Posts tagged ‘GM’

Administrative Bloat

Benjamin Ginsberg is discussing administrative bloat in academia:

Carlson confirms this sad tale by reporting that increases in administrative staffing drove a 28 percent expansion of the higher education work force from 2000 to 2012.  This period, of course, includes several years of severe recession when colleges saw their revenues decline and many found themselves forced to make hard choices about spending.  The character of these choices is evident from the data reported by Carlson.  Colleges reined in spending on instruction and faculty salaries, hired more part-time adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors and, yet, found the money to employ more and more administrators and staffers.

Administrative bloat is a problem in every organization.  It would be nice to think that organizations can stay right-sized at all times, but the reality is that they bloat in good times, and have to have layoffs to trim the fat in bad times.

The difference between high and low-performing organizations, though, is often where they make their cuts.  It appears from this example that academia is protecting its administration staff at the expense of its front-line value delivery staff (ie the faculty).  This is a hallmark of failing organizations, and we find a lot of this behavior in public agencies.  For example, several years ago when Arizona State Parks had to have  a big layoff, they barely touched their enormous headquarters staff and laid off mostly field customer service and maintenance staff. (At the time, Arizona State Parks and my company, both of whom run public parks, served about the same number of visitors.  ASP had over 100 HQ staff, I had 1.5).

This tendency to protect administrative staff over value-delivery staff is not unique to public institutions - General Motors did the same thing for years in the 70's and 80's.  But it is more prevalent in the public realm because of lack of competition.  In the private world, companies that engage in such behaviors are eventually swept away (except if you are GM and get bailed out at every turn).  Public agencies persist on and on and on and never go away, no matter how much they screw up.  When was the last time you ever heard of even the smallest public agency getting shut down?

I would love to see more on the psychology of this tendency to protect administrative over line staff.   My presumption has always been that 1) those in charge of the layoffs know the administrative staff personally, and so it is harder to lay them off and 2) Administrative staff tend to offload work from the executives, so they have more immediate value to the executives running the layoffs.

Wow

This is one of the more amazing things I have read of late.  Environmentalist recants his opposition to GMOs.  Good, I hope Greenpeace is listening and will reconsider its absurd and destructive opposition to golden rice.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

So I guess you’ll be wondering – what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist....

So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.

I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

Bravo Mr Lynas.  It is hard to admit one was wrong.  It is even harder, though, for a man like Lynas to declare himself on the "wrong" side of a "progressive" issue like this.  He has now likely put himself into a category along with black Republicans who will incur special wrath and disdain from progressives.

Speaking of the need for a little science in the environmental movement, I was channel surfing over Bill Moyer's show yesterday on PBS (actually I was navigating to our local PBS station to  make sure Downton Abbey was set to record later in the day) when I heard Moyer whip out a stat that even with a carbon tax, the world will warm over 6 degrees this century.  Now, I don't know if he was talking in degrees F or C, but in either case, a 6 degree number far outstrips the climate sensitivity numbers used even by the IPCC, which many of us skeptics believe has exaggerated warming estimates.  It is constantly frustrating to be treated as an enemy of science by those who display such a casual contempt for it, while at the same time fetishizing it.

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.

The Silly Fact-Check Genre

I do not agree with Mitt Romney's implied protectionism in his ads, particularly when he says

Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China

The problem with Obama's intervention in the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies was cronyism -- the protection of favored insiders to the detriment of the operation of the rule of law -- rather than any accelerated globalization.  The auto industry is a global business, deal with it. We should be thrilled that Chrysler is participating in the Chinese economy, an opportunity they would not have had a generation or two ago.  This kind of populist BS is exactly why I voted Johnson, not Romney, this morning.

Anyway, this statement has been subject to a lot of "fact-checking."  Chrysler head Sergio Marchionne wrote a letter in the Detroit News, and while he did not attempt to deny the part about Italians (though that would have been funny), he did write:

Chrysler Group's production plans for the Jeep brand have become the focus of public debate.

I feel obliged to unambiguously restate our position: Jeep production will not be moved from the United States to China.

OK, thanks for the clarification.  But wait, the letter goes on.  He spends a lot of time explaining how Chrysler is investing a lot in Jeep SUV development and production, and that many jobs are being added making Jeeps.  In fact, Jeep SUV's seem to be the big bright spot in the Chrysler turnaround, which is funny because Obama's logic for handing Chrysler over to Fiat for about a dollar was that Fiat would turn Chrysler around with all of its great small car designs.

Anyway, the really interesting part comes late in the article, where he says in paragraph 9:

Together, we are working to establish a global enterprise and previously announced our intent to return Jeep production to China, the world's largest auto market, in order to satisfy local market demand, which would not otherwise be accessible.

So Chrysler ... is going to build Jeeps in China.

This is why the whole "fact check" genre is so stupid.   We could fact-check this three ways, depending on what political axe we want to grind:

  1. We could say that Romney's ad was exactly correct, that Chrysler's CEO says it is going to build Jeeps in China, just as Romeny said.  Romney's statement is literally true as written, which one would think might be a good criteria for a fact-check.
  2. We could say that Romney's ad was misleading, because the implication was meant to be that Chrysler is shifting North American production to China, and they are not (Politifact took this tack).
  3. We could argue that Romney's entire premise is wrong, because what matters to long-term economic health and wealth creation in this country is that Chrysler is making the optimum production decisions, wherever the factories end up.  And further, that making these decisions the subject of political discourse virtually guarantees they will be made for reasons other than optimizing efficiency.  This is the fact-check I would make but you will not hear in mainstream media fact-checks, because the level of economic ignorance on trade in most of the media is simply astonishingly high.

