Posts tagged ‘PR’

Window Dressing

Fed's reverse repo activity in Treasuries with major banks.  When I was on the corporate staff of a large conglomerate, we eventually busted one of our divisions for pushing inventory out the door on the last day of the quarter, only to have most of it returned a few days later, all as a way to boost quarterly revenues.  This appears to be the bankers' equivalent of such channel-stuffing.

Reverse Repo

 

Are the Feds really fooled by artificial quarter-end liquidity that is provided by the Feds themselves?  The stress-tests remind me of the story about FDR declaring a bank holiday, and claiming to have allowed only the strong banks to reopen the next day.  How did they know which were strong and weak?  They didn't, really.  The whole exercise was a PR ploy to boost consumer confidence in the banking industry.

Update:  Yep, there it all goes back where it came from

Reverse Repo April 1 2014

I'm Feeling Pretty Good About These Remarks on Inauguration Day 2009

I caught a lot of grief on inauguration day 2009 for questioning the general feeling that some new era was beginning.  Most of you may have repressed the memory at this point of what that day was like, but even normally intelligent, well-grounded people were going a bit goo goo that day.  

I am feeling pretty good about the remarks I made that day.  Here is part of what I wrote.

I am not enough of a historian to speak for much more than the last thirty years, but the popularity of non-incumbent political candidates has typically been proportional to 1) their personal charisma and 2) our lack of knowlege of their exact proposals....Folks are excited about Obama because, in essence, they don't know what he stands for, and thus can read into him anything they want.  Not since the breathless coverage of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault has there been so much attention to something where we had no idea of what was inside.  My bet is that the result with Obama will be the same as with the vault.

There is some sort of weird mass self-hypnosis going on, made even odder by the fact that a lot of people seem to know they are hypnotized, at least at some level.  I keep getting shushed as I make fun of friends' cult behavior watching the proceedings today, as if by jiggling someone's elbow too hard I might break the spell.  Never have I seen, in my lifetime, so much emotion invested in a politician we know nothing about.   I guess I am just missing some gene that makes the rest of humanity receptive to this kind of stuff, but just for a minute snap your fingers in front of your face and say "do I really expect a fundamentally different approach from a politician who won his spurs in .... Chicago?  Do I really think the ultimate political outsider is going to be the guy who bested everyone at their own game in the Chicago political machine?"

Well, the spell will probably take a while to break in the press, if it ever does -- Time Magazine is currently considering whether it would be possible to put Obama on the cover of all 52 issues this year -- but thoughtful people already on day 1 should have evidence that things are the same as they ever were, just with better PR.

And I wrote this about the candidate I actually preferred over the Republican alternative McCain. Which explains why it has been ages since I have voted for anything but the Libertarian candidate for President.  The last election was actually a pleasant surprise, as I was able to cast a vote for Gary Johnson, who I was able to vote for not just as a protest vote but as someone I actually would love to see as President.

Hotels Among the Favored Few in the Corporate State (Along with Sports Teams, Taxi Owners, and Farmers)

The various cities in the Phoenix metropolitan area have spent a fortune renovating ten spring training fields for 15 major league teams.  I have seen a number like $500 million for the total, but this seems low as Scottsdale spent $100 million for just one complex and Glendale may have spent as much as $200 million for theirs.  Never-the-less, its a lot of taxpayer money.

The primary subsidy, of course, is for major league teams that get lovely facilities that they use for about one month in twelve.

But these subsidies always get sold on their community impact.  But that economic impact turns out to be really narrow.  For in-town visitors, the economic impact is typically a wash, as money spent on going to sports games just substitutes for other local spending.  But these stadiums are held up as great economic engines because they attract out of town visitors:

Cactus League baseball and year-round use of its ballparks and training facilities add an estimated $632 million to Arizona economy, according to a study released Monday by the Cactus League Baseball Association.

The study found that 56 percent of the 1.7 million fans attending games this past spring were out-of-state visitors and the median stay in metro Phoenix was 5.3 nights.

Spring training accounted for $422 million in economic impact in 2012, up 36 percent from the previous study in 2007. Both were done by FMR Associates of Tucson.

One of the flaws of such studies is they never, ever look at what the business displaces.  For example, for local visitors, they never look at local spending sports customers might have made if they had not gone to the game.  All spending on the sports-related businesses are treated as incremental.   For out-of-town visitors, no one ever considers other visitors coming for non-sports reasons who are displaced (March was already, without all the baseball, the busiest hotel month in Phoenix) or considers that some of the visitors might have come to the area anyway.

However, let's for one moment of excessive credulity accept these numbers, and look at the out of town visitors.  56 percent of 1.7 million people times 5.3 nights divided by 2 people per room is 2.52 million room nights, or at $150 each a total of $378 million.   So most of their spring training economic impact is hotel room nights.  This by the way is the same logic that supports various public subsidies of local college bowl games.

Which begs the question, why are we spending upwards of a billion dollars in taxpayer money to subsidize sports teams and hotel chains?  If the vast majority of the economic impact of these stadium investments is for hotels, why don't they pay for them, or split the cost with the teams?

PS- as an aside, it seems that to be successful in the corporate state, one needs ready access to consultants who will put absurdly high numbers on the positive impact of one's government subsidies.  It's like money laundering, but with talking points.  Take your self-serving spin, hand it with a bunch of money to a consultant, and out comes a laundered "study".  In this case, the "study" architects are FMR Associates, which bills itself as specializing "in strategic research for the communications industry."  The communications industry means "PR flacks".   So they specialize in making your talking points sound like they have real research behind them.  Probably a growing business in our corporate state.

