Posts tagged ‘depression’

The Regulation Singularity

Yesterday, I came home exhausted.  I have been working late nearly every night for weeks, at a time of year when most of my business is not even open yet (the business is seasonal).  I realized to my immense depression that I have been spending all my time on regulatory compliance.  I have not been pitching new clients or bidding on new prospects or making investments or improving our customer service processes -- though I have ideas for all of these.  I have been 100% dedicated through 14 hour days to just trying to keep up with and adapt to changing government rules.

Break rules, changing minimum wages, heat stress plans, mandatory sexual harassment training, OSHA reporting, EEO reporting, Census reporting, and most recently changing rules on salaried workers that Obama just waived his wand and imposed -- this is what has been consuming me.  I have been trying to roll out a new safety program to the field and can't do it because I keep having to train for one of these new requirements (one learns there is only a limited number of things one can simultaneously roll out to front-line staff).

At some point regulation will accrete so fast that it will be impossible to keep up.  I am going to call that the Regulation Singularity, and for businesses my size, we are fast approaching it.

Prominent libertarian think tanks often rank state business climate by their tax regimes.  I am all for low, sensibly-structured taxes.  But for most of my time, taxes are irrelevant.  We are shutting down businesses left and right in California and it has zero to do with taxes.

Rich People Acting Like Babies

I don't pay much attention to TV and entertainment news, but I found myself kind of fascinated by this train wreck.  

I was amazed at the stakes, how many hundreds of millions of dollars were on the line, based on small changes in the perceived likability of certain talking heads.

But I was even more amazed by how juvenile, thin-skinned, and emotionally-immature people making 10 million + salaries could be.  One woman, who had a reputation as a serious journalist (at least until she took a job on a morning show) breaks down into tears and goes into a year-long depression because she lost her job -- and was effectively given a $12 million severance, a figure well north of my lifetime cumulative income.  Jeez, who in this day and age has not lost a job, likely with no more to show for it than a box of their personal items and a security escort to the door?  Reading this thing I just wanted to keep shouting "grow the f*ck up!"

OMG, Austerity!

via here

The UK line is particularly interesting, since that is the country that Krugman has declared is austerity-izing itself into a depression. As I have pointed out before, real government spending in UK has been and is still rising.  The percent of GDP of this spending has fallen a bit, but there is nothing about Keynesian stimulus theory that says changes in the percentage of government spending is stimulative, only its absolute value.

Here is one thing I would love to here Krugman et. al. opine on -- at what percentage of government debt to GDP does additional deficit spending become counter-stimulative.   I imagine there is an inverse relationship for deficit-funded stimulus, such that it has a larger effect at lower debt levels with a zero to negative effect at higher interest levels.

Update:  From another source, here is the UK in real $

Myth-Making By the Left on Europe Continues

The Left continues to push the myth that government "austerity"  (defined as still running a massive deficit but running a slightly smaller massive deficit) is somehow pushing Europe into a depression.  Well, this myth-making worked with Hoover, who is generally thought to have worsened the Depression through austerity despite the reality that he substantially increased government spending.

It is almost impossible to spot this mythical austerity beast in action in these European countries.  Sure, they talk about austerity, and deficit reduction, and spending increases, but if such talk were reality we would have a balanced budget in this country.  If one looks at actual government spending in European nations, its impossible to find a substantial decline.  Perhaps they are talking about tax increases, which I would oppose and have been occurring, but I doubt the Left is complaining about tax increases.

Seriously, I would post the chart showing the spending declines but I can't because I keep following links and have yet to find one.  I keep seeing quotes about "commitment" to austerity, but no actual evidence of such.

Let's take Britain.  Paul Krugman specifically lashed out at "austerity" programs there are undermining the British and European economy.  So, from this source, here is actual and budgeted British government spending by year, in billions of pounds:

2007: 544.0

2008: 575.7

2009: 621.5

2010:  660.6

2011:  683.4

2012:  703.4

2013: 722.2

Seriously, I will believe the so-called austerity when someone shows it to me.  And this is not even to mention the irresponsibility of demanding more deficit spending without even acknowledging the fact that whole countries already have so much debt they are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Here is the European problem -- they are pouring hundreds of billions of Euro into bailing out failed banks and governments.  They are effectively taking massive amounts of available resources out of productive hands and pouring it into failed institutions.   Had they (or we) let these institutions crash four years ago, Europe would be seeing a recovery today.  The hundreds of billions of Euros used to keep banks on life support could have instead been used to mitigate the short term effects of bigger financial crash.

