Posts tagged ‘prices’

How Is This Even A Question? Oil Price Drop is Great

The recent drop in oil prices has been met with a surprising amount of negativity, as if something bad is happening.  This strikes me as insane.  The world uses 90 or so million barrels of oil a day.  The recent $30+ price drop in oil thus equals a world savings of $1 trillion a year.

Sure, oil companies and their suppliers are worse off (and believe me, I care -- a lot of my portfolio was invested in such things when oil started dropping).  But the economy as a whole is clearly better off and wealthier.

To understand why, the analysis we need to undertake is an exact parallel of the broken window fallacy analysis.  Its sort of a healing window analysis.

After the oil price drop, consumers have a trillion dollars more and oil producers have a trillion dollars less.  Even right?  Actually, not.  Because consumers then spend that trillion on other things.  Those other manufacturers and producers get the trillion dollars lost to the oil industry.  Still even, right?  No.  Think of it this way:

Before the price drop

  • Oil companies have $1 trillion extra revenue
  • Other producers have no extra revenue
  • Consumers have 90 million barrels a day of oil

After the price drop

  • Oil companies have no extra revenue
  • Other producers have $1 trillion extra revenue
  • Consumers have 90 million barrels a day of oil AND $1 trillion of extra stuff (goods, service, savings, etc)

The world in the second case is wealthier.  And this is assuming all the people involved are private parties.   In fact, much of the oil revenue drop comes out of the hands of  value-destroying governments so that in fact the wealth increase in the price drop scenario is actually likely even greater than in this simplistic analysis.

Postscript:  OK, yes I am ignoring any cost of carbon pollution.  But the market is not set up to price that, and readers will know that I am skeptical that the cost is that high.  Never-the-less, this is a separate issue that if it needs to be dealt with should be dealt with as a carbon tax on fuels.  The price drop should not affect the value of that tax.  Or another way to put it, if one thinks the tax should be $30 per ton based on a $30 cost of carbon, it should be $30 per ton at $100 oil and $30 per ton at $60 oil.

So Why Is Paul Krugman Now Defending the Privileges of the 0.1%?

Apparently Paul Krugman has weighed in on Amazon and has concluded that it has "too much power".

I just cannot believe progressives are falling into the trap of defending major publishers against Amazon.  People like Krugman who bash Amazon are effectively setting themselves up as defenders of a small oligarchy of entrenched publishers who have, until recently, done a very good job of making themselves the sole gatekeeper of who gets into print.  Amazon is breaking this age-old system down, in the same way that Uber is challenging taxi cartels and Tesla is challenging traditional auto dealer networks, and giving most everyone access to the book buyer.

The system that Krugman is defending is the system of the 1%.  Or 0.1%.  The current publishing system benefits about 200 major authors who are in the system and whose work has traditionally been spammed by the large publishers to every bookstore and news outlet.  When you walk into an airport book seller, how much diversity of books do you see on the front table?   You just know that you are going to see Sue Grafton's "AA is for Aardvark" and Janet Evanovich's "Fabulous Forty-Six".  The publishers have risk-return marketing incentives to push the 46th Stephanie Plum novel over trying any new author.

So while the traditional publishers flog the 0.1% of authors, Amazon has empowered 20,000 authors.   Those who sell just a few thousand copies (or fewer) of books have found an outlet in Amazon that never existed for them (as disclosure, I am one of those).  And writers who distribute mainly through Amazon get a far higher percentage of their book revenues than they ever would get from the traditional publishers.

So Amazon is helping the consumer (lower prices) and 99.9% of authors (better access and higher profits).  It is perhaps hurting the top 0.1% and a few century-old entrenched corporations.  So what doesn't Krugman like?

Great Example of the Completely Insane Way We Manage Water

Virtually every product and service we purchase has its supply and demand match by prices.  Higher prices tell buyers they should conserve, and tell suppliers to expend extra effort finding more.

Except for water.

Every water shortage you ever read about is the result of refusing to let prices float to dynamically match supply and demand.  And more specifically, are the result of a populist political desire to keep water prices below what would be a market clearing price (or perhaps more accurately, a price that maintains reservoir levels both above and below ground at target levels).

So, some groups in Arizona are offering a$100,000 prize to help solve the water shortage.  And what is it they are looking for?  A better price system?  Nah:

A $100,000 prize awaits the group that comes up with the most innovative ­campaign to push water scarcity into the forefront of public ­conversation...

The competition wants to create a public-service campaign that raises awareness about the challenges facing Arizona's long-term water supply so residents will feel an urgency to start working on them now.

If Arizonans don't change how they consume water and start brainstorming new solutions for dwindling supplies, shortages won't be a choice, they will be an unavoidable reality. Planning for the future of water now will help ensure there is enough water for future generations, Brownell said.

The message isn't new; it has been taught with puppets, posters, television spots, brochures and landscape-design classes for years.

But experts, researchers and industry workers agree that as long as taps gush clear,drinkable water, it's hard to keep water scarcity part of public conversation.

"One challenge is getting people to take ownership of their decisions and how they contribute to the demand side of the equation," said Dave White, co-director of Arizona State University's Decision Center for a Desert City, which studies water use and sustainability....

Possible solutions to meeting Arizona's future water needs include:

• Desalination of sea water, which requires large financial investment and collaboration between government agencies and possibly Mexico.

• Rebates for water-efficient systems. Tucson offers up to $1,000 for households that install gray-water recycling systems to reuse water from sinks, showers and washing machinesfor irrigation.

• Increasing the use of recycled or reclaimed water. Arizona already uses this water to irrigate landscaping and recharge aquifers, but not as drinking water.

• Cloud seeding. The Central Arizona Project has spent nearly $800,000 to blast silver iodide into clouds to try to increase snowfall in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, where the snowpack feeds the Colorado River.

I will say that it is nice to see supply side solutions suggested rather than the usual demand side command and control and guilt-tripping.   But how can we possibly evaluate new water supply solutions like desalinization if we don't know the real price of water?  Accurate prices are critical for evaluating large investments.

If I find the time, I am going to tilt at a windmill here and submit an entry.  They want graphics of your communications and advertising materials -- I'll just show a copy of a water bill with a higher price on it.  It costs zero (since bills are already going out) and unlike advertising, it reaches everyone and has direct impact on behavior.  If you want to steal my idea and submit, you are welcome to because 1. The more the merrier and 2.  Intelligent market-based solutions are never ever going to win because the judges are the people who benefit from the current authoritarian system.

PS-  the site has lots of useful data for those of you who want to play authoritarian planner -- let some users have all the water they want, while deciding that other uses are frivolous!  Much better you decide than let users decide for themselves using accurate prices.

The Stupid, Autocratic, and Corrupt Way We Manage Water

With every item or service we buy, supply and demand are matched via prices.  Except water.  Because, for a variety of populist and politically scheming motives, no one wants to suggest "raising prices to consumers" as the obvious solution to reducing California water use in a drought, despite the fact that it would reduce demand in -- by definition -- the lowest value uses as well as provide incentives new sources and alternatives.  So instead we get authoritarian stuff like this (press release from CA Senator Fran Pavely):

SACRAMENTO – Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1281 by Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) on Thursday to require greater disclosure of water use in oil production.

