Posts tagged ‘Jersey’

The Only Solution is To Take Their Power Away

Give people power and they will abuse it.  I don't care if it is Chicago Democrats or New Jersey Republicans.  Most recent example:

A top aide to Gov. Chris Christie told an executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey it was "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" before the authority closed lanes onto the George Washington Bridge in September, triggering a week of massive traffic jams, documents show.

The aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, sent the email, dated Aug. 13, to David Wildstein, a political ally of the governor who was the authority's director of interstate capital projects.

Mr. Wildstein, replied: "Got it."

Apparently this conversation occurred in response to Fort Lee's mayor Mark Sokolich refusing to endorse Christie in last year's governor race

[Mr. Wildasin said] in an apparent reference to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich: "It will be a tough November for this little Serbian."

Mr. Sokolich said in an interview Wednesday, "I didn't sign up for this petty political insanity."

Mr. Sokolich said he was now convinced he'd been the target of retribution for not endorsing Mr. Christie. "I've been punished not for something I've done, but for something I didn't do," Mr. Sokolich said. "This is the behavior of a bully in a schoolyard. It is the greatest example of political payback."

Also, Mr. Sokolich said he is Croatian.

Mr. Wildasin seens to have been teleported out of a Sopranos episode.

Criticisms of Privatization

Over at my privatization blog, I take on two critiques of privatization.  The first is from the New Jersey Sierra Club, and echos most of the standard mis-characterizations of privatization (you are going to build a McDonald's in front of Old Faithful!)  The second is from a professor at Columbia, and is perhaps the most outrageous critique I have ever run into (privatization kills!)

New Jersey Privatization Initiative

New Jersey under Christie continues to be a leader in challenging traditional government models.   I discuss and link to some of the findings over at my privatization blog, including some interesting findings on recreation.  This is from Reason's Len Gilroy:

Park management concession agreements: Having written numerous articles in recent months suggesting that states embrace the private operation of state parks"”something relatively "new" to states, but common at the federal level"”it was particularly rewarding to see the Task Force embrace the concept, recommending that the state should enter into one or more long"term concession agreements with private recreation firms for the operation and management of all state parks. Annual savings to the state were estimated to range between $6-8 million annually, a significant sum relative to overall park spending. This is the boldest, most sweeping call for state park privatization that I've personally ever seen at the state level, and Gov. Christie and NJ State Parks have an opportunity to blaze a new and transformational path forward on state parks management that policymakers in every state should be watching closely.

Ugh! $2 Trillion

Not good, but not really a surprise:

The estimate by Orin Kramer will fuel investors' concerns over the deteriorating financial health of US states after the recession. "State and local governments are correctly perceived to be in serious difficulty," Mr Kramer told the Financial Times.

"If you factor in the reality of these unfunded promises, their deficits will rise exponentially."

Estimates of aggregate funding requirement of the US pension system have ranged between $400bn and $500bn, but Mr Kramer's analysis concluded that public funds would need to find more than $2,000bn to meet future pension obligations.

Kenneth Anderson asks:

Two trillion dollars?  One question about these obligations is whether taxpayers will stick around to pay them, or instead will vote with their feet.  ("Vote with their feet" is something that has been discussed in various ways at VC "” as an aspect of a federal system and states with their own laws.)  Many of these pension obligations have been incurred by municipalities and others by states, and in some cases the obligations are intertwined.  But what happens if voters-taxpayers move out?

The assumption has long been that taxpayers are stuck, on account of jobs and other circumstance.  But query whether that is necessarily true as the baby boom generation retires.  In that case, it might find itself far more mobile, in circumstances where rising taxes at every level make relocation a more valuable decision at the margin.  For that matter, if otherwise desirable locales manage to tax their businesses away, will the baby boomers' kids and grandkids have reason ever to locate in places that lack jobs?  They might have been raised there "” but would they go back?

Would people leave California? They are leaving now, true, but would they leave in the future specifically for this reason or generally on account of the tax burden, particularly as retirees?  Or New Jersey?  What about the city of Oakland?  Or even smaller cities, such as the towns in California "” not large at all, small towns, that have already declared bankruptcy over pension obligations?  It's easy to move out of those towns.

My guess is that the Feds are going to pick up a lot of these state and local obligations, making it effectively impossible for taxpayers to escape them short of leaving the country (and creating the mother of all moral hazards, by the way).  After all, if the current administration will bail out Wall Street banks with whom they have little ideological sympathy, they certainly will do so to keep SEIU-represented government employees in jobs.

My Last and Only Observations About The Elections Last Night

I almost never comment on horserace politics, so I had just three thoughts this morning:

  1. Who are these 20% or so of the voters who slew back and forth in as little as a few months between the two parties?  What goes on in their head -- "The Republicans are threatening my freedoms, I better vote Democrat.  Oh no, the Democrats are now threatening my freedoms, I better vote Republican."  At what point do folks wake up and say "both these parties threaten my freedoms whenever they are in power - I wonder if there is an alternative?"
  2. The spin put on the election by everyone is both predictable and hilarious.  We will soon see what lessons the Democrats really took from the election by what legislation they bring to a vote this year and what they delay.
  3. One thing I am surprised Republicans did not mention today --  A Republican was more succesful in getting a Democrat elected with her endorsement (NY23) than was Democrat Obama with his support and endorsement of the Democratic candidate in New Jersey.  Though of course Corzine was a sleazebag, so its unclear if there are any real national messages in that election.

