Posts tagged ‘ups’

Net Neutrality is Not Neutrality, It is Actually the Opposite. It's Corporate Welfare for Netflix and Google

Net Neutrality is one of those Orwellian words that mean exactly the opposite of what they sound like.  There is a battle that goes on in the marketplace in virtually every communication medium between content creators and content deliverers.  We can certainly see this in cable TV, as media companies and the cable companies that deliver their product occasionally have battles that break out in public.   But one could argue similar things go on even in, say, shipping, where magazine publishers push for special postal rates and Amazon negotiates special bulk UPS rates.

In fact, this fight for rents across a vertical supply chain exists in virtually every industry.  Consumers will pay so much for a finished product.  Any vertical supply chain is constantly battling over how much each step in the chain gets of the final consumer price.

What "net neutrality" actually means is that certain people, including apparently the President, want to tip the balance in this negotiation towards the content creators (no surprise given Hollywood's support for Democrats).  Netflix, for example, takes a huge amount of bandwidth that costs ISP's a lot of money to provide.  But Netflix doesn't want the ISP's to be be able to charge for this extra bandwidth Netflix uses - Netflix wants to get all the benefit of taking up the lion's share of ISP bandwidth investments without having to pay for it.  Net Neutrality is corporate welfare for content creators.

Check this out: Two companies (Netflix and Google) use half the total downstream US bandwidth.  They use orders and orders of magnitude more bandwidth than any other content creators, but don't want to pay for it (source)

sandvine-2h-2013

Why should you care?  Well, the tilting of this balance has real implications for innovation.  It creates incentives for content creators to devise new bandwidth-heavy services.  On the other hand, it pretty much wipes out any incentive for ISP's (cable companies, phone companies, etc) to invest in bandwidth infrastructure (cell phone companies, to my understand, are typically exempted from net neutrality proposals).  Why bother investing in more bandwidth infrastrcture if the government is so obviously intent on tilting the rewards of such investments towards content creators?  Expect to see continued lamentations from folks (ironically mostly on the Left, who support net neutrality) that the US trails in providing high-speed Internet infrastructure.

Don't believe me?  Well, AT&T and Verizon have halted their fiber rollout.  Google has not, but Google is really increasingly on the content creation side.  And that is one strategy for dealing with this problem of the government tilting the power balance in a vertical supply chain:  vertical integration.

Postscript:  There are folks out there who always feel better as a consumer if their services are heavily regulated by the Government.  Well, the Internet is currently largely unregulated, but the cable TV industry is heavily regulated.  Which one are you more satisfied with?

Update:  OK, after a lot of comments and emails, I am willing to admit I am conflating multiple issues, some of which fit the strict definition of net neutrality (e.g.  ISP A can't block Planned Parenthood sites because its CEO is anti-abortion) with other potential ISP-content provider conflicts.  I am working on some updates as I study more, but I will say in response that

  1. President Obama is essentially doing the same thing, trying to ram through a regulatory power grab (shifting ISPs to Title II oversight) that actually has vanishly little to do with the strict definition of net neutrality.   Net neutrality supporters should be forewarned that the number of content and privacy restrictions that will pour forth from regulators will dwarf the essentially non-existent cases of net neutrality violation we have seen so far in the unregulated market.
  2. I am still pretty sure the net effect of these regulations, whether they really affect net neutrality or not, will be to disarm ISP's in favor of content providers in the typical supply chain vertical wars that occur in a free market.  At the end of the day, an ISP's last resort in negotiating with a content provider is to shut them out for a time, just as the content provider can do the same in reverse to the ISP's customers.  Banning an ISP from doing so is like banning a union from striking. And for those who keep telling me that this sort of behavior is different and won't be illegal under net neutrality, then please explain to me how in practice one defines a ban based on a supply chain rent-division arguments and a ban based on nefarious non neutrality.

Best Buy Says It's Not Afraid of "Showrooming". Really?

Best Buy says it is not afraid of showrooming, the practice of testing products at a physical retailer and then buying it online.  Best Buy says it is confident it can convert visitors into buyers, even if their intent was to buy online.

Well, that is a brave front.  And I wish them luck -- I certainly like having bricks and mortar retailers around when I need something fast and can't wait for the UPS truck.  But it probably was no accident that the article was illustrated with this picture:

MK-CH537_SHOWRO_G_20131103185606

 

What don't you see there?  CD's, DVD's, speakers, DVD players, computer games and most of the other stuff that used to make up a lot of Best Buy's floor space.  Because they have already been demolished by online retailers in those categories.   The picture above is of appliances, one of the few high dollar categories that has not migrated to the web.   Go to Best Buy and you will see appliances, health equipment, and TV's, all categories where bricks and mortar stores have some advantages over online.

