Posts tagged ‘review’

Hunting Through The Jungle to Eliminate the Last Surviving Soldier in the Culture War

Those of you as old as I am may remember in the 1970's when a few last surviving Japanese soldiers from WWII were discovered or coaxed to surrender after hiding for decades in some Pacific jungle.  No one was looking to punish these guys -- the war was won and over -- we were just trying to get them to come out and try to live a normal life.

I am reminded of these stories upon reading that Colorado is yet again going after the same baker for not baking someone a cake:

On the same day the high court agreed to review the Masterpiece case, an attorney named Autumn Scardina called Phillips’ shop and asked him to create a cake celebrating a sex transition. The caller asked that the cake include a blue exterior and a pink interior, a reflection of Scardina’s transgender identity. Phillips declined to create the cake, given his religious conviction that sex is immutable, while offering to sell the caller other pre-made baked goods.

In the months that followed, the bakery received requests for cakes featuring marijuana use, sexually explicit messages, and Satanic symbols. One solicitation submitted by email asked the cake shop to create a three-tiered white cake depicting Satan licking a functional 9 inch dildo. Phillips believes Scardina made all these requests.

Scardina filed a complaint with the civil rights commission, alleging discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The matter was held in abeyance while the Supreme Court adjudicated the Masterpiece case.

I have supported gay rights for as long as I can remember and briefly ran an Arizona campaign to legalize gay marriage.  But this looks to me like sending an entire army into the jungle to try to hunt down and kill that last Japanese soldier.  Isn't it enough that we have complete legal tolerance of homosexuality, de facto tolerance by the majority of Americans, and commercial tolerance in that 99+% of all businesses gratefully accept business from gays?  There can't be that many businesses denying accommodation to gays and trans-gendered when they have to keep harping on the same one example of non-conformity.  One of the features Hannah Arendt used to distinguish totalitarianism from run-of-the-mill authoritarianism was that in the latter, authorities need everyone to act in accordance with their wishes, in totalitarian governments they require people to believe in accordance with their wishes.  This need to seek out and harshly punish tiny infractions against social justice strikes me as totalitarian.

As an aside, I would challenge anyone to say that there is no message they would refuse to put on a cake.  I can think of a number I would say no to, starting with this one.

Mandated accommodation laws are a tough thing.  Libertarians tend to be suspicious of them because they tend to tread on several first amendment rights (speech, association).  But I could envision cases where I would support them, for example in the 1960's South during the dismantling of Jim Crow.  I really do not think we are there for gay wedding cakes.

 

Tesla Predictions Secured

I had dinner last night with my old college roommate Brink Lindsey and he even sort of rolled his eyes about my recent Tesla obsession, so I really really will try to make this the last post for a while.  However, I have to count coup on a few accurate predictions I made last week here and here.

First, I said, in reference to how Musk can bail himself out of his "funding secured" tweet when it has become clear this is not the case:

So what can Musk do?  Well, the first defense might be to release a statement like "when I said funding secured, I was referring to recent conversations with ______ [fill in blank, maybe with Saudis or the Chinese, call them X] and they told me that if we ever were looking for funds they would have my back."  This is probably the best he could do, and Tesla would try to chalk it up to naivete of Mr. Musk to accept barroom conversation as a firm commitment.  Naivite, but not fraud.   I don't have any experience with the Feds on this kind of thing but my guess is that the SEC would expect that the CEO of a $50 billion public company should know the rules and legally wasn't allowed to be naive, but who knows, the defense worked for Hillary Clinton with her email servers.

Today Musk writes:

Recently, after the Saudi fund bought almost 5% of Tesla stock through the public markets, they reached out to ask for another meeting. That meeting took place on July 31st. During the meeting, the Managing Director of the fund expressed regret that I had not moved forward previously on a going private transaction with them, and he strongly expressed his support for funding a going private transaction for Tesla at this time. I understood from him that no other decision makers were needed and that they were eager to proceed....

I left the July 31st meeting with no question that a deal with the Saudi sovereign fund could be closed, and that it was just a matter of getting the process moving. This is why I referred to “funding secured” in the August 7th announcement.

Of course the Feds probably expect "funding secured" to mean a signed term sheet (which does not exist) accompanied by an 8-K (which STILL has not been issued).  I then said in my prediction:

But this defense is MUCH MUCH better if, in the next day or so, Tesla can announce a deal with X on paper with signatures.  Then Musk can use the same defense as above but it has much more weight because he can say, see, they promised funding and I believed them when they said they had my back and here they have delivered.

And today we learn:

But was the funding really secured? Apparently not, because in the very next paragraph Musk writes that "following the August 7th announcement, I have continued to communicate with the Managing Director of the Saudi fund. He has expressed support for proceeding subject to financial and other due diligence and their internal review process for obtaining approvals. He has also asked for additional details on how the company would be taken private, including any required percentages and any regulatory requirements."

Hmmm.  So basically Musk had a chat with the Saudis that did not include any due diligence, any percentages, or anything about the structure of the transaction and nothing has been submitted formally to the Saudis for the required review and approval.  The Feds would never accept this BS from an unpopular CEO like, say, Jeff Skilling.  It remains to be seen whether they will really go after cultural icon Musk.

Finally, I predicted the odd and relatively unprecedented transaction that Musk likely envisioned:

Here is what I think Musk wants -- he wants an LBO without any actual change in ownership. Basically he wants to create Tesla New, which will be private and not trade on the markets. He is hoping that all his current fanboy shareholders will exchange a share of Tesla for a share of Tesla New. Musk has already said he will do this with his 20%. In the extreme case, if every current shareholder wants in on the new private company, then no capital at all is needed for the LBO. Musk might admit that perhaps a billion or two are needed to buy out the few recalcitrants at $420, and then all the Tesla fanboys can enjoy short-seller-free illiquidity

There was no way that Musk could expect to raise $70-$80 billion ($420 times the float) or to run an already cash-starved business with that much debt.  The only way to imagine this is if the buyout was only of a small percentage of owners.  And sure enough, here is Musk this morning:

Therefore, reports that more than $70B would be needed to take Tesla private dramatically overstate the actual capital raise needed. The $420 buyout price would only be used for Tesla shareholders who do not remain with our company if it is private. My best estimate right now is that approximately two-thirds of shares owned by all current investors would roll over into a private Tesla.

I won't comment on whether this is possible because I don't know enough about security laws.  I have been told that the SEC would likely frown on a private company with no public disclosures that has thousands or even millions of individual shareholders, but again, I don't know.

I find it amazing that anyone would want to stay in on this basis, but like Musk, the Tesla fan-boys seem to care more about burning the shorts than the quality of their own long investment in Tesla.  How can moving your small (percentage-wise) investment in Tesla from being exchange-traded to being locked up in a private company possibly be an improvement?  Today your investment has total liquidity (you can sell any time), it has massive 3rd party scrutiny and accountability, and it has real-time price discovery.  You would lose all of that in a private company.  You can only sell when Musk lets you sell and at the price he chooses to give you based on whatever company information he chooses to release.  Choosing the private option as a minority shareholder is like saying that you would rather hold non-refundable airline tickets than fully refundable ones.

Postscript:  I am new to the world of short-selling fights, as I am not really an active investor and just got sucked into watching Tesla because I found it interesting.  But wow, the tribalism of politics sure has leaked into the investment world!  In tribal politics, we see people more motivated by hatred of the other tribe than by making progress on their own tribe's goals.  This same kind of "reasoning" seems to dominate a lot of the Tesla long-short battle.

Update:  Here is a new prediction.  For a while Elon Musk has claimed he will not have to raise capital this year.  Everyone basically looks at his numbers and thinks he is nuts.  What's more, given his $50 billion equity valuation currently, he SHOULD be raising capital now while his stock is high and thus his cost of capital is low.

But one way to look at this is if he raises $20 billion in equity to buy out the 1/3 he thinks will want the cash rather than the new stock, he could easily just make that $22 billion so the company has an extra $2 billion in operating cash and thus raise capital this year without it looking like he violated his promise not to raise capital.

 

I Have The Cover Story In Regulation Magazine -- How Labor Regulation Harms Unskilled Workers

I have written the cover story for the Summer 2018 issue of Regulation magazine, titled "How Labor Regulation Harms Unskilled Workers."  The link to the Summer 2018 issue is here and the article can be downloaded as a pdf here.  I meant to be a bit more prepared for this but it was originally slated for the Spring issue and it (rightly) got kicked to the later issue to add a more timely article on tariffs and trade.  The summer publication date sort of snuck up on me until I saw that Walter Olson linked it.

FAQ  (I will keep adding to this as I get questions)

How did a random non-academic dude get published in a magazine for policy wonks? This piece started well over  a year ago, back when my friend Brink Lindsey was still at Cato (he has since moved to the Niskanen Center).   I had told him once that I was spending so much of my personal time responding to regulatory changes affecting my company that I had little time to actually focus on improving my business.  I joked that we were approaching the regulatory singularity when regulations were added faster than I could comply with them.

Brink asked that I write something on small business and regulation.  After about 10 minutes staring at a blank document in Word, I realized that was way too broad a topic.  I decided that the one area I knew well, at least in terms of compliance costs, was labor regulation.  After some work, I eventually narrowed that to the final topic, the effect (from a business owner's perspective who had to manage compliance) of labor regulation on unskilled labor.

Once I finished, I was ready to just give up and publish the piece on my blog.  I sent it to Brink but told him I thought it was way too rough for publication.  He told me that he had seen many good published pieces that looked far worse in their early drafts, so I buckled down and cleaned it up.  My editor at Regulation took on the heroic task of getting the original monstrosity tightened down to something about half the length.  As with most good editing processes, the piece was much better with half the words gone.

