Posts tagged ‘running’

Let's Make Employment of Low-Skill Labor Profitable Again

Brink Lindsey of Cato is gathering academic essays on the topic "If you could wave a magic wand and make one or two policy or institutional changes to brighten the U.S. economy’s long-term growth prospects, what would you change and why?"  I am by no means in the distinguished academic company that were invited to contribute, but I thought it was an interesting topic.  Here is my (uninvited) contribution.

The question of skills and the American workforce is typically tackled in only one direction:  that we need more high-skilled workers to meet the challenge of emerging industries and business models that are increasingly driven by technology.  A recent report by the OECD, and as summarized in the New York Times, is a typical example of this concern.  As Eduardo Porter writes in the Times:

To believe an exhaustive new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the skill level of the American labor force is not merely slipping in comparison to that of its peers around the world, it has fallen dangerously behind.

The report is based on assessments of literacy, math skills and problem-solving using information technology that were performed on about 160,000 people age 16 to 65 in 22 advanced nations of the O.E.C.D., plus Russia and Cyprus. Five thousand Americans were assessed. The results are disheartening....

“Unless there is a significant change of direction,” the report notes, “the work force skills of other O.E.C.D. countries will overtake those of the U.S. just at the moment when all O.E.C.D. countries will be facing (and indeed are already facing) major and fast-increasing competitive challenges from emerging economies.”

A lot of head scratching goes on as to why, when the income premium is so high for gaining skills, there are not more people seeking to gain them.  School systems are often blamed, which is fair in part (if I were to be given a second magic wand to wave, it would be to break up the senescent government school monopoly with some kind of school choice system).   But a large portion of the population apparently does not take advantage of the educational opportunities that do exist.  Why is that?

When one says "job skills," people often think of things like programming machine tools or writing Java code.  But for new or unskilled workers -- the very workers we worry are trapped in poverty in our cities -- even basic things we take for granted like showing up on-time reliably and working as a team with others represent skills that have to be learned.  Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, despite his Princeton education, still learned many of his first real-world job skills working at McDonald's.  In fact, back in the 1970's, a survey found that 10% of Fortune 500 CEO's had their first work experience at McDonald's.

Part of what we call "the cycle of poverty" is due not just to a lack of skills, but to a lack of understanding of or appreciation for such skills that can cross generations.   Children of parents with few skills or little education can go on to achieve great things -- that is the American dream after all.  But in most of these cases, kids who are successful have parents who were, if not educated, at least knowledgeable about the importance of education, reliability, and teamwork -- understanding they often gained via what we call unskilled work.   The experience gained from unskilled work is a bridge to future success, both in this generation and the next.

But this road to success breaks down without that initial unskilled job.   Without a first, relatively simple job it is almost impossible to gain more sophisticated and lucrative work.  And kids with parents who have little or no experience working are more likely to inherit their parent's cynicism about the lack of opportunity than they are to get any push to do well in school, to work hard, or to learn to cooperate with others.

Unfortunately, there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities for unskilled workers to find a job.  As I mentioned earlier, economists scratch their heads and wonder why there are not more skilled workers despite high rewards for gaining such skills.  I am not an economist, I am a business school grad.   We don't worry about explaining structural imbalances so much as look for the profitable opportunities they might present.  So a question we business folks might ask instead is:  If there are so many under-employed unskilled workers rattling around in the economy, why aren't entrepreneurs crafting business models to exploit this fact?

A few months back, I was at my Harvard Business School 25th reunion.  Over the weekend, they had dozens of lectures and programs on what is being researched and taught nowadays at the school.  I can't remember a single new business model discussed that relied on unskilled workers.

Is this just the way it is now?  Have the Internet and computers and robotics and complex genomics made unskilled work obsolete?  I don't think so.  I have been running a business for over a decade that employs more than 300 people in unskilled positions.  I will confess that the other day I came home tired from work and told my wife, "Honey, in my next company, I have to find a business that doesn't require employees."  But that despair doesn't come from a lack of opportunities to deliver value to customers with relatively unskilled labor.  And it doesn't come from any inherent issues I might have running a large people-driven service company -- in fact, I will say there has been absolutely nothing in my business life that has been more rewarding than seeing a person who has never had anything but unskilled jobs discover that they can become managers and learn more complex tasks.

The reason for my despair comes from a single source:  the government is making it increasingly difficult and costly to hire unskilled workers, while simultaneously creating a culture among new workers that short-circuits their ability to make progress.

The costs that government taxes and rules add to labor have been discussed many times, but usually individually.  Their impact is clearer when we discuss them as a whole.  Let's take California, because that state is one I know well.  To begin, the minimum wage is $9 (going to $10 an hour in 2016).  To that we have to add taxes and workers compensation premiums, both of which are high because because California does little to police fraud in unemployment and injury claims.  For us, these add another $3.15 an hour.  We also now have to add in the Obamacare employer mandate, which at a minimum of $3000 per full-time employee (accepting the penalty is cheaper than paying for health care) adds another $1.50 an hour.  And the new California paid sick leave mandate adds another 45 cents an hour.  So, looking just at core requirements, we are already up to a minimum of $14.10 an hour, less than 2/3 of which actually shows up in the employee's paycheck.

But these direct costs don't even begin cover the additional fixed costs of hiring employees.  We pay a payroll company thousands of dollars a year to make sure that regulations on taxes and paychecks are followed.  We spend so much time making sure our written plans and documentation on safety meet the requirements of OSHA and its California state equivalent that we barely have the capacity to actually focus on safety.  In California we have to have complex systems in place to make sure our employees don't work through their lunch break, that they have the right sort of chair and that they sit in them frequently enough, that they follow all the right procedures when the temperature outside goes over 85 degrees, that they get paid for sick leave and get their job back after extended medical leave.... the list goes on and on.

In a smaller company, we don't have lawyers and a large human resource staff.  In fact, we tend to have little staff at all.  If some new compliance issue arises -- which happens about every day the California legislature is in session -- the owner (me) has to figure out a solution.  In one year I literally spent more personal time on compliance with a single regulatory issue -- implementing increasingly detailed and draconian procedures so I could prove to the State of California that my employees were not working over their 30 minute lunch breaks -- than I did thinking about expanding the business or getting new contracts.

