Two Hedge Fund Managers Walk into a Bar

This one is priceless, and I have been remiss in not posting it.  Reminded most recently by the link at Maggie's Farm.  Excerpt, but the whole thing is great:

"Here's the problem. Most hedge funds are indistinguishable from mutual funds, other than the fact that they feel entitled to charge 30 times the fees."

"Two percent of assets for showing up in the morning, and 20% of any profits."

"There are probably 100 hedge funds that will consistently beat the market after fees. They won't take your money. They provide just enough hope for investors to keep the rest of us in business. We earn half the performance of index funds, charge 30 times the fees of mutual funds, pay half the income tax rates of school teachers, have triple the ego of rock stars, and fewer disclosure requirements than the NSA."

"We're basically a conduit between public pension funds and Greenwich real estate agents."


Minimum Wages as a Terrible Anti-Poverty Program, Part 2

The Unbroken Window has more along the lines I wrote about last week.  It is all good, here is an excerpt:

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. In other words, something like 1 in 8 people who do receive the minimum wage (and ignoring any potential adverse effects of it), are actually in what you might call the “targeted” group. 7 out of 8 people who receive minimum wage increases fall outside the targeted group.


Wow, I Should Be A TV Executive

When I first offered my novel BMOC to readers, a lot of them assumed it was some libertarianish fantasy.  Actually, its not a particularly serious book, just your normal everyday mystery for reading at the beach.  The unique part of the book is the introduction of a number of oddball business models (I used to make these up as my occupation to share with people at cocktail parties when I got bored).

I am in the midst of a light edit of the book for a re-release  (like my last story, we will have a limited time free-on-Kindle promotion, so watch for that).  Anyway, I had forgotten this idea I had included for a reality TV show.  I think it holds up pretty well.

Gladstone knew that most of Cupcake’s best-known work was in a reality TV show called “Seven Deadly Sins.”  In that particular show, eight priests were brought together, tempted each week by one of the seven deadly sins. The viewing audience got to vote each week as to which priest succumbed the most and got kicked off the show. Cupcake was featured prominently in several of the weekly contests, including her now famous take-down of Father Stanley Vincenzo (who had up to that point been considered the shoe-in favorite to emerge victorious) in the “lust” episode.

It is amazing no sharp TV executive has yet snapped this idea up.  You are all welcome to it, go and make your fortune.

Generic Economics Report

Awesome Homemade Donuts, Gluten Free Too

After dissing the Food Babe in the last post, I guess I need to recover some karma.  The whole gluten-free thing has been justly skewered (e.g. here) because the vast majority of people who want to live gluten-free have no biological justification for doing so.    That being said, there are people who are legitimately gluten-intolerant, like my mother-in-law.

When she visited, I knew nothing about gluten-free stuff.  But I bought this home-made gluten-free donut mix and a donut baking pan from Amazon based on the reviews.  Well, screw the gluten-free part, these things were awesome.  And really easy to make.  No vats of oil, they are just baked.  Recommended even for us wheat-eaters.

Inability to Evaluate Risk in A Mature and Reasoned Fashion

A while back I wrote a long post on topics like climate change, vaccinations, and GMO foods where I discussed the systematic problems many in the political-media complex have in evaluating risks in a reasoned manner.

I didn't have any idea who the "Food Babe" was but from this article she sure seems to be yet another example.  If you want to see an absolute classic of food babe "thinking", check out this article on flying.   Seriously, I seldom insist you go read something but it is relatively short and you will find yourself laughing, I guarantee it.

Postscript:  I had someone tell me the other day that I was inconsistent.  I was on the side of science (being pro-vaccination) but against science (being pro-fossil fuel use).   I have heard this or something like it come up in the vaccination debate a number of times, so a few thoughts:

  1. The commenter is assuming their conclusion.  Most people don't actually look at the science, so saying you are for or against science is their way of saying you are right or wrong.
  2. The Luddites are indeed taking a consistent position here, and both "Food babe" and RFK Jr. represent that position -- they ascribe large, unproveable risks to mundane manmade items and totally discount the benefits of these items.  This includes vaccines, fossil fuels, GMO foods, cell phones, etc.
  3. I am actually with the science on global warming, it is just what the science says is not well-portrayed in the media.  The famous 97% of scientists actually agreed with two propositions:  That the world has warmed over the last century and that man has contributed to that warming.  The science is pretty clear on these propositions and I agree with them.  What I disagree with is that temperature sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 concentrations is catastrophic, on the order of 4 or 5C or higher, as many alarmist believe, driven by absurdly high assumptions of positive feedback in the climate system.   But the science is very much in dispute about these feedback assumptions and thus on the amount of warming we should expect in the future -- in fact the estimates in scientific papers and the IPCC keep declining each year heading steadily for my position of 1.5C.  Also, I dispute that things like recent hurricanes and the California drought can be tied to manmade CO2, and in fact the NOAA and many others have denied that these can be linked.  In being skeptical of all these crazy links to global warming (e.g. Obama claims global warming caused his daughter's asthma attack), I am totally with science.  Scientists are not linking these things, talking heads in the media are.

