Posts tagged ‘Postscript One’

Well, My Company Is Officially Required to Buy a Product That Does Not Exist For Us

As of next year, my company is required to offer health care plans to our full-time employees or else pay a penalty.    Unfortunately, after an extensive market search, no one will sell me such a policy -- not even the government health care exchange for small businesses.

Let's take a step back.  Business owners have had the rules pounded into us over the last few years, but many of you may not be familiar with the details.  The detail rules are here, as "simplified" as much as possible by the NFIB, but don't read them unless you have to or your head will explode.  The simple way to think of it is that there are two penalties out there:

  • The "A" penalty is for companies that do not offer any sort of health plan, no matter how crappy, to their full-time employees.  The A penalty in this case is $2,000 per full-time employee, with the first 30** free (so with 60 FT employees and no health plan, the penalty is (60-30) x $2,000 = $60,000 a year.
  • The "B" penalty is for companies that avoid the "A" penalty.  If a health plan is offered, but is not affordable (ie the employee monthly share of premiums is higher than a government-set floor) then the company gets penalized $3,000 for every full-time employee who both goes into an exchange and gets a plan with a government-subsidized premium.   There is a cap on the "B" penalty that it can be no higher than if the "A" penalty was applied to the whole company.

We have always pretty much assumed we were going to get the B penalty.  For minimum wage workers, the floor contribution is something like $9o a month, so the company share over a year for a typical employee of ours would be way over $3000.  Also, since over half of our full-time employees are on Medicare and another portion of them are on some sort of retirement plan from a corporation, we don't expect that many to go into the exchange anyway.  So we plan to just pay the penalty.

But we had expected to avoid the A penalty by offering some sort of policy to our employees.  When experts present this stuff, they act like only the dumbest of the dumb companies would ever be saddled with the A penalty.  After all, the company does not even have to pay anything for the policy, they just have to offer something.

But it turns out that all the things that protect us from the B penalty make us almost un-insurable.  First and foremost, insurers have a minimum participation rate they demand.  They are not going to go through all the overhead costs of setting you up on their plan if no one is going to sign up.  In the Government Small Business Health Care Exchange (SHOP), that minimum participation rate is around 70%.  No WAY we can meet that, since over half or our employees are on Medicare and would thus not sign up for anything.  The fact that the average age of our workforce is in the 60's, maybe even the 70's, just makes things worse.  Obamacare gives insurers only limited ability to price for higher risk, so they lose money on older people.  That means they are going to avoid like the plague signing up any group like ours that is all older people.

So, as a result, I am required by law, under harsh financial penalties, to purchase a product that is not available to me.  Had President Obama required that I buy 2 pounds of rocks from Mars, the result would not have been any more unfair.

By the way, I have for a couple of years now been discussing my efforts to convert all our full-time employees to part-time.  I have gotten a lot of grief for that in the comments.  But do you see why now?  The Administration is levying a penalty on me that I cannot avoid.  That penalty is calculated as a multiple of the number of full-time workers I employ.  The only way I can reduce the penalty is to reduce the number of full-time employees.

It is a sorry state of affairs to have to see my greatest business achievement of the last year was to get my number of full-time employees in a workforce of over 350 people down to just 42.  This year, we will work to get it under 30.  If we can do that, we will avoid all penalties entirely without having to mess with the health insurance marketplace.

 

** As a transition measure, the first 80 are free in 2015, which means my company will avoid penalties in 2015 no matter what but not in 2016 unless we can get our full-time employee count down further.

 

Postscript:  One of the oddball and confusing parts of the law is that the word "full-time" has multiple meanings.  This year, companies with more than 100 full time equivalents (FTE) are subject to the mandate.    Because of this, at cocktail parties, I have people walk up to me all the time saying the law does/doesn't apply to me based on a factoid they heard about minimum workforce sizes.  I have 350 total employees of whom 42 are full time.  Some say that puts me over 100 (the 350) and some say that puts me under the 100 (the 42).  It turns out that neither are relevant in determining if I am under or over 100, it is a third calculation that matters.  We do have more than 100 FTE, but we have less than 80 full-time employees that triggers the penalties in 2015.  Go figure.

