Posts tagged ‘US’

Your In-Office Entertainment This Week

UPDATE:  I had the wrong link.  The call is Wednesday but at 2:30 Pacific after the market closes, which makes more sense.  Like many companies, Tesla likes to dump the quarterly financials, dozens of pages in 8 point font, just seconds before the conference call.

If you are sitting in your office this week and need to be entertained in a way that looks like you are working, consider the Tesla investor conference call Wednesday at 2:30 PDT.  I can't guarantee anything but past conference calls have been a circus.  Normally I would expect the Tesla Board or the corporate counsel (who is Musk's divorce lawyer, lol) to bring adult supervision to the party, but so far that has not happened in any Tesla communications to date.  Expect potential discussion around:

  • Tesla's immediate external capital needs, given that they are burning cash faster than you could actually physically burn it (Musk claims zero is needed but everyone else in the free world thinks its >$2 billion, with a huge part of Tesla's existing debt also expiring and needing to be rolled over soon)
  • Model 3 order blacklog (this was the question in the last call that caused Musk to tell the experienced Wall Street analyst to shut up and then he switched to taking questions from a Youtube fanboy
  • Model 3 production rates and quality issues
  • Gross margins.  They HAVE to get higher for survival.  Particularly since Telsa has chosen to eschew traditional dealer networks so corporate bears all the cost of service and support.  This demands Tesla not only get its gross margins as high as other auto makers, they need to be higher.
  • Expiration of tax subsidies -- the $6500 government tax credit for Tesla customers slowly disappears once their 200,000th EV has been sold in the US, which has happened.
  • The disappearance of the $35,000 Model 3 from the web site (this is the promised car that generated a lot of the Telsa hype in the first place)
  • Disappearance of all those other teased products (coupe, semi) that were released to great fanfare and have not ever been mentioned again
  • ZEV credits (these are credits it gets from states like CA that other car makers have to buy to do business in those states with gasoline vehicles).  These are odd ducks as they have a lot of value but for some reasons do not show up anywhere on the balance sheet, so one doesn't know they even exist until Tesla chooses to sell them for a LOT of money.   They can flip a single quarter positive by saving these and exercising them at the same time.  Most folks see this happening in a bid to make Q3 profitable.  (By the way, anyone out there that understands by what accounting rules these valuable assets don't get put on the balance sheet are encouraged to email me the answer).
  • Introduction of competitive products (Jaguar, Volvo, and pretty much everyone else soon)
  • Pending lawsuits from both shareholders and whistle-blowing employees
  • Implosion of SolarCity (now part of Telsa) such that new installations are on a trend line towards zero
  • (unlikely but someone should really ask) Musk's silencing of critics
  • (unlikely but someone should really ask) Musk's social media demeanor, including calling the Thai rescue hero a pedophile because he did not use Musk's goofy submarine

Tesla is a train wreck I cannot take my eyes off.  Unlike Theranos, which combined a product that didn't work with a screwed up management, and which operated in the dark, Tesla combines what has been a really good product with a screwed-up management, and operates in an absolute blaze of publicity.  I have never seen any stock where sentiment was so polarized between bears and fan-boy bulls (Herbalife, maybe?)

I have a personal metric of sentiment and volatility I invented but I am pretty sure has been used since before I was born.  Anyway, I look at the sum of the price of an at-the-market put and at-the-market call for the stock about 6 months out.  I then divide this combined price by the share price.  For Tesla January options, this comes to 31%.    This is really a huge number.  Take ExxonMobil, which has a lot of split sentiment right now (a historically fabulous company that keeps screwing up its quarters recently) this metric sits at 9%.

Disclosure:  I am in and out of short positions on TSLA, typically selling around 350+ (usually after Musk has honeytrapped the fan boys) and covering in the 290-300 range (usually after real news or a Musk meltdown).  This strategy has been profitable for 2 years but I think that is coming to an end.  TSLA is either going to fall more or stay high based on what it does in the 3rd quarter.

How Does This New Trade Deal Offset My Higher Costs If I Don't Grow Soybeans?

Trump supporters are saying "I told you so" as Trump and European officials reached an agreement to dial back tariffs and pursue some efforts at free-er trade.  Trump supporters have argued, and I was skeptical, that Trump really wanted free trade but was engaging in brinkmanship as part of the opening phases of negotiation.  First, let's see exactly what this agreement included:

– They will work towards “zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies” on non-auto industrial products. That’s not a huge category of goods, as it excludes agriculture and raw materials, among other things, and zero non-tariff barriers and subsidies seems really unlikely. But still, it would be great if we made progress here.

– The EU will buy more U.S. soybeans and liquid natural gas. This was probably going to happen anyway because of market shifts and other factors.

– They will have a dialogue about conflicting regulatory standards in the U.S. and EU. This is a long-time goal of U.S. and EU trade policy-makers. It sounds easier than it really is.

– They will work together on reform of the WTO, and to address problems to the trading system caused by China.

In addition, the agreement effectively included:

  • Current Trump tariffs on steel and metals, and the European retaliation, will remain in place
  • Trump will not currently put in place his threatened $200 billion in auto tariffs on European vehicles

So the basic agreement is 1) leave all new tariffs in place; 2) sell more soybeans and natural gas to Europe; and 3) talk about tariff and non-tariff barriers that typically consume years and years of discussion.

This is basically a big zero.  Even beyond the fact that the agreement avoids most of the major trade categories, the act of negotiating towards lower tariffs, lower non-tariff barriers, and reconciling conflicting regulator standards has been done before -- its called NAFTA and the TPP, both of which Trump has sh*t on.  Sure, they can have flaws (especially the TPP), but these compromises are the only way these trade deals get made, as country leaders each are in thrall to their own influential crony industry.  The US's own high tariffs on SUV imports is a great example.  This is all not to mention the time -- TPP negotiations took 8 years -- through which we consumers apparently will still suffer under Trump's tariffs.

So for most US consumers, the end result of all of this is that we still are paying higher prices for any product that contains metal, from soda cans to automobiles.  This is great for soybean farmers, I suppose, but sucks for the rest of us.   This is all about politicians balancing one crony against another and in this calculus, consumers always lose.

Trump says he is for free trade, but he still spouts all this fairness BS.  Things that he considers "unfair" are actually just "unfair" to a few people in a few industries, but are eminently "fair" for 300 million consumers in the US.  Here is the true test of a free trader:

Consider two trade regimes.  In Regime #1, the US charges 0% tariffs on German steel and Germany charges 0% tariffs on US steel.  In Regime #2, the US is able to charge 10% tariffs on German steel while Germany still charges 0% tariffs on US steel.   I would bet quite a bit of money that Trump would say that Regime #2 is a better deal for the US, while free traders like myself and most economists would say that Regime #1 is not only better for the world as a whole, it is better for the US.  Zero tariffs allows the division of labor and comparative advantage to all work their magic to make sure capital and productive effort in this country are employed for the highest return.

I Know Congress Hates To Challenge A President of Its Own Party, But...

...Congress simply has to pare back the tariff authority it has delegated the President.  It is simply insane that Trump can just unilaterally impose 20% tariffs on foreign automobiles, a $200 billion new tax on US consumers.

It is appalling to see Trump following the usual blue model of economic regulation, imposing one intervention after another, each meant to fix the unintended consequences of the last intervention.  Steel tariffs increased costs to domestic auto makers, so Trump proposes tariffs on foreign autos.  When tariffs result (inevitably) in counter-tariffs on US agricultural exports, Trump proposes more agricultural subsidies.   People (not me) lament gridlock in government and want more fluid lawmaking -- well here it is.  And it sucks.  It is mindless and reactive and emotional and totally ignorant of economics.

These tariffs, when combined with earlier actions, will result in tax increases on consumers that swamp the tax cuts Trump and the Republicans were so proud of last year.

I tend to be a pessimist so I have probably accurately called 5 or the last 2 recessions, but i have started to shift my investments around to get ready for a slowing economy and a market correction.

Update (source)

While both careful not to specifically cite the politically unwise 'tariffs', Boeing, GM, and Fiat Chrysler stocks are plunging in the pre-market after trade war-related impacts caused missed earnings or lowered outlooks.

General Motors Co. cut its forecast for profit this year as surging prices for steel and aluminum combine with swings in South American currencies to burden the largest U.S. automaker. Specifically, Bloomberg reports that raw material costs probably will be a $1 billion headwind to GM’s profit this year - roughly double its previous expectation - while the Argentine peso and Brazilian real are likely to drag on results through the remainder of 2018.

Modern Guide to Analyzing Complex Multivariate Systems

  1.  Choose a complex and chaotic system that is characterized by thousands or millions of variables changing simultaneously (e.g. climate, the US economy)
  2. Pick one single output variable to summarize the workings of that system (e.g. temperature, GDP)
  3. Blame (or credit) any changes to your selected output variable on one single pet variable (e.g. capitalism, a President from the other party)
  4. Pick a news outlet aligned with your political tribe and send them a press release
  5. Done!  You are now a famous scientist.  Congratulations.

What Tesla Is Doing This Week

I do not have any insider knowledge, so this is pure speculation, but I have worked in a lot of organizations that did insane things to try to reach milestones or goals, and so I think it is educated speculation.