Chicken or the Egg

Brad DeLong and Arnold Kling have been going back and forth on Fannie Mae and its culpability, or lack thereof, for worsening the recent bubble and financial crisis.   DeLong originally argued, if I remember right, that the default rate for Fannie Mae conforming loans were not worse than those being bought by other groups.  Kling argued that even their based default rate of 7% was awful (How do you make money on a pool of debt paying 5% if there is a 7% default rate).  DeLong countered

Arnold Kling's response is simply not good. It is silly enough to make me think he has not thought the issues through. a 7% delinquency rate on a mortgage portfolio is horrible in normal times, but is actually very good if you are in a depression--ever our Lesser Depression. For an investment with a 15-year duration that's a cost of less than 50 basis points in a "black swan" near worst case scenario. A portfolio that does that well under such conditions is a solid gold one.

I may not be thinking about this right, but I think DeLong is making a mistake in this analysis.  In the comments I wrote

First, I have no clue what a "reasonable" default rate is in a black swan event, and my guess is that, almost by definition, no one else does either.

However, it strikes me that DeLong's argument is a bit off. If mortgage default rates went up in an economic crisis that was wholly unrelated to mortgages, ie due to an oil shock or something, that would be one thing. But in this case, the black swan is in large part due to the mortgages issued. I guess it is sort of a chicken and egg problem, but the mortgages started defaulting before the depression, not the other way around, and helped precipitate the depression.

Remember, we are not talking about how well a portfolio survived the economic downturn.  We are talking about if a portfolio contributed to the economic downturn.

 

Employee Reliability & FICO Scores

Megan McArdle writes:

There was a great deal of back-and-forth in the left half of the blogosphere this weekend over employers who use FICO scores as a way of weeding out job candidates.  In a sort of peculiarly American fashion, our nation seems to have decided that one's credit history is a good proxy for one's worth as a human being, and thus should be used to determine eligibility for everything from employment to excellent rates on car insurance.

I have no trouble believing that the FICO score is often a proxy for what some researchers call conscientiousness; I've certainly had roommates and others around me who had terrible credit because, well, they didn't bother to pay their bills, and regarded rent as something optional that could be turned in if no more exciting commercial opportunities immediately presented themselves.

That said, it's going to be at best a weak proxy.  It's also a proxy for things that, as a society, we may not want employers to consider, like a past history of depression.  And for things that have nothing to do with your job performance, like a car accident that left you with huge medical bills and no job, or a sudden job loss.  Looking at our national savings rate, lots and lots of Americans live very close to the edge of their paychecks; they can't all be terrible employees.

I have never really even considered asking employees for their FICO score, in part because all small business people hate these scores as, even with perfect credit records, our scores tend to be smaller than people with similar income and history due to the constant credit checks made on us by vendors and other partners.

That being said, as someone who has 500 service employees working for me, I understand the insatiable desire for information on employee reliability and conscientiousness.  A large number of our employees we hire who interview well tend to get released within 60 days of their hire.  I can't tell you how many people who seem totally normal and friendly turn out to be raving maniacs in stressful customer contact situations.

The elephant in the room that neither McArdle or folks like Kevin Drum mention is that businesses are starved for reliability information on potential employees.  It used to be the best source was to check job references.  Nowadays, though, very few employers will give a honest job reference, or will provide any information at all.  I know I am guilty of that -- my company does not allow any manager to give out performance data on past employees.  I only needed to be sued once over somehow interfering with someone's living by giving honest information about that employee's reliability to change my behavior.

I understand that this is exactly what the Left is shooting for - an environment where the competent have no advantage over the incompetent.  If employers are resorting to FICO scores, it just demonstrates how all the other reasonable avenues of obtaining information have been closed to them.

