10,698 the year before.

A 9.1% increase a half year after a 37% increase is just crazy.  This tends to confirm three issues I have written about before:

  1. People are filing workers comp claims as a substitute for or a supplement to unemployment.  Our company has seen a significant increase in people "coincidentally" suffering an injury on one of the last few days, and particularly the very last day, before they are to be laid off.  Only such fraud explains an increase in claims when economic activity is way down, particularly when more dangerous professions like construction employment fell much more than office employment in the recession.  We have also seen, by the way, an increase in frivolous labor lawsuits in CA coincident with the economic decline.  A year ago I had an employee in CA tell me that she had attended a brainstorming session the night before among several of my ex-employees trying to generate ideas for ways to sue our company.  I can't wait for an improvement in the economy when the returns of working are higher than the returns of brainstorming ways to extract money from our company via the legal system.
  2. California in general does a bad job of policing workers comp. fraud.  Woe to the employer that actually attempts to question an outrageously suspicious claim.  Last time I tried to do so in CA I got slapped with a lawsuit.
  3. All states do a terrible job policing permanent disability claims.  I hire a lot of older workers.  I can't tell you how many people show up at my door trying to be paid under the table because they don't want to endanger their permanent disability by having a record of getting paid for doing very physical outdoor work for us.  They assure me they are 100% capable to do heavy physical labor.  Since I don't pay anyone off the books, they end up finding work elsewhere.   Many of you may not believe such people exist, but I have met a number of folks who consider getting a permanent disability, or at least something a doctor will testify is a permanent disability, the equivalent of hitting the lotto.  I have even been sued by a woman for submitting testimony to the social security administration that might have harmed her chances of getting a permanent disability ruling.  The lawsuit stated that if she was denied the disability payment after I testified that I had seen no evidence of any limitations in what she could do on the job,  that I should be liable for paying her the lifetime amount she would have gotten.  So I wimped out and withdrew my testimony and let the taxpayers pay her rather than farting around with a lawsuit.

Boo for Tennessee

My company is moving into Tennessee as a campground operator.  I was disappointed to see Tennessee is one of only a couple of states that double tax s-corporation earnings.  The state takes a straight 6.5% cut of all corporate earnings, even of an S-corp, and then charges regular income tax rates on the same income as it passes through to the individual.  This makes Tennessee one of the few states where, from a state tax perspective, S-corps are worse than C-corps, because if you are going to be double taxed, at least with the C-corp you can indefinitely delay taxation by not issuing dividends.
PS- TN lodging tax rates are horrendous.  Whenever I see tax rates higher than comparable rates in CA, I know they are too high.

Keystone XL: Voting for the Stone Age

(update: link is fixed)  My new Forbes column is up, and it attempts to strip away the window dressing around the Keystone pipeline decision to get at the core issue -- "a quasi-irrational ('I'm blogging against the modern economy from my iPhone'), almost aesthetic distaste for energy production, the modern industrial economy, and capitalism itself. "  Read it all here.

PS-  the contrast between the Administrations support of the egregious HSR project in CA and its rejection of the takes-no-tax-dollars Keystone XL infrastructure project reminds me of my earlier piece on the Timeless Appeal of Triumphalism.   Politicians love to shift capital from private, boring, productive things like pipelines to sexy taxpayer-funded things that they can put their names on.

Least Surprising Statistic

via here, which has a lot of good data on California job losses.

If you have a service business, I can understand the desire to get access to the large and wealthy populations in these areas.  I even started a service operation in the LA area about 4 years ago, though I regret it intensely (other operations we have in rural CA are difficult but much easier than in LA).  But even so, why would anyone ever, ever start a manufacturing or any other business in these locations if it could be located anywhere else?

I was at a cocktail party the other night lamenting to a number of business owners (more successful folks than I) about problems I am having in CA.  Usually I get sympathy, but there was none to be had.  They looked at me like I was a moron, like I was the guy who went $30,000 in debt for a puppetry degree.  They said they had gotten out of CA years ago, would never go back, and (essentially) if I was stupid enough to be there, it was my own damn fault.

Unfortunately, a lot of the recreation is there, and for better or for worse, we have found that we are better and more efficient at dealing with a lot of the CA-induced mess than other companies.  But I often wonder if I am crazy to be there.

