Posts tagged ‘sub’

It May Be Hard to Go Back To Full-Time Work

Back in April of 2013 I wrote about how Obamacare was increasing incentives for offering part-time rather than full-time work.   I warned at the time that once employers got used to scheduling based on part-time shifts, they might never want to go back because it could actually be cheaper and easier than using full-time workers

The service industry generally does not operate 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, so its labor needs do not match traditional full-time shifts.  Those of us who run service companies already have to piece together multiple employees and shifts to cover our operating hours.  In this environment, there is no reason one can’t stitch together employees making 29 hours a week (that don’t have to be given expensive health care policies) nearly as easily as one can stitch together 40 hours a week employees.   In fact, it can be easier — a store that needs to cover 10AM to 9PM can cover with two 5.5 hour a day employees.   If they work 5 days a week, that is 27.5 hours a week, safely part-time.  Three people working such hours with staggered days off can cover the store’s hours for 7 days.

Based on the numbers above, a store might actually prefer to only have sub-30 hour shifts, but may have, until recently, provided full-time 40 hours work because good employees expect it and other employers were offering it.  In other words, they had to offer full-time work because competition in the labor market demanded it.  But if everyone in the service business stops offering full-time work, the competitive pressure to offer anything but part-time jobs will be gone.  The service business may never go back.

The future American service worker will likely be faced with stitching together multiple part-time shifts.  Companies may partner to coordinate shifts so that workers split time between the companies, and third-party clearing houses may emerge in a new value-added role of helping employers and employees stitch together part-time shifts.

Today Virginia Postrel sees this effect in action

The worst thing about being on jury duty isn’t actually serving on a jury. It’s having to check in every day -- possibly several times a day, depending on your local system -- to see whether you’ll be needed. You can’t plan either your work or your personal life. Your schedule is unpredictable and completely out of your control.

For many part-time workers in the post-crash economy, life has become like endless jury duty. Scheduling software now lets employers constantly optimize who’s working, better balancing labor costs and likely demand. The process demands enormous flexibilityfrom part-time workers, sometimes requiring them to be on call all the time without knowing when they’ll work or how much they’ll earn. That puts the kibosh on the age-old strategy of working two or more part-time jobs to make ends meet. As my colleague Megan McArdle writes, “No matter how hard you are willing to work, stringing together anything approaching a minimum income becomes impossible.”

Tracking Changes in Those With Health Insurance

RAND has a study out on changes in people's sources for health insurance.  Once you get the hang of reading it, this is a great table:

click to enlarge

 

This is how to read it -- of the 40.7 million uninsured in September of 2013, 26.2 million remained uninsured, 7.2 million got new employer health insurance (ESI) , 3.6 million joined medicaid, etc.  But then some new uninsured were added back so the new total uninsured is 31.4 million.

One of the first things to notice is the marketplace number of 3.9 million is well below the Administration's claim of 7.1 million.  The Administration's number is not even within the error bar here, so one needs to be skeptical, if he was not already, of Administration sign-up figures.

We also can notice that the individual marketplace seemed to have shrunk from 9.4 million to 7.8 million.  No huge surprise, with all the cancellations that made the news last year.

The really interesting question, of course, is what happened to the uninsured.  We can use this table to look at net changes (millions of people).

2013 Uninsured 40.7
     To Employer -5.1
     To Medicaid -2.6
     To Individual +0.2
     To Exchange -1.4
     To Other -0.3
2014 Uninsured 31.4

To make sure everyone understands the math, 7.2 million left the ranks of the uninsured to get an employer policy, but 2.1 million previously insured by employers became uninsured.  The net is -5.1 million as shown.  All the other numbers are calculated the same way.

I have always had serious questions about the value of the Medicaid signups during this period.   Medicaid is not a limited enrollment product.  You can sign up bleeding on a gurney being rolled into the operating room, and in fact many do -- Hospitals are very good at enrolling people into Medicare as they walk in.  So it was really a misnomer in the first place that someone eligible for Medicaid is "uninsured" -- they are in fact insured, they just have not done the paperwork.  The Medicaid expansion in the PPACA probably helped, but many states that did not expand Medicaid had a lot of signups as well.

The exchange seems to have done little to affect the uninsured.  Net of the reductions in individual insurance presumably driven also by the PPACA, the exchanges reduced the uninsured by 1.2 million.

The really interesting number everyone is  looking at is the huge number of the insured that gained employer coverage.  Three quarters of the non-Medicare related reduction in uninsured (since I don't consider a lot of the Medicare signups a real reduction) were from people going onto employer plans.

Kevin Drum quotes Andrea Mcintyre as saying

If it’s correct, it was probably motivated multiple factors—I hate the word “synergy” on principle, but it comes to mind. The economy has been improving, so some of the previously unemployed have secured jobs with benefits. But CBO built in expectations about economic recovery, so I don’t think it’s quite right to try pinning all (or even most?) of the 8.2 million on that. The individual mandate, while weak in its first year, might be a stronger stick than we expected, nudging people to take their health benefits where they’d previously been opting out. Employers could be helping this move this trend along; the University of Michigan, for example, eliminated “opt out dollars” in 2014 (cash compensation for employees who declined coverage).

Drum add triumphantly

If this finding is confirmed, it's a genuine shocker. Although CBO projected that ESI would stay steady, there's been a lot of chatter about the likelihood of employers dropping coverage thanks to Obamacare. But that sure doesn't seem to have happened. So in addition to the usual sources of coverage—Medicaid, exchanges, sub-26ers—it looks like Obamacare has yet another big success story to tell, one that was almost completely unexpected.

Uh, maybe.  The employer insurance changes could also be an artifact of normal churn and of the odd study period.   The study period is only about half a year.  If there were annual patterns, ie with people losing employer health care early in the year and then gaining it at the end of the year, then only the gains would show up in the study and not the losses.  In fact, there is some reason to believe this is the case, as most corporations have open enrollment periods at the end of the calendar year.

But there is a more interesting issue here.  Folks arguing for Obamacare in the first place sold it by implying that most all the uninsured were uninsured because they could not afford coverage or did not have access.  Now it turns out a large block of the uninsured actually did have access and could afford it, they just chose not to buy it, for whatever reason.  Was this really what it was all about from the very beginning, forcing people to buy a product that they could afford but did not want?

A Question I Have Been Asking For Years -- Effect of Passthrough Entities on Income Equality Numbers

Greg Mankiw wonders how much the growth of pass-through corporations like sub-chapter S corps are skewing income trends, particularly for the highest earners.   With a C-corp, an owner only recognizes corporate income when it is passed through as dividends or when they sell the company.  With an S-Corp or LLC, there are no corporate taxes and corporate income is declared in that year, in full, on one's individual 1040.  I asked about this as far back as 2006 and 2007.

cbo pass through entities

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??

