Posts tagged ‘influence’

My Favorite Description To Date of the Problems and Appeal of Trump

Scott Alexander has a great article on the problems with Trump's approach to economics.  I want to begin, though, with an analogy he uses at the end because it is the best single framework I have seen about understanding Trump's appeal:

Suppose you’re a hypercompetent billionaire in a decaying city, and you want to do something about the crime problem. What’s your best option? Maybe you could to donate money to law-enforcement, or after-school programs for at-risk teens, or urban renewal. Or you could urge your company full of engineering geniuses to invent new police tactics and better security systems. Or you could use your influence as a beloved celebrity to petition the government to pass laws which improve efficiency of the justice system.

Bruce Wayne decided to dress up in a bat costume and personally punch criminals. And we love him for it.

I worry that Trump’s plan for his administration is to dress up in a President costume and personally punch people we don’t like, while leaving policy to rot. And I worry it’s going to work.

Basically, Trump is acting like a small state governor, focusing his economic efforts on getting the Apple factory to come to town

So based on these two strategies, we are in for four years of sham Trump victories which look really convincing on a first glance. Every couple of weeks, until it gets boring, another company is going to say Trump convinced them to keep jobs in the United States. The total number of jobs saved this way will never be more than a tiny fraction of the jobs that could be saved by (eg) good economic policy, but nobody knows anything about economic policy and Trump will make sure everybody hears about Ford keeping jobs in the US. Every one of these victories will actively make the world worse, in the sense that these big companies will get taxpayer subsidies or favors they can call in later to distort government priorities, but nobody’s going to notice these either.

It seems appropriate to end this with a bit of Bastiat:

In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.

Pardon Hillary

This may be the last message you expected from me, but Obama should pardon Hillary.  If Obama does not, Trump should.

Look, I am a FOIA absolutist.  Long before it came out that Clinton may have had top secret emails on her home server, I wanted to see her punished for her flouting of public accountability laws.  Her whole home-brewed email system was a transparent attempt to evade FOIA, and consistent with her history of attempting to duck transparency (going all the way back to her abortive health care initiative she ran as First Lady).  In addition, I have had it up to here with bogus non-profits that pretend to do charity work, but are in fact merely lifestyle and influence maintenance devices for their principals.  I would love to see the Clinton Foundation investigated (though market forces may take care of that institution on their own, as it is unlikely donors will be sending much money their way now that the Clintons have no prospect of returning to power).

But the optics, and precedents involved, with a winning candidate's administration criminally prosecuting the election's loser are just terrible.  Even if entirely justified, the prosecution smacks of banana republic politics.  And even if it were justified, half the country would not see it that way and next time, when the parties are reversed, as sure as the sun rises in the East there will be folks looking to duplicate the prosecution in the other direction.

The rule of law is seldom helped by ignoring wrong-doing, but in this case I will make an exception.

Postscript:  By the way, what could be a better political FU than having Trump pardon her?   An attempted prosecution could last for years and could lead nowhere.  But nothing leaves the impression of "your guilty" like a preemptive pardon (see Richard Nixon).  From a political point of view Obama should pardon her just to prevent Trump from doing so and getting credit for being a healer.

Three Reasons Why More Money Does Not Translate Into Better Education

  1.  There is absolutely no guarantee that spending more money increases service quality, especially when (as is the case with public schools) there is no competition to discipline spending and ensure that it is funneled to those aspects of the service that are actually important to customers
  2. Over the last 20-30 years, administrative staffing in public schools has grown from a small percentage of the total to about half the headcount in many public school districts, and thus likely more than half the salary budget (since administrators frequently make more than teachers)
  3. Much of the increased funding is going to retired teachers who aren't actually teaching anyone

Per-student spending on K-12 education has risen steadily over the last two decades, but student test scores, and teacher salaries, are stagnant. Why hasn’t this massive increase in investment produced better teachers and better opportunity for students? The short-answer, according to a new Manhattan Institute report by Josh McGee: State and local governments have catastrophically mismanaged their teacher pension systems. The cash infusion to K-12 has been used largely to pay for irresponsible pension promises politicians made to teachers’ unions and justified to the public with shoddy accounting. . . .

In other words, to cover benefits for retirees, states need to dig into education funds that might otherwise be used to attract and retain good teachers or buy better textbooks and build new facilities. So long as state governments are unwilling to reform the blue model pension-for-life civil service system, and so long as teachers unions continue to wield outsized influence in so many state legislatures, this pattern seems likely to continue indefinitely.

Campaigns to increase spending on schools are always popular, and understandably so: Education ought to be a great equalizing force in our society and, in theory, an efficient way to invest in the future. The problem is that in many states, new “K-12 spending” isn’t really an investment so much as a transfer payment to retired employees of the public schools who have been promised untenable lifetime pension benefits.

The Corporate State, In One Chart

James Bessen has a terrific article in the Harvard Business Review on the estimated contribution to corporate profits of rent-seeking, or the acquisition of special favors, subsidies, and protections from the government that shelter a company from the normal competition of a free market.  Bessen argues that such rent-seeking is major explanatory factor for recent rises in corporate profits.


This topic will be a familiar one to Coyoteblog readers.   Show me a regulation and I will show you the large corporation that is able to use it to throttle competition.  I remember when everyone claimed the retail minimum wage was going to hurt Wal-Mart, but in fact Wal-Mart actually supported it because it was paying a higher wage than its smaller upstart competitors and thus the minimum wage would tend to hurt Wal-Mart's competition worse than it would be hurt.  Taxi service is one of the most regulated businesses in the country (at least in relation to the complexity of the business) and we are seeing just how much these regulations have supported taxi profits as we watch the taxi companies use the regulations to try to hammer Uber and Lyft.