PS- as an example, it took us 4-1/2 years to get a permit for a 1000 gallon double wall gas tank at a marina in Ventura County.  We just got it approved last month, so at last we can stop hauling truckloads of 5-gallon fuel tanks from the gas station.  We are in the third year of trying to get permitting approval to replace (in kind, same size and features) a bathroom building in a campground.

Update:  All the job gains are in industries, like health care and construction, where the jobs have to be near the population served.  Compare that to manufacturing and tech.

Jobs and Texas

I barf when politicians take credit for private job creation.  At best, they stay out of the way.  At worst, they erect barriers to make growth and job formation more difficult.  So I am not ready to credit Rick Perry with Texas' economic performance over the last several years.

But despite enormous work on the left to try minimize the Texas performance, it does appear to be very impressive.  The author observes that merely comparing unemployment rates across states masks the huge job growth advantage in Texas.  Texas has higher relative unemployment compared to states like CA not because it is doing poorly, but because hundreds of thousands of people have given up on states like CA and moved to Texas looking for work.

Things I Didn't Expect to Read, Part 2

Several years ago, I made a bet that California high speed rail would, if built, end up costing over $100 billion.  Incredibly, Kevin Drum is making the same bet.

The disappointing part is that he is quick to say that this project is an outlier, that certainly he still supports other HSR rail projects.  But they all look as bad as the CA project.  The CA project has just gotten more attention and scrutiny because of its size.  If memory serves, Drum was right there supporting the Tampa to Orlando line, which if possible is even dumber than the California line.  In my experience, the difference between a good high speed rail project and a bad one is basically how much one digs into the numbers and challenges the assumptions.  With enough leg work, they all look bad.

Great Moments in Regulation

After over three years of effort, and many, many checks written to numerous departments, Ventura County has granted us the right to operate a fuel tank at a particular location near Lake Piru, CA.  This is actually a huge improvement, and will be much safer and less liable to create a spill than the current methods of schlepping around zillions of 5-gallon cans in a pickup truck.

However, we still have not, after 3 years of trying, obtained a permit from self-same Ventura County to install said tank.  So it is currently legal for us to own, posses, and operate a fuel tank at the permitted location but still illegal for us to install one there.

The tank we purchased 3-years ago in the naive hope all this permitting could be done in a month or two will probably be rusted out by the time we can actually install it.

Train to Nowhere

Apparently, Congress just before the election appropriated $900 million to build part of a high speed rail line in CA.  Rather than focusing either on LA or SF, Congress apparently appropriated the money for a mostly rural district that just coincidentally had a Democratic Congressman embroiled in a difficult election.  So now Congress has dedicated a billion dollars of your money for this high speed rail line, from Borden to Corcoran:

I am not kidding you.  More here from the AntiPlanner.

I discussed the CA high speed rail project here and here.  I discussed the practice of building even one useless section as a way to commit the public to building the whole thing here.  An excerpt of how this is done the Chicago way:

But what is really amazing is that Chicago embarked on building a $320 million downtown station for the project without even a plan for the rest of the line "” no design, no route, no land acquisition, no appropriation, no cost estimate, nothing.  There are currently tracks running near the station to the airport, but there are no passing sidings on these tracks, making it impossible for express and local trains to share the same track.  The express service idea would either require an extensive rebuilding of the entire current line using signaling and switching technologies that may not (according to Daley himself) even exist, or it requires an entirely new line cut through some of the densest urban environments in the country.  Even this critical decision on basic approach was not made before they started construction on the station, and in fact still has not been made.

Licensing Naivite

OK, so after the monks and coffins, here is the future licensing act ripe for abuse by industry incumbents to protect their position.

New state licenses required for anyone handling a mortgage application could help prevent a repeat of the bad loans that contributed to Phoenix's housing crash....

The law, passed in 2008, creates state oversight for people who take loan applications, gives consumers an avenue for reporting misconduct and establishes a fund to help repay borrowers who lose money because of unethical or illegal acts by their loan officers.

The law faces hurdles, as cash-strapped Arizona struggles to process thousands of new applications.

Still, advocates call it a success. Many of the risky - and sometimes illegal - home loans that helped lead to record foreclosures in Arizona might not have been made if the more than 10,000 unlicensed loan officers working then had been subject to more oversight.