The Arrogance of Obama, and Obamacare

So I guess the Left has hit on its favored meme in response to the millions of insurance cancellations.  From Obama to Valerie Jarrett to any number of bloggers, the explanation is that the cancelled policies were "sub-standard".  We may have thought we liked them, but it turns out we were wrong.  Deluded in fact.

These folks -- despite not knowing my income, my net worth, my health situation, my age, my family size, my number and age of kids, my risk adversity, my degree of hypochondria, my preventative care habits, my diet, my lifestyle, my personal preferences and priorities, or any details about my insurance policy that I spend many hours analyzing and cross-comparing -- have decided they know better than I what health insurance I should want.

My plan was not substandard.  I graduated magna cum laude in engineering from Princeton and was first in my class at Harvard Business School.  I spent hours shopping for my coverage and was fully satisfied with my resulting policy.  Many of the aspects of my policy that cause Obama to call it "sub-standard" -- lack of mental health care, lack of pediatric dental care, lack of maternity care, lack of free contraception, a higher than average deductible -- were my preferences.  I got what I wanted.

More expensive, more highly featured products are not necessarily "better".  A Mercedes is not necessarily the best car choice for a middle class buyer just because it has more features than his Taurus.  Would Obama tell that person his Taurus is "sub-standard" and force him to pay for a Mercedes? If not, why the hell is doing the exact same thing but with health insurance OK?

From his speech today, via Bryan Preston

When Obama came to that section of his speech when the line usually falls, he went with a new spin. If you’ve lost your healthcare thanks to his law, he wants you to know that you were just “under-insured.” Because he says so.

“One of the things health reform was designed to do was to help not only the uninsured but also the under-insured,” he said.

“If you had one of these substandard plans before the Affordable Care Act became law, and our really liked that plan, you are able to keep it. That’s what I said when I was running for office.”

“But ever since the law was passed, if insurers decided to cancel or downgrade these substandard plans, what we said, under the law, is you have got to replace them with quality, comprehensive coverage,” he said, “because, that, too, was a central premise of the Affordable Care Act from the very beginning.”

Update:  ugh

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 9.12.14 AM

Update #2:  Yesterday I said the time seemed right for the Left to pick a meme to explain the insurance cancellations and then give the media its marching orders.  David Firestone of the NYT has gotten the memo

The so-called cancellation letters waved around at yesterday’s hearing were simply notices that policies would have to be upgraded or changed. Some of those old policies were so full of holes that they didn’t include hospitalization, or maternity care, or coverage of other serious conditions.

Republicans were apparently furious that government would dare intrude on an insurance company’s freedom to offer a terrible product to desperate people.

“Some people like to drive a Ford, not a Ferrari,” said Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. “And some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup, not a crystal stem. You’re taking away their choice.”

Luckily, a comprehensive and affordable insurance policy is no longer a Ferrari; it is now a basic right. In the face of absurd comments and analogies like this one, Ms. Sebelius never lost her cool in three-and-a-half hours of testimony, perhaps because she knows that once the computer problems and the bellowing die down, the country will be far better off.

So you see the talking points as the media gets their orders.  1.  All policies that were cancelled were sub-standard.  2.  People will be better off with more expensive policies, even if they are too dumb to konw it.

My policy was perfectly fine.  I was not tricked.  I am willing to bet I am at least as smart as David Firestone.  I am positive I am smarter than Barrack Obama.  And yet my policy was cancelled.

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

Via Bloomberg

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

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

And I totally agree with this

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

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

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

Two DVD Reviews of Poorly Rated Movies That Had Some Redeeming Characteristics

I had pretty good experiences this week with not one but two movies rated 6 and under (which is pretty low) on IMDB

Atlas Shrugged, Part II:  A mixed bag, but generally better than the first.  The first episode had incredibly lush, beautiful settings, particularly for a low budget indie movie.  But the acting was stilted and sub-par.  Or perhaps the directing was sub par, with poor timing in the editing and dialog.  Whatever.  It was not always easy to watch.

The second movie is not as visually interesting, but it tossed out most of the actors from the first movie (a nearly unprecedented step for a sequel) and started over.  As a result, the actors were much better.  Though I perhaps could wish Dagny was younger and a bit hotter, she and the actor who played Rearden really did a much better job (though there is very little romantic spark between them).  And, as a first in any Ayn Rand movie I have ever seen, there were actually protagonists I might hang out with in a bar.

The one failure of both movies is that, perhaps in my own unique interpretation of Atlas Shrugged, I have always viewed the world at large, and its pain and downfall, as the real protagonist of the book.  We won't get into the well-discussed flatness of Rand's characters, but what she does really well -- in fact the whole point of the book to me -- is tracing socialism to its logical ends.  For me, the climactic moment of the book is Jeff Allen's story of the fate of 20th Century Motors.  Little of this world-wilting-under-creeping-socialism really comes out well in the movie -- its more about Hank and Dagny being harassed personally.  Also, the movie makes the mistake of trying to touch many bases in the book but ends up giving them short shrift - e.g. Jeff Allen's story, D'Anconia's great money speech, Reardon's trial, etc.

I would rate this as worth seeing for the Ayn Rand fan - it falls short but certainly does not induce any cringes  (if only one could say that about the Star Wars prequels).

Lockout:  This is a remake of "Escape from New York", with a space prison substituting for Manhattan and the President's daughter standing in for the President.  The movie lacks the basic awesomeness of converting Manhattan to a prison.  In fact, only one thing in the whole movie works, and that is the protagonist played by Guy Pierce (who also starred in two of my favorite movies, LA Confidential and Memento).

The movie is a total loss when he is not on screen.  The basic plot is stupid, the supporting characters are predictable and irritating, the physics are absurd, and the special effects are weak.  The movie is full of action movie cliche's -- the hero throwing out humorous quips (ala Die Hard or any Governator movie), the unlikely buddy angle, the reluctant romantic plot.  But Pierce is very funny, and is thoroughly entertaining when onscreen.  I think he does the best  job at playing the wisecracking, cynical hero that I have seen in years.

Re-Inflating the Bubble

We all know from progressive and Democratic writers the the Community Reinvestment Act and other efforts to offer cheap home loans to people without good credit had nothing to do with the mortgage industry offering too many loans to people without good credit.

So we should not be in the least bit worried that the Obama Administration is calling for more mortgages to be given to people with weaker credit, while sub-prime auto loans are simply booming.  Because we have learned from Iceland and Greece and Cyprus that the best way to deal with a debt crisis is by encouraging consumers to take on more debt, and the best way to respond to an asset bubble is to try to re inflate the bubble.

All of this, of course, is simply crazy talk.  The people who are involved HAVE to know this won't end well, because the most recent example of this leading to disaster is only 4 years old.  Hell, the people doing this were in office when this same approach fell apart last time.  But politicians refuse to face some pain now to avoid huge pain in the future - for politicians, the discount rate on pain is infinite.

