Posts tagged ‘management’

A Fundamental Shift in the Economy, At Least for Entrepreneurs and Small Business

When politicians argue about small business growth, they argue about stuff like taxes and access to capital and, god help me, completely irreverent (to small business) stuff like the ExIm Bank.

I would argue that there has been a fundamental shift in the economy relative to small business over the last four years, but it has nothing to do with any of that stuff.  I would summarize this shift as follows:

Ten years ago, most of my company's free capacity was used to pursue growth opportunities and refine operations.  Over the last four years or so, all of our free capacity has been spent solely on compliance.

Let me step back and define some terms.  What do I mean by "free capacity?"  In a small, privately-held company, almost all the improvement initiatives spring from the head of, or must heavily involve, the owner.  That would be me.  I have some very capable staff, but when we do something new, it generally starts with me.

So OK, our free capacity is somewhat limited by my personal capacity as owner and President.   But actually, I have a head full of ideas for improving the company.  I'd like to do some new things with training that takes advantage of streaming video.  I'd like to add some customer service screening to our application process.  But my time turns out not to be the only limit -- and this is one of those things that HBS definitely did not teach me.

In the real world, there are only so many new things I can introduce and train my line managers to do, and that they can then pass down to their folks.  An organization can only accept a limited amount of new things (while still doing the old things well).  This is what I mean by "free capacity"  -- the ability to digest new things.

Over the last four years or so we have spent all of this capacity on complying with government rules.  No capacity has been left over to do other new things.  Here are just a few of the things we have been spending time on:

  • Because no insurance company has been willing to write coverage for our employees (older people working seasonally) we were forced to try to shift scores of employees from full-time to part-time work to avoid Obamacare penalties that would have been larger than our annual profits.  This took a lot of new processes and retraining and new hiring to make work.  And we are still not done, because we have to get down another 30 or so full-time workers for next year
  • The local minimum wage movement has forced us to rethink our whole labor system to deal with rising minimum wages.  Also, since we must go through a time-consuming process to get the government agencies we work with to approve pricing and fee changes, we have had to spend an inordinate amount of time justifying price increases to cover these mandated increases in our labor costs.  This will just accelerate in the future, as the President's contractor minimum wage order is, in some places, forcing us to raise camping prices by an astounding 20%.
  • Several states have mandated we use e-Verify on all new employees, which is an incredibly time-consuming addition to our hiring process
  • In fact, the proliferation of employee hiring documentation requirements has forced us through two separate iterations of a hiring document tracking and management system
  • The California legislature can be thought of as an incredibly efficient machine for creating huge masses of compliance work.    We have to have a whole system to make sure our employees don't work over their meal breaks.  We have to have detailed processes in place for hot days.  We have to have exactly the right kinds of chairs for our employees.  We have to put together complicated shifts to meet California's much tougher overtime rules.  Just this past year, we had to put in a system for keeping track of paid sick days earned by employees.  We have two employee manuals:  one for most of the country and one just for California and all its requirements (it has something like 27 flavors of mandatory leave employers must grant).  The list goes on and on.  So much so that in addition to all the compliance work, we also spent a lot of work shutting down every operation of ours in California, narrowing down to just 3 contracts today.  There has been one time savings though -- we never look at any new business opportunities in CA because we have no desire to add exposure to that state.

Does any of this add value?  Well, I suppose if you are one who considers it more important that companies make absolutely sure they offer time off to stalking victims in California than focus on productivity, you are going to be very happy with what we have been working on.  Otherwise....

I fully understand the dangers of extrapolating from one data point**, but for folks who are scratching their head over recent plateauing of productivity gains and reduced small business origination numbers, you might look in this direction.

By the way, it strikes me that regulatory compliance issues set a minimum size for business viability.  You have to be large enough to cover those compliance issues and still make money.  What I see happening is that as new compliance issues are layered on, that minimum size rises, like a rising tide slowly drowning companies not large enough to keep their head above water.  We are keeping up, but at times it feels like the water is lapping at our chin.


**Unrelated Postscript:  I have found that in the current media/political world, people love to have only one data point.  Why?  Well, with two data points you are are stuck with the line those points define.  With just one, you can draw any line you want in any direction with any slope.

I Have This Argument All The Time With The US Forest Service

I operate recreation areas in the US Forest Service and from time to time get criticized that my profit adds cost to the management of the facilities, and that the government would clearly be better off with a non-profit running the parks since they don't take a profit.  What they miss is that non-profits historically do a terrible job at what I do.  They begin in a burst of enthusiasm but then taper off into disorder.    Think about any non-profit you have ever been a part of.  Could they consistently run a 24/7/365 service operation to high standards?

Don Boudreaux has a great quote today that touches on this very issue

from page 114 of the 5th edition (2015) of Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics:

While capitalism has a visible cost – profit – that does not exist under socialism, socialism has an invisible cost – inefficiency – that gets weeded out by losses and bankruptcy under capitalism.  The fact that most goods are more widely affordable in a capitalist economy implies that profit is less costly than inefficiency.  Put differently, profit is a price paid for efficiency.

It is also the "price" paid for innovation.

Excellent Slate Article on GMO Safety

It is a long article, covering a lot of ground, and is full of links to literature on both sides of the debate.  But its conclusions are pretty definite

I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes.

Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.

This is just the management summary, the article goes into great depth on all of these.


The DOL is Admitting That New Overtime Rules Won't Lead to Much Extra Pay

Here are some numbers from the DOL draft rule.

They think there are 21.4 million salaried workers subject to the wage test.  Since the new number was set at the 40th percentile of these workers, presumably about 8.6 million will fall below the new number.  But of these, only 4.6 million would be have to be shifted to hourly/overtime rules (not sure why the difference, I guess other tests must still apply as well).

Those 4.6 million are expected to cost employers an additional $1.2 billion in wages, which seems like a lot but equates to an additional $261 per person per year extra.   In other words, a pittance for all this disruption.

The Left is already saying that companies won't adjust and all these folks will get raises.  But the DOL obviously thinks differently.  Either it thinks these folks are only working maybe an hour each of overtime per week, such that the overtime rules will only cost a few bucks a week, or the DOL thinks that a lot of work and wage rates are going to be pared back leaving folks about where they are today, except now as timeclock punchers rather than trusted salaried professionals.

