When You Relax Accountability, Bad Things Happen

For years I have been critical of US Forest Service (USFS) fire suppression operations.  For those who are not familiar, because they own so much land in the very dry west, the US Forest Service is -- by far -- the largest firefighting agency in the country.  It spends billions of dollars a year on firefighting and employs tens of thousands for workers in doing so -- some specifically hired for fire, many others detailed from regular jobs to specific fires.  Basically, in the late summer, Forest Service offices are practically cleared out as everyone is off on fire detail, and those who are still around have no money to spend because it all has been swept into fire.

It is hard to publicly criticize firefighting operations for many of the same reasons that it is hard to criticize the police -- people will say that they are so brave and perform an indispensible service.   Granted.  But the USFS process for managing and funding firefighting is totally broken.  This is not solely the agency's fault -- Congress shares a lot of the blame.  But whatever the cause, firefighting has become (in my observation of the agency) a financial accountability-free zone.  There are no budgets for fire.  No competitive bidding for services and products.   All the rules are lifted, and the agency simply spends like crazy.  People have made small fortunes inventing things fire crews might need (e.g. portable shower buildings) and selling or renting them to the USFS for huge sums of money.  And USFS employees don't care because they understand it to be an environment where the normal rules do not apply.

And the USFS employees love it.  The structure and schedules and requirements of their day jobs are lifted, with little danger except for a very few in the front line crews.  I have always described what I have seen as a cross between a summer camp and a fraternity outing.

And perhaps I was more correct than I knew.  Apparently, once the tone is set for a low-accountability environment -- even if the relaxed rules were really only supposed to apply narrowly to financial issues -- it can spread to other behaviors.

Michaela Myers said she was first groped by her supervisor after a crew pizza party last summer, shortly after starting a new job as a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service. She was 22 and excited about the job. She had worked out diligently to prepare for the season, running and hiking with a heavy pack. She is from the Pacific Northwest, and had always loved the outdoors and a challenge.

She remembers her supervisor, Drew DeLozier, a Forest Service veteran, offering her beers at a crew member’s house after dinner. He told her he was glad she was on the crew because she was “sexy” and had “a nice ass,” she said. According to her account, he led her to a couch, rubbed her butt as she sat down, and slid his hand between her legs. Myers was shocked and upset, but didn’t stop him. She had heard from other crew members that DeLozier could fly off the handle, and didn’t want to make a scene.

“You don’t feel like you can say ‘no’ loudly to your supervisor,” she said. “I keep looking back on it and wishing I could have just punched him or something.”

According to Myers, the harassment and groping continued for the rest of the summer. When she confided in a fellow crew member, he told her this was an unfortunate reality for a female firefighter. She had a choice, she recalls him saying: report it and face retaliation, or do nothing and stay in fire.

 

A Chinese Consumer's Perspective on Chinese Trade Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting Up Your TV Correctly

I have been a home theater hobbyist for years, though with projection TV's rather than LCD panel TV's.  However, from what I know, this appears to be a good list of things to do and not do in setting up your TV.  TV's have historically been set up to look good in very bright showrooms under fluorescent lighting, but this is not how you likely watch the TV at home.  In fact, the best thing you can do to improve the look of your picture for cinematic content actually has nothing to do with the TV -- darken your viewing room.  They key to a really good picture is in the dark areas of the picture, not the bright areas.  Tricks to up the contrast and brightness of the TV can kill the detail in the dark areas.  The only way to really see what is there is to watch in a dark room.

The hardest thing to do at first is to get the color temperature correct.  Thankfully, most TV's today generally have a color temperature setting that is correct (20 years ago one had to have a technician do a manual re-calibration).  The right color temperature is around 6500K but TV's and computer monitors often ship with color temperatures boosted way up above 9000K, well up into the blue range because this makes the TV appear brighter in a TV showroom (at higher temperatures a neutral grey will look bluer, at lower temperatures it will look redder).  Unfortunately, your eyes are used to looking at high temperature monitors and TVs and so when you first change to the correct setting things may look to red.  Live with it a while.

Update on the Bubble

This morning on my short drive to work I heard a commercial that reminded me of the glory days of 2005.  First, it was a commercial for a home equity loan, a pitch that largely disappeared for a decade or so.  Second, though, the pitch said that you could take the money and put in in the stock market or -- I am not kidding on this, I think I got it word for word -- "buy the dip in the Bitcoin market".    There you have it:  Borrow against the theoretical unrealized price gain in your home and use it to market-time Bitcoin prices.  Take your paper gain in one bubble and apply it to a bigger bubble.  Nothing could go wrong there.

Average People Used To Understand That Protectionism Was Welfare for Special Interests That Hurt Consumers. When Did This Change?

I have been watching the second season of Victoria on PBS (quite good, I think) and much of it has covered the famines of the 1840's and the debate over the Corn Laws.  At the time, it seems that average people understood that the British tariffs on imported food were in place solely to protect the agricultural profits of aristocratic (and by definition well-connected) landowners while hurting the country as a whole by raising food prices for every consumer and contributing to the famines that were sweeping Ireland and parts of England.

