Posts tagged ‘offset’

The Other Shoe Drops on Businesses From Obamacare: Reporting

A lot of discussion has gone into the costs of the employer mandate.

These costs certainly were potentially high for my company.  If we had to provide health care for all of our employees, it would cost us an annual sum between 3 and 4 times our annual profit.  As many of your know, my company runs public parks and campgrounds.  Already, we have struggled to get government authorities to approve fee increases driven by local minimum wage increases.  Most of these authorities have already told us that they would not allow fee increases in most cases to offset the costs of the PPACA employer mandate.   So we have spent a lot of time converting between 90 and 95% of our employees to part-time, so the mandate would not apply to them.  I have gotten a lot of grief for my heartlessness on this in the comments, but I have zero idea what else I could have done short of simply shutting down the business.

Yesterday I was in an information session about the employer mandate and saw that the other shoe had dropped for companies -- the reporting requirement.  Despite the fact that the employer mandate was supposed to kick in almost 9 months ago, until recently the government had still not released the reporting requirements for companies vis a vis the mandate.  Well, apparently the draft reporting requirements was released a few weeks ago.  I may be missing something, but the key requirement for companies like mine is that every employee must receive a new form in January called an IRS 1095-C, which is parallel to the W-2 we all get to report income.

I know that many of you have probably been puzzled as to what some of those boxes mean on the W-2.  Well, you are going to love the 1095C

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Everyone is scratching their heads, wondering what this means.  For someone like me who has seasonal and part time workers, this form is a nightmare, and I have no idea how we are going to do this.  Just to give you a flavor, here are the code choices for line 14:

1A. Qualified Offer: Minimum Essential Coverage providing Minimum Value offered to full-time
employee with employee contribution for self-only coverage equal to or less than 9.5% mainland
single federal poverty line and Minimum Essential Coverage offered to spouse and
dependent(s).

1B. Minimum Essential Coverage providing Minimum Value offered to employee only.

1C. Minimum Essential Coverage providing Minimum Value offered to employee and at least Minimum Essential Coverage offered to dependent(s) (not spouse).

1D. Minimum Essential Coverage providing Minimum Value offered to employee and at least Minimum Essential Coverage offered to spouse (not dependent(s)).

1E. Minimum Essential Coverage providing Minimum Value offered to employee and at least Minimum Essential Coverage offered to dependent(s) and spouse.

1F. Minimum Essential Coverage not providing Minimum Value offered to employee, or employee and spouse or dependent(s), or employee, spouse and dependents.

1G. Offer of coverage to employee who was not a full-time employee for any month of the calendar year and who enrolled in self-insured coverage for one or more months of the calendar year.

1H. No offer of coverage (employee not offered any health coverage or employee offered coverage not providing Minimum Essential Coverage).

1I. Qualified Offer Transition Relief 2015: Employee (and spouse or dependents) received no offer of coverage, or received an offer of coverage that is not a Qualified Offer, or received a Qualified Offer for less than all 12 Months.

Completing lines 14-16 will require an integration of our payroll provider with our health insurance information that I have no idea how we are going to pull off.

About those "Rising Transit Use" Numbers

From Randal O'Tooole

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) argues that a 0.7 percent increase in annual transit ridership in 2013 is proof that Americans want more “investments” in transit–by which the group means more federal funding. However, a close look at the actual data reveals something entirely different.

It turns out that all of the increase in transit ridership took place in New York City. New York City subway and bus ridership grew by 120 million trips in 2013; nationally, transit ridership grew by just 115 million trips. Add in New York commuter trains (Long Island Railroad and Metro North) and New York City transit ridership grew by 123 million trips, which means transit in the rest of the nation declined by 8 million trips. As the New York Timesobserves, the growth in New York City transit ridership resulted from “falling unemployment,” not major capital improvements.

Meanwhile, light-rail and bus ridership both declined in Portland, which is often considered the model for new transit investments. Light-rail ridership grew in Dallas by about 300,000 trips, but bus ridership declined by 1.7 million trips. Charlotte light rail gained 27,000 new rides in 2013, but Charlotte buses lost 476,000 rides. Declines in bus ridership offset part or all of the gains in rail ridership in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Rail ridership declined in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and on the San Francisco BART system, among other places.

It looks like Chris Christie was doing his part to increase transit ridership in New York.

By the way, the phenomenon of small increases in light rail use offset by large drops in bus ridership is extremely common, almost ubiquitous.  Cities build flashy prestige rail projects that cost orders of magnitude more to build and operate than bus service, and are much less flexible when the economy and commuting patterns change.  Over time, bus service has to be cut to pay the bills for light rail.  But since a given amount of money spent on buses tends to carry more than 10x the passenger miles than the same amount spent on light rail, total ridership drops even while spending rises.  That is what is going on here.

Light rail is all about politician prestige, civic pride, and crony favoritism for a few developers with land along the route.  It is not about transit sanity.

It is Time to End Favored Tax Treatment of Capital Gains

My new column is up at Forbes.com, and asks why we fetishize capital gains over regular income

Let's consider two investors.  Investor A buys a piece of land and builds a campground on it, intending to run the campground for decades.  Investor A gets her return on investment from the profits each year running the campground, profits that are taxed as regular income  (Full disclosure:  In my business life, I am essentially investor A).

On the other hand, Investor B buys the same piece of land and builds the same campground on it, but in about a year Investor B sells the newly developed facility, making a profit on the sale over his original investment.  Investor B likely will pay taxes on this gain at reduced capital gains tax rates.