The Full Effects of Obamacare Just Starting to Make the News

This is a highly instructive story about Wal-Mart dropping health coverage for part-time workers (hat tip to a reader -- I always forget to ask if they are OK having their name used).  The writer is amazed at unintended consequences that were so hard to envision that complete non-experts like me predicted them days after the law's passage.

  • The writer is amazed that Wal-Mart would support Obamacare and then try to evade its provisions.  This is how the corporate state works.  Wal-Mart was an enthusiastic supporter of Obamacare NOT because it believed the law made any sense, and not because it had any intention of complying with its spirit, but because it knew that its size, political clout, and infrastructure would allow it to duck the new costs of Obamacare more easily than its competition.
  • We see unintended consequences run wild.  Wal-Mart was guilted into providing some health care coverage of part time workers because of tear-jerker news stories about these folks having no other alternative.  But under Obamacare, they do have an alternative (Uncle Sam) so the pressure on Wal-Mart to provide the care to avoid bad PR is removed.
  • I am amazed that we seem to naturally assume that providing health care is an employer's obligation.  This is just bizarre, and applies to none of our other needs.  Employers pay us money, we spend it according to our preferences to fulfill our needs and caprices  (a great phrase I stole from Agatha Christie via Hercule Poirot).   “Walmart is effectively shifting the costs of paying for its employees onto the federal government with this new plan".  I would have said that Wal-Mart is shifting the choice of how to spend their total compensation back on the employee.
  • The cat is almost out of the bag on the story I have promised to be the biggest economic story of 2013:  "Several employers in recent months, including Darden Restaurants, owner of Olive Garden and Red Lobster, and a New York-area Applebee’s franchise owner, said they are considering cutting employee hours to push more workers below the 30-hour threshold."  These guys are just being coy in public if they are saying "considering."  I know insiders in the restaurant industry and they have been working on definite plans to part-time their entire work force for well over a year.   By mid-2013, the service worker who works more than 30 hours a week will be a dinosaur
  • Some time in the past, we really screwed up the whole concept of health care "insurance."  One person complains in the article:  “The packages Walmart is providing for low-income people aren’t offering very much coverage except for catastrophes."  Gee, I could have sworn this is exactly what insurance is supposed to be.  Her statement is like saying "my home insurance isn't offering much coverage except in the case of major damage to my house."
  • Every extra dollar Wal-Mart pays for its employee's health care costs is another dollar added to the shopping bill of the lower income people who shop there.

+1 For Oral Histories

Glenn Reynolds links to an article on oral histories.  In 8th grade, my son had to do an oral history of someone in my family.  I bought him an mp3 recorder, one of those little dictation things they sell at Staples or Office Depot, and he recorded about 4 hours of interviews.

My dad passed away last week, but due to dementia lost the ability to discuss his life long before that.  My dad had an amazing life, growing up in a tiny house in Depression-era Iowa and eventually running one of the largest corporations in the world.  He never talked about himself.  Knowing him, one couldn't imagine him writing a memoir.  In a day where executives hire PR agents to puff them up in the press, my dad scoffed and derided the practice.  He bought all his casual clothes at Sears until his teenage daughters made him stop.

So the only history we have of him in his own words wouldn't exist if a wonderful teacher hadn't assigned him the project.

What Joe Arpaio's PR Activity Has Been Displacing

While Sheriff Joe was pursuing a vendetta against County officials, chasing down Mexicans with broken tail lights, and raiding dry cleaners demanding immigration papers, over 400 sexual assaults were going under-investigated.  According to the article, this was not an accident -- there was a real prioritization that put few resources in the special victims unit and put more and better staff on things like counter-terrorism (Phoenix being a well-known hotbed of terrorist activity).

The understaffing in the special-victims unit was due in part to the Sheriff's Office's priorities -- and the special-victims unit was not one of them, according to a half-dozen current and former sheriff's employees.

Despite a Maricopa County hiring freeze prompted by the faltering economy, the Sheriff's Office from 2005 through mid-2008 was hiring 45 to 50 new deputies annually and tackling initiatives that included counterterrorism and homeland-security enhancements. The office also embraced immigration enforcement, sending 60 deputies and 100 detention officers through a federal immigration-training program and creating a human-smuggling unit with at least 15 dedicated deputies.

Staffing in the special-victims unit remained unchanged during those years: four detectives....

The Sheriff's Office was allocated more than $600,000 in fiscal 2007 for six full-time positions for "investigating cases involving sexual abuse, domestic violence, abuse and child abuse." The Sheriff's Office now says the six new positions were to focus solely on child-abuse cases. In any event, they cannot say where those deputies went to work.

"We don't know," Chief Deputy Sheridan said. "We've looked, and we can't find any of those position numbers which were allocated for child-abuse cases."

This is due in part to the acknowledged misallocation of roughly $100 million in agency funds that had patrol deputies being paid out of an account designated for detention officers.

The department was almost certainly spending more on Joe Arpaio's PR than it was on the special victims unit.  Dozens of cases showed no investigation at all, and hundreds showed that no contact had been made either with the victim or the suspect.   Piles of case files were found random file cabinets and even one officer's garage.

Using the the Criminal Activity that Results from Prohibition to Justify Prohibition

Apparently, Los Angeles has tough anti-ticket scalping laws.  This means that one is able to resell virtually any item one owns but no longer has a use for except tickets.  In this case, government officials yet again don't like someone who places little value on an item selling it to someone who places more value on that item (a concept that is otherwise the basis for our entire economy).  We can see the effect of such laws in London, where stadiums full of empty seats are juxtaposed against thousands who want to attend but can't get tickets, all because for some reason we have decided we don't like the secondary market for tickets.