The real turning point for me was advice I got from Walter Olson of Cato.  I "know" Walter purely from blogging but I love his work and had been a substitute blogger at Overlawyered in its early years.  At one point, I was really struggling with this article because I kept feeling the need to address the broader viability of the minimum wage and the academic literature that surrounds it.  But I am not an academic, and I have not done the research and I was not even familiar with the full body of literature on the subject.  Walter's advice boiled down to the age-old adage of "write what you know."  He encouraged me to focus narrowly on how a business has to respond to labor regulation, and how these responses might effect the employment and advancement prospects of unskilled workers.  As such, then, the paper evolved away from a comprehensive evaluation of minimum wages as a policy choice (a topic I have opinions about but I don't have the skills to publish on) into a (useful, I think) review of one aspect of minimum wage policy, a contribution to the discussion, so to speak.

Update:  Eek, I forgot since I started this so long ago.  I also owe a debt of gratitude to about 8 of our blog readers who own businesses and volunteered to be interviewed for this article so I could make sure I was being comprehensive.

There are many positive (or negative) aspects of labor regulation you have excluded!  Yes, as discussed above this paper is aimed narrowly at one aspect of labor regulations -- understanding how businesses that employ unskilled workers respond to these regulations and how those responses affect workers and their employment and advancement prospects

Everyone knows employer monopsony power means there are no employment or price effects to minimum wage increases.  Some studies claim to have proved this, others dispute this.  I would say that this statement has always seemed insane from my perspective as a small business owner.  It sure doesn't feel like I have a power imbalance in my favor with my workers.   I address this with a real example in the article but also address it in much more depth here.  The short answer is that for minimum wages to have no employment or price effects, a company has to have both monopsony power in the labor market AND monopoly power in its customer markets.  Without the latter, all gains from "underpaying" a worker due to monopsony power get competed away and benefit consumers (in the form of lower prices) rather than increase a company's profit.

The costs of these regulations are supposed to come out of your bloated profits.  Perhaps that is what happens at Google, where compliance costs are a tiny percentage of what their highly-compensated employees earn and where the company enjoys monopoly profits in its core businesses.  For those of us in highly-competitive businesses that employ unskilled workers, our profit margins are really thin (as explained in more depth here).  When profits are close to the minimum that supports further investment and participation in the business, then labor regulatory costs are going to get paid by consumers and workers.

Then maybe the best thing for workers is to create monopolies.  Funny enough, this idea was actually one of the centerpieces of Mussolini's corporatist economic model, a model that was copied approvingly by FDR in the centerpiece New Deal legislation the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA).  The NRA sought to create cartels in major industries that would fix prices, wages, and working conditions, among other things.   The Supreme Court struck the legislation down, a good thing since it would have been a disaster for consumers and for innovation and probably for most workers too.  As a bit of trivia, this year's Superbowl winner the Philadelphia Eagles was named in honor of this law.  More here.

So do you think minimum wages are a good policy overall or not?  Hmm, mostly not.  For a variety of reasons, minimum wages are a very inefficient way to tackle poverty (and also here), and tend to have cronyist effects that help one class of worker at the expense of other classes (this latter should be unsurprising since many original supporters of the first federal minimum wages were explicitly hoping to disadvantage black workers competing with whites).

Why are you opposed to all these worker protections?  Or, more directly, why do you hate workers?  This is silly -- I am not and I don't.  However, this sort of critique, which you can find in the comments below, is typical of how public policy discussion is broken nowadays.  When I grew up, public policy discussion meant projecting the benefits of a policy and balancing them against the costs and unintended consequences.  In this context, I am merely attempting to air some of the costs of these regulations for unskilled workers that are not often discussed.  Nowadays, however, public policy is judged solely on its intentions.  If a law is intended to help workers (whether or not it will every reasonably achieve its objectives), then it is good, and anyone who opposed this law has bad intentions.  This is what you see in public policy debates all the time -- not arguments about the logic of a law itself but arguments that the opposition are bad people with bad intentions.  For example, just look in the comments of this and other posts I have linked -- because Coyote points out underappreciated costs to laws that are intended to help workers, his intentions must be to harm workers.  It is grossly illogical but characteristic of our post-modernistic age.

I will retell a story about Obamacare or the PPACA.  Most of my employees are over 60 and qualify for Medicare.  As such, no private insurer will write a policy for them -- why should they?  Well, along comes Obamacare, and it says that my business has to pay a $2000-$3000 penalty for every employee who is not offered health insurance, and Medicare does not count!  I was in a position of paying nearly a million dollars in fines (many times my annual profits) for not providing insurance coverage to my over-60 employees that was impossible to obtain -- we were facing bankruptcy and the loss of everything I own.  The only way out we had was that this penalty only applied to full-time workers, so we were forced to reduce everyone's hours to make them all part-time.  It is a real flaw in the PPACA that caused real harm to our workers.  Do I hate workers and hope they all get sick and die just because I point out this flaw with the PPACA and its unintended consequence?

I've heard that raising the minimum wage increases worker productivity so much that businesses are better off.    I know there is academic literature on this and I am frankly just not that familiar with it.  I can say that I have never, ever seen workers suddenly and sustainably work harder after getting a wage increase.  What I see instead is employers doing things like cutting back employee hours and demanding the same amount of work gets done.  This could result in more productivity if there was fat in the system beforehand but it also can result in things like lower service levels (e.g. the bathrooms get cleaned less frequently).   Without careful measurement, these changes could appear to an outsider to be productivity gains.  In addition, as discussed in the article, with higher minimum wages employers can substitute more skilled for less skilled workers, which can result in productivity gains but leave unskilled workers without a job.

Workers are human beings.  It is wrong to think of them as "costs" or "resources".  The most surprised I think I have ever been on my blog is when I got so much negative feedback for writing that the best thing that could happen to unskilled workers is for someone to figure out how to make a fortune hiring them.  I thought this was absolutely obvious, but the statement was criticized as being heartless and exploitative.  My workers are my friends and are sometimes like family.  I hire hundreds of people over 60 years of age, people that the rest of society casts aside as no longer useful.  They take pride in their ability to continue to be productive.   You don't have to tell me they are human beings.  Just this week I have helped modify an employee's job responsibilities to help them manage their newly diagnosed MS, found temporary coverage for a manager who needs to get to a relative's funeral, found a replacement for a manager that wants to take a sabbatical, and loaned two different employees money to help them through some tough financial times.  From a self-interested point of view, I need my employees to be happy and satisfied in their work or they will provide bad, grumpy service.  But at the end of the day I can only keep these people employed if customers are willing to pay more for the services they provide than the employees cost me.  If the cost of employing people goes up, then either customers have to pay more or I can hire fewer employees.

You probably support child labor too.   Child labor laws are an entirely reasonable zone of government regulation.  The reason this is true stems from the definition of a child -- a child is someone considered under the law to lack agency or the ability to make adult decisions due to their age.   We generally give parents, rightly, a lot of the responsibility for protecting their children from bad decisions, but I am fine with the government backstopping this with modest regulations.  In other words, I have no problem with the law treating children like children.  Instead, I have a problem with the law treating adults like children.

Aren't you just begging to get audited?  Hah!  That's what my wife says.  To me, the logical response of a regulator should be, "wow, this guy knows the law way better than most of the business folks we deal with, so he probably is not a compliance risk" -- but you never know.  Actually, we have been audited many times on many of these laws.  So much so that practically the first series of posts I did on this blog, way back in the blog pleistocene era of 2004, was 3 part series on surviving a Department of Labor audit.  Looking back on the series, everything in it (which included experience from a number of different audits) still seems valid and timely.

Consider a Personal Umbrella Insurance Policy, And The Art of Handling Bad Reviews

My agent has always signed me up for a persona umbrella policy, pretty much without even discussing it much.  The costs have always been nominal compared to my other insurance and I got it to handle liability issues that might exceed the limits of other policies, like a really bad car crash or a slip and fall suit around my house.

It turned out that I got a lot of value out of the policy, but not in the way I had planned.  I was once sued, pretty hard and seriously, by a company over a negative review I wrote.  I won't talk about the details but if you are really interested Mr. Google will help you find it pretty quickly.   But here is an example of a similar case in the news:

A Manhattan woman has found herself in a world of legal troubles after posting a bad review of a local doctor online.

Michelle Levine tells CBS2 she’s already spent close to $20,000 fighting the million-dollar suit which accuses her of defamation, libel, and causing emotional distress.

The plaintiff is Dr. Joon Song, a gynecologist Levine says she visited once in August for an annual exam.

“After I got a bill for an ultrasound and a new patient visit, whatever that means, and it was not billed as an annual I wrote a review about it,” she told CBS2’s Lisa Rozner.

I was determined to fight my case in the name of all those (like Ms. Levine) who could not afford to fight these overt attempts to suppress and intimidate perfectly legal speech.  I was ready to take a substantially loss in legal fees to defend myself but it turned out I was covered for all my defense costs by my personal umbrella.  Note, I am not an insurance expert nor a lawyer, so before you buy such a product I would be sure you know what it does and does not cover.

Postscript, to all you businesses who keep suing over bad reviews:  GET OVER IT.  I get dozens of reviews every day on multiple platforms.  Most of our locations sit at an average rating just over 4.5 stars out of five so perhaps one in 20 are negative and maybe one in 100 are grossly, absurdly unfair.  Sure, all of us service business owners gripe about unfair reviews when we get together, but we all deal with it.  Every review platform has ways to respond to bad reviews, and most have a way to challenge reviews that violate their terms of service.   Often times if you actually do have a good business, the best defense is to encourage all your customers to review so all the good reviews drown the bad ones.  This is not 1996 when customers have never seen a review site.  Customers know EVERYONE gets bad reviews.   The Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok had some of the best service I have ever experienced, but it gets 1-star reviews.  The movie Casablanca has one-star reviews on Amazon.