Cronyism and the GM/Chrysler Bailouts

Companies and assets don't go *poof* in a bankruptcy.   In fact, if any of you are even somewhat of a frequent airline flyer, over the last 10 years you likely flew an airline in bankruptcy.  Companies operate all the time, sometimes for years, out of Chapter 11.  In fact, that is what chapter 11 is all about -- helping creditors get more value from a company by keeping it in operation  (only in truly hopeless cases, like Solyndra, is liquidation a higher value outcome for creditors than continued operation).

As such, then, the Obama Administration did not "save" GM and Chrysler, it simply managed their bankruptcy to political ends, shifting the proceeds from those guaranteed them by the rule of law to cronies and political allies.  In the process, they kept these companies on essentially the same path that led them to bankruptcy in the first place, only with a pile of taxpayer money to blow so they could hang around for a while.

To this end, the WSJ has a great editorial on the whole mess

In a true bankruptcy guided by the law rather than by a sympathetic, rule-bending political task force, GM and Chrysler would have more fully faced their competitive challenges, enjoyed more leverage to secure union concessions, and had the chance to divest money-losing operations like GM's moribund Opel unit. True bankruptcy would have lessened the chance that GM and Chrysler will stumble again, a very real possibility in the brutally competitive auto industry.

Certainly President Obama threw enough money at GM and Chrysler to create a short-term turnaround, but if the auto makers find themselves on hard times and return to Washington with hats in hand, his policy will have been no rescue at all.

I will refer the reader back to my editorial way back in 2005 why it was OK to let GM die

And You Thought The Solyndra Handouts Were Over

Via the WSJ, the Solyndra scam continues

Having sold off its manufacturing plant, fired nearly 1,000 workers and proven the non-viability of its business model, Solyndra's only real assets are what the IRS calls "tax attributes." These are between $875 million and $975 million in net operating losses that can reduce future taxable income, which the IRS values as high as $350 million. Before it went toes up, Solyndra also accumulated $12 million in solar tax credits that can reduce tax liabilities dollar for dollar.

Tax-loss carry-forwards are routine but worthless if a company can't turn profits to pay taxes on. So Solyndra's owners are asking the court to liquidate the rest of the business and contribute a net $6.7 million to pay off creditors for pennies on the dollar. A holding corporation will then emerge from Chapter 11 that won't make products or employ workers, but it will get the Solyndra tax offsets.

The dummy company is owned by Argonaut Ventures I LLC, Solyndra's largest shareholder and the primary investment arm of the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Mr. Kaiser is a Tulsa oil billionaire who bundled campaign checks for Mr. Obama in 2008.

Wow, who could have predicted this?   Well, lots of folks, including me just over a year ago.   I actually underestimated the value, assuming the losses would be worth about $150 million in avoided taxes, not the $350 million the IRS now pegs them at.  If I can figure out this game, the Obama Administration had to know what was going on.

If the Administration allows this to happen (and remember that in the GM boondoggle,  Obama waived the traditional rules that have bankrupt companies losing their tax loss carryforwards, giving GM a multi-billion dollar tax subsidy almost no one counts in the bailout costs), this will make Kaiser's last cash investment in Solyndra one of the great crony deals of all time.

If you remember, Kaiser (via Argonaut) invested $75 million as Solyndra was going down the tubes.  No rational person could have thought that amount would have saved the company, and it didn't.  What it bought, we now know, is three things:

  • Kaiser got the US Government to give up their lead creditor position to Kaiser, basically putting the US Government behind the Obama donor to get repaid and reducing the taxpayers' influence in the bankruptcy
  • It gave Kaiser a few precious months to loot the company.  Between that $75 million investment and the bankruptcy, Solyndra sold off most of its liquid assets at a discount to .... Argonaut, the group controlled by Kaiser
  • It looks like Kaiser will get nearly a billion dollars in tax losses that can be used to reduce its future taxes by $350 million.

Dispatches from the Corporate State: A Study in Contrasts

It is interesting to study the contrast between the handling of the Toyota accelerator problems, which turned out to be pretty much all driver error, and the Chevy Volt fire issues.

In the case of the former, we had public hearings and government threats.  The government, without evidence at that point, demanded Toyota recall the vehicles and stop production.  Eventually, when the NHTSA determined that the panic and recall was in error and the issue was operator error and not with the car, the Obama Administration suppressed the results.

Now, Volts appear to have a fire problem with their batteries.  This time, the government is keeping things real quiet and, instead of exaggerating the safety issue, they are suppresing it

It now appears the fire hazard was first discovered back in June, when GM first heard about a fire in a Volt that occurred some three weeks after the vehicle had been crash tested.

Yet, almost five months went by before either GM or the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told dealers and customers about the potential risks and urged them to drain the battery pack as soon as possible after an accident.

Part of the reason for delaying the disclosure was the “fragility of Volt sales” up until that point, according to Joan Claybrook, a former administrator at NHTSA.

Demagoguing a non-problem in the first case, covering up a real problem in the second.  Guess which one has a union that supported Obama's election and which does not.  Guess which one Obama bought equity in with taxpayer money?

Question for GM

GM has announced it is willing to give a full refund to customers who bought Volts and are worried they will burst into flames.  My question is this:  In these refunds, does GM or the car buyer intend to reimburse the taxpayer for the $7500 subsidy we kicked in?

