Posts tagged ‘obama’

Yet Another Absurd Obamacare-Related Requirement: Business Oaths

This is just sick, via Fox News and Bryan Preston

Consider what administration officials announcing the new exemption for medium-sized employers had to say about firms that might fire workers to get under the threshold and avoid hugely expensive new requirements of the law. Obama officials made clear in a press briefing that firms would not be allowed to lay off workers to get into the preferred class of those businesses with 50 to 99 employees. How will the feds know what employers were thinking when hiring and firing? Simple. Firms will be required to certify to the IRS – under penalty of perjury – that ObamaCare was not a motivating factor in their staffing decisions. To avoid ObamaCare costs you must swear that you are not trying to avoid ObamaCare costs. You can duck the law, but only if you promise not to say so.

As I have written about before, our company closed some California operations in December and laid off all the employees.  As with most business closures, we had multiple reasons for the closure.  The biggest problems were the local regulatory issues in Ventura County that made it impossible to make even simple improvements to the facilities.  But certainly looking ahead at costs soon to be imposed due to looming California minimum wage increases and the employer mandate contributed to the decision.

So, did I fire the workers over Obamacare?  If Obamacare were, say, 10% of the cause, would I be lying if I said I did not fire workers over Obamacare?  Or does it need to be 51% of the cause?  Or 1%?    Or 90%.  Business decisions are seldom based on single variables.  I am just exhausted with having my life run by people whose only experience with the real world was sitting in policy seminars at college.

Update:  The actual effect of this will not likely be to change business behavior, but change how they talk about it.  Worried that there will be too many stories next election about job losses due to Obamacare, the Administration is obviously cooking up ways not to limit the job losses, but to limit discussion of them.

The Real Health Insurance Shock Is Coming Next Fall

Obviously, the whole Obamacare implementation is in disarray.  Some of this I expected -- the policy cancellations -- and some of it I did not -- the horrendous systems implementation.  But I actually thought that most of this would be swept under the rug by a willing media.

What I really expected was for the true shock to come next fall.  And I think it is still coming.  I believe that despite rate increases, insurers are likely being overly optimistic about how much adverse selection and cost control issues they are going to have.  As a result, I expected, and still expect, huge premium increases in the fall of 2014.

Why?  The main benefit of Obamacare is for people who cannot afford health insurance but want it, and for people who are very sick and have lost their insurance.   Obamacare is a terrible plan as implemented because it futzes with virtually everything in the health care system when a more limited plan could have achieved the same humanitarian coverage goals.

Anyway, one reason Obamacare is so comprehensive is that it is based on a goal of cost control for the whole system.  Unfortunately, most all of its cost control goals are faulty.  From Megan McArdle, in an amazing article covering a huge range of Obamacare issues:

But I think it’s also clearly true that the majority of the public did not understand this. In 2008, the Barack Obama campaign told them that their premiums would go down under the new health-care law. And the law’s supporters believed it.

Q. Obama says his plan will save $2,500 annually for my family. How?

A. Through a combination of developing efficiencies in the system, expanding coverage to all Americans, and picking up the cost of some high-cost cases. Specifically:

-- Health IT investment, which will reduce unnecessary and wasteful spending in the health care system. Examples include extra hospital stays because of preventable medical errors and duplicative diagnostic tests;

-- Improving prevention and management of chronic conditions;

-- Increasing insurance industry competition and reining in the abusive practices of monopoly insurance and drug companies;

-- Providing reinsurance for catastrophic cases, which will reduce insurance premiums; and

-- Ensuring every American has health coverage, which will reduce spending on the “uncompensated” care of uninsured people who end up in emergency rooms and whose care is picked up by institutions and then passed through higher charges to insured individuals.

The part about reinsurance was always nonsense; unless it’s subsidized, reinsurance doesn’t save money for the system, though it may reduce the risk that an individual company will go broke. But the rest of it all sounded entirely plausible; I heard many smart wonks make most of these arguments in 2008 and 2009. However, it’s fair to say that by the time the law passed, the debate had pretty well established that few to none of them were true. “We all knew” that preventive care doesn’t save money, electronic medical records don’t save money, reducing uncompensated care saves very little money, and “reining in the abusive practices” of insurance companies was likely to raise premiums, not lower them, because those “abuses” mostly consist of refusing to cover very sick people.

The result?  Many of these things that supposedly reduced costs actually increase them.  So if you think the shock is high now, wait until next fall.  We will see:

  • Rates going up
  • Less choice, as insurers pull out of many local markets
  • Narrowing of doctors networks, and reduced choice in doctors
  • Companies dropping health care and dumping workers (and retirees if they can get away with it) into the exchanges and Medicare.

Cat's Out of the Bag

This story has pretty much shifted from "I predict" to "I told you so" to "duh."  But everyone from Karl Rove to the Teamsters now recognize that Obamacare is on a path to destroying full-time employment in the retail service sector.  Via the WSJ, in an editorial by Rove:

These union heads charged that unless Mr. Obama enacts "an equitable fix," the Affordable Care Act "will shatter not only our hard-earned health benefits, but destroy the foundation of the 40-hour work week."...

Union leaders are correct that ObamaCare "creates an incentive to keep employees' work hours below 30 hours a week." After all, employers can avoid a $2,000-per-worker fine if they don't provide insurance as long as employees work fewer than 30 hours a week. Union leaders have realized—too late—that ObamaCare will affect the livelihood of millions of workers who wait tables, wash dishes, clean hotels, man registers, stock shelves and perform other tasks that can be limited to shifts of less than 30 hours a week. The White House take on this concern? Press Secretary Jay Carney said it "is belied by the facts."

