More Auto Bailout Thoughts

I don't think I have ever gotten as much mail from as many different readers as I have received on the auto bailout.  Readers seem fairly unified in their outrage and horror at the prospect.

Via insty:

Nancy Pelosi calls the deal a barber shop, where everybody will take a haircut.

There is already an available process for operating companies that cannot meet their obligations where all the parties take a haircut:  Its called chapter 11.  We have about a zillion man-years of experience with it, in companies great and small.  And it does not take idiotic Senators flashing billions of our tax money to mediate it.

The auto industry is tremendously magnetic for wannabee technocrats in Congress, in large part because in perhaps no other industry is there a bigger gap between what the average American wants to buy and what the country's intelligentsia things they should buy. 

But US automakers are failing because they have not been very responsive to customers; they have grown fat and complacent, feeling protected by their monopoly power position; they have consistently failed over decades-long periods to make tough decisions vis-a-vis labor and costs; and they have refused to make real prioritization decisions (GM brand strategy is a good example).  It is therefore hilarious that Congress thinks it can do better, because wouldn't these same traits be high on the list of failings of the Federal Government itself?

And this is funny, if you have not seen it yet.

Posted on December 9, 2008 at 09:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

New Era in Race Relations

Our new era in race relations begins this week with the Federal government sending me a nasty-gram that I have not yet proven to the government that I know the race of every one of my employees.  The EEO-1, a quite distasteful annual requirement from the feds, is a report we must file showing the number of people we have employed of various races and ethnicities.  Rest assured, readers, I have, after naively believing that race was irrelevant in evaluating my employees, now educated myself as to the race and gender of all my employees and reported this understanding to the government.

Posted on December 8, 2008 at 11:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)

Be Very Afraid

This was sent to me by a loyal reader, with the email subject "Be very afraid"

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)--House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank,
D-Mass., predicted that 2009 will be the "best year" for public policy since the
New Deal.
 
Speaking before the Consumer Federation of America Thursday, Frank said

Congress would pass a regulatory overhaul comparable to the antitrust laws of
the late 19th century and the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission
in 1934.
 
Democrats will tighten consumer protections for credit cards, put "very tough

rules in" to govern subprime lending and give "appropriate liability" to the
institutions that securitize mortgage loans, he said.
 
Frank said the economic crisis has run counter to the philosophy first

espoused by President Ronald Reagan that "government is part of the problem." He
said the goal would be to diminish excessive risk-taking within the context of
investor and consumer protections.
 
"This has not become an anti-capitalist society," Frank said. "I think we can

make the argument, as the New Deal did, that in fact we are being very
pro-market."
 
Frank said that securitization - used to repackage mortgage loans and sell

them to investors as bonds - has "good aspects" when done right but can also
lead to abuses.
 
Frank predicted that legislation to tighten consumer protections in the credit

card market and to crack down on mortgage lending abuses would become law. He
also said bank regulators would adopt a code of unfair and deceptive practices.

No mention from Frank of the constant work he did over the last 10 years to prevent many similar such regulations from being imposed on Fannie and Freddie.

Posted on December 4, 2008 at 09:27 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Yep, This Is The Perfect Antidote for a Recession

Kevin Drum is off his meds, and is generating a lot of good fodder for me today. I made a couple of small edits in the name of intellectual honesty:

The news keeps getting better and better. The House Democratic caucus just voted 137-122 to replace John Dingell (D–General Motors) as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. The new chair will be Henry Waxman, who cares deeply about [0.01% changes in atmospheric composition] and will be a huge ally in the fight to get serious[ly high fuel and electricity prices] next year. This is change we can believe in.

I am willing to put my disagreement with a lot of the world on whether on not global warming is dangerous into the "reasonable people can disagree" category.  But it just strikes me as outright insanity to try to push forward and pretend that anything that makes a meaningful dent in CO2, and so which has to make a meaningful dent in fuel and electricity consumption, will require either massive shortages or much higher prices.  Even a third-way plan that says we will evade this trade-off with new technologies  (whatever the hell those are) faces the massive dead-weight-loss of having to obsolete perfectly good power generation or transportation infrastructure and replace it wholesale with trillions of dollars of new stuff.  If we found out tomorrow that exposed brick caused global warming, and all of our houses had to be knocked down and rebuilt, would anyone really think we were all richer for that?

The amazing thing to me is that the left has all gotten on the "this will be a net positive for the economy, 5 million jobs, blah blah" message.  This is nuts.  This is the broken windows fallacy on Barry Bonds' entire steroid inventory.  Folks often respond to me, "but we will gain because we will reduce the cost of global warming."  But reasonable, non-loony folks don't really honestly think we are incurring any costs right now from global warming.  There is an argument that they might exist 50 years from now and that they might be high enough to get started on now, but for the next 10 years or more, there is just cost, no benefit.

Posted on November 20, 2008 at 04:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Kelo Update

The AntiPlanner has an update on the New London, CT development that spawned the notorious Kelo case.  In short, they tore Ms. Kelo's house down against her will, and then the whole development deal fell through.  The city now has a nice vacant lot.

The homes of Susette Kelo and her neighbors have all been torn down or removed. But, except for the remodeling of one government building into another government building, virtually no new development had taken place in the Fort Trumbull district by May, 2008.

Having spent at least $78 million on the Fort Trumbull project, the city had awarded development rights to a company named Corcoran Jennison, which planned to build a hotel, an office complex, and more than 100 upscale housing units. The developer had until November, 2007, to obtain financing.

When that deadline lapsed, it received an extension to May 29, 2008. In desperation, the developer sought an FHA loan of $11.5 million. When that didn’t work and May 29 came and went, New London revoked the agreement.

Posted on November 17, 2008 at 10:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Regulation is About Protecting Incumbents

Darin Morely sent me this.  Woe be it to the upstart competitor with a new business model who challenges an incumbent with political connections.  This goes double when the incumbent is the government itself:

One of the great things about the web, obviously, is that it allows for much more efficient communication that opens up new and useful offerings. For example: the web offers the ability to find other people traveling to the same general place you're heading and to set up a convenient carpool. It's good for the environment. It's good for traffic. It just makes a lot of sense. Unless, of course, you're a bus company and you're so afraid that people will use such a system rather than paying to take the bus. That's what happened up in Ontario, as earlier this year we wrote about a bus company that was trying to shut down PickupPal, an online carpooling service, for being an unregulated transportation company. TechCrunch points us to the news that the Ontario transportation board has sided with the bus company and fined PickupPal. It's also established a bunch of draconian rules that any user in Ontario must follow if it uses the service -- including no crossing of municipal boundaries -- meaning the service is only good within any particular city's limits.