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.

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

I am sympathetic to the OWS hatred for bailouts and crony capitalism, but struggle to understand how they intend to fix the consequences of the exercise of government power in the private world with yet more exercise of government power in the private world.

Apropos of very little, I found this bit from Matt Taibi funny (emphasis added)

1. Break up the monopolies. The so-called "Too Big to Fail" financial companies – now sometimes called by the more accurate term "Systemically Dangerous Institutions" – are a direct threat to national security. They are above the law and above market consequence, making them more dangerous and unaccountable than a thousand mafias combined. There are about 20 such firms in America, and they need to be dismantled

I am pretty sure that, by definition, a single industry cannot have 20 monopolies.

Though I share the same concern, my solution is to just let them fail.  Right now, the cost of capital for these large companies is lower than the cost of capital for smaller companies because, even though many of them have far worse balance sheets than smaller banks, investors feel they have too big to fail protection.  Let a few fail and have the cost of capital shoot up for larger companies and you can be pretty damn sure they market itself will break up these companies.

In some ways it reminds me of the market premium given in the 1960's to multi-industry conglomerates like ITT.  When the capital markets made their cost of capital low, everyone tried to copy their conglomerate strategies.  When these strategies started failing and companies like RJ Reynolds found their diversification into shipping and shower curtains was a business disaster, capital dried up for these Frankenstein monsters and most of them were broken up.  All without a hint of government intervention, either to save them or kill them.

Its telling that no one on the Left or with OWS who gives this advice for financial institutions takes their own advice with, say, auto companies.  GM should have failed and likely been broken up as well.

Paying More Now So We Can Pay More Later

From the Goldwater Institute, on the amount of money we in Phoenix are paying in taxes to support union management costs

Phoenix taxpayers spend millions of dollars to pay full salary and benefits for city employees to work exclusively for labor unions, a Goldwater Institute investigation found.

Collective bargaining agreements with seven labor organizations require the city to pay union officers and provide members with thousands of additional hours to conduct union business instead of doing their government jobs.

The total cost to Phoenix taxpayers is about $3.7 million per year, based on payroll records supplied by the city. In all, more than 73,000 hours of annual release time for city workers to conduct union business at taxpayers’ expense are permitted in the agreements.

The top officials in all of the unions have regular jobs with the city. But buried in the labor agreements are a series of provisions for those employees to be released from their regular duties to perform union work.

For top officers, the typical amount of annual release time is 2,080 hours, a full year of work based on 52 weeks at 40 hours each. They continue to draw full pay and benefits, just as if they were showing up for their regular jobs. But they are released from their regular duties to conduct undefined union business.

Union officials say the time is a good investment that leads to a more productive workforce. Critics say it amounts to an illegal gift of taxpayer money.

The "more productive workforce" line is just hilarious.  99.9% of the this work very likely is against the best interests of taxpayers, either raising future salaries or enforcing productivity-killing work rules or preventing the termination of incompetent employees.

I understand that there are similar provisions in some private union contracts, but if I was a shareholder in these companies I would be outraged about those as well.  As it turns out, private companies that have these deals tend to be among the most dysfunctional and uncompetitive in the country (e.g. GM).

What's particularly ugly about this is that it is so reminiscent of a number of Soprano's episodes, with the mafia guys all sitting around in no-work and no-show jobs at taxpayer expense.

Major Justification for GM Bailout Falls Apart

As GM was failing, I argued for the normal laws of bankruptcy to be allowed to work.  After all, valuable brands and manufacturing facilities were not just going to go *poof* -- someone would purchase them and employ them, and hopefully those someone's would to a better job than the previous owners and managers.

A big part of the "logic" for bailout and Presidential intervention in the auto companies was that auto purchases would halt if consumers were unsure whether their warranties would be honored and service would be available.

From an AP story, November 13, 2008

Advocates for the nation's automakers are warning that the collapse of the Big Three - or even just General Motors - could set off a catastrophic chain reaction in the economy, eliminating up to 3 million jobs and depriving governments of more than $150 billion in tax revenue.

Industry supporters are offering such grim predictions as Congress weighs whether to bail out the nation's largest automakers, which are struggling to survive the steepest economic slide in decades....

Automakers say bankruptcy protection is not an option because people would be reluctant to make long-term car and truck purchases from companies that might not last the life of their vehicles.

Well, it turns out that this was partially bogus.  The written warranties are still honored, but GM argues it left liability for any defects or design problems in the old shell company

General Motors Co (GM.N) is seeking to dismiss a lawsuit over a suspension problem on more than 400,000 Chevrolet Impalas from the 2007 and 2008 model years, saying it should not be responsible for repairs because the flaw predated its bankruptcy.

The lawsuit, filed on June 29 by Donna Trusky of Blakely, Pennsylvania, contended that her Impala suffered from faulty rear spindle rods, causing her rear tires to wear out after just 6,000 miles. [ID:nN1E7650CT]

Seeking class-action status and alleging breach of warranty, the lawsuit demands that GM fix the rods, saying that it had done so on Impala police vehicles.

But in a recent filing with the U.S. District Court in Detroit, GM noted that the cars were made by its predecessor General Motors Corp, now called Motors Liquidation Co or "Old GM," before its 2009 bankruptcy and federal bailout.