Arrogance and Coercion

Years ago I had an argument with my mother-in-law, who is a classic Massachusetts liberal  (by the way, we get along fine -- I have no tolerance for the notion that one can't be friends with someone who has a different set of politics).  The argument was very clarifying for me and centered around the notion of coercion.

I can't entirely remember what the argument was about, but I think it was over government-mandated retirement programs.  Should the government be forcing one to save, and if so, should the government do the investment of those savings (ie as they do in Social Security) even if this means substantially lower returns on investment?

The interesting part was we both used the word "arrogant."  I said it was arrogant for a few people in government to assume they could make better decisions for individuals.  She said it was arrogant for me to assume that all those individuals out there had the same training and capability that I had to be able to make good decisions for themselves.

And at the end of the day, that is essentially the two sides of the argument over government paternalism boiled down to its core.  I thought coercion was immoral, she thought letting unprepared people make sub-optimal decisions for themselves when other people know better is immoral.  As with most of my one on one arguments I have with people, I left it at that.  When I argue face to face with real people, I have long ago given up trying to change their minds and generally settle for being clear where our premises diverge.

I am reminded of all this reading Bruce McQuain's take on Sarah Conly's most recent attempt to justify coercive paternalism (the latter is not an unfair title I have saddled her with -- it's from her last book).  Reading this I had a couple of other specific thoughts

  1. I am amazed how much Conly and folks like her can write this stuff without addressing the fundamental contradiction at its core -- if we are so bad making decisions for ourselves, why do we think the same human beings suddenly become good at it when they join government?  She would argue, I guess, that there are a subset of super-humans who are able to do what most of us can't, but how in a democracy do we thinking-impaired people know to vote for one of the supermen?  Or if you throw our democracy, what system has ever existed that selected for leaders who make good decisions for the peasants vs., say, selected for people who were good generals. 
  2. Is there any difference between Conly's coercive paternalism and Kipling's white man's burden?  Other than the fact that the supermen and the mass of sub-optimizing schlubs are not differentiated by race?  It's fascinating to see Progressives who are traditionally energized by hatred of colonialism rejuvinating one of imperialism's core philosophical justifications.

Auto Bailouts and the Rule of Law

Todd Zwicki has a great article on the auto bailouts.  Here is a brief excerpt of a long and very comprehensive article.

Of the two proceedings, Chrysler's was clearly the more egregious. In the years leading up to the economic crisis, Chrysler had been unable to acquire routine financing and so had been forced to turn to so-called secured debt in order to fund its operations. Secured debt takes first priority in payment; it is also typically preserved during bankruptcy under what is referred to as the "absolute priority" rule — since the lender of secured debt offers a loan to a troubled borrower only because he is guaranteed first repayment when the loan is up. In the Chrysler case, however, creditors who held the company's secured bonds were steamrolled into accepting 29 cents on the dollar for their loans. Meanwhile, the underfunded pension plans of the United Auto Workers — unsecured creditors, but possessed of better political connections — received more than 40 cents on the dollar.

Moreover, in a typical bankruptcy case in which a secured creditor is not paid in full, he is entitled to a "deficiency claim" — the terms of which keep the bankrupt company liable for a portion of the unpaid debt. In both the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies, however, no deficiency claims were awarded to the wronged creditors. Were bankruptcy experts to comb through American history, they would be hard-pressed to identify any bankruptcy case with similar terms.

To make matters worse, both bankruptcies were orchestrated as so-called "section 363" sales. This meant that essentially all the assets of "old Chrysler" were sold to "new Chrysler" (and "old GM" to "new GM"), and were pushed through in a rush. These sales violated the longstanding bankruptcy principle that an asset sale should not be functionally equivalent to a plan of re-organization for an entire company — what bankruptcy lawyers call a "sub rosa plan." The reason is that the re-organization process offers all creditors the right to vote on the proposed plan as well as a chance to offer competing re-organization plans, while an asset sale can be carried out without such a vote.

In the cases of GM and Chrysler, however, the government essentially pushed through a re-organization disguised as a sale, and so denied the creditors their rights. As the University of Pennsylvania's David Skeel observed last year, "selling" an entire company of GM or Chrysler's size and complexity in this manner was unprecedented. Even on a smaller scale, it would have been highly irregular: While rush bankruptcy sales of much smaller companies were once common, the bankruptcy laws were overhauled in 1978 precisely to eliminate this practice.

At first, the fact that the companies' creditors (and especially Chrysler's creditors, who were so badly mistreated) put up with such terms and waived their property rights seems astonishing. But it becomes less so — and sheds more light on how this entire process imperils the rule of law — when one considers the enormous leverage the federal government had over most of these creditors. Many of Chrysler's secured-bond holders were large financial institutions — several of which had previously been saved from failure by TARP. Though there is no explicit evidence that support from TARP funds bought these bond holders' acquiescence in the Chrysler case, their silence in the face of a massive financial haircut is otherwise very difficult to explain.

Indeed, those secured-bond holders who were not supported by TARP did not go nearly as quietly.

The Seen and Unseen: Passenger Rail Edition

We have all heard environmentalists and other American intellectual snobs lamenting that we just are not as smart as Europeans because we have so much less passenger rail.  But because freight and high-speed passenger rail service does not coexist well on the same tracks, urging more passenger rail on the US rail net is effectively asking for more freight to be dumped onto the highways.

Megan McArdle writes:

Moving freight by rail rather than by truck is an enormous carbon saving; one locomotive can haul as much as hundreds of trucks.  It also reduces highway congestion.  Unfortunately, it's hard for passengers and freight to share tracks.  In part, it's difficult simply because it's expensive to upgrade track to handle passenger speeds, but also because freight moves much more slowly, and on an irregular schedule.
I might well argue that if we were simply trying to maximize environmental benefit, we'd ignore passenger rail, and focus on upgrading our freight systems, which sorely need it.  Moreover, these upgrades could largely be made without the massive procedural obstacles that block new high speed rail lines.

But freight rail is not sexy.  It does not excite donors, and it does not excite most of the voters who are motivated by high speed rail.  Politicians win votes by delivering (or at least promising) highly visible improvements; not by silently enhancing the movement of goods from port to Wal-Mart.