According to Bessen, the effect is both large and on the rise:

I find that investments in conventional capital assets like machinery and spending on R&D together account for a substantial part of the rise in valuations and profits, especially during the 1990s. However, since 2000, political activity and regulation account for a surprisingly large share of the increase....

The pattern around the 1992 Cable Act is representative: I find that firms experiencing major regulatory change see their valuations rise 12% compared to closely matched control groups. Smaller regulatory changes are also associated with a subsequent rise in firm market values and profits.

This research supports the view that political rent seeking is responsible for a significant portion of the rise in profits. Firms influence the legislative and regulatory process and they engage in a wide range of activity to profit from regulatory changes, with significant success. Without further research, we cannot say for sure whether this activity is making the economy less dynamic and more unequal, but the magnitude of this effect certainly heightens those concerns.

Two characteristics make these changes particularly worrisome. First, the link between regulation and profits is highly concentrated in a small number of politically influential industries. Among non-financial corporations, most of the effect is accounted for by just five industries: pharmaceuticals/chemicals, petroleum refining, transportation equipment/defense, utilities, and communications. These industries comprise, in effect, a “rent seeking sector.” Concentration of political influence among a narrow group of firms means that those firms may skew policy for the entire economy. For example, the pharmaceutical industry has actively stymied efforts to address problems of patent trolls that affect many other industries.

I would add two other industries to this list -- medicine and legal.  The reason it likely does not show up in his study is that the returns in these businesses show up to individuals or small private firms.  But heavy regulation, and in particular a licensing process wherein one must get permission from the incumbents in order to compete with them, has always kept prices and returns in these businesses artificially high.

Note by the way that the breakpoint year of 2000 makes this a bipartisan issue, occurring in equal measure in Republican and Democratic Congresses and Presidencies.

And I don't think I need to remind folks, but both of our Presidential candidates are absolutely steeped in and committed to this cronyist, corporatist system

Living Atlas Shrugged in Venezuela

This sounds so much like the latter stages of Atlas Shrugged, when one by one Colorado businesses shut down, worsening shortages across he country.  The government tries to come in and restart each factory, but there is no confidence that the government can actually do the job and within months the whole thing has imploded forever.

Over the weekend, Kimberly-Clark said that the South American nation’s deteriorating economic situation had made “it impossible to continue our business at this time."  The company had made a number of hard-to-find staples in Venezuela such as diapers and face tissues.

As Bloomberg adds, the decision will likely to add to shortages that have gripped Venezuela for the past few years after the ruling socialists capped the price on many consumer basics below production costs." As we have documented repeatedly, desperate shoppers now routinely spend long hours in front of stores to purchase essential products ranging from toilet paper to rice. At the same time, companies face hefty losses on price-controlled goods, while the products are often flipped on the black market for many times their sticker price.

So in retaliation, Venezuela's government announced it had seized the factory.  Labor Minister Owaldo Vera said Monday that the socialist government took the action at the request of the 971 workers at the factory that the company decided to shutter. The seizure follows a similar takeover from 2014 when Clorox announced it was closing its doors.

"Kimberly-Clark will continue producing for all of the Venezuelans," Vera said in a televised statement from the factory surrounded by workers chanting pro-government slogans. That statement was not exactly true: former workers of the company would continue producing under the observation of government management. We doubt this "forced restructring" will survive more than a few months.

I have written this before, but I interpret Atlas Shrugged a bit differently than most.  There is much criticism of the one-dimensional characters and limited character development in the book.  But I have always thought this beside the point.  The main character in Atlas Shrugged is the world itself, and the main story arc is the decline and fall of the world under the increasing influence of socialism.  All the human characters are just props to this main drama.

In this interpretation, the climax of the book is when the hobo Jeff Allen tells the story of 20th Century Motors to Dagny on the train.  This story shows the final death throws of a group of people attempting to pursue socialism in its purest form.  It's a statement of the end towards which everything else is quickly heading.  After this point in the book, we immediately are in Galt's Gulch and end up with Rand's Utopian vision, which from a literary standpoint is awkward and boring.  That's because utopian novels are always dull as dirt.  Rand's triumph in that book was that she was absolutely prescient about how socialism plays out, which we are seeing today in Venezuela.

Some Gaming News

A few random notes on computer games for those who share that interest:

  1. For those Diablo fans who loved Diablo II but were disappointed that Diablo III was not exactly the sequel they'd hoped for, I have a suggestion:  Path of Exile from Grinding Gear Games.  It is set up as an mmrpg (so you have to be online to play) but it plays just fine single player and all the map areas are dedicated instances such that you aren't fighting other players for kills and loot drops.  The skill tree is famously enormous.  A certain group of you will buy the game 2 minutes after clicking on the next link (I did).   Here is the whole tree, it is absurd (the highlighted areas are the selections for one of my characters).  The customization ability is simply staggering.   Choosing a class like fighter or mage (they have different names in this game, but essentially these base classes) just changes your starting point on this map.  But this is not the end of the customization.  There is also an elaborate skill gem system where your attack and defense skills are based on your gem choices, both the main gems and support gems one adds to it.  Seriously, the actual combat is not much more elaborate than the debuff then hack and slash and loot drop of other Diablo style games, but this game has more ability to fine tune and experiment with character design than any I have ever played.
  2. My absolute favorite, by far, board game has finally come out as a PC game -- Twilight Struggle.  It is on Steam and I can't yet fully recommend it because I have not played through all the way online.  I am told the AI needs to be tougher but it should be fine for noobs.  There is also online person to person play.  I love the gameplay and it has also been a platform for my son and I to have a lot of discussions about recent history.  If you are a total noob, here are a few lessons for the Soviet player (which I have the most experience playing)
    • The Soviets have to rush.  The game has three periods, and you have big advantages in period 1 and disadvantages in period 3.  You HAVE to build up a lead early or you are toast later on.  I have seen a 15 point lead evaporate in the last third of the game.  The best outcome is to win the game outright by the smear rule (20 point lead) by turn 7.
    • Your first move is to coup Iran.  Asia is yours in the early game if you succeed.  The only alternative is to first turn coup in Italy, but that is a riskier strategy and can only be justified if your first turn hand is really tuned to that approach.
    • Coup every turn ASAP.  Coups are your most powerful weapon (other than events) and couping first thing every turn denies that ability to the US
    • The space race is for dumping your worst cards, not an end in and of itself (always exceptions, of course).  Twilight Struggle's best dynamic is how you end up with your opponents cards in your hand that you end up having to play for them-- the space race is one way to dump the worst of these cards (e.g. grain sales to the Soviets).  Since the cards you can play become more restricted as you advance in the space race track, there are even some advantages to failing your rolls early on.
    • If you play the China card, it needs to be for a BIG goal - like improving your scoring of Asia right before you play the Asia scoring card.  In many cases, it is better to not play the China card at all than to have it pass to the Allies.
    • Cards that allow you to play influence on any country should be used to get access to places where you have no adjoining influence -- don't use it to add to existing influence or enter countries to which you already are adjacent.   This is the only way in initially to places like South America and much of Africa..  Decolonization is your friend.
    • Learn to love this site.  Not only does it give you a LOT of strategy, but it also answers complex card interaction questions for every card.