But the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that, in 2010, the year ObamaCare passed, full-time employment grew at an average monthly rate of 114,000 while part-time employment dropped an average of 6,000 a month. So far this year, as ObamaCare is being implemented, full-time employment has grown at an average monthly rate of 21,700 while part-time employment has increased an average of 93,000 a month.

Message to Obama: Respecting the Rule of Law includes respecting the Constitution

I have been on the road with business, and working on a fairly big announcement for next week, so I have been slow in keeping up with the emerging NSA scandal.  I want to give a few brief thoughts on Obama's defense of extensive NSA data gathering.  Obama said:

That’s not to suggest that, you know, you just say, trust me, we’re doing the right thing, we know who the bad guys are. And the reason that’s not how it works is because we’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight. And if people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.

  1. I don't trust any of the three branches of government.  You know what, neither did many of the folks who wrote the Constitution
  2. The involvement of the three branches of government in this issue boil down to less than two dozen people:  the President, a subset of the 15 members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a subset of the 11 judges (3?) on the FISA court, which has demonstrated pretty conclusively that they will approve any warrant no matter how absurdly broad
  3. Non-specific warrants that basically cover open-ended data gathering on every single person in the country, with no particular suspect or target named, are clearly un-Constitutional.  "and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."  I would love to know what probable cause the NSA cited to seized Warren Meyer's Verizon call records.  20 Washington insiders cannot change the Constitution -- that requires a vote of 3/4 of the states.
  4. Obama has stopped even pretending to care about the Constitution, an amazing fact given that he is nominally a Constitutional professor
  5. Partisan hypocrisy has never been clearer, as traditional defenders of civil liberties and opponents of the Patriot Act like Al Franken rush to defend the NSA spying (thank God for Linsey Graham, who can be counted on to be a consistent authoritarian).  Democrats and Republicans have basically switched sides on the issue.

When assessing any new government power, imagine your worst political enemy wielding the power and make your judgement of the powers' appropriateness based on that worst-case scenario.  Clearly, though, no one can see past the occupant of the White House. with Coke party members backing powers for Coke Presidents but opposing them for Pepsi Presidents and vice-versa.

How Freedom Dies

This way:

For four years, Mr. Obama has benefited at least in part from the reluctance of Mr. Bush’s most virulent critics to criticize a Democratic president. Some liberals acknowledged in recent days that they were willing to accept policies they once would have deplored as long as they were in Mr. Obama’s hands, not Mr. Bush’s.

“We trust the president,” former Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan said on Current TV. “And if this was Bush, I think that we would all be more up in arms because we wouldn’t trust that he would strike in a very targeted way and try to minimize damage rather than contain collateral damage.”

Dear Ms. Granholm, I have a clue for you:  You have allowed the precedent to be set, which means everyone in the future who occupies the White House will claim this same power, whether you trust them or not.  I personally think you are insane to have some special trust that Obama is minimizing collateral damage, particularly given his Orwellian refusal to acknowledge innocent deaths as innocent.  What is he doing, steering the drones himself?   But it is more insane to give the government power solely because the person who occupies the White House this micro-second is someone in whom you have particular faith.  What happens in the next micro-second?  Sorry, doesn't matter, it will be too late.

Weird, Who Would Have Predicted This?

I wrote on the day of Obama's inauguration:

I will be suitably thrilled if the Obama administration renounces some of the creeping executive power grabs of the last 16 years, but he has been oddly silent about this.  It seems that creeping executive power is a lot more worrisome when someone else is in power.

From Charlie Savage in the New York Times:

As a senator and presidential candidate, he had criticized George W. Bush for flouting the role of Congress. And during his first two years in the White House, when Democrats controlled Congress, Mr. Obama largely worked through the legislative process to achieve his domestic policy goals.

But increasingly in recent months, the administration has been seeking ways to act without Congress. Branding its unilateral efforts “We Can’t Wait,” a slogan that aides said Mr. Obama coined at that strategy meeting, the White House has rolled out dozens of new policies — on creating jobs for veterans, preventing drug shortages, raising fuel economy standards, curbing domestic violence and more.

Each time, Mr. Obama has emphasized the fact that he is bypassing lawmakers. When he announced a cut in refinancing fees for federally insured mortgages last month, for example, he said: “If Congress refuses to act, I’ve said that I’ll continue to do everything in my power to act without them.”

Coyote's Pre-Response to Obama's Budget Speech

No, Mr. Obama, the fecklessness of politicians does not obligate me to send more of my money to the government.

Three times in my life I have lent money to people in serious financial straits.  In every case, they came back to me for more.  "X more dollars and I will be home free and can pay you back."  In a few cases I came up with a second infusion and in one case I (embarrassingly) actually gave money a third time.   In no case was I ever paid back.    I haven't heard this phrase in years, but when I was young stock investors had a saying -- "your first loss is your best loss."  This was just another way of saying don't throw good money after bad.

Obama and Bush (I haven't forgotten your culpability in all this George) sold the country, or at least Congress, on emergency spending for wars and bailouts and stimulus.  This was supposedly one-time spending only for the duration of the emergency.  But now Democrats and Obama are treating the peak of this emergency spending as the new baseline, from which cuts are impossible.