Oil well operators use large amounts of water in processes such as water flooding, steam flooding and steam injection, which are designed to increase the flow of thicker oil from the ground. In 2013, these enhanced oil recovery operations used more than 80 billion gallons of water in California, the equivalent amount used by about 500,000 households and more than 800 times the amount used for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).

The impact of this use on domestic and agricultural water supplies is not known because oil companies are not required to disclose details about their water use

“At a time when families, business and farmers are suffering the effects of severe drought, all Californians need to do their part to use valuable water resources more wisely,” Senator Pavley said. “The public has the right to know about the oil industry’s use of limited fresh water supplies.”

Oil well operators have an available source of recycled water known as “produced water,” which is trapped deep underground and often comes to the surface during oil production. More than 130 billion gallons of produced water surfaced during oil production in California last year.

Many oil companies already recycle some of their produced water, but the amount is not known because of the lack of disclosure. Senate Bill 1281 requires oil well operators to report the amount and source of their water, including information on their use of recycled water.

The ONLY reason for such disclosure is because they want to impose some sort of autocratic command and control rules on oil industry water use -- not water quality mind you, but the amount of water they use.  Add this to all the other creepy Cuba-style water actions, like having neighbors spy on each other to monitor water use, and you will understand why folks like Milton Friedman argued that free markets were essential to free societies.

In honor of the California water situation, I have created the second in my series of Venn diagram on economic beliefs.

 

click to enlarge

Is the Forest Service Requiring Permits for Photography? Yes and No.

A follow-up to this article is here.

The news has been zooming around the Internet that the US Forest Service (USFS) is going to require permits to take pictures on public lands.   It was the first I had heard of this, which is odd in one sense because I actually operate tens of thousands of acres of US Forest Service lands, and in fact operate the ones with the most visitation (on the other hand, we are often the last to hear anything from the USFS).

So, knowing that the Internet can be a huge game of "telephone" where messages quickly get garbled, I went to the regulation itself.  As usual, that did not help much, because it is so freaking hard to parse.  Reading between the lines, here is what I think is going on:

  • The regulations don't apply to all USFS lands, but to the federally-designated wilderness areas they manage.  Even this is confusing, since the permitting authority does not apply just to wilderness areas, but to anywhere in the USFS.   But even the wilderness areas constitute a lot of land, and often the most scenic.
  • Apparently, the regulations have been in place for 4 years and this is just an extension and clarification
  • Ostensibly, the regulations apply only to commercial filming, but how the USFS is going to distinguish between a commercial photographer and well-equipped amateur, I have no idea.  The distinction seems to lie in what the photography will be used for, and since this use happens long after the individuals have left the land, I am not sure how the USFS will figure this out.  Is the US Government going to start suing magazines for nature pictures, claiming a copyright on the scenery?  What happens if I take it for my own use, then discover I have an awesome picture and decide to sell it.  It is hard to write laws that depend on reading people's minds in determining if an act is legal.

The Federal Wilderness Act gives the government a lot of power to limit uses in a designated wilderness area.  Motorized vehicles and tools are banned, as were bicycles more recently.  My company operates in only one wilderness area, a canoe run at the Juniper Springs recreation area in Florida.  If a tree falls across the stream, we have to float down in canoes and take it out with hand axes.  We have to open and inspect coolers of those going down the run to make sure no banned items are in them.  In other words, wilderness areas definitely have a higher level of restrictions than the average public land.

As to the First Amendment issues, well folks like Ken White at Popehat have taught me that it is very very dangerous for the uniformed (ie me) to pontificate on complex First Amendment issues.  I am sure the USFS would say that they are not interfering with free expression, just banning a use that could be dangerous in the wilderness.  There are a few problems with this:

  • The USFS hasn't explained why taking pictures threatens the natural operation of ecosystems
  • The USFS has undermined their own argument by making exceptions based on the purpose of the filming.  Apparently only commercial filming hurts ecosystems, not amateur photography.  And apparently commercial filming that has positive messages about the USFS are OK too.  Its just commercial filming that goes into a beer company ad that hurts ecosystems.  You see the problem.  If it's the use itself that is the problem, then the USFS should be banning the use altogether.  By banning some photography but not all based on the content and use of that photography, that strikes me as a first amendment issue.The best parallel I can think of is in Venezuela.  There, the government claimed a paper shortage required it to shut down certain printing to conserve paper, and then proceeded to shut down only the newspapers it did not like.  I suppose it could claim that it was not censoring anyone, just taking steps to deal with the newsprint shortage.  Similarly the USFS claims it is not limiting anyone's first amendment rights, it is just protecting the wilderness form a dangerous use.

A few years ago, the USFS tried to reverse an expensive mistake it had made.  The US government issues lifetime senior passes that allow free entry and half off camping for seniors.  This is an expensive giveaway, paid for by taxpayers.  But the USFS had gone further, requiring that concessionaires like our company also accept the pass and give half off to seniors.  While giving half off to seniors at government-run campgrounds had to be funded by taxpayers, concessionaires only have use fees to fund operations.  So to give half off to seniors, prices have to be raised to everyone else.  The senior discount requirement was raising prices (and still does) $4-$5 a night for every other camper.

Well, long story short (too late!) the US Forest Service folded under the organized pressure of senior groups.  And my guess is that they will do so again here.  Unlike with the National Park Service which has a clear mandate and strong public support, few people get misty-eyed about the USFS, which means they are always sensitive to bad news that might hurt them in the next budget fight.

PS -- Is someone going to go back and bill Ansel Adams' estate?  Isn't he exactly the sort of commercial nature photographer that this rule is aimed at?

Update:  I have talked to a number of people in the know on this.  Apparently what began as a desire merely to stop high impact filming in the wilderness -- full Hollywood movie sets with catering trucks, etc. -- has gotten taken over by a large group in the USFS that is at best skeptical and at worst hostile to commercial activity.  They would explain these rules, at least in private, by saying that anything commercial is by definition antithetical to the very concept of wilderness that they hold in their heads, and that thus all commercial activity needs to be banned in the wilderness because it is inherently corrupting.

Because Money Isn't Everything

One of the mistakes people make in economic analysis, IMO, is that they sometimes miss non-monetary benefits.  A great example is how labor law and the minimum wage is structured -- there are many benefits of a having job to a young, unskilled, unemployed person.  That job may teach valuable industry-related skills and will almost certainly help teach some basic life skills (like how to show up on time every day and how to work with others in an organization toward shared goals).  For my kids when they were 15 or 16, these non-monetary benefits dominated, and I would have been happy if they worked for free in exchange for such skills.  That used to be the whole point of unpaid internships, until the government started essentially banning them.  Unfortunately, the government considers only money in computing the minimum wage, and ignores all these non-monetary benefits.

Mark Perry had what I think is another good example a while back, quoting from the Priceonomics blog:

If you want to dine at State Bird Provisions, you’ll have to get in line. The small restaurant, winner of the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant (2013) and a Michelin Star, only accepts a few reservations that are snapped up as soon as they are released — at midnight, sixty days in advance. So nearly every day, people line up on Fillmore Street in San Francisco an hour or more before State Bird’s 5:30pm opening time to score a table.

It may seem silly to line up for State Bird Provisions in a city full of renowned restaurants and good food. But as anyone who has eaten brunch in the city knows, San Franciscans view long restaurant lines as social proof more than as a deterrent. Besides, State Bird offers determined diners a relative bargain. While its offerings are not cheap — even without indulging on wine, bills can reach $50 per person — State Bird’s prices are more modest than almost any other local Michelin Star restaurant.

