Posts tagged ‘Paris’

Good God, How Does This Help Anyone Except Perhaps Helping Government Officials Feel Powerful

Via Reason

A Paris appeals court this week ordered the French cosmetics chain Sephora to close its flagship boutique on the iconic Champs Élysées boulevard at 9pm, angering salespeople who say they have freely accepted to work until midnight for years and now risk losing their jobs.

Following a trend among other businesses on Paris's most celebrated street, Sephora began extending its opening hours in 1996. Its designer perfumes, makeup and other cosmetics were, until this week, sold until midnight between Monday and Thursday, and as late as 1am on Friday and Saturday.

Citing labour laws that restrict night-time work, France’s largest unions collectively sued the shop. An administrative court sided with Sephora on December 6, 2012, allowing the cosmetics giant to keep its exceptionally late hours on the Champs-Élysées.

However, the appeals court overturned that decision on Sunday, agreeing with unions that the store’s “normal activity” does not “make night-time work a necessarity,” as the law states.

Shoe on the Other Foot

Just six months ago, governments were criticizing ratings agencies for letting threats by debt security issuers cow them into keeping ratings for bad debt higher than they should be (emphasis added)

Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, Wall Street’s two largest credit rating agencies, were roundly criticized in the Levin-Coburn Senate reportfor betraying investors’ trust and triggering the massive mortgage-backed securities sell-offs that caused the 2008 financial crisis.

Credit rating agencies are supposed to provide independent, third-party credit assessments to help investors understand the risks in buying particular securities, debts and other investment offerings. For example, securities that have earned the highest ‘AAA’ rating from Standard & Poor’s (S&P) should have an “extremely strong capacity to meet financial commitments” or have “a less than 1% probability of incurring defaults.” Investors would use the ratings to help evaluate the securities they’re seeking to buy.

However, the standard practice on Wall Street is fraught with conflicts of interest. In reality, the credit rating agencies have long relied on fees paid by the Wall Street firms seeking ratings for their mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), or other investment offerings. The Levin-Coburn report found the credit agencies “were vulnerable to threats that the firms would take their business elsewhere if they did not get the ratings they wanted. The ratings agencies weakened their standards as each competed to provide the most favorable rating to win business and greater market share. The result was a race to the bottom.” Between 2004 and 2007, the “issuer pay” business model fostered conflicts of interest that have proven disastrous for investors.

I have no problem with this analysis.  But it's ironic in contrast to the very same governments' reactions to their own downgrades over the last 6 months.  In fact, the general government reaction from Washington to Paris has to be to ... wait for it ... threaten the agencies in order to keep their ratings up.  And these threats go farther than just loss of business - when the government issues threats, they are existential.  It's hard to see how the US or French government's behavior vis a vis downgrades has been any different than that of banks or bond issuers that have faced downgrades.

In general, the tone of government officials has been "what gives them the right to do this to us?"  The answer to that question is ... the government.  These self-same governments were generally responsible for mandating that certain investors could only buy certain securities if they are rated.  And not just rated by anyone, but rated by a handful of companies that have been given a quasi-monopoly by the government on this rating business.

US vs. Europe: Standard of Living

NY Times | Paul Krugman | Learning From Europe

Europe's economic success should be obvious even without statistics. For those Americans who have visited Paris: did it look poor and backward? What about Frankfurt or London? You should always bear in mind that when the question is which to believe "” official economic statistics or your own lying eyes "” the eyes have it.

This is just silly.  Its like walking out on a single day and saying, "well, it doesn't seem any hotter to me" as a rebuttal to manmade global warming theory.  I am sure I can walk the tourist and financial districts of a lot of European cities with their triumphal centuries-old architecture and somehow be impressed with their wealth.  But the number of upscale shopping options on the Champs-Élysées has little to do with the standard of living of the average Frenchman.

South Bend Seven put it well:

Okay, where did you go in London? Covent Garden? St. James? Soho? Westminster? The City?

Oh, you didn't go to North Peckham, or Newham, or Hackney? You went to the rich areas of the most prosperous city in the country, and not, I don't know, Liverpool, or Leicester, or Middlesbrough? No, you've never been to those places, have you?

Well several million people live there, and no offense to them, but they're not quite as charming as the tourist districts in London. I don't think they'd look to kindly on some rich American spending a vacation watching the Changing of the Guard and taking in a show on Haymarket and concluding he knows about their country and their life.

This really gets back to my post the other day on triumphalism.  This is EXACTLY why states build pretty high-speed trains and grand municipal buildings and huge triumphal arches  -- as a way to distract both their own citizens (and outsiders) from their own well-being relative to others.  Its the magician waving something shiny around in his left hand to take your eyes off the right.  And it is pathetic that not only does a former Nobel Laureate fall for it, but he doubles down by telling everyone else to fall for it.

Relevant actual data, via Mark Perry (click to enlarge, this is 1999 data from a 2004 Swedish study but I don't think the relative positions have changed):

EUUSAHOUSEHOLDS

Triumphal arches and high-speed trains don't make people wealthy.  Wal-Mart has done far more to make the average person wealthier than any number of government projects you can mention.

Along these lines, I have said for years that one of the reasons we spend more on health care than Europe is because we can.  We are wealthier, and (rationally in my mind) people choose to spend this incremental wealth on their health and well-being.

The Timeless Appeal of Triumphalism

What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects?  Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.  First it was Thomas Friedman, and now its Joel Epstein in the Huffpo, eulogizing China.    These are the same folks who tried, disastrously, to emulate Mussolini's "forward-thinking" economic regime in the National Industrial Recovery Act.    These are the same folks who wanted to emulate MITI's management of the Japanese economy (which drove them right into a 20-year recession).  These are the same folks who oohed and ahhed over the multi-billion dollar Beijing Olympics venues while ignoring the air that was unbreathable.  These are the same folks who actually believed the one Cuban health clinic in Sicko actually represented the standard of care received by average citizens.  To outsiders, the costs of these triumphal programs are often not visible, at least not until years or decades later when the rubes have moved on to new man crushes.

