Posts tagged ‘US’

Mea Culpa

The history of this blog has been, except for the last three months, one of me never ever making political prognostications.  This is a policy I will return to, as I was completely wrong about this election.  Just to rub my own nose in it, this is what I wrote:

I think that "shackled to a suicide bomber" is more apt. Trump is not only going to lose big in this election to an incredibly weak Democratic candidate, but he is also going to kill the Republicans in the House and Senate and any number of down-ballot elections.

Oops.  At this point the election is not decided but Trump is clearly competitive and the Republicans look likely to hold on to both houses of Congress.

In business school, there is a famous project we do in marketing that teaches an important lesson.  In that project, a bunch of Ivy Leaguers are asked to estimate the percentage of people in the US who snow ski.  We all look around the table and say, "I ski and you ski and she skis, so it must be about 80%", when in fact the percentage is in the single digits.  The lesson is to not make predictions for whole markets (and countries) based on one's own personal outlook and experience.  I and many other clearly did not understand large swathes of the electorate, something I want to think about for a bit.   The one thing I am sure about is that my (and many others') attempt to apply a policy framework to this is simply not going to work.  Trump is a sort of anti-wonk, a governmental Loki. Policy choices likely don't explain this election.

News Selection Bias

When some sort of "bad" phenomenon is experiencing a random peak, stories about this peak flood the media.  When the same "bad" phenomenon has an extraordinarily quiet year, there are no stories in the media.  This (mostly) innocuous media habit (based on their incentives) creates the impression among average folks that the "bad" phenomenon is on the rise, even when there is no such trend.

Case in point: tornadoes.  How many stories have you seen this year about what may well be a record low year for US tornadoes?

Postscript: By the way, some may see the "inflation-adjusted" term in the heading of the chart and think that is a joke, but there is a real adjustment required. Today we have doppler radar and storm chasers and all sorts of other tornado detection tools that did not exist in, say, 1950. So tornado counts in 1950 are known to understate actual counts we would get today and thus can't be compared directly. Since we did not miss many of the larger tornadoes in 1950, we can adjust the smaller numbers based on the larger numbers. This is a well-known effect and an absolutely necessary adjustment, though Al Gore managed to completely fail to do so when he discussed tornadoes in An Inconvenient Truth. Which is why the movie got the Peace prize, not a science prize, from the crazy folks in Oslo.

Southern California Real Estate Question

A few months ago I helped my son shop for an apartment in San Diego, where he is working for Ballast Point Beer.  Currently I am helping my daughter look for apartments in Pasadena, where she may be attending art school.  In both cases we found that small studio apartments often have higher rents than one- and sometimes even two-bedroom apartments in the same complex (and with the same fit and finish, amenities, etc.)

What the hell?  I understand that there may be more demand for studio apartments in these neighborhoods among young singles than for larger apartments, but once one sees the studio for $2200 and the one-bedroom for $1800, why would one still choose the studio, which might be half the size?   Ease of cleaning?  Is there some artificial demand from some government or financial aid program that will only pay for studio apartments?  Do Chinese students come to the US and suddenly get agoraphobia from an apartment that is too large?

Why Germany Struggles With Integrating New Immigrants -- And Why Their Experience Isn't Comparable to the US

For years I have argued that immigration controls in this country are effectively a form of occupational licensing.  While US immigration controls are a terrible policy IMO, Germany's approach seems even worse.  They welcome people into their country but don't let them work, and then wonder why newly immigrated refugees can't find jobs.

In 2015, Germany waited the longest of any country in Europe to restrict the flow of asylum seekers from the Middle East. Yet once they arrived, the asylees who immediately sought work in Europe’s largest economy were greeted by bureaucracy. The law initially forbade asylees from seeking work for 9 months after their arrival, but was reduced to 3 months in November 2014. Then, inexplicably, at the height of the inflows, the German governmentbanned working if the asylee was forced to stay a reception center, which could be up to 6 months.

After the initial waiting period, asylees did not receive unrestricted employment authorization. Instead, they would have to find a “concrete” job offer—i.e. a firm must promise to hire them if the permit is granted—then apply for authorization. Even then, companies can only hire them during the first 15 months if the jobs are offered first to EU residents, and the federal labor department agrees that no one was willing to take. They also set asylee wages, which can price out low-skilled workers.

The hoops don’t end there. Asylees still have to get the approval of the immigration office at the municipal level. Under the law, it would take four years before they could compete equally with EU citizens.

On top of all these refugee-specific regulations, skilled workers are then tasked with proving that they can work in certain occupations. In order to obtain an occupational license, documentary proof of training—proof that’s often buried under bombed-out homes in Syria—is required. Some states in Germany allow asylees to demonstrate their skills in order to receive licensing, but others do not. “I am a dentist and could work, but what am I supposed to do? I am not allowed to work here!” one asylee told DW News.

Low-skilled immigrants haven’t avoided being targeted either. Germany introduced its first ever minimum wage in 2015—which disproportionately hits lower skilled migrants—and a study by the German government in August 2016 found that it had already cost 60,000 jobs.

 

Perfect Example of Blaming the Free Market for Government Interventions

Hillary Clinton, along with many politicians and most of the media, is arguing that the recent large price increase in Epipens is some sort of market failure requiring government intervention to solve.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton jumped into the fray over rapid price increases for the EpiPen, a life-saving injection for people who are having severe allergic reactions.

Mrs. Clinton called the recent price hikes of the EpiPen “outrageous, and just the latest example of a company taking advantage of its consumers.”