I am still going through all the tables in the back where they generate this stuff, but there are a couple of admissions there you WILL NOT find on liberal blogs today

  1. The DOL expects that base wage rate for regular work hours to fall for the affected workers with this new law.  You heard that right.   See table 21.  The fall from $18.38 to $18.21 after this rule in DOL projections
  2. You will see folks (like Kevin Drum linked above) saying that this ends 60 hour work weeks.  In fact, in table 22 the DOL says the average work week of those affected by the rule is 41.6 hours, which will go down to 41.5 hours by this rule.  In fact, the 60 hour folks are a minority of go-getters who are trying to prove themselves out for upper management.  These are the folks hamstrung by this law, hammering precisely the upwardly mobile folks one would hope to encourage.

France Arrests Entrepreneurs for Crime of Innovation. Is it Any Wonder the Economy Sucks?

CEO of Uber France has been arrested because, uh, his competitors have resorted to violence to defend their inferior product.  The fact that the victim rather than the perpetrators of violence is getting arrested speaks volumes to how far governments will go to block innovation that hurts politically-connected incumbents.

After days of violent protests and defiance on the part of Uber's French management, two of the company's employees were taken into custody for "illicit activity" today. Uber France CEO Thibaut Simphal and Uber European GM Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty were arrested for running the company's ride-sharing service illegally. TechCrunch reports the pair is also being held under suspicion of "concealing digital documents." Last week, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve took legal action to shut down UberPOP, the service that employs non-professional drivers to provide rides, in response to protests that blocked key transportation hubs.

... While UberPOP was banned in France earlier this year, an appeals court said it could continue to operate until the final decision was handed down in September.

Obama's New Wage and Hour Laws Worse For Our Company Than Rising Minimum Wages

Rising minimum wages are bad enough, but generally we can offset them with price increases (remember that, though, next time you get ticked off about your camping fees going up).  As an aside, not every business is in a competitive position that they can do this.

But the new Obama Administration rules greatly scaling back on our ability to have our managers be exempt employees is far, far worse.  Because its not just money, but it changes the entire relationship between me and my managers.  Most of my managers don't want to be hourly employees (you should see the complaint emails I am getting since I announced that this is likely coming) and have pride they have moved beyond timeclock punching.  Also, I think a lot understand they are not going to make more from this, and they may even make less.  To the extent they are working overtime today (and they all are) they will not be allowed to work overtime in the future.  So I will have to hire someone else to do those extra tasks, and that person's salary is likely to come in part from what the managers are making now.

These next few months I am having all of my salaried managers fill out time sheets just for analytical purposes.  I need to know how bad this is going to be.  If you run a business, you shouldn't be waiting for next year to do something, you need to be thinking and analyzing right now how you are going to handle these rules.

I wrote a long article on this here.  Stephen Miller has more in the same vein (via Overlawyered great wage and hour news roundup).  Here is a taste:

In McCutchen's view, the administration fails to understand that "it's still the same pot of money that's available to compensate the employee," whether a worker is classified as exempt or nonexempt. So if overtime pay is required, a likely result will be to strictly limit overtime hours worked, despite the adverse effect on productivity, rather than—as the administration expects—to increase the employee's annual compensation.

While many non-executive employees view themselves as professionals and react negatively when shifted to hourly compensation, "the DOL wants nearly everyone to be nonexempt, and to sign in and clock out as do unionized workers," McCutchen contended. "They don't believe that some employees prefer to be salaried, with guaranteed pay and the flexibility to adjust when they do their work."

Postscript:  I guess I just don't understand the vision that is in the head of Progressives.  How does it help their stated goal of empowering the average Joe to convert him from a valued, up-and-coming junior manager to a 40 hour a week timeclock puncher?  How will people ever be able to migrate from lower end jobs to management positions if there are not junior manager positions in which they can demonstrate their energy and dedication?  I suppose they must believe that junior managers will still be doing the same things and working the same hours, but just earning lots of extra overtime with these new rules.  If that is really what they think, they are completely divorced from reality.

CA Labor Commission Has Just Killed Uber, Though It May Take Years to Bleed Out

A while back I wrote a long article about all the ways the government is making it nearly impossible to employ low-skilled labor.  I worried that because it is getting harder and harder to profitably employ low-skill labor, the country would soon sort itself into those with skills and jobs and those on government assistance, with little or no opportunity for people in the second category to move to the first.

As part of that article, I observed that much of the capital in this country is flowing to new business models that use minimal numbers of employees.  I wrote:

Is it any surprise that most entrepreneurs are pursuing business models where they leverage revenues via technology and a relatively small, high-skill workforce?  Uber and Lyft at first seem to buck this trend, with their thousands of drivers.  But in fact they prove the rule.  Uber and Lyft are very very careful to define themselves and their service in a way that all those drivers don't work for them.  I would go so far to say that if Uber were forced to actually put all of those drivers on their payroll, and deal with they myriad of labor compliance issues, their model would fall apart.

Well, we are going to find out if my last statement is true.

The California labor commission has ruled that an Uber driver qualifies as an employee, not a contractor, of the company.  As a result Uber will have to reimburse a driver for expenses accumulated in the line of duty. That includes $256 in tolls and the IRS rate of $0.56 per mile for use of a personal vehicle for business purposes.

The actual issue in this case of reimbursement of expenses is pretty narrow, and actually kind of stupid.  Uber is already paying drivers effectively by the mile by giving them a percentage of the mileage-based fee customers pay.  All this will do is cause Uber to reduce the share of revenues drivers get by something like 56 cents a mile and then hand the $0.56 to them in a separate check.  Its an extra accounting and paperwork hassle, but business people deal with mitigating such government-imposed stupidity 10 times a day.

No, the real danger of this ruling lies far beyond expense reimbursement.  A few top of head thoughts

