Posts tagged ‘planning’

One Thing I Got Wrong About Obamacare

For several years I have feared that my high-deductible health insurance would be illegal.  I am a big believer in high deductible insurance.  First, it is real insurance, requiring that I pay day-to-day expenses but protecting me from catastrophic bill.  Second, it improves the health care system by providing incentives for consumers to actually price-shop services.

Well, I was wrong.  In fact, most people see to be getting higher deductibles than they want.

My only excuse is that the Obama Administration has acted for three years as if they hated high-deductible health coverage and were planning to make it go away.  Kathleen Sebelius has said on a number of occasions that it is not "real insurance" (she believes that insurance should actually be pre-paid medical care).  Seriously, here is an example of what she was saying:

At a White House briefing Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said some of what passes for health insurance today is so skimpy it can't be compared to the comprehensive coverage available under the law. "Some of these folks have very high catastrophic plans that don't pay for anything unless you get hit by a bus," she said. "They're really mortgage protection, not health insurance."

She is saying this all while the policies being prepared for the exchange were exactly the kind of coverage she was speaking out against.  And she had to know -- I cannot believe a former state insurance commissioner was not looking at what policies were being prepared for the exchange.  After all, her organization made the last minute decision to hide policy pricing from the public (e.g. deleted the window shopping functionality) and this almost certainly was in response to seeing the policies being prepared for the exchange and realizing the pricing and features were not going to make people happy.

By the way, there is a certain schizophrenia here that is entirely political:  These new policies have a $10,000 deductible, but they pay 100% for condoms?    They may well be creating a combination of catastrophic insurance and pre-paid medical care that has the worst of both approaches.

Politicians lie.  But what is it about this administration that lies in ways that are inevitably going to be discovered, in just a few months?  Can they really be so focused on getting through each individual news cycle that this kind of behavior makes sense?

Hidden Employment Impacts of the Minimum Wage

I have seen several stories of late suggesting that minimum wage phase-ins tend to mask the full employment effects of the wage change.  That is because people tend to look at employment before and after the wage change itself, when in fact many companies may have already adjusted their employment long before the wage change goes into effect based on the original announcement.

This certainly rings true with me.  We decided to close one operation in California after the state passed legislation to raise the state minimum wage (the minimum wage change was one of three factors leading to the closure, the other being the PPACA employer mandate which would be particularly expensive at this location and vexing litigation harassment in this one particular area).   This means that for a minimum wage change that does not take effect until July 1, 2014, our decision to reduce staff came in the fall of 2013 and the jobs will go away on December 31, 2013, months before the minimum wage change actually takes effect.

I can certainly see how this would make designing a study to capture the employment effects of the minimum wage change very difficult.  From a more cynical point of view, it also makes it far easier for minimum wage supporters to understate the employment effects.

This same phase-in effect can be seen with the Obamacare employer mandate.  I criticized Brad Delong for arguing that we would not see any shifts to part time labor until the employment report after the actual start date of the employer mandate.  But I know our company had been shifting people to part-time status in anticipation of the start date nearly a year earlier, as had most other retail businesses.  While it may be normal for the government to put off working on something until on or after the due date (e.g. the Obamacare web site), private industry tends to start planning and implementation of responses to government regulations months or years in advance.

Why The Administration Could Not Delay the Exchanges, Even When They Clearly Did Not Work

I think it is now clear why the Administration could not delay the exchanges, even when Republicans essentially cast them a lifeline during the budget debate by trying to delay the mandate by a year:  I think the Administration knew that a massive wave of insurance policy cancellations were already in the mail, and that the recipients of these letters would be facing huge price increases for their policies.

It is telling that the one thing you are NOT hearing from Administration officials in response to the policy cancellations is surprise.  If they were surprised, they would be yelling stuff like, "what the hell are those insurance companies doing?"  They knew this was coming, and you get the sense they were grimly bracing for it to be made public, hoping that perhaps their friends in the media would not make a big deal about it.

The minimum requirements on health plans that is driving these cancellations cannot at this point be cancelled.  Or, put more precisely, they could be cancelled but the act would be meaningless, because insurance companies have no way to suddenly go back to the old policies and pricing.  It takes too much planning to work out their product line and they can't just switch back on a dime.

So the huge wave of cancellations and price increases in the individual market was unstoppable.  That being said, the Administration has to be able to offer an alternative, and the only one they have is the hope one might get his or her new policy subsidized by other taxpayers.  But that is only possible through the exchanges.  So that had to be allowed to go forward and made to work, somehow.

There is no fix to this mess.  This is an avalanche that was loosed three years ago and cannot be stopped.