Towards the end of last year I was making a speech to a group of business school students, and someone asked me what my biggest accomplishment had been over the prior year.  I told them it was probably getting the company down from hundreds of full-time workers to less than 50, converting everyone to part-time.  And it was a huge effort, involving new systems and a number of capital investments to accommodate more staff working fewer hours.  And it had a huge payout, saving us hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in Obamacare penalties and compliance costs.  But come on!  How depressing is it that my biggest business accomplishment was not growing the business or coming up with a new customer service but in cutting the working hours for good employees?  But that is the reality of trying to run a service business today.  The business couldn't be profitable until we'd adjusted our practices to these new regulations, so there was no point in even thinking about growth until we had done so.

Labor-based business models that work at a $7 or $8 total labor cost may well not work at $15, and they certainly are not going to grow very fast if the people responsible for seeking out growth opportunities are instead consumed in a morass of legal compliance issues.  But there is perhaps an even more damaging impact of government interventions, and that is to the culture of work.  I will confess in advance I don't have comprehensive data to prove my hypothesis, but let me tell a couple of stories.

Until 2010, we never had an employee sue us.  We had over 8 years hiring 350 seasonal workers a year, mostly older retired folks, without any sort of legal issues.  Since 2010, we have had eight employee suits threatened or filed, all of which we have won but at a legal cost of $20-$25 thousand each (truly Pyrrhic victories).  So what changed around 2010?  Well, our work force composition changed a lot.  Before that time, we typically hired older retired folks, because the seasonal nature of the job is simply not very appropriate for a younger person trying to support themselves without other means (like retirement or Social Security).   However, after 2009 when a lot of younger folks were losing their traditional jobs, they began applying to our company.  Our work force shifted younger, which actually excited me because I felt it would help us in attracting a younger demographic to the campgrounds we operate.    But all eight of these legal actions were by these new, younger employees.  I asked one person who was suing us over what was a trivial slight, really a misunderstanding, why they did not just call me (my personal number is in their employee handbook) to fix it.  They said that if I had fixed it, they would have lost the opportunity to sue.

I mentioned earlier that we had struggled to comply with California meal break law.   The problem was that my workers needed extra money, and so begged me to be able to work through lunch so they could earn a half-hour more pay each day.  They said they would sign a paper saying they had agreed to this.  Little did I know that this was a strategy devised by a local attorney who understood meal break litigation better than I.  What he knew, but I didn't, was that based on new case law, a company had to get the employee's signature every day, not just once, to avoid the meal break penalties.  The attorney advised them they could get the money for working lunch AND they could sue later for more money (which he would get a cut of).  Which is exactly what they did, waiting until November to sue so they could get some extra money to pay for Christmas bills.  This is why -- believe it or not -- it is now a firing offense at our company to work through lunch in California.

Hopefully you see my concern.   I fear that we have trained a whole generation that the way one gets ahead is not to work hard and gain new skills but to seek out and exploit opportunities to file lawsuits.  That the way to work in an organization is not to learn to manage the inevitable frictions that result from different sorts of people working together but to sue at the first hint that you have been dissed.  As an aside, I think this sort of litigiousness, both of employees and customers, is yet another reason employers are reluctant to hire low-skilled employees.  If as a business owner one is absolutely liable for any knuckle-headed thing your most junior employee might utter, no matter how clear you are in your policies and actions that such behavior is not tolerated, then how likely are you to hire a high-school dropout with no work experience?

Is it any surprise that most entrepreneurs are pursuing business models where they leverage revenues via technology and a relatively small, high-skill workforce?  Uber and Lyft at first seem to buck this trend, with their thousands of drivers.  But in fact they prove the rule.  Uber and Lyft are very very careful to define themselves and their service in a way that all those drivers don't work for them.  I would go so far to say that if Uber were forced to actually put all of those drivers on their payroll, and deal with they myriad of labor compliance issues, their model would fall apart

We cannot address the skill gap unless people have entry level, low-skill-tolerant jobs to take the first steps up the ladder of success.  If the government continues on its current course, it will become impossible to run a business that employs unskilled workers.  The value of the work performed will simply not justify the cost.  We may be concerned about income inequality today, but if we kill off the profitability of employing unskilled workers, then we are going to be left with a true two-class society -- those with high-skill jobs and those on government assistance --and few options for moving from one to the other.

My Contributions to Social Science

It occurred to me that I have reached important insights into human behavior that it would be negligent of me to withhold from the world, so here they are:

The Cheerleader Effect:  The cheerleader effect describes a human perception issue where pictures of any woman in a group are often considered more attractive than a picture of that woman alone (this may apply to men as well, but I have always heard it referred to women).  Apparently women exploit this effect by posting pictures on dating sites that show them in groups of their friends rather than alone.  Anyway, I have developed two corollaries:

  • Polo Shirt Effect:  Polo shirts in a store appear more desirable when grouped with other similar shirts in an array of colors than when presented alone.  This effect is strong enough to trump the paradox of choice, where offering consumers more choices can tend to flummox them and cause them to buy less.  I believe arrays of multi-hued polo shirts presented together increase purchases of these shirts.
  • Christmas Tree Effect:  We almost never buy ornaments for our tree.  95% are individually ugly, but meaningful, constructions by our kids over the years.  The rest are what remain after breakage of some commercial ornaments we bought 20 years ago on deep discount in the after-Christmas sales.  But a tree constructed of these ornaments is beautiful.  So ornaments look far better when massed on a tree than they look individually.