This makes perfect sense, but don't tell me Best Buy is ready to take on the online retailers.  They are bobbing and weaving, ducking this competition wherever they can.

Postscript:  Best Buy is hoping that having "trained" sales people to help customers will garner business.  There are two problems with this.  One, the training of their sales staff has always been spotty, and likely will not get better as their financials go south.  And two, I find that Amazon.com reviews are far more helpful, and often more knowledgeable, than most in-store sales staff.   But on the positive side, who doesn't enjoy getting hassled for an extended warranty at checkout?

Still Open, But....

Our concession operations on Federal lands are still mostly open today (we had two US Forest Service local offices ask us to close, but these are both offices that have a tradition of interpreting the rules in odd ways).

By all the rules, being open to the public is the right decision.  We are tenants on US Forest Service land and operate entirely outside of the government budget, receiving no money from the government and we employ no government workers.  No government employee has a duty station in any of the parks we operate.   There is no more reason to close our operations than to, say, ban cars from Federal highways during a shutdown.

However, apparently we have been told by several local folks in the Forest Service that the higher ups (this tends to mean folks up in the Administration) are re-evaluating our status.  I do not know what is going on today, but in the past this has often meant that the administration is considering closing us to make the government closure as painful as possible.  After all, as I have written here and here, parks closures seem to be one of the few things anyone notices in a government shut down.

Update:  Our most recent guidance:  "1.  The Forest Service is allowing concessionaires to continue to operate as long as no Forest Service personnel is needed to ensure safety."  It looks like we may have to close a few sites that are dependent on USFS operated water systems, but otherwise most of our locations will be open.  I am hoping to get out a press release and update our web site but things are still fluid this morning.

Update #2:  Definitely still open everywhere but in one location (Laguna Mountain, CA) where we depend on a USFS-operated water system that will close.  no closure press release 2013

How Can People Say This Stuff With A Straight Face?

Joane Hayes-White has no shame:

San Francisco's fire chief has explicitly banned firefighters from using helmet-mounted video cameras, after images from a battalion chief's Asiana Airlines crash recording became public and led to questions about first responders' actions leading up to a fire rig running over a survivor.

Chief Joanne Hayes-White said she issued the order after discovering that Battalion Chief Mark Johnson's helmet camera filmed the aftermath of the July 6 crash at San Francisco International Airport. Still images from the footage were published in The Chronicle.

Filming the scene may have violated both firefighters' and victims' privacy, Hayes-White said, trumping whatever benefit came from knowing what the footage shows.

"There comes a time that privacy of the individual is paramount, of greater importance than having a video," Hayes-White said.

Any 5-year-old can figure out here that this has nothing to do with victim privacy -- this is all about shielding her organization from accountability from future screw-ups.  Somehow we have ended up in a completely backwards world where surveillance is aimed at private citizens doing private things but is banned for public officials doing public things.  Ms. Hayes-White is obviously just a puppet for the firefighters union, and she be treated with contempt.

Problems at UPS

I continue to have shipments lost - badly lost - recently at UPS.  After 10 years of not a single foul-up, UPS has now lost or mis-routed five important shipments of mine in just 3 months.  In several of these cases, shipments that were supposed to be overnight did not get delivered for 4 or 5 days.  More worrisome, the packages seemed to sit (according to the tracking) in random locations until I called and forced something to happen -- there did not seem to be any sort of automatic intervention to save or reroute them.  In the most disturbing case, a woman in Arizona called our office to tell us that our Florida payroll had just been delivered by UPS to her house.

This is particularly worrisome because most of our shipments are date critical - payroll that has to be somewhere on a particular date or bids that must be delivered by a certain time or be voided.  Recently we have taken to paying extra and shipping everything one day faster than we need to give UPS room to screw up - ie overnight when we actually have two days to the due date.  But even so, UPS has fouled two shipments up so badly they were late even with an extra day to spare.

My statistics memory is rusty, but my guess is that my very few samples of a very large system don't necessarily indicate a process problem to any significance.  Still, we are worried.  The problem is I don't know who to switch to -- we left Fedex when they screwed up two of our first three shipments.

Let Them Eat Trinkets

Steven Rattner, investment banker and former member of the Obama Administration,  is terrified that under a proposed law companies will be able to raise money without investment bankers.

Most troublesome is the legalization of “crowd funding,” the ability of start-up companies to raise capital from small investors on the Internet. While such lightly regulated capital raising has existed for years, until now, “investors” could receive only trinkets and other items of small value, similar to the way public television raises funds. As soon as regulations required to implement the new rules are completed, people who invest money in start-ups through sites similar to Kickstarter will be able to receive a financial interest in the soliciting company, much like buying shares on the stock exchange. But the enterprises soliciting these funds will hardly be big corporations like Wal-Mart or Exxon; they will be small start-ups with no track records.

