Posts tagged ‘san francisco’

Legalize Immigrants From Mexico; Ban Immigrants From California

Until a few years ago, I did business up and down the Pacific Coast.  If I had to rank the business climates of these states, from worst to best, I would informally come up with something like:

  1. (worst) Certain California counties (e.g. Ventura, San Francisco, Santa Barbara)
  2. Oregon
  3. Western Washington
  4. Rest of California
  5. Eastern Washington

So I was interested to see that Oregon may finally be getting the bad press it deserves as a difficult place to do business, though, interestingly enough, this particular article blames it on the Californians:

Some might call this California disease. This refers to a chronic inability to make hard decisions as well as a general disregard for business and economic activity....

With all the influx of Californians, it's not surprising that Oregon shows some signs of California disease. It recently increased its tax rates so that Oregon's highest-income taxpayers face marginal tax rates that match Hawaii's for the highest in the nation. Oregon's land-use planning had been extremely centralized for some time. Indeed, Oregon's land-use planning may be the most centralized in the United States. This makes it harder for communities to control their own destinies, whether they want to grow or not.

Interestingly, I actually wrote about similar effect in the context of immigration into the US.  While I am a supporter of open immigration, my greatest fear is that in the name of individual liberty, we would let in millions of new people who would someday vote against individual liberties.  It seems that may be a more substantial problem with Californian than Mexican immigration.

The good news for the rest of us is that Oregon may preferentially be attracting the slackers

Our analysis of California migrants has shown a gradual reduction in their earnings over what they were earning in the Golden State. There also are less quantifiable impacts. Portland, a city attractive to many unemployed and underemployed younger Californians, could well be becoming the "slacker" capital of the world.

Fortunately, Arizona is so politically un-correct with slacker/socialist/statist/greenie types that we don't get a lot coming here.

More Indentured Servitude in San Francisco

Via the Thin Green Line:

Throwing orange peels, coffee grounds and grease-stained pizza boxes in the trash will be against the law in San Francisco, and could even lead to a fine.

The Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 Tuesday to approve Mayor Gavin Newsom's proposal for the most comprehensive mandatory composting and recycling law in the country. It's an aggressive push to cut greenhouse gas emissions and have the city sending nothing to landfills or incinerators by 2020.

"San Francisco has the best recycling and composting programs in the nation," Newsom said, praising the board's vote on a plan that some residents had decried as heavy-handed and impractical. "We can build on our success."

The ordinance is expected to take effect this fall.

The legislation calls for every residence and business in the city to have three separate color-coded bins for waste: blue for recycling, green for compost and black for trash.

Failing to properly sort your refuse could result in a fine after several warnings, but Newsom and other officials say fines will only be levied in the most egregious cases.

I think if I lived there I would save some really rank crap buried in the back yard, maybe a few animal carcasses, to throw in the trash when the inspector came by to dumpster dive.

But the whole concept confuses me.  There is this assumption that everything environmentalists always wanted us to do, like recycling, is automatically and without need for critical thought going to reduce CO2 emissions.  But will it?

Doesn't composting increase greenhouse gas emissions vs. land filling? I have always wondered about this with Christmas tree recycling programs. If the program was really about reducing greenhouse gasses, why are we chipping the trees and spreading the chips around so they can decompose faster?  Decomposition is basically just slow combustion, producing CO2 and some methane.  Shouldn't we instead be shrink-wrapping the trees and burying them deep in the name of carbon sequestration?

By the way, advocates will say that recycling saves money.  Well, it is not clear that it even saves the state any money but it certainly does not save you and I any.  In fact, the only way people can even fool themselves into believing there is any economic benefit is to assume that the value of your and my time is $0.  We are indentured servants, working for the state as trash sorters for no compensation.

Postscript: Assume there are 110 million households in the US, and each household has to spend 5 minutes a week sorting trash.  And assume that the value of folk's time is $20 per hour (and I can guarantee you the marginal value of my free time is a LOT higher).  This is $9.5 billion of stolen labor each year.

You Must Subsidize My Unrealistic Choices

I found this a fairly typical example of the thinking by the modern victim class.

Stimulus dollars for new fare boxes strikes me as very close to the extreme in Keynes's insight that stimulus from the gov't can be needed and serve well, when he said something like that a "stimulus" could be burying bottles of dollars under a field and people digging them up - his point being that ANY stimulus would help. 50+ yrs later, surely the thought that "yeah, but, a smarter-placed stimulus would have more effect." Stimulate the company (and its employees) that make fare boxes, or allow SF residents to not be yet further pressed for money? I think the latter is smarter, and am stunned that the former seems to be going to happen.

I beg you to write and publish something on this. Raising fares at Muni also has a ripple effect on local business -- I won't ride the bus on the wkend out into the neighborhoods and maybe use my little splurge money to buy something there. In addition to that, for MTA, I will be overall paying less to them (while feeling a lot more confined, riding a lot less). The fare increase will get less money from me, while imposing more hardship on me, and I will be putting less money into local business.

Thank you for noticing and writing of we "the working poor." We're increasing in number. I'm well-educated and under-employed, and right now just trying to get by each month. I am desperately trying to avoid having to move out of SF.

So here is the situation:

  • He is well-educated, presumably with portable skills, but insists on staying in San Francisco where he cannot find full employment.  My sense is he has not tried to find a job anywhere else in the country
  • He considers himself to be poor, but refuses to entertain the idea of living in the most expensive city in the country (save possibly Manhattan)
  • He wants the rest of us via stimulus money to to subsidize his rail transport to help him better live in a city that has no work for his skills and which is too expensive for him to afford

I am OK with helping out folks who have tried everything they can to make ends meet and still need help to survive.  But should I really be thrilled to rush to the aid of someone who refuses to take even the first and most obvious step to address their poverty?

I have moved 9 times in my life trying to make things work for me and my family. I loved Boulder CO the best, and would love to live there, but there is no work for me that fits my skills. I guess I could have stayed and lived their in a financial situation that is less than I desire, but if I did so, it would be hard for me to imagine that I would lash out at the rest of the world for not subsidizing my choice.

Postscript: These guys are on drugs thinking light rail is the answer for the working poor.  As I wrote in the comments:

...light rail is simply not transit for the working poor. It is transit for yuppies that happens to be used by some working poor.  They are built for white collar workers commuting to town who are too high and mighty to be caught dead in a "grubby" bus.  But since light rail is orders of magnitude more expensive than buses, two things happen in every city that ever builds light rail.

1) Light rail fares skyrocket to cover their immense operating deficits and capital costs, giving the lie to politicians that sold these systems as helping working poor.

2) Bus service, the form of transit that serves most of the working poor even today in the Bay Area, is cut back to help pay for rail.

Light rail is the worst enemy of providing transit services to the working poor ever devised in this country.

Only The Taggart Building Will Be Spared

One of the images I remember form reading Atlas Shrugged was of darkened skyscrapers, as the government forced the closure of the upper stories of buildings to save energy.  Only building owners with political pull were excepted.  It seems San Francisco is following a similar plan:

Turn the lights out -- or pay.

That's the message of legislation being revived by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who will introduce a measure Tuesday mandating that skyscrapers turn off all nonemergency lights at night as a way to save energy. The introduction comes just days before Earth Hour Saturday, in which people are urged to turn off their lights for an hour at 8 p.m.