Can One Be A Principled Moderate? And What the Hell Is A Moderate, Anyway?

Sorry, this is one of those posts where I am still struggling to figure an issue out, so bear with me if we wander around a bit and the ideas are a bit unfinished.

Kevin Drum and other progressives have been bending over backwards to argue that the now three year delay in implementing PPACA standards for private insurance policies is no big deal.

Really?  The PPACA is likely, for Progressives, to be the most important piece of legislation passed during this Administration.  Hell, based on the discussion when it was passed, for many it is likely the most important piece of legislation passed in the last three or four decades.  And when Republicans suggested delaying these same rules and mandates, e.g. during the government shutdown, they freaked, arguing that people should not have to go another day with their old crappy health care policies.

But now they just roll over and say, yeah, ho hum, this thing that everyone supposedly wanted is a political liability so its fine to delay it, no big deal.

If this were a signature piece of libertarian legislation (yeah, I know its hard to imagine such a thing) that was not being implemented by somebody I voted for and supported, I would be pissed.  I would be raking the President over the coals.

This difference in outlook may be why the Republican leadership hates the Tea Party.  The Tea Party gets pissed when folks they elect punt on the ideological goals they got elected to pursue.  They have no tribal loyalty, only loyalty to a set of policy goals.  The key marker in fact of many groups now disparagingly called "extremists" is that they do not blindly support "their guy" in office when "their guy" sells out on the things they want.

I have friends I like and respect -- smart and worldly people -- who are involved in a series of activities to promote political moderation.  What I have written in this post is the core of my fear about moderation -- that in real life calls for moderation are actually calls for loyalty to maintaining our current two major parties (and keeping current incumbents in office) over ideas and principles.

Which leads me to an honest question that many of you may take as insulting -- can one be a principled moderate?  I am honestly undecided on this.  But note that by moderate I do not mean "someone who is neither Republican or Democrat," because I fit that description and most would call me pretty extreme.  So "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" is not in my mind inherently "moderate".  That is a non-moderate ideological position that is sometimes called "moderate" because it is a mix of Republican and Democrat positions.  But I would argue that anyone striving to intellectual consistency cannot be a Republican or Democrat because neither have an internally consistent ideology, and in fact their ideology tends to flip back and forth on certain issues (look at how Republican and Democrat ideology on Presidential power, for example, or drone strikes changes depending on whose guy is in the Oval Office).

Moderates in my mind are folks willing to, or even believe it is superior to, take average positions, eg. "the PPACA just went too far and we should have had a less-far-reaching compromise" or "free trade agreements go too far we need a mix of free trade and protectionism".  They value compromise and legislative action (ie passing lots of laws in a fluid and timely manner) over holding firm on particular ideological goals.  I guess the most fair way to put it by this definition is they value consensus and projecting a sense of agreement and teamwork over any individual policy goal.

Postscript:  One other potential definition of "moderate":  One could argue that in actual use by politicians and pundits, "moderate" effectively means "one who agrees with me" and "extremist" means "people who disagree with me."  The real solution here may be to accept that "moderate" is an inherently broken word and stop using it.

Update:  There are areas where I suppose I am a moderate.  For example, I think that making definitive statements about what "science" has been "settled" in the realm of complex systems is insane.  This is particularly true in economics.  Many findings in economics, if one were honest, are equivocal or boil down to "it depends."  The Left is insanely disingenuous to claim that the science is settled that minimum wage increases don't affect employment.  But it is equally wrong to say that minimum wage increases always have a large effect on unemployment.  For one thing, almost no one (percentage wise) actually makes the minimum wage so we are talking about changes in the first place that affect only a couple of percent of the workforce, and may be mitigated (or exacerbated) by other simultaneous trends in the economy.  So of course their impact may not be large (in the same way that regulations on left-handed Eskimo Fortran programmers might not have much of an impact on the larger economy).