How?  If people were selling illegal home loans before, they were already breaking the law and the state obviously was unable to enforce the law.  How is adding a piece of paper that must be applied for each year going to help?  My company has all kinds of silly licenses - liquor licenses, guiding licenses, health licenses, tobacco sales licenses, over-the-counter drug sales licenses, even egg licenses - and in not a single case does the issuer of these licenses exercise any sort of oversight of our operations.  If they get their extensive paperwork (so workers have an excuse to retain their jobs - after all someone has to process the paperwork) and their check, that is generally the sum of interactions with these organizations.

Now, some of these licenses were hard to get in the first place, but not for any reason of my character or ethics or business model.  They were hard to get because their issuance has been co-opted by incumbent businesses in the state who use the process to limit competition.  Liquor licenses are a great example - in places like Shasta County CA and Lake Havasu City AZ, we had a real problem getting the liquor license over opposition from existing businesses.

This is almost mindless naivete:

"Loan-officer licensing is long overdue in Arizona," said Felecia Rotellini, who for five years served as superintendent of the Department of Financial Institutions, the state agency regulating the mortgage industry. She is running for Arizona attorney general.

"A lot of bad loans wouldn't have been made if we had it before," Rotellini said. "It gives me peace of mind for consumers to know we have licensing now."

The author of the article just throws the following statement out there without any source, as if it was an axiom with which we all would agree

In Arizona, the housing boom and crash were partly fueled by loan officers, how they operated and how they were paid.

In fact, the author's incredible confidence in licensing is undermined in this adjacent statement:

Mortgage brokers, who run firms that connect borrowers with the best loans, have long been regulated by the Department of Financial Institutions.

Brokers employ loan officers, who work directly with borrowers, collecting their Social Security numbers and financial information to determine whether they qualify for a loan. Loan officers usually recommend types of mortgages and lenders.

These officers, sometimes called originators, weren't subject to state scrutiny. They worked under the licenses of their brokers, much the way an apprentice would work for a licensed contractor. Previously, that oversight was considered sufficient.

So the firms these guys worked for were licensed, but the individual employees were not. But if that licensing of firms, which after all is the level where loan practices and compensation policy are set which supposedly are at fault, how does licensing individual employees help? This is a typical political step that a) gets some state organization more money and power, b) generates one sound bite in a news cycle for some politician to tell voters that they care and c) does zero for consumers.

At the end of the day, the real cause of the housing boom was easy credit, and yes loan officers participated in this given that their commission-based incentives caused them to want to make every loan possible.  But this incentive outcome would not have been some kind of insight to the people and system that employed the loan officers.  In fact, everyone from the loan officer to the Congress wanted easy credit, and to blame one link in the chain of delivering this credit to consumers is madness.  Going forward, there is absolutely no evidence that the government is going to reduce its history of promoting easy credit, as evidenced by any number of federal loan modification and lending programs over the last 2 years.  So the likelihood that a government regulatory agency could have somehow headed off the bubble and its bursting is just silly.  The government was a party to it.

In the long run this mechanism will almost certainly be co-opted by current loan issuers as a way to limit competition, much as real estate agents and lawyers and funeral home directors already do.  As a minimum, this is a way for mortgage brokers to outsource some of the cost of running background checks and such on their employment candidates onto taxpayers.  In fact, I wonder who was behind this law in the first place?

Backed by mortgage brokers and real-estate regulators, the law quietly went into affect on July 1

All My Business Problems Diagnosed

As explained by Steven Pearlstein, who presumably has created so much economic value in his lifetime that he can cast stones from the high ground

And some of it, to be quite frank, Robert, is an appalling lack of imagination and guts on the part of these same CEOs who are complaining and pointing the finger at every else. You know, these guys are very good at cutting. They're very good at blaming others. They're a little less good at coming up with creative new products and services, and they've got a little flabby in that regard in the last few years where the focus has been on surviving and cutting, as it should had been. But they're not the gutsiest group of people in the world.

And by the way, they get into this group think which you - you know, the fact that they all say it, it's sort of like a notion that starts in the country club locker room, and everyone is nodding, and then the one passes it on to the other. And now, you know, this similarity of the comments betrays this sort of group think that is almost self-fulfilling at this point.