This lack of desire to cut spending and a resetting of norms as to "what is normal" is not just a government problem, it is endemic to every organization.  Private organizations face this problem all the time.  The difference is that when times go bad, private organizations do not have fiat taxation power, so that when they are underwater, they must cut bloated budgets or die.  Either way, the problem goes away.  Private companies differ from government not in that they don't have problems with beauracracy and risk aversion and deadwood and bloat and bad incentives - because they do.  The difference is that private companies cannot get away with allowing this stuff to linger forever, and governments can.

Government will never, ever, ever, ever cut spending unless all hope of new taxes is removed, and even then they will likely try to cut spending on the most, rather than the least, popular programs to build public support for more taxes.

In the early 90's, after the fall of the Soviet Union, we talked about a peace dividend from reductions in military spending.  I want a sanity dividend.

Postscript: We like to think that financial problems are due to bad luck, but they usually are due to poor management.  The guy I lost the most money with was producing a really interesting boat concept, basically as fun and lithe and fast as a jetski but enclosed so boaters who were less daring would not actually be in contact with the water.  I wanted a bunch for rental service at our marinas.  But he kept asking for money, saying that he had bad luck with this supplier or that supplier.  Eventually, I found out he was in this incredibly expensive commercial lease, and was burning all the money I lent him on useless rent payments.  Stupid.

After I graduated from college, I cashed in about $7000 in savings bonds I had accumulated.  I was going to make a fortune in the market.  After three years I had lost almost all of it -- right in the heart of one of the greatest bull markets in history!  A few years later, I was in a situation where I could have really used this money.  This was not bad luck or circumstances, I did stupid things.  I recognized something that many dentists and doctors never learn - it was possible to be a smart guy who sucked at investing.  I was one of them.  My investing has been in index funds ever since.

Obama Presidency at Year 2

I must say I am feeling pretty good about my comments from Inauguration Day two years ago.  Here is an excerpt of what I wrote:

Folks are excited about Obama because, in essence, they don't know what he stands for, and thus can read into him anything they want.  Not since the breathless coverage of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault has there been so much attention to something where we had no idea of what was inside.  My bet is that the result with Obama will be the same as with the vault.There is some sort of weird mass self-hypnosis going on, made even odder by the fact that a lot of people seem to know they are hypnotized, at least at some level.  I keep getting shushed as I make fun of friends' cult behavior watching the proceedings today, as if by jiggling someone's elbow too hard I might break the spell.  Never have I seen, in my lifetime, so much emotion invested in a politician we know nothing about.   I guess I am just missing some gene that makes the rest of humanity receptive to this kind of stuff, but just for a minute snap your fingers in front of your face and say "do I really expect a fundamentally different approach from a politician who won his spurs in "¦. Chicago?  Do I really think the ultimate political outsider is going to be the guy who bested everyone at their own game in the Chicago political machine?"

Well, the spell will probably take a while to break in the press, if it ever does "” Time Magazine is currently considering whether it would be possible to put Obama on the cover of all 52 issues this year "” but thoughtful people already on day 1 should have evidence that things are the same as they ever were, just with better PR.   For God sakes, as his first expenditure of political capital, Obama is pushing for a trillion dollar government spending bill that is basically one big pork-fest that might make even Ted Stevens blush, a hodge-podge of every wish-list of leftish lobbyists that has been building up for eight years.  I will be suitably thrilled if the Obama administration renounces some of the creeping executive power grabs of the last 16 years, but he has been oddly silent about this.  It seems that creeping executive power is a lot more worrisome when someone else is in power.

To this last point, the recent recommendations by the Center for American Progress to Obama are pretty chilling.

[The] Center for American Progress today is releasing a report, "Power of the President," proposing 30 executive actions the president can take to advance progressive change in the areas of energy, the economy, health care, education, foreign policy, and national security. "The following authorities can be used to ensure progress on key issues facing the country today: Executive orders, Rulemaking, Agency management, Convening and creating public-private partnerships , Commanding the armed forces, Diplomacy.

The New York Times fleshes out these proposals with some suggestions about policy changes across the board. The ideology of George Soros shines through the Center's report as it justifies this forceful approach to circumvent Congress when it states that:

[The] legislative battles that Mr. Obama waged during his first two years "“ notably on health care and financial regulatory reform "“ have created a weariness among the general public with the process of making laws. And it hints it has not helped Mr. Obama politically in the process.

In other words, when Congress passed a variety of laws Americans became dismayed by the horse-trading and bribes that were resorted to by Democrats to impose these policies on us. Instead of compromise and listening to the American people, Soros counsels that more forceful measures should be used to override the will of the American people.

Obama: Only 2 Years Behind Random Bloggers

Me, in January 2009:

But there is an even better reason why the stimulus bill will never work:   it is simply impossible to break ground on any new government construction project in less than a year.A year from now, any truly new incremental project in the stimulus bill will still be sitting on some planners desk with unfinished environmental impact assessments, the subject of arguments between multiple government agencies, tied up in court with environmental or NIMBY challenges, snarled in zoning fights, subject to conflicts between state, county, and city governments, or all of the above.  Most of the money will have been spent by planners, bureaucrats, and lawyers, with little to show for in actual facilities.

Obama, in October 2010

In the magazine article, Mr. Obama reflects on his presidency, admitting that he let himself look too much like "the same old tax-and-spend Democrat," realized too late that "there's no such thing as shovel-ready projects"

How smart can the guy be if it takes him two years to figure out what random schmoes like me thought was obvious?

