Posts tagged ‘homes’

Root Cause

Arnold Kling argues that the root cause of mortgage and student debt problems is not the structure of mortgage and student debt contracts

What these forms of bad debt have in common, in my view, is that they reflect clumsy social engineering. Public policy was based on the idea that getting as many people into home “ownership” with as little money down as possible was a great idea. It was based on the idea of getting as many people into college with student loans as possible.

The problem, therefore, is not that debt contracts are too rigid. The problem is that the social engineers are trying to make too many people into home “owners” and to send too many people to college. Home ownership is meaningful only when people put equity into the homes that they purchase. College is meaningful only if students graduate and do so having learned something (or a least enjoyed the party, but not with taxpayers footing the bill).

Another Reason for Declining Business Formation

I often criticize others for attributing 100% of any bad trend to their personal pet peeve.  To some extent I am guilty of that in my last post, where I blamed declining business formation on increasingly complex regulation and licensing.  I think there are good reasons for doing so -- I have spent the last 6 months passing up on business growth opportunities because I was too consumed with catching up on regulatory compliance minutia, particularly in California.  And I have watched as many of my smaller competitors who have fewer resources to dedicate to such compliance issues have left the business, telling me they could no longer keep up with all the requirements.

But there is seldom just one single cause for any trend in a complex, chaotic system (e.g. climate, but economics as well).  One other reason business formation may have dropped is the crash of the housing market and specifically in the equity many have in their homes.

Home equity has historically been an important source of capital for small business formation.  My first large investment in my company was funded with a loan that was secured by the equity in my home.  What outsiders may not realize about small business banking nowadays is that it is nothing like how banking is taught in high school civics.  In that model, the small business person goes to her local banker and presents a business plan, which the banker may fund if they think it is a good risk.

In the real world, trying to get such an unsecured loan from a bank as a small business will at best result in laughter.  My company is no longer what many would call "small" -- we will do millions in revenue this year.  But there is no way in the world that my banker of over 10 years will lend to my business unsecured -- they will demand some asset they can put a lien on.  So we can get financing of equipment purchases (as a capital lease on the equipment) and on factored receivables and inventory.  But without any of that stuff, a new business that just needs cash for startup cash flow is out of luck -- unless the owner has a personal asset, typically a house, on which the banker can place a lien.

So, without home equity, one of the two top sources of capital for small business formation disappears (the other top source is loans from friends and family, which one might also expect to dry up in a tough economy).

Postscript:  Banks will make cash flow loans if guaranteed by the SBA.  This is another whole can of worms, which I will not discuss today.  SBA loans are expensive and difficult to get, and the SBA has a tendency to turn the money spigot on and off at random times.  I have often wondered if the SBA helped to kill cash flow lending by banks.  First, why make risky small unsecured loans when you can get a government guarantee?  And second, with more formulaic lending criteria, SBA lending eliminated the need for loan officers who were good at evaluating business risks.  I can say from personal experience that the folks who can intelligently discuss a business plan and its risks are all gone from banks now (at least in the small business market).

AZ Corporation Commission's Completely Inadequate Response to My Critique on their Site Security

A while back I wrote about my concerns about the total absence of any security at all in the Arizona corporate annual reporting system

I started the annual reporting process by just typing in the name of my company and getting started.  There was no password protection, no identity check.  They had no way of knowing I had anything to do with this corporation and yet I was answering questions like "have you been convicted for fraud."  The potential for mischief is enormous.  One would have to get the timing right (an annual report must be due before one can get in) but one could easily open the site on January 1 and start entering false information in the registrations for such corporations as Exxon and Wal-Mart.

See for yourself.  Here is their web site.

I showed how one could open and file the report for a company like Wal-Mart, changing all their officers names, and confessing to all sorts of imagined corporate crimes

Again, note what I am saying.  This is not the result of hacking.  This is not lax security I figured out how to evade.  This is the result of no security whatsoever.  I simply went to the link above, clicked on the Wal-Mart Associates link, and then clicked on the annual report link.  I know from doing my own registration that there is a signature page at the end, but all you do is type in the name of an officer and a title -- data that is right there on the site.  It's like asking you for a password after the site just listed all the valid passwords.

The head of the Arizona Corporation Commission wrote me back. Here is here email in its entirety:

Dear Mr. Meyer:

Thank you for your email regarding the Corporations Division.  The Arizona Corporation Commission is the repository for all business formation documents for corporations and limited liability corporations.  We are in full compliance with state statutes.

Submitting false documents to alter another’s corporate structure or status is a crime and carries a Class 4 or Class 5 penalty.  The Commission or the aggrieved business entity may refer the false filing to the Attorney General’s office for prosecution.  Additionally, the individual business entity may pursue a civil cause of action.  The Commission only accepts on-line charges for a few services such as name reservation or to order a certificate of good standing, and the online payment process is completely secure.

Even though the Commission’s existing security measures comply with the state law and are similar to most other states and other Arizona governmental entities like the County Treasurer’s Office, the Commission is looking at implementing new technology to allow for the online submission of additional services – such as the filing of original Articles of Organization and Articles of Incorporation.  We do intend to provide password protected security features when that new technology is offered to the public.

J. Jerich

Executive Director

Arizona Corporation Commission

I had no doubt that submitting a false annual report for Wal-Mart would be illegal.  Duh.  However, it is just incredibly naive that this is the sole extent of the Commission's security, to prosecute people once the damage is done.  Can you imagine if Amazon had the same security policy - "we are getting rid of passwords because it would be illegal for you to buy something from someone else's account."  I wonder if the commissioners leave their doors unlocked at night, trusting in the threat of future prosecution to deter burglary and mayhem in their homes?

The Root Cause of Government Corruption is the Power over the Economy We Have Given the Government

Corruption is often blamed on the corruptible.  But corruptible people will always exist (see: entire history of civilization) if the incentives for corruption are sufficient.  Here is another example, from a vote-buying scandal in south Texas:

In the deeply Democratic Rio Grande Valley, the primary is the election that matters. And in local races like county commissioner and district attorney a sliver of votes can make a difference between winning and losing the election. Many times, paid campaign workers called “politiqueras” deliver the votes that put a candidate over the top.

Politiqueras—who are paid to turn out voters, especially in low-income neighborhoods and colonias—have been part of elections in the Rio Grande Valley for decades. But the recent suicide of a school board president in the small town of Donna and the indictment of three politiqueras for allegedly buying votes in a Donna school board election with beer, drugs and cash has rattled the Valley’s political world.

