Posts tagged ‘compensation’

Starving Public Services to Pay More to Government Workers

On several occasions, I have wondered why progressives continue to be so supportive of paying too many government workers too much at the cost of reducing the government services they seem so passionate about.  This is something I seen in the public parks world all the time.  Arizona State Parks, for example, has about half of its employees in headquarters buildings rather out in the field serving the public while at the same time paying these headquarters staff very high salaries.  This is despite the fact that the agency has tens of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance it refuses to address.

I see this story repeated over and over in the public parks world -- when forced to choose, government agencies will cut back on maintenance and services to protect total staffing numbers, pay, and benefits.

The New York Times found something similar in the New York Subway:

An examination by The New York Times reveals in stark terms how the needs of the aging, overburdened system have grown while city and state politicians have consistently steered money away from addressing them.

Century-old tunnels and track routes are crumbling, but The Times found that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s budget for subway maintenance has barely changed, when adjusted for inflation, from what it was 25 years ago.

Signal problems and car equipment failures occur twice as frequently as a decade ago, but hundreds of mechanic positions have been cut because there is not enough money to pay them — even though the average total compensation for subway managers has grown to nearly $300,000 a year.

Later they go into more detail about payrolls:

Subway workers now make an average of $170,000 annually in salary, overtime and benefits, according to a Times analysis of data compiled by the federal Department of Transportation. That is far more than in any other American transit system; the average in cities like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington is about $100,000 in total compensation annually.

The pay for managers is even more extraordinary. The nearly 2,500 people who work in New York subway administration make, on average, $280,000 in salary, overtime and benefits. The average elsewhere is $115,000....

Union rules also drive up costs, including by requiring two M.T.A. employees on every train — one to drive, and one to oversee boarding. Virtually every other subway in the world staffs trains with only one worker; if New York did that, it would save nearly $200 million a year, according to an internal M.T.A. analysis obtained by The Times.

Several M.T.A. officials involved in negotiating recent contracts said that there was one reason they accepted the union’s terms: Mr. Cuomo.

The governor, who is closely aligned with the union and has received $165,000 in campaign contributions from the labor group, once dispatched a top aide to deliver a message, they said.

Pay the union and worry about finding the money later, the aide said, according to two former M.T.A. officials who were in the room.

They do not mention pensions.  Who wants to be there is also a looming unfunded pension crisis here?

My Open Question to Progressives Is Still Open

A while back I asked progressives:

Taking the government's current size and tax base as a given, is there a segment of the progressive community that gets uncomfortable with the proportion of these resources that are channeled into government employee hands rather than into actual services for the public?

No response to date.  This is not a rhetorical question.  I am honestly curious if progressives worry about the percentage of government budgets that go to government workers, or if there is a progressive argument for this (despite the fact that it seems to be starving the actual programs progressives support).

I was reminded of this when I read this article from Steven Greenhut:  (hat tip maggies farm and their links roundup)

Municipal governments exist to provide essential services, such as law enforcement, firefighting, parks and recreation, street repairs and programs for the poor and homeless. But as pension, health-care and other compensation costs soar for workers and retirees alike, local governments are struggling to fulfill these basic functions.

There's even a term to describe that situation. "Service insolvency" is when localities have enough money to pay their bills, but not enough left over to provide adequate public service. These governments are not insolvent per se, but there's little they can afford beyond paying the salaries and benefits of their workers.

As a city manager quoted in a newspaper article once quipped, California cities have become pension providers that offer a few public services on the side. It's a sad state of affairs when local governments exist to do little more than pay the people who work for them.

Not surprisingly, the union-dominated California state legislature has been of little help to local officials dealing with such fiscal troubles. The state pension systems have run up unfunded liabilities, or debts, ranging from $374 billion to $1 trillion (depending on the financial assumptions one makes). But legislators have ignored meaningful pension reform. This has forced local governments to cut back services or raise taxes to meet their ever-increasing payments to California's pension funds.

It's one thing to ignore the plight of hard-pressed cities and counties, but now legislators are trying to make the problem a lot worse. Assembly Bill 1250 would essentially stop county governments from outsourcing personal services (financial, economic, accounting, engineering, legal, etc.), which is a prime way counties make ends meet these days.

 

EU Fines Google in a Dose of Net Neutrality Schadenfreude

Via engadget:

The European Commission's long-running investigation into Google has finally come to an end, and it's not good news for the search giant. Commissioner Margrethe Vestager confirmed today that the company has been fined €2.42 billion ($2.72 billion) for unfairly directing users to its own products rather over those of its rivals. It's the biggest financial penalty the Commission has ever handed out, eclipsing the €1.06 billion ($1.4 billion) charge incurred by Intel back in 2014.

In a statement, Vestager said: "Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

Via calls for "net neutrality"** in this country, Google has been arguing that ISPs must act as common carriers of its content and must ignore the fact that nearly half of all US ISP bandwidth investment is used without compensation to support the business model of just two content providers (Google and Netflix).  Google does not want ISP's to somehow favor other content providers over themselves, even though these others cost orders of magnitude less to serve than does Google's Youtube division.

Well, as I wrote before, the EU is bringing karmic justice to Google via this decision.

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

** I put "net neutrality" in scare quotes because I think it is a term that means exactly the opposite of what it says.  Neutrality is what we had 2 years ago, with no regulation that favored either content providers or bandwidth providers in the typical negotiations and back-and-forth that occurs in every supply chain.  "Net neutrality" actually means tipping the scales and being non-neutral in favor of content providers over ISP's.

Why Monopsony Power May Be Irrelevant to the Effects of A Minimum Wage Increase

Most of us who took Econ 101 would expect that an increase in the minimum wage would increase unemployment, at least among low-skilled and younger workers.  After all, demand curves slope downards so that an increase in price of labor should result in a decrease in demand for that labor.

Supporters of the minimum wage, however, argue that employers have monopsony power when hiring low-skill workers. What they mean by this is that due to a bargaining power imbalance, employers can hire workers for less than they would be willing to pay in a truly competitive market.  As the theory goes, this in turn creates an additional consumer surplus for employers, which manifests itself as higher profits.  A minimum wage increase would thus reduce this surplus but not effect employment because companies before the new minimum wage were paying less than they were willing to pay.  Thus minimum wage supporters argue that higher wages mandated by minimum wage laws will be paid out of these excess profits, and not result in higher prices or less employment.

My understanding (and I am not an economist) is that the evidence for monopsony power in hiring low-skill workers is weak or at best limited to niche circumstances.  However, I am going to argue that it does not matter. Even if companies are able to pay workers less than they might via such monopsony power, whatever gains they reap from workers ends up in consumer hands.  As a result, minimum wage increases still must result either in employment reductions or consumer price increases or more likely both.

Why Monopsony Power May Not Matter

Why? Well, we need to back up and do a bit of business theory.  Just as macroeconomics (all the way back to Adam Smith) spends a lot of time thinking about why some countries are rich and some are poor, business theory spends a lot of time trying to figure out why some firms are profitable and some are not.  One of the seminal works in this area was Michael Porter's Five Forces model, where he outlines five characteristics of markets and firms that tend to drive profitability.  We won't go into them all, but the most important for us (and likely for Porter) is the threat of new entrants -- how easy or hard is it for new firms to enter the marketplace and begin competing against an incumbent firm.  If new companies can enter into competition easily, a profitable firm will simply attract new competitors, and keep attracting them until the returns in that market are competed down.