In A Recession, Obama Presses Chinese to Raise Prices to the Poor and Middle Class

Consider this story in the context of my previous post on the poor having a lower inflation rate due  in part of the effects of Wal-Mart and Chinese -made goods:

President Obama increased pressure on China to immediately revalue its currency on Thursday, devoting most of a two-hour meeting with China's prime minister to the issue and sending the message, according to one of his top aides, that if "the Chinese don't take actions, we have other means of protecting U.S. interests."...

The unusual focus on this single issue at such a high level was clearly an effort by the White House to make the case that Mr. Obama was putting American jobs and competitiveness at the top of the agenda in a relationship that has endured strains in recent weeks on everything from territorial disputes to sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

Democrats in Congress are threatening to pass legislation before the midterm elections that would slap huge tariffs on Chinese goods to undermine the advantages Beijing has enjoyed from a currency, the renminbi, that experts say is artificially weakened by 20 to 25 percent.

Somehow this was written with words like "competitiveness" and "artificially weakened" to hide the fact that what we are talking about is raising prices to American consumers (by as much as 20-25%, one infers from the last paragraph).  Not only would this make Chinese goods more expensive, but it would reduce the downward price pressure on goods made elsewhere.

Which of course is the whole point, because this is a narrow special interest issue putting a few vocal industries interests over those of the broader group of American consumers.  How many of us are consumers?  How many of us work for service and manufacturing and retail businesses that buy Chinese goods?   Now, how many of us work for a product business that competes directly with Chinese manufacturers?  The first two groups dwarf the second, but Obama is just as beholden to these interests as was Bush.

Huh?

From the NY Times, I am having a hard time reconciling these statements from the same article:

First statement:

The law provides a partial exemption for certain health plans in existence on March 23, when Mr. Obama signed the legislation. Under this provision, known as a grandfather clause, plans can lose the exemption if they make significant changes in deductibles, co-payments or benefits.

About half of employer-sponsored health plans will see such changes by the end of 2013, the administration says in an economic analysis of the rules.

Second statement:

About 133 million Americans are in group health plans from employers with 100 or more employees, the administration said, and most "will not see major changes to their coverage as a result of this regulation."

My translation:  Yes, you will lose your current health plan despite Obama's promises, but he doesn't want you to realize this until 2013, conveniently just after the next presidential election.

Funniest Quote of the Week, Maybe the Year

This is truly hilarious, from our President via the WSJ:

From the outset, the White House's core claim was that reform would reduce health costs for individuals and businesses, and they're sticking to that story. "Anyone who says otherwise simply hasn't read the bills," Mr. Obama said over the weekend. This is so utterly disingenuous that we doubt the President really believes it.

This is hilarious.  Not only had few people been able to slog through the old 2000+ page bill, but Harry Reid threw the whole thing out and substituted a double secret replacement bill on Saturday the NO ONE has read, Obama included.  So this statement is technically true, but reverse statement is also equally true - "anyone who agrees with the President simply hasn't read the bill, either."

Will Work for Food

I was reading through some leftish/alarmist environmental blogs, and I was struck by how many desperately want to buy into the story line that poorer nations are the true heroes of Copenhagen, holding the rich nations feet to the fire so they will commit to deeper CO2 cuts.

Really?  A bunch of dictators who demonstrably have little concern for their citizens and spend most of their time trying to figure out how to divert state funds into their Swiss bank accounts suddenly care about the effects of anthropogenic climate change on their nations?  Hugo Chavez, whose nation currently is avoiding following Zimbabwe down the toilet only by its oil revenues really wants the world to wean itself off oil?

Here is the perfect analogy for the Third World's sudden interest in climate:  The "I will work for food" sign.  Beggers learned that (at least for a while) this sign was a good marketing tool.  They had no intention of doing any work  (I had a friend who used to drive up to all of them and offer them landscaping work in exchange for lunch, always to be turned down flat) but they knew it made potential donors more sympathetic -  see, they really want to work but are just down on their luck.   If you haven't seen the movie Interstate 60, you really need to.  Relevant clip below:

This is exactly the equivalent of the Third World's sudden interest in climate change.  Up to this point, their leaders have shown no interest in stopping the raping of their own local ecosystems.  These guys are certainly not conservationists, but they know a good marketing tool.  Copenhagen is about these guys putting their hands out, and using climate as the marketing tool to soften up their marks in the West.  These nations certainly have no intention of having any targets or restrictions placed on their countries.   And it looks like they may succeed, at least in the treaty phase.

Obama has positioned himself in such a way that he feels that he has to have something he can call a win at Copenhagen.  So he goes to the politician's traditional playbook, which is to use taxpayer money to buy a deal to try to make himself look better.  He is working to do this with the passage of the health care bill and he probably will do this in Copenhagen, agreeing to $100 billion a year in payoffs to third world kleptocracies so he can look like a winner to western socialists.