When Corporations Use Social Causes as Cover for Cutting Costs

My absolute favorite example of corporations using social causes as cover for cost-cutting is in hotels.  You have probably seen it -- the little cards in the bathroom that say that you can help save the world by reusing your towels.  This is freaking brilliant marketing.  It looks all environmental and stuff, but in fact they are just asking your permission to save money by not doing laundry.

However, we may have a new contender for my favorite example of this.  Via Instapundit, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao is banning salary negotiations to help women, or something:

Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate,’ she said. ‘So as part of our recruiting process we don’t negotiate with candidates. We come up with an offer that we think is fair. If you want more equity, we’ll let you swap a little bit of your cash salary for equity, but we aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation.’

Like the towels in hotels are not washed to save the world, this is marketed as fairness to women, but note in fact that women don't actually get anything.  What the company gets is an excuse to make their salaries take-it-or-leave-it offers and helps the company draw the line against expensive negotiation that might increase their payroll costs.

Postscript:  Yes, I understand the theory of negotiation and price discrimination, as used by auto dealers.  One can make an argument that setting prices high (or wages low) and then allowing negotiation by the most wage or price sensitive is the best way to optimize profits, and that Pao's plan in the long-term may actually raise their total compensation costs for the same quality people.  I don't think she is thinking that far ahead.

Diversity Update

Remember my hypothesis that in common use, at least on campus, the word "diversity" does not actually refer to ending out-groups, but is  just is a code word for shifting the out-group tag from one set of people to another?

Here is a great example.  And more here, from a man in an interracial marriage who was labelled a white supremacist by Entertainment Weekly.

Moderates, libertarians, and Conservatives on campus would have done well to have fought back like this 20 years ago.

Update:  I love Sarah Hoyt.  "We haven’t yet reached the point when “banned by the New York Publishing establishment” is a badge of honor, but unless I mistake my gut we’re not very far off."

Beware Applied Underwriters Workers Compensation Insurance

After you read this, there are more updates on 4/18

Well, I have managed to get myself into a scam.  It is not your normal scam, like the ones that are run by some mafia boiler room with guys working under aliases.  This scam comes via a major insurance company called Applied Underwriters (working under the names California Insurance Company and Continental Indemnity Company) which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway and none other than Warren Buffett.  If you feel sorry for Warren Buffett and want to give him a large interest-free loan for an indeterminate number of years, this is your program.

Update 4/16:  Let me insert here that Applied Underwriters has sent me a letter threatening a libel suit if I do not take down this post and a parallel review at Yelp.  AU Takedown demand here (pdf).   The gist of the matter seems to be the word "scam".  By the text of their letter, they seem to believe that "scam" is libelous because their company is well-rated financially and that they provide reasonable claims service.  I concede both these facts.  However, I called it a "scam" because there is a big undisclosed cost to their product that was never mentioned in the sales process, and that could only be recognized by its omission in the contract I signed -- that there is nothing in the contract committing them to any time-frame under which to return deposits and excess premiums I have paid, which may well amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.  This fact about the contract is confirmed by their customer service staff, who have said further that the typical time-frame to return such over-collections and deposits is 3-7 years after the contract ends, or at least 6-10 years after the first of the deposits was made.

So is this a "scam"?  I believe that this issue is costly enough, and hard enough to detect, and far enough outside of expected business practices to be called such.  You may have your own opinion, but ask yourself -- When you enter into, say, a lease and have to put down a security deposit, is it your reasonable expectation that the landlord has the right in your lease to keep your deposit for 3-7 years (or more) after you move out?  /Update

Anyway, let's take a step back and look at this in detail.