Audit Update

The Florida auditor sitting in my one-man office was shocked to learn I would not be in the rest of the week.  I said you scheduled the audit visit for today, so I changed my plans and am in the office today, but leave tomorrow.  Apparently she assumed that the audit schedule gave her the right to stay as long as she wanted.  She was planning to sit in my office for another 2-5 days.  I told her sorry, but if she wanted to book 5 days, she should have booked five days.  And by the way, if she had tried in advance to make me sit dormant in my office all week, I would not have agreed to the visit.

This is just insane in an Internet world.  Everything she asked for in advance was sent to her electronically.  Even though she is sitting right next to me, her requests to me for more data have come by email.  I can't figure any reason why she is even here, unless Florida finds it cheaper to fly her around and use other people's offices rather than provide her with one of her own.

By the way, this is fairly typical of a lot of government workers in my experience.  If they block a meeting on their calendar for the whole afternoon, they want it to last the whole afternoon.  There are a lot of jobs out there where people are most comfortable proving their worth by showing that their calendars are always full.

Well, At Least TMZ Will Be OK

Via Walter Olson

Can websites be forced to change to accommodate the disabled — by using “simpler language” to appeal to the “intellectually disabled or by making them accessible to the blind and deaf at considerable expense?

Apparently, the White House is gearing up to force costly changes on websites in the name of ADA compliance.   The implications could be staggering, and in certain scenarios would basically force me to certainly close down this site, and likely close down many of my business sites.

Generally, the First Amendment gives you the right to choose who to talk to and how, without government interference. There is no obligation to make your message accessible to the whole world, and the government can’t force you to make your speech accessible to everyone, much less appealing to them. The government couldn’t require you to give speeches in English rather than Spanish …

But now, the Obama administration appears to be planning to use the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to force many web sites to either accommodate the disabled, or shut down.

Update on the Economic Story of 2013

Yes, more evidence that the PPACA is ending full-time work in the American retail service sector

Circle K Southeast joined a growing list of national companies shifting workers to part-time status this week, in order to avoid paying Obamacare’s mandatory benefits, CBS-WTOC reports.

The alternative is to pay a $2,000 fine per fulltime worker who is not covered, leading Circle K to become the latest in a long line of companies to slice employee hours to avoid increased costs.

Here was my article several weeks ago in Forbes, though I have been predicting this since last year (when my own company started planning for the same change).

Massive SimCity 5 Fail

First, I have always enjoyed the SimCity games.  Sure, I know that these games take a planning and technocratic control approach that I find distasteful in real life, but I enjoy playing first-person shooters as well despite being a pacifist.

So I have been extremely disappointed in their implementation of their new version.  In this sort of mad rush to be like all the other games out there, SimCity built in a multi-player mode where you play online interacting with neighboring cities run by other players.   This is all fine as far as it goes, thought the appeal escapes me so far.

But the true fail is that they require players to log in and play online on their servers, even when playing solo.  What was an irritant yesterday became an enormous mess today, as every North American server for the game is full.  Run the game, and you immediately get hit with a pop-up window with a counter forcing you to wait in what is at least a 20-minute queue before you can play.  There is no offline mode - even if your intent is to play solo, you have to wait for a spot to open up on their multi-player servers.

At this point I would seriously recommend that you wait before buying this game.  Combined with other irritants (the game is not available on Steam, you have to use Origins far inferior proprietary clone), and the game's high price, I am sorry I pre-ordered and did not wait for reviews to come in.  It may eventually be a good game, but I am not going to pay $70 to stare at a 20-minute count down clock every time I want to play.

Update:  Most online games allow players to pre-load the game several days prior to when the servers are turned on.  This smooths out the load on the download servers.  Apparently Origin did not do this, and the servers for downloads crashed yesterday (these are different from the play servers which are full today).  Apparently Origin was still "polishing" the code right up to the hour of launch, which is code for, "this is likely still a bug-filled mess."

California Regulatory Burden

I often tell folks that while the taxes in California are irritating, what has really killed my interest in expanding in California is the regulatory burden.  It took 3 years to get through Ventura County planning department to get permission to put a modular ticket booth in a corner of an existing parking lot -- only to be denied.  I have faced potential prosecution because we demolished an unsafe deck without state permission.  I now have to fire people who try to work through lunch or else face employees suing  me (successfully!) later for their voluntarily working through lunch.

I think that is why I enjoyed this blog, SLO Leaks, so much.  It is a 3-1/2 year story of an obviously wealthy gentleman trying to get the local planning board and later the California Coastal Commission to allow him to build a house on his residential-zoned land.  I sat up for hours last night reading through it.  42 months and $3 million later, he still is not even close to having his approvals.  It is interesting to see his respectful-of-authority tone shifting over time, until at the end he is writing about how he has shifted his company's new office and expansion from California to Texas.