Towards A Theory of Pedestrian Behavior:  One of the things I enjoy is urban running -- ie running through the streets of cities.  When we travel, this is one of my favorite ways to see cities, and it also helps me run further because I do not get bored.  But trying to run through sometimes crowded pedestrian areas can be frustrating, since one is trying to move faster than the crowd and the crowd typically does not expect a runner coming up behind them on the sidewalk.  As a result of many such runs, I have developed two laws of pedestrian behavior:

  1. Groups of pedestrians will expand to fill the width of the space allotted.  If the width changes, groups of pedestrians will respond very quickly and expand their group spacing to fill that width.  While this behavior is almost certainly natural, it is almost impossible to distinguish a group walking naturally from one purposefully trying to block passage by a faster pedestrian.  Corollary:  Groups too small to fill the width of a passage or sidewalk will weave.
  2. Groups of pedestrians, everything else being equal, will choose to pause and congregate at the bottleneck in any sidewalk, thus constricting an already narrow passage.  DisneyWorld is a great location for spotting this behavior.  Corollary:  A disproportionate number of people will choose to stop right at the exit door from an jetway when exiting an aircraft.

 

I Just Don't Understand the Appeal of Short Street Car Lines in Low-Density Towns

More street car craziness.  I love the phrase "modern street car".  Like an up-to-date stagecoach.

Despite mounting construction costs and uncertainty over federal funds, Tempe is still seeking to be the Valley's first city with a modern streetcar system traveling through its downtown.

...

Valley Metro executives Steve Banta and Wulf Grote reviewed the project with the Tempe City Council this month.

The new alignment has lengthened the route from 2.6 miles to 3 miles and increased costs. The cost range is now $175 million to $200 million depending on the type of vehicle technology used.

First, there is no way it comes in for these numbers, but even accepting the mid-point of their estimates this is $62.5 million a mile or $11,837 per foot.  Of course there is also the operating cost, which will certainly lose money since there is no way people are going to pay much for a maximum 3 mile ride.  My prediction is that they will sell the project promising that there will be a fare that helps cover costs but they will drop the fare quickly once implemented  (because no one will ride this thing unless it is free).  And and don't forget the cost of the loss of an entire lane of roadway each way to the trains.

Just consider how much less 4 buses running in a 3-mile circle would cost, and they would only consume a tiny fraction of the existing road capacity, rather than taking up an entire lane just for themselves.  This is just a huge upper-middle class subsidy, a special favor to rich people who think buses are too low class to ride but are OK being seen on a train.  Madness.

My best guess is that these kinds of projects have become prestige projects for government officials.  This is the way they show off to each other and act as a portfolio for them to seek larger jobs in bigger cities.

Thoughts on the Japanese Economy

I would characterize long-term Japanese economic policy this way:

  • Technocratically planned economy where the government chose winners and losers and directed capital to industries favored for development (e.g. MITI with steel, autos, electronics).
  • Strong government favoritism for exports and exporters over the domestic economy -- export industries are heavily protected at the cost of raising costs for internal consumers and limiting competition in domestic markets.
  • Enormous, near Herculean commitment to deficit spending as stimulus.  With deficits consistently running in the 8% of GP range and total government debt a stratospheric levels, Japan is the poster child for Krugman's anti-austerity

To these three I would add something that is seldom mentioned, that Japan has a near Scandinavian GINI index, with income inequality well under that of the US.  Oh yes, and they were an enthusiastic adopter of CO2 limits.

And the result of all this has been... 25 years of stagnation.

I remember when every one of these three planks was enthusiastically lauded by the US elite.  I was at Harvard Business School in the late 1980's and much of the discussion was about the US needing to adopt MITI-like government industrial planning and management.  If pressed at the time, people might kind of sort of acknowledge that life wasn't so good for Japanese consumers, but we were in a Michael Porter big picture competitiveness-of-nations phase, and no one seemed to care that their definition of national success did not turn out so well for the people actually living there.

To me, Japan is a giant case study in Austrian economics.  It's like they set out to run a quarter-century test: "let's see if mispricing of credit and forced misallocation of capital is really the cause of recessions."  So it is amazing that no one seems to want to acknowledge the results of this experiment.  Paul Krugman appears weekly in the New York Times to frequently advocate for exactly this same economic plan.

An Unexpected Roadblock to Some of Our HR Automation

We are trying to use some of the available tools out there to better automate our application and onboarding process for employees.  Though we are not a huge employer (about 350 part-time people) we hire and fire them all every year, so there is a lot of burden for our size on the HR system.

We are running into a frustrating issue.  Most of our employees are older and often have limited computer skills, but we are getting past that.  But we tend to hire couples, and it turns out in the over-50 set that couples often share the same email address.  I can't even imagine having the same email address as my wife and having to filter through all of her business, but there it is.  Unfortunately, in the world of web accounts, must vendors use the email address as the one reliable unique identifier for a person and thus use it for the user name or expect it to be unique.

This is throwing us for a loop.  It is less of a problem in the application system because most of our couples just want to submit a single joint application anyway.  But for onboarding, they  each need their own W-4, I-9, etc.  So they need separate user accounts.

The question then comes down to this for us:  I can require them to get a second email address, but that is likely going to flummox some folks and require my manual intervention to help them.  Do I thus cause more tech support issues for myself than I save from the automation itself?

No point here, just venting on a problem I have not figured out how to fix.  And no fair saying stuff like "gmail is free and easy to sign up for, just make them get another gmail account."  I have managers who do a fabulous job for me that it took me days to teach how to log into and use Gmail.  A better and fairer comment would be "you have 20,000 applicants, make the application process require separate emails and even make it a little technically challenging so you limit your hiring pool to people who are better suited to using modern computer tools."  And yes, that may in fact be our solution.

This is Why Running a Service Business is Hard

This Starbucks story illustrates the hardest part about running a service business

"Pregnant woman denied Starbucks bathroom useage"

Of course, Starbucks did not deny this woman access to the bathroom.  Had the board of directors, CEO, and most of the management been at the store, they would have happily helped the woman use the Starbucks bathroom.  This woman was actually denied access to the bathroom by some knucklehead employee of Starbucks, one of the tens of thousands they hire, who likely thought they were doing the right thing.

I am sure Starbucks has a policy that the bathrooms are for customers only, and honestly in a lot of urban areas that is an essential policy or else one finds themselves spending a lot of money cleaning the bathroom and providing the public facilities that the city or shopping center developer chose not to fund.

However, in a service business, one of the keys to providing good customer service and maintaining a good reputation is, ironically, having your employees know when the rules need to be bent.  This is the number 1 thing in every training session we have in our company -- when the rules have to be enforced (safety, fires, quiet time at night) and when to back off and not act like the campground nazi ruining everyone's visit.