Yes, It's a Tax

Obama continues to deny that the health insurance mandate which is backed with a penalty to be collected by the IRS is a "tax."  He says "For us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase."  Three responses:

  1. Asking people to take individual responsibility for their health care expenses is not a tax.  Asking them to do so via a particular method, in this case the purchase of an insurance policy rather than, say, just paying expenses as they go, is a tax.
  2. Obama might argue that since people are getting value for the policy they have to buy, there is not net tax but just a (forced) exchange of value.  But this is the classic technocratic fault, to assume that the central planner's definition of value is the same as every individuals.  But its not.  Many folks don't get value from a policy, which is why they don't buy one today
  3. Even if Obama were right in #2, he would still be wrong given the rules embedded in this bill.  Young, healthy people will be forced to subsidize the old and those with pre-existing conditions by the rules imposed on insurance companies.  These rules effectively make it impossible to charge full cost to the old and sick, so that the young and the healthy will have to pay more.  Because the young and the healthy will not see values in policies at the prices they will be paying (given these transfers), they won't value the policy with is EXACTLY why the law has to force them to buy it.  Which is why it is a tax.

John Stoessel via Carpe Diem

Competition is a "discovery procedure," Nobel-prize-winning economist F. A. Hayek taught. Through the competitive market process, we producers and consumers constantly learn things that force us to adjust our behavior if we are to succeed. Central planners fail for two reasons:

First, knowledge about supply, demand, individual preferences and resource availability is scattered -- much of it never articulated -- throughout society. It is not concentrated in a database where a group of planners can access it.

Second, this "data" is dynamic: It changes without notice. No matter how honorable the central planners' intentions, they will fail because they cannot know the needs and wishes of 300 million different people. And if they somehow did know their needs, they wouldn't know them tomorrow.

You Can Officially Ignore All Future Administration Jobs Numbers

Because when they defend this practice, they put themselves on record that they have absolutely no integrity in the process:

About two-thirds of the 14,506 jobs claimed to be saved under one federal office, the Administration for Children and Families at Health and Human Services, actually weren't saved at all, according to a review of the latest data by The Associated Press. Instead, that figure includes more than 9,300 existing employees in hundreds of local agencies who received pay raises and benefits and whose jobs weren't saved....

But officials defended the practice of counting raises as saved jobs.

"If I give you a raise, it is going to save a portion of your job," HHS spokesman Luis Rosero said....

More than 250 other community agencies in the U.S. similarly reported saving jobs when using the money to give pay raises, to pay for training and continuing education, to extend employee work hours or to buy equipment, according to their spending reports.

Uh, right.  So does this mean that the Administration's pay Czar is destroying jobs by reducing salaries?  Seems like one would have to take this position to be consistent.  And wasn't, by the same logic, AIG actually creating jobs with the now-infamous bonuses earlier this year?

And by the way, it seems like those ACORN-like community organizers are returning the favors Obama has extended them by applying to the jobs reporting system their famously rigorous accounting standards they bring to their own finances as well as to voter registration .

Other tidbits from the article are also priceless:

President Barack Obama's economic recovery program saved 935 jobs at the Southwest Georgia Community Action Council, an impressive success story for the stimulus plan. Trouble is, only 508 people work there.

There is also another impression one gets from the article, other than seeing all the fraud, they is not highlighted by the reporter -- all of the jobs created seem to be government bureaucrat jobs or community group jobs.  Not one example of jobs actually producing something someone is willing to buy.  Except maybe for this example:

How did Kentucky shoe store owner Buddy Moore save nine jobs with just $889.60 in federal stimulus money? He didn't, and that's turning into a big headache for him.

Moore's store in Campbellsville, Ky., filed one of 156,614 reports from recipients of stimulus dollars designed to show how money from the $787 billion program is being spent, and how many jobs the funds have created or saved.

Moore's slice of the stimulus came in an $889.60 order from the Army Corps of Engineers for nine pairs of work boots for a stimulus project....

Paula Moore-Kirby...couldn't work out how to answer the question about how many jobs her father had created or saved. She couldn't leave it blank, either, she said. After several calls to a helpline for recipients she came away with the impression that she would hear back if there was a problem with her response, and have a chance to correct it. So with 15 minutes to go before the reporting deadline, she sent in her answer: nine jobs, because her father helped nine members of the Corps to work.

We Won't Play Politics With GM...

...except when we do.  I think everyone pretty much assumed that Obama's promise of treating GM like a real business and not as a political plaything was BS from the start, particularly when Congress started intervening in dealer-closure decisions about 5 seconds after the promise left Obama's lips.

Henry Payne has a roundup of Congressional micro-management at GM.  One example:

Chrysler and GM have moved aggressively to cut their transportation costs, effecting Teamster jobs and riling the union's political friends. Chrysler, for example, will save 25 percent of its $111 million annual hauling budget by transferring to lower-cost carriers. But Michigan reps from both sides of the aisle are unimpressed, reports the Detroit News. "Relatively minor short-term cost savings generated by shifting this work to non-unionized companies is greatly outweighed by the elimination of good-paying, union middle-class jobs," complains Michigan Republican Thaddeus McCotter.

What do "good-paying" trucking jobs have anything to do with GM's health?

Do Consumers Get Excited About Sales They Don't Qualify For?

Tiffany's is (hypothetically) handing out coupons for 50% off diamond necklaces.  This generates a lot of press, but you do not get a coupon.  Are you, without a coupon, more likely to buy a necklace anyway given all the publicity?  Or is your behavior unchanged, because you received no inventive?  Or are you perhaps less likely to buy, with the full retail price you would be paying now seeming higher as compared to the 50% off others are getting?