Politiqueras are typically older women with deep ties in the community. They meet with seniors at nursing homes and adult daycare centers and residents in colonias to advocate for their candidates. They come bearing barbecue plates or Mexican pastries and offer voters a ride to the polls, none of which is illegal. But over the decades intense competition in an impoverished region for a limited number of jobs and the power to decide who gets a government contract or a lucrative-paying job has pushed some candidates to cross the legal line and offer cash for votes. “The competition for access to [government] contracts has become intense,” says former Edinburg state Rep. Aaron Peña. “Politiqueras have been pushed further and further to perform in a system that has been corrupted.”

Apparently, Rental Homes Are Not Like Bonds

It is always hard to tell if the media is really offering a balanced sample of customer experiences when they pile on some company, but the Huffpo makes a pretty good case that large Wall Street home rental companies are doing a terrible job at customer service.

If so, I am unsurprised for three reasons:

  • I run what is essentially a property management company.  One thing I have learned is that everyone outside of the business systematically underestimates basic maintenance and operating costs, and few if any ever factor in the costs of longer-term capital maintenance.  Further, and perhaps more critically, outsiders frequently underestimate the detailed, even minute focus on process and organization that is necessary to make sure everything is getting maintained satisfactorily  particularly when the portfolio gets larger than the executive group can personally oversee.
  • I have rented out a second home for a few years.  It is difficult and expensive to stay on top of basic maintenance, and this is with one property that one is intimately familiar with.  I challenge you to find many people who will say they made money renting their second homes, particularly given the high cost of property management.  They may have made money on the appreciation of the real estate value, or reduced the net costs of owning a vacation home, but I seldom run into anyone making money on a annual basis (as long as the real cost of capital is being considered in the equation).
  • Wall Street has a long history of treating operational assets as financial assets.  There is a huge mindset difference between the two.  The book Barbarians at the Gate included some early history of LBO firms like KKR, and it is interesting the culture clashes they faced as they tried to explain the need to be operationally involved in their investments to the financial guys who wanted to treat them as Deals.

Understanding "Mix": Is Flattening in Income Growth Due in Part to Geographic Cost of Living Differences and Migration Within the US?

For 20 years, before I liberated myself from corporate America, I spent a hell of a lot of time doing business and market analysis (e.g. why are profits declining in Division X).  I was pretty good at it.  If I had to boil down everything I learned in those years to one lesson, it would be this:  Pay attention to changes in the mix.

What do I mean by "changes in the mix"?  Here is an example.  A company has two products.  One has a 20% margin, and the other has a 30% margin, and both margins have been improving over time because of a series of cost reduction investments.  But overall, company margins are falling.  The likely reason:  the mix is shifting.  The company is selling a higher proportion of the lower margin product.

Here is a real world example:  When I was at AlliedSignal (now Honeywell) aviation, they had exactly this problem.  They were operating in a razor and blades business -- ie they practically gave the new parts away to Boeing and Airbus to put on their planes, because they made all their money selling aftermarket replacements at a premium (at the time, government rules made it almost impossible to buy anything but the original manufacturer's part, so they could charge almost anything for a replacement, especially given that an airline likely had a $50 million plane sitting dormant until the part was replaced).  I routinely would tell managers in the company that essentially our business made money from unreliability -- the less reliable our parts, the more money we made.  Because newer technology, competition, and pressure form airlines was forcing us to greatly improve our reliability (at the same time we were giving stuff to Boeing at ever greater losses), all our newer products on newer planes were less profitable than the old stuff.  As planes aged and dropped out of the fleet, our product mix was getting less and less profitable.

This same effect can be seen in many economic and political issues.  Take for example an argument my mother-in-law and I had years and years ago.  She said that Texas (where I was living at the time) had crap schools that were much worse that those in Massachusetts, her argument for the blue political model.  She observed that average educational outcomes were much better in MA than TX (which was and still is true).  I observed on the other hand that this was in part a result of mix.  Texas had better outcomes than MA when one looked at Hispanics alone, and better outcomes for non-Hispanics alone, but got killed on the mix given that Hispanics typically have lower educational outcomes than non-Hispanics everywhere in the US, and Texas had far more Hispanics than MA.

All of this is a long introduction to some thinking I have been doing on all the "Average is Over" discussion talking about the flattening of growth in median wages.  I begin with this chart:

click to enlarge

 

There is a lot of interstate migration going on.  And much of it seems to be out of what I think of as higher cost states like CA, IL, and NY and into lower cost states like AZ, TX, FL, and NC.  One of the facts of life about the CPI and other inflation adjustments of income numbers is that the US essentially maintains one average CPI.  Further, median income numbers and poverty numbers tend to assume one single average cost of living number.  But everyone understands that the income required to maintain lifestyle X on the east side of Manhattan is very different than the income required to maintain lifestyle X in Dallas or Knoxville or Jackson, MS.

Could it be that even with a flat average median wage, that demographic shifts to lower cost-of-living states actually result in individuals being better off and living better?

For some items one buys, of course, there is no improvement by moving.  For example, my guess is that an iPhone with a monthly service plan costs about the same anywhere you go in the US.  But if you take something like housing, the differences can be enormous.

Let's compare San Francisco and Houston.  At first glance, San Francisco seems far wealthier.  The median income in San Francisco is $78,840 while the median income in Houston in $55,910.  Moving from a median wage job in San Francisco to a media wage job in Houston seems to represent a huge step down.  If you and a bunch of your friends made this move, the US median income number would drop.  It would look like people were worse off.

But something else happens when you take this nominal pay cut to move to Houston.  You also can suddenly afford a much nicer, larger house, even at the lower nominal pay.  In San Francisco, your admittedly higher nominal pay would only afford you the ability to buy only 14% of the homes on the market.  And the median home, which you could not afford, has only about 1000 square feet of space.  In Houston, on the other hand, your lower nominal pay would allow you to buy 56% of the homes.  And that median home, which you can now afford, will have on average 1858 square feet of space.

So while the national median income numbers dropped when you moved to Houston, you actually can afford a much nicer home with perhaps twice as much space.  Thus, it strikes me that there are important things happening in the mix that are not being taken into account when we say that the "average is over".

Of course, while this effect is certainly real, I have no idea how much it affects the overall numbers, ie is it a small effect or a large effect.  Fortunately my son is studying economics in college.  If he ever goes to grad school, I will add this to my list of research suggestions for him.