Mr. Pearlstein is absolutely right.  As CEO of my company, I am out of creativity.  I will give you an example.  The new health care law appears (the implementation is still hazy) to impose a $2000 penalty per employee for not having a corporate health care plan (all my employees are retired, so they already have health care plans, but that does not affect the penalty).  With a bit over 400 employees, that makes the penalty something north of $800,000 a year.  This is larger than my annual net income.  And Mr. Pearlstein is correct -- I am absolutely at a loss as to how to deal with this, which just proves his point that all we CEO's have an appalling lack of creativity.

Mr. Pearlstein seems to be holding an image of the Fortune 25 in his head, but in fact most job creation is by smaller companies.  I wrote a while back on Forbes.com why CEO's of smaller companies have be having their creativity diverted.

Postscript: On January 10, 2008, our company actually, shockingly, had a creative idea.  Instead of refueling our boats at a lake in Ventura County, CA using zillions of 5 gallon gas carriers, lets put in a small double wall gas tank.  It would save a ton of useless labor, it would greatly reduce fuel spills on the lake (the nozzle, unlike the 5 gallon cans, has overflow protection), it would save lots of trips into town to fill gas tanks -- a winner all the way around.  Granted this was a pretty small idea, but sometimes success in small business is a lot of bunts and singles.

After hundreds of manhours of effort, numerous checks written to the County and the state, and I don't know how many forms filled out, on July 1, 2010, exactly 901 days after we got the creative idea, Ventura County gave us the last permit we needed to go forward.

Horrible New Paperwork Requirement Slipped into Health Care Bill

This is lifted from an email I got from America Outdoors

A little noticed provision in the recently passed health care reform bill will require every payment to corporations over $600 to be reported on a Form 1099 to the IRS, including payments for the purchase of merchandise and services. This provision takes effect in 2012.

The current law requires a Form 1099 to be submitted to the IRS when your business pays more than $600 for rent, interest, dividends, and non-employee services if the payments are made to entities other than corporations. Currently, payments made to a corporation and payments for merchandise are not required to be reported.

To file the required 1099, a business will have to obtain and keep track of a Taxpayer Information Number (TIN) from every vendor before submitting the 1099 to that business and the IRS. Under current tax law, one copy of the form is sent to the IRS, and another copy is sent to the person to whom the business made the payments.

Rep. Dan Lungren (CA-3) introduced "The Small Business Paperwork Mandate Elimination Act" (H.R. 5141). The legislation would repeal the expanded 1099 reporting requirement.  Lungren correctly asserts that the burdens placed on small businesses by this reporting requirement would be overwhelming.

Call your U.S. Representative today and ask them to cosponsor H.R. 5141. The House switchboard number is 202-225-3121.  Ask to be connected to your Representative's office.

My small business has over a thousand vendors.  I would have to hire someone full time for a month to do this.  And it would be to zero purpose.  The IRS would be so flooded with forms that there would be no way they could pull any useful information from the blizzard.  This is yet another example of legislators operating with absolutely no idea how commerce actually works.  We have coined a name for it within our firm -- we call it arrogant ignorance.

Chris Edwards at Cato had more on this a while back.

I'm stunned that there wasn't a broader debate before such a costly mandate was enacted. If it goes into effect, it will waste vast quantities of human effort in filling out forms, reworking computer systems, collecting and organizing data, and fighting the IRS. The struggling American economy can't afford anymore suffocating tax regulations. This mandate is a giant deadweight loss. It should be repealed.

Please Mock These People

Every one of these members of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection voted to pass this absurd law out of committee except Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga.

Bobby L. Rush, Illinois, Chairman

Jan Schakowsky, IL, Vice Chair George Radanovich, CA, Ranking Member
John P. Sarbanes, MD Cliff Stearns, FL
Betty Sutton, OH Ed Whitfield, KY
Frank Pallone, Jr., NJ Joseph R. Pitts, PA
Bart Gordon, TN Mary Bono Mack, CA
Bart Stupak, MI Lee Terry, NE
Gene Green, TX Sue Wilkins Myrick, NC
Charles A. Gonzalez, TX John Sullivan, OK
Anthony D. Weiner, NY Tim Murphy, PA
Jim Matheson, UT Phil Gingrey, GA
G. K. Butterfield, NC Steve Scalise, LA
John Barrow, GA (voted NO!)
Doris O. Matsui, CA
Kathy Castor, FL
Zachary T. Space, OH
Bruce L. Braley, IA
Diana DeGette, CO