Epstein, like Friedman, seems to think that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds much more stuff.  We are "asleep."  Well, I have a big clue for him.  Most of the great progress in this country was built when the government was asleep.  The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry  -  all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

Epstein in particular thinks we need to build more trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that Epstein in fact does not have the dictatorial powers he longs for.   High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution.   But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this:  The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China's, 1/8 of Germany's).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe is not even close.

modalsplieuusjapan (source)

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail -- not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes.   Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars.  Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make an energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full.  I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel -- especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

The real efficiency comes from moving freight.  More of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves.  Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail.    One reasons for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

Freight is boring and un-sexy.  Its not a government function in the US.  So intellectuals tend to ignore it, even though it is the far more important, from and energy and environmental standpoint, portion of transport to put on the rails.  In fact, the US would actually probably have even a higher rail modal percentage if the US government had not enforced a regulatory regime (until the Staggers Act) that favored trucks over rail.   If the government really had been asleep the last century, we would be further along.

The US has not been "asleep"  -- at least the private individuals who drive progress have not.  We have had huge revolutions in transportation over the last decades during the same period that European nations were sinking billions of dollars into pretty high-speed passenger rails systems for wealthy business travelers.   One such revolution has been containerization, invented here in the US and quickly spreading around the world.  Containerization has revolutionized shipping, speeding schedules and reducing costs (and all the while every improvement step was fought by the US and certain local governments).  To the extent American businesses are not investing today, it has more to do with regime uncertainty, not knowing what new taxes or restrictions are coming next from Congress, than any lack of vision.

I would argue that the US has the world's largest commitment to rail where it really matters.  But that is what private actors do, make investments that actually make sense rather than just gain one prestige (anyone know the most recent company Warren Buffet has bought?)  The greens should be demanding that the world emulate us, rather than the other way around.  But the lure of shiny bullet trains and grand passenger concourses will always cause folks like Epstein to swoon.

Update #2: The author Joel Epstein emailed me a response to this post.  I will give it to you in its entirety:  "You should get out of the country more often."  Wow, he played the provincial American card on me.  Except that I have been to about 20 countries, from Singapore to Argentina to Hungary.  Besides, I really don't understand what the hell he means by this in the context of my post, except as a bid for some sort of intellectual superiority.   Anyone else understand?

Postscript

Boring, but environmentally friendly and cost-effective:

10.9.2004-04

Sexy, but environmentally useless (at best) and tremendously costly:

high-speed-rail21

So, explain to me what drives these guys investment thinking.  Can it be anything but triumphalism?

Update: Energy use comparison of passenger modes. Note how close rail transit and cars, both at average occupancies, are in this analysis.  The differences in freight are much larger:

transenergy

Where are the "Defend the Border" Folks When You Really Need Them

Via Valley Fever:

There is an unwanted phenomenon happening in California, and Arizona is being pegged to clean up the mess: Chihuahuas -- lots of them.

California is seeing an influx of chihuahuas popping up at animal shelters and it's becoming too much for the state to handle.

Rather than take these unwanted pooches out back, and deal with them Old Yeller style, California shelters are pawning these rat-dogs off on the Grand Canyon State....

Shelter officials are associating the rise in the abandoned pooches to celebutards like Paris Hilton, who popularized the use of animals as fashion accessories. When the reality of having to care for the dogs kicked in, it proved to be too much for a lot of wanna-be heiresses and they dropped the quivering canines off at animal shelters.

According to California shelter officials, more than 100 of the dogs have been driven to other states, Arizona included, for shelters there to deal with because in most states, abandoned chihuahuas are hard to come by.

Instead of stopping human beings from seeking a better life in the United States, maybe the Minutemen can be convinced to fight a real border threat.

Non-Surprise of the Day

Wow, who would have predicted this (other than everybody)?

The latest French utopia (Vélib', Paris's bicycle rental system) has met a prosaic reality: Many of the specially designed bikes, which cost $3,500 each, are showing up on black markets in Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Many others are being spirited away for urban joy rides, then ditched by roadsides, their wheels bent and tires stripped.

With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program's organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them. And along with the dent in the city-subsidized budget has been a blow to the Parisian psyche, as not everyone shares the spirit of joint public property promoted by Paris's Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë.

At least 8,000 bikes have been stolen and 8,000 damaged so badly that they had to be replaced "” nearly 80 percent of the initial stock. JCDecaux must repair some 1,500 bicycles a day. The company maintains 10 repair shops and a workshop on a boat that moves up and down the Seine.

It is commonplace now to see the bikes at docking stations in Paris with flat tires, punctured wheels or missing baskets. Some Vélib's have been found hanging from lampposts, dumped in the Seine, used on the streets of Bucharest or resting in shipping containers on their way to North Africa. Some are simply appropriated and repainted.

I guess I can understand why there might be some confusion. After all, it only has been for about 200 years or so that we have really understood this kind of problem in economic terms and about 4000 years that we have understood it in practical terms. Maybe the French have not heard of it because they are still debating what French word to use for "the tragedy of the commons.'

A Bad Day To Get Sympathy From Me Over This

Apparently, Washington DC politicians think that it is an economic disaster that there are ... too many competitors in the taxicab business.

The District's open, all-are-invited taxicab industry is so saturated with drivers that the entire enterprise is threatened, according to a D.C. Council member who has filed a bill to cap the number of cabs allowed on city streets.

Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham introduced legislation Tuesday to limit the number of taxicabs in D.C. through either a medallion system, like ones used in New York City and Chicago, or a certification system.