Postscript:  This exact same discussion could apply to US poverty statistics.  We have one poverty line income number whether you live in Manhattan or Tuscaloosa.  I have always wondered how much poverty statistics would change if you created some kind of purchasing power parity test rather than a fixed income test.

Single-Minded Obsession on Home Ownership

This article from the LA Times confused me greatly:

Advocates for borrowers took such comments to mean that the banks would prioritize debt write-downs on first mortgages, which banks resisted before the [$25 billion] settlement. Now, with nearly all the promised relief handed out, it is clear that the banks had other ideas.

The vast majority of the aid to borrowers, it turns out, came in the form of short sales and forgiveness of second mortgages. Just 20% of the aid doled out under the national settlement went to forgiveness of first-mortgage principal, the kind of help most likely to keep troubled borrowers in their homes. In terms of borrowers helped, just 15% of the total received first-mortgage forgiveness.

The five banks collectively delivered twice as much aid using short sales, in which owners sell their homes for less than the amount owed and move out, with the shortfall forgiven.

In all, the lenders sought credit for nearly $21 billion related to short sales and $15 billion related to second mortgages. That compares with $10.4 billion in write-downs on first mortgages.

Critics on the Left (example) are calling this a failure of the program, that most of the relief went to short-sales and 2nd mortgage forgiveness rather than first mortgage forgiveness.  The original article has this quote:

"It just shows you that the banks are running the government," Marks said. "There's virtually no benefit to borrowers, and yet you give the banks credit for short sales and getting second liens wiped out — something they were going to have to do anyway."

Hmm, well I am not the biggest fan of bankers in the world, but short sales and second lien forgiveness are principle forgiveness as well, just of a different form.  If they wanted a settlement that was first-lien forgiveness only, they should have specified that.

In fact, both short sales and second lien forgiveness have tremendous value to individuals if one considers individual well-being one's goal rather than just this obsessive fixation on home ownership.  

For many people, the worst part of their negative equity is that it created a barrier to their moving.  Perhaps they could find a job in another part of the state or country, or they wanted to move into a home or apartment with less expensive payments but were stuck in their current home because they could not afford to bring tens of thousands of dollars to closing.  In such cases, a short sale is exactly what the homeowner needs and facilitating and expediting this likely helped a ton of people  (It is also an example of just how unique our mortgage rules are in the US -- in almost any other country in the world, the amount of the negative equity in a short sale would get hung on the seller as a lien that must be paid off over time.  Only in the US do buyers routinely walk away clean from such situations).  Given that first mortgage loan forgiveness more often than not does not save the loan (ie it eventually ends in foreclosure anyway), short sales are the one approach that lets lenders get away clean for a fresh start.

As for second mortgages, I can tell you from personal experience that it is virtually impossible in the current environment to restructure or refinance a first mortgage with a second lien on the house -- even in my case where everything is performing and the underlying home value is well above the total of the two liens.  Seriously, what is the point in reducing principle in the first mortgage if there is a second mortgage there, particularly when the second mortgage is likely far more expensive?  For people with a second mortgage, forgiveness of that is probably the first and best gift they could get.  They may end up still losing their home, but they can't even begin to discuss a restructure or refinance without that other mortgage going away.

Apparently Obamacare is Better Because it Gouges Everyone

A number of people pointed out that the posted Obamacare rates in California are about twice what individuals are paying today at low-cost sites.  This was in response to a deceptive California press release that claimed they were much lower, but got this result only by comparing apples to oranges.

Rick Ungar has two responses, that seem to be the emerging talking points on the left:

  1. He found some bad Internet reviews of the low-cost source that Conservatives and libertarians used as a better point of comparison for Obamacare rates
  2. Some of the people had to pay up to 50% more than the published rates due to pre-existing conditions.

Avik Roy has a number of responses to Ungar (and Ezra Klein, who raises the same points as Ungar).  I would raise three points:

  1. Neither he nor Klein address the issue of the fundamental deceptiveness of the California press release.  I don't think anyone can defend comparing individual rates to business group rates as anything but apples to oranges.  If the Obamacare story is so great, why was the deceptiveness necessary?
  2. Everyone gets bad reviews on the Internet.  If one transaction out of a thousand goes bad, that one will write a negative review online and few of the satisfied will bother.  If sex were a product on Amazon.com, it would likely have some 1-star reviews.  That being said, it is amazing to me that government control is seen as the solution to customer service issues.  I could be wrong, but I would stack up the reviews of the worst health insurance company in America against the DMV and Post Office any day of the week.
  3. The published rates online are for the healthiest class of people.  I have never once had someone sell me health insurance and not make this clear.  Calling them teaser rates is a misnomer, particularly since, as Avik Roy notes, about 75% of the people who apply get these rates.  One in four have to pay 50% more today, so we are going to make 4 in 4 pay 100% more under Obamacare, and that is better?!?

To that last point, I will quote something I said years and years ago, long before Obamacare was passed:

The looming federal government takeover of health care as proposed by most of the major presidential candidates will be far worse than anything we have seen yet from government programs.  Take this example:  In the 1960's, the federal government embarked on massive housing projects for the poor.  In the end, most of these projects became squalid failures.

With the government housing fiasco, only the poor had to live in these awful facilities.  The rest of us had to pay for them, but could continue to live in our own private homes.

Government health care will be different.  Under most of the plans being proposed, we all are going to be forced to participate.  Using the previous analogy, we all are going to have to give up our current homes and go live in government housing, or least the health care equivalent of these projects.

Postscript:  Citizen Kane has over 100 1-star reviews.  Some are about the packaging or this particular version but many are about the movie.   The novel Gone with the Wind has dozens.

Postscript #2:  A sample Yelp review of a local USPS office

This place is the pits.

There are no supplies in any of the racks unless you want to send something Express Mail. All of the Priority Mail stuff is constantly gone and they don't have any more. Not that there's anyone to stock the racks even if they did.

People used to leave reviews complaining that there were "only two" workers. Those days are long gone--there is now ONE counter person at all times. That means if you get behind someone that has questions, or can't understand a customs form, or wants to argue about mail being held, you are just stuck.

Why not use the automated machine, you ask? Because its printer has been broken for two weeks and you can't actually print the postage that you might buy. Not that there's a sign telling you this--you have to spend a few minutes going through the process only to be told at the end that the transaction can't be completed because the printer isn't working.

I know they are making cuts because they are out of money, but it's a vicious cycle they'll never get out of because they've now effectively made it impossible to patronize the postal service.

Stay far, far away.