So @tylercowen, You Want to Understand the Great Stagnation? Here It Is

Certainly the government's current permission-based approach to business regulation combined with an overt hostility of government (or at least those parties that influence it) to radically new business models (see: Uber) is a big part of the great stagnation story.

But insanity like this is also a big part:

Vague but expensive-if-not-correct rules on employee seating just got vaguer and harder to figure out

Weighing in on two California laws that require employers to provide suitable seating to workers when “the nature of the work” permits it, the California Supreme Court said the phrase refers to an employee's tasks performed at a given location for which the right to a suitable seat is asserted.

In response to questions certified by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the state high court said April 4 that the phrase “nature of the work” doesn't require a holistic evaluation of the full range of an employee's tasks completed during a shift.

An employer's business judgment and the layout of the workplace are relevant in determining whether sitting is permitted, but courts should apply an objective analysis based on the totality of the circumstances, the California Supreme Court said.

It held that “if an employer argues there is no suitable seat available, the burden is on the employer to prove unavailability.”

As a business owner in California, I am going to have to do a ton of research to figure out just how we can comply with all this, and even then I will likely be wrong because whether one is in compliance or not is never actually clear until it is tested in court.  I had to do the same thing with California meal break law (multiple times), California heat stress law, new California harassment rules, California sick leave rules, the California minimum wage, Obamacare rules, Obamacare reporting, the new upcoming DOL rules on salaried employees, etc.

Five or ten years ago, I spent most of my free time thinking about improving and growing the business.  Now, all my mental bandwidth is consumed by regulatory compliance.  I have not added a new business operation for years, but instead have spent most of my time exiting businesses in California.  Perhaps more important is what I am doing with my managers.  My managers are not Harvard MBAs, they are front-line blue collar folks who have been promoted to manager because they have proven themselves adept at our service process.  There are only a finite number of things I can teach them and new initiatives I can give them in a year.  And instead of using this limited bandwidth to teach some of the vital productivity enhancement tools we should be adopting, I spend all my training time on compliance management issues.

Unintended Consequences, Libertarian Edition: How A Plea for Reduced Regulation Resulted in More Regulation

A few days ago, there was an article in our daily fishwrap that said something I found hard to believe.  It said that the state had initiated a crackdown on unlicensed shipments of wine from out of state at the behest of a letter from the Goldwater Institute.  It even had a picture (at least in the online edition) of Clint Bolick, Goldwater's chief of litigation.

Essentially, most states do not allow or severely restrict direct purchase by consumers of liquor products from out of state.  As usual for such protectionist stupidity, it is claimed to be for the children, but in fact mainly is meant to protect a small, very powerful group of liquor distributors who make a fortune from their state-granted monopoly on liquor wholesaling.  Basically, by some outdated post-prohibition laws, every drop of alcohol in the state must pass through the hands of a couple of companies, who of course extract their toll like Baron's of old with castles on the Rhine.

I simply found it unfathomable that Clint Bolick, a founder of the Institute for Justice (IC) for god sakes, would be pestering the state to more vigorously enforce stupid, outdated, and protectionist licensing laws.  And it turns out I was right.  

Clint Bolick, the Goldwater Institute’s director of litigation, said he sent the state a letter in November 2012 asking it to get rid of a rule that required customers to show up at certain wineries annually in order to get direct shipments to their homes.

Bolick’s letter, which he provided to The Republic and azcentral, said that rule made no sense and would stop Arizonans from joining wine clubs, where wineries send a designated amount of wine to customers each year, sometimes including wines not available to the general public.

“A requirement of annual presence also does not serve any obvious public purpose, given that the purchaser has established age and identity at the time of the order,” he wrote.

Bolick said he met with the director of the department at the time, Alan Everett, who told him the department would start a regulatory review.

So it turns out that Goldwater was trying to ease regulation and make it easier for consumers to have some choice and access to more suppliers.  All good.

But it turns out "regulatory review" means something different to a state regulator.  I suppose it was too much to think that they might have a review to see if their regulations went too far.  In fact, the "regulatory review" seems to have focused on how they could tighten regulations even further.  The result was not the one Goldwater hoped for ... instead of making things easier on consumers, the state went all-in trying to make things even worse for consumers.

Hill said Bolick's 2012 letter made the department question whether the wineries sending club shipments into Arizona were all licensed.