I have thought about why this should be for quite a while.  If rules exist, shouldn't they be enforced for everyone?  And if not, shouldn't they just be eliminated?

First, there simply are exceptions.  This is the same reason that mandatory sentencing guidelines in criminal law and no tolerance rules in schools always run to grief.

Second, even if there are not exceptions, there are people who really, really, really, strongly, aggressively believe that they are indeed an exception.  Call this modern entitlement, but we get this all the time.  Dog owners are a great example.  Every single one of them understands perfectly why everyone else's dogs have to be on leash but no one believes their little darling is a problem.  Dogs are in fact the hardest issue we often have to manage.  Ask someone to put a dog on leash and we get vitriolic complaints sent to our government partners, newspapers, etc.  Let them run around and we get vitriolic complaints sent other visitors who are bothered by dogs sent to our government partners, newspapers, etc.

Finally, the marginal cost of serving one or two exceptions is really low, practically measurable, while the cost of allowing everyone to break the rule is high.  Take the case of bathrooms.  Letting one non-customer use the bathroom costs zero.  But once word gets out that you allow public use of your bathrooms, everyone in a half-mile radius is lined up at the door every day.

 

Sorry for the Downtime

Had some sort of attack running all weekend against one of my more minor web sites.  Hostgator found the attack and changed our security rules, and for now we should be fine.  Sort of violating the security through obscurity rule of thumb since this was a very obscure site they were attacking.

Where's Coyote?

Well it has been a busy 10 days for travel.  Last weekend my wife and I were at Harvard for our 25th anniversary of graduating from the business school there.   The way the b-school taught at the time, they basically locked 90 people together (a "section") in the same room for a year and threw teachers and course material at them.  I may have spent more time in a room with those 90 people than I spent in the same room with my dad growing up.  So you get to know them pretty well.  It was fun seeing everybody, though intimidating given all the folks my age running Fortune 50 companies or cashing out billion dollar startups.

After that, I went to Bozeman early this week and discussed free-market options for reforming the National Park Service at an event hosted by PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center.  On Tuesday we went into Yellowstone and met with the Superintendent there, who had also run the whole agency for about a year.  A lot of the discussion was about sustainability - financially.  The NPS raises less than 10% of its revenue from visitors, and so must constantly fight with Congress for cash.   One problem is that Yellowstone (perhaps their premier park) charges just $25 per vehicle for a one week admission.  This is insane.  We have tiny state parks in Arizona with one millionth of the appeal that fill the park despite a $20 a day entrance fee.  And the NPS (or really Congress) takes every opportunity to discount this already absurdly low rate even further.  You can get into all the parks for the rest of your life for a single $10 payment with the Senior pass.  This essentially gives free entry to their largest visitor demographic.

Today I am in Houston for a sort of climate skeptics' conference.  If you are in the area and the agenda looks interesting, they are still selling admissions (I think) for $75 for the two day event at the Hyatt downtown.   Rick Perry is speaking tonight, and that is supposed to be a draw I guess but I am actually skipping that and focusing on the scientists they have through the day.  Hopefully it is interesting, but I am also a conference skeptic so we will see.

Michael Munger: The "State" As A Unicorn

Michael Munger has one of the most useful articles I have read in a very long time.  As illustrated by the Venn diagram I posted a while back showing the heavy overlap between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, we have much more concurrence in the diagnosis of problems than in the prescriptions for solutions.   Munger gets at the heart of why many people go wrong in these prescriptions

When I am discussing the state with my colleagues at Duke, it's not long before I realize that, for them, almost without exception, the State is a unicorn. I come from the Public Choice tradition, which tends to emphasize consequentialist arguments more than natural rights, and so the distinction is particularly important for me. My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA. 

But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of "the State." That seems literally insane to me—a non sequitur of such monstrous proportions that I had trouble taking it seriously.

Then I realized that they want a kind of unicorn, a State that has the properties, motivations, knowledge, and abilities that they can imagine for it. When I finally realized that we were talking past each other, I felt kind of dumb. Because essentially this very realization—that people who favor expansion of government imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world—has been a core part of the argument made by classical liberals for at least three hundred years....

He follows with this useful test

But they may not immediately see why "the State" that they can imagine is a unicorn. So, to help them, I propose what I (immodestly) call "the Munger test."  

  1. Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of.
  2. Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said "the State" delete that phrase and replace it with "politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist."
  3. If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.

This leads to loads of fun, believe me. When someone says, "The State should be in charge of hundreds of thousands of heavily armed troops, with the authority to use that coercive power," ask them to take out the unicorn ("The State") and replace it with George W. Bush. How do you like it now?

If someone says, "The State should be able to choose subsidies and taxes to change the incentives people face in deciding what energy sources to use," ask them to remove "The State" and replace it with "senators from states that rely on coal, oil, or corn ethanol for income." Still sound like a good idea?

How about, "The State should make rules for regulating sales of high performance electric cars." Now, the switch: "Representatives from Michigan and other states that produce parts for internal combustion engines should be in charge of regulating Tesla Motors."  Gosh, maybe not …

Hat tip:  Don Boudreaux

I spent most of the Bush years asking Conservatives a similar question -- you may be fine when "your guy" has this power, but would you be happy if Al Gore or Nancy Pelosi had it.  And of course I have spent most of the Obama years asking Liberals whether they would be comfortable if George Bush or Rick Perry had similar powers to what Obama has claimed for himself.  Because they will.

I said something similar here, though less elegantly.  I concluded in part:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

Bubble Prices are not Wealth

Conservative sites are running with this story:

OBAMANOMICS IN ACTION: Typical US Household Worth One-Third Less Than Under Bush

Seriously?  The bursting of the housing bubble, which actually began under Bush, is Obama's fault?  Because that is what likely drove middle class household worth down (while the Fed-sponsored asset boom in financial instruments drove up wealth of the top 1%).  I suppose one could say that the Republicans sponsored a bubble that helped the middle class while Obama is sponsoring a bubble that helps the wealthy.