In a written statement calling for Mylan to scale back EpiPen prices, Clinton added, “It’s wrong when drug companies put profits ahead of patients, raising prices without justifying the value behind them.”

Why aren't similar government interventions required to curb greed in the pricing of paint, or tacos, or toilet paper?  Because the markets are allowed to operate and competitors know that if they raise prices too high, their existing competitors will take sales from them, and new competitors may enter the market.  The reason this is not happening with Epipens is that the Federal government blocks other companies from competing with Mylan for the Epipen business with a tortuous and expensive and pointless regulatory process (perhaps given even more teeth because Mylan's CEO has a lot of political pull).  The MSNBC article fails to even mention why Mylan has no competition, and in fact essentially assumes that Epipens are a natural monopoly and should be treated as such, despite the fact that there are 3 or 4 different companies that have tried (and failed) to clear the regulatory process over the last several years with competing products.  Perhaps these other companies would have been smarter to appoint a Senator's daughter to a senior management position.

Hillary Clinton is proposing a dumb government intervention to try to fix some of the symptoms of a previous dumb government intervention.  It would be far better to work the root cause instead.

Postscript:  Credit Vox with the stupid argument of the day:  

Other countries do this for drugs and medical care – but not other products, like phones or cars – because of something fundamentally unique about medication: If consumers can’t afford the product, they could have worse odds of living. In some cases, they face quite certain odds of dying. So most governments have decided that keeping these products affordable is a good reason to introduce more government regulation.

Hmm, let me pick a slightly different example -- food.  I will substitute that into the Vox comment.   I think it would be perfectly correct to say that there is not price regulation of food in the US, and that "If consumers can’t afford [food], they could have worse odds of living. In some cases, they face quite certain odds of dying."  In fact, the best place today to face high odds of dying due to lack of food is Venezuela, where the government heavily regulates food prices in the way Vox wished to regulate drugs prices.

The United States Is Doing Better Than Europe on Poverty: An Economics Rorschach Test

Kevin Drum, in commenting on a Binyamin Appelbaum article in the NY Times, writes that the Presidential candidates should be talking more about poverty in part because the US is way behind Europe.  Specifically, Appelbaum quotes a Harvard Sociology (!) Professor as the source for the poverty claim:

“We don’t have a full-voiced condemnation of the level or extent of poverty in America today,” said Matthew Desmond, a Harvard professor of sociology. “We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a
serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda.”

Drum argues that Desmond is right, because of this chart from the OECD:

blog_oecd_poverty

One of the dirty secrets about poverty measurement is that the actual measurement seldom has anything to do with absolute well-being.  And this is the case with the OECD numbers.  The OECD's poverty measurement is based on the country's median income, and is the percentage of people who are below a certain percentage (generally 50%) of the country's own median income.  As such, this is more rightly thought of as a graph of income inequality rather than absolute poverty.

Here is an example.   Image country A with a median income of $50,000 and an income of the 20th percentile at $20,000.  Now imagine country B where the median income is $30,000 and the 20th percentile income is $15,000.  In this example, the poorest 20th percentile in country A are better off on an absolute basis, but the OECD (and most other poverty numbers) will show country B doing better because the poor are closer to the (much lower) median income.  In an extreme example, if everyone in a country were equally impoverished, the OECD would show that country as doing the best on poverty -- Yes, you read that right.  By this metric, the OECD would show a country where every person made just $10,000 a year as having 0% poverty.

Obviously, what one would really like to do is compare across nations the absolute well-being of the lowest 10th or 20th percentile.  On a purchasing power parity basis, which country's poor has, after transfers and taxes, more money?  Unfortunately, you likely have never ever seen this.  Yes, the data comparison is hard, but it is possible, so one has to wonder if there is some ulterior political motive for never showing this quite obvious analysis.

I tried to do this analysis myself for years (I describe some false starts here) but was unsuccessful until I actually identified a data source that would work, ironically from two folks on the Left (Kevin Drum and John Cassidy) who were using data from the LIS Cross-National Data Center to make comparisons of income inequality.  It turned out the data they were using could do what I wanted.

So now we get to the chart I call the poverty Rorschach test.  It is a comparison of the absolute income, by income percentile and including transfers and taxes, of the US vs. Denmark (the country by Drum's chart that should be the "best" on poverty)

click to enlarge

(The date is old, alas, because this kind of cross-country data is only gathered every so often)

This chart shows, on a purchasing power parity basis, that for every single income percentile, all the way to the bottom, an equivalent person in the US has more income than that a similarly situated person in Denmark.  In short, the poor in the US are wealthier than the poor in Denmark.  The only reason Denmark does better than the US in the way the OECD and others measure poverty is that the middle class in the US are a LOT wealthier than the middle class in Denmark.

I call it the Rorschach test because one either sees the US doing a good job, because everyone is better off, or the Danish doing a better job, because everyone is more even.  Proponents of the latter view tend to believe that the size of the economic pie is an exogenous variable, unrelated to the method one chooses to slice it.

I picked the Danish because they were the obvious comparison from Drum's chart, but here is the US vs. all the European countries for which there was data in the survey.  The US is better than all but 3 at the 10th percentile and better than all but one country at the 20th percentile.  And better -- by a huge margin-- for the middle class than any of the countries in Europe.

income_all

Update:  One more note on Drum's chart.  As I said above, the exact definition of the OECD numbers is percentage of people with income less than 50% of the country's own median income.  The US has a median household income, per the OECD, 41% higher than Denmark's.   So the US has 9% more people under a number that is 41% higher.   That is hardly a fair or meaningful comparison.