  • This would obviously make Uber drivers subject to minimum wage.  How does one even figure that out?  Now that there are local minimum wages (e.g. LA soon to be $15 an hour) how do you compute minimum wage for a trip that begins outside of LA but ends inside the city?  Or vice versa?
  • Uber drivers currently only get paid for transporting passengers, but what about their time driving around waiting for a passenger?  Will that be classified as standby time for which the employer must pay for?  You can expect the standby time class action in California in 3..2..1..
  • This changes the whole relationship between Uber and its drivers.  Currently, Uber does not have to worry about driver productivity or work ethic, as long as they get good customer ratings when they do drive. Why?  Because Uber is not paying them except when they haul a passenger.  Now, if they have to pay them by the hour, Uber suddenly must police them for productivity and set minimum revenue generation targets for drivers.  The flexibility that drivers love will be gone.
  • And then there is Obamacare.  If drivers drive more than 29 hours a week, Uber would have to provide health care or pay really expensive penalties.  Will Uber find it necessary, as my company has and many other service businesses have, to cap driver hours at 29 hours a week max?
  • What about California break law?  Employers have an affirmative duty to make sure employees take a 30 minute unpaid meal break after X hours.  And just allowing for it (ie allowing drivers to put themselves in unavailable status) is not enough - employers have to have processes and documentation in place to make sure the employee takes their break (I kid you not).
  • What about CalOSHA?  Is Uber suddenly responsible for working conditions and safety in the vehicle?  And how does it do that if it does not own the vehicle?
  • Every employee is essentially his or her own manager.  Does that now make Uber subject to ensuring every driver has all state-mandated manager training, such as sexual harassment training?
  • Employers are typically liable for actions by their employees, even if those employees are breaking the rules and ignoring the employer's wishes.  Is Uber now liable for a driver who, say, verbally harasses a passenger?  In the past, that gets sorted out pretty fast by the rating system, but does Uber have to take a more direct hand now do avoid a deluge of lawsuits?
  • As of July 1, California employers must provide paid sick leave to employees.  They must provide unpaid leave under the family and medical leave acts.  In fact, California requires employers provide and track literally dozens of forms of mandatory paid and unpaid leave (including leave for victims of stalkers, just as one example of the scope of these requirements)
  • The taxes and required fees owed by employers for each employee are myriad.  State and Federal income tax must be withheld, Social Security and Medicare taxes paid, California state disability tax paid, unemployment tax paid, and workers compensation premiums paid.
  • Unemployment could be real nightmare.  Can drivers choose to drive for a while, then take unemployment for a while, maybe while tourist season in San Francisco is slow, then go back to driving?  You think that can't happen?  A number of my seasonal employees work in the summer, then take unemployment all winter despite having no intention of trying to find work in the winter.  I pay 7% of wages in California as unemployment taxes and would pay more except that scale is capped and I can't get in a worse category than my current F-.
  • Then there are a myriad of smaller issues that probably can be solved but consume bandwidth of a company's management that would otherwise be innovating.  As one small example, one has to post about 20 different state and Federal labor posters in CA where all employees can see them.  Where would that be for Uber drivers?

Barack Obama Poised to Convert Millions of Junior Managers into Timeclock Punchers

The title of this post is my alternative to Politico's headline which reads, "Barack Obama poised to hike wages for millions." What is actually happening is that Obama is proposing to raise the threshold for how much money an employee can make before he or she can be considered exempt from overtime rules (and thus exempt from filling in a time sheet).

As early as this week, the Labor Department could propose a rule that would raise the current overtime threshold — $23,660 – to as much as $52,000, extending time and a half overtime pay to millions of American workers.

The Obama Administration and its supporters (and apparently Politico, by how they wrote the headline) are smoking something if they think employers are going to react by raising salaries of current exempt employees being paid 23,660 or 30,000 or 40,000 to $52,000.  Absolutely no way.  There may be a few just under the $52,000 threshold that get a bump, but that will be a minor effect.

Everyone else is going to suddenly find themselves converted from a junior manager back to a wage earner.   Companies are not going to allow these newly minted wage earners to earn overtime, and so I suppose one good outcome is that we may see a new boost in productivity as companies find ways to automate or eliminate junior management tasks to get all these folks down to 40 hours a week.

Five years ago, I might have really been in a panic over this in my company, but fortunately our experience with Obamacare has given me confidence we'll figure it out.  With Obamacare we were facing enormous costs which we (like many service and retail companies) managed to eliminate by converting almost all of our full-time employees to part-time.   Compared to that effort, figuring out how to get all of our managers down to 40 hours seems like child's play.

As usual, most of the costs of this regulation will be born by workers.  As with other minimum wage-type laws, some will be better off, actually getting the "raise" promised by Politico, while some will be worse off, dropped to straight 40-hour work which does not pay as well, or out of work entirely.

However, this law has an even bigger impact-- it changes the relationship between the worker and their employer.  There are important differences between hourly and salaried work in the relationship with employers.  Some are psychological -- for better or worse, management things of salaried workers differently than hourly workers.  And some are real -- salaried workers can try to demonstrate that they are worthy of promotion by working extra hours and taking on extra tasks, things that hourly workers really can't do.

As a final note, I have to give the Coyote Academic Arrogance Award to Daniel Hamermesh of UT Austin who is quoted as follows:

“It’s hard to believe that somebody making $30,000 is a supervisor,”

He knows this, how?  We have supervisors who do a fabulous job for $2500 a month and are happy to be making that.

But that is actually not the Hamermesh statement that I would rank most ignorant of reality.  This is:

But Hamermesh said that to whatever extent employers reduced hours to avoid overtime the result would be more job creation, not less, since someone else must [be] hired to perform that work. Jared Bernstein, an economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden during President Barack Obama’s first term, added that for many workers reduced hours would be a plus: “Their salary is the same but they have more time with their families.”

Are these guys for real?  Employers are not going to give employees the same salary for fewer hours.  They are going to try pay them less if they are getting fewer hours of work (of course their ability to do so depends on the labor supply).  But the change is worse than this.  They are not only getting fewer hours, but they are getting a different person and a different relationship.  Before, say for a junior manager job, employers could get go-getters who worked 60 hours a week to impress management with their diligence and dedication, signaling they were ready for promotion.  Now, employers will get time-clock punchers.

Hard Drives in Windows 7 Randomly Appear and Disappear

Long-time readers will understand immediately that this is not a post for regular readers but is meant to be found on Google by people with similar problems.

I installed Windows 7 home premium 64-bit on a new Asus motherboard with an Intel Z97 chipset.  I have a couple of hard drives and a couple of RAID's connected by eSATA.  Once the installation was complete, I noticed one of the hard drives was missing from the drive listing.  Not only was it not recognized by Windows, it was not recognized by the Windows disk management utility or even by the BIOS.  So I rebooted, and found that this drive now appeared but another disappeared.  This kept happening over and over.  Some reboots I had them all, and some I did not.

I did all the usual stuff.  I swapped cables, swapped drives, etc.  I even RMA'd the motherboard when I got desperate, thinking there was an issue with the drive controller.  But it kept occurring on the new board.  I considered switching the drives from AHCI to IDE in the BIOS, as some people reported this fixed the problem for them, but I really wanted to avoid that**.  I updated the chipset drivers and all the other drivers (sound, graphics, etc) in case there was some IRQ conflict, as some people have reported that this fixed their problem.

I finally found a fix, and thought I would share it.