This Is Still A Stupid Idea

I probably have posted on the electricity generating speed bump more times than it deserves, but Glen Reynolds linked this story and I am seeing it linked uncritically all over.  Here was the email I dashed off to Instapundit:

The speed bump / power device at the Burger King in New Jersey is the silliest technology I have ever seen and I am amazed that so many people praise it or write uncritically that it provides free power.  Energy is never free, it comes from somewhere.  In this case, the energy is actually stolen from the car.  The electricity power produced is equal to or less than the extra power the car has to expend going over the bump.

This electricity might be "free" if it is used where cars are braking anyway, say on a long down ramp in a parking garage, or on a suburban street or school zone where speed bumps already exist.  But the Burger King example, and in fact most of the examples I have seen of this installation, are just vampiric theft, very similar to what the US Government does in many of its programs, creating a large benefit for a single user and hoping that distributing the costs in small chunks across a wide number of people makes these costs invisible.

I wrote more about the technology here.

Picking Winners

The whole point of cap-and-trade (or a carbon tax) is to set broad costs of emissions or broad tradeable limits, and then let millions of individual consumers and industries figure out the most effective way for each of them to meet these costs or limits.  For example, if I were to have a personal cap, changes in my car's MPG would be meaningless, because my work is 1.9 miles from my house.  I would probably start with putting the film coating on my windows of my house I have been considering.  They guy in New Jersey who drives 45 miles to work and has a small house might have a different solution.

But this whole philosophy of letting individuals drive the bus flies in the face of everything Congress believes in.  They believe they are smarter than you or I, and thus they should pick the solutions, not us.  And allowing for individual action doesn't generate campaign contributions like picking winners does.

So despite being a cap-and-trade bill, Waxman-Markey essentially picks winners.  One way is through targeted investments of taxpayer money in technologies whose owners have lobbied hard before Congress.  Another is this:

The legislation will drive up individual and commercial consumer's fuel prices because it inequitably distributes free emissions "allowances" to various sectors.  Electricity suppliers are responsible for about 40% of the emissions covered by the bill and receive approximately 44% of the allowances "“ specifically to protect power consumers from price increases.  However the bill holds refiners responsible for their own emissions plus the emissions from the use of petroleum products.  In total refiners are responsible for 44% of all covered emissions, yet the legislation grants them only 2% of the free allowances.

This means that Congress has decided to extract all of the CO2 reduction from transportation and other refined fuel users, rather than from electrical power generation.  Is this because they have some study in hand that shows the best bang for the buck in reducing CO2 comes from transportation?  Of course not, and even if they did, it would be hard to believe given the number of large coal plants in this country that generate far more CO2 than even a fleet of Escalades.

No, the reason for this is purely political -- every representative has an electric utility in their district lobbying and paying campaign contributions, but few have organized lobbies of automobile drivers.   And so, rather than pushing for fuel shifts from coal to gas or nuclear in power generation, this bill will primarily achieve its meager results from making it more expensive for people to drive.

Government and Cost-Cutting

Government officials have mastered the cost-cutting game, or should I say the cost-non-cutting game.  The trick they have learned is that whenever budget or tax cuts are proposed, they threaten to cut the most critical expenditures.

Now, as I have pointed out, such behavior in a private company would result in one's termination.

When I was in the corporate world, if I wanted extra funds for my projects, I would have to go in and say "Here are all my projects.  I have ranked them from 1-30 from the most to least valuable.  Right now I have enough money for the first 12.  I would like funding for number 13.  Here is my case."

But the government works differently.  When your local government is out of money, and wants a tax increase, what do they threaten to cut?  In Seattle, it was always emergency services.  "Sorry, we are out of money, we have to shut down the fire department and ambulances."  I kid you not "” the city probably has a thirty person massage therapist licensing organization and they cut ambulances first.   In California it is the parks.   "Sorry, we are out of money.  To meet our budget, we are going to have to close down our 10 most popular parks that get the most visitation."  The essence of government budgeting brinkmanship is not to cut project 13 when you only have money for 12 projects, but to cut project #1.

I can just see me going to Chuck Knight at Emerson Electric and saying "Chuck, I don't have enough money.  If you don't give me more, we are going to have to cut the funds for the government-mandated frequency modification on our transmitters, which means we won't have any product to sell next month."  I would be out on my ass in five minutes.  It just floors me that this seems to keep working in the government.  Part of it is that the media is just so credulous when it comes to this kind of thing, in part because scare stories of cut services fit so well into their business model.

Matt Welch has a great 8-point takedown of similar scare story on the current California budget crisis.  You should definitely read it, but I wanted to add a #9 -- this idea that the core, rather than the marginal, expense is always the first to be cut.  From the LA Times:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed slashing state spending on education by $3 billion to help close the budget gap, and the state would pay dearly for canceling classes, firing instructors, cutting class days and shortening the school year, experts said.

Promising students would go to other states, taking their future skills, earnings and, possibly, Nobel Prizes elsewhere. California companies would then find it harder to attract high-value employees who might be dubious about moving to a state with sub-par schools. [...]

John Sedgwick, co-founder of Santa Clara solar-energy company Solaicx, agreed.

