Posts tagged ‘game’

So How Can Anyone Be Opposed to Non-Discrimination Laws

First, let me establish a few background facts.  Several years ago I headed an attempt to put a Constitutional amendment legalizing gay marriage on the ballot here in Arizona.  As far back as 2004 I had a gay couple running a campground, and faced a customer petition demanding we remove them because they promoted moral degeneracy by being gay (it's for the children!).  I told those customers to camp somewhere else, as we were not changing our staffing.  Since then I have probably hired more gay couples to run campgrounds than anyone else in the business.

So how could I possibly be opposed to this:

After a period of foreshadowing and rumor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has now gone ahead and ruled that employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is forbidden under existing federal civil rights law, specifically the current ban on sex discrimination. Congress may have declined to pass the long-pending Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), but no matter; the commission can reach the same result on its own just by reinterpreting current law.

There are multiple problems with non-discrimination law as currently implemented and enforced in the US.  Larger companies, for example, struggle with disparate impact lawsuits from the EEOC, where statistical metrics that may have nothing to do with past discrimination are never-the-less used to justify discrimination penalties.

Smaller companies like mine tend to have a different problem.  It is an unfortunate fact of life that the employees who do the worst job and/or break the rules the most frequently tend to be the same ones with the least self-awareness.  As a result, no one wants to believe their termination is "fair", no matter how well documented or justified (I wrote yesterday that I have personally struggled with the same thing in my past employment).

Most folks grumble and walk away.  But what if one is in a "protected group" under discrimination law?  Now, not only is this person personally convinced that their firing was unfair, but there is a whole body of law geared to the assumption that their group may be treated unfairly.  There are also many lawyers and activists who will tell them that they were almost certainly treated unfairly.

So a fair percentage of people in protected groups whom we fire for cause will file complaints with the government or outright sue us for discrimination.  I will begin by saying that we have never lost a single one of these cases.   In one or two we paid someone a nominal amount just to save legal costs of pursuing the case to the bitter end, but none of these cases were even close.

This easy ability to sue, enabled by our current implementation of discrimination law, imposes a couple of costs on us.  First, each of these suits cost us about $20,000 to win (insurance companies are smart, they know exactly how this game works, and will not sell one an employment practices defense policy without at least a $25,000 deductible, particularly in California).  It takes a lot of effort for the government, even if neutral and not biased against employers as they are in California, to determine if the employee who was fired happened to be Eskimo or if the employee was fired because he was an Eskimo.  Unfortunately, the costs of this discovery are not symmetric.  It costs employees and their attorneys virtually nothing to take a shot at us with such discrimination cases, but costs us$20,000 each to defend and win (talk about Pyrrhic victories).  Which is why we sometimes will hand someone a few bucks even if their claim is absurd, just to avoid what turns out to be essentially legal blackmail.

Second, the threat of such suits and legal costs sometimes changes our behavior in ways that might be detrimental to our customers.  A natural response to this kind of threat is to be double careful in documenting issues with employees in protected groups, meaning their termination for cause is often delayed.  In a service business, almost anyone fired for cause has demonstrated characteristics that seriously hinder customer service, so drawing out the termination process also extends the negative impact on customers.

To make all this worse, many employees have discovered a legal dodge to enhance their post-employment lawsuits (I know that several advocacy groups in California recommend this tactic).  If the employee suspects he or she is about to be fired, they will, before getting fired, claim all sorts of past discrimination.  Now, when terminated, they can claim they where a whistle blower that that their termination was not for cause but really was retaliation against them for being a whistle-blower.

I remember one employee in California taking just this tactic, claiming discrimination just ahead of his termination, though he never presented any evidence beyond the vague claim.  We wasted weeks with an outside investigator checking into his claims, all while customer complaints about the employee continued to come in.  Eventually, we found nothing and fired him.  And got sued.  The case was so weak it was eventually dropped but it cost us -- you guessed it -- about $20,000 to defend.  Given that this was more than the entire amount this operation had made over five years, it was the straw that broke the camel's back and led to us walking about from that particular operation and over half of our other California business.

Customers Love Uber, But It Can Be Great For Drivers as Well. Here is an Example.

I see a lot of folks wanting to poo-poo the notion that Uber's flexibility in terms of hours driven and such is good for drivers.  Folks on the Left have in their head that any job that does not punch in and punch out at fixed hours with a defined lunch break and actually rewards working more than the minimum is somehow exploitive.

This got be thinking about a Kickstarter update I received a while back (for a computer game project).  The entrepreneur wrote:

Looking back, most of the year was spent trying to recover from the 2013 Robotoki saga which delayed development by almost an entire year, left me financially devastated, and almost sunk this project beyond recovery. We’ve had our ups and downs and I’ve always found a way through, but man, these were not fun times. I was actually living out of my car when I signed the private investment contract a few months ago, so it’s been a little bit of a rough year.

This project and I are currently surviving on that private loan, my personal credit cards, and whatever I can make driving for Uber, but at least we’re getting close to launch now. I hope this doesn’t come off as a “whoa is me” kinda thing. I only mention all of this because I want to put the project into perspective and give some deserved answers about what has been going on. I know it sucks that the game is severely late and I hope you know that I’ve done everything in my power to not give up.

This entrepreneur is trying to fund his game development effort in part by working during the day on the game and driving for Uber in his spare hours.  There is no way he could work really anywhere else because he would have to be an official employee and keep a regular schedule -- you can't imagine someone just showing up at McDonald's to cook whenever they feel like it.  But that is what he can do for Uber.  And now California is trying to kill that flexibility.