For reasons that are beyond my understanding, I am banned at Mother Jones so I cannot post the comments directly to his article.  If someone wanted to cut and paste this under his or her own name, I wouldn't complain.

 

China Doesn't Kill American Jobs, Politicians Do

I am simply exhausted with the notion that seems to have taken over both political parties that trade with China is somehow the source of US economic woes.

Remember that voluntary trade can't happen unless both parties are benefiting from each trade.  Remember the masses of academic evidence that the (largely hard to see) benefits of trade in terms of lower costs and more choice tend to be greater than the (easier to see) job losses in a few trade-affected industries.  But even if none of that is compelling to you, consider that our trade deficit with China is just 2% of GDP.  It's almost a rounding error.

If politicians want to know why lower-skilled laborers struggle to find employment, they need to look past imports from China and Mexican immigration and look at their own policies that are making it more and more expensive for businesses to hire people in this country.   I have written about this many times before, but some of the most prominent include:

  • minimum wage laws, rising to $15 an hour in many parts of the country, and increasingly draconian overtime rules, both of which substantially raise the cost of hiring someone.
  • minimum benefit laws, including expensive health care requirements in Obamacare and a myriad of other state-level requirements such as mandatory paid sick leave or family leave
  • payroll taxes that act as sales taxes on labor  -- we understand that cigarette taxes are supposed to reduce cigarette purchases but don't understand that payroll taxes reduce purchases of labor?
  • employment regulations, such as chair laws and break laws in California, that make employing people more expensive and risky
  • employer liability laws, that make employers financially responsible for any knuckleheaded thing their employees do, even when these actions violate company policy (e.g. making racist or sexist statements)**
  • laws that make hiring far more risk, including those that limit the ability to do due diligence on potential employees (e.g. ban the box) and those that limit the ability of employers to fire poor performing employees.

And this is just employment law -- we could go on all day with regulations that make life difficult for lower income workers, such as the numerous laws that restrict the housing stock and drive up housing prices and rents for these same folks who are struggling to find a job.

Let's say you live in California.  Who has killed more jobs in your state -- China or the California legislature?  The answer is no contest.   The California legislature wins the job destruction race in a landslide.   While California's high-tech community enjoys a symbiotic relationship with China that has created immense wealth, the California legislature works overtime to make sure low-skilled workers in the state don't benefit.

 

**Postscript:  Of all the factors here, I won't say that this is the largest but I think it is the most underrated and least discussed.  But think about it.  If you are going to be personally financially libel for ignorant, insensitive, or uncouth remarks made by your employees, even when you have explicitly banned such behavior in company rules and don't personally tolerate it, how likely are you going to be to hire a high school dropout without a good work history to interact with customers?

Venezuela's Directive 10-289

I have written before that the best way to read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is not as a character-based novel, but as an extended exposition taking socialism to its logical conclusion.  That ultimate conclusion in the novel is directive 10-289, whose first two points are these:

Point One. All workers, wage earners and employees of any kind whatsoever shall henceforth be attached to their jobs and shall not leave nor be dismissed nor change employment, under penalty of a term in jail. The penalty shall be determined by the Unification Board, such Board to be appointed by the Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources. All persons reaching the age of twenty-one shall report to the Unification Board, which shall assign them to where, in its opinion, their services will best serve the interests of the nation.

Point Two. All industrial, commercial, manufacturing and business establishments of any nature whatsoever shall henceforth remain in operation, and the owners of such establishments shall not quit nor leave nor retire, nor close, sell or transfer their business, under penalty of the nationalization of their establishment and of any and all of their property.

When I first read this at age 18, I thought this was a bit over the top.  But I have seen similar things in my lifetime, even in the US.  I remember years ago a law in Oregon where companies could not go out of business without the state's permission.

More recently, Atlas Shrugged has started to become redundant -- we don't need it to see the logical conclusion of socialism, we can just watch Venezuela.  Here is a brief dispatch from that country via Glen Reynold's, showing that Venezuela has gone full 10-289

This is not a joke nor even an exaggeration. I just found out that my sister in law’s other brother-in-law was arrested in Venezuela at the airport while trying to leave the country. His crime, he was an employee for a company that went out of business. Waiting for more? There isn’t any. Maduro has decreed that any business that goes out of business has committed economic treason and its employees are subject to arrest. They had already arrested numerous owners and managers but this is the first time they went after rank and file worker bees.

Feel the Bern, suckers.

Was Brexit About Racism or Tea Kettles?

Everyone on the Left is absolutely convinced that the Brexit vote was all about racism.  In part, this is because this is the only way the Progressives know how to argue, the only approach to logic they are taught in college for political argumentation.

Yes, as an immigration supporter, I am not thrilled with the immigration skepticism that dominates a lot of western politics.  I struggle to cry "racism" though, as I confess that even I would be given pause at immigration of millions of folks from Muslim countries who hold a lot of extremely anti-liberal beliefs.

Anyway, I would likely have voted for Brexit had I been in Britain.  I think the EU is a bad idea for Britain on numerous fronts completely unrelated to immigration.  The EU creates a near-dictatorship of unelected bureaucrats who seem to want to push the envelope on petty regulation.  And even if this regulation were just "harmonizing" between countries, Britain would still lose out because it tends to be freer and more open to markets and commerce than many other European countries.