“It was the basis for us starting to ask questions about who is shipping liquor into the state of Arizona that does not hold an Arizona liquor license,” Hill said....

So far, the department has investigated 223 violations at a total of 199 wineries, according to records obtained through the Liquor Department’s website.

Additionally, somewhere between 250 and 300 wineries were found to have not filed their production reports. Once the department receives those, it could cause some or all of those to be found in violation. Some of those wineries, in order to comply with state liquor laws and have their cases closed, might also agree to not ship wine to Arizona.

Customers frustrated that they cannot get their wine shipped anymore are funding a renewed effort to change the state’s shipping laws. Two California-based groups, The Wine Institute and Free The Grapes, said they are work

It is clear that Goldwater, representing consumers, has very little influence on the state agency.  So who does?  Well, you have probably guessed:

Hill said last Thursday the crackdown came at the request of a member of the Arizona wine industry, saying it was an example of government and industry working together.

Ugh, what a happy thought -- government and industry working together to protect incumbents from competition and restrict consumer choice.

Dispatches from the Crony State

From the Daily Beast

For some wealthy donors, it doesn’t matter who takes the White House in 2016—as long as the president’s name is Clinton or Bush.

More than 60 ultra-rich Americans have contributed to both Jeb Bush’s and Hillary Clinton’s federal campaigns, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by Vocativ and The Daily Beast. Seventeen of those contributors have gone one step further and opened their wallets to fund both Bush’s and Clinton’s 2016 ambitions.

After all, why support just Hillary Clinton or just Jeb Bush when you can hedge your bets and donate to both? This seems to be the thinking of a group of powerful men and women—racetrack owners, bankers, media barons, chicken magnates, hedge funders (and their spouses). Some of them have net worths that can eclipse the GDPs of small countries.

Ideology, policy prescriptions, legislative plans -- nothing matters except influence.  This will always happen as long as we give politicians so much power.  Its why the Coke and Pepsi party look so similar today.   At least a few people are noticing:

Is there a single person alive who believes that corporations, trade associations, NGOs, unions, and the like pay the Clintons enormous sums for speeches because they believe their members actually want to hear the Clintons say the same tedious talking points they have been spewing for years? If that were the only value received no profit-minded enterprise would pay the Clintons these vast fees because they would earn, well, a shitty rate of return.

No, the Clintons are not paid to speak. Businesses and other interest groups pay them for the favor of access at a crucial moment or a thumb on the scale in the future, perhaps when it is time to renew the Ex-Im Bank or at a thousand other occasions when a nod might divert millions of dollars from average people in to the pockets of the crony capitalists. The speaking is just a ragged fig leaf, mostly to allow their allies in the media to say they “earned” the money for “speaking,” which is, after all, hard work.

We have such people as the Clintons (and the tens of thousands of smaller bore looters who have turned the counties around Washington, D.C. in to the richest in the country) because they and their ilk in both parties have transformed the federal government of the United States in to a vast favors factory, an invidious place that not only picks winners and losers and decides the economic fates of millions of people, but which has persuaded itself that this is all quite noble. Instead, the opposite is true: This entire class of people, of which the Clintons are a most ugly apotheosis, are destroying the country while claiming it is all in the “public service.” It is disgusting. We need to say that, at least, out loud. . . .

Tear down the aristocracy of pull. This may be our last chance.

I Would Make This the Top Page of Every Government Officials "New Employee" Package

Jay P. Greene's suggestions for potential petty little dictators in government:

  • Think about how others have plans for their own lives just as you have a plan for yours.  Just because you don’t understand their plan doesn’t mean that theirs is not legitimate or that you should impose your vision on them.
  • Recognize that just as others are subject to limited information and systematic deviations from rationality, so are you.  You shouldn’t imagine that you are the rational, well-informed one whose plan can fix the defects from which others suffer.
  • Remember that you and your friends are not the government.  Once the government takes responsibility for an issue, no one can completely control what the government will do and those with the strongest vested interests (and often not the best intentions) are likely to have more influence than you.
  • Be humble about the limits of your knowledge and expertise.  You may have gone to an elite school and have always been told how smart you are, but that doesn’t mean that you understand everything.  Understanding comes from real experience and/or rigorous examination of an issue.  Reading a bunch of articles or having spent a few years as the deputy assistant director of whatever does not count as experience or rigorous examination.

This is just a sample.  There is more at the link

Iron Law of Bureaucracy

Last week I wrote:

One can build a very good predictive model of government agency behavior if one assumes the main purpose of the agency is to maximize its budget and staff count.  Yes, many in the organization are there because they support the agency's public mission (e.g. protecting the environment at the EPA), but I can tell you from long experience that preservation of their staff and budget will almost always come ahead of their public mission if push comes to shove.

Despite being a Jerry Pournelle fan, I had never heard his Iron Law of Bureaucracy, but it certainly fits my observations

Iron Law of Bureaucracy

In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Fighting for the Right to Control Other People's Property

Deborah Vollmer appears to be a nightmare neighbor in this story from the Washington Post (via Maggie's Farm).  She is absolutely hell-bent on preventing her neighbor from doing anything to their house that she would not do to it.  If her neighbor's aesthetics don't match hers, she takes them to court.

“Some people may question my motives,” Vollmer said. “But what’s happening in this town, these developers, tearing down old homes. I’m standing up for my rights. . . . And then this whole thing just kind of evolved” from that...

What could possibly be driving this woman? Friend and Chevy Chase resident John Fitzgerald said that her stubborn streak has roots deep in her past. Vollmer forged her career defending the rights of those without means. And that, he said, inculcated in her a desire to protect principles until the bitter end.