I won't say this stuff is meaningless to the economy, because clearly they affect people's perception of wealth and thus spending and optimism.  But sound long-term economic growth has got to come from stable and rational monetary policy that allows interest rates and financial assets to find their correct level.  Getting political mileage out of bubble pricing of assets only creates incentives for politicians such that they will never stop fiddling with interest rates and credit.

The Lego Movie and Transformers Movies Have Something In Common -- And It's Not Toy Tie-ins

I watched the Lego Movie last night, and I found it had something very much in common with the recent Transformers franchise movies -- and its not the fact that they both began as marketing platforms for toys.

I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to say that the Lego movie has all kinds of frankly absurd, sometimes nonsensical, plot lines and dialog (though it is surprisingly entertaining at times none-the-less).  What you find out when the camera pulls back midway through the movie is that the first part of the movie is actually pouring from a little boy's imagination as he plays with his Lego blocks.  We are watching a kid playing alone in the basement, making up stories with his toys.

The Lego Movie is the perfect way to understand the most recent Transformers movies.  The Transformers movies don't make a lot of sense in terms of plot and dialog.   But they make perfect sense if you think of them as Michael Bay playing with his digital toys.  The Transformers movies are a little boy running around his room with a couple of action figures yelling "pew pew" and "kaboom", perhaps in front of the Megan Fox poster on the wall, with Michael Bay as the little boy.  The $150 million in digital effects and some irrelevant live actors barely change this fact at all.  (By the way, I have great respect for Bay being able to have fun with his toys and make a billion dollars in the process).

Beware of Scam Calls From (816) 420-4632 or (866) 680-8628

I post this not because the odds are high any of you readers have had this issue but I want these numbers to be found on an internet search.

Both numbers were leaving a message saying they were from "Citi" or "Citicard" calling about my account (and that it was not a sales call).  Since I have no Citicorp credit cards or accounts of any type, and since they were calling a Google Voice number that I would never have put on an account (in fact don't even really use), I was totally suspicious.  When I called them they asked for my account number.  I said I did not have one but was calling to see what kind of scam they were running.  They said they were from Citicard and don't do scams, but could I give them my phone number.  I said I had to look it up, because they were calling a Google voice number I never use.  The moment I said that, they hung up on me, the universal indicator of a scamster giving up.

Update:  There is a legitimate Citi group with the same name.  It sounds to me that these folks at the numbers above are recording the legitimate Citi greeting replaying it on their lines.  But then their physical operator answers the phone completely differently than does the legitimate Citi operator.  The Citi group being spoofed is this one.

The Corporate State Is Winning

Successful businesses often seek to cement their position and block new competition by running to government for legislation that blocks new entrants and/or makes it harder to compete for smaller upstarts.  One only need to look at the taxi cartel trying to kill Uber and Lyft to see exactly how this operates.  It is working:

small-biz5-14

 

This is a strategy that works with both Republican and Democrat politicians, which may explain why both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party shared opposition to cronyism among their complaints.

Of course there are other factors than just powerful incumbents blocking new competitors.  In California, regulations that make it just debilitating to try to run a business are also driven by the tort bar, which has created a thriving business in extracting settlements from companies over miniscule rules violations.  And the California government obliges by shifting the rules constantly, so companies are both constantly vulnerable and have to pay other attorneys to strengthen their immune systems against these assaults.

Problem Endemic To Public Parks Management

Glenn Reynolds is writing about colleges, but he could just as easily be writing about public parks:

Full-time administrators now outnumber full-time faculty. And when times get tough, schools have a disturbing tendency to shrink faculty numbers while keeping administrators on the payroll. Teaching gets done by low-paid, nontenured adjuncts, but nobody ever heard of an "adjunct administrator."

Replace "faculty" with "people actually working in a park" and administrators with "headquarters staff" and he has described the management of public parks exactly.  Most parks agencies are suffering from administrative bloat, with more people in headquarters than out in the field actually running parks.  When they have layoffs, it is always of field staff and not headquarters administrators.   In the parks world they will even ignore major maintenance needs in favor of making sure they have the funds to keep paying headquarters staff.

It is just absurd.  Of course, in my case, we make a business out of this.  We run public parks, and have 300 field employees actually in the parks and 2 in headquarters.  It allows us to cut costs while simultaneously doing a better job.

A Slightly Different Take on High Frequency Trading (HFT)

My guess is that HFT will soon become one of those bogeyman words that people automatically associate with "bad stuff" without ever actually understanding what it means.  But it is worth understanding the underlying problem, and that problem is not high speed or frequency per se.

As I understand it, when an order to buy, say, 10,000 shares of Exxon gets placed, the purchase will get pieced together by searching across multiple servers where offers are listed and putting together the 10,000 shares in bits and pieces from these various servers.  What HFT's are doing (and I am sure this is grossly oversimplified) is that once it sees this order pinging  a server, it runs ahead at high speed to other servers and buys up blocks of Exxon at price A and then offers it up to the pokey buying search when it finally arrives at those servers at A+a bit more.  That "a bit more" may be less than a penny, but the pennies add up and if done right, there is almost no trading risk.

This is bad, though generally not for us small investors but for our mutual fund companies.  For my little trade of 100 shares that might be cleared on the first server, HFT's have no opportunity to play.  Moreover, I may not even notice a penny or two difference in the price I get.  This is a much bigger deal for mutual fund companies and large investors clearing larger trades, where a few pennies can add up to a lot of money.

An exchange always has to be really careful to maintain its image of fairness, and systematically allowing such behavior, called front-running, is not good for the health of the market.   Which is why you are hearing a lot about this.

Here is what you are not hearing, and I will admit that it is all a hypothesis of mine.  But it may well be possible that HFT's actually reduce the total cost of front-running to investors.  It may be that HFT's real crime is that what they are doing is more transparent and visible than what market makers were doing in the past -- ie they are not increasing the volume of front-running, they are just making it more obvious.   I would not be at all surprised if such front-running always existed in market-making (certainly Goldman Sachs has been accused of it) and that HFT's are actually the Wal-Mart or Amazon of front-running -- not doing anything new but doing it cheaper on tighter margins.   Kind of ironically, I suppose this is what efficient markets theory would predict for the market in front-running.