 

Brink Lindsey Proposes a Growth Plan with Appeal Across The Political Spectrum

It turns out that small government libertarians like myself and large-government progressives actually have something in common -- we both fear accumulations of unaccountable power.  We just find such power in different places.  Progressives fear the accumulation of power in large corporations and moneyed individuals.  Libertarians fear government power.

I won't try to take Caplan's ideological Turing test today, but will just speak from my own perspective.  I wonder how Progressives can ignore that government has guns and prisons while corporations just have the ability to sell you something or hire you (though perhaps not on the terms you prefer).  When pressed to explain why the Left is more comfortable with government power, their explanations (to my taste) depend too much on assumptions that competent versions of "their guy" pull the levers of power, and that power itself and the vagaries of government incentives will not corrupt this guy.

On the other hand, progressives ask me all the time, "how can you trust corporations so much" and then list off a justifiably long list of examples of them acting poorly.  This, I think, is where the real difference comes in, and where the confusion often comes int he public discourse.  I will answer that I don't trust anyone, government or corporations.  What I trust are the incentives and the accountability enforced in a market where a) consumers can take their money elsewhere if they get bad products or services; b) employees can take their labor elsewhere if they are treated poorly; and c) entrepreneurs can make a fortune identifying shortcomings in incumbent businesses and offering consumers and/or employees a better deal.

Unfortunately, when a person or organization finds itself very successful in this game, there is a natural tendency to want to protect their winning position.  But nothing in the market can stop a challenge from a better product or service, so successful entities tend to turn to the government (which has a monopoly on guns and prisons and asset seizures and the like) for protection against upstart challengers.  If successful, these restrictions tend to hobble growth and innovation -- imagine if IBM had successfully used government influence to halt the PC revolution or if AT&T had blocked the growth of cell phones.

This dynamic is at the heart of Brink Lindsey's new white paper at Cato (pdf).   As has been his wont in several past works, Lindsey is looking for proposals that bridge the gap between Left and Right.  So, rather than stake out the 98th salvo in an area where there seems to be a hopeless ideological divide (e.g. minimum wage or low-skill immigration), he focuses on four areas one could imagine building a broad coalition.  Lindsey focuses on attempts by successful incumbents to use government to cement their position and calls them "regressive regulation" because they tend to benefit the already-successful at the expense of everyone else.

In the following sections, I examine four major examples of regressive regulation: (a) excessive monopoly privileges granted under copyright and patent law; (b) protection of incumbent service providers under occupational licensing; (c) restrictions on high-skilled immigration; and (d) artificial scarcity created by land-use regulation. In all four examples, current government policy works to create explicit barriers to entry. In the first two cases, the restriction is on entry into a product market: businesses are not allowed to sell products that are deemed to infringe on a copyright or patent, and individuals are not allowed to sell their services without a license. In the other two cases, actual physical entry into a geographic area is being limited: on the one hand, immigration into the country; on the other, the development and purchase or rental of real estate.

One can immediately see how this might appeal across ideologies.  Libertarians and market Conservatives will like the reduction in regulation and government scope.  Progressives should like the elimination of government actions that primarily help the wealthy and powerful.**

I said "cross ideologies" above rather than bi-partisan because things get messy when actual politics intrude.  All of these protected constituencies wield a lot of political influence across both parties -- that is why the regressive regulation exists in the first place.  And they all have finally honed stories about how these restrictions that prevent new competition and business models are really there to protect the little people (just watch the battles between Uber and the taxi cartels and you will see what I mean).

Never-the-less, this strikes me as a pretty good list.  For whatever barriers there may be, it is a hell of a lot easier to picture a bipartisan agreement on any of these issues than on, say, low-skill immigration.  I haven't finished reading to the end -- I have to get on now with my day job -- so I have yet to see if there are any concrete proposals that look promising.

 

**The ideological problem here, of course, is that libertarians think that these restrictions are the primary way in which the wealthy unfairly benefit while most Progressives would (I suppose) see it as a side issue given that they believe that even the free-est of market capitalism is inherently unfair.

A Whole New Era in Baseball

Many of us casual fans were introduced to the culture war in baseball (i.e. Bill James / data-driven analysis vs. grizzled old scouts looking for five-tool players) by the book Moneyball.

Well, with the recent news that the St. Louis Cardinals may have been caught hacking the Houston Astros data base, it is pretty clear which side won.  This article explains why the until-recently hapless Astros were the target of hacking by one of the last decade's most successful teams.

If you remember the scene in the movie Moneyball where there were a bunch of traditional old scouts sitting around the table debating players, compare that image to this:

When the Astros plucked Colorado's Collin McHugh off the waiver wire after the 2013 season despite his career 8.94 ERA, the move might've surprised some folks. But today's major league stadiums are wired with systems such as PitchF/X and TrackMan that use Doppler radar to track the ball in three dimensions. For every pitch thrown in every game, teams now know the location, acceleration, movement, velocity and the axis of rotation of the ball. The Astros grabbed McHugh because they saw that while his sinker didn't play well at Coors Field, he had a superior curveball that rotated about 2,000 times a minute, or 500 times more than an average curve spins.

It was the baseball equivalent of noticing a needle in the data haystack.

Once he was in Houston, the coaches told McHugh to change his arsenal by throwing that terrific curve more and replacing the sinker with a high fastball.

The result? His ERA nosedived to 2.73 in his first season with the Astros.

By the way, given the technology described here, and the tech I see deployed on the typical baseball TV broadcast, why do we still have human beings calling balls and strikes?