We have gotten into this bizarre situation that the science is suddenly always settled about everything, where it would be safer to argue that given the complexity of the systems involved the science can't be settled.  I liked this bit I read the other day in the Federalist

One of the more amusing threads that runs through the conversation among the online left is the viewpoint that the science is settled in every arena, and settled in their favor. The data backs the leftward view, and if it doesn’t, there must be a flaw in the data, or in the scientist, or secret Koch-backed dollars behind the research. This bit of hubris leads to saying obviously untrue things – like “every economist from the left and right” says the stimulus has created or saved at least two million jobs. Or that there’s “no solid evidence” that boosting the minimum wage harms jobs. Of course the media knows that these aren’t true, but they largely give these politicians a pass, because dealing in data and with academic research is their turf.

Folks on the Left who want to blame the Tea Party for the destruction of civil discourse need to look at themselves as well, declaring the science settled on everything and then painting their opponents as anti-science for disagreeing.  As I have pointed out before, this sort of epistemology is not science but religion, the appeal to authority backed by charges of heresy for those who disagree.

If I were going to make a political plea, it would not be for moderation but for better more respectful practices in the public discourse.

Regulatory Suffocation

Taxes are usually the heart of the discussion when people talk about the bad business climate in California.  And certainly their taxes are just insanely high.  But for folks like me, an even bigger barrier is the regulatory environment. We are closing several operations in California at the end of this year mainly because we are just exhausted with the compliance costs and regulatory barriers to expansion.    In Ventura County, for example, we have  a camping operation that has never made money because it is under-scale. We have the capital and desire to expand it, but it has just proven impossible to do so.

A big reason for this is the regulation in California and in Ventura County.    We once had to get something like 7 permits just to remove a dangerous and dilapidated deck.  We added a 500 gallon fuel tank for fueling boats (to eliminate the unsafe practice of driving in and out of town with about 100 5-gallon fuel containers) and it took over 3-years of trekking to multiple county and state offices to get it permitted.  We thus despaired of trying to get a campground expansion approved.   Approximately the same expansion that cost us just under a million dollars in Alabama several years ago was going to cost over $5 million and Ventura County, and the County was still piling on requirements when we gave up.  And this is even before we fart with crazy California break laws and other nuttiness.

I have often told folks that I would love to see a liberal defender of all this regulatory overreach try to construct and open a restaurant in Ventura County.  It would be fascinating to watch.   (All this musing was touched off by this article on underground restaurants that try to sidestep this regulatory cost and mess).  We are a service business and California still has a lot of money, so we still operate in California.  But I continue to wonder why any company, like a manufacturer, remains in California.  Sell there yes, but produce anything you can out of state and ship it in.  Even as a service business we do a bit of this, no longer stick-building anything but having all our buildings, cabins, stores, etc built in Arizona as modular buildings and then shipped to California.  Even our labor force is partially "imported", as we hire folks who live in their RV's to come from all over the country to live and work at our campgrounds.

As I read the other day, if Silicon Valley were not already in California, would anyone in their right mind put it there?

Postscript:  One other story:  California's regulatory environment has caused a real shift in the culture as well.  At one location that we are closing this year, a local attorney has regular dinner meetings with groups of our employees to brainstorm among the group to see if they can come up with something to sue us over.

Stupid Math Tricks

James Hansen, head of NASA's GISS and technical adviser on An Inconvenient Truth, wrote recently

Thus there is no need to equivocate about the summer heat waves in Texas in 2011 and Moscow in 2010, which exceeded 3σ – it is nearly certain that they would not have occurred in the absence of global warming. If global warming is not slowed from its current pace, by mid-century 3σ events will be the new norm and 5σ events will be common.

This statement alone should be enough for any thoughtful person who here-to-fore has bought in to global warming hysteria out of vague respect for "science" to question their beliefs.

First, he is basically arguing that a 3σ event proves (makes it "nearly certain") that some shift has occurred in the underlying process.  In particular, he is arguing that one single sample's value is due to a mean shift in the system.  I don't have a ton of experience in process control and quality, but my gut feel is that a 3σ event can be just that, a 3σ event.  One should expect a 3σ event to occur, on average, once in every 300 samples of a system with a normal distribution of outcomes.