All of us in the states need to be prepared for more of this corporate economy thing in the US.  I saw last night on Sunday Night Football that NBC is really going hard on some green initiative, including having a green peacock.  GE (parent company of NBC) is a smart company and sees the writing on the wall.  It understands the new administration and Congress seem hell-bent on moving us to a more European model.  In that model, there are 10-20 corporations per country that insinuate themselves into government and get the opportunity to help run the country to their own benefit.  GE wants to be one of these chosen few.  The push is going on not just at NBC, but in light bulbs (betting on Congressional action to provide regulatory support for a new type of bulb they have invented) and in power systems (who are making large bets on wind that will not pay off without a government subsidy program).

In the near term, GE may need a bailout in its financial arm.  GE must have seen that GM made a huge public push for its Chevy Volt over the last 6 months, spending hundreds of million in advertising on a car that does not exist yet. Why would a company near bankrupcy do this?  We now know the advertising was aimed at Congress and the Administration, not consumers, trying to burnish their green image to give Democrats enough political cover to vote for the bailout their UAW supporters so desperately need  (any chapter 11 would likely result in enormous restructurings of union contracts).

Posted on November 17, 2008 at 08:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

So Just What Was the Omitted Intervention

In a post earlier today on the mortgage market meltdown, I wrote:

And that is what the argument usually boils down to - someone smart should have been watching them.  But lots of smart people were watching all the time.  You can see one such person featured in Lewis's article.  Guys run all over Wall Street looking every day for some single digit basis point spread they can make money off of.  But untold wealth was just sitting there for someone who was willing to call bullshit on the whole CDO/CDS pyramid game.  These guys playing this game were searching for people to bet against them. 

And despite this, despite untold wealth as an incentive, and companies looking for folks to take the other side of their transactions, only a handful saw the opportunity.  Thousands of people steeped in the industry with near-perfect incentives to identify these issues ... did not.  What, then, were our hopes of having some incremental government bureaucrats do so?  Usually, after this kind of crisis, there are lines of pundits and writers ready to suggest, with perfect hindsight, new regulations to avert the prior crisis.  But, tellingly, I have heard very few suggestions. 

So in this context, I found these comments by leftish Kevin Drum, certainly no knee-jerk advocate of free markets, quite interesting:

No argument on the greed and ideology front, but I'm curious: was there really anyone who made the right call on all this at a policy level? There were, of course, plenty of people who recognized the housing bubble for the idiocy that it was (Alan Greenspan notably not one of them), but were there any major voices making specific policy proposals to slow down the bubble? Or rein in the mortgage market? Or regulate the CDO/CDS market in a way that would have prevented some of the damage? I'm talking specifics here, not just general observations that the FIRE sector was out of control. Arguments about interest rates being too low count, if they were made for the right reason, but I'm interested mainly in more detailed recommendations.

I don't have any big point to make here. I'm genuinely curious. There were many moments in the past few years when perhaps something could have been done, but what? And who was proposing serious measures that would have helped? Any major Dems? Economic pundits? Wall Street mucky mucks? Who were the unsung heroes? Help me out here.

Posted on November 13, 2008 at 01:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (17)

A Last Case for Payday Loans

Well, we have upheld the ban on payday loans here in Arizona

The payday-loan industry, which flourished this past decade on Arizonans' almost-insatiable need for quick, short-term loans regardless of their high interest rates, may have to close down in Arizona unless state lawmakers can be persuaded to ignore voters' wishes.

Voters last week overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 200, a ballot initiative financed and written by the loan companies to allow them to continue charging high interest rates on small loans. That decision placed Arizona among a growing number of states that have effectively shut down the payday lenders.

So, payday loans from company A to person B are really popular with both A & B, and the industry has "flourished."  But persons C, who don't participate in this market, have decided that, for their own good, A & B need to stop engaging in this behavior.  One such third party explains it this way:

Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, opposed Prop. 200 and has steadfastly fought payday lenders. She sees no need to let payday lenders continue to charge higher interest rates than other lenders.

Her and voter's actions have effectively limited payday loan companies to charging total interest and fees equivalent to no more than 36% annual interest.  OK, you say, this seems like a really high rate.  That should be enough, right?  Well, the problem comes with fixed costs and loan size.  Lets look at an example.

A typical payday loan size and term is about $400 for 18 days (pdf).  A typical fee for such a loan is $50, which includes both fixed costs and interest.  Wow, annualized that is 250%.  Usurious!  So would you personally go out and get a payday loan?  No way! And that is why voters vote to ban them - they are not good for me personally, so they must not be good for anyone else.

But here is the problem.  How do you maintain a storefront and trained people and all the documentation and collection apparatus for less than $50?  The same loan at 36% would allow a fee of only $7.20.  That barely even covers paying someone to originate the loan at the counter, much less pay interest and a risk premium. 

Try going to the bank and getting a home loan or some other type of loan for only a $50 fee.  Granted those loans are more complicated, but in turn you will likely get charged hundred and probably thousands of dollars in fees.  There is a large fixed cost component to the act of lending which we tend to ignore on larger loans, but is there none-the-less.  In fact, just try to go to a bank and get a loan for $400 at all.  They don't make them, outside of the credit card industry, which solves this problem in part through economies of scale and in part through cost-shifting costs to merchants, options not really available to payday loan companies.

And so far, we are only talking about fixed costs, not the underwriting risk of extending loans to about any person who wanders in the door and can sign his/her name.  Anyone remember sub-prime mortgages?  Maybe there is a justification for large risk premiums, after all, on loans to under-qualified borrowers.  Particularly when you consider that most payday loan customers could not qualify even for a sub-prime mortgage.