This is absolutely, classically representative of the technocratic arrogance of the Obama Administration and the investment bankers that inhabit it.  I have three quick thoughts:

  1. Rattner's concern for individual investors comes rather late.  After all, he was the primary architect of the extra-legal screwing of GM and Chrysler secured creditors in favor of the UAW and other Obama supporters.
  2. God forbid investors get actual, you know, ownership in a company for their capital rather than just trinkets.  This is so bizarrely patronizing that I had to read it twice just to make sure I wasn't missing something.  But no, he is explicitly preferring that you and I get trinkets rather than ownership  (ownership, apparently, to be reserved for millionaire insiders like himself).
  3. We have truly entered the corporate state when leftish opinion makers argue that large corporations like Exxon and Wal-Mart get preferential access to capital and that smaller startups that might compete with them be shut out of the market.

I predict that over that Internet entrepreneurs running such crowd-sourcing sites would develop reputation management and review tools for investors (similar to those at Amazon and eBay).  Over time, it may be that these become far more trustworthy than current credit agency reports or investment bank recommendations.  After all, which do you trust more -- a 5-star Amazon review with 35 responses or a Goldman Sachs "buy" recommendation on an IPO like Facebook or Groupon?  Besides, it would take a very long time, like eternity, for fraud losses in a crowd-sourcing site to equal 1/100 of the investor losses to heavily regulated Bernie Madoff.

On Purchasing in Bulk

My son ordered a book from my Amazon account (the Way of Baseball by Shawn Green) and accidentally had it sent to my house rather than to his dorm.  Looking at my shipping costs on UPS to get it up to him, it was cheaper to buy a new copy for him and have Amazon ship it for free with my Prime membership than it was for me to ship the other copy to him.  I would love to see what Amazon pays UPS.  This is a $24 list price hardback book that Amazon sells for $9.60 and then packages and ships for free.

When Low Interest Rates are Anti-Stimulus

We have heard about the difficulty folks who are retired are having with low interest rates.  But low interest rates are having a huge impact on corporations that still have defined-benefit pensions.

Across America's business landscape, the gap between the amount that companies expect to owe retirees and what they have on hand to pay them was an estimated $347 billion at the end of 2012. That is better than the $386 billion gap recorded at the end of 2011, but the two years represent the worst deficits ever, according to J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

The firm estimates that companies now hold only $81 of every $100 promised to pensioners.

In general, everything happening on the liability side of the pension equation is working against companies. A big source of the problem: persistently low interest rates, set largely by the Federal Reserve....

Pension liabilities change over time as employees enter and leave a pension plan. For financial-reporting purposes, companies use a so-called discount rate to calculate the present value of payments they expect to make over the life of their plan.

The discount rate serves as a proxy for the hypothetical interest rate that an insurance company would expect on a bond today to fund a company's future pension payments. The lower the discount rate, the greater the company's pension liabilities.

Boeing's discount rate, for example, fell to 3.8% last year from 6.2% in 2007. The aircraft manufacturer said in a securities filing that a 0.25-percentage-point decrease in its discount rate would add $3.1 billion to its projected pension obligations.

Boeing reported a net pension deficit of $19.7 billion at the end of 2012.

The discount rate is based on the yields of highly rated corporate bonds—double-A or higher—with maturities equal to the expected schedule of pension-benefit payouts.

Moody's decision last summer to lower the credit rating of big banks hurt UPS and other companies by booting those banks out of the calculation. And because bonds issued by some of those banks carried higher yields than other bonds used in the calculation, UPS's discount rate fell 1.20 percentage points.

This is obviously not a wildly productive use of corporate funds, to divert ever-increasing amounts of money to pay people who are no longer producing.  But at least corporations are acknowledged the problem (I will give credit where it is due -- thanks to accounting rules and government regulations that force a fair amount of transparency here).

It is interesting to note the Boeing example, where their expected rate of return on pension funds fell from 6.2% to 3.8%.  Compare that to corrupt government entities like Calpers, which bravely faced this new reality by cutting its discount rate from an absurd 7.75% to a still absurd 7.5%.  This despite returns last year around 1%.  By keeping the number artificially high, Calpers is hiding its underfunding problem.  An interesting reform would be to force Calpers to use a discount rate equal to the average of that used by the 10 largest private pension funds.