So Ellen Pao is About to Discover the Roger Goodell Problem

Roger Goodell is the President of the NFL, and despite huge love for the NFL itself, Goodell is hated by many, even most, fans.  At the NFL draft, which attacts arguably the biggest fans of the NFL, Goodell gets booed every time he walks on stage.  One reason for this is the decision Goodell made a number of years ago to "police" player behavior.  Tired of bad headlines about this or that player being involved in some sort of (alleged) criminal activity, Goodell decided to crack down.  No longer was it enough that the criminal justice system had a process for punishing people who break the law, Goodell wanted the NFL to be seen to be layering on extra punishment.

I said from the very beginning that this policy was fraught with problems.  If the NFL wanted a conduct policy, it should establish simple mechanical rules tied to outcomes in the justice system.  For example, a rule that says that if convicted of a misdemeanor a player would get a standard X game suspension.   Goodell's role should be limited to correcting the inevitable unfair situation where mechanical rules lead to poor outcomes.

But no, Goodell, like many smart people, fell into the trap of thinking he was smart enough to mete out punishments himself.  This has led to a real mess.  The public compares each punishment (and non-punishment) to all other such decisions and immediately get upset about perceived inconsistencies.  Worse, having established the precedent of policing conduct, he is being pushed by various vocal constituencies to police even non-crimes, like  unwelcome speech.  On average day in sports talk radio, you are as likely to hear a discussion of Goodell's conduct rulings as you are about anything on the field.

In taking over Reddit, Ellen Pao is heading into the same technocratic trap.  She has begun to ban certain forums and types of speech on the platform, but she has not established any consistent public rules for doing so other than her own judgement.  She appears to be deleting things that offend her personally (and early mass deletions of content critical of herself personally seems a really bad way to start).  And as with Goodell, two bad things are already happening (even beyond the more fundamental Reddit user issue that she is violating a core ethic of Reddit by censoring).  First, she is being called out for lack of consistency with folks saying "how can you ban X and not Y."  And second, she is apparently already getting pushed by various constituencies to be more and more aggressive at censoring certain classes of speech.   Once she established herself as censor in chief, she became an immediate lobbying target for many, many groups, and that is going to just get worse.  Just look at how much of Goodell's time is now sucked up into personal conduct issues.

Kudos to Jeff Flake on Cuba

I missed this story originally but saw it pop up on our local news again.

Mr. Flake, who has spent a decade in a lonely battle against his party to push for easing restrictions on Cuba, is the chief Republican defender of the new Obama policy. White House officials are counting on him to make their case to his party’s rank and file, even as Republican leaders and Cuban-American lawmakers, like Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, threaten to keep the president from appointing an ambassador or funding an embassy in Havana.

At a Capitol Hill hearing presided over by Mr. Rubio on Tuesday, the two men sat next to each other, somewhat awkwardly, as Mr. Rubio grilled administration officials on a policy he has called a “concession to tyranny.” But even before the hearing, Mr. Flake had moved ahead: Last week he filed a bill to end the decades-old ban on American travel to the Communist island nation.

Good.  The Cuba embargo has been a big, obvious, sustained failure.  While we have embargoed them they have moved no closer to freedom, while scores of countries with which we actively engage have become more free, in large part due to the effect of engagement by their citizenry with the West.

Flake really is an engaging guy.  I watched him at a taping of the NPR game show "Wait, wait, don't tell me" and he charmed an audience of NPR Democrats.

Things I Didn't Know, Baseball Edition

If I read this right, there apparently already is a rule in baseball that the pitcher must throw every 12 seconds.  If true, that has to be the most ignored rule since the 55 MPH speed limit.

According to this site the rule reads

When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call “Ball.”

 

What, No Bailout?

I wish we saw this attitude more often, particularly among large corporations (from an article discussing aftermarket ticket prices for the Super Bowl).

"This is really something we never anticipated," said Will Flaherty, director of growth at SeatGeek. "The cheapest seat on SeatGeek right now is $8,000, but no site seems to have any inventory." Flaherty believes speculative buying is behind the spike. Ticket brokers frequently sell "air" to their customers, taking orders before they have tickets in hand. "We've noticed significantly more speculative selling activity than in recent years," Flaherty said. "Over the last few days, those sellers have been scrambling to buy up tickets to fill their orders, resulting in the Super Bowl ticket version of a short squeeze. Brokers with tickets in hand have been taking advantage of their leverage, raising prices dramatically and arbitrarily withholding some of their inventory."

Ety Rybak, co-founder of the high-end brokerage Inside Sports & Entertainment Group, has spent more than anticipated this time around to fulfill orders before the game. "I can tell you some ugly horror stories about what I have had to pay. But that’s part of the business," he said. "If I sold you tickets for $2,500, and I have to pay $7,500 to do it, unfortunately that’s the world that I chose to live in." The flip side to the high costs is a brisk business in late orders.

Maybe the US sugar cartel, among many other groups, could discover this approach to individual responsibility.

My Obama Inauguration Column, Six Years Ago Today

It is hard to remember, or even believe today, the absolute hysteria that accompanied Obama's nomination.  Even folks who should have known better were sucked in.  I seemed to be the only surly one that day who found the adulation, the near Imperial coronation, sickening.  Here is an excerpt.  I stand by it six years later:

Folks are excited about Obama because, in essence, they don't know what he stands for, and thus can read into him anything they want.  Not since the breathless coverage of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault has there been so much attention to something where we had no idea of what was inside.  My bet is that the result with Obama will be the same as with the vault.