I am not sure politicians really have to do anything other stay out of the way (we already have among the cheapest rail rates in the world, 1/2 of China's and 1/8 of Germany's).  The numbers on freight movement are pretty dramatic:

See the percentage of goods moved by freight, which is dramatically higher for the US.  The end result is we have a LOT less freight on our roads than the EU or Japan, and might have even less if US maritime laws had not done so much to kill coastal shipping.
This is the great unseen in all these "sophisticated" conversations about Europe.  These Euro-philes are so much smarter than the rest of us that they manage to ignore the most important part of the equation  (largely because it is unseen and not sexy).  In fact, the US has the best rail system in the world, and in fact the governments of Europe and Japan have likely sub-optimized their rail systems by forcing their focus towards passengers rather than freight.
I will leave the last word to the Anti-Planner:

Europe has decided to run its rail system primarily for passengers, while America's system is run mainly for freight. Europe's rail system has about 6 percent of the passenger travel market, while autos have about 78 percent. Meanwhile, 75 percent of European freight goes by highway. Here in the U.S., highway's share of freight travel is only 29 percent, while the auto's share of passenger travel is about 82 percent. So trains get 4 percent of potential auto users in Europe out of their cars, but leave almost three times as much freight on the highway.

False Dichotomy

False dichotomy, via Mother Jones:

Faced with a world that can support either a lot of us consuming a lot less or far fewer of us consuming more, we're deadlocked: individuals, governments, the media, scientists, environmentalists, economists, human rights workers, liberals, conservatives, business and religious leaders. On the supremely divisive question of the ideal size of the human family, we're amazingly united in a pact of silence.

My guess is that the authoritarians at Mother Jones don't particularly care which is the outcome, so long as they get to wield the coercive power to make the choice for us.  Thank God these guys didn't run things in 1900.  Or 1800.  Or 1700.  Or 1600.  Or 1500.  Given their belief in zero sum choices and their complete lack of confidence in the power of the human mind to innovate, who knows what kind of sub-optimal world we would have been locked into?

The Technocratic Standard-Setting Urge

The Thin Green Line writes:

But other problems have such a straightforward solution the only question is, why haven't we implemented it already?So it is with the phone charger (H/T Mother Jones). How many old ones do you have kicking around in a drawer? If you're loyal to a particular phone, you may even have several identical chargers. Because they're electronic, you're also burdened with disposing of them properly lest they leach their toxins into some poor, unsuspecting landfill.

Not only that but chargers use a good bit more electricity than they need to and are vampires"”meaning they continue to draw power even when they're not, you know, charging.

Now imagine a world where not only did phone chargers use less energy, but they were universal, meaning any charger fit any phone. That would mean about 600 million fewer chargers each year stashed in drawers around the world and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15 to 24 million tons a year"”not even to mention e-waste.

The UN's International Telecommunication Union has approved this universal dreamboat of a charger. It will use half as much energy on standby. Samsung, Nokia and Motorola have already agreed to use it. Of course, they're hemorrhaging business to BlackBerry and Apple...no word yet from those guys.

I wrote:

There are at least two problems with this.  The first is that consumers are all different.   A lot of cell phones (and other devices like my kindle) are standardizing on a mini-USB connection.  Should I use the UN's solution, which is likely inferior?  Why?  Most of the time I don't even travel with a charger, I plug the mini-USB into my computer to charge.  That way I only have 1 charger on the road, for my computer.  You want me to carry 2, in the name of having fewer chargers?   You might say, "well, I hadn't thought of this situation," and I would say, "that's the point - you can't, there are 6 billion of us individuals out there."

The second problem is innovation.  Who says that innovation won't demand a different type of connection in 2 years?  Do you really want your technology gated to some working group at the UN?  Go back in time and imagine the government locking in a standard on something.  We still would have 801.11a wireless only, or cars would still all have crank starts (but they would all turn the same direction!) or cars would all have the same size wheels.  If the UN had invented something 3 years ago, it would have been power only and not data.  Today, most cell phones have power connections and connectors that double as data ports.

There is always a technocratic urge in messy changing technology markets to swoop in and mandate a standard from above, even while the technology is still evolving.  The problem is that neither you nor anyone else knows everything.  Hayek described this information problem well but you make it abundantly clear on this site you have no familiarity with Hayek.  You extrapolate what seems to be a good solution from your narrow knowledge, but cause many of us to sub-optimize because you did not anticipate how I use my charger or what technology some cell phone manufacturer today may be developing that requires a different kind of charger standard.

Raising Car Prices for the Poor

I had read a couple of articles positing that by destroying low value cars in the "cash for clunkers program,"  the government was hurting the poor by removing the supply of sub-$5000 used cars from the market.  But what I did not realize is that this program further requires that the engines themselves be rendered useless, so that they cannot be used for parts or rebuilt replacement engines.

The automotive death sentences are meant to ensure that gas-guzzling old models make no return to the road. As sodium silicate disables an entire generation of junkyard-bound cars, the price of used engines will likely skyrocket, predicts Michael Wilson, executive vice president of the Automotive Recyclers Association. "It's the law of supply and demand."

Good plan.  The Journal has a good article about how this sodium silicate process was selected to destroy cars.  I am left wondering if engine parts can even be recycled economically for their metal after the treatment.

The Emerging Corporate State

I very seldom include really long excerpts from articles, but this is perhaps the most telling article I have read to really give you a feel for what the new government ownership of the automakers really means.

It sounds crazy: Just a week after the White House scolded Chrysler LLC for relying too much on gas guzzlers, the company is heading to a marquee auto show Wednesday to unveil a new SUV.

Chrysler insists the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which clocks in at 20 mpg in its two-wheel-drive version and 19 in four-wheel-drive, is a crowd favorite and a crucial part of its lineup.

"This is a very important vehicle for us. It's one of the primary legs of the Chrysler stool," Chrysler spokesman Rick Deneau said. "Customers have told us they want this vehicle and that it's the right size."...

The White House slammed Chrysler for having a product lineup so heavily weighted with trucks and SUVs. It added that the automaker does not have enough products in the pipeline to meet an expected increase in demand for small cars.

But Chrysler is standing by the Grand Cherokee. It's profitable, recognizable and the No. 2-selling vehicle in the Jeep lineup. Grand Cherokee sales fell by almost half during the first three months of the year, but its market share has remained steady, according to Autodata Corp....

Karl Brauer, editor in chief of the automotive Web site Edmunds.com, said it may be hard for Chrysler to please both the government, which is demanding greater fuel efficiency from the Big Three, and its customers, many of whom still demand big cars.

"It would be far more foolish for Chrysler to abandon its core competencies in the Jeep brand lineup than it is to come out with a new" Grand Cherokee, Brauer said.