The legislation is essentially a new run at a law introduced a year ago by former board president Aaron Peskin that ultimately withered after strong opposition by the Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco. (We couldn't reach them by press time Monday). Peskin's proposal mandated building owners turn the lights out, or face administrative fines, but it was criticized as difficult to enforce. Chiu actually pushed Peskin to introduce that legislation, he said.

I would have assumed that if electricity consumption were really so high and so useless, that building owners would have had sufficient reason on their own to turn lights off.  After all, isn't it already turn the lights out or pay?  Unless of course electricity is free in SF.

One problem poorly understood by academics and government officials is that many folks outside of government actually work longer than a 9-4 work day.  As it happens, I am in my office tonight, likely until midnight, catching up on some things I could not with the phone ringing off the hook all day.  The only time I have ever occupied prime downtown real estate in an office tower was when I consulted with McKinsey & Co., and I can say for sure that there was seldom if ever a night when there weren't people in the office working well past midnight  (unfortunately, I was often one of them, which explains why my consulting career outlasted the birth of my first kid by only as long as it took me to find a new job).

Postscript: There is an incentive mis-match at work here in most leases.  Few commercial leases include individual metering for utilities, since most buildings are not set up for it  (it would actually be moderately hard, since office space is often reconfigured over time, shifting from one suite to another).  As a result, there is a kind of tragedy of the commons where renters pay their share of average use for all occupants, diluting the effect of their own usage on their own bills.  I am not sure how fining building owners when their tenants work late is going to help, though.

At the end of the day, this is all micro-managed bullsh*t.  If you want less electricity usage, raise rates, and let individuals figure out how to get the savings.  Just because a particular use (eg night lights in skyscrapers) is the most visible to policy makers does not make it the marginal use or the low hanging fruit for energy savings.

More on California's Big Dig

The Anti-Planner has more on the California high speed rail proposal I wrote about earlier.  My guess was that the first $9 billion bond issue, on the ballot this fall, would not get the train out of the LA metro area.  Well, I was right and wrong.  The smart money thinks the line will start at the other end, in San Francisco.  But the betting is that for $9 billion the line won't even get out of the San Francisco metro area, making it perhaps as far as San Jose. 

But we have a second data point -- there is a proposal on the table to extend BART from Fremont to Santa Clara for $4.7 billion, a distance (as shown on the map below) about a third of that from San Francisco to San Jose.
Map

I am not sure what high-speed rail technology that they are considering, but a true high-speed line requires special alignments, track, and signaling that should make it FAR more expensive per mile than a BART line (just as an example, a true high-speed line could take miles to make a 90 degree turn, eating up land and reducing alignment flexibility in a very congested and hilly area).  And remember, the BART cost estimate is probably low.

No way these guys get to San Jose for $9 billion, much less to LA for $40 billion.  Just what Californians need with their massive budget deficit:  a brand new white elephant.

The $9 Billion Dollar Toe

A few weeks ago I was amazed at the story of the city of Chicago spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build the terminal rail station of a rail line that had no plan, no route, no approval, and no money.  Why spend hundreds of millions on a station that could well be orphaned?  The reason, I supposed, was to make a toe in the water investment where the public could later be shamed into voting more funds for building a rail line to actually connect to their fabulous new station.

It appears that California may be doing the same thing. This November, voters in that state will have the chance to approve a $9.95 billion rail bond issue.  $9 billion of this is earmarked for building a high-speed rail line from Anaheim to San Francisco.  But current estimates for this line's cost, which are always way too low, are for $30 billion.  Who in their right mind would proceed with a $30 billion (or likely more) project when only $9 billion of funding has been obtained?  Only scam artists, Ponzi schemes.... and the government.

Update:
  Wow!  Boy, I must be dumb or something.  The website supporting this bond issue says that this project will create 450,000 permanent new jobs.  How can anyone oppose that?  This is really amazing, since the entire US railroad industry currently employs 224,000 people, but this one rail line will create 450,000 jobs! 

Update #2:  I like to make predictions about government rail projects, so here is mine for this one:  I don't know what end they are starting with, but if they start from the south, I will bet that $9 billion does not even get them out of the LA area (say past Santa Clarita or Santa Barbara), much less anywhere close to San Francisco.

I Would LOve to See This Happen

San Francisco has a ballot initiative this November to seize all PG&E transmission lines and assets in the city such that all city power comes from a new government owned utility.  Further, the initiative would require that this new entity get 100% of its power from renewables, particularly wind and solar, by 2040.  It is similar to a 2001 initiative.

All due respect to PG&E's private property, but I would love to see this happen.  If I were governor, I would be seriously tempted to encourage them to proceed, with the only proviso that no one else in California be allowed to sell electricity to San Francisco on the hugely unlikely possibility that there might be a day without sunshine in San Francisco.   (I find it hilarious that San Francisco's solar future is trumpeted in the "fog city journal.")  This might actually be a big enough disaster that even the media would have trouble ignoring its spectacular failure.  It would also do wonders for the Arizona and Nevada economy, as major industries would move our way.

I am sure San Francisco is well on their way to success.  After all, the city just completed its largest ever solar project

            The solar system is expected to generate 370,000 kilowatt hours of
electricity annually, enough to power 80 San Francisco homes.

Wow.  It can power 80 whole homes, as long as its not night time or winter (when it is seldom sunny in SF).

Peak Pricing for Parking

From my point of view, the NY Times buried the lede in this story about installation of parking sensors on San Francisco streets.  The article focuses mainly on the ability of drivers at some time in the future to get locations of empty parking spots on the streets via smartphone or possibly their GPS.  But I thought the pricing changes they were facilitating were more interesting:

SFpark, part of a nearly two-year $95.5 million program intended to
clear the city's arteries, will also make it possible for the city to
adjust parking times and prices. For example, parking times could be
lengthened in the evening to allow for longer visits to restaurants.

The
city's planners want to ensure that at any time, on-street parking is
no more than 85 percent occupied. This strategy is based on research by
Mr. Shoup, who has estimated that drivers searching for curbside
parking are responsible for as much of 30 percent of the traffic in
central business districts.

In one small Los Angeles business
district that he studied over the course of a year, cars cruising for
parking created the equivalent of 38 trips around the world, burning
47,000 gallons of gasoline and producing 730 tons of carbon dioxide.

To
install the market-priced parking system, San Francisco has used a
system devised by Streetline, a small technology company that has
adapted a wireless sensor technology known as "smart dust" that was
pioneered by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

It
gives city parking officials up-to-date information on whether parking
spots are occupied or vacant. The embedded sensors will also be used to
relay congestion information to city planners by monitoring the speed
of traffic flowing on city streets. The heart of the system is a
wirelessly connected sensor embedded in a 4-inch-by-4-inch piece of
plastic glued to the pavement adjacent to each parking space.

The
device, called a "bump," is battery operated and intended to last for
five and 10 years without service. From the street the bumps form a
mesh of wireless Internet signals that funnel data to parking meters on
to a central management office near the San Francisco city hall.

This is actually really cool, but my guess is that politicians will not have the will to charge the level of peak prices the system may demand.

Postscript:  As many of you know, there is a new wave of urban planners who want to impose dense urban living on all of us, whether we like it or not.  I have no problem with folks who want to fight the masses and live in downtown SF or Manhattan, but the world should also have a place for the majority of us who like to have an acre of land and a bit less congestion. 