But why?  When Investor B sold the property, the price he got was probably something like the present value of the expected cash flows from operating the campground.   Both Investor A and B created essentially the same value., but Investor B took the value as a single lump sum rather than as a stream of income over time.  Why is Investor B's approach preferred in the tax code?  Or, stated another way, why does the tax code favor asset flipping over long-term operations?

Want to Make Your Reputation in Academia? Here is an Important Class of Problem For Which We Have No Solution Approach

Here is the problem:  There exists a highly dynamic, multi- multi- variable system.  One input is changed.  How much, and in what ways, did that change affect the system?

Here are two examples:

  • The government makes a trillion dollars in deficit spending to try to boost the economy.  Did it do so?  By how much? (This Reason article got me thinking about it)
  • Man's actions increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.  We are fairly confident that this has some warming effect, but how how much?  There are big policy differences between the response to a lot and a little.

The difficulty, of course, is that there is no way to do a controlled study, and while one's studied variable is changing, so are thousands, even millions of others.  These two examples have a number of things in common:

  • We know feedbacks play a large role in the answer, but the system is so hard to pin down that we are not even sure of the sign, much less the magnitude, of the feedback.  Do positive feedbacks such as ice melting and cloud formation multiply CO2 warming many times, or is warming offset by negative feedback from things like cloud formation?  Similarly in the economy, does deficit spending get multiplied many times as the money gets respent over and over, or is it offset by declines in other categories of spending like business investment?
  • In both examples, we have recent cases where the system has not behaved as expected (at least by some).  The economy remained at best flat after the recent stimulus.  We have not seen global temperatures increase for 15-20 years despite a lot of CO2 prodcution.  Are these evidence that the hypothesized relationship between cause and effect does not exist (or is small), or simply evidence that other effects independently drove the system in the opposite direction such that, for example, the economy would have been even worse without the stimulus or the world would have cooled without CO2 additions.
  • In both examples, we use computer models not only to predict the future, but to explain the past.  When the government said that the stimulus had worked, they did so based on a computer model whose core assumptions were that stimulus works.  In both fields, we get this sort of circular proof, with the output of computer models that assume a causal relationship being used to prove the causal relationship

So, for those of you who may think that we are at the end of math (or science), here is a class of problem that is clearly, just from these two examples, enormously important.  And we cannot solve it -- we can't even come close, despite the hubris of Paul Krugman or Michael Mann who may argue differently.    We are explaining fire with Phlogiston.

I have no idea where the solution lies.  Perhaps all we can hope for is a Goedel to tell us the problem is impossible to solve so stop trying.  Perhaps the seeds of a solution exist but they are buried in another discipline (God knows the climate science field often lacks even the most basic connection to math and statistics knowledge).

Maybe I am missing something, but who is even working on this?  By "working on it" I do not mean trying to build incrementally "better" economics or climate models.  Plenty of folks doing that.  But who is working on new approaches to tease out relationships in complex multi-variable systems?

Surprise: Near Bankrupt City Finds that Throwing Good Money After Bad is Not a Good Investment

I have written here any number of times about the crazy ongoing subsidies by Glendale, Arizona (a 250,000 resident suburb of Phoenix) to an NHL franchise.  The city last year was teetering at the edge of bankruptcy from past hockey subsidies, but decided to double down committing to yet more annual payments to the new ownership of the team.

Surprisingly, throwing more money into an entreprise that has run through tens of millions of taxpayer money without any hint of a turnaround turns out to be a bad investment

Revenue from the Phoenix Coyotes is coming up short for Glendale, which approved a $225 million deal to keep the National Hockey League franchise in 2013.

City leaders expected to see at least $6.8 million in revenue annually from the team to help offset the $15 million the city pays each year for team owners to manage Jobing.com Arena. The revenue comes from ticket surcharges, parking fees and a split of naming rights for the arena.

Halfway through the fiscal year, the city has collected $1.9 million from those sources, and nearly $2.3 million when including sales-tax revenue from the arena.

Even including the rent payments on the publicly-funded stadium, Glendale is still losing money each year on the deal.

The source of the error in forecasting is actually pretty funny.  Glendale assumed that it could charge very high monopoly parking fees for the arena spaces ($10-$30 a game).  In some circumstances, such fees would have stuck.  But in this case, two other entities (a mall and another sports stadium) have adjoining lots, and once parking for hockey was no longer free, these other entities started competing parking operations which held down parking rates and volumes (I always find it hilarious when the government attempts to charge exorbitant monopoly prices and the free market undercuts them).

Had the parking rates stuck at the higher level, one can assume they still would have missed their forecast.  The Coyotes hockey team already has among the worst attendance numbers in the league, and hockey ticket buyers are particularly price sensitive, such that a $20 increase in the cost of attending a game likely would have driven attendance, and thus parking fees and city ticket surcharges and sales taxes, down.  Many private companies who are used to market dynamics still fail to forecast competitive and customer reaction to things like price increases well, and the government never does it well.

Update On My Climate Model (Spoiler: It's Doing a Lot Better than the Pros)

In this post, I want to discuss my just-for-fun model of global temperatures I developed 6 years ago.  But more importantly, I am going to come back to some lessons about natural climate drivers and historic temperature trends that should have great relevance to the upcoming IPCC report.

