Posts tagged ‘review’

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.

Wherein I Try to Be Fair to Yelp

I need to try to be fair to Yelp.  A reader sends me some second-hand comments from an ex-employee at Yelp:

He absolutely believes that there is no way for Yelp to hide or promote reviews just based on who the company is. This doesn't mean that they're not, of course. What my colleague says, though, is that the overriding criterion that they use to determine if a review should be "recommended" is if they can verify that the writer is a real person.

There are a couple ways you can do this, but two that will actually cause all of your past reviews to suddenly become recommended:

1) Work for Yelp--not really helpful, I know. I am told that Yelp will instantly fire anyone who leaves reviews while working there. But, once you leave, all of your reviews will always be recommended.

2) Connect your Yelp account to your Facebook, then connect with 100 friends.

There are other ways to have past reviews always come up recommended. If you post a review or several reviews, and, in aggregate, you get four interactions (they are marked as funny, cool, or useful), this will happen.

So I went back and looked.  To see if one's reviews are in the non-recommended purgatory, you have to log out (Yelp will pretend to you that you are recommended until you log out**).  Sure enough, all my 9 reviews seem to be in purgatory.  In other words, any effort I expended on reviews has been wasted, because Yelp does not show them.  I tend to write longer reviews, so apparently writing fewer more detailed reviews is not a practice Yelp wants to promote.  Do they prefer folks who spam lots of short reviews?  I can see how that may be, since more reviews bulk up Yelp's numbers.

I don't know what to make of this feedback.  At one level, it seems right and makes sense.  There are a lot of not recommended reviews where the review has just that one review.  But not always.  For example, for this store, reviewers with no picture, no name (just initials), just 2 total reviews and no friends are recommended, but someone who has a picture, a real name, 1 friend and 31 reviews is not.   I have to say that either their algorithm has some purposely random element (to defeat reverse engineering) or else there are other factors involved than just the ones listed above.  Also, some of the advice above simply has to be wrong.  For example, the last sentence makes no sense since it is impossible to upvote or favorite reviews in not-recommended purgatory (they don't even give you the buttons to do so).

I will post some more reviews over time to see if I get pulled out of spam status by their computer, or if I am permanently exiled based on a corporate complaint.

** By the way, this could be the subject of a gripe in and of itself.  It should not be so opaque that one's posts are all getting sent to the Yelp spam folder.  It is kind of insulting to invest this effort and then find out later Yelp is trashing everything I write.

Yelp Doesn't Delete Negative Reviews Its Sponsors Don't Like -- It Merely Hides Them So They Won't Ever Be Viewed

Update:  This post may be unfair, as discussed here.  I am not fully convinced, though.

I won't repeat what I wrote before, but several months ago I wrote a long article about my suspicions that Yelp was using its review recommendation system to disappear reviews its corporate sponsors and their attorneys did not like.   My evidence was based on my actual experience writing a detailed, fact-based negative review of an insurer, only to have it disappear from the site and be left out of the insurer's overall score.

It took me a long time to find the review, along with dozens of others, in a purgatory of "not recommended" reviews reachable from a near invisible link that doesn't even look like a link.  I won't retype the whole post but my evidence was in part:

  • Yelp says it is sending reviews to not-recommended purgatory because they are of lower quality or have reviewers with less reviewing history on Yelp.  But a scan of the reviews in my case showed no such pattern.  Not-recommended reviews were at least as (and arguably more) detailed than recommended reviews, and there was no discernible difference in reviewer experience.  The not recommended reviews were also no less moderate, as there was immoderate language (and horrible grammar) in accepted reviews while there were calm and reasoned reviews that were rejected.
  • What the not-recommended reviews had in common was that they tended to be more negative on average than the recommended ones (which is hard to do because the recommended reviews average to about 1.5 stars)
  • Looking at several local independent restaurants, I saw no or few not-recommended reviews and pages and pages of recommended reviews, a ratio that was reversed for the major insurer which presumably has far more resources to intimidate or buy off Yelp.  For the insurer, there were two not-recommended reviews for every one recommended one.
  • I knew this insurer to be willing to litigate against bad reviews, since they have sued me for libel to remove my review.  Presumably, they would not hesitate to threaten Yelp as well.
  • Yelp already has a review quality system driven by upvoting by customers based on the usefulness of the review.  So why the need for an entirely parallel review-rating system unless that rating system was for an entirely different purpose than quality control.