Working on Security

I am working on site security, so if you get locked out for some reason, let me know by hitting the email here, or if you can't get in here, over at climate-skeptic.com.  I thought I had this process pretty well practiced as I did everything I wanted first at two other blogs, but this morning I managed to lock myself out of the site.  Oops.  So screw-ups are definitely possible.

Police Don't Like It When The Shoe Is On The Other Foot

Via Radley Balko, certain Dallas residents are upset that they are getting "nitpicked" for speeding and other traffic violations caught by camera.  Normally, I would be quite sympathetic.  But not in this case.  You see, those who are upset about getting punished for violating traffic laws are Dallas police:

The Dallas Police Department has suspended a special unit’s regular reviews of dash-cam video from patrol cars because officers felt they were being nitpicked with disciplinary action for minor infractions such as speeding.

The recordings and the reviews are meant to provide evidence when patrol officers go renegade, and they are especially helpful in excessive-force cases. They’re also crucial for protecting officers falsely accused of wrongdoing.

In 11 months of operation, the unit reviewing the video found numerous examples of officers exceeding the department’s speed requirements, failing to turn on their lights and sirens or failing to stop at stop signs or red lights during chases or when responding to other emergency calls.

While in many cases these actions are against department policy, police commanders say they became concerned that some supervisors were taking a heavy-handed approach to routine problems, meting out discipline rather than finding ways to change behavior.

“The folklore among officers is, ‘I’m afraid to go five miles over the speed limit because I’ll be disciplined,’” said Chief David Brown. He ordered a cooling-off period for the review process while the department takes a look at what can be done to ensure that it is fair and reasonable.

As someone who has gotten a ticket from a police officer for going less than five miles over the speed limit, I can think of a two word response:  Equal protection.

While some supervisors informed of violations have simply counseled officers to be more cautious, Dallas Police Association officials say at least a couple of dozen officers were disciplined, mostly with minor write-ups, for speeding violations.

Well, since police officers like all public officials are impossible to fire, this does not mean squat.  I don't see any fine here, or points on their license, penalties absolutely everyone else would face.  A better spin for this article would be "police violations of traffic law treated far more leniently than those by anyone else."  And even with this lenient treatment, they still shut it down as too onerous.

All that being said, the video review program Dallas was doing is a good idea.  It should continue, and if traffic law enforcement is getting in the way of the program continuing, I would be willing to let the officers slide if only to catch more substantial violations in how they interact with the public.

 

Minnesota Stupidity

As you probably know, Minnesota is in the midst of a government shutdown due to lack of a budget.  My daughter is doing a project for me putting together the names and contact information for all 50 state parks directors.  It turns out the MN parks web site is shut down.

LOL.  I am the only one in my company with access to or capable of updating our web site, but I can go away for weeks, even months, and have the web site stay up.  This strikes me as either stupid, or a gratuitous effort to purposely make the shutdown more dramatic than it needs to be.

To the latter point, our company operates many Federal parks.   Since we take no money from the government and use no government personell in doing so, the parks we operate typically stay open in a Federal shut down.  Except for the last threatened shut down several months ago, when our contract managers seemed to be getting guidance from their higher ups in the administration to shut the parks down, even when they did not need to be.  I presume this was for the purpose of making the shut down seem worse to the public.  After all, we would hate to have a government shut down and have nobody notice.

It will be interesting come about August 2 to see if we remain open.

More Wind Craziness

I still contend that wind is, except in a few niche applications, probably the worst alternate energy source.   Other forms of energy like solar have issues, but there is a lot of reason to believe these a fixable over time with better technology.  Wind is just a plain dog.

One of the biggest problems with wind is the need for backup power.  Because wind's lapses are hard to predict, a lot of fossil fuels have to be burned in spinning, hot backup capacity ready at a moment's notice to take over.  In Germany, the net effect has been very little substitution of fossil fuel burning despite an enormous wind investment

As wind power capacity rises, the lower availability of the wind farms determines the reliability of the system as a whole to an ever increasing extent. Consequently the greater reliability of traditional power stations becomes increasingly eclipsed.

As a result, the relative contribution of wind power to the guaranteed capacity of our supply system up to the year 2020 will fall continuously to around 4% (FIGURE 7). In concrete terms, this means that in 2020, with a forecast wind power capacity of over 48,000MW (Source: dena grid study), 2,000MW of traditional power production can be replaced by these wind farms.

Natural gas makes this situation a little better, as natural gas turbines can be brought up much faster than, say, an oil or coal-powered plant.  But the duplicate investment is still necesary

Britain's richest energy companies want homeowners to subsidise billions of pounds worth of gas-powered stations that will stand idle for most of the time.

Talks have taken place between the Government, Centrica, owner of British Gas, and other energy companies on incentives to build the power stations needed as back-ups for the wind farms now being built around the country.