The best equivalent to a payday loan offered by banks is overdraft protection, where the bank will go ahead and pay out on checks where there are insufficient funds, though they will charge a $20-$30 fee per check paid.  As you can see, these fees are very similar in magnitude to those charged by payday loan companies, particularly when you consider that these fees are generally charged on checks that average about $150.  Also, folks who get one overdraft fee usually get several in a row.  People are willing to pay these fees because they are in fact lower than the fees of actually having a check bounce, which can incur similar fees from merchants as well as hurting one's credit.

So, you just had to write three checks to get the power and water and telephone turned on, and you are pretty sure the money is not there in your checking account.  You are facing $80 in bounced-check (NSF) fees or overdraft fees.  Now might you consider a $400 loan for a $50 fee?  Well, probably the answer is still no, you would put it on your credit cards.  But everyone doesn't have credit cards, or doesn't qualify for them, or don't have a lifestyle that allows for them.  Where do they go, short of Tony Soprano?

Update:  A reader sent me a link to this report, comparing payday loan rates to overdraft protection, and finding them of similar magnitude.  The author calculates an average $28.61 overdraft fee on an average $155 bounced check yields an APR of 478%.  There is a fixed cost to lending, and small very short term loans cost a lot of money, no matter how you get them.

I will remind folks not to be fooled by 18% or 23% rates on credit cards and set that as the market rate for small loans.  First, this misses annual fees for the cards.  But more importantly, it misses merchant fees.  Merchants pay between 2.5% and 3.5% of everything you charge to the credit card companies.  This helps to subsidize rates and, particularly, subsidize the fixed costs of small lending transactions.

Posted on November 10, 2008 at 09:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (30)

Obama and the "Patriot Employer"

As mentioned in the updates to this earlier post, the Obama transition web site has, at least temporarily, purged out all the real content they had up about specific programs and legislative goals.  So, as a public service, I will help fill this information gap by re-posting an article I wrote about 9 months ago on the "Patriot Employer Act" sponsored by Barrack Obama and likely a kernel for early 2009 legislative action:

Posted 2/13/2008:  It turns out, according to Barrack Obama, (who hales from the party that doesn't believe in questioning anyone's patriotism) that I am not a "Patriot Employer."  This is from the text of Senate Bill S. 1945 of which he is a co-sponsor  (My snark is interspersed in italics):  Patriot Employers are to be given tax breaks over unpatriotic employers (I presume this means that their tax rates will be raised less in an Obama presidency than those of other folks) with "patriot employers" defined as such:

(b) Patriot Employer- For purposes of subsection (a), the term `Patriot employer' means, with respect to any taxable year, any taxpayer which--

        `(1) maintains its headquarters in the United States if the taxpayer has ever been headquartered in the United States,

      OK, I guess I can comply with this.  Though I am not sure the best way to begin an Obama "kindler gentler foreign policy" is to tell the nations of the world that we will be taxing their company's income in the US at a higher rate than our own companies.

        `(2) pays at least 60 percent of each employee's health care premiums,

      So the #1 determinant of patriotism is not commitment to individual rights but paying 60% of employee health care costs.  I guess I am so unpatriotic

      And, just from a practical standpoint, 90% of my employees are seasonal, hired for about 4 months of the year.  To be patriotic, I have to pay their health care costs all year long?  Also, since most of my employees are retired, they are on Medicare or an employee retirement medical plan.  If they pay $0 in premiums and I pay $0 of that, do I get credit for 60%?  Maybe the government can mandate a solution for zero divided by zero, like they did for the value of pi years ago

        `(3) has in effect, and operates in accordance with, a policy requiring neutrality in employee organizing drives,

      I presume neutrality means that in a hypothetical union drive, I do not express my opinion (and likely opposition) to said unionization drive?   I am told that this also entails allowing card checks rather than hidden ballot voting.  In other words, patriotism is being defined here as 1) giving up your free speech rights and 2) opposing hidden ballot voting.  Uh, right.  Besides, if a union organized our company, as unlikely as that would be, I would probably have to do a Francisco d'Anconia on the place.

        `(4) if such taxpayer employs at least 50 employees on average during the taxable year--

        `(A) maintains or increases the number of full-time workers in the United States relative to the number of full-time workers outside of the United States,

        In other words, we don't want American companies growing overseas.  This could also be called the "give up international market share act."  This implies that it is unpatriotic for US-based Exxon to explore for oil in Asia and that it is more patriotic to let the Chinese national oil company do it.  This implies that it is more patriotic for Coke to lose market share in Germany than to gain it.  This means that it is more patriotic for Mattel to buy its toys in China from Chinese companies rather than run the factories themselves (and thereby be accountable themselves for product quality and working conditions).

        This is beyond stupid.  We LIKE to see US companies doing well overseas.  If we have to import our raw materials, we feel more comfortable if it is US companies doing the extraction.  Don't we?  In the name of patriotism, do we really want to root for our domestic companies to fail in international markets?

        `(B) compensates each employee of the taxpayer at an hourly rate (or equivalent thereof) not less than an amount equal to the Federal poverty level for a family of three for the calendar year in which the taxable year begins divided by 2,080,

        90% of my workers are retired.  They work for me to supplement their income, to live our in nature, and to stay busy.  They need me to pay them based on the poverty line for a family of three, why?  I will tell you right now that if I had to raise wages this much, most of my employees would quit.  Many of them force me to give them fewer hours so they can stay under the social security limits for income.  I discussed what rising minimum wages often force me to do here, but just as an illustration, a $1 an hour across the board wage increase would easily wipe out all the money I make in a year and put me into a loss position.  In which case the lowered tax rate would not do me much good anyway.

          `(C) provides either--

            `(i) a defined contribution plan which for any plan year--

            `(I) requires the employer to make nonelective contributions of at least 5 percent of compensation for each employee who is not a highly compensated employee, or

            `(II) requires the employer to make matching contributions of 100 percent of the elective contributions of each employee who is not a highly compensated employee to the extent such contributions do not exceed the percentage specified by the plan (not less than 5 percent) of the employee's compensation, or

          `(ii) a defined benefit plan which for any plan year requires the employer to make contributions on behalf of each employee who is not a highly compensated employee in an amount which will provide an accrued benefit under the plan for the plan year which is not less than 5 percent of the employee's compensation, and

          Uh, I am not sure why it is unpatriotic for an employee to save for themselves, but I think 401k plans are a nice benefit.  I would certainly offer one except for one tiny fact - ALL MY EMPLOYEES ARE ALREADY RETIRED!!  They are over 65.  They are drawing down on their retirement, not contributing to it.