By supporting Brexit, I suppose I would have been called a racist, but it would really have been about this:

The EU is poised to ban high-powered appliances such as kettles, toasters, hair-dryers within months of Britain’s referendum vote, despite senior officials admitting the plan has brought them “ridicule”.

The European Commission plans to unveil long-delayed ‘ecodesign’ restrictions on small household appliances in the autumn. They are expected to ban the most energy-inefficient devices from sale in order to cut carbon emissions.

The plans have been ready for many months, but were shelved for fear of undermining the referendum campaign if they were perceived as an assault on the British staples of tea and toast.

A sales ban on high-powered vacuum cleaners and inefficient electric ovens in 2014 sparked a public outcry in Britain.

EU officials have been instructed to immediately warn their senior managers of any issues in their portfolios that relate to the UK and could boost the Leave campaign were they to become public....

Internet routers, hand-dryers, mobile phones and patio jet-washers are also being examined by commission experts as candidates for new ecodesign rules.

As a free trade supporter, the downside would be the loss of a free trade zone with the rest of Europe, but I am not sure it can be called a "free trade zone" if they are banning toasters.  Britain will negotiate new tariff rates with the EU, just as Switzerland and Norway (much smaller and less important trading partners) have done.

The real crime from a US perspective is the actions of our President.  Mr. Obama has told the British that by voting for Brexit, they go to "the back of the line" for trade negotiations with the US.  This is, amongst a lot of stupid things politicians say, one of the stupidest I have ever heard.  My response as president would have been to move Britain to the front of the line, offering them a free trade treaty with the US the day after the Brexit vote.  Like most politicians, unfortunately, President Obama does not view trade as a vehicle for the enrichment of individuals but as a cudgel to enforce his whims in the foreign policy arena.  Why on Earth has President Obama threatened to undermine America's strong interest in trading with the UK merely to punish the UK for not staying in the EU, a transnational body this country would certainly never join?

If I Were President, On The Day After Vote for Brexit...

I would propose a free-trade agreement with the UK.    No loss of sovereignty, no stupid EU regulations and bureaucrats, no restrictions on what can be called "sausage" -- just trade.  I would offer a similar deal to anyone else who wanted to leave.

Actually, when Obama visited, I would have been tempted to offer it to Britain at that time.  Why was the US President so hell-bent on encouraging closer ties between Britain and Germany when he should have been working to improve the relationship between the UK and the US.

I will admit that I am not thrilled with the anti-immigration tone of the Brexit vote, but the EU is a package deal, and there is a lot of bad with the good in the package.  Here is a good list of reasons to vote for Brexit (hat tip maggies farm)

Private Businesses in Europe Understand the Cost of Labor, But Public Agencies Don't Seem To

Most folks know that labor costs in Europe are high, both because of high minimum wages, high required benefits, and various government regulations that raise the cost of labor (e.g. making it impossible to fire anyone).

My observation so far is that private businesses understand this perfectly.  Given higher labor costs than in the US, most service businesses have fewer employees.  In restaurants in the US a waiter might cover 4-6 tables -- in most European restaurants I have been in the waiter covers the whole restaurant.  In fact, two of the places we have eaten are 12 table restaurants run entirely by a couple, with one being the totality of the waitstaff and the other being the totality of the kitchen staff.  In this case, the married owners of a small business might be hiring nobody.

But for reasons I don't know but I can guess, public agencies -- which presumably have higher labor costs than in the US -- are simply profligate with labor.  The example I will cite is trash pickup, both in Amsterdam and Bruges.  In these two lovely cities, every business and residence throws their trash on the curb in bags and boxes and even loose in piles.  Here is a portion of the 9 streets district in Amsterdam, an important upscale shopping area that lives and dies by attracting tourists.  Look how ugly the streets are:

CameraZOOM-20160607111815276 CameraZOOM-20160607105135443 CameraZOOM-20160607105122016

In Phoenix we all put our trash into standard cans which are a heck of a lot more attractive than basically just throwing garbage on the street.  These cans are then emptied by a truck with just one employee, a driver that has an arm that reaches out and grabs each can and dumps it in the truck.

In Amterdam, trash is picked up far slower and requires three people, a driver and two guys running around like crazy picking up trash and throwing it in the back.  The compactor on this truck was terrible and slow and so the truck compactor could not keep up with the workers, who had to bend down and pick up the same trash two or three times to get it to stay in the truck.

CameraZOOM-20160607112928522

It looked like a total custerf*ck

Random Notes from First Few Days in Europe

  • Bruges was a terrific little town, frozen in time about 400 years ago.
  • Bruges has this sort of computer-game type retail economy, seemingly based on just 3 products:  Chocolate, Beer, and Lace
  • The Lace Museum in Bruges was amazing. I would never have gone on my own, but having been dragged by my wife, it was truly fascinating.  I don't know if I had ever thought of how lace was made but it was more complex than I might have guessed.  There was a local lacing club (for lack of a better word) meeting upstairs and we got to watch a bit of the process.  The examples of extraordinary lace in the museum were simply amazing, I had never seen anything like it.  Likely way more fine and delicate and detailed than you have ever seen.  The machines, which knit clumsier lace products, were also quite a thing to watch in action
  • After Bruges, Amsterdam was an unbelievable contrast.  Despite being a tourist town, Bruges was quite quiet.  Amsterdam is... frenetic.
  • People have written many times about the bicycle thing in Amsterdam, but one does not really get a feel for it until it is actually experienced.  Coming out of the train station there was a storage area with literally thousands of bikes.  Bikes were everywhere.  One had to watch every step to make sure one is not hit by a bike.
  • Amsterdam has some kind of weird Logan's Run things going on -- zillions of people in the street, but they are all under 30.
  • As a libertarian, I love that Amsterdam has legalized marijuana and prostitution.  But as the only city in Europe that has effectively done so, it does create a problem in that it has become to Europe what Las Vegas is to the US.  Its streets are full of bachelor parties and drunken college kids.  The town has a lot of old-world splendor with its stately canal houses but it loses some of its charm as a visitor only casually interested in partaking of the debauchery.