It is understood 17 gas-fired plants worth about £10 billion will be needed by 2020.

The Energy Department has been warned that without this massive back-up for the new generation of heavily subsidised giant wind farms, the lights could go out when the wind dies down.

Sam Laidlaw, chief executive of Centrica, said renewables, such as large-scale wind energy, were intermittent and required back-up generation, a role gas was uniquely qualified to fill.

But as power stations that operate only intermittently would not be financially viable, Laidlaw said: 'The building of new gas-fired capacity must be incentivised so that gas can fulfil its role as a bridging fuel.'

Great.  So we have wind power, which is not financially viable so it must be subsidized, that required backup power plants to be constructed, which will not be financially viable so gas plants must be subsidized.

I have an idea, why not have gas plants which are financially viable serving the base load and just get rid of wind and this double subsidy all together?

 

 

Post Office: Mail Delivery or Welfare?

The management of the Post Office is a joke, and it is hardly worth the electrons to write more about it.   But I did find this factoid in Tad DeHaven's commentary on the Post Office's hopeless efforts at cost reduction interesting.

Traditional post offices, which number about 27,000, cannot be closed “for solely operating at a deficit” and the closure process is burdensome.

Wow, that is a bad law (though no worse than 10,000 others like it).  This sounds similar to the military base problem, where every facility that needs closure has a Congressperson desperately trying to keep it open against all economic reality, merely as a jobs/welfare program once its true utility is over.   Apparently, the Post Office has an overcapacity problem that rivals the US Military's after the Cold War (and really to be honest after WWII)

Full post offices are more costly to operate than other means of serving customers. The average post office transaction cost 23 cents per dollar of revenue in 2009 while the average transaction at a contract postal unit cost just 13 cents. Post offices used to generate almost all postal retail revenue, but 29 percent is now generated online through usps.com and other alternative channels.

In 2009 post offices recorded 117 million fewer transactions than in 2008. Four out of five post offices are operating at a loss. However, the postal network’s overcapacity has drawn little corrective action from Congress. In fact, legislation introduced in the House with 102 cosponsors would apply the burdensome procedures for closing post offices to other postal outlets as well. Congress is actively working against the modernization of the U.S. postal system.

The amazing thing is that they have tons of extra capacity and still provide poor service.  Just compare the process of mailing a package UPS vs. USPS.  I have a UPS account, I can print my own labels, I get billed automatically, I get package tracking, and I can send the package from the drop box downstairs in my building.

It is almost impossible to do this with the USPS.  To mail anything larger than 13 ounces, to buy postage without an expensive meter, to get a greatly inferior sort of tracking -- all require a grim trek to the post office.

My guess is that just like Pemex is not longer really about producing oil, the USPS mission is no longer primarily about delivering mail, its a welfare program.

PS - my USPS delivery guy is great.  Nicest guy in the world.  The mistake for years in criticizing the USPS has always been about criticizing the people.  Not only is that wrong, but it distracts from the problem.  By implying the problem is bad, surly people, it implies the problem is fixable with new people.  But in fact, the problem, as with all government, is information and incentives .... and in this case Congressional meddling in their mission.

You Can Bet on 36 Red, But Not Amazon.com Angel Shares

I thought this was an interesting irony of our growing corporate state:

In my post "Attention Gov't: This Is How Businesses Are Created" I brought up the point that government regulations keep the average American from investing in ground floor business opportunities with rules specifying how much money someone must have before they can invest in start-ups (unless the start-up is being done by a friend or family member).  Government regulations also prevent start-ups from advertising their investment opportunity.  If you need ground-floor investment (as opposed to loans) to bring your business to the proverbial next level, there is a wall of regulation that keeps you from asking for it from the general public and specifies what "sophisticated investors" (the already rich) you can approach and how.

Those rules are there to protect us middle class rubes from being taken in by crafty and ill-intentioned businessmen.

I contrasted this protection the government so thoughtfully provides us"“keeping us from making possible bad investments"“with it's promotion of lotteries and acceptance of casino gambling.

Now these people who will not allow an entrepreneur to advertise or promote his start-up in order to get voluntary investment money from people willing to take a risk on the business idea or invention are looking at legalization of online gambling in the USA.

Hotel Selection Fail

I had an early morning flight out of Louisville today, and so stayed in a hotel near the airport to maximize my sleep time.  Usually this is fine, as most airports are dormant from 10pm to 6am.  Unfortunately, I failed to remember that Louisville is the main air-hub for UPS (like Memphis is for FedEx) so a big bank of planes was landing around midnight, and more noisily, taking off between four and five AM.