There is some sort of weird mass self-hypnosis going on, made even odder by the fact that a lot of people seem to know they are hypnotized, at least at some level.  I keep getting shushed as I make fun of friends' cult behavior watching the proceedings today, as if by jiggling someone's elbow too hard I might break the spell.  Never have I seen, in my lifetime, so much emotion invested in a politician we know nothing about.   I guess I am just missing some gene that makes the rest of humanity receptive to this kind of stuff, but just for a minute snap your fingers in front of your face and say "do I really expect a fundamentally different approach from a politician who won his spurs in .... Chicago?  Do I really think the ultimate political outsider is going to be the guy who bested everyone at their own game in the Chicago political machine?"

Well, the spell will probably take a while to break in the press, if it ever does -- Time Magazine is currently considering whether it would be possible to put Obama on the cover of all 52 issues this year -- but thoughtful people already on day 1 should have evidence that things are the same as they ever were, just with better PR.   For God sakes, as his first expenditure of political capital, Obama is pushing for a trillion dollar government spending bill that is basically one big pork-fest that might make even Ted Stevens blush, a hodge-podge of every wish-list of leftish lobbyists that has been building up for eight years.  I will be suitably thrilled if the Obama administration renounces some of the creeping executive power grabs of the last 16 years, but he has been oddly silent about this.  It seems that creeping executive power is a lot more worrisome when someone else is in power.

It has been suggested by some that today is less a cultish corronation but a big victory party in the battle against racism.  Well, I am certainly willing to accept it on those terms.  I have been arguing for years that it is time to declare victory on the worst aspects of race and gender discrimination, and move on to problems of interest to all races (like individual freedom or giving kids options to escape crappy public schools).   Unfortunately, I fear that too many folks in power are dependent on the race/gender/class wars continuing, so you and I may think we are declaring victory, but those with power over our lives have not.

$400 Million Dollars in Public Money for a Building Used 30 Hours a Year

I love to watch the NFL but that organization and its team owners are some of the worst cronies in the country.  A huge portion of their teams' increase in net worth over the last 30 years has come from public funding of its stadiums.  These NFL stadiums are used by their teams for 8 regular season games and at most 2 pre-season games a year, or for a total of about 30 hours a year.  Taxpayers are being forced to buy buildings with a 0.3% occupancy.

St. Louis is the next to propose a taxpayer fleecing, proposing to spend $400 million before they have even paid off the enclosed stadium they built 20 years ago.  What a farce.

Years and years ago I described this as an awful sort of prisoner's dilemma game.  If governments colluded in a promise not to subsidize teams, we would still have NFL teams in roughly the same cities but without the billions of dollars in taxpayer money having been passed on to 32 billionaires.

Poof. There Goes My Free Time

The new installment in the Civilization computer game series is out.  This review dings it a bit for being too like the last installment (Civ 5), but I am sure I will like it because I still evidence addictive behavior whenever I go back to Civ 5.  Just one more turn....  After how badly the Sim City franchise has been trashed in recent installments, I will take a Civ game that is safely similar to the old Civ games.  Though my life, the Civilization game series is probably second only to having children in terms of sucking up my free time.

Fake but Accurate: How I Know Nobody Believes that 1 in 5 Women Are Raped on Campus

How do I know that average people do not believe the one in five women raped on campus meme?  Because parents still are sending their daughters to college, that's why.  In increasing numbers that threaten to overwhelm males on campus.   What is more, I sat recently through new parent orientations at a famous college and parents asked zillions of stupid, trivial questions and not one of them inquired into the safety of their daughters on campus or the protections afforded them.  Everyone knows that some women are raped and badly taken advantage of on campus, but everyone also knows the one in five number is overblown BS.

Imagine that there is a country with a one in 20 chance of an American woman visiting getting raped.  How many parents would yank their daughters from any school trip headed for that country -- a lot of them, I would imagine.  If there were a one in five chance?  No one would allow their little girls to go.  I promise.   I am a dad, I know.

Even if the average person can't articulate their source of skepticism, most people understand in their gut that we live in a post-modern world when it comes to media "data".  Political discourse, and much of the media, is ruled by the "fake but accurate" fact.  That is, the number everyone knows has no valid source or basis in fact or that everyone knows fails every smell test, but they use anyway because it is in a good cause.  They will say, "well one in five is probably high but it's an important issue anyway".

The first time I ever encountered this effect was on an NPR radio show years ago.  The hosts were discussing a well-accepted media statistic at the time that there were a million homeless people (these homeless people only seem to exist, at least in the media, during Republican presidencies so I suppose this dates all the way back to the Reagan or Bush years).  Someone actually tracked down this million person stat and traced it back to a leading homeless advocate, who admitted he just made it up for an interview, and was kind of amazed everyone just accepted it.  But the interesting part was a discussion with several people in the media who still used the statistic even after they knew it to be outsourced BS, made up out of thin air.  Their logic:  homelessness was a critical issue and the stat may be wrong, but it was OK to essentially lie (they did not use the word "lie") about the facts in a good cause.  The statistic was fake, but accurately reflected a real problem.  Later, the actual phrase "fake but accurate" would be coined in association with the George W. Bush faked air force national guard papers.  Opponents of Bush argued after the forgery became clear to everyone but Dan Rather that the letters may have been fake but they accurately reflected character flaws in the President.

And for those on the Left who want to get bent out of shape that this is just aimed at them, militarists love these post-modern non-facts to stir up fear in the war on terror, the war on crime, the war on drugs, and the war on just about everyone in the middle east.