I would not be at all surprised if California banned online reviews of health care exchanges.  One department of the CA state government threatened to revoke all my contracts unless I took down a blog post simply linking to negative Yelp reviews of one of the department's facilities.

Totally Depressing

I found this article on foreclosed homeowners vindictively trashing houses now owned by the bank to be really depressing.  An example quote:

Myra Beams, a realtor in Tamarac, Fla., said half of her foreclosed properties, regardless of the price range, have been vandalized by the former owners. "I think the former owners are angry, and for some reason, they think they're entitled to destroy properties," said Beams. "I guess they're angry at the banks for giving them the mortgage."

There is a lot more like that.  A couple of quick thoughts

  • The sense of entitlement here is stunning.  It is these homeowners, not the bank, that failed to fulfill their end of the bargain.  Who is the guilty party here, anyway?
  • These folks are lucky to live in the US -- we have the most lenient home mortgage system in the world.  Very, very few other countries in the world have no-recourse mortgages where one can walk away only with a ding on their credit record, without even a personal bankruptcy.  Almost anyplace else, they would be facing years of garnishments for whatever losses on the loan the bank had after they sold the home.
  • I always thought the critique of lower income people "trashing" housing projects in the 70s and 80s had a vaguely racial tone to them, as if this were somehow a proof of African-Americans being shiftless and irresponsible.   But here we have white middle class people actively trashing their homes.  Proving once again that being an inconsiderate jerk is truly a multi-racial, multi-ethinic behavior.

Cargo Cult Social Engineering

Once upon a time, government officials decided it would help them keep their jobs if they could claim they had expanded the middle class.  Unfortunately, none of them really understood economics or even the historical factors that led to the emergence of the middle class in the first place.  But they did know two things:  Middle class people tended to own their own homes, and they sent their kids to college.

So in true cargo cult fashion, they decided to increase the middle class by promoting these markers of being middle class.  They threw the Federal government strongly behind promoting home ownership and college education.  A large part of this effort entailed offering easy debt financing for housing and education.  Because the whole point was to add poorer people to the middle class, their was a strong push to strip away traditional underwriting criteria for these loans (e.g. down payments, credit history, actual income to pay debt, etc.)

We know what happened in the housing market.  The government promoted home ownership with easy loans, and made these loans a favorite investment by giving them a preferential treatment in the capital requirements for banks.  And then the bubble burst, with the government taking the blame for the bubble.  Just kidding, the government blamed private lenders for their lax underwriting standards, conviniently forgetting that every President since Reagan had encouraged such laxity (they called it something else, like "giving access to the poor", but it means the same thing).

A similar bubble is just about to burst in the college loan market, and this time it will be much harder for the government to blame private lenders, since the government effectively nationalized the market several years ago and for years has been the source of at least 90% of all college loans.  In the Wall Street Journal today, it was reported that student loans are now the largest component of consumer debt, and growing

Further, a Fed report yesterday said that student loan diliquencies have jumped substantially of late

The scary part was found by Zero Hedge in the footnotes of the report, which admit that this number is understated by as much as half, meaning the true delinquency rate of student debt may be north of 20%.

The Journal article linked above explains why this is:

Nearly all student loans—93% of them last year—are made directly by the government, which asks little or nothing about borrowers' ability to repay, or about what sort of education they intend to pursue.

President Barack Obama championed easy-to-get loans during the campaign, calling higher education "an economic imperative in the 21st century." A spokesman for Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the goal is "to make student loans available to as many people as possible," and requiring minimum credit scores would block many Americans

Any of this sound familiar?  I seldom learn much from anecdotes in new stories since it is too easy to craft a stirring anecdote on either side of just about any issue.  But I was amazed at the story of the woman who was issued $184,500 in student debt to send her son to college when her entire income is a $1600 a month disability check.

Trapped Into Civic Participation, and A Note on Labor Mobility

Up until now, I had never know that there was actually a theory, propounded by people with a straight face, that trapping people in neighborhoods and institutions (like public schools) is a positive because it promotes civic virtue.  

If you own your home, then a lot of your wealth is tied in with the quality of your neighborhood. In theory, this should motivate you to vote more carefully in local elections. On the other hand, if you are a renter, and the neighborhood goes downhill, you will simply leave.

Collectivists prefer to trap households within specific government service areas. Their thinking is that with the “exit” option foreclosed, households will be forced to exercise their “voice” option, to everyone’s benefit. This is an argument against private schools. It goes back at least as far as A.O. Hirschman’s classic book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

I would argue just the opposite, that this creates state monopolies ripe for abuse, and besides, is disastrous for labor mobility and thus the healthy functioning of labor markets.  People keep arguing that this recession is long because recessions after financial bubbles are always long.  I am not sure that is proven out by history.

I would argue a big reason this recession is long is that the nature of this bubble, being in housing markets, short-circuited one of the ways we get out of recessions, which is labor mobility.   Trapped in homes the government encouraged them to buy but now they cannot sell, people can't move to find new regional opportunities.  Where are the mass migrations to the North Dakota oil fields?

Just How Little Does Government Trust Individuals?

From CNN via Carpe Diem

 

A 24-year scandal was quietly acknowledged last week. On July 3 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first "rapid home" test for HIV—a test that people can take in the privacy of their own homes to determine whether they have the virus that causes AIDS.

The approval is an unambiguously good thing—or so you would think. The saliva test in question, made by OraSure Technologies and known as OraQuick, costs less than $60 and takes just 20 minutes to self-administer. According to statistics an FDA advisory committee presented at a hearing in May, it holds the potential to prevent the transmission of more than 4,000 new HIV infections in its first year of use alone. That would be about 8 percent of the roughly 50,000 new infections we currently see annually in the United States. (About 1.2 million people in the U.S. are now living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of whom about 20 percent don't realize they have it. Since the epidemic began in the early 1980s, about 1.1 million people have been diagnosed with AIDS, and more than 619,000 have died from it.)

The scandal is that the approval of a rapid home test for HIV did not occur until last week—about 24 years after the FDA received its first application seeking permission to market one.

Apparently, for years, even decades, only tests of clinical options were allowed to proceed, basically because the government considers Americans to be infants:

There was great concern that the patient receive proper counseling, both before and after the test. The patient needed to appreciate the possibility of false positives, so he wouldn't panic unnecessarily if he got one. He needed to appreciate the danger of false negatives, so he wouldn't become reckless, endangering sexual partners. And he needed to understand the options and support groups available in the event he received a true positive. (On top of all these concerns, many AIDS activists at the time were opposed to almost any form of HIV testing out of fear that results could be used to ostracize and persecute HIV-positive people—though one hopes that public health concerns were paramount to the FDA, rather than political pressure and hysteria.)