In 2007, for my first climate video, I created an admittedly simplistic model of global temperatures.  I did not try to model any details within the climate system.  Instead, I attempted to tease out a very few (it ended up being three) trends from the historic temperature data and simply projected them forward.  Each of these trends has a logic grounded in physical processes, but the values I used were pure regression rather than any bottom up calculation from physics.  Here they are:

  • A long term trend of 0.4C warming per century.  This can be thought of as a sort of base natural rate for the post-little ice age era.
  • An additional linear trend beginning in 1945 of an additional 0.35C per century.  This represents combined effects of CO2 (whose effects should largely appear after mid-century) and higher solar activity in the second half of the 20th century  (Note that this is way, way below the mainstream estimates in the IPCC of the historic contribution of CO2, as it implies the maximum historic contribution is less than 0.2C)
  • A cyclic trend that looks like a sine wave centered on zero (such that over time it adds nothing to the long term trend) with a period of about 63 years.  Think of this as representing the net effect of cyclical climate processes such as the PDO and AMO.

Put in graphical form, here are these three drivers (the left axis in both is degrees C, re-centered to match the centering of Hadley CRUT4 temperature anomalies).  The two linear trends (click on any image in this post to enlarge it)

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And the cyclic trend:

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These two charts are simply added and then can be compared to actual temperatures.  This is the way the comparison looked in 2007 when I first created this "model"

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The historic match is no great feat.  The model was admittedly tuned to match history (yes, unlike the pros who all tune their models, I admit it).  The linear trends as well as the sine wave period and amplitude were adjusted to make the fit work.

However, it is instructive to note that a simple model of a linear trend plus sine wave matches history so well, particularly since it assumes such a small contribution from CO2 (yet matches history well) and since in prior IPCC reports, the IPCC and most modelers simply refused to include cyclic functions like AMO and PDO in their models.  You will note that the Coyote Climate Model was projecting a flattening, even a decrease in temperatures when everyone else in the climate community was projecting that blue temperature line heading up and to the right.

So, how are we doing?  I never really meant the model to have predictive power.  I built it just to make some points about the potential role of cyclic functions in the historic temperature trend.  But based on updated Hadley CRUT4 data through July, 2013, this is how we are doing:

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Not too shabby.  Anyway, I do not insist on the model, but I do want to come back to a few points about temperature modeling and cyclic climate processes in light of the new IPCC report coming soon.

The decisions of climate modelers do not always make sense or seem consistent.  The best framework I can find for explaining their choices is to hypothesize that every choice is driven by trying to make the forecast future temperature increase as large as possible.  In past IPCC reports, modelers refused to acknowledge any natural or cyclic effects on global temperatures, and actually made statements that a) variations in the sun's output were too small to change temperatures in any measurable way and b) it was not necessary to include cyclic processes like the PDO and AMO in their climate models.

I do not know why these decisions were made, but they had the effect of maximizing the amount of past warming that could be attributed to CO2, thus maximizing potential climate sensitivity numbers and future warming forecasts.  The reason for this was that the IPCC based nearly the totality of their conclusions about past warming rates and CO2 from the period 1978-1998.  They may talk about "since 1950", but you can see from the chart above that all of the warming since 1950 actually happened in that narrow 20 year window.  During that 20-year window, though, solar activity, the PDO and the AMO were also all peaking or in their warm phases.  So if the IPCC were to acknowledge that any of those natural effects had any influence on temperatures, they would have to reduce the amount of warming scored to CO2 between 1978 and 1998 and thus their large future warming forecasts would have become even harder to justify.

Now, fast forward to today.  Global temperatures have been flat since about 1998, or for about 15 years or so.  This is difficult to explain for the IPCC, since about none of the 60+ models in their ensembles predicted this kind of pause in warming.  In fact, temperature trends over the last 15 years have fallen below the 95% confidence level of nearly every climate model used by the IPCC.  So scientists must either change their models (eek!) or else they must explain why they still are correct but missed the last 15 years of flat temperatures.

The IPCC is likely to take the latter course.  Rumor has it that they will attribute the warming pause to... ocean cycles and the sun (those things the IPCC said last time were irrelevant).  As you can see from my model above, this is entirely plausible.  My model has an underlying 0.75C per century trend after 1945, but even with this trend actual temperatures hit a 30-year flat spot after the year 2000.   So it is entirely possible for an underlying trend to be temporarily masked by cyclical factors.

BUT.  And this is a big but.  You can also see from my model that you can't assume that these factors caused the current "pause" in warming without also acknowledging that they contributed to the warming from 1978-1998, something the IPCC seems loath to do.  I do not know how the ICC is going to deal with this.  I hate to think the worst of people, but I do not think it is beyond them to say that these factors offset greenhouse warming for the last 15 years but did not increase warming the 20 years before that.

We shall see.  To be continued....

Update:  Seriously, on a relative basis, I am kicking ass

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The End of Full-Time Work in the US Retail Service Sector

Frequent readers will know that I have been predicting for over a year that the economic story of 2013 would be the end of full time work in the retail service sector due to the PPACA, or Obamacare (example).   QED, from the most recent economic report:

In June, the household survey reported that part-time jobs soared by 360,000 to 28,059,000 – an all time record high. Full time jobs? Down 240,000.  And looking back at the entire year, so far in 2013, just 130K Full-Time Jobs have been added, offset by a whopping 557K Part-Time jobs.

It is unclear how the 1-year delay in the employer mandate implementation will affect this.  Probably not a lot -- based on the way Obamacare was being implemented, companies needed to be switching workers to part-time now (really, early this year) so that they would qualify as part-time for next year  (a company needed 6-12 months of records from this year to prove the employee was part-time).  In other words, most companies have already switched, and having done so, will not likely switch back just for one year.

Besides, as I have written before, it is actually cheaper and easier for many retail establishments to stitch together full coverage of their business hours from part-time workers.   Making jobs full-time is a hassle, and was done by most of us mainly for competition reasons, ie to be able to attract the best employees.  Other laws like California's absurd lunch-break mandate (which has caused me to make working through lunch a firing offense at our company) just add to the cost of offering full-time work.   If everyone is only offering part-time, and the labor market is weak with plenty of workers available, there is no reason to go back to offering full time employment.