Anyway, in singing the praises of the urban lifestyle (which often is as much an aesthetic preference vs. suburbia as anything else), you seldom hear much about this type of thing:

Solving the parking mess takes on special significance in San Francisco
because two years ago a 19-year-old, Boris Albinder, was stabbed to
death during a fight over a parking space....

The study also said that drivers searching for metered parking in just
a 15-block area of Columbus Avenue on Manhattan's Upper West Side drove
366,000 miles[!!] a year.

And here we suburbanites are complaining when we have to park more than 5 spaces from the door of the supermarket.

Danger. Danger. Danger.

If I had to name the one single biggest problem in US healthcare, it would be this:

"Twenty years ago, when I was in training, nobody really dealt with
economics," says Stephen Hufford, an oncologist in San Francisco. The
prevailing thinking, he says, was: "Cost should never be an issue in
someone's care."

In a survey of 167 cancer doctors reported last year in the Journal of
Clinical Oncology, 42% said they regularly raised the issue of costs
when discussing treatment options with patients.

Which means that even today, 58% of oncologists did not raise cost or price issues with various treatment options, despite practicing in perhaps the most costly of medical fields.  What planet are we living on, here?  Can you imagine a survey in which 58% of car dealers refused to raise the issue of cost in a new car sale?   Or 58% of real estate brokers saying they never mentioned the prices of houses when discussing them with clients? 

This represents a process failure in the health care system on two levels.  First, not having any single person in the decision-making process making cost-benefit trade-offs is a recipe for disaster.   Insured customers will consume as much as they can when price is off the table.  Many folks in the health care debate recognize this.

But there is a second problem.  Even when there is a single entity making these trade-offs, it is almost never the patient.  Most "reformers" on both the left and the right want to place this decision-making authority in government bureaucrats, in insurance companies, in Congress, in doctors -- any place but in the individual patient herself.   This particular article discusses the role of doctors in this process:

Many health-policy experts say it's high time for American doctors to
start considering costs when assessing treatment options. In 2007, the
cost of cancer care alone reached an estimated $89 billion in the U.S.,
up from $72 billion in 2004, according to the American Cancer Society
using data from the National Institutes of Health....

The study, conducted
by Deborah Schrag, an oncologist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in
Boston, found that 23% of oncologists said costs influence their
treatment decisions, and 16% said they omit discussion of very
expensive treatments when they know the cost will place great strain on
patients' resources.

This misses the mark.  Doctors should be ready to inform patients of their options, but at the end of the day we need a system where the patient is making these tradeoffs.  Note the absolute, nearly criminal arrogance of doctors who don't suggest the best treatment regime because the cost might stress out the patients.  How does the doctor know what financial resources the person might be able to bring to bear?

Postscript:  In an adjoining article, the WSJ has an article on the wacky way the French government makes these cost-benefit trade offs in health care:

Since 1860, when Napoleon III appropriated this
ancient Roman spa at the foot of the Alps for his empire, the National
Baths of Aix-les-Bains have been a symbol of France's cushy health-care
system.

On a recent morning, Jacqueline Surmont and her
husband, Guy, a 77-year-old retired construction worker, headed for
their daily mud wrap. The spa's rheumatism cures, thermal baths and
13-minute deep-tissue massage all are covered by France's national
health-insurance system. Transportation and lodging are, too....

"For many people, it's like a free holiday," says Ms. Surmont, who says
all her mud wraps and massages were properly prescribed by a doctor to
soothe her ailing back. "Some patients go shopping in the afternoon.
They're hardly in pain."

Wonderful.  This kind of BS is virtually inevitable in state-run systems.  I think one can already imagine a US health care system where taxpayers foot the fill for groovy treatments loved by the dippy left, from acupuncture to aromatherapy to homeopathy, while cancer patients are denied drugs and people have to wait months or years for elective surgery.

By the way, we get this in the "goes without saying" file from a state-run spa employee facing cutbacks:

"Of course we went on strike," said Martine Claret, a 52-year-old
physiotherapist who has worked at the spa since 1979 and doubles as a
union representative.

The San Francisco Sweatshop

Several companies have been discovered to have benefited from what is in effect slave labor in certain countries.  I have never had a problem with folks in poor countries freely opting to take jobs at factories for less money than our privileged middle class attitudes think to be "fair."  But there have been examples of governments using their coercive power in a cozy relationship with certain companies, forcing people to provide their labor to companies for wages below what they would freely accept.   It is an obscene form of modern slavery.

Today's example, though, does not come from Myanmar or China, but from San Francisco, California, USA, where the government is forcing its citizens to work for free to benefit itself and a few favored corporations to produce products for export.

The resale of recycled materials is apparently big business for a few government contractors:

"When we look at garbage, we don't see garbage, O.K.?" said Robert
Reed, a spokesman for Norcal Waste Systems, the parent company of
Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling Company, the
main garbage collectors in the city. "We see food, we see paper, we see
metal, we see glass."...

Jared Blumenfeld, the director of the city's environmental programs,
addressed one of the main reasons the city keeps up the pressure to
recycle. "The No. 1 export for the West Coast of the United States is
scrap paper," Mr. Blumenfeld said, explaining that the paper is sent to
China and returns as packaging that holds the sneakers, electronics and
toys sold in big-box stores.

This "No. 1 export product" is wholly a product of major government subsidies.  Reading the article, you get a sense for the enormous amount of extra capital and operating expenses the city pours into the recycling program.  Here is just one example:

San Francisco can charge more for its scrap paper, he said, because of
its low levels of glass contamination. That is because about 15 percent
of the city's 1,200 garbage trucks have two compartments, one for
recyclables. That side has a compactor that can compress mixed loads of
paper, cans and bottles without breaking the bottles. (These specially
designed trucks, which run on biodiesel, cost about $300,000 apiece, at
least $25,000 more than a standard truck, said Benny Anselmo, who
manages the fleet for Norcal.)

Anyone really think they are making enough extra money on scrap paper to cover this (at least) $4.5 million incremental investment  ($25k x 15% x 1200)?   Suspiciously absent from the article is any mention of costs or budgets.  City recycling guys have given up trying to defend recycling on the basis of it being cheaper than just burying the material.  The city is subsidizing this material a lot.

But it's not enough.  Even with these enormous subsidies, the city is not producing as much recycled materials to meet its goals.  So it is going to make its citizenry provide it more labor.  For free.

...the city wants more.

So Mr. Newsom will soon be sending the
city's Board of Supervisors a proposal that would make the recycling of
cans, bottles, paper, yard waste and food scraps mandatory instead of
voluntary, on the pain of having garbage pickups suspended.

The city is going to coerce every single resident to labor for them each week, just so San Francisco and Norcal Waste Systems can have more scrap paper for export.  This is a labor tax of immense proportions.  I know, whenever I make this point about recycling, everyone wants to poo-poo it.  "Oh, its not much time, really."  Really?  Lets use the following numbers:  Five minutes per day of labor.  One million residents.  $20 per hour labor value (low in San Francisco).  That is $608 million if forced labor.  I'm not sure even Nike has been accused of using this much forced labor.