  • Check your power plan in Windows control panel.  Even if the computer is set never to sleep, your hard drives may be set to sleep (this is in fact the default in windows 7).  Go to the power plan advanced settings, look for hard drives, and set the time to sleep to 0 which causes them never to sleep.  I am not sure this is necessary but others report some success with this.   I may go back later to see if I can change it back -- I don't necessarily need my hard drives spinning all day.
  • It turns out that installing the Intel chipset driver is not enough.  I had thought that since the SATA controller is part of the chipset, the chipset driver would cover it.  However, once I installed the Intel chipset driver, when I checked the SATA / AHCI controller in device manager, it still showed the driver to still be a Microsoft driver.  Turns out this is the problem.  You need this to be an Intel driver
  • The drivers I wanted for the Z97 were right there on my motherboard support site and were called:
    • Intel AHCI/RAID Driver Path for Windows Win7 32bit & Win7 64bit & Win8 32bit & Win8 64bit & Win8.1 32bit & Win8.1 64bit.
    • Intel Rapid Storage Technology Driver software V13.1.0.1058 for Windows Win7 64bit & Win8 64bit & Win8.1 64bit---(WHQL).
  • I had originally thought these were some sort of utility (and a utility is included) but these are essentially the eSATA drivers I needed.  Once installed, checking device manager now showed an Intel rather than a Microsoft driver.

And that fixed it.  Ugh.  Hours and hours of frustration.  My apologies to Asus who got a returned board that was probably just fine.


** By the way, the reason switching to IDE probably fixed the problem is that it is a different driver.  But one gives up capabilities and a bit of performance going AHCI back to IDE.  Also, the switch is not entirely straightfoward and the switch back, if one ever wants to make it, is complicated.

The Government's One Cost Advantage: It Can Exempt Itself from Regulation

Greg Patterson brings us this example from the AZ legislature, but this sort of thing is ubiquitous:

Just before I got to the Legislature, there was a big move to regulate day care facilities.  Naturally, the government has a role in establishing basic health and safety standards for facilities that take care of young children, so I thought it was a good move.

Then a funny thing happened.  The Legislature established one set of standards for private day care facilities and a different (lower) set of standards for public or non-profit day care facilities.  Some Legislators dared to ask why the health and safety rules would be different depending on what type of entity owned the facility.  After all, if a rule is really in place to keep a child healthy and safe, why should a publicly owned facility be exempt or have a lower standard?

The answer, of course, is that there's no reason for publicly owned facilities to have a different regulatory regime than private facilities and that these bills were really just disguised attempts to ensure that private day cares couldn't compete with public ones

We are facing something similar in my world.  As you may know, my company operates government parks and campgrounds on a concession basis (which means we get no government money, we are paid by the user fees of visitors).  This makes sense because we can do it less expensively and usually better than the government agency.

Recently, the Obama Administration has imposed an executive order that we concessionaires on Federal lands have to pay a $10.10 minimum wage.  Since most of our costs are labor, this is causing us to have a to raise fees to customers substantially to offset the higher costs.

In response to these fee increases, the US Forest Service in California is in the process of taking back traditionally concession-run campgrounds to run themselves, in-house.  Their justification is that they can do it cheaper.   Part of this is just poor government accounting -- because many costs (risk management/insurance, capital assets, interest on investments) don't hit their budgets but show up on other parts of the government's books, what appears to be lower costs is actually just costs that are hidden.  But their main cost savings is that since the Federal government is exempt from labor law and this new executive order, the Forest Service can staff the park with volunteers.  They are allowed to pay a minimum wage of ... zero!

This is just incredibly hypocritical, to say with one statement that private companies need to pay campground workers more and with the very next action take over the campground and staff it with people making nothing.

Thoughts on the Japanese Economy

I would characterize long-term Japanese economic policy this way:

  • Technocratically planned economy where the government chose winners and losers and directed capital to industries favored for development (e.g. MITI with steel, autos, electronics).
  • Strong government favoritism for exports and exporters over the domestic economy -- export industries are heavily protected at the cost of raising costs for internal consumers and limiting competition in domestic markets.
  • Enormous, near Herculean commitment to deficit spending as stimulus.  With deficits consistently running in the 8% of GP range and total government debt a stratospheric levels, Japan is the poster child for Krugman's anti-austerity

To these three I would add something that is seldom mentioned, that Japan has a near Scandinavian GINI index, with income inequality well under that of the US.  Oh yes, and they were an enthusiastic adopter of CO2 limits.

And the result of all this has been... 25 years of stagnation.

I remember when every one of these three planks was enthusiastically lauded by the US elite.  I was at Harvard Business School in the late 1980's and much of the discussion was about the US needing to adopt MITI-like government industrial planning and management.  If pressed at the time, people might kind of sort of acknowledge that life wasn't so good for Japanese consumers, but we were in a Michael Porter big picture competitiveness-of-nations phase, and no one seemed to care that their definition of national success did not turn out so well for the people actually living there.

To me, Japan is a giant case study in Austrian economics.  It's like they set out to run a quarter-century test: "let's see if mispricing of credit and forced misallocation of capital is really the cause of recessions."  So it is amazing that no one seems to want to acknowledge the results of this experiment.  Paul Krugman appears weekly in the New York Times to frequently advocate for exactly this same economic plan.

The Madness of Software Design: Designs that Require Customizing Browser Setting to Operate

We are looking at a number of third-party internet-based software solutions for a range of things from HR onboarding to safety and training management.  With minimum wages and other government-imposed employment costs rising, we are looking for ways to automate anything we can.

We have run into a useability issue on most of this software.  As a note, my employees tend to be 55 years old and older, and so many do not have a firm handle on computer skills.  So stuff needs to be simple and just work.  Unfortunately, no one seems to be willing or able to design a system that works with default browser settings.  In particular, everyone wants to design their software to require popups.  I have no idea why.  But time after time I put a system out for a subset of my employees to test and I immediately get 19 people calling me back saying that it does not work, they can't get in, etc.  The typical problem is that most of this software seems to require that the browsers popup blocker be turned off.  Why in the world would you design software for a feature that 99% of browsers today have turned off by default?  And worse, that require users to change a setting that only exists deep in setup menus most users don't even know exist.  I am pretty capable and it took me some poking around to find the popup options in Chrome.

This makes me totally crazy.  I had a long talk today with my onboarding company trying to explain why getting rid of an hour of HR time with their software at the cost of an extra hour of IT support time for each new employee trying to access the system does not save me any freaking money.  We received access to a training and safety system for free from our insurance company but it took so much of my personal time to get each employee able to successfully log into it that we abandoned it this year, despite it having a lot of good resources in it.  I will tell you guys that despite the world of these business solutions being apparently crowded, there is still room out there for someone who can program a front-end that reliably works with a variety of browsers and systems.