The soaring number of taxicab operators in D.C. "” roughly 8,000, most of whom own their own cars "” is a "pressing and urgent problem," Graham said. There are more licensed drivers in D.C. per capita than any place in the world, he said, and new applicants continue to take the required class, giving them access to the driver exam administered by the D.C. Taxicab Commission. A glut of drivers could jeopardize the chances of any cabbies making an adequate living, Graham has said.

After spending an entire hour trying to get a cab in the middle of a sunny day in Paris, I have not very sympathetic.  Another example of how government licensing is almost always aimed at protecting incumbent businesses from competition, rather than helping the consumer.

Don't Get Uppity

I have always wondered how people could describe European countries as more egalitarian than the US.  Yeah, I know the income distribution tends to be flatter, but that is almost entirely because the rich are richer in the US rather than the poor being poorer.  But pure income distribution has always seemed like a terrible way to make comparisons.  My perception has always been that class lines in Europe are much harder than they are in the US.  The elites in Europe have made a sort of arrangement in which they pay off the masses with an income floor and low work expectations in turn for making sure that none of the masses can in turn challenge their elite status or join their ranks.  The government protects large corporations form competition, foreign or domestic.  The government protects existing laborers against new entrants into the labor market.  The government makes it virtually impossible for the average guy to start a business.  The result is a lower and middle class who won't or can't aspire to breaking out of their class.  Elites are protected, and no one seems to care very much when political elites enrich themselves through public office and then entrench themselves and their families in the power system.  This, presumably, is why the American political class thinks so much of the European model.

Bryan Caplan writes via Marginal Revolution:

In the U.S., we have low gas taxes, low car taxes, few tolls, strict zoning that leads developers to provide lots of free parking, low speed limits, lots of traffic enforcement, and lots of congestion.

In Europe (France and Germany specifically), they have high gas
taxes, high car taxes, lots of tolls, almost no free parking, high
speed limits (often none at all), little traffic enforcement, and very
little congestion. (The only real traffic jam I endured in Europe was
trying to get into Paris during rush hour. I was delayed about 30
minutes total).

If you had to pick one of these two systems, which would you prefer?
Or to make the question a little cleaner, if there were two otherwise
identical countries, but one had the U.S. system and the other had the
Euro system, where would you decide to live?

Much as it pains me to admit, I would choose to live in the country
with the Euro system. If you're at least upper-middle class, the
convenience is worth the price. Yes, this is another secret way that
Europe is better for the rich, and the U.S. for everyone else.

Far Be It For Me To Disagree, But...

I love Arizona and the Phoenix area.  However, I thought the NY Times listing of Scottsdale as one of the #9 place to visit this summer to be a bit odd.  Next up will be the suggestion to visit Buffalo in February.  Yes, there are a lot of screaming deals at luxury hotels with great spas, so if want two days of spa treatments and proximity to lots of good restaurants, go for it.  But expect to find something like Paris in August (but with better attitudes).  You may be here but we'll all be gone, if we can afford it.  Typical summer temperatures every day are 108-112F, with occasional excursions higher into territory that is stupid-hot.  Yeah, its dry heat, and that is exactly what we tell our turkey every Thanksgiving.  And yeah, the wind blows a bit -- feels just like a hair dryer. 

Immigration and Welfare

Well, I should be skiing right this moment, but my son woke up barfing this morning, making it a perfect 15 of the last 15 family trips where one of my kids has gotten sick. 

But the ski lodge is nice, and the wireless works great, and Q&O has a very interesting post on immigration and welfare.

High unemployment among immigrants is of course not confined to just
Sweden or Scandinavia. Throughout Europe, governments have found that
well-intentioned social insurance policies can lead to lasting welfare
dependence, especially among immigrants. Belgium is the European
country with the highest difference in employment rates between the
foreign-born and natives. The images of burning cars in the suburbs of
Paris that were broadcast around the world illustrate the kind of
social and economic problems France is facing with its restive
immigrant population.

Given the high barriers to entry, many
immigrants in Europe no longer start accumulating essential language
and labor market skills. This is in stark contrast with the situation
across the Atlantic. For example, in 2000, Iranians in the U.S. had a
family income that was 42% above the U.S. average. The income of
Iranian immigrants in Sweden, however, was 39% below the country's
average.

Lots of interesting stuff there.  Which reminds me of something I wrote years ago:

In the 1930's, and continuing to this day, something changed
radically in the theory of government in this country that would cause
immigration to be severely limited and that would lead to much of the
current immigration debate.  With the New Deal, and later with the
Great Society and many other intervening pieces of legislation, we
began creating what I call non-right rights.  These newly described
"rights" were different from the ones I enumerated above.  Rather than
existing prior to government, and requiring at most the protection of
government, these new rights sprang forth from the government itself
and could only exist in the context of having a government.  These
non-right rights have multiplied throughout the years, and include
things like the "right" to a minimum wage, to health care, to a
pension, to education, to leisure time, to paid family leave, to
affordable housing, to public transportation, to cheap gasoline, etc.
etc. ad infinitum....

These non-right rights all share one thing in common:  They require
the coercive power of the government to work.  They require that the
government take the product of one person's labor and give it to
someone else.  They require that the government force individuals to
make decisions in certain ways that they might not have of their own
free will. 

And since these non-right rights spring form and depend on
government, suddenly citizenship matters in the provision of these
rights.  The government already bankrupts itself trying to provide all
these non-right rights to its citizens  -- just as a practical matter,
it can't afford to provide them to an unlimited number of new
entrants.  It was as if for 150 years we had been running a very
successful party, attracting more and more guests each year.  The party
had a cash bar, so everyone had to pay their own way, and some people
had to go home thirsty but most had a good time.  Then, suddenly, for
whatever reasons, the long-time party guests decided they didn't like
the cash bar and banned it, making all drinks free.  But they quickly
learned that they had to lock the front doors, because they couldn't
afford to give free drinks to everyone who showed up.  After a while,
with the door locked and all the same people at the party, the whole
thing suddenly got kind of dull.