The current company, called "New GM," said it did not assume responsibility under the reorganization to fix the Impala problem, but only to make repairs "subject to conditions and limitations" in express written warranties. In essence, the automaker said, Trusky sued the wrong entity.

"New GM's warranty obligations for vehicles sold by Old GM are limited to the express terms and conditions in the Old GM written warranties on a going-forward basis," wrote Benjamin Jeffers, a lawyer for GM. "New GM did not assume responsibility for Old GM's design choices, conduct, or alleged breaches of liability under the warranty."

Of course, this happens all the time in bankruptcy  (and it is my experience, but I am not a legal expert) that GM may or may not succeed in this argument.  It is not always possible to leave liabilities behind in an old corporate shell, or else companies would reorganize every year.

But the point is that the special treatment of GM was supposed to be to protect consumers, and that turns out to be BS.  The warranties were likely always going to be protected in any bankruptcy, as such consumer benefits nearly always are in chapter 11 (the fact that you still hold any frequent flyer miles is proof of this, as nearly every airline in the country has been through chapter 11 in the last couple of decades and none of them disavowed their frequent flyer miles, despite the fact that holders are the most unsecured of unsecured creditors).

 

Abandoning Even the Pretense of Neutrality

The Obama administration has abandoned even the pretense of not being in the tank for its union supporters.

First, it handed took ownership of GM away from secured creditors and gave it to the UAW.

Second was the NLRB over-reach in veto-ing plant relocation decisions by Boeing

More recently came the rules changes for quick, midnight unionization elections to prevent target companies from being able to tell their side of their story

Finally, comes news that the Obama Administration worked to trash pensions of non-unionized auto workers while protecting pensions of union workers.

To Which I Would Add One More Concern

Don Boudreaux had these two rejoinders to the notion that the GM bailout is a success simply because GM is making a profit.

Economically literate opponents of the Detroit bailout never denied that pumping hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into Detroit automakers would restore those companies to health.  Instead, they argued, first, that bailing out Detroit takes resources from other valuable uses.  Because he doesn’t even recognize that other valuable uses were sacrificed by this bailout, Mr. Dionne offers no reason to think that the value of saving Detroit automakers exceeds the value of what was sacrificed to do so.  No legitimate declaration that the bailout is successful is possible, however, without evidence that the value of what was saved exceeds the value of what was sacrificed.

Economically literate bailout opponents argued also that it sets a bad precedent.  By signaling to big corporations that government stands ready to pay the tab for the consequences of their poor decisions, big corporations will more likely make poor decisions in the future.  It’s far too early for Mr. Dionne to conclude that this prediction is mistaken.

I would offer a third concern -- that the government has kept hundreds of thousands of skilled workers and billions of dollars of physical assets under the management of the same group that have decidedly underutilized these assets in the past.  A bankruptcy without Federal intervention would likely have shifted assets and skilled workers into new companies with different management teams and cultures pursuing different strategies with different information.

I always have trouble explaining this issue to people.   Think of a sports team with great players but a lousy coach and management team.  Having the government ensure that the lousy management stays in control of the great players is a waste for everyone.  I explained it more in depth in this post, where I concluded

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...

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.

Auto Bailouts and the Rule of Law

Todd Zwicki has a great article on the auto bailouts.  Here is a brief excerpt of a long and very comprehensive article.

Of the two proceedings, Chrysler's was clearly the more egregious. In the years leading up to the economic crisis, Chrysler had been unable to acquire routine financing and so had been forced to turn to so-called secured debt in order to fund its operations. Secured debt takes first priority in payment; it is also typically preserved during bankruptcy under what is referred to as the "absolute priority" rule — since the lender of secured debt offers a loan to a troubled borrower only because he is guaranteed first repayment when the loan is up. In the Chrysler case, however, creditors who held the company's secured bonds were steamrolled into accepting 29 cents on the dollar for their loans. Meanwhile, the underfunded pension plans of the United Auto Workers — unsecured creditors, but possessed of better political connections — received more than 40 cents on the dollar.

Moreover, in a typical bankruptcy case in which a secured creditor is not paid in full, he is entitled to a "deficiency claim" — the terms of which keep the bankrupt company liable for a portion of the unpaid debt. In both the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies, however, no deficiency claims were awarded to the wronged creditors. Were bankruptcy experts to comb through American history, they would be hard-pressed to identify any bankruptcy case with similar terms.

To make matters worse, both bankruptcies were orchestrated as so-called "section 363" sales. This meant that essentially all the assets of "old Chrysler" were sold to "new Chrysler" (and "old GM" to "new GM"), and were pushed through in a rush. These sales violated the longstanding bankruptcy principle that an asset sale should not be functionally equivalent to a plan of re-organization for an entire company — what bankruptcy lawyers call a "sub rosa plan." The reason is that the re-organization process offers all creditors the right to vote on the proposed plan as well as a chance to offer competing re-organization plans, while an asset sale can be carried out without such a vote.

In the cases of GM and Chrysler, however, the government essentially pushed through a re-organization disguised as a sale, and so denied the creditors their rights. As the University of Pennsylvania's David Skeel observed last year, "selling" an entire company of GM or Chrysler's size and complexity in this manner was unprecedented. Even on a smaller scale, it would have been highly irregular: While rush bankruptcy sales of much smaller companies were once common, the bankruptcy laws were overhauled in 1978 precisely to eliminate this practice.