Trump's proposed tariffs are simply a disaster.  A lot of the media seems to believe the biggest reason they are bad is that they will incite retaliatory tariffs from other countries, which they almost certainly will.  But even if no one retaliated, even if the tariffs were purely unilateral, they would still be bad.  In case after case, they are justified as increasing the welfare of a certain number of workers in targeted industries, but they hurt the welfare of perhaps 100x more people who consume or work for companies that consume the targeted products.  Prices will rise for everyone and choices will be narrowed. This is Bastiat's classic seen and unseen -- the beneficiaries (say in the steel industry) are easy to identify, but the individual consumers who change their purchasing plans or industries that change their investment plans are frequently invisible.  It is the height of childish public policy to pretend those hurt by this don't exist merely because they can't easily be interviewed on TV.

Well, not completely invisible:

 A proposed expansion of an Exxon Mobil Corp oil refinery could be impacted by the Trump administration’s plan to place a 25 percent tariff on imported steel, a source familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

Exxon has been considering increasing its North American crude refining capacity since at least 2014, the company has said, but has not disclosed a final decision. An Exxon spokeswoman was not available for immediate comment.

 The nation’s largest oil producer has been weighing adding new processing capacity to its 362,000 barrel-per-day Beaumont, Texas, plant that could make it the nation’s largest. (Reporting by Erwin Seba Editing by James Dalgleish)

NCAA: The World's Last Bastion of British Aristocratic Privilege

It is incredible to me that we still fetishize amateurism, which in a large sense is just a holdover from British and other European aristocracies.  Historically, the mark of the true aristocrat was one who was completely unproductive.  I am not exaggerating -- doing any paid work of any sort made one a tradesman, and at best lowered ones status (in England) or essentially caused your aristocratic credentials to be revoked (France).

The whole notion of amateurism was originally tied up in this aristocratic nonsense.  It's fine to play cricket or serve in Parliament unpaid, but take money for doing so and you are out.  This had the benefit of essentially clearing the pitch in both politics and sports (and even fields like science, for a time) for the aristocracy, since no one else could afford to dedicate time to these pursuits and not get paid.  These attitudes carried over into things like the Olympics and even early American baseball, though both eventually gave up on the concept as outdated.

But the one last bastion of support of these old British aristocratic privileges is the NCAA, which still dedicates enormous resources, with an assist from the FBI, to track down anyone who gets a dollar when they are a college athlete.  Jason Gay has a great column on this today in the WSJ:

This is where we are now, like it or not. College basketball—and college football—are not the sepia-toned postcards of nostalgia from generations past. They’re a multibillion dollar market economy in which almost everyone benefits, and only one valve—to the players—is shut off, because of some creaky, indefensible adherence to amateurism. Of course some money finds its way to the players. That’s what the details of this case show. Not a scandal. A market.

Don’t look for the NCAA to acknowledge this, however. “These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America. Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement that deserved confetti and a laughing donkey noise at the end of it.

I am not necessarily advocating that schools should or should have to pay student athletes, though that may (as Gay predicts) be coming some day.  But as a minimum the ban on athletes accepting any outside money for any reason is just insane.   As I wrote before, athletes are the only  students at a University that are not allowed to earn money in what they are good at.  Ever hear of an amateurism requirement for student poets?  For engineers?

When I was a senior at Princeton, Brooke Shields was a freshman.  At the time of her matriculation, she was already a highly paid professional model and actress (Blue Lagoon).  No one ever suggested that she not be allowed to participate in the amateur Princeton Triangle Club shows because she was already a professional.

When I was a sophomore at Princeton, I used to sit in my small dining hall (the now-defunct Madison Society) and listen to a guy named Stanley Jordan play guitar in a really odd way.  Jordan was already a professional musician (a few years after he graduated he would release an album that was #1 on the jazz charts for nearly a year).  Despite the fact that Jordan was a professional and already earned a lot of money from his music, no one ever suggested that he not be allowed to participate in a number of amateur Princeton music groups and shows.

My daughter is an art major at a school called Art Center in Pasadena (where she upsets my preconceived notions of art school by working way harder than I did in college).  She and many, if not most of her fellow students have sold their art for money already, but no one as ever suggested that they not be allowed to participate in school art shows and competitions.

I actually first wrote about this in Forbes way back in 2011.  Jason Gay makes the exact same points in his editorial today.  Good.  Finally someone who actually has an audience is stating the obvious:

In the shorter term, I like the proposals out there to eliminate the amateurism requirement—allow a college athlete in any sport (not just football or basketball) to accept sponsor dollars, outside jobs, agents, any side income they can get. The Olympics did this long ago, and somehow survived. I also think we’ll see, in basketball, the NBA stepping up and widening its developmental league—junking the dreadful one-and-one policy, lowering its age minimum, but simultaneously creating a more attractive alternative to the college game. If a player still opts to go to college, they’ll need to stay on at least a couple of seasons.