I hardly know where to start with this.  Some thoughts:

  • As expected, the administration does not really care about the near-term recovery of GM and Chrysler, or, if they care, they are totally ignorant as to the realities of the US car market and the sources of Chrysler's profitability.   They care about enforcing a particular political agenda that has little to do with, and may actually conflict with, the health of the company.
  • We have hit a new low when the President of the United States has a strong opinion on and reaction to what car a private company chooses to feature at an auto show.
  • We REALLY have hit a new low when my newspaper thinks its "crazy" that a private company would follow its own marketing intuition rather than the dictates of the US President as to what car they should feature at an auto show.  The AZ Republic just assumes the company should do whatever Obama tells them to.
  • "Expected increase in demand for small cars"  -- Expected, by whom?  Hybrids are currently losing market share.
  • It takes years to develop a new car, so this particular variation of the Cherokee has been in the pipeline for a while, and millions of dollars have likely been invested in it.  And the product line makes money, unlike many other Chrysler cars.  But the Administration wants them NOT to sell it?  It takes years to change a company's auto portfolio, but Obama is going to throw a hissy fit because they have not done it in two months?  Don't they know who he is?
  • The article even gives the data one needs to understand why buyers don't share Obama's need to downsize their car.  Based on numbers in the article, this SUV uses $235 more gas a year than the Camry (which I guess is a more politically correct car choice).  That is $19.60 a month.  Assuming a car payment of $450 per month, that is about 4% of the car payment.  In other words, the difference in gas use is a TRIVIAL expense for the person who can afford to buy the car in the first place.  Over 5 years, the cumulative extra gas to fuel the SUV costs about the same as the 16" alloy wheel option on the Camry.

Every day, I have an increasing sense that we are creating a dictatorship run by a grad school public policy seminar.

I am sure that Obama really believes, in his heart, that Americans really want smaller cars rather than SUVs.  So what?  By acting on his own preferences, he is breaking what I call marketing rule #1:  Never assume ones own personal preferences are shared by the marketplace.

I wrote the following in the comments to this post where a good Bay Area greenie had expressed similar views (that automakers are hurting because they are producing the wrong cars that Americans don't want):

I have been a marketer all my life. As such, one of the first rules of survival I learned was to never overlay my own personal preferences on the marketplace. GM has had this problem for years, with insular design teams locked in some weird 1970s design world.

But you and others are simply repeating the mistake, with a different set of perspectives -- you assume your personal preferences in cars represent that of the majority of buyers, and you wish to use the fiat power of government to enforce those preferences. It is a recipe for fiscal disaster. I promise you what people buy, for example, in rural Arizona is not the same thing that people buy in SF, no matter how much those on the coasts want to forget that flyover country exists.

I actually think there is decent evidence that a lot of people do want what GM is offering, given their market share. Why do people always say they make cars that no one wants to buy, when they sell 10 million of them each year? I will confess the GM product line does nothing for me, but so what? Others seem to like it, and, unlike many, I don't look down my nose at them for doing so.

The problem is not necessarily their product line, but their cost position. The average price of new cars has not risen for 15 years. Much like in computers, consumers now expect ever better cars for the same or lower price each year. GM is still producing cars with a mindset built in an era of a three-company domestic monopoly, where 4% annual price increases were routine. Their competition is producing like they are Dell or Toshiba, recognizing that they are never going to get price increases and ruthlessly driving down costs.

Update: This is relevent, even if not directed specifically at autos:

Er, industry also knew how to make low-flow toilets, which is why every toilet in my recently renovated rental house clogs at least once a week.  They knew how to make more energy efficient dryers, which is why even on high, I have to run every load through the dryer in said house twice.  And they knew how to make inexpensive compact flourescent bulbs, which is why my head hurts from the glare emitting from my bedroom lamp.    They also knew how to make asthma inhalers without CFCs, which is why I am hoarding old albuterol inhalers that, unlike the new ones, a) significantly improve my breathing and b) do not make me gag.  Etc.

In fact, when I look back at almost every "environmentally friendly" alternative product I've seen being widely touted as a cost-free way to lower our footprint, held back only by the indecent vermin at "industry" who don't care about the environment, I notice a common theme: the replacement good has really really sucked compared to the old, inefficient version.  In some cases, the problem could be overcome by buying a top-of-the-line model that costs, at the very least, several times what the basic models do.  In other cases, as with my asthma inhalers, we were just stuck.

Often "industry reluctance" to offer green products is actually industry understanding of customer reluctance to buy them.

Whither the Volt

Via Jim Kingsdale:

Since PHEV's [plugin hybrid electric vehicles] can have so much impact on both the energy investment outlook and national security, I follow with some interest the news about their likely availability.  Recently a picture is starting to emerge.  It is not positive for American car companies, of which G.M.'s Volt is the poster child.  This is not totally surprising given G.M.'s proven history of incompetence.

We know that the Volt's battery is so expensive that G.M. proposes to sell the car for $40,000 - a price that would eliminate most buyers.  And even with such a high price G.M. promises they would lose money on every vehicle.  So, as I've previously written, the Volt may well be more of a political strategy for G.M. than a likely transportation solution.   Now a new study by Carnegie Mellon University says the design of the Volt's propulsion system is inherently sub-optimal and uneconomical - "not cost effective in any scenario" in the words of the study.

The reason is quite obvious once you think about it.  G.M. designed the Volt battery to go 40 miles on a charge because, they "reasoned", some 90% of all drivers go no more than 40 miles in a day.  What Carnegie Mellon points out is that the average driver goes less than 20 miles in a day.  Therefore the Volt's battery is twice as large as necessary for some 50% of drivers .  Since battery weight and cost are the prime determinants of a PHEV's cost-effectiveness, the Volt battery is about twice as large as is economically practical for most drivers.

Here's how the report put it: "The Carnegie Mellon study, conducted by engineers from three different departments, constructed computer simulation models to determine the impact of additional batteries on fuel consumption and cost and greenhouse gas emissions over a range of charging frequencies.  It found that small-capacity plug-ins that get less than 20 miles per charge are more efficient than conventional hybrids. And it said that large capacity hybrids like the Volt that go 40 miles or further on a charge are never cost-effective, because the batteries cost and weigh too much.  A car with the Volt's range, according to the study, would also be extremely uneconomical traveling fewer miles as it hauls around battery capacity it doesn't need."

So much for the Volt.  Ciao - and lets hope the U.S. govt. is smart enough not to fall for the Volt's fools-gold as an excuse to keep G.M., a chronically mismanaged company, from enjoying the cleansing benefits of bankruptcy.  Among which benefits might be new management.

A Last Case for Payday Loans

Well, we have upheld the ban on payday loans here in Arizona.

The payday-loan industry, which flourished this past decade on Arizonans' almost-insatiable need for quick, short-term loans regardless of their high interest rates, may have to close down in Arizona unless state lawmakers can be persuaded to ignore voters' wishes.

Voters last week overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 200, a ballot initiative financed and written by the loan companies to allow them to continue charging high interest rates on small loans. That decision placed Arizona among a growing number of states that have effectively shut down the payday lenders.

So, payday loans from company A to person B are really popular with both A & B, and the industry has "flourished."  But persons C, who don't participate in this market, have decided that, for their own good, A & B need to stop engaging in this behavior.  One such third party explains it this way:

Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, opposed Prop. 200 and has steadfastly fought payday lenders. She sees no need to let payday lenders continue to charge higher interest rates than other lenders.