Yelp got a lot of grief a while back accusing it of deleting reviews, so its CEO has pledged on multiple occasions that it doesn't do so.  I believe them.  Instead, it looks like Yelp disappears reviews in a way that the CEO can truthfully say they were not deleted, but they are for all intents and purposes invisible to the public.

Anyway, all this was spurred by the following trailer sent to me with this article from a reader.  Apparently a film called Billion Dollar Bully is being made about Yelp, and from the hints in the trailer it appears that they will be taking on many of the issues I listed above and frankly have only been able to guess at rather than prove.  Brava!

The London Taxi War

Apparently the London taxi war continues to heat up, with London's mayor apparently siding with the traditional black cabs against Uber and minicabs.  I hope Uber can stay legal long enough for me to visit later this year.  I have really come to appreciate Uber's service when I travel.

The taxi war in London hit me in an odd way the other day.   I was trying to pick out a hotel in London that would not require me to mortgage the house to afford, and was reading reviews on TripAdvisor.   Sprinkled in 4 and 5 star (circle?) reviews on Tripadvisor for hotels that have very good reputations were a bunch of one star reviews.  Many of these said roughly the same thing -- that this was a terrible hotel because a minicab picked them up, or they saw minicabs there, or the hotel called a minicab for someone (minicab meaning "uber" apparently).

Given the passion in the traveling public for Uber, and the fact that it is hard to accidentally get an Uber to pick you up, my hypothesis is that traditional black cab drivers are going into the hotel review sites and giving one star ratings to ones that use (or who have customers who use) Uber.  This seems like a pretty typical labor-dispute-style tactic, but maybe I am missing something?

The Clinton Foundation Appears to Be A Terrible Charity

From the Federalist

Between 2009 and 2012, the Clinton Foundation raised over $500 million dollars according to a review of IRS documents by The Federalist (2012,2011, 2010, 2009, 2008). A measly 15 percent of that, or $75 million, went towards programmatic grants. More than $25 million went to fund travel expenses. Nearly $110 million went toward employee salaries and benefits. And a whopping $290 million during that period — nearly 60 percent of all money raised — was classified merely as “other expenses.”

Now it may be that the "other"expenses are directly benefiting someone but the numbers here are not encouraging.  There are a number of sham charities out there whose income goes mostly to supporting  the lifestyle of their directors and employees so that they can make good money but simultaneously be self-righteous.   I do not know that this is the case here but I think you can be pretty sure the reason they get most of their donations is to curry favor with the Clintons rather than because the organization is particularly efficient or adept at deploying charitable resources.

Yelp's Way of Caving to Corporate Pressure and Hiding Reviews While Saying They Didn't Delete Anything

Update:  This post may be unfair, as discussed here.  I am not fully convinced, though.

A few days ago I posted a negative review of Applied Underwriters, and linked to this post on my blog for much more detail.  Yelp promptly pulled the review, saying I violated their terms of service by linking to a commercial web site.  I thought that bizarre, since my blog has absolutely nothing commercial about it.   But it made more sense when I received a letter from Applied Underwriters demanding that I take down my negative Yelp review or they would sue me for libel.  I don't know for sure what happened, but I suspect that Applied Underwriters sent Yelp a similar demand and they used the link in the review as an excuse to delete it and avoid legal entanglements.

So I posted an updated review with more detail and no link.  Now, Yelp is hiding the review, along with most of the other negative reviews, behind a nearly invisible link at the bottom that says "other reviews that are not currently recommended".  Scroll down to the bottom of this page and you may see it if you have a keen eye.  It is not even clear it is a link, but if you click on it, you get all the bad reviews Yelp is hiding.