"When you think about the genesis of Silicon Valley, it really started from its superior educational base" at Stanford and UC Berkeley, said Sedgwick, whose company makes the building blocks for photovoltaic cells. "That indicates that you don't want to kill the goose that's laying the golden eggs." [...]

The only way the most "promising" students would be affected is if, when the schools cut back, the best professors (rather than the worst) are fired and the most promising students (rather than the most marginal) are denied admission for limited spots.  Really?  If Berkeley has 10 fewer spots, it's going to start cutting admissions with the Physics wiz kid who had a 2400 on her SAT?

Further, is it really true that California only attracts people to its work force who went to school in California?  A top Michigan or Harvard grad won't do just as well?  I went to college in New Jersey yet have never held a job in that state.

Now, I understand that part of the argument is that workers may not come if the local primary schools for their kids are bad.  And that is true.  But California has had poor performing schools despite years of high and increasing spending.  Matt has much more on this in his piece.

Postscript: Of course, as crazy as it seems, there may be some reality to this threat.  I could easily see the University of California system, when faced with the choice of cutting back on some post-modernist social science program or a physics program that has produced 7 Nobel Laureates, choosing the latter to cut in a fit of outrageous political correctness.

At the primary level, it is very possible that the bloated school administrations filled with rafts of useless assistant principals will choose to fire teachers rather than themselves.  So unfortunately the plans to cut the most useful spending in a crisis and keep the most useless is not just a threat, it is a reality.

Unbundling Citizenship

Those who oppose more open immigration generally have three arguments, to which I have varying levels of sympathy:

  • It's illegal!  Illegal immigration violates the rule of law.  I have always thought this argument weak and circular.  If the only problem is that immigrants are violating the law, then the law can be changed and its now all legal.  Since this is not the proposed solution, presumably there are other factors that make more open immigration bad beyond just the fact of its illegality.  I am positive I could come up with hundreds of bad laws that if I asked a conservative, "should I aggressively enforce this bad law or should I change it," the answer would be the latter.
  • We will be corrupting our culture.  I am never fully sure what these arguments mean, and they always seem to carry a touch of racism, even if that is not what is intended.  So I will rewrite this complaint in a way I find more compelling:  "We are worried that in the name of liberty and freedom, we will admit immigrants who, because of their background and culture, will vote against liberty and freedom when they join our democracy."  I am somewhat sympathetic to this fear, though I think the horse may already be out of the barn on this one.  Our current US citizens already seem quite able to vote for restrictions on liberties without any outside help.  If I were really worried about this, I might wall off Canada before Mexico.
  • Open Immigration or Welfare State:  Pick One.  I find this the most compelling argument for immigration restrictions.  Historically, immigration has been about taking a risk to make a better life.  I have been reading a biography of Andrew Carnegie, which describes the real risks his family took, and knew they were taking, in coming to America.  But in America today, we aren't comfortable letting people bear the full risk of their failure.  We insist that the government step in with our tax money and provide people a soft landing for their bad decisions (see:  Mortgage bailout) and even provide them with a minimum income that in many cases dwarfs what they were making in their home country. 

My problem with conservatives is that they are too fast to yell "game over" after making these arguments, particularly the third.  There are some very real reasons why conservatives, in particular, should not so easily give up on finding a way to allow more free immigration.  Consider these questions:

  • Should the US government have the right and the power to dictate who I can and cannot hire to work for me in my business?
  • Should the US government have the right and the power to dictate who can and cannot take up residence on my property (say as tenants)?

My guess is that many conservatives would answer both these questions in the negative, but in reality this is what citizenship has become:  A government license to work and live in the boundaries of this nation.

I can't accept that.  As I wrote here:

The individual rights we hold dear are our rights as human beings, NOT
as citizens.  They flow from our very existence, not from our
government. As human beings, we have the right to assemble with
whomever we want and to speak our minds.  We have the right to live
free of force or physical coercion from other men.  We have the right
to make mutually beneficial arrangements with other men, arrangements
that might involve exchanging goods, purchasing shelter, or paying
another man an agreed upon rate for his work.  We have these rights and
more in nature, and have therefore chosen to form governments not to be
the source of these rights (for they already existed in advance of
governments) but to provide protection of these rights against other
men who might try to violate these rights through force or fraud....

These rights of speech and assembly and commerce and property
shouldn't, therefore, be contingent on "citizenship".  I should be
able, equally, to contract for service from David in New Jersey or Lars
in Sweden.  David or Lars, who are equally human beings,  have the
equal right to buy my property, if we can agree to terms.  If he wants
to get away from cold winters in Sweden, Lars can contract with a
private airline to fly here, contract with another person to rent an
apartment or buy housing, contract with a third person to provide his
services in exchange for wages.  But Lars can't do all these things
today, and is excluded from these transactions just because he was born
over some geographic line?  To say that Lars or any other "foreign"
resident has less of a right to engage in these decisions, behaviors,
and transactions than a person born in the US is to imply that the US
government is somehow the source of the right to pursue these
activities, WHICH IT IS NOT...

I can accept that there can be some
minimum residence requirements to vote in elections and perform certain
government duties, but again these are functions associated with this
artificial construct called "government".  There should not be, nor is
there any particular philosophical basis for, limiting the rights of
association, speech, or commerce based on residency or citizenship,
since these rights pre-date the government and the formation of borders.