Public Relations Suicide by Essent Healthcare

Here they go again.  Another company is attempting to commit public relations suicide by blowing up the negative commentary of a small, low-traffic blogger into a national story.

An unlikely Internet frontier is Paris, Texas, population 26,490,
where a defamation lawsuit filed by the local hospital against a
critical anonymous blogger is testing the bounds of Internet privacy,
First Amendment freedom of speech and whistle-blower rights.

A state district judge has told lawyers for the hospital and the
blogger that he plans within a week to order a Dallas Internet service
provider to release the blogger's name. The blogger's lawyer, James
Rodgers of Paris, said Tuesday he will appeal to preserve the man's
anonymity and right to speak without fear of retaliation.

Rodgers said the core question in the legal battle is whether a
plaintiff in a lawsuit can "strip" a blogger of anonymity merely by
filing a lawsuit. Without some higher standard to prove a lawsuit has
merit, he said, defamation lawsuits could have a chilling effect on
Internet free speech.

"Anybody could file a lawsuit and say, 'I feel like I've been defamed. Give me the name,' " Rodgers said.

The blog about problems at Essent Healthcare is here, called The-Paris-Site.

Interestingly, the hospital, owned by a company called Essent Healthcare, appears to be using the medical privacy act HIPPA as a bludgeon to try to stifle criticism.  To make a case against the hospital, general criticisms about poor care and medical mistakes are best backed up with real stories.  But the hospital is in effect saying that real stories can't be used, since doing so violates HIPPA.  I don't know if this is or is not a correct application of HIPPA, but it is a danger of HIPPA that I and others warned about years ago.  The hospital goes on hilariously about how they are not really worried about the damage to their reputation, but for the poor patients whose medical details ended up in the blogger's hands.  Memo to health care workers in the future:  If you think the hospital screwed up my care, you have my blanket permission to release the details of said screw-up.

Before starting my own company, I have worked in a number of senior jobs at publicly traded companies and a few soon-to-be-f*cked Internet ventures.  In several of these cases, I and my fellow managers came in for pretty rough and profane criticism.  In many cases the posts were hilarious, positing well-oiled multi-year conspiracies from a management team that was just trying to survive the day.  Most of us were pretty rational about these sites - the more you try to respond to them, the more attention you give them.  The best response is to ignore them except maybe on Friday night when you can drink some beers and laugh out loud reading the commentary.  But there were always a few folks whose ego just got inflamed by the comments, even though they were seen by maybe 12 people worldwide.  They wanted to put a stop to the commenters.

I am sure that this is what is happening here.  Because any good PR person who has been in the business for more than 5 minutes would tell you that the worst thing you could do for a critic with a small audience is to a) turn them into a martyr and b) increase their audience about a million-fold.  These guys at Essent are just nuts, and in the heat of ego preservation are in the process of making a massive mistake.

I am reminded of TJIC's response when a lawyer threatened to file a BS copyright suit against him:

With regards to your statement that you've been "looking forward for a
class action lawsuit on a case like this", I, too, would enjoy such a
lawsuit. The publicity that we would derive from defeating your firm in
court over a baseless allegation of copyright infringement, brought
about by a law firm and a lawyer that does not understand the First
Sale doctrine, and which are entirely ignorant of the Supreme Court
case law on the topic, would be of incalculable value to us, and would
be a very cost efficient way to further publicize our service.

Hat Tip to Overlawyered for the link.

Update: The blogger appears to have been around since 2005.  The article said that as of June, or after about 2 years of operation, he had 170,000-ish page views.  He now appears to be at about 230,000 just three months later and only a few weeks after the story went public.  Q.E.D.

Update #2:  I forgot to include my opinion on the case.  There has got to be some higher legal bar to be cleared to strip the anonymity of a blogger than just asking for it to happen during discovery on a lawsuit.  If the legislature is not going to establish this bar, then a higher court is going to have to do so. 

More Vista Suckage

The laptop I bought my kids 6 months ago is rapidly becoming the worst purchase I have ever made.  Not because the laptop is bad, but because of a momentary lack of diligence I bought one with Vista installed.  It has been a never-ending disaster trying to get this computer to work.  A while back, I put XP on a partition and my kids spend most of their time on XP since, well, it works.  Vista does not.  It is the Paris Hilton of OS's -- looks pretty but does not work.

In particular, the networking is an enormous step backwards from XP.  The wireless networking was a real pain to get set up in the first place, in contrast to XP and my wife's Mac which both worked and connected from the moment the power switch turned on. 

Now, we are getting two new errors.  First, at random times, the computer will stop being able to connect to the internet.  It will have a good wireless signal, and see other computers on the network fine, and the other computers on the network will see the internet, but Vista does not.  Just rebooted the computer into the XP partition, and XP sees the Internet fine -- its just Vista that is broken.

Second, and perhaps even more inexcusable, I have to reinstall the printer driver in Vista at nearly every log on.  There is a bug in Vista such that laptops that move off the network and come back will find that the network printers are now marked "offline" and there is nothing one can do to bring them online short of reinstalling the drivers.  Really.  I thought I was doing something wrong, but searching the web this is a known problem.  None of the suggested workarounds are working for me.

Vista is rapidly becoming the New Coke of operating systems.  I have had every version of windows on my computer at one time or another, including Windows 1.0 and the egregious Windows ME, and I can say with confidence Vista is the worst of them all by far.  More: corporate demand for upgrading to XP from Vista;  DRM hell in Vista;  how I set up dual-booting on a Vista machine; and what happened to the File menu?