Sometimes the bad reviews are perfectly understandable.  For example, at one beach we run there used to be a high place where kids would jump off into the water.  Despite having a lifeguard there, we had too many close calls and too many kids did not heed the lifeguard, so the jumping area was closed.  We got bad reviews for months about how awful it was the kids could not jump.  Each time we took the opportunity to explain that yes the jumping wall was closed and if that is the experience customers are looking for, they need to explore other options.  Eventually we got customer expectations to match the services we provided and things improved.  As much as businesses hate to have bad reviews, these were useful to us because they communicated changed services to the public and helped make sure that customer who come are coming for the right reasons.   Having people expecting the Ritz show up at Holiday Inn Express does not help the Holiday Inn Express at all.

Sometimes one does get totally unfair reviews and there is an art to writing responses to bad reviews.  You want to explain why many customers might consider the review unfair without seeming defensive or seeming to throw the customer under the bus, which will lose you a lot of sympathy in the community.  I am still learning.  Here is a tough one we had:

I will need go back to Juniper Spring it not the forest or the camping grounds but the workers are really not friendly at all I’m black and I hope people who’s from my race trust me it not a good place to take your family you can feel the eyes and I know please know racism is strong in Ocala and I’m sorry to bring a nasty review but I owe it to myself if I was to read this I would know what to expect if I choose to go. But the camp grounds are very clean tho and the bathroom have hot water but the works are very nasty ways I see so to all people other then whites Ijs check it out and be sorry like I did. The water looks great but it cold ass ever but when you get used to it you would be ok I guess.

Obviously that is horrible, it makes us out to be a bunch of racists.  This customer did get special attention, but more because we had to work hard -- and often -- to get compliance with a number of rules we are required by the government to enforce.  After a lot of thought, this is the response I finally went with:

We are really sorry you did not have a good visit. We have a racially diverse group of employees in our company and all of them are trained and motivated to provide quality service to everyone. However, given that this is a campground in the Forest Service and adjoining a Federal Wilderness Area, we are tasked by the Forest Service to enforce a number of rules which are different than those in private campgrounds and can sometimes be surprising to new visitors. In this case, I am really sorry we obviously did a poor job of trying to courteously explain the rules.

For other readers considering a visit, I will take the opportunity to highlight some of these rules:

  • Firearms are not allowed in the Ocala National Forest (except in hunting season)
  • Dogs are not allowed in the day use area or at the canoe run
  • Alcoholic beverages are not allowed in the day use area or on the canoe run
  • Food and food waste must be properly stored in campsites when not actively being consumed (in order to avoid attracting bears)

Volcanoes and Home Ownership

I have seen several web sites where folks looked at the neighborhoods getting devastated by lava in Hawaii and asked "why did the government let them build their homes there?"  I have three responses:

First, nature is hard to predict.  And even if it were, it tends to operate on really long cycles that are longer than most of our attention spans.  This style and location of eruption  has not happened in recent memory so folks treat it as impossible.  For a good example of this phenomenon see:  stock market.

Second, I laugh when I see the "why does the government allow homes built in dangerous areas" question.   In fact, in many cases, the government subsidizes construction of homes in dangerous areas.  Federal flood insurance is notorious for continuing to rebuild people's homes practically for free on dangerous coasts and in known flood plains.

Third, there are private entities who do take a hand in preventing construction in dangerous areas:  mortgage lenders and insurers.  Lenders do not want a lien on an asset that is underneath 20 feet of new rock, and insurers do not want to take on expensive risks in known danger areas (particularly if there are no federal guarantees as in #2).

I actually own some land on the Big Island, a long way away on the Kohala Coast.  And in the process of getting a mortgage and insurance, we had to go through a lava risk review.  There are apparently maps of risk zones similar to flood plain maps.   Obviously, these neighborhoods that are being consumed slowly (see:  Deadpool Zamboni scene) likely cleared this hurdle.  I am not sure how.  Perhaps the developer used pull to get the maps changed.  Perhaps the people who made the maps just predicted risk incorrectly (see #1).  Perhaps lenders ignored the maps and took on the mortgages anyway despite the risks (see: 2008).

More on The Poor State of Automobile Cockpit Interfaces

A while back I wrote that automobile dashboard design in modern cars sucks.  I drive many different cars as I am frequently renting cars on the road and I concluded:

If car designers are getting rid of physical buttons in favor of multilayered menu systems because it saves them a bunch of money, fine.  Bad trade-off in my mind, but there is at least a reason.   But if they are getting rid of physical buttons because they think that modern users prefer navigating multiple screens to access commonly used functionality, this is simply insane.  No one can top me for pure technophilia, but technical wizardry should not come at the expense of reduced usability.

No one listens to me but they do listen to Consumer Reports, and that magazine dinged the new Tesla Model 3's for exactly this problem:

"Another major factor that compromised the Model 3’s road-test score was its controls. This car places almost all its controls and displays on a center touch screen, with no gauges on the dash, and few buttons inside the car. This layout forces drivers to take multiple steps to accomplish simple tasks. Our testers found that everything from adjusting the mirrors to changing the direction of the airflow from the air-conditioning vents required using the touch screen."

Postscript:  This is not really the point of this post, but how is this even possible in a small car like the Model 3?

"The Tesla’s stopping distance of 152 feet from 60 mph was far worse than any contemporary car we’ve tested and about 7 feet longer than the stopping distance of a Ford F-150 full-sized pickup," reads the review based on tests on different Model 3s.

My New Favorite Excel Function: INDIRECT

I will confess that somehow I never really learned pivot table mechanics in Excel, so I struggle with three dimensional data.  One example might be a spreadsheet with individual tabs where each tab is a different corporate division, and on each tab is a P&L by month (so three dimensions:  Month, P&L category, Division).  Let's assume the P&L is arranged the same on every page, with, for example, one divisions June's total revenue number in the same cell number as the June total revenue number on every other divisions' tab, ie this field is in cell c8 on every worksheet tab.

Long ago I created a simple way to get a total of a particular cell across all spreadsheets.  I would add a spreadsheet tab in the workbook before all the division tabs and another after all the division tabs.  Let's say I just name these tabs "Posta" and "Postb".  Then the sum of all cells C8 that are located on a spreadsheet tab between tabs "Posta" and "Postb" would be

=SUM(Posta:Postb!C8).

The problem comes when one wants to create a summary worksheet tab that doesn't sum all the values for C8 but summarizes them in a table.  Imagine a table where column A is the division name (that matches the name of the tab for that division) and column B is that division's June revenue, ie the value of cell C8 for that division from its individual spreadsheet.  The only way I knew how to do this before was manually and tediously.

But laziness is the mother of invention, and I finally encountered a workbook that was so tedious to summarize manually that I had to find another way.  I had a spreadsheet of 150 tabs, each worksheet tab being one of our locations containing online customer review scores formatted the same way into the same cells.  That is when I found the INDIRECT function.  Basically it allows one to craft a custom cell reference in a text string, feed that to the indirect function, which will output the contents of that cell.  So if our location names in the first column exactly match the worksheet tab names, then we can write

=INDIRECT("'"&$A3&"'"&"!C$8")

The ampersand symbols are basically text string concatenation operators, and are there to create the text string of a cell reference in the format excel expects.  The funny triple quotes is just to add a single quote mark before and after the tab name.   This particular string will give us the value of cell C8 that is in the worksheet tab with the name that is in cell A3.

You can also use this cell value from the INDIRECT function in more complicated formulas.  For example

=COUNTIF( INDIRECT("'"&$A3&"'"&"!$B$3:$B$500"),D$4)

would look in the spreadsheet tab whose name is in A3 and on that tab count all the values in the range B3 to B500 on that tab that have the value given in cell D4.  For example, if D4 is equal to "5" we could be counting all the reviews that had a score of "5".

Postscript:  This may be my record for the blog post with the niche-iest audience.  Mainly it is aimed at my son, who has the enviable job of being an analyst for a craft beer company in La Jolla.  He has learned not to complain much to me about his job, as my first job was in an oil refinery in Baytown, Texas, so my sympathy level is maybe lower than it should be.  Anyway, as part of a geeky family, he and I compete on Excel knowledge so this post is mainly my way of counting coup on him.

Update:  I totally agree with the comments that a relational database is needed.  Unfortunately, at the time I did this work, we had only within weeks been given access to the review data from the government recreation reservations database, and it was all in excel.  Faster to do the analysis in excel than to figure out how to read the sheets into something like mysql (of which I am positive there are a million simple tools for doing so).  But I will accept it as a challenge for this year.

So the IRS Threat Phishing Scam Seems to be Back

I have gotten three calls in three days with an automated voice message telling me that, in essence, the IRS is seriously pissed at me and I need to call a certain number in 24 hours to resolve it.

The message in some ways is reminiscent of the old Nigerian email scams in that the English sounds like a really bad translation of another language.  I wish I had a recording.  Some of it uses stilted English, as if it is trying to emulate bureaucratese.  But some of the message hilariously uses slang in ways that the IRS would never do in its official communication, most memorable of which was the admonishment that if I did not respond immediately, the IRS would "send the local cops to arrest me."  The IRS would never use the word "cops".  I can't remember an agency every using the word "police" even.  Government officials almost always use the term "law enforcement".