PS-  Neil deGrasse Tyson has been criticized of late for the same failing, the use of fake quotes that supposedly accurately reflect the mind of the quoted person.  It is one thing for politicians to play this game.  It is worse for scientists.  It is the absolute worst for a scientist to play this anti-science game in the name of defending science.  

 

Healthcare Deductibles Rising -- Why This is GOOD News

Things like Obamacare cannot be discussed, it seems, in anything but a political context.  So if you don't like Obamacare, everything that happens has to be bad. But I actually think this is good news, and goes against my fears in advance of Obamacare.  I had been worried that Obamacare would just increase the trends of more and more health care spending being by third-party payers.  And my guess is that this is happening, when you consider how many people have gone from paying cash to having a policy, either a regular policy or expanded Medicaid.

A report out today puts numbers behind what hit many workers when they signed up for health insurance during open enrollment last year: deductible shock.

Premiums for employer-paid insurance are up 3% this year, but deductibles are up nearly 50% since 2009, the report by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows.

The average deductible this year is $1,217, up from $826 five years ago, Nearly 20% of workers overall have to pay at least $2,000 before their insurance kicks in, while workers at firms with 199 or fewer employees are feeling the pain of out-of-pocket costs even more: A third of these employees at small companies pay at least $2,000 deductibles.

“Skin-in-the-game insurance” is becoming the norm,says Kaiser Family Foundation CEO Drew Altman, referring to the higher percentage of health care costs employees have to share.

Honestly, this is good news, sort of.  I don't like the coercion and lack of choice, but the main problem with health care is that the person receiving the benefits is not the person paying the bills, which means there is no incentive to shop or make care tradeoffs.  Higher deductibles mean more people are going to be actively shopping and caring what health services cost, and that is a good thing for prices and health care inflation.

So In The End, The VA Was Rewarded, Not Punished

Remember the whole VA thing?  It has mostly been forgotten, though we will all remember it again, or more accurately get to experience it ourselves, once the Democrats manage to get single payer passed.

People talk about government employees being motivated by "public service" but in fact very few government agencies have any tangible performance metrics linked to public service, and when they do (as in the case of the VA wait times) they just game them.   At the end of the day, nothing enforces fidelity to the public good like competition and consumer choice, two things no government agency allows.

I will admit that government employees in agencies may have some interest in public welfare, but in the hierarchy of needs, the following three things dominate above any concerns for the public:

  • Keeping the agency in existence
  • Maintaining employment levels, and if that is achieved, increasing employment levels
  • Getting more budget

But look at the VA response in this context:

  • The agency remains in existence and most proposals to privatize certain parts were beaten back
  • No one was fired and employment levels remain the same
  • The agency was rewarded with a big bump in its budget

The VA won!  Whereas a private company with that kind of negative publicity about how customers were treated would have as a minimum seen a huge revenue and market share loss, and might have faced bankruptcy, the VA was given more money.

Murry Rothbard via Bryan Caplan:

On the free market, in short, the consumer is king, and any business firm that wants to make profits and avoid losses tries its best to serve the consumer as efficiently and at as low a cost as possible. In a government operation, in contrast, everything changes. Inherent in all government operation is a grave and fatal split between service and payment, between the providing of a service and the payment for receiving it. The government bureau does not get its income as does the private firm, from serving the consumer well or from consumer purchases of its products exceeding its costs of operation. No, the government bureau acquires its income from mulcting the long-suffering taxpayer. Its operations therefore become inefficient, and costs zoom, since government bureaus need not worry about losses or bankruptcy; they can make up their losses by additional extractions from the public till. Furthermore, the consumer, instead of being courted and wooed for his favor, becomes a mere annoyance to the government someone who is "wasting" the government's scarce resources. In government operations, the consumer is treated like an unwelcome intruder, an interference in the quiet enjoyment by the bureaucrat of his steady income.

In Defense of Phoenix Parks

Apparently Phoenix does not rank so well among cities in terms of parks.  I find these surveys next to worthless, since they tend to reflect the biases and preferences of the authors.  If the authors really like public pools, your city better have a lot of those or they will be ranked low.

For those considering the Phoenix area, here are three dimensions on which our parks are fabulous:

  • We have large wilderness areas and whole mountains right in the middle of the city.  South Mountain park, Piestewa Peak (formerly Squaw Peak park) and Camelback Mountain are all right in the middle of town.  The offer some of the best urban hiking and climbing I have ever encountered.  I can't think of a city I have been in with anything similar -- Boulder Mountain park is kind of similar (and better) but it is adjacent to the town, not right in the middle.
  • If you or your kids play soccer or baseball, we have some of the best sports fields options in the country.  Soccer is a huge game hear for kids and adults, and we have lots of options, including a number of indoor locations for the hot summer time.  Our baseball fields are unparalleled.  I don't like the fact we have built so many spring training locations for professional teams with public money, but the one upside is that there are a lot of beautiful baseball fields available any month except March.  My son has been playing on MLB fields since he was in 8th grade.
  • We have tons and tons of golf.   I am not a golfer, but we have over 200 courses in the county.  This means competition.  Which means reasonable rates.  And they are all open to the public (I can only think of 3-4 courses in the area that are country club courses for members only).  I can walk to two different, quality courses that have great rates, particularly after 1PM and during the summer time.

One other dimension related to recreation.  I know places like Boulder and Portlandia have the reputation of being biking cities, but Phoenix is a pretty big biking town.  No, we don't bike to work much due to the climate, but wide flat streets and large areas without much traffic and nice vistas (e.g. the Paradise Valley area) make it a popular biking area.