Try To Spot Who Has Been Left Out

Here is Kevin Drum, where he quotes from an Op/Ed about a new Southern California "Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy"

The plan includes expansion of housing near public transit by 60%....and projections of more than 4 million new jobs — with public transit within half a mile of most of them. Amanda Eaken of the Natural Resources Defense Council praised it as "the strongest transportation plan" in the history of "car-loving Southern California."

.... SCAG's new plan is born of the realization that as a region, we have to grow up, not out. That doesn't mean Hong Kong skyscrapers in Whittier and Redlands. It does mean more apartments near light-rail stations and more vibrant mixed-use areas like the ones in downtown Pasadena, Ventura and Brea. It doesn't mean wresting the car keys from suburban commuters. It does mean making jobs and housing accessible via foot, bike, bus and rail.

Here is his comment on this:

In theory, a plan like this should have almost unanimous support. Developers like it because they can put up denser buildings. Environmentalists like it because it's more sustainable. Urbanists like it because it creates more walkable communities. City governments like it because it creates a stronger tax base.

There's really only one constituency that doesn't like it much: every single person who already lives in these communities and hates the idea of dense, high-rise construction near their homes. So there's going to be fireworks. It'll be interesting to see how the NIMBY bloc gets bought off.

Can you spot which group of people whose  preferences have been left out?   He considers the preferences of planners, developers, environmentalists, urbanists, and current community residents.  That's everyone, right?

Yeah, except for the freaking people who are moving in and actually shopping for a home.  Apparently if you are looking for a place to live in California, everyone except for you has a say in what living choices you will find.  Want a suburban home on an acre of land -- you are out of luck (unless you get an existing one that is grandfathered in, but those are really, really expensive because they are what everyone really wants but no one in power in California will allow to be built).  Your chosen lifestyle has not been approved by your betters.

 

House Flipping Commercials? Already?

Today on the radio I heard a commercial for a company promising to teach me the exciting art of flipping houses.  I could buy and resell houses up to three at a time in less than 30 days.

I guess I thought it would take a bit longer for this nuttiness to come back.  I do know some smart people who are buying undervalued houses, putting a bit of money in them, and putting them on the rental market.  Converting owner-occupied homes at the bottom of the market to rental properties makes sense to me, particularly since the ones I know are doing it with all equity.

However, I presume the folks tuning into the radio don't have that much equity, and anyway they were explicitly using the word "flipping" in the commercial rather than talking about rental income.  I wonder who is lending on this stuff?  I tried to refi my mortgage about 6 months ago on a 40% LTV but as a self-employed person it was a pain in the ass.  Who's financing house flipping?

(yeah, I know, the answer probably is "all of us, via Fannie and Freddi or some other dumb government program).

The Worst Polluter

This country has made great progress in cleaning up its waterways over the last four decades.  Conservatives like to pretend it's not true, but there is absolutely nothing wrong from a strong property rights perspective in stopping both public and private actors from dumping their waste in waterways that don't belong to them.

The problem today with the EPA is not the fact that they protect the quality of the commons (e.g. air and water) but that

  1. New detection technologies at the parts per billion resolution have allowed them to identify and obsess over threats that are essentially non-existent
  2. Goals have changed such that many folks use air and water protection as a cover or excuse for their real goal, which is halting development and sabotaging capitalism and property rights
But there is one actor that is still allowed to pollute at unarguably harmful levels.  You guess it, the government.

What might surprise Brougham and many other New Yorkers who were appalled by last summer’s sewage discharge is that there’s nothing particularly unusual about it. Almost every big rainstorm causes raw sewage to flow into the city’s rivers. New York is one in a handful of older American cities — Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are others — that suffer from poor sewer infrastructure leading to Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs. New York City has spent $1.6 billion over the last decade trying to curb CSOs, but the problem is so pervasive in the city that no one is sure whether these efforts will make much of a difference.

CSOs occur because the structure of New York City’s sewage system often can’t cope with the volume of sewage flowing through it. Under the city’s streets, thousands of drains, manholes and plumbing systems converge into a few sewage mains. These pipes can handle the 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater that the five boroughs produce on a typical day — about as much water as would be generated by a 350-year-long shower. But whenever the pipes gather more water than usual — such as during a rain- or snowstorm — the pumps at the city’s 14 wastewater treatment plants can’t keep up with the flow. Rather than backing up into streets and homes, untreated sewage systematically bypasses the plants and heads straight into the waterways.*

In this way, 27 to 30 billion gallons of untreated sewage enter New York City waterways each year via hundreds of CSO outfalls, says Phillip Musegaas of Riverkeeper, a New York clean water advocacy group. Musegaas says he finds it especially upsetting that city officials don’t effectively warn the thousands of people like Brougham who use the waterways and could encounter harmful bacteria during overflow events.

I thought this correction was funny:

This story originally read that New York City’s sewage system could “barely” handle the city’s wastewater, an untrue statement. As long as there’s little surplus stormwater entering the system, it’s adequate to handle the flow.

Oh, so everything is OK, as long as it does not rain.  Which it does 96 days a year.  I am just sure this reporter would say that BP's offshore safety systems were "adequate" if it only spilled oil 96 days of the year.

Feds Make Illegal What We Already Thought Was Illegal

Via Zero Hedge

today, in a unanimous vote, "The U.S. futures regulator approved on Monday a rule that puts tighter limits on how brokerage firms can use customer funds, a measure that the now-bankrupt MF Global had encouraged the agency to delay." In other words, while before commingling client accounts was assumed to be a clear violation of every logical fiduciary imperative, now it is set in stone. For real. The CFTC means it.

In the past, I believed that a lot of financial regulations were honest (though often misguided) attempts to create transparent and trustworthy markets.  I am increasingly being pushed to the cynical conclusion that financial regulations, like, say, licensing of funeral homes, are mainly aimed at making it impossible for small competitors to survive, while larger competitors either have the scale to pay for compliance departments, or in the case of MF Global, have the political muscle to get themselves exempted (by Administrations of both parties, I should be clear, though the current one certainly gets a hypocrisy award for standing beside OWS while handing out finance and health care law exceptions to the powerful).