Suffice it to say, the IRS does not generally make calls like this.  If you think it might be legit, ignore whatever number that was left in the message and call the IRS customer support line on their web site.  This latter is always good advice for almost any collection or customer support call.  I get a number of calls and emails, for example, from credit card companies that say they suspect fraud and want to review some transactions.  I always ignore whatever number they leave me, or if they reach me with a live person tell them I will call back, and then I call the number printed on the back on the credit card.

Transparent and Visible Cross-Subsidy: Unethical; Invisible Legally-Mandated Cross-Subsidy at the Behest of a Special Interest: A-OK

From Engadget, apparently the EU has banned retailers for adding a surcharge on credit card purchases.  Since it is an absolute fact that credit card sales cost retailers at least 3% more (due to merchant processing fees) than cash sales, I likely would have written about this story something like "EU knuckles under special interest lobbying from credit card processors and forces non-customers (ie those paying in cash) to subsidize credit card purchases."  Of course, given the consistent and predictable economic ignorance of Engadget, that is not how the story actually was written:

Thanks to new EU regulations, you won't have to put up with irritating card surcharges for much longer. Unfortunately, minimum card spends you come across in small shops and such will stick around, but from January 13th, the Payment Services Directive comes into play. This stops retailers from charging you more for, say, using a credit card than a debit card, or generally just passing the transaction fee onto the customer. It won't, however, make your Just Eat delivery any cheaper. That's because yesterday, ahead of the new EU rules being implemented, Just Eat did away with its 50p fee for paying by card, and instead created a new 50p "service charge" that applies to all orders.

What's particularly cheeky is pay-by-cash customers now also have to fish between the sofa cushions for an extra coin -- a move Just Eat calls "fairness for all" (lol) -- meaning it's making even more moolah while sticking a middle finger up to the spirit of the EU directive. Just Eat told the BBC it had previously thought about tweaking charges, while also totally confessing that "the change to legislation did play a part in prompting the review." A spokesperson also said, predictably, that it'll enable the company to keep providing its stellar services: "The 50p charge simply means that along with our restaurant partners, we can continue to deliver the best possible takeaway experience."

The law essentially forces cash customers to subsidize credit card customers.  I know what retail profits look like (think small single digits) and the lost surcharge is not coming out of profits, it is going to be covered by establishments in generally higher prices paid by everyone, including cash customers.  In my mind, this retailer is a hero, by actually making this legally-mandated cross subsidy transparent.

Progressives Hate When You Make Job Choices That They Would Not Make Themselves

I must say I was tremendously surprised when a reader sent me this interview and book review, which is summarized thus:

In her powerful new book, “Nomadland,” award-winning journalist Jessica Bruder reveals the dark, depressing and sometimes physically painful life of a tribe of men and women in their 50s and 60s who are — as the subtitle says — “surviving America in the twenty-first century.” Not quite homeless, they are “houseless,” living in secondhand RVs, trailers and vans and driving from one location to another to pick up seasonal low-wage jobs, if they can get them, with little or no benefits.

The book seems to be mostly focused on Amazon, at least from what I can glean from this interview, and I will say that I am pretty much totally unaware of working conditions at Amazon or how happy their employees are, so I cannot comment on them.  I do know that Amazon seems to be starting to eclipse even Walmart as the new target for progressive teeth-gnashing about working conditions.

However, the author seems to be painting with a pretty broad brush here, and is trying to apply her comments to all "workampers," or folks who have given up a settled lifestyle and live a quasi-nomadic lifestyle in an RV.  I am very familiar with this basic concept, as my company hires about 350 of these folks every year to live and work in the campgrounds and recreation areas we operate (this is how the camp host job works).

The article was surprising because I get about 25,000 applications every year from these workampers for about 50 open job positions.  It seems like something people really want to do.  People call me begging me for a job, which includes both physically easy tasks (e.g. checking in campers) and physically more difficult tasks (e.g. cleaning bathrooms and raking).  Most of our employees love the experience, and articles like this one about our hosts and how much they like the work are not uncommon.

Anyway, I wanted to offer a few random thoughts on this interview:

  1.  It is really common, especially among progressives, for folks to say some sort of employment is objectively bad mainly because they would not want that particular job.  This has been a feature of "sweatshop" criticism for years.  Underlying much of the critique is the feeling that "I could never imagine working for $2 a day" so it must be bad.  Of course you can't imagine it, and neither can I -- as Americans we fortunately have many better choices.  But for someone in Vietname whose family has been subsistence farming for generations for less than a $1 a day in back-breaking work where harvests can fail and the whole family perish from starvation, a $2 a day factory job might seem like a gift from heaven.
  2. It is not clear to me why the employers of these older folks are at fault.  The author asserts that no one else will hire these folks, that this is their only choice -- "Few have chosen this life."  If this is so, why place the blame on the only folks willing to hire these people?  I can understand if Amazon were luring people out of comfortable professional jobs on false pretenses that this would be unethical, but why are they to blame if they hire the otherwise unemployable?  I would think that makes them a hero.
  3. It strikes me that 20 years ago, authors like this one were writing pieces about age discrimination and how terrible it is that no one will hire old people.  Now we learn the opposite, that companies are terrible for hiring them.  Forty years ago the author might have been writing about how stultifying middle American suburbs and corporate life were, but now we learn that folks who choose to be nomadic and try some alternative need to go back to the suburbs.
  4. I honestly have no idea what this even means: "We live in a culture where if your number didn’t come up, you’re a bad person, you’re lazy, you should be ashamed of yourself. It eats away at people. It makes them more exploitable."  Let me tell a story.  I do not hire managers from the outside -- everyone I promote to manager has to have worked for me at least a year as a front-line camp host.   Some of the folks that get promoted were managers in their former careers, but most never were.  In fact, I have many managers who never even considered that they could ever manage people, and suddenly discover at the age of 65 or 70 that they can do it.  Seeing this happen is the greatest joy in my job.  I don't know how to reconcile this with the author's statement.
  5. The author wants to blame this all on the 2008 financial crisis, but I guess that is confusing.  I know it took a long time for folks to get jobs back who lost them, and I don't want to minimize the pain of that, but she implies this is a lot about people losing all their savings.  "I talked to one couple, Barb and Chuck. He had been head of product development at McDonald’s before he retired. He lost his nest egg in the 2008 crash and Barb did, too."  I have no doubt this sort of thing happened, but frequently?  All our investments took a hit in 2008 and 2009 but almost everything is higher now than in 2008.  It would have taken some heroically bad choices (or a lot of leverage) to lose absolutely everything,
  6. The one thing I think the author and I would agree on is that the current retirement system is unsustainable.  However, I think we would come to vastly different conclusions.  She says, "We saw in the 1980s a shift from pensions to 401(k)s; that was a raw deal for workers. These retirement plans were marketed as an instrument of financial freedom, but they were really transferring risk from the shoulder of the employers to the backs of the workers."  This is only partially true.  If one is working at Sears with a traditional pension, one likely has way more risk right now (with Sears teatering on bankrupcy and your savings effectively invested all in one company) than if one had a 401(k) invested in the S&P500.  However, I would argue that what is broken in the retirement system is the assumption that everyone has a right to a 30 year mostly-healthy end-of-life vacation.  When pensions were first started, people did not live much longer than they worked.  Now they do.  Good!  But our retirement system and our expectations for it have not changed.  One only has to look at the State of Illinois to see the end game of these mismatched assumptions.
  7. (added as an update):  To the point about "exploitation".    Imagine a person in a small town with a home and she works in the local factory, really the only major employer in that small town.  If she thinks she is getting hosed at work, what can she do?  She can certainly quit, but then she likely must sell her house, find a new place to live, move to a new city, etc.  Basically, she has high job switching costs and thus probably would have to put up with more cr*p before she would leave.  Now imagine our work campers.  I once had an employee tell me that I had to treat him well, because he had wheels on his home and could leave any time.  And he was right.   Work campers, being more mobile, have much lower job switching costs.  Economically, doesn't this make them less, rather than more, vulnerable to exploitation?
  8. Note, when asked to point to true exploitation (rather than just less-than-ideal jobs) who is the one example she can think of:

You write that sometimes the Nomads are exploited. How? 

I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Forest Service and learned that some of their workers aren’t getting paid for all their hours. They weren’t allowed to invoice.

A few years ago one branch of the Federal government, the Department of Labor, decided that it was a morally urgent to make sure everyone working in a Federal campground operated by a private company like mine should make at least $10.15 an hour, and imposed this special minimum wage.  And we complied.  But then another branch of the Federal government, the US Forest Service, decided that it could now run the campgrounds cheaper themselves because they could staff it with volunteers and not pay this minimum wage.  Apparently it is not morally urgent for them to pay the minimum wage.  While the USFS sometimes pays hosts a stipend, this stipend, as the author notes above, is well below even state minimum wages and certainly well below the campground concessionaire minimum wage set by the DOL.  I find it not at all surprising the best example of true exploitation comes from the government.  However, how much do you want to bet this author asks that we rely on government to eliminate imagined exploitation in the private world?

Postscript:  It reflects classic middle class snobbery to call these folks "homeless".  I have hired nearly thousands of work campers over the years and have yet to meet one who considers themselves to be homeless.  They would say they have a home -- and it has wheels on it.

Irony of Phone Design

My last phone was a Droid Turbo (or some variant of that).  It was a tank (and btw the battery was so large it would last a week).  It was also butt-ugly, but you could drop that thing from an airplane and it would probably keep working.  I never bothered with a case.