I have advocated for years that the concept of citizenship needs to be unbundled (and here, on the Roman term Latin Rights).   Kerry Howley makes a similar argument today:

Citizenships are club memberships you happen to be born with. Some
clubs, like the Norway club, have truly awesome benefits. Others, like
the Malawi club, offer next to none. Membership in each club is kept
limited by club members, who understandably worry about the drain on
resources that new members might represent. Wishing the U.S. would
extend more memberships in 2008 isn't going to get you very far.   

Conceptually,
for whatever reason, most of us are in a place where we think labor
market access and citizenships ought to be bundled. A Malawian can't
come work here, we think, without the promise of a club membership,
which is nearly impossible to get. This is an incredibly damaging
assumption for two reasons: (1) memberships are essentially fixed in
wealthy democratic societies (2) uneven labor market access is a major
cause of global inequality. Decoupling the two leads to massive gains,
as we see in Singapore, without the need to up memberships.   

Here's
another way to think about it: Clubs have positive duties toward their
members, including those of the welfare state. But the negative duty
not to harm outsiders exists prior to clubs, and denying people the
ability to cooperate with one another violates their rights in a very
basic way. Our current policy is one of coercively preventing
cooperation. In saying "we can't let people into this country unless we
confer upon them all the rights and duties of citizenship," you are
saying that we need to violate their right to move freely and cooperate
unless we can give them welfare benefits. But that's backwards.

Why Campaign Spending Will Continue to Rise

Because the government has put itself in the job of redistributor-in-chief, and there is just too high of a financial return from influencing who are to be the beneficiaries, and who are to be the sacrificial lambs.  This is particularly the case when Congress can aim dollars at a small group who will give back generously in return, and where the costs are dispersed across large numbers of people, generally consumers or taxpayers or both:

Dan Morgan has another excellent Washington Post report
on our tangled web of farm subsidies, tariffs, government purchases,
and so on. This time he examines the sugar industry's political
contributions"“"more than 900 separate contributions totaling nearly
$1.5 million to candidates, parties and political funds" in 2007 alone.
Most of the money went to Democrats, apparently, which might explain
why Democrats opposed more strongly than Republicans an amendment
to strike the sugar subsidy provisions from the bill. Morgan delights
in pointing out members of Congress such as Rep. Carolyn Maloney of
Queens and Manhattan and Rep. Steven Rothman of bucolic Hackensack and
Fort Lee, New Jersey, who received funds from the sugar magnates and
voted to protect their subsidies despite the fact that they would seem
to have more sugar consumers than sugar growers in their districts....

So $1.5 million is a lot of money, and it seems to have done the trick.
But . . . is it really so much money? According to Morgan, the sugar
provisions in the farm bill are worth $1 billion over 10 years. That's
a huge return on investment. In what other way could a business invest
$1.5 million to reap $1 billion?

The real campaign finance reform that is needed is to get the government out of the business of naming winners and losers.

Update:  More on the sugar fiasco here.

Under the current system, the government guarantees a price floor for
sugar and limits the sugar supply "” placing quotas on domestic
production and quotas and tariffs to limit imports. According to the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, sugar supports
cost American consumers "” who pay double the average world price "” more
than $1.5 billion a year. The system also bars farmers in some of the
poorest countries of the world from selling their sugar here.

The North American Free Trade Agreement is about to topple this
cozy arrangement. Next year, Mexican sugar will be allowed to enter the
United States free of any quotas or duties, threatening a flood of
imports. Rather than taking the opportunity to untangle the sugar
program in this year's farm bill, Congress has decided to bolster the
old system.

Both the House bill, which was passed in July, and the Senate
version, which could be voted on as early as this week, guarantee that
the government will buy from American farmers an amount of sugar
equivalent to 85 percent of domestic consumption "” regardless of how
much comes in from abroad. To add insult to injury, both also increase
the longstanding price guarantee for sugar.

The bills encourage the government to operate the program at no cost
to the budget, by selling the surplus sugar to the ethanol industry.
That's not likely. Ethanol makers will never accept paying anywhere
near sugar's guaranteed price. According to rough estimates from the
Congressional Budget Office, supports for sugar in the House bill could
cost taxpayers from $750 million to $850 million over the next five
years.

The Burning Issue of 2012

Five years from now, one issue is going to dominate the news on the state and local level.  It's not going to be civil marriages or abortion of light rail.  It's going to be unfunded pension liabilities.  Nearly every city, county, and state government body has promised over-generous pensions to millions of their employees, and almost none of them have been putting any money aside to fund these future liabilities (unlike those evil and untrustworthy private companies, who may not always put enough aside but are at least doing something).

Most of us know that the government uses accounting methods and practices that would put private individuals in jail.  For example, Enron managers have gone to jail for accounting practices that allegedly attempted to hide liabilities and keep them off financial statements.  The government does this all the time, and routinely. 

Over the next few years, the GASB will require that governmental bodies reveal the size of these unfunded liabilities.  And you heard it here first, the numbers are going to be MASSIVE.  I am almost sure that the numbers will dwarf the shortfalls in Social Security and maybe Medicare as well.  Anyone want to be that politicians will propose to close these gaps by intelligent spending cuts rather than new taxes?  HAH!