If you still think the scholarship is sufficient payment for an athlete in a high-revenue sport, ask yourself this question. There are all kinds of scholarships—academic, artistic, etc. Why are athletic scholarship recipients the only ones held to an amateurism standard? A sophomore on a creative writing scholarship gets a short story accepted to the New Yorker. Is he or she prohibited from collecting on the money? Heck no! As the Hamilton Place Strategies founder and former U.S. treasury secretary Tony Fratto succinctly put it on Twitter: “No one cares about a music scholarship student getting paid to play gigs.”

 

OK, Brief Break for Cute Animal Blogging

I know this is not my usual schtick here, but I have to confess I have a soft spot for baby hippo pictures.  This is Augustus, who was just born at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida.  More here.

Greatest Bar TV Ever

Was at a bar in the new Andaz Hotel in Scottsdale, at a restaurant called Warp and Woof.  I like the contemporary vibe of a lot of Andaz hotels, including this one in particular.

Anyway, over the bar, rather than some random college basketball game, they had Bob Ross painting shows on a loop.  Excellent.

Updated:  I am thinking of an Anchorman - Bob Ross mashup here:  "See the happy, happy scotch.  Scotchie Scotchie Scotch.  Oh, look, I didn't realize I ordered a double.  We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents."

"Water Is The Most Mispriced Commodity In The World". I agree

A few years ago there was a contest here in Arizona to see who could submit the best water conservation marketing campaign.   I submitted a picture of my water bill with the price photo-shopped so it was doubled.  Politicians here in Arizona subsidize the hell out of water, block or refuse to fund infrastructure projects that would produce more, and then blame consumers for shortages.

Anyway, Zero Hedge quotes a guy named Rick Rule, who I don't know, on a variety of commodities but his bit on water really struck me:

Following their discussion of nuclear energy and the future of uranium pricing, Townsend posed a much broader question: What will be the most important themes in the natural resources market in the coming years and decades.

Rule's answer might reinforce readers' anxieties over the availability of water - something that's already been widely discussed because of Cape Town's looming "Day Zero." Rule even went so far as to call water "the most mispriced commodity on Earth".

The third place – and this is very much more difficult to implement – is water. Water is the most mispriced commodity in the world. Because water is allocated politically. It is believed to be a right, as opposed to a commodity. The consequence of that – as an example, here in the US Southwest, we have taken sources of water, like the Colorado River, and we have allocated approximately 130% of the flow of the river to various claimants. This is sort of hard on the river. You have a circumstance where water flows uphill to votes rather than downhill for money. And you can’t allocate something that doesn’t exist.

And also because of the structure of the American water business. Because of the fact that most of it is delivered politically rather than via markets. The rents that go to water, while they are insufficient to maintain supply, go to municipalities. And they go to fund current political goals as opposed to maintaining the infrastructure for the production and distribution of water.

It is believed, on a country-wide basis, that we have deferred as much as 3 trillion dollars in sustaining capital investments in the water business. I can’t tell you when this theme comes home to roost. But when it does come home to roost, this might be one of the great resource themes of all time.

So You Think You Have Property Rights in This Country?

You do have property rights ... right up to the point where someone with political pull wants to change the use of your property.

In Tempe, AZ, an intersection has been empty for a number of years after a gas station went out of business.  A local entrepreneur acquired rights to the land to build a car wash.  The city approved all his various permits and he was just starting to build when a powerful local developer who owned a strip mall next door decided he did not want a car wash next door to his businesses, and sought to rally the local community against the car wash with fears of traffic and poisonous chemicals.  The result?

After nearly three hours of debate, the Tempe City Council revoked permits for a Quick Quack Car Wash planned at Baseline Road and McClintock Drive.

The Council Chamber was standing-room only Thursday as more than 40 residents spoke. Opponents were in the majority by a 3-to-1 margin.

The residents' concerns largely revolved around noise and traffic. Those residents in favor of the development said a car wash was an upgrade from the old gas station that use to be at the corner.

Michael Pollack, who owns the nearby Peter Piper Pizza Plaza along with other commercial properties in the East Valley, hired an attorney to appeal the city's Design Review Board decision to grant permits for the car wash.

"I have nothing against ducks," Pollack told the council. "I would love to see something that harmonizes with that area."

Like residents, Pollack was concerned about noise and how a car wash would impact property values — points that representatives from Quick Quack said were unfounded.

Of course they are being generous here to the real influencer, pretending that Pollack was merely one more person in the community with concerns rather than the person who likely organized much of the opposition.

By the way, here is the Mr. Pollack's super-lovely strip mall he is concerned about "harmonizing" with

Don Boudreaux has a great quote from Bastiat today that seems to apply:

Admit it, what is worrying you is right and justice; what is worrying you is ownership – not yours, of course, but that of others.  You find it difficult to accept that others are free to dispose of their property (the only way to be an owner); you want to dispose of your property . . . and theirs.

 

As I Predicted, Another Diesel Emissions Shoe Drops

Back in November of 2015 I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is The Right Way To Encourage Local Investment: Regulation Reform, Not Subsidies

Via Zero Hedge:

Waymo, a unit of Alphabet, is set to launch a ride-sharing service similar to Uber, but with no human driver behind the wheel. Officials in Arizona granted Waymo a permit to operate as a transportation network company (TNC) across the state on Janurary 24, following the company’s initial application on Janurary 12, Bloomberg  reported.