My new phone is a Galaxy S8.  It is probably, looks-wise, the acme of phone design right now and the polar opposite in attractiveness from the Droid Turbo.  But it is literally almost all glass.  The front is glass.  The back is glass.  The sides, dues to the curved bezel, are mostly glass.  If you drop this thing you are going to hit -- wait for it -- glass.  I was changing cases on it and dropped it from a height of no more than three feet and both the front and back glass shattered.  So you MUST put this expensive phone in a relatively bulky case.  You can have a slim case that may or may not protect the screen and sort of retains some of the feel of the curved bezel or a bulky case that probably will protect the phone but makes the entire phone design moot.

My point is that companies seem to be designing phones for how good they look and feel in the Verizon store**, rather than how they will actually look bundled up in a large case in real life.  Once you provide reasonable life-protection for the S8, all its expensive design features are covered up.

One thing I have learned during this experience is that the vast majority of the millennials who rate cell phones on review sites like Engadget are wildly over-influenced by aesthetics.  For example they all seem to downgrade phones that have larger bezels and metal rather than glass packaging, irregardless of reliability. I am still looking for a site that publishes a good list of drop test results and ratings.  I don't think I will buy another phone without seeing these results (I was considering a pixel 2 until I saw is horrible drop results).  I would also like to see someone who grades phone aesthetics in the sort of cases we are all going to put on them.  Honestly if I had time I would probably start my own review site focused on real-world use, emphasizing characteristics like reliability, repair costs, drop test results, and battery life.

 

** For a long, long, long time, TV manufacturers ruined TV pictures so they would look better in a store.  Every TV you could buy, at least in the pre-LCD era, had super-high color temperatures shifted way up into the blues.  The colors looked like crap in a dark room watching a movie, but the picture appeared brighter in the TV showroom.  Back in the day, one of the first things one would do with a good TV if one was a movie snob was to get the TV color calibrated or look for a TV that had a color temperature setting.

The Conservatism of Progressives

Despite having a lot of respect for the intellect and the insane eclecticism of its author Tyler Cowen, I have never read the Complacent Class.  The title really did not intrigue me, and frankly from that title probably had the wrong vision of what the book was about.  That is, until I read George Will's recent review, in which he said in part:

In 1800, McCloskey says, the world’s economy was where Bangladesh’s economy now is, with no expectation of change. Today, most of the jobs that existed just a century ago are gone. And we are delighted that this protracted disruption occurred. Now, however, the Great Enrichment is being superseded by the Great Flinch, a recoil against the frictions and uncertainties — the permanent revolution — of economic dynamism. If this continues, the consequences, from increased distributional conflicts to decreased social mobility, are going to be unpleasant.

Although America is said to be — and many Americans are — seething about economic grievances, Tyler Cowen thinks a bigger problem is complacency. In his latest book, “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream,” Cowen, professor of almost everything (economics, law, literature) at George Mason University and co-author of the Marginal Revolution blog, argues that the complacent class, although a minority, is skillful at entrenching itself in ways detrimental to the majority....

For complacent Americans, a less dynamic, growth-oriented nation seems less like an alarming prospect than a soothing promise of restfulness. In a great testimonial to capitalism’s power, “The Communist Manifesto,” Karl Marx wrote: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.” Complacent, because comfortable, Americans have had enough of that.

Hmm, I suppose I should read it.  I don't want to judge the premise of the book from a few lines of a 3rd party review, but the themes here are strikingly similar to something I wrote 13 years ago (!) on this blog in a post titled "Progressives are too Conservative to Like Capitalism".  I still agree with much, though not all, of what I wrote there so I will pare it down a bit:

Most "progressives" (meaning those on the left to far left who prefer that term) would freak if they were called conservative, but what I mean by conservative in this context is not donate-to-Jesse-Helms capital-C Conservative but fearful of change and uncomfortable with uncertainty conservative.

OK, most of you are looking at this askance - aren't progressives always trying to overthrow the government or something?  Aren't they out starting riots at G7 talks?  The answer is yes, sure, but what motivates many of them, at least where it comes to capitalism, is a deep-seated conservatism.

Before I continue to support this argument, I must say that on a number of issues, particularly related to civil liberties and social issues, I call progressives my allies.  On social issues, progressives, like I do, generally support an individual's right to make decisions for themselves, as long as those decisions don't harm others.

However, when we move to fields such as commerce, progressives stop trusting individual decision-making.  Progressives who support the right to a person making unfettered choices in sexual partners don't trust people to make their own choice on seat belt use.  Progressives who support the right of fifteen year old girls to make decisions about abortion without parental notification do not trust these same girls later in life to make their own investment choices with their Social Security funds.  ... [this would also make a good example:  Progressives oppose school choice because they don't think the poor capable of making good education decisions]

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  That is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because, to paraphrase Hayek, only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave.

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services.

In fact, here is a sure fire test for a progressive.  If given a choice between two worlds:

  1. A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic, chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly distributed, or...
  2. A "progressive" society where everyone is poorer, but income is generally more evenly distributed.  In this society, jobs and pay and industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances that they will continue to have what they have today, with little downside but also with very little upside.

Progressives will choose #2.  Even if it means everyone is poorer.  Even if it cuts off any future improvements we might gain in technology or wealth or lifespan or whatever.  They want to take what we have today, divide it up more equally, and then live to eternity with just that.   Progressives want #2 today, and they wanted it just as much in 1900 (just think about if they had been successful -- as just one example, if you are over 44, you would have a 50/50 chance of being dead now).

Don't believe that this is what they would answer?  Well, first, this question has been asked and answered a number of times in surveys, and it always comes out this way.  Second, just look at any policy issue today.  Take prescription drugs in the US - isn't it pretty clear that the progressive position is that they would be willing to pretty much gut incentives for any future drug innovations in trade for having a system in place that guaranteed everyone minimum access to what exists today?  Or take the welfare state in Continental Europe -- isn't it clear that a generation of workers/voters chose certainty over growth and improvement?  That workers 30 years ago voted themselves jobs for life, but at the cost of tremendous unemployment amongst the succeeding generations?

VRBO / HomeAway Have Abandoned Faith With Travelers By Corrupting Their Review System

One of the best innovations on the web has been customer review scores.  I use the reviews of products at Amazon.com, Tripadvisor, Yelp, and Opentable all the time to aid in my buying.  Sure they can be frustrating -- some reviewers will petulantly give 1 star reviews for absurd issues or failings.  And I know that as much as reviews on Tripadvisor, Google Places, and Facebook can drive me crazy, they help me improve my business.

But these systems only work when they are run with integrity. I once had to get a Tripadvisor review deleted because it was fraudulent (made up claims from a disgruntled employee rather than a customer).  It was a long, uphill battle to get that one review deleted, as it should be.

Unfortunately, VRBO and HomeAway (I think they are the same company now) have abandoned this integrity.  For those that do not know, these sites feature rental of vacation homes and apartments.  We love this travel option - often we can get a nice 2 bedroom condo with kitchen and living room for the same price as a hotel room.  On this site there are often hundreds or thousands of options for rentals, and so customer reviews can be an important source of information in choosing.  Does it really look like its pictures?  Was everything there that was promised?  Are there any location or noise issues?  Essentially, reviews make sure the landlord cannot try to hide issues from travelers.

It used to be you could just log in and review the location, just like one does with a product on Amazon.  I think there was some testing to make sure you had actually rented it, but this is easy and Amazon has the same thing where it tags reviews with something like "confirmed buyer" or whatever.  But VRBO has now gone to a system where the landlord can essentially opt out of the review process.  If they don't send you a review link, you can't review.  In other words, you can't review without the owners permission.  And, as you may guess, owners with properties that have flaws that would readily be pointed out by reviewers do not allow one to review.

To compound the problem, VRBO hides all this.  For example, we rented this flawed beach home in San Diego.  It was wonderful in every way except for one -- the properties below and around it seem to be preferred destinations for loud groups of frat boys partying.  We pretty much got no sleep.   I wanted to warn future customers of this potential issue, but that is impossible because the landlord will not send me a VRBO review link, and that is the only way I can review it.  VRBO hides this because the listing says "This property doesn't have any reviews yet!"  That sounds far more innocent than the more accurate statement, which would be "This property does not choose to participate in the review process."

Personal Umbrella Insurance - Consider It If You Can

Some time ago I was sued by a large corporation over a negative review I posted on this site.  The case was eventually settled, and I am not allowed to talk about the terms or mention the company's name any more.  But I will say the review is still up and unchanged and sits on the first page of results on Google for that company's name, so draw what conclusions you may.

But the case generated over $50,000 in legal expenses for me.  I probably would have paid that out of pocket just because I am curmudgeonly and was not going to back down, but in fact the legal costs were 100% covered by my personal liability and umbrella insurance.  Basically an umbrella means that if anything goes over the coverage limits of your policies, or slips through the cracks of your policies' various coverages, the umbrella kicks in.  The cost for the umbrella is close to a rounding error on my other insurance costs.   I am not even sure I asked for it initially, my helpful insurance guy just threw it in there for a few extra bucks.

A lot of people have to knuckle under to bullsh*t legal threats from corporations and the wealthy (think about all of Donald Trump's silly libel suites) because they can't afford to fight.  Arm yourself with the financial tools to fight such things.  Now, there may be (as with most insurance) good versions of this policy and bad ones.  I am sure we have some insurance folks in our readership who can say more in the comments.

Public Choice and "Privilege"

A key thrust of Nancy MacLean's book on the great Koch / Buchanan / libertarian conspiracy to destroy democracy is that public choice theory is all about protecting and cementing elite privilege under the law.  This is actually exactly opposite of how I have always viewed public choice theory -- public choice theory tends to show how well-intentioned "public service" programs tend to get co-opted by a few powerful people for their own benefit.  See "ethanol mandates" or "steel tariffs" or "beautician licensing" or any number of other programs.  But I am not conversant enough to really make this case well.  Fortunately, Steven Horwitz (pdf) has done it in his powerful critique of MacLean's book.