This issue seems to be at the heart of the conflict between the Obama administration and Edmunds.com (what is it about this administration and picking battles with media companies?)  In their analysis, Edmunds said that only about 250,000 of the auto sales during the cash-for-clunkers period were incremental.  The White House says they are underestimating, because even people who did not qualify for the program bought more cars because of the program:

The White House said [totally great car-buying, car-selling, and all-around-awesome-info site for every goddamn great and awful car website] Edmunds based its analysis on the "implausible" assumption that "the market for cars that didn't qualify for cash for clunkers was completely unaffected by this program. In other words, all the other cars were being sold on Mars, while the rest of the country was caught up in the excitement of the cash for clunkers program."...

Edmunds stands by its analysis.

"Instead of shooting the messenger, government officials should take heart from the core message of the analysis: The fundamentals of the auto marketplace are improving faster than the current sales numbers suggest," [Edmunds jefe Jeremy] Anwyl wrote.

The central issue, Anwyl said, "is how many of these sales would have occurred anyway. Apparently, the $24,000 figure caught many by surprise. It shouldn't have. The truth is that consumer incentive programs are always hugely expensive when calculated by incremental sales -- always in the tens of thousands of dollars."

Edmunds rejected the White House suggestion that people got caught up in the excitement of the program and bought cars, even if they didn't qualify. And it discarded the notion that automakers boosted production solely because of the program.

"No manufacturer increases production, a decision with long-term consequences, based on the 30-day sales blip triggered by an event like cash for clunkers," Edmunds wrote.

Its an interesting question.  I would tend to come down on Edmunds' side from my own experience running promotions, but it is not totally cut and dried.  I can think of at least two examples where a discount to person A yields more sales to person B, but neither are really applicable here

  • Example 1:  Ladies night.  Cheap drinks for the ladies bring in male customers, on the theory that that are looking for bars with, frankly, lots of drunk women
  • Example 2:  Kids eat free.  Restaurants have programs with discounted or free kids meals to get their parent's business

I think one could actually make the argument that people who did not get the clunker discount would be less likely to buy, as its really hard to buy something for X when you know all the people around you are getting it for (X-$3000)**.  This isn't an absolute rule - after all, people fly all the time next to folks who paid more or less for the same service.  But I do think it is a psychological issue that would tend to offset the general excitement around the program.  In the end, we won't have to guess, once we get sales data for the rest of the year and we can see if clunkers merely moved sales forward a few months or generated incremental sales.

**  As shown here, cash for clunkers amounted to about a $3000 subsidy per buyer, above and beyond the blue book value of the car turned in.

Moral Hazard Continued at GMAC

From the AZ Republic:

GMAC, the former lending arm of General Motors Co., is in talks with the Treasury Department for a third injection of taxpayer aid, a further sign of the U.S. government's entrenchment in the U.S. auto industry.

The Treasury Department mandated earlier this year that GMAC Financial Services raise an additional $11.5 billion in capital after undergoing a "stress test" along with 18 other banks. While other banks deemed undercapitalized have been able to raise funds from private investors, GMAC has been forced to go back to the government.

Maybe the reason no one but Obama will give GMAC any money is that they know that every time GMAC gets any money, it simply starts shoveling it at every car buyer who walks within shouting distance of a dealership and can fog a mirror.

Immediately after GMAC became eligible for TARP money, GM reduced to zero the interest rate"¦ on certain models. ...

GMAC has begun making loans to borrowers with credit scores as low as 621, a significant relaxation of the 700 minimum score the company adopted just three months ago as it struggled to survive. America's median credit score is 723"¦

GMAC is a giant ponzi scheme to subsidize car sales.  Ponzi schemes last only so long as there is a sucker to keep putting in money.  No private funds are that dumb, but fortunately for GMAC there is the Obama administration.

Government Strongarm Tactics in the Chrysler Bankrupcy

This is an interesting video from the State Treasurer of Indiana about his state's experience as a secured creditor of Chrysler, and how their legal claims were pushed aside as the Administration moved more politically-favored constituencies (e.g the UAW) ahead of the secured creditors in line.

One side issue here.  Early in the video he explains that the State of Indiana held a lot of Chrysler bonds because Chrysler is a big employer and they try to support companies with a big footprint in the state.

Isn't that terrible risk management policy, closely akin to Enron employees putting all of their savings in Enron stock?  If Chrysler goes down, this means loss of investment returns in key retirement funds at the same time there is a large loss of tax money that will likely be the source of replacement funds.

Great Suggestion

Brad Warbiany has a great suggestion in response to new FTC rules requiring that

Under the revised Guides, advertisements that feature a consumer and convey his or her experience with a product or service as typical when that is not the case will be required to clearly disclose the results that consumers can generally expect. In contrast to the 1980 version of the Guides "“ which allowed advertisers to describe unusual results in a testimonial as long as they included a disclaimer such as "results not typical" "“ the revised Guides no longer contain this safe harbor.

Brad has suggested this disclosure is in order:

Barack Obama, Sept 12, 2008
And I can make a firm pledge: under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 will see their taxes increase* "“ not your income taxes, not your payroll taxes, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.

* Results not typical. Families making less than $250,000 can expect to see rises in cigarette taxes, increased energy costs through cap and trade and/or gasoline taxes, soda taxes, and mandates to buy costly insurance plans they can't afford. They can expect to pay all the taxes levied on "corporations", as well as the cost of new regulations, who will pass those on in the cost of goods. Families can expect taxation through the form of inflation, eating away at the buying power of their paychecks. Firm pledges have not taken Viagra and should not be expected to last more than 4 hours.