This makes State Bird something of an economic mystery.If economists owned popular restaurants like State Bird, they would take one look at the long lines and raise prices.After all, the overwhelming demand is pretty clear. Or at the very least, given how reservations disappear like Coachella tickets, they would start charging for them. In fact, since restaurants do not do this, a number of startups in San Francisco and New York City have started to sell reservations to users, often by reserving tables and scalping them.

In contrast to the executives who run large restaurant chains, the restaurateurs behind celebrated restaurants and local favorites are often chefs first rather than professional managers. This raises the question: Are restaurants like State Bird Provisions, which seems to resist simple economic analysis, the exception or the norm? And if they are the norm, is that because it is somehow self-defeating to raise prices even at booming restaurants? Or are chef proprietors a unique breed in the business world, immune to supply and demand and content to leave money on the table?

I believe that many of these high-end chefs are not driven entirely by money.  Their personal reward system also depends a lot on prestige and recognition.  Making a good profit in a restaurant gets you no recognition in the the circles where chef's crave it.  Name the three most profitable restaurants in town -- you have no idea, do you?  What get's these chef's recognition is being the hot place to dine that is so in demand it is impossible to get a table.  So one makes the restaurant a little too small and keeps the prices a little too low and one trades a bit of money for something that is more valuable:  prestige.

One can see this same effect among, say, US Senators.  In our current corporate, crony state, US Senators can expect a huge spike in income once they leave Congress, getting paid by some large corporation lobbying firm.  The economically rational decision, then, if one were only interested in money, would be to serve just one term, then leave and make some bank.   But you never see that.  Senators stay and stay, even when it is an enormous hassle to do so.  They are essentially collecting and spending millions every election to keep their income low.  Why?  One big reason is prestige.

Going back to the restaurant example, let's consider a famous chef who pretty clearly does care about money:  Wolfgang Puck.  I have never seen this written, but here is what I observe to be Puck's approach.  He creates a small restaurant and lavishes it with a lot of his personal attention.  These restaurants do not have much seating and become the hot places to dine, leading to long lines and difficult reservations.  The difficulty of getting a table generates an elite buzz around the restaurant.  After some time, Puck will buy a huge new location nearby with many times more seating.  He formula-izes his recipes so he no longer has to be involved, and then shifts the operation onto auto-pilot in the new large location.  Perhaps he even franchises it.  The new location cranks out a bunch of money, while he moves on to create a new elite concept.  He also leverages the original buzz in his personal brand, which is applied to all kinds of other items.  In a sense, he is banking prestige in the early venture and then monetizing it later.

Healthcare Deductibles Rising -- Why This is GOOD News

Things like Obamacare cannot be discussed, it seems, in anything but a political context.  So if you don't like Obamacare, everything that happens has to be bad. But I actually think this is good news, and goes against my fears in advance of Obamacare.  I had been worried that Obamacare would just increase the trends of more and more health care spending being by third-party payers.  And my guess is that this is happening, when you consider how many people have gone from paying cash to having a policy, either a regular policy or expanded Medicaid.

A report out today puts numbers behind what hit many workers when they signed up for health insurance during open enrollment last year: deductible shock.

Premiums for employer-paid insurance are up 3% this year, but deductibles are up nearly 50% since 2009, the report by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows.

The average deductible this year is $1,217, up from $826 five years ago, Nearly 20% of workers overall have to pay at least $2,000 before their insurance kicks in, while workers at firms with 199 or fewer employees are feeling the pain of out-of-pocket costs even more: A third of these employees at small companies pay at least $2,000 deductibles.

“Skin-in-the-game insurance” is becoming the norm,says Kaiser Family Foundation CEO Drew Altman, referring to the higher percentage of health care costs employees have to share.

Honestly, this is good news, sort of.  I don't like the coercion and lack of choice, but the main problem with health care is that the person receiving the benefits is not the person paying the bills, which means there is no incentive to shop or make care tradeoffs.  Higher deductibles mean more people are going to be actively shopping and caring what health services cost, and that is a good thing for prices and health care inflation.

What Happens When You Abandon Prices As A Supply-Demand Matching Tool? California Tries Totalitarianism

Mostly, we use prices to match supply and demand. When supplies of some item are short, rising prices provide incentives for conservation and substitution, as well as the creation of creative new sources of supply.

When we abandon prices, often out of some sort of political opportunism, chaos usually results.

California, for example, has never had the political will to allow water prices to rise when water is short. They cite all kinds of awful things that would happen to people if water prices were higher, but then proceed instead with all sorts of authoritarian rationing initiatives that strike me as far worse than any downsides of higher prices.

In this particular drought, California has taken a page from Nazi Germany block watches to try to ration water

So, faced with apparent indifference to stern warnings from state leaders and media alarms, cities across California have encouraged residents to tattle on their neighbors for wasting water — and the residents have responded in droves. Sacramento, for instance, has received more than 6,000 reports of water waste this year, up twentyfold from last year...

Some drought-conscious Californians have turned not only to tattling, but also to an age-old strategy to persuade friends and neighbors to cut back: shaming. On Twitter, radio shows and elsewhere, Californians are indulging in such sports as shower-shaming (trying to embarrass a neighbor or relative who takes a leisurely wash), car-wash-shaming and lawn-shaming.

“Is washing the sidewalk with water a good idea in a drought @sfgov?” Sahand Mirzahossein, a 32-year-old management consultant, posted on Twitter, along with a picture of a San Francisco city employee cleaning the sidewalk with a hose. (He said he hoped a city official would respond to his post, but he never heard back.)

Drought-shaming may sound like a petty, vindictive strategy, and officials at water agencies all denied wanting to shame anyone, preferring to call it “education” or “competition.” But there are signs that pitting residents against one another can pay dividends.

All this to get, in the best case, a 10% savings. How much would water prices have to rise to cut demand 10% and avoid all this creepy Orwellian crap?

One of the features of Nazi and communist block watch systems was that certain people would instrumentalize the system to use it to pay back old grudges. The same thing is apparently happening in California

In Santa Cruz, dozens of complaints have come from just a few residents, who seem to be trying to use the city’s tight water restrictions to indulge old grudges.

“You get people who hate their neighbors and chronically report them in hopes they’ll be thrown in prison for wasting water,” said Eileen Cross, Santa Cruz’s water conservation manager. People claim water-waste innocence, she said, and ask: “Was that my neighbor? She’s been after me ever since I got that dog.”

Ms. Franzi said that in her Sacramento neighborhood, people were now looking askance at one another, wondering who reported them for wasting water.

“There’s a lot of suspiciousness,” Ms. Franzi said. “It’s a little uncomfortable at this point.” She pointed out that she and her husband have proudly replaced their green lawn with drought-resistant plants, and even cut back showers to once every few days.

Update:  Seriously, for those that are unclear -- this is the alternative to capitalism.  This is the Progressive alternative to markets.  Sure, bad things happen in a free society with free markets, but how can anyone believe that this is a better alternative?

Bizarre Payback Analysis Being Used for Alternate Energy

Check out this payback analysis that is being trumpeted for wind power:

US researchers have carried out an environmental lifecycle assessment of 2-megawatt wind turbines mooted for a large wind farm in the US Pacific Northwest. Writing in the International Journal of Sustainable Manufacturing, they conclude that in terms of cumulative energy payback, or the time to produce the amount of energy required of production and installation, a wind turbine with a working life of 20 years will offer a net benefit within five to eight months of being brought online.