Here are a few nuggets.   Here is what he is up against:

Once a year the Public Works Dept gives a report on what has happened in the previous year in the Avila Beach area. One part of their report is on how many building permits were issued. In order to get a building permit you first have to get a minor use permit through the Planning Dept, so this is a good gauge of how much work the Planning Dept does. So for the period from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011, in the Avila area, which has Ryan Hostetter as a full time planner, the entire list of building permit issued is here:

One single family residential permit was issued during the entire year.

That’s it. No commercial buildings, no office building, no barns, just one single family house permit. And it wasn’t my permit, that’s for sure – because I am now going through the potentially years long Coastal Commission permit appeal process before I can even apply for a building permit.

And this:

So after waiting nearly a year, Daniel Robinson, who is a low level bureaucrat with the California Coastal Commission, and who had never even been to the house site, and who had never even met me or my wife, has told me that he doesn’t like my front yard, he thinks the retaining walls are too big, he thinks my house is too big, and that he doesn’t like the overall design of my house. Daniel thinks that my house should look more like a farm house, and also that people walking around in the city of Pismo Beach will be offended by the mere sight of my house (so called “visual impact”). And if my house design doesn’t please him then he will recommend to the full Coastal Commission that they deny my permits. Since I will only get 3 minutes to defend my house in front of the Coastal Commission I would then probably lose that permit appeal vote and I will be unable to build my house at all, and I will lose about $3 million, and will have wasted years of my life.

The California Coastal Commission is perhaps the most capricious and authoritarian government entity in the country, for example:

But then there was the minor issue of a permit for Daly City, a suburb of San Francisco, to rebuild a rock retaining wall that had been damaged during the last winter storms. It was such a minor issue that Daley City didn’t even send a representative to the CCC meeting. What could possibly go wrong?

The rock retaining wall was to protect a dirt and gravel road that follows along the coastline. On the other side of the dirt road is an abandoned landfill that Daley City capped over in the 1970′s. And I watched the Coastal Commission, apparently on a whim, decide to overrule their staff and instead of issuing a permit they decided to require Daily City to dig up the entire landfill and relocate it inland somewhere. Where it got relocated to the Coastal Commission didn’t care – since that isn’t their problem. And the estimate to do this landfill relocation is $125,000,000.00!

$125,000,000.00 works out to $1250.00 for every man, woman, and child in Daly City. And the Coastal Commission decided that this must happen with about 10 minutes of discussion amongst themselves and without a single fact to cloud their minds! It was both unbelievable and terrifying.

From all the facts, it looks to me like he is never going to get approved.  But you can get quick approval from the  CCC -- if you are rich and have political juice

Like me, [Steve Blank] is in the high tech industry. Like me, he has started several high tech companies....

After Steve sold his last startup company he applied for a permit to build a house in the California Coastal Zone in 2000. And, just like me, Steve’s land use permit was appealed to the California Coastal Commission. The reason for the appeal was “sensitive habitat” issues. (I don’t have any sensitive habitat issues because my proposed house is in the middle of a field of non-native weeds.)

Unlike me, Steve’s appeal to the Coastal Commission went pretty smoothly. He had his hearing in only 8 months – start to finish. It has taken me a year and a half, after waiting a year and a half for SLO County to issue the permit in the first place. And there were no onerous “Special Conditions” imposed on Steve by either San Mateo County or the Coastal Commission.

Here is the list of “Special Conditions” that the Coastal staff wants to impose on me.

Superficially Steve’s house and my house are similar. I have a main house and a barn on 37 acres, Steve has a main house, two barns, and a farm labor house. But Steve’s house is 15,780 sq. ft., with a swimming pool, and a 2,500 sq. ft. barn, and another 3,040 sq. ft. barn 31 ft. high, and a 1240 sq. ft. farm labor house all on 261 acres. So Steve’s house is around 3 times larger than my proposed house (and much taller). Steve also got to have a fence and there was no requirement for public access. And Steve was able to build his house to look anyway he wanted. No “rural agricultural theme” architecture for Steve, that’s for sure. Steve can also plant in his yard pretty much any damn thing he wants.

Steve is pretty proud of his house. A picture of his house is the banner to his web page, which ishere. You can see the front gate of his house here. And this is an overhead view.

Steve Blank is one of the current California Coastal Commissioners.

