Posts tagged ‘GE’

Insurance Companies Got Thrown Under the Bus Today. And They Know It.

Well, so much for the implicit gag order Obama has had on the insurance companies.  Bet we will find out a lot more interesting details about the exchange rollouts now.

[T]he White House has its own idea to stop the bleeding: Allow insurers to renew existing plans in 2014 (which means they could continue into 2015) while forcing them to send Landrieu-like letters explaining why their plans don’t conform to the Affordable Care Act’s standards.

This doesn’t really ensure anyone can actually keep their plan — which means it also doesn’t affect premiums in the exchanges. But it makes it easier for Democrats to blame insurers for canceling these plans. And it perhaps makes it easier for the White House to stop congressional Democrats from signing onto something like Landrieu or Udall.

The insurance industry is furious. They’ve been working with the White House to get HealthCare.Gov up and running and they’ve been devoting countless man hours to dealing with the problems and they’ve been taking the heat from their customers over canceled plans, and now the Obama administration wants to make them into a scapegoat.

“This doesn’t change anything other than force insurers to be the political flack jackets for the administration,” an insurance industry insider told Evan McMorris-Santoro. “So now, when we don’t offer these policies, the White House can say it’s the insurers doing this and not being flexible.”

This is like telling GE to reintroduce 100 watt lightbulbs on thirty days notice, and then blaming them if they don't do it.  Or as I tweeted earlier,

 Update:  Left rallying around Obama, spreading the word that cancellations are all the insurance companies' fault.  I am SO glad I am not affiliated with a political party such that I would feel the need to embarrass myself to support some flailing politician on my team.

The Left has been calling cancelled policies "sub-standard" for months now.  For three years Obama's own folks were estimating that over half of individual policies would have to be cancelled due to the law, and in fact they purposely wrote the regulations narrower to invalidate the maximum number of policies.  But now cancellations are the insurance companies' fault??

Where Did the Last Batch Go?

Obama and the Left want a big new infrastructure spending bill, based on twin theories that it would be a) stimulative and b) a bargain, as needed infrastructure could be built more cheaply with construction industry over-capacity.

Since this is exactly the same theory of the stimulus four years ago, it seems a reasonable question to ask:  What happened to the damn money we spent last time?  We were sold a 3/4 of a trillion dollar stimulus on it being mostly infrastructure.  So where is it?  Show us pictures, success stories.  Show us how the cost of construction of these projects were so much lower than expected because of construction industry over-capacity.  Show us the projects selected, to demonstrate how well thought-out the investment prioritization was.  If their arguments today have merit, all these things must be demonstrable from the last infrastructure bill.  So where is the evidence?

Of course, absolutely no one who wants to sell stimulus 2 (or 3?) wants to go down the path of investigating how well stimulus 1 was spent.  Instead, here is the argument presented:

Much of the Republican opposition to infrastructure spending has been rooted in a conviction that all government spending is a boondoggle, taxing hard-working Americans to give benefits to a favored few, and exceeding any reasonable cost estimate in the process. That's always a risk with new spending on infrastructure: that instead of the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system, you end up with the Bridge to Nowhere and the Big Dig.

In that sense, this is a great test of whether divided democracy can work, and whether Republicans can come to the table to govern. One can easily imagine a deal: Democrats get their new infrastructure spending, and Republicans insist on a structure that requires private sector lenders to be co-investors in any projects, deploying money based on its potential return rather than where the political winds are tilting.

This is bizarre for a number of reasons.  First, he implies the problem is that Republicans are not "coming to the table to govern"  In essence  then, it is up to those who criticize government incremental infrastructure spending (with a lot of good evidence for believing so) as wasteful to come up with a solution.  Huh?

Second, he talks about requiring private lenders to be co-investors in the project.  This is a Trojan horse.   Absurd projects like California High Speed Rail are sold based on the myth that private investors will step in along side the government.  When they don't, because the project is stupid, the government claims to be in too deep already and that it must complete it with all public funds.

Third, to the extent that the government can sweeten the deal sufficiently to make private investors happy, the danger of Cronyism looms large.  You get the government pouring money into windmills, for example, that benefits private investors with a sliver of equity and large manufacturers like GE, who practically have a hotline to the folks who run programs like this.

Fourth, almost all of these projects are sure to be local in impact - ie a bridge that helps New Orleans or a street paving project that aids Los Angeles.  So why are the Feds doing this at all?  If the prices are so cheap out there, and the need for these improvements so pressing, then surely it makes more sense to do them locally.  After all, the need for them, the cost they impose, and the condition of the local construction market are all more obvious locally than back in DC.  Further, the accountability for money spent at the Federal level is terrible.  There are probably countless projects I should be pissed off about having my tax money fund, but since I don't see them every day, I don't scream.  The most accountability exists for local money spent on local projects.

Behind the Curtain in the Corporate State

How the recent "fairness" tax bill became a vehicle for subsidizing connected corporations.

Baucus' Finance Committee passed a bill in August extending 50 expiring deductions and credits for favored industries. At Obama's insistence, the Baucus bill was cut and pasted word for word into the cliff legislation. Set aside for a moment how this contradicts Obama's talk about "fair shares" and the need to diminish the influence of lobbyists, and look at what this raft of tax favors shows us about the Baucus Machine.

Pick any one of the special-interest tax breaks extended by the cliff deal, and you're likely to find a former Baucus aide who lobbied for it on behalf of a large corporation or industry organization.

General Electric may have been the biggest winner from the cliff deal. GE makes more wind turbines than any other U.S. company, and it lobbied hard for extension of the wind production tax credit. But more important for the multinational conglomerate was an arcane-sounding provision that became Section 222 of Baucus' bill and then Section 322 of the cliff bill: "Extension of subpart F exception for active financing income."

In short, this provision allows multinationals to move profits to offshore financial subsidiaries and thus avoid paying U.S. corporate income taxes. This is a windfall for GE: The exception played a central role in GE paying $0 in U.S. corporate income tax in 2011 when it made $5.1 billion in U.S. profits.