What right or principle is she fighting for?  The right to micro-manage her neighbor's property.  Read the article, this woman seems to be a total nightmare, all because she wants everyone else's house to look exactly like hers.

She should move to California.  She would fit right in.  She would be a perfect candidate to sit on the California Coastal Commission, for example.

We have a sort-of similar fight brewing here in Phoenix where a few local residents were trying to prevent another resident from tearing down and rebuilding his tired old house, which happened to have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's studios.  I appreciate Mr. Wright's work, but also know he designed some unlivable crap.  He was an artist, experimenting, and sometimes the experiments were not great.  He was also a businessman, always short of money, and sometimes his projects did not get his full artistic attention.  In my view, this was such a house.

I have the same answer for Ms. Vollmer that I do for those Wright house enthusiasts -- if you want to control a piece of property, buy it.  If you don't have the money, encourage other people to chip in.  But if you can't get enough people who similarly value your vision for the property to fund its acquisition, don't take the shortcut of using your influence with the government to impose the cost on taxpayers, or worse, on the individual property holder.

A Couple Lessons We Can Learn from Disney Pricing

Bloomberg (via Zero Hedge) had this chart on Disney theme park entrance prices:


A few random thoughts:

  • This highlights how hard it is to do inflation statistics correctly.  For example, the ticket being sold in 1971 is completely different from the one being sold in 2015.  The 2015 ticket gets one access without additional charge to all the attractions.  The 1971 ticket required purchase of additional ride tickets (the famous, among Disney fans, A-E tickets).  So this is not an apples to apples comparison.  Further, Disney has huge discounts for multi-day tickets.  The first day may cost $105, but adding a fourth day to a three day ticket costs just a trivial few bucks.  Local residents who come often for a single day get special rates as well.  So the inflation rate here grossly overestimates that actual increase in per person, per trip total spending for access to park attractions
  • This is a great case in pricing strategy.  Around 1980, the Bass family bought into a large ownership percentage of Disney.  The story I am about to tell is often credited to their influence, but I am not positive.  Never-the-less, someone had a big "aha!" moment at Disney.  They realized that families were taking trips just to visit DisneyWorld.  These trips cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars.  The families were thus paying hundreds of dollars per person to enjoy Disney, of which Disney was reaping... $9.50 a day.  They had a stupendously valuable product (as far as consumers were concerned) but everyone else in the supply chain was grabbing most of the value they created.  So Disney raised prices, on the theory that if a family were paying over a thousand dollars to get and stay there, they would not object to paying an extra $50 at the gate.  And they were right.

Competition via Influencing Government

I have mentioned a number of times my chicken or the egg arguments with Progressives on the solution to cronyism.  Is the problem that government power exists to influence markets, and as long as it exists people will bid to control it?  Or is it possible to wield massive make-or-break government power over industry rationally, and only the rank immorality and corrupt speech of corporations stands in the way.  The former argues for a reduction in government power, the latter for more regulation of corporations and their ability to participate in the political process.

I believe this is an example in favor of the "power is inherently corrupting" argument.  No corporation lobbied for NOx rules on diesel engines.  They all fought it tooth and nail.  But once these regulations existed, engine makers are all trying to use the laws to gut their competition:

In 1991, the EPA ignored complaints from several makers of non-road engines that rivals were cheating, in order to save fuel, on emissions rules for oxides of nitrous (NOx). Then environmental groups took up the same complaint, whereupon the agency demanded face-saving consent decrees with numerous engine makers, including two Volvo affiliates.

In essence, the engine makers apologized by agreeing in 1999 to accelerate by a single year compliance with a new emissions standard scheduled to take effect in 2006.

Meanwhile, with another NOx standard looming in 2010, Navistar sued the EPA claiming rival engine-makers were seeking to meet the rule with a defective technology. In turn, Navistar’s competitors sued claiming the EPA was unfairly favoring a defective technology pursued by Navistar (these are only the barest highlights of what became a truck-makers’ legal holy war).

While all this was going on, a Navistar joint-venture partner, Caterpillar, complained that 7,262 Volvo stationary engines made in Sweden before 2006 had violated the 1999 consent decree. Now let’s credit Caterpillar with a certain paperwork ingenuity: The Volvo engines were not imported to the U.S. and were made by a Volvo affiliate that wasn’t a party to the consent decree. EPA itself happily certified the engines under its then-current NOx standard, only changing its mind four years later, prodded by a competitor with a clear interest in damaging Volvo’s business.

To complete the parody, a federal district court would later agree that the 1999 consent terms “do not clearly apply” to the engines in question, but upheld an EPA penalty anyway because Volvo otherwise might enjoy a “competitive advantage” against engines to which the consent decree applied.

As a side note, this is from the "oops, nevermind" Emily Litella School of Regulation:

Let it be said that the EPA’s NOx regulation must have done some good for the American people, though how much good is hard to know. The EPA relies on dubious extrapolations to estimate the benefits to public health. What’s more, the agency appears to have stopped publishing estimates of NOx pollution after 2005. Maybe that’s because the EPA’s focus has shifted to climate change, and its NOx regulations actually increase greenhouse emissions by increasing fuel burn.

Feminists and Disarming the Victim and a Modest Proposal

I have just been flabbergasted at the feminist reaction against efforts to teach women to be more difficult targets for sexual predators (e.g. communicating the dangers of binge drinking, nail polish that detects date rape drugs, etc).  Nobody thinks that encouraging people to buy burglar alarms or lock their doors is somehow shifting blame for robbery to the victim.  But that is exactly the argument feminists are making vis a vis sexual assault on campus.  They argue that any effort to teach victims to be a tougher target is an insult to women and must be avoided.