End Sports Cronyism

Florida editorial via the Crony Chronicles

The problem with [the theory that sports subsidies help the economy] is that there is scant evidence that such economic benefits actually occur. Numerous studies done over the last 25 years have found that professional sport teams have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy. Usually, a new team or a new stadium location doesn’t increase the amount of consumer spending, it merely shifts it away from other, already existing sources. Entertainment dollars will be spent one way or another whether a stadium exists or not. Plus, the increase in jobs is often modest at best — nowhere near enough to offset the millions invested in the projects.

It's amazing they got the local paper to print this.  Most local papers would be defunct without a sports page.  As a result, local newspapers generally bring to bear tremendous pressure in favor of subsidies to attract and keep new professional sports teams.   Our local paper the AZ Republic tends credulously publish every crazy, stupid benefit study of sports teams on the road to promoting more local subsidies for them.

My Tax Proposal

1.  Eliminate all deductions in the individual income tax code

2.  Eliminate the corporate income tax.

3.  Tax capital gains and dividends as regular income.

4.  Eliminate the death tax as well as the write-up of asset values at death

 

I don't have any idea if this revenue positive or negative (I suspect it would be short-term positive, and long-term very positive), but I don't care.  This would:

  1. Substantially reduce the government's ability to play preference games and give crony special help in the tax code.
  2. Completely eliminate the huge unproductive drag of corporate tax law expenses and substantially reduce the cost of individual tax preparation.
  3. Eliminate the enormous unproductive drag of estate tax planning
  4. Eliminate forced sales of family farms and businesses at death in order to pay the taxes (taxes are paid instead on capital gains when sold).
  5. Substantially reduce government-induced distortions on flows of capital  (e.g. current promotion of home ownership over renting, of corporate debt over equity financing, of capital gains over income, etc).
  6. Eliminate most double taxations in the code, since there is now only the individual income tax.

I would be happy to make this revenue neutral (even if it required an individual income tax rate hike) and sell this to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street alike as a plan to reduce waste, corporatism, and crony meddling.  The OWS might be upset about 2 & 4, but corporate profits eventually show up as either capital gains or dividends, so they will eventually get taxed on the individual income tax return.  Ditto death taxes - currently they are largely offset by the ability to write-up asset basis at death and aggressive tax planning.  And anyway, the death tax is a trivial sources of government revenues.

 

Postscript:  I know there is all sorts of literature that supposedly promotes a lower capital gains tax as an economic positive.  Frankly, I don't trust it any more than any other literature genned up to promote special tax breaks to any group because that group is supposedly economically more important.  In my mind, a lower capital gains tax rate (which means a higher regular income tax rate) is just another way of government expressing an artificial preference for one economic activity over another.  Specifically, a lower capital gains rate creates a preference for real estate and stock investors over business owners.   Currently, I invest in a second home and flip it for a profit and I get a tax break on the capital gains.  But if I invest in a business instead that pays off with regular income, I get no tax break.  Why?  Why is one type of investing better than another?  The answer is that it is not, but the people who buy and sell equities and real estate in large quantities have more political clout than small business owners.

Postscript #2:  And Medicare taxes have to go up, at least until the program is restructured. 

Postscript #3:  This is a great example of what I want to make go away.  I consider it far more destructive in the long run than a percentage point rate change.  In case it is behind a paywall, here is a bit of it (these giveaways to the rich were in the very same bill that was supposed to be to soak the rich):

Thus Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow was able to retain an accelerated tax write-off for owners of Nascar tracks (cost: $78 million) to benefit the paupers who control the Michigan International Speedway. New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman saved a tax credit for companies operating in American Samoa ($62 million), including a StarKist factory.

Distillers are able to drink to a $222 million rum tax rebate. Perhaps this will help to finance more of those fabulous Bacardi TV ads with all those beautiful rich people. Businesses located on Indian reservations will receive $222 million in accelerated depreciation. And there are breaks for railroads, "New York Liberty Zone" bonds and so much more.

But a special award goes to Chris Dodd, the former Senator who now roams Gucci Gulch lobbying for Hollywood's movie studios. The Senate summary of his tax victory is worth quoting in full: "The bill extends for two years, through 2013, the provision that allows film and television producers to expense the first $15 million of production costs incurred in the United States ($20 million if the costs are incurred in economically depressed areas in the United States)."

You gotta love that "depressed areas" bit. The impoverished impresarios of Brentwood get an extra writeoff if they take their film crews into, say, deepest Flatbush. Is that because they have to pay extra to the caterers from Dean & DeLuca to make the trip? It sure can't be because they hire the jobless locals for the production crew. Those are union jobs, mate, and don't you forget it.

The Joint Tax Committee says this Hollywood special will cost the Treasury a mere $248 million over 10 years, but over fiscal years 2013 and 2014 the cost is really $430 million because it is supposed to expire at the end of this year. In reality Mr. Dodd will wrangle another extension next year, and the year after that, and . . . . Investing a couple million in Mr. Dodd in return for $430 million in tax breaks sure beats trying to make better movies.

Then there are the green-energy giveaways that are also quickly becoming entitlements. The wind production tax credit got another one-year reprieve, thanks to Mr. Obama and GOP Senators John Thune (South Dakota) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa). This freebie for the likes of the neediest at General Electric GE -0.82% andSiemens SIE.XE +0.20% —which benefit indirectly by making wind turbine gear—is now 20 years old. Cost to taxpayers: $12 billion.