Anticipated Rejoinder: Yeah, I know, the response will be "It's not for the exports, it's to save the environment."  OK, here is my counter:

  1. Nowhere in the article does it really say how this program, or going from 70 to 75% recycling, is specifically going to help the environment.  I took the article at its face value, where it justifies the program on the basis of exports and hitting an arbitrary numerical target and beating out San Jose.  I am tired of unthinking acceptance of recycling as a net benefit.  Every study has shown that aluminum recycling creates a net energy benefit, but every other material represents a net loss.  It makes us feel good, though, I guess.
  2. Should proponents support the direct subsidy by government and the labor tax, there is still some burden to show that this is the best possible environmental use of 30 million San Francisco man-hours of coerced labor in the course of a year.
  3. For those really worked up about CO2, explain to me why we shouldn't bury every scrap of waste paper as a carbon sink.
  4. The last time I visited, San Francisco was one of the grubbier US cities I have seen of late, with trash everywhere on the streets and sidewalks.  It may just have been a bad data point, but are residents really happy the city trash department focusing on scrap paper pricing yield rather than picking up the trash?
  5. I class battery and motor oil recycling programs differently.  These substances have unique disposal needs and high costs of incorrect disposal.

Another Government Program that Misses the Point

Apparently, the state of Arizona, fearing the coming old-folks demographic boom, is looking to create programs to keep older Americans working longer (and by extension off the government teat longer).

The thought of millions of boomers taking their early-retirement
benefits is causing concern about the stability of Social Security and
Medicare.

"We know not everybody is going to up and retire all at once," Starns
said, "and we will have younger workers coming in. But if you look at
all the demographics, there just won't be enough people to fill all the
jobs that could be vacant."

Add that possibility to existing shortages of workers in health-care
and other fields, she said, and "there could be some pretty significant
problems in society."

Arizona, which launched its Mature Workforce Initiative in 2005 to
avert such a crisis, was one of five states lauded last month for
efforts to engage people 50 and older in meaningful jobs and community
service.

The San Francisco-based Civic Ventures think tank also cited
California, Maryland, New York and Massachusetts, saying the five
states recognize older workers as "an experience dividend," rather than
a drain on resources.

Of course, since it is government, the state of Arizona is, with one hand, patting itself on the back for instituting vague and meaningless but well publicized programs nominally targeted at this issue, while with the other taking steps that have real and substantial effects in exactly the opposite direction.

First, Arizona has some of the toughest laws in the country to penalize businesses for hiring, even accidentally, young vigorous immigrants who don't have all their government licenses in order.   Young workers are pouring into this state every day, but Arizona is turning them away and locking them up. 

Second, Arizona has been legislating as fast as it can to make it nearly impossible to hire older workers.  I know, because the vast majority of my work force managing campgrounds is over 65.  These workers tend to work for a free camp site plus minimum wage.  They like the job despite the low pay because they get a place to park their RV and because the job is part time and very flexible in how they work (not to mention offers the opportunity to take whole chunks of the year off).  I like these workers because they are experienced and reliable and paying them minimum wage helps offset their slowing productivity and higher workers comp costs as they age. 

Here is the math:  Older workers might work 30-50% slower than a younger worker (I have workers right now in their nineties!)  They also have higher workers comp costs, maybe equating to as much as 10% of wages.  This means that an older worker at the old minimum wage of $5.15 an hour might be financially equivalent to a younger worker making $9.50 an hour, which is about what we might have to pay for such a worker. 

However, many states have implemented higher minimum wages with annual cost of living escalators.  States like Oregon and Washington now have minimum wages over $9.00.  At $9.00 an hour, an older worker is now financially equivalent to a younger worker making $16.50 an hour, well above what I can hire such a person for.  This means that as minimum wages rise, I have to consider substituting  younger workers for older but slower workers.

Last year, Arizona adopted just such a minimum wage system with annual escalators.  Though we have not reached the point yet, the state soon may make it impossible economically to hire older workers.  Already, we are looking at some automation projects to reduce headcount in certain places.  This is sad to me, but in a business where a 12% rise in wages wipes out my entire profit, I have to think about these steps.  I have to react to the fact that, no matter how many "policy advisers on aging" the state hires, in reality it is increasing the price to my company of older people's labor vis a vis younger workers.

San Francisco City Government Outspends Exxon on Climate Advocacy

A bunch of media outlets credulously ran a Greenpeace press release as a news story last year, hammering on Exxon for donating a cumulative $2 million dollars to "skeptical" climate researchers.  Never mind that no one could explain what was so ominous about an American company exercising its free speech rights.  I and other pointed out that this $2 million was a trivial amount of spending compared to the billions that had been routed to global warming activists. 

This week, we get a great example.  While over a period of a decade, the great Satan ExxonMobil spent $2 million on climate issues, it turns out one city government, in San Francisco, spends this much each year on global warming activism:

In his quest to make San Francisco the greenest city in the nation,
Mayor Gavin Newsom recently created a $160,000-a-year job for a senior
aide and gave him the ambitious-sounding title of director of climate
protection initiatives.
...
But officials in the Newsom administration say that even 25 people working on climate issues is not enough and that having a director in the mayor's inner circle is necessary to coordinate all the city's climate initiatives."

If
there are 25 people working on climate protection issues for the city,
that's a good start," Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard said. "Ten years
ago [when the "globe" was still "warming"], there probably weren't any.
It's smart policy to have one point person at the highest level of city
government to coordinate all 25 of them."

The city has a climate
action plan, issued by Newsom after he took office in 2004, that aims
to cut the city's greenhouse emissions by 2012 to 20 percent below
1990's level.

In addition to the director of climate protection
initiatives in Newsom's office, San Francisco has an Energy and Climate
Program team of eight people in the Department of the Environment, who
combined earn more than $800,000 a year in salary and benefits,
including a "climate action coordinator." At least 12 San Francisco
Public Utilities Commission staff members work on climate issues
related to water and energy, including a $146,000-a-year "projects
manager for the climate action plan."

Also in the name of
climate control, the Municipal Transportation Agency has a "manager of
emissions reductions and sustainability programs" who works on making
Muni's bus fleet greener, and the San Francisco International Airport
has a "manager of environmental services" who oversees such projects as
the installation of energy-efficient lighting and solar panels.

The
list doesn't include the scores of staff members who work on broader
environmental policies, like the recently hired $130,700-a-year
"greening director" in Newsom's office, or Jared Blumenfeld, who earns
$207,500 a year in salary and benefits as the head of the city's
Environment Department, which has a staff of 65 and annual budget of
about $14 million.

It borders on journalistic malpractice that nearly every article on skeptics delve into their funding sources but no reporter ever seems to have ever asked climate alarmists about their funding sources nor delved into these funding issues.

Advice for Writers

John Scalzi has what looks to be good advice for writers.  Why?

Because it very often appears to me that regardless of how smart and
clever and interesting and fun my fellow writers are on every other
imaginable subject, when it comes to money "” and specifically their own money
"” writers have as much sense as chimps on crack. It's not just writers
"” all creative people seem to have the "incredibly stupid with money"
gene set for maximum expression "” but since most of creative
people I know are writers, they're the nexus of money stupidity I have
the most experience with. It makes me sad and also embarrasses the crap
out of me; people as smart as writers are ought to know better.

Beyond really liking Scalzi's work, he does an amazing amount of work promoting other writers.  Just skim his blog for the last several months.  A hell of a lot more of it is about promoting other authors than it is about promoting his own work.  Here is an example of his advice.