From Cato@Liberty
:

A common criticism of Social Security choice
(and defense of the Social Security status quo) is that there
are dishonest actors in private markets who would put people's private
account assets at risk of (in the words of the AFL-CIO) "corruption, waste and Enron-ization." These critics argue that society is much better off keeping Social Security in the honest, benevolent hands of Uncle Sam.

What must these critics be thinking about today's NYT above-the-fold article on teacher pension fund shenanigans in New Jersey? The lede says it all:

In 2005, New Jersey
put either $551 million, $56 million or nothing into its pension fund
for teachers. All three figures appeared in various state documents "”
though the state now says that the actual amount was zero.

Like many state and local government pension systems,
New Jersey's is woefully underfunded compared to the benefits it will
have to pay in the future. (This situation will make headlines in the
coming years, as state and local governments begin to disclose their
pension fund and retirement benefit system shortfalls in accordance
with a recent GASB
requirement.) In New Jersey's case, the shortfall is more than has been
publicly acknowledged, however: "an analysis of its records by The New
York Times shows that in many cases, New Jersey has overstated even
what it has claimed to be contributing, sometimes by hundreds of
millions of dollars."

Economics is a Science. Seriously.

George Reisman at Mises:

When it comes to matters such as the theory of evolution and
stem-cell research, so-called liberals"”i.e., socialists who have stolen
the name that once meant an advocate of individual freedom"”ridicule
religious conservatives for their desire to replace science with the
dictates of an alleged divine power. Yet when it comes to matters of
economic theory and economic policy"”for example, minimum-wage
legislation"”these same liberals themselves invoke the dictates of an
alleged divine power. Their divine power, of course, is not the God of
traditional religion, but rather a historically much more recent deity:
namely, the great god State.

Traditional religionists believe that an omnipotent God came before
all natural law and was not bound or limited by any such law, but
rather created such natural laws as suited him, as he went along. Just
so, today's liberals believe, at least in the realm of economics, that
the State is not bound or limited by any pre-existing natural laws. In
the case in hand, the State, today's liberals believe, is free to
decree wage rates above the level that would exist without its
interference and no ill-effects, such as unemployment, will arise.

Where have I heard that before?  Oh yeah, I remember:

So here is this week's message for the Left:  Economics is a
science.  Willful ignorance or emotional rejection of the well-known
precepts of this science is at least as bad as a fundamentalist
Christian's willful ignorance of evolution science (for which the Left
so often criticizes their opposition).
  In fact, economic
ignorance is much worse, since most people can come to perfectly valid
conclusions about most public policy issues with a flawed knowledge of
the origin of the species but no one can with a flawed understanding of
economics....

In fact, the more I think about it, the more economics and evolution are very similar.  Both are sciences that are trying to describe the operation of very complex, bottom-up, self-organizing systems.  And,
in both cases, there exist many people who refuse to believe such
complex and beautiful systems can really operate without top-down
control
.

By the way, the author partially addresses the Card and Krueger study on New Jersey fast food that purportedly showed that employment goes up as minimum wage goes up.  Unfortunately, the author does not get into the now fairly well-known problem with this study.  For those who don't know, here it is:

Card and Krueger looked at the employment in fast food restaurants in New Jersey both before and after the minimum wage went up.  Here is the key process fact you need to know -- they did not look at every restaurant, just at some branches of national chains (e.g. McDonalds).  They did not include, say, Joe's sub shop.  The restaurants they studied shared a couple of traits in common:

  • They were all far more professionally managed than the average small restaurant
  • They all had higher labor productivity than the average restaurant
  • They all had far more capital equipment (e.g. automation of labor) than the average restaurant

In other words, they studied the restaurants that were able to incur a wage increase with the least impact on their total costs (and eventually prices).  Follow-up studies have shown that there was probably a real reduction in total restaurant employment in New Jersey in the studied period, but the differences in productivity cited above caused the impact to disproportionately hit small ma and pa operations as opposed to large capital intensive nation chains.  In fact, during this period, the national chains experienced a gain in market share vis a vis smaller shops, as the higher minimum wage made it harder for local shops to compete with the national chains.  So, in fact, what Card and Krueger observed was not an economic miracle on the order of seeing the virgin Mary in your pancakes, but a predictable shift of market share from low capital to high capital competitors in response to higher wage rates.

This theme of regulation, including the minimum wage, advantaging larger competitors is an old one.  I discussed it a while back in the context of Wal-Mart's support for a higher minimum wage:

Apparently, though I can't dig up a link right this second, Wal-mart
is putting its support behind a higher minimum wage.  One way to look
at this is a fairly cynical ploy to get the left off its back.  After
all, if Wal-mart's starting salary is $6.50 an hour (for example) it
costs them nothing to ask for a minimum wage of $6.50.

A different, and perhaps more realistic way to look at this Wal-mart
initiative is as a bald move to get government to sit on their
competition.  After all, as its wage rates creep up, as is typical in
more established companies, they are vulnerable to competitors gaining
advantage over them by paying lower wages.  If Wal-mart gets the
government to set the minimum wage closer to the wage rates it pays, it
eliminates the possibility of this competitor strategy. 

Reason 127 that I Can't Run for Office

I noticed the other day that a Michigan judge, up for confirmation on some federal court (sorry, I can't find the link) was getting challenged by a Midwest Republican Senator for having attended a gay civil union ceremony of some sort.