A lot of Tesla's market valuation comes from the prospects of getting a lot of volume with their mid-priced (sort of) Model 3.  They need to get production rates up both to reduce costs and to try to get ahead of a huge oncoming rush of competitors entering the BEV space.  Last year, they promised to have Model 3 production at 5000 a week by the first of this year, a goal they missed by a mile.  So now they have set the expectation that they will be at 5,000 a week production by the end of the second quarter, which is basically this week.

One of the weird things about Tesla is the difficulty in getting good information about its operations, particularly since it is a public company.  So many investors, for example, were trying to figure out Model 3 production numbers that an entire cottage industry of VIN analytics and delivery reporting has arisen.   But the basic story is that they are not there yet and that's not going to change by the end of the week.

But that does not mean they won't be trying to achieve something that looks like 5,000.  In the past Tesla has resorted to the "run-rate" claim, that their run rate for a day or an hour was at such and such much higher number.  So that is, I think, what is going to happen this week.  Parts and subassemblies are likely being stored up so that in a great burst 714 can be completed in one day or if not that, 30 or so can be completed in an hour so that the company can claim a 5,000 unit weekly run rate was achieved.  This is obviously BS -- any bottlenecked process can usually be juiced for a short period of time (examples:  Transcontinental Railroad track laying record, Liberty ship build time record) -- but I predict we will see it.  I also wouldn't be surprised if you found the numbers for last week were actually below trend due to Tesla hoarding sub-assemblies and parts for huge one-off production push this week.

As an aside, we are coming up to June 30, which for taxpayers can be considered Tesla subsidy day.   I have written about this before, but if Tesla can manage its deliveries down a bit in the second quarter, it can extend the taxpayer subsidy of its vehicles another 3 months (the subsidy starts winding down after the 200,000th electric vehicle sold in the US and Telsa is right about there, so much so that rumors are it is sending all its output to Canada this week so it doesn't put them over the US number.  Bloomberg estimates that pushing the 200,000th sale from June 30 to July 1 will cost US taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars:

In my previous post I wrote about Tesla's attempt to prolong the $7,500 U.S. incentive for electric cars by pushing sales into the next quarter. A reader on Twitter who goes by the handle @Smack_Check did the math on how much such an effort would be worth to Tesla's customers: $366 million.

That's the value of additional credits available if Tesla waits just one day (July 1, instead of June 30) to record its 200,000th sale in the U.S. Here are @Smack_Check's fairly conservative assumptions:

Tesla will produce an average of 5,000 cars a week in the third quarter, all models combined (that means about 3,000 Model 3s/week, on average).
Each quarter after that, total weekly production will rise by 1,000.
U.S. sales will account for half of all Tesla sales worldwide during the subsidy period.

Disclosure:  I am short Tesla via the ownership of one (1) put option which in my mind constitutes more of a bar bet than an investment.  Shorting fan-boy stocks is risky, as is shorting companies the CA legislature is probably scheming right now to bail out somehow with their taxpayer money.  If it were not for these two problems I would be all-in on the short like James Bond at the end of Casino Royale holding a straight flush.   The odds that Tesla will really be worth $60 billion * (1+i)^10 in ten years is pretty much zero.  Also, it's amazing how many of Elizabeth Holme's behaviors at Theranos as documented in Bad Blood one can observe in Musk.

Update:   Fixed Tesla current market value, which is closer to $60 billion today.

Are You (or Trump) Really for Free Trade? Here is a Hypothetical to Test You

A few days back, we had a debate in the comments about whether Trump really wants free trade.   In my view, Trump looks at tariff rates and trade deficits like a simple scorecard of winning or losing without really understanding trade and its benefits.  Sure, Trump proposed a zero tariff rate agreement in passing with our European trading partners.  I think he did this because it made him look good and he knew they would never go for it.

But no matter the case, even if he is sincere, he still is judging this proposal by a very different standard than economists would.  Take European tariffs on passenger cars.  My understanding is that they are about 10% on US cars vs. our 2.5% on theirs  (this ignores the absolute hypocrisy in this whole thing that our light truck tariff on imports is like 25%, but put that aside).  Trump sees taking these two passenger car tariff rates to zero as a win NOT because it would be a benefit to consumers but because in his thinking the US gets a 10% concession out of Europe and only gives up a 2.5% concession in exchange.  Winning!

I tried to think of the best way to highlight the difference between Trump's thinking and good economic thinking on trade, and I came up with this hypothetical:

Consider two trade regimes.  In Regime #1, the US charges 0% tariffs on German steel and Germany charges 0% tariffs on US steel.  In Regime #2, the US is able to charge 10% tariffs on German steel while Germany still charges 0% tariffs on US steel.   I would bet quite a bit of money that Trump would say that Regime #2 is a better deal for the US, while free traders like myself and most economists would say that Regime #1 is not only better for the world as a whole, it is better for the US.  Zero tariffs allows the division of labor and comparative advantage to all work their magic to make sure capital and productive effort in this country are employed for the highest return.  I believe from reading the comment section of this blog that there are many many people who call themselves a free trader but who would say that Regime #2 is a better deal for the US.  If you believe that, you better have done a lot of work educating yourself on the issue because the great mass of economic theory and practice is against you.

I am not an economist and I am too busy today to give the whole explanation today, but here is one hint at part of the answer:

As of mid-2017, there were 29,288 steel-consuming firms, employing more than 900,000 workers who face higher prices versus just 916 steel-producing firms with 80,000 employees who benefit from those higher prices and reduced competition.

Trade Wars Are Weird

Trump:  I'm going to raise taxes on the consumers and businesses in the US that buy things from overseas.

China: Oh yeah?  I will show you, I will raise taxes on my citizens even more!

 

From the vaults:  Our sister publication in China complains about Chinese tariffs.  Note the date, way back in 2006.  If history doesn't repeat itself, it at least rhymes.

Gerrymandering, Proposals to Split California, And Why Odd and Even Matter

Over the last several years, there have been several proposals to split California into more than one state (I know what you are thinking:  Good God, more Californias?)  There was a proposal last year to split it into 6 states.  This election, there is a proposal on the ballot to split it into 3 states.  I am not sure what the entire process would be, but as a minimum either proposal would have to be approved by Congress.  For that latter to happen, the 3 state plan is probably more likely to get approved than the 6 state plan because it is an odd number.  Seriously.

For the rest of us, the main effect of a California split is that its current citizens would get more US Senators.  Each state gets 2 Senators so California would go from 2 to 6 Senators in a three-state proposal and 2 to 12 Senators in a 6-state proposal.  This also means that California would get some extra Electoral College votes, since a state's votes is the sum of its Representatives and Senators.

To some extent, this debate will be a flashback to the mid-19th Century when statehood decisions were made based on the north-south balance in the Senate.   This time around, it will be about shifting, or perhaps more accurately not shifting, the Republican-Democrat balance.  Right now CA is perceived by all to be +2 Senate seats for the Democrats for most of the foreseeable future.  The problem with even-number splits such as 2 or 4 or 6 states from CA is that they are almost guaranteed to shift the CA contribution away from +2D.  Take the two state solution.  If they were split north and south, you would likely get two blue states and the +2D from CA in the Senate would become +4D.  Republicans would barf.  If you split the state east-west, you might be able to create a red state and a blue state such that CA would shift from +2D to neutral, an effective gain for R's.  Democrats would hate this.  Neither party in Congress is going to agree on a solution here.  There is no way to gerrymander the thing without some party making a gain.  This is generally true for all even number state solutions.

Odd number state solutions could also be problematic, but they could also work depending on how the lines are drawn (making this probably the most watched gerrymander in US history).  A three state solution that creates two blue states and a red state would keep CA's total effect on the Senate as +2D.  I am not sure any split would clear Congress but this is probably the only possibility that might do so.   Two coastal states and one inland state would probably achieve this result, but I believe the current proposal is for three states split north to south, so a large heavily blue coastal city or two is in each state, which could push the thing into being +6D which the Senate would never buy short of a Democratic majority and elimination of the filibuster (which for a generation of +4 votes in the Senate they might consider).

All of this glosses over huge local problems in CA itself, like

  • How do you split up state debts, such as Calpers obligations and assets
  • Will current state officeholders (e.g. the governor and AG) who are incredibly powerful and have historically used these positions as springboards for national office (e.g. Kamala Harris, Jerry Brown, Ronald Reagan) accept a huge reduction in their power and budget
  • If there is a red state created, how will blue urban areas put into this red state react?  (the opposite issue already exists with red rural areas already used to living in a blue state).

A Little Bit of Model Railroad Progress

It has been a while since I blogged on my model railroad but unfortunately real life intervened and cruelly prevented me from working on my hobby for a while.  I have been making progress recently and thought I would post what I have been working on.  Believe it or not, there are one or two readers who actually write me for updates.

One thing I can do even when I am busy is make progress hand building turnouts.  These are some small #5 turnouts built with code 40 rail (perfect for eyesight destruction).  No way I could to this without the fabulous Fast Tracks construction jigs.