If this is the case, while we would rather see front-running eliminated entirely, HFT's may actually be reducing the cost of front-running and making things more rather than less efficient.

Ideological Turing Tests, Climate, and Minimum Wage

Yesterday I was interviewed for a student radio show, I believe from the USC Annenberg school.  I have no quarrel with the staff I worked with, they were all friendly and intelligent.

What depressed me though, as I went through my usual bullet points describing the "lukewarmer" position that is increasingly common among skeptics, was that most of what I said seemed to be new to the interviewer.   It was amazing to see that someone presumably well-exposed to the climate debate would actually not have any real idea what one of the two positions really entailed (see here and here for what I outlined).  This gets me back to the notion I wrote about a while ago about people relying on their allies to tell them everything they need to know about their opponent's position, without ever actually listening to the opponents.

This topic comes up in the blogosphere from time to time, often framed as being able to pass an ideological Touring test.  Can, say, a Republican write a defense of the minimum wage that a reader of the Daily Kos would accept, or will it just come out sounding like a straw man?  I feel like I could do it pretty well, despite being a libertarian opposed to the minimum wage.  For example:

There is a substantial power imbalance between minimum wage workers and employers, such that employers are able to pay such workers far less than their labor is worth, and far less than they would be willing to pay if they had to.  The minimum wage corrects this power imbalance and prevents employers from unfairly exploiting this power imbalance.  It forces employers to pay employees something closer to a living wage, though at $7.25 an hour the minimum wage is still too low to be humane and needs to be raised.  When companies pay below a living wage, they not only exploit workers but taxpayers as well, since they are accepting a form of corporate welfare when taxpayers (through food stamps and Medicare and the like) help sustain their underpaid workers.

Opponents of the minimum wage will sometimes argue that higher minimum wages reduce employment.  However, since in most cases employers of low-skilled workers are paying workers less than they are willing and able to pay, raising the minimum wage has little effect on employment.  Studies of the fast food industry by Card and Walker demonstrated that raising the minimum wage had little effect on employment levels.  And any loss of employment from higher minimum wages would be more than offset by the Keynesian stimulative effect to the economy as a whole of increasing wages among lower income workers, who tend to consume nearly 100% of incremental income.

Despite the fact that I disagree with this position, I feel I understand it pretty well -- far better, I would say, than most global warming alarmists or even media members bother to try to understand the skeptic position.  (I must say that looking back over my argument, it strikes me as more cogent and persuasive than most of the stuff on Daily Kos, so to pass a true Turing test I might have to make it a bit more incoherent).

Back in my consulting days at McKinsey & Company, we had this tradition (in hindsight I would call it almost an affectation) of giving interviewees business cases** to discuss and solve in our job interviews.  If I were running a news outlet, I would require interviewees to take an ideological Touring test - take an issue and give me the argument for each side in the way that each side would present it.

This, by the way, is probably why Paul Krugman is my least favorite person in journalism.  He knows very well that his opponents have a fairly thoughtful and (to them) well intention-ed argument but pretends to his readers that no such position exists.  Which is ironic because in some sense Krugman started the dialog on ideological Turing tests, arguing that liberals can do it easily for conservative positions but conservatives fail at it for liberal positions.

 

** Want an example?  Many of these cases were just strategic choices in some of our consulting work.  But some were more generic, meant to test how one might break down and attack a problem.  One I used from time to time was, "what is the size of the window glass market in Mexico?"  Most applicants were ready for this kind of BS, but I do treasure the look on a few faces of students who had not been warned about such questions.  The point of course was to think it through out loud, ie "well there are different sectors, like buildings and autos.  Each would have both a new and replacement market. Within buildings there is residential and commercial.  Taking one of these, the new residential market would be driven by new home construction times some factor representing windows per house.  One might need to understand if Mexican houses used pre-manufactured windows or constructed them from components on the building site."  etc. etc.

The World's Most Famous Investor Is Now Investing in...

...government access.  Clearly Warren Buffet saw the writing on the wall in 2009, that the way to make money in the US was no longer to build products and factories but to invest in lobbying to get crony advantages and giveaways.

click to enlarge

This Administration and Senate makes all kinds of progressive noises, but all the while they are running perhaps the greatest expansion of cronyism in US history.  And the smart money knows it.

 

Two Business Realities I Underestimated in My Youth

1.  Its all about having the right people.  When I was in b-school, I honestly laughed at statements like this.  I thought it was new age bullsh*t.  I was totally enamored of quantitative analysis and business strategy.  After running a business for 10 years, I now know that people are everything.  Everything - our ability to grow, to handle difficult compliance issues, to work safely, to reduce costs - relies entirely on my finding the right people in the right spots.  Everything else is a rounding error.

2.  There is only a very limited number of things you can deploy to the field at any one time.  It took me a really long time to realize that my mind - in fact, any manager's mind - likely works way faster than the bandwidth that exists to actually deploy new things to the field.  Putting customer initiative X on hold because compliance issue Y needs to be deployed first is really frustrating, but trying to do too much means nothing gets done.

I would observe relative to #2 above that over the last few years the combination of the Feds + legislatures like in CA are generating new compliance issues faster than we can deploy solutions and train for them.   In California, we have put most all new customer initiatives on hold because we are simply overwhelmed with management and employee training relative to various local government mandates.

It is Time to End Favored Tax Treatment of Capital Gains

My new column is up at Forbes.com, and asks why we fetishize capital gains over regular income

Let's consider two investors.  Investor A buys a piece of land and builds a campground on it, intending to run the campground for decades.  Investor A gets her return on investment from the profits each year running the campground, profits that are taxed as regular income  (Full disclosure:  In my business life, I am essentially investor A).

On the other hand, Investor B buys the same piece of land and builds the same campground on it, but in about a year Investor B sells the newly developed facility, making a profit on the sale over his original investment.  Investor B likely will pay taxes on this gain at reduced capital gains tax rates.

But why?  When Investor B sold the property, the price he got was probably something like the present value of the expected cash flows from operating the campground.   Both Investor A and B created essentially the same value., but Investor B took the value as a single lump sum rather than as a stream of income over time.  Why is Investor B's approach preferred in the tax code?  Or, stated another way, why does the tax code favor asset flipping over long-term operations?