Her and voter's actions have effectively limited payday loan companies to charging total interest and fees equivalent to no more than 36% annual interest.  OK, you say, this seems like a really high rate.  That should be enough, right?  Well, the problem comes with fixed costs and loan size.  Lets look at an example.

A typical payday loan size and term is about $400 for 18 days (pdf).  A typical fee for such a loan is $50, which includes both fixed costs and interest.  Wow, annualized that is 250%.  Usurious!  So would you personally go out and get a payday loan?  No way! And that is why voters vote to ban them - they are not good for me personally, so they must not be good for anyone else.

But here is the problem.  How do you maintain a storefront and trained people and all the documentation and collection apparatus for less than $50?  The same loan at 36% would allow a fee of only $7.20.  That barely even covers paying someone to originate the loan at the counter, much less pay interest and a risk premium.

Try going to the bank and getting a home loan or some other type of loan for only a $50 fee.  Granted those loans are more complicated, but in turn you will likely get charged hundred and probably thousands of dollars in fees.  There is a large fixed cost component to the act of lending which we tend to ignore on larger loans, but is there none-the-less.  In fact, just try to go to a bank and get a loan for $400 at all.  They don't make them, outside of the credit card industry, which solves this problem in part through economies of scale and in part through cost-shifting costs to merchants, options not really available to payday loan companies.

And so far, we are only talking about fixed costs, not the underwriting risk of extending loans to about any person who wanders in the door and can sign his/her name.  Anyone remember sub-prime mortgages?  Maybe there is a justification for large risk premiums, after all, on loans to under-qualified borrowers.  Particularly when you consider that most payday loan customers could not qualify even for a sub-prime mortgage.

The best equivalent to a payday loan offered by banks is overdraft protection, where the bank will go ahead and pay out on checks where there are insufficient funds, though they will charge a $20-$30 fee per check paid.  As you can see, these fees are very similar in magnitude to those charged by payday loan companies, particularly when you consider that these fees are generally charged on checks that average about $150.  Also, folks who get one overdraft fee usually get several in a row.  People are willing to pay these fees because they are in fact lower than the fees of actually having a check bounce, which can incur similar fees from merchants as well as hurting one's credit.

So, you just had to write three checks to get the power and water and telephone turned on, and you are pretty sure the money is not there in your checking account.  You are facing $80 in bounced-check (NSF) fees or overdraft fees.  Now might you consider a $400 loan for a $50 fee?  Well, probably the answer is still no, you would put it on your credit cards.  But everyone doesn't have credit cards, or doesn't qualify for them, or don't have a lifestyle that allows for them.  Where do they go, short of Tony Soprano?

Update: A reader sent me a link to this report, comparing payday loan rates to overdraft protection, and finding them of similar magnitude.  The author calculates an average $28.61 overdraft fee on an average $155 bounced check yields an APR of 478%.  There is a fixed cost to lending, and small very short term loans cost a lot of money, no matter how you get them.

I will remind folks not to be fooled by 18% or 23% rates on credit cards and set that as the market rate for small loans.  First, this misses annual fees for the cards.  But more importantly, it misses merchant fees.  Merchants pay between 2.5% and 3.5% of everything you charge to the credit card companies.  This helps to subsidize rates and, particularly, subsidize the fixed costs of small lending transactions.

From the Guy Who Really Deserved His Peace Prize

Last year, Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for proposing world-wide government actions that will prevent a billion of more people form escaping poverty.  But, once upon a time, Norman Borlaug won a Peace Prize for actually helping the poor help themselves.  Here is what he is saying today.  Folks from the EU to Bono to Al Gore are standing in the way, again, of people feeding themselves by aggressively applying the technology we take for granted in America:

Yields can still be increased by 50-100% in much of the Indian sub-Continent,
Latin America, the former USSR and Eastern Europe, and by 100-200% in much of
sub-Saharan Africa, providing political stability is maintained, bureaucracies
that destroys entrepreneurial initiative are reigned in, and their researchers
and extension workers devote more energy to putting science and technology to
work at the farm level....

I now say that the world has the technology - either available or
well-advanced in the research pipeline - to feed a population of 10 billion
people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will
be permitted to use this new technology. Extremists in the environmental
movement from the rich nations seem to be doing everything they can to stop
scientific progress in its tracks. Small, but vociferous and highly effective
and well-funded, anti-science and technology groups are slowing the application
of new technology, whether it be developed from biotechnology or more
conventional methods of agricultural science. I am particularly alarmed by those
who seek to deny small-scale farmers of the Third World -and especially those in
sub-Saharan Africa - access to the improved seeds, fertilizers, and crop
protection chemicals that have allowed the affluent nations the luxury of
plentiful and inexpensive foodstuffs which, in turn, has accelerated their
economic development.

McCain Believes in Nothing

I am increasingly convinced that John McCain believes in nothing, or at least believes in nothing strong enough that he can't turn a 180 on the issue if the polling numbers move the meter hard enough

The plan would retire old
loans that homeowners no longer can pay and replace them with less
expensive, 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages that are federally guaranteed.
McCain said families would gain "the opportunity to trade a burdensome
mortgage for a manageable loan that reflects the market value of their
home."

In line with
his concern about bailing out speculators, McCain's proposal would
apply only to homeowners who took out sub-prime mortgages after 2005
for homes that are their main residence. They would need to have proved
they were credit-worthy at the time of the loan.

I hope everyone else is enjoying the notion of "sub-prime mortgages" where the borrowers were "credit-worthy at the time of the loan." 

Congress: We Can't Stop Ourselves From Doing Harm

From the Washington Post, via Tom Nelson, comes a nice summary of the consequences of Congress's addiction to ethanol mandates and subsidies.  The last sentence in particular is one I have warned about for a while on this issue.

To be sure, some farmers in these countries benefit from higher prices.
But many poor countries -- including most in sub-Saharan Africa -- are
net grain importers, says the International Food Policy Research
Institute, a Washington-based think tank. In some of these countries, the poorest of the poor spend 70 percent or more of their budgets on food.
About a third of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is
undernourished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of
the United Nations. That proportion has barely changed since the early
1990s. High food prices make gains harder.
...
It's
the extra demand for grains to make biofuels, spurred heavily in the
United States by government tax subsidies and fuel mandates, that has
pushed prices dramatically higher
. The Economist rightly calls
these U.S. government subsidies "reckless." Since 2000, the share of
the U.S. corn crop devoted to ethanol production has increased from
about 6 percent to about 25 percent -- and is still headed up.
...
This
is not a case of unintended consequences. A new generation of
"cellulosic" fuels (made from grasses, crop residue or wood chips)
might deliver benefits, but the adverse effects of corn-based ethanol
were widely anticipated. Government subsidies reflect the careless and
cynical manipulation of worthy public goals for selfish ends. That the
new farm bill may expand the ethanol mandates confirms an old lesson:
Having embraced a giveaway, politicians cannot stop it, no matter how
dubious.

