Three Reasons It May Be Time To Short Automobile Stocks

As always, take this with a grain of salt given my past history of investment advice.  I am frequently correct on my calls to short something, but tend to be really early, such that a person (ie me) can likely be short-squeezed into oblivion before the fall takes place.

That being said, I think autos would be a good short.  Why?

  1. They are riding positive sentiment, based on a strong October.  But October was strong because it had 5 weekends rather than 4 and recent results reflect a lot of channel stuffing.   Shorting means finding the top, and this feels like the top
  2. I would be stunned if the Volkswagen emissions cheating is limited to Volkswagen.  Volkswagen is not unique -- Cat and I think Cummins were busted a while back for the same thing.  US automakers don't have a lot of exposure to diesels (except for pickup trucks) but my guess is that something similar was ubiquitous.  **
  3. Apparently, the recent rebound in auto sales has been driven by a huge spurt of sub-prime lending that looks remarkably similar to the housing market 7 years ago:

This comes against a backdrop of rising US auto sales (see the numbers for October, out earlier today) and it's not difficult to explain the gains. Just take a look at the following data from Experian on the lunatic loan terms being extended to borrowers (from Q1):

  • Average loan term for new cars is now 67 months — a record.
  • Average loan term for used cars is now 62 months — a record.
  • Loans with terms from 74 to 84 months made up 30%  of all new vehicle financing — a record.
  • Loans with terms from 74 to 84 months made up 16% of all used vehicle financing — a record.
  • The average amount financed for a new vehicle was $28,711 — a record.
  • The average payment for new vehicles was $488 — a record.
  • The percentage of all new vehicles financed accounted for by leases was 31.46% — a record.

** Postscript:  The biggest problem with the emission cheating is that it caused the world to under-estimate the cost of emissions mandates.  When performance of cars starts to drop noticeably when emissions cheating is fixed, it will be an eye-opener

Flattery is Death for an Organization

The WSJ wrote the other day about Hillary Clinton's emails:

A common thread running through the tens of thousands of emails that landed in Hillary Clinton’s in-box in her time as secretary of state is that aides and assorted advisers believe she is, well, awesome.

With a few exclamation points tacked on.

In notes sent to the private email account Mrs. Clinton used, various advisers routinely heap praise on the person who gave them their jobs or elevated them to her inner circle. Email flattery of this sort is a common tactic in the everyday workplace, but the Clinton emails show how it comes into play at the highest levels of government.

Employees tell Mrs. Clinton she is doing a “spectacular job,” that she has many admirers and that her remarks were “pitch perfect.” They assure her she looks “gorgeous” in photos and commend her clothing choices.

Look, I guess everyone has their own leadership style but from my experience it is a terrible idea to promote this kind of thing in one's organization.

Why?  Well, my organization has 350 people in it.  We can either think with just one person (me), working to improve our operations, or we can think with 350.  Those 349 other people know many of the ways in which we are screwing up and can improve -- the problem is getting them to come forward with those ideas.  And getting them to do so is far less likely if we are maintaining some sort of North Korean style personality cult of the CEO.

I have written about this before, but it's why I consider my Ivy League degrees to be a negative in running the company.  Many of my employees have only a high school education (at best) and are intimidated in bringing up an idea or telling me I am screwing up because they assume since I have these Ivy League degrees I must be smarter than they are and know what I am doing.   But in their particular job, in terms of my knowledge of what they see every day from customers and operationally, I am dumb as a post and completely ignorant.

Anyone who has worked for me for more than a few months can likely quote my favorite line which I use in most of my employee talks -- "If you see something that seems screwed up, don't assume Warren is smarter than you and wants it that way, assume that Warren is screwing up and needs to be told."

Postscript:  This sort of flattery also makes me deeply uncomfortable on a personal level, so much so I have a hard time understanding people who revel in it.  I once had an employee that could not stop with this sort of personal flattery, and eventually we ended up terminating them.  We terminated them for other good reasons, but I must admit to being relieved when they left.

Quote of the Day -- On Intellect in Politics

From Chris Dillow via Arnold Kling:

I would rather have second-rate politicians who know they are duffers than ones who believe they are brilliant.