I built the main line out of code 55 flex track and am hand-building all the sidings and branch lines with code 40.  This lets me get the main line up and running fast while still being able to hand build some track, often the track closest to the front of the layout.  Below is the code 55 flex track main line after some test painting.  The one thing I do not like about flex track is that it always looks so uniform.  Even on good mainline track the rail and ties vary a lot in color, so I spray paint a base coat and use brushes to hand paint individual tiles and rail sections different colors to get some variation.

The switch in the foreground below is the first code 40 hand built track I have put on the layout.  It is a bit of a pain to join code 55 to code 40, so I wanted to experiment some.  Eventually I inserted a code 55 rail joiner in the mainline track, and the crushed the other end flat and soldered the code 40 rail to the top.  With some trial and error, this got both the rail tops at the same height.  I really love the look of real wood ties and the color variation you get naturally, which I accentuate some.

The biggest recent progress was I painted the back drop.  Since this is Phoenix I wanted some low haze but no clouds, so I used the tried and true method of blue at the top of the background and white and the bottom and blending them in between.  Came out pretty well, though this picture does not really do it justice because the lighting is not quite right yet.  I need to try it with a better camera.   The biggest problem I had was a classic Phoenix problem where the paint was drying too fast.  One of the hardest problems is that the Phoenix sky on certain days is so deep, deep blue that it looks unrealistic, even in real life, so I did not use the actual color for the top of sky that I see from my front yard, I backed it down a bit.

 

Oh, you can also see that I have put in the lighting.  As an experiment I used led light strings.  This avoids the directional shadow problem but I am not totally convinced I am happy with it yet.  I also have fluorescent lights installed for night effects, though I still struggle with the OBA / fluorescent paper problem here.  Anyone who has a source for matte (not gloss) OBA-free photo paper that is not too think (I often have to bend and shape the paper for projects) can certainly email me.   Paper models like these are more popular in the UK than in the US, but I have come to really like them in certain applications.  They just don't look good in night scenes when brick walls glow under black light.

In the plan I have locations vaguely blocked out for industries but I had not yet tested the sites against actual buildings I have in inventory or would like to put in.  Below I have a half-built grain elevator I was testing locations for.

That's it for now.  I am starting my big building project which is a scale refinery.  We actually don't have a refinery in Phoenix (closest is Yuma I think) but I worked in one years ago and love the look of them, especially lighted at night, so dammit I am going to have one.

The Historical Reason I Am Skeptical About Trump's G7 Free Trade Proposal

After hammering various members of the G7 with new tariffs and threats of even more tariffs, Trump proposed that everyone eliminate all their tariff's and subsidies:

Q Mr. President, you said that this was a positive meeting, but from the outside, it seemed quite contentious. Did you get any indication from your interlocutors that they were going to make any concessions to you? And I believe that you raised the idea of a tariff-free G7. Is that —

THE PRESIDENT: I did. Oh, I did. That’s the way it should be. No tariffs, no barriers. That’s the way it should be.

Q How did it go down?

THE PRESIDENT: And no subsidies. I even said no tariffs. In other words, let’s say Canada — where we have tremendous tariffs — the United States pays tremendous tariffs on dairy. As an example, 270 percent. Nobody knows that. We pay nothing. We don’t want to pay anything. Why should we pay?

We have to — ultimately, that’s what you want. You want a tariff-free, you want no barriers, and you want no subsidies, because you have some cases where countries are subsidizing industries, and that’s not fair. So you go tariff-free, you go barrier-free, you go subsidy-free.

Awesome, sign me up. But is this serious?  I want to get to that in a minute but first let me offer two practical observations

  • Trump belabored the 270 percent Canadian dairy tariffs on US products, but at the same time the US tariff rate on Canadian dairy products is effectively infinite, because we simply don't let any in.  This is the kind of complexity he is glossing over.  Forget Canada, his proposal for no tariffs or subsidies would cause a major freakout among US dairy farmers, a business absolutely chock-full of crazy quilt of progressive state regulation on prices and subsidies and quotas.  (and by the way, congrats to Trump for getting progressives like Drum into the free trade, anti-price-control camp).
  • Simple statements like "no subsidies" are easy to make, but is a lower corporate tax rate a subsidy?  How about lower minimum wages?  What about really long copyright lives?  What about when a governor or mayor gives out relocation incentives and tax abatements?  What about the whole Amazon HQ2 deal that is coming?   The list of complexities are endless.  That is why long and complicated negotiations are necessary to reduce tariffs and subsidies.  Fortunately we have actually done this, in deals like NAFTA and the TPP.  Unfortunately, Trump has given both of these the boot.  So is he really serious?

I have a love for history and like to make comparisons of modern events to history, and in this case I believe there is a very parallel case we can learn from.   Here is the problem:  It involves Hitler's Germany.  Hitler is obviously the third rail of Internet discourse, but the example is so parallel I am still going to go ahead, with the following proviso:  I am not saying Trump is Hitler, or making any such analogy or statement.  I am merely attempting to learn from a very similar international negotiation that occurred in the 1930's.

If  you can put aside all the emotional baggage of Hitler being either the worst mass murderer in history or at least in the top 3, he was (at least for a while until it all blew up on him) very successful in getting wins in diplomatic face-offs of the type Trump seems to want (by this I mean gains for his own country in zero-sum or even negative-sum games made by repudiating past international settlements).  Hitler's brashness essentially won out with the reoccupation of the Rhineland, Germany's remilitarization, the annexation of Austria, and even led to the western powers basically handing the Sudetenland over to him.

But the example I have in mind is with the disarmament conferences of the the early 1930's.  Major western powers were looking for some sort of agreement to head off an expensive and destabilizing arms race of the type that occurred in the run-up to WWI (and which by the way was way too expensive for countries bogged down in the Great Depression).  As the powers discussed incremental limits or reductions, one world leader jumped into the fray and proposed that all the powers agree to total disarmament  -- no more militaries at all.  Can you guess who made this radical proposal that would be the envy of any 1960's hippie?**

Hitler had [President Roosevelt's] message before him when he prepared the final draft of his speech to the Reichstag. Contrary to expectation, his speech, when delivered, made no threat of immediate rearmament. Germany was ready at any time, Hitler said, to renounce the aggressive weapons forbidden to her by the Treaty of Versailles “if the whole world also bans them.” Without further ado, Germany would dissolve her whole military establishment “if neighboring nations unreservedly did the same.” For President Roosevelt's proposal the German government was “indebted with warm thanks.” Germany was ready to join in “any solemn non-aggression pact because she thinks not of attack but of her security.”

In making this speech, Hitler said that he above everyone else wanted peace.  He was a soldier, he had been in the trenches, and no soldier wanted war.

Given his past actions, we suspect Hitler was not a total peacenik, so what was going on here?  The Treaty of Versailles had essentially disarmed Germany, reduced its army to 100,000 men and banned it from having an air force and submarines, among other things.  Germany chaffed at these limits, considering them grossly unfair, and wanted limits at parity with those on, say, France.

Hitler always liked to turn other nations' values against them in his international statements.  Later, when he justified potential annexations in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, he would say that he was just interested in "self-determination of peoples" and that other powers were inconsistent and unfair when they refused to allow this principle they themselves had established to be applied to ethnic Germans in these countries.  Hitler clearly didn't care one bit about free self-determination of peoples, but he was happy to throw US and British and French rhetoric back in their faces.

So in this case Hitler grabbed at the other major powers' pious pronouncements about their commitment to disarmament and again threw it back in their faces.  You want disarmament?  OK, let's do it -- total disarmament.  Hitler knew that they would never do it -- France in particular did not trust Germany at all.  Hitler waited until it was clear the other countries were not going to go for this proposal and said something like, "see, those other countries were never serious, they never wanted peace.  All they want to do is keep Germany down."  He proceeded to resign from the conference,  renounce the military limits of the Versailles treaty, and started building Germany's army and air force.   Which was what he had intended to do all along.

I know from the comments that there are folks reading my blog who honestly don't seem to understand trade and the trade deficit, and I am at my limit in explaining any more clearly.  I know there are also folks who honestly think Trump is following a brinksmanship path to get to a net better set of trade rules in the future.  I wrote the other day that I doubted this, but folks have emailed me the quotes about Trump proposing full free trade as proof of his intentions.  Sorry, while I would love to believe this is true, and will happily admit my error later if needed, I don't believe it for a minute.  It just looks too much like Germany's actions at the disarmament conference.  People who truly want and understand free trade do not say things like "there are too many German cars in the United States."***

 

** This link is squirrelly and sometimes is gated and sometimes not.  The full citation is Boeckel, R. M. (1933). The Disarmament Conference, 1933. Editorial research reports 1933 (Vol. II). Washington, DC: CQ Press. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre1933100900

*** Anyone older than about 45 can tell you how badly US cars sucked before foreign competition, and how much better they are today only because we allowed this competition.  Even if you don't own a German car (and I do), your American car is better and less expensive than it would be without German and Japanese and Korean competition.

 

Trump Likely to Impose New Tariffs Today: Is This Bad Economics or Madman Theory?