The imminent release of a robotic fleet of fully autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans could be flooding the highways of Arizona, causing major headaches for Uber.

Since April of last year, Waymo has been experimenting with its self-driving fleet on the human guinea pigs of Phoenix, offering residents 24/7 access to the free ridesharing service. TNC status is a significant step for Waymo, because it now authorizes the company to start charging its passengers.

Waymo’s vehicles in the Phoenix area have driven more than 4 million miles on public roads. In November, the company said a portion of its cars in the Phoenix area were operating in fully autonomous mode, what’s known in industry parlance as level four autonomy.

My understanding is that Phoenix has become the world's center for testing and refining self-driving vehicles mainly by simply allowing it to happen when other municipalities threw up numerous regulatory hurdles (not just to self-driving cars but also, like Austin and Las Vegas, to ride-sharing companies).  I wish more business relocation competition among municipalities was on this basis rather than competing subsidy proposals.

I have seen driver-less Waymo vans a number of times around town, mostly around Tempe and Chandler.  They seemed to do fine once one gets over the shock of seeing the driver's seat empty.  I tried to sign up for their early rider program but apparently they are focusing on Phoenix's southeastern suburbs (e.g. Mesa, Tempe) right now.  I will try again as the program rolls out so I can publish a ride report here.  Probably I will hate it because the car will faithfully stay within the speed limit and thus drive me crazy.

My New Favorite Excel Function: INDIRECT

I will confess that somehow I never really learned pivot table mechanics in Excel, so I struggle with three dimensional data.  One example might be a spreadsheet with individual tabs where each tab is a different corporate division, and on each tab is a P&L by month (so three dimensions:  Month, P&L category, Division).  Let's assume the P&L is arranged the same on every page, with, for example, one divisions June's total revenue number in the same cell number as the June total revenue number on every other divisions' tab, ie this field is in cell c8 on every worksheet tab.

Long ago I created a simple way to get a total of a particular cell across all spreadsheets.  I would add a spreadsheet tab in the workbook before all the division tabs and another after all the division tabs.  Let's say I just name these tabs "Posta" and "Postb".  Then the sum of all cells C8 that are located on a spreadsheet tab between tabs "Posta" and "Postb" would be

=SUM(Posta:Postb!C8).

The problem comes when one wants to create a summary worksheet tab that doesn't sum all the values for C8 but summarizes them in a table.  Imagine a table where column A is the division name (that matches the name of the tab for that division) and column B is that division's June revenue, ie the value of cell C8 for that division from its individual spreadsheet.  The only way I knew how to do this before was manually and tediously.

But laziness is the mother of invention, and I finally encountered a workbook that was so tedious to summarize manually that I had to find another way.  I had a spreadsheet of 150 tabs, each worksheet tab being one of our locations containing online customer review scores formatted the same way into the same cells.  That is when I found the INDIRECT function.  Basically it allows one to craft a custom cell reference in a text string, feed that to the indirect function, which will output the contents of that cell.  So if our location names in the first column exactly match the worksheet tab names, then we can write

=INDIRECT("'"&$A3&"'"&"!C$8")

The ampersand symbols are basically text string concatenation operators, and are there to create the text string of a cell reference in the format excel expects.  The funny triple quotes is just to add a single quote mark before and after the tab name.   This particular string will give us the value of cell C8 that is in the worksheet tab with the name that is in cell A3.

You can also use this cell value from the INDIRECT function in more complicated formulas.  For example

=COUNTIF( INDIRECT("'"&$A3&"'"&"!$B$3:$B$500"),D$4)

would look in the spreadsheet tab whose name is in A3 and on that tab count all the values in the range B3 to B500 on that tab that have the value given in cell D4.  For example, if D4 is equal to "5" we could be counting all the reviews that had a score of "5".

Postscript:  This may be my record for the blog post with the niche-iest audience.  Mainly it is aimed at my son, who has the enviable job of being an analyst for a craft beer company in La Jolla.  He has learned not to complain much to me about his job, as my first job was in an oil refinery in Baytown, Texas, so my sympathy level is maybe lower than it should be.  Anyway, as part of a geeky family, he and I compete on Excel knowledge so this post is mainly my way of counting coup on him.

Update:  I totally agree with the comments that a relational database is needed.  Unfortunately, at the time I did this work, we had only within weeks been given access to the review data from the government recreation reservations database, and it was all in excel.  Faster to do the analysis in excel than to figure out how to read the sheets into something like mysql (of which I am positive there are a million simple tools for doing so).  But I will accept it as a challenge for this year.

Is The Phoenix Housing Market Peaking?

I am not actually active in the residential home market, so I can (without losing any money) call market tops and bottoms from semi-random variables.  In 2005, I wrote here about a possible housing top when I overheard a dentist tell a doctor about all he money he was making flipping raw land  (I will apologize to dentists here, but when I studied investing at HBS 30 years ago I had a professor who would ask the class, for a bad investment, "who do we sell this to?"  Answer:  Doctors!   And if it is a really, really bad investment, who do we sell this to? Dentists!)