Forget Halbig. Obama May Have Lost the Senate By Giving Subsidies to the Federal Exchange

In Halbig, the DC Circuit argued that the plain language of the PPACA should rule, and that subsidies should only apply to customers in state-run exchanges.  I am going to leave the legal stuff out of this post, and say that I think from a political point of view, Obamacare proponents made a mistake not sticking with the actual language in the bill.  The IRS was initially ready to deny subsidies to the Federal exchanges until Administration officials had them reverse themselves.  When the Obama Administration via the IRS changed the incipient IRS rule to allow subsidies to customers in Federal exchanges, I believe it panicked.  It saw states opting out and worried about the subsidies not applying to a large number of Americans on day 1, and that lowered participation rates would be used to mark the program as a failure.

But I think this was playing the short game.  In the long game, the Obama Administration would have gone along with just allowing subsidies to state-run exchanges.  Arizona, you don't want to build an exchange?  Fine, tell your people why they are not getting the fat subsidies others in California and New York are getting.  Living in Arizona, I have watched this redder than red state initially put its foot down and refuse to participate in the Medicaid expansion, and then slowly see that resolve weaken under political pressure. "Governor Brewer, why exactly did you turn down Federal Medicaid payments for AZ citizens?  Why are Arizonans paying taxes for Medicaid patients in New Jersey but not getting the benefit here?"

Don't get me wrong, I would like to see Obamacare go away, but I think Obama would be standing in much better shape right now had he limited subsidies to state exchanges because

  1. The disastrous Federal exchange roll-out would not have been nearly so disastrous without the pressure of subsidies and the data integration subsidy checks require.  Also, less people would have likely enrolled, reducing loads on the system
  2. Instead of the main story being about general dissatisfaction with Obamacare, there would at least be a competing story of rising political pressure in certain states that initially opted out to join the program and build an exchange.  It would certainly give Democrats in red and purple states a positive message to run on in 2014.

Yawning Through the Outrage

There are a lot of things out there that generate tons of outrage that do about zero to work me up.  A good example is the recent kerfuffle over a school district assigning kids a debating assignment to argue both sides of the question "Was there actually a Holocaust?"

Certainly this was a fairly boneheaded topic to choose for such an assignment out of the universe of potential topics.   But I will say that this assignment is the type of thing that should be done a LOT more in schools, both in primary schools and in higher education.  Too often we let students make the case for a particular side of an argument without their even adequately understanding the arguments for the other side.  In some sense this brings us back to the topic of Caplan's intellectual Turing test.

I did cross-x debate all the way from 6th grade to 12th.  There is a lot to be said for the skill of defending one side of a proposition, and then an hour later defending the other (that is, if cross-x debate had not degenerated into a contest simply to see who can talk faster).

I remember a few months ago when a student-producer called me for a radio show that is produced at the Annenberg School at UCLA USC.   She was obviously smart and the nature of her job producing a political talk show demanded she be moderately well-informed.  She had called me as a climate skeptic for balance in a climate story (kudos there, by the way, since that seldom happens any more).  Talking to her, it was clear that she was pretty involved in the climate topic but had never heard the skeptic's argument from an actual skeptic.  Everything she knew about skeptics and their positions she knew from people on the other side of the debate.  The equivalent here are people who only understand the logic behind Democrat positions insofar as they have been explained by Rush Limbaugh -- which happens a lot.   We have created a whole political discourse based on straw men, where the majority of people, to the extent they understand an issue at all, only have heard one side talking about it.

I think the idea of kids debating both sides of key issues, with an emphasis on nudging them into trying to defend positions that oppose their own, is a great process.  It is what I do when I teach economics, giving cases to the class and randomly assigning roles (ie you are the guy with the broken window, he is the glazier, and she is the shoe salesman).  The problem, of course, is that we have a public discourse dominated by the outrage of the minority.  It would take just one religious student asked to defend abortion rights or one feminist asked to defend due process rights for accused rapists to freak out, and the school would probably fold and shut down the program.

Which is too bad.  Such discourse, along with Caplan's intellectual Turing test, would be centerpieces of any university I were to found.  When we debated back in the 1970's, there was never a sense that we were somehow being violated by being asked to defend positions with which we didn't believe.  It was just an excersise, a game.  In fact, it was incredibly healthy for me.  There is about no topic I can defend better than free trade because I spent half a year making protectionist arguments to win tournaments.    I got good at it, reading the judge and amping up populism and stories of the sad American steel workers in my discourse as appropriate.  Knowing the opposing arguments backwards and forwards, I am a better defender of free trade today.

Ready for the World Cup Finals

As a former hater, I have really enjoyed the World Cup this year.  I think an unsung part of why so many people have been coming around in the States is having ESPN broadcast every game, instead of just seeing two or three here.  Seeing all the games lets one start getting to know the players and the teams, develop favorites, etc.

However, like most Americans, I do find it, at best, humorous to watch folks act like they have been gut-shot every time someone brushes their jersey.  I talked to a friend of mine who used to manage NHL teams, and said that it would be funny to do a parody with ice hockey players falling and writhing on the ground every time they were touched.  There would be 10 guys laying on the ice in about 30 seconds.

Not quite the same idea, but I thought this parody was pretty funny

Let's Not Paint the Toyota Move to Texas Too Much as A Drive For Free Markets

I totally understand why Toyota would want to leave California.   I often wonder why any manufacturing business would remain in California.  I actually have thought about whether there is a private equity opportunity to buy California manufacturers and make money by moving them to lower cost jurisdictions.