          This is at the heart of the problem with all US labor law.  Folks up in Illinois write laws with a picture of a steel mill in mind, and forget that employment and employees have infinite variations in circumstances and goals. 

          So I am unpatriotic, huh.  But if forcing companies to contribute to emplee retirement plans is patriotic, why is hiring folks once they are retired to give them extra income in retirement unpatriotic?  In fact, maybe I could argue that 100% of the wages I pay go to retirement spending

        `(D) provides full differential salary and insurance benefits for all National Guard and Reserve employees who are called for active duty, and

          In other words, we of the government are not going to pay our employees (ie reservists on active duty) what they are worth and are not going to give them benefits, so to be patriotic you need to do it for us.  We in Congress are not really very patriotic and don't support the troops, so you need to do it for us.

          All kidding aside, I would do this in my company if it was applicable, but I really resent being piously told to do so by several Senators who don't really model this behavior themselves.

        `(5) if such taxpayer employs less than 50 employees on average during the taxable year, either--...

blah, blah.  Basically the same stuff repeated, though slightly less onerous.

Since when did patriotism equate to "rolling over to the latest AFL-CIO wish list?"

Posted on November 9, 2008 at 09:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Students Make $100 Financial Mistake: Very Alarming!

This story comes from the Arizona Republic as part of the general effort to maintain the ban on payday loan companies passed earlier this year (their is a proposition on the ballot in November to overturn the ban).

At least 5 percent of last year's freshmen at the University of Arizona obtained a payday loan, a figure the surveyor described as "very alarming."

Arizona's Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences conducted the survey, which measured the financial habits of 2,172 freshmen - about a third of the class - who enrolled in fall 2007.

Student use of payday loans more than doubled based on a survey taken a year ago that included freshmen through seniors, said professor Soyeon Shim, the group's director.

"As consumers, students shouldn't be using payday loans as a resort to deal with financial stress," Shim said.

I wouldn't really recommend that students use this expensive form of ready cash, but I can't say I am particularly alarmed.  How can any of us know what pressures they are under.  In most circumstances, paying a 30% interest rate seems too high.  But I know, from personal experience, there are times when short term liquidity is so valuable you might pay anything for it  (just look - the American taxpayers are paying about a trillion dollars this year just for short-term liquidity).

In fact, if students have a bad experience, it's probably better to learn a $100 life lesson in college rather than a $500,000 life lesson later flipping condos on interest-only loans.  I personally had my own caveat emptor eye-opener with Columbia House Records in college.  Nothing like getting stuck with a couple of over-priced America albums to teach financial horse sense.  Muskrat Love... aaaarrrggghhh!

Anyway, the effort to ban payday loans altogether is one of those elitist, snobby, holier-than-thou, we're smarter than you unwashed masses issues.  Middle class homeowners who are upside down in their mortgages are not calling for inexpensive mortgages to be banned, they just want a government bailout.  The government may spend a trillion dollars in the end supporting the mortgage market.  But if poor people pay a high fee for a $100 loan, we have to ban the whole industry. 

The fact is that there is always a demand for ready cash at high interest rates, and if you drive it under ground, people just go to Tony Soprano instead. 

Oh, but you are not for banning payday loans, you just think the interest rates are too high, and that what is needed is government regulation of the rates?  Uh, OK, I'm sure that will go well.  Past government efforts to reduce the interest rate premium for risk have worked out really well *cough* mortgages *cough*. 

But, if you are still thinking that you are much smarter in money management than people who go to payday loan stores and you really want to use the coercive power of government to force poor people to make the same decisions you would, here's this:

However, for those who think they are ever so much smarter than payday loan customers, who are charged a lot of money for small liquidity boosts, consider this:  Let's say you take out $40 each week from an ATM to keep you liquid and that the ATM fee is $1.50.  You are therefore spending $1.50 or 3.75% for a one week liquidity boost of $40, which you must again refresh next week.  Annualized, you are effectively paying 195% to get liquid with your own money.  For this kind of vig, at least payday loan customers are getting the use of someone else's money.

Posted on October 22, 2008 at 09:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

We've Apparently Run Out of Stuff to Be Worried About

The lesson I take from the numerous efforts to regulate/ban/demonize bottled water is that we have officially run out of real stuff to be worried about.  Seriously, when bottled water is the health and environmental risk of the decade, it is time to declare victory over Mother Nature.  More here.

Posted on October 16, 2008 at 06:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Government and Regulation

One argument about regulation that seems to be gaining traction through the recent financial crisis is "See, private action and enterprise is not infallible.  They can make mistakes that have costs for everyone.  Therefore they need to be regulated." 

I don't have time for the full refutation of this, but a few thoughts:

  • No one ever said that private actors in the economy are infallible or even universally honest.  However, no one has ever been able to make the case that government employees are any more infallible or honest. 
  • There are a couple of reasons government regulators are going to be demonstrably worse than the marketplace in making decisions.  The first is information -- a few actors in Washington can never have the same access to information as thousands of actors across the country or around the world.  The second is incentives -- while regulatory hawks cite private greed as a bad incentive in the marketplace, bureaucratic incentives can be at least as problematic.
  • Governments are subject to all sorts of rent-seeking initiatives, not to mention regulatory capture, that undermine regulatory effectiveness.  Just look at the bailout bill. Wooden arrows?

For some reason, the argument "private actors screwed up" seems sufficient justification for regulation.  The burden of proof should instead be "the government could have done better."

Here is a nice example of how regulation really works, from an interview with Warren Buffett:

QUICK: If you imagine where things will go with Fannie and Freddie, and you think about the regulators, where were the regulators for what was happening, and can something like this be prevented from happening again?

Mr. BUFFETT: Well, it's really an incredible case study in regulation
because something called OFHEO was set up in 1992 by Congress, and the sole job of OFHEO was to watch over Fannie and Freddie, someone to watch over them. And they were there to evaluate the soundness and the accounting and all of that. Two companies were all they had to regulate. OFHEO has over 200 employees now. They have a budget now that's $65 million a year, and all they have to do is look at two companies. I mean, you know, I look at more than two companies.