Peter Prowitt, formerly Baucus' chief of staff, is now an in-house lobbyist and VP at GE. GE filings show Prowitt on the lobbying teams that won wind-tax credits, electric-vehicle tax credits, and "Extension of Subpart F Deferral for Financial Services."

The examples in the article go on and on.  The best way to get rich in America is not to have a great idea or work hard but to hire an ex-staffer from Senator Baucus's office.

Corporate DNA

Almost exactly seven years ago (amazing how long I have been blogging) I wrote an extended piece about how hard it is to change corporate DNA.  I was writing about GM but also used Wal-Mart as an example.  Part of this piece read:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.  Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

Megan McArdle makes some very similar points as I about Wal-Mart and how hard it is to change corporate DNA.  I recommend you read the whole thing.

Why Do I Think This Penalty Would Have Been Waived on GE or Dreamworks?

Politicians certainly live in their own world:

The Environmental Protection Agency has slapped a $6.8 million penalty on oil refiners for not blending cellulosic ethanol into gasoline, jet fuel and other products. These dastardly petroleum mongers are being so intransigent because cellulosic ethanol does not exist. It remains a fantasy fuel. The EPA might as well mandate that Exxon hire Leprechauns.

As a screen shot of EPA’s renewable fuels website confirms, so far this year - just as in 2011 - the supply of cellulosic biofuel in gallons totals zero.

“EPA’s decision is arbitrary and capricious. We fail to understand how EPA can maintain a requirement to purchase a type of fuel that simply doesn’t exist,” stated Charles Drevna, president of American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), the Washington-based trade association that represents the oil refining and petrochemicals industries.

I will remind Republicans thought that ethanol is a bipartisan turd, this particular requirement having been signed into law by President Bush.

A Circle Has No End -- GE and the Corporate State

The arch-corporate-statist  -- and official manufacturing company of the Obama Administration is feeding at the trough again.  Apparently a perfectly profitable company cannot buy assets from another profitable company without a large subsidized loan from taxpayers.  In this case, the Obama Administration is funding the KCS in its purchase of 30 new locomotives from GE.  The Obama Administration has recently doubled-down on its backing of the US Ex-Im bank, which has been helping to fund Boeing aircraft sales to foreign airlines (each of which, surprise!, has a couple of GE engines on it).

GE knows how this political game is played, with resources allocated based on quid pro quo.  Just the other day, GE announced that it would help bail out Obama and Government Motors buy mandating that all its company vehicles be Chevy Volts, in effect committing to buy more Volts than Chevy sold to consumers all last year.  Of course, the circle has no end, so in turn GE will be rewarded with $90,000,000 in government subsidies for its 12,000 Chevy Volts, a number that could increase to $120 million if Obama's proposal to increase the per car subsidy is accepted.

By the way, the Obama Administration has criticized oil companies like Exxon-Mobil for earning excessive profits and getting overly large tax breaks.  In 2010, Exxon paid a whopping 40.7% of its income in taxes ($21.6 billion in taxes on $53 billion in profits).   In the same year, Obama subsidiary General Electric paid 7.4% of profits in taxes.

I AM Doing Good

I accidentally watched a few minutes of a morning show today, something I try really hard to avoid.  Matt whats-his-name was interviewing Richard Branson, and they were talking about the importance of corporations "doing good".  Once startups get going, Branson said, they need to start doing good for people, meaning I guess that they buy carbon offsets or something.

Guess what?  If my startup is succesful, I am already doing good.  I can't make a dime unless I create value for people net of what they pay me.  Every customer walks away from our interaction better off, or they would not have voluntarily elected to trade with me (and if they are not better off, I will never see them again and I will find lots of nasty stuff chasing future customers away on the Internet.)  I am tired of this notion that a succesful business person's value can only be judged by what he or she does with their money and time outside of business.  I understand the frustration with a few Wall Street and GE-type executives who are living like fat ticks on their connections with government, but most of us only are succesful if we do something useful.

This, from Carpe Diem, is along the same lines.  He looks at an editorial from the DC paper about the entry of Walmart, which says among other things

Despite the peacocking by Gray and others after the agreement was signed, the District is receiving mostly crumbs. Walmart has committed to providing $21 million in charitable donations over the next seven years, an average of $3 million a year. That's a pittance."

Walmart does not have to do squat for the community beyond its core business, because selling  a broad range of goods conviniently and at really low prices is enough. Or if it is not enough, they will not make money.  The promise of $21 million to some boondoggle controlled by a  few politician's friends is just a distraction, I wish they had not done it, but I understand that this is essentially a bribe to the officials of the DC banana republic to let them do business.

Postscript:  I have no problem with doing charitable work outside of work.  Both my company and I do, by choice, though unlike Richard Branson I don't need to have a crew of paid PR agents making sure everyone knows it.

It's Hard To Change Corporate DNA

Especially when the government is doing all it can to damp the forces of evolution and extinction.  Via Mickey Kaus

Dysfunctional–or at any rate, not-functional-enough–corporate cultures are hard to change. That would include both the culture of the Old GM and that of many of its suppliers. Obama should have been more skeptical about “New GM’s” ability to turn itself around with its same old workforce and same old union

I warned of something similar long before GM was rescued by Bush and Obama:

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM’s DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM’s of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM’s DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM’s assets from GM’s control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe’s productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe’s most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

Power Imbalance: The Difference Between Liberal and Libertarian Philosophy

My new column is up at Forbes, and it is one of my favorites I have written for a while  (at least it seems so with my current scorpion-induced double vision).  It begins with Krugman's recent statement that the Left understands the Right and libertarian positions better than the Right and libertarians understand the Left.