So of all the scarce resources that go into producing wind power, if you look at only one of these (energy), then the project pays itself back in less than a year.  This is stupid.  Yes, I understand that there are some "green" energy sources (*cough* corn ethanol *cough*) that cannot even produce more energy than they consume, so I suppose this finding is a step forward from that.  But what about all the other scarce resources used in producing wind power-- steel, labor, engineering talent, concrete, etc?  This is roughly like justifying the purchase of an 18-wheeler truck by saying it will pay off all the vanadium used in its production in less than a year.

Environmentalists seem to all feel that capitalism is the enemy of sustainability, but in fact capitalism is the greatest system to promote sustainability that has ever been devised.  Every single resource has a price that reflects its relative scarcity as compared to demand.  Scarcer resources have higher prices that automatically promote conservation and seeking of substitutes.  So an analysis of an investment's ability to return its cost is in effect a sustainability analysis.  What environmentalists don't like is that wind does not cover the cost of its resources, in other words it does not produce enough power to justify the scarce resources it uses.  Screwing around with that to only look at some of the resources is just dishonest.

The one reasonable argument is that the price of fuels does not adequately reflect the externalities of Co2 production.  I don't think these are high but obviously there are those who disagree.  The right way to do this analysis is to say that wind power provides a return only if electricity prices are X (X likely being well above current market rates) which in turn reflects a Co2 cost of Y $/ton.  My gut feel is that it would take a Y -- a cost per ton of CO2 -- way higher than any of the figures that are typically bandied about even by environmentalists to make wind work.

Postscript:  I did not critique the analysis of energy payback per se, but if I were to dig into it, I would want to look at two common fallacies with many wind analyses.  1) They typically miss the cost of standby power needed to cover wind's unpredictability, which has a substantial energy cost.  In Germany, during their big wind push, they had to have 80-90% of wind power backed up with hot fossil fuel backup.  2)  They typically look at nameplate capacity and not real capacities in the field.  In fact, real capacities should further be discounted for when wind power produces electricity that the grid cannot take (ie when there is negative pricing in the wholesale market, which actually occurs).

Why We Are Seeing Long Waits And Shortages of Doctors and Basic Medicines in Health Care

This is a re-post of an article I wrote in 2012.  I am re-posting it to demonstrate that recent stories about doctor shortages and wait times are absolutely inevitable results of government interventions in the health care economy.

My son is in Freshman econ 101, and so I have been posting him some supply and demand curve examples.  Here is one for health care.  The question at hand:  Does government regulation including Obamacare increase access to health care?  Certainly it increases access to health care insurance, but does it increase access to actual doctors?   We will look at three major interventions.

The first and oldest is the imposition of strong, time-consuming, and costly professional licensing requirements for doctors.  At this point we are not arguing whether this is a good or bad thing, just portraying its inevitable effects on the supply and demand for doctors.

I don't think this requires much discussion. For any given price for doctor services, the quantity of doctor hours available is certainly going to increase as the barriers to entry to the profession are raised.

The second intervention is actually a set of interventions, the range of interventions that have encouraged single-payer low-deductible health insurance and have provided subsidies for this insurance.  These interventions include historic tax preferences for employer-paid employee health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, the subsidies in Obamacare as well as the rules in Obamacare that discourage high-deductible policies and require that everyone buy insurance rather than pay as they go.  The result is a shift in the demand curve to the right, along with a shift to a more vertical demand curve (meaning people are more price-insensitive, since a third-party is paying).

The result is a substantial rise in prices, as we have seen over the last 30 years as health care prices have risen far faster than inflation

As the government pays more and more of the health care bills, this price rise leads to unsustainably high spending levels, so the government institutes price controls.  Medicare has price controls (the famous "doc fix" is related to these) and Obamacare promises many more.  This leads to huge doctor shortages, queues, waiting lists, etc.  Exactly what we see in other state-run health care systems.  The graph below posits a price cap that forces prices back to the free market rate.

So, is this better access to health care?

I know that Obamacare proponents claim that top-down government operation is going to reap all kinds of savings, thus shifting the supply curve to the right.  Since this has pretty much never happened in the whole history of government operations, I discount the claim.  When pressed for specifics, the ideas typically boil down to price or demand controls.  Price controls we discussed.  Demand controls are of the sort like "you can't get a transplant if you are over 70" or "we won't approve cancer treatments that only promise a year more life."

Most of these do not affect the chart above, since it is for doctor services and most of these cost control ideas are usually doctor intensive - more doctor time to have fewer tests, operations, drugs.  But even if we expanded the viewpoint to be for all health care, it is yet to be demonstrated that the American public will even accept these restrictions.  The very first one out of the box, a proposal to have fewer mamographies for women under a certain age, was abandoned in a firestorm of opposition from women's groups.  In all likelihood, there will be some mish-mash of demand restrictions, determined less by science and by who (users and providers) have the best lobbying organizations.

My longer series of three Forbes articles on this and other economic issues with Obamacare begin here:  Part 1 InformationPart 2 IncentivesPart 3 Rent-Seeking

Update:  Pondering on this, it may be that professional licensing also makes the supply curve steeper.  It depends on how doctors think about sunk cost.

 

Why Private Companies May Stop Taking Incidental Government Contracts

Bruce McQuain has an article on how McDonald's is closing some contract-operated fast food outlets at military bases.  The article speculates that the closures on new government minimum wage regulations for government contracts.

Frankly, I doubt this explanation.  I know something of the world of government contracting, and contractors in these cases routinely just pass on wage increases to their customers in the form of higher prices.  After all, their contracts give them a monopoly of sorts in these bases.

I would like to offer an alternative explanation.

In March, a new regulation took effect that all contractors with anything larger than a $50,000 a year contract with the government must go through an expensive affirmative action planning process for ALL of their locations, not just for the people involved in that particular contract (41 CFR 60-2.1  and 41 CFR 60-4.1)

We don't do government contracting work.  We lease government facilities, but get paid 100% by customers -- since we don't take government money, we are not a contractor.  But there is one exception.  We have a $52,000 a year contract to clean bathrooms near the campgrounds we operate in California.  Basically, we bid this contract at cost because we want the bathrooms cleaned well -- if they are not, it hurts our nearby businesses.

In this contract, we have government-mandated wage requirements under the Service Contract Act.  When these mandated wages go up, we just raise the price to the government in proportion.  No big deal.

We were informed that having this contract, under the new March Obama regulations, now made us liable to go through an expensive and time consuming affirmative action planning process for every location -- of which we have over 120 -- not just for this one contract.  So this one contract was going to force us to create 120 annual written plans and presumably get them approved by someone in the government.  No way.  I might have done it if I only had to do a plan for the contract, but it is just too much work to do this everywhere merely because I have a $52,000 contract on which I make no profit.  So we told the Feds we were dropping the contract.

I think it is very unlikely that private businesses will be accepting government contracts as 5 or 10% of their business any more.   This new regulation just imposes too much cost on the other 95% of the business.  Many will drop the government contracts.