Oops.  I have attended a gay civil ceremony between two acquaintances of mine.   I can't remember hearing any roar from the foundations of civilization crumbling, though I am told that such will be the result of allowing some form of gay unions. 

I just don't see the problem.  Everyone says that gays marrying is a threat to marriage, but I can't see my marriage becoming any less strong because gay people are marrying.  It would be one thing if the government was forcing such marriage rules on churches, but they are not -- we are talking civil ceremonies here.  Besides, the whole "sanctity of marriage" ship sailed long ago with the advent of easy and frequent divorce.  So, though I would greatly prefer such issues solved in the legislature where they belong, and not by judges, I just sort of shrug at the decision in New Jersey.  Twenty years from now, this debate is going to seem so...  so....  what the hell do we call this decade anyway?  We have the nineties, the teens, and a big blank in the middle.  How can we be nearly 70% through this thing (yes its 70%, not 60%, think about it) and no one has come up with a good name for it?

Five Years Ago

Five years ago today, I was in Manhattan on a business trip with my wife.  I almost never take my wife on business trips, but we had been living in Seattle for several years, and my wife, who had lived in NYC for years, wanted to go back and visit.

About 7:30 AM, I went down to breakfast in the W Hotel, where I was staying.  I was working at the time for an aviation startup, and in one of the great moments of bad timing, I was in New York that day to make presentations to investors, the theme of which was that commercial aviation was in the midst of a recovery, and the time was right to invest in a commercial aviation venture. 

Part way into breakfast, my wife came down to find me, and tell us we needed to see what was on TV.  We went up to one of my investor's rooms.  He had a terraced penthouse (its good to be the king) from which we watched the disaster unfold, with CNN on in the background.

The next 24 hours were among the weirdest of my life.  For a while, we actually tried to hold our scheduled meetings, but a number of attendees had friends and family who worked in the WTC, and we called it off.  I wandered the streets of Manhattan, where bizarre rumors were flying at every street corner.  People ducked in fear every time an airplane rushed over, by this time all air force fighter planes.  By noon, dust-covered people walking up from downtown got to our area, and streamed past for the rest of the day.  Strangely, I actually ran into a friend of mine who had the last Hertz rent-a-car in the city, and we made plans to drive out of the city the next day.

Phone and cell service were spotty, but we eventually got through to the person taking care of our kids back in Seattle as well as our parents.  I had not told my mom we were in NYC, so she began our call by saying "I'm so glad all my kids are no where near NY" and I had to tell her, "Uhh, mom..."

That night was like a scene out of some Charlton Heston post-apocalypse movie.  Police were only letting cars out of the island, not back onto it, so by nightfall the city was empty and dead quiet.  We finally found a restaurant in Times Square open, and the Square was empty.  There was maybe one car driving through every few minutes.  A few roller bladers where skating around Times Square, just because they could.

The next day we played find the exit from Manhattan.  We knew from various reports that there was at least one bridge off the island open, but from either confusion or misplaced security concerns, no one seemed to know which bridge.  We began to circumnavigate Manhattan, looking for an exit.  Finally, a police officer told us the only way out was to drive all the way north through Harlem on the surface streets and get on what I think was the GW bridge.  Anyway, that is what we did (finding out in the process that Harlem was not the hell-hole that gets portrayed in movies, at least the part we saw).  I have never, ever been so happy to get to New Jersey.  I wanted to kiss the ground.  Of course, we still had a short drive to Seattle ahead of us, but that was anti-climactic.

It was only later I began learning how many people I knew died in those buildings that day.  I guess I should have thought about it, given the schools I attended.  The death toll for Harvard Business School graduates alone was staggering.  Five years later, watching the retrospectives, nothing about that day seems any less horrible.  Time, at least for me, has not softened the magnitude of this disaster. 

The only silver lining I can come up with is that we have gone five years without a major terrorist attack on this country, though other's have been attacked.  Walking around on September 12, we were all sure that this was just the front-end of a wave of massive attacks.  So far, whether through luck or skill, we have avoided this fate. 

One thing I will say is that we always prepare for the last attack.  We have spent a lot of time making sure no terrorists can take over a plane with toenail clippers and fly it into another building.   But that kind of attack was obsolete 20 minutes after the second plane hit the WTC -- It didn't even work on United 93.

Are People Rational About Gas Prices?

As a preface, I am not a socialist planner, so I do not presume to make other people's economic trade-offs for them.  If someone out there chooses to collect Pinto station wagons or pay $10 million to go on a Russian space launch, power to them.

That being said, I will observe that gas price concerns seem to drive people to do things that they would not normally do in other contexts.  Market Power quoted this statement from the Washington Post:

"When prices go up, you're going to see some interesting things," said Tom
Kloza, chief analyst for the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey.
"Saving money on gas is something that's just magical in this country. Rational
thought just doesn't apply to gas."

Market Power was skeptical that such irrationality exists, but I think it may be correct.  Here are a few examples:

1.  Waiting for hours:  A couple of years ago when I lived in Seattle, a local Costco put in a gas station and sold gas for 10-15 cents or so below most of the other local stations.  Every time I went there, there was a huge line -- perhaps half an hour long -- to get gas.  For a fifteen gallon fill-up saving 15 cents and waiting 30 minutes, that equates to $4.50 an hour savings for their efforts, not to mention the extra driving time (and gas!) spent getting to this one spot rather than their local station.  How many people in the line would have driven an extra 10 miles to take a job at $4.50 an hour? 