Increasing Tribalism in America

As I mentioned before, the last two days I was sitting in a conference on parks and park management out in California.  Most everyone was pretty respectful in the room, and discussions about race and ethnicity that could have degenerated into political finger-pointing generally did not.

But there was one exception I thought really odd.  A gentleman (can't remember his name), who is apparently the marketing director for Delaware North Company's extensive concession operations in Yellowstone, began his talk by expressing how crazy he thought Conservative Republicans are.  I thought this was a lead in for some kind of joke, but actually he just seemed to want to make sure that though he was currently living in Wyoming, no one should mistake him for a Conservative.  My guess at the time was that this man was transferred to this post after growing up back East, and is constantly embarrassed to think his tribe of liberal Easterners might think he was part of that flyover country Republican tribe.  Otherwise, I can't figure out why he would feel the need to make us understand this -- it certainly had nothing to do with his pitch and it seemed like a terrible marketing practice, particularly given the likely demographics of his current customer base.**

In fact, in a bit of irony I see repeated fairly often, he used this as an intro to his speech on a day where the main topic was inclusiveness (for those in the parks world, we ritualistically beat ourselves up at every opportunity for not attracting enough young people, urbanites, and people of color to rural public parks).  In theory, "inclusiveness" and "diversity" are supposed to mean that we are trying to get rid of the whole in-group / out-group thing altogether, but I often suspect that in practice, many folks are using them as code words for just shifting the out-group tag from one set of people to another.


** PS-  which should not be taken to mean that I necesarily would disagree with him if we discussed the details, just that it seemed a pointless and even self-defeating observation to make in this context.

This is Why Running a Service Business is Hard

This Starbucks story illustrates the hardest part about running a service business

"Pregnant woman denied Starbucks bathroom useage"

Of course, Starbucks did not deny this woman access to the bathroom.  Had the board of directors, CEO, and most of the management been at the store, they would have happily helped the woman use the Starbucks bathroom.  This woman was actually denied access to the bathroom by some knucklehead employee of Starbucks, one of the tens of thousands they hire, who likely thought they were doing the right thing.

I am sure Starbucks has a policy that the bathrooms are for customers only, and honestly in a lot of urban areas that is an essential policy or else one finds themselves spending a lot of money cleaning the bathroom and providing the public facilities that the city or shopping center developer chose not to fund.

However, in a service business, one of the keys to providing good customer service and maintaining a good reputation is, ironically, having your employees know when the rules need to be bent.  This is the number 1 thing in every training session we have in our company -- when the rules have to be enforced (safety, fires, quiet time at night) and when to back off and not act like the campground nazi ruining everyone's visit.

I have thought about why this should be for quite a while.  If rules exist, shouldn't they be enforced for everyone?  And if not, shouldn't they just be eliminated?

First, there simply are exceptions.  This is the same reason that mandatory sentencing guidelines in criminal law and no tolerance rules in schools always run to grief.

Second, even if there are not exceptions, there are people who really, really, really, strongly, aggressively believe that they are indeed an exception.  Call this modern entitlement, but we get this all the time.  Dog owners are a great example.  Every single one of them understands perfectly why everyone else's dogs have to be on leash but no one believes their little darling is a problem.  Dogs are in fact the hardest issue we often have to manage.  Ask someone to put a dog on leash and we get vitriolic complaints sent to our government partners, newspapers, etc.  Let them run around and we get vitriolic complaints sent other visitors who are bothered by dogs sent to our government partners, newspapers, etc.

Finally, the marginal cost of serving one or two exceptions is really low, practically measurable, while the cost of allowing everyone to break the rule is high.  Take the case of bathrooms.  Letting one non-customer use the bathroom costs zero.  But once word gets out that you allow public use of your bathrooms, everyone in a half-mile radius is lined up at the door every day.


Trend That Is Not A Trend: Wildfires (At Least Not This Year)

From the White House:

click to enlarge

From the Federal Government's National Inter-agency Fire Center wildfire tracking page today

click to enlarge


The White House letter demonstrates the behavior that drives me crazy and caused me to start this feature in the first place.  They point to 14 fires in California and imply that this proves some kind of trend.  But how can an individual data point say anything about a trend?  In fact, as you can see above, there almost 50,000 wildfires by this point each year.  So what does the existence of 14 mean, one way or another, in establishing a trend?

Just to show that I don't underestimate the impact of fire, one of these two fires referenced in the White House letter is actually threatening my business near Burney, California and has caused us substantial losses due to lost revenue (for some odd reason people don't like to come out to a park when the air is filled with smoke and ash -- go figure).



PS -- There is an upward trend in the data vs. the 1950s and 1960s which is likely tied somewhat to climate but also somewhat to forest management practices.  Academics have had trouble separating the two.


Quick: From Media Reporting and Obama Speeches, What Is Your Impression of Wildfire Severity This Year

Wildfires are becoming a perennial favorite of our "Trend that is not a trend" series, showing how media creates trends out of single data points and even out of thin air.  Often, the evidence behind trends in media stories tends to be ... the increasing volume of media stories on that topic.  Thus the "Summer of the Shark" media fiasco.

About 98 out of 100 people I might ask would say that this is a record year for wildfires in the US.  In fact, it is, so far, one of the slowest wildfire seasons in recent memory.

Here is a screencap of the data from the National Inter-agency Fire Center.  Here is the link so you can see for yourself (though of course the data will be different over time since it shows year to date data for the day you check).

click to enlarge


Note that there is no apples to oranges BS here -- all data for all years are for Jan 1 to July 24 of that year.  So far this year, the number of fires is 31% below average and the total acres burned is nearly 60% below average.

Postscript:  By the way, I have every reason to hate wildfires.  A wildfire in the Sedona area shut down my largest business for the year, pretty much wiping out our company's earnings for the year.

Postscript #2:  There is clearly a trend in the data for acres burned (see whole database here).  I am not denying the trend, though we can argue how much is climate and how much is forest management and how much is simply more human contact with the wilderness.   What I object to is using individual events, particularly individual events in below-average years, as proof of the trend


What Happens When You Abandon Prices As A Supply-Demand Matching Tool? California Tries Totalitarianism

Mostly, we use prices to match supply and demand. When supplies of some item are short, rising prices provide incentives for conservation and substitution, as well as the creation of creative new sources of supply.