Anyway, I was out on my super-dorky but easy-on-the-knees and fun to ride elliptical scooter the other day and stopped to take a picture of a quiet intersection near my home:

I only got seven of the signs in my picture, but there were eight different open house notices for homes all within an easy walk of this location.  Reminded me of 2009.

Postscript:  By the way, I always feel bad about joking at the expense of doctors and dentists and their investments, so I will share one of my personal great moments in investment savvy.  In 1984 I graduated as a mechanical engineer that had a lot of background in programming and micro-computers (my specialty was control theory and something awkwardly called interfacing microprocessors with mechanical devices, which we just call "robotics" today).  I had lots of good job offers, and most were for about the same amount of money except one outlier that did not pay nearly as much but instead paid in all these crappy pieces of paper called options.  Hah!  I wasn't falling for that, and I turned them down and worked for real money.  That company I turned down was Microsoft and just the options they offered in the offer letter, I remember calculating once, would be worth more today than all my cumulative lifetime earnings to date.

Sex and Gender on the AZ Driver's License

Via the AZ Republic

Two Democratic lawmakers are trying to give transgender and non-binary Arizonans the chance to more accurately represent themselves on state-issued documents — in life and in death.

House Bill 2492 would offer driver's-license applicants a third gender option, "non-binary," to indicate they don't identify as male or female.

House Bill 2582 would require death certificates to reflect gender identity, one's emotional and psychological sense of gender, including when it appears to conflict with a person's anatomy.

This is what happens when you forget what the purpose of something actually is.  The individual descriptive information on a driver's license is for identification purposes -- it is not a Facebook profile page to communicate our sense of self or current emotional state.  One's personal, inner "emotional and psychological sense of gender" is useless on an identification document because a third party can't sense that in any way.

If the argument is that gender is not a useful identification tool, then remove it entirely from the damn license or death certificate and let's move on.  Or replace it with something that is useful and discernible by a third party (how about "has external genitalia y/n" lol).

Postscript:  Well, I just looked at my AZ licence and it does not use the word "gender" anywhere.  It says "sex".  Now, people I know who self-identify as "woke" have explained to me that "sex" is a function of biological plumbing whereas gender is more a function of state of mind and social programming and such.  Well, the license says "sex" so why are we talking about gender at all?

Fourier Transforms

This is as good of an explanation as I have seen of what is going on in a Fourier Transform.  I have not seen this person's videos before but I will have to seek out others of his.

This One Simple Trick Will Send a Lot of Municipalities Into Bankruptcy

The "trick":

Democrats in the state House have proposed issuing $107 billion in bonds to backfill the state’s pension funds, which are short $129 billion. Annual state pension payments are projected to increase to $20 billion in 2045 from $8.5 billion—not including interest on $17 billion in debt the state previously issued to pay for pensions.

At the request of state retirees, a University of Illinois math professor performed a crack analysis showing how the state could use interest-rate arbitrage to shave its pension costs. Under the professor’s math, the state could sell 27-year, fixed-rate taxable bonds and invest the proceeds into its pension funds. This would supposedly stabilize the state’s pension payments at $8.5 billion annually, save taxpayers $103 billion over three decades and increase the state retirement system’s funding level to 90% from 40%. Can the mathemagician make House Speaker Michael Madigan disappear too?

So what exactly does this mean? What is the trick?  Essentially, the trick is... investing using margin.  The professor's math was based on borrowing at 5% and then investing at 7.5% returns (the returns the pension funds have gotten over the last several years' bull market).    Ignore the fact that this rickety scheme probably will not be able to borrow at 5%, but likely at a higher rate.  Even at 5%, the problem is that if returns fall below the interest being paid on the bonds, the state and the pension funds are in worse shape than they were before.  If you saw a friend who was in the hole after a night of losing gambling who was trying to borrow more money from the house to try to make it all back, you would stop him, right?

Given the risk of falling short of covering the margin interest, one also has to worry about the portfolio asset allocation incentives here.  You certainly can't borrow at 5% or more and expect to make any money investing long-term in almost any sort of reliable bonds.  This is going to push the pension managers into riskier all-equity portfolios and even beyond into trying even riskier investments that have almost never worked out well for government pension funds.

I write all this because apparently this insanity is coming to Phoenix. ugh.

Update on the last point:  From today's WSJ:

A decade of low bond yields pushed some of the most stability-minded investors to dabble in risky investments that depended on markets being orderly. Now, those bets are looking problematic.

In the past, pension funds, endowments and family offices pursued relatively safe investments. After interest rates collapsed on the heels of the financial crisis, they ran into challenges paying pensioners and filling university budgets, and added riskier bets on hedge funds and venture capital in the hopes of winning better returns.

More recently, some of these investors also made big, unpublicized wagers seeking to benefit from what had been an unusually long period of low volatility, according to pension-fund consultants and others who deal with these institutions. The strategies, often involving the writing of complicated options contracts, were for years a source of easy money. Markets hadn’t been so calm since the 1950s.

Among those making such bets were Harvard University’s endowment, the Employees’ Retirement System of the State of Hawaii and the Illinois State Universities Retirement System.