Our City's Finest at Work

Phoenix police pump six rounds into the back of an innocent Phoenix homeowner who was still on the phone with 911 calling for their help with an intruder.

The scary part is how absolutely natural and well-polished the police's actions are in initiating a cover-up.  They may be screw-ups in the use of force, but they seem well-practiced in protecting their own from accountability.  Only the lucky break of having the 911 call still in progress and being recorded in the room the police were planning the cover-up prevented it from working.  Without this evidence, one wonders if the victim (who lived, incredibly) would have found himself accused of some heinous crime to take scrutiny away from the police.  "Oh, what's this here -- looks like a bag of white powder..."

One priceless detail is that the officer said he fired without seeing any gun in part because he thought he saw a Hispanic guy.  Wow -- if he loses his job with the Phoenix police (doubtful) I am sure Sheriff Joe would be thrilled to hire him.

We see this all the time nowadays - police roll without a thought into cover-up mode, and only the accident of video or audio recording prevents the cover up from working.  One wonders how many times they get away with this game when there is no electronic scrutiny.  Which is, I suppose, why police have invented a non-existent law that it is illegal to record their actions in public.  I am all for lojacking all of them with permanent electronic recorders.  (via Radley Balko, who has a roundup of a lot of similarly scary stories).

Postscript: The innocent homeowner (Tony) survived despite this treatment by police of his bullet-riddled body:

Officers ... painfully dragged Tony by his injured leg, through the home and out to his backyard patio, where they left him bloodied and shot right in front of [his family]."

The Arambulas say the officers later dragged Anthony onto gravel, then put him on top of the hot hood of a squad car, and "drove the squad car down the street with Tony lying on top, writhing in pain."

That Great Public Service

Via Cafe Hayek:

American Postal Workers Union president William Burrus complains that "It is deeply troubling that Journal editors advocate ending the Postal Service's exclusive right to sort and deliver mail.  The Postal Service must remain a public service if we are to honor our nation's commitment to serve every American community "“ large or small, rich or poor, urban or rural "“ at affordable, uniform rates"


My family has  a ranch that is absolutely in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming - it is 30 minutes by dirt road from a town of 2,000.  The USPS delivers mail to a box 3 miles away from the ranch, and does it 3 days a week.  The USPS will not deliver overnight mail.   UPS delivers 6 days a week right to our door, including overnight mail.

The word "uniform" is the key -- what the USPS government protected monopoly buys us is a massive cross-subsidy, where city dwellers subsidize rural communities, Alaska, and Hawaii.   Further, because the USPS knows that these subsidized routes are cost black holes, they tend to cut back on service to try to save money.  The result is that no one is served well, as is often the case when a large cross-subsidy exists -- cities pay more for their mail, and everyone gets worse service.

Awsome Senate Testimony on Transit

From Randal O'Toole (of course). I usually try not to over-excerpt other folks work but I just can't resist in this case.  I like Mr. O'Toole's work on transit because he does not just focus on the cost-benefit issues, but the personal liberty aspects as well:

My testimony focused on two points. First, despite increasing transit subsidies by 1250 percent (adjusted for inflation) since 1970, transit travel has declined from 49 to 45 trips per urban resident and transit's share of urban travel has declined from 4.0% to 1.6%. Second, even if we could get more people to ride transit, transit uses as much energy, and emits nearly as much greenhouse gases, as cars; and the trends suggest that cars will be more environmentally friendly than any transit system in the country by 2025.

There were two interesting responses to my testimony. First, another witness said (and I'm quoting from memory), "All he did was divide total greenhouse gas emissions by passenger miles." A reporter told me later that it sounded like he was questioning my methods, but his real argument was that more money spent on transit in combination with smart-growth land-use planning would lead to reduced auto driving.

I don't believe that is true (and said so), but even if it were true: can you imaging AT&T (back when all phones were land lines) telling Congress, "We want you to restrict property rights, drive up housing prices, and prevent people from living in their preferred lifestyles so that we don't have to extend our lines so far?" Or FedEx or UPS saying the same thing today? Why is transit so special that everyone else in the country has to completely rearrange their lives just for it?

You can say the answer is "climate change," but transit agencies and smart-growth planners wanted to do all these things before climate was an issue. The truth is that transit is a declining but politically powerful industry, and part of its power comes from the fact that it is publicly owned and so elected officials have a vested interest in keeping it going.

In a very real sense, transit is just like the British coal, rail, and other nationalized industries in the 1960s: its main purpose is no longer transportation but to meet other political goals such as keeping transit workers employed and construction contracts going to transit builders. If transit were private, no one would argue that we have to make the world less convenient and more expensive for the 95 percent of people who travel by car so that it will be more convenient for the 1 or 2 percent who travel by transit.