I first demolish this as a pretentious crock, but then wander to more important topics

But I do understand the leftish position well enough to identify its key mistake.  As I mentioned earlier, we libertarians are similarly concerned with aggregations of power.   We have, at best, a love-hate relationship with large corporations, for example, enjoying the bounties they can bring us but fearing their size and power.

But what the Left ignores is that there is absolutely no power imbalance as large as that between the government and its citizens.    After all, you may get ticked off when Exxon charges you $4.00 a gallon for gas for reasons that aren't transparent to you, but you can always tell Exxon to kiss off and buy from someone else, or ride a bike, or stay home.    Because Exxon does not have armies and police and guns and prisons.

Every single time we give the government the power to right a perceived imbalance, we give the government more power than the private entity we are trying to contain.  In effect, we make things worse.   Because we want the government to counter-act the power of oil companies, Congress now has the power to dump large portions of our food supply into motor fuel, to the benefit of just a few politically connected ethanol companies.

One of the reasons the Left often cannot adequately articulate the libertarian position is that the notion of bottom-up emergent order tends to be difficult for many to understand or accept (this is mildly ironic, since the Left tends to defend the emergent order of Darwinian evolution against the top-down Christian creation vision).

The key to much of libertarian economics is not that libertarians trust private actors, but that libertarians trust natural correction mechanisms in free markets far more than it trusts authoritarian power of the government.   When, for example, large corporations become sloppy and abusive and senescent, markets will eventually bring them down.

In fact, when government is given power, nominally to correct such imbalances, they tend to use it to protect those in power as often as they do to protect the disenfranchised. Government restrictive licensing of hair dressers, interior designers, and morticians; bailouts of GM, Chrysler, and AIG; corporate welfare to GE and ADM; and use of imminent domain to hand private property to favored real estate  developpers -- all are examples of finding government cures for perceived private power imbalances that are worse than the disease.

Isacc Asimov, in a book called Foundation that Paul Krugman recently rated as one of the most influential on his life, related this fable:  Once there was a man and a horse, who were both imperiled by a wolf.  The man approached the horse, and said that if the horse would put its superior speed at his disposal, he could kill the wolf.  And so the horse agreed to take the man's saddle and bridle, and helped the man kill the wolf.  The horse said, "great job, now remove your saddle and we can both be free," and the man said "never!"

I hope the moral of the story is clear.  In trying to deal with the threat of the wolf, the horse gave the man so much power he became an even bigger threat.  So too when we look to government to solve our problems.

Read the whole thing, as they say

Regime Uncertainty

Kevin Drum doesn't buy the regime uncertainty argument as a partial explanation of the slow recovery.

Here's what's remarkable: Carter, a law professor at Yale, apparently never once bothered to ask this guy just what regulations he's talking about. Is he concerned with general stuff like the healthcare law? Or something highly specific to his industry? Or what?

Regardless, I've heard this kind of blowhard conversation too often to take it seriously. Sure, it's possible this guy manufactures canisters for nuclear waste or something, and there's a big regulatory change for nuclear waste storage that's been in the works for years and has been causing everyone in the industry heartburn for as long as they can remember. But the simple fact is that regulatory uncertainty is no greater today than it's ever been. Financialuncertainty is high, but the Obama adminstration just hasn't been overhauling regs that affect the cost of new workers any more than usual. The only substantial exception is the new healthcare law, and if you oppose it that's fine. But it was passed over a year ago and its effects are pretty easy to project.

First, the costs of the health care law are NOT easy to project, and are made even harder when your company might or might not get waivers from certain provisions.    Second, he seems to forget cap and trade, first by law and then by executive fiat; the NLRB's new veto power over corporate relocations it exercised with Boeing; the absurdly turbulent tax/regulatory/permitting regime in the energy field, and particularly oil and gas.  How about trillion dollar stimulus projects, that until very recently Obama was still talking about replicating (and Krugman begs for to this day).  I could go on and on.  This is spoke just like a person who never had to run a business.

Further, I wrote this in the comments section:

I think you are both right and wrong.  I am sure the discussion about this is to some extent overblown.  But you are thinking about business and hiring much too narrowly.

You seem to have a mental model of business showing up at the door, and someone turning that business down because they don't want to hire an employee to serve it (or out of sheer petulance because Fox News told them to sit on their hands, lol).  You find it unlikely anyone would refuse the business, and so do I.

But I run a small to medium size business, and a lot of hiring decisions don't work that way.    I do have some situations that fit your model - I have a campground that is really busy this year, so we hired more people to serve the volume.   No problem.

But most of my hiring decisions are effectively investments.  I am going to create a new position, pay money to train that person, and pay their wage for a while in advance of demand.  Or I am going to open a new site or department or location and make a lot of investment, and the return on investment may be very sensitive to small changes in labor or regulatory costs.

For our business, with labor costs over 50% of costs, the issue is definitely labor costs.  Our pre-tax margins are in the 6-7% range.  So if labor costs are 60% of revenues, then a 10% change in labor costs might wipe out the margin entirely, and a much smaller change in costs might flip the investment from making sense to not making sense.

We run a seasonal business with part-time workers who are older and on Medicare.  Regulations about exactly how much we will have to pay under Obamacare have not been written, so we have no idea how much our employment costs will go up in 2014, so we sit and wait.  I have cancelled two planned campground construction projects in the last 6 months because we have no freaking idea if they will make money.

If I am having trouble with just this one law figuring out whether to make investments, what are, say, oil companies doing in evaluating investments when they have absolutely no idea what their taxes will be, whether they will be permitted or not to drill, or whether they will be subject to cap and trade?

One other thought, it strikes me that there is a lot of good scholarship that suggests that the Great Depression was extended by just this kind of regime uncertainty.  Now, of course, the proposed structural changes to the economy being proposed at the time were more radical than anything on the table today.  The National Industrial Recovery Act was essentially an experiment in Mussolini-style economic corporatism, until most of it was struck down by the Supreme Court.   Nothing so radical is being proposed (unless you work in health care).