A great example is embedded in this line in today's LA Times about crackdowns on scalping:

Jose Eskenazi, an associate athletic director at USC, said the university distributed football and basketball tickets free to several children's community groups but that scalpers obtained those tickets and sold them "at enormous profits."

I like the coy use of "obtained" in this sentence.  Absent a more direct accusation, I have to assume that this means that scalpers bought the tickets from the community groups.  Which likely means that strapped for cash to maintain their operations, these groups valued cash from the tickets more that the ability to send kids to a USC football game  (in fact, taking them to a USC football game would involve extra costs to the community group of transportation, security, and feeding the kids at inflated stadium prices).  It was probably entirely rational for the community groups to sell the tickets -- this is in fact a positive story.  Selling the tickets likely got them out of an expensive obligation they could not afford and generated resources for the agency.  Sure, USC was deprived of the PR boost, but if they really want the kids to come to the game, they can do it a different way (e.g. by organizing the entire trip).  This is not a reason for curtailing my right to sell my tickets for a profit.

Anyway, I have ranted about this before.  Sports team owners and music promoters have out-sized political influence (particularly in LA) and have enlisted governments to clamp down on the secondary markets for their products.

What I thought was new and interesting in this LA Times story was the evolving justification for banning ticket scalpers.  Those who have followed the war on drugs or prostitution will recognize the argument immediately:

Lee Zeidman, general manager of Staples Center/Nokia Theatre and L.A. Live, said in a separate declaration that scalpers "frequently adopt aggressive and oftentimes intimidating tactics.... To the extent that ticket scalpers are allowed to create an environment that makes guests of ours feel uncomfortable, harassed or threatened, that jeopardizes our ability to attract those guests to our property."

In court papers, prosecutors accuse scalpers of endangering citizens, creating traffic hazards and diverting scarce police resources.

"Defendants personally act as magnets for theft, robbery, and crimes of violence," the filing states. "Areas with high levels of illegal ticket sales have disproportionately high levels of theft, robbery, crimes of violence and narcotics sales and use."

Wow, you mean that if we criminalize a routine type of transaction, then criminals will tend to dominate those who engage in this transaction?  Who would have thought?  If this were true, we might expect activities that normally are run by normal, honest participants -- say, for example, alcohol distribution -- to be replaced with gangs and violent criminals if the activity is prohibited.

It's amazing to me that people can still use the the criminal activity that results from prohibition to justify prohibition.

Update:  John Stossel has an article on the London ticket scalping ban

I AM Doing Good

I accidentally watched a few minutes of a morning show today, something I try really hard to avoid.  Matt whats-his-name was interviewing Richard Branson, and they were talking about the importance of corporations "doing good".  Once startups get going, Branson said, they need to start doing good for people, meaning I guess that they buy carbon offsets or something.

Guess what?  If my startup is succesful, I am already doing good.  I can't make a dime unless I create value for people net of what they pay me.  Every customer walks away from our interaction better off, or they would not have voluntarily elected to trade with me (and if they are not better off, I will never see them again and I will find lots of nasty stuff chasing future customers away on the Internet.)  I am tired of this notion that a succesful business person's value can only be judged by what he or she does with their money and time outside of business.  I understand the frustration with a few Wall Street and GE-type executives who are living like fat ticks on their connections with government, but most of us only are succesful if we do something useful.

This, from Carpe Diem, is along the same lines.  He looks at an editorial from the DC paper about the entry of Walmart, which says among other things

Despite the peacocking by Gray and others after the agreement was signed, the District is receiving mostly crumbs. Walmart has committed to providing $21 million in charitable donations over the next seven years, an average of $3 million a year. That's a pittance."

Walmart does not have to do squat for the community beyond its core business, because selling  a broad range of goods conviniently and at really low prices is enough. Or if it is not enough, they will not make money.  The promise of $21 million to some boondoggle controlled by a  few politician's friends is just a distraction, I wish they had not done it, but I understand that this is essentially a bribe to the officials of the DC banana republic to let them do business.

Postscript:  I have no problem with doing charitable work outside of work.  Both my company and I do, by choice, though unlike Richard Branson I don't need to have a crew of paid PR agents making sure everyone knows it.

My Favorite Climategate 2.0 Email (so far)

I am working on a summary post of the new batch of climategate emails, but this is perhaps my favorite.  It is written to Andy Revkin, nominally a reporter for the NY Times but revealed by the new emails to be pretty much the unpaid PR agent of Michael Mann and company.  Over and over, emails from Mann and his cohorts get Revkin to write the articles they want, drop quotes from skeptics from articles, and in general coordinate communications policy.

Anyway, one climate scientist writes Revkin this note

I think the notion of telling the public to prepare for both global warming and an ice age at the same [time] creates a real public relations problem for us.

Amazing that this actually had to be said.

Update:  Revkin is currently an opinion blogger but at the time of the emails he was supposed to be a news reporter at the NYT.

Pretty Brazen, Even for a Politician

I have often described this statist feedback loop:

  • Create government program
  • Government programs messes up certain aspects of the market
  • Blame such messes on "failure of markets" or capitalism or even the rich, rather than the government program
  • Create new government program to fix problem created by last program
  • Repeat

Obama's new political strategy seems to be even more brazen

  • Democrats pass new program over Republican objections
  • New program has unseemly subsidies for rich people
  • Blame subsidies on Republicans, to the point of using subsidies as example of bankruptcy of Republican party

Specifically, tax breaks for corporate jets:

The chief economic culprit of President Obama’s Wednesday press conference was undoubtedly “corporate jets.” He mentioned them on at least six occasions, each time offering their owners as an example of a group that should be paying more in taxes.