Second, and a much bigger problem, is that Hansen is gaming the sampling process.  First, he is picking an isolated period.  Let's say, to be generous, that this 3σ event stretched over 3 months and was unprecedented in the last century.  But there are 400 3-month periods in the last hundred years.  So he is saying in these two locations there was a 3σ temperature excursion once out of 400 samples.  Uh, ok.  Pretty much what one would expect.

Or, if you don't like the historic approach, lets focus on just this year.  He treats Moscow and Texas like they are the only places being sampled, but in fact they are two of hundreds or even thousands of places on Earth.  Since he does not focus on any of the others, we can assume these are the only two that have so-called 3σ temperature events this summer.

It's hard to know how large to define "Texas"  (since the high temperatures did not cover the whole state) or "Moscow" (since clearly the high temperatures likely reached beyond the suburbs of just that city).

Let's say that the 3σ event occurred in a circular area 500km in diameter.  That is an area of 196,250 sq km each.  But the land surface area of the Earth (we will leave out the oceans for now since heat waves there don't tend to make the headlines) is about 150 million sq km.   This means that each of these areas represent about 1/764th of the land surface area of the Earth.  Or said another way, this summer there were 764 500km diameter land areas we could sample, and 2 had 3σ events.  Again, exactly as expected.

In other words, Hansen's that something unusual is going on in the system is that he found two 3σ events that happened once every 300 or 400 samples.  You feeling better about the science yet?

Luboš Motl has a more sophisticated discussion of the same statement, and gets into other issues with Hansen's statement.

Postscript:  One other issue -- the mean shift in temperatures over the last 30 years has been, at most, about 0.5C  (a small number compared to the Moscow temperature excursion from the norm).  Applying that new mean and the historic standard deviation, my guess is that the Moscow event would have still been a 2.5σ event.  So its not clear how an event that would have been unlikely even with global warming but slightly more unlikely without global warming tells us much of anything about changes in the underlying system, or how Hansen could possible assign blame for the even with near certainty to anthropogenic CO2.

Conservatives are Screwing Up

Conservatives, nominally supporters of smaller government and free markets, are yet again torpedoing these principles in the name of short term political expediency.  In order to score a few fleeting points against Obama, they are calling him out over the BP oil spill, saying that this is his Katrina, a massive failure both in regulation and response.

That's stupid.  One can certainly raise some questions about the government -- why have they been collecting an oil spill cleanup tax but not any oil spill cleanup capability or equipment, why are we driving oil companies out of easy oil in shallow waters to crazy-hard oil in deep waters.  But this is not Obama's fault nor the government's fault.  This is BP's fault.  They screwed up and started the spill, and it was they that had no contingency plan for such a disaster.  And its going to cost them a staggering amount of money, as it should.

After all, what are the feds going to do?  They certainly can't be expected to maintain the expertise to deal with this kind of thing, particularly in cutting-edge deep water.  Which is why Obama has had to resort mostly to joggling BP's elbow demanding that hey hurry.

We have the incredible sight of Conservatives, rightly, saying that more regulation could not have prevented the financial crisis because regulators are any better than industry participants in spotting problems when entering uncharted territory.  But here we have exactly the same situation and Conservatives are hammering on Obama for not being authoritarian enough or regulating enough.

Postscript: One of the few things the Obama administration has done is demand BP stop using a certain oil dispersant chemical because it is toxic.  Duh.  So is all the oil.  Which is probably why BP ignored him.  Government is terrible with this type of decision.  We have something really bad happening that we can't control.  But we can make it less bad by doing X, but X has some downsides as well.   In the heat of battle, when discretion is required, government will choose the sin of omission (letting more oil reach the shore) over the sin of commission (using a toxic dispersant), even if this decision is irrational.  In their incentive system, the sin of commission is impossible to sluff off on someone else.  The sin of omission can always be blamed on BP, or Bush, or whoever.  This is one reason why government bureaucratic rules are often so detailed and prescriptive -- given these incentives, certain decisions will never be made in the heat of battle by bureaucrats unless their actions are guided by detailed rules, which then give them cover.