QUICK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BUFFETT: And they sat there, made reports to the Congress, you can get them on the Internet, every year. And, in fact, they reported to Sarbanes and Oxley every year. And they went--wrote 100 page reports, and they said, 'We've looked at these people and their standards are fine and their directors are fine and everything was fine.' And then all of a sudden you had two of the greatest accounting misstatements in history. You had all kinds of management malfeasance, and it all came out. And, of course, the classic thing was that after it all came out, OFHEO wrote a 350--340 page report examining what went wrong, and they blamed the management, they blamed the directors, they blamed the audit committee. They didn't have a word in there about themselves, and they're the ones that 200 people were going to work every day with just two companies to think about. It just shows the problems of regulation.

The problem, of course, is that Fannie and Freddie were doing exactly what Congress wanted them to do -- systematically lowering mortgage underwriting standards.  They won't put it that way now, but that is  what spreading home ownership to lower income families really amounted to.

Posted on October 7, 2008 at 10:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Critique of the Bailout, From A Banker

From John Allison, CEO of BB&T  (via TJIC).  Here is a taste:

Allison

Download bailout_critique.pdf

 

Posted on September 26, 2008 at 08:34 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Best Take Yet on the Bailout

Via Scrappleface:

The foundation of the U.S. economy could crumble, President George Bush said today, if Congress fails to approve a U.S. Treasury plan to take over foundering financial firms, a proposal which the president called “a much-needed 21st-century civil rights act for stupid people.”

“To sustain this shining city on a hill,” Mr. Bush said, “we need to rescue the ignorant, irresponsible folks — from Wall Street to Capitol Hill to Main Street — who got us to where we are today. We must guarantee that no American suffers the soft bigotry of being forced to live with the consequences of his bad decisions.”

The president, in remarks to the news media clearly aimed at reluctant Republicans in Congress, said, “Our financial system rests on a foundation of huge banks, brokerage houses and quasi-governmental agencies that followed Washington’s lead by gambling on long-shot, poorly-collateralized investments. Now this glorious way of life is threatened, and we must act to preserve it.”

“We need to guarantee that the structures, systems, people and products that got us to this point won’t be tossed on the ash heap of history,” said Mr. Bush. “If these giant companies fail, then America will be left with nothing but thousands of small to mid-sized financial firms that made prudent investment decisions during the past 15 years.”

Posted on September 25, 2008 at 08:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

I'm Sure This Is Not In Any Way Relevant To Recent Events

Via Carpe Diem, comes this September 30, 1999 NY Times story:

In a move that could help increase home ownership rates among minorities and low-income consumers, the Fannie Mae Corporation is easing the credit requirements on loans that it will purchase from banks and other lenders.

The action, which will begin as a pilot program involving 24 banks in 15 markets -- including the New York metropolitan region -- will encourage those banks to extend home mortgages to individuals whose credit is generally not good enough to qualify for conventional loans. Fannie Mae officials say they hope to make it a nationwide program by next spring.

Fannie Mae, the nation's biggest underwriter of home mortgages, has been under increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage loans among low and moderate income people and felt pressure from stock holders to maintain its phenomenal growth in profits.

In addition, banks, thrift institutions and mortgage companies have been pressing Fannie Mae to help them make more loans to so-called subprime borrowers. These borrowers whose incomes, credit ratings and savings are not good enough to qualify for conventional loans, can only get loans from finance companies that charge much higher interest rates -- anywhere from three to four percentage points higher than conventional loans.

''Fannie Mae has expanded home ownership for millions of families in the 1990's by reducing down payment requirements,'' said Franklin D. Raines, Fannie Mae's chairman and chief executive officer. ''Yet there remain too many borrowers whose credit is just a notch below what our underwriting has required who have been relegated to paying significantly higher mortgage rates in the so-called subprime market.''

Demographic information on these borrowers is sketchy. But at least one study indicates that 18 percent of the loans in the subprime market went to black borrowers, compared to 5 per cent of loans in the conventional loan market.

In moving, even tentatively, into this new area of lending, Fannie Mae is taking on significantly more risk, which may not pose any difficulties during flush economic times. But the government-subsidized corporation may run into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980's.

''From the perspective of many people, including me, this is another thrift industry growing up around us,'' said Peter Wallison a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. ''If they fail, the government will have to step up and bail them out the way it stepped up and bailed out the thrift industry.''

Those heartless free marketing guys at the AEI -- always predicting doom every time we open our hearts to poor people.  Bailout?  What ridiculous scare-mongering.

Posted on September 23, 2008 at 10:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Cargo Cult Regulation

Someone noticed that just before certain stocks crash in value, there is a lot of short-selling.  So the US government has banned short-selling, at least temporarily.  Classic cargo-cult logic. 

Boy this sure makes perfect sense in a time when we are concerned about speculative bubbles -- let's ban one of the most important tools that exist for bubbles to be shortened and made less, uh, bubbly.  Here is why (very briefly and non-technically) short-selling takes the edge off speculative excesses.

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

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

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

Update:  From Don Boudreaux:

To ban short-selling of stocks is to short-circuit an important mechanism through which people share their knowledge and expectations with others.  Banning a mechanism that better allows share prices to reflect the expectation that the underlying assets are not worth as much as current market prices suggest does nothing to change the underlying reality.  Such a ban merely distorts knowledge of this reality

Posted on September 19, 2008 at 08:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thoughts on the Lehman Bankrupcy

While I am not happy to see a historic company go bankrupt, and have vague but unspecific worries about some kind of general cascading financial problem, I am happy to see the government let Lehman go bankrupt without any sort of special intervention or bailout for a number of reasons:

  • Bailouts create awful incentives for other large companies managing their risk portfolios
  • I know many small business people who have gone bankrupt, and I once lost my job in a company bankruptcy.  There is no reason Lehman equity holders and managers should be immune from the same process just because their company is large and old. 
  • Lehman's management has failed to get a positive return from the assets in their care.  A bailout only keeps these assets under the same management.  A bankruptcy puts these assets in the hands of new parties who hopefully can do a better job with them. 
  • I strongly suspect that the hole in Lehman's balance sheet from underwater assets like certain mortgages is large compared to its equity but small compared to its total assets.  If this is true, equity holders will end up with nothing, but most creditors should come out close to whole when everything is unwound.