The US Has The Best Rail System in the World, and Matt Yglesias Actually Pointed Out the Reason

Yglesias has a very good article on why passenger rail is not a bigger deal in the US.   In it, he says this (emphasis added):

Instead the issue is that the dismal failure of US passenger rail is in large part the flip side of the success of US freight rail. America's railroads ship a dramatically larger share of total goods than their European peers. And this is no coincidence. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, the railroad infrastructure is generally owned by freight companies — Amtrak is just piggybacking on the spare capacity.

It is a short article, so it does not go into more depth than this, but I have actually gone further than this and argued that the US freight-dominated rail system is actually far greener and more sensible than the European passenger system.  As I wrote years ago at Forbes:

The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe and Japan are not even close.  Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan.   As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States.  For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes.   Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars.  Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make for a net energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full.  I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel — especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

The real rail efficiency comes from moving freight.  As compared to passenger rail, more of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves.  Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail.    One reason for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

Freight is boring and un-sexy.  Its not a government function in the US.  So intellectuals tend to ignore it, even though it is the far more important, from and energy and environmental standpoint, portion of transport to put on the rails. ....

I would argue that the US has the world’s largest commitment to rail where it really matters.  But that is what private actors do, make investments that actually make sense rather than just gain one prestige (anyone know the most recent company Warren Buffet has bought?)  The greens should be demanding that the world emulate us, rather than the other way around.  But the lure of shiny bullet trains and grand passenger concourses will always cause some intellectuals to swoon.

Which would you rather pounding down the highway, more people on vacation or more big trucks moving freight?  Without having made an explicit top-down choice at all, the US has taken the better approach.

The Virtues of Short-Selling

Is there anything that rankles populists who are "anti-speculator" more than the ability to short stocks?  From time to time countries that are upset about falling markets will ban short-selling.  But I have defended stock (and other asset shorting) as a critical market mechanism that helps to limit damaging bubbles.  I wrote waaaaaay back in 2008, after the US temporarily banned short selling of certain assets:

At the start of the bubble, a particular asset (be it an equity or a commodity like oil) is owned by a mix of people who have different expectations about future price movements.  For whatever reasons, in a bubble, a subset of the market develops rapidly rising expectations about the value of the asset.  They start buying the asset, and the price starts rising.  As the price rises, and these bulls buy in, folks who owned the asset previously and are less bullish about the future will sell to the new buyers.  The very fact of the rising price of the asset from this buying reinforces the bulls' feeling that the sky is the limit for prices, and bulls buy in even more.

Let's fast forward to a point where the price has risen to some stratospheric levels vs. the previous pricing as well as historical norms or ratios.  The ownership base for the asset is now disproportionately
made up of those sky-is-the-limit bulls, while everyone who thought these guys were overly optimistic and a bit wonky have sold out. 99.9% of the world now thinks the asset is grossly overvalued.  But how does it come to earth?  After all, the only way the price can drop is if some owners sell, and all the owners are super-bulls who are unlikely to do so.  As a result, the bubble might continue and grow long after most of the world has seen the insanity of it.

Thus, we have short-selling.  Short-selling allows the other 99.9% who are not owners to sell part of the asset anyway, casting their financial vote [on] the value of the company.  Short-selling shortens bubbles, hastens the reckoning, and in the process generally reduces the wreckage on the back end.

I am remembering this old post because Arnold Kling links an interesting bit on economists discussing the Big Short, who among a number of interesting things say this:

Shorting the market in the way they did is very risky, and one has to be very confident, perhaps overconfident, in one’s forecast to take such risks. As a consequence, many people who were pessimistic about the housing market simply stayed on the sidelines—which in turn meant that for a while, valuations in the market primarily reflected the beliefs of optimists.

The timing issue is key.  I have been right probably in 4 of out the 5 major market shorting opportunities I have identified in the last 10 years, but have been on average 2 years early with all of them, meaning I lost money on most of them, or made money after enduring some really big paper losses for a while.

Why The Minimum Wage Does Not Make Moral Sense: Unemployment, Not Low Wage Rate, Causes Most Poverty

In response to his new $15 minimum wage in California, Governor Jerry Brown said:

Economically, minimum wages may not make sense. But morally, socially, and politically they make every sense because it binds the community together to make sure parents can take care of their kids.

Let me explain as briefly as I can why this minimum wage increase is immoral.  We will use data from the chart below which was cribbed from Mark Perry in this post.

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The average wage of people who work  in the poorest 20% in the US is already near $15 ($28,417 divided by 2000 full time hours - $14.20 per hour).    This is not that much lower than the hourly earnings of those in the second poorest or even the middle quintiles.  So why are they poor?  The biggest different is that while only 16% of the middle quintile households had no one who worked, and 31.5% of the second poorest quintile had no one who worked, of the poorest 20% of households a whopping 63% had no one who worked.  Only 16.1% of poor adults had a full time job.