Looks like the XP partition is soon going to be the only partition.  But recognize how serious this step is:  Laptops, unlike desktops, have more model-specific device drivers.  For example, instead of one Nvidia graphics driver for all cards, you tend to need the driver for your specific card in your specific computer model.   The computer I have has never and will never publish XP drivers.  I have found drivers that work for XP for most things, but not for sound.  So I will be giving up a substantial piece of functionality -- sound-- in exchange for never having to swear at Vista again.

Nominations for the Worlds Biggest Failure

Forget Scott Norwood, or Bill Buckner, or even Susan Lucci.  I nominate Paris Hilton's parents.

Paris Hilton Is a Better Investor than Harvard MBA

New SEC rules being drafted by the Bush administration are set to declare that Paris Hilton is a fully "accredited investor" with full freedom to invest in any way she likes.  I, who graduated near the top of my class at Harvard Business School, shall likewise be declared not capable of investing and the government will limit my options "for my own good"

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has just proposed
that the amount of liquid net worth an individual must have before
investing in hedge funds and other so-called risky investments be
raised to as much as $2.5 million.

The largest program the government has for protecting us from our own investing incompetence is called Social Security, which takes retirement savings from us by force and has the government invest it for us.   As I showed in previous posts, Social Security is returning -0.8% a year on our savings.  Thank god the government is investing this money for us - no way I could have beaten a -0.8% a year return during the greatest 20-year bull market of all time.

Tinfoil Hat Observation:  I use Google search to find old posts on my site.  Usually it is flawless.  For some reason, though, my post titled Social Security Ripoff is not indexed by Google.  A follow-up post on the same day is indexed, as you can see from this search, but not the original.  I have never failed to pull up a post before, even with inexact search words, and have never failed with the exact title in the search.  Weird.   Maybe something in the comments, I will have to check.

CEO Pay

Apparently, the Democratic Congress is trying to "take on" high executive pay with some kind of punitive taxation plan.  This fits well into a class of legislation I would describe as "useless at best, probably counter-productive, but of high symbolic value to our base," something to which both parties are unbelievably susceptible.

I'm confused, by the way, about why exactly I should care how much CEOs are paid, particularly for executives that don't work for companies in which I own stock?  I don't think Paris Hilton, George Clooney, or the CEO of Home Depot are worth what they are paid, but I don't know how it affects me except perhaps for some simmering envy.  Does anyone with above a 5th grade education really believe that they will pay one cent less for gas or a refinery worker will make one dollar more if the CEO of Shell is paid less?

I do understand why the shareholders of Home Depot might be pissed off about what they were paying their CEO, or more accurately, what they paid him to go away.  I am sure the Arizona Cardinals felt the same way about Dennis Green.  Now, if Democrats wanted to suggest that shareholder voting and corporate governance rules needed to be amended to make it easier for shareholders to hold managers accountable for bad decisions and to overrule sweetheart deals between buddies on the board, I am very open to listening.

Update: Children in European Restaurants

Not really forewarned about this social trend in advance, my family was surprised to find that many restaurants in smaller English towns would not let us in with our children.  I wrote about the strange Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang-esque reactions we got to our children here.

Reader Tom Van Horn sends in this update from Newsweek:

a recent British study showed a house's value drops by 5 percent if
neighbors move in with teenage kids. Hotels are catering to the
childless, too; Italy's La Veduta country resort promises, "Your Tuscan
holiday will not be shattered by the clamor of children." In Rome, many
restaurants make it clear that children are not welcome"”in some cases
by establishing themselves as "clubs," where members must be older than
18 to join.

*shrug*  There are times when my wife and I like to get away from kids too, and we have a couple of them.  I know a few couples who have chosen to remain childless and I can assure you they are sick and tired of being asked about their childlessness like it was some kind of disease.  I am sure they will welcome a sense of normalcy for their chosen way to live.  Combining this trend with my observation that Parisians will take their dog anywhere, it is probably not long before there are public places in Paris where dogs are welcome but kids are not.

That doesn't mean that everyone shares my willingness to let folks live in peace like they choose.  Certain politicians around Europe seem to want to intervene (and isn't that why people become politicians in the first place -- to force other people into making choices that they would not have made for themselves?)

Politicians and religious leaders warn darkly of an "epidemic" of
childlessness that saps the moral fiber of nations; they blame the
child-free for impending population decline, the collapse of pension
systems and even the rise in immigration. In Japan, commentators have
identified the "parasite single" who lives off society instead of doing
his duty to start a family

In Germany, where the childless rate is the
highest in the world, at 25 percent, the best-seller lists have been
full of tomes forecasting demographic doomsday. In "Minimum," the
conservative commentator Frank Schirrmacher describes a "spiral of
childlessness," where a declining population becomes ever more
reluctant to have kids. Media reports have stigmatized the "cold career
woman""”one such recent article came with mug shots of childless female
celebs"”accusing them of placing their jobs before kids. Never mind that
Germany trails its neighbors in the availability of child care, or the
amount of time men spend helping around the house.

From
Germany to Russia, there is increasing talk of sanctions against the
childless. In Slovakia, a leading adviser on the government's Strategic
Council on Economic Development proposed in March to replace an
unpopular payroll tax with a levy on all childless Slovaks between the
ages of 25 and 50. In Russia, where the birthrate has dropped from 2.3
in the 1980s to 1.3 today, a powerful business lobby has called for an
income-tax surcharge on childless couples. In Germany, economists and
politicians have demanded that public pensions for the childless be
slashed by up to 50 percent"”never mind that such pensions were invented
as an alternative to senior citizens' having to depend on their
offspring.

Botox and Boob Jobs

I am sure that, since I sort-of live in Scottsdale, you have all been waiting for me to comment on this:

  It started out small, with people all across the country nicknaming this city "Snottsdale."