Update: From Ann Althouse, couldn't have said it better myself:

The most absurd part of it is the way the FTC is trying to make it okay by assuring us that they will be selective in deciding which writers on the internet to pursue. That is, they've deliberately made a grotesquely overbroad rule, enough to sweep so many of us into technical violations, but we're supposed to feel soothed by the knowledge that government agents will decide who among us gets fined. No, no, no. Overbreath itself is a problem. And so is selective enforcement.

The CRA and the Mortgage Meltdown

There always have been good, logical reasons to discuss the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) as one contributor to the mortgage meltdown last year.  After all, the act is effectively a prod to banks to lend to people who would not normally meet their lending criteria, and to do so on terms (e.g. no money down) they might not usually offer.

The usual response from supporters is that the numbers are too small to matter.  I tended to agree with this -- until I saw this graph, from Peter Schweizer via Carpe Diem.

chart_398x249

Unfortunately he does not have a source or methodology, so I have to retain some skepticism, but if true these numbers are far from trivial.  He writes:

According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, in the first 20 years of the act, up to 1997, commitments totaled approximately $200 billion. But from 1997 to 2007, commitments exploded to more than $4.2 trillion. (Keep in mind this is more than four times the size of the current health bill being debated in Congress.) The burdens on individual banks can be enormous. Washington Mutual, for example, pledged $1 trillion in mortgages to those with credit histories that "fall outside typical credit, income or debt constraints," and was awarded the 2003 CRA Community Impact Award for its Community Access program. Four years later it was taken over by the Office of Thrift Supervision.

This effort was backed by a parallel effort at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy up these loans:

Beginning in 1992, Congress pushed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to increase their purchases of mortgages going to low and moderate income borrowers. For 1996, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave Fannie and Freddie an explicit target "” 42% of their mortgage financing had to go to borrowers with income below the median in their area. The target increased to 50% in 2000 and 52% in 2005.

For 1996, HUD required that 12% of all mortgage purchases by Fannie and Freddie be "special affordable" loans, typically to borrowers with income less than 60% of their area's median income. That number was increased to 20% in 2000 and 22% in 2005. The 2008 goal was to be 28%. Between 2000 and 2005, Fannie and Freddie met those goals every year, funding hundreds of  billions of dollars worth of loans, many of them subprime and adjustable-rate loans, and made to borrowers who bought houses with less than 10% down.

Fannie and Freddie also purchased hundreds of billions of subprime securities for their own portfolios to make money and to help satisfy HUD affordable housing goals. Fannie and Freddie were important contributors to the demand for subprime
securities.

Obama has a personal history with this effort, actually suing banks who would not provide the sub-prime lending that he later, as President, blamed them for undertaking

Obama's battle against banks has a long history. In 1994, freshly out of Harvard Law School, he joined two other attorneys in filing a lawsuit against Citibank, the giant mortgage lender. In Selma S. Buycks-Roberson v. Citibank, the plaintiffs claimed that although they had ostensibly been denied home loans "because of delinquent credit obligations and adverse credit," the real culprit was institutional racism. The suit alleged that Citibank had violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Fair Housing Act and, for good measure, the 13th Constitutional Amendment, which abolished slavery. The bank denied the charge, but after four years of legal wrangling and mounting legal bills, elected to settle. According to court documents, the three plaintiffs received a total of $60,000. Their lawyers received $950,000.

Now, Congress and Obama want to strengthen the CRA -- talk about not learning from mistakes.

Now comes Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and 50 other co-sponsors (all Democrats) of H.R. 1479 the "Community Reinvestment Modernization Act of 2009," who want to expand the CRA to include not just banks but also credit unions, insurance companies and mortgage lenders. Congressman Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has supported the idea in the past. The SEIU and ACORN, along with a host of other activist groups, are also behind the effort.

President Obama has been a staunch supporter of the CRA throughout his public life. And his recently announced financial reforms would make the law even more onerous and guarantee an explosion in irresponsible lending. Obama wants to take enforcement of the CRA away from the Federal Reserve, the FDIC and other financial regulators who at least try to weigh bank safety and soundness when enforcing the law, and turn it over to a newly created Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). This agency's core concerns would not be safety and soundness but, in the words of the Obama administration, "promoting access to financial services," which is really code for forcing banks to lend to those who would not ordinarily qualify. Compliance would no longer be done by bank examiners but by what the administration calls "a group of examiners specially trained and certified in community development" (otherwise called community activists). The administration says, in its literature about the reforms, that "rigorous application of the Community Reinvestment should be a core function of the CFPA."

Looks like there may be jobs available after all for all those folks who got fired from ACORN.

What I Wonder...

I have always wondered - when politicians do something like this, do they actually believe in their hearts they are doing the right thing or do they fully know that they are cynically trying to appear to take action while actually doing absolutely nothing useful. The former may almost be scarier than the latter

OBAMA ASKS FEDERAL WORKERS TO SACRIFICE "” By 0.4 percent! "Citing the current economic recession "” and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks eight years ago "” President Obama says he will use emergency powers to cut the programmed across-the-board January increase in federal employees' pay from 2.4 percent to 2.0 percent, according to a letter he sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi"¦"

I have worked full time for 26 years.  Number of years I have had a programmed, guaranteed annual salary increase to be paid irregardless of my performance:  zero.