The reason for poverty, then, is not primarily one of rate, it is one of achieving full time employment.  Many of these folks have limited education, few job skills, little or no work experience, and can have poor language skills. And California has just increased the cost of giving these folks a job by 50%.  The poor will be worse off, as not only will more of them miss out on the monetary benefits of employment, but also the non-monetary ones (building a work history, learning basic skills, etc.)

Past studies have shown that most of the benefit of the minimum wage goes to non-poor households (ie second and third earners in middle class homes).  The targets Jerry Brown speaks of, parents earning the minimum wage to take care of families, are perhaps only 1/8 of minimum wage earners.

MaCurdy found that less than 40% of wage increases [from a minimum wage hike] went to people earning less than twice the poverty line, and among that group, about third of them are trying to raise a family on the minimum wage.

Of course, the price of a lot of stuff poor people have to buy in California is about to go up.  We are going to have to raise our campground rates by 20-25% to offset the labor cost increase.  But that is another story.

The Trade Deficit is Not A Debt

If you search Coyoteblog for the title of this post, you will see a number of others with the same title.  It seems to be a theme we keep having to come back to.  Here is one example of where I tried to explain why the trade deficit is not a debt.

Take the Chinese for example.  One thing that people often miss is that the Chinese buy a LOT more American stuff than the trade numbers portray.  The numbers in the balance of trade accounts include only products the Chinese buy from the US and then take back to China to consume there.  But the Chinese like to buy American stuff and consume it here, in the US.  They buy land and materials to build factories and trade offices.  They buy houses in California.  They buy our government bonds.  None of this stuff shows up in the trade numbers.  Is it somehow worse that the Chinese wish to consume their American products in America?  No.  How could it be.  In fact, its a compliment.  They know that our country is, long-term, a safer and more reliable place to own and hold on to things of value than their own country.

Dollars paid to a Chinese manufacturer have to get recycled to the US -- they don't just build up in a pile.   If I am a construction contractor in LA and build that manufacturer a new office or a local home and get paid with those recycled dollars, I am effectively exporting to the Chinese, only the goods and services I sold them never leave the country and so don't show up in the trade numbers.  So what does this mean?   In my mind, it means that the trade deficit number is a stupid metric to obsess over.

Another way I think about it is to observe that the US is winning the battle of stuff.   Money as money itself does not improve my well-being -- only the stuff (goods and services) I can purchase with it can do so.   So i t turns out that other countries ship far more stuff to the US than we ship out. And then these folks in other countries take the money they earn from this trade and buy more stuff in the US and keep keep that stuff here!

I am reminded of all this because several other folks are taking a swing at trying to make this point to the economically illiterate.   Don Boudreaux does so here, and Dan Ikensan here.  And here is Walter Williams as well.

Another Trump Triumph -- He Has The Left Defending the American Economic System

The American Left generally spends most of its time telling us how much better things are in Denmark or France.  I can't find a lot of reasons to like Trump, but he has apparently convinced the Left that they need to defend the American economic model against other countries.  This post by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones reasd more like what one might expect from Mark Perry at AEI.

"We're a poor country now." I wonder how many people believe that just because Donald Trump keeps saying it? In case anyone cares, the actual truth is in the chart on the right. There's not a single country in the world bigger than 10 million people that's as rich as the US.

I agree!   In fact, not only are American rich richer, but the American middle class is richer and the American poor are richer.  From an earlier post, here is the purchasing power of individuals across the income spectrum in the US vs. Denmark

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Fifteen Great Swimming Holes

I had to highlight this article on 15 great swimming holes in the US because our company operates two of them, #8 and #9.  As an added bonus, they actually list all 15 on the same page rather than in that clickbait format where you have to press next like 20 times to see the top 15.

Winners in the "Find Coyote A Special Laundry Rack" Contest

A few days ago I asked readers if they could find me a laundry drying rack that could elevate with an electric winch, to take advantage of the limited floor space but 12 foot ceilings in my bizarrely designed laundry room.  These are surprisingly common in Asia but I could not find any for sale in the US.

Several of the early responses found manual ones but missed on the electric/automatic spec  (e.g  here and here).  I may in the end get one of these and motorize it but the contest specified already motorized.

Phil had the first winning entry, finding this Asian model for sale to the US in retail lots.  Its too expensive, and Dwight found one later much cheaper, but the contest was for first email, and did not say anything about price.  I will give Dwight honorable mention because I feel like I searched the Sh*t out of Amazon and somehow missed this.

I decided to give a second award to Neil.  He was the first one to go a little more creative and search beyond laundry to get something with the right functionality but designed for a different application.  It is not the most attractive item in the world but easily has the best price-value ratio of any solution so I awarded a second prize for it.

Finally, while it does not win, Brad gets honorable mention for this closet solution, which is not quite what I am looking for, but might have been made to work if I didn't have other options.

Thanks to everyone.  I'll post a picture when we finally install something.

 

Federal Lands Footprint

Courtesy of the House Committee on Natural Resources comes this map of Federal "footprint", land either owned by the Feds or under some sort of Federal designation that has substantial impacts on property use.

federal-footprint

You can click the map to enlarge it or else just go to the map with layers here.   Click the details button in the upper left to see the legend.  Beware, the map is pretty slow to function for me.  You might find an alternative that works better here.  You won't find a lot of private land west of Denver.

For much of the 19th century, the US had a sensible land policy that promoted homesteading and outright private purchases of Federal land.  Then this policy stopped, and what we have now is most of the land west of Denver managed by special interests who will fight tooth and nail to keep the land out of private hands and in their own control.