The intellectual error that is most frustrating, however, is her understanding of the relationship between public choice theory and questions of power and privilege. As Munger (2018) points out in his review, MacLean is an unreconstructed majoritarian. She genuinely believes, at least in this book, that the majority should always be able to enact its preferences and that constitutional constraints on majority rule are ways of protecting the power and privilege of wealthy white males. That’s the source of Democracy in Chains as her title and her argument that public choice theory is a tool of the powerful elite. As Munger also observes, normally such a view would be seen as a strawman as no serious political scientist believes it, not to mention that no democracy in the world lacks constitutional constraints on majorities. In addition, one must presume that a progressive like MacLean thinks Loving v. Virginia, Roe v. Wade, and  Obergefell v. Hodges, not to mention Brown, were all decided correctly, even though all of them put local democracies in chains, and in some cases, thwarted the expressed preferences of a majority of Americans.

For public choice theory, constitutions protect the citizens from two forms of tyranny: tyrannies of the majority when they wish to violate rights and tyrannies of coalitions of minorities who wish to use the state to redirect resources to themselves by taking advantage of the logic of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. Buchanan’s political vision is, in Peter Boettke’s words, a world without discrimination and domination. Constitutional constraints, for Buchanan, are a central way of ensuring that democracy actually protects rights by preventing the powerful from exploiting the powerless and that political decisions involve the consent of all. Constitutional constraints make democracy work for all citizens – they do not put it in chains.

When MacLean argues that public choice is a tool to protect privilege, she gets it exactly backward. Public choice shows us how those with the power to influence the political process can use that power to create and protect privilege for themselves at the expense of the rest of the citizenry. Public choice’s analysis of rent-seeking and politics as exchange enables us to strip off the mask of bogus “public interest” explanations and see a great deal of political activity as socially destructive exploitation of the least well-off. To borrow a bit from the left’s rhetoric: public choice is better seen as a tool of resistance to oligarchy than a defense thereof. It helps us understand why corporate welfare remains so common even as so many see it as a problem. Public choice also helps to understand the growth of the military-industrial complex and challenges public interest explanations of that growth. One can tell similar stories about immigration policy and a number of other issues of that concern modern progressives. Public choice theory sees the battles over Uber and Lyft as the powerful government-licensed taxi companies fighting to protect their monopoly privileges and profits against upstart entrepreneurs better meeting the wants of the public. This provides an excellent illustration of how public choice theory can explain political outcomes, and why the theory is useful in understanding how the powerful can victimize the less powerful. Public choice theory, properly understood, is a tool of critical thinking that enables us to deconstruct political rhetoric to see the underlying forces at work that are allowing those with wealth and access to power to use politics to acquire and protect their privileges and profits

As Arnold Kling might say, and Horowitz himself posits in different words, libertarians spend so much time obsessing over the freedom-coercion political axis that they miss out on ways to engage those on the Oppressor-Oppressed axis.  Public choice theory has a lot to offer Progressives, as it explains a lot about how well-meaning legislation with progressive intent is often co-opted by powerful groups to enrich themselves.  Sure a lot of public choice theory is used by libertarians to say, essentially, burn the whole government to the ground; but there is a lot from my experience in public choice literature that should speak to good government progressives, academic work using public choice to think about better designing programs to more closely achieve their objectives.

Cultural Appropriation is Progress

I have written before about the absurdity of folks who demand cultural apartheid by hoping to ban what they call "Cultural Appropriation."  Of all the stupid sh*t the is circulated around a deeply broken academia nowadays, this is probably the stupidest.

Take note of this entirely reasonable editorial from an author in Canada.  I think he actually has a great idea:

Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write — a publication for the union’s members — published an opinion piece in the spring 2017 issue titled “Writer’s Prompt.” In the article, in an issue dedicated to indigenous writing, Niedzviecki wrote: “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.

“I’d go so far as to say there should even be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

He went on to argue that Canadian literature remains “exhaustingly white and middle class” because writers are discouraged from writing about people and places they don’t know.

A sociological term, cultural appropriation is used to describe the adoption of elements or practices of one cultural group by members of another.

This is really a good idea.  I find it amazing that ethnic minorities simultaneously want sympathy for their various victimizations while at the same time don't want anyone imagining what it is like to be them.  So of course the response was to run him out of town on a rail

On Wednesday, the Writer’s Union of Canada issued an apology for the piece, announcing Niedzviecki’s resignation and pledging to review the magazine’s policies.

“The Writer’s Prompt piece offended and hurt readers, contributors to the magazine and members of the editorial board,” said the statement. “We apologize unequivocally. We are in the process of contacting all contributors individually.

My Customer Service & Communication Advice to the United CEO

My company serves nearly 3 million visitors a year.  Though we always try for 100% satisfaction, some customers are going to slip through the cracks and be dissatisfied.   Each year, I get maybe 10 visitors who are severely dissatisfied, think they were mistreated, want to call their Congressman, are going to sue me, etc. I would say that these complaints eventually land on my desk but I actually look at every single comment card and letter and review that we get from customers and personally am involved with every single complaint of any sort.  Anyway, 10 or so are severe issues with a very upset customer that get to me without having been resolved in the field.

Folks who are involved in customer service will tell you that of these complaints, there will likely be a range of blame.  In some cases we screwed up.  In some cases no one screwed up but there was a mismatch of expectations.  And in some cases the customer was acting like a total asshole and was entirely to blame for the whole affair.  Sometimes it is hard to parse out after the fact which case is which -- something I wrote about here.  When these major complaints get to me, here is my guide to how I respond:

When we screw up:   "I am very sorry we did a poor job and you had a bad experience.  I am going to personally investigate immediately and we are going to make changes so this does not happen again -- but in the mean time, I want to refund your money and give you a certificate for some free camping so you can come back in the future and give us another chance to serve you well."

When the customer broke the rules and acted like a total jerk:   "I am very sorry we did a poor job and you had a bad experience.  I am going to personally investigate immediately and we are going to make changes so this does not happen again -- but in the mean time, I want to refund your money and give you a certificate for some free camping so you can come back in the future and give us another chance to serve you well."

When the exact situation is unclear:    "I am very sorry we did a poor job and you had a bad experience.  I am going to personally investigate immediately and we are going to make changes so this does not happen again -- but in the mean time, I want to refund your money and give you a certificate for some free camping so you can come back in the future and give us another chance to serve you well."

In any of these cases, if the customer describes poor behavior by my employees, I will tell them that "the behavior you are describing is absolutely unacceptable and, as I said, I am going to investigate personally as soon as we get off the phone."  You don't have to admit the behavior.  It is common that angry customers will dress up a story with a few added descriptions of outlandish employee behavior that may not actually be what happened.  You will try to figure that out later in the investigation.   But give the customer as much as you can.  If the customer said the employee used profanity, then it is perfectly fine to say "you are right, ms. customers, use of profanity by our employees is absolutely unacceptable" even if you suspect the employee did no such thing.

Giving this very positive response to customers who may have been bad actors or may be exaggerating can be hard because my local managers want to get very mad at me -- "Warren, don't you understand, he was a BAD customer.  You can't reward him for being a BAD customer."  To which I will say:  "First, you and I have not talked so I don't know yet if he was truly a BAD customer.  We may be the ones who screwed up.  But second, even if they were bad in some way, I am not rewarding a bad customer, I am trying to avoid a bad Tripadvisor review which will sit there on the Internet forever like a turd you can't flush.  And third, you seem to be trying to teach this customer a lesson, and make them realize they have been bad.  Even if the customer is really a jerk, this is never, ever ever ever going to happen.  You will never ever convince a jerk that they are a jerk, because almost by definition jerks last self-awareness, so stop trying."

We do a lot of training on this.  I tell folks all the time that if we have a customer like this who gets to me, I AM going to apologize and AM going to give them a refund and AM going to give them some free camping.  It doesn't mean that I am undermining the folks in the field, it means that this is smart business practice, particularly in this age of Internet reviews.  I tell my managers that they are letting their ego and pride stand in the way of having a customer walk away more satisfied, and if they refuse to check their ego, they are delegating the task of being humble upwards to me.  And over time, the good news is that most of my managers have gotten the message and have started emulating me so fewer and fewer of these ever reach me, they are solved much earlier in the field.

Postscript:  The first reaction I get from other business people is -- "don't you get taken advantage of and give out refunds to people who are just posturing about bad service just so they can get a refund?" And my answer is "yes".  But recognize that we have had over $100 million in revenues in this company since I started it, and we have perhaps paid $500 or $1000 is false refunds, or about .001% of revenues. I don't think .001% is very much to pay for the very high customer satisfaction rate we have.  But you would be surprised at the number of people that just can't let it go.  I don't know what this is called psychologically, but I will give another example.  We have a number of sites where the entrance station is not staffed on certain days and payment is on the honor system.  I have people who work for me who really get upset with me, telling me I simply HAVE to staff that gatehouse because some people are not paying.  You are being CHEATED!  I say that I am perfectly aware people are not paying, but it costs, all-in, probably $120-$150 to have a person sit in that gatehouse for 8 hours.  In that time perhaps 15 cars will come in.  At $6 apiece, even if every single one of them is cheating (and they do not, we have very good compliance in most honor system locations) I would be paying $150 to collect an extra $90 of revenue.  That would be insane.  But somehow the thought of lost revenue just makes some people crazy, no matter how expensive it is to chase it down.