At first, the fact that the companies' creditors (and especially Chrysler's creditors, who were so badly mistreated) put up with such terms and waived their property rights seems astonishing. But it becomes less so — and sheds more light on how this entire process imperils the rule of law — when one considers the enormous leverage the federal government had over most of these creditors. Many of Chrysler's secured-bond holders were large financial institutions — several of which had previously been saved from failure by TARP. Though there is no explicit evidence that support from TARP funds bought these bond holders' acquiescence in the Chrysler case, their silence in the face of a massive financial haircut is otherwise very difficult to explain.

Indeed, those secured-bond holders who were not supported by TARP did not go nearly as quietly.

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.

Free Market Health Care: The Road Not Taken

My column is up at Forbes, and is the fourth in a series on Obamacare.  An excerpt:

Its amazing to me how many ways supporters of government health care can find to rationalize the bad incentives of third-party payers systems.  Take, for example, the prevelance today of numerous, costly tests that appear to be unnecessary.  Obamacare supporters would say that this is the profit motive of doctors trying to get extra income, and therefore a free market failure.   I would point the finger at other causes (e.g. defensive medicine), but the motivation does not matter.   Let’s suppose the volume of tests is truly due to doctors looking for extra revenue, like an expensive restaurant that always is pushing their desserts.  In a free economy, most of us just say no to the expensive dessert.  But the medical field is like a big prix fixe menu — the dessert is already paid for, so sure, we will got ahead and take it whether we are hungry or not.

It should be no surprise that while US consumer prices have risen 53% since 1992, health care prices have risen at nearly double that rate, by 98%.  Recognize that this is not inevitable.  This inflation is not something unique to medical care — it is something unique to how we pay for medical care.

Contrast this inflation rate for health care with price increases in cosmetic surgery, which unlike other care is typically paid out of pocket and is not covered by third party payer systems.  Over the same period, prices for cosmetic surgery rose just 21%, half the general rate of inflation and just over one fifth the overall health care rate of inflation.

This is why I call free market health care the road not traveled.  There are many ways we could have helped the poor secure basic health coverage (e.g. through vouchers) without destroying the entire industry with third-party payer systems.  Part of the problem in the public discourse is that few people alive today can even remember a free market in health care, so its impossible for some even to imagine.

Update: Coincidently, Mark Perry has a post that addresses just the issue I do in my article, that is the positive effects of high-deductible health insurance and out of pocket health expenditures on pricing transparency and reduced costs.  The high deductible health plans at GM seem to be having a positive effect on the health care market.  A shame they will probably be illegal under Obamacare.  Of course, since GM is owned by the government, it can get any special rules that it wants, unlike the rest of us.  But that his how things work in the corporate state.

Government Rebates for Superbowl Tickets

Vermont Tiger raises a great point about the Volt:  (ht Maggies Farm)

The Volt comes with a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $40,280 and a rebate from Uncle Sam of $7500. GM only plans to make 10,000 Volts this year; and there aren't enough of them to go around. So, naturally, dealers are marking them up – some by much more than the retail amount. One Florida dealer is asking $65,590 (see Motor Trend for details). You might be able to get one on eBay for around $48,000 – after rebate that gets you right back to list price. Hmmm….

No car dealer or manufacturer would offer a rebate on a product that is in backorder status for the foreseeable future. But that's exactly what your government is doing. Even if you believe that there is a compelling reason for the government to want us all to shift to partially electric cars, it's clear that no incentive is required to sell all 10,000 cars available this year since people are buying them at markups which counteract the incentive. In this case the rebate dollars go to dealer margin. Note deficit cutting opportunity.

$75,000,000 down the drain to subsidize upper-middle-class people who want to make a statement about themselves.  Yet another public investment in the self-esteem of the wealthy and our rulers.  In ancient Rome they built coliseums.  In the middle ages they built cathedrals.   In communist countries they built giant statues of their leaders and tractor plants.  Today we subsidize quasi-electric cars and windmills.  None of it makes much sense as way to spend the average person's money, but it makes the elite feel really, really good about themselves.  One wonders what the cumulative historic bill has been for ego maintenance of our rulers.

Called This One

Via the NY Times, no flaws found with Toyota accelerators

The Obama administration's investigation intoToyota safety problems found no electronic flaws to account for reports of sudden, unintentional acceleration and other safety problems. Government investigators said Tuesday the only known cause of the problems are mechanical defects that were fixed in previous recalls.

The Transportation Department, assisted by engineers withNASA, said its 10-month study of Toyota vehicles concluded there was no electronic cause of unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. The study, which was launched at the request of Congress, responded to consumer complaints that flawed electronics could be the culprit behind Toyota's spate of recalls.

"We feel that Toyota vehicles are safe to drive," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said they reviewed consumer complaints and warranty data in detail and found that many of the complaints involved cases in which the vehicle accelerated after it was stationary or at very low speeds.

NHTSA Deputy Administrator Ron Medford said that in many cases when a driver complained that the brakes were ineffective, the most likely cause was "pedal misapplication," in which the driver stepped on the accelerator instead of the brakes.

As Walter Olson writes of the original overblown brouhaha

Did it make a difference that the federal government has taken a proprietor's interest in major Toyota competitors GM and Chrysler, or that a former trial lawyer lobbyist heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration?

I had more back in July (and here, where I observe that scientific data on breast implant safety did nothing to stop the torts, and is unlikely to do so in this case).  I questioned the US Government's conflict of interest in this matter way back in January of 2010.

By the way, anyone want to reopen the case on that guy in LA with the runaway Prius -- I thought it was concocted at the time (I called him balloon boy in a Prius) and am doubly sure now.  How is what he did, in retrospect, and different from leading the police on a high-speed chase?