I am sympathetic with this statement but for a reason that Dillow does not mention.  No one is smart enough to try to manage certain complex systems, like the economy.  They don't have the information or the ability to set prices, fix (or even correctly identify) "market failures, assess the preferences of 300 million individuals, or any of the other things politicians try to do -- no matter how freaking brilliant they are.   Really smart people in politics (or people who think they are really smart) also have a tendency to want to substitute, by force, their judgement and decision-making for my own.

Victory Against Speech Suppressing Libel Suits

As someone currently being sued for libel by a deep-pocketed corporation who wants me to take down a product review they don't like, I am happy to see Mother Jones prevail in their libel case brought by Frank VanderSloot, a case pretty transparently brought to suppress speech Mr. VanderSloot didn't like.  The bad news is that Mother Jones ended up with a bunch of legal bills for which they cannot get reimbursed (the exact same situation I am likely to face when I inevitably win my case).

This is exactly why we need better state and Federal anti-SLAPP laws, though I have found from personal experience campaigning for them here in Arizona that it is easy to run up against bipartisan opposition.  I will say that as happy as I am about Mother Jones' victory, there is a teenie tiny bit of schadenfreude seeing them lament the lack of loser-pay rules, something they would oppose in most any other case but their own.

Coyote Goes to the Big City, Views Some Art

I am in DC to testify tomorrow on the renewal of some recreation legislation that is currently before the House National Resources Committee.  With some time on my hands this afternoon, I walked around the Mall.

I found myself in some art place called Nat Anal's Art Gallery.  My first impression was that this guy was probably going bankrupt, since he seemed to have way too much space on some really expensive real estate.  This impression was only confirmed when I looked at some of the artists he was repping.

Take this guy for example.  What the hell?  Does this guy even know what a reasonable range of skin colors is?  Is this supposed to be a red-headed Vulcan?  I don't think this guy has much of a future in painting.


And look at this next one.  The girl's face is blurry.  I can understand how you might take a picture out of focus, but how do you paint out of focus?  These guys are going nowhere.


This one is just insulting.  The artist didn't even bother to finish it.  What, did the rent just come due and he had to run the picture down to the gallery half-finished just to get a bit of cash?


He couldn't get a better model?  Pay a few bucks more and get a freaking model with decent posture.  And just because a big rat comes and sits down in your studio you do not have to paint it into the picture.


This gallery is so cheap it's cranking out copies of the same art.  What, did they get a big order for a 100-room motel 6?


This is actually pretty good, but good god is this guy, whoever he is, full of himself.  Let's make a note never to put that guy in charge of anything.



Postscript:  I actually ran inside to get outside of a brief rain shower and to see this painting, among a couple of others.  I am a big fan of Pissarro, particularly his city scenes.


The Napoleon on horseback that was in Vienna was way more spectacular than the studio pose.  I still need to do my European trip roundup and will do it soon, now that I finally got the upload size limit on my server fixed.


My Wife Loves Me

Bought me this bad boy at Costco.

click to enlarge

Flashback: My Favorite Past Pumpkin Effort

Pumpkin1   Pumpkin2

I traced a world map on the pumpkin, and then thinned the pumpkin skin in the land masses without cutting all the way through.  Since there are no holes, you will need an electric light to illuminate it.

Bob Ross Marathon

I am watching a Bob Ross painting marathon on Twitch.  I find his work totally addictive to watch.  He'll do something that looks like a hot mess from a 3-year-old's painting and then suddenly do one other thing and it looks like a detailed forest.  He uses a palette knife and a three inch brush and suddenly he has a landscape painting.  He's my hero.

PS - the chat window is amazing -- somehow people are posting like 20 comments a second on Bob Ross.  I love the Internet.  And where do you get the Bob Ross emoji's?

PPS -- here is the chat window - people posting "ruined" and then about 10 seconds later typing "fixed"


USB C a Big Step Forward

I just got my Nexxus 5x phone I use as a backup and for international travel and it has the new USB-C connection.  Finally, a connection where I don't have to put my glasses on to figure out orientation.  I will say, though, that the Apple thunderbolt connections on its iphones still feels like a better solution, but android has finally gotten close.