Lately, I witnessed a free gas promotion where people lined up and waited at least 3 hours for 10 gallons for free gas (people apparently had lined up starting at 4AM for the promotion that began at 8AM.  This is a bit better deal at $10 per hour, but I wonder how many people in the line would have participated in any other endeavor for $10 an hour?  Market Power points to a similar promotion in Sioux Falls, where the value of police time providing security was probably higher than the value of the gas given away.

2.  Save a dollar, pay three extra.  One of the reasons I am unconcerned with gas price gouging is that many gas stations today use gas as a loss leader, hoping to pull motorists into their store or restaurant.  In the language of gouging, what this means is that typically you are getting a great price on gas (given what the dealer's costs are) and are getting gouged on coffee and Twinkies.  Its amazing to me that people who check the Internet to find the place with 5 cents a gallon cheaper gas will then walk into the convenience store and pay whatever for Cokes and water and cigarettes and beer and coffee.  It seems crazy, but the best way to explain it is that for a number of people, a dollar saved on gas gives them far more satisfaction than say a dollar save on soft drinks.

3.  Wagering with the rental car company.  Every rental car company offers you a wager nowadays.  They give you the chance to buy the whole tank of gas in advance for something like 20 cents less than the local market rate.  Assume the local market rate is $3.20, the rental car advance rate is $3.00, and the tank is 15 gallons.  All you have to do to win this bet as the renter is to return the car with less than 1 gallon left.  If you do, you win, otherwise you lose.  Is this a bet you want to take?

But I left something out - the value of your time.  Let's say you value your marginal time at $30, and it take 15 minutes to fill up the rent car yourself.  By taking the fuel option, you save $7.50 of time.  This means to win the bet, including the value of your time, you have to turn it in with less than 3.5 gallons left, or less than 1/4 full.  The other alternative is to not stop and turn it in at the rent car place and let them fill it up at their $6.00 rate.  But even this ridiculously inflated rate for turning the car in part-full is still a better option than the pre-paid fuel as long as you don't use more than half a tank.   And I bet that the vast, vast majority of people who rent cars, particularly on business trips, don't use a half tank (a half tank at 20mpg is about 150 miles).

One of the best tests of my proposition is to see how many businesses
today act as if this gas-price-overfocus is a real phenomenon:  Car
dealerships give away free gas rather than rebates;  many many
companies are having free gas promotions;  gas stations continue to
sell gas at cost to get you in their store.  Basically, businesses
everywhere are betting that their customers will find $30 of gas more
appealing than any other $30 giveaway. 

None of the above bothers me particularly -- people are different and interesting in how they act.  That's why government planning tends to chafe everyone.  In fact, the only part of this supposed irrationality about gas prices that does bother me is the fact that so many people run to the government for price controls and gouging investigations whenever gas prices go up, and so many Congressmen of both parties see value to pandering to these instincts.  This despite the fact that gas prices are still effectively far lower as a percentage of income than they were 25 years ago.  I wish they would all go back to sipping their $8 Starbucks coffees and just deal with it.

Update:  Was on Snopes.com checking out an email that seemed like an urban legend (it was) and saw a sidebar listing gas wars as the #1 urban legend email of the moment.  ExxonMobil seems to be the bad-guy target-of-choice, I guess just because they are the largest.  The "idea" in the email is that if everyone would boycott ExxonMobil and shop at other gas stations, the price of gas would fall.  LOL.  As Snopes points out:


A boycott of a couple of brands of gasoline won't result in lower
overall prices. Prices at all the non-boycotted outlets would rise due
to the temporarily limited supply and increased demand, making the
original prices look cheap by comparison. The shunned outlets could
then make a killing by offering gasoline at its "normal" (i.e.,
pre-boycott) price or by selling off their output to the non-boycotted
companies, who will need the extra supply to meet demand. The only
person who really gets hurt in this proposed scheme is the service
station operator, who has almost no control over the price of gasoline.

We Don't Need No Stinking Consistency

For the past 6-months, gas station owners have been under attack by state regulators for their pricing practices just after Katrina, when fears of shut-in Gulf oil production and refining capacity led to a temporary spike in gas prices.  Gas station owners have tried to patiently explain about supply and demand and market dynamics, but to no avail, and are starting to settle:

Sunoco Inc. became the second oil company to
settle a price gouging lawsuit brought by New Jersey authorities,
agreeing to pay $325,000 but admitting no wrongdoing....

As part of a state probe into all oil companies doing business
in New Jersey, more than 100 violations were found at 400 gas
stations in the first week of September, the most common of which
were prices being raised more than once every 24 hours, and
stations showing different prices at the pump compared to their
posted prices, officials said.

Nobody is really getting fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for changing their prices more than once in a day.  Gasoline retailers are getting fined for being unliked, and because politicians find it a populist boon to their reelection to wack on oil companies every once in a while.  One of the reasons that gasoline retailers get fined for petty crap like this is that they are the only retail industry that I know of that actually posts their prices so you can see them on the street when you drive by.  A while back we also highlighted this funny bit of high-handedness in Illinois:

Illinois State Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked 18
operators whose prices jumped significantly after Hurricane Katrina to
donate $1,000 to the American Red Cross or risk a potential consumer
fraud lawsuit, reports the Chicago Tribune.