I wonder if this is what is really going on with McDonalds.  A regulatory requirement that applied just to the base operations, like a minimum wage, strikes me as manageable.  But having these three or four contracts drive an expensive requirement to create some sort of affirmative action plan for every location - essentially every one of their tens of thousands of stores, so tens of thousands of plans - that would drive them out of these contracts VERY fast.

This Is Why Freaking Republicans Drive Me Crazy

From the WSJ

A little-noticed provision in a bill passed by the House this month calls for relying more on U.S.-flagged ships to deliver food aid to foreign countries—a change backed by labor groups and criticized by the White House.

The measure, tucked into a Coast Guard and maritime bill, would increase the proportion of food aid transported abroad on private ships flying the U.S. flag, which are required to employ primarily American mariners.

The Obama administration opposes boosting the requirement to 75% of food aid, in tons, from the current 50%, saying it would raise shipping costs by about $75 million a year—siphoning off funds that otherwise could be used to send food aid overseas.

Jeez, when President Obama of all people has to lecture you that protectionism and kowtowing to labor groups is costly, you have gone off the rails.   The Jones Act is one of the stupidest pieces of interventionist legislation on the books and the House should be working on its repeal to sort out the oil transport mess.  Instead, here are the Republicans in the House doubling down on it.  With so-called friends of capitalism doing this garbage, who needs enemies?  At least Progressives trash the economy without pretending that they are pro free market.

By the way, here is a bit from the Cato article on the Jones Act and oil and gas prices

First, the Jones Act - a 94-year-old law that requires all domestic seaborne trade to be shipped on U.S.-crewed, -owned, flagged and manufactured vessels – prevents cost-effective intrastate shipping of crude oil or refined products.  According to Bloomberg, there are only 13 ships that can legally move oil between U.S. ports, and these ships are “booked solid.”  As a result, abundant oil supplies in the Gulf Coast region cannot be shipped to other U.S. states with spare refinery capacity.  And, even when such vessels are available, the Jones Act makes intrastate crude shipping artificially expensive.  According to a 2012 report by the Financial Times, shipping U.S. crude from Texas to Philadelphia cost more than three times as much as shipping the same product on a foreign-flagged vessel to a Canadian refinery, even though the latter route is longer.

It doesn’t take an energy economist to see how the Jones Act’s byzantine protectionism leads to higher prices at the pump for American drivers.  According to one recent estimate, revoking the Jones Act would reduce U.S. gasoline prices by as much as 15 cents per gallon “by increasing the supply of ships able to shuttle the fuel between U.S. ports.”

Some of these costs could potentially be mitigated if it weren’t for the second U.S. trade policy inflating gas prices: restrictions on crude oil exports.  As I wrote for Cato last year, current U.S. law – implemented in the 1970s during a bygone era of energy scarcity and dependence – effectively bans the exportation of U.S. crude oil to any country other than Canada.  Because U.S. and Canadian refinery capacity is finite, America’s newfound energy abundance has led to a glut of domestic oil and caused domestic crude oil prices (West Texas Intermediate and Louisiana Light Sweet) to drop well below their global (Brent) counterpart.  One might think that this price divergence would mean lower U.S. gas prices, but such thinking fails to understand that U.S. gasoline exports may be freely exported, and that gasoline prices are set on global markets based on Brent crude prices.  As a result, several recent analyses – including ones byCitigroup [$], Resources for the Future and the American Petroleum Institute - have found that liberalization of U.S. crude oil exports would lower, not raise, gas prices by as much as 7 cents per gallon.

The Effect of the Black Death on Labor and Grain Prices

Long time readers will know that if I were asked to relive my life doing something entirely different, I would like to try studying economic history.  Today, in a bit of a coincidence, my son called me with a question about the effect of the Black Death in Europe on labor and grain prices ... just days after I had been learning about the exact same part of history in Professor Daileader's awesome Teaching Company course on the Middle Ages (actually he has three courses - early, high, late - which are all excellent).

From the beginning of the 14th century, Europe suffered a series of demographic disasters.  Climate change in the form of the end of the Medieval warm period led to failed crops and several years of famine early in the century.  Then, later in the century, the Black Death came... over and over, perhaps made worse by the fact that Europeans were weakened already from famine.  As a result, the population of Europe dropped by something like half.

It is not entirely obvious to me what such a demographic disaster would do to prices.  Panic and uncertainty usually drive them up in the near term, but what about after that?  Both the supply and demand curves for most everything will be dropping in tandem.  So what happens to prices?

In the case of the 14th century, we know the answer:  the price of labor rose dramatically, while the price of grain dropped.  The combination tended to bankrupt the landholding aristocracy, who went so far as to try to reimpose serfdom to get their finances back in balance (some things never change).  The nobility pretty much failed at this in the West (England, France) and were met with a series of peasant revolts.  They generally succeeded in the East (Germany, Poland, Russia) which is why a quasi-feudal agricultural system persisted so long in those countries.

But why?  Why did grain price go down rather than up?  Why did labor go in the opposite direction?  I could look it up, but that is no fun.

A first answer, which does not satisfy

People who think of all of the middle ages as "the dark ages" miss the boom that occurred between 1000-1300.  Population increased, and technology advanced (just because this technology seems pedestrian to us, like the plow harness for horses or the stirrup, does not make it any less so).  It was the only time between about 300 and 1500 when the population was growing (a fact we climate skeptics will note coincided with the Medieval warm period).

But even without the setbacks of the 1300's, historians probably would argue that Europe was headed for a Malthusian collapse no matter what in the 14th century.   An enormous amount of forest had been cleared and new farmland created, such that by 1300 some pretty marginal land was being farmed just so Europe could barely keep up with demand.  At the margin, really low productivity land was being farmed.

So if there is a sudden 50% population cut, then that means that all that marginal farm land will be abandoned first.  While the number of farmers would be cut in half, production would be reduced by less than half because presumably the least productive farms would be abandoned first.  With demand cut by half and production cut by less than half, prices would fall for grain.

But this doesn't work for labor.  The same argument should apply.  To get everyone fed, we would actually need less than half the prior labor force because they would concentrate on the best land.  Labor prices should fall in this model as well, but in fact they went up.  A lot.  In fact, they went up not by a few percent but by multiples, enough to cause enormous social problems across Europe.

A second answer, that makes more sense

After thinking about this for a while, I came to realize that I had the wrong model for the economy in my head.  I was thinking about our modern economy.   If suddenly, say, online retailing reduces demand for physical stores dramatically, people close stores and redeploy capital and labor and assets to other investments in other industries.  That is how I was thinking about the Middle Ages.

But it may be more correct to see the Middle Ages as a one product economy.  There was agriculture, period.  Everything else was a rounding error.

So now let's think about the "farmers" in the Middle Ages.  They are primarily all the 1%, the titled nobility, who either farm big estates with peasant labor or lease large parts of their estates to peasants for farming.

OK, half the population is suddenly gone.  The Noble's family has lots of death but someone is still around to inherit.  They have a big estate where growing grain supports their lifestyle as well as any military obligations they may have to their lord (though this style of fighting with knights on horseback supported by grants of land is having its last hurrah in the 100 years war).

Then grain prices collapse.  That is a clear pricing signal.  In the modern economy, that would tell us to get out and find a new place for our capital.  So, as Lord Coyote of the Castle Aaaaargh, I am going to do what, exactly?  How can I redeploy my capital, when it is essentially illiquid?  I can't sell the family land.  And if I did, land prices, along with grain prices and the demographic collapse, are falling through the floor.  And even if I could sell for cash, what would I do for a living?  What would I reinvest the money in?  Running an estate is all I know.  It's all anyone knows.  I have to support myself and my 3 mistresses and my squires and my string of warhorses.