Let's dismiss all the reasons why Yelp might say they do this.  One is clarity, to reduce clutter.  But go to your favorite restaurant Yelp page.  Likely you will not see this link / hidden review phenomenon.  You will see pages and pages of reviews, far more than they would have to show if they just displayed all the reviews for Applied Underwriters.

So there must be another reason.  They say in their note there is a quality algorithm.  Anyone who has read a lot of Yelp reviews will know that if this is so, their quality algorithm is not working very hard.   They have a number of reviews that they "recommend" that are nothing more than a rant like "I will never use these guys again" while my unrecommended review includes paragraphs of detail about the service.  They say it is based on your review volume as well, but I have more Yelp review volume than several of the others who seem to pass the screen.

All of which leads me to believe that this is Yelp's purgatory where they hide reviews based on corporate pressure.  They have gotten a lot of cr*p publicly about deleting bad reviews from sponsors and from corporations that pressure them to do so.   They have a zillion self-righteous FAQ's asserting that they don't delete anything.   So imagine Applied Underwriters sends Yelp loads of threats to take down each negative review that comes up.  What do they do?  They put them in the not-recommended purgatory.  They can claim that they haven't deleted anything, but absolutely no one will ever likely see the review.  And they don't count any longer to the company's review count, so for all intents and purposes they are gone.

All of this is a guess, because it is absolutely impossible to contact Yelp about these issues.  No phone numbers.  The ones in general directories for San Francisco don't work for them.  You can't email or chat or contact their customer support in any way.  For a company in the transparency business, they avoid it like the plague.

But do you want to know what makes me doubly sure of my analysis?  Because there is no way to up-rate any of the "not recommended" reviews.  I would have thought the whole up-rating system was how they sorted reviews to present the most relevent at the top, but you can't do that with the ones they have put in purgatory.  Why?  Because these reviews are being put in purgatory not for some customer benefit but to protect corporations able to put pressure on Yelp.  Yelp doesn't want them uprated.  They are supposed to disappear.    If I had time, I would compare the number of "not recommended" reviews for corporations with powerful legal staffs like Applied Underwriters to the number for Joe's local business  (AU has 17 recommended reviews but a 28 full reviews that have been "disappeared" as unrecommended).

Applied Underwriters Is Threatening Me With Lawsuits If I Don't Remove Negative Reviews About Them

About a week or so ago I wrote a long and detailed post (with frequent updates as I discovered new information) about my extreme dissatisfaction with my workers compensation insurance from Applied Underwriters, a Warren Buffet-owned insurance company.  I also wrote a shorter, parallel review on Yelp** (where Applied Underwriters already has an abysmal rating).  For reasons I will guess at in the next post, Yelp keeps marking my post as "not recommended" despite the fact that it is one of the few that is not just a rant of the sort "this company sux" but actually has real details.  There is a tiny almost invisible link at the bottom to see other reviews not recommended.

Yesterday, I received a letter from Applied Underwriters (Letter here (pdf)) demanding that I take down the Yelp review and my blog post or else they will sue me for libel.  Based on my understanding of libel law, the content of my posts (which are all legally protected opinion), and recent court cases, Applied Underwriters has essentially no chance of ever winning such a suit.  But my guess is that this is not their intention.  I presume they are hoping that the fear of legal action, and the expense of legal defense, will cause me to stop my perfectly valid public criticism of their product.

I am seeking legal advice from a well-known First Amendment attorney, so Applied Underwriters will get my final response after I have had advice of counsel.  But here are a few thoughts:

You can read the attorney's letter in full if you are a fan of such things, but if you read sites like Popehat much, you can pretty much predict what you will see.

The gist of their complaint, from the only paragraph of mine quoted in the letter, seems to be the word "scam".  By the text of their letter, they seem to believe that "scam" is libelous because their company is well-rated financially and that they provide reasonable claims service.  I concede both these facts.  However, I called it a "scam" because there is a big undisclosed cost to their product that was never mentioned in the sales process, and that could only be recognized by its omission in the contract I signed -- that there is nothing in the contract committing them to any time-frame under which to return deposits and excess premiums I have paid, which may well amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.  This fact about the contract is confirmed by their customer service staff, who have said further that the typical time-frame to return such over-collections and deposits is 3-7 years after the contract ends, or at least 6-10 years after the first of the deposits was made.