Observation About the US Mail

We do payroll at headquarters and send checks all over the country.  We built the payroll process years ago to allow for one week for the US Mail to carry the paychecks from our office to arrive at their destinations in time.  Steadily, over the last five years, office by office, we have had to replace the US Mail with UPS.  It apparently is increasingly impossible for the US Mail to get a letter across the country in a week (which is six working days for the USPS).

Today was the final straw.  For the third payroll in a row, the US Mail has not been able to get mail from our office in Phoenix to our office just outside of Los Angeles in a week.  The payroll was mailed last Monday and it is not there now onthe following Tuesday.  Pathetic.

Are We All Incapable of Doing Anything For Ourselves Any More?

Apparently for some reason having to do with screw-ups and protests in contracting, the State of Arizona is not going to publish a Visitor's Guide.

I run a decent-sized business in Arizona, and have never paid much attention to these guides.  Every state and city and town and county and school district seems to put out some kind of visitors guide, and I could go bankrupt paying for ads in all the ones who hit me with marketing calls.  Customers have a jillion ways to find out about our business, either from Internet searches or private guidebooks and directories.  Heck, when I travel, I usually hit places like TripAdvisor and then run down to Borders to pick up whatever Fodor's guide covers my destination.  I have never even thought about calling the government and asking them to send me a visitors guide, but perhaps some of y'all have.

Anyway, what do I know?  I am just a little small business trying to run a few campgrounds.  Just because I can handle my own marketing needs doesn't mean that billion dollar multinational hotel chains are capable of doing so without the government:

Greg Hanss, director of sales and marketing for the new InterContinental Montelucia Resort and Spa in Paradise Valley, couldn't believe it. "For me, the fact that we don't have a state visitors guide in what is the most challenging economic time of our tourism lives is really disappointing."

Pathetic.  It is interesting to see that, for every 20-something anxiously awaiting the government's takeover of healthcare because they are really bummed about all the work it takes to find the right health care plan, there is a corporation waiting for the US govenrment to do its work for them.

Just When Yout Thought Air Travel Could Not Get Worse...

US Airways has chosen to try to cover rising fuel prices by unbundling their ticket price and charging for services that were here-to-fore free, or built into the base ticket price.  They now charge $15 for the first piece of checked baggage ($25 for the second), and charge for most in-cabin services, including for soft drinks.

I'm not going to argue with them about this.  Airline pricing is a wickedly complex topic, and folks who know more than I do think this is the best way to get incremental revenue.  Really, these charges don't affect me (I almost never check bags, except when on vacation with my family).  In fact, as I write this, it strikes me that the baggage charge is really a price hike mostly on non-business travelers, which is interesting as it bucks the trend of having increasing price spreads over the years between business/last-minute and tourist pricing.

Anyway, the net effect has been to absolutely jam the security screening station this morning.  Every passenger seems to be carrying every bag he or she can on board to avoid the $15 charge.  What a mess.  I can't wait to see what the boarding process is going to be like.  Glad I don't have any bags today.

By the way, a few weeks ago I shipped a 60 pound trunk to my kids' camp for about $16 via UPS.  If these airline bag charges stick, it might be time for UPS to start soliciting the send-your-luggage-ahead business in earnest.  Next time we go skiing or some such place, I am going to seriously consider sending a couple of duffle bags ahead by UPS.

Update: The luggage bins were completely full before the fourth group out of six were called.  There was a fairly long line down the jetway of people gate-checking their bags.  Apparently, the airline is not set up to charge the $15 when they gate-check the bags, so everyone is hauling all of their bags to the gate and either bringing them on the plane or checking them at the gate for free.

Zoning and the Housing Bubble

The Anti-Planner links an article by a Federal Reserve Bank economist on the housing market in Houston and how it is affected by zoning:

"Given that Houstonians had access to the same new types of
mortgages as the rest of the country and that Houston has had greater
population growth than other large metros, we might expect price
appreciation to be stronger in Houston than elsewhere," says the
article. "However, the opposite has been true."

The reason? Houston's lack of zoning and its large supply of land
available for development allowed builders to respond to easy credit by
increasing the pace of construction. Slow and unpredictable permitting
processes prevented builders in many other regions, including Florida
and the Pacific Coast states, from similarly stepping up production.

While some cities and regions have further delayed construction by imposing adequate public facilities or concurrency ordinances, Houston allows developers to create their own municipal utility districts.
Through these districts, the developers install the sewer, water, and
other facilities needed by their developments and charge the property
owners over time.

The result is that housing prices did not bubble, and they are not
significantly declining today. As of the fourth quarter of 2007, in
fact, they were still increasing. Anecdotal evidence from local
realtors and developers indicates that the tightening credit market has
soften the demand for homes under $200,000, but homes above that price
are still selling well.