Frankly, I do not know how folks like Mark Perry and Don Boudreaux do it.  They are able to keep going, day after day, year after year, refuting the same stupid anti-trade arguments over and over again.  I don't have the patience or endurance.  Long-time readers will remember I used to spend a lot of time on climate.  But the debate never went anywhere.  It was like Groundhog Day.  At some point I just thought "I've said what I have to say, and now I am done"  (though I actually do have a climate update in the works).

Anyway, Trump has put tariffs on Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminum and is poised to do so for European products soon, a tax that will ultimately be paid by every American consumer.  Sigh.  This is just so economically ignorant it is hard to take it seriously, yet here it is.  In the name of 150,000 or so US steelworkers and a bare handful of obviously politically well-connected corporations, we are going to raise prices on essential raw materials that are consumed in one way or another by a huge number of American businesses and hundreds of millions of US consumers.   Two or three years ago when US manufacturers are moving oversees for lower raw material costs, you will know why.

Republicans are really supposed to know better on this sort of thing, which to me is just proof #12,465 that our political parties represent tribal rather than consistent ideological differences.  Republicans have twisted themselves in so many knots trying to support Trump while knowing better on tariffs that some have actually brought back a version of madman theory.

I am not entirely sure of the intellectual and historical origins of madman theory, but I have always ascribed it to Nixon and Kissinger.

President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger believed they could compel "the other side" to back down during crises in the Middle East and Vietnam by "push[ing] so many chips into the pot" that Nixon would seem 'crazy' enough to "go much further," according to newly declassified documents published today by the National Security Archive.

The documents include a 1972 Kissinger memorandum of conversation published today for the first time in which Kissinger explains to Defense Department official Gardner Tucker that Nixon's strategy was to make "the other side ... think we might be 'crazy' and might really go much further" — Nixon's Madman Theory notion of intimidating adversaries such as North Vietnam and the Soviet Union to bend them to Washington's will in diplomatic negotiations

Speaking of Kissinger, the new Conservative explanation of Trump trade (and foreign) policy also includes an element of old-time brinksmanship.  I remember reading something in college from Kissinger, which I can't find now so maybe I have it wrong, but I would paraphrase it as, "it is very dangerous to go to the brink over an issue, but one can never make progress without going to the brink."

Some Conservatives are now arguing that Trump's protectionism is "good" protectionism because it is an opening move in a bargaining game where the US can make headway and perhaps get better rules all around.  As such, Trump's seeming irrationality and willingness to ignore basic economics is a feature, not a bug, supporting the madman model of negotiation.

Ugh.  This might perhaps all be reasonable strategy in a zero-sum game such as, say, negotiating shares of the assets in a bankruptcy settlement (something Trump is actually super experienced at).  Trade, though, is not a zero-sum game.  By definition, trades that are executed voluntarily have to help both parties, or else they would not be agreed to.  As such, anything that reduces the amount of trade between people in two countries is guaranteed to be a net loss for BOTH groups of people.  There are no winners.

A Reminder: Why the US Rail System Is At Least as Good As the European System if You Care About Energy Use

In an article about the French railroad SNCF, Randal O'Toole makes a point I have screamed to the world for years:

Meanwhile, French trains carry less than 11 percent of freight, as more than 86 percent of freight is transported on highways. Those numbers are in sharp contrast to the U.S., where at least a third of freight goes by rail and less than 40 percent goes by truck (and I suspect a bad model has erroneously exaggerated the role of trucks).

American railroads are a model of capitalism, one of the least-subsidized forms of transportation in the world. They are profitable and do far more for the national economy than Europe’s socialized railroads, which mainly serve narrow elites.

Most of the intellectual elites and nearly all the global warming alarmists deride the US for not having the supposedly superior rail system that France and Germany have.  They are blinded by the vision of admittedly beautiful high speed trains, and have frittered away billions of dollars trying to pursue various high speed rail visions in the US.

I know that the supposedly pro-science global warming alarmists sometimes are not actually very focused on science, but this is pretty simple to think about.

First, consider the last time you were on a passenger train.  Add up the weight of all the folks in your car.  Do you think they weighed more or less than the car itself?  Unless you were packed into a subway train with Japanese sumo wrestlers, the answer is that the weight of the car dwarfs that of the passengers it is carrying.    The average Amtrak passenger car apparently weighs about 65 tons (my guess is a high speed rail car weighs more).  The capacity of a coach is 70-80 passengers, which at an average adult weight of 140 pounds yields a maximum passenger weight per car of 5.6 tons.  This means that just 8% of the fuel in a passenger train is being used to move people -- the rest goes into moving the train itself.

Now consider a freight train.  The typical car weight 25-30 tons empty and can carry between 70 and 120 tons of cargo.  This means that 70-80% of the fuel in a freight train is being used to move the cargo.

Now you have to take me on faith on one statement -- it is really hard, in fact close to impossible, to optimize a rail system for both passengers and freight.  In the extreme of high speed rail, passenger trains required separate dedicated tracks.  Most rail systems, even when they serve both sorts of traffic, generally prioritize one or the other.  So, if you wanted to save energy and had to pick, which would you choose -- focusing on freight or focusing on passengers?  Oh and by the way, if you want to make it more personal, throw in a consideration of which you would rather have next to you on crowded roads, another car or another freight truck?

This is why the supposedly-green folks' denigrating of US rail is so crazy to me.  The US rails system makes at least as much sense as the European system, even before you consider that it was mostly privately funded and runs without the subsidies that are necessary to keep European rail running.  Yes, as an American tourist travelling in Europe, the European rails system is great.  Agreed.  I use it every time I go there.  I have to assume that this elite tourist experience must be part of why folks ignore the basic science here.

My original article on all this years ago was in Forbes here.

Postscript #1:  One could argue that what matters is not the weight ratios of freight vs. passenger rail but how those compare to the road alternatives.  I would have to think this through, but it gets way more complicated because you have to start worrying about average occupancy and such since that also differs.  At full capacity say of 4 people, the typical 4000 pound car (US, rest of the world is less) would passenger weight around 12% of the total, higher than for the passenger train.   But average occupies could change the comparison and I don't have the time to work it through.  But for a full analysis we would have to take a lot of other things into account.  For example, trains are a poor fit with customer travel time preferences for longer US distances, even for higher speed options.  In the same way freight pencils out worse for rail in Europe because the last mile transport problems become a bigger percentage in a shorter haul.  I am confident though that for the US, the freight-dominant system is the right solution and it amazes me how hard it is to get anyone to recognize this.

Postscript #2:  Thinking about the SNCF, I actually did a consulting project there 20+ years ago.  I remember two things.   First they had 25% more freight car repair people than they had freight cars.  Which led me to making the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that they could give every one of these folks their own tool bag, assign them their own car to ride around on, and still cut a fifth of their staff.  I have never, ever, ever seen bloated staffing like I did at SNCF.  My other memory was lunches with executives that took place in palatial dining rooms with waiters in white gloves.  We ate for like 3 hours and drank a case of wine and all I could think about doing after lunch was going to take a nap.

Postscript #3:  This is really going to be a random aside, but if you want to bring science to the table, monorails are the dumbest things ever.  The whole advantage of rail is the friction reduction of a metal flanged wheel rolling on a metal rail.   Most monorails (and people movers) are just tires on a concrete beam (e.g this is how the Disney monorails work).  This is no more efficient than a bus and actually less because the train jacks up the vehicle to passenger weight ratio over a bus.  Because of certain geometry issues, monorails also have limited capacity.  Disney has been struggling with this for years at the Magic Kingdom in Florida and their ferry boats seem to move a lot more passengers than the adjacent monorails.  Monorails do look awesome, though, and their tracks are airier and more attractive than traditional elevated rail tracks.

Our Response to GDPR

I have been reading all the articles (and the storm of emails in my inbox) on European GDPR privacy rules implementation with some dispassion.  After all, it does not affect me, right?  I run a camping business all in the US.  But then I got to thinking about it and realized that I had three avenues of exposure  -- my blogs, my jobs mailing list, and my company web site.  I will preface this by saying that I am no expert and I am not really hugely at-risk, but perhaps this will be useful to someone.  More importantly, if you ARE an expert and see something I am screwing up please email me!

The blog exposure strikes me as pretty narrow, particularly since we do not serve up advertisements (except in the comments via Disqus) and do not have a mailing list.  I don't store or have access to any user data (though I wonder if server logs count?) so I assess my main liability as secondary if Disqus screws up something.  I have been reading Disqus's updates and I would evaluate them as working on it but not done.  I suppose if the EU wants to come after me for "up to 4%" of this site's revenue they are welcome to do so.  Sort of like when I was unemployed being told to spend 2 months salary on my wife's engagement ring  (which in fact I did exactly, since it was my mom's ring given to me as a gift for the purpose).

Similarly, I think my liability surrounding the mailing list we maintain for job openings is pretty limited.  First, it would shock me if more than 0.0001% of the people on that list are in Europe, since I can't really legally hire Europeans in most cases and it is unlikely they will drive their RV over here to work in a campground.  More importantly, all the names are there through what I would call extreme opt-in -- they have to click on a special link and go sign up on a dedicated page just to join the mailing list.  The email provider is Constant Contact so again my liability is likely limited to whether they screw anything up in their compliance, but this is probably unlikely in my case.  Again there is no advertising and all people on the list ever get are notifications of new job openings and links where to apply.