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.

Is GM's Equity Real?

There was a fair amount of blog reporting on GM's IPO papers, focusing on various outsized risks reported in those documents.   But for someone who has read a fair number of red herrings in the past, I can tell you these over-the-top risk statements are virtually pro forma.  The lawyers don't want any suits down the road about failure to disclose, so every risk up to and including getting kidnapped by evil trolls if you buy the offering are listed.

Via the Accounting Onion, I found an issues I have not seen well-reported.  Tom Selling argues that without some accounting shennanigans at its reorganization, GM's equity should be negative.   Reading between the lines, it does not appear that he is very confident that the SEC, which is a branch of GM's ownership group, will do much about it.

Unions are About Power, Not Principle

A couple of stories really drive the title of this post home to me.  First, flash back to any number of these type of stories

To Protest Hiring of Nonunion Help, Union Hires Nonunion Pickets

Billy Raye, a 51-year-old unemployed bike courier, is looking for work.  Fortunately for him, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters is seeking paid demonstrators to march and chant in its current picket line outside the McPherson Building, an office complex here where the council says work is being done with nonunion labor.

"For a lot of our members, it's really difficult to have them come out, either because of parking or something else," explains Vincente Garcia, a union representative who is supervising the picketing.

So instead, the union hires unemployed people at the minimum wage"”$8.25 an hour"”to walk picket lines. Mr. Raye says he's grateful for the work, even though he's not sure why he's doing it. "I could care less," he says. "I am being paid to march around and sound off."

So we follow that up with this story of a union employee who was fired for... wait for it ... trying to unionize his fellow employees

In a move of stunning hypocrisy, the United Federation of Teachers axed one of its longtime employees -- for trying to unionize the powerful labor organization's own workers, it was charged yesterday.

Jim Callaghan, a veteran writer for the teachers union, told The Post he was booted from his $100,000-a-year job just two months after he informed UFT President Michael Mulgrew that he was trying to unionize some of his co-workers.

"I was fired for trying to start a union at the UFT," said a dumbfounded Callaghan, who worked for the union's newsletter and as a speechwriter for union leaders for the past 13 years.

Callaghan said he personally told Mulgrew on June 9 about his intention to try to organize nonunionized workers at UFT headquarters.

"I told him I want to have the same rights that teachers have," said Callaghan, 63, of Staten Island. "He told me he didn't want that, that he wanted to be able to fire whoever he wanted to."

The UFT has long strenuously resisted city efforts to make it easier for school administrators to fire teachers.

"This is the exact antithesis of what they preach, and Michael Mulgrew is the biggest hypocrite out there," Callaghan fumed.

As it turns out, when unions like the UAW get an ownership position in a company, they tend to act exactly like management

You could also entitle it "meet the new boss, same as the old boss". What I'm talking about is a recent meeting between UAW bosses and GM workers. To say it didn't go well would be a vast understatement)(via Sweetness and Light):

Workers at a General Motors stamping plant in Indianapolis, Indiana chased United Auto Workers executives out of a union meeting Sunday, after the UAW demanded workers accept a contract that would cut their wages in half.As soon as three UAW International representatives took the podium, they were met with boos and shouts of opposition from many of the 631 workers currently employed at the plant. The officials, attempting to speak at the only informational meeting on the proposed contract changes, were forced out within minutes of taking the floor.

The incident once again exposes the immense class divide between workers and union officials, who are working actively with the auto companies to drive down wages and eliminate benefits.

Actively working with the auto companies? They are part owners now of the auto companies "“ they're "management" for heaven sake.

In each situation, when the tables are turned, union leaders suddenly discover the economic realities those of us who run businesses have always understood, ie

  • You don't pay more for labor than you have to.  That is what markets are about.  If good people are running around unemployed who are grateful to make $9 an hour, then hiring them is a win-win for both of you.  Setting an arbitrary price floor out of some notion of fairness merely leaves more people unemployed.  From the first story, this is a position the union never takes with any business but itself, but is certainly correct

The union's Mr. Garcia sees no conflict in a union that insists on union labor hiring nonunion people to protest the hiring of nonunion labor.

He says the pickets are not only about "union issues" but also about fair wages and benefits for American workers. By hiring the unemployed, "we are also giving back to the community a bit," he says.

  • Its nearly impossible to run a business if one can't hire and fire at will.  If, once hired, it becomes impossible (e.g. through a tangle of grievance processes) to fire people, then no business can operate well
  • Contrary to certain progressive notions, corporations do not have some sort of infinite treasury full of horded Nazi gold that can pay for any possible wage level.  Given product pricing in a particular industry as well as productivity levels, the labor budget is finite.  At GM, the reasonable labor budget is both finite and likely lower than its current level.  It is admirable at some level to see UAW officials dealing with this hard fact of fiscal responsibility (better, in fact, than are most government officials).  But one wonders how incentives could have been structured better in the past so that this epiphany could have been reached 30 years ago before the golden goose was already killed.

The High Price of the GM Bailout

This week in Forbes, I argue that tallying up the taxpayer money that has been poured into GM actually under-estimates the price of the bailout.

So what if the U.S. government had let GM's bankruptcy proceed unhindered? Allowing the GMs of the world be liquidated, with their assets and employees taken up by more vital entities, is critical to the health of our economy and the wealth of our nation. Assuming GM's DNA has a multiplier below one, releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value. New owners of the assets might take radically different approaches to the automobile market. Talented employees who lose their jobs in the transition, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, can find jobs designing and building things people want and value. Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves....