“I think it’s only fair to ask an oil company or a corporate jet owner that has done so well,” the president stated at one point, “to give up that tax break that no other business enjoys.”

But the corporate jet tax break to which Obama was referring – called “accelerated depreciation,” and a popular Democratic foil of late – was created by his own stimulus package.

Which is not to say that the losers in the Republican party would not likely have supported the same plan had it been their idea.

By the way, this is nearly exactly what Obama has been doing with those so-called special subsidies for oil companies.  This subsidies are in fact the identical tax breaks that all manufacturers receive that allow them to accelerate expensing of capital investment.  This is a tax policy that has enjoyed bipartisan support and no one is suggesting should be eliminated in general -- just eliminated for industries that have bad PR.

What Fresh Hell Is This?

My new column is up this week at Forbes.  This week it discusses the regulatory burden on small businesses.  Here is an excerpt:

Typically taxation issues get a lot more attention than these regulatory issues in discussions of government drags on the economy. But these small regulations, licenses, and approvals consume management time, the most valuable commodity in small businesses that typically are driven by the energy and leadership of just one or two people. If getting a certain license is a tremendous hassle in California, large corporations have specialized staff they throw at the problem. When a company like ours gets that dreaded call that the County wants a soil sample from under the parking lot, odds are that the owner has to deal with it personally.

So the ultimate cost of many of these silly little regulations is that they each act as a friction that wears away a bit more available time from entrepreneurs and small business owners. The entrepreneur who has to spend two hundred hours of her personal time getting all the licenses in place for a new restaurant is unlikely to have the time to start a second location any time soon. Since small businesses typically drive most new employment growth in the United States, can it be a surprise that new hiring has slowed?

Incredibly, after the column was in the can, I experienced another perfect example of this phenomenon.

In the camping business, July 4 is the busiest day of the year.  This year, on July 3, I got a call from one of my managers saying that the County health department had tested 20 ground squirrels in the area and found one with the plague.  I know this sounds frighteningly medieval, but for those of you who live out west, you may know that some percentage of all the cute little western rodents, from prairie dogs to chipmunks, carry the plague.  Its why its a bad idea for your kids and dogs to play with them.

Anyway, in the past, we have usually been required to post warnings in the area giving safety tips to campers to avoid these animals, what to do if one is bitten, etc.  At the same time, we then begin a program of poisoning all the lairs we can find.  It's about the only time any government body anywhere lets us kill anything, because only the hardest core PETA types will swoon over rubbing out a rodent carrying the black death.

But apparently, in the past when these mitigation approaches applied, the county health department was not in a budget crunch and in need of high-profile PR stories that would reinforce with taxpayers the need to fund their organization.  This time the health department marched out and closed the campground on July 4 weekend, kicking out campers from all 70 sites.  We spent the day dealing with angry customers, refunding money, and trying to find them new lodging on a weekend where most everything was booked up.  Fortunately we have a large overflow area at a nearby campground and offered everyone a special rate over there.

It is hard to imagine that, given the whole year to test, they just suddenly happened to find a problem at one of the busiest sites in the LA area on the busiest weekend of the year, particularly since they simultaneously changed their mitigation approach from notification to closure.   I have tried hard to find the original time stamp on the press release they sent out.  I can't prove it, but it sure seemed like a lot of media had the story before we (operating the campground) had been informed of a thing.  Incredibly, the health department was directing the campers to a nearby campground that was easily close enough to our campground to share the same rodent populations.  But that campground had not had a positive plague test.  Why?  Because that campground has not been tested recently, at least according to the official who brought us the news.  We're in very good hands.

Can I Make the Opposition Response?

Do all your sheriff's waste their time on this kind of stuff?  Sheriff Joe is cranking on the old PR machine again, this time having an Oval Office fantasy emulating the President's weekly address:

Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Monday announced plans to use a live-streaming video Web site to deliver a weekly address to the media and public.

The Web program "JMA TV-1" will stream Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. for five to 10 minutes, depending on the subject matter, according to a statement from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

The Corporate State

Life is too short to spend much time on the Democratic Underground, but this article by Ernest Partridge popped up in one of my Google watch lists.  I highlight only because it contains this straw man:

The dogmatism of free market absolutism resides in the belief that the unregulated market never fails to be beneficial to all; the belief, in other words, that there are no malevolent effects of unconstrained market activity, no "back of the invisible hand." From this belief follows the insistence that the free market is self-correcting, and that there is thus no need for regulation � that, in Ronald Reagan�s enduring words, "government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem."

I can't think of any thoughtful defender of capitalism and free markets that ever would have said that the market "never fails" or that it is "beneficial to all" or that there are never bad outcomes or that the market is perfectly self-correcting.

Bad, stupid shit happens all the time in free markets.  For example, BP idiotically dumps a few zillion barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  In a free society, BP will be out billions of dollars in cleanup costs and damage settlements -- it might even bankrupt itself if governments allow that to happen, and thus will never again be able to do something so careless.  Markets can't prevent a first dumb action, like huge leveraged bets on ever-increasing housing prices, but markets can make sure the folks involved don't have the resources to do it again -- that is, except if governments bail them out from their mistakes.

The point is not that markets are perfect -- the point is that they are superior in both function and the retention of personal liberty to the alternative of giving governments coercive power to use force against individuals to change market outcomes.  The point is not that individuals don't do destructive things within the context of free markets.  The point is that they have a lot less power to do harmful things over long periods of time than if one gave that person coercive power in a government job backed by police forces and armies.   There is only a limited amount of damage anyone can do when they depend on the uncoerced cooperation and agreement of their counter-party.   A tobacco company CEO doesn't have a hundredth the power to ruin peoples lives as does one member of Congress. Fifty years of slimy cigarette advertising doesn't have the power of one Congressional mandate.  Go to Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore -- which has been worse for these cities -- the private campaign to sell cigarettes or the government led war on drugs?