The Average Conservative Doesn't Care About Free Markets

For a long time I have hypothesized (and worried) that the average Republican / Conservative's support for free markets was merely tribal -- the team's official position was pro-free market, so individuals supported the team's position without actually, really understanding it.  I have developed this hypothesis after a lot of private discussions with Conservatives who have betrayed many of the same economic mis-conceptions and bits of ignorance that drive much bad interventionist government policy.

Now there is this, from the leading Republican candidate for President:

Speaking at Liberty University today, Trump escalated his rhetoric on Apple's overseas manufacturing, and claimed somehow the US would reclaim those jobs in the future. "We have such amazing people in this country: smart, sharp, energetic, they're amazing," Trump said. "I was saying make America great again, and I actually think we can say now, and I really believe this, we're gonna get things coming... we're gonna get Apple to start building their damn computers and things in this country, instead of in other countries."

So the Republican who is currently leading in the polls (among Republican voters, mind you) supports government intervention in a successful company's manufacturing and sourcing decisions.  Which just reinforces my view that we are dealing with the Coke and Pepsi party.  Heads we get statism, tails we get statism.

Google Fi Review, and (Finally!) International Roaming Rates May be Set to Drop

For years I have been frustrated with the costs of trying to take my cell phone on international travel.  Yes, one can buy cheap sim cards locally, but you obviously lose access to your domestic phone number for the duration (leaving aside dual-sim phones and some tricky and expensive forwarding tricks).  If you wanted to keep your phone number so people can still reach you on the number they already know, you were in for some crazy roaming charges -- particularly on data.  I use Verizon (mainly because my business takes me to out of the way places where Verizon is the last available carrier) but until recently their international rates were awful, charging one 50 cents per text and $25 per 100mb of data in addition to a $25 a month international plan fee.

I use a lot of data when overseas and outside my hotel room, so I really wanted a cheaper data plan  (Google maps is a lifesaver when one is walking streets with signs all written in Thai).  My go-to solution in the past was to have a T-Mobile account I turned on and off on an unlocked phone (an old Nexus 5).  T-mobile has plans that allow unlimited text and data without roaming charges in most countries, and it is still a good international solution, though I met with a few technical irritants in some of the countries I have visited.

A while back, I accidentally killed my old Nexus 5 and bought a new Nexus 5x with the intention of swapping in my T-mobile sim card from the old phone.  However, I saw an article that said the Nexus 5x was one of the couple of phones that would work with the new Google Fi service, so I signed up to try that.  $20 a month unlimited domestic calls and text and unlimited international texts.  Pretty cheap international calling rates and the phone defaults to calling by wifi if possible to save any charges.  Data at $10 per 1GB anywhere in the world, with any unused data credited at the end of the month (so the $10 is pro rated if you use less, essentially).

I used the phone in Thailand, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and not just in large cities -- we got out in the smaller cities well away from the tourist areas of Thailand.   Service was flawless everywhere with one exception (discussed in a minute).  Wifi calling worked fine and I had a good signal everywhere, even in smaller towns.  Charges were exactly as promised.  It was a very impressive service.  It uses the T-mobile network in most places, so I am a little reluctant to make it my full-time service because when I tested T-mobile several years ago, it just didn't reach far enough to the out-of-the way domestic locations I visit, but I plan to try again.  I would really love to be on this service rather than Verizon and believe it would save me a lot of money.

I only had two problems with it.  The minor problem was that I had some issues with wifi calling disconnects in one hotel, though this could easily have been due to the notoriously low-bandwidth of many hotel wifi systems**.  Switching off wifi and making a regular cell call worked fine.  Google says that the service automatically chooses between wifi and cellular based on bandwidth and conditions, but it may be this algorithm needs more work.

The more irritating problem was that the phone would simply not get a cellular data connection in Hong Kong.  I contacted Google service (this was a great process that involved sending them a message and them calling me back immediately, a better process in my mind when travelling internationally).  After some fiddling around, the service agent checked came back to me to say, "known problem in Hong Kong with internet access.  You will need to buy a local sim card.  We know this is a hassle, so we just credited your bill $20 to offset the cost."  It would have been better to not have this hassle -- I was switching sim cards every night to see if I had any texts at my domestic number -- but I thought they dealt with it as well as possible, and they were a hell of a lot more helpful than T-mobile was when I had an international roaming issue with them.

Under the T-mobile and Google Fi pressure (which really means due to T-mobile, since Google Fi is largely possible because of T-mobile), I am starting to see cracks in the pricing of Verizon.   They seem to have a new plan that allows one to keep their domestic data, text, and voice pricing and allowances while roaming internationally for a $10 a day charge.  This is still more expensive than T-Mobile and Google Fi but literally an order of magnitude, and maybe two, cheaper than what they were offering for international travel a year ago.

**Footnote:  I have way more sympathy for hotels and their wifi systems.  We installed a wifi system in a 100 site campground in Alabama.  That system has become a data black hole -- no matter how much bandwidth I invest in, people use more.  Every night it seems like there are 300 people on 100 campsites all trying to stream a movie in HD.  I am not sure it will ever enough, and we get no end of speed complaints despite having an absurd T1 bandwidth into the system.  I can't see myself ever investing in such a system again.

Postscript:  It is a good habit to point out data that is inconsistent with one's hypotheses.  I am incredibly skeptical of US anti-trust law, particularly since it seems to have morphed into protecting politically-connected competitors (e.g. cases against Microsoft and Google) vs. protecting consumer choice.  I will say though that the killing of the acquisition of T-mobile by AT&T seems to be a godsend for consumers in the cell phone business, as T-mobile has become a hugely disruptive force generally benefiting consumers.