Cellulosic biofuels—the great white whale of renewable energy—also had their tax credit continued, and the definition of what qualifies was expanded to include producers of "algae-based fuel" ($59 million.) Speaking of sludge, biodiesel and "renewable diesel" will continue receiving their $1 per gallon tax credit ($2.2 billion). The U.S. is experiencing a natural gas and oil drilling boom, but Congress still thinks algae and wind will power the future.

Meanwhile, consumers will get tax credits for buying plug-in motorcycles ($7 million), while the manufacturers of energy-efficient appliances ($650 million) and builders of energy-efficient homes ($154 million) also retain tax credits. Manufacturers like Whirlpool love these subsidies, and they are one reason that company paid no net taxes in recent years.

Striking a Blow Against the State

Fortunately I am not vain, so that I can still post this terrible picture of myself.  I am proudly holding the government-mandated flow restrictor I just removed from my most recent shower head purchase.  I don't buy any shower head until I make sure it has a removable restrictor.

 

The Federal laws restricting shower head flows have got to be among the dumbest on the books.  Some thoughts:

  • Water is not equally scarce everywhere.  So why is everyone required to conserve?  Why is the ideal flow rate the same in Seattle as in Phoenix?
  • Government policy for over a century has been to promote subsidized water prices that don't reflect its true scarcity (particularly to farmers).  Then, having guaranteed overuse via its pricing actions, the government then implements silly laws like this to try to offset the harm from its meddling in prices.
  • We have a lawn in Phoenix that needs constant watering and a pool that evaporates so fast in the summer one can almost see the water level dropping.  But the state's priority is to knock of a few gallons of water use from my shower.
  • With the low flow shower heads, it takes me three times longer to get the soap and shampoo off of me than with a full-flow head.  So we cut the water rate by half, but extend shower times by three.  And this helps, how?  And don't even get me started on low-flow toilets
  • The last three hotel rooms I have stayed in have had double shower heads, to make up the lost flow from wimpy government-approved single heads.  This process of cutting back on how much a single head can flow and then adding extra heads is incredibly dumb and wasteful.
  • I suspect this is all secret revenge from some English expat that wanted US showers to be as bad as those in Britain.

Comments: Disqus Coming

Well, this has been a while in coming, but for a variety of reasons I am switching to Disqus comments on this site.  Essentially this means commenters will have to register, though I feel like the registration is pretty un-intrusive as Internet things go.  Active commenters in the blogosphere likely already have a Disqus account.   And there are some definite benefits in terms of comment ranking and such that I hope will offset any hassle.  I have been testing Disqus on Climate Skeptic, along with the security updates I have been slowly porting over here, and I am pretty happy with the result.

What this means is that for several days, comments will disappear here as Disqus imports them.   Though they they promise a day turnaround, on Climate Skeptic it took them nearly a week.  With all the comments on this site, it may take a while.  New comments will still work, but the old ones will go away, and then magically return a few days later.  Hopefully.

By the way, this is a mild illustration of what started the security lockdowns at the climate blog.  These are actually minor spikes compared to some in the past, and so far I have seen no similar patterns at any of the other blogs I run.  A number of folks active in the climate debate have been hacked of late.

Obama Bravely Fighting Against Deleveraging

I found this chart interesting, but am not entirely sure what conclusion to draw (via Zero Hedge)

In 2009, I think most everyone understood that the economy would have to reduce debt and that this process would be painful in terms of creating years of slow growth.  The good news from this chart is that the financial and consumer deleveraging has indeed been occurring, so at least our pain is not for naught.  The debate that will likely go on for years after this recession is whether the rapidly increasing Federal debt helped or hurt:  did it help offset the cost of the private deleveraging, or did it drag out the recession by keeping total debt levels from dropping?  Is it private debt that matters, or total debt?  Of course this makes the analysis more complicated.

 

Lessons From the Corporate State

In my younger, more naive days, I would have drawn the following lesson from this story:  "Never create a business plan predicated on subsidy checks from the government.  They may stop at any time."  I still think this is mostly true, as FirstSolar is finding out.  But my sense is that a range of folks from GE to Kleiner Perkins still get their checks.  So one may cynically rewrite the rule: "Never create a business plan predicated on subsidy checks from the government unless you are confident you have the political connections to guarantee and expedite the payments."

It seems like local solar company perfect power tried to feed at the government trough without actually having sufficient clout in the corporate state.  Bad idea

About 100 Arizona homeowners who paid $4,500 up front for solar-power systems fear they may never get their rooftop panels after being left waiting for months by the installation company.

Angry homeowners are demanding their systems or refunds. The company, Perfect Power Solar, is blaming the delays on federal government red tape.

Perfect Power owner Lynn Paige said the company has cash-flow problems because energy grants that were supposed to provide substantial funding of the solar systems aren't being approved quickly enough. She pledged to deliver the systems or refund all customers by the end of the year.

Treasury officials would not comment on the situation. Government e-mails sent to Paige suggest Perfect Power's grant applications were incomplete. In them, officials point to problems with submissions and warn of potential denials.

Industry experts and owners of other solar companies in Arizona said that the grant program is fraught with risks for solar companies and that some built business models based on future payments from the government without the financial reserves to cope with delays. They describe the situation as a high-tech gamble that some companies lost.

Residential solar-power systems cost $15,000 to $40,000. The Section 1603 grant program, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, offered developers cash to offset 30 percent of the costs. Although the program was not available to homeowners, some companies tapped the grants to sell residential solar systems as leases. A company would install and own the system, then lease it to a homeowner.