Like Megan McArdle, I found Obama's recent reaction to the Lehman bankruptcy to be wrong-headed but unsurprising.  Obama is blaming recent financial problems on an overly laissez faire approach by GWB in general (LOL,that's funny) and a lack of strong enforcement by the SEC in particular. 

But one has to ask, what laws were not enforced?  My sense is that these are all perfectly lawful portfolios of mortgages in which the one mistake was systematically being too generous in giving out credit.  Mr. Obama's party has always been a strong advocate of pushing banks to be more generous with credit, particularly to the poor, and of promoting home ownership as a national goal.  If anything, financial institutions are struggling because they were too aggressive in these goals.  McArdle writes:

This was not some criminal activity that the Bush administration should have been investigating more thoroughly; it was a thorough, massive, systemic mispricing of the risk attendant on lending to people with bad credit. (These are, mind you, the same people that five years ago the Democrats wanted to help enjoy the many booms of homeownership.) Lehman, Bear, Merrill and so forth did not sneakily lend these people money in the hope of putting one over on the American taxpayer while ruining their shareholders and getting the senior executives fired.  They got it wrong.  Badly wrong.  So did everyone else.

It appears from further Obama statements talking about lack of enforcement for predatory lending laws that the Democrats want to get back on the rollercoaster of whipsawing banks between charges of redlining (you are not lending enough to the poor) and predatory lending (you are lending too much to the poor).

Postscript:  While in retrospect there may turn out to have been laws broken, in situations like this, particularly when a management team is trying to head off a liquidity crisis, these tend to be of the reporting and disclosure ilk.  We saw back during the Enron failure that people tend to assume law-breaking of some sort to be the cause of a major bankrupcy or collapse, and to satisfy this notion the government aggresively pursued Enron executives.  But nothing for which Enron was prosecuted had anything to do with their failure -- all the violations were about disclosure and accounting methodologies.  The company would have still crashed, probably faster, without these violations.

Update:  More here

Posted on September 16, 2008 at 08:37 AM | Permalink | Comments (37)

Open For 19th Century Business

From the grasping at straws file, Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm has been talking for a while about remaking Michigan as an alternative energy powerhouse.  Henry Payne reports on her breakfast talk yesterday morning at the DNC Convention:

At a breakfast talk, Michigan’s deeply unpopular governor Jennifer Granholm explained that she was chosen to moderate Tuesday night’s energy panel from the convention stage because of the Wolverine State’s efforts in renewable power. The idea that windmills will rescue one of America’s great manufacturing states is absurd on its face, but she persisted in spinning a fairy tale that Michigan is perfectly positioned to take advantage of alternative energy manufacturing because of the “Five Ws” (I’m not making this up) in abundance in the state: “Wind, water, waste, workforce and wood.”

That's terrific - they have all the key inputs needed for setting up an early 19th century business.  What is left unsaid is that Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the country, driven by fussy and high cost unions and a crushing taxation and regulatory burden.  The only message I take from the governor's talk is that if one is not in an alternative energy business, it's time to get out of Michigan, as the majority of businesses are about to face higher power costs and more taxes to support the governor's preferred industrial investment.  Which, come to think of it, is a message most businesses have already internalized about Michigan, seeing as the population of its largest city has dropped by more than 50% over the last several decades.

It is highly entertaining to see people who have never even worked in, much less have run, a real business (including Obama, Clinton, and about everyone else on the DNC rostrum) express the hubris that only they know what the right industrial investment plan for the US is and that only they know how to build a major new industry.  In particular, we saw last night the repetition of Obama's ridiculous made-up 5 million jobs number that I critiqued in depth several days ago.

Disclosure:  I actually run a few campgrounds in the UP of Michigan, but since sleeping in tents seems to fit the governor's industrial policy, I'll probably be OK.

Posted on August 27, 2008 at 08:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Licensing is Anti-Consumer

Whatever its stated purposes, in reality most professional licensing efforts are mostly aimed at using the power of government to limit new entrants, and thus new competitors, from a certain business:

In Alabama it is illegal to recommend shades of paint without a license.  In Nevada it is illegal to move any large piece of furniture for purposes of design without a license.  In fact, hundreds of people have been prosecuted in Alabama and Nevada for practicing "interior design" without a license.  Getting a license is no easy task, typically requiring at least 4 years of education and 2 years of apprenticeship. Why do we need licenses laws for interior designers? According to the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) because,

Every decision an interior designer makes in one way or another affects the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

This hardly passes the laugh test.  Moreover as Carpenter and Ross point out in an excellent article in Regulation from which I have drawn:

In more than 30 years of advocating for regulation, the ASID and its ilk have yet to identify a single documented incident resulting in harm to anyone from the unlicensed practice of interior design...These laws simply have nothing to do with protecting the public.

As always on this topic, I end with a quote from Milton Friedman on licensing:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

Update:  This is timely, as 1-800-CONTACTS has informed me that due to various state and federal laws, they may not sell me the contact lenses any more that I have been purchasing from them for a year.  I must go into an office and pay a government-licensed eye doctor to get an updated prescription.  This is despite the fact that, once sized, contact lens strengths are easy to understand.  Every year or so my eyes go up by about 0.5.  I could easily get by still with my old contacts, or I could, if I wanted, self-medicate by adding 0.5 (the minimum step at my level of vision) to each eye and testing to see if this new setting was any better.  This is exactly how people buy reading glasses (or pants, or shoes), by simple trial and error in the store.  But I can't do this with my contact lenses -- or actually I do exactly this, but can only do it in a doctor's office, paying the government mandated annual toll to get my prescription updated.

Yes, I know, there are all kinds of fabulous reasons to go to the eye doctor each year, to test for glaucoma and other stuff.  But why shouldn't that be my choice?  The government doesn't force people with good vision to go to the eye doctor for such tests each year, only those of us with bad vision.  The only analogy I can come up with would be having to go to your physician each year to get your shoe size validated before you could buy shoes for the coming year.  After all, I am sure there are substantial health and safety issues with wearing poorly-fitted shoes.

Posted on August 17, 2008 at 10:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

Democracy and Unions

George McGovern has an editorial in the WSJ urging the Democratic party to abandon the idea of stripping secret balloting from union organizing elections:

The key provision of EFCA is a change in the mechanism by which unions are formed and recognized. Instead of a private election with a secret ballot overseen by an impartial federal board, union organizers would simply need to gather signatures from more than 50% of the employees in a workplace or bargaining unit, a system known as "card-check." There are many documented cases where workers have been pressured, harassed, tricked and intimidated into signing cards that have led to mandatory payment of dues.