Greetings from Thailand

Actually, I am back, but here is me with two of my college roommates carrying .... something or other in a Thai wedding ceremony in Roi Et.

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Some of you may be familiar with the groom, my friend Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute.  The wedding was amazing and I will try to post some more pictures later.

Thailand was wonderful, and if there is a country that has friendlier people, I have never been to it.  I will post some thoughts on Thailand later, but a few top of head items:

  • Business models can be really, really different in a country with lower-cost labor.  There were dudes in my hotel in Bangkok whose sole job seemed to be to time out my walk toward the elevator and hit the up button at the perfect moment.
  • One sidebar to this is that in restaurants and bars, they have waiters who simply hover around constantly.   They keep the alcohol bottles on a nearby table and essentially every time you take a sip, they fill your beer or scotch back up to the top. It is like drinking from a glass with a transporter beam in the bottom keeping it full.  This makes it virtually impossible to regulate one's drinking.
  • The whole country is like a gentrifying neighborhood in the US.  It is totally normal to see a teeth-achingly modern building right next to a total hovel.

 

Great Moments in US Energy Policy: In the 1970's, The US Government Mandated Coal Use For New Power Plants

What does government energy policy have in common with government food advice?  Every 30-40 years the Federal government reverses itself 180 degrees and declares all the stuff that they said was bad before is now good today.

Case in point:  Coal-fired electrical generation.  Coal is pretty much the bette noir of environmentalists today, so much so that Obama actually pledged to kill the coal industry when he was running for office.   The combination of new regulation combined with the rapid expansion of cheap natural gas supplies has done much to kill coal use (as illustrated by this bankruptcy today).

But many people may not realize that the rise of coal burning in power plants in the US was not just driven by economics -- it was mandated by government policy

Federal policies moved in coal's favor in the 1970s. With the Middle East oil crisis, policymakers began to adopt policies to try and shift the nation toward greater coal consumption, which was a domestic energy resource. The Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act of 1974 directed the Federal Energy Administration to prohibit the use of oil or natural gas by electric utilities that could use coal, and it authorized the FEA to require that new electric power plants be able to use coal. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 extended those powers for two years and authorized $750 million in loan guarantees for new underground low-sulfur mines. Further pro-coal mandates were passed in the late-1970s.

I was aware of the regulations at the time as I was working in an oil refinery in the early 80's and it affected us a couple of ways.  First, it killed demand for low-sulphur heavy fuel oil.  And second, it sidelined several co-generation projects that made a ton of sense (generating electricity and steam from wasted or low-value portions of the oil barrel) but ran afoul of these coal mandates.

And This is Different from the US, How?

I am out of the country (currently in Thailand for a wedding).  I read this in the local Asian WSJ, an article about money and patronage in the Malaysian political process.  And while I suppose I was supposed to think "wow, Malaysia is sure screwed up" -- all I was really left with at the end of this article was "how is this any different from the US?" How does 1MDB differ from, say, various green energy funds at the Federal level or community development funds at the local level?

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was fighting for his political life this summer after revelations that almost $700 million from an undisclosed source had entered his personal bank accounts.

Under pressure within his party to resign, he called together a group of senior leaders in July to remind them everyone had benefited from the money.

The funds, Mr. Najib said, weren’t used for his personal enrichment. Instead, they were channeled to politicians or into spending on projects aimed at helping the ruling party win elections in 2013, he said, according to a cabinet minister who was present.

“I took the money to spend for us,” the minister quoted Mr. Najib as saying.

It still isn’t clear where the $700 million came from or where it went. But a six-month Wall Street Journal examination revealed that public entities spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a massive patronage machine to help ensure Mr. Najib’s United Malays National Organization stayed in power. The payments, while legal, represented a new milestone in Malaysia’s freewheeling electoral system, according to ruling-party officials....

The effort relied heavily on the state investment fund Mr. Najib controlled, 1Malaysia Development Bhd., according to minutes from 1MDB board meetings seen by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with people who worked there.

The prime minister, who is chairman of 1MDB’s board of advisers, promised repeatedly that the fund would boost Malaysia’s economy by attracting foreign capital. It rolled up more than $11 billion in debt without luring major investments.

Yet Mr. Najib used the fund to funnel at least $140 million to charity projects such as schools and low-cost housing in ways that boosted UMNO’s election chances, the Journal investigation found.

The minutes portray a fund that repeatedly prioritized political spending, even when 1MDB’s cash flow was insufficient to cover its debt payments.

This illustrates one (of many) reasons why those lobbying to reduce campaign spending are on the wrong track.  Because no matter how much one limits the direct spending in elections, no country, including the US, ever limits politicians from these sorts of patronage projects, which are essentially vote-buying schemes with my tax money.

The reason there is so much money in politics is because supporters of large government have raised the stakes for elections.  Want to see money leave politics? -- eliminate the government's ability to sacrifice one group to another while subsidizing a third, and no one will spend spend a billion dollars to get his guy elected to public office.

By the way, in this current Presidential election we are seeing a vivid demonstration of another reason campaign spending limits are misguided.  With strict spending limits, the advantage goes to the incumbent.  The only people who can break through this advantage are people who are either a) already famous for some other reason or b) people who resort to the craziest populist rhetoric.  Both of which describe Donald Trump to a T (update:  Trump has spent virtually no money in this election, so he should be the dream candidate of clean elections folks, right?)