Program rules required developers to complete installations before they could apply for reimbursement. But funding was not guaranteed, and even after systems were built, the government delayed approval of some applications and denied others.

If this was one of Kliener Perkins' companies, for example, Ray Lane would just call the White House and get his money released. If your solvency depends on continued flow of taxpayer cash, you better have the clout to keep the money flowing or you are likely to get hosed.  Bureaucracies tend to have default answers of "wait" and "no".  Those are the answers average people without pull are going to get.  The "yes" goes to those who cut through the red tape from the top.  These yeses, like the ones to Solyndra, only make it more likely everyone else get the "no" answer, as the agencies need to show they are being particularly diligent to offset the impression of sloppiness they get from the Solyndra-type cases.

Retroactively, the company's leadership has figured this out, that to survived at the government trough, they have to go political

Paige has asked customers not to file complaints or talk to the media about problems the company is facing.

"It has been very unhelpful ... that a few customers have chosen to write very negative letters to the BBB," she wrote in a May e-mail to customers.

Instead of filing complaints, Paige said, customers should write to Arizona U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl to request their help in freeing up the government grant money and to pressure the Treasury Department....

That month, the BBB revoked Perfect Power's accreditation and gave the company an F rating. The company had 16 complaints filed against it the past year. The registrar shows four open complaints against Perfect Power; a fifth complaint was listed as settled or withdrawn.

Forget about the customers.  Let's just focus our attention on our two Senators.

Hitting the Irony Meter Hard

Recent study on spotted owls, the protection of which was the ostensible reason for shutting down the northwest timber industry:

Whatever short-term drawbacks there may be from logging, thinning, or other fuel reduction activities in areas with high fire risk would be more than offset by improved forest health and fire-resistance characteristics, the scientists said, which allow more spotted owl habitat to survive in later decades.

Decades of fire suppression and a "hands-off" approach to management on many public lands have created overcrowded forests that bear little resemblance to their historic condition – at the expense of some species such as the northern spotted owl, researchers said.

The findings were published in Forest Ecology and Management, a professional journal, by researchers from Oregon State University and Michigan State University.

"For many years now, for species protection as well as other reasons, we've avoided almost all management on many public forest lands," said John Bailey, an associate professor in the Department of Forest Engineering, Resources and Management at Oregon State University.

"The problem is that fire doesn't respect the boundaries we create for wildlife protection," Bailey said. "Given the current condition of Pacific Northwest forests, the single biggest threat facing spotted owls and other species is probably stand-replacement wildfire."

Next, we will find out that spray cans are needed to save the ozone.  hat tip

Stimulus Accounting Still Meaningless

Via Hit and Run, this can't be said too many times

according to the CBO’s top official, the figures in this report and previous mandatory stimulus don’t actually tell us whether or not the stimulus created jobs. That’s because, as  I’venotedsomanytimesbefore, the reports rerun slightly updated versions of the same models of that were used to estimate that the stimulus would create jobs prior to the law’s passage. And lo and behold, if you create a model that predicts the law will create jobs, and then you rerun a mild variation of that model a few years later using updated figures about what money was actually spent, it still reports that the stimulus created jobs. But there’s no counting here, no real-world attempt to assess the reality of the stimulus—just a model that assumes that stimulus spending will create jobs and therefore reports that stimulus spending has in fact created jobs. As CBO director Douglas Elmendorf confirmed on the record last year in response to a question, “if the stimulus bill did not do what it was originally forecast to do, then that would not have been detected by the subsequent analysis.”

Further, the fact that we can count individual jobs in stimulus programs (of which there are all too few, which is why the Administration doesn't do this), we still have to take into account an offset effect.  The trillion dollars came from somewhere, and in effect were diverted from private to public hands.  To justify the stimulus, one needs to be able to argue that the public use of these funds created more jobs than the private use of these funds.  Good luck with that.

I Don't Think This is Settled

For those who have read my climate work or seen the video, the key question in climate science revolves around the feedback effects in the climate system to Co2 warming.

Skeptics, like alarmists, generally agree that a doubling of Co2 concentrations might warm the Earth about a degree Celsius, absent any other effects.  But we can imagine all sorts of feedback effects, the most important of which are in water vapor and cloud formation.  Warming that forms more clouds might have negative feedback, as clouds offset some of the warming.  Warming that increases humidity could lead to more warming, as water vapor is a strong greenhouse gas.

The difference, then, between minor warming and catastrophe is in the feedbacks, and most importantly in clouds and water vapor.  All the research the government is funding on whether warming will cause sterility in tree frogs is tangential to this key question.

And this question is far from decided.  I won't get into all the arguments here, but to the extent there is any consensus, it is that man' CO2 is probably causing some warming.  Whether this is a catastrophe or a nuisance depends on feedbacks which are not well understood.

This week there has been a lot of interesting back and forth over a paper by Roy Spencer several months ago arguing that cloud feedback was negative and would serve to limit the total amount of man-made warming.  Just how central this issue is can be seen in the fuss this paper has caused, including editors forced to resign for even daring to publish such heresy, and the speed with which a counter-paper flew through peer review.

I won't get into the depths of this, except to show two charts.  The first is from Dessler in the alarmist camp, the second is the same chart but using a different data series.  I won't explain the axes,  just trust the relationship between these two variables is key to diagnosing the size and direction of feedback.

So we get opposite results (the slope of the regression) simply by using temperature and radiative flux data from to different agencies.  And note how thin the fit is in both -- basically drawing a line through a cloud.  Neither of these likely has an R-squared higher than about .05.

So there you have it, the most important question in climate - really, the only important question associated with anthropogenic global warming.  Settled science, indeed.