First, I need to give a bit of background on how workers comp works.  When you are a new company, they assign you an experience rating -- that is a multiplier of your premium based on past loss experience.  There is some default starting number that if I remember right, in most states, is a bit over 1.0x.  Each year, the workers comp world looks back at your past history and computes a new loss rating -- higher if you have had more payouts, lower if not.  Generally it is based on three years experience not counting the last year (so 2-4 years in the past).  Your future premiums get multiplied by this loss rating.

Several years ago we had a couple bad injuries that drove our loss number into the 1.7-1.9x area.   Neither were really due to a bad safety issue, but both involved workers in their seventies where a minor initial injury led to all sorts of complications.  Anyway, my agent at the time calls me one day a couple of weeks before renewal and says that none of the major companies will renew me.  This seemed odd to me -- I understood that my recent claims history was not good, but isn't that what the premium multiplier was for?  In fact, if my loss history returned to normal, they would make a fortune as I paid high rates based on old losses but had fewer new ones.

Apparently, though, insurance companies have fixed rules that keep them from underwriting higher loss ratings.  Probably for the same reason Vegas won't take action on Ivy League football games any more -- just too much variability.  I found out later with my new broker we could probably have overcome this, but I learned that too late.

My broker at the time put me into a 3-year program from Applied Underwriters, in part because they were taking everybody.  This program was set up differently from most workers comp programs.  You had a basic policy, but there was a second (almost indecipherable to laymen) reinsurance agreement that adjusted the rates of the basic policy based on you actual claims.   Here is the agreement (pdf)  In other words, based on your claims, they would figure up at the end how much you owed and what your premium multiplier would be.

I saw two red flags that I ignored in signing up.  1)  The reinsurance agreement was impossible to understand, violating one of my foundational rules that I shouldn't sign things I don't understand.  And 2) The rate structure was very suspicious.  They touted a rate structure that could go as low as, say, $100,000 a year and was capped around $400,000 a year.  But when you pulled out a calculator, the $100,000 was virtually unobtainable.  It would require about zero claims.  If there were any claims at all, even for a few bandaids, the price would march up to $400,000 really fast.  It was the equivalent of a credit card teaser rate, and it should have made me suspicious.

Anyway, I was desperate.  For a business like mine, being told I had no workers comp insurance just a few weeks before the old policy ran out was a death sentence.  No one would write me or even quote me a policy that fast.  So I took the Applied Underwriters offer.  Shame on me, I should have worked on this much harder.

I won't bore you further with my voyage of discovery in trying to figure out how this thing works.  I will just tell you the results that I have found.  There are apparently other companies with similar issues, one of which is documented here: Applied Underwriter Suit (pdf)Newsletter publisher objected to scan of article, so I have taken it down at their request.  Here is a link to roughly the same article.

I spent hours and hours trying to figure out AU's statements.  There is a whole set of terminology to learn that is actually not used in most of the rest of the workers comp world.  The key page of the statement is page 7, which I will show below because it highlights several of the issues with Applied.  Page 7 is the page where the monthly premium is "calculated".  I have added the red numbers and arrows for the discussion below.


Here are some of the Applied Underwriter problems:

  1. Large deposits that must be made each year and may never be returned.    You can see that I am making deposits over $40,000 a year.  And that is each year.  The first year deposit is not returned.  The second year and third year are just added to it.  And I have found out since I joined this program that they are not contractually obligated to return them in any time frame.  Maybe some guy who was hurt in his thirties has a relapse and claims more money when he is 75.  Gotta keep your deposit just in case, don't we?  The timing of the return of your deposits (and overpaid premiums below) is entirely at their discretion, and that has been confirmed by their customer service staff.  In fact, their standard answer is that on average, such monies are not returned to customers for 3-7 years after the contract ends, or at least 6-10 years after the first deposits were made.
  2. Premiums based on the worst of your experience and their estimate of your losses, and they keep the difference for years and years.   For those in the same trap as me, I will try to explain the numbers above.  The estimated loss pick containment at the top is basically their estimate of your losses.  Note that it drives every number on the page and is basically their arbitrary number -- they could have set it anywhere.  The loss pick containment to date is just pro rated for the amount of the year that has gone by.  The 65% is an arbitrary number.    The $25,278 is my actual losses to date.  You can see where I point with #2 above, though, that my losses are irrelevant to my premiums.  They take the higher of my losses and what is essentially their estimate of my losses and I pay based on that.   Note that their higher number is not based on the reserved amounts on actual claims -- the $25,278 includes their reserves.  It is just the number they established at the beginning of my policy they think my claims are going to be and gosh darnit they are going to stick to that (and my claims even in my worst year in history were never even half of their estimate).  Yes, at the end of the policy if my losses stay low, they owe me money back for all the premium they overcharged me based on their arbitrarily high estimates.  But see #1 above -- there is no time horizon under which they have to return the money.  They can keep it for years and years.
  3. The final premium is, after all these calculations, entirely arbitrary.  So after this loss calculation (which essentially just defaults to their arbitrarily high estimate and not my actual loss history) they do some premium calculations.  These actually sort of make sense if you stare at the agreements for a really long time.  But then we get to the line I point to in red labelled 3.  It is the actual amount I owe.  But it does not foot to any other number on the page.  How do they come up with this?  They won't say.  To anyone.  It might as well be arbitrary.  I actually had some dead time and took all my reports and tried to regress to a formula they use for this, but I couldn't figure it out.   So all the calculation on this page is just a sham, it's the mechanical wizard in the Wizard of Oz.  It looks good, but does not actually directly lead to what you are billed.