When we abandon prices, often out of some sort of political opportunism, chaos usually results.

California, for example, has never had the political will to allow water prices to rise when water is short. They cite all kinds of awful things that would happen to people if water prices were higher, but then proceed instead with all sorts of authoritarian rationing initiatives that strike me as far worse than any downsides of higher prices.

In this particular drought, California has taken a page from Nazi Germany block watches to try to ration water

So, faced with apparent indifference to stern warnings from state leaders and media alarms, cities across California have encouraged residents to tattle on their neighbors for wasting water — and the residents have responded in droves. Sacramento, for instance, has received more than 6,000 reports of water waste this year, up twentyfold from last year...

Some drought-conscious Californians have turned not only to tattling, but also to an age-old strategy to persuade friends and neighbors to cut back: shaming. On Twitter, radio shows and elsewhere, Californians are indulging in such sports as shower-shaming (trying to embarrass a neighbor or relative who takes a leisurely wash), car-wash-shaming and lawn-shaming.

“Is washing the sidewalk with water a good idea in a drought @sfgov?” Sahand Mirzahossein, a 32-year-old management consultant, posted on Twitter, along with a picture of a San Francisco city employee cleaning the sidewalk with a hose. (He said he hoped a city official would respond to his post, but he never heard back.)

Drought-shaming may sound like a petty, vindictive strategy, and officials at water agencies all denied wanting to shame anyone, preferring to call it “education” or “competition.” But there are signs that pitting residents against one another can pay dividends.

All this to get, in the best case, a 10% savings. How much would water prices have to rise to cut demand 10% and avoid all this creepy Orwellian crap?

One of the features of Nazi and communist block watch systems was that certain people would instrumentalize the system to use it to pay back old grudges. The same thing is apparently happening in California

In Santa Cruz, dozens of complaints have come from just a few residents, who seem to be trying to use the city’s tight water restrictions to indulge old grudges.

“You get people who hate their neighbors and chronically report them in hopes they’ll be thrown in prison for wasting water,” said Eileen Cross, Santa Cruz’s water conservation manager. People claim water-waste innocence, she said, and ask: “Was that my neighbor? She’s been after me ever since I got that dog.”

Ms. Franzi said that in her Sacramento neighborhood, people were now looking askance at one another, wondering who reported them for wasting water.

“There’s a lot of suspiciousness,” Ms. Franzi said. “It’s a little uncomfortable at this point.” She pointed out that she and her husband have proudly replaced their green lawn with drought-resistant plants, and even cut back showers to once every few days.

Update:  Seriously, for those that are unclear -- this is the alternative to capitalism.  This is the Progressive alternative to markets.  Sure, bad things happen in a free society with free markets, but how can anyone believe that this is a better alternative?

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You

I warned you that Cliven Bundy's ranch was the wrong hill to fight on over property rights and the role of government ownership on western lands.  And I was right.

This kind of thing should not come as a surprise.  This is a guy who simply did not want to pay his rent, and used the catch phrases of liberty to try to get sympathy.  I could find about a thousand far more sympathetic examples of folks screwed over by government land use regulations -- e.g. people whose puddle in the backyard is suddenly a wetlands that they can't build on.  But for some reason Conservatives all rushed to pile on this one example.  Stupid.  The media can probably be counted on to hide the unsavory back stories of Occupy Wall Street supporters, but there is no way they are going to do so for a "hero" of the right.   The BLM almost bailed Conservatives out of their stupid support for Bundy by their execrable on-site management of the raid, but Conservatives are now getting what they deserve for jumping in bed with this guy.

Problem Endemic To Public Parks Management

Glenn Reynolds is writing about colleges, but he could just as easily be writing about public parks:

Full-time administrators now outnumber full-time faculty. And when times get tough, schools have a disturbing tendency to shrink faculty numbers while keeping administrators on the payroll. Teaching gets done by low-paid, nontenured adjuncts, but nobody ever heard of an "adjunct administrator."

Replace "faculty" with "people actually working in a park" and administrators with "headquarters staff" and he has described the management of public parks exactly.  Most parks agencies are suffering from administrative bloat, with more people in headquarters than out in the field actually running parks.  When they have layoffs, it is always of field staff and not headquarters administrators.   In the parks world they will even ignore major maintenance needs in favor of making sure they have the funds to keep paying headquarters staff.

It is just absurd.  Of course, in my case, we make a business out of this.  We run public parks, and have 300 field employees actually in the parks and 2 in headquarters.  It allows us to cut costs while simultaneously doing a better job.

Obama's Demand for Wage Rules for Salaried Workers Will Have Far More Impact Than Proposed Minimum Wage Changes

The $10.10 minimum wage discussion has gotten a lot of attention.   But in 2011 only 3.8 million workers made at or below the minimum wage, and of these, at least half earn substantially more in reality through tips.

Obama's announcement yesterday that he wanted to substantially change the way salaried workers will likely have far more negative impacts on employment than his minimum wage proposals.

President Barack Obama is expected to order a rule change this week that would require employers to pay overtime to a larger number of salaried workers, two people familiar with the matter said.

Currently, many businesses aren't required to pay overtime to certain salaried workers if they earn more than $455 a week, a level that was set in 2004 and comes to roughly $24,000 a year. The White House is expected to direct the Labor Department to raise that salary threshold, though it is unclear by how much.

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, and Jared Bernstein, a former White House economist, recently proposed the limit be increased to $984 a week, or roughly $50,000 a year.

"That would mean between five- and 10-million people could be affected, but they might choose a lower number," Mr. Eisenbrey said about the White House plans.

5-10 million is potentially 3x or more the people affected by a minimum wage change.  But in some sense, this still underestimates the impact.  Here is one example.  Last year the average starting salary of college graduates is about $45,000.  The median is likely lower.  This means that over half of all college graduates going into the work force will be taking hourly jobs that used to be salaried.   Teachers will be hourly.  Budget analysts will be hourly.  Etc.

So all these folks are saying - Yeah!  I get overtime!   Wrong.  They will be eligible for overtime.  But companies will quickly restructure their work processes to make sure no one works overtime.  And since their new hires are working just a straight 40 hours (with mandatory unpaid lunch break time in CA), they will likely pay less.   If I am paying $40,000 a year for someone who will work extra hours for me, I am not going to pay that amount to someone just punching a time clock.  And the whole psychological relationship is changed - a salaried person is someone on the management team.  A person punching a timeclock may not be treated the same way.