Another Lesson In Why We Shouldn't Subsidize Sports Teams

The city of Glendale, Arizona (a 250,000 population suburb of Phoenix) continues to pour money into its NHL Hockey Team.  The city has already spent $200 million on a stadium and is trying to find a legal way to hand $100 million to a private individual to buy the team and keep it in Glendale.  But that is not even the end of it:

The Phoenix Coyotes are expected to stay in Glendale at least one more season, with or without a permanent owner, if the City Council pledges another $25 million to the National Hockey League.

The cash would go to offset team and arena losses.....

The pledge is the second financial promise in as many years.

Glendale this week paid $25 million it pledged the league a year ago in hopes of keeping the Coyotes in town until a permanent owner was found.

The city paid this year's $25 million from a utilities-repair account.

It's unclear whether that same fund would be used again and when the city would have to pay.

The NHL says the team and arena lost $37 million last season.

Just to give you a sense of scale, $25 million a year is larger than the city's fire department budget.  It is over $100 for every man, woman, and child in the city, each of the last two years.  Residents of the town are subsidizing a money-losing team mainly enjoyed, to the extent it has fans, by people outside of the city of Glendale.  It is a $25 million city annual expenditure that mainly helps three or four bars and restaurants next to the facility.  Just paying off those obviously politically connected retail owners a few hundred thousand each would be cheaper.

Thought on Wisconsin Protests

Collective bargaining was adopted as a key tactic for labor out of the sense that, by banding together in labor negotiations, workers were able to offset a perceived power imbalance vis a vis employers.  But what happens if the management team on the other side of the table in labor negotiations is not actually an adversary?

We have seen in the last week that the Democratic Party is operating, right up to the US President, as a wholly owned subsidiary of the public employee's unions.  In such a case, where state governments are historically dominated by Democrats, is it any wonder that compensation packages for unions have skyrocketed?  They have been negotiating with themselves!

What if We Bought Into the Light Rail Hype, and Built It For Everyone?

Last year, there were about 3.2 trillion passenger miles driven by urban drivers in cars in the US.  My point about light rail is that we can barely afford it for just a few people, given that we spent $1.3 billion to build a rail line for just 17,000 daily round trip riders in Phoenix.  If it were truly a sustainable technology, it could be applied to all commuters.  But at a national average taxpayer subsidy per light rail passenger mile of about $2**, this means that to roll light rail out to every urban commuter would cost $6.4 trillion a year in government spending, almost half our annual GDP.  If it required the subsidy rates we have in Phoenix per passenger-mile, such a system would cost over $12 trillion  year.  In fact, the numbers would likely be even higher in reality, because light rail in most cities is almost certainly built on the highest populated corridors with the most bang for the buck (though some of the diminishing returns would be offset by network effects).

Light rail only works today because we drain resources from millions of taxpayers to benefit just a few generally middle class commuters.    This is not a model that will scale.

** This includes both service on the debt, which is payment for the original construction costs, as well as annual operating losses.  This subsidy is required essentially forever.  After 20-30 years when the original bonds are paid off, by that time systems generally have to be rebuilt in their entirety   (as folks in places like Washington DC are learning).  There are probably only 5-6 cities in this country that have the urban population densities to make rail systems come even in the ballpark of working financially, and places like Phoenix, Seattle, Houston, Portland and LA are NOT among them.

Quote of the Year

This should be inscribed over the entrance to the Capitol building:

Salutatory goals and creative drafting have never been sufficient to offset an absence of enumerated powers

Unfortunately, they often have.  From the Virginia ruling on the health care bill.

Carbon Offset Scams

I have written before about carbon offset scams -- even well intentioned programs are unlikely to achieve their promised benefits because

  • The projects they fund are typically not incremental -- many likely would have proceeded without the offset funds, so that the benefits are effectively double counted.
  • I have never seen any of these programs submit themselves to 3rd party offset of their supposed CO2 reductions.  In most cases, these are faith-based programs where it is impolite to ask if the promised reductions actually occur.

Randal O'Toole has a good example of a program that makes all these mistakes, and compounds them with absurdly high administrative costs.  One is left to wonder whether the Oregon state-run program is actually reducing CO2 or simply making sure a number of government salaries get paid.

In 2006, Climate Trust spent about two-thirds of its funds on carbon offsets, while most of the rest went for payroll and professional fees. In 2007, the share going to carbon offsets declined to 64 percent. By 2008, as near as I can tell, none of Climate Trust's money went for carbon offsets. Instead, 73 percent of its $1.65 million budget went for salaries, fees, and other compensation. It also spent more than $120,000 on travel and conferences and $95,000 on rent and office expenses. In 2008, Climate Trust paid its executive director $154,000, not counting health insurance and other fringe benefits. At least one other staff member whose title was "director of offset programs" was paid more than $100,000 and a third one received $88,000.

The Government Would Never Be This Short-Term Focused on Quarterly Accounting... NOT

If you have worked in a large corporation, you probably have witnessed some end of quarter or end of year sales push, to buff up the current period's results.  People who buy cars often get the advice to buy at the end of the month or year to take advantage of this motivation.  A great example of this was in the book Barbarians at the Gate, where RJR would load the channel at the end of each quarter with tons of extra inventory to buff up quarterly profits.  Of course, this just creates the incentive next year to load the channel even more to top the previous quarter's profits that were pumped up by loading.