So let's consider a company paying minimum wage to most of its employees.  At least at current minimum wage levels, minimum wage employees will likely be in low-skill positions, ones that require little beyond a high school education.  Almost by definition, firms that depend on low-skill workers to deliver their product or service have difficulty establishing barriers to competition. One can’t be doing anything particularly tricky or hard to copy relying on workers with limited skills. As soon as one firm demonstrates there is money to be made using low-skill workers in a certain way, it is far too easy to copy that model.  As a result, most businesses that hire low-skill workers will have had their margins competed down to the lowest tolerable level.  Firms that rely mainly on low-skill workers almost all have single digit profit margins (net income divided by revenues) -- for comparison, last year Microsoft had a pre-tax net income margin of over 23%.

As a result, the least likely response to increasing labor costs due to regulation is that such costs will be offset out of profits, because for most of these firms profits have already been competed down to the minimum necessary to cover capital investment and the minimum returns to keep owners invested in the business. The much more likely responses will be

  1. Raising prices to cover the increased costs. This approach may be viable competitively, as most competitors will be facing the same legislated cost pressures, but may not be acceptable to consumers
  2. Reducing employment. This may take the form of stealth price increases (e.g. reduction in service levels for the same price) or be due to a reduction in volumes caused by price increases. It may also be due to targeted technology investments, as increases in labor costs also increase the returns to capital equipment that substitutes for labor
  3. Exiting one or more businesses and laying everyone off. This may take the form of targeted exits from low-margin lines of business, or liquidation of the entire company if the business Is no longer viable with the higher labor costs.

An Example

When I discuss this with folks, they will say that the increase could still come out of profitability -- a 5% margin could be reduced to 3% say.  When I get comments like this, it makes me realize that people don't understand the basic economics of a service firm, so a concrete example should help. Imagine a service business that relies mainly on minimum wage employees in which wages and other labor related costs (payroll taxes, workers compensation, etc) constitute about 50% of the company’s revenues. Imagine another 45% of company revenues going towards covering fixed costs, leaving 5% of revenues as profit.  This is a very typical cost breakdown, and in fact is close to that of my own business.  The 5% profit margin is likely the minimum required to support capital spending and to keep the owners of the company interested in retaining their investment in this business.

Now, imagine that the required minimum wage rises from $10 to $15 (exactly the increase we are in the middle of in California).  This will, all things equal, increase our example company's total wage bill by 50%. With the higher minimum wage, the company will be paying not 50% but 75% of its revenues to wages. Fixed costs will still be 45% of revenues, so now profits have shifted from 5% of revenues to a loss of 20% of revenues. This is why I tell folks the math of absorbing the wage increase in profits is often not even close.  Even if the company were to choose to become a non-profit charity outfit and work for no profit, barely a fifth of this minimum wage increase in this case could be absorbed.  Something else has to give -- it is simply math.

The absolute best case scenario for the business is that it can raise its prices 25% without any loss in volume. With this price increase, it will return to the same, minimum acceptable profit it was making before the regulation changed (profit in this case in absolute dollars -- the actual profit margin will be lowered to 4%). But note that this is a huge price increase. It is likely that some customers will stop buying, or buy less, at the new higher prices. If we assume the company loses 1% of unit volume for every 2% price increase, we find that the company now will have to raise prices 36% to stay even both of the minimum wage increase and lost volume. Under this scenario, the company would lose 18% of its unit sales and is assumed to reduce employee hours by the same amount.  In the short term, just for the company to survive, this minimum wage increase leads to a substantial price increase and a layoff of nearly 20% of the workers.   Of course, in real life there are other choices.  For example, rather than raise prices this much, companies may execute stealth price increases by laying off workers and reducing service levels for the same price (e.g. cleaning the bathroom less frequently in a restaurant).  In the long-term, a 50% increase in wage rates will suddenly make a lot of labor-saving capital investments more viable, and companies will likely substitute capital for labor, reducing employment even further but keeping prices more stable for consumers.

As you can see, in our example we don’t need to know anything about bargaining power and the fairness of wages. Simple math tells us that the typical low-margin service business that employs low-skill workers is going to have to respond with a combination of price increases and job reductions.

How My Company Has Responded

Just to put a bit more flesh on this, I will give a real example from my own company.  My company operates public recreation facilities, mainly campgrounds, under bid contracts.  To understand our response to rising minimum wage, you need to understand some background:

  • In bidding these, we bid both the camping fee we will charge to customers as well as the rent we will pay to the government for the concession.  Given the weights the government uses in the bid process, keeping customer price low is more important than the rent we pay, so in most cases the prices we charge customers are well below the private market rate for similar campgrounds.
  • We have limited ability to further increase productivity, in part because our ability to invest in these campgrounds in limited.
  • Because we have many contracts across the country, our reputation is important and so we seldom will entertain reductions in service, such as cleaning frequency
  • Labor and labor-related costs are about 50% of revenues, and most employees are paid minimum wage.  Profit margins hover around 5% of revenues

One of the states we operate in is California.  We are in the midst of a minimum wage increase there from $8 an hour several years ago to $15 several years hence, or an increase of 87.5%.  Basically we have had two responses:

  • In places where we are under the market price, we have been able to raise prices without a lot of drop in volume.  But this means that our camping rates in some locations have risen from $18 to a future $26 a night, an enormous increase in just a few years.
  • In places where we did not think the market would bear such a rate increase, or where our contract did not allow such a rate increase, we closed our operation.  In fact, we have exited about half our business in California (while simultaneously growing it aggressively in states like Tennessee).  In all cases this has resulted in a loss of employment -- either the location was never reopened by anyone else, or else it was reopened by a competitor with different reputational concerns who staffed the location with far fewer employees.

Conflict of Interest In Government

You want to raise a government ethics violation?  Here is one for you with which I absolutely agree:

I am not sure that this is a suitable subject for a blog post, probably more a project for an aspiring PhD student, but with all the discussion of conflicts of interest in the Trump cabinet, it strikes me that the most glaring conflict in the public sector is ignored: The CoI between state and local politicians elected with the support of public sector unions who then participate in compensation negotiations for the members of those unions.  Here the temptation of the politicians to buy the support of the unions with public money is overwhelming.  The impact of this is potentially trillions when public pension liabilities are included.

This is such an obvious conflict that I have looked to see if there are laws preventing this, but my initial research shows nothing.

Minimum Wages and Price Increases To Customers: A Real World Example Today in Arizona

Our company operates a number of public campgrounds and parks, including about 35 in Arizona.  This is a letter I sent early this morning to the agencies we work with in Arizona

It appears that the ballot initiative for a higher Arizona minimum wage is going to pass, raising minimum wages as early as January, 2017 from $8.05 to $10.00. This is an increase of 24%, and comes on very short notice.

Currently, about half of our total costs are tied to wage rates (both payroll taxes and workers compensation insurance premiums are directly tied to wages and go up automatically by the same amount wages go up). Because of this, a 24% increase in wage rates will result in our costs going up on average by 12%.