Whatever correction Houston faces, says the article, "takes place in
the context of prices that are squarely in line with local construction
costs and without the painful supply-induced downturn under way in many
other markets." This leaves Houston relatively immune to the ups and
downs of housing prices experienced in regions with planning-induced
housing shortages.

I need to think a bit about how that relates to this.

I Wondered About This: China as Scapegoat

I haven't really blogged about the Chinese toy recalls, not knowing much about them.  However, my first thought on hearing the problems described was, "aren't those design defects, not manufacturing issues?"  I had a strong sense that populist distrust of trade with China was being used as a fig leaf to cover Mattel's screw-ups.  Several of the recalls were for parts such as magnets that were small and could be swallowed.  There was no implication that the magnets fell off because they were attached or manufactured poorly, they were just a bad design.

I have worked in a number of large manufacturing companies that have plants and suppliers in China.  It was out responsibility to make sure the product that got to the customer was correct.  There is no way we would source a product from an independent foreign company, and have the product delivered straight to stores without inspection, unless we were absolutely damn certain about the company's processes, up to and including having full-time manufacturing people at their plant.

Well, I might have been on to something (WSJ$)

Toymaker Mattel
issued an extraordinary apology to China on Friday over the recall of
Chinese-made toys, saying most of the items were defective because of
Mattel's design flaws rather than faulty manufacturing. The company
added that it had recalled more lead-tainted Chinese toys than was
justified....

Mattel ordered three high-profile recalls this summer
of millions of Chinese-made toys, including Barbie doll accessories and
toy cars, because of concerns about lead paint and tiny magnets that
could be swallowed. The "vast majority of those products that were
recalled were the result of a design flaw in Mattel's design, not
through a manufacturing flaw in China's manufacturers," Mr. Debrowski
said. Lead-tainted toys accounted for only a small percentage of all
toys recalled, he said. "We understand and appreciate deeply the issues
that this has caused for the reputation of Chinese manufacturers," he
said.

Mattel said in a statement its lead-related recalls
were "overly inclusive, including toys that may not have had lead in
paint in excess of the U.S. standards. The follow-up inspections also
confirmed that part of the recalled toys complied with the U.S.
standards."

The other interesting thing here is just how important Mattel's relationship with China is, to have even issued this apology at all.  For such a massive and high-profile recall, Mattel came off very well through the succesful strategy of blaming China.  I know that parents I have heard talk about the recall blame China and have increased fear of Chinese products.  So it is interesting to see that Mattel feels the need to abandon this so far winning PR strategy.

Communism, West Virginia Style

Cyd Malone shares a historical story with which I was not familiar, Eleanor Roosevelt's attempt to create a government-supported back-to-the-earth commune in West Virginia.  It's quite a fascinating tale, with several elements that seem stolen right out of an Ayn Rand novel.  Her goal seems to have been to reverse the division of labor:

As projected, Arthurdale was to be immune from the ups and downs of the
business cycle, with its citizens farming their five-acre plots part
time and working part time in a local factory; a perfect combination of
town and country floating through life as just the happiest little
autarkic bubble you ever did see.

I will let you read the whole story if you are interested, which is pretty interesting.  I suppose you can guess how it all turned out:

Sadly, despite all the money, tough love, removal of their "mental
and physical impediments," and grafting on of "the things that help,"
the people of Arthurdale weren't displaying the attributes of the New
American Man, or at least not the type the planners planned for.
Instead, they behaved like dirt-poor coal miners and part-time farmers
who had become accustomed to living off of other peoples' money.

They displayed what we now call "dependency." Nancy Hoffman writes
that "there were times they depended too much on her [Mrs. Roosevelt's]
help and not enough on their own resources," leading Eleanor to lament
that "they seemed to feel that the solution to all their problems was
to turn to government" (Hoffman 2001, p. 85). In one defining moment,
the town's school bus broke down and the good people of Arthurdale,
rather than fixing it themselves, had it towed over two hundred miles
to the White House garage for repairs.[16]

Distracted by My Novel

Blogging has been light, as I have been working on the publication of my new novel called "BMOC".  We're a number of weeks from getting it through Ingram and onto Amazon, etc. but it is available today at my Lulu storefront.  If you order the printed version from Lulu, be careful!  The Lulu UPS shipping options are really overpriced.  Only the regular US mail delivery is a very good deal.  For those of you who have the version with the old purple cover, this is an updated version.

Bmocfrontcover300

Once it gets some broader distribution, I'll be running a special event on this site.  Details later.

Update: Web site for BMOC book by Warren Meyer