Postscript #2: I think the media has tended to underestimate the difficulty here.  5000 feet of water is really deep and complicated to work in, orders of magnitude harder than shallow water, which in turn is orders of magnitude harder than on land.  In a way, its actually kind of amazing that BP has sealed this thing, given that the Soviets, in much less difficult leaks, reportedly had to resort to nukes to seal the well.

One Step Forward, One Step Back

The other day I was happy to see lefty Kevin Drum pointing out the obvious problems with subsidizing Edit Post "¹ Coyote Blog "” WordPressethanol.  This is a step forward, when smart people on both sides of the aisle can agree that a certain approach is dumb.  Of course, given the incentives in government, that doesn't mean that ethanol subsidies will actually stop.

So we make some progress on ethanol, but just replace it without another absurdly dumb subsidized energy technology, in this case wind.  Wind is not even close to being ready for grid service, and given the hot backup power one needs to cover its unpredictability, it does about zero to reduce CO2 emissions.  A series of studies have shown that it has done nothing to reduce fossil fuel consumption in either Germany or Denmark.  And the whole green jobs thing is even more absurd -- it makes no sense theoretically, as shifting private investment to less economically viable uses has never, ever created jobs -- and has been debunked in practice in both Denmark and Spain.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to ignore the science and push wind, for no other reason I can figure out except to avoid admitting he was wrong when he campaigned on wind.  This makes for a pretty depressing story, and, given there are more documents the Administration is resisting releasing under FOIA, probably more ugly news to follow.

Postscript: One way you could use wind is with some kind of storage system, of which I can think of two.  The first is to use wind to pmp water up hill into a reservoir where the potential energy could later be harvested as hydroelectric power.  The other is to use the wind power to make hydrogen from water.  You need some sort of process that can be stopped and started on short notice.

So Wrong, I Almost Wish It Would Pass

Sometimes a proposed law is so wrong and so destructive, but so typical of a certain philosophical bent, that I almost wish it would pass, if for no reason than to have an Atlas Shrugged-type object example of disastrous results.  Such is the case for a California ballot initiative that has qualified for the signature-gathering stage.  The initiative, in part:  (full text linked here)

  • Imposes one-time tax of at least 55% on property
    exceeding $20 million of a California resident or held in California by
    nonresident.  [note that this is an asset tax, not an income tax]
  • Imposes one-time tax (between 36.5% - 54.3%) on income exceeding $10 million when resident dies or leaves California.
  • Imposes
    additional 17.5% tax on total incomes of taxpayers with income
    exceeding $150,000 if single, $250,000 if married; 35% if incomes
    exceed $350,000 if single, $500,000 if married.
  • The proceeds of this money will be used to:
    • To
      purchase 30% to 51% of the outstanding shares of stock in ExxonMobil,
      Chevron, General Motors, Ford, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and
      Citigroup, in order to ensure California has an uninterrupted source of
      energy and financial capital.
    • To drain and restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley to it's condition at the beginning of the 20th century.
    • Use
      any Surplus funds to combat Global Warming, make infrastructure repairs
      and improvements, and to research alternative energy sources.

Beyond the unbelievably Marxist confiscation going on here, it begs the question of just what supply of energy and financial capital that California is not getting today that this will somehow ensure.  The implication seems to be that ExxonMobil, GM, and Citigroup are too fair-minded, selling their wares too even-handedly, and that California would prefer their attention tilted towards California.

Of course this initiative is profoundly immoral, so I can't do anything but deride it, but it would make for a spectacular object lesson (though one would have thought the Soviet Union's experience to be sufficient to this task, but apparently not).  I am sure GM's troubles would be greatly helped by replacing its board of directors with the California State Legislature  (the only American organization running a bigger deficit than GM) and replacing Citigroup's credit analysists with California social services beauracrats.  I would kind of like to see this in the same way I would love to see what happens if I threw a crate of flourescent tubes off a 10th-floor roof  -- I would never actualy do it, because it would be unsafe and destructive, but I can still dream about how compelling the disaster would be.