Quote of the Day

From Megan McArdle:

When I was reporting on Wall Street, I used to be told with some regularity that government was needed to counteract the short-term thinking of the business sector, who never thought much beyond the next quarterly earnings report.  This now seems as quaintly adorable as picture hats and daily milk deliveries.  An ADHD day trader with a cocaine habit and six months to live has considerably more long-term planning skills than our current congress.

Part of a generally awesome rant

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.

Is This Really Political Discourse? My First and Last Experience with the Debates

I wasn't planning on watching the debates, but my wife made me watch the first 20 minutes.  Is this really what passes for political discourse in this country?  I was particularly struck by the appeals to unnamed authorities -- both candidates said something like "I saw a study the other day [unnamed] that said my plan was great" or "your plan was bad."  Seriously pathetic.

And, after the corporatism and cronyism of the last 8+ years, the fact that Romney could not explain why it made sense to cut tax rates but eliminate deductions just convinced me he deserves to lose.  He was losing to class warfare rhetoric on tax cuts, when he should have been taking the high ground, even with the occupy wall street folks, saying that it was time to stop tilting the tax code towards special interests and populist fads at least one of which -- the tilting of the tax code to home ownership -- helped drive the recent economic downturn.

I blog and don't tend to debate in real time, because I always think of great quips hours later, but even I had the perfect rejoinder for Obama in real time when he said, "I think we should return to Clinton era tax rates, when the economy was great and growing."  Romney should have said, "If I am President, I will happily work with Democrats to do just that, as long as they agree to return to Clinton era spending levels.   After all, if government policy during that era was really so perfect for the economy, then spending levels must have been appropriate as well."

I don't plan to watch any more of this garbage until and unless they include someone other than the Coke and Pepsi candidates.   I'd like to see Gary Johnson but heck, even adding a Marxist would probably help.

Some Potential Good News on Solar

This is terrific, if true.  My fear, of course, is they are getting subsidized through a back door somewhere, but if they really think they can make subsidy-free solar work financially, that's awesome:

Two German solar energy developers are planning to build photovoltaic plants in southern Spain that will earn a return without government subsidies.

Wuerth Solar GmbH & Co. intends to build a 287-megawatt plant in the Murcia area for 277 million euros ($363 million), according to the regional authority. Gehrlicher Solar AG said it plans to develop a 250-megawatt solar park in the Extremadura region for about 250 million euros.

The projects, about three times larger than any European solar plant, may be the first that don’t rely on feed-in tariffs and compete with wholesale power prices. All plants in the region so far depend on fixed premium rates for solar power, which can be several times higher than wholesale prices.

Spain suspended the tariffs on Jan. 27 as part of government austerity measures, threatening the survival of the industry. Tariffs for large-scale solar were set at 121 euros per megawatt-hour. Developers now look to build plants without this support, helped by falling equipment prices.

City Planning, Light Rail and White People

I have argued for a long time that the shift of city transit departments from buses to a love affair with light rail has been a disaster.  Rail is so much more expensive per passenger mile, and so inflexible, that it generally forces a shrinkage in the total number of riders at the same time that budgets explode (example article here).

There are a lot of explanations for this phenomenon.  Part of it is incentives - heads of agencies with rail get paid more than bus-only agencies, and unions love the higher-paying rail jobs that never go away (part of the flexibility issues with rail).  Part of the explanation is cultural - rail is now hip and edgy and allegedly green and modern.  Buses are so last century.

And part of it is social/racial.  White upper middle class yuppies wouldn't be caught dead on buses.   They like trains better, particularly when they are successful in running rail routes through middle class commuting routes.  If the cost of this forces cut backs on buses that run where the poor need to go, oh well.

So, I ask you, what city in America is most famous as a model for urban planning and light rail?  Portland.  So it is interesting to see what effect this planning and transit strategy has had on the population.  I have already written here before that Portland bus service has been gutted in favor of rail, such that total ridership in the city has dropped despite spending a lot more transit dollars.  These maps from the Portland Oregonian show another effect -- shifting transit dollars to modes favored by rich white people has... caused Portland to be increasingly white.  What a surprise.  Via the anti-Planner

Peak Poop Theory

Donna Laframboise discusses 18th century transportation issues, and particularly the horse manure problem:

The Superfreakonomics authors draw heavily on the work of Eric Morris, whose urban planning Masters thesis explored the reality of horse-based transportation in 19th-century cities. A user-friendly encapsulation of his research appears in an 8-page article here. (It was published in Access, a U of California transportation publication. The entire issue is available here.)

Morris points out that, by the late 1800s, large urban centers were “drowning in horse manure.” Not only were there no solutions in sight, people were making dire predictions:

In 1894, the Times of London estimated that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. One New York prognosticator of the 1890s concluded that by 1930 the horse droppings would rise to Manhattan’s third-story windows.