It had been my intention to keep fees to customers flat in 2017, but that is now impossible in Arizona. This 12% expense increase is about twice the amount of profit we make -- there is no way we can absorb it without a fee increase. I apologize for the late notice, but I have never, ever had a minimum wage increase imposed on such short notice.

We will have to look at our financials for each permit, but my guess is that on average, we are talking about camping fee increases of $2 and day use fee increases of $1. This range of fee increases will actually not cover our full cost increase, but we will try to make up the rest with some reductions in employee hours.

Update on Applied Underwriters

Applied Underwriters (AU) followed through on their threats to file suit against me for my posts, claiming they were defamatory. I hired an attorney who filed a motion to dismiss the claims, asserting among other things, that my statements were opinion and were protected by the First Amendment.  However, the Court found that the manner in which my statements were made “could” be considered statements of fact and not mere opinions.  As a result, the Court ruled that the case could go forward and denied my motion.  I am happy to report, however, that AU and I have resolved our differences and the case is being dismissed.  In the meantime, I have worked and will continue to work with AU on trying to better understand the program.  While I continue to believe that the terms were not clearly explained to me during the sales process and that there is an unknown factor regarding my deposits that AU decides, I do have a better understanding of my program and my hope is that it will continue to work as they claimed.  I still do not know when I am going to get the return of my deposits, if at all, but I will wait and see as it depends on my claims during the life of the program.  But, more importantly, they provided me with workers’ compensation insurance when no other alternative was available, which allowed me to stay in business. My final word on this issue is that whenever you are procuring insurance, regardless of whether it is from AU or another company, take the time to understand the program and get a broker who will work with you to answer any questions you may have.

Why Don't Progressives Use Their Power as Hedge Fund Customers to Challenge Hedge Fund Compensation?

Kevin Drum observes that the top 25 hedge fund managers earned $13 billion in total, including one hapless dude who made $250 million despite losing money and shutting down the fund.

I will say that I have always scratched my head over asset manager compensation.  The tradition is that they get paid as a percentage of assets managed, sometimes with a percentage of the profits as well but never taking a percentage of the losses.   Perhaps this made some sense with smaller pools of money, but today with huge pools of money, the same old percentages yield ludicrous compensation results.  I certainly understand why the managers would defend this compensation scheme, but why do customers accept it?

This reminds me of real estate broker compensation.  The tradition when I grew up is that the seller paid 6%, about half of which went to the seller's broker and half to the buyer's broker.  For years that 6% was etched in stone and no one broke ranks -- the agents were pretty good at maintaining the cartel, and the government helped by putting the force of law behind broker licensing that helped keep the agent supply down.  But as home prices kept increasing, people started noticing that while 6% of $100,000 may have made some sense as reasonable compensation, 6% of $2 million was absurd, especially since a $2 million home was not even close to 20x harder to sell.   So people, initially savvy high net worth folks, and later everyone, began negotiating the 6%.  I have negotiated this number on every home I have sold since the mid-1990s.

I am not really knowledgeable about the asset management business -- in some sense I have negotiated my commission by choosing to put all my money in low-fee Vanguard funds.  How does the asset management business hold the line on fees, particularly when they are in a business where it is so easy to measure their relative performance, and presumably pay them based on this performance?

Which got me to thinking about the customers of hedge funds.  Aren't many of these customers progressive or controlled by progressives?  Hedge funds have been very successful marketing to university endowments, non-profit foundations, and public pension funds -- aren't these institutions often controlled by progressives, or at least left-liberals?  Aren't a disproportionate share of the very high net worth Hollywood and billionaire types who invest in hedge funds also progressive or liberal?  Heck, Hillary Clinton's son-in-law ran a hedge fund until recently.  So why don't these folks get together and instead of worrying about whether their portfolios are invested in Israel or Exxon or some other progressive bette noir, why don't they agree to a set of principles as to how they are going to pay for their asset management services in the future, and stick to these?  I say that progressives should get together, because they are politically passionate about this, but I can't think of any good reason why good libertarians or conservatives wouldn't happily join in to reduce their fees.

I understand that to the extent that there are black swan hedge funds that beat the market year in and year out, these folks will be hard to challenge as they can probably write their own terms.  But for the other 99% of hedge funds, why not use the power progressives already have as customers before we start talking about various government hammers.

PS-  I will put my two cents in.  I think the new Mother Jones site design is awful.

Are You In Control of Electronic Payments from Your Checking Account?

If your business is like mine, a lot of folks to whom I owe money are insisting on the ability to automatically remove the money I owe them each month from our checking account (via an electronic process known as ACH, which is slower but much cheaper and easier to use than the old wire transfer method).  At first, any loan I took out insisted that the lender be able to automatically withdraw my payments.  Then my workers compensation company.  Then certain vendor accounts.  And of course my merchant processing companies are constantly shoving money in and out of my bank accounts.

In retrospect, I was far too sanguine about this situation.  What finally caused me to abandon my sense of security was a libel lawsuit filed by one of my vendors over a bad review I wrote of their product [I won't mention the name here but I am sure anyone can figure it out with a simple search].  Anyway, I realized that this company, who was suing me for untold bazillions of dollars, actually had the right to freely jack whatever they wanted out of my checking account.  What is worse, this same company is being sued by many companies for trying to take an arbitrarily high final payment out of their accounts at contract termination.  Eeek!  And this does not even include the possibility of outright fraud.  I have ACH tools where if I have your bank's name and your account number, I could pull out money from your account without your ever knowing about it until you see it missing.  I presume criminals could do the same thing.

Something had to be done, and it turned out that my bank, Bank of America, has something called ACH positive pay wherein nothing gets ACH'ed out of my accounts without my first approving the payments.   I check a screen each morning and in 60 seconds can do the approvals for the day.  They also have a very easy to use rules system where one can set up rules such that payments to certain vendors or for certain amounts don't need further daily approvals.

I presume most major banks have a similar product.  It cost me some money but I feel way safer and encourage you to look into it if you are in the same situation.

When Julia Tried to Start a Business

I was doing a radio interview and was reminded of this article I wrote in response to the famous Obama "Life of Julia" piece extolling the virtues of government in our lives.  Since I spend so much of my time in the last few years finding ways to comply with ever more onerous regulations (rather than actually improving my business or customer service) I thought I would offer a different view.  When I argue that free market proponents need to talk about taxes less and regulation more, this is what I am thinking about.

Since it has been several years since this went up at Forbes, I want to reprint it here in full:

Last week, the Obama Administration released a campaign piece about the life of Julia, showing how Julia benefited from taxpayer largess and oversight by the state at many points in her life. But the campaign piece was incomplete, and missed the part where Julia attempted to start her own business. Long before she started a web business out of her home, she tried to start a retail business.

Julia always liked the outdoors — remember that taxpayers helped her retire from productive work so she could work in a community garden. Well, as she was growing up, Julia loved to camp outdoors. For years she camped at a lovely lakefront public campground until it was forced to close — unfortunately, the government agency that ran the campground had operating costs that were so much higher than the fees charged to visitors that they couldn’t afford to keep it open any longer.