Administrative Bloat

Benjamin Ginsberg is discussing administrative bloat in academia:

Carlson confirms this sad tale by reporting that increases in administrative staffing drove a 28 percent expansion of the higher education work force from 2000 to 2012.  This period, of course, includes several years of severe recession when colleges saw their revenues decline and many found themselves forced to make hard choices about spending.  The character of these choices is evident from the data reported by Carlson.  Colleges reined in spending on instruction and faculty salaries, hired more part-time adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors and, yet, found the money to employ more and more administrators and staffers.

Administrative bloat is a problem in every organization.  It would be nice to think that organizations can stay right-sized at all times, but the reality is that they bloat in good times, and have to have layoffs to trim the fat in bad times.

The difference between high and low-performing organizations, though, is often where they make their cuts.  It appears from this example that academia is protecting its administration staff at the expense of its front-line value delivery staff (ie the faculty).  This is a hallmark of failing organizations, and we find a lot of this behavior in public agencies.  For example, several years ago when Arizona State Parks had to have  a big layoff, they barely touched their enormous headquarters staff and laid off mostly field customer service and maintenance staff. (At the time, Arizona State Parks and my company, both of whom run public parks, served about the same number of visitors.  ASP had over 100 HQ staff, I had 1.5).

This tendency to protect administrative staff over value-delivery staff is not unique to public institutions - General Motors did the same thing for years in the 70's and 80's.  But it is more prevalent in the public realm because of lack of competition.  In the private world, companies that engage in such behaviors are eventually swept away (except if you are GM and get bailed out at every turn).  Public agencies persist on and on and on and never go away, no matter how much they screw up.  When was the last time you ever heard of even the smallest public agency getting shut down?

I would love to see more on the psychology of this tendency to protect administrative over line staff.   My presumption has always been that 1) those in charge of the layoffs know the administrative staff personally, and so it is harder to lay them off and 2) Administrative staff tend to offload work from the executives, so they have more immediate value to the executives running the layoffs.

Challenging the Governments Arbitrary Closure of Privately-Funded Parks During the Shutdown

I have not updated this story in a while, but we continue to litigate against the Federal Government over the closure of privately-operated and privately-funded parks on public lands.  The closure is over, obviously, but it is a situation that is very likely to recur and we are attempting to fight this battle now to set a precedent.   The Wall Street Journal's law blog is running an update on the story here.

You can find all my posts from the shutdown here.

Special Discount for Our Readers to the Nutcracker by Ballet Arizona

I may have mentioned in the past that my wife is on the Board of Ballet Arizona.  Phoenix has a reputation as a cultural wasteland, but our Ballet is certainly an exception to this.  Our artistic director Ib Andersen is fabulous, garnering top reviews even from the fussy New York press.  We have several young dancers, including one young lady who recently defected from Cuba, who are astonishing and whom you should frankly come see now before they are lured away to the bright lights of New York or Washington.

Anyway, they have a promotion running for the Nutcracker this holiday season and have allowed me to offer this same promotion to our readers, with discounts up to 50% on tickets.  See this pdf for details: Link Fixed to Ballet Arizona Offer.

@kdrum Missing the Point. Doctors May Control the Cartel, but Government Gives it Power.

The other day, Kevin Drum wrote a post wondering why we had so few doctors per capital in the United States and observing, reasonably, that this might be one reason to explain why physician compensation rates were higher here than in other countries.

He and Matt Yglesisus argued that this smaller number of doctors and higher compensation rates were due to a physician-operated cartel.  This is a proposition I and most libertarians would agree with.  In fact I, and many others apparently, wrote to him saying yes there is a cartel, but ironically it owed its existence to government interventionism in the economy and health care.  In a true free market, such a cartel would only have value so long as it added value to consumers.

Drum seems to have missed the point.  In this post, he reacts to themany commenters who said that government power was at the heart of the cartel by saying no, it's not the government because doctors control the nuts and bolts decisions of the cartel.  Look!  Doctors are in all the key positions in the key organizations that control the cartel!

Well, no sh*t.  Of course they are.   Just as lawyers occupy all the key slots in the ABA.  But neither the ABA nor these doctors cartels would have nearly the power that they have if it were not for government laws that give them that power (e.g. giving the ABA and AMA monopoly power over licensing and school credentialing).  I had never heard of the RUC before, which apparently controls internship slots, but its ability to exercise this control seems pretty tied to the billions in government money of which it controls the distribution.

Let's get out of medicine for a second.  I am sure Best Buy wishes it had some mechanism to control new entrants into its business.  Theoretically (and it may have even done this) it could form the Association of Bricks and Mortar Electronics Retailers (ABMER).  It could even stake a position that it did not think consumers should shop at upstarts who are not ABMER members.  Take that Amazon!  Of course, without any particular value proposition to do so, consumers are likely to ignore the ABMER and go buy at Amazon.com anyway.

Such cartel schemes are tried all the time, and generally fail (the one exception I wonder about is the Visa/Mastercard consortium, but that is for another post).  Anyway, the only way the ABMER would really work is if some sort of government licensing law were passed that required anyone selling consumer electronics to be ABMER members.  And my guess is that the ABMER might not invite Amazon.com to join.  All of a sudden, Amazon is out of the electronics business.  Or maybe it just gets forced to deliver all its product through Best Buy stores, for a fee of course.

Crazy stupid, huh?  The government would never write licensing laws to protect a small group of incumbent retailers, right?  Well, tell that to Elon Musk.  Tesla has been trying for years to bring its cars to consumers in innovative ways, but have time and again run up against state auto dealership laws that effectively force all cars to be sold through the state dealer cartel.  Or you can talk to California wine growers, who have tried for years to sell directly to consumers in other states but get forced into selling through the state liquor wholesaler cartels.

All these cartels are controlled and manned by the industry, but they are enforced -- they are given their teeth -- by the government.