I am particularly sympathetic this year.  We have four or five campground opportunities where we could be making money this year by making investments in these facilities.  But these initiatives would all take my time, and my time has been 110% devoted to catching up on regulatory compliance issues, particularly in California.   Every state has stupid compliance requirements, but California stands out for two reasons

  1. It has a lot, lot more of these requirements
  2. The cost of non-compliance is way higher than in other states.  You don't just get an order to clean up your act in 60 days, you get slammed with tens of thousands of dollars of legal fees from predatory law firms that have been given a hunting license by the state legislature to seek out and reward themselves when they find non-compliance minutia (e.g. numbers on the paycheck in the wrong font size).

So  I totally understand why Toyota is coming to Texas.  But also note that the state of Texas handed Toyota tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money for the move, money for which smaller and less politically-connected companies don't qualify.  This corporate relocation incentive game is one of the worst uses of tax money, as it produces no new economic activity, but simply shifts it across arbitrary lines on the map.

Yet Another Reason to Live in Arizona

Via the Valley Fever blog:

Good news, Diamondbacks fans: Chase Field is still home to the cheapest beer in baseball.

Fourteen ounces of beer at a Diamondbacks game is still $4, making this at least the fifth season in a row the D-backs have had the cheapest beer in baseball.

Surprise: Near Bankrupt City Finds that Throwing Good Money After Bad is Not a Good Investment

I have written here any number of times about the crazy ongoing subsidies by Glendale, Arizona (a 250,000 resident suburb of Phoenix) to an NHL franchise.  The city last year was teetering at the edge of bankruptcy from past hockey subsidies, but decided to double down committing to yet more annual payments to the new ownership of the team.

Surprisingly, throwing more money into an entreprise that has run through tens of millions of taxpayer money without any hint of a turnaround turns out to be a bad investment

Revenue from the Phoenix Coyotes is coming up short for Glendale, which approved a $225 million deal to keep the National Hockey League franchise in 2013.

City leaders expected to see at least $6.8 million in revenue annually from the team to help offset the $15 million the city pays each year for team owners to manage Jobing.com Arena. The revenue comes from ticket surcharges, parking fees and a split of naming rights for the arena.

Halfway through the fiscal year, the city has collected $1.9 million from those sources, and nearly $2.3 million when including sales-tax revenue from the arena.

Even including the rent payments on the publicly-funded stadium, Glendale is still losing money each year on the deal.

The source of the error in forecasting is actually pretty funny.  Glendale assumed that it could charge very high monopoly parking fees for the arena spaces ($10-$30 a game).  In some circumstances, such fees would have stuck.  But in this case, two other entities (a mall and another sports stadium) have adjoining lots, and once parking for hockey was no longer free, these other entities started competing parking operations which held down parking rates and volumes (I always find it hilarious when the government attempts to charge exorbitant monopoly prices and the free market undercuts them).

Had the parking rates stuck at the higher level, one can assume they still would have missed their forecast.  The Coyotes hockey team already has among the worst attendance numbers in the league, and hockey ticket buyers are particularly price sensitive, such that a $20 increase in the cost of attending a game likely would have driven attendance, and thus parking fees and city ticket surcharges and sales taxes, down.  Many private companies who are used to market dynamics still fail to forecast competitive and customer reaction to things like price increases well, and the government never does it well.

Best Bridge Book Ever (IMHO) Back In Print

One thing I think I have never mentioned before on this site is that in college, I was a fanatical bridge player.  I developed this odd social life of bridge in the afternoon and beer pong at night.  When I got tired of playing other students, my friend and I would go into town and play the local residents, who were sharks.

Anyway, people new to bridge are always intimidated by bidding, and certainly there is a learning curve there (which I made worse by using the Precision rather than the Goren standard system).  But with some time, bidding becomes rote.  Only perhaps in one in ten or twenty hands is the last increment of bidding expertise really useful, and then usually only when playing duplicate where even a few extra points really matter.

Once your bidding is mostly up to snuff, the game is all about card play.   A good player will play out the entire hand, with guesses as to which cards are held by which players, before the first card is led.

The single best book I have ever read on card play is Card Play Technique by Mollo and Gardener.  Thirty years ago there was about one source for this often out-of-print book and I bought a dozen copies, slowly giving most of them away over time.  Now, however, it is back in print.  If you play bridge, you have probably read this book, but if not, buy yourself a copy for Christmas.

Media Accountability -- When The Arizona Republic Tried to Get Scottsdale To Bankrupt Itself

Three cheers for Greg Patterson holding the media accountable for their past support of costly corporate welfare.

You may have seen the recent Wall Street Journal Story about the financial fiasco that is Glendale Arizona.

Here's the Republic's take on it. 

Glendale ranked second in the U.S., according to the story, thanks to a $26.6 million negative fund balance at the close of fiscal 2012, due largely to sports-related debt.

Glendale has made a lot of mistakes, but I think that there is near universal agreement that the critical error was their decision to build the hockey arena.

Yep.  I have written about the egregious hockey deals that have bankrupted Glendale on several occasions.  George Will even quoted me on the topic.

Greg Patterson went back and looked at what the Arizona Republic was writing before the Glendale deals went so noticeably bad.  I have written before about how the media goes into full cheerleader mode on those crony stadium deals.