But Julia had an idea. After forming a corporation (a surprisingly easy task with lots of private companies competing to help one complete the proper legal steps), Julia approached the public parks agency about the possibility of her leasing the campground and reopening it under private management. She was surprised, though, at the tremendous opposition she encountered in the agency. Despite the fact that she was willing to adhere to operating standards and restrictions set by the public agency, she initially encountered tremendous resistance. She had assumed a parks and recreation agency would welcome the opportunity to reopen a park to the public, be she had underestimated the near universal opposition to private enterprise she found among the agency’s employees.

Eventually, though, with a lot of hard work and some help from a local TV station that rallied park users to her cause, the public agency agreed to a one-year pilot of her idea.

So the hard part was behind her, right? Probably not. In fact, Julia expected entrepreneurship to be tough. She was worried about the challenges of hiring good employees, getting financing for new equipment, and marketing her new campground. As it turned out, though, she would have little time for any of these concerns.

Before she could even think about hiring employees, she had to get a federal tax ID number, or FEIN, for her company. This identification number allows her to collect and pay her employee’s Social Security and Medicare taxes, as well as withhold and submit the Federal income tax obligations of her employees. In addition to these reports, she also learned that she had to file a separate report each quarter on her employee’s earnings in order to file and pay Federal unemployment taxes.

But her state has its own income tax, so she had to register for a separate ID number to report and pay employee state tax withholding, and then had to fill out yet another registration for another ID number to file another regular report to pay state unemployment taxes. Her state also has a public rather than private workers compensation system, so she registered for another number so she could fill out another monthly report to pay state workers compensation premiums.

And of course, since Julia intends to make retail sales, she needed to register with the state (yet another number and report) to collect and pay sales tax — though her state calls it a “privilege” tax rather than a sales tax because, as the state’s web site explains, conducting commerce is a privilege that can only be exercised with the state’s permission. She is momentarily encouraged when she finds out her state sales tax does not apply to camping, only to eventually find out this is because the state has a completely separate system (yes, another registration number and monthly report) for collecting and paying lodging taxes. So sales in her campground store will be at one tax rate on one report while campsite rentals in the same park will pay a different tax rate on a different report. Which seems overly complicated until she finds out her county also has a separate sales and lodging tax that are added to the state’s, and must be reported separately under a different registration number to the County. Thank goodness she is not in a city, or she could easily have had to file and pay three separate sales taxes and three separate lodging taxes (city, county, state). If she ever decides to rent boats on the lake, she will have to get another state registration to pay a special state boat rental tax, the percentage of which varies based on whether a boat is motorized or human-powered.

Whew. Julia thought she had finally tracked down all her tax registrations, but she was wrong. Her corporation is an S-corporation, so she files and pays her corporate income taxes on her individual return. But it turns out her state also has a franchise tax on corporations she must pay separately, based on her total revenues. In addition, it turns out that each year she must produce a complete list of all her businesses personal property, from lawn mowers to computers to radios to chairs, and submit this list to the County so she can pay property taxes on all these items. Unfortunately, in her state the property tax bill does not end there. When the public agency was running the campground, the county was not allowed to charge another government agency property taxes on the assets. The agency still owns the property — it is just leasing it to Julia so she can operate it — but the county has a mechanism called the Leasehold Excise Tax to make Julia pay the property taxes the agency doesn’t have to pay.

So twelve registration numbers and 12 monthly/quarterly/yearly reports later, surely Julia has fulfilled all her obligations to the government. Unfortunately, no, because she has not even begun to address licensing issues. To begin, the County will require that she get an occupancy permit for her campground, which must be renewed annually. This seemed surprisingly easy, until someone from the County noticed she had removed an old rotting wooden deck from the back of her store that had been a safety issue and an eyesore. It turns out she was in violation of County law because she did not get a removal permit first. She was required to get a permit retroactively, which eventually required payments to seven different County agencies and at one point required, for a reason she never understood, the collection and testing of a soil sample.

Because she will be selling packaged foods in her store (e.g. chips and pop-tarts), she also has to get a health department license and inspection. She had originally intended to keep some fresh-brewed coffee for customers in the store, but it turned out that required a higher-level health license and eight hours training in food handling. She might have been willing to pursue it, but the inspector told her that to make coffee, she would need to install a three-basin stainless steel wash-up sink plus a separate mop sink in her store, and she decided that coffee would have to wait.

Once through the general health licensing process, she then needed to obtain licenses for individual products. She wanted to sell aspirin, so she had to get a state over-the counter drug sale license. She knew that customers would want cigarettes, so she had to obtain a tobacco sales license. One day as she was setting up, a state inspector noticed she had a carton of eggs in her cooler, and notified her she needed a state license to sell eggs (as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up). And then there was the problem of beer.

She knew that selling beer would require an alcohol license. In addition to requiring a long, tedious application, getting such a license required that she be finger-printed at the local Sheriff’s office, that she measure the distance in feet to the nearest three stores that sold alcohol and the nearest school and church, and that she attend eight hours of special alcohol sales training. The whole application process took many months — at one point her application was kicked back to her because she included a computer CAD drawing of the store when the instructions require the drawing be made by hand (I repeat, I am not making this up). She finally thought she was home-free, when she found her state requires a public hearing as a final step to determine if the market really needs another liquor retailer. At that hearing, several large, powerful local liquor businesses testified that the market was already saturated and that they already had plenty of competition, thank you very much, and her application was denied.

By the time Julia called it quits, she still had multiple applications pending. She hadn’t yet figured out how to create the stormwater runnoff management plan needed for her stormwater permit. She hadn’t been able to satisfy the state air resources board in permitting her small above-ground fuel tank. And she was still going back and forth with the state department of water resources for her drinking water sampling and testing plan.

Julia gave up her dream of working outdoors, and spent the rest of her life closeted in a room staring at a computer screen. It wasn’t what she really wanted to do, but web design does not require a license (yet) and she could avoid the hassles involved with having employees. The public never got its park back, and the campground still sits closed, the facilities falling apart from neglect. But a few months after Julia gave up, a park agency employee wrote a scathing editorial in the local paper, citing Julia’s failure as a great example of how private enterprise has failed and the need for public agencies to do more.

Julia’s experience is a composite, but is based entirely on my personal, real experiences. Every tax, registration, report, inspection, and license mentioned is a real one my company has had to obtain at some point in our expansion to new states. The only difference is in the story of the liquor license, where after my local competitors initially blocked the license I had the wherewithal to fight and eventually get it issued.

Obama's New Wage and Hour Laws Worse For Our Company Than Rising Minimum Wages

Rising minimum wages are bad enough, but generally we can offset them with price increases (remember that, though, next time you get ticked off about your camping fees going up).  As an aside, not every business is in a competitive position that they can do this.

But the new Obama Administration rules greatly scaling back on our ability to have our managers be exempt employees is far, far worse.  Because its not just money, but it changes the entire relationship between me and my managers.  Most of my managers don't want to be hourly employees (you should see the complaint emails I am getting since I announced that this is likely coming) and have pride they have moved beyond timeclock punching.  Also, I think a lot understand they are not going to make more from this, and they may even make less.  To the extent they are working overtime today (and they all are) they will not be allowed to work overtime in the future.  So I will have to hire someone else to do those extra tasks, and that person's salary is likely to come in part from what the managers are making now.

These next few months I am having all of my salaried managers fill out time sheets just for analytical purposes.  I need to know how bad this is going to be.  If you run a business, you shouldn't be waiting for next year to do something, you need to be thinking and analyzing right now how you are going to handle these rules.