Saturday Links

I almost never publish links posts.  But I was really stuck when I read Radley Balko's Saturday Morning Links post because every one was awesome.  Balko is not only one of the best bloggers out there, but a great journalist as well in a field of us pundits who put on pretensions of being pajama-clad investigators.  So here are all of his morning links:

Why there are 60 minutes in an hour

Bloomberg takes the next step down the road toward anti-tobacco hysteria.

Zimbabwean newspaper prints billboards on paper made from the country's worthless currency.

Legless frogs epidemic probably not caused by pollution, but by dragonfly nymphs with a jones for frogs' legs.

Obama administration will support indefinite detention of terror suspects without a trial; drops the news late in the evening on a summer Friday.

TSA detains man for comic book script. Kicker: Scropt was about a guy who gets wrongfully harassed by the government for writing fiction about terror attacks that came true.

I Warned You

In any number of posts, I warned that, based on past precedent, Presidents almost never roll back executive power, even if they promised to do so in the election campaign.  For example, I wrote on innauguration day this year:

...thoughtful people already on day 1 should have evidence that things are the same as they ever were, just with better PR.   For God sakes, as his first expenditure of political capital, Obama is pushing for a trillion dollar government spending bill that is basically one big pork-fest that might make even Ted Stevens blush, a hodge-podge of every wish-list of leftish lobbyists that has been building up for eight years.  I will be suitably thrilled if the Obama administration renounces some of the creeping executive power grabs of the last 16 years, but he has been oddly silent about this.  It seems that creeping executive power is a lot more worrisome when someone else is in power.

Radley Balko writes:

My own hunch is that presidents try to keep campaign promises that expand the government and their own power, and either back down from or are unwilling to expend much capital on promises that make government smaller and more accountable, thus limiting their own power.

Looking over PolitiFact's report card on Obama's campaign promises, that seems to be about right thus far. By my count (and some of this is certainly subjective) of the of the 31 promises the site says Obama has kept thus far, 20 in some way grow or expand the federal government. Just six make the government smaller, more transparent, or more accountable. The remaining five have no effect, or amount to a wash.

Of the six campaign promises PolitiFact says Obama has unquestionably broken, five would have limited his own power, provided tax breaks, or provided more accountability and transparency to the federal government. One was mostly symbolic (recognizing the Armenian genocide). So far, he hasn't broken a single promise that would grow or expand the government, though he has compromised on a few, and many have been stalled.

A Couple of Quick Thoughts on Tobacco Regulation

1.  I have observed before that many Nanny-state initiatives are driven by politician's own personal experience and weaknesses.  Mike Huckabee started a kids obesity program because he had trouble with his weight, and now Barack Obama regulates tobacco because he has had trouble quitting smoking:

Obama, who has spoken of his own struggle to quit smoking, praised the bill, saying it "will make history by giving the scientists and medical experts at the FDA the power to take sensible steps."

Couldn't politicians just focus on their own behavior without projecting their personal weaknesses on me?  Let's just be glad that we avoided whatever regulatory regime that would have occurred had these guys had a male enhancement issue.

2.  I know zero about smoking and cigarettes.  However, it is my understanding that while the nicotine is the addictive part, it is other components of combustion that cause the health risk.  If this is the case, then doesn't regulated reduction in nicotine content of cigarettes actually pose a health risk?  Won't folks suck on more cigarettes with reduced nicotine, trying to get back to their preferred nicotine dose, and thereby consume more rather than less cancer causing substances?

3.  There is nothing that regulators hate more than free market alternatives to themselves for solving problems.  It is clear they are going to mandate reduced tar and other components in cigarettes, but they want those mandates to come from them, not emerge on their own from the market.  Thus:

[the new FDA rules will] prohibit use of words such as "mild" or "light" that give the impression that the brand is safer

Yep -- wouldn't want private folks getting credit for exactly what the regulators intend to mandate.

4.  I have often observed that regulation tends to favor incumbent companies.   Regulations tend to raise barriers to new entrants, and it imposes costs that are more easily born by larger players in the market.  Further, incumbents often have the political muscle to influence regulation in their favor  (and in fact potential future new market entrants don't even exist today, so they certainly have no lobbying voice).  And, we see this same effect here:

Altria Group, parent company of Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest tobacco company, issued a statement Thursday supporting the legislation and saying it approved "tough but reasonable federal regulation of tobacco products" by the FDA. Rival companies have voiced opposition, saying FDA limits on new tobacco products could lock in market shares for Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro cigarettes.

No surprise there.  Despite all the fighting words about the evils of big Tobacco around the Tobacco settlement a decade or so ago, the result was big gains for the major tobacco companies.

Big tobacco was supposed to come under harsh punishment for decades of deception when it acceded to a tort settlement seven years ago. Philip Morris, R.J.Reynolds, Lorillard and Brown & Williamson agreed to pay 46 states $206 billion over 25 years. This was their punishment for burying evidence of cigarettes' health risks.

But the much-maligned tobacco giants have subtly and shrewdly turned their penance into a windfall. Using that tort settlement, the big brands have hampered tiny cut-rate rivals and raised prices with near impunity. Since the case was settled, the big four have nearly doubled wholesale cigarette prices from a national average of $1.25 a pack (not counting excise taxes) in 1998 to $2.10 now. And they have a potent partner in this scheme: state governments, which have become addicted to tort-settlement payments, now running at $6 billion a year. A key feature of the Big Tobacco-and-state-government cartel: rules that levy tort-settlement costs on upstart cigarette companies, companies that were not even in existence when the tort was being committed.