Then came the reality television show about a local women's book club
where members spend almost no time delving into fine literature but
endless hours discussing Botox, marrying for money and the latest
fashions.

Soon after began the headlines about America's most
famous porn queen buying a Scottsdale strip club and the city's rapid
response: an ordinance that would prohibit dancers from being closer
than 4 feet from clients.

And then--as if all that hadn't been
enough--a guy from Las Vegas carpetbagged into town and opened a
restaurant named after a not-to-be-mentioned-in-polite-company part of
the female anatomy.

I say that I sort-of live in Scottsdale, because I actually live in neighboring Paradise Valley, another suburb of Phoenix, but since almost all the famous people listed in the article as Scottsdale residents actually live in PV, I guess I must count as Scottsdale too.

Anyway, here is my comment:  I think it is freaking hilarious.  Any city that actually spends tax money and chamber of commerce funds to advertise itself nationally as a rich enclave deserves what it gets.  If you try to advertise yourself as the next Beverly Hills 90210, you shouldn't be surprised when the media treats you like, well, Beverly Hills 90210. 

I will say that growing up in Houston and living in Dallas for years has somewhat immunized me to the hijinx of the tacky biologically-augmented nouveau riche.  While those who grew up in the Scottsdale that was the quiet horse town seem to be pretty bent out of shape by the town's new reputation, I don't see many of them complaining about the increases they have had of late in their real estate values.  And if the rich scene is more like Paris Hilton than like a Literary Lions Ball at the Met, well, at least it has some entertainment value.  (Though not too much, since CBS is cancelling their reality show).

The best feature of Scottsdale has to be school functions, because Scottsdale does lead the nation on the hot mom index.  I remember when we first moved here both my wife and I were floored at the women at the first school function we attended.  Heck, I still volunteer to drive the kids to school in the morning.  And don't even get me started about women at the Phoenix Open -- there is a reason the tournament is still a favorite among tour players despite the roudy crowds.

In conclusion, returning to the article, I couldn't have said it better than this:

"Oh, get over it," she said. "So what
if people want to make fun of us? Every city has its own particular
brand of strangeness. For some it may be gangs or drugs or troubled
youth. We just happen to have some over-Botoxed blonds with oversexed
tendencies."

Indentured Employertude

Per the BBC News:

More than 160 people were arrested after clashes erupted
in eastern Paris following a day of largely peaceful demonstrations
across France.

Vehicles were set on fire and stores were damaged as masked youths clashed with police.

Twenty-four people, including seven police officers, were injured in the violence, which lasted about six hours.

So what is the provocation?  Are youth being drafted to go to war?  Are fundamental civil rights being taken away?  No, the reason for millions of people on the street and outbreaks of violence is...

Protesters are bitterly opposed to the new law, which
allows employers to end job contracts for under-26s at any time during
a two-year trial period without having to offer an explanation or give
prior warning.

The government says it will encourage employers to hire
young people but students fear it will erode job stability in a country
where more than 20% of 18 to 25-year-olds are unemployed - more than
twice the national average.

 Oh my god, its, its....at-will employment.  Head to the barricades!

In reality, what has happened is that Europe has invented a new type of indentured servitude that works in reverse.  If you remember you history, poor Europeans bought their passage to America in the 16th and 17th century by essentially enslaving themselves for a fixed but finite (as opposed to African slavery) period of time.  They got to come to America, but were forced to work for the same employer without the ability to quit for seven years.

The French have taken this same concept, and flipped it on its head.  If an employer hires someone, the employer is prevented by law from ever firing that person.  In effect, an employer enslaves himself to every employee he hires.  Which might just explain why unemployment is so high over there.  I call it indentured employertude. 

These recent riots also turn history on its head.  In the past, many countries with legalized slavery have faced devastating slave riots and uprisings.  In this case, though, it is not the slaves (employers) doing the rioting to be freed, it is the slave holders (ie the employees) rioting to keep the employers captive.

Is France a total loss?

Intifada or Welfare State Fallout?

Rioting in the immigrant-heavy, Muslim-heavy quarters of France continues

The unrest started last Thursday when angry
youths protested the accidental deaths of two teenagers in
Clichy-sous-Bois, who were electrocuted when they jumped a wall
surrounding a high-voltage electrical transformer while fleeing police. The
anger spread across the housing projects that dominate many of Paris'
northern and northeastern suburbs, which are marked by soaring
unemployment, delinquency and a sense of despair.

The
rioting has grown into a broader challenge for the French state. It has
laid bare discontent simmering in suburbs where immigrants "” many of
them African Muslims "” and their French-born children are trapped by
poverty, unemployment, discrimination, crime and poor education and
housing.

There are those who want to call this the beginning of a new European Intifada, a war of Muslims against non-Muslims.  They want to portray these riots in the same context as Islamic terrorism and Al Qaeda. 

Call me slow, but I just haven't seen evidence that the recent violence in Paris has religious overtones.  Maybe it is under-reported, but I haven't seen any targeting of Christians or Jews or Jewish Temples and such that one might expect in intifada-type violence. 

So far, a better explanation seems to be that these neighborhoods have been the victim of of the current form of Euro-socialism.  In this economic model, a whole collection of laws make it very expensive for companies to hire anyone.  If you do hire anyone, you have to pay them a very high salary, give them a fat package of benefits, weeks and weeks of paid vacation, and they only have to work 36 hours a week for you.  And, if the person doesn't do a good job, too bad because it is nearly impossible to fire them.  This may appear to be a great system for those who already have a job, but for the unemployed, the young, and the unskilled, it is a disaster.  Who in their right mind is going to take a chance on a young, unskilled employee who you have to pay a fortune and who you can't fire if they aren't any good.  And in particular, who is ever going to hire a young, unskilled immigrant for a job in France?