All of this is both rational and irrational.  From a shareholder standpoint it is irrational -- the end of the reporting period is arbitrary and all the company is doing is shifting some sales a few days, rather than generating new ones.  It can even be negative for shareholders, as in the RJR case when loading caused inventory to sit on shelves for longer and get stale and thereby less appealing to customers.   For employees of the company, this can be entirely rational depending on their incentives.  While pulling sales forward to get a better grade or commission for this quarter feels good now, it can make the next quarter harder.  But who knows what will happen in the next quarter?  In a high turnover world, I could be in a new job or new company next quarter.  Anyone who has worked with corporate incentive programs knows that it is impossible to eliminate all the unintended consequences -- all one can do is minimize them.

But supporters of government superiority to private enterprise argue that this is exactly why government is superior, because it does not have these short-term focused goals.  HAH!

Politicians are among the worst at this.  It used to be they would do short term things to get elected, leaving the following election to take care of itself.  Now, they will take short term actions just to dominate the current news cycle.  Next week? That's an eternity, we have problems now.  Every single action taken over the last two years by both this and the previous administration and the current one relative to the economy have been totally short-term focused.  Let's bail everyone out.  Moral hazard?  That's the next administration's problem.  Just look at cash for clunkers, where the government paid $4000 for cars that blue-booked for $1500 all to pull September sales into August.  But they won the news cycle in August!

But the actual reason for my rant is a note I got from the Arizona Department of Revenue.  Apparently they have a program where large filers have to do a special report to pre-pay June sales tax** collections by June 29  (rather than by July 20 when they would usually be due).  As is so often the case, the law has been changed such that a special requirement for large filers had its threshold changed such that small-medium filers like myself also now have to play.  This is a sort of 13th report one must file (we file reports monthly) and the processing of it takes a lot of private time, plus the state has to hire a number of temps and pay overtime to receive this filing.

So why the special requirement?  Well, Arizona is on a July-June fiscal year, so June 29 is just about the end of their fiscal year.  And they are on a cash accounting basis (like most governments) so any cash that comes in the door, even if it is for a pre-payment of a future liability, counts as current period income.  This means that the state is spending a lot of overtime money shifting income by 21 days just to make its current period look better -- just like RJR or any other dynsfunctional private company.

But what makes this even more short term is that it only works once -- the first time.  It will make the first year this trick is applied look better, but then every year after will go back to being the same, with July losses to the prior year offset by June gains from the forthcoming year.  In fact the only way this game can work twice is if the threshold for pre-paying is lowered -- which is why I am having to fill out an extra form and pay a large bill 3 weeks in advance.  Arizona is looking for another one time gain.  And the larger the gain, the harder it will be to unwind this stupid costly process in the future.

** Footnote:  Actually we don't have a sales tax but a "transaction privilege tax."  However, that term gets me so infuriated, as it is based on the premise that private commercial transactions can be made only as a privilege granted by the government, that I refuse to use the term.  Right from the AZ DOR web site:  "the tax is on the privilege of doing business in Arizona."  Barf.  Don't let anyone tell you Arizona is a wild, libertarian, free market state.

It Seems I Was Right About Daylight Savings Time

For years I have said that daylight savings time likely made no sense as an energy saving program.  It was first used back in World War I, when electricity demand was primarily driven by illumination.  At that time, shifting the clock around to better match working hours with sunny hours (ie times with natural light) probably did save electricity.  But today, electricity demands are driven much more heating and cooling.  The same logic no longer holds.  In Arizona, the earlier the sun goes down, the less electricity we have to use when we are home in the evenings to keep the house cool.

It seems that research has confirmed my gut feel:

The result of the study showed that electricity use went up in the counties adopting daylight saving time in 2006, costing $8.6 million more in household electricity bills. The conclusion reached by Kotchen and Grant was that while the lighting costs were reduced in the afternoons by daylight saving, the greater heating costs in the mornings, and more use of air-conditioners on hot afternoons more than offset these savings. Kotchen said the results were more "clear and unambiguous" than results in any other paper he had presented.

Of course, daylight savings time will never go away, because modern environmentalism has become more a matter of making empty feel-good gestures than performing rational acts that actually improve something.

Wherein, To My Great Surprise, I actually Agree with James Hansen

James Hansen wrote an editorial supporting a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and while I don't really agree with all of his justifications or economics, I do agree with his ultimate conclusion --that such a tax would be fairer, more efficient, less growth-killing, and ultimately more effective than the Frankenstein mess of parts that makes up the current cap-and-trade bill.

To be fair, I have been on this point for a while, having advocated a carbon tax offset by a payroll tax reduction to make it revenue neutral for some time, including in my most recent film.  I don't think I have to tell my readers that I am not big on taxes nor am I of the belief that any strong action on CO2 emissions is necessary.

However, I am largely indifferent between a sales tax on fuel and an equal sized sales tax on labor (which is effectively what payroll taxes are).  There is no doubt that a reduction in payroll taxes would be a helpful step in this recession, and if folks would sleep better at night with less carbon emissions, I can tolerate trading one for another.

Jonathon Adler has more, including Paul Krugman's negative reaction to the plan  (did this guy really once win the Nobel Price in economics?)

I Hate to Repeat Myself, But...

Remember this -- a climate bill will have impact on CO2 emissions in direct proportion to how much it raises fossil-fuel-related energy prices.  When supporters of the bill say things like "it won't raise prices very much" they are in effect declaring "this bill will not solve the intended problem."

Below is a map of some of the climate actions being proposed.  As portrayed here, the current cap-and-trade bill is perhaps the worst of all choices, realizing limited gains (as demonstrated by programs in Europe and their supporters own estimates) combined with high costs.  The program is expensive to administer and much of the higher costs to consumers end up as subsidies to large corporations and green pork.

climate-actions

The combination plan of a large carbon tax offset by payroll tax reductions was discussed here.