Which brings me to our business web site.  There is no log-in or user information entered or advertising on our web site, so we are mostly fine.  With one large exception -- we have our own reservations site that gathers and stores customer reservation information.  Eek!  That sounds like it could be a problem.  The most dangerous piece of data we could potentially have in our hands is a credit card number, which is why our system was set up so our company never has the credit card number in our possession.  Customers are passed over to Stripe (highly recommended company, by the way) who handle all that dangerous stuff on their servers, and just pass us back a confirmation.  But we do have customer name, address, email, and camping stay dates on our server.  Maybe we are compliant already -- we treat that stuff with a lot of care.  Maybe we are not.  But since we really don't get any reservations at all from Europe, it was easier just to go black there, so right now my software guy is working on blocking traffic from European IP addresses.

Postscript:  On some of my posts, people write me and ask, "Why did you even bother to publish that."  And my answer is that I often write to think, so it may be that it is only for my own benefit.  My software guy is a reader of this blog and was probably laughing as he read this post because I stopped a couple times in writing it to fire off new questions or requests to him.

Update:  Hah, what timing!   This just appeared on my blog when I scrolled down to the comments so I guess Disqus must indeed be working on this.

Uber Drivers Just Killed All the Parts of the Job They Supposedly Liked the Most

At the behest of a group of Uber drivers, the California Supreme Court has ruled that Uber drivers are Uber employees, not independent contractors, under California law:

In a ruling with potentially sweeping consequences for the so-called gig economy, the California Supreme Court on Monday made it much more difficult for companies to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The decision could eventually require companies like Uber, many of which are based in California, to follow minimum-wage and overtime laws and to pay workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance and payroll taxes, potentially upending their business models.

I believe that this will pretty much kill Uber (though it will take some time to bleed out) for reasons discussed here.  Rather than discuss consequences for the company (everyone is finally doing this, following the general media rule I have stated before that it is OK to discuss downsides of new government regulations only after the regulations have been passed and become essentially un-reversible).

People don't always seem to have a good grasp of cause and effect.  I don't know if this is a general problem programmed into how humans think or one attributable to the sorry state of education.  My favorite example is all the people who flee California due to the high taxes, housing prices, and stifling regulation and then  -- in their new state -- immediately start voting for all the same things that caused them to flee California.

One of the aspects of being an Uber driver that supposedly attracts many people to it is the flexibility.  I summarized the advantages in an earlier post:

Here are some cool things about working for Uber:

You can work any time you want, for as long as you want.  You can work from 2-4 in the morning if you like, and if there are no customers, that is your risk

You can work in any location you choose.  You can park at your house and sit in your living room and take any jobs that come up, and then ignore new jobs until you get back home (I actually have a neighbor who is retired who does just this, he has driven me about 6 times now).

The company has no productivity metrics or expectations.  As long as your driver rating is good and you follow the rules, you are fine.

This all ends with the California decision.  You drivers are all thinking you won this big victory because you are going to have the same job you loved but you will just get paid more.  This is not going to happen.  As I implied above, in the long-term this job will not exist at all, because Uber will be dead.  But in the near-term, if Uber tries to make this work **, Uber is going to excercise a LOT more control of your work.

That is because if Uber is on the hook for a minimum cost per hour for your work, then they are going to damn well make sure you are productive.  Do you enjoy sitting around near your suburban and semi-rural home at 3AM waiting to get some business?  In the future, forget it, Uber is not going to allow this sort of thing now that Uber, rather than its drivers, is carrying the risk of your being unproductive.  They are going to take a lot more control of where and when you can drive.  And if you do not get with the program, you are going to be kicked out.  It won't be three months before Uber starts tracking driver productivity and kicking out the least productive drivers.

Congratulations Uber drivers, in the quest to try to use the power of government to extract more money for yourselves from the company, you just killed your jobs as you know it.  You may have had freedom before but now you are working in Office Space like the rest of us.

This whole case just goes to support my frequent contention that the only labor model the US government will fully accept is an hourly worker working 9-5 punching a time clock.  Every new labor model that comes along eventually runs head-on into the government that tries to pound that square peg into the round hole of a time-punching factory worker.  The Obama administration even did its best to force a large number of salaried workers into punching a time clock.

 

** If I were the leader of Uber, I would announce today that we are exiting California.  This is an existential issue and the only way to fight it is right now on your home turf.  Any attempt to try to muddle through this is going to lead to Uber's death, and would thus be a disservice to its shareholders.   Whether this happens will be interesting.  Uber is owned by a bunch of California VC's who generally support exactly this sort of government authoritarian interventionism.  It will be interesting to see if a bunch of California progressives let $50 billion in equity go down the drain just to avoid offending the sensibilities of their fellow California progressives.

US Trade Deficit: Foreigners Are Consuming US Goods, But Consuming Them in the US (So They Don't "Count" As An Export)

Via Don Boudreaux:

Greg Ip writes that “The U.S. runs a trade deficit because it consumes more than it produces while its trading partners, collectively, do the opposite” (“How the Tax Cut President Trump Loves Will Deepen Trade Deficits He Hates,” April 19).

Here is how I like to explain why this is wrong.  The trade deficit exists in large part because foreigners are more likely to consume the American-made goods and services they buy right here in the US, rather than take them back to their home country, while US consumers tend to bring foreign goods back to America to consume them.  Let me unpack this.

First, over any reasonable length of time, payments between countries are going to balance.  If this were not true, there would be some mattress in China that has trillions of dollar bills stuffed in it, and no reasonable person nowadays just lets money sit around lying fallow.  There are some payments between countries for each others' goods.   And there are some payments for each others' services.   And there are some payments for various investments.  All these ultimately balance, which makes fixating on just one part of this circular flow, the payments for physical goods, sort of insane.  If we have a trade "deficit" in physical goods, then we must have a trade surplus in services (which we do) and in investments (which we do) to balance things out.

But what do we mean by an investment surplus?  It means that, for example, folks from China are spending more money in the US for things like real estate and buildings and equipment -- either directly or through purchases of American equity and debt securities -- than US citizens are buying in China.  But note that another name for investment is just stuff that foreigners buy in this country that stays in this country and they don't take back home.  If a Chinese citizen buys a house in Los Angeles (something that apparently happens quite a bit), that is just as much "consumption" as when I buy a TV made in China.  But unlike my TV purchase (which counts as an import), because of the arbitrary way trade statistics are calculated, selling a Chinese citizen a house in LA does not count as an export because they keep and use the house here.  Let's say one Chinese person sells 10,000 TV's to Americans, and then uses the proceeds to build a multi-million dollar house in Hawaii.  This would show up as a huge trade deficit, but there is no asymmetry of consumption or production -- Chinese and American citizens involved in this example are producing and consuming the same amounts.  The same is true when the Chinese build a manufacturing plant here.  Or when then invest capital in a company like Tesla and it builds a manufacturing plant here.

Our bizarre fixation on the trade deficit number would imply that, if trade deficits are inherently bad, then we would be better off if the Chinese person who bought the house in LA dismantled it and then shipped the material back to China.  Then it would show up as an export.  Same with the factory -- if we fixated on reducing the trade deficit then we should prefer that the Chinese buy the equipment for their factory here but have it all shipped home and built in China rather than built here.   Is this really what you want?

I am willing to concede one exception -- when Chinese use trade proceeds to buy US government debt securities.   This is where my lack of formal economics training may lead me astray, but I would say that the US government is the one major American institution that is able to consume more than it produces.  Specifically, by running enormous deficits it is able to -- year in and year out -- allow people to consume more than they produce.  Trade proceeds from foreigners that buy this debt in some sense help subsidize this.

However, I don't think one can blame trade for this situation.  Government deficits are enabled by feckless politicians who pander to the electorate in order to be re-elected, a dynamic that has little to do with trade.  I suppose one could argue that by increasing the demand for government securities, foreigners are reducing the cost of debt and thus perhaps enabling more spending, though I am not sure politicians are at all price sensitive to interest rates when they run up debt -- as a minimum their demand curve is really, really steep.   There is a relation between government borrowing and trade but the relationship is reversed -- Increased borrowing will tend, all things being equal, to increase the value of the dollar which will in turn make imports cheaper and exports more expensive, perhaps increasing the trade deficit.

Business Lesson From the Vietnam War

I just finished watching the PBS series on the Vietnam War and found the experience powerful and educational.  My only disappointment was that every soldier they interviewed and followed through the war ended up in the anti-war movement (or in the case of one POW, his wife did).  I agree with their perspective, and see the whole war as a giant waste, but unlike most people on campus nowadays, I like hearing from people with points of view that are different than mine.  I get nervous just having my expectations reinforced.  Surely there are veterans who thought the war was winnable and the US largely honorable -- I know some of these folks -- but we really do not get to hear their voices very often.   But with this proviso, the series was terrific.