Yet volatility has now returned to markets, with a vengeance. When the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 2,400 points in a week, intraday market swings also surged. The Cboe Volatility Index, or VIX, a measure of expected swings in the S&P 500, closed at its highest level last week since August 2015, recording its biggest one-day jump ever on Feb. 5 as it surged to 37.32 from 17.31 the prior day.

The $16.9 billion Hawaii fund in 2016 began earning money selling “put” options—essentially a bet that markets would stay calm or rise. When markets fall, Hawaii is on the hook to pay out.

 

Banning Racists From Social Media Is Just Helping Them By Reducing Transparency on Their Distasteful Views

Via Engadget

Twitter is continuing to act on its promise to fight hate speech, however imperfectly. The site has banned Wisconsin Congressional candidate Paul Nehlen after he posted a racist image that placed the face of Cheddar Man (a dark-skinned British ancestor) over actress and soon-to-be-royal Meghan Markle, who's mixed race. The company said it didn't normally comment on individual accounts, but said the permanent suspension was due to "repeated violations" of its terms of service.

Nehlen, who's hoping to unseat Paul Ryan in the 2018 mid-term elections, has a long history of overtly expressing his racist views. Twitter suspended him for a week in January over anti-Semitic comments, and he has regularly promoted white supremacist ideology. In private, he used direct message groups to coordinate harassment campaigns. Breitbart supported Nehlen's ultimately unsuccessful run against Ryan in 2016, but distanced itself from him in December 2017.

As the title of the post implies, I am torn on this.  On the one hand, there is an argument that removing a powerful communications tool from bad people makes it harder to spread their, um, badness.  On the other hand, I am not sure that driving these folks underground is the right approach.  Sure, Nehlen has likely rallied some people of a similar mind to his side, but the flip side is that he has advertised himself to  LOT of people as having distasteful views.  I know that from my point of view, my awareness that awful folks like this still exist on the peripheries of power has grown from social media, whereas without it I likely might have convinced myself this sort of stuff was a thing of the past.

It reminds me what I wrote a while back about putting the Confederate flag on license plates:

Which brings me back to license plates.  If a state is going to create a license plate program where people can make statements with their license plates, then people should be able to make the statement they want to make.  ... Let's assume for a moment that everyone who wants to display this symbol [the Confederate battle flag] on their car is a racist. Shouldn't we be thrilled if they want to do so?  Here would be a program where racists would voluntarily self-identify to all as a racist (they would even pay extra to do so!)  What would be a greater public service?

To take this to an extreme, think about the effort to de-platform certain college speakers.  I like to imagine who the most extreme example of such a controversial college speaker would be, and I come up with that old standby, Adolf Hitler.  So what if in 1938 Adolf Hitler came to the States for a college speaking tour in 1938.  Couldn't that have been a good thing?  Many of the mistakes made by the world in 1938-1945 was underestimating both Germany's appetite for expansion and its ruthlessness in its approach to the Jews.  Wouldn't it have been better to listen to a bad guy and potentially get some clues to this future?

Do We Really Have to Craft Legislation With the Stupidest 0.0001% in Mind?

Via Zero Hedge:

A pair of New York politicians has introduced legislation that would force consumer goods corporation Procter & Gamble to make their Tide Pod product less appetizing to human beings.

If passed, Senate bill S100A would require liquid detergent packets sold in the state of New York to be “designed in an opaque, uniform color that is not attractive to children and is not easily permeated by a child’s bite.”

The bill further states that each Tide Pod packet should be “enclosed in a separate, individual, non-permeable, child-resistant wrapper” and that the package they come in should have a warning label saying the product is “harmful if swallowed.”

These two legislators get their one news cycle of fame from this and 24 hours of virtue signalling how much they care, and the rest of humanity has to live with their stupidity for decades.

Even beyond the self-serving stupidity of even introducing such legislation, its specifics are even dumber, making sense only if the recent Tide pod consumption was somehow accidental, like an infant putting it in her mouth.  This regulation would have done pretty much zero to stop the recent insane social media challenge that drove a few people to eat these things.  Now when I put my little pod in the dishwasher, am I really going to have to struggle to get the thing out of some child-proof wrapper?  We can't just put every one in unopenable blister pack and be done with it?

Why Infrastructure is Really "Crumbling" -- It's Unauthorized Borrowing by Government Agencies Against Public Infrastructure

I am mostly going to leave highways out of this post.  Most evidence I have seen is that the numbers do not actually show highway infrastructure to be getting worse.  To the extent highways are underfunded, in my mind it is because gasoline taxes paid by drivers and meant for highway repair and construction have been shifted to grand projects like light rail that get politicians excited but carry at least an order of magnitude fewer passengers per dollar spent than do highways.

But in worlds I am more familiar with - government transit agencies and parks agencies - there has been a real deterioration of infrastructure.   Systems like the Washington Metro clearly are falling apart and most public parks and recreation areas have huge deferred maintenance accounts that are growing every year.  California State Parks and the National Parks Service alone have deferred maintenance tallied well into the tens of billions of dollars.