The only saving grace in this country is that employment is still mostly at-will, meaning we can fire our hiring mistakes and move on.  Of course the Left wants a European-style system where it is impossible to fire anyone too -- this is the system the post office has, and one can see how well it works out.  If they are victorious on this final front, I will be forced into a game of Russian Roulette, where I can't find out anything about those I hire, I can't fire the incompetent people I do hire, and I am infinitely legally liable for any mistakes any of these employees make.

Life of the Libertarian

From John Hasnas via Matt Welch:

Libertarians spend their lives accurately predicting the future effects of government policy. Their predictions are accurate because they are derived from Hayek's insights into the limitations of human knowledge, from the recognition that the people who comprise the government respond to incentives just like anyone else and are not magically transformed to selfless agents of the good merely by accepting government employment, from the awareness that for government to provide a benefit to some, it must first take it from others, and from the knowledge that politicians cannot repeal the laws of economics. For the same reason, their predictions are usually negative and utterly inconsistent with the utopian wishful-thinking that lies at the heart of virtually all contemporary political advocacy. And because no one likes to hear that he cannot have his cake and eat it too or be told that his good intentions cannot be translated into reality either by waving a magic wand or by passing legislation, these predictions are greeted not merely with disbelief, but with derision. [...]

If you'd like a taste of what it feels like to be a libertarian, try telling people that the incoming Obama Administration is advocating precisely those aspects of FDR's New Deal that prolonged the great depression for a decade; that propping up failed and failing ventures with government money in order to save jobs in the present merely shifts resources from relatively more to relatively less productive uses, impedes the corrective process, undermines the economic growth necessary for recovery, and increases unemployment in the long term; and that any "economic" stimulus package will inexorably be made to serve political rather than economic ends, and see what kind of reaction you get. And trust me, it won't feel any better five or ten years from now when everything you have just said has been proven true and Obama, like FDR, is nonetheless revered as the savior of the country.

Double Dip

In 1933 and 1934, America was on a trajectory to recover from the Depression.  But, before recovering, the economy was to nose dive again, and never really did recover until the next decade.  Historians and economists argue endlessly about this, but I am convinced that the arbitrary and capricious meddling in the economy by the Roosevelt administration caused many folks who would have started investing and bargain hunting with their capital to sit on the sidelines.  The National Industrial Recovery Act (thankfully killed by a mercifully non-packed Supreme Court) was just the most egregious example of the US government making it impossible to evaluate long-term business proposals because the basic foundations of the rule of law were shifting so much.

I fear we are facing a similar danger.   Everything continues to tell me that had we taken our medicine late last year, we would be entering a recovery over the next few months.  However, the Obama administrations economic interventions have gotten so egregious that there is a real danger investors are going to sit on the sidelines with their capital.  Who knows when your industry will get targeted with compensation restrictions, or higher taxes, or even forced changes in ownership?  Who could possibly feel comfortable making 20-year investments in this environment?  Dale Franks quotes Thomas Cooley:

Many investors are sitting on the sidelines, as is much money. Why? Because it is impossible to know what the rules of the game are. And that's because the administration and the Congress keep changing the rules in capricious ways in pursuit of larger political objectives.

Postscript: There is legislation pending in Congress to restrict the ability of lenders  (e.g. credit card issuers) from changing rates on existing debt.  They ask if it is fair for someone who took on a debt thinking it would be at 15% to suddenly find it is at 25%.  But how are tax increases any different.  I make 10-20 year investments in my company, and the expected tax rate is a hugely important assumption in whether it makes any sense for me to put my capital in a particular venture.   How is a large increase in taxes on returns from my past investments any different than changing the interest rate on an existing debt?

The Tip O'Neal Bill

Well, it appears that Democrats who were angry at the cost of the Iraq war (a feeling to which I was always sympathetic) are attempting to even the score by spending approximately the same amount in a single bill.