All I can do is try to farm the land I have always farmed.  And everyone else does the same.  The result is far more grain than anyone needs with the reduced population, so prices fall.   But I still need the same number of people to grow the food, irregardless of the price it fetches, but there are now half as many workers available so the price of labor goes through the roof.  When grain demand collapsed, there was no way to clear the excess capacity.  It turns out everyone had a nearly vertical supply curve, because irregardless of price, they had nothing else they could do with their time and money.  You can see now why they tried to solve their problem by reimposing serfdom (combined with price controls, a bad idea for Diocletian and for Nixon and everyone in between).

Of course, nothing is stuck forever.   One way capacity cleared was through the growth of the bureaucratic state over the next 2 centuries.  Nobles eventually had to find some new way to support themselves, and did so by taking jobs in growing state bureaucracies.  They became salaried ministers rather than feudal knights supported by agriculture.  At the same time, rising wealth among the 99% non-nobility allowed kings to support themselves through taxes rather than the granting of fiefs, which in turn paid for the nobility to take jobs in the bureaucracy and paid for peasant armies with guns and bows that replaced the lords fighting on horseback.  So in the long term, the price signal was inordinately powerful -- so powerful it helped reshape much of European government and society.

By the way, if you are reading this expecting some point about modern politics, sorry.  Just something I was thinking about and it helped to write it down.  Comments are appreciated.  I still have not cribbed the answer from the history texts yet.

Occupational Licensing and Goldilocks

Don Boudreax has a good editorial up on occupational licensing

The first hint that the real goal of occupational licensing isn't to protect consumers' health and welfare is that far too many of the professions that are licensed pose practically zero risks to ordinary people. Among the professions that are licensed in various U.S. states are florists, hair braiders and casket sellers. What are the chances that consumers will be wounded by poorly arranged bouquets of flowers or that corpses will be made more dead by defective caskets?

The real goal of occupational licensing is to protect not consumers, but incumbent suppliers. Most occupational-licensing schemes require entrants into a trade to pass exams — exams designed and graded by representatives of incumbent suppliers....

But what about more “significant” professions, such as doctors and lawyers?

The case for licensing these professions is no stronger than is the case for licensing florists and hair braiders. The reasons are many. Here are just two.

First, precisely because medical care and legal counsel are especially important services, it's especially important that competition to supply these services be as intense as possible. If the price of flowers is unnecessarily high or the quality poor, that's unfortunate but hardly tragic. Not so for the prices and quality of the services of doctors and lawyers.

Too high a price for medical visits will cause too many people to resort to self-diagnosis and self-medication. Too high a price for legal services will cause too many people to write their own wills or negotiate their own divorce settlements. Getting matters wrong on these fronts can be quite serious.

Won't, though, the absence of licensing allow large numbers of unqualified doctors and lawyers to practice? No.

People are not generally stupid when spending their own money on themselves and their loved ones. Without government licensing, people will demand — and other people will supply — information on different physicians and attorneys. Websites and smartphone apps will be created that, for a small fee, collect and distribute unbiased information on doctors and lawyers. People in need of medical care or legal advice will be free to consult this information and to use it as they, rather than some distant bureaucrat, choose

One thing I think sometimes gets lost -- the critique of licensing often focuses on where licensing is too restrictive - e.g. hair braiding or taxis or simple medical procedures.

But it is just as likely to fail because it is insufficiently restrictive. People will always say to me that they certainly want their brain surgeon to be a licensed physician, implying that licensing is appropriate for certain extreme skills. But would you really choose a brain surgeon merely because he or she was licensed? I would do a ton of research in choosing a brain surgeon, research that would go well beyond their having managed to pass some tests 20 years ago.

The same applies for restaurants - my standards go way beyond whether they have a 3 basin cleanup sink and have sufficiently high temperatures in their dishwasher.

The criteria for licensing is never "just right". Either it is too restrictive and eliminates competition that would provide me value; or else it is insufficiently stringent such that I have to perform the same due diligence I would have in the absence of any licensing regime (though perhaps with less robust tools since licensing likely stunts development of such consumer tools). And even if it happened to be well-calibrated for me, it will not be well-calibrated for my neighbor who will have a different set of criteria and preferences.

How Did Obamacare Authors Ever Fool Themselves Into Believing They Were "Bending the Cost Curve" With These Kind of Incentives?

I guess I never really paid much attention to how the Obamacare "risk corridors" work.  These are the reinsurance program that were meant to equalize the risks of various insurers in the exchanges -- but as exchange customers prove to be less healthy than predicted, they are more likely to become a government subsidy program for insurers.

I never knew how they worked.  Check out the incentives here:

According to the text of Obamacare, the health law's risk corridors—the insurance industry backstop that’s been dubbed a bailout—are only supposed to last through 2016. For the first three years of the exchanges, insurers who spend 3 percent more on health costs than expected will be reimbursed by the federal government. It’s symmetrical, so insurers who spend less will pay in, but there’s no requirement that the program be revenue neutral

So what, exactly, are the incentives for cost control?  If you lose control of your costs, the government simply pays for the amount you overspent.  Combine this with the fact that Obamacare puts caps on insurer non-patient-cost overhead spending, and I don't think you are going to see a lot of passion for claims management and reduction.  Note after a point, excess claims do not hurt profits (via the risk corridor) but more money spent on claims reduction and management does reduce profits (due to the overhead caps).

Nice incentives.

Postscript:  There is one flaw with my analysis -- 3% is a LOT of money, at least historically, for health insurers.  Why?  Because their margins are so thin.  I know this will come as a surprise with all the Obama demonization of insurance profits, but health insurers make something like 3-5% of revenues as net income.  My Boston mother-in-law, who is a very reliable gauge of opinion on the Left, thinks I am lying to her when I say this, even when I show her the Google finance pages for insurers, so convinced is she by the NYT and PBS that health insurer profits consume a huge portion of health care spending.

All that being said, I am pretty sure if I were an insurer, I could raise prices slightly, cut back on claims overhead, and make a guaranteed profit all while the government absorbs larger and larger losses.

Why Do We Manage Water Via Command and Control? And Is It Any Surprise We Are Constantly Having Shortages?

In most commodities that we consume,  market price signals serve to match supply and demand. When supplies are short, rising prices send producers looking for new supplies and consumers to considering conservation measures.  All without any top-down intervention by the state.  All without any coercion or tax money.

But for some reason water is managed differently.  Water prices never rise and fall with shortages -- we have been told in Phoenix for years that Lake Powell levels are dropping due to our water use but our water prices never change.  Further, water has become a political football, such that favored uses (farmers historically, but more recently environmental uses such as fish spawning) get deep subsidies.  You should see the water-intensive crops that are grown in the desert around Phoenix, all thanks to subsidized water to a favored constituency.   As a result, consumers use far more water than they might in any given year, and have no natural incentive to conserve when water becomes particularly dear, as it is in California.

So, when water is short, rather than relying on the market, politicians step in with command and control steps.  This is from an email I just received from state senator Fran Pavley in CA:

Senator Pavley said the state should consider measures that automatically take effect when a drought is declared to facilitate a more coordinated statewide response.