Further, when someone gets switched from salary to hourly, they lose a minimum pay guarantee.  When I get a $3,500 a month offer, I know that no matter how slow things are, until I am fired I get $3500 a month.  There is a floor on my earnings.  As an hourly worker, my hours can be adjusted up or down constantly.  There is no floor at all.

Oh, and by the way, remember Obamacare?  The PPACA penalizes companies who do not provide a health plan that meets certain (expensive) criteria.  But that penalty is not applied for workers who are "part-time" or work less than 30 hours a week.  Salaried workers are automatically full time.  But once you convert all those people to hourly and make sure they are working no more than 40 hours a week, is it really so large a step to getting them under 30 hours a week?

PS-  Well, for those who think schools assign too much homework, this could well be the end of homework.  The most dangerous possible thing with hourly workers is to give them the ability to assign themselves unlimited overtime.  Teachers could do this at home with grading papers.  If I were a school, I would ban teachers from doing any grading or schoolwork prep at home -- after all, it's hourly and probably overtime and they could work unlimited hours at home and how would you get it under control?  The only way to manage it would be to ban it entirely.

PPS- What about travel?  Would you ever let workers paid hourly travel?  You would have to pay all the travel time and maybe part of the hotel time and there would be huge potential for ending up with overtime bills so better to just ban travel all together.  I know this seems knee-jerk to ban something that might impose a lot of extra labor costs seems extreme, but just look at California.  In California, employees have the right to a half-hour lunch break without work.  They can work through lunch if they choose, but courts have imposed enough onerous reporting standards around this that most companies (like mine) have just banned working through lunch.  It is a firing offense in my company, and in many others in CA, to be caught working during lunch.  We are going to see the same thing working from home.  In fact, we already see this, as there are class actions right now against companies who provided employees with cell phones saying that giving them a cell phone put them "on call" and subject to overtime hours that had to paid at home.  Companies are now making it a firing offense to take one's company cell phone home.

Sorry this post is so disorganized, but this initiative caught be by surprise and I have not been thinking about it for very long.  I will try to work out a more rigorous article in the next few weeks.

Two Business Realities I Underestimated in My Youth

1.  Its all about having the right people.  When I was in b-school, I honestly laughed at statements like this.  I thought it was new age bullsh*t.  I was totally enamored of quantitative analysis and business strategy.  After running a business for 10 years, I now know that people are everything.  Everything - our ability to grow, to handle difficult compliance issues, to work safely, to reduce costs - relies entirely on my finding the right people in the right spots.  Everything else is a rounding error.

2.  There is only a very limited number of things you can deploy to the field at any one time.  It took me a really long time to realize that my mind - in fact, any manager's mind - likely works way faster than the bandwidth that exists to actually deploy new things to the field.  Putting customer initiative X on hold because compliance issue Y needs to be deployed first is really frustrating, but trying to do too much means nothing gets done.

I would observe relative to #2 above that over the last few years the combination of the Feds + legislatures like in CA are generating new compliance issues faster than we can deploy solutions and train for them.   In California, we have put most all new customer initiatives on hold because we are simply overwhelmed with management and employee training relative to various local government mandates.

Conflict of Interest

By the way, there is a reason for this choice (from an article on why unions are worried about the PPACA)

The second problem is that the 40 percent excise tax on especially expensive plans — the so-called Cadillac tax — is going to hit union plans especially hard. Unlike most people negotiating compensation, union negotiators make an explicit trade-off between wages and other benefits, and the benefit that they seem most attached to is generous health plans. Union plans are made more expensive still because union membership is heavily skewed toward older workers. They are thus very likely to get hit by the Cadillac tax, which takes effect in 2018.

The preference for health benefits over cash compensation makes some sense for tax reasons (as it shifts taxable income to nontaxable income).  And at some level it is typical of union thinking, which is often driven by seniority and by benefits for older workers over younger workers.  But there is another reason for this that is almost never stated -- the unions themselves run many of these health plans.  And because it is priced as a monopoly, the unions often earn monopoly rents on these plans, and use management of large health plans to justify much higher compensation levels for union leaders.  In Wisconsin, ending public union strangleholds on health plan management immediately saved the state and various local school districts millions of dollars when they were allowed to competitively bid these functions for the first time.

It's Not A Just Revenue Problem in Arizona Parks, It's A Cost Problem

Former Arizona State Parks director Ken Travous takes to the editorial page of our local paper to criticize current park management and the Arizona legislature for not sending enough money to parks"

Things were looking pretty good, and I guess that’s the problem. In some odd kind of way, employing some type of sideways logic, the Legislature deemed that if State Parks is getting along well, it must be out of our control. So, after 15 years of parks acting like a business, the Legislature decided to act like a government and take their money. A little bit here and there in the beginning, to test the public reaction, and then in breathtaking swaths.

Heritage Fund ... gone. Enhancement fund ... swiped. General fund? No way. A $250,000 bequest? Oops, they caught us; better put it back.

State Parks now has a mountainous backlog of maintenance projects all because the Legislature would rather wholly own a failure than share a success. We need to put people in the halls that care about those things that we want our children to enjoy, and a governor who will stand in the breach when the next onslaught appears.

I agree with Travous that our parks could use some more funds.  But what Mr. Travous ignores is that the seeds of this problem were very much sown on his watch.

Travous points out that revenues in the parks expanded to nearly $10 million when he was in charge.  But left unsaid is that at the same time agency expenses on his watch ballooned to a preposterous $33 million a year**.  At every turn, Travous made decisions that increased the agency's costs.  For example, park rangers were all given law enforcement certifications, substantially increasing their pay and putting them all into the much more expensive law enforcement pension fund.  There is little evidence this was necessary -- Arizona parks generally are not hotbeds of crime -- but it did infuriate many customers as some rangers focused more on citation-writing than customer service.  There is a reason McDonald's doesn't write citations in their own parking lot.

What Mr. Travous fails to mention is that the parks were falling apart on his watch - even with these huge budgets - because he tended to spend money on just about anything other than maintaining current infrastructure.  Infrastructure maintenance is not sexy, and sexy projects like the Kartchner Caverns development (it is a gorgeous park) always seem to win out in government budgeting.  You can see why in this editorial -- Kartcher is his legacy, whereas bathroom maintenance is next to invisible.  I know deferred maintenance was accumulating during his tenure because Arizona State Parks itself used to say so.  Way back in 2009 I saw a book Arizona State Parks used with legislators.  It showed pictures of deteriorating parks, with notes that many of these locations had not been properly maintained for a decade.  The current management inherited this problem from previous leaders like Travous, it did not create it.