8. Unless you have a truly compelling reason to be there, get the hell out of New York/LA/San Francisco.

Because they're friggin' expensive, that's why. Let me explain: Just
for giggles, I went to Apartments.com and looked for apartments in
Manhattan that were renting for what I pay monthly on my mortgage for
my four bedroom, 2800 square foot house on a plot of land that is,
quite literally, the size of a New York City block ($1750, if you must
know, so I looked at the $1700 - $1800 range). I found two, and one was
a studio. From $0 to $1800, there are thirteen apartments available. On
the entire island of Manhattan. Where there are a million people. I love that, man.

Government Health Care: Trojan Horse for Fascism

In about the hundredth post in this series, yet another example of government health care costs being used to micro-regulate even the smallest personal lifestyle decisions:

The city that banned plastic grocery bags and styrofoam take-out
containers has found a new cause: your favorite soft drink. San
Francisco may impose a new fee on those big retail stores that sell
them. The purpose is to curb the obesity problem among kids and adults.
Such fee or tax would be the first in the nation.

 

San Francisco says the obesity problem is costing the city too
much money in health care costs. Studies have linked obesity to
diabetes and heart disease.

"One third of all of our new
on-set diabetics are type 2 because of obesity and this is in children
now," says Robert Lustig, M.D., Endocrinologist, UCSF.

It is perhaps appropriate, given the polls in Iowa, that Mike Huckabee precipitated one of the earliest posts in this series:

Mike Huckabee, the Governor of Arkansas, now
requires annual fat reports. These are sent to the parents of every
single child aged between 5 and 17; a response, he says, to "an
absolutely epidemic issue that we could not ignore" in the 1,139
schools for which he is responsible.

I
just cannot craft any reasonable theory of government where this is the
state's job.   The "obesity" crisis in this country just amazes me.
"Experts" every few years broaden the definition of who is overweight
or obese, and suddenly (surprise!) there are more people defined as
overweight.  Even presuming it is the state's job to optimize our body
weights, is it really the right approach to tell everyone they are too
fat?  Having known several people who were anorexic, including at least
one young woman who died of its complications, is it really a net
benefit to get young people more obsessed with looks and body style?
And what about the kids that are genetically programmed to be
overweight?  Does this mean that years of taunting and bullying by
their peers is not enough, that the state's governor wants to pile on
now?

It is interesting to note that governor Huckabee apparently started
this initiative after his own personal battle with weight loss:

[Huckabee] lost 110lb after being warned that his
weight, more than 280lb after a life of southern fried food, was a
death sentence. A chair even collapsed under him as he was about to
preside over a meeting of state officials in Little Rock.

We
all have friends who have lost weight or gotten into homeopathy or
became a vegan and simply cannot stop trying to convert their friends
now that they see the light.  Now we have the spectacle of elected
officials doing the same thing, but on a broader scale and with the
force of law, rather than  just mere irritation, on their side.  One
can only imagine what report cards kids would be carrying home if
Huckabee had instead had a successful experience with penis
enlargement.  What's next, negative reports for kids with bad acne?
For women whose breasts are too small?  For kids who are unattractive?

Update: I see Q&O posts on the same issue

Environmentalists are Anti-Change, Not Pro-Environment

Here in Hawaii, much of the talk is about the Hawaiian Island ferry service that was supposed to start up this summer.  Most of you who have not spend much time here would probably expect that there already exists some kind of ferry service between the islands.  But for some reason, there is no such service.  Lacking you own boat, the only way to get to the island that I can see right across the water (I can see Maui right now from the north shore of the Big Island of Hawaii) is for me to drive forty miles south to an airport, get on an airplane, fly to the Maui airport, and then drive tens of miles to my destination.  Those of you who live in San Francisco, imagine if the only way to get to Oakland were by airplane.  One would think a ferry service would not only be a great service for residents and tourists, but would be a huge environmental benefit, giving folks an alternative to driving and flying.

Well, not according to the Sierra Club,
which has sued to block the ferry service on environmental grounds.  Of course, absolutely everything Hawaii uses comes in by ship, and there are always ships coming in and out of port, not to mention hundreds of fishing boats.  But we just can't have this one extra boat.  It makes much more environmental sense to the Sierra Club that people drive miles and miles to an airport and fly between the islands than to take a sensible ferry.

Note, by the way, as an added libertarian bonus, the ferry service seems to be entirely for-profit and does not appear to involve any major government subsidies.  Though I could be wrong about that, there are always hidden ways to subsidize such efforts.

Update: The main reason for opposition is that the ferry will make it easier for "undesirable" people to come to Maui and make the place less, uh, desirable.  First, it is unclear to me why the ferry service should be held accountable for future environmental damage that might be committed by its passengers - certainly airlines are not held to the same standard.  Second, this is snobbery, not environmentalism.  It is the same argument that prevented the red line in Boston from being extended to Lexington -- the upscale residents didn't want an easier path for the undesirables to get in.  So now Lexington residents have to drive for miles if they want to ride the train.  My sense is that this kind of faux environmentalism has become a very popular way for the reach to keep the middle class and poor at bay.  See:  Hamptons.

More Anti-Consumer Regulation

We seem to be getting these stories in batches lately (others here and here) but leave it to the EU to trump even San Francisco in anti-consumer stupidity:

Microsoft lost its appeal of a European antitrust order Monday
that obliges the technology giant to share communications code with
rivals, sell a copy of Windows without Media Player and pay a $613
million fine - the largest ever by EU regulators.

The EU
Court of First Instance ruled against Microsoft on both parts of the
case, saying the European Commission was correct in concluding that
Microsoft was guilty of monopoly abuse in trying to use its power over
desktop computers to muscle into server software.

It also said regulators had clearly demonstrated that selling media software with Windows had damaged rivals.

"The
court observes that it is beyond dispute that in consequence of the
tying consumers are unable to acquire the Windows operating system
without simultaneously acquiring Windows Media Player," it said.

"In
that regard, the court considers that neither the fact that Microsoft
does not charge a separate price for Windows Media Player nor the fact
that consumers are not obliged to use that Media Player is irrelevant."

Yes, you are reading it correctly.  Microsoft is being penalized for giving the consumer too much value by bundling in additional features and programs for free into its OS.  And just to make sure that you understand that this has nothing to do with the consumer, but is purely a complaint of large competitors that can't keep up, they make it clear that they want the bundling stopped even if it does not change the price of the OS one penny (pfennig or whatever the Euro equivalent is).  They want the product stripped down and are deliberately trying to reduce its value to customers.

Gwynnie at Maggie's Farm has a funny comment, saying, "Microsoft is guilty of succeeding while American."

Worst Law I Have Seen In A While

From San Francisco, of course! via Market Power

Prop. G obligates the
Planning Commission to conduct a hearing for any chain store (also
known as "formula retail") proposed in neighborhood commercial
districts.

Formula retail is defined as any retail sales establishment with 11
or more stores in the United States that maintains two or more
standardized features, including decor, facade, color scheme, uniforms,
signage or a trademark.

Incredibly, freaking 58% of the voters passed this turkey.  It's hard to know where to start, but here are a few thoughts:

  • Equal protection?  Anyone?  Buehler? 
  • One of the most obvious punishments of success I have ever seen.  If you only have one store, you are fine.  But if you are succesful and your concept flourishes and you have many stores, then you are automatically penalized.
  • One of the single most anti-consumer pieces of legislation I have ever seen.  Stores using a proven formula that has been succesful in other areas have a sort of consumer good housekeeping seal of approval.  They are by definition retail establishments where many consumers have already voted with their wallet "we like this."  So in effect, proven customer favorites are penalized vs. less proven concepts.  What an odd zoning concept when you put it that way -- we don't want anyone doing business here that has already proven themselves to be succesful with customers.  We only want you if you have no proof customers want what you are selling.