One of the most important -- and hardest -- lessons of business is to think at the margin.  Perhaps the toughest corollary to this is: Sunk costs are sunk.  I don't care how much we have already spent on that factory -- that money is gone -- if it is going to take another $100 million to finish, are the benefits of the factory worth that $100 million? If not let's stop work on it no matter how much has already been spent.   I have worked to teach this to my wife.  I don't care how much the tickets for the show on Sunday night cost -- that money is gone -- isthe enjoyment we expect to get from the show worth the remaining costs we face (getting in the car, fighting for parking, etc)?

Transit projects thrive on the sunk cost fallacy.  Agencies explicitly try to get some money, spend it, and then claim the rest of the money has to be spent because we have already "invested so much".  Here is an example:

But what is really amazing is that Chicago embarked on building a $320 million downtown station for the project without even a plan for the rest of the line -- no design, no route, no land acquisition, no appropriation, no cost estimate, nothing.  There are currently tracks running near the station to the airport, but there are no passing sidings on these tracks, making it impossible for express and local trains to share the same track.  The express service idea would either require an extensive rebuilding of the entire current line using signaling and switching technologies that may not (according to Daley himself) even exist, or it requires an entirely new line cut through some of the densest urban environments in the country.  Even this critical decision on basic approach was not made before they started construction on the station, and in fact still has not been made.

Though the article does not mention it, this strikes me as a typical commuter rail strategy -- make some kind of toe-in-the-water investment on a less-than-critical-mass part of the system, and then use that as leverage with voters to approve funding so that the original investment will not be orphaned.

It amazes me that no politician in California has shut down the insane California high speed rail project, but I will bet you any amount of money that when they do the rail agency will be screaming that it can't be shut down because they have already spent billions of dollars and shutting them down would waste all that money.  Sorry, but that money has already been wasted, the point is to avoid all the additional money that will be wasted going forward.

The government decision-making around the Vietnam War seemed like nothing so much as a series of sunk cost fallacies.  We can't give up now, not after so many brave men have already died!  That last sentence could be the title of about half the episodes.   But sunk costs shouldn't matter in a go-forward decision -- but they do matter to ego and prestige.  Politicians talk about things like "the nation's honor" but what really matters at its heart is their own ego and perception.  Abandoning sunk costs, for the real humans making decisions (whether Presidents or CEOs) is about confessing past errors of judgment.  Its a hard thing to do, so hard a lot of extra people had to die in Vietnam before it could happen.  I can't find a transcript but Kissinger had some amazing quotes in Episode 9 that pretty baldly outline this problem.

 

 

Addressing the Pro-Tariff Arguments

Don Boudreaux and and Mark Perry have been doing a great job making the case against Trump's trade sanctions.  But it is always a danger only to learn about opposing views from those who disagree with you, so in the spirit of Bryan Caplan's "Ideological Touring Test" I wanted to address directly some of the arguments in support of Trump's sanctions.

I followed several links to this article by Spencer Morrison.  After reading the whole thing, I fear I have made the intellectual error of choosing a poor representative of the opposing side's argument, but I am committed now, so here goes.

Consider that China steals more than half a trillion dollars in American intellectual property every single year. This is one of the reasons America’s trade deficit with China is so massive. For example, in 2010 Chinese companies stole high-speed rail designs from American firms, thereby depriving them of hundreds of billions in potential revenues. Such theft occurs in nearly every industry, whether it’s software programs or branded consumer goods. And the worst part? We let it happen.

I find the author's figure absurd, and likely untrustworthy given his example.  Following his high-speed rail design "theft" link one quickly finds that 1) Americans were not involved at all, which is not surprising since we really don't have high-speed rail manufacturing industry or expertise in this country; 2) the technology seems to have been acquired or copied legally; and 3) the real competitive issue for non-Chinese companies seems to be that the Chinese have extended and improved the technology.

This one paragraph essentially summarized the theme of the article, that technology is the key to increased well-being and that the US is poorer when they cannot monopolize the best technology.  The first is true, the second is dead wrong and flies in the face of 200 years of history.

I won't spend time on the mass of the article where describes the economy in very production-based terms which I don't totally agree with, but his basic point is one I can partially accept -- that real economic growth over time comes from  productivity growth.  I agree that technology is part of the productivity equation, but unlike the author I also see other drivers such as trade (which he calls "noise").  Trade is a critical factor in productivity improvement as specialization and comparative advantage greatly increase productivity.

But where I think he really goes off the rails is to say that because technology is wealth-creating, we need to monopolize that technology in the US.

The core issue remains: we continue to  offshore our advanced industries at an alarming pace, which will only increase the likelihood that the “next big thing” will be invented abroad. If we do not reverse this trend, we will soon be on the outside looking in.

It would be entertaining to discuss the origins of the American textile industry in the late 18th and early 19th century with the author, which were largely based on spinning jenny and powerloom designs that were literally stolen from manufacturers in the UK (countries don't own technologies, only individuals and their companies do).  The UK at the time had strict technology export restrictions of which I am sure the author would have been approving.

So did the UK suddenly become poorer as America built a lively cloth industry?  No, in fact the UK boomed along with the US.  It turns out that spreading new technology and productivity techniques around more widely made everyone richer.  This only makes sense.  Would the West really be wealthier if they had kept all technology from spreading, and thus were surrounded by countries dominated by subsistence farming and medieval crafts?  A skeptic might argue that the UK did eventually become poorer relative to the US and upstart Germany, but Andrew Carnegie could have told you why at the beginning of the 20th century.  He went back and toured manufacturers in his old home and was horrified at how little they reinvested in new technology.

Which brings me back to Chinese high speed rail, the example he started with.  Clearly the Chinese have a growing high-speed rail manufacturing industry, and they DIDN'T invent the technologies originally in China.  This is what trade is all about.  Rather than keep technologies locked up in a secret underground bunker in the Rockies, as the author seems to prefer, it spreads technologies around the world.  Production then shifts around the world based on a variety of factors such as comparative advantage in ways that are hard to predict, but seldom has a strong relationship to the country in which the technology was first invented.  One place production does NOT shift, though, is towards countries whose government has artificially raised critical raw material prices through border taxes on its consumers called tariffs.

Which reminds me, if the problem is China "stealing" things like high-speed rail technology, then why in the hell are we imposing steel and aluminum tariffs?  What the heck does this have to do with technology transfer?  In fact, if the US really had a high-speed rail industry we were worried about, or if one were exclusively concerned with the auto industry, the author is essentially telling them "we are sorry you had your technology stolen so to help you out we going to substantially raise the prices of your two largest purchases (steel and aluminum) so that you can be even less competitive internationally."  Ahh, I can feel the economic growth from that already.

If the author wants better intellectual property protections for US companies and individuals, I am generally supportive of efforts to achieve this (as long as we don't over-specify intellectual property and end up again with endless patent troll suits).  For all its flaws, though, joining the TPP seems to be a better path to this end (it actually addresses, you know, intellectual property protections rather than just raise steel prices for consumers).

To conclude, I love this quote from his article because, despite being anti-trade, he in fact is echoing the pro-trade observation by Steven Landsburg.

Yet our trade policy does exactly the opposite. After the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, U.S. corn exports surged, as did our imports of automobiles. The problem is that automobile manufacturing is much more likely to benefit from disruptive technology than is growing corn—under NAFTA, the preponderance of long-run benefits went to Mexico, not the United States. The same is true with America’s trade relationship with China: America’s advanced goods trade deficit with China now tops $120 billion. Meanwhile, our biggest export is soybeans.

Free trade is, quite literally, turning America into China’s mercantile resource colony: we buy their value-added, manufactured products, and we sell them raw materials.

This is freaking awesome!  We grow and sell soybeans and get back advanced technology products.  Brilliant!  No wonder we are the richest nation on Earth.

Postscript:  So to save the time clicking through to Steven Landsburg, here is a part of what he said (via Carpe Diem):

There are two technologies for producing automobiles in America. One is to manufacture them in Detroit, and the other is to grow them in Iowa. Everybody knows about the first technology; let me tell you about the second. First you plant seeds, which are the raw material from which automobiles are constructed. You wait a few months until wheat appears. Then you harvest the wheat, load it onto ships, and sail the ships eastward into the Pacific Ocean. After a few months, the ships reappear with Toyotas on them.

International trade is nothing but a form of technology. The fact that there is a place called Japan, with people and factories, is quite irrelevant to Americans’ well-being. To analyze trade policies, we might as well assume that Japan is a giant machine with mysterious inner workings that convert wheat into cars. Any policy designed to favor the first American technology over the second is a policy designed to favor American auto producers in Detroit over American auto producers in Iowa. A tax or a ban on “imported” automobiles is a tax or a ban on Iowa-grown automobiles. If you protect Detroit carmakers from competition, then you must damage Iowa farmers, because Iowa farmers are the competition.

The task of producing a given fleet of cars can be allocated between Detroit and Iowa in a variety of ways. A competitive price system selects that allocation that minimizes the total production cost. It would be unnecessarily expensive to manufacture all cars in Detroit, unnecessarily expensive to grow all cars in Iowa, and unnecessarily expensive to use the two production processes in anything other than the natural ratio that emerges as a result of competition.