If I had gotten any descriptions of their service terms wrong, I would have been happy to correct them.  Hell, given that apparently Applied Underwriters will hold over $200,000 of my money for as many as ten years before they maybe return it to me, I am hoping I somehow have misunderstood.  Unfortunately, their staff is pretty adamant that I understand these terms perfectly, and you will see that the letter sent by the attorneys does not attempt to refute any of the specific issues that drive my negative review.  And of course none of this was ever disclosed in the sales process.  The company attorneys point to the fact that I read the agreement and signed that I understood, but in fact this issue is only in the agreement by its omission.  In its 10 pages of arcane boilerplate, the agreement never includes any clause giving them any legal obligation to return your deposits and excess premiums in an defined timeframe.  It is that omission that I missed.   Would you have caught it?  Is this a substantial enough issue that you would expect disclosure in the sales process?

So is this a "scam"?  I believe that this issue is costly enough, and hard enough to detect, and far enough outside of expected business practices to be called such.  You may have your own opinion, but ask yourself -- When you enter into, say, a lease and have to put down a security deposit, is it your reasonable expectation that the landlord has the right in your lease to keep your deposit for 3-7 years (or more) after you move out?  Oh, and by the way, how might your evaluation of something as a "scam" be affected by the knowledge that the company is threatening to sue anyone who writes a negative review?

Anyway, I take responsibility for my own failure as a consumer here.  But in a free society it is perfectly reasonable to communicate issues one has with a product or service to help others avoid similar mistakes.  Which is what I have done.

 

**  I have problems with Yelp as well.  What is linked is not my original review.  My original review linked to my blog post.  Yelp took it down.  I will tell that saga in a future post.

Brava, Deirdre McCloskey, For Avoiding The Primary Rhetorical Failing of Our Times

Deirdre McCloskey wrote a truly massive review, and in some senses a rebuttal, of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century

I am not really going to comment on the details of her paper -- many prominent economists have already done so.  I will say that I learned a lot from it not just about Piketty's proposition but about economic history in general.  It is an interesting read.

No, what I wanted to comment on -- in this era when rebuttals usually take the form of impugning the other person's funding, integrity, honesty, and motivations rather than their actual arguments -- is that she begins her article with this:

It has been a long time (how does “never” work for you?) since a technical treatise on economics has had such a market. An economist can only applaud. And an economic historian can only wax ecstatic. Piketty’s great splash will undoubtedly bring many young economically interested scholars to devote their lives to the study of the past.....

It is an honest and massively researched book. Nothing I shall say—and I shall say some hard things, because they are true and important—is meant to impugn Piketty’s integrity or his scientific effort. The book is the fruit of a big collaborative effort of the Paris School of Economics, which he founded, associated with some of the brightest lights in the techno-left of French economics. Hélas, I will show that Piketty is gravely mistaken in his science and in his social ethics. But so are many economists and calculators, some of them my dearest friends.

Techniques to Aid Authoritarians: The Supposed Statute of Limitations on Outrage

In the Fast and Furious and IRS scandals, the Administration has purposefully dragged its feet on disclosures.  The strategy is to let as much time pass so that when bad revelations eventually come out, the heat from the original scandal is gone.  Defenders of the Administration will then argue the revelations are "old news", as if there is some statute of limitations on outrage.  This strategy has driven Republicans crazy.

So what do Conservatives do when the torture report comes out after months and months of foot-dragging trying to prevent its release? You got it, they scream "old news".  Scott Johnson:

I confess that I do not understand the rationale supporting the publication of the Democrats’ Senate Select Committee study of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. On its face, it seems like ancient history (of a highly tendentious kind) in the service of a personal grudge. It is not clear to me what is new and it is not clear that what is new is reliable, given the absurd limitations of the committee’s investigation.