Bad Reviews

John Scalzi often posts some of his more over-the-top one-star Amazon book reviews as a sort of self therapy.  I have done the same think in the past with our online campground and TripAdviser reviews.  Here is a two star review we received the other day for our Juniper Springs facility in Florida.

I have had problems with employees here in the past telling lies about me to other campers & employees, because my extreme good looks are a threat to them somehow. I am an Actor. The amount of jealousy is ridiculous. I won't repeat any of it here, but the defamation & slander has been pretty extreme. I am camped here now for a planned long stay, & if they come off with that crap again I plan to sue them individually & as a company.

As for the campground itself, I love it. The showers are awesome & the best in the forest. They have bear boxes now to store food, but these seem large enough to hide a couple of people. Can be opened from the inside easily..in an emergency I'd go for it. There are No Electric sites, which makes things difficult. But it is far enough away from civilization to make sleeping at night quiet & peaceful, with an occasional smooth hum of a tractor trailer going by.

The last part of the review was nice but the first paragraph was a total head-scratch.  I have polled the staff and no one has any idea who this person is or what he is referring to.  I usually respond to negative reviews online but have no idea what to write on this one.  I sent a private message to the customer to please give me a bit more detail so I can investigate.

By the way, one of the reasons I think we are successful is that I have systems in  place where nearly every negative review from a variety of sources, including our own surveys, flow right to my inbox.  I read every one, and respond to most.

As a second by the way, the Juniper Springs canoe run is a very special experience if you are ever in the area and like that sort of thing.  It is not for beginners, but it is one of the most beautiful wild areas in Florida.  When the author of the Unofficial Guide to DisneyWorld was asked in the back of his book what his favorite attraction in Florida was, he did not answer Disney or Universal but said the Juniper Springs canoe run.

Solar Roads -- Remember These When Environmentalists Accuse You of Being "Anti-Science"

I have written about the horribly stupid but oddly appealing idea of solar roads many times before, most recently here.  As a quick review, here are a few of the reasons the idea is so awful:

 Even if they can be made to sort of work, the cost per KwH has to be higher than for solar panels in a more traditional installations -- the panels are more expensive because they have to be hardened for traffic, and their production will be lower due to dirt and shade and the fact that they can't be angled to the optimal pitch to catch the most sun.  Plus, because the whole road has to be blocked (creating traffic snafus) just to fix one panel, it is far more likely that dead panels will just be left in place rather than replaced.

But the environmentalists are at it again, seem hell-bent on building solar roads with your tax money;  (hat tip to a reader, who knew these solar road stories are like crack for me)

France has opened what it claims to be the world’s first solar panel road, in a Normandy village.

A 1km (0.6-mile) route in the small village of Tourouvre-au-Perche covered with 2,800 sq m of electricity-generating panels, was inaugurated on Thursday by the ecology minister, Ségolène Royal.

It cost €5m (£4.2m) to construct and will be used by about 2,000 motorists a day during a two-year test period to establish if it can generate enough energy to power street lighting in the village of 3,400 residents.

The choice of Normandy for the first solar road is an odd one, given that:

Normandy is not known for its surfeit of sunshine: Caen, the region’s political capital, enjoys just 44 days of strong sunshine a year

Wow, nothing like a 12% utilization to really bump up those returns on investment.

The article follows the first rule of environmental writing, which is to give the investment required or the value of the benefits, but never both (so the return on investment can't be calculated).  This article follows this rule, by giving the investment but stating the benefits in a way that is impossible for the average person to put a value on, e.g. "enough energy to power street lighting in the village of 3,400 residents".  Since we have no idea how well-lighted their streets are or how efficient the lighting is, this is meaningless.  And by the way, they forgot to discuss any discussion of batteries and their cost if they really are going to run night-time lighting with solar.

But, the article does actually give something close to the numbers one would like to have to evaluate another similar investment, and oh boy are the numbers awful:

In 2014, a solar-powered cycle path opened in Krommenie in the Netherlands and, despite teething problems, has generated 3,000kWh of energy – enough to power an average family home for a year. The cost of building the cycle path, however, could have paid for 520,000kWh.

As a minimum, based on these facts, the path has been opened 2 years and thus generates 1500 kWh a year (though probably less since it likely has been open longer than 2 years).  This means that this investment repays about 0.29 percent of its investment every year.  If we ignore the cost of capital, and assume unlimited life of the panels (vs a more likely 5-10 years in this hard service) we get an investment payback period of only 347 years.  Yay!

It Turns Out That Firing Nobody and Giving the Agency More Money is a Really Poor Way to Fix Things

Working in the world of privatization, one objection I get all the time to privately operating in a here-to-for public space is that government officials are somehow more "accountable" to the public than are private companies.

This strikes me as an utter disconnect with reality.  If I screw up, I make less money or even go out of business.  When government agencies or officials screw up, they generally remain unchanged and unpunished forever.  There are no market competitive forces just waiting to shove a government agency aside -- they have a monopoly enforced at the point of government guns.  As I wrote a week ago about a conversation between myself and a government official about my operating public parks:

I understand that my margins are so narrow, if even 5% of those visitors don't come back next year -- because they had a bad time or they saw a bad review online -- I will make no money.  Those 2 million people vote with their feet every year on whether they think I am adequately serving the public, and their votes directly affect how much money I make.

Government agencies have nothing like this sort of accountability for public service.

One reason government agencies seldom change is that the typical response to even overt malfeasance is 1) to give the agency more money, as the agency will blame all incompetence on lack of budget (just think "public schools" and teachers unions) and 2) the agency will fire nobody.

Take the Phoenix VA.  Congress eventually rewarded the VA with more money, almost no one was fired, and the one of the worst managers in the VA system, a serial failure in multiple VA offices who would have been fired from any private company I can think of, was put in charge of the struggling Phoenix VA.

Well, it turns out that firing nobody and giving the agency more money is really a poor way to fix things.

Patients in the Phoenix VA Health Care System are still unable to get timely specialist appointments after massive reform efforts, and delayed care may be to blame for at least one more veteran's death, according to a new Office of the Inspector General probe.

The VA watchdog's latest report, issued Tuesday, says more than two years after Phoenix became the hub of a nationwide VA scandal, inspectors identified 215 deceased patients who were awaiting specialist consultations on the date of death. That included one veteran who "never received an appointment for a cardiology exam that could have prompted further definitive testing and interventions that could have forestalled his death."

The report portrays Phoenix VA clerks, clinicians and administrators as confused and in conflict about scheduling policies despite more than two years of reform and retraining.

"Unexpectedly" as a famous blogger would say.

 

 

Government, Arrogant Ignorance, and the Power of Incentives

As most of you know, my company operates parks on public lands, so I work with government agencies a lot.  Years ago, from this experience, I coined a term called "arrogant ignorance."  It comes from numerous times when government employees will be completely ignorant of some process, perhaps even their agency's own rules and procedures, but will fight to the death any suggestion that I might be able to enlighten them or that they are doing something wrong.

For a while, people had me believing that I had just rediscovered the Dunning–Kruger effect.  But I am now convinced that this is not the same as my "arrogant ignorance".  And the difference between the two highlights a key point about failure of government I have made for years, which is that government does a bad job not because the people are bad, but because it hires good (or at least average) people who have terrible incentives and information.

First, here is Dunning-Kruger per Wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately.

Like most people, I see Dunning-Kruger all the time.  But I see it equally frequently in private and public settings.  I don't think it is necessarily unique to the public sphere, and may be over-represented there only to the extent that it is much harder to eliminate under-performers from public rather than private jobs, so they may tend to concentrated more in public positions.

But my concept of arrogant ignorance is not really a cognitive effect, I think, but rather a symptom of incentives.   The problem with most government jobs is that they have no service or output metrics so that they are instead judged mainly on conformance to procedure.  And even that is not quite correct, because most agencies I work with do not even have formal standards or quality review processes for their employees, at least below the executive level.

I want to take an aside here on incentives.  It is almost NEVER the case that an organization has no incentives or performance metrics.  Yes, it is frequently the case that they may not have clear written formal metrics and evaluations and incentives.  But every organization has informal, unwritten incentives.  Sometimes, even when there are written evaluation procedures, these informal incentives dominate.

Within government agencies, I think these informal incentives are what matter.  Here are a few of them:

  1. Don't ever get caught having not completed some important form or process step or having done some beauracratic function incorrectly
  2. Don't ever get caught not knowing something you are supposed to know in your job
  3. Don't ever say yes to something (a project, a permit, a program, whatever) that later generates controversy, especially if this controversy gets the attention of your boss's boss.
  4. Don't ever admit a mistake or weakness of any sort to someone outside the organization
  5. Don't ever do or support anything that would cause the agency's or department's budget to be cut or headcount to be reduced.

You ever wonder why government agencies say no to everything and make it impossible to do new things?  Its not necessarily ideology, it's their incentives.  They get little or no credit for approving something that works out well, but the walls come crashing down on them if they approve something that generates controversy.

So consider the situation of the young twenty-something woman across the desk from me at, say, the US Forest Service. She is probably reasonably bright, but has had absolutely no relevant training from the agency, because a bureaucracy will always prefer to allocate funds so that it has 50 untrained people rather than 40 well-trained people (maintaining headcount size will generally be prioritized over how well the organization performs on its mission).  So here is a young person with no training, who is probably completely out of her element because she studied forestry or environment science and desperately wanted to count wolves but now finds herself dumped into a job dealing with contracts for recreation and having to work with -- for God sakes -- for-profit companies like mine.