So I thought I understood my problems.  I put in large deposits and overpaid premiums based on arbitrarily high loss estimates they make -- all of which will take me years and years of effort to maybe get back.  It turns out that I likely will have a third problem.  In the lawsuit linked above, the plaintiff complains that when they left the program after three years, Applied arbitrarily wrote up all their estimated losses on open claims to stratospheric levels and then demanded a large final premium payment at the end.  Folks on Yelp complain of the same thing.  You should know how this works by now -- the plaintiff will theoretically get all this back someday, maybe, when the claims prove to be less costly, but in the mean time Warren Buffet gets to invest the money for years and years (cost of capital = 0) until it is returned.

This is why I think Applied Underwriters actually likes companies with high lost histories.  Rather than costs, losses for them are excuses to over-collect on deposits and premiums -- money that can then be invested and held for years free of charge.

As an aside, I want to thank my new agents at Interwest Insurance for helping decipher all of this.  They actually flew a guy in to help me understand this policy.  They didn't get me into it, but they are helping me pick up the pieces as best we can.

Why I Don't Like Online Photo Sites

I love the convenience of having my photos online and share-able, and especially having them backed up automatically as I take them, but the problem is that all the major sites seem to have a dream of being the last internet site standing, and want to keep all your photos in their little universe.  Shutterfly, Facebook, Google, Flickr -- they tend to only allow sharing within their little universe (though I am hoping for good things from Google peeling photos out of Google Plus).

Basically, sending your photos to these sites is a bit like sending someone to North Korea - they go in but never come out.  Someone just shared a shutterfly album with me and God forbid you want to actually save some of the full-resolution images rather than just buy prints from them.  At best these sites have some kludgy way to download full resolution photos one at a time, but it is never, ever easy and none have, as far as I have been able to see, a batch download function.  Flickr is the best in several ways due to its API that lets me automatically share albums and photos pretty easily in WordPress, but its core interface is now so ugly with the revamp a few years ago that I can barely stand to open it (and they tend to change names for the same damn thing - set, album, collection, etc - depending on which menu or context you find it).

How Many Police Lies Did We Unwittingly Accept Before Cell Phone Video?

Have Critics of American Sniper Even Seen the Movie?

I finally saw the movie American Sniper, and I am amazed anyone could think this movie glorified war or America's involvement in Iraq.  As a pacifist, I am extremely sensitive to movies that seem too rah-rah about war, but this was not one of them.  The protagonist may come off as heroic, or at least enduring, but war looks pretty sucky, full of hideous moral choices, and led/governed by jerks.  Which shouldn't be surprising because I would have described Eastwood's other recent war movies in roughly the same way.

Government's Systematic Indifference to Capital Maintenance

There is one thing you can almost always assume with government managed land and infrastructure -- facilities will likely have a large deferred maintenance backlog.  Two examples:

These problems are ubiquitous.  You can point to any government parks agency, and most any transit agency, and you will find the same problems.

Why?  Well, I have not studied the problem in any academic sense, but I am face-to-face with the problem every day in parks.

Let's start with the reason that is not true -- that somehow budgets can't support capital maintenance.  I know for a fact that this is not true in parks.  We operate over 100 public parks and are totally up to date with all maintenance and have no deferred maintenance backlog.  This is despite the fact that we work with only the fees paid by visitors at the gate.  Government agencies typically supplement fees at the gate with an equal amount of tax money and still don't keep up with maintenance.  So the issue may be costs or priorities, but the money is there to keep parks fixed up.  (I am willing to believe the same is not true of large transit projects, but these projects are known in advance not to be able to cover their lifecycle costs with revenues, and simply hide that fact from taxpayers until it is too late.  Thus the sales tax increase that is being requested in Phoenix to keep our new light rail running).