Postscript: One could probably label this the Arizona and Nevada economic stimulation act and probably not be far off the mark.

Privatizing Public Recreation

A bit over five years ago, I wrote an op-ed piece in our local paper calling for further privatization of public recreation.  The editorial was in response to a proposal for a large bond issue to rebuild recreation infrastructure.  I argued that the state should instead be focusing on attracting private investment.  Not only was there more money for recreation in private hands than public, but I sensed that private funds would more likely be invested in facilities the public really wanted, rather than goofy politically correct projects.  Further, private operators could operate recreation facilities much less expensively, in part because they are not tied to ridiculous public pay scales, pension plans, and job classifications.

Soon after, I had a business broker call me and ask me if I wanted to put my money (such that it was) and time where my mouth was.  After a lot of twists and turns, I ended up the owner of a recreation concession company.  In a recreation concession, a private operator pays the government rent in exchange for the ability to charge visitor fees and run the recreation facility for profit.  In most cases, our company can operate a property and make a profit on fees lower than the government must charge just to break even.

My business, Recreation Resource Management, has prospered since then.  And as I have gotten deeper into public recreation, what I have learned has only confirmed what I wrote in that editorial.  I have seen that when the government runs recreation facilities, it almost never spends enough money on capital maintenance and refurbishment.  The reason seems to be that legislators, given the choice, would much rather spend $X on a shiny new facility they can publicize to their constituents than spend $X maintaining facilities that already exist.  I laugh when I here progressives argue that private industry is too short-term focused and only the government invests for the long-term.  In practice, I find exactly the opposite is true.  Think about hotels, or gas stations, or grocery stores.  Private businesses understand that every 15-20 years, they need to practically rebuild existing infrastructure from scratch to keep them fresh for customers.  This kind of reinvestment almost never happens in public recreation.

Except this week!

After years of building up our business, we just completed a project with California State Parks that is what I have always wanted to achieve with the company.  At McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, California State Parks had an aging concession store and an outdated section of the campground that it really did not have the money to rehabilitate (by the way, this is an absolutely beautiful park -- I highly recommend it).  We crafted a two-part lease with the state which eventually led to us investing over a million dollars in the park:  In phase one, we built a new concession store (old store on left, our new store on right):

Park_storeexterior000  Store3

In phase two, just complete, we took an old tent-camping loop with no utilities and added 24 new cabins.  These cabins not only refurbish an aging and dated section of the campground, but they also add new amenities to the park to attract visitors who may not own an RV and who don't want to sleep in a tent.  In addition, since they are insulated and heated, these cabins will extend the camping season -- in fact, we already have a number of reservations for Thanksgiving, a time when no one would have wanted to tent camp here.

Cabin1    Cabin_inside2

Its a  win-win-win, where  we make money, the state gets lease revenues
from us that exceed their previous camping revenues, and the public
gets new amenities without any taxes or public spending.

So, in answer to the question I so often get, "why does a libertarian run a company that works with the government?"  Now you know why.  I will admit that from time to time I find myself on the losing end of libertarian-intellectual-purity debates because I choose this path rather than, say, living in a cabin in the wilderness and manufacturing rifle barrels for a living.  *Shrug*

Postscript:  One lesson I have also learned is that state governments are not always a monolith.  Texas and Florida, for example, while being beloved of libertarians for having no state income tax, can be horribly bureaucratic in certain areas (e.g. sales tax reporting and vehicle registrations).  California, on the other hand, which in many ways is one of the worst states to do business in, actually has what is probably the most innovative and business-friendly state parks organization in the country.  Go figure.

PS#2:  By the way, the cabins shown are actually modular buildings, built here in Phoenix by Cavco, and shipped to the site.  The classy interior work was done my by maintenance supervisor.