“We need a cohesive plan around the state that recognizes the problem,” Pavley said at a committee hearing. “It’s a shared responsibility no matter where you live, whether you are an urban user or an agricultural user.”

Measures could include mandatory conservation, compensation for farmers to fallow land, restrictions on the use of potable water for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), coordinated publicity campaigns for conservation, increased groundwater management, and incentives for residents to conserve water. Senator Pavley noted that her hometown Las Virgenes Municipal Water District is offering rebates for customers who remove lawns, install rain barrels or take other actions to conserve water.

Pavley also called for the state to create more reliable, sustainable supplies through strategies such as capturing and re-using stormwater and dry weather runoff, increasing the use of recycled water and cleaning up polluted groundwater basins.

Note the command and control on both sides of the equation, using taxpayer resources for new supply projects and using government coercion to manage demand.  Also, for bonus points, notice the Senator's use of the water shortage as an excuse to single out and punish private activity (fracking) she does not like.

All of this goes to show exactly why the government does not want a free market in water and would like to kill the free market in everything else:  because it gives them so much power.  Look at Ms. Pavley, and how much power she is grabbing for herself with the water shortage as an excuse.  Yesterday she was likely a legislative nobody.  Today she is proposing massive infrastrure spending and taking onto herself the power to pick winners and losers (farmers, I will pay you not to use water; frackers, you just have to shut down).  All the winners will show their gratitude next election cycle.  And all the losers will be encouraged to pay protection money so that next time around, they won't be the chosen victims.

Progressives that Cannot be Satisfied

I believe it was back in 1973, when my dad was an executive with an oil company, he got hauled in front of Congress to testify on the proposed Alaska pipeline.  Senators on the Left accused the industry of threatening the environment in the name of greed, by trying to bring oil to market that was entirely unnecessary.  A few months later, once the Arab oil embargo had begun, he was back in front of Congress answering questions from the same Senators who opposed the Alaska pipeline about whether the rumors were true that oil companies were holding tankers off-shore, purposely making the shortage worse and driving up prices.  It was an early life-lesson in government for me, watching my dad be publicly accused within months of seeking new oil supplies too aggressively and purposely withholding oil supplies from the market.

I am reminded of all this by the Keystone pipeline brouhaha.  One wonders how many of the people opposing the Keystone pipeline will be the first out on the picket line protesting oil prices the next time there is an oil price spike.

Our Business's Response to California $2 Minimum Wage Increase

Well, we have completed our response to minimum wage increases in California.   As a review, California is raising its minimum wage from $8 to $10 (or 25%)  in two steps starting this July 1.  I will confess that in some of these cases the causes are complex, and are not just due to minimum wage changes but also other creeping California regulatory issues (particularly the first two).

  • Suspended operation and closed on large campground in Ventura County that employed about 25 people
  • Suspended investment / expansion plans at two other campgrounds
  • Raised prices everywhere else, on average adding $3 to a $20 camping fee.   (this is inevitable when wages are increased 25% in a business where more than half the costs are tied to wages and margins are around 5%)

The only reason I take the time to write this is that I think this tends to demonstrate that 1) minimum wage increases can have a real economic impact and 2) just looking at job losses after the date the wage takes effect can miss most of this economic impact.

To this latter point, a lot of the impact is not necessarily job losses.  We see lost investment, which perhaps means fewer jobs in the future but there is no way to measure that.  We see price increases, which affects consumers and disposable income.  And we see some job losses, but note that the job losses were 6 months before the law goes into effect.

We are left with a certainty that the minimum wage had a real economic effect but a suspicion that, at least in this case, that effect would not be measured.

By the way, there may also be a lesson here for those who believe that the entire problem in the economy is one of not enough aggregate demand.  In the last month I walked away from a million dollars a year of demand, because it was impossible to serve profitably, in large part due to regulatory issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wal-Mart and GINI

I am working on some posts on income inequality, especially as compared between nations.  One thing I have been thinking about is whether the US GINI (a measure of income inequality) is overstated because the US has a tiered retail system that gives lower income people access to lower prices (though for sometimes lower quality goods).  We have Wal-Mart and Family Dollar, discount retail concepts that are rare, and often illegal (due to limitations on retail discounting) in European countries.

On a sort of purchasing power parity basis, I wonder if this has any impact in narrowing the US effective GINI.  Of course, this mitigating factor is somewhat mitigated itself by the fact that a number of urban areas with some of the poorest families (e.g. Washington DC) restrict entry of these low-cost retail establishments.

Entirely Predictable Unintended Consequences -- San Francisco Rental Market

There should be a word for "entirely predictable unintended consequences".  The Germans have come up with some good words for complex ideas, like schadenfreude, so maybe we can outsource the task to them.

Anyway, I just finished a book called Season of the Witch, about San Francisco in the 1960's and 1970's.   Churchill once said that “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume” and I am reminded of this quote when reading about San Francisco in these two decades.  Written by a Progressive sympathetic to San Francisco's bleeding leftist edge (the author cannot mention Ronald Reagan without also expressing his disdain), it is never-the-less pretty hard-hitting when things go off the rails (e.g. the enablement of Jim Jones by the entire leftist power structure).

Much of the narrative is about the great influx of lost youth and seekers of alternative lifestyles into the city; the attendant social, crime, and drug issues this created; and a quest for tolerance and social peace.   As such, it is not a book about political or economic policy per se, it's more about the people involved.  But we do get glimpses of the policies that key players like Harvey Milk, Dianne Feinstein, and Willie Brown were advocating.

What struck me most were the policies these folks on the Progressive Left had on housing.  They had three simultaneous policy goals:

  1. Limit San Francisco from building upward (taller).  San Francisco is a bit like Manhattan in that the really desirable part where everyone wants to live is pretty small.  There was (and I suppose still is) a desire by landowners to build taller buildings, to house more people on the same bit of  valuable land.  Progressives (along with many others across the political spectrum) were fighting to have the city prevent this increased density as a threat to San Francisco's "character".
  2. Reduce population density in existing buildings.  Progressive reformers were seeking to get rid of crazy-crowded rooming houses like those in Chinatown
  3. Control and cap rents.  This was the "next thing" that Harvey Milk, for example, was working on just before he was shot -- bringing rent controls to San Francisco.

My first thought was to wonder how a person could hold these three goals in mind without recognizing the inevitable consequences, but I guess it's that cognitive dissonance that keeps socialism alive.   But it should not be hard to figure out what the outcome should be of combining: a) some of the most desirable real estate in the country with b) an effective cap on density and thus capacity and c) caps on rents.  Rental housing is going to be shifted to privately owned units (coops and condos) and prices of those are going to skyrocket.  You are going to end up with real estate only the rich can afford to purchases and a shortage of rental properties at any price.  Those people with grandfathered controlled rents will be stuck there, without any mobility.

So I was reading this the other day.  It turns out there is a severe shortage of affordable rental properties in San Francisco, and lately there have been a record number of conversions of rental properties to private ownership.

With the area economy rebounding, San Francisco is in the midst of a housing crisis as many residents are evicted from their apartments. With rents strictly regulated, an increasing number of San Francisco owners are getting out of the rental business and cashing out their properties to turn them into co-ops. Steven Greenhut argues that rent control actually forces prices upward, especially over the long term, by diminishing the supply of available rental housing.