Hat tip: Don Boudreaux

I Actually Hope the AZ State Government Fails Before CA

Being a red state, maybe if AZ fails before CA, it will be less likely that Congress and the Administration will do some sort of bailout to head off local accountability.  It sure seems we might be able to pull off an early failure:

Arizona state government has managed to blow through a $700 million loan from the Bank of America in less than a week, and that wasn't even enough to keep things going.According to Treasurer Dean Martin, his office had to dip into internal sources to come up with the extra $73 million the state needed just to keep the lights on.

"Government spending in Arizona is out of control. We are more than three-quarters of $1 billion in the red for daily operations," Martin says. "As we predicted in our forecasts, just one week after setting up essentially the largest line of credit in state history, the state of Arizona has maxed it out. The governor and Legislature need to [rein] in excessive spending; we can no longer afford to continue spending more than we make."

The state is currently about $1.6 billion in the hole, and the $700 million loan the state spent last week is just the beginning of excessive spending of borrowed money.

Fox, Meet Henhouse

Via Maggies Farm and a commenter on TigerHawk:

During consideration of H.R. 3126, legislation to establish a Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA), Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee voted to pass an amendment offered by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) that will make ACORN eligible to play a role in setting regulations for financial institutions.The Waters amendment adds to the CFPA Oversight Board 5 representatives from the fields of "consumer protection, fair lending and civil rights, representatives of depository institutions that primarily serve underserved communities, or representatives of communities that have been significantly impacted by higher-priced mortgages" to join Federal banking regulators in advising the Director on the consistency of proposed regulations, and strategies and policies that the Director should undertake to enforce its rules.

By making representatives of ACORN and other consumer activist organizations eligible to serve on the Oversight Board, the amendment creates a potentially enormous government sanctioned conflict of interest. ACORN-type organizations will have an advisory role on regulating the very financial institutions from which they receive millions of dollars annually in direct corporate contributions and benefit from other financial partnerships and arrangements. These are the same organizations that pressured banks to make subprime mortgage loans and thus bear a major responsibility for the collapse of the housing market.

In light of recent evidence linking ACORN to possible criminal activity, Democrats took an unprecedented step today to give ACORN a potential role alongside bank regulators in overseeing financial institutions. This is contrary to recent actions taken by the Senate and House to block federal funds to ACORN.

ACORN was an important actor in the housing bubble, responsible for numerous lawsuits and other political pressure to force banks to lend to borrowers who by objective standards did not have the income or credit history to sustain mortgage payments.  It would be interesting to see how many mortgages ACORN was involved with have gone belly up.  But now, as part of the "solution" to the financial crisis, we will put ACORN in charge.

Regulation Is Almost Always Anti-Competitive

Continuing with a long-running theme here at Coyote Blog, here is another example of government regulation being anti-competitive and having the net result of protecting the margins of powerful, established incumbents against new entrants:

During a recent meeting, the Antiplanner was extolling the virtues of Houston's land-use policies, and a home builder at the meeting said, "Of course, no one here wants our city to be like Houston," meaning no one wanted Houston's land-use regime.

Why not? I asked. "There is too much competition down there. My company can't make a profit," he said. "You have to have some barriers to entry to be able to make money."

Those who accuse free marketeers of being supporters of big business don't realize that big businesses (and often smaller businesses) don't want a free market. In this home builder's case, he wanted enough restrictions on the market to keep out some of his competitors (most likely smaller companies that can't afford to hire lawyers and planners for every project) but not enough regulation to keep his company out

Several years ago my company had to obtain a liquor license in Shasta Country, CA. At one point, the issuance of the license had to be voted on by some group (County commissioners, the planning board, something like that). I was told the reason was that if they issued too many licenses, I would not be able to make money -- really, they were looking after me.

Well, not really.  First, the government seldom has any idea even how a business works.  Perhaps the liquor was a loss leader for my business, and I didn't care to make money on it at all.  Perhaps I had a better marketing concept.