I wrote a long article on this here.  Stephen Miller has more in the same vein (via Overlawyered great wage and hour news roundup).  Here is a taste:

In McCutchen's view, the administration fails to understand that "it's still the same pot of money that's available to compensate the employee," whether a worker is classified as exempt or nonexempt. So if overtime pay is required, a likely result will be to strictly limit overtime hours worked, despite the adverse effect on productivity, rather than—as the administration expects—to increase the employee's annual compensation.

While many non-executive employees view themselves as professionals and react negatively when shifted to hourly compensation, "the DOL wants nearly everyone to be nonexempt, and to sign in and clock out as do unionized workers," McCutchen contended. "They don't believe that some employees prefer to be salaried, with guaranteed pay and the flexibility to adjust when they do their work."

Postscript:  I guess I just don't understand the vision that is in the head of Progressives.  How does it help their stated goal of empowering the average Joe to convert him from a valued, up-and-coming junior manager to a 40 hour a week timeclock puncher?  How will people ever be able to migrate from lower end jobs to management positions if there are not junior manager positions in which they can demonstrate their energy and dedication?  I suppose they must believe that junior managers will still be doing the same things and working the same hours, but just earning lots of extra overtime with these new rules.  If that is really what they think, they are completely divorced from reality.

The Next Time the Media Complains About High CEO Pay.... It May be Projection

Six of the ten highest paid CEO's run media companies.

Six of the 10 highest-paid CEOs last year worked in the media industry, according to a study carried out by executive compensation data firm Equilar and The Associated Press.

The best-paid chief executive of a large American company was David Zaslav, head of Discovery Communications, the pay-TV channel operator that is home to "Shark Week." His total compensation more than quadrupled to $156.1 million in 2014 after he extended his contract.

Les Moonves, of CBS, held on to second place in the rankings, despite a drop in pay from a year earlier. His pay package totaled $54.4 million.

The remaining four CEOs, from entertainment giants Viacom, Walt Disney, Comcast and Time Warner, have ranked among the nation's highest-paid executives for at least four years, according to the Equilar/AP pay study.

More power to 'em, as long as their shareholders are happy.  But I am tired of these self-same individuals attempting to bring regulatory pressure on the rest of us in the name of high CEO pay.

Update on Applied Underwriter Issues

After my article last week identifying costly aspects of Applied Underwriters' workers compensation insurance policies that are unusual, hard to predict, and totally undisclosed in the market/sales process, I have gotten a lot of feedback.

The first, of course, was from the lawyers at Applied Underwriters who have threatened me with a libel suit unless I take down my comments.  While my blog article wills stay up, Applied Underwriters have apparently managed to get Yelp to hide my reviews in the secret purgatory they maintain for reviews that displease corporate lawyers.

More recently, I have had calls from not one but two different attorneys who are representing Applied Underwriter customers.  The one this morning was especially evocative -- he had years of experience as an attorney and litigating over contracts like this but thought he was crazy because he could not figure out the math on the Applied Underwriters statements until he read my post.  I had had the exact same issue, almost in tears because I could not figure it out, until an industry insider explained to me that the numbers don't add up.  After pages of step by step calculations, there is one step where they simply pull a number out of the air, essentially rendering irrelevant all the calculations that went before.  I will respect their client confidentiality but say that the issues involved were very parallel to those I discussed in my article.

Feel free to contact me if you need help or are considering a policy with Applied Underwriters and I will lend you what knowledge I have.

Applied Underwriters Is Threatening Me With Lawsuits If I Don't Remove Negative Reviews About Them

About a week or so ago I wrote a long and detailed post (with frequent updates as I discovered new information) about my extreme dissatisfaction with my workers compensation insurance from Applied Underwriters, a Warren Buffet-owned insurance company.  I also wrote a shorter, parallel review on Yelp** (where Applied Underwriters already has an abysmal rating).  For reasons I will guess at in the next post, Yelp keeps marking my post as "not recommended" despite the fact that it is one of the few that is not just a rant of the sort "this company sux" but actually has real details.  There is a tiny almost invisible link at the bottom to see other reviews not recommended.

Yesterday, I received a letter from Applied Underwriters (Letter here (pdf)) demanding that I take down the Yelp review and my blog post or else they will sue me for libel.  Based on my understanding of libel law, the content of my posts (which are all legally protected opinion), and recent court cases, Applied Underwriters has essentially no chance of ever winning such a suit.  But my guess is that this is not their intention.  I presume they are hoping that the fear of legal action, and the expense of legal defense, will cause me to stop my perfectly valid public criticism of their product.

I am seeking legal advice from a well-known First Amendment attorney, so Applied Underwriters will get my final response after I have had advice of counsel.  But here are a few thoughts:

You can read the attorney's letter in full if you are a fan of such things, but if you read sites like Popehat much, you can pretty much predict what you will see.

The gist of their complaint, from the only paragraph of mine quoted in the letter, seems to be the word "scam".  By the text of their letter, they seem to believe that "scam" is libelous because their company is well-rated financially and that they provide reasonable claims service.  I concede both these facts.  However, I called it a "scam" because there is a big undisclosed cost to their product that was never mentioned in the sales process, and that could only be recognized by its omission in the contract I signed -- that there is nothing in the contract committing them to any time-frame under which to return deposits and excess premiums I have paid, which may well amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.  This fact about the contract is confirmed by their customer service staff, who have said further that the typical time-frame to return such over-collections and deposits is 3-7 years after the contract ends, or at least 6-10 years after the first of the deposits was made.

If I had gotten any descriptions of their service terms wrong, I would have been happy to correct them.  Hell, given that apparently Applied Underwriters will hold over $200,000 of my money for as many as ten years before they maybe return it to me, I am hoping I somehow have misunderstood.  Unfortunately, their staff is pretty adamant that I understand these terms perfectly, and you will see that the letter sent by the attorneys does not attempt to refute any of the specific issues that drive my negative review.  And of course none of this was ever disclosed in the sales process.  The company attorneys point to the fact that I read the agreement and signed that I understood, but in fact this issue is only in the agreement by its omission.  In its 10 pages of arcane boilerplate, the agreement never includes any clause giving them any legal obligation to return your deposits and excess premiums in an defined timeframe.  It is that omission that I missed.   Would you have caught it?  Is this a substantial enough issue that you would expect disclosure in the sales process?

So is this a "scam"?  I believe that this issue is costly enough, and hard enough to detect, and far enough outside of expected business practices to be called such.  You may have your own opinion, but ask yourself -- When you enter into, say, a lease and have to put down a security deposit, is it your reasonable expectation that the landlord has the right in your lease to keep your deposit for 3-7 years (or more) after you move out?  Oh, and by the way, how might your evaluation of something as a "scam" be affected by the knowledge that the company is threatening to sue anyone who writes a negative review?

Anyway, I take responsibility for my own failure as a consumer here.  But in a free society it is perfectly reasonable to communicate issues one has with a product or service to help others avoid similar mistakes.  Which is what I have done.

 

**  I have problems with Yelp as well.  What is linked is not my original review.  My original review linked to my blog post.  Yelp took it down.  I will tell that saga in a future post.