Looking at the stimulus bill was kind of an odd experience for me.  Despite everything I preach here about politicians, I must have, somewhere in my deep back brain, under the onslaught of cultish media attention, absorbed some small hope that maybe perhaps Obama was really different.   Then I looked at the stimulus bill.  It is all the same crap that various folks have been trying to peddle unsuccessfully for years, repackaged in a hurry-up emergency form to avoid close scrutiny.  This is politics as usual, but even more so.  Jeez, this easily could have come from Tip O'Neal.  Everywhere you look in the bill, it smells. And Republicans are almost going to have to go along because they have pissed away any credibility they have by doing the exact same thing under the guise of TARP.

By the way, if you are confused about Keysian stimulus, here it is in a nutshell:  The economy is contracting some as people deleverage from over-spending and an asset bubble.  I mean, that's certainly what we are doing in the Coyote den, setting goals for both de-leveraging the business and our household.  But folks are worried, because while this has happened many times, one of those times we had a depression.  So the government does not want you to deleverage.  It wants you to spend and spend.  But it knows you won't, and that it has not yet accumulated enough power to force you to.  So it will borrow and spend for you.  Government stimulus means that when you are trying to save and reduce debt, government is going to run up debt in your name.

By the way, for those wondering how well this works, the last time we tried it was during the aforementioned depression, and the depression lasted another 8-10 years.

What We Learn About Climate and Public Policy from Y2K

Remember Y2K?  If you took the media and politicians seriously, this sure did seem like it was going to big a big apocalyptic deal (see survey in the postscript about economic depression and civil insurrection).  Until it wasn't.

Odd Citizen points to an interesting study on this topic.  The author links this
Australian study
looking retrospectively at the Y2K scare, trying to understand
why an irrational collective hysteria developed that allowed for no skepticism
(seem familiar).  The whole thing is interesting, but here is the money
quote
:

From the perspective of public administration, the two most
compelling observations relate to conformity and collective amnesia. The
response to Y2K shows how relatively subtle characteristics of a policy problem
may produce a conformist response in which no policy actors have any incentive
to oppose, or even to critically assess, the dominant view. Moreover, in a
situation where a policy has been adopted and implemented with unanimous
support, or at least without any opposition, there is likely to be little
interest in critical evaluation when it appears that the costs of the policy
have outweighed the benefits.

The article is written without any reference to current
climate issues, but wow, does this sound familiar?  It is a dead-on description of what is occurring with global warming. 

The author also goes on to discuss public choice theory and why it is not necessarily a good explanatory model for the Y2K scare.  He argues that a better explanation was the asymmetry of blame:

Individuals and groups who argued for a 'fix on failure' approach stood to benefit only modestly if this approach avoided unnecessary costs, but faced the risk of blame in the event of significant system failures attributable (accurately or otherwise) to Y2K related problems. Conversely, it was evident in advance that there was little risk of loss to individuals who advocated comprehensive remediation. The absence of any serious Y2K problems could always be attributed to the success of the remediation program.

The asymmetry of incentives was amplified by the possibility of litigation, particularly in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in other English-speaking countries. The reliance of the United States on tort litigation as a method of compensating those experiencing adverse outcomes of various kinds produces a strong bias in favour of 'defensive' expenditures. In particular, jurors have been highly unsympathetic to individuals and organisations that have chosen to disregard known low-probability risks.

The special characteristics of the Y2K problem were ideally suited to produce this kind of reaction. On the one hand, the problem was both widespread and comprehensible to non-experts, such as potential jurors. On the other hand, if 'embedded systems' are disregarded, the Y2K problem differed from most other computer 'bugs' in that a complete solution was feasible, though very expensive.

In these circumstances, litigation against organisations that had failed to undertake comprehensive Y2K remediation, and experienced any form of system breakdown in early 2000, was virtually guaranteed of success. By contrast, the risk of blame being allocated to organisations that overspent on Y2K remediation was perceived to be minimal. The absence of litigation or other processes for the allocation of blame in the aftermath of the Y2K non-event shows that this perception was accurate.

A rough parallel to this in the global warming world is the apparent ease of assigning blame for CO2 emissions to energy producers and car manufacturers (despite the fact that it is all of us who uses this energy and buys these cars) vs. the reluctance of media and others to quantify and assign blame for reductions in wealth and economic prosperity that might result from CO2 limitations.