Look, I know the Left has convinced itself that only consumer demand matters in an economy, but business investment has simply got to matter in a recovery.   If the returns on future investments are harder to predict, and therefore riskier, businesses are going to apply a higher hurdle rate to new investments, meaning they don't stop entirely, but do invest less.

One interesting may to confirm this some day would be to look back and see if larger corporations with political access invested more than smaller ones or ones with less access.  Did GE, who clearly can get whatever it wants right now from the government, invest more than a small company or even than Exxon, which is on the political outs?  If so, this in my mind would confirm the regime uncertainty hypothesis, because it means that the companies doing most of the investing were the ones confident that they could shape the mandates coming out of the government in their favor.

Beyond regime uncertainty, if you want to talk about Obama and the recovery, you have to mention that a trillion dollars was diverted from private hands to public hands.  Does anyone believe that taking a trillion dollars out of whatever investments private actors would have used the money for and diverting most of it to help maintain government payrolls is really the way to increase the strength and productivity of the economy?

Good News, I Hope

I have to take this with a grain of salt, because it is coming from GE, the current American poster-child for rent-seeking, particularly in attempting to be a magnet for green energy subsidies.   But since the statement can be seen as under-cutting the subsidy argument, I have to take it more seriously:

Solar power may be cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors within three to five years because of innovations, said Mark M. Little, the global research director for General Electric Co.

“If we can get solar at 15 cents a kilowatt-hour or lower, which I’m hopeful that we will do, you’re going to have a lot of people that are going to want to have solar at home,” Little said yesterday in an interview in Bloomberg’s Washington office.

....GE, based in Fairfield, Connecticut, announced in April that it had boosted the efficiency of thin-film solar panels to a record 12.8 percent....The cost of solar cells, the main component in standard panels, has fallen 21 percent so far this year, and the cost of solar power is now about the same as the rate utilities charge for conventional power in the sunniest parts of California, Italy and Turkey.

I am all for that.  I have always had faith that solar would make sense someday, and that we would be ranking out cheap solar conversion surfaces like carpet out of Dalton, Georgia, but every time I have priced it to date on my house, even with huge government subsidies, it has not made sense.    In Europe, it requires 50-60 cent feed in tariffs (basically a subsidy in the form of above-market electricity prices paid by the utility for solar-sourced electricity) to get solar capacity installed, so 15-cents would be great and is approaching the cost of electricity in some high cost areas.

Here in Phoenix, FirstSolar does a ton of thin film.  I have always had mixed feelings about FirstSolar.  On the one hand, they live off subsidies and would basically not be in business if it were not for huge European subsidies of various forms.  On the other, though, they have been one of the few solar companies that actively have talked for years of a development path to a cost position that does not require subsidies.

Dispatches from The Corporate State

This is the kind of story I always thought typical of corporate states like France. It is sad to see this happening so frequently in the US

Recently, President Obama selected General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to chair his Economic Advisory Board. GE is awash in windmills waiting to be subsidized so they can provide unreliable, expensive power.

Consequently, and soon after his appointment, Immelt announced that GE will buy 50,000 Volts in the next two years, or half the total produced. Assuming the corporation qualifies for the same tax credit, we (you and me) just shelled out $375,000,000 to a company to buy cars that no one else wants so that GM will not tank and produce even more cars that no one wants. And this guy is the chair of Obama's Economic Advisory Board?

This is the classic kind of cozy relationship between large industrial corporations and government that has been a feature of European states for years.

Fascinating Insight into the Corporate State

This story is from the WSJ, and gets extra bonus points for including the poster-boy of the corporate state, Jeffrey Immelt

Treasury and OMB singled out an 845-megawatt wind farm that the Energy Department had guaranteed in Oregon called Shepherds Flat, a $1.9 billion installation of 338 General Electric turbines. Combining the stimulus and other federal and state subsidies, the total taxpayer cost is about $1.2 billion, while sponsors GE and Caithness Energy LLC had invested equity of merely about 11%. The memo also notes the wind farm could sell power at "above-market rates" because of Oregon's renewable portfolio standard mandate, which requires utilities to buy a certain annual amount of wind, solar, etc.

But then GE said it was considering "going to the private market for financing out of frustration with the review process." Anything but that. The memo dryly observes that "the alternative of private financing would not make the project financially non-viable."

Oh, and while Shepherds Flat might result in about 18 million fewer tons of carbon through 2033, "reductions would have to be valued at nearly $130 per ton CO2 for the climate benefits to equal the subsidies (more than 6 times the primary estimate used by the government in evaluating rules)."

So here we have the government already paying for 65% of a project that doesn't even meet its normal cost-benefit test, and then the White House has to referee when one of the largest corporations in the world (GE) importunes the Administration to move faster by threatening to find a private financial substitute like any other business. Remind us again why taxpayers should pay for this kind of corporate welfare?

First, the moment GE said that this could be financed privately, the Feds should have said "then what the f*ck are you talking to us for? Get out of here."  By the way, privately probably does not mean privately -- it probably means going to private banks or investors who in turn access many of the same taxpayer funds.

Second, its amazing that the threat to finance this privately rather than sponging off taxpayer funds is treated as a threat by the Obama Administration.  They desperately want to "take credit" for the project and can only do so by spending our money  (this is the same impulse that propels politicians who have never given a dime to charity to want to spend taxpayer money in order to be called "caring.")

Inherent Political Failure of Technocracy

Supporters of Obamacare argued that it would reduce costs because decisions to fund or not fund certain procedures and drugs would be left to panels of experts (later derisively labelled "death panels").

I have argued many times that these panel's job is hopeless.  Solutions and products that may be right for one person may be a waste for another situation, and there is absolutely no way they have the information or the scope to make decisions with any kind of granularity.  One-size-fits-all solutions result.

But let's hold that thought for a minute.  Let's presume that these supposedly non-political boards will make near-perfect decisions.  Then what?  Those decisions become the law of the land?