I am trying out Google's Project Fi on the phone.  While I lose some coverage vs. my main phone with Verizon, I have always used T-mobile for my backup phone because of its international rate plans, and Project Fi uses T-mobile, so I don't expect a step backwards.   I will report on Project Fi when I get some experience with it.

GOP Debate Strategy Seems Fine

I know that GOP partisans were mad about the questions asked last night.  And I think they were right to be -- the questions looked a lot more like Democratic oppo research gotcha questions than issues Republican voters necessarily cared about in the election.

However, I think it is wrong to criticize Republican party leadership for the debate program.  While it would be nice if some of the questions came from the Right, this is exactly the kind of testing their candidates will get in the general election.  Wouldn't the Republicans like to know if their candidate can't handle the Leftish media headwind or if some gotcha question really turns out to be a solid hit to the vital organs -- before they are stuck with him or her?

This issue is related to one I have thought about for a while -- what I call the only silver lining from the current Progressive domination of college campuses.  It may be an uncomfortable environment for libertarians, but they are going to come out of college (as I did) having endured 4 years of 20 on 1 political arguments.  While progressives will only have experience chatting with other progressives in a warm fuzzy welcoming micro-aggression-free echo chamber.  Which one will be better prepared do defend their ideas in the real world?

Do We Care About Income Inequality, or Absolute Well-Being?

I am going to reprise parts of an article I wrote in Forbes several years ago, because I think the conclusions are particularly relevant given the Democrats' discussion of income inequality and the Scandinavian economic model.

When folks like Bernie Sanders say that we have more income inequality than Sweden or Denmark, this is certainly true. By just about any test, such as Gini ratios, we have a much wider range of incomes.

However, we Sanders implies that this greater income equality means the poor are better off in these countries, he is very probably wrong.  Because the data tends to show that while the middle class in the US is richer than the middle class in Denmark, and the rich in the US are richer than the rich in Denmark, the poor in the US are not poorer than those in Denmark.

And isn't this what we really care about?  The absolute well-being of the poor?

I am not a trained economist or economic researcher, but I have looked for a while for a data source to get at this.  I can find Gini ratios all over the place, but how do I compare the absolute well-being of poor in one country to poor in another?

The first clue that I was maybe on the right track was this chart that actually came from a left-wing group trying to promote the idea of reducing income inequality.  The chart is hard to read (the study is no longer online and all I have is a bad screenshot), but it seemed to show that the poor in the US were no worse off than the poor in Denmark and Sweeden

epi8d (1)


So the data had to be there somewhere.  Finally I found a set of data that seemed to does the trick.  I used data from the LIS Cross-National Data Center.  I cannot vouch for their data quality, but it is the same data set used by several folks on the Left (John Cassidy and Kevin Drum) to highlight inequality issues, so I used the same data source.  I then compared the US to several other countries, looking at the absolute well-being of folks at different income percentile levels.  I have used both exchange rates and purchasing price parity (PPP) for the comparison but my feeling is that PPP is a better approach when we are comparing consumer well-being.

You can click through the Forbes article to see all the comparisons, but I will focus here on Sweden and Denmark since they are very much in the policy-making discussion on income inequality.  As usual, you can click to enlarge:

click to enlarge click to enlarge

What does this mean?  If the data is correct, it means that all the way down to at least the 10th percentile poorest people, the poor in the US are as well or better off than the poor in Denmark and Sweden.  And everyone else, including those at the 20th and 25th percentile we would still likely call "poor", are way better off in the US.

All this talk about reducing income inequality by emulating Denmark is thus not about making the poor better off, but just about cutting the rich and middle class down to size.

Chart of the Day: Median Income, US States vs. European Countries

From Ryan McMaken of the Mises Institute, is your state richer than Bernie Sander's dream country Sweden?  The author has used state-level purchasing price parity adjustments, rather than a single US adjustment, due to large variations in state price levels discussed previously here (click to enlarge)

click to enlarge

Koch on Cronyism

Robert Bradley at Master Resource has a great pair of posts with some of the writings, past and present, of Charles Koch on cronyism.  Part 1 has past writing, part 2 has quotes from Koch's new book.

I find it telling the progressives have chosen the most vocal and one of the most eloquent opponents of cronyism and corporate welfare as their particular bogeyman.

My Testimony to the House Subcommittee on Public Lands

If you are really bored, and I mean for values of boredom approaching "Maybe I should pull out my old Menudo albums and give them a listen," you can watch me and others testify to the Public Lands Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee.

As you will be able to tell, I pretty much never do the Washington thing.  there really being nothing much my business needs up there other than to be left alone (unfortunately a vain hope most of the time).

This case is a bit unique.  Fees and recreation on public lands are governed mainly by a certain piece of legislation called FLREA (I won't bother with all the actual words, everyone just calls it FLREA).  The law governs fees the government can charge for public recreation, passes that provide discounts to these fees, etc.

The Forest Service has a unique program (at least among the Federal Lands agencies involved in FLREA) where private concessionaires don't just run a resort, like in the Park Service, but run an entire "park".  This means that, unique to all the other agencies, the Forest Service actually has private companies charging park entry fees ("day use fees") and camping fees.   In theory this should be relatively easy to manage, and the existence of the concession program has never really been an issue in these proceedings, but sometimes in the rush of legislation we are simply forgotten, and rules are written into the law that are simply unworkable for private companies.  A good example in this law is the long fee approval process that could require 18 months to change a fee -- this provision would be a disaster for us because we often have to react to things like changing minimum wages on a couple months notice.

Postscript:  Yes I know -- Moire fail on the tie

Early Progressive, Race-Based Rational for the Minimum Wage

From the same article, From Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard, that I quoted in a recent post on immigration comes this bit as well (emphasis added):

Progressive economists, like their neoclassical critics, believed that binding minimum wages would cause job losses. However, the progressive economists also believed that the job loss induced by minimum wages was a social benefit, as it 212 Journal of Economic Perspectives performed the eugenic service ridding the labor force of the “unemployable.” Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1897 [1920], p. 785) put it plainly: “With regard to certain sections of the population [the “unemployable”], this unemployment is not a mark of social disease, but actually of social health.” “[O]f all ways of dealing with these unfortunate parasites,” Sidney Webb (1912, p. 992) opined in the Journal of Political Economy, “the most ruinous to the community is to allow them to unrestrainedly compete as wage earners.” A minimum wage was seen to operate eugenically through two channels: by deterring prospective immigrants (Henderson, 1900) and also by removing from employment the “unemployable,” who, thus identified, could be, for example, segregated in rural communities or sterilized.

The notion that minimum-wage induced disemployment is a social benefit distinguishes its progressive proponents from their neoclassical critics, such as Alfred Marshall (1897), Philip Wicksteed (1913), A. C. Pigou (1913) and John Bates Clark (1913), who regarded job loss as a social cost of minimum wages, not as a putative social benefit (Leonard, 2000).

Columbia’s Henry Rogers Seager, a leading progressive economist who served as president of the AEA in 1922, provides an example. Worthy wage-earners, Seager (1913a, p. 12) argued, need protection from the “wearing competition of the casual worker and the drifter” and from the other “unemployable” who unfairly drag down the wages of more deserving workers (1913b, pp. 82–83). The minimum wage protects deserving workers from the competition of the unfit by making it illegal to work for less. Seager (1913a, p. 9) wrote: “The operation of the minimum wage requirement would merely extend the definition of defectives to embrace all individuals, who even after having received special training, remain incapable of adequate self-support.” Seager (p. 10) made clear what should happen to those who, even after remedial training, could not earn the legal minimum: “If we are to maintain a race that is to be made of up of capable, efficient and independent individuals and family groups we must courageously cut off lines of heredity that have been proved to be undesirable by isolation or sterilization . . . .”

Why I am Suspicious of Immigration Restrictionists -- They Have Been Wrong So Many Times in History

From Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard (link via Don Boudreaux, I think).

It was a scholarly fashion, circa 1890, to declare the U.S. frontier “closed” and to sound a Malthusian alarm about excess American population growth. But the professional economists who wrote on immigration increasingly emphasized not the quantity of immigrants, but their quality. “If we could leave out of account the question of race and eugenics,” Irving Fisher (1921, pp. 226–227) said in his presidential address to the Eugenics Research Association, “I should, as an economist, be inclined to the view that unrestricted immigration . . . is economically advantageous to the country as a whole . . . .” But, cautioned Fisher, “the core of the problem of immigration is . . . one of race and eugenics,” the problem of the Anglo-Saxon racial stock being overwhelmed by racially inferior “defectives, delinquents and dependents.”

Fear and dislike of immigrants certainly were not new in the Progressive Era. But leading professional economists were among the first to provide scientific respectability for immigration restriction on racial grounds.2 They justified racebased immigration restriction as a remedy for “race suicide,” a Progressive Era term for the process by which racially superior stock (“natives”) is outbred by a more prolific, but racially inferior stock (immigrants).

Note that the authors of the time were not using race as we do -- by "other races" whose immigration into the US was going to destroy us, they meant Southern Italy, Russia, Austria, Hungary, and the rest of Eastern Europe.   Fifty years earlier, they would have meant the Irish.   All of who we would today consider part of the backbone of America.  Why do we have to take these ideas seriously today when they have been wrong so consistently in the past?

New Star Wars Trailer

I didn't see any gratuitous lens flairs until about 1:42 so I am not sure this is really JJ Abrams.  But I must admit that despite the total crapitude of Episodes 1-3, I am excited.

How Deeply Rooted is Cronyism in American Government? 2nd Circuit Calls it The Essence of Politics

A teeth whitening service in Connecticut sued the state, arguing that the state regulatory rule banning anyone but dentists from performing the simple whitening procedure should be overturned because its only purpose was to shield one favored group from competition.

The Court sided with Cronyism, ruling in part:

"Even if the only conceivable reason for the LED restriction was to shield licensed dentists from competition," the 2nd Circuit declared, "economic favoritism" is a sufficient justification all by itself. "Much of what states do is to favor certain groups over others on economic grounds," the court said. "We call this politics."

When I went to school, our system was described to me as "majority rule with minority protections".  The American system was never supposed to allow for the arbitrary sacrifice of one group to another just because the first group can manufacture more votes.

Chicago's Guantanimo

Chicago police's use of a warehouse at Honan Square to detain suspects for secret interrogations just gets worse and worse.

Police “disappeared” more than 7,000 people at an off-the-books interrogation warehouse in Chicago, nearly twice as many detentions as previously disclosed, the Guardian can now reveal....

According to an analysis of data disclosed to the Guardian in late September, police allowed lawyers access to Homan Square for only 0.94% of the 7,185 arrests logged over nearly 11 years. That percentage aligns with Chicago police’s broader practice of providing minimal access to attorneys during the crucial early interrogation stage, when an arrestee’s constitutional rights against self-incrimination are most vulnerable.

But Homan Square is unlike Chicago police precinct houses, according to lawyers who described a “find-your-client game” and experts who reviewed data from the latest tranche of arrestee records obtained by the Guardian.

“Not much shakes me in this business – baby murder, sex assault, I’ve done it all,” said David Gaeger, an attorney whose client was taken to Homan Square in 2011 after being arrested for marijuana. “That place was and is scary. It’s a scary place. There’s nothing about it that resembles a police station. It comes from a Bond movie or something.”

For whatever reason, the story does not seem to be able to generate much national heat, as partially evidenced by the fact that it takes a UK newspapers to show any initiative on the story.  The Right fetishizes law enforcement,  the Left refuses to take on a powerful public union, and the city is run by a mayor with powerful connections to both the President and Hillary Clinton, so essentially no one is interested.

By the way, most of these folks are being held for hours or days due to drug possession arrests (5386 of the 7000+), yet another indicator of why the war on drugs has become so stupid and counter-productive.

Berlin, 1945, In Color

Pretty amazing footage.  Having been to the Brandenburg Gate during the height of the Cold War, it is jarring to see someone driving easily from the British to the Soviet sector (the wall ran right by the Gate, with it just in the Soviet sector).

The West Has A Continuous History of Becoming more Liberal Only Because We Have Changed the Definition of "Liberal"

Kevin Drum writes, "the entire Western world has been moving inexorably in a liberal direction for a couple of centuries."

If this is true, it is only because the definition of "liberal" has changed.   After becoming increasingly less authoritarian and intrusive and controlling for hundreds of years, government is again becoming far more authoritarian and intrusive.  Only with a change in the definition of "liberal" over time can one consider attempting to ban, for example, the eating of certain types of foods as "liberal"

Until a few years ago, I would have said that Drum was right that there is a continuity of liberalization in the social realm.  I celebrate the increasing acceptance of differences, from race to sexuality.  But even here people who call themselves "liberal" are demanding authoritarian limitations on speech and expression, try to enforce a dictatorship of hurt feelings.

The whole post of his is a really interesting insight into the Progressive mind.  Apparently, the (purported) lack of compromise in government is the fault of just one of the two sides.  I am not sure how that is possible, but that seems to be the Progressive position (you will find an equal number of folks on the Right who believe the same thing, though they blame the opposite group).

Essentially, you can see in this post the strong Progressive belief that the default mode of government is to constantly generate new prohibitions, rules, strictures, taxes, regulations, and penalties.  And that anyone who stands in the way of this volume production of new legal entanglements must be overcome, even if one has to break the law to do it.

A few days ago Matt Yglesisas wrote a #Slatepitch piece arguing that Hillary Clinton "is clearly more comfortable than the average person with violating norms and operating in legal gray areas"—and that's a good thing. In a nutshell, Democrats can't get anything done through Congress, so they need someone willing to do whatever it takes to get things done some other way. And that's Hillary. "More than almost anyone else around, she knows where the levers of power lie, and she is comfortable pulling them, procedural niceties be damned."

Unsurprisingly, conservatives were shocked. Shocked! Liberals are fine with tyranny! Today Matt responded in one of his periodic newsletters:

A system of government based on the idea of compromises between two independently elected bodies will only work if the leaders of both bodies want to compromise. Congressional Republicans have rejected any form of compromise, so an effective Democratic president is going to try to govern through executive unilateralism. I don't think this is a positive development, but it's the only possible development.

So Democrats are within their rights to lie, cheat and steal -- to do whatever it takes -- to break through the gridlock.  I wonder:  The worst gridlock this country has ever had was in the 1850's, when no compromise could be found on slavery.   If Democrats are empowered today to lie, cheat, steal to break the gridlock, should they have been similarly empowered in 1850?

Of course, no one would want that.  But it raises an important point.  If you define the game as one with nietzsche-ist / Machiavellian rules, no one ever seems to consider that it is just as likely the other side will win as yours will.  In fact, if you truly represent liberality, I am not sure this kind of anything-goes game is stacked in favor of the truly liberal players.

For folks who think that the end justifies the means here, and that we need to break the rule of law in order to save it, I would offer this paraphrase to an old saying: you can't sell your soul and have it too.

Sigh, FCC Considering Banning Open Source Software Upgrades on Routers

I am a big fan of open source operating system dd-wrt for routers.  I have not bought a router in years that I did not immediately flash from the manufacturer's firmware to dd-wrt.  It is a bit of a headache, but once done I get a router that is a lot more stable (I am also told that it is more secure, but I have no way to judge that).  My router typically runs 6 months without rebooting with no issues, whereas with manufacturer firmware I sometimes have to reboot once a week to make it work.**

The FCC is considering new rules that may cause router manufacturers to lock out third party software like dd-wrt.  The FCC is claiming that "illegally modified equipment" has interfered with doppler radar at airports.  I find it very close to unbelievable that a hacked consumer router was interfering with doppler radar, and in fact the FCC did not specify what kind of equipment was illegally modified.  As is usual, my guess is an agency is using a minute, niche problem in area A as an excuse for blanket, anti-consumer regulation in unrelated area B.  You can sign an online petition to ask the FCC to rethink its approach here.


** To be fair I will add that dd-wrt, typical of a lot of third-party hacker products, is a lot less user friendly than a lot of modern router firmware.  For my streaming system to work at home I have to lock a couple of servers down to a fixed IP address and this is a surprisingly fiddly task on dd-wrt.

The Wrong Way to Sell Wind and Solar

A reader sent me this article on renewables by Tom Randall at Bloomberg.  I would like to spend more time thinking about it, but here are a few thoughts. [Ed:  sorry, totally forgot the link. duh.]

First, I would be thrilled if things like wind and solar can actually become cheaper, without government subsidies, than current fossil fuels.  I have high hopes for solar and am skeptical about wind, but leave that aside.

Second, I think he is selling renewables the wrong way, and is in fact trumpeting something as a good thing that really is not so good.  His argument is that the decline in capacity factors for natural gas and coal plants is a sign of the success of renwables.  The whole situation is complex, and a real analysis would require looking at the entire power system as a whole (which neither of us are doing).  But my worry is that all the author has done is to demonstrate a unaccounted-for cost of renewables, that is the reduction in efficiency of coal and natural gas plants without actually being able to replace them.

Here is his key chart.  It purports to show the total US capacity factor of each energy mode, with capacity factor defined as the total electricity output of the plant divided by what the electricity output could be if the plant ran full-out 24/7/365.

capacity factors

First, there is a problem with this chart in terms of its data selection -- one has to be careful looking at intra-year variations in capacity factor because they vary a lot seasonality, both due to weather and changes in relative fuel prices.  Also, one has to be hugely suspicious when someone is claiming a long term trend but only shows 18 months of data.   The EIA can provide some of the data for a few years ahead of his table.  You can see it is pretty volatile.


I won't dwell on the matter of data selection, because it is not the main point I want to make, but the author's chart looks suspiciously like cherry-picking endpoints.

The point I do want to make is that reducing the capacity utilization, and thus efficiency, is a COST not a benefit as he makes it out.  Things would be different if renewables replaced a lot of fossil fuel capacity at the peak utilization of the day (the total capacity of a power system has to be sized to the peak daily demand).  But the peak demand in most Western countries occurs late in the day, long after solar has stopped producing.  Germany, which relies the most on solar, has studied this and found their peak electricity demand is around 6PM, a time where solar provides essentially nothing.   Wind is a slightly different problem, because of its hour to hour unpredictability, but suffice it to say that it can't be counted on in advance on any particular day to provide power at the peak.

This means that one STILL has to have the exact same fossil fuel plant capacity as one did without renewables.  Yes, it runs less during the day and burns less fuel, but it still must be built and exist and be staffed and in many cases it still must be burning some fuel (even if producing zero electricity) to be hot and ready to go.

The author is arguing for a virtuous circle where reductions in capacity factors of fossil fuel plants from renewables increases the total cost per KwH of electricity from fossil fuels (because the capital cost is amortized over fewer kilowatts).  This is technically true, but it is not the way power companies have to look at it.  Power companies have got to build capacity to the peak.  With current technologies, that means fossil fuel capacity has to be built to the peak irregardless of their capacity factor.  If these plants have to be built anyway to cover for renewables when they disappear during the day, then the capital costs are irrelevant at the margin.   And the marginal cost of operations and producing power from these plants, since they have to continue to exist, is around $30-$40 a MwH, waaaay under renewables still.

In essence, the author is saying:  hurray for renwables!  We still have to have all the old fossil fuel plants but they run less efficiently now AND we have paid billions of dollars to duplicate their function with wind and solar plants.  We get to pay twice for every unit of electricity capacity.

Environmentalists are big on arguing that negative externalities need to be priced and added to the cost of things that generate them -- thus the logic for a carbon tax.  But doesn't that mean we should tax wind and solar, rather than subsidize them, to charge them for the inefficiently-run fossil fuel plants we have to keep around to fill in when renewables inevitably fail us at the peak time of the day?

By the way, speaking of subsidies, the author with a totally straight face argues that renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels with this chart:

solar costs


He also says, "Wind power, including U.S. subsidies, became the cheapest electricity in the U.S. for the first time last year."

I hate to break it to the author, but a Ferrari would be cheaper than a Ford Taurus if the government subsidized it enough -- that means nothing economically other than the fact that the government is authoritarian enough to make it happen.  All his chart shows is that solar is more expensive than coal and gas in every state.

And what the hell are those units on the left?  Does Bloomberg not know how to annotate charts?  Since 6 cents per Kw/hr is a reasonable electricity cost, my guess is that this is dollars per Mw/hr, but it is irritating to have to guess.

You Want to Know Why the Legal System is Broken?

I got a notice in my email that I was potentially a member of a class action against LinkedIn.  What is the case?

The Action challenges LinkedIn's use of a service called Add Connections to grow its member base. Add Connections allows LinkedIn members to import contacts from their external email accounts and email connection invitations to one or more of those contacts inviting them to connect on LinkedIn. If a connection invitation is not accepted within a certain period of time, up to two "reminder emails" are sent reminding the recipient that the connection invitation is pending. The Court found that members consented to importing their contacts and sending the connection invitation, but did not find that members consented to LinkedIn sending the two reminder emails [plaintiffs seem to have other grievances but this is the only one they say the court validated].

You have got to be kidding me.  How much time and money has been spent on this stupidity?

So I wanted to tell them to go screw themselves, and that this was not done in my name and I want nothing to do with it.  Of course there are simple web forms for joining the class and asking for payment, but to be excluded one has to follow a series of detailed instructions and send a snail mail.  Apparently if I do nothing I am part of this fraud whether I want to be or not.  I particularly like the last line of the opt-out instructions (FAQ #9)

This request must include the case number of the Action (Case No. 5:13-CV-04303-LHK), your name, address, email address, phone number and signature, and a statement that you wish to be excluded from the Settlement Class.  If the exclusion request does not include all of this information, or if it is sent to an address other than the above, or if it is not postmarked within the time specified, it will be invalid, and you will remain a member of the Settlement Class and be bound as a Class Member by the Settlement Agreement, if approved.  “Mass” or “class” opt-outs purporting to be made on behalf of multiple persons or classes of persons shall not be allowed.

So mass torts purporting to be made on behalf of a class of persons without even consulting them are A-OK, but mass opt-outs from the class are not allowed.

Postscript:  At first I thought the opt-out headache was the plaintiff's attorney trying to protect their fees, but their fees seem set.  In retrospect, my guess is the difficult opt-out comes from the defense, because opting out leaves one eligible to sue again and having settled this one, I am sure LinkedIn does not want a second class trying to take a second bite of the apple.

Followup #2:  Engadget's reaction to the case:  Oh look, free money!

And the sum is likely to be small, though LinkedIn promised to increase the total amount by $750,000 if individual payouts are less than $10. Still, money is money, so if you're willing to swear that the company spammed folks on your behalf, you can apply for compensation here.

I do not know this author's politics, but I can say from personal experience that the majority of the most breathtakingly amoral statements about money I have heard in real life (ie excluding cartoon lines written by Hollywood for business people) have come from Progressives.

Celebrating Post-Modernism in Journalism and the Media

The date was September 15, 2004.  Trends take years to manifest, but often there is a watershed event at which one can say a tipping point has been reached.  Such was the case when the New York Times ran the headline:

THE 2004 CAMPAIGN: NATIONAL GUARD; Memos on Bush Are Fake But Accurate, Typist Says

"Fake but Accurate" has become, even when the words differ slightly, a common refrain in post-modern journalism.   It is a statement that the narrative matters more than facts, and that the truth or falsity of a narrative would no longer be judged solely on facts and logic.

I have zero opinion about the quality or quantity of President Bush's military service, but the memos in question were unquestionably fake.  They used printing technology that did not exist at the time.  They exactly mirrored Microsoft Word's default settings for font and margin.  The person who supposedly typed the memos said she never did so, and no one could provide any plausible chain of possession for how the documents reached CBS.  So fake.  But CBS and many outlets stuck with the story in the face of all these facts because the narrative was one they so desperately wanted to be true, and fit so well their pre-existing opinions of Bush.  Dan Rather and Mary Mapes have apparently never admitted they were fakes.

Recently, Robert Redford has reinforced this event as a seminal turning point in journalism by making a movie called, of all things, "Truth", which essentially still sticks to the story the memos weren't faked.  He couldn't be more clearly making the point that in post-modern media, "truth" is the narrative, not the facts.

By the way, I find this every day in the climate world, where I hear "fake but accurate" all the time in defense of the narrative of apocalyptic man-made climate change.  I can't tell you how many times that, having demolished some analysis as flawed (e.g. Michael Mann's hockey stick), I am told that, "well, that study may be wrong but it's still accurate."