Before Glendale bankrupted itself to subsidize the hockey team, Scottsdale was offered the "opportunity" to do so and turned it down.  The local paper Arizona Republic excoriated Scottsdale for passing on the chance to subsidize rich sports team owners, saying that "Once-in-a-lifetime projects are just that".  Here is the best quote from the 2004 Republic editorial:

Our view is that Scottsdale's mishandling of the arena idea was a leadership blunder of biblical proportions. Enough with the blame game. We hope that Scottsdale at least has learned some tough lessons from the disaster.

And this is classic:

Some city officials seemed content to nitpick, complain, second-guess and haggle over details. They're right to be diligent. Certainly nobody endorses a Pollyanna-ish panel of rubber-stampers. But at the same time, people who are forever looking for stuff to complain about always seem to find it.

I bet Glendale wishes it had more second-guessers on its city council.  The whole thing is worth reading.

Postscript:  This is one recommendation from the Republic I can agree with:

Think twice about ever launching a redevelopment effort like this again. Sensing that the Los Arcos Mall area was hurting economically, the council formed the Los Arcos Redevelopment District in December 1995. The council adopted a redevelopment plan the following July, and the Ellman Cos. subsequently acquired the 42-acre site. Not too surprisingly, Ellman was the only one to answer the city's request for proposals.

Ellman owns the Los Arcos property. That gives him a lot of advantages, including a position of negotiating authority. It allows him to stoke political outrage by wearing down the patience of neighbors who would like to see something built on this key corner. Got a great idea about what should be done at Los Arcos? Too bad. Ellman still owns it. Condemnation is not a viable political or financial course for the city, and Ellman knows it.

Redevelopment almost always means "crony giveaway" nowadays.

The Public Rail Spending Game

Kevin Drum has a very good, succinct description of how the rail (light rail, high speed rail, commuter rail) spending game works, in the context of California High Speed Rail (HSR)

As near as I can tell, the HSR authority's plan all along has been to simply ignore the law and spend the bond money on a few initial miles of track. Once that was done, no one would ever have the guts to halt the project because it would already have $9 billion sunk into it. So one way or another, the legislature would keep it on a funding drip.

It's a time-tested strategy, and it might have worked if not for a meddling judge.

Here is a great example of this from Chicago, where all they could afford at first was a single station.

I applaud Drum for opposing this boondoggle, but if he really understands this so well, I wonder why he seldom demonstrates any skepticism about other rail and mass transit projects.

Rail projects, particularly light rail projects that are being constructed or proposed in nearly every major city, are a classic example of a nominally Progressive policy that ends up hurting all the people Progressives want to help.

Bus-based mass transit is an intelligent way to help lower income people have more urban mobility.  Buses are relatively cheap and they are supremely flexible (ie they can switch routes easily).  Such urban bus systems, which like any government run function often have their problems and scandals, never-the-less can be reasonably held up as a Progressive victory.

But middle and upper class people, for whatever reason, don't like buses.  But they do like trains.  And so cities, under middle class pressure, have shifted their mass transit investment to trains.  The problem is that trains are horrendously expensive.    The first 20-mile leg of Phoenix light rail cost over $1.4 billion, which amounts to about $70,000 per daily round-trip rider.  Trains are also inflexible.  You can't shift routes and you can't sell them-- they have to follow fixed routes, which tend to match middle class commuting routes.

Because the trains are so expensive to operate, cities that adopt them quickly start cutting back on bus service to feed money to the rail beast.  As a result, even transit poster-boy cities like Portland have seen the ridership share of mass transit fall, for the simple reason that rail greatly increases the cost per rider and there is not an infinite amount of money available to transit.

 

I'm Feeling Pretty Good About These Remarks on Inauguration Day 2009

I caught a lot of grief on inauguration day 2009 for questioning the general feeling that some new era was beginning.  Most of you may have repressed the memory at this point of what that day was like, but even normally intelligent, well-grounded people were going a bit goo goo that day.  

I am feeling pretty good about the remarks I made that day.  Here is part of what I wrote.

I am not enough of a historian to speak for much more than the last thirty years, but the popularity of non-incumbent political candidates has typically been proportional to 1) their personal charisma and 2) our lack of knowlege of their exact proposals....Folks are excited about Obama because, in essence, they don't know what he stands for, and thus can read into him anything they want.  Not since the breathless coverage of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault has there been so much attention to something where we had no idea of what was inside.  My bet is that the result with Obama will be the same as with the vault.

There is some sort of weird mass self-hypnosis going on, made even odder by the fact that a lot of people seem to know they are hypnotized, at least at some level.  I keep getting shushed as I make fun of friends' cult behavior watching the proceedings today, as if by jiggling someone's elbow too hard I might break the spell.  Never have I seen, in my lifetime, so much emotion invested in a politician we know nothing about.   I guess I am just missing some gene that makes the rest of humanity receptive to this kind of stuff, but just for a minute snap your fingers in front of your face and say "do I really expect a fundamentally different approach from a politician who won his spurs in .... Chicago?  Do I really think the ultimate political outsider is going to be the guy who bested everyone at their own game in the Chicago political machine?"

Well, the spell will probably take a while to break in the press, if it ever does -- Time Magazine is currently considering whether it would be possible to put Obama on the cover of all 52 issues this year -- but thoughtful people already on day 1 should have evidence that things are the same as they ever were, just with better PR.

And I wrote this about the candidate I actually preferred over the Republican alternative McCain. Which explains why it has been ages since I have voted for anything but the Libertarian candidate for President.  The last election was actually a pleasant surprise, as I was able to cast a vote for Gary Johnson, who I was able to vote for not just as a protest vote but as someone I actually would love to see as President.