Hah.  We have a parallel situation in the military, where DoD procurement supposedly acts as the disinterested expert, which Congress frequently ignores to pay off various constituencies.

If Congress is looking for New Year's resolutions, it could start by breaking the habit of funding programs the government doesn't want. A case in point is the attempt to throw another $450 million at the development of a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plan that Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the military doesn't need.

In what has become an annual ritual, Congress is weighing whether one of the largest weapons programs in history should support the development of F-35 engines by both General Electric and Pratt & Whitney. In 2001, GE's engine lost in the procurement competition to the one designed by Pratt & Whitney, as F-35 developers Lockheed Martin and Boeing preferred the latter version.

To hedge its technological risk, the Pentagon nonetheless sought financing for the GE engine as a backup through 2006 in case the Pratt & Whitney version fell short. That hasn't happened, and as budgets have tightened the Pentagon has understandably decided that it needs only one engine design. As Secretary Gates put it, "Only in Washington does a proposal where everybody wins get considered a competition, where everybody is guaranteed a piece of the action at the end."

The Pentagon's opposition hasn't stopped Congress, where the usual parochial suspects are still stumping for GE. And the White House appears to be bending.

Of course they are -- the GE CEO carried a lot of water for Obama on health care and energy policy, and will be expecting a pay back.  Someone has to be terribly naive to believe similar shenanigans won't take place with health care.

But we don't have to wait to test this hypothesis.  The fifty states all have must-carry rules in their states, which have a lot more to do with political pull than science - more here and here.

True Cost of the GM Bankruptcy

As can be expected, the media really did a poor job of covering the GM IPO, consistently underestimating the total public cost of the bailout (e.g. no one is mentioning the $45 billion in tax-loss carryforwards GM was allowed to keep, against all precedent).

But the real cost of the handling of the GM bankruptcy is in 1) the terrible precedents it set in hammering secured creditors to the benefit of favored political allies of the Administration and 2) the loss of the opportunity to get billions of dollars in production assets out of the hands of the people who have be sub-optimizing them.

It was this latter issue I have focused the most on, particularly in this post where I argued for letting GM die.  I said in part:

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA.  ...

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one"¦ for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

Dispatches from the Corporate State

The NY Times has a fairly ugly story, though hardly unique, of a project to restore water flow to the Everglades turning into a corporate welfare project for United States Sugar.   The short story is that in a time when United States Sugar was in desperate financial straights and when real estate prices in Florida were tumbling, the Florida government treated USS like it had all the power, rolling over to paying above-market prices and letting USS pick and choose the land parcels to be purchased.  The story did not mention much about it, but there is a second large sugar producer in the area who it strikes me could have been played off against USS to get the best deal.

Remember that the US Sugar operation likely exists only because of sugar tariffs and import quotas that raise the price of sugar in the US well above the world norm.  So consumers are paying extra, and drinking soft drinks with crappy HFCS, so that US Sugar can screw up the Everglades and get bailed out by taxpayers.   Readers will understand it is the purest coincidence that US Sugar's attorney is chief of staff to the state's governor.

From running my recreation privatization blog, I know that there are many folks who will ascribe this to a failure of private enterprise and an excess of corporate speech and money in politics.   But to my mind this is a great example of why election and speech limits don't have any utility.  This is all back room lobbying, cronyism, and quid pro quo politics that doesn't show up in any monetary ledger, and thus are not and have never been subject to any limits.  As I wrote here:

when the stakes of government are so high, money and influence never goes away.  Just as in any economy, when you ban money, a barter economy arises.  So if we ban large campaign spending, then the quid pro quo becomes grass roots efforts and voter mobilization.  Groups like the UAW become more powerful (we are seeing that already).  They are trading their member's votes for influence.  Connected companies like GE are doing the same thing, trading their support for legislation that is generally hostile to commerce for specific clauses in said legislation that exempts GE and/or makes the laws even more punishing on their competition.  The problem with all this activity is it is hard to see and totally unaccountable "” at least with advertisements we see people out in the open with their agendas.

The other obvious point is that no private entity would ever allow themselves to get rolled so badly by US Sugar.  They would have sense USS's weakness and broken its knees in the negotiation.  One US Sugar manager even says as much:

For its board members, Mr. Crist's overture was appealing in part because they figured a government purchase would be far more lucrative than a private deal.

"It wasn't another company coming in and bottom-fishing you," Mr. Wade said. "They knew it would be for fair-market appraisals."

Over at my privatization blog, I wrote about a deal in Chicago where the government made four or five huge mistakes in issuing a private contract that a private company (or at least one that is not going to go bankrupt) would never make.  So of course the problems are blamed on privatization.

Speech and Spending

I had a dinner conversation last night with my Massachusetts mother-in-law.  She is pretty interesting to talk to because she is a pretty good bellwether for Democratic talking points on most issues.  She was opposed to the recent Supreme Court speech decision removing limits on third party advertising near an election  (I think she misunderstood the scope of that decision but that is not surprising given the shoddy reporting on it, up to and including Obama getting it wrong in his State of the Union).   She advocated strict campaign spending restrictions (both in terms of amount of money and length of the campaign season) combined with term limits.

We could have gone a lot of places with the discussion, but we ended up (before we terminated the conversation in the name of civility) discussing whether restrictions on money were equivalent to restrictions on speech.  She of course said they were not, and said under strict monetary controls I still had freedom of speech - weren't we still talking in the car?