MF Global is far worse in my mind than, say, Enron.  In Enron's case, the management was at least mostly pursuing the activities and investments that they were supposed to be pursuing.  They were making bets of the type shareholders expected, though they were likely masking the cost and risk of these bets by aggressive pushes at the margins of accounting rules.

MF Global was doing exactly what everyone supposedly knew to be an absolute no-no, ie using client funds to make leveraged bets for their own account.  If Joe Schmoe in Florida did the same thing, he would already be incarcerated.  In the case of MF Global, no one even seems to be interviewing Corzine and so far the bankruptcy committee has put a higher priority on repaying JP Morgan and Goldman for Corzine's bad bets than on getting investors' money back.

OWS and Philip Rearden

I have been reading a lot of the data flying around of late about income inequality and mobility.  And it struck me that income mobility may be a large part of what is driving many OWS protesters.

Despite assumptions to the contrary on the Left, wealth is not a zero-sum game.  Steven Jobs got richer by making me better off.  But the one thing that is zero-sum is presence in the top 1%.  When someone joins the club, someone, by operation of basic math, drops out.

That does not mean that the other person who drops out is poorer, it just means that they are no longer as rich relative to their peers.  This same effect works int he top 10% and 20%, etc.

Looking at OWS protectors, they seem to be disproportionately children of the upper middle class or even of the rich.  They have expensive college educations, live in nice homes, and have gobs of stuff (OWS must be the most iPhoned event in history).  My guess is that they are of the upper two quintiles, or at least their parents were.

I am wondering if the problem is not income inequality but too much income mobility.  After all, a third of the top two quartiles in 2001 had dropped into the bottom three in 2007 (while an equal number moved up). Are these the angry proletariat, or are they children of the well-off who are upset their college degree in puppetteering did not automatically keep them up with the Joneses?   Are they, in other words, Philip Rearden?

 

This is an AWESOME Idea. I Want to Propose California Do Much More of This

Via Carpe Diem and a whole string of other sites:

"How will California parents react when they find out they will be expected to provide workers' compensation benefits, rest and meal breaks, and paid vacation time for…babysitters? Dinner and a movie night may soon become much more complicated.

California Assembly Bill 889 will require these protections for all “domestic employees,” including nannies, housekeepers and caregivers. The bill has already passed the Assembly and is quickly moving through the Senate with blanket support from the Democrat members that control both houses of the Legislature – and without the support of a single Republican member. Assuming the bill will easily clear its last couple of legislative hurdles, AB 889 will soon be on its way to the Governor's desk.

Under AB 889, household “employers” (aka “parents”) who hire a babysitter on a Friday night will be legally obligated to pay at least minimum wage to any sitter over the age of 18 (unless it is a family member), provide a substitute caregiver every two hours to cover rest and meal breaks, in addition to workers' compensation coverage, overtime pay, and a meticulously calculated timecard/paycheck.

Failure to abide by any of these provisions may result in a legal cause of action against the employer ("parents") including cumulative penalties, attorneys' fees, legal costs and expenses associated with hiring expert witnesses, an unprecedented measure of legal recourse provided no other class of workers – from agricultural laborers to garment manufacturers."

I know this is exactly the kind of thing you would expect me to oppose, but I have decided this is exactly the kind of thing California needs.  I am tired of average citizens passing crazy requirements on business without any concept of the costs and injustices they are proposing, and then scratch their head later wonder why job creation is stagnant.
I want to propose that California do MORE in this same vein.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Every household will have to register for a license to conduct any type of commerce, a license to occupy their house, and a license to hire any employees.  Homeowner will as a minimum have to register to withhold income taxes, pay social security taxes, pay unemployment insurance, pay disability insurance, and pay workers comp insurance.
  • Households should have to file a 1099 for every payment they make to contractors
  • All requirements of Obamacare must be followed for any household labor, including payment of penalties for even part-time labor for which the homeowner does not provide medical insurance
  • No alcohol may be purchased by any individual without first applying for and receiving a state liquor license
  • No cigarettes may be purchased by any individual without first applying for and receiving a state cigarette license
  • No over the counter drugs may be purchased by any individual without first applying for and receiving a state over the counter drug license
  • No eggs may be purchased by any individual without first applying for and receiving a state egg license
  • Any injuries of any type in the household must be reported to OSHA
  • Form EEO-1 must be filed once a year to catalog the race and gender of anyone who did any work in the home
  • Any time one has a dispute in court with another citizen or an employee, they will now be treated the same as businesses in California, which means that the presumption, irregardless of facts, will be strongly in favor of any employee and against the homeowner, and in favor of any other party in any dispute whose net worth is perceived by the jury as less than the homeowner's.
  • At least once a year the home's kitchen must be inspected and certified by both the fire marshal and the health department.  Any deficiencies must be immediately repaired before the kitchen can be used.  All code requirements for commercial kitchens will apply to household kitchens, including requirements for a three-basin washup sink, separate mop sink, and fire extinguishers
  • All homes will be inspected once per year for ADA compliance.  All parts of the home must be wheelchair accessible, even if there are currently no handicapped residents in residence.  Homes more than one-story tall will require an elevator.  All counters must be of the proper height, and all bathrooms must have ADA fixtures.
  • Each home will be required to prominently display all its required licenses as well as state and federal information posters for workers.
  • All homes will be audited at least once every three years to ensure that use taxes have been filed and paid on all out of state Internet purchases
  • Material Safety Data Sheets must be on file for all household cleaning products and other chemicals and available for inspection by the fire marshal
  • All gas tanks (car, lawnmower, portable 5-gallon) will be treated just like commercial gasoline storage tanks, and require monthly leak / loss reporting.  Annually, a complete spill prevention plan must be filed with the state.
  • A stormwater discharge plan must be filed annually with the state
  • Any dropped thermometer or CFL bulb will require homeholder to call out (and pay disposal costs) of a state hazmat team
  • Lifeguards are required at all home pools during daylight hours
  • Households should file property tax returns in the same way that businesses must, listing individually every single piece of personal property they own, from their car to their lawnmower to the pink flamingo in the front yard.
  • Homeowner must track the number of days any guests stay in their house so they can file and pay lodging taxes on a monthly basis
  • Any homeowner who hauls a boat or trailer on US highways must register with the Department of Transportation and receive a DOT number.  They must keep full driver logs and maintenance records available for DOT audit and inspection, and every driver must be drug-tested at least once per year.
  • All food on pantry shelves must meet all state labeling laws
  • At each entrance to the house, a sign warming those entering must be posted warning that certain cancer causing chemicals may be present

Finally, after spending the entire day complying with these rules, the homeowner must read at least 3 posts each day from progressive blogs explaining why anyone who complains about such rules as unreasonable is just a reactionary who doesn't really know how to run his business very well, and they could certainly do better.