Postscript:  One other thing that is interesting to me as a libertarian:  I often point out that the political parties are a joke, a mish-mash of shifting political positions that has little to do with deeply held theories of government and more to do with branding and populist electioneering.  The Y2K-Climate comparison caused me to find a good example.  In 1999, it was the Republicans using the Y2K issue as a club on the Democrats, arguing that the Clinton Administration, and Al Gore in particular, were ignoring this critical end-of-the-world crisis and that the government needed to be doing more.  Really.  Just check this out from Dec, 1999:

Last year, The National Journal devoted an entire issue to the subject, with headlines such as "The Big Glitch" and "Sorry, Al, This Bug's for You." In the special issue, Neil Munro cites a survey of industry and government executives and
programmers concerning potential fallout from the millennium bug, showing that 70 percent
anticipated a negative effect on the economy, with 10 percent of respondents not ruling
out the possibility of economic depression and civil insurrection.   

With a technology problem of this magnitude on the national horizon, where was the leadership of the nation's No. 1 techno-nerd and self-proclaimed creator of the "information superhighway," Vice President Al Gore?   

Gore's familiarity with and personal interest in technology, specifically computer technology, makes suspect his long silence on the Y2K issue.   

In his biography, "Gore: A Political Life," Bob Zelnick writes that Gore "had nothing to say during the first five-and-a-half years of his vice presidency
about the biggest problem in the history of high-tech America."

Let the record show that I was a Y2K skeptic before I was a climate skeptic.

I may be making common cause with some Republicans on the climate issue at the moment, but I don't trust them.  In fact, already we see McCain jumping on the climate bandwagon (as he does with every populist issue -- he believes in nothing) and I have a strong sense GWB may dive into the climate fray quite soon.

Great Picture

This is an awesome photo.  I am a total sucker for depression-era southern photograph.

Ethanol Get's Slammed

Finally, the blinders are coming off and the media is starting to
wake up to the absolute travesty that is the Congress's promotion of
ethanol.  From Rolling Stone(!) emphasis added.

This is not just hype -- it's dangerous, delusional bullshit.  Ethanol doesn't burn cleaner than gasoline, nor is it
cheaper. Our current ethanol production represents only 3.5 percent of
our gasoline consumption -- yet it consumes twenty percent of the
entire U.S. corn crop, causing the price of corn to double in the last
two years and raising the threat of hunger in the Third World. And the
increasing acreage devoted to corn for ethanol means less land for
other staple crops, giving farmers in South America an incentive to
carve fields out of tropical forests that help to cool the planet and
stave off global warming.

So why bother? Because the whole
point of corn ethanol is not to solve America's energy crisis, but to
generate one of the great political boondoggles of our time. Corn is
already the most subsidized crop in America, raking in a total of $51
billion in federal handouts between 1995 and 2005 -- twice as much as
wheat subsidies and four times as much as soybeans. Ethanol itself is
propped up by hefty subsidies, including a fifty-one-cent-per-gallon
tax allowance for refiners. And a study by the International Institute
for Sustainable Development found that ethanol subsidies amount to as
much as $1.38 per gallon -- about half of ethanol's wholesale market
price.

Hurrah!  Unfortunately, I fear we may be waking up too late.  Already, billions of dollars are being invested by politically connected companies
on the promises of subsidies and promotion of ethanol extending out to
the end of the universe.  At this point, ethanol may be as entrenched
as agriculture subsidies, the education department, and depression-era
alcohol regulation.  The government has no problem reneging on contracts with oil companies, but God forbid anyone deny Archer Daniels Midland the right to infinite subsidies.

A Final Note on "Don't Know Much About History"

In an earlier post, I observed that my audio CD of the bestselling book "Don't Know Much About History" struck me as extremely odd, focusing on only the lowest points in American history.  I can report after finishing the CD that it stayed on this path to the end.  After the Cuban Missile Crisis we had conspiracy theories of JFKs death, then the Mai Lai massacre, then Watergate, then Iran Contra, then Monica Lewinsky.  Yes, the last 40 years were summed up in total as Mai Lai - Watergate - Iran Contra - Lewinsky and essentially nothing else.  Wow, what a view of history!  As a libertarian, I am happy to showcase the foibles of government, but this seems like a crazy loss of perspective even to me.