It is hard to reach common ground when one person is arguing from a strict rights-based point of view while the other is arguing from a utilitarian point-of-view.   Essentially she knows in her heart that she is restricting speech, but wishes to do so to reach a better outcome.  I made a couple of utilitarian arguments, including:

  • I pointed out that when the stakes of government are so high, money and influence never goes away.  Just as in any economy, when you ban money, a barter economy arises.  So if we ban large campaign spending, then the quid pro quo becomes grass roots efforts and voter mobilization.  Groups like the UAW become more powerful (we are seeing that already).  They are trading their member's votes for influence.  Connected companies like GE are doing the same thing, trading their support for legislation that is generally hostile to commerce for specific clauses in said legislation that exempts GE and/or makes the laws even more punishing on their competition.  The problem with all this activity is it is hard to see and totally unaccountable -- at least with advertisements we see people out in the open with their agendas.
  • I observed that it was smart to add term limits to her plan, as otherwise her recommendations would be the great incumbent protection act.  But by limiting money, immediate advantage is given to people who already have name recognition and celebrity.  Think we have too many actors and athletes running for office?   Well be prepared for a flood with stricter campaign finance restrictions

However, I tend to shy away form utilitarian arguments.  The best arguments I have against the notion that money can be restricted without restricting speech are:

  • Her comment that I still had freedom of speech (ie I am talking freely in the car) with strict campaign cash restrictions ignores the actual wording of the First Amendment, which reads "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech."  Her test, which is "Am I still able to speak in some forum even if I can't in others" is not a valid test for conformance to the First Amendment.  Otherwise, speech could be restricted at will as long as there was some narrow safe harbor where one could express his opinion.    The better test is whether the proposed law, ie a restriction on how much and when a person can spend money advertising his or her opinions, abridges or reduces freedom of speech.  And I think it is hard to deny that everyone has less freedom, in the form of fewer options and reduced scope, after such legislation.
  • One interesting test is to broaden the question -- Does restricting spending on something (in this case speech) constitute a restriction on one's underlying right to the activity (e.g. speaking freely).  I was tempted to ask her (she is a strong and vocal abortion rights supporter) whether she would therefore consider the right to abortion to be untouched by Congress if a law were passed to limit each person's spending on abortion to $5 a year.   Abortion would still be entirely legal  -- all government would be doing is putting on some spending restrictions.   Obviously one's scope and options to get an abortion would be limited -- only those who happened to have a doctor in the family could perhaps get an abortion -- just as under her speech plan only those who had a large newspaper in the family could speak fully and freely before an election.

A Few More Thoughts on Citizen's United

A friend of mine from Princeton days writes:

... and you seem in favor of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs the FEC, I was wondering how you feel about being a customer or supplier or competitor of large businesses who can spend far more than your business to influence the rules of the game.

From what I read, I am sure you have a compelling answer, but I would be scared to death. (Maybe that's why I work for a large corporation [Target] instead of attempting to run my own business.)

I thought this was a pretty good question, and I answered:

  1. I try hard not to make utilitarian arguments to Constitutional and rights issues.  As an example, I am sure we might have less crime if the police were empowered to incarcerate anyone they wanted without trial, but we don't do it that way.
  2. I worry most about corporate lobbying (e.g. by Immelt at GE) and this is unaffected by this ruling - it was legal before and after.   This decision allows corporate advertising, which is public and visible, which I can at least see and react to, as opposed to back room deal making.
  3. Libertarians certainly worry about your question, and why many of us fear that what we are creating in this country is a European-style corporate state, rather than socialism.  To a libertarian, the answer is not less speech, but less government power to pick winners and losers in commerce.

Further Thoughts on Corporate Speech

The reaction by the left to the Supreme Court decision yesterday overturning speech limitations on corporations seems tremendously hypocritical.  No one seems to complain on the left when certain groups/corporations (call them "assembly of individuals") get special access to the government and policy making.  Jeffrey Immelt and GE, Goldman Sachs, the SEIU, and the UAW all get special direct access to shape legislation in ways that may give special privileges to their organization -- access I and my company will never have.

Deneen Borelli wrote, in response to Keith Olberman's fevered denunciations of free speech for corporations

"It also seems as if the pot is calling the kettle black. MSNBC is currently owned by General Electric. GE Capital was bailed out by the taxpayers. GE CEO Jeff Immelt is a close advisor to President Obama, and GE would profit from Obama policies such as cap-and-trade. Olbermann has served as a cheerleader for all of this. Are Immelt and Olbermann simply afraid to allow others to possibly gain the attention and influence GE has had all along?"

Here is an example -- has the health care bill considered my company's situation, where we have 400 seasonal workers, almost all of whom are over 70 and on Medicare already?  How, in these circumstances, do we offer health care plans?  Are we relieved of the penalty for not offering a plan if they are on Medicare or a retirement health plan already?  The legislation does not address these issues (see Hayek) and I am sure numerous others, but I will never be able to cut a special deal for my workers or my industry as GE or the UAW have.

Further, corporate paid speech is alive and well in this administration, you and I just can't see it.  Lobbyists are all having record, banner, unbelievable revenues, in large part because the government is putting such a large chunk of the economy in play for forced redistribution and everyone who can afford it is paying to influence the process.

But nothing in any of the good government reforms have (rightly) ever put any kind of restrictions on this kind of speech directly to legislators.  The only speech they limit is speech to the public at large.  In effect, McCain-Feingold said that it is just fine to spend gobs of money speaking directly to us government folks, but try to go over our heads and talk directly to the unwashed masses, well, we have to make that illegal.  Far from tilting the balance of power to a few rich elite firms, the recent Supreme Court decision gives new power to the rest of us who don't have privileged access.

Update: Speaking of hypocrisy, the NY Times Corporation is outraged other corporations have been given the same rights it has had all along.  In a sense, the Times is lamenting their loss of a monopoly.

Update #2: Ilya Somin:  Corporate speech is actually an equalizer for far worse inequalities of political influence and access that already exist.

The Corporate State, Illustrated

Couldn't have illustrated the new corporate state that Obama is building better than this -- at state where large corporations, unions, and government officials conspire to use government power to enrich their contituencies to the detriment of smaller businesses, consumers, and taxpayers.  WSJ via Tad DeHaven:

The government has taken on a giant role in the U.S. economy over the past year, penetrating further into the private sector than anytime since the 1930s. Some companies are treating the government's growing reach "” and ample purse "” as a giant opportunity, and are tailoring their strategies accordingly. For GE, once a symbol of boom-time capitalism, the changed landscape has left it trawling for government dollars on four continents.