Under EFCA, workers could lose the freedom to express their will in private, the right to make a decision without anyone peering over their shoulder, free from fear of reprisal.

There's no question that unions have done much good for this country. Their tenacious efforts have benefited millions of workers and helped build a strong middle class. They gave workers a new voice and pushed for laws that protect individuals from unfair treatment. They have been a friend to the Democratic Party, and so I oppose this legislation respectfully and with care.

To my friends supporting EFCA I say this: We cannot be a party that strips working Americans of the right to a secret-ballot election. We are the party that has always defended the rights of the working class. To fail to ensure the right to vote free of intimidation and coercion from all sides would be a betrayal of what we have always championed.

I have always been a bit torn on this issue.  I don't in general think the government needs to get involved in how private organizations do their business.  However, by force of law, unions are not a normal private organization. They have special rights, including ones that mimic taxation, other groups do not have:

Unfortunately, we don't live in a free society, and the term "union" comes with a lot of legal baggage.  Recognized unions are granted certain legal powers and rights that an average group of self-organized folks don't.  For example, they are the only private organizations in this country that I know of that have taxation power, and the power to demand absolutely that certain monies be withheld from employee paychecks (even of employees not in the union) and given to them. Perhaps more importantly, companies can't ignore them - they have to negotiate with a recognized union.  Unions also have informal powers.  For example, the legal system tends to tolerate a lot of violence and physical intimidation by union members (in strikes and such) that it does not tolerate in other contexts  (seventy-five years ago, the situation was reversed and the system tolerated a lot of company violence against workers).

Posted on August 8, 2008 at 05:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Politicians are freaking Schizophrenic

I remember it was not that long ago that the main issues for many urban politicians vis a vis the poorer parts of their city were

  • to encourage more and free-er mortgage lending
  • to encourage more retail businesses that would, through competition, help eliminate the retail price premium charged in many poorer areas

When I say I remember back to these things, I am not talking about 2 generations ago, for God sakes, I am talking about the 1990's.  Just one presidency ago.

Now, politicians are looking to punish bankers who provided easy mortgages for poorer borrowers, and are seeking to shut down payday loan companies, the last resort for ready cash before once goes to Tony Soprano.  Now, the LA city council wants to ban certain new retail establishments in South LA merely because they are too low cost and easy to use.

Posted on July 22, 2008 at 09:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Regulation and Incumbents

One of the most prevelent misconceptions about the political economy is the assumption that business universally opposes government licensing and regulation.  Often this misconception manifests itself as someone making a statement like, "Even [name of large competitor in the industry to be regulated] supports the proposed regulation so what are you libertarians complaining about."

In fact, regulation tends to protect incumbents at the expense of new entrants or new business models.  Large competitors can pass on the costs of regulation to customers, but new entrants have substantial investments to make just to build the systems and knowledge for compliance.  Perhaps worse, regulation like licensing tends to lock in current business models, by making current business practices part and parcel of becoming licensed.

For these reasons, I am excited by the book In Restraint of Trade by Butler Shaffer:

This extremely important study by Butler Shaffer--professor of law and economist--will change the way you think of the relationship between the state and business. It makes a deep inquiry into the attitudes of business leaders toward competition during the years 1918 through 1938 to see how those attitudes were translated into proposals for controlling competition, through political machinery under the direction of trade associations.

What he finds is a business sector not only hostile to free markets but aggressively in favor of restrictions that would protect their interests. This, he finds, is the very source of the origins and development of the regulatory state.

The author chooses this period because it was a time when the entire relationship between American business and the federal government underwent dramatic upheaval. It was in this time that business forged a consensus about the scope and intensity of competition behavior that they would tolerate. This began to exhibit a disposition favoring collectivist authority over one another via government-backed enforcement agencies.

Free and unrestrained competition required more of them than they were willing to tolerate. It required constant innovation, a fight against falling prices, a continued effort to seek out new markets, and the willingness to subject their bottom line to consumer preferences for lower prices and better products. They saw the vibrancy of free enterprise as a threat to their firms and well being, so they used anti-business sentiment in politics to hamper the market in ways that would benefit them....

If you ever thought that the struggle for free enterprise was about business versus government, this study, which is written in exciting prose and beautiful English, will change the way you understand the essential struggle. The evidence is vast that big business cooperated closely with big government in building the essential architecture of the mixed economy.

Posted on July 10, 2008 at 09:27 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

This is Just So Short-Sighted

OK, here is the story to date:  Paradise Valley is a small, very wealthy town within the boundaries of Phoenix.  There is no commercial development allowed in the town except for a series of golf resorts, of which there are a number.  The town had one last large tract of unbuilt land, owned by the Wrigley heirs, I believe, that has for years been zoned for a resort.  There was an auction several years ago in which the land was sold for some figure north of $70 million to a group who wants to build a Ritz-Carlton resort, a hotel chain notorious for bringing riff-raff into communities ;=).  The Ritz group unanimously obtained all the town council and planning board approvals it needed to build.

Except now a ballot initiative will be voted on by the town residents in November as to whether to allow them to build a resort on their own land that is zoned for a resort (my previous report, complete with Zillow maps).  This action is consistent with the absolute resistence that every resident's attempt to do a major remodel of their house encounters from various community groups and zoning bodies.

One lesson, of course, is that local participative democracy can be just as much a threat to individual rights as the worst dictatorship  (though this is not a new lesson -- it was in fact learned in Athens when it was first tried).  But a second lesson is just how short-sighted this is.  I am sure residents convince themselves in each such individual effort that they are somehow protecting their property values.  But in sum, the effect of multiple such efforts is to make people reluctant to invest in property in the town, fearful that some citizens group or zoning body will take control of what they can do with their land. 