This is the real cost of the GM bailout--not just tens of billions of dollars of wasted taxpayer money, but continued unimaginative use of one of the largest aggregations of wealth and talent in the world.

When The Government Owns GM...

... the other auto-makers are not going to be treated very fairly.

Senior officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation have at least temporarily blocked the release of findings by auto-safety regulators that could favor Toyota Motor Corp. in some crashes related to unintended acceleration, according to a recently retired agency official.George Person, who retired July 3 after 27 years at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in an interview that the decision to not go public with the data for now was made over the objections of some officials at NHTSA.

"The information was compiled. The report was finished and submitted," Mr. Person said. "When I asked why it hadn't been published, I was told that the secretary's office didn't want to release it," he added, referring to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Welcome to the corporate state, Obama-style.   Not to mention some old-fashioned bureaucratic CYA:

Since March, the agency has examined 40 Toyota vehicles where unintended acceleration was cited as the cause of an accident, Mr. Person said. NHTSA determined 23 of the vehicles had accelerated suddenly, Mr. Person said.

In all 23, he added, the vehicles' electronic data recorders or black boxes showed the car's throttle was wide open and the brake was not depressed at the moment of impact, suggesting the drivers mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake, Mr. Person said.

"The agency has for too long ignored what I believe is the root cause of these unintended acceleration cases," he said. "It's driver error. It's pedal misapplication and that's what this data shows."

Mr. Person said he believes Transportation Department officials are "sitting on" this data because it could revive criticism that NHTSA is too close to the auto maker and has not looked hard enough for electrical flaws in Toyota vehicles.

"It has become very political. There is a lot of anger towards Toyota," Mr. Person said. Transportation officials "are hoping against hope that they find something that points back to a flaw in Toyota vehicles."

The existence of this report is one reason, suggests Walter Olson, why the Democrats in Congress (abetted by the NY Times) seem in an enormous hurry to pass a new auto regulatory bill.  After all, automobiles have been sold in this country for only about 100 years, so every day counts in getting new regulatory infrastructure in place

The recall of millions of Toyota cars and trucks because of persistent problems of uncontrolled acceleration has exposed unacceptable weaknesses in the regulatory system. These weaknesses are allowing potentially fatal flaws to remain undetected. Democrats in Congress are pushing legislation to improve regulation and oversight of auto safety. It should be passed into law without delay.

As Olson points out, the NY Times has bent over backwards to ignore recent NHTSA findings in its reporting. This in particular is the enormously flawed logic of the regulator:

N.H.T.S.A. could fine Toyota only $16.4 million for delays in revealing problems with defective accelerator pedals that left the throttle open after being released. That's pocket change for a company of its size.

Pay no attention to that free market behind the curtain.  The billions of dollars this acceleration problem has cost Toyota in recalls, repairs, lost sales, and damage to reputation are irrelevant -- only fines imposed by the Administration (and torts by its allies in the litigation industry) matter.  And if the same problem beset government-owned GM, anyone want to bet what the penalty would be?  They would probably get a new bailout from Obama to pay for the recall costs.   In fact, even without the NHTSA findings, this Toyota problem is really no worse in terms of incidence rates or costs than any number of other recalls by US manufacturers.  The only difference is the media attention lavished on the problem.

The Corporate State

Life is too short to spend much time on the Democratic Underground, but this article by Ernest Partridge popped up in one of my Google watch lists.  I highlight only because it contains this straw man:

The dogmatism of free market absolutism resides in the belief that the unregulated market never fails to be beneficial to all; the belief, in other words, that there are no malevolent effects of unconstrained market activity, no "back of the invisible hand." From this belief follows the insistence that the free market is self-correcting, and that there is thus no need for regulation � that, in Ronald Reagan�s enduring words, "government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem."

I can't think of any thoughtful defender of capitalism and free markets that ever would have said that the market "never fails" or that it is "beneficial to all" or that there are never bad outcomes or that the market is perfectly self-correcting.

Bad, stupid shit happens all the time in free markets.  For example, BP idiotically dumps a few zillion barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  In a free society, BP will be out billions of dollars in cleanup costs and damage settlements -- it might even bankrupt itself if governments allow that to happen, and thus will never again be able to do something so careless.  Markets can't prevent a first dumb action, like huge leveraged bets on ever-increasing housing prices, but markets can make sure the folks involved don't have the resources to do it again -- that is, except if governments bail them out from their mistakes.

The point is not that markets are perfect -- the point is that they are superior in both function and the retention of personal liberty to the alternative of giving governments coercive power to use force against individuals to change market outcomes.  The point is not that individuals don't do destructive things within the context of free markets.  The point is that they have a lot less power to do harmful things over long periods of time than if one gave that person coercive power in a government job backed by police forces and armies.   There is only a limited amount of damage anyone can do when they depend on the uncoerced cooperation and agreement of their counter-party.   A tobacco company CEO doesn't have a hundredth the power to ruin peoples lives as does one member of Congress. Fifty years of slimy cigarette advertising doesn't have the power of one Congressional mandate.  Go to Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore -- which has been worse for these cities -- the private campaign to sell cigarettes or the government led war on drugs?