I think the cause lies in a couple areas related to government incentives

  1. Legislatures never want to appropriate for capital maintenance.  If the legislature somehow has, say, $100 million money it can spend on infrastructure, their incentives are to use it to build new things rather than to keep the old things in repair (e.g. to extend a rail line rather than to keep the old one fixed).
  2. If you want to understand a government agency's behavior, the best rule of thumb is to assume that they are working to maximize the headcount and the payroll budget of their agency.  I know that sounds cynical, but if you do not understand an agency's position or priorities, try applying this test:  What would the agency be doing or supporting if it were trying to maximize its payroll.  You will find this explains a lot

To understand #2, you have to understand that the pay and benefits -- and perhaps most important of all -- the prestige of an agency's leaders is set by its headcount and budgets.  Also, there are many lobbying forces that are always trying to pressure an agency, but no group is more ever-present, more ubiquitous, and more vocal than its own staff.   Also, since cutting staff is politically always the hardest thing for legislators to do, shifting more of the agency's budget to staff costs helps protect the agency against legislative budget cuts.  Non-headcount expenses are raw meat for budget cutters, and the first thing to get swept.  By the way, this is not unique to public agencies -- the same occurs in corporations.   But corporations, unlike government agencies, face the discipline of markets that places a check on this tendency.

This means that agencies are loath to pay for the outside resources (contractors and materials) that are needed for capital maintenance projects out of their regular budgets.  When given the choice of repairing a bathroom at the cost of keeping a staff person, agencies will always want to choose in favor of keeping the staff.  They assume capital maintenance can always be done later via special appropriation, but of course we saw earlier that legislators are equally unlikely to prioritize capital maintenance vs. other alternatives.

The other related problem faced is that this focus on internal staff tends to drive up pay and benefits of the agency workers.  This drives up the cost of fundamental day to day tasks (like cleaning bathrooms and mowing) and again helps to starve out longer-horizon maintenance functions.

As proof, you only have to look at the mix of agency budgets.  Many parks agencies (e.g. New Jersey state parks, which I have studied in depth) have as much as 85% of their budget go to internal staff.  My company, which does essentially the same thing (run parks) has about 32% of our budget go to staff.  State parks agencies have 50% or more of their staff in headquarters or regional offices.  In my company, 99% of the staff is in the parks.

I don't think that these incentives problems can be overcome -- they are simply too fundamental to how government works.  Which is why I spend my working hours trying to convince states to privatize the operation of their recreation facilities.

Learn Microeconomics

We discuss a lot of economic issues on this site, and economics has become pretty much a staple of political discussion.  If concepts such as price elasticity, compensating differentials, or tax wedges leave you scratching your head, this is a great (free) online video series teaching the fundamentals of microeconomics.  Complete this course and you will be way ahead of 99% of politicians and journalists.  Of course, the newspaper headlines will start to drive you even crazier than they likely do today, with their total ignorance of basic economics, but there is a price to everything.

Last week, I was giving my usual introduction speech to some of my front-line employees.  One of the things I said to them is that this was a very low-margin business, which meant that wages were not very high but we try hard to compensate by making the job fun (since all of our employees essentially get to live in campgrounds).  It turns out that Cowen and Tabarrok actually have a lecture on this very topic in chapter 13 of their series.

Harrison Bergeron Meets My Little Pony

Brandon Morse wrote about the My Little Pony critique of Marxism and social justice warriors.  I couldn't really believe it, so I had to watch (or at least skim).  Check out the 25 minute mark for a taste.

And yes, I know Vonnegut intended Harrison Bergeron as a parody of the parodies of Marxist dystopias.  But it reads just fine straight up.  Or in particular, in the really well done short film version from several years ago called 2081.  If interested, skip the songs in the My Little Pony episode above and watch 2081 instead, it is barely 20 minutes long.


Everything You Need to Know About California Water Pricing

California is the #2 rice grower in the nation, with 22% of US production.

There is a debate growing in California about whether crops like almonds (that use a lot of water) should be allowed.  But all that authoritarian command and control debate about "allowing" certain activities is unnecessary.  Just raise prices to some sort of supply and demand matching level (it is a bit awkward to do this because there is not a true free market in water supply but any attempts have got to be better than the current absurdly low prices).  Then the almond growers themselves, and the rice growers, and the golf courses, and everyone else will decide if they can still operate in CA or not.  No politicians' commands necessary.