The other night I was staying in Arcadia, CA (a suburb of LA near Pasadena) on what I was told was the old Route 66.  There were a ton of restaurant choices, many of which I did not recognize, and there was a Chile's, which I grew up with in Texas.  I am positive some of those restaurants would have provided me a more satisfying meal than Chile's.  I am also sure some would have been worse.  Sometimes I am in the mood to find something new, but that night I just wanted a predictable experience.  All that stuff San Francisco is trying to penalize -- those standardized features -- bring real value to many consumers.

The Silicon Valley of Begging

Stephen Dubner's roundtable on the Economics of Street Charity got me thinking about a recent experience visiting Boulder, Colorado, an odd but lovely town in which I used to live.

Here in Phoenix, most of our panhandlers show little or no innovation.  They are still using the "will work for food" or "Vietnam vet" cardboard signs that were an innovation years ago, but now are tired and hard to believe.  All the signs were generic.  None of them seemed tailored to the local audience. 

So where is the innovation in begging occurring?  Someone must have first thought of the "will work for food" come-on which I presume was so initially successful, since everyone copied it, just as they copy any successful innovation in the marketplace?

My vote for the Silicon Valley of Begging is Boulder, Colorado, and specifically on the Pearl Street Mall.  I have recently visited homeless capital Santa Monica, and San Francisco, as well as New York and Boston, and none of their beggers hold a candle to those in Boulder.  Here is why:

  • Their come-ons were unique -- I never saw the same one twice
  • Their come-ons were well tailored to the local audience.  "Need Money for Pot" is not going to get one anywhere in Oklahoma, but it is very likely to elicit a chuckle and a buck from a UC college student or sixties-survivor Boulder resident.  Given that President Bush has about a 0.01% approval rating in Boulder, many of the come-ons led one to believe that giving the beggar a buck would show one's disdain for GWB.

State-Run Companies and Investment, Part 3

One of the urban legends of the civics world is that is some project really requires investment for the long-term, the government needs to do it since private companies are too short-term profit focused. 

Over a series of posts, I have been showing just how terrible state run companies are at making long-term investments compared to private companies.   I showed the Mexican state oil company eschewing investment in favor of bloated patronage-based payrolls and social spending, and the nationalized Venezuelan companies doing the same thing.  What you see in both cases is that the state run oil companies are particularly bad at making investments to maintain production, investments that can be huge in the oil business.  Leftists have convinced themselves that oil companies make a fortune with little or no work, that oil extraction is kind of like clipping coupons.  But the maintenance of any infrastructure is hugely expensive, and takes a discipline and focus that the state does not have.  Belatedly, some of them are learning that producing oil takes real work and constant re-investment.  It bizarrely reminds me of Carl talking to Vernon in the Breakfast Club:
"You took a teaching position, 'cause you thought it'd be fun, right?
Thought you could have summer vacations off...and then you found out it
was actually work...and that really bummed you out"

But I don't want to imply that this is just a poor-country, banana republic problem.  Defenders of big government in the US will say that government can do all these things just fine, if only you have the right people in charge.  But under-investment in public assets, particularly in refurbishment, is a constant problem in the US as well.  Every Senator likes to get his name on building a new facility, but you don't get your name on a maintenance contract, so lots of things get built by the government but few get maintained.  Disney would never let its parks get as run down as the government
allows its public parks to get.  Wal-Mart (like most retailers) virtually rebuilds its stores every
twenty years, and would never let its infrastructure get as run
down as, say, the average US post office.

So I take as my example the Washington Metro system, one of the highest-profile public infrastructure projects in the country:

The Metro Rail system was built with federal dollars, with the
understanding that local governments would pay for its operation. But
no one was prepared to pay for rail reconstruction, which is
needed every 30 years or so and which costs a substantial fraction of
the original construction cost. Now, some of the system is approaching
30 years of age and is breaking down with increasing frequency.

The article, by Randal O'Toole of Cato, goes on to show another example of this same mindset:

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to ignore the gorilla in the corner,
which is that VTA's board wants to spend $4.7 billion to connect the
San Francisco BART system to San Jose. The agency only has enough money
to build to the edge of San Jose, but even if it had all the money for
construction, its general manager admits "we clearly do not have the money to operate the system." Nevertheless, the board recently voted to spend $185 million "” more than half of VTA's annual operating budget "” on preliminary engineering.

Meanwhile, VTA is still short on operating funds, so it is contemplating "eliminating or consolidating" service on more than a quarter of its remaining bus lines.

A Zero-Sum Wealth Quiz

One of the really bad ideas that drive some of the worst government actions is the notion that wealth is somehow fixed, and that by implication all wealth is acquired at someone else's expense.  I am working on my annual tax-day post on the zero sum fallacy, but in the mean time here is a brief quiz.

The quiz consists of matching a description to the owners of these two houses:

House1a House2b

One house has hot and cold running water, central air conditioning, electricity and flush toilets.  The other does not.  One owner has a a computer, a high speed connection to the Internet, a DVD player with a movie collection, and several television sets.  The other has none of these things.  One owner has a refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner, a toaster oven, an iPod, an alarm clock that plays music in the morning, a coffee maker, and a decent car.  The other has none of these.  One owner has ice cubes for his lemonade, while the other has to drink his warm in the summer time.  One owner can pick up the telephone and do business with anyone in the world, while the other had to travel by train and ship for days (or weeks) to conduct business in real time.

I think most of you have guessed by now that the homeowner with all the wonderful products of wealth, from cars to stereo systems, lives on the right (the former home of a friend of mine in the Seattle area).  The home on the left was owned by Mark Hopkins, railroad millionaire and one of the most powerful men of his age in California.  Hopkins had a mansion with zillions of rooms and servants to cook and clean for him, but he never saw a movie, never listened to music except when it was live, never crossed the country in less than a week.  And while he could afford numerous servants around the house, Hopkins (like his business associates) tended to work 6 and 7 day weeks of 70 hours or more, in part due to the total lack of business productivity tools (telephone, computer, air travel, etc.) we take for granted.  Hopkins likely never read after dark by any light other than a flame.

If Mark Hopkins or any of his family contracted cancer, TB, polio, heart disease, or even appendicitis, they would probably die.  All the rage today is to moan about people's access to health care, but Hopkins had less access to health care than the poorest resident of East St. Louis.  Hopkins died at 64, an old man in an era where the average life span was in the early forties.  He saw at least one of his children die young, as most others of his age did.  In fact, Stanford University owes its founding to the early death (at 15) of the son of Leland Stanford, Hopkin's business partner and neighbor.  The richest men of his age had more than a ten times greater chance of seeing at least one of their kids die young than the poorest person in the US does today.

Hopkin's mansion pictured above was eventually consumed in the fires of 1906, in large part because San Francisco's infrastructure and emergency services were more backwards than those of many third world nations today.