"˜The government has moved in next door, and it ain't leaving,' Mr. [GE CEO Jeffrey] Immelt said at the International Economic Forum of the Americas in Montreal in June. "You could fight it if you want, but society wants change. And government is not going away.'

A close look at GE's campaign to harvest stimulus money shows Mr. Immelt to be its driving force"¦ Inside GE, he pushed his managers hard to devise plans for capturing government money.

By January, Mr. Immelt had become a leading corporate voice in favor of the $787 billion stimulus bill, supporting it in op-ed pieces and speeches. Reporters who called the Obama administration for information on renewable-energy provisions in the legislation were directed to GE.

When the stimulus package was rolled out, Mr. Immelt instructed executives leading the company's major business units "to put together swat teams to get stimulus money, and [identify] who to fire if they don't get the money," says a person who heard him issue the instructions.

In February, a few days after President Obama signed the stimulus plan, GE lawyers, lobbyists and executives crowded into a conference room at GE's Washington office to figure out how to parlay billions of dollars in spending provisions into GE contracts. Staffers from coal, renewable-energy, health-care and other business units broke into small groups to figure out "how to help companies" "” its customers, in particular "” "get those funds," according to one person who attended.

From Henry Payne, in an article on the auto industry:

The Left likes having Big Industry straw men to bash whenever their socialist plans run aground, but the fact is, Big Industry is embracing the U.S.'s leftward lurch. Better to secure your place at the Rentseekers Roundtable, to lock out new competition and guarantee a never-ending stream of government welfare.

Regulation is About Protecting Incumbents

Darin Morely sent me this.  Woe be it to the upstart competitor with a new business model who challenges an incumbent with political connections.  This goes double when the incumbent is the government itself:

One of the great things about the web, obviously, is that it allows for much more efficient communication that opens up new and useful offerings. For example: the web offers the ability to find other people traveling to the same general place you're heading and to set up a convenient carpool. It's good for the environment. It's good for traffic. It just makes a lot of sense. Unless, of course, you're a bus company and you're so afraid that people will use such a system rather than paying to take the bus. That's what happened up in Ontario, as earlier this year we wrote about a bus company that was trying to shut down PickupPal, an online carpooling service, or being an unregulated transportation company. TechCrunch points us to the news that the Ontario transportation board has sided with the bus company and fined PickupPal. It's also established a bunch of draconian rules that any user in Ontario must follow if it uses the service -- including no crossing of municipal boundaries -- meaning the service is only good within any particular city's limits.

All of us in the states need to be prepared for more of this corporate economy thing in the US.  I saw last night on Sunday Night Football that NBC is really going hard on some green initiative, including having a green peacock.  GE (parent company of NBC) is a smart company and sees the writing on the wall.  It understands the new administration and Congress seem hell-bent on moving us to a more European model.  In that model, there are 10-20 corporations per country that insinuate themselves into government and get the opportunity to help run the country to their own benefit.  GE wants to be one of these chosen few.  The push is going on not just at NBC, but in light bulbs (betting on Congressional action to provide regulatory support for a new type of bulb they have invented) and in power systems (who are making large bets on wind that will not pay off without a government subsidy program).

In the near term, GE may need a bailout in its financial arm.  GE must have seen that GM made a huge public push for its Chevy Volt over the last 6 months, spending hundreds of million in advertising on a car that does not exist yet. Why would a company near bankrupcy do this?  We now know the advertising was aimed at Congress and the Administration, not consumers, trying to burnish their green image to give Democrats enough political cover to vote for the bailout their UAW supporters so desperately need  (any chapter 11 would likely result in enormous restructurings of union contracts).

Let GM Fail!

This is a reprise of a much older post, but it struck me as fairly timely.

I had a conversation the other day with a person I can best describe as a well-meaning technocrat.  Though I am not sure he would put it this baldly, he tends to support a government by smart people imposing superior solutions on the sub-optimizing masses.  He was lamenting that allowing a company like GM to die is dumb, and that a little bit of intelligent management would save all those GM jobs and assets.  Though we did not discuss specifics, I presume in his model the government would have some role in this new intelligent design (I guess like it had in Amtrak?)

There are lots of sophisticated academic models for the corporation.  I have even studied a few.  Here is my simple one:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.  Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

I don't know if GM will fail (but a lot of other people have opinions) but if it does, I am confident that the end result will be positive for America.

* Those who accuse me of being more influenced by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash than Harvard Business School may be correct.
** Gratuitous reference aimed at forty-somethings who used to hang out at the mall.  In my town, Merry-go-round was the place teenage girls went if they wanted to dress like, uh, teenage girls.  I am pretty sure the store went bust a while back.

Why Its OK If GM Fails

This is a reprise of a much older post, but since I have limited time for blogging, I thought it might be timely to reprise it:

I had a conversation the other day with a person I can best describe
as a well-meaning technocrat.  Though I am not sure he would put it
this baldly, he tends to support a government by smart people imposing
superior solutions on the sub-optimizing masses.  He was lamenting that
allowing a company like GM to die is dumb, and that a little bit of
intelligent management would save all those GM jobs and assets.  Though
we did not discuss specifics, I presume in his model the government
would have some role in this new intelligent design (I guess like it
had in Amtrak?)

There are lots of sophisticated academic models for the corporation.  I have even studied a few.  Here is my simple one:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA
has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value
of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a
company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the
consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for
having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial
companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's
management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and
paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier
effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown
rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one...
for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping
climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing
comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or
some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.
When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA
is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation
is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a
bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of
brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and
modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants,
at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the
right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of
20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the
best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our
nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then
releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.
Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation,
find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has
more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).
A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large
corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to
fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In
conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting
corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human
and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than
one. 