Raising prices also creates a secondary benefit over government-imposed rationing -- it provides incentives for people to seek out and invest in new sources of supply.  Desalinization, any one?

OK, I Relent: I Will Support A Carbon Tax If Y'all Will Stop the Torrent of Stupid

President Obama is preparing to unleash a Colorado-River-sized torrent of stupid.  He wants to spend tens of billions of dollars on goofy green energy projects that will have an indiscernible affect on world temperatures but will have a very robust effect on some crony bottom lines.   Here is one example:

As part of President Obama’s plans to combat climate change, the White House announced a program on Friday for the U.S. Department of Energy to train 75,000 people to work in the solar power industry by 2020, many of whom will be part of a military veterans jobs initiative called Solar Ready Vets.

Seriously, is the training costs of workers really a substantial portion of a solar installation?

Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation, which publishes the annual National Solar Jobs Census, said that Obama’s announcement will not likely increase the size of the solar industry’s workforce but will instead ensure that the industry will be able to find highly skilled workers to fill jobs.

“We’re experiencing difficulty finding more skilled and qualified workers to install and do design work required,” she said, adding that the industry’s workforce has a “skills gap” as well-trained electricians and other workers go back to other construction jobs as the economy gains momentum.

I will translate that trade-group speak for you:  We like to pay our workers less than similarly-skilled construction workers so we lose a lot of skilled workers to higher paying construction companies. This program will not add any net employment to the economy but will help us keep wages lower by increasing the supply of qualified workers.

I can't help but think of Henry Ford, who famously raised the wages of his employees substantially.  The fake story is that he did this so all his workers could buy his product.   The real reason he did this was that he had horrendous labor turnover problems.  Like the solar industry, he was training folks who then left for higher paying jobs.  So he had to raise his wages to retain trained people.  How history would have changed if Ford had instead been able to call Obama and ask him to have the taxpayer pay to feed him with new, trained workers so he wouldn't have to raise his wage rates!

Seriously, did a bunch of technocrats get together and study the whole solar industry and come to the conclusion that solar installation skills were the keystone problem that was holding back the whole industry?  Of course not.  The solar industry will sink or swim based on panel costs and efficiencies.   What happened is someone said, "well the public always seems to like job training programs.  Those poll well."  And then they called the solar crony association or whatever it is called and they said, "sure, we would love to have taxpayers pay some of our training costs.  Thanks, we will be very supportive." And then someone said, "well, won't the Republicans pitch a fit over this?" And then someone had the brilliant idea of making it a veterans program -- "Republicans love soldiers, that will help defuze their opposition."  And an expensive crony giveaway was born.

About 5 years ago I said I would be willing to accept a carbon tax whose proceeds were used to reduce various labor tax rates (e.g. social security).  Substituting an energy consumption tax for a labor consumption tax was probably at least neutral and maybe even a net positive.

Now, I want to come back to that idea.  I don't believe any more than I did then that CO2-driven global warming will be catastrophic.  In fact, I am more confident than ever that while CO2-induced warming is a reality, the sensitivity of temperatures to CO2 levels is relatively low.  But please, I am willing to fully support a carbon tax that offsets some other existing tax if only we will stop all this stupid crony useless green energy stuff.  At least with a carbon tax, the markets will reduce fossil fuel use in the most efficient ways possible.  As opposed to programs like this one that will reduce fossil fuel use not at all but will cost a lot of money.

Let Them Buy Whatever They Want

I am frankly exhausted with all the stories of people buying item X with food stamps that some folks fear they really should not be buying, where X is everything from liquor to twinkies.

People are either adults or they are not.  I don't think our act of charity towards them gives us the right to be their mother.  I am all for consolidating all the zillions of existing niche government benefits programs into one single EITC or similar income-floor program.  Then people spend their money however they hell they want -- if they screw up and spend on unwise things, well that is their business.

I used to have this argument all the time with my New England liberal mother-in-law.  Interestingly, in this argument, we would both call the other arrogant.  I would say she was arrogant for assuming she knew better than other adults how they should spend their own money.  She would call me arrogant for assuming that people without my background and education could make quality decisions for themselves.