The answer is no one, which is possibly another reason for the rioting.  France has an unemployment rate that has hovered around 10% for years, but the unemployment rate for those under 25 years old is a truly shocking 23% and I would bet the unemployment rate for young immigrants may be as high as 40-50%. 

In the US, we have gone through phases of this same type of economic thinking.  A big part of motivation behind the original passage of minimum wage law, including the recently famous Davis-Bacon law, was to protect skilled white laborers against wage competition from blacks and immigrants.  Fortunately, the US has always stopped short of the radically distorting labor market laws they have in Europe, but new efforts in this country to raise minimum wages and generally make it harder for immigrants to enter the labor market should worry all of us, particularly those of us in immigrant heavy states like Arizona.

Alien and Sedition Acts Return

I fear that this administration has effectively reenacted the much-hated Alien and Sedition Acts of the early 19th century.  Using the "war" on terror as its excuse, the Bush administration is rapidly expanding its ability to grab and hold people indefinitely without charge or trial.  This is not a huge surprise -- many presidents have tried to do similar things in time of war or in reaction to internal security threats.  Much of the Patriot Act was originally proposed by Bill Clinton, after all.

What is new is that the courts and the opposition party are letting him get away with it.

The Sept. 9 court ruling concerning Jose Padilla, an
American citizen locked up in a military prison in South Carolina for
three years, is a case in point. The ruling should send shockwaves
through the American public since the decision seriously undermines
constitutional rights.

A federal appellate court ruled that constitutional rules
that apply to the police do not apply to military personnel.... The federal
government has been given a green light to deprive Americans of their
rights to due process. No arrest warrants. No trial. No access to the
civilian court system. You may not be able to see it on television, but
this court decision is the equivalent of a legal hurricane-and it is no
exaggeration to say that this is a level 5 storm with respect to its
potential havoc for civil liberties.

Federal agents arrested Padilla at O'Hare International
Airport in Chicago just after he arrived on a flight from Pakistan. The
feds claim that Padilla fought against U.S. troops in Afghanistan,
escaped to Pakistan and returned to the United States to perpetrate
acts of terrorism for al-Queda. Instead of prosecuting Padilla for
treason and other crimes, President Bush declared Padilla an "enemy
combatant" and ordered that he be held incommunicado and interrogated
by military and intelligence personnel.
Padilla has not yet had an opportunity to tell his side of
the story. For two years the government would not even permit Padilla
to meet with his court-appointed attorney, Donna Newman. Newman has
nevertheless defended Padilla's rights, arguing that the president does
not have the power to imprison Americans without trials.

Bush has not made any dramatic televised address to the
country to explain his administration's attempt to suspend habeas
corpus and the Bill of Rights, but his lawyers have been quietly
pushing a sweeping theory of executive branch power in legal briefs
before our courts.

I actually am fairly radical on this - I don't think the fact that he is a citizen or not should even make a difference.  Citizenship does not confer rights, and governments don't hand them out -- rights are ours based on the fact of our existence.   While some of the rules of due process may change for non-citizens, just the fact that they are from a different country doesn't give us the right to lock them in a room indefinitely.  This is why I support free and open immigration - there is no reason why a person born in Mexico should have fewer rights to contract with me for a job or a home than an American citizen.  The right to associate, to contract, to agree on wages, to buy a particular home, all flow from being human, not from the US government.

So I wouldn't support Padilla's treatment if he was a Iranian citizen and I certainly don't support it for an American.  Yeah, I know, he may be a bad person.  But we let bad, dangerous people out of jail every day.  Our legal system is structured based on the premise that it is worse to lock an innocent person away than let a guilty person go free.  Its a trade-off that we have made for hundreds of years and I for one am pretty comfortable with.

I also get the argument that we are at war -- in Iraq.  If someone is captured in Iraq, that may be another story.  But Chicago is not in the war zone, by any historic definition of that term (unless you want to use WWII Japanese internment as a precedent, which I doubt).  Just calling it a "war on terror" does not make Chicago a war zone any more than declaring a "war on drugs" makes Miami a war zone where suspected drug users can be put in jail without trial.  Perhaps if Bush could get Congress to officially declare war, he might have firmer legal footing, but I don't think that's going to happen.  As I wrote here:

Yes, I know that there is a real risk, in fact a certainty, that
dangerous people will be let out on the street.  But that is the bias
of our entire legal system - the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard
and other protections of the accused routinely put bad people back on
the street.  We live with that, because we would rather err in putting
bad people back on the street than in putting good people behind bars
for life.  Give them a trial, deport them, or let them go.  Heck,
airdrop them into Paris for all I care, but you have to let them get
due process or go free.

Sure, terrorists are using our free and open society against us, and its frustrating.  But what's the alternative?  I just don't think there is a viable alternative which says that we should destroy our open society in order to save it.  We've got to learn to be smart enough to work within the rules, and it may be that we have to expect that in the future our freedom comes at some statistical increase in the danger to ourselves (by the way, isn't that exactly the trade-off we have enforced on Iraq, without even asking them -- citizens are much freer that under Saddam but at  an increased risk of terrorism?).

By the way - where the hell is Congress?  Stop grandstanding in confirmation hearings and get to work reigning this stuff in.

Some Final Observations from Paris (with Pictures!)

Its good to be back in the USA, though my wife and I had a great time in Paris.  In the extended post, I have some pictures from our trip.  However, don't expect any tourist sites.  My business-related travelogue includes pictures of a gas station, a few cool new cars, my restaurant bill from hell, and other stuff...

Continue reading ‘Some Final Observations from Paris (with Pictures!)’ »

Best Wishes to London

My best wishes to the people of London today.  London is perhaps my favorite city in the world.  Only a coin flip with my wife put us on the Paris metro rather than the London underground yesterday, so the bombings hit close to home.  This is only the second time in five years my wife and I have gotten away without the kids for more than a day -- the first was a trip to Manhattan from September 9-13, 2001.  Maybe we should notify Homeland Security when we make our travel plans next time.  I know my mom is getting exasperated with worrying about me near major attacks.