When Corporations Use Social Causes as Cover for Cutting Costs

My absolute favorite example of corporations using social causes as cover for cost-cutting is in hotels.  You have probably seen it -- the little cards in the bathroom that say that you can help save the world by reusing your towels.  This is freaking brilliant marketing.  It looks all environmental and stuff, but in fact they are just asking your permission to save money by not doing laundry.

However, we may have a new contender for my favorite example of this.  Via Instapundit, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao is banning salary negotiations to help women, or something:

Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate,’ she said. ‘So as part of our recruiting process we don’t negotiate with candidates. We come up with an offer that we think is fair. If you want more equity, we’ll let you swap a little bit of your cash salary for equity, but we aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation.’

Like the towels in hotels are not washed to save the world, this is marketed as fairness to women, but note in fact that women don't actually get anything.  What the company gets is an excuse to make their salaries take-it-or-leave-it offers and helps the company draw the line against expensive negotiation that might increase their payroll costs.

Postscript:  Yes, I understand the theory of negotiation and price discrimination, as used by auto dealers.  One can make an argument that setting prices high (or wages low) and then allowing negotiation by the most wage or price sensitive is the best way to optimize profits, and that Pao's plan in the long-term may actually raise their total compensation costs for the same quality people.  I don't think she is thinking that far ahead.

Gender Pay Gap a Myth

At first, the link I followed told me this story was from CBS.  I found it astonishing that a major news network would challenge a previously agreed on Obama Administration narrative, and sure enough I found that this was not actually from the people at CBS who are paid to write the news (they are too busy reprinting White House talking points) and is actually from one of their financial bloggers.

Never-the-less, it is a great post that gets at why every serious academic study tends to debunk the 77% gender pay gap myth.   All of it is good but the consistently most powerful point that I tend to use if I am only given time in an argument to make one point is this one:

Despite all of the above, unmarried women who've never had a child actually earn more than unmarried men, according to Nemko and data compiled from the Census Bureau.

Women business owners make less than half of what male business owners make, which, since they have no boss, means it's independent of discrimination. The reason for the disparity, according to a Rochester Institute of Technology study, is that money is the primary motivator for 76% of men versus only 29% of women. Women place a higher premium on shorter work weeks, proximity to home, fulfillment, autonomy, and safety, according to Nemko.

It's hard to argue with Nemko's position which, simply put, is this: When women make the same career choices as men, they earn the same amount as men.

One would think that this quote from Obama's own Department of Labor would be enough to kill this meme:

"This study leads to the unambiguous conclusion that the differences in the compensation of men and women are the result of a multitude of factors and that the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action. Indeed, there may be nothing to correct. The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers."

California State-Mandated Employee Leaves of Absence

We just worked with an attorney to rewrite our California employee handbook.  For your enjoyment, here are all the state-mandated leaves of absence we are required to provide employees (most unpaid, but some paid) and for which we must write detailed rules in our employee manual.  We'd likely provide most of this stuff anyway if asked, but the administrative hassle of having this all be a point of law (backed with the threat of expensive litigation if we make even the smallest mistake) is expensive and irritating.

  • Family/medical leaves (including more restrictive California Family Medical Leave Act)
  • Pregnancy disability leave
  • Organ donor and bone marrow donor leave
  • Military leave of absence
  • Military spouse’s leave of absence
  • Civil air patrol leave
  • Drug/alcohol rehabilitation accommodation
  • Time off for adult literacy programs
  • Time off for required attendance at school of suspended pupil
  • Time off for attending activities at child’s school or licensed day care facility
  • Time off for duty as election official
  • Time off for jury and witness duties
  • Time off for victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking – obtaining relief for victim and children
  • Time off for victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking –additional time for victim’s participation
  • Time off for victim of certain felonies
  • Time off to attend court proceedings for certain crimes
  • Time off for volunteer firefighter, reserve peace officer or emergency rescue personnel duties
  • Time off for volunteer firefighter, reserve peace officer or emergency rescue personnel training
  • Time off for voting
  • Workers' compensation leave

PS-  this is not necessarily a comprehensive list and it is published at the risk of having a California lawyer see it and say "aha!  They have forgotten time off for the death of a beloved hamster.  Let's sue him."

Conflict of Interest

By the way, there is a reason for this choice (from an article on why unions are worried about the PPACA)

The second problem is that the 40 percent excise tax on especially expensive plans — the so-called Cadillac tax — is going to hit union plans especially hard. Unlike most people negotiating compensation, union negotiators make an explicit trade-off between wages and other benefits, and the benefit that they seem most attached to is generous health plans. Union plans are made more expensive still because union membership is heavily skewed toward older workers. They are thus very likely to get hit by the Cadillac tax, which takes effect in 2018.

The preference for health benefits over cash compensation makes some sense for tax reasons (as it shifts taxable income to nontaxable income).  And at some level it is typical of union thinking, which is often driven by seniority and by benefits for older workers over younger workers.  But there is another reason for this that is almost never stated -- the unions themselves run many of these health plans.  And because it is priced as a monopoly, the unions often earn monopoly rents on these plans, and use management of large health plans to justify much higher compensation levels for union leaders.  In Wisconsin, ending public union strangleholds on health plan management immediately saved the state and various local school districts millions of dollars when they were allowed to competitively bid these functions for the first time.

Why Do We Manage Water Via Command and Control? And Is It Any Surprise We Are Constantly Having Shortages?

In most commodities that we consume,  market price signals serve to match supply and demand. When supplies are short, rising prices send producers looking for new supplies and consumers to considering conservation measures.  All without any top-down intervention by the state.  All without any coercion or tax money.

But for some reason water is managed differently.  Water prices never rise and fall with shortages -- we have been told in Phoenix for years that Lake Powell levels are dropping due to our water use but our water prices never change.  Further, water has become a political football, such that favored uses (farmers historically, but more recently environmental uses such as fish spawning) get deep subsidies.  You should see the water-intensive crops that are grown in the desert around Phoenix, all thanks to subsidized water to a favored constituency.   As a result, consumers use far more water than they might in any given year, and have no natural incentive to conserve when water becomes particularly dear, as it is in California.

So, when water is short, rather than relying on the market, politicians step in with command and control steps.  This is from an email I just received from state senator Fran Pavley in CA:

Senator Pavley said the state should consider measures that automatically take effect when a drought is declared to facilitate a more coordinated statewide response.

“We need a cohesive plan around the state that recognizes the problem,” Pavley said at a committee hearing. “It’s a shared responsibility no matter where you live, whether you are an urban user or an agricultural user.”

Measures could include mandatory conservation, compensation for farmers to fallow land, restrictions on the use of potable water for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), coordinated publicity campaigns for conservation, increased groundwater management, and incentives for residents to conserve water. Senator Pavley noted that her hometown Las Virgenes Municipal Water District is offering rebates for customers who remove lawns, install rain barrels or take other actions to conserve water.

Pavley also called for the state to create more reliable, sustainable supplies through strategies such as capturing and re-using stormwater and dry weather runoff, increasing the use of recycled water and cleaning up polluted groundwater basins.

Note the command and control on both sides of the equation, using taxpayer resources for new supply projects and using government coercion to manage demand.  Also, for bonus points, notice the Senator's use of the water shortage as an excuse to single out and punish private activity (fracking) she does not like.