Since this is my blog, I will grab the last word here.  If we were talking about having the poor choose between a number of exchange-traded derivatives, I could concede her point.  But we are essentially talking about what to buy in a supermarket.  We force everyone through 12 years of public education.  The Left pretty much gets to determine what that education encompasses.  If adults are leaving that system and still can't be trusted with their own money, then why are we even bothering?

That Mysterious, Unavailable "Correct" Price

This quote from a hotel owner in Venezuela that now asks its patrons to bring their own toilet paper caught my eye:

Camacho says she refuses to buy toilet paper from the black market on principle.

“In the black market you have to pay 110 bolivares [$0.50] for a roll of toilet paper that usually costs 17 bolivares [$ 0.08] in the supermarket,” Camacho told Fusion. “We don’t want to participate in the corruption of the black market, and I don’t have four hours a day to line up for toilet paper” at a supermarket….

I see this all the time, the notion there is somehow a "correct" price that no one is willing to charge.   There is nothing real about the 17 bolivares price.  It is a fiction.  There are only two real prices in the market -- 110 bolivares PLUS any risk/penalty from breaking the law or 17 bolivares PLUS 4 hours of your personal time.  My sense is that if the legal risk of buying on the black market is low, and you knew the average order size and the value people placed on their own time, you would find these two prices converging.  But in any case, it is dumb to continue to insist that 17 bolivares is the "right" price.

Should I Just Give Up Expecting Consistency in Public Discourse

I generally have refused to even participate in the debate over Indiana's RFRA because most of the discourse is so incredibly ill-informed that it is impossible to have a serious discussion.  But I would like to make one observation:

Here is Ruth Marcus with as good a proxy for the anti-RFRA position as I can find:

Hold whatever religious views you want: about whether women should drive, or the morality of having children out of wedlock, or whatever. Your church gets to choose (and enforce its rules). You can practice whatever your church may preach. But if you operate a business, you shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against people based on who they are, or whom they love.

OK, that is clear enough -- if you have a business that serves the public, you must accommodate all the public equally.  You can't decide not to do business with some group of people.  But this leaves me with a question -- many of the opponents of Indiana's RFRA, from Apple Computer to the NY Times editorial page to the governor of Connecticut (which has its own RFRA, lol) called for businesses to boycott the citizens of Indiana.  Why isn't such a boycott, essentially a refusal to do business with anyone from the state of Indiana irrespective of his or her position on the RFRA, illegal/immoral under exactly Marcus's logic?  Most folks see boycotts as an important first amendment right, a way to express displeasure with a group using the power of markets, without government coersion.  But it seems to be proscribed by Marcus's definition.   Am I missing something here?

I suppose supporters of the boycott would argue that it is OK to refuse business based on political opinions but not on race or gender or sexual orientation.  But supporting the legality of gay marriage is a political opinion.  Now what?

Try as I might, I can only think of two internally consistent positions on this issue:  1.  Businesses have the freedom to accommodate whomever they want; or 2.  All businesses, perhaps as a part of the state business license requirements, must accommodate all comers no matter what.  Number one leads to some ugly, but probably rare, incidents.  Number two causes a lot of friction with other first amendment rights such as speech and religion.

Any other position must take the form of "it is legal to refuse accommodation based on some things but illegal to refuse accommodation based on other things."  There is no way to derive a dividing line between the two based on first principles, so the line becomes a political football, with no viewpoint neutrality.   Basically, accommodation law is whatever the politician of the moment says it is.  Unfortunately, this seems to be what most folks are advocating.

Things I Didn't Know: Contact Congress by Fax

I am sending a letter to my Senator.  My attorney recommended the following:

you may want to send the letter by fax, because when you send it by mail it goes to a processing place first to make sure there is no white dust in the envelope and takes a long time to get the Senator’s office.

Things I Didn't Know, Baseball Edition

If I read this right, there apparently already is a rule in baseball that the pitcher must throw every 12 seconds.  If true, that has to be the most ignored rule since the 55 MPH speed limit.

According to this site the rule reads

When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call “Ball.”