Its clear from later in the article that the author is yet another person with a list of pet peeves who wants to use force on the American citizenry to get his way.  The author doesn't like cigarettes, so intervention with tobacco companies is a valid role for government.  OK, well I can't stand reality TV shows, so much so that I would rather be in a room of smokers than a room with "the biggest loser" on TV, but you don't see me wanting to give government power to do something about it.

But what is amazing to me is how much his examples actually make the libertarian point for limitation of government.  Try his first one:

Private Prisons. Good for the corporations: more prisoners, "three strikes" laws, mandatory sentencing. The cost to society: less rehabilitation and early release, increased government expenditures and taxes. It is noteworthy that the United States has the largest prisoner to population ratio in the industrialized world.

You have to really re-read history to come to the conclusion that American incarceration rates are mainly driven by privatization of prisons.   My sense is the causality is the other direction - we have passed crazy drug laws and mandatory sentencing for sometimes petty crimes and have had to turn to private actors with private capital to keep up with the demand to construct new prisons.

Like the author, I hate this incarceration trend, but its really a stretch to blame this on privatization.  And, I am the first to deride the symbiotic relationship between powerful corporations and the government.  I have written on any number of occasions that both political parties in this country seem to be trying to build a European-style corporate state.  So, even if I don't think he has history quite right here, I am willing to concede the point.  Because, in fact, this seems to me an indictment of exactly what he is trying to defend -- the government interventionist state.

The only reason corporations lobby the government is that the government has the unique power to coercively intervene in markets.  Corporations try to engage this power for their own benefit and to step on competitors, both current and future.  The root cause failure here is not the fact that private companies try to engage this power, but that this power exists at all.

Amazingly, he makes the same argument about war:

War, Inc. Good for the corporations (i.e., the military-industrial complex and "private contractors" such as Halliburton and Blackwater): more wars, expenditure of rockets, bombs and ammunition (requiring restocking of inventories). Cost to society: avoidance of diplomatic solutions, increased military budget and battlefield casualties, disobedience to international law (e.g., the Geneva and Nuremberg protocols).

I am staggered to see that someone who is defending giving more power to the government is simultaneously highlighting examples where this power is misused so horribly  (and what could be a more despicable crime by legislators than incarcerating more people or starting wars just to help a favored corporate interests).  I don't think wars are started primarily to help armaments manufacturers, but if they are, then this kind of failure by politicians is FAR worse than any he could point out in unregulated markets, only making my point for me.  Markets are not perfect, but the cure of government use of force is worse than the disease.

Since the author dwells on cigarettes, just look at the so-called tobacco settlement.  Supposedly, this was the great government hammer wielded against cigarette companies to punish them for years of selling a dangerous product.  But in fact, all the settlement did was cement the market position of largest tobacco companies.  The settlement effectively made government a financial partner with tobacco companies, and since it was implemented, the government has wielded its power to protect the companies who were involved in the settlement against competition (particularly from low-price upstarts) so as to protect its own cash flow.  The position of the major tobacco companies has never been as secure and profitable.

I think the author's response would be that if we ban corporate election spending, then all would be well.  This does not pass any kind of smell test.  First, corporate giving has been effectively banned (or at least severely limited) for 20 years, and we see the staggering influence corporations have none-the-less.  We only have to look at Europe, where the troika of politicians, large corporations, and large unions run those states to their own benefit, to the detriment of all others (e.g. smaller businesses, business without political contacts, workers outside of favored fields like autos, young workers, etc.)  This symbiotic relationship occurs without campaign cash being a major element.

If you want to understand how this works, just look at recent legislation like cap-and-trad and health care.  Legislators propose some populist interventions in a market to help themselves get re-elected.  Corporations who might naturally oppose such interventions agree to support legislation in exchange for a number of subsidies and special protections. Trades occur that have little to do with campaign contributions.  Just look at the influence GE wields in getting special deals for itself.

The GM bankruptcy was a classic example.   GM is given a big taxpayer bailout and some cuts in labor costs.  In exchange for labor cost cuts, unions get the government to squash secured creditors of GM in their favor in dividing up ownership and also get some special considerations in pending health care legislation.  Secured creditors allow this to occur because they got TARP funds from the government.   Politicians get active support from GM and the UAW in getting out the vote, positive PR, etc.  The only people who lose are taxpayers, all the other automobile competitors, and workers in every other industry who must pay taxes to support auto workers special deal.

By the way, don't tell me that this is not what you want, that if only we have the right people (e.g. yourself) in power this will never happen.  Wrong.  It always happens.  Every dang time.  The incentives are overwhelming.  Given politicians the power to do that one good intervention you want, and you have also given them the power to do a thousand that you don't want.

Postscript: By the way, please do not ever take a "progressive" seriously when they say they care about the poor.  Take this for example:

Outsourcing of jobs. Good for the corporation: increased profits and return on investment of stockholders. Cost to society: poverty, loss of educational opportunities, redistribution of wealth "upward," shrinkage of customer base, economic depression.

Another way of stating outsourcing is say that it is "transferring a job from a rich American to a poor person in a developing nation."  As a country becomes richer and more educated, low-skilled jobs are not going to continue to get done by college grads.  PhD's, in general, are not going to stitch underwear.  Low skilled jobs in a wealthy society do get outsourced, and these new low-skilled jobs in developing nations become the seed or the catalyst for future wealth-creation and development.