All of this goes to show exactly why the government does not want a free market in water and would like to kill the free market in everything else:  because it gives them so much power.  Look at Ms. Pavley, and how much power she is grabbing for herself with the water shortage as an excuse.  Yesterday she was likely a legislative nobody.  Today she is proposing massive infrastrure spending and taking onto herself the power to pick winners and losers (farmers, I will pay you not to use water; frackers, you just have to shut down).  All the winners will show their gratitude next election cycle.  And all the losers will be encouraged to pay protection money so that next time around, they won't be the chosen victims.

A Small Bit of Good News -- DC Circuits Slaps Down the IRS

The creeping regulatory / corporate state gets a setback

Faulting the IRS for attempting to “unilaterally expand its authority,” the D.C. Circuit today affirmed a district court decision tossing out the agency’s tax-preparer licensing program. Under the program, all paid tax-return preparers, hitherto unregulated, were required to pass a certification exam, pay annual fees to the agency, and complete 15 hours of continuing education each year.

The program, of course, had been backed by the major national tax-return preparers, chiefly as a way of driving up compliance costs for smaller rivals and pushing home-based “kitchen table” preparers out of business. Dan Alban of the Institute for Justice, lead counsel to the tax preparers challenging the program,called the decision “a major victory for tax preparers—and taxpayers—nationwide.”

The licensing program was not only a classic example of corporate cronyism, but also of agency overreach. IRS relied on an 1884 statute empowering it to “regulate the practice of representatives or persons before [it].” Prior to 2011, IRS had never claimed that the statute gave it authority to regulate preparers. Indeed, in 2005, an IRS official testified that preparers fell outside of the law’s reach.

Perhaps a first indication that the Obama Administration strategy to pack the DC Circuit with Obama appointees may not necessarily protect his executive overreach.

PS - you gotta love the IJ.

PPS - The IRS justified its actions under "an obscure 1884 statute governing the representatives of Civil War soldiers seeking compensation for dead horses"

@kdrum Missing the Point. Doctors May Control the Cartel, but Government Gives it Power.

The other day, Kevin Drum wrote a post wondering why we had so few doctors per capital in the United States and observing, reasonably, that this might be one reason to explain why physician compensation rates were higher here than in other countries.

He and Matt Yglesisus argued that this smaller number of doctors and higher compensation rates were due to a physician-operated cartel.  This is a proposition I and most libertarians would agree with.  In fact I, and many others apparently, wrote to him saying yes there is a cartel, but ironically it owed its existence to government interventionism in the economy and health care.  In a true free market, such a cartel would only have value so long as it added value to consumers.

Drum seems to have missed the point.  In this post, he reacts to themany commenters who said that government power was at the heart of the cartel by saying no, it's not the government because doctors control the nuts and bolts decisions of the cartel.  Look!  Doctors are in all the key positions in the key organizations that control the cartel!

Well, no sh*t.  Of course they are.   Just as lawyers occupy all the key slots in the ABA.  But neither the ABA nor these doctors cartels would have nearly the power that they have if it were not for government laws that give them that power (e.g. giving the ABA and AMA monopoly power over licensing and school credentialing).  I had never heard of the RUC before, which apparently controls internship slots, but its ability to exercise this control seems pretty tied to the billions in government money of which it controls the distribution.

Let's get out of medicine for a second.  I am sure Best Buy wishes it had some mechanism to control new entrants into its business.  Theoretically (and it may have even done this) it could form the Association of Bricks and Mortar Electronics Retailers (ABMER).  It could even stake a position that it did not think consumers should shop at upstarts who are not ABMER members.  Take that Amazon!  Of course, without any particular value proposition to do so, consumers are likely to ignore the ABMER and go buy at Amazon.com anyway.

Such cartel schemes are tried all the time, and generally fail (the one exception I wonder about is the Visa/Mastercard consortium, but that is for another post).  Anyway, the only way the ABMER would really work is if some sort of government licensing law were passed that required anyone selling consumer electronics to be ABMER members.  And my guess is that the ABMER might not invite Amazon.com to join.  All of a sudden, Amazon is out of the electronics business.  Or maybe it just gets forced to deliver all its product through Best Buy stores, for a fee of course.

Crazy stupid, huh?  The government would never write licensing laws to protect a small group of incumbent retailers, right?  Well, tell that to Elon Musk.  Tesla has been trying for years to bring its cars to consumers in innovative ways, but have time and again run up against state auto dealership laws that effectively force all cars to be sold through the state dealer cartel.  Or you can talk to California wine growers, who have tried for years to sell directly to consumers in other states but get forced into selling through the state liquor wholesaler cartels.

All these cartels are controlled and manned by the industry, but they are enforced -- they are given their teeth -- by the government.

Here are a few off-the-top-of-my-head examples of cartel actions in the medical field admittedly initiated and supported and administered by doctors, that are enforced by state and federal law:

  • Certificate of need laws prevent hospitals from expanding or adding new equipment without government permission.  The boards in this process are usually stacked with the most powerful local hospitals, who use the law to prevent competition and keep prices high.  This is a great example where Drum could say that the decisions are essentially being made by hospitals.  Yes they are, but they only have the power to do so because the government that grants them this licensing power over competitive capacity.  Without this government backing, new hospitals would just laugh at them.
  • Government licensing laws let the AMA effectively write the criteria for licencing doctors, which are kept really stringent to keep the supply low.  Even if I wanted to only put in stitches all day to busted up kids, I would still have to go through 8 years of medical school and residency. Drum and Yglesias focus on the the number of medical schools and residencies.  I do not know if these are an issue or not.  But what clearly is an issue is the fact that one has to endure 8 expensive years or more just to be able to hand out birth control or stitch up a skinned knee.
  • Government licensing laws help doctors fight a constant rearguard action against nurse practitioners and other less expensively trained folks who could easily do half or more of what doctors do today.
  • The FDA and prescription drug law not only helps pharma companies keep profits up, but also increases business to doctors as people have to have a prescription for certain drugs they could easily buy on their own (e.g birth control pills, antibiotics).
  • The government limits immigration and thus labor mobility, reducing the ability of doctors from other countries to move here.

I am sure there are more.

There is no denying that in the middle of every industry cartel are insiders who are maneuvering to increase the rents of the incumbent players.  In fact, I am sure that every industry has participants who dream about getting off the competitive treadmill and creating a nice industry cartel, and would be the first to sign up.  But none of these dreams are ever going to happen unless they are enabled by the coercive power of government.

Of course, the consistent answer is, well, we just have the wrong guys running things.  If we had the right guys, it would work great.  But this kind of co-option always happens.   Look at taxis and liquor license holders and the entire banking sector.  Five years ago I would bet that progressives thought they finally had that right guy in the administration.  And look what has happened.  Banking cronyism is as strong as ever.  Obama's signature health legislation is full of crony giveaways.  In 6 months the health insurers are going to be running the entire PPACA infrastructure to their own benefit.

update:  This post is verging on the "is cronyism capitalism's fault" argument.  Rather than go into that again, it is here.

Update #2:  Related

Arkansas orthodontist Ben Burris was hauled in front of the state dental board in September after dentists in northeast Arkansas complained that he was offering dental cleanings to the general public in his Braces by Burris orthodontics clinics. The price for dental cleanings was $98 for an adult and $68 for a child, which Burris has said is about half of what dentists in northeast Arkansas typically charge.