This is just stupid.  So stupid that I wonder if there is an ulterior motive.  There is no way you ever are going to get rid of bad people doing bad things.  Our historic messaging on things like date rape may have been confused or insufficiently pointed, but we have always been clear on, say, murder and there is still plenty of that which goes on.  I almost wonder if feminists want women to continue to be victims so they can continue to be relevant and have influence.  It's a sick thought but what other explanation can there be for purposely disarming victims?

So I was jogging the other night through a university (Vanderbilt) and saw all those little blue light emergency phones that are so prevalent on campus.   In most cases, the ubiquity of those emergency phones is a result of the growing female population on campus and are there primarily to make women (and perhaps more importantly, their parents who write the checks) be safer feel more comfortable.  Women's groups were big supporters of these investments.  But why?  Isn't that inconsistent?  Shouldn't we consider investment in such emergency devices as wrong-headed attempts to avoid fixing the root cause, which is some inherent flaw in males?

If you say no, that it would be dumb to rip out the emergency phones, then why is it dumb to teach Freshman women some basic safety skills that may prevent them from being victims?   I have taken numerous campus tours with my kids and in almost every one they point out the blue light phones and in almost every case say, "I have never heard of these being used, but they are there."  I guarantee 30 minutes helping women understand how to avoid particularly risky situations would have a higher return than the phones.

I say this with some experience.  I was in a business for a while that required international travel and in which there was some history of executives getting attacked or kidnapped in foreign cities.  The company gave us a one-day risk-identification as well as beginner escape and evasion course.  It was some of the most useful training I have ever had.  And not for a single second did I think anyone was trying to blame me for street crime in foreign cities.

If You Love Net Neutrality, Then You Can't Complain About Lack of ISP Competition and Investment

Kevin Drum laments that net neutrality seems to be dead, as he puts it:

So Google and Microsoft and Netflix and other large, well-capitalized incumbents will pay for speedy service. Smaller companies that can't—or that ISPs just aren't interested in dealing with—will get whatever plodding service is left for everyone else. ISPs won't be allowed to deliberately slow down traffic from specific sites, but that's about all that's left of net neutrality. Once you've approved the notion of two-tier service, it hardly matters whether you're speeding up some of the sites or slowing down others.

At some level, this statement is silly.   Really, does Netflix and Gmail really need the same connection speed?  And by the way, it makes a lot of difference whether investment is to give more speed to certain websites beyond what the consumer gets now vs. slowing down all the non-payers.  What honest consumer could ever see these options as similar?  Trust a progressive to consider cutting down all the tall trees to be equivalent to raising the short trees.

But here is another thought - Drum is among those who frequently complain about his lack of ISP choices and the slowness of developing speedier service.  But if I am an ISP, do I really want to invest billions in extra bandwidth when the benefits of this investment will accrue 100% to companies like Netflix rather than myself? And don't be confused, studies have shown Netflix using a third of all Internet capacity during peak times.  (updated data here, showing Google and Netflix together using more than half the capacity).  This strikes me as a free rider problem that normally the Left would jump right on.

It's hard to guess how things will play out, but there is a case to be made that Netflix and others paying for the bandwidth they consume will be a huge boon to home ISP access.  A second stream of income to ISP's based on bandwidth and speeds may be just what is needed to revitalize that business.  Of course, monopoly providers could just drop the money to the bottom line without doing anything to their infrastructure, but I trust that Netflix and Google will have every incentive to pound the hell out of ISP's who don't actually invest.  They are not particularly happy about this extra expense, so if they pay it, they are gong to make damn sure they get the speed and bandwidth they promised.  We individual customers have in the past had little power to influence ISP's bandwidth and speed investments, but now we have powerful allies.

Congratulations to Nature Magazine for Catching up to Bloggers

The journal Nature has finally caught up to the fact that ocean cycles may influence global surface temperature trends.  Climate alarmists refused to acknowledge this when temperatures were rising and the cycles were in their warm phase, but now are grasping at these cycles for an explanation of the 15+ year hiatus in warming as a way to avoid abandoning high climate sensitivity assumptions  (ie the sensitivity of global temperatures to CO2 concentrations, which IMO are exaggerated by implausible assumptions of positive feedback).

Here is the chart from Nature:

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I cannot find my first use of this chart, but here is a version I was using over 5 years ago.  I know I was using it long before that

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It will be interesting to see if they find a way to blame cycles for cooling in the last 10-15 years but not for the warming in the 80's and 90's.

Next step -- alarmists have the same epiphany about the sun, and blame non-warming on a low solar cycle without simultaneously giving previous high solar cycles any credit for warming.  For Nature's benefit, here is another chart they might use (from the same 2008 blog post).  The number 50 below is selected arbitrarily, but does a good job of highlighting solar activity in the second half of the 20th century vs. the first half.

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Don't Fire Sebelius

I am not sure why everyone thinks it would be a punishment to fire Sebelius at this point.  Three days after she is fired, she will have a handful of million dollar a year job offers from health care companies and lobbyists who want to tap her influence into this administration.  The Administration and Congress is actively picking winners and losers in 1/7 of the economy, so there are billions at stake.  Sebelius can name her price.

Instead I would love to see her stay in office three long years and answer every press question and Congressional inquiry about Obamacare, over and over and over.

Trying to Overcome My Ignorance on the Banking System

Over the last year, I have learned that those of us who took economics back in the 1980's with textbooks written in the 1960's and 1970's are not very well prepared to understand the modern banking system.  This was a pretty good article that whetted my appetite for understanding what has changed.  A couple of interesting bits from the piece:

One cannot think straight about the future impact of different exit strategies without understanding of the role of bank reserves in today’s financial markets.

  • Banking and money creation has not worked for at least two decades in the way that most people learned in school.