Most of these agencies will argue the problem is -- wait for it -- that they are underfunded by their legislatures.  But this is not the case in my experience.  My company routinely takes over public parks that some government agency said were too expensive to remain open and profitably reopens them to the public -- not only keeping up with the maintenance but paying to catch up on all the maintenance the agency let slide when it was operating the park.

The problem is that most agencies, whatever their stated public purpose and mission, tend to be run for the benefit of their employees.  I understand some but not all the reasons for this, but it is simply an observable fact that this happens time and time again.  This means that the priority is to build up large staffs with good pay and large benefits and retirement packages.   Worse, the preference is usually to build up headquarters and administrative staff, rather than staff that actually does stuff like serve the public or fix things.  When cutbacks need to occur, the priority order always is: cut maintenance first; cut field staff actually doing useful things second; cut administrative staff only in case of the apocalypse; cut benefits packages never.

Deferred maintenance is the way that agency's can borrow without transparency and without any outside authorization to do things like maintain staff in the face of cutbacks.  In effect, the agency is borrowing against the infrastructure the public has built to help fund staffing levels and benefits.  What is deferred maintenance?  It is all kind of things.  It is having one out of three toilets in a bathroom break and just roping it off rather than fixing it.  It is allowing potholes to multiply in the road without repair.  It is constantly chasing more and more leaks in an underground water line and not just replacing it.  It is an acknowledgement that all manmade things have a fixed life.   Take picnic tables.  Let's say a type of picnic table in a campground, of which there might be hundreds, lasts about 10 years.  That means a responsible person should budget to replace 10% every year.  But what if we skip a year?  No one will probably notice if some old tables slide from 10 to 11 years old, and we save some money.  But really we are only borrowing that money, because we will need to do twice as many next year.  But then we do it again the next year, to borrow more, and the bill just increases for the future.  Before you know it, the NPS has $12 billion in deferred maintenance, a $12 billion debt for which there is little transparency and no legislative approval -- and the interest on which all of us in the public pay when we have to live with these deteriorating public facilities.

I have written about this many times, but here is what I wrote about Arizona State Parks several years ago:

At every turn, [Former Arizona State Parks Director Ken] Travous made decisions that increased the agency's costs.  For example, park rangers were all given law enforcement certifications, substantially increasing their pay and putting them all into the much more expensive law enforcement pension fund.  There is little evidence this was necessary -- Arizona parks generally are not hotbeds of crime -- but it did infuriate many customers as some rangers focused more on citation-writing than customer service.  There is a reason McDonald's doesn't write citations in their own parking lot.

What Mr. Travous fails to mention is that the parks were falling apart on his watch - even with these huge budgets - because he tended to spend money on just about anything other than maintaining current infrastructure.  Infrastructure maintenance is not sexy, and sexy projects like the Kartchner Caverns development (it is a gorgeous park) always seem to win out in government budgeting.  You can see why in this editorial -- Kartcher is his legacy, whereas bathroom maintenance is next to invisible.  I know deferred maintenance was accumulating during his tenure because Arizona State Parks itself used to say so.  Way back in 2009 I saw a book Arizona State Parks used with legislators.  It showed pictures of deteriorating parks, with notes that many of these locations had not been properly maintained for a decade.  The current management inherited this problem from previous leaders like Travous, it did not create it.

So where were those huge budgets going, if not to maintenance?  Well, for one, Travous oversaw a crazy expansion of the state parks headquarters staff.    When he left, there were about 150 people (possibly more, it is hard to count) on the parks headquarters staff.  This is almost the same number of full-time employees that were actually in the field maintaining parks.  As a comparison, our company runs public parks and campgrounds very similar to those in Arizona State Parks and we serve about the same number of visitors -- but we have only 1.5 people in headquarters, allowing us to put our resources on the ground in parks serving customers and performing maintenance.  None of the 100+ parks we operate have the same deferred maintenance problems that Arizona State Parks have, despite operating with less than a third of the budget that Travous had in his heyday.

Arizona State Parks has a new Director, but its the same old story.  They have complained about deferred maintenance in the parks for years, but when times are good (and I can tell you all of us in public recreation are having visitation records the last few years) they use the extra money to add headquarters staff and pay headquarters staff more.

State Parks, which receives no state general-fund money, saw a record 2.78 million visitors come to its parks for the fiscal year that ended June 30. The agency generated nearly $17.9 million largely from park fees, another record.

The result: Black has been generous with pay for people she has brought on staff. Some salaries are up to 32 percent higher than what her predecessor paid for the same positions. And she has approved raises of up to 25 percent for some carry-over staff as more money rolls into the agency's coffers....

Meanwhlile, records show [former director Bryan] Martyn's top two deputies were paid $110,250, while Black pays her top assistant $142,000 — 29 percent more. Black brought in a new development chief at nearly $105,000, a 32 percent bump over what the position paid under Martyn.

Black also boosted the pay of the natural-resources chief, who also worked for Martyn, by 25 percent, to $84,000 a year.

State Parks payroll records show Martyn, around the time he left, had 41 staffers making more than $50,000 [incredibly this is apparently personal staff, not the total headquarters staff]. Black had 58 staff members in March making more than $50,000. Black also brought in staff at higher salaries than what Martyn paid, giving some holdovers significant raises.

