I am on the road for a week long trip combining business (visits to some parks the government wants us to manage), college interviews, and baseball camps (the latter two for my son). I will end up staying in or driving through Virginia, W. Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
Posts tagged ‘New Jersey’
Wiretaps and government surveillance is on the rise, and it has little to do with terrorism. The failed war on drugs continues to be the main excuse for assaults on privacy:
State and federal investigators obtained 3,194 wiretap orders in 2010, an increase of 34 percent over the previous year, and a whopping 168 percent increase over 2000. Only one wiretap application was denied—which you can choose to take as evidence that law enforcement is extremely scrupulous in seeking applications, or that judges tend to rubber stamp them, according to your preferred level of paranoia. Just half the states reported any wiretaps, and nearly 68 percent of the total 1,987 state wiretaps were attributable to just three states: California, New York and New Jersey....
Still, this invasive technique is still reserved for investigating the most serious violent crimes, right? Alas, no: For 84 percent of wiretap applications (2,675 wiretaps), the most serious offense under investigation involved illegal drugs. Further proof, if proof were needed, that privacy suffers enormous collateral damage in our failed drug war. Drugs have long been the reason for the vast majority of wiretaps, but that trend, too, is on the upswing: Drug cases accounted for “just” 75 percent of intercept orders in 2000.
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 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.
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.
I almost never comment on horserace politics, so I had just three thoughts this morning:
- 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?"
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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 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.
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
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
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!
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."
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
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
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.
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 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.
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
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.
I read an interesting article in the NY Times, via Marginal Revolution, interviewing the CEO of homebuilder Toll Brothers about housing prices. His assertion was:
"In Britain you pay seven times your annual income for a home; in the U.S. you
pay three and a half." The British get 330 square feet, per person, in their
homes; in the U.S., we get 750 square feet. Not only does Toll say he believes
the next generation of buyers will be paying twice as much of their annual
incomes; in terms of space, he also seems to think they're going to get only
half as much. "And that average, million-dollar insane home in the burbs? It's
going to be $4 million."
I don't necessarily buy this whole story. For one, Mr. Toll has business reasons for taking a public position that prices will keep rising - after all, his customers buy his product in part as an investment, and would be leery about paying current prices if they thought prices might fall in the future. Second, as I have talked about a number of times with petroleum, when prices of any product start to rise, observers always tend to underestimate market and technology responses that might bring supply more into balance.
However, the one exception I did make in my oil price posts was that government supply restrictions, both on lands that can be explored for oil as well as things like refinery permitting, may indeed put structural upward pressure on prices. And in fact, this is where Mr. Toll puts the blame for high housing prices as well:
Toll agrees with Glaeser et
al. that the key force driving up prices is zoning and growth regulations.
In New Jersey it now takes Toll Brothers up to two million dollars in legal fees
and ten years in time to get the permits necessary to build.
Which got me thinking that home owners (of which I am one) may be the worst rent-seekers of all. Most people are already familiar with the very large tax breaks for home buyers, in the form of the mortgage interest tax deduction, that is not available to people who rent or to people who borrow for purposes other than home purchase. However, it may be that a much larger implicit subsidy to home-owners is the government restrictions on new home supply. By restricting supply, the government is keeping prices up for current home-owners and restricting new entrants who might compete with our homes in the resale market.
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.
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.
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.
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.