Postscript:  Every single item on this list is something my company has been required to do.  I am sure I left a bunch out.

Cloudy with 100% Chance of Corporate State

It does not appear that Rick Perry is the guy to dismantle our growing corporate state.

The LA Times investigates the big-money culture of Texas politics, which has gotten even bigger and money-er since Rick Perry became governor:

Perry has received a total of $37 million over the last decade from just 150 individuals and couples, who are likely to form the backbone of his new effort to win the Republican presidential nomination....Nearly half of those mega-donors received hefty business contracts, tax breaks or appointments under Perry, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Perry, campaigning Monday at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, declined to comment when asked how he separated the interests of his donors from the needs of his state. His aides vigorously dispute that his contributors received any perks. "They get the same thing that all Texans get," said spokesman Mark Miner.

Nearly half! And this doesn't even include anything about David Nance and the largesse Perry distributes via his $200 million state-managed venture capital slush fund. Doling out political favors in industrial quantities is obviously something that isn't frowned upon by Texas political culture, and Perry has taken it to whole new levels.

Kudos to the LA Times and folks like Kevin Drum for digging this up, but everyone involved should be embarrassed by just how partisan outrage on this kind of thing can be.  The same folks who are rightly upset at Perry actively cheered on Obama as he took ownership of GM away from the secured creditors and handed it to his major campaign supporters in the UAW.  His stimulus program has been a trillion dollar slush fund to pay off nearly every liberal constituency, and while I find the idea of a state-run venture capital fund horrifying, I see no difference here with Obama's green job investments, many of which have gone triends, campaign supporters, and even spouses of prominent administration officials.

As I asked the other day, if the President is really supposed to be our VC in chief (an absurd thought) who in the hell would pick Obama for the job?  As one random example out of my feed reader:

Last year, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced the city had won a coveted $20 million federal grant to invest in weatherization. The unglamorous work of insulating crawl spaces and attics had emerged as a silver bullet in a bleak economy – able to create jobs and shrink carbon footprint – and the announcement came with great fanfare.

McGinn had joined Vice President Joe Biden in the White House to make it. It came on the eve of Earth Day. It had heady goals: creating 2,000 living-wage jobs in Seattle and retrofitting 2,000 homes in poorer neighborhoods.

But more than a year later, Seattle's numbers are lackluster. As of last week, only three homes had been retrofitted and just 14 new jobs have emerged from the program. Many of the jobs are administrative, and not the entry-level pathways once dreamed of for low-income workers. Some people wonder if the original goals are now achievable.

"The jobs haven't surfaced yet," said Michael Woo, director of Got Green, a Seattle community organizing group focused on the environment and social justice.

"It's been a very slow and tedious process. It's almost painful, the number of meetings people have gone to. Those are the people who got jobs. There's been no real investment for the broader public."

At the same time, heavily subsidized Evergreen Solar is going bankrupt.

Bloomberg News reports that the firm Evergreen Solar will file for bankruptcy and close its operation in Midland, Mich. The maker of solar cells cites over-capacity in the industry, competition from China and fewer government subsidies as contributing factors. According to Bloomberg, the firm has 133 employees worldwide.

Given a Michigan location and participation in a politically faddish industry, readers won't be surprised that Evergreen was the beneficiary of special state subsidies and a local tax break. Specifically, three years ago Evergreen Solar was offered a $1.8 million "refundable" tax credit by the Michigan Economic Growth Authority. For firms with little or no tax liability, this amounts to an outright cash subsidy, contingent on attaining certain employment and investment milestones. Evergreen Solar's specific tax liability is not public information.

The deal was based on crystal-ball projections from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation using a software program known as REMI, which predicted that an Evergreen deal would create exactly 596 direct and "spin-off" jobs by 2018, producing $18.5 million in new state tax revenue.

The city of Midland also granted property tax abatements worth $3.9 million over 12 years, according to Mlive.com. It's not known how much, if any, of these subsidies and tax breaks were ever collected by the company.

This actually understates the total subsidies, as it ignores subsidies to its customers, incoluding above market geed-in tariffs, to buy the solar panels.

Closer to home, a Tucson solar panel manufacturer that was opened to great fanfare with the help of Janet Napolitano and Gabby Giffords just closed after being open barely 2 years.  They scored some subsidies, got some large government and utility contracts on the promise of local employment, and then packed up shop for China.  Apparently they were attempting to compete in the commodity solar panel market on a strategy of having a higher fit and finish on their product, a product that sits on the roof and no one ever looks at.  Good plan.

PS-  Yes, private investments fail all the time, but they are 1) not using my money, unless I voluntarily offer it and 2) there are real consequences for those who make bad investments

Licensing is Anti-Consumer

Here is an amazing example of how far the state will go to protect entrenched competitors from new competition.  Because it is far more important to make absolutely, 100% sure (precautionary principle, you know) that no one is competing in the Minneapolis market without a license than it is to encourage volunteer-ism in the wake of a natural disaster.

Tree trimmers who work in Minneapolis need to be licensed with the city. It’s a regulation in place throughout many cities, and something Haege knows all about. He’s licensed in Hastings and several area cities. Since he doesn’t work in Minneapolis, he isn’t licensed there.

All that was moot, of course. He was just going to volunteer and was not charging residents for his services.

He had brought a bucket truck to get high if needed, and he brought a wood chipper to dispose of fallen trees. He and the volunteers got to work on homes where the resident didn’t have insurance.

“We were removing stuff so people could get out of their driveways and out of their doors,” he said. “The place was a pretty big disaster.”

What happened next shocked Haege.

A city inspector arrived at the scene. She told Haege he had to leave. Immediately.

“You have to leave right now,” the inspector told Haege. “You’re not licensed to be here.”

“I said, ‘I’m just a volunteer,’ and she didn’t believe me.”

Haege went back to his truck and got his volunteer paperwork. Still, that did little to get the inspector off his back.

“I don’t want to see you up here,” she told him.

“She just didn’t believe me,” he said.

A volunteer from the Urban Homeworks, who had been with Haege since he signed up to volunteer that morning, did his best to convince the inspector that Haege wasn’t charging for his services.

Residents then came out of their doors in his defense, telling the inspector that he had just performed work at their house and hadn’t charged them a dime. Still, the defense fell on deaf ears.