The automobile helped solve this growing ecological problem.  Back in 2006, I had considered the same thing with a hypothetical blog post from 1870 which is pretty close to the Times of London article quoted above (which I had never seen):

As the US Population reaches toward the astronomical total of 40 million persons, we are reaching the limits of the number of people this earth can support.    If one were to extrapolate current population growth rates, this country in a hundred years could have over 250 million people in it!  Now of course, that figure is impossible – the farmland of this country couldn’t possibly support even half this number.  But it is interesting to consider the environmental consequences.

Take the issue of transportation.  Currently there are over 11 million horses in this country, the feeding and care of which constitute a significant part of our economy.  A population of 250 million would imply the need for nearly 70 million horses in this country, and this is even before one considers the fact that "horse intensity", or the average number of horses per family, has been increasing steadily over the last several decades.  It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that so many people might need 100 million horses to fulfill all their transportation needs.  There is just no way this admittedly bountiful nation could support 100 million horses.  The disposal of their manure alone would create an environmental problem of unprecedented magnitude.

Or, take the case of illuminant.  As the population grows, the demand for illuminant should grow at least as quickly.  However, whale catches and therefore whale oil supply has leveled off of late, such that many are talking about the "peak whale" phenomena, which refers to the theory that whale oil production may have already passed its peak.  250 million people would use up the entire supply of the world’s whales four or five times over, leaving none for poorer nations of the world

To the last point, my article on how John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil saved the whales is here.

Discretionary Spending: Support Thyself

Many of you may know that my business is engaged in private management of public recreation.  We get a lot of pushback from certain sectors who believe access to government lands or services should be free -- ie already paid for by their income taxes.

I often argue that this notion of discretionary services (like parks and campgrounds) being run with high cost government labor and funded by general revenue taxes is a dead one - in fact it has been dead for at least 10 years.  Just look around at public parks organizations.  Odds are that your state is facing parks closures and is very likely not fully funding park maintenance. I wrote about this failed model here.

In the future, anything discretionary government program that can charge use fees or be privatized or both will do so.  Or else it will be provided at terrible quality with long queues and frequent closures.  Don't believe me?  Lets look at the US government budget data from last year. This chart has been making the rounds -- I have not checked the data source but I presume it is correct (as usual click for larger version)

I have some interest in the science of chartmanship.  McKinsey & Company did a great job teaching me how to make a presentation, a skill I have honed somewhat in way too many planning and strategy jobs that seemed to revolve around Powerpoint  (one of the criteria for my current job is that it did not involve Powerpoint).

This chart is a case where the author used the wrong chart type.  The pie chart is not appropriate to show a changing total (as the author does with the size of the pie).  The eye has trouble assessing volumes.  I have taken the same data and put it in a slightly different form.  I did not take time to make it pretty, but I think it works better in this format:

Now do you see my point about discretionary spending?  Last year government taxes just about covered entitlements and interest on the debt.  Had we not borrowed, there was no money left over for any discretionary spending, including all of the Defense budget!  Now, even without action, the picture will improve in 2011 as taxes go up with a rising economy and some of the unemployment spending goes down.  But this might just get us to still having a defense department.  Either large swaths of discretionary spending is going to have to be zeroed out, or some sort of entitlement restructuring is necessary.

Of course, tax increases will likely be part of the mix as well, but look at the individual income tax bar.  Even doubling it would not close the budget gap!

Health Care Decisions by Politics, Not Science

In my Forbes columns over the past few weeks, I have been writing about information and incentive problems with any sort of Obamacare type system.  One of the points I made last week was this:

One of the key selling points of Obamacare was that it would reduce cost, in large part through smart public-spirited people making optimized decisions from the top in Washington.  Ignoring the fact that no other agency that has promised such angels of public service has ever delivered them, we discussed in the last few weeks how this task is impossible.  But we should have known that already through our past experience with the political process.  Political decisions are made politically, not by optimizing some public good equation.    Does anyone believe that come election time, Congress won’t vote to add mandates to procedures to placate powerful groups in their base, irrespective of the future costs this would incur?

Need an example?

In 2007 breast cancer was the third leading source of cancer mortality in the US, but it was by far the largest recipient of government cancer research dollars, nearly double that spent on any other type of cancer.    In 2009, out of hundreds of medical procedures, only two procedureswere on the mandated must-carry list of all fifty states – mammography and breast reconstruction.  It is no accident that both of these are related to breast cancer.  With its links to women’s groups and potent advocacy organizations, breast cancer is a disease that has a particularly powerful political lobby.    Similarly, we should expect that, at the end of the day, pricing and coverage decisions under Obamacare will be made politically.  Not because anyone in this Administration is particularly bad or good, but because that is what always happens.