This is one ironic problem that progressives in this country have -- even the poorest Americans would be middle class in many of the countries of the world.  If progressives really want to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, everyone in the US would pay and no one would receive a dime, it would all flow to other countries.

Outright Fraud

I was suspicious of GM's announcement that they were paying off government loans quickly, an action that was attached to a clear PR message that can be boiled down to "taxpayers did the right thing giving us billions."  I was suspicious because I had thought most of the money GM got was an equity infusion as well as certain guarantees, such as of the UAW mention and retirement medical plans.  As such, I suspected that a small debt repayment was trivial and just a token PR move.

I was wrong.  Well, actually, everything I wrote above is correct.  But I was wrong in that I underestimated how fraudulent this announcement was.

The issue came up yesterday at a hearing with the special watchdog on the Wall Street Bailout, Neil Barofsky, who was asked several times about the GM repayment by Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), who was looking for answers on how much money the feds might make from the controversial Wall Street Bailout.

"It's good news in that they're reducing their debt," Barofsky said of the accelerated GM payments, "but they're doing it by taking other available TARP money."

In other words, GM is taking money from the Wall Street Bailout "“ the TARP money "“ and using that to pay off their loans ahead of schedule.

"It sounds like it's kind of like taking money out of one pocket and putting in the other," said Carper, who got a nod of agreement from Barofsky.

"The way that payment is going to be made is by drawing down on an equity facility of other TARP money."

Translated "“ they are using bailout funds from the feds to pay off their loans.

Un-freaking-believable.   And as an aside, I know that we traditionally have a 5-year waiting period, but can we go ahead and add TARP now to the hall of fame of worst legislation?

Update: It turns out it is even worse.  More Here.

No Sh*t!

Via the Arizona Republic, from a deposition by Sheriff Joe Arpaio:

Arpaio says he was not well versed on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or its counterpart in the Arizona Constitution, which prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures.

Yeah, no kidding.  This is just kind of bizarre.  I get the whole ghost-writer thing, but at least Obama actually seems to have read the book that was ghost-written for him:

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has not read the book he co-authored in 2008, which includes information on Arpaio's philosophy on America's immigration problem and how to cope with the nation's porous borders.

Arpaio's lack of familiarity with the book, "Joe's Law - America's Toughest Sheriff Takes on Illegal Immigration, Drugs and Everything Else That Threatens America," was among the revelations to emerge from a nine-hour deposition the sheriff gave as part of a racial-profiling lawsuit filed against the Sheriff's Office.

Update: There is a spin in the article that Sheriff Joe is just a delegator, like any good corporate executive.  I am generally considered to be far more comfortable with delegation than average, and even I know a lot more about my business than Sheriff Joe does about his.    Part of the reason is likely that I don't spend 95% of my time on media and PR events to boost my name recognition at public expense.  And you can be dang sure that I know certain pieces of legislation that are important to my business, like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Service Contract Act, better than my lawyers.

Wherein I Actually Agree with Dianne Feinstein

A lot of climate skeptic sites are jumping on the apparent irony of this story:

Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation in Congress on Monday to protect a million acres of the Mojave Desert in California by scuttling some 13 big solar plants and wind farms planned for the region.

But before the bill to create two new Mojave national monuments has even had its first hearing, the California Democrat has largely achieved her aim. Regardless of the legislation's fate, her opposition means that few if any power plants are likely to be built in the monument area, a complication in California's effort to achieve its aggressive goals for renewable energy.

I think that there is an important lesson here that even "clean" energy sources have environmental downsides.  Its funny how things come full circle - thirty years ago I used to argue with people who had obsessive concerns about nuclear waste.  I would say that the volume of waste was really small, and in fact coal and oil were no different in that they generated a lot of waste but that they spewed their waste all over the atmosphere -- at least nuclear waste was compact and defined and easy to store.

Anyway, I actually think Feinstein is correct here.   Here is the origin of the plot of land:

For Mrs. Feinstein, creation of the Mojave national monuments would make good on a promise by the government a decade ago to protect desert land donated by an environmental group that had acquired the property from the Catellus Development Corporation.

"The Catellus lands were purchased with nearly $45 million in private funds and $18 million in federal funds and donated to the federal government for the purpose of conservation, and that commitment must be upheld. Period," Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement.

I have some bias in this, because my personal charities of choice tend to be private land trusts, that use private funds to buy lands for conservation.   I have always argued from an individual liberty angle that people who want land conserved shouldn't be demanding that government take it, they should be putting their money where their mouth is and helping to buy the land.  This story actually gives me another argument, because you can see that the private conservation buyers made a mistake in giving it to the Feds.  The Bush Administration, looking to score a PR victory in the alternative energy front, reneged on the promised conservation and committed the land to solar projects.

Today's Quiz

In our new corporate state, does anyone think this decision was made purely on the business merits?  Note that the only people mentioned or commenting in the article (other than a GM and UAW PR flack) are politicians of the various states.

When Government Tries to Pick Winners

Folks like Barack Obama have decided that wind power is the answer.  They haven't studied the numbers or really done much to investigate the technology, and god forbid that they have put any of their own money into it or run a company trying to make thoughtful investment decisions.  But he's just sure that such alternative energy technologies work and make sense because, uh, he wants them to.

But when government picks winners, disaster almost always follows.  Oh, sure, the programs themselves get a lot of positive attention in the press, and people are happy to line up to accept subsidies and tax rebates.  But the result is often this:  (ht: Tom Nelson)

According to the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the agency
that oversees the state's major alternative energy rebate programs, the
small wind initiative was canceled because the turbines it has funded
are producing far less energy than originally estimated.