Capitalism Rorschach Test

The current failures in the subprime mortgage market, both of borrowers and lenders, has become one of those classic Rorschach tests where people self-identify by what description they apply to the market fallout.  Views on capitalism, free interchange, and individual responsibility are all tied up in the choice between:

  1. Businesses recognized an opportunity to expand the mortgage market by offering mortgages to poorer, riskier borrowers and managing the risk by securitizing these loans and reselling them in the increasingly robust institutional market for such loan packages.  While certainly in it for the profit, this move was consistent with the long-term trend in the US to wider home ownership.  It turned out, however, that almost everyone involved were working off some poor assumptions.  Borrowers over-estimated their ability to pay and counted too much on the continued upward trajectory of real estate values.  Lenders made a number of bad credit decisions, something not wholly surprising in a new market.  And institutions and other investors under-estimated the risk in these packages, particularly the systematic risk associated with falling housing prices.   The sub-prime market will likely re-emerge, but with everyone smarter the next time around.  Huge losses give lenders and institutions all the incentive they need to change their behavior in the future.
    -- OR --
  2. Unscrupulous lenders created the sub-prime market as a way to make a quick buck off of naive and inexperienced borrowers.  They tricked these borrowers into taking on more debt than they could handle in order to get large up-front fees.  Institutions were not arms-length investors, but were explicitly knowledgeable and "in on" this con.  Their goal was to sell worthless bonds to unsuspecting investors.  The fact that the lenders and institutions are taking the biggest losses in the market collapse is not a sign that they are innocent, but that the market fell apart faster than they expected, so they had not had the chance to unload the securities on duped individual investors.  Without regulation, lenders and institutions will continue committing these same crimes and poor people have proven that they need outside help to make good decisions with their money.  Congress needs to step in and prevent poorer borrowers from being offered mortgages in the future, and institutional investors need to be held financially accountable when borrowers take on more debt than they can handle.

Update:  There are several comments that say "can't it be both?"  Surely there can be simultaneous examples of both in the same market, but, as an example, proponents of #2 talk as if theirs is the dominant explanation, and are proposing legislation on that basis. 

Recognize that you have to really believe #2 all the way to even consider some of the draconian measures that Congress is entertaining.  There is legislation that is being seriously considered at this moment
that will fundamentally change the entire mortgage market, not just the
sub-prime piece, for the worse.  In particular, Congress is considering making financial institutions that invest in securitized batches of mortgages liable for any illegal lending practices of the originator.  This will effectively kill the securitization process.  Many of you younger folks won't know what that means, but in effect it will send us back to the mortgage process of the 1970's, which I promise you really, really sucked.  This will make it much harder for everyone to get mortgages.  Since securitization, there are an order of magnitude more mortgage competitors, the mortgage approval and application process take about 1% of the time it used to, rates are lower, and there is much more flexibility in mortgage design. 

A Nation of Slaveholders

With the northern victory in the Civil War, and the subsequent passage of the 13th amendment, slavery was formally ended in this country.  Specifically, the 13th amendment stated:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for
crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist
within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Unfortunately, over a century later, slavery has returned to the United States.  Today, through the exercise of political power and the redistribution of wealth that should never have been Constitutional, 55% of Americans hold the other 45% in bondage, living off the product of their efforts just as surely as the white plantation owners of the Old South lived off the sweat of their African slaves.  The basis for this new servitude, however,  is not race, or religion, or national origin, but productivity. (via TJIC)

From the Christian Science Monitor:

Slightly over half of all Americans - 52.6 percent - now receive
significant income from government programs, according to an analysis
by Gary Shilling, an economist in Springfield, N.J. That's up from 49.4
percent in 2000 and far above the 28.3 percent of Americans in 1950. If
the trend continues, the percentage could rise within ten years to pass
55 percent, where it stood in 1980 on the eve of President's Reagan's
move to scale back the size of government.

Meanwhile, Ari Fleischer writes in today's WSJ (sub req) that the
top 1% of income earners pay 37% of total income taxes, the top 10% of
income earners pay 71% of total income taxes, and the top 40% of income
earners pay 99% of total income taxes.

The latter analysis is a bit off because it does not include payroll taxes, but if you include these taxes you still have under 50% of Americans paying virtually all the taxes (table at top of this page includes payroll taxes

The second greatest failing of the Constitution as originally drafted (the first being legality of slavery) is the lack of clear protections for property and commerce.  As a result, the only protection we have against full confiscation of everything we own is the whim of the electorate.  Now that a clear majority of voters are on the receiving end of money confiscated from a minority of voters, how good is this last protection? 

We have become a nation of slaveholders, with the majority holding the productive minority in bondage.  Inserting government in the middle of this process as an agent, so the recipients of this slave labor don't have to get their own hands dirty, does not change the nature of the relationship one bit.  It just pretties things up for our conscience.

Update:  Is the word "slavery" over the top?  Maybe, and I guess I could be accused of trivializing the true horrors of African slavery in the 19th century.  So substitute the word "serfdom" for "slavery". 

Intellectual Welfare and Credit

A few years ago I coined the term "Intellectual Welfare."  I originally devised he term to describe Social Security, where it was arguable that most people in the program were not receiving a transfer payment, but they were instead receiving for-your-own-good government restriction of individual choice.  In the case of Social Security, government takes over the management of some of our retirement savings (at an appalling cost) because we lunkheads can't be trusted to manage our own savings for ourselves.

I was going to prepare a similar post about cries for regulation in the sub-prime credit market, but Alex Tabarrok did it already:

Roubini and others generating hysteria about defaults in the
mortgage market are credit snobs - they think credit is something that
only the rich can handle.  Just look at the language that Roubini uses
to analogize borrowers - they are "reckless patients" who "spent the last few years on a diet of booze, drugs and artery clogging junk food."  Similarly, the Washington Post tells us that it's the end of the "borrowing binge."

Yeah, we get it.  Credit is ok for us, the "sober" borrowers but poor people can't
handle credit.  Too much credit among the poor generates decay and
social pathology.  Credit must be regulated.  We can't, for example,
have credit stores in poor neighborhoods.  Don't you know that credit is bad for people without self-discipline?   Let the poor buy on installment credit?  That's unconscionable.  Today's furor over sub-prime mortgages is the same old story.

Update: This really ticks me off:

Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads
the House Financial Services Committee, said in an interview on Friday
that he intended to move legislation in the coming weeks. He said the
measure he was preparing would discourage abusive loans by imposing
legal liability "up the chain." It would give borrowers and others the
ability to sue the Wall Street firms that package those mortgages and
then sell them as mortgage-backed securities, as well as the purchasers
of those securities in the secondary market.

"Anybody, including the original borrower, can make a claim, and the
liability would go up the chain," he said. "People say it may
discourage certain kinds of lending. But that's precisely what we want
to do. We will pass a bill that won't allow companies to loan people
more money than they can pay back or loans for more than the value of
the house."