Its clear from later in the article that the author is yet another person with a list of pet peeves who wants to use force on the American citizenry to get his way.  The author doesn't like cigarettes, so intervention with tobacco companies is a valid role for government.  OK, well I can't stand reality TV shows, so much so that I would rather be in a room of smokers than a room with "the biggest loser" on TV, but you don't see me wanting to give government power to do something about it.

But what is amazing to me is how much his examples actually make the libertarian point for limitation of government.  Try his first one:

Private Prisons. Good for the corporations: more prisoners, "three strikes" laws, mandatory sentencing. The cost to society: less rehabilitation and early release, increased government expenditures and taxes. It is noteworthy that the United States has the largest prisoner to population ratio in the industrialized world.

You have to really re-read history to come to the conclusion that American incarceration rates are mainly driven by privatization of prisons.   My sense is the causality is the other direction - we have passed crazy drug laws and mandatory sentencing for sometimes petty crimes and have had to turn to private actors with private capital to keep up with the demand to construct new prisons.

Like the author, I hate this incarceration trend, but its really a stretch to blame this on privatization.  And, I am the first to deride the symbiotic relationship between powerful corporations and the government.  I have written on any number of occasions that both political parties in this country seem to be trying to build a European-style corporate state.  So, even if I don't think he has history quite right here, I am willing to concede the point.  Because, in fact, this seems to me an indictment of exactly what he is trying to defend -- the government interventionist state.

The only reason corporations lobby the government is that the government has the unique power to coercively intervene in markets.  Corporations try to engage this power for their own benefit and to step on competitors, both current and future.  The root cause failure here is not the fact that private companies try to engage this power, but that this power exists at all.

Amazingly, he makes the same argument about war:

War, Inc. Good for the corporations (i.e., the military-industrial complex and "private contractors" such as Halliburton and Blackwater): more wars, expenditure of rockets, bombs and ammunition (requiring restocking of inventories). Cost to society: avoidance of diplomatic solutions, increased military budget and battlefield casualties, disobedience to international law (e.g., the Geneva and Nuremberg protocols).

I am staggered to see that someone who is defending giving more power to the government is simultaneously highlighting examples where this power is misused so horribly  (and what could be a more despicable crime by legislators than incarcerating more people or starting wars just to help a favored corporate interests).  I don't think wars are started primarily to help armaments manufacturers, but if they are, then this kind of failure by politicians is FAR worse than any he could point out in unregulated markets, only making my point for me.  Markets are not perfect, but the cure of government use of force is worse than the disease.

Since the author dwells on cigarettes, just look at the so-called tobacco settlement.  Supposedly, this was the great government hammer wielded against cigarette companies to punish them for years of selling a dangerous product.  But in fact, all the settlement did was cement the market position of largest tobacco companies.  The settlement effectively made government a financial partner with tobacco companies, and since it was implemented, the government has wielded its power to protect the companies who were involved in the settlement against competition (particularly from low-price upstarts) so as to protect its own cash flow.  The position of the major tobacco companies has never been as secure and profitable.

I think the author's response would be that if we ban corporate election spending, then all would be well.  This does not pass any kind of smell test.  First, corporate giving has been effectively banned (or at least severely limited) for 20 years, and we see the staggering influence corporations have none-the-less.  We only have to look at Europe, where the troika of politicians, large corporations, and large unions run those states to their own benefit, to the detriment of all others (e.g. smaller businesses, business without political contacts, workers outside of favored fields like autos, young workers, etc.)  This symbiotic relationship occurs without campaign cash being a major element.

If you want to understand how this works, just look at recent legislation like cap-and-trad and health care.  Legislators propose some populist interventions in a market to help themselves get re-elected.  Corporations who might naturally oppose such interventions agree to support legislation in exchange for a number of subsidies and special protections. Trades occur that have little to do with campaign contributions.  Just look at the influence GE wields in getting special deals for itself.

The GM bankruptcy was a classic example.   GM is given a big taxpayer bailout and some cuts in labor costs.  In exchange for labor cost cuts, unions get the government to squash secured creditors of GM in their favor in dividing up ownership and also get some special considerations in pending health care legislation.  Secured creditors allow this to occur because they got TARP funds from the government.   Politicians get active support from GM and the UAW in getting out the vote, positive PR, etc.  The only people who lose are taxpayers, all the other automobile competitors, and workers in every other industry who must pay taxes to support auto workers special deal.

By the way, don't tell me that this is not what you want, that if only we have the right people (e.g. yourself) in power this will never happen.  Wrong.  It always happens.  Every dang time.  The incentives are overwhelming.  Given politicians the power to do that one good intervention you want, and you have also given them the power to do a thousand that you don't want.

Postscript: By the way, please do not ever take a "progressive" seriously when they say they care about the poor.  Take this for example:

Outsourcing of jobs. Good for the corporation: increased profits and return on investment of stockholders. Cost to society: poverty, loss of educational opportunities, redistribution of wealth "upward," shrinkage of customer base, economic depression.

Another way of stating outsourcing is say that it is "transferring a job from a rich American to a poor person in a developing nation."  As a country becomes richer and more educated, low-skilled jobs are not going to continue to get done by college grads.  PhD's, in general, are not going to stitch underwear.  Low skilled jobs in a wealthy society do get outsourced, and these new low-skilled jobs in developing nations become the seed or the catalyst for future wealth-creation and development.

This is one ironic problem that progressives in this country have -- even the poorest Americans would be middle class in many of the countries of the world.  If progressives really want to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, everyone in the US would pay and no one would receive a dime, it would all flow to other countries.