An MTC-sponsored study released earlier this summer found that the
average energy production of 19 small turbines reviewed was only 27
percent of what the installers had projected. The actual production for
the 19 turbines, which received nearly $600,000 in public funding,
ranged between 2 and 59 percent of the estimates.

A $75,663 turbine at Falmouth Academy that received $47,500 in state
money, for example, has produced only 17 percent of the projected
energy in the year since its installation. Another, smaller device in
Bourne is producing only 15 percent of the originally estimated energy.

So the state government funds 2/3 of the project and the project still doesn't make sense

Mr. Storrs criticized the state for dropping the rebate program, which
over two years has covered upward of half the cost of several turbines
on Cape Cod and dozens of others throughout the state, saying, "It is
not what you would hope a progressive [state] like Massachusetts would
cancel. You would hope that they are supporting alternative sources of
energy."

Actually, he is correct.  Sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into faulty technology for terrible returns based solely on the fact that a certain technology is somehow politically correct is exactly what I too would expect of a progressive state like Massachusetts.

The state board complains that the technology choices and siting decisions were wrong.  Well, who would have imagined that investors in certain projects would be lax in their engineering and due diligence when the government was paying 2/3 of the freight, and when the main reason for the projects was likely PR rather than real returns?

If the bit about PR and political correctness seems exaggerated to you, check this out:

During the hearing on the proposal two months ago Mr. Storrs told the
planning board that the project was meant in part to help educate the
public about wind energy. Town Planner F. Thomas Fudala said it would
be informative to see whether the roof-mounted ones actually work.
"Even if this fails, it will be useful information," he said.

Mr. Storrs responded, "I know that sounds weird, Tom, but you are absolutely right."

Wow, I bet this kind of investment decision-making really give the local taxpayers a big warm fuzzy feeling.  By the way, this article also includes an example of why Al Gore and others proposing 10-year crash programs to change out the entire US power infrastructure are impossibly unrealistic, even forgetting about the cost:

Mr. Storrs said he first ordered
the Swift brand turbines last year as part of a bulk order along with
the Christy's gas station in West Yarmouth.

But the planning board had already adopted its new turbine regulation,
which, in part on the advice on Ms. Amsler, had prohibited the
roof-mounted machines.

"The town was just trying to be responsible in terms of looking out for
its residents, trying to make sure these things are not going to pop up
everywhere if they aren't going to work," said Thomas Mayo, the town's
alternative energy specialist.

At Mr. Storrs request, however, the planning board then went back and
reconsidered its regulation. After a public hearing featuring testimony
from Ms. Amsler as well as from a representative of Community Wind
Power who argued that the Swift turbines work well and as advertised,
the planning board decided to change the bylaw and allow Mashpee
Commons to move forward with its project.

The Mashpee bylaw requires a return on investment plan, a maintenance
plan, as well as proof that the proposal meets several safety and
aesthetic prerequisites.

Town Meeting adopted the new bylaw in May, Mashpee Commons quickly
filed its application, and received a special permit in early June.
During the comment period for the special permit, the state program was
suspended.

After receiving the special permit, Mr. Storrs said he applied for
Federal Aviation Administration approval, which is required for any
structure over three stories in town. More than two months later, he
said he is still awaiting that approval.

Mr. Mayo said the town's application for FAA approval of a site under
consideration for a large municipal turbine took six months to approve.

From Now On I Must Be Addressed as "Award winning Filmmaker" Coyote

Here is the public announcement of my second prize in a climate video contest.  I am pretty sure I am not a kid, though, nor do I remember portraying myself as such. 

By the way, for those who don't know me well, the title of this post is a joke.  I often deride people for adopting titles like "award-winning X" when the award in question is often unknown or even, like as not, a product of a paid PR effort. 

News Stories You Really Don't Want to See

I know there are people who take the position that all PR is good PR, but really, do you really want newspapers running a photo spread entitled "Hookers Made Famous by [Fill In Your Name]"?

Irony Alert

Over at Climate Skeptic, I take a quick look at the most recent Gavin Schmidt PR piece in the Washington Post, claiming that 2007 was, you know, really hot.

But I wanted to share two funny bits with you.  First, from the climate crowd who claims to have their science so buttoned down that we skeptics should not even be allowed to talk about it any more, comes this:

Taking into account the new data, they said, seven of the eight
warmest years on record have occurred since 2001

What new data?  That another YEAR had been discovered?  Because when
I count on my own fingers, I only can come up with 6 years since 2001.

Second, comes this bit of irony:  There are many reasons why satellites gives us a potentially better measure for world temperatures than surface temperature instruments.  They give us full global coverage (except the poles) and are free of urban and other biases.  So I have always wondered if the only reason that climate scientists defend the surface temperature record over satellites is merely because they don't like the answer satellites are giving (they show less warming than do surface temperature records).

But here is the irony:  The person who is arguably the strongest defender of land-based measurement over satellites, and who maintains what neutral observers feel is the most upwardly-biased surface temperature record, is Gavin Schmidt, who is ... wait for it ... head of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies at NASA.

Good Job Sheriff Joe!

Frequent readers will know that I don't think much of our County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.  Sheriff Joe gains a ton of PR for himself as the "toughest sheriff in America" and relishes in making jail conditions as miserable as possible.  Recognize that this is the jail that holds many people after arrest but before conviction. 