I live about 4 houses away from the Town of Paradise Valley in the city of Phoenix, though most of my neighbors and even the US Postal Service think I live in PV.  It used to be, about 10 years ago when I moved in, that living outside the PV boundary was considered a negative.  There was a big enormous value gradient between the nearest PV home and mine, based as much on snob appeal of the address as anything else.  Now, however, the gradient is reversing (hurray for my home equity!)  Real estate agents in my neighborhood who used to hide the fact that the homes are not actually in tony PV (shame on them) now use it as a selling point.  My remodel contractor breathed an enormous sigh of relief when he found out that I was, in fact, not in the town of PV.

Help me out, readers.  I seem to remember there was a name for an economic game where the profit maximizing strategy when playing once was different than if one were playing multiple times in sequence.

PS - If you are confused why a town would consider a Ritz to be bringing down the neighborhood, see here, complete with Zillow maps where not a single surrounding home is going for less than $1.8 million. 

Posted on July 1, 2008 at 05:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (12)

Spitzer's Legacy

I guess it turns out that compensation deals between sophisticated, consenting adults at private firms are not actually subject to approval by the NY attorney general, no matter how much he grandstands:

A state appeals court on Tuesday dealt a devastating blow to the New York attorney general's efforts to force ex-New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso to return a portion of his $187.5 million compensation package.

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's spokesman issued a statement saying he is not pursuing an appeal in the case. The Grasso case is "over" … "for all intents and purposes," the spokesman said.

In a 3-1 decision, the New York Supreme Court's Appellate Division dismissed the two remaining causes of actions against Mr. Grasso and one against former NYSE director Ken Langone

I wrote much more about this fiasco long ago...

Update:  The AG argues that their real concern was about pay practice in non-profits.  OK, I am sure there are any number of NGOs and museum presidents where there might be real issues with the sophistication of board members.  Go after those folks, then, but there was never, ever any evidence that somehow Dick Grasso pulled the wool over the eyes of financial neophytes on the NYSE Board, babes in the woods such as the CEOs of JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.  Unfortunately, all these other non-profits tend to be run by folks who are the backbone of the NY Democratic Party.  Even in the Grasso suit, Spitzer had to work a bit to avoid naming prominent Democrats as targets.  For example, there is a lot of evidence that the person most responsible on the NYSE baord for the structure of Dick Grasso's compensation contract was NYSE board member and former NY State Comptroller Carl McCall, but since he is a powerful Democrat, Spitzer did some slick judo to avoid including him in the suit, which still including other NYSE board members.

Posted on July 1, 2008 at 03:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Vote Yourself A Higher-Cost New Home

Arizona voters will have a chance to raise the price of a new home and reduce the choice they have in the marketplace with an initiative on the ballot this November:

The proposed measure, which requires more than 153,000 certified signatures to qualify for the statewide ballot, includes a 10-year warranty on new homes and gives homeowners the right to choose which contractors with a decade-long, complaint-free record do repair work.

Having shopped from time to time for a new home, I can say that such homes with extended warranties from quality companies do exist in the marketplace - some builders offer this kind of warranty, and some do not.  All this bill is doing is reducing choice.  It is requiring that consumers no longer be offered the choice of a new home without a 10-year warranty, and will require that all homes carry this more expensive option.  I am sure that what people voting for this bill will hope for is that they will be getting today's less expensive house but with a 10-year warranty added, but that is not the way it works.

Second, this will virtually eliminates the small independent builder.  Though they do not produce a large percentage of the total homes, small builders, often individual investors with a single property, are still an important part of the market.  You might say, surely this is just an unintended consequence!  Well, what if I told you the AFL-CIO, the largest organizer of construction workers in large home builders, is the #1 financial supporter of this bill?  That information might change this from an unintended consequence to the #1 rationale behind the bill.

Finally, one can easily argue that the law is forcing people to pay for something that may well have no value.  Individuals trying to game the system can easily start a company, build some houses, pay off owners, fold up the tent, and move on to a new entity.  Consumers are left with a 10-year warranty from a company that no longer exists.  Which is how the roofing game is played by the bottom-fishers in that industry.  Which means customers have to shop around for well-established companies with long track records and good products, which, if they did so, would obviate the need for the bill in the first place.

Provisions give homeowners the ability to sue without the threat of being responsible for a builder's attorney and expert fees and require builders to disclose their relationships with financial institutions.

Just what we need - another industry where the plaintiffs have zero cost to launch any frivolous suit they want.

Yet another would require that model homes reflect the types of properties that are for sale.

I have no idea what this means.  Are there really buyers who are dumb enough to walk through a model, say this is the house they want, and then blandly accept a home that is totally different?

What I perhaps found funniest about the article was this bit of political positioning:

The campaign, called the Arizona Homeowners Bill of Rights Committee, formed in the midst of this year's housing-mortgage meltdown. And the committee has attempted to draw links between financing and construction troubles.

"These same companies that build shoddily also were involved in the housing-mortgage crisis. They were on both sides of this equation. They were financing homes above people's means and selling homes that were defective," said Richard McCracken, an attorney for the measure's sponsor, the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association, Local Union 359.

This is kind of a hilarious stretch - talk about guilt by association.  Of course, the bill has nothing to day about mortgages, but since homebuilders were associated with those bad mortgage guys, we should feel free to do anything we want to them.

Posted on July 1, 2008 at 08:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Economic Morons in Europe, but is Congress Much Better?

Via Tim Worstall, Gawain Towler reports this bill in front of the European Supreme Soviet Parliament:

Written declaration on fixing fuel prices
The European Parliament,– having regard to Rule 116 of its Rules of Procedure,
A. Whereas we are witnessing an unprecedented rise in fuel prices, and this scandalous surge is having a devastating effect on economic activity in various sectors: transport and other services, industry, agriculture and fisheries,
B. Whereas in Portugal, the major oil companies in the first quarter of this year, vis-à-vis the first quarter of 2007, made net profits of 22.9% (GALP), and consolidated profits of 36.5% (REPSOL) and 63.4% (BP), which were fundamentally the result of practising speculative pricing, as a result of the speculative valuation of oil stocks
bought at lower prices,

1. Calls for the establishment of a tax, for each Member State, to be levied exclusively on these profits so as to bring them back into the coffers of the Member State. This tax should be paid within 60 days after the end of each quarter, with the value and scope of the levy depending on the readiness of the oil companies to reduce their speculative gains thanks to the 'stock effect';
2. The revenue generated by this tax should be returned on a proportional basis to the various economic sectors in each Member State;
3. Instructs its President to forward this