The inspector told him to get out of the city, so Haege left with the volunteer. As they were on their way back to the volunteer area, residents waved down Haege, pleading for help. He pulled over and helped get a tree out of the way for them.

Haege had no idea police officers were behind him in a sort of unofficial escort out of town. He said they stopped traffic for about two hours while they figured out what to do with him. At one point, officers threatened to throw him in jail, he said.

All the while, residents continued defending him, screaming in his defense.

Officers told him to leave. They told him he was going to receive a “hefty fine” in the mail, and that if he stopped on the way out, the fine would be doubled.

California Points Gun At Own Head, Pulls Trigger

From the Thin Green Line:

Earlier today, the California Assembly passed a bill that would oblige state utilities to get a third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. It is one of the most aggressive standards in the world.

The Senate passed the legislation in February, and Governor Brown is expected to sign the bill.

How big a deal is it? Well, according to Peter Miller, a senior scientist at NRDC, "As a result of the RPS program, renewable energy generation in California in 2020 will be roughly equal to total current U.S. renewable generation, and supply enough clean energy to power nearly 9 million homes" or, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, drive 3 million cars.

This is an absolutely amazing case of wishful thinking.  Note the "will be" in the last paragraph.  Really?  Can I have the other side of that bet?  The California legislature can legislate a unicorn in every garage but that does not mean it will happen by 2020.

Forgetting for a moment the absolutely horrible cost and/or reliability position of most "green" energy technologies, there is no way, absolutely no way, that California can permit and construct a replacement for a third of its electric generation in 9 years.   And I shudder to even think how large of a broken window obsoleting and forcing replacement of a third of electrical generation capacity will be.

A final thought, via Dilbert:

Cargo Cult Social Engineering

Glen Reynolds has a great observation on government social engineering.  I hadn't thought about it this way before, but in many ways government drives for things like home ownership are like a cargo cult

The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them

The Looming Failure of Obamacare, Part 2: Incentives

My new column, second in a series, is up at Forbes.  It is the second of a three-part series, and looks at incentives issues with Obamacare.  A few excerpts:

In the late 1960s, as part of the Great Society program, the US government constructed huge government housing complexes, with the goal of guaranteeing that everyone, no matter how poor, would have access to housing.  By the turn of the century, most of these complexes had succumbed to the wrecking ball  -- the era of large public housing complexes was over.

Why?  Well, there were a lot of reasons the program failed, but a big one was faulty incentives.  By getting free housing, recipients had no "skin in the game," no ownership, no financial participation in their housing.  As a result, many treated their taxpayer-funded abodes with contempt.  Why not?  They weren't paying for it.  And if the property was in good shape at the end of the lease, they didn't get any extra money.

I often compare Obamacare to the great failed public housing projects by warning folks that government health care is going to be much worse.    With the housing projects, we taxpayers paid large sums of money but only a few actually had to live in the horrible government apartments -- at least most of us were able to keep our own homes.  With Obamacare, it is going to cost us even more money, and we are all going to have to move, figuratively, into the projects.

If we are all forced to have the same, low deductible, first-dollar health plans, what incentive is one going to have to stay out of the health care system, even for something minor?

I also talk about the incentive for drug development

Look around the world today -- not one country with a government health care system pays drug reimbursement rates at a level that provides any incentive for new drug development.  In fact, almost all of the world's health care R&D is paid for by Americans.  What happens when politicians, trying to close an exploding health care spending hole in the Federal budget, do exactly what every other country in the world has done and use their power to drive drug prices down to marginal cost?

In fact, to be confident that there will continue to be health care innovation in the future at all, one has to believe that the US Government will act completely differenlty in running its government health care system than does every other government in the world, despite the fact it will have the incentives to behave identically to all of them.  Is this a bet you feel good about?

Walter Duranty is Alive and Well

From the WSJ, about a recent "documentary" on PBS's Newshour

Mr. Suarez's report, by contrast, is like a state propaganda film. In one segment, an American woman named Gail Reed who lives in Cuba tells him that the government's claim of its people's longevity is due to a first-rate system of disease prevention. He then parrots the official line that Cuba's wealth of doctors is the key ingredient. What is more, he says, these unselfish revolutionary "foot soldiers" go on house calls. "It's aggressive preventive medicine," Mr. Suarez explains. "Homes are investigated, water quality checked, electrical plugs checked."...

As to doctors checking on water quality and electricity outlets, the PBS reporter might be surprised to learn that most Cuban homes have no running water or power on a regular basis. This is true even in the capital. In 2006, Mr. Botín says, a government minister admitted that 75.5% of the water pipes in Havana were "unusable" and "recognized that 60% of pumped water was lost before it made it to consumers." To "fix" the problem, the city began providing water in each neighborhood only on certain days. Havana water is also notoriously contaminated. Foreigners drink only the bottled stuff, which Cubans can't afford. In the rest of the country the quality and quantity of the water supply is even less reliable.

This is particularly ironic since, at the same moment this show was airing, state department reports leaked by Wikileaks revealed that the Cuban government banned the showing of Michael Moore's "Sicko" in Cuba, despite the film being wildly propagandistic in favor of the Cuban government.  Why?  Because the portrayal of the Cuban medical system, as in Mr. Suarez's PBS report, was so unrealistically favorable that ordinary Cuban citizens would immediately recognize it as BS.

Licensing is Anti-Consumer (An Ongoing Series)

This week's episode -- Monk's making simple caskets to support themselves must desist because Louisiana has detailed licensing laws to protect current funeral homes from just this type of low-cost competition. This is what the monks would have to do to sell what is basically a nice wooden box

Louisiana law purports to require that anyone who is going to sell a casket has to jump through all same regulatory hoops as a full-fledged mortuary operation that embalms bodies. See, selling "funeral merchandise" (including caskets) means you are a "funeral director." And to be a "funeral director," you must be approved for "good moral character and temperate habits" by a funeral-related government entity [of course, that's in Louisiana, but still], complete 30 semester hours at college, apprentice with a funeral director for a year, pay an application fee, and pass an exam. But that's not all. If you want your facility to sell caskets, it's got to qualify as a facility for funeral directing, including a showroom and "embalming facilities for the sanitation, disinfection, and preparation of a human body."

The monks are being represented by the IJ (what the ACLU should have been if it weren't for its Stalinist founders) which hopes to get to the Supreme Court.  If I were one of the monks (wildly unlikely as that is) I might be tempted to sell them as "human-sized wood boxes" rather than coffins and see where that got me.