And you just knew enemy-of-Antarctica and Aspiring Governor Eliot Spitzer couldn't miss out on the populist fun:

Illinois isn't the only state to go after retailers for
price gouging after Hurricane Katrina; New York Attorney General Eliot
Spitzer fined 15 operators $10,000 for pumping up their prices.

Anyway, I guess we still haven't gotten to the "consistency" thing I mentioned in the title.  Having been at the receiving end of such ill-conceived and populist price-gouging and anti-trust lawsuits, what is the gas station trade group doing this week?  Why, appearing in front of Congress to accuse someone else of price-gouging.  In this case, they have dragged credit card companies in front of Congress to demand action on interchange fees:

All consumers pay more at the store and at the pump" as
a result of high interchange rates, added Mierzwinski. He also noted
that "legally suspect" practices have led to market power of the card
associations, and that banks engage in a variety of deceptive practices
to steer customers toward higher transaction fees, such as charging
customers who use PIN debit, as opposed to signature-based debit, which
is much less secure yet carries a higher transaction fee to the
retailer.

Of course, he is all for free markets, as he says with this pious piece of BS:

I believe in the light of day and I believe in free
markets," noted Armour, in explaining what retailers are--and
aren't--seeking with regard to interchange. He stressed that retailers
are not requesting price caps and price controls, but rather a better
understanding of why U.S. interchange rates are so high.

Right.  Then why are we dragging these people in front of Congress, except that you want to use the coercive power of government to change their business practices?  If you have Ralph Nader's PIRG behind you, then you are looking to weild the government's hammer to achieve something you couldn't achieve through free, voluntary association and negotiation.

As a retailer, credit card companies piss me off too, but I don't run to Uncle Sam for relief.  I just don't accept certain types of cards, like ATM cards with PIN verification, since they cost a fortune in fees.   And in a lot of locations, I don't accept cards at all.  We have put ATM's onsite in a lot of places, reasoning that if consumers want debit card convinience, they can pay the fees by using the ATM machine and then paying us in cash.

Warning Sign Liability

This is something our company has encountered a couple of times now:  There is apparently danger nowadays in posting warning signs.  Apparently, courts and juries are taking the position that by posting any warning at all, you are communicating to the public that you are taking on the task of warning them about any possible danger.  Then, when someone gets hurt by something you did not warn them about, they can argue that you are liable. Via Overlawyered:

Putting up signs warning visitors of the dangerous rip currents off New Jersey's
Long Beach might seem like an obvious step. "However, Long Beach Township
Attorney Richard Shackleton said there are liability issues to consider.
According to the law, the town does not have to warn people about natural
conditions, and if Long Beach put up a sign and a jury found its warnings to be
inadequate, the town could possibly be found liable for a drowning or injury.
Having no signs, he said, reduces the risk of being sued."

We have similarly had our attorneys and/or insurance inspectors recommend we take down a number of warning signs for this reason.  I have no idea how this outcome can be in the public interest.

Employment at Will

Yesterday I mentioned employment at will in this post about police officers who were fired for assaulting a handcuffed man and who successfully sued for wrongful termination.

Via George's Employment Blawg comes this article on employment at will and things a small business should consider to reduce the possibility that fired employees will sue:

Here's where things get tricky. In between employment at will and the law is a whole mess of claims, counterclaims, lawsuits, disputations and confusion. It's enough to make anybody scratch their head.

We have had several instances where employees have threatened legal action over termination.  I have observed at least three reasons for this:

  • Employees sometimes have a skewed view of the termination process, thinking that a company must hold to some kind of courtroom "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard in amassing reasons for termination.
  • The most inept employees never seem to know that they are inept
  • Some employees are far more adept at working the system than they are at their jobs.

We do several things to help make things go smoother:

  • Unless the violation was outrageous, where we fire on the spot, we try to give employees written warnings and coaching before they get terminated
  • Every new employee signs a 60/90 day probationary period letter.  If there are problems, they almost always occur in the probation period -- ie they turn up quickly -- and the probationary period gives us more leeway to quickly terminate.  Update:  This article says why this policy can be a mistake, or at least you have to be careful with it.  This is less of a problem for us since most of our employees only work a 5 month season anyway.
  • We don't give references.  I have said that this makes me feel guilty, but negative references about fired employees are a big source of litigation, and frankly, I am sorry to admit, the treat of wrongful termination suit is greatly reduced if the ex-employee finds a good job somewhere else.  Kind of the business version of hot potato.
  • Being a seasonal business saves us.  For many employee problems, we limp along until the end of the season when we can terminate the person for lack of work, then we make sure not to rehire them in the spring.

Update: Via Overlawyered, this story in the New York Post (gotta love the headlines) about a teacher fired 17 years ago and still filing suits:

But the Clifton, N.J., instructor never got over it. Instead, he has filed 15 lawsuits in Manhattan federal court and three others in Brooklyn and New Jersey courts, seeking reinstatement and millions of dollars in damages.

Each lawsuit has been tossed out as meritless. But a defiant Malley hasn't gotten the message or doesn't care.