By the way, I want to make one observation on this line from attorney John Hinderaker:

Similarly, the report confirms that the Agency’s enhanced interrogation techniques were used on only a small number of captured terrorists, 39 altogether. These enhanced techniques include the “belly slap” and the dreaded “attention grasp.”

Most important, it appears that waterboarding really was the most extreme sanction to which any of the terrorists were subjected (and only three of them, at that). Given all the hoopla about CIA “torture,” one might have expected to learn that far worse happened at the Agency’s dark sites. But, as far as the report discloses, the Agency stuck almost exclusively to its approved list of tactics, all of which the Department of Justice specifically found not to be torture.

Were some of the captured terrorists treated roughly? Absolutely. Their lives must have been miserable, and deservedly so. Some of the 39 were placed in stress positions for considerable lengths of time, doused with water, fed poor diets, left naked in cells. In one instance, a terrorist was threatened with a power drill. In another case, an interrogator told a terrorist that his children may be killed. There were two instances of mock execution.

A few observations:

  • The fact that they were "terrorists" seems to justify the mistreatment for him.  But how do we know they were terrorists?  Because the Administration said so.  There was no due process, no right of appeal, no ability to face witnesses, no third party review, none of that.  A branch of the Administration grabbed the guy, said you are a terrorist, and started torturing them.  I am not saying that they did this without evidence, but I am sure Mr. Hinderaker know from his own experience that every prosecutor thinks every person he or she tries is guilty.  That is why both sides get to participate in the process.
  • "Terrorist" is an awfully generic word to give us automatic license to torture people.  My sense is that there are all kinds of shades of behavior lumped under that word.  Conservatives like Mr. Hinderaker object, rightly, to a wide range of sexually aggressive actions from unwanted kissing to forced penetration being lumped under the word "rape".  But my sense is we do the same thing with "terrorists".
  • In my mind the casualness with which he can accept these kinds of treatments for people he does not like is morally debilitating.  It is a small step from accepting it for one to accepting it for many.  It is like the old joke of a debutante asked if she would have sex for a million dollars and saying "yes", then getting asked if she would have sex for $20 and responding "what kind of girl do you think I am?"  We've already established that, we are just haggling over price.
  • For those on the Right who say that all this stuff about due process does not apply because the "terrorists" were not citizens, then welcome to the Left!  Individual rights are innate -- they are not granted by governments (and thus by citizenship).  The Right generally says they believe this.  It is the Left whose positions imply that rights are favors granted by the state to its citizens.

Update on Slippery Cell Phones

In my review of my Droid Turbo, I mentioned in passing that I was frustrated by how slippery a lot of cell phones were.  I was in the Verizon store the other day killing time while they fixed something on my kids' phone, so I tried holding a bunch.

The slipperiest by far were the HTC One M8 and the LG G3.  Both, probably not coincidentally, get high marks for being attractive due to their metal or faux metal backs, but the same backs make them like a wet bar of soap to hold.  You can put a no slip case on them of course, but then if you are going to put them in a case, why buy a phone that is promoted in large part on its looks?

My Droid Turbo is OK, with no slip surface around the edges but a very slick back, at least the nylon back one I have.

The Galaxy S5 is better than average.  Its back gets a lot of grief for being ugly, but it will not slide around in the hand and is comfortable to hold.

Until this week, the no-slip champion for me was the Moto X with the bamboo case (it is real wood veneer, not some plastic fake thing).  It looks good to my eye and it is very grippy in the hand.

But there is a new champion.  I tried the Moto X with the new football leather backing (again, real football leather).  This thing is not going to slide out of your hand (unless maybe if you are Jay Cutler).  The looks are ... different, but I could get used to it.  Phones for me are a convenience item, not a fashion item.  The Moto X's only problems are a small battery and a camera that is a bit weak.  Which is why I bought the Droid Turbo, which is a very similar phone but with a bigger battery.  Just wish they had all the cool Moto Maker options the Moto X has.