Update:  One recurring theme through the book is that progressive elements in SF saw their government and particularly their police force as "bullies".  They used this term a lot -- and they were right.  So it is interesting today to see all these progressives and how they act with power.  Turns out, they are all bullies too, just on different issues.

By the way, the Dirty Harry movies are way more interesting after reading this book.  Season of the Witch is what all this looked like to a progressive.  The Dirty Harry movies are what the same events looked like from a different perspective.

Why You Should Be Very Skeptical of Low-Sample-Size Advocacy Group Polling

A while back, I pointed out this poll from some group called the Commonwealth Fund.  In mid-October, on average about 15-18 days into the exchange process, they polled a group of non-corporate-insured adults (e.g. individual market or uninsured) about whether they had visited an exchange and what had been their experience.

The finding that stood out to me was that 21% of the people they interviewed that said they had visited an exchange reported that they had signed up for a policy (from the wording of the question, this probably includes both private policies and Medicaid signups).

I thought this seemed crazy-high.  And now new data from the Administration is confirming it.   The Administration is reporting about 106,000 "selected a plan" in October -- a very generous definition since it includes people who put a plan in their shopping cart but did not purchase it.  Not a definition of a sale that Amazon.com would ever use.    Further, another 400,000 or so were "found eligible" for Medicaid, whatever that means though it sounds well short of "enrolled."  So call it generously 500,000 people by the end of October.  The other key bit we need is that the Administration is reporting about 27 million unique visitors to these sites.  So at best we are looking at 1.9% of exchange visitors kind-of-sort-of-maybe having done something that approaches being enrolled.

This puts the Commonwealth Fund polling an entire order of magnitude off, at 21% vs. 1.9%.  And remember their survey occurred in the middle of the month, when the web site was not even working, and one can assume that successful enrollments were back-end loaded in the month.  The CF was nice enough to respond to my emails but were unable to explain the discrepancy, other than the sample size was low making the results unreliable.  So why the hell do it, and then put out a press release?

One explanation for part of the discrepancy may be in those who have created user accounts (normally a trivial task on a private site but a Herculean accomplishment on Healthcare.gov) but have not actually purchased a plan.  The Obama Administration says that there are about a million of these, so in addition to the 1.9% that put a plan in their shopping cart, there are another 3.7% that created a user account and gave the Feds enough info to assess subsidy eligibility, but who have not selected a plan.  Remember, that this was the minimum hurdle the Obama Administration originally set even to see insurance plan prices, and is still the minimum hurdle to get a subsidy quote.  It will be interesting to see the conversion rate of people once they find they are not getting free stuff from Uncle Sugar.

Even so, this only adds up to 5.6% of people who visited the exchange and had any sort of success (in most cases far short of enrollment) at all.  Way short of 21%.  Remember that we you see "studies" like this in the future.

Good God. Twitter Stock Opens Over $45

Forget the #DIV/0! PE.  That prices the company at over 57 times annual revenues.

Progressives Lamenting the Effects of Progressive Policies

Kevin Drum writes

Via Harrison Jacobs, here's a recent study showing the trend in income segregation in American neighborhoods. Forty years ago, 65 percent of us lived in middle-income neighborhoods. Today, that number is only 42 percent. The rest of us live either in rich neighborhoods or in poor neighborhoods.

This is yet another sign of the collapse of the American middle class, and it's a bad omen for the American political system. We increasingly lack a shared culture or shared experiences, and that makes democracy a tough act to pull off. The well-off have less and less interaction with the poor outside of the market economy, and less and less empathy for how they live their lives. For too many of us, the "general welfare" these days is just an academic abstraction, not a lived experience.

He does not give a reason, and apparently following the links, neither does the study author.  But my guess is that they might well attribute it to 1. effects of racism, 2.  growth of the suburbs, 3. laissez faire capitalism.

I don't think racism can be the driver of this change, given that racism and fear of other cultures is demonstrably better in the last 30 years than at most times in history  (read bout 19th century New York if you are not sure).  The suburbs have been a phenomenon for 100 years or more, and capitalism has been less laissez faire over the last 30 years than at any time in our history.

I actually believe a lot of this income sorting is a direct result of two progressive policies.  I have no data, of course, so I will label these as hypotheses, but I would offer two drivers

  • Strict enforcement of the public school monopoly.  People want good schools for their kids.  Some are wealthy enough to escape to private schools.  But the only way for those who stay in the public school system to get to the best schools is to physically move into their districts.  Over time, home prices in the best districts rise, which gives those schools more money to be even better (since most are property tax funded), and makes them even more attractive.  But as home prices rise, only the most wealthy can afford them.  This is dead easy to model.  Even in a starting state where there are only tiny inhomegeneities between the quality of individual schools, one ends up with a neighborhood sorting by income over time.  Ex post facto attempts to fix this by changing the public school funding model and sending state money to the poorest schools can't reverse it, because at least half of school quality is driven not by money by by the expectations and skills of the parents and children in it.  Thus East St. Louis can have some of the highest per pupil spending in the state but have terrible schools.  A school choice system would not likely end sorting by school, but it would eliminate a huge incentive to sort by neighborhood.
  • Strict zoning.  There has always been a desire among certain people to exclude selected groups from their neighborhoods.  This desire has not changed, or if anything I would argue it has declined somewhat.  What has changed is the increased power that exists to exclude.  Zoning laws give the rich and well-connected the political vehicle to exclude the rabble from their neighborhoods in a way that never would have been possible in a free market.  I live just next to the town of Paradise Valley, which has very strict zoning that is absolutely clearly aimed at keeping everyone but the well-off out.  They will not approve construction of new rental units.  The minimum lot sizes are huge, way beyond the reach of many.

Who the HELL is Jay Carney to Tell Me My Health Insurance Policy is "Sub-Standard"?

Via Bloomberg

The health-care law eliminates “substandard policies that don’t provide minimum services,” said Jay Carney, a White House spokesman, in response to the cancellations. The “80-plus percent” of Americans with employer plans or covered by government programs are unaffected.

I chose my policy very carefully, and don't think it is "sub-standard" because it does not include pediatric dental care for two people in their fifties.  This is the worst consumer dis-empowerment that I can remember in my lifetime.

And I totally agree with this

Now an effective levy of several thousand dollars on the small fraction of middle class Americans who buy on the individual market is not history’s great injustice. But neither does it seem like the soundest or most politically stable public policy arrangement. And to dig back into the position where I do strong disagree with Cohn’s perspective, what makes this setup potentially more perverse is that it raises rates most sharply on precisely those Americans who up until now were doing roughly what we should want more health insurance purchasers to do: Economizing, comparison shopping, avoiding paying for coverage they don’t need, and buying a level of insurance that covers them in the event of a true disaster while giving them a reason not to overspend on everyday health expenses.

If we want health inflation to stay low and health care costs to be less of an anchor on advancement, we should want more Americans making $50,000 or $60,000 or $70,000 to spend less upfront on health insurance, rather than using regulatory pressure to induce them to spend more. And seen in that light, the potential problem with Obamacare’s regulation-driven “rate shock” isn’t that it doesn’t let everyone keep their pre-existing plans. It’s that it cancels plans, and raises rates, for people who were doing their part to keep all of our costs low.

With my high deductibles, I am actually out shopping every day on health care prices and I can tell you from my experience that if everyone did so, we would see a reversal of health care inflation.  More here