More Observations from Paris

  • I got tripped up today by my American expectations.  The hotel had this little breakfast buffet in the lobby.  It had some coffee and juice and a few croissants.  It was not nearly as nice as the free breakfast at a Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express, but it was still a quick and easy way to eat and get out the door.  OOOPPSS.  My wife and I got hit with a bill for 52 euros, or over $65, because we grabbed some coffee and pastries off the buffet.  Bummer.
  • Service is a strange thing here.  I try fairly hard to submerge my ugly-American impatient tendencies.  I know to expect that meals will be paced much slower here, and have come to enjoy that pace, at least on vacation.  Shopping, though, is another story.  I still just want to get the stuff I want, pay for it, and go.  I have made the following observations about French service:  When you have a service person's attention, they will serve you for as long as you need, chatting about the product and about your life, for hours if necessary.  The problem is, that they will do this even if 10 other people are waiting to be served.  The lines here are awful, and you have to wait in them for everything.  Women in the US complain about bathroom lines at sporting events, but the women's rooms here have lines all the time, everywhere.  Even my wife the europhile is getting fed up with 45 minute transaction times
  • We chose to blow it out one night, and have a top notch French meal at a top restaurant.  We ended up spending a ridiculous sum, more than half the people in the world make in a year, for one meal.  It would embarrass me to spend so much consistently (heck it embarasses me this once), especially since there are equally fine meals out there for 1/4 or less the price.  Also, we were actually nervous for the first 20 minutes - is that nuts?  But there is nothing in the world that can make an American like me who knows the McDonald's value meal numbers by heart nervous like a great French restaurant.  We eventually got into the spirit of the once in a lifetime experience, enough that we were laughing pretty loud about the little fried goldfish we got for appetizers.
  • By the way, condolences for the French and the Olympics.  Paris would make a fine venue.  The only real mar in the city's beauty is that it has a real trash and dog poop problem on the streets (no scoop laws here, at least none that anyone enforces) so an Aolympics might help them clean it all up.  Maybe they need a few years of Mayor Giuliani?  Really, it is a beautiful city - did I mention that?  Perhaps the most beautiful city in Europe even before WWII, and certainly the most beautiful after given that it was spared most of the bombing and fighting other great cities faced (not too mention the horrendous 1950's architecture they were rebuilt with.  I mean, my god, look at Berlin.  It was rebuilt during the most horrid period in modern architecture).
  • More later on hotels and restaurants you might visit if you come here,
    plus I will just have to post a scan of our restaurant bill from tonight

Parochialism from the NY Times

I was reading the NY Times' International Herald Tribune today here in Paris, and saw something funny at the end of an article about the crazy process underway to select the 2012 Olympic venue.  By the way, this is the big issue in Paris right now - you can't walk anywhere without finding yourself in the middle of some sort of Paris promotional event, presumably being simulcast back to the selection committee in Singapore.

Anyway, the IHT had this funny line:

The last days of the race drew the president of France, the prime minister of Russia and the queen of Spain here.  New York City pulled Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton away from a busy schedule to lend her star power.

Uhh, you mean the president of France and the prime minister of Russia don't have busy schedules?  And wouldn't a more correct formulation be "while other cities were represented by their head of state, NY City could only muster a junior member of Congress"?  I hope any city but New York wins, because, given past history, NYC will likely get themselves into some financial hole hosting the Olympics that the rest of the country will have to bail them out of.

By the way, apparently in a bid to head off past corruption, the International Olympic Committee has banned its members from actually visiting host cities and their facilities ahead of the selection.  This seems kind of extreme - you have to pick between cities but you can't learn anything useful about them.  Its depressing that the members of the Olympic committee are so untrustworthy that the only way to prevent them from collecting bribes from potential host countries is to not allow them anywhere near the country.

Random Impressions of Paris

After a couple of days here, some impressions:

  • The airline flights that dump you off in Europe at 7am which seemed so convivial when I was consulting are less so when I am a tourist.  We had the experience of arriving at our hotel about 8am, which of course did not yet have a room anywhere near ready.  We had a nice day walking around, but we sure were exhausted by the time we got to our room and had a nap.  Note:  American Airlines 767's have very very uncomfortable business class seats - really a disgrace nowadays.
  • The Louvre is magnificent, but is ridiculously big.  It is impossible to digest.  You really have to find a branch of art, like the Flemish painters, and stay in that area.  The Musee d'Orsay, which focuses on 19th century French art, is much more digestible.  Also, it has a cool location in a train station, which was a very important part of 19th century life.
  • The French smoking thing has been joked about so much it is almost a caricature, but it is still a shock the first time in a restaurant.  We observed many American smokers reveling in their smoking freedom.  I wonder if there is a business opportunity to sponsor smoking trips to Paris, much like those Asia sex trips to Thailand.
  • Wow, the food is expensive!  $50-80 entrees in some places, and for that you can get two slices of tenderloin.  It was good though, and we have yet to have a bad, or even so-so, meal.
  • I would feel safer in a golf cart than some of the cars here.  You can really see the trade-offs with fuel economy we make in the US by having crash test standards.  Over here with no crash tests and $6.00 gas, you get lots of tiny cars.  Mini-coopers look average to large-sized here.
  • The Champs d'elysees was amazing on Sunday afternoon - a sea of people going up the hill.  It looked like those pictures of the start of the NY marathon, but it went as far as the eye can see.  Amazingly, with all this foot traffic past the door, half the businesses were closed that day (welcome to Europe, I guess)
  • There are more shoe stores here than fast food restaurants in Phoenix.  And my wife has stopped in every one of them