This post from Q&O is a tad old but gets at just this point with a real-life Obamacare example

The opening line in a New York Times piece caught my attention.  It is typical of how government, once it gets control of something, then begins to expand it (and make it more costly for everyone) as it sees fit.  Note the key falsehood in the sentence:

The Obama administration is examining whether the new health care law can be used to require insurance plans to offer contraceptives and other family planning services to women free of charge.

Yup, you caught it – nothing involved in such a change would be “free of charge”.   Instead others would be taxed or charged in order for women to not have to pay at the point of service.  That’s it.  Those who don’t have any need of contraception will subsidize those who do.  And the argument, of course, will be the “common good”.   The other argument will be that many women can’t afford “family planning services” or “contraception”.

But the assumption is the rest of you can afford to part with a little more of your hard earned cash in order to subsidize this effort (it is similar to other mandated care coverage you pay for but don’t need).  Oh, and while reading that sentence, make sure you understand that the administration claims it has not taken over health care in this country.

The next sentence is just as offensive:

Such a requirement could remove cost as a barrier to birth control, a longtime goal of advocates for women’s rights and experts on women’s health.

So now “women’s rights” include access to subsidies from others who have no necessity or desire to pay for those services?  What right does anyone have to the earnings of another simply because government declares that necessary?

It is another example of a profound misunderstanding of what constitutes a “right” and how it has been perverted over the years to become a claim on “free” stuff paid for by others.

Administration officials said they expected the list to include contraception and family planning because a large body of scientific evidence showed the effectiveness of those services. But the officials said they preferred to have the panel of independent experts make the initial recommendations so the public would see them as based on science, not politics.

Really?  This is all about politics.  The fact that the services may be “effective” is irrelevant to the political questions and objections raised above.  This is science being used to justify taking from some to give to others – nothing more.

LOLing

I have to agree with Glen Reynolds that this is an awesome quote, from  a member of the teacher's union in Denver:

That’s your problem. You’re an entrepreneur, so you don’t work. You don’t know what work is until you get into an educational area.

Yep, some day I will have to stop loafing around and take on a brutal assistant principal job somewhere.  All I have to worry about is that every dollar I own (and more) is invested in my business and could disappear at any time if I make a mistake.  Thank God I don't have to sit around all day worrying whether the doctor that hands out no-questions-asked disability rulings will still be practicing when I am 45 and ready to retire.

I call this the "Dallas / Dynasty" perception of business, that businessmen just grab a phone call or two, go to a power lunch, and then head home to the mansion.

Update: Apparently this is a common misconception about entrepeneurs

The average number of working hours per week of a successful starting entrepreneur is seventy. This catches the typical American dreamer by surprise.

The teacher day:

Nor do teachers spend all of their time at school in the classroom. In fact, teachers spend fewer hours actually instructing students than many recognize. Stanford's Terry Moe worked with data straight from the nation's largest teacher union's own data - and found that the average teacher in a department setting (that is, where students have different teachers for different subjects) was in the classroom for fewer than 3.9 hours out of the 7.3 hours at school each day.

With several hours set aside at school for course-planning and grading, it strains plausibility that on average teachers must spend more hours working at home than do other professionals.

Not to mention, of course, summer vacation, Christmas break, spring break, fall break.... Oh, and the fact that they have lifetime job security because in public schools they can't be fired for even the most egregious incompetance

Stock Market Returns

This chart in the NY Times is pretty interesting, though I could quibble about the color coding.  You have to stare at it a minute to get it - each cell represents a combination of stock purchase and sales dates, with the color representing the average market inflation-adjusted return for that buy and hold period (click to enlarge, or click through to the source link where it is explained in more depth).

Whenever one uses red and green for coloring a chart, the reader is going to assume red is bad and green is good.  In this case, the light red represents returns from 0 to 3% above inflation.  Is that bad?  Maybe.  I would say inflation plus 3% is probably lower than people's expectation of stock market returns, but I think a lot of folks would equate red with capital erosion, which is not the case if returns are out-pacing inflation.

This is sort of a good-news-bad-news story.  The good news is that there is no 25-year period where returns fall below inflation.  The bad news is that the median return of inflation plus 4% is probably less than most folks are planning for -- including a lot of state pension funds that are still counting on returns like 8% for their entire portfolio (something like inflation + 5-6%), which is a blend of stocks and bonds, implying they are hoping for an equity return north of that.