I don't know if GM will fail (but a lot of other people have opinions) but if it does, I am confident that the end result will be positive for America.

* Those who accuse me of being more influenced by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash than Harvard Business School may be correct.
**
Gratuitous reference aimed at forty-somethings who used to hang out at
the mall.  In my town, Merry-go-round was the place teenage girls went
if they wanted to dress like, uh, teenage girls.  I am pretty sure the
store went bust a while back.

Cap and Rent-Seek

Just the other day, I made the point that just because regulated corporations support a regulation does not mean that said regulation is sensible or good for the economy.  Often, incumbents are beneficiaries of industry regulation, which tends to give them certain advantages over new entrants.  I showed an example with General Electric and the new energy bill regulating light bulbs:

we see that GE has a product sitting on the shelf ready for release
that fits perfectly with the new mandate.  Assuming competitors don't
have such a technology yet, the energy bill is then NOT a regulation of
GE's product that they reluctantly bow to, but a mandate that allows GE
to keep doing business but trashes their competition.  It is a market
share acquisition law for GE.

Marlo Lewis makes a similar point, this time in relation to cap and trade systems:

I can't count how many times I've heard that line of
chatter"”and from people who usually assume anything corporations are
for must be bad!
 
There are many reasons some corporations
support cap-and-trade, or at least say nice things about it in public.
Some companies seek the PR value from looking green....
 
But in the case of energy companies, many who support
cap-and-trade do so in the expectation that they'll get a boatload of
carbon permits from the government"”for free!
 
Permits represent an artificial, government-created
scarcity in the right to produce energy. The right to produce energy is
very valuable, especially where government restricts it. The tighter
the cap, the more valuable each permit traded under the cap.
And this is a major problem with cap and trade that no one talks about:  It is a huge government subsidy and protection of existing competitors against new entrants.  Because in most systems, current competitors receive a starting allotment of credits for free, but new entrants who want to start up and compete against existing companies must purchase their credits.  This is tolerated in Europe, because that is how the European quasi-corporate-state works, with politicians and large corporations in bed together to protect each others' incumbency.  But it creates a stagnating economic mess, ironically locking in place the very companies and business models environmentalists would like to see overtaken by new ideas and entrants.

Frequent readers know that I am not convinced the costs of man-made global warming exceed the costs of abating such warming.  However, if we are going to do so, a carbon tax makes so much more sense, in that it avoids the implicit subsidies of incumbents and reduces the opportunities for rent-seeking and political shenanigans.  Politicians, however, live for these rent-seeking opportunities, because they generate so many campaign contributions.  They also favor hidden taxes, as cap-and-trade would be, over direct taxes, such as the carbon tax, because they are, well, gutless.

More here on cap-and-trade vs. carbon tax.

HT:  Tom Nelson

Businesses and Regulation

I sometimes here supporters of a certain regulation say "even big company X supports this regulation, so it must be a good idea."  But this is based on a faulty assumption, similar to that made by people who equate being pro-business in politics with being pro-free markets.  They are not the same thing.  As was said at the Cato blog:

Representatives of the business community frequently are the worst
enemies of freedom. They often seek special subsidies and handouts, and
commonly conspire with politicians to thwart competition (conveniently,
they want competition among their suppliers, just not for their own
products). Fortunately, most business organizations still tend to be -
on balance - supporters of limited government. But as the Wall Street Journal notes, some state and local chambers of commerce have become relentless enemies of good policy.

Incumbents of major industries very often shape regulation to their advantage, and to the disadvantage of consumers and smaller or new competitors.  For example, as one of the larger companies in my business, many of the regulations and restrictions I rail against in this blog actually help my business.  Licensing requirements, bonding requirements, insurance requirements, regulatory and reporting requirements, etc.  all tend to make it nearly impossible for new companies to enter the business to compete against me, and give a distinct advantage to the larger incumbent players.   I still vehemently oppose all that garbage, but I do so as a defender of capitalism and against what are probably the best interests of my company.

So when large companies like GE say that they are now on the global warming bandwagon and support government intervention in CO2 emissions and such, it is not an indicator that CO2 science is any good; it just means GE has decided that likely CO2 legislation will help its bottom line.  While GE is portrayed as someone who will get hurt by CO2 regulation but is reluctantly coming around to the science anyway, what it in fact really means is that GE has decided that global warming regulation can be shaped to its advantage, particularly if it can use its size and political muscle molding the details of that regulation.  Here is a great example, via Tom Nelson (the Instapundit of global warming skepticism)

But there is sure to be strong opposition to the bill, including from General Electric Co.

The
light bulb maker is developing a new generation of efficient
incandescent bulbs, said Kim Freeman, a GE spokeswoman in Louisville,
Ky.

By 2012, she said, GE will have an incandescent bulb that uses as little energy as the compact fluorescent bulbs sold today.

"We
would oppose any legislation that would ban a particular technology,"
she said. "Giving consumers more choices is the appropriate approach."

The
company supports the standards passed by Congress in December,
according to Freeman. That law requires bulbs to be 25 percent to 30
percent more efficient starting in 2012.

Read between the lines, and you see GE attempting to steer global warming legislation to its advantage.   The last paragraph goes a long way to explaining GE's support of the last energy bill (with substantial light bulb legislation), which GE might have been expected to oppose.  Because now we see that GE has a product sitting on the shelf ready for release that fits perfectly with the new mandate.  Assuming competitors don't have such a technology yet, the energy bill is then NOT a regulation of GE's product that they reluctantly bow to, but a mandate that allows GE to keep doing business but trashes their competition.  It is a market share acquisition law for GE.  On the other hand, GE says a total ban would be bad, because it would force CF bulbs to the forefront, where GE trails its competitors.  This is the cynical calculus of rent-seeking through regulation.  And it is all worthless, because high efficiency bulbs are one of the things that so clearly pay for themselves that consumers will make the switch for themselves without government mandates.