That means that protection for Detroit does more than just transfer income from farmers to autoworkers. It also raises the total cost of providing Americans with a given number of automobiles. The efficiency loss comes with no offsetting gain; it impoverishes the nation as a whole.

A Chinese Consumer's Perspective on Chinese Trade Policy

This is, plus or minus, a reprint of an article on trade policy written 12 years ago at our Chinese sister publication, Panda Blog.

Our Chinese government continues to pursue a policy of export promotion, patting itself on the back for its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the United States. The Chinese government does so through a number of avenues, including:

  • Limiting yuan convertibility, and keeping the yuan's value artificially low
  • Selling exports below cost and well below domestic prices (what the Americans call "dumping") and subsidizing products for export

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers. A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese. So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  We Chinese send our resources, our capital, and the output of our most productive workers overseas to be enjoyed by American consumers, and what do we get in return?  A trillion dollars or so of foreign exchange surpluses that our government invests for 2% returns in US government bonds.  Yes, that's right -- not only are we subsidizing American consumers, but we are subsidizing their taxpayers by financing their government's debt at low interest rates.

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and eighties. It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers in the domestic market while subsidizing exports. Japanese consumers had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods. Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously outdated retail sector that were all protected by government regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses. And surpluses they did create. Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US, and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars) in the world. And what did this get them? Decades of recession, from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions, seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

We at Panda Blog believe it is insane for our Chinese government to continue to chase the chimera of ever-growing foreign exchange and trade surpluses. These achieved nothing lasting for Japan and they will achieve nothing for China. In fact, the only thing that amazes us more than China's subsidize-Americans strategy is that the Americans seem to complain about it so much. They complain about their trade deficits, which are nothing more than a reflection of their incredible wealth. They complain about the yuan exchange rate, which is set today to give discounts to Americans and price premiums to Chinese. They complain about China buying their government bonds, which does nothing more than reduce the costs of their Congress's insane deficit spending. They even complain about dumping, which is nothing more than a direct subsidy by China of lower prices for American consumers.

And, incredibly, the Americans complain that it is they that run a security risk with their current trade deficit with China! This claim is so crazy, we at Panda Blog have come to the conclusion that it must be the result of a misdirection campaign by the CIA-controlled American media. After all, the fact that China exports more to the US than the US does to China means that by definition, more of China's economic production is dependent on the well-being of the American economy than vice-versa. And, with well over a trillion dollars in foreign exchange invested heavily in US government bonds, it is China that has the most riding on the continued stability of the American government, rather than the reverse. American commentators invent scenarios where the Chinese could hurt the American economy, which we could, but only at the cost of hurting ourselves worse. Mutual Assured Destruction is alive and well, but today it is not just a feature of nuclear strategy but a fact of the global economy.

As I Predicted, Another Diesel Emissions Shoe Drops

Back in November of 2015 I wrote:

I would be stunned if the Volkswagen emissions cheating is limited to Volkswagen.  Volkswagen is not unique -- Cat and I think Cummins were busted a while back for the same thing.  US automakers don't have a lot of exposure to diesels (except for pickup trucks) but my guess is that something similar was ubiquitous.

My thinking was that the Cat, Cummins, and VW cheating incidents all demonstrated that automakers had hit a wall on diesel emissions compliance -- the regulations had gone beyond what automakers could comply with and still provide consumers with an acceptable level of performance.

Since then Fiat-Chrysler has been accused of the same behavior, and GM has been accused as well, though only in  a civil suit.

Now, most recently, Daimler is being accused of the same behavior

Daimler has been under suspicion of cheating on US emissions tests for quite a while now -- in 2016, a number of customers even sued the automaker, claiming their cars had sneaky software made to trick testers similar to Volkswagen's. Now, according to German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, US authorities investigating the Mercedes maker have discovered that its vehicles are equipped with illegal software to help them pass United States' stringent emission tests. Citing confidential documents, the publication said Daimler's employees doubted their vehicles would be able meet US standards even before Volkswagen's diesel scandal blew up. Internal testing apparently revealed that some Mercedes models emit ten times the country's nitrogen oxide limit.

Daimler reportedly developed software with several functions to be able to trick US regulators. One called "Bit 15" was designed to switch off emissions cleaning after 16 miles of driving, while another called "Slipguard" can detect if the car is being tested based on speed and acceleration. Bild am Sonntag said it found emails from Daimler engineers questioning whether those functions were legal.

To this day, I wonder how much European officials knew about all this as it was happening.  European officials really went all-in on promoting diesel years ago as an approach to combating climate change.  This has, by the way, turned out to be a great example of the danger of government picking winners, as diesel has really turned out to be one of the worst approaches for reducing emissions in transportation vehicles, both economically and environmentally.  Never-the-less, given the big commitment by European regulators in promoting diesel as a key part of their climate change plans, I wonder how much they were looking the other way through all of this -- such that their current "shock" at all this cheating might be equivalent to Reynault's shock that there was gambling going on in Rick's Cafe in Casablanca.

2017 Northern Hemisphere Hurricane Activity Pretty Much Totally Normal

Philip Lotzbach of Colorado State University tweeted this summary chart of the 2017 hurricane season.  The numbers in parenthesis represent the historical average.

After an unusual number of years of being missed by major hurricanes, the US was hit by several large hurricanes in an above-average Atlantic hurricane season in 2017.  But as is typical of weather, while the Atlantic had more hurricanes than average, other parts of the world had fewer than average, such that overall for the northern hemisphere as a whole, it was a pretty average year.

Here Are the Two Problem With EV's

There are two problems with electric vehicles.  Neither are unsolvable in the long-term, but neither are probably going to get solved in the next 5 years.

  1.  Energy Density.  15 gallons of gasoline weighs 90 pounds and takes up 2 cubic feet.  This will carry a 40 mpg car 600 miles.   The Tesla Model S  85kwh battery pack weighs 1200 pounds and will carry the car 265 miles (from this article the cells themselves occupy about 4 cubic feet if packed perfectly but in this video the whole pack looks much larger).  We can see that even with what Musk claims is twice the energy density of other batteries, the Tesla gets  0.22 miles per pound of fuel/battery while the regular car can get 6.7.  That is a difference in energy density of 30x.  Some of this is compensated for by heavy and bulky things the electric car does not need (e.g. coolant system) but it is still a major problem in car design.
  2. Charge Time.  In my mind this is perhaps the single barrier that could, if solved, make electric cars ubiquitous.  People complain about electric car range, but really EV range is not that much shorter than the range of traditional cars on a tank of gas.  The problem is that it is MUCH faster to refill a tank of gas than it is to refill a battery with a full charge.    Traditionally it takes all night to charge an electric car, but 2 minutes at the pump to "charge" a gasoline engine.   The fastest current charging claim is Tesla's, which claims that the supercharger sites they have built on many US interstate routes sites will charge 170 miles of range in 30 minutes, or 5.7 miles per minute.   A traditional car (the same one used in point 1) can add 600 miles of range in 2 minutes, or 300 miles per minute, or 52 times faster than the electric car.  This is the real reason EV range is an issue for folks.

Interestingly, Fisker (which failed in its first foray in to electric cars) claims to have a solid state battery technology that gets at both these issues, particularly #2

“Fisker’s solid-state batteries will feature three-dimensional electrodes with 2.5 times the energy density of lithium-ion batteries. Fisker claims that this technology will enable ranges of more than 500 miles on a single charge and charging times as low as one minute—faster than filling up a gas tank.”

Forget all the other issues.  If they can really deliver on the last part, we will all be driving electric vehicles in 20 years.  However, having seen versions of this same article for literally 30 years about someone or other's promised breakthrough in battery technology that never really lived up to the hype, I will wait and see.

Though It Would Benefit Me Greatly, the Proposed Pass-Through Entity Tax Cut Is A Bad Idea

In the most recent version of a tax "reform" proposal in Congress, there was a provision for a reduced personal income tax rate on income from pass-through entities.  A pass-through entity is usually an S-corporation or an LLC, where the entity fills out a corporate tax form but pays no income taxes -- instead the income passes through to the individuals who own the entity, and taxes are paid on the individual return.  This was a great innovation because it provides an alternative to the double taxation of income that still exists with traditional C-corporations  (ie tax is paid by the corporation on income and again on the same income when it is passed through as capital gains or dividends to the owners).

I own an S-corp and would benefit greatly from a reduced tax rate on S-corp pass through income.  But I oppose it.  The basis of this tax proposal is a familiar one -- there is some type of economic behavior that Congress thinks is either meritorious or counter-productive, and there is a great urge to tweak the tax code to promote or hinder these behaviors.  We get sold on the idea that owning a home is better than renting and thus we have the mortgage interest deduction.  There are thousands of such tweaks in the tax code, and most have little to do with economic reality and more to do with some special interest rent-seeking with Congress.