Why Minimum Wage Increases are a Terrible Anti-Poverty Program

The other day when I expressed my (temporary) ennui about blogging, I said I was tired of posting about things like "why the minimum wage is a terrible anti-poverty program" and getting back one line comments such as "you hate poor people."  In looking back at that post, I realize I actually haven't put in one place my reasons why minimum wage increases are a bad way to fight poverty.  So here they are:

1.  Only a tiny minority of workers make the minimum wage.  Something like 5% of hourly workers, and 3% of all workers, are paid minimum wage or less.  This number is not quite right for two reasons.  One, many states have higher minimum wages than the Federal rate and this analysis by the BLS is done at the Federal rate only.  Thus this understates the number of minimum wage workers in those higher minimum wage states.  But, these numbers also exclude tips, which about half these workers receive.  If one reasonably includes tip income, these numbers are overstated.  On balance, if one looks carefully state by state and excludes workers who get tips, the percentage of all workers who make the minimum wage holds around 3%.

Further, about half (53% by the source above) of minimum wage earners are 24 years old and under.  These are not the folks activists generally picture when they say "A family cannot live on that wage..."   Thus only about 1.5% of all workers are people 25 and older making minimum wage.  The target for this "anti-poverty" program is thus truly tiny.

2.  Most minimum wage earners are not poor.  The vast majority of minimum wage jobs are held as second jobs or held by second earners in a household or by the kids of affluent households (source)



Most of the data I have seen points to about a third of minimum wage jobs held by earners in families below the poverty line.  So 2/3 of the increased wages from a minimum wage increase go to non-poor households (it is actually probably more than this given #4 below).

3.  Most people in poverty don't make the minimum wage.  In fact, the typically hourly income of the poor appears to be around $14 an hour.  The problem is not the hourly rate, the problem is the availability of work.  The poor are poor because they don't get enough job hours.

4. Minimum wage increases kill unskilled labor hours.  You can certainly find Leftish studies that point to niche situations where a minimum wage increase maybe kindof didn't hurt employment.  But in general I think most people understand that when you raise the price of something, people will use less of it.  In this case, businesses will find ways to hire less unskilled labor as the price of such labor rises with the minimum wage.  Even if businesses hire the same number of people after a minimum wage increase, they likely will demand and get more skilled and experienced employees for this money, which likely will leave the poor out in the cold just as much as if the job were eliminated.



If one replaces the words "minimum wage" with "starting wage for new unskilled workers", the problem becomes more obvious.

5. Minimum wage laws ignore substantial non-monetary benefits of entry-level jobs.   Many young workers or poor workers with a spotty work record need to build a reliable work history to get better work in the future, just as a young couple must build their credit history with small purchases before they can take out a mortgage.  Further, many folks without much experience in the job market are missing critical skills -- by these I am not talking about sophisticated things like CNC machine tool programming.   I am referring to prosaic skills you likely take for granted (check your privilege!) such as showing up reliably each day for work,  overcoming the typical frictions of working with diverse teammates, and working to achieve management-set goals via a defined process.  I wrote a lot more about these here.  By defining acceptable compensation of jobs only as dollars of pay rather than to include softer skills and such, these wages disproportionately discriminate against unskilled and inexperienced workers.

Electronic Medical Records: Last Year's Silver Bullet

I was skeptical in the extreme when President Obama and other PPACA supporters  claimed so much savings would come from electronic medical records.  While in theory good, portable records might prevent some accidents and streamline care in certain emergency situations where there might not be time to take a full history, my actual experience with these systems did not give me much confidence.  And it just sounded like yet another politician's silver bullet  (HMO's were another such bullet 20 years ago).

This was a pretty powerful article about medical records and patient care.

There is no point in trying to automate the diagnostic process with an expert system AND retain the 12-year-trained doctor in the room.  It strikes me as one or the other.  Perhaps these systems are close to working fine and doctors can see themselves getting automated out of a job and this type of job is their last-ditch attempt to stop them.  Or perhaps the systems really suck and add a lot of extra time and cost.  It will be interesting when this has a chance to be fully studied.

Thanks to Harry Reid

Harry Reid should be thanked for admitting the sort of behavior everyone knows exists but none will confess.  The amazing thing to me is what yawns this elicits from the media:

Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the Senate, was asked by CNN’s Dana Bash this week if he regretted his 2012 accusation on the Senate floor that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney “hasn’t paid taxes for ten years.” Reid presented no evidence at the time and claimed he didn’t need any: “I don’t think the burden should be on me. The burden should be on him. He’s the one I’ve alleged has not paid any taxes.”

Reid’s response in the interview was fascinating. When asked by Bash if his tactic was McCarthyite he visibly shrugged on camera, smiled, and said “Well, they can call it whatever they want. Romney didn’t win, did he?” White House spokesman Josh Earnest refused to criticize Reid for his comment because it “was three years old,” when in reality Reid’s televised reveling in it was only three days old.