In addition, bits of the history were just terrible.  For example, he said that the Puritans who came to America were much like a cult today and treated as such.  That is a lame simplification of history.  Sure, one can argue that today's religions were yesterday's cults, but it is silly to say that the Puritans were treated poorly in England for the same reasons a cult might be today.  This completely ignores the whole reality of having a state religion in England at the time of the Puritans.  A state religion trying to purge itself of dissent is a really different dynamic than a modern cult getting shunned by mainstream society  (except perhaps when Janet Reno controls some tanks).  This distinction is also important because avoiding state religions is an important foundation block of our government, and its prohibition is buried in that arcane and little discussed thing called, uh, the First Amendment. 

It's clear the author is not a big fan of capitalism, and I would generally not even comment on such a thing because it is so common in academia.  I managed to mostly ignore numerous off-the-cuff quips he makes about evil corporations and greed and the assumption that any action by a rich person had to be out of a desire to repress the masses rather than from principle.  However, his bias creates some really bad history in at least one instance.  In discussing Hoover and the depression, he really lays into Hoover for how block-headed and absurd Hoover was for not initiating massive government welfare programs earlier in his administration.  I mean, he absolutely hammers Hoover for being a total cretin, and the author laughs at various Laissez-Faire speeches by HH. 

But this is a stunning loss of context for a historian.  While government handouts to people who are out of work may seem a no-brainer today, it was absolutely unprecedented at the time.  It had never been done.  And, nowhere in the Constitution, whose 10th Amendment specifically says that Congress only has the specific powers enumerated in the Constitution, does it say Congress has the power to tax one person and give the proceeds as a handout to another to relieve economic distress.  In fact, it was enough of a Constitutional question mark that the Supreme Court would later rule unconstitutional most of FDR's new deal, at least until FDR could repack the Court with his guys.  HH had good reason, beyond just his principles, to believe that he would be breaking the law and violating the Constitution to do as the author suggests.  But nothing of this context is mentioned.  The author only portrays Hoover as an idiot for not being interventionist enough. 

In fact, the author leaves out a point I would tend to make first -- that the Depression would have been much better off if Hoover had in fact been truly Laissez Faire.  Unfortunately, his tightening of money supply in the face of a depression and liquidity crisis via the relatively new Federal Reserve, his acquiescence to the Hawley Smoot tariffs, and his tax increases to close the budget deficit all contributed far more to sending the train off the rails than any intervention could have ameliorated.

A Blow for Competition

Just yesterday, I wrote in this post how depression-era alcoholic beverage laws meant to curb organized crime were being used by governments to protect local businesses from competition.  Today, the Supreme Court took aim at one such practice:

A Supreme Court decision Monday means that Missouri and Illinois
consumers soon will have access to a wider selection of wines and that
wineries in both states will be able to expand their consumer base.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court declared unconstitutional state laws that
prohibited out-of-state wineries from directly shipping wine to
consumers, yet allowed in-state wineries to do direct shipments. The
court said the laws unfairly discriminated against out-of-state
wineries.

Congratulations to the Institute for Justice, one of the few groups out there protecting property rights and individual freedoms in the commercial arena.  Now, if only the Supreme Court would take on laws protecting car dealers from competition.

Postscript:   While major industries change from region to region, nearly every town or city of any size has influential local business owners in three areas who tend to have an unduly large influence on local politics:

  • Media owners (newspaper, radio, TV station owners)
  • Car Dealers
  • Beverage wholesalers (Coke, Pepsi, Miller, A-B, etc.)

While at the national level, government may be more focused on shoving subsidies at dairy farmers and Archer-Daniels-Midland, local and state governments love to protect incumbants in these three industries from competition (particularly in small to medium sized cities), who in turn donate tons of money (or in the case of media, in-kind exposure) to the politicos.