The old system was rather simple in the textbooks. The basic assumptions were (i) all credit was provided by banks; (ii) all bank credit (assets) were funded by the issuance, or creation, of depository liabilities (money) subject to a reserve requirement; and (iii) central banks controlled credit/money/inflation by rationing bank reserves. A stable 'money multiplier' was hypothesised to allow central banks to accurately predict the eventual impact of changes in bank reserves on money and credit.

The problem with the old theory of monetary operations is that none of the three assumptions has been true for at least a generation.
Most credit in the US is created by nonbanks; virtually all bank lending is funded by the creation of liabilities that are not subject to reserve requirements,3 and central banks do not ration reserves. In fact they take great pains to provide banks with the amount of reserves they desire. Central banks influence credit not by rationing the quantity of reserves but by altering the interest rate that banks must pay to obtain the quantity of reserves they desire.

  • Today, credit creation in general and money creation in particular are no longer tied to the stock of reserves (i.e. the stock of banks’ deposits at the Fed).

This gets to the heart of the question of why over $2 trillion in excess bank deposits built up at the Fed over the last 4 years are not really moving the needle on bank lending  (of course, this is a supply AND demand problem, and part of the issue with flat bank lending is tie to lack of demand as many businesses deleverage).  But in terms of supply, I am increasingly coming to terms with the following statement which seems counter-intuitive to someone who studied banking 30 years ago

One of the unintended consequences of Fed LSAPs has been the withdrawal of high quality liquid collateral such as US Treasuries from the financial markets paid for by crediting commercial bank reserve accounts. As discussed above, the banking system as a whole cannot dispose of these assets (reserves). At the same time, banks are under massive pressure world-wide to deleverage. This can take place either by increasing capital (a bank liability), which is costly to shareholders, or by reducing assets. Thus banks’ massive holdings of reserves at the Fed are ‘deadwood’ as far as the banks and their credit-creation capacity are concerned. They may crowd out credit.

The deadwood problem will get worse if the US tightens regulatory leverage ratios – that is, reduces the maximum ratio permitted between a bank’s total assets and capital.6

There is a great irony in the journalistic history of monetary policy. What many are calling central bank “money creation” “helicopter money” or “rolling the printing presses” may – in combination with tighter leverage ratios – lead to a tightening of bank credit and deflationary pressures.  And all this is occurring while the spectre of uncontrolled credit expansion and monetary debasement are being decried countless times by those who have not recognized that yesteryear’s monetary paradigm is defunct.

Interesting.  I hear this from a lot of people in the know about the system.  The author suggests one solution is having the Fed begin to do reverse repos with non-banks, which would drain excess reserves while adding high quality collateral back to the banking system which would allow more lending.  Which appears to be exactly what the Fed is considering.

I am reading this article next to see if I can get a better handle on how all this works.  I will let you know if I find it useful.

Kudos for Teach for America

Via Reason on Teach for America (TFA)

The best evidence we had before today was a randomized evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research between 2001 and 2003, which found that TFA teachers bested other teachers at teaching math — with gains for students equal to about a month of additional instruction —  and were not significantly different from them on teaching reading.

A follow-up using the same data showed that that result held for students across the math score distribution, not just the average student. “These results suggest that allowing highly qualified teachers, who in the absence of TFA would not have taught in these disadvantaged neighborhoods, should have a positive influence not just on students at the top of the achievement distribution but across the entire math test score distribution,” the authors concluded.

We sponsor a TFA teacher each year, and have fun doing a few little things for their classroom through the year (we collect school supplies at the beginning of the year, bring presents during the holidays).  Short of the school choice we really need, this is the best way we have found to help K-12 education.

Genetics, Race and IQ

Brink Lindsey has an great article discussing race, genetics and IQ.  It's hard to excerpt, but here is a bit of it:

A study of twins by psychologist Eric Turkheimer and colleagues that similarly tracked parents' education, occupation, and income yielded especially striking results. Specifically, they found that the "heritability" of IQ - the degree to which IQ variations can be explained by genes - varies dramatically by socioeconomic class. Heritability among high-SES (socioeconomic status) kids was 0.72; in other words, genetic factors accounted for 72 percent of the variations in IQ, while shared environment accounted for only 15 percent. For low-SES kids, on the other hand, the relative influence of genes and environment was inverted: Estimated heritability was only 0.10, while shared environment explained 58 percent of IQ variations.

Turkheimer's findings make perfect sense once you recognize that IQ scores reflect some varying combination of differences in native ability and differences in opportunities. Among rich kids, good opportunities for developing the relevant cognitive skills are plentiful, so IQ differences are driven primarily by genetic factors. For less advantaged kids, though, test scores say more about the environmental deficits they face than they do about native ability.

I have been struggling to articulate my issues with IQ for a long time.  I have always been frustrated with the nature vs. nurture arguments on intelligence, because I have always thought the answer is both.  But Brink's article get's me thinking along the lines of this simple model:


In this model, intelligence is not a product that works straight out of the box, so to speak.  It's an engine with some inherent potential that requires a lot of fine-tuning and a long break-in period to reach that potential. Let's say in the US suburbs our kids have a development percentage of 0.9 (we have to leave room for future Flynn Effect -- it would be awesome if it turned out we were only at 0.5).  I assume education is an exponential rise to a limit, where early gains are easy but incremental gains at the margin are harder and harder to achieve.


If this is the case, then US suburban kids are probably pretty tightly clustered around that 0.9 (say from 0.88 to 0.92).  This cluster seems tight but again remember in an exponential rise to a limit, the effort and expense to take a kid from 0.88 to 0.92 might be very very large**.  In this situation, measured IQ is going to be driven mainly by genetics, with a wide bell curve in native intelligence dwarfing the effect of a much tighter bell curve around development.  Small improvements in educational development in this model both come at a high price and have little effect on measured IQ.