Burris said most of the patients who need cleanings don’t have a dentist, but are checked by one of the three orthodontists in his clinic. Also, Burris said he offered the service because it was good for his business and good for the public. Some of his competitors “have gone absolutely ballistic” over the price and complained to the board, Burris said.

MP: Of course, the Arkansas dental cartel has no basis to complain directly about the low prices for dental cleaning at Braces by Burris clinics, so they are instead complaining that the clinic’s low-cost teeth cleaning services violate the states Dental Practice Act, which prohibits orthodontists and other specialists from practicing “outside their specialty.”

In New Mexico, Forced Government Anal Probes are Way Better than Having Even One Person Smoke A Joint

Or so I am led to believe by the fine folks in Deming, New Mexico, who forced a man to undergo two forced X-rays, two anal probes, three enemas, and a colonoscopy under anesthesia because they worried that he might be hiding a smidge of illegal narcotics in his nether regions.  Oh, and they made him pay the hospital bills for these procedures as well, sort of like billing someone's estate for the electricity used to execute them in the electric chair.

Details here.

Update:  Orin Kerr has a legal anal-ysis of the case (sorry, couldn't resist).   His conclusion seems to be that the victim may be sh*t out of luck (sorry again) in seeking compensation.  From reading it, he may even be stuck with the medical bills.  I have come to expect cops to display this kind of excessive behavior.  What is particularly disappointing is to see a doctor so eagerly cooperate and even, apparently, take the lead in escalating the intrusiveness of the search.  It is depressing that Kerr believes the doctor may well enjoy qualified immunity for his actions.  Thousands of doctors every day are successfully sued for malpractice over honest mistakes and differences in judgement, but this guy is going to walk?

Harvard Business School and Women

The New York Times has a long article on  Harvard Business School's effort to change its culture around women.  Given that both my wife and I attended, albeit 25 years ago, I have a few thoughts.

  • I thought the article was remarkably fair given that it came from the NYT.  Men who are skeptical of the program actually are allowed to voice intelligent objections, rather than just be painted as Neanderthals
  • I would have abhorred the forced gender indoctrination program, as much for being boring as for being tangential.  I am fortunate I grew up when I did, before such college group-think sessions were made a part of the process everywhere.  I would presume most of these young folks are now used to such sessions from their undergrad days.   I would not have a problem having an honest and nuanced discussion about these issues with smart people of different backgrounds, but I thought the young man they quoted in the article said it really well -- there is just no payoff to voicing a dissenting opinion in such sessions where it is clear there is a single right answer and huge social and even administrative penalties for saying the wrong thing.
  • I went to HBS specifically because I loved the confrontational free-for-all of the classes.   It was tailor-made to my personality and frankly I have never been as successful at anything before or since as I was at HBS.   I say this only to make it clear that I have a bias in favor of the HBS teaching process.   I do think there is an issue that this process does not fit well with certain groups.  These folks who do not thrive in the process are not all women (foreign students can really struggle as well) but they are probably disproportionately women.  So I was happy to see that rather than dumb down the process, they are working to help women be more successful and confident in it.
  • It is interesting to see that the school still struggles to get good women professors.  When I was there, the gap between the quality of men and women professors was staggering.  The men were often older guys who had been successful in the business and finance world and now were teaching.  The women were often young and just out of grad school.  The couple of women professors I had my first year were weak, probably the two weakest professors I had.  In one extreme case our female professor got so jumbled up in the numbers that the class demanded I go down and sort it out, which I finally did.  I thought it was fun at the time, but now I realize how humiliating it was.
  • To some extent, the school described in the article seems a different place than when I was there.  They describe a school awash in alcohol and dominated by social concerns.  This may be a false impression -- newspapers have a history of exaggerating college bacchanalia.   At the time I was there, Harvard did not admit many students who did not have at least 2 years of work experience, such that the youngest students were 24 and many were in their 30's and 40's.  A number were married and some even had children.   To be there, they not only were paying a lot of money but they were quitting paying jobs.  The school was full of professionals who were there for a purpose.  I had heard that HBS had started to admit more students right out of college -- perhaps that is a mistake.
  • The fear by the women running the school that women would show up on Halloween wearing "sexy pirate" costumes represents, in my mind, one of the more insidious aspects of this new feminist paternalism (maternalism?) aimed at fellow women.  Feminism used to be about empowering women to make whatever choices they want for their lives.   Now it is increasingly about requiring women to make only the feminist-approved choices.
  • I actually wrote a novel where the protagonist was a confident successful female at HBS.   So I guess I was years ahead of the curve.

Postscript:  Below the fold is an excerpt from my novel.  In it, the protagonist Susan describes how an HBS class works and shares my advice for being successful at HBS.

Continue reading ‘Harvard Business School and Women’ »

Modern Serfdom

The well of government absurdity is simply bottomless

In this case, the USDA imposed on the [raisin farming] Hornes a “marketing order” demanding that they turn over 47% of their crop without compensation.  The order—a much-criticized New Deal relic—forces raisin “handlers” to reserve a certain percentage of their crop “for the account” of the government-backed Raisin Administrative Committee, enabling the government to control the supply and price of raisins on the market.  The RAC then either sells the raisins or simply gives them away to noncompetitive markets—such as federal agencies, charities, and foreign governments—with the proceeds going toward the RAC’s administration costs.

I have seen estimates that a Medieval serf had to pay between 30 and 70 percent of his crop to his master.  The RAC seems to be right in line with these numbers.

A Partial Retraction on AIG

The story the other day that AIG was considering suing the taxpayers because the taxpayers did not give them a nice enough bailout was so vomit-inducing that I did not even look much further into it.

A couple of readers whom I trust both wrote me to say that the issues here are a bit more complex than I made them out to be.  The Wall Street Journal sounds a similar note today:

Every taxpayer and shareholder should be rooting for this case to go to trial. It addresses an important Constitutional question: When does the federal government have the authority to take over a private business? The question looms larger since the 2010 passage of the Dodd-Frank law, which gave the feds new powers to seize companies they believe pose risks to the financial system.

That vague concept of "systemic risk" was the justification for the AIG intervention in September 2008. In the midst of the financial crisis, the federal government seized the faltering insurance giant and poured taxpayer money into it. The government then used AIG as a vehicle to bail out other financial institutions.

But the government never received the approval of AIG's owners. The government first delayed a shareholder vote, then held one and lost it in 2009, and then ignored the results and allowed itself to vote as if the common shareholders had approved the deal.

In 2011 Mr. Greenberg's Starr International, a major AIG shareholder, filed a class-action suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington alleging a violation of its Constitutional rights. Specifically, Starr cites the Fifth Amendment, which holds that private property shall not "be taken for public use, without just compensation." The original rescue loans from the government required AIG to pay a 14.5% interest rate and were fully secured by AIG assets. So when the government also demanded control of 79.9% of AIG's equity, where was the compensation?

Greenberg is apparently arguing that he would have preferred chapter 11 and that the company and its original shareholders likely would have gotten a better deal.  Perhaps.   So I will tone down my outrage against Greenberg, I suppose.  But nothing about this makes me any happier about bailouts and corporate cronyism that are endemic in this administration.