Someone in Congress thinks it's good that business people own small businesses and they should get a lower tax rate.  That's me, so thanks. But we end up with craziness, exactly as we do every time Congress tries to pick winners and losers.  Here would be effective tax rates (corporate + individual) for income earned in different ways under the new plan:

  • The lowest rate would be for income to a passive investor in a pass-through
  • The next lowest rate would be for income to an active investor in a pass-through -- yes, from a tax point of view it is less meritorious to actually work at the pass-through entity than just collect checks.  The logic is that part of one's pass-through income is for "labor" and thus needs to be taxed at the higher regular income tax rate.  How anyone can separate how much of my profits are from my labor and how much is from -- what?  unicorns? -- I have no idea
  • The next higher rate would be paid on passive income from a C-corporation like ExxonMobil, which would be taxed at the corporate rate and then taxed at the dividend rate (currently 15%) on the individual return but the combination would likely be less than the maximum personal rate.  For people without a lot of other income, this might be the highest taxed activity.
  • The highest rate would be for people simply working and earning income, assuming they are in the upper tax brackets.

All of this makes zero sense, or to the extent it makes sense to anyone is based on economic theories that likely don't hold a lot of water.  It reminds me of the old efforts to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor when giving out relief.  Every person in Congress seems to have a personal vision of deserved and undeserved income.  Just because the current folks have me in the deserving category doesn't mean that the next batch won't put me in the opposite category.

I think the entire corporate tax system needs to be junked.  The amount of effort that goes into compliance, and perhaps more importantly, the number of distortions is creates, make finding an alternative well worth the effort.  My tax plan has always been:

  1. Eliminate all deductions in the individual income tax code except for a single personal deduction
  2. Eliminate the corporate income tax.
  3. Tax capital gains and dividends as regular income.
  4. Eliminate the death tax as well as the write-up of asset values at death

Corporate income all eventually passes through to individuals as capital gains or dividends, so eventually they do get taxed.  The same is true of inherited assets -- because they would not get written up in value at death, they would still trigger large capital gains once tapped by those who inherit the assets.  As far as rates are concerned, I actually don't see a strong need for a flat tax -- I can live with the progressive rates we have now.

I have heard people of late saying that we can't eliminate the corporate income tax because foreign investors would never get taxed.  First, they would get taxed, just in their home country.  And second, who cares?  There have got to be a lot of things worse than a rush of foreign capital into the US.

Most College-Age Kids Probably Can't Remember A Major Hurricane Landfall

Most folks, even those who say they are data-driven, are not data-driven.  They react to their perception.  If some sort of activity suddenly makes the news more, we assume that activity is increasing, even if all that is happening is that the activity is simply making the news more.

A lot of the folks who want to blame this year's landfalling hurricanes on global warming are making this mistake.  If you are 20, the last major hurricane landfalls were in 2005 when you were 8.  The last decade has seen a nearly unprecedented drought in US major hurricane landfalls, so against the backdrop of this drought, several major Atlantic storms seems highly unusual.  But I grew up in the 1960's to the 1980's on the Gulf Coast and hurricanes were a regular part of our life then.  When I lived in Clear Lake City, Texas, we had so many in a few years in the 1980's that I had a special spot picked out to park my car to keep it above flood waters.  In the 1990's, we had a memorable vacation where we rented a house on the North Carolina coast for a month and got hit by three hurricanes -- we spent the whole trip hiding in the laundry room from tornado warnings and evacuating back and forth to the interior of the state.

For those who like simple charts, the WSJ had a good one the other day:

Making this a chart of hurricane landfalls deals with the public perception issue, as landfalls tend to be the only ones we really remember.  But this is actually a terrible metric (even though it makes my point about Irma and Harvey not representing any sort of upward trend) because landfalls are random and may not really represent actual hurricane activity.  A better metric is accumulated cyclonic energy of tropical storms, which looks at a sort of integral of storm strength over time.  This does not show a trend either, but since I cannot find a chart of ACE updated with recent activity I am not going to put it up here.   Here it was as of June of this year, and this chart only goes back to 1970 -- if we had good data early in the 20th century it would have been much higher.

 

 

My View on the Source of Wealth in the Modern World

About 15 years ago, I wrote something I wanted to repeat here just because I keep looking for it and a lot of my old Typepad blog era stuff is hard to find.  The original post is gone but I quoted from it in 2005.

Since 1700, the GDP per capita in places like the US has risen, in real terms, over 40 fold.  This is a real increase in total wealth, created by the human mind.  And it was unleashed because the world began to change in some fundamental ways around 1700 that allowed the human mind to truly flourish.  Among these changes, I will focus on two:

  1. There was a philosophical and intellectual change where questioning established beliefs and social patterns went from being heresy and unthinkable to being acceptable, and even in vogue.  In other words, men, at first just the elite but soon everyone, were urged to use their mind rather than just relying on established beliefs
  2. There were social and political changes that greatly increased the number of people capable of entrepreneurship.  Before this time, the vast vast majority of people were locked into social positions that allowed them no flexibility to act on a good idea, even if they had one.  By starting to create a large and free middle class, first in the Netherlands and England and then in the US, more people had the ability to use their mind to create new wealth.  Whereas before, perhaps 1% or less of any population really had the freedom to truly act on their ideas, after 1700 many more people began to have this freedom. 

So today's wealth, and everything that goes with it (from shorter work hours to longer life spans) is the result of more people using their minds more freely.

At the time, perhaps to my shame, I had never even heard of Deirdre McCloskey nor her work that has been published in three volumes called the Bourgeois Era explaining what she calls the "great enrichening" (which I am slowly plowing through).  My thinking when I wrote this seems reasonably consistent with her conclusions, though she has obviously been a lot more systematic in thinking about it.  This exchange with Gregory Waymire is a short but quite readable window on her thinking.  She writes in part:

You're adopting a conventional and somewhat silly view that the bourgeoisie were especially diligent, when it is not true as fact and is anyway not the character of the bourgeoisie that
mattered to the Great Enrichment (which by the way was a factor of 30 per capita in countries that fully adopted economic liberalism, not the factor of 10 you quote: look at the passage again, and read slower and longer). Weber sometimes got this right, sometimes wrong. But people tend to read him as saying that higher savings and more diligence, Ben Franklin style (and even Ben did not actually do it), is what made us rich.

One trouble which such a conventional argument is an economic one that Solow-type models (and Smith- and Marx- and Weber- type models) that reduce growth to savings and labor effort are radically mistaken. What matters is human creativity released from ancient trammels....

What made us rich, I argue at no doubt tedious and unreadable length in the Bourgeois Era trilogy, is imagination, ingenuity, radical ideas released. They were released in turn by liberalism, Smith's "liberal plan of [social] equality, [economic] liberty, and legal [justice]."

Shifting Mix is Often Ignored as the Reason Behind A Shifting Mean

I have written about this mix effect many times, eg here.  Imagine a corporate division that sells tables and chairs.  The CEO is reviewing this division's performance, and sees that their revenues are increasing but their profit margin is falling.  He asks his analyst to look into it - is it the tables or the chairs or both that are showing falling margins.  Our poor harassed analyst comes back and says, uh, neither.  The profit margins for both tables and chairs went up last year.  Well, the CEO asks, if revenues are up and all their component margins are going up, how is their total margin falling?  It turns out that tables make a much higher margin than chairs, and over the last year the company has seen a much higher growth in chair sales than table sales.  The mix is shifting towards a lower margin product and is bringing the averages down.  By the way, I can say with authority that this conversation is much harder when the analyst is yours truly and the CEO is famed tough (but talented) boss Chuck Knight of Emerson Electric.

Whether the media mentions this effect or not, it is happening all the time.  Here is an example from the WSJ:

One mystery of this economic expansion is that wage growth has remained slow even as the labor market has finally tightened. One widely cited culprit is historically low productivity growth. But a new analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco adds a more optimistic, albeit paradoxical, explanation.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that median weekly earnings had risen in July by a healthy 4.2% on an annual basis, the fastest growth in a decade. As labor markets tighten, employers typically increase wages. Until this past year, however, median weekly earnings growth had hovered near 2%, which is significantly less than the 3.25% average from 1983 to 2015.

So why haven’t wages risen faster amid an increase in hiring and unfilled jobs? One answer is that wages have actually been growing at a faster clip—around 4% to 5%—at least for full-time workers with steady jobs. But new full-time workers who are generally paid less than the retirees they replace are dragging down the average wage increase.

Researchers at the San Francisco Fed this week updated their 2016 paper that disaggregated the wages of full-time workers with steady employment from recent entrants—that is, new workers or those returning to full-time work. Their earlier analysis showed that average wage growth had slowed less than expected during the recession while staying relatively flat during the recovery.

That’s because workers who lost jobs during the recession were generally lower skilled and lower paid, so average weekly wages didn’t fall significantly. However, many of those workers have since been rehired at below-average wages, which has depressed the aggregate.

In prior expansions, wage growth has been driven mostly by continuously full-time employed workers, and the researchers find that’s still the case. Wage growth for these workers is now close to the pre-recession 2007 peak. But there are now many more workers who have been on the labor-force sidelines who are moving to full-time employment, thus creating a drag on wages.

This is frequently how mix shifts play out in the news.  Notice that there are actually two pieces of good news here:  1.  Wages for full-time workers who have been employed for a while are growing well and 2.  lower-skilled and less experienced workers who left the labor force are now getting jobs and returning to work.  However, when these are combined, the net is portrayed as bad news, ie wage growth in the US is sluggish.  Because the mix was ignored.