In a different sort of society, say in rural Mexico, kids might be much lower on the development scale, say around 0.6, due to cultural factors, educational opportunities, even diet.  In this case, large changes can occur in measured intelligence even from small changes in education (the steep part of the curve) and difference in education and development might be at least as important as the genetic contribution.

** Postscript:  Some may object that differences in education seem to be much larger than these in US schools, but we have to make sure we are talking about the same output.   Here we are solely talking about the ability to improve IQ as measured by IQ tests.  There are many other things education does than just polish native intelligence and cognitive ability.  It teaches skills.  For example, it teaches one to write.   I would agree that there are huge differences in schools in their ability to produce kids that can write good 5-paragraph essays, or complete a calculus problem, or understand how to analyze a historical document.

My Problem With Benghazi...

... was not the crisis management but Obama's throwing free speech under the bus.

I can live with poor crisis management.  I have been a part of enough to understand that things are different in real time than they look when monday-morning quarterbacking the events.  In particular, it can be very hard to get reliable data.  Sure, the correct data is all likely there, and when folks look back on events, that data will be very visible and folks will argue that better choices should have been made.

A great example of this is when historians sort through data to say that FDR missed (or purposely ignored, if you are of that revisionist school) clear evidence of the Japaneses surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  Sure, the correct clues stand out like flashing lights to the historian, but to the contemporary they were buried in 10,000 ostensibly promising false leads.

In real time, good data is mixed in with a lot of bad data, and it takes some time -- or a unique individual -- to cut through the fog.  Clearly neither Obama nor Clinton were this individual, but we should not be surprised as our selection process for politicians is not really configured to find such a person, except by accident.

No, the problem I have with Benghazi is that when push came to political shove, the President threw free expression under the bus to protect himself.  I am a sort of city on the hill isolationist, who prefers as much as possible for the US to have influence overseas by setting a positive example spread through open communications and free trade.  In this model, there is nothing more important for a US President to do than to support and explain the values of individual liberty, such as free expression, to the world.

Instead, it is increasingly clear he blamed some Youtube video, an exercise in free expression, for the tragedy.  And not just in the first confused days, but five days later when he put Susan Rice on TV to parrot this narrative.  And when the Feds sent a team to arrest and imprison the video maker.  And days after the Rice interviews when Hillary parroted the same message at the funeral, and days after that when Obama spoke to the UN, mentioning the video 6 or 7 times.    Obama took to his bully pulpit and railed against free speech in front of a group of authoritarians who love to hear that message, and whose efforts to stifle speech have historically only been slowed by America's example and pressure.

Cyprus and the Rule of Law

There was no particularly good way to resolve the banking mess in Cyprus.  But what worries me about how things played out is that there appears to be no rule of law that applies to bank failure in Europe.  There should be some clear principle that guides a bank resolution - e.g. equity holders and bondholders get wiped out first, then uninsured depositors, then insured depositors.  Or perhaps there is some ratio of pain between insured and uninsured depositors.

It is clear that no such rule exists across Europe (or if it does, it does not enjoy any particular force such that folks feel free to ignore it in real time).  That is the real danger here.  Results, however bad, should be transparent and predictable in advance, which is far from what happened in Cyprus.  Without a rule of law, one gets a rule of men -- in other words, rules are set by individual whim, often based on which government or corporate interests wield the most influence.

Think I am being too cynical?  Here is a detail that was new to me about the depositor haircuts in Cyprus:

A few weeks ago, the Central Bank of Cyprus published a curious set of "clarifications for the better understanding of the resolution measures." The principle of a bail-in—that uninsured creditors should suffer losses before taxpayers are on the hook—turns out to contain a few lacunae. "Financial institutions, the government, municipalities, municipal councils and other public entities, insurance companies, charities, schools, and educational institutions" will be excused from contributing to the depositor haircuts, though insurers later were removed from the exempt list.

Apparently, individual parties are lining up for special exemptions as well (much like connected corporations did with the Obama Administration to get exemptions from early provisions of the PPACA).  Essentially, all bank losses will be assigned to depositors who don't have access to powerful friends in the government.

Bitcoin, Short Sales, and Volatility

I am fascinated by Bitcoin and would love to see it be a success.  But Tyler Cowen has a quote that reflects some of my concerns about it:

…bitcoins are an uncomfortable combination of commodity and currency. The commodity value of bitcoins is rooted in their currency value, but the more of a commodity they become, the less useful they are as a currency.

Bitcoin is in the midst of an enormous price bubble, with increases in value of as much as 50% over just a few days.  This is astounding volatility for even a commodity, much less a currency.

Cowen said something at the end of the post, almost as a throw-away, that got my attention:  "There is, by the way, no current way to short Bitcoin."  The reason this caught my eye is that I have argued a long time that short selling is an important mechanism to reduce market volatility.

Every time we get to a market bubble or problem, insiders always start arguing against short selling saying it makes volatility worse and undermines markets.  But what they are really saying is that they like volatility so long as it is up. They had no problem with the bubble that propelled their securities up, they just don't want them to come back down to Earth.

In certain bubbles, when interest in a certain asset class gets really frothy, anyone who is skeptical of the asset and its new high values will sell and get out.  This means that as the bubble grows, all the skeptics are long gone from the market.  No longer owning the asset, these skeptics have no further "vote" or influence on the price.  Short selling is a way for skeptics to continue to influence the price and asset values.  To this extent, I think it tends to limit the peak of bubbles, just as bottom-fishers limit the debt of troughs.

Bitcoin would likely benefit from skeptics having some sort of influence on bitcoin values.  But without a way to short, Bitcoin values are driven solely by wacky anarcho-capitalists (e.g. people like me) and people fearful of Cyprus style depositor losses.  Essentially all the true believers are bidding against themselves.