Here is a man, Mark Hopkins, who was one of the richest and most envied men of his day.  He owned a mansion that would dwarf many hotels I have stayed in.  He had servants at his beck and call.  And I would not even consider trading lives or houses with him.  What we sometimes forget is that we are all infinitely more wealthy than even the richest of the "robber barons" of the 19th century.  We have longer lives, more leisure time, and more stuff to do in that time.   Not only is the sum of wealth not static, but it is expanding so fast that we can't even measure it.  Charts like those here measure the explosion of income, but still fall short in measuring things like leisure, life expectancy, and the explosion of possibilities we are all able to comprehend and grasp.

More, coming soon...

Update:  An example of why this topic is always timely:

Paul Krugman foresees an increasing left-leaning electorate. The cause?

The main force driving this shift to the left is probably rising

income inequality. According to Pew, there has recently been a sharp

increase in the percentage of Americans who agree with the statement

that "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer."

Russel Roberts goes on to tear into this red meat.  Read it all.

 

San Francisco Mandates Paid Vacations

A reader sent me this article on the new proposition F passed in San Francisco

Under the Sick Leave Ordinance, employers must provide one hour of paid
sick leave to an employee for every 30 hours worked. The Ordinance
limits the amount of paid leave to a maximum of 40 hours of paid leave
for "small businesses," defined as employers who employ fewer than 10
employees, and of 72 hours of paid leave for larger employers.

Note that this applies to everyone -- part time workers, day laborers, housekeepers, nannies, you name it.  Everyone gets an extra paid hour vacation for every thirty they work.

But Coyote!  How can you say its vacation - the law says sick leave.  Yes, I know, and I am sure supporters can fill any number of 30-second TV ads with heart-rending stories of people who got sick and needed paid time off.  But all of us who have actually worked in real jobs and real companies know how most sick days get used - they become extra vacation days.  Here is a guide to getting the most vacation possible out of your sick days.  For this reason, many companies have done away with the distinction of sick and vacation days and just call them "personal days."

But the law makes sure that employers can't ask any of those nagging questions like "you don't sound sick on the phone."  Because you don't actually have to be sick to take paid sick leave in San Francisco. 

Proposition F, the "Sick Leave Ordinance," also expands existing state
law "kin care" requirements so that covered employees must be permitted
to use paid sick leave to care for siblings, grandparents,
grandchildren and a "designated person" of the employee's choice.
Employees must be permitted to use any or all accrued paid sick leave for such kin care.

"Yep, old Uncle Ed is sick again.  I won't be coming in today but you still have to pay me."  And who's to say "care" for uncle Ed shouldn't include companionship in the form of some fishing.  After all, California recognizes a service animal designation for companionship only.

But just to make sure that the employer does not ask any nagging question when Uncle Ed needs care on nine Fridays in a row, the law includes this:

In addition, Proposition F prohibits an employer from taking any
adverse action against an employee who exercises his or her rights
under the Ordinance. An employee's mistaken but good faith complaints
of employer violations of this Ordinance are protected. Any adverse
action by an employer against an employee within 90 days of the
employee's exercise of a right under the Ordinance creates a rebuttable
presumption of employer retaliation....

The Office of Labor Standards Enforcement has authority to
investigate alleged violations of the Ordinance. If the Office
determines that a violation has occurred following an investigation and
hearing, it may order relief including reinstatement, back pay, the
payment of any sick leave unlawfully withheld and various
administrative penalties.

The Ordinance also permits civil actions by the Office of Labor
Standards Enforcement, the City Attorney, "any person aggrieved by a
violation" (the term could encompass affected employees but also any
person for whom the employee sought to care or aid), and "any other
person or entity acting on behalf of the public as provided for under
applicable state law." The prevailing party may recover all "legal or
equitable relief as may be appropriate to remedy the violation"
including, but not limited to, reinstatement, back pay, the payment of
any sick leave unlawfully withheld, liquidated damages, injunctive
relief; reasonable attorneys' fees and costs. Employees and plaintiffs'
attorneys who sue employers on behalf of similarly-effected employees
and the general public may be entitled to equitable and injunctive
relief, restitution, and reasonable attorneys' fees and costs.

So, any violations by employees will be called "good faith" mistakes and are protected from any punishment.  Employers, on the other hand, are liable for penalties and lawsuits should they make even a good faith mistake.  Attempting to determine if an employee is cheating on his sick day designations will be treated as "retaliation" and punished.  Note that while the office of labor standards have investigation abilities, all the investigative actions listed in their purview are employer violations.  For example, there is language about employers reimbursing employees for sick days they should have paid, but where is the language about employees reimbursing employers for sick days taken fraudulently?

This is exactly how the unemployment system works.  There is a heavy state enforcement arm, but only aimed at fraud by employers, not employees. Pick any state unemployment office at random and look at their web site.  They will probably have a link for filing complaints.  When you click on it, you will quickly see that the complaints they accept are only for employer fraud or impostor fraud, not employee cheating.  In fact, as I wrote here about people taking vacation on unemployment, I was threatened with a lawsuit by an employee and with fines by the state agency in California for even suggesting that an employee was lying when he said he was "looking for work" (when I knew for a fact he was on a winter-long vacation in Mexico).

Universities Becoming Their Own Country (and a repressive one at that)

Both based on outside pressure (mostly from torts) and internal desire, universities are rapidly modeling themselves into mini-governments, really mini-super-nanny-states.  FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, observes of a recent gathering of University attorneys:

At one panel I attended, San Francisco lawyer Zachary Hutton explained
Williams v. Board of Regents, a recent case in which a University of
Georgia student alleged having been raped by two student-athletes while a third
student watched. The police charged the athletes with rape, and the university
decided not to conduct its own investigation until the criminal case was
resolved.
That turned out to be a mistake. The plaintiff then sued the university for
sexual harassment, and the 11th Circuit held this year that the university could
be liable because, by waiting to conduct an independent investigation until the
criminal case was resolved, it had exhibited deliberate indifference to the
alleged rape. "The court emphasized," Mr. Hutton told the college lawyers, "that
the pending criminal trial . . . did not affect the university's ability to
institute its own proceedings, and the criminal charges would not have prevented
future attacks while the charges were pending."
There are excellent reasons for the university not to conduct its own
investigation. For one thing, instead of police detectives and professional
prosecutors conducting the investigation, you are likely to get Campus Public
Safety and the Associate Dean for Student Affairs. How having inexperienced
college administrators and college safety officers conduct a rape investigation
is likely to benefit either the victim or the accused is beyond me. The
potential for violating the Fifth Amendment, damaging evidence, and coming to
wildly inaccurate conclusions is immense, and if any of these things were to
happen, the university would risk botching an important criminal case. Rape is a
serious crime; victims and the accused deserve better than college justice.

In some ways, this was even more illuminating of the drive to mini-nanny-statehood:

The most entertaining discussion I heard at the lawyers' convention
centered on what to do about facebook.com and myspace.com--how to prevent
slander, harassment and rumor-mongering on these online communities popular with
undergrads.
What these attorneys were talking about is wholesale regulation of online
speech. Slander is, of course, a tort, and engaging in slander or libel can get
a person sued. It's hard to see how or why a college should be involved in this,
though. If I libel someone online, it's the business of those affected, not the
college. As for harassment, one of its main characteristics is that the person
being harassed finds the harassing behavior hard to avoid. Unless the "harasser"
is hacking into the victim's MySpace page, it's hard to see how going to a
"harassing" website isn't completely avoidable. As for "rumor-mongering," horror
of horrors! Regulating that on a college campus will mean tripling the number of
administrators (and probably tuition), but I suppose no expense is too large to
make sure that everyone stays comfortable.