One program she has to manage is a moderately technical process for my paying my concession fees in-kind with maintenance services.  She has no idea how to do this.  So she takes her best guess from materials she has, but that guess is wrong.  But she then sticks to that answer and proceeds to defend it like its the Alamo.  I know the process backwards and forwards, have run national training sessions on it, have literally hundreds of contract-years of experience on it, but she refuses to acknowledge any suggestion I make that she may be wrong.  I coined the term years ago "arrogant ignorance" for this behavior, and I see it all the time.

But on deeper reflection, while it appears to be arrogance, what else could she do given her incentives?  She can't admit she doesn't know or wasn't trained (see #2 and #4 above).  She can't acknowledge that I might be able to help her (#4).  Having given an answer, she can't change it (#1).

You may think I am exaggerating -- how could people react so strongly to seemingly petty incentives.  But they do.  In my example above, this is probably her first job.   The government is the only employer she has known.  The confidence you might have to ignore these incentives to do the right thing likely come from jobs and experience that this woman has not had.

I will give you a real example.  One government contract manager asked us to spend $10,000 to do something, promising that the agency would reimburse me.  I told her that I had never heard of this type of spending being reimbursable, but she said we would be reimbursed.  So we did it.  Later, her boss's boss heard about the reimbursement and said it was not correct under the rules.  Eventually, our contract manager was challenged on it.  You know what she said?  She said our company spent the money without permission and that we were never promised reimbursement.  She sacrificed her honor out of the fear of #1 and #3 - the incentives were that powerful for her.  She knowingly lied and -- by the way - cost me personally $10,000 and a reprimand in our contract file.  When I called her afterwards and asked her, "what the hell?" -- she apologized to me in tears and said she just would be in too much trouble once her boss's boss was involved to admit she had authorized the expense.

So, I try to learn from this.   One thing, for example, I always do is ask myself when someone who works for me screws up, "Is this really my fault, for not training them well."  A surprising number of times, the answer is a reluctant, "yes".

Speech Restriction Stories I Have Read in Just the Last 24 Hours

NY state attorney general (and others) pursuing potential criminal and civil charges against ExxonMobil for its climate change advocacy

US Virgin Islands AG (really) going after non-profit CEI for its climate change advocacy

Elizabeth Warren wants the SEC to ban companies from "saying whatever they want about Washington policy debates," a demand inspired by her frustration that financial firms are publicly disagreeing with her on the impact of her desired regulations

California AG Kamala Harris demanding non-profit donor lists, presumably so she can harass and intimidate the ones she does not like

California AG Kamala Harris has raided the home and seized video footage of an independent advocated/journalist  who did secret sting videos of Planned Parenthood, the exact same sort of advocacy journalism pursued legally (without legal harassment) by any number of Leftish groups in California and elsewhere  (I doubt Ms Harris plans to raid the home of PETA activists who trespass on farms to secretly film chicken and pig breeding).

It turns out there are strong speech protections in this country, except when you are a professional, and then there are none.

And of course, I still am fighting against a libel lawsuit meant to force me to remove this product review.

Update, add this one:  Tenured Marquette professor faces termination based on blog post with which University disagrees

When the student replied that he has a right to argue his opinion, Ms. Abbate responded that “you can have whatever opinions you want but I can tell you right now, in this class homophobic comments, racist comments and sexist comments will not be tolerated. If you don’t like that you are more than free to drop this class.” The student reported the exchange to Marquette professor John McAdams, who teaches political science. Mr. McAdams also writes a blog called the Marquette Warrior, which often criticizes the Milwaukee school for failing to act in accordance with its Catholic mission.

Mr. McAdams wrote on his blog that Ms. Abbate was “using a tactic typical among liberals now. Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up.” His blog went viral, and Ms. Abbate received vicious emails. She has since left Marquette.

But now Marquette is going after Mr. McAdams. In December 2014, the school sent him a letter suspending his teaching duties and banning him from campus while it reviewed his “conduct” related to the blog post. “You are to remain off campus during this time, and should you need to come to campus, you are to contact me in writing beforehand to explain the purpose of your visit, to obtain my consent and to make appropriate arrangements for that visit,” Dean Richard Holz wrote.

Lol, the university is going to prove he was wrong to write that universities avoid dialog in favor of saying "shut up" by telling him to  ...  shut up or be fired.

By the way, since nowadays it seems that supporting someone's free speech rights is treated the same as agreeing with that person, I will remind folks that having led a pro gay marriage ballot initiative briefly in Arizona, I am unlikely to agree with someone who thinks it should be banned.  But so what?  I would have absolutely no problem arguing with such a person in a rational way, something that faculty member Ms. Abbate seemed incapable of doing.  While I might disagree with him on any number of issues, Professor McAdams was totally right to call her out.  Besides, is the Left's goal really to take all opinion with which they disagree and drive it underground?  Force folks underground and you never know what will emerge some day.  Things like.... Trump supporters.

It is amazing to me that universities have become the least viable place in the US to raise and discuss controversial issues in the light of day.

 

 

Federal Anti-SLAPP Statute -- Why It Is a Great Idea

Apparently, several lawmakers have proposed a Federal anti-SLAPP lawsuit.  This is a fabulous idea and long overdue.

I will say this is not a theoretical case for me.  I have to walk softly here because I am still in litigation, but I am currently being sued for defamation by a major corporation over a review of their services I posted hear and at Yelp  ( I won't name them but a quick search of my site for my being sued will get you there).   The suit is pretty transparently aimed at suppressing criticism, and only because I have some independent resources have I been able to pay the legal bills so far and stick to my guns.  Right or wrong has little to do with the suit -- I have every expectation of prevailing if this ever goes to trial, especially since the State of California just declared their product illegal in that state over many of the same issues I raised in my review. -- this is about making criticism of the company so expensive and scary that the average person won't attempt it.

Victory Against Speech Suppressing Libel Suits

As someone currently being sued for libel by a deep-pocketed corporation who wants me to take down a product review they don't like, I am happy to see Mother Jones prevail in their libel case brought by Frank VanderSloot, a case pretty transparently brought to suppress speech Mr. VanderSloot didn't like.  The bad news is that Mother Jones ended up with a bunch of legal bills for which they cannot get reimbursed (the exact same situation I am likely to face when I inevitably win my case).

This is exactly why we need better state and Federal anti-SLAPP laws, though I have found from personal experience campaigning for them here in Arizona that it is easy to run up against bipartisan opposition.  I will say that as happy as I am about Mother Jones' victory, there is a teenie tiny bit of schadenfreude seeing them lament the lack of loser-pay rules, something they would oppose in most any other case but their own.

Unintended Consequences, Libertarian Edition: How A Plea for Reduced Regulation Resulted in More Regulation

A few days ago, there was an article in our daily fishwrap that said something I found hard to believe.  It said that the state had initiated a crackdown on unlicensed shipments of wine from out of state at the behest of a letter from the Goldwater Institute.  It even had a picture (at least in the online edition) of Clint Bolick, Goldwater's chief of litigation.

Essentially, most states do not allow or severely restrict direct purchase by consumers of liquor products from out of state.  As usual for such protectionist stupidity, it is claimed to be for the children, but in fact mainly is meant to protect a small, very powerful group of liquor distributors who make a fortune from their state-granted monopoly on liquor wholesaling.  Basically, by some outdated post-prohibition laws, every drop of alcohol in the state must pass through the hands of a couple of companies, who of course extract their toll like Baron's of old with castles on the Rhine.

I simply found it unfathomable that Clint Bolick, a founder of the Institute for Justice (IC) for god sakes, would be pestering the state to more vigorously enforce stupid, outdated, and protectionist licensing laws.  And it turns out I was right.  

Clint Bolick, the Goldwater Institute’s director of litigation, said he sent the state a letter in November 2012 asking it to get rid of a rule that required customers to show up at certain wineries annually in order to get direct shipments to their homes.

Bolick’s letter, which he provided to The Republic and azcentral, said that rule made no sense and would stop Arizonans from joining wine clubs, where wineries send a designated amount of wine to customers each year, sometimes including wines not available to the general public.

“A requirement of annual presence also does not serve any obvious public purpose, given that the purchaser has established age and identity at the time of the order,” he wrote.

Bolick said he met with the director of the department at the time, Alan Everett, who told him the department would start a regulatory review.

So it turns out that Goldwater was trying to ease regulation and make it easier for consumers to have some choice and access to more suppliers.  All good.

But it turns out "regulatory review" means something different to a state regulator.  I suppose it was too much to think that they might have a review to see if their regulations went too far.  In fact, the "regulatory review" seems to have focused on how they could tighten regulations even further.  The result was not the one Goldwater hoped for ... instead of making things easier on consumers, the state went all-in trying to make things even worse for consumers.

Hill said Bolick's 2012 letter made the department question whether the wineries sending club shipments into Arizona were all licensed.

“It was the basis for us starting to ask questions about who is shipping liquor into the state of Arizona that does not hold an Arizona liquor license,” Hill said....

So far, the department has investigated 223 violations at a total of 199 wineries, according to records obtained through the Liquor Department’s website.

Additionally, somewhere between 250 and 300 wineries were found to have not filed their production reports. Once the department receives those, it could cause some or all of those to be found in violation. Some of those wineries, in order to comply with state liquor laws and have their cases closed, might also agree to not ship wine to Arizona.

Customers frustrated that they cannot get their wine shipped anymore are funding a renewed effort to change the state’s shipping laws. Two California-based groups, The Wine Institute and Free The Grapes, said they are work

It is clear that Goldwater, representing consumers, has very little influence on the state agency.  So who does?  Well, you have probably guessed:

Hill said last Thursday the crackdown came at the request of a member of the Arizona wine industry, saying it was an example of government and industry working together.

Ugh, what a happy thought -- government and industry working together to protect incumbents from competition and restrict consumer choice.