So where were those huge budgets going, if not to maintenance?  Well, for one, Travous oversaw a crazy expansion of the state parks headquarters staff.    When he left, there were about 150 people (possibly more, it is hard to count) on the parks headquarters staff.  This is almost the same number of full-time employees that were actually in the field maintaining parks.  As a comparison, our company runs public parks and campgrounds very similar to those in Arizona State Parks and we serve about the same number of visitors -- but we have only 1.5 people in headquarters, allowing us to put our resources on the ground in parks serving customers and performing maintenance.  None of the 100+ parks we operate have the same deferred maintenance problems that Arizona State Parks have, despite operating with less than a third of the budget that Travous had in his heyday.

I am not much of a political analyst, but my reading is that the legislature cut park funds because it lost confidence in the ability of Arizona State Parks to manage itself.   Did they really need to cut, say, $250,000 from parks to close a billion dollar budget hole?  Arizona State Parks had its budgets cut because the legislature did not think it was acting fiscally prudent, like cutting off a child's allowance after he has shown bad judgement.

I have met with current Director Bryan Martyn and much of the Arizona State Park staff.  Ken Travous is not telling them anything they do not know.  Of course they would like more funds to fix up their parks.  But they understand that before they can expect any such largess, they need to prove that Arizona State Parks will use its funds in a fiscally sensible manner.  And I get the impression that they are succeeding, that the legislature is gaining confidence in this agency.  The irony is that  Arizona State Parks will be able to grow and get more funds only when it has overcome the problems Travous left for them.


 ** Footnote:  Getting an actual budget number for ASP is an arduous task.  I once talked to a very smart local consultant named Grady Gammage who worked with parks and finally despaired of accurately laying out the budget and allocating it to tasks.  What this achieves is that it allows insiders to criticize anyone they want as being "misinformed" because almost any number one picks is wrong.   The $33 million figure comes from outside consulting reports.  The headcount numbers come from numbers the ASP information officer gave me several years ago.  Headcount numbers are different today but the ones above are relevant to the agency as it existed when Travous left.

How Did Obamacare Authors Ever Fool Themselves Into Believing They Were "Bending the Cost Curve" With These Kind of Incentives?

I guess I never really paid much attention to how the Obamacare "risk corridors" work.  These are the reinsurance program that were meant to equalize the risks of various insurers in the exchanges -- but as exchange customers prove to be less healthy than predicted, they are more likely to become a government subsidy program for insurers.

I never knew how they worked.  Check out the incentives here:

According to the text of Obamacare, the health law's risk corridors—the insurance industry backstop that’s been dubbed a bailout—are only supposed to last through 2016. For the first three years of the exchanges, insurers who spend 3 percent more on health costs than expected will be reimbursed by the federal government. It’s symmetrical, so insurers who spend less will pay in, but there’s no requirement that the program be revenue neutral

So what, exactly, are the incentives for cost control?  If you lose control of your costs, the government simply pays for the amount you overspent.  Combine this with the fact that Obamacare puts caps on insurer non-patient-cost overhead spending, and I don't think you are going to see a lot of passion for claims management and reduction.  Note after a point, excess claims do not hurt profits (via the risk corridor) but more money spent on claims reduction and management does reduce profits (due to the overhead caps).

Nice incentives.

Postscript:  There is one flaw with my analysis -- 3% is a LOT of money, at least historically, for health insurers.  Why?  Because their margins are so thin.  I know this will come as a surprise with all the Obama demonization of insurance profits, but health insurers make something like 3-5% of revenues as net income.  My Boston mother-in-law, who is a very reliable gauge of opinion on the Left, thinks I am lying to her when I say this, even when I show her the Google finance pages for insurers, so convinced is she by the NYT and PBS that health insurer profits consume a huge portion of health care spending.

All that being said, I am pretty sure if I were an insurer, I could raise prices slightly, cut back on claims overhead, and make a guaranteed profit all while the government absorbs larger and larger losses.

Why Do We Manage Water Via Command and Control? And Is It Any Surprise We Are Constantly Having Shortages?

In most commodities that we consume,  market price signals serve to match supply and demand. When supplies are short, rising prices send producers looking for new supplies and consumers to considering conservation measures.  All without any top-down intervention by the state.  All without any coercion or tax money.

But for some reason water is managed differently.  Water prices never rise and fall with shortages -- we have been told in Phoenix for years that Lake Powell levels are dropping due to our water use but our water prices never change.  Further, water has become a political football, such that favored uses (farmers historically, but more recently environmental uses such as fish spawning) get deep subsidies.  You should see the water-intensive crops that are grown in the desert around Phoenix, all thanks to subsidized water to a favored constituency.   As a result, consumers use far more water than they might in any given year, and have no natural incentive to conserve when water becomes particularly dear, as it is in California.

So, when water is short, rather than relying on the market, politicians step in with command and control steps.  This is from an email I just received from state senator Fran Pavley in CA:

Senator Pavley said the state should consider measures that automatically take effect when a drought is declared to facilitate a more coordinated statewide response.

“We need a cohesive plan around the state that recognizes the problem,” Pavley said at a committee hearing. “It’s a shared responsibility no matter where you live, whether you are an urban user or an agricultural user.”

Measures could include mandatory conservation, compensation for farmers to fallow land, restrictions on the use of potable water for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), coordinated publicity campaigns for conservation, increased groundwater management, and incentives for residents to conserve water. Senator Pavley noted that her hometown Las Virgenes Municipal Water District is offering rebates for customers who remove lawns, install rain barrels or take other actions to conserve water.

Pavley also called for the state to create more reliable, sustainable supplies through strategies such as capturing and re-using stormwater and dry weather runoff, increasing the use of recycled water and cleaning up polluted groundwater basins.

Note the command and control on both sides of the equation, using taxpayer resources for new supply projects and using government coercion to manage demand.  Also, for bonus points, notice the Senator's use of the water shortage as an excuse to single out and punish private activity (fracking) she does not like.

All of this goes to show exactly why the government does not want a free market in water and would like to kill the free market in everything else:  because it gives them so much power.  Look at Ms. Pavley, and how much power she is grabbing for herself with the water shortage as an excuse.  Yesterday she was likely a legislative nobody.  Today she is proposing massive infrastrure spending and taking onto herself the power to pick winners and losers (farmers, I will pay you not to use water; frackers, you just have to shut down).  All the winners will show their gratitude next election cycle.  And all the losers will be encouraged to pay protection money so that next time around, they won't be the chosen victims.