GRRRR.  Does no one remember what it was like to get a mortgage before they were so easily securitized?  The paperwork in the credit application was horrendous, as was the time it took to complete the mortgage.  Today they check two or three numbers, and if these numbers match the requirements of the Wall Street companies that package the loans, the loan is approved.  This legislation, which is aimed at slamming the securitization process, will hurt everyone.  All of our lives will be made worse so a few politicians can demagogue an issue that will be forgotten in 12 months. 

 

Economics is a Science. Seriously.

George Reisman at Mises:

When it comes to matters such as the theory of evolution and
stem-cell research, so-called liberals"”i.e., socialists who have stolen
the name that once meant an advocate of individual freedom"”ridicule
religious conservatives for their desire to replace science with the
dictates of an alleged divine power. Yet when it comes to matters of
economic theory and economic policy"”for example, minimum-wage
legislation"”these same liberals themselves invoke the dictates of an
alleged divine power. Their divine power, of course, is not the God of
traditional religion, but rather a historically much more recent deity:
namely, the great god State.

Traditional religionists believe that an omnipotent God came before
all natural law and was not bound or limited by any such law, but
rather created such natural laws as suited him, as he went along. Just
so, today's liberals believe, at least in the realm of economics, that
the State is not bound or limited by any pre-existing natural laws. In
the case in hand, the State, today's liberals believe, is free to
decree wage rates above the level that would exist without its
interference and no ill-effects, such as unemployment, will arise.

Where have I heard that before?  Oh yeah, I remember:

So here is this week's message for the Left:  Economics is a
science.  Willful ignorance or emotional rejection of the well-known
precepts of this science is at least as bad as a fundamentalist
Christian's willful ignorance of evolution science (for which the Left
so often criticizes their opposition).
  In fact, economic
ignorance is much worse, since most people can come to perfectly valid
conclusions about most public policy issues with a flawed knowledge of
the origin of the species but no one can with a flawed understanding of
economics....

In fact, the more I think about it, the more economics and evolution are very similar.  Both are sciences that are trying to describe the operation of very complex, bottom-up, self-organizing systems.  And,
in both cases, there exist many people who refuse to believe such
complex and beautiful systems can really operate without top-down
control
.

By the way, the author partially addresses the Card and Krueger study on New Jersey fast food that purportedly showed that employment goes up as minimum wage goes up.  Unfortunately, the author does not get into the now fairly well-known problem with this study.  For those who don't know, here it is:

Card and Krueger looked at the employment in fast food restaurants in New Jersey both before and after the minimum wage went up.  Here is the key process fact you need to know -- they did not look at every restaurant, just at some branches of national chains (e.g. McDonalds).  They did not include, say, Joe's sub shop.  The restaurants they studied shared a couple of traits in common:

  • They were all far more professionally managed than the average small restaurant
  • They all had higher labor productivity than the average restaurant
  • They all had far more capital equipment (e.g. automation of labor) than the average restaurant

In other words, they studied the restaurants that were able to incur a wage increase with the least impact on their total costs (and eventually prices).  Follow-up studies have shown that there was probably a real reduction in total restaurant employment in New Jersey in the studied period, but the differences in productivity cited above caused the impact to disproportionately hit small ma and pa operations as opposed to large capital intensive nation chains.  In fact, during this period, the national chains experienced a gain in market share vis a vis smaller shops, as the higher minimum wage made it harder for local shops to compete with the national chains.  So, in fact, what Card and Krueger observed was not an economic miracle on the order of seeing the virgin Mary in your pancakes, but a predictable shift of market share from low capital to high capital competitors in response to higher wage rates.

This theme of regulation, including the minimum wage, advantaging larger competitors is an old one.  I discussed it a while back in the context of Wal-Mart's support for a higher minimum wage:

Apparently, though I can't dig up a link right this second, Wal-mart
is putting its support behind a higher minimum wage.  One way to look
at this is a fairly cynical ploy to get the left off its back.  After
all, if Wal-mart's starting salary is $6.50 an hour (for example) it
costs them nothing to ask for a minimum wage of $6.50.

A different, and perhaps more realistic way to look at this Wal-mart
initiative is as a bald move to get government to sit on their
competition.  After all, as its wage rates creep up, as is typical in
more established companies, they are vulnerable to competitors gaining
advantage over them by paying lower wages.  If Wal-mart gets the
government to set the minimum wage closer to the wage rates it pays, it
eliminates the possibility of this competitor strategy. 

On Not Having A Clue

It would be tough for me to single out my single least favorite member of my alma mater Princeton's faculty.  However, Peter Singer would certainly be in the running.  TJIC fisks some of Singers recent writing in the NY Times.  I will leave you to read his thoughts, except I wanted to comment on this paragraph of Singer's:

"¦The rich must - or so some of us with less money like to assume -
suffer sleepless nights because of their ruthlessness in squeezing out
competitors, firing workers, shutting down plants or whatever else they
have to do to acquire their wealth"¦

I could probably write a book just from this quote, but let me just focus on two responses:

  • It helps prove my long-time observation that politicians, artists, and academics of a socialist bent who frequently criticize business have absolutely no idea what they do day to day or how they make money or create value.  Most have been an artist/academic/politician since the day they left school, and if they have held a real job in the value-creation part of the world, it is seldom as any type of manager or supervisor.  Singer knows no more about wealth creation than I do about sub-atomic particles.  The amazing thing, though, is that the NY Times would never quote me on sub-atomic particles but frequently gives Singer a platform to hold forth about wealth creation.  Economics is a science too, just as much as physics.  As I said in that linked post:

Economics is a science.  Willful ignorance or emotional
rejection of the well-known precepts of this science is at least as bad
as a fundamentalist Christian's willful ignorance of evolution science
(for which the Left so often criticizes their opposition).
  In
fact, economic ignorance is much worse, since most people can come to
perfectly valid conclusions about most public policy issues with a
flawed knowledge of the origin of the species but no one can with a
flawed understanding of economics.

  • Read the statement, and really think about what he says, remembering that he really believes these exact words.  Forget about the squeezing out competitors part -- presumably we capitalists are just bashing each other so this is likely the least of his arguments (not to mention how many people Singer likely "squeezed out" in the competition for scarce tenure and professor positions at Princeton).  Think about his statement that the way wealth is created is by "firing workers" and "shutting down plants."  So the logical implication is that the corporation who ends up with no workers and not assets will be the richest?  And here all this time I have been stupidly growing my company by trying to hire more good people and add on productive assets. 

Singer is as qualified to write about business practices as I am to write about South East Asian mating rituals.  Each of us is equally experienced and knowlegeable about these topics.  Somehow, though, the NY Times sees fit to publish Singer and my beloved University pays him to teach.  Unbelievable.