Here are a few off-the-top-of-my-head examples of cartel actions in the medical field admittedly initiated and supported and administered by doctors, that are enforced by state and federal law:

  • Certificate of need laws prevent hospitals from expanding or adding new equipment without government permission.  The boards in this process are usually stacked with the most powerful local hospitals, who use the law to prevent competition and keep prices high.  This is a great example where Drum could say that the decisions are essentially being made by hospitals.  Yes they are, but they only have the power to do so because the government that grants them this licensing power over competitive capacity.  Without this government backing, new hospitals would just laugh at them.
  • Government licensing laws let the AMA effectively write the criteria for licencing doctors, which are kept really stringent to keep the supply low.  Even if I wanted to only put in stitches all day to busted up kids, I would still have to go through 8 years of medical school and residency. Drum and Yglesias focus on the the number of medical schools and residencies.  I do not know if these are an issue or not.  But what clearly is an issue is the fact that one has to endure 8 expensive years or more just to be able to hand out birth control or stitch up a skinned knee.
  • Government licensing laws help doctors fight a constant rearguard action against nurse practitioners and other less expensively trained folks who could easily do half or more of what doctors do today.
  • The FDA and prescription drug law not only helps pharma companies keep profits up, but also increases business to doctors as people have to have a prescription for certain drugs they could easily buy on their own (e.g birth control pills, antibiotics).
  • The government limits immigration and thus labor mobility, reducing the ability of doctors from other countries to move here.

I am sure there are more.

There is no denying that in the middle of every industry cartel are insiders who are maneuvering to increase the rents of the incumbent players.  In fact, I am sure that every industry has participants who dream about getting off the competitive treadmill and creating a nice industry cartel, and would be the first to sign up.  But none of these dreams are ever going to happen unless they are enabled by the coercive power of government.

Of course, the consistent answer is, well, we just have the wrong guys running things.  If we had the right guys, it would work great.  But this kind of co-option always happens.   Look at taxis and liquor license holders and the entire banking sector.  Five years ago I would bet that progressives thought they finally had that right guy in the administration.  And look what has happened.  Banking cronyism is as strong as ever.  Obama's signature health legislation is full of crony giveaways.  In 6 months the health insurers are going to be running the entire PPACA infrastructure to their own benefit.

update:  This post is verging on the "is cronyism capitalism's fault" argument.  Rather than go into that again, it is here.

Update #2:  Related

Arkansas orthodontist Ben Burris was hauled in front of the state dental board in September after dentists in northeast Arkansas complained that he was offering dental cleanings to the general public in his Braces by Burris orthodontics clinics. The price for dental cleanings was $98 for an adult and $68 for a child, which Burris has said is about half of what dentists in northeast Arkansas typically charge.

Burris said most of the patients who need cleanings don’t have a dentist, but are checked by one of the three orthodontists in his clinic. Also, Burris said he offered the service because it was good for his business and good for the public. Some of his competitors “have gone absolutely ballistic” over the price and complained to the board, Burris said.

MP: Of course, the Arkansas dental cartel has no basis to complain directly about the low prices for dental cleaning at Braces by Burris clinics, so they are instead complaining that the clinic’s low-cost teeth cleaning services violate the states Dental Practice Act, which prohibits orthodontists and other specialists from practicing “outside their specialty.”

Insurance Companies Got Thrown Under the Bus Today. And They Know It.

Well, so much for the implicit gag order Obama has had on the insurance companies.  Bet we will find out a lot more interesting details about the exchange rollouts now.

[T]he White House has its own idea to stop the bleeding: Allow insurers to renew existing plans in 2014 (which means they could continue into 2015) while forcing them to send Landrieu-like letters explaining why their plans don’t conform to the Affordable Care Act’s standards.

This doesn’t really ensure anyone can actually keep their plan — which means it also doesn’t affect premiums in the exchanges. But it makes it easier for Democrats to blame insurers for canceling these plans. And it perhaps makes it easier for the White House to stop congressional Democrats from signing onto something like Landrieu or Udall.

The insurance industry is furious. They’ve been working with the White House to get HealthCare.Gov up and running and they’ve been devoting countless man hours to dealing with the problems and they’ve been taking the heat from their customers over canceled plans, and now the Obama administration wants to make them into a scapegoat.

“This doesn’t change anything other than force insurers to be the political flack jackets for the administration,” an insurance industry insider told Evan McMorris-Santoro. “So now, when we don’t offer these policies, the White House can say it’s the insurers doing this and not being flexible.”

This is like telling GE to reintroduce 100 watt lightbulbs on thirty days notice, and then blaming them if they don't do it.  Or as I tweeted earlier,

 Update:  Left rallying around Obama, spreading the word that cancellations are all the insurance companies' fault.  I am SO glad I am not affiliated with a political party such that I would feel the need to embarrass myself to support some flailing politician on my team.

The Left has been calling cancelled policies "sub-standard" for months now.  For three years Obama's own folks were estimating that over half of individual policies would have to be cancelled due to the law, and in fact they purposely wrote the regulations narrower to invalidate the maximum number of policies.  But now cancellations are the insurance companies' fault??

Politicians Lie By Default. They Lie Even When The Truth Is Easy To Check. Haven't We Figured That Out Yet?

Via Reason's Hit and Run

In the opening days of Obamacare’s October 1 launch, federal officials touted high web-traffic numbers, but repeatedly refused to provide enrollment data for the federally facilitated exchanges.

On October 3, White House spokesperson Jay Carney, pressed for enrollment numbers, said, “No, we don’t have that data.” On October 7, in an appearance on the Daily Show, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius repeated the claim when questioned about enrollment: “I can’t tell you,” she said, “because I don’t know.”

But that simply wasn’t true—at least not during the first few days.

Leaked meeting notes from high-level war room briefings inside the federal health bureaucracy on October 2 and October 3 report that federal officials were aware of the exact number of federal enrollees on the first and second days in which the exchanges were running.

And, as seemed likely at the time, it turns out that the numbers were very, very low.

According to the notes, which were released by the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform and taken from daily briefings in the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, the federal office directly in charge of the exchanges, there were just six successful enrollments across the 36 federal exchanges on launch day.

A friend by the way sent me this stat:  Of the 5 million first day exchange visitors, more will be hit by lightening this year than successfully enrolled that day