HT:  Flowing Data

Great Minds Think Alike

Coyote, November 10

But what is really happening here is that the dollar is being devalued.  This is one of the semantic quirks that make me laugh "” when Argentina or Zimbabwe do this, its called devaluation.  When a western nation does it, it is called quantitative easing.

Don Boudreaux today:

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, fresh from injecting hundreds of billions of new U.S. currency units into the economy "“ and from planning the injection of yet an additional 600 billion such units "“ criticizes the Chinese government for injecting hundreds of billions of new Chinese currency units into the economy ("Bernanke Takes Aim at China," Nov. 18).  Apparently, when Beijing increases the supply of Chinese currency it does so as part of what Prof. Bernanke ominously labels a "strategy of currency undervaluation," but when Uncle Sam does the same thing with U.S. currency units it's called "quantitative easing" and "a move in the right direction."

Pay to Play

From the WSJ:

The wide-ranging pay-to-play probe concerns whether investment firms like Mr. Rattner's former firm, Quadrangle Group LLC, were held up for fees and favors to secure access to lucrative business from New York's $125 billion public-pension fund.

So government officials, who have all the power, demand bribes from businesses in order for those businesses to participate in a certain market, and when discovered it is the private businesses that are being investigated?

This is just so typical of government, where pay-to-play rules are in fact legislated for businesses from bars to taxicabs.  I can't do anything new in Ventura County without bringing a whole series of checks to the County planning offices -- nearly every single department must be paid off before I can do something as simple as remodel a bathroom or revamp a store.  None of this is under the table, mind you, it is entirely up front and nominally legal.

The Anti-Stimulus

My column for Forbes is up this week, and yet again I address issues related to the stimulus.  This time, rather than questioning the Keynesian multiplier, I observe that Congress has passed several pieces of legislation which act as "anti-stimulus" whose magnitudes dwarf that of any fiscal stimulus programs, even at multipliers greater than one.

Larger corporations are going to face different economics, but they too seem to be anticipating higher future costs from this legislation. For example, while they may not face the penalty for having no health care plan, they will face higher Medicare taxes, taxes on overly rich plans, and increases in health care premiums. If the average business is anticipating a 5% increase in payroll-related expenses, and given that total private payrolls in the U.S. are around $6 trillion, this implies that businesses may be planning for $3 trillion of health care anti-stimulus over the next 10 years.

Similar scale numbers can be found for the overall effects of cap-and-trade. Perhaps the best estimate we have is the CBO scoring of the Kerry-Lieberman bill, which estimated that payments for carbon allowances over the first ten years would total $751 billion. Assuming that the costs of most of these allowances are passed on to consumers, then this bill represents another three quarters of a trillion in anti-stimulus. In addition, expiration of the Bush tax cuts, card check, and a number of new regulatory initiatives all will drive this anti-stimulus expectation higher. Is it any wonder, then, that the private sector yawns when the Congress rushes back from vacation to pass a $26 billion jobs bill?

Water Prices

Another 2600 word essay in the Arizona Republic on trying to balance water supply and demand in the state with only a one-sentence mention of water rates.

Over the years, some communities have tried to reduce demand. Years ago, Tucson devised a set of water rates that escalated steeply with use. As a result, many people simply stopped planting grass or other thirsty landscaping.

Amazingly, it is the only thing in the whole article that has been demonstrated to work, but still the author leans towards land-use planning and goofy dictats like rainwater harvesting rather than raising rates as a way of managing water supply and demand.

I wrote a lot more here, including an analysis that showed Phoenix has some of the cheapest water rates in the country.

Our City's Finest at Work

Phoenix police pump six rounds into the back of an innocent Phoenix homeowner who was still on the phone with 911 calling for their help with an intruder.

The scary part is how absolutely natural and well-polished the police's actions are in initiating a cover-up.  They may be screw-ups in the use of force, but they seem well-practiced in protecting their own from accountability.  Only the lucky break of having the 911 call still in progress and being recorded in the room the police were planning the cover-up prevented it from working.  Without this evidence, one wonders if the victim (who lived, incredibly) would have found himself accused of some heinous crime to take scrutiny away from the police.  "Oh, what's this here -- looks like a bag of white powder..."

One priceless detail is that the officer said he fired without seeing any gun in part because he thought he saw a Hispanic guy.  Wow -- if he loses his job with the Phoenix police (doubtful) I am sure Sheriff Joe would be thrilled to hire him.

We see this all the time nowadays - police roll without a thought into cover-up mode, and only the accident of video or audio recording prevents the cover up from working.  One wonders how many times they get away with this game when there is no electronic scrutiny.  Which is, I suppose, why police have invented a non-existent law that it is illegal to record their actions in public.  I am all for lojacking all of them with permanent electronic recorders.  (via Radley Balko, who has a roundup of a lot of similarly scary stories).