Now on to the figure mentioned in the Dickerson piece of 2,150
"prison condition" lawsuits since 2004. Anyone with two licks of sense
can go online at pacer.psc.uscourts.gov, or dockets.justia.com,
enter "Arpaio" into the federal court docket, then count the lawsuits
that name "prison conditions" as the cause. Count back to 2004, and as
of mid-December, that number was more than 2,150.

The same search for
the top jail custodians in L.A., New York, Chicago, and Houston nets a
total of only 43 "prison condition" lawsuits.

Remember, those 2,150
lawsuits against Arpaio are only in federal court. There are hundreds
more listed online with the Maricopa County Superior Court, at superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/docket/civilcourtcases/.....

                                       

"For the period January 1, 1993, to [November 29, 2007], the county
has paid $30,039,928.75 on Sheriff Department General Liability
claims," state the docs. "This figure includes all payments, attorney
fees, other litigation expenses, settlements, payments on verdicts,
etc."

Additionally, New Times
asked Crowley how much the lawsuit insurance policy that also covers
the sheriff has cost taxpayers. Crowley croaked, "The county has paid
for General Liability coverage for the period 3-1-95 to 3-1-08 total
premiums of $11,345,609.50."

Keep in mind that this
liability coverage figure is high, in part, because of all those
lawsuit payoffs to relatives of dead inmates.

From 1995 to 1998, the county paid $328,894 a year for an insurance policy with a $1 million deductible.                                       

Today,
Maricopa County pays a yearly premium of $1.2 million for outside
insurance with a $5 million deductible. For any lawsuit that costs $5
million or less, the county foots the entire bill. It's the best policy
the county can buy because of Arpaio's terrible track record.

Public Shaming

Over the last week, I have heard about 20 commercials from our local prosecutor's office informing me that there is a web site I can visit with pictures of drunk drivers.  Uh, why?  Is this supposed to somehow help me, driving down a street at night, such that I might just recognize the oncoming driver from 300 yards away, despite his headlights, as being someone I saw on the web site?

Actually, no.  The prosecutor believes that the criminal justice system does not impose harsh enough penalties, so he is using his office and public funds to add an additional penalty not specified by the court or the legislature: Public shaming.  I was happy to see that Reason picked up this issue today:

Taking Thomas at his word, he is imposing extrajudicial punishment,
based on his unilateral conclusion that the penalties prescribed by law
for DUI offenses provide an inadequate deterrent

In addition, Mr. Thomas is very likely emulating the example of our self-aggrandizing county Sheriff, Joe Arpaio.  Sheriff Joe has built a PR machine for himself at public expense, in large part through extra-legal get-tough-on-criminals show-campaigns like this one. 

Follow-up on Essent Healthcare Attacking Blogger

I will admit I don't even know who Essent Healthcare is.  I don't know if they do a good job or a bad job.  I do know that there is a blogger dedicated to sounding the alarm about Essent.  But there are such gadflies for nearly every major corporation.  But in this case Essent is making the classic PR mistake of trying to silence a blogger by taking expensive-to-defend-against legal action against the blogger.  Specifically, Essent is trying to force the blogger's ISP to reveal the identity of the blogger and his confidential informants, many of whom are employees of Essent likely to face retaliation (more here).

I made the point that this kind of thing always backfires, as publicity tied to such suits and the inevitable backlash from bloggers tends to greatly expand the audience of these small bloggers from a few people who are already disgruntled with the target company to a much wider and more damaging audience.

Case in point:  Look who is suddenly the #1 & #2 Google search return for "problems at essent healthcare."  Neither site was in the top 100 a few days ago.

I Wondered About This: China as Scapegoat

I haven't really blogged about the Chinese toy recalls, not knowing much about them.  However, my first thought on hearing the problems described was, "aren't those design defects, not manufacturing issues?"  I had a strong sense that populist distrust of trade with China was being used as a fig leaf to cover Mattel's screw-ups.  Several of the recalls were for parts such as magnets that were small and could be swallowed.  There was no implication that the magnets fell off because they were attached or manufactured poorly, they were just a bad design.

I have worked in a number of large manufacturing companies that have plants and suppliers in China.  It was out responsibility to make sure the product that got to the customer was correct.  There is no way we would source a product from an independent foreign company, and have the product delivered straight to stores without inspection, unless we were absolutely damn certain about the company's processes, up to and including having full-time manufacturing people at their plant.

Well, I might have been on to something (WSJ$)

Toymaker Mattel
issued an extraordinary apology to China on Friday over the recall of
Chinese-made toys, saying most of the items were defective because of
Mattel's design flaws rather than faulty manufacturing. The company
added that it had recalled more lead-tainted Chinese toys than was
justified....

Mattel ordered three high-profile recalls this summer
of millions of Chinese-made toys, including Barbie doll accessories and
toy cars, because of concerns about lead paint and tiny magnets that
could be swallowed. The "vast majority of those products that were
recalled were the result of a design flaw in Mattel's design, not
through a manufacturing flaw in China's manufacturers," Mr. Debrowski
said. Lead-tainted toys accounted for only a small percentage of all
toys recalled, he said. "We understand and appreciate deeply the issues
that this has caused for the reputation of Chinese manufacturers," he
said.

Mattel said in a statement its lead-related recalls
were "overly inclusive, including toys that may not have had lead in
paint in excess of the U.S. standards. The follow-up inspections also
confirmed that part of the recalled toys complied with the U.S.
standards."

The other interesting thing here is just how important Mattel's relationship with China is, to have even issued this apology at all.  For such a massive and high-profile recall, Mattel came off very well through the succesful strategy of blaming China.  I know that parents I have heard talk about the recall blame China and have increased fear of Chinese products.  So it is interesting to see that Mattel feels the need to abandon this so far winning PR strategy.