And herein we get to the real flaw -- the implication is that somehow the dangers is to the new entrant in a crowded marketplace, but in fact the reality is often the opposite.   The actual competitive danger is often to incumbents, fat and happy with the status quo and unable to react quickly (due to all kinds of reasons from sunk investment to long held biases) to shifts in customer preferences.  No matter what their stated reason, the true effect of such regulation is to protect current competitors from new entrants, new products, and new business concepts.

I can see the effects of this right here where I am sitting, out near the end of Cape Cod.  Zoning and business regulation here is enormously aggressive - its is virtually impossible to start a new retail establishment here, particularly on virgin land.  As a result, every store and restaurant here feels like it is right out of the 1950s.  You'd hardly know there has been a revolution in retail or service delivery over the past few decades, because businesses here are sheltered from new entrants.  They don't need to adopt better practices or provide better products or services, because they know they are not vulnerable (courtesy of the government) to competitive attacks from new entrants using more modern strategies.

Is There a Zero-Cost Regulatory Solution to Energy Efficiency?

A while back, I criticized a story in the NY Times, as quoted by Kevin Drum, that said that California had among the lowest per capita electricity usage of any state (true) and that this was because of the intelligent regulation regime in the state (yes, but not the way they meant).  The implication of Drum's argument was that there was some sort of efficiency ideal that a smart group of technocrats could reach at limited cost to the state (false). Specifically, Drum argued:

Anyway, it's a good article, and goes to show the kinds of things we
could be doing nationwide if conservative politicians could put their
Chicken Little campaign contributors on hold for a few minutes and take
a look at how it's possible to cut energy use dramatically "” and reduce
our dependence on foreign suppliers "” without ruining the economy. The
energy industry might not like the idea, but the rest of us would.

My response, in part, was this:

Well, here are the eight states in the data set above that the
California CEC shows as having the lowest per capita electricity use:
CA, RI, NY, HI, NH, AK, VT, MA.  All right, now here are the eight
states from the same data set that have the highest electricity prices:  CA, RI, NY, HI, NH, AK, VT, MA.  Woah!  It's the exact same eight states!  The 8 states with the highest prices are the eight states with the lowest per capita consumption.
Unbelievable.  No way that could have an effect, huh?  It must be all
those green building codes in CA.  I suspect Drum is sort of right,
just not in the way he means.  Stupid regulation in each state drives
up prices, which in turn provides incentives for lower demand.  It
achieves the goal, I guess, but very inefficiently.  A straight tax
would be much more efficient.

As part of a presentation I am working on about global warming and proposed California CO2 abatement bill AB52, I had the occasion to do a bit more research.  All of my data is from the Energy Information Administration, whose page URLs keep changing and thus breaking my links but this index page to data seems to stay the same.

I found three factors that seem to be the main drivers of state electricity demand (which is measured in all of the charts below in thousands of kw-h per capita).  The first factor is climate, and certainly California has one of the milder climates.  The chart below looks at residential electricity demand vs. cooling degree days (weighted for population location).  Each data point is a state, with California is shown as the red data point:
Electricitybystatecdd

We get something similar for heating degree days, with electrical use going down as the climate gets milder, though not as good of a fit, which is not surprising since electricity is less important to heating than cooling.  Since California is well below the line, mild climate can be said to explain some of its lead on other states, but not all.

So I looked next at the percentage of electricity demand that goes to industry.  More heavily industrialized states will have a higher total per capita demand, because heavy industry chews up electricity that other types of businesses do not.  It turns out that California has a relatively low industrial use, which is not surprising given the regulatory environment there and the degree to which industry has been chased out of the state (one would have to be a madman to, all things considered, set up a new factory in California).  So here is the same type of chart of total electrical per capita use by state vs. the % industrial demand, again with each data point a state and California in red:
Electricitybystateindust

Again there is a pretty strong relationship, and again we see some but not all of California's low per capita consumption explained.  In effect, states on the left have exported their high-electricity-use industries to the states on the right (or to other countries).

I have saved the most obvious relationship for last:  price.  It turns out unsurprisingly that the states with the highest electricity prices have the lowest per capital consumption:

Electricitybystateprice

Rolling climate, industrial intensity, and price together, these factors seem to explain at least 80% of California's efficiency lead over other states.  California government regulatory policy does indeed drive lower electrical consumption, just not exactly the way they would like you to think.  By chasing industries out of the state and raising electricity costs above those of almost every other state, California has reached a lower per capita consumption level.