College campuses were probably among the first and most vociferous critics of GWB's various domestic surveillance programs.  Its interesting to see that while opposing such programs at the national level, they are crafting far more far-reaching speech monitoring and restriction programs on their own campuses:

The room was evenly divided: Some lawyers recommended ignoring the students' Web
sites unless something offensive was brought to administrators' attention, while
others suggested taking aggressive action....

By my calculations, if half the lawyers thought that "offensive" speech that is
reported should be punished, and half the lawyers thought that administrators
should spend their time cruising the websites and proactively stamping out
"offensive" speech, that leaves ZERO lawyers who believed that perhaps merely
"offensive" speech should be protected, as the First Amendment (at public
schools), or respect for fundamental freedoms (at all schools), requires.

I'll Take That Tinfoil Hat Now

I think it was George Carlin (?) who used to ask "Do you know what the worst thing is that can happen when you smoke marijuana?" His answer was "Get sent to prison".  The implication, which I have always agreed with for most drug use, was that it is insane as a society to try to save someone from doing something bad to himself by ... doing something worse to him.

I think of this whenever I get in a discussion about security responses to 9/11.  The worst thing that can happen to this country as a whole  (as differentiated of course from the individual victims of 9/11) is to turn the country into a police state to combat potential future terrorist actions.  I personally would greatly prefer to live with a 1 in 100,000 chance of being the victim of terrorism than find myself living in an America that has abandoned its constitution.  I wrote more on this topic here.

To this end, though I tend to be slow to believe these type of stories, this one (via Reason) about domestic NSA wiretapping is pretty frightening:

AT&T provided National Security Agency eavesdroppers with full
access to its customers' phone calls, and shunted its customers'
internet traffic to data-mining equipment installed in a secret room in
its San Francisco switching center, according to a former AT&T
worker cooperating in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit
against the company....

The source is just one low-level guy, so this story is still pretty soft.  I hope the investigation is allowed to play out.

I Thought This Was Just A Lame Conspiracy Theory at First...

I had seen some Internet posts on this before, but I thought it was from the "Aliens were behind the 9/11 attacks" crowd.  But it does appear to really be Big Brother at work:

The pages coming out of your color printer may contain hidden information that
could be used to track you down if you ever cross the U.S.
government.

Last year, an article in PC World magazine pointed out that printouts
from many color laser printers contained yellow dots scattered across the page,
viewable only with a special kind of flashlight. The article quoted a senior
researcher at Xerox Corp. as saying the dots contain information useful to
law-enforcement authorities, a secret digital "license tag" for tracking down
criminals....

Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco consumer privacy
group, said it had cracked the code used in a widely used line of Xerox
printers, an invisible bar code of sorts that contains the serial number of the
printer as well as the date and time a document was printed...

The EFF said it has identified similar coding on pages printed from
nearly every major printer manufacturer, including Hewlett-Packard Co., though
its team has so far cracked the codes for only one type of Xerox
printer.

The U.S. Secret Service acknowledged yesterday that the markings, which
are not visible to the human eye, are there, but it played down the use for
invading privacy.

This kind of stuff really scares me.  Is there anyone out there that thinks that this won't be used to trace a leak, track down a whistle-blower, or identify an anonymous political critic?  And, even if you are able to conjure up trust that the US government will not use these codes for anything other than fighting counterfeiting, what about use of these codes by private parties?  Or, even more depressing, remember that these printers are being sold today in China, Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, etc.  Does anyone at all doubt that these governments will use the print codes to identify and silence dissent?

Shame on the government for instituting this program.  Double shame on HP and Xerox for going along in silence, joining the ranks of Microsoft, Cisco, and Yahoo in making adjustments to their technology to make government surveillance and censorship easier.  I don't know of any legislative mandate that requires these printer companies to go along with this, so they are doing this voluntarily - sort of (see below).

For those on the left feeling smug that this is solely a right-wing Bush-is-a-fascist problem, shame also on those who built the economic regulatory state that we live in.  In a truly free economy, HP and Xerox would likely have told the government to take a hike.  However, the government holds a huge regulatory hammer over corporations' head in so many realms that companies in our society find it difficult to tell the government off when they get this type of request.  Its the same story with airlines and banks, who feel compelled to share otherwise private customer data with Homeland Security under the threat of having government retribution fall on them from any number of directions.  We have got to start realizing that government control of economic activity is just as much an imposition as government control of speech or the press.  Freedom of expression does not become voided just because money changes hands.

Many thanks to Marginal Revolution for the link.  Their comment:

Would the Berlin Wall have fallen if East European governments had access to
this kind of technology twenty years ago?

A (Partial) Defense of Larry Krueger

Larry Krueger, a radio personality for the San Francisco (baseball) Giants, recently ignited a firestorm by saying that he was frustrated by the Giants'

brain-dead Caribbean hitters hacking at slop nightly.

In response, Giants manager Felipe Alou has demanded Krueger's firing, asserting that this statement represents the worst sort of racism, and that he refused to accept Krueger's apology because "There's no way to
apologize for such a sin."

OK, at the risk that Krueger turns out to be a serial idiot with a long history of racism, I will deal with this statement solely on its face.  And in context, the reaction to his statement strikes me as extremely exaggerated.

Some background:  Typically, hitters can be thought of in two classes:

  1. Picky hitters, that sort through pitches like my wife shopping for vegetables, carefully picking out only the best to swing at, and gladly accepting walks when they come.  These hitters are often considered more "thoughtful" hitters
  2. Aggressive hitters, who swing more indiscriminately at pitches, and who often consider a walk to be a failed at-bat.  These hitters often described as "intuitive" or "natural" hitters, rather than thoughtful.

Some managers prefer the first type, some the second (for example, Miguel Tejada's being indiscriminate at the plate drove A's GM Billy Beane crazy, while other managers are happy to let him hack away for their team, given his huge numbers).  Which brings us back to the Caribbean.  What's interesting to me is that the Caribbean is not actually a race, but a location.  And in that location, it is very clear that hitters are schooled to be type #2 aggressive hitters.  Players in the Dominican Republic, Filipe Alou's home country by the way, have a saying:  "You don't walk off the island".  In other words, to get the attention of the US scouts and come to the majors from the Caribbean, a hitter is trained to be an aggressive type 2 player. They are taught that going down hacking is better than a walk.

In a sense, the Caribbean is a big (and very very successful) baseball school for training players to play in the US.  And it turns out that this "school" tends to teach players be more indiscriminate hackers at the plate.  Ask any manager in the majors if Caribbean hitters on average are less picky, more aggressive hitters at the plate and they will say "of course".

So, to some extent, Krueger is getting flamed for saying what everyone already knows.  Saying that Caribbean hitters can be indiscriminate hackers is like saying that PAC 10 quarterbacks tend to be more NFL-ready and polished than Big 12 quarterbacks -- its just a fact that is not always true, but is true on average given how they were trained.  Krueger's real mistake was probably using the term "brain dead", which can be a dangerous term when it has racial overtones, but in context probably refers to hitting style rather than absolute IQ.  I think Alou is reaching to say that Krueger was referring to Caribbean hitters poor English skills, but I will admit that he has more history with Krueger and may have reason to make this interpretation from past events.