Postscript: The innocent homeowner (Tony) survived despite this treatment by police of his bullet-riddled body:

Officers ... painfully dragged Tony by his injured leg, through the home and out to his backyard patio, where they left him bloodied and shot right in front of [his family]."

The Arambulas say the officers later dragged Anthony onto gravel, then put him on top of the hot hood of a squad car, and "drove the squad car down the street with Tony lying on top, writhing in pain."

Legalize Immigrants From Mexico; Ban Immigrants From California

Until a few years ago, I did business up and down the Pacific Coast.  If I had to rank the business climates of these states, from worst to best, I would informally come up with something like:

  1. (worst) Certain California counties (e.g. Ventura, San Francisco, Santa Barbara)
  2. Oregon
  3. Western Washington
  4. Rest of California
  5. Eastern Washington

So I was interested to see that Oregon may finally be getting the bad press it deserves as a difficult place to do business, though, interestingly enough, this particular article blames it on the Californians:

Some might call this California disease. This refers to a chronic inability to make hard decisions as well as a general disregard for business and economic activity....

With all the influx of Californians, it's not surprising that Oregon shows some signs of California disease. It recently increased its tax rates so that Oregon's highest-income taxpayers face marginal tax rates that match Hawaii's for the highest in the nation. Oregon's land-use planning had been extremely centralized for some time. Indeed, Oregon's land-use planning may be the most centralized in the United States. This makes it harder for communities to control their own destinies, whether they want to grow or not.

Interestingly, I actually wrote about similar effect in the context of immigration into the US.  While I am a supporter of open immigration, my greatest fear is that in the name of individual liberty, we would let in millions of new people who would someday vote against individual liberties.  It seems that may be a more substantial problem with Californian than Mexican immigration.

The good news for the rest of us is that Oregon may preferentially be attracting the slackers

Our analysis of California migrants has shown a gradual reduction in their earnings over what they were earning in the Golden State. There also are less quantifiable impacts. Portland, a city attractive to many unemployed and underemployed younger Californians, could well be becoming the "slacker" capital of the world.

Fortunately, Arizona is so politically un-correct with slacker/socialist/statist/greenie types that we don't get a lot coming here.

Regulation Is Almost Always Anti-Competitive

Continuing with a long-running theme here at Coyote Blog, here is another example of government regulation being anti-competitive and having the net result of protecting the margins of powerful, established incumbents against new entrants:

During a recent meeting, the Antiplanner was extolling the virtues of Houston's land-use policies, and a home builder at the meeting said, "Of course, no one here wants our city to be like Houston," meaning no one wanted Houston's land-use regime.

Why not? I asked. "There is too much competition down there. My company can't make a profit," he said. "You have to have some barriers to entry to be able to make money."

Those who accuse free marketeers of being supporters of big business don't realize that big businesses (and often smaller businesses) don't want a free market. In this home builder's case, he wanted enough restrictions on the market to keep out some of his competitors (most likely smaller companies that can't afford to hire lawyers and planners for every project) but not enough regulation to keep his company out

Several years ago my company had to obtain a liquor license in Shasta Country, CA. At one point, the issuance of the license had to be voted on by some group (County commissioners, the planning board, something like that). I was told the reason was that if they issued too many licenses, I would not be able to make money -- really, they were looking after me.

Well, not really.  First, the government seldom has any idea even how a business works.  Perhaps the liquor was a loss leader for my business, and I didn't care to make money on it at all.  Perhaps I had a better marketing concept.

And herein we get to the real flaw -- the implication is that somehow the dangers is to the new entrant in a crowded marketplace, but in fact the reality is often the opposite.   The actual competitive danger is often to incumbents, fat and happy with the status quo and unable to react quickly (due to all kinds of reasons from sunk investment to long held biases) to shifts in customer preferences.  No matter what their stated reason, the true effect of such regulation is to protect current competitors from new entrants, new products, and new business concepts.

I can see the effects of this right here where I am sitting, out near the end of Cape Cod.  Zoning and business regulation here is enormously aggressive - its is virtually impossible to start a new retail establishment here, particularly on virgin land.  As a result, every store and restaurant here feels like it is right out of the 1950s.  You'd hardly know there has been a revolution in retail or service delivery over the past few decades, because businesses here are sheltered from new entrants.  They don't need to adopt better practices or provide better products or services, because they know they are not vulnerable (courtesy of the government) to competitive attacks from new entrants using more modern strategies.