An agency spokeswoman said Parks is increasingpay to recruit and retain talent, and staffers are dealing with more visitors.

Black said she also has increased the pay of those in the field.

So, as we see some really good years in public recreation, Arizona State Parks is using the extra money to pay staff rather than address fundamental infrastructure issues.   Anyone want to guess what will happen when the next downturn comes?  Will administrative pay be cut?  Will headquarters staff be cut?  Or will maintenance be cancelled and parks closed?  Place your bets.

When companies or other entities get into debt holes they cannot climb out of, their debt is restructured and perhaps partially forgiven or even bailed out, but rules are put in place to ensure more responsible financial behavior in the future.  The same needs to be true of infrastructure spending.  These agencies got themselves into the deferred maintenance holes they are in.  They cannot get out without a bailout, but we should understand that it is a bailout of these agencies and there need to be conditions attached to the funding tied responsible maintenance spending by the agency itself.

On the List of Good News Under-Reported By the Media, This is Near The Top of the List

This is really staggeringly good news.  Malaria has, through history, been one of the deadliest infectious diseases (though of late my understanding is that it has been surpassed by HIV).  One of the problems with malaria is that for every death, many more are rendered unable to work for long periods of time, a drag on productivity in economies that already have trouble producing sufficient food and other goods.

It Is Interesting to Note that High School Debate is as Broken as When I Did it 35 Years Ago

From the WSJ:

For weeks, high school debater Benjamin Waldman rehearsed his argument affirming the resolution that the criminal-justice system should abolish plea bargaining. Now that it was time to speak, he took a deep breath and let it rip.

“...thecriminaljusticesystemisareflectionofandapplicationofthelawandimpositionofpunishments.Pleabargainingwasamechanismforthesejudgestomaintaintheirvastpoweranddiscretion…”

After six minutes of speaking at this blinding pace, topping out at 300 words a minute, the 15-year-old sat down, ready for his foe’s cross-examination.

To impress judges, they had to pack into that brief time arguments of intellectual depth and complexity, complete with citations of legal scholars or philosophers. Any point left unrebutted could be deemed conceded. Every word had to be read aloud for the judges to score it. The result was speech at roughly the pace of a cattle auctioneer.

Rather than focus on logical arguments made cogently and elegantly, the approach in my day (and it appears today) was to carpet bomb the other side with as many arguments as possible and claim victory on any points that were not rebutted.  The standard for both argumentation and rebuttals was lame, with a quote from some source, likely both weak and quoted out of context during summer camps where evidence is compiled, usually good enough to check the box.  The skills taught are apropos of pretty much nothing.

The other problem that existed in my day, and which I am told still obtains in various forms, was that every argument had to save us from a nuclear war.  You couldn't win with intelligent but modest policy tweaks.  We actually had a big poster with an atomic mushroom cloud on which we would keep score of the number of nuclear wars saved or caused by our teammates.  I swear I heard debates about things like ocean fishing and mineral rights where most of the discussion was around avoiding a nuclear war.  It was simply nuts.

Another Reason I Live In Phoenix

SpaceX Landing Two Falcon Heavy Boosters Side by Side -- Gorgeous

Y'all know I have a certain distaste for Elon Musk's rent-seeking, but as I have written before there is nothing much cooler than several billionaires competing at space travel.   The video below is of today's apparently succesful Falcon Heavy launch, but while the launch is as cool as always, what was really new and beautiful was the near simultaneous side by side landing of the two booster rockets.   Booster landing starts around the 36:30 minute mark.

I will say that Musk's promotional abilities do remind me sometimes of DD Harriman.

Advice: Do Not Give Your Kids a Visa or Mastercard for Travel, Give Them An Amex

I am a flaming hypocrite on this topic, because my company does not accept Amex, but for travel, particularly if it is a shared family card you are giving your kids, don't use Visa or Mastercard.  Most banks have systems now that are simply hair-trigger in freezing an account if they see a charge they don't expect, which generally means a charge in a new city, ie when you are travelling.  It is merely irritating on my own card, as I have to call and get it turned back on (which can be a pain in certain foreign lands) but it creates a real problem for my kids.  Twice my son has been travelling and twice they have immediately shut down his card.  When he called, they would not talk to him so he had to find me somewhere and I had to call them to verify a charge.  But since I did not make the charge I have to call my son back and then call the credit card company back.  All the while my kids are without any way to charge because this likely is their only card.

There are things you can try to do to avoid this, such as remember to contact the card issuer to warn them when you will be out of town, but this only has mixed success and trying to have my kids remember to do this is a tough proposition.  In my experience, perhaps due to their background as a travel company, Amex is far, far less likely to have travel to new lands trigger these sort of pre-emptive account shutdowns.

Postscript:  I don't get a commission, but I have the Starwood Hotels Amex.  One Starwood point per dollar spend on the card is a great deal.  Starwood points are very valuable, as loyalty points go.  Now that they are merged with Marriott, they can be traded 1 starwood point for 3 amex points.  Also, they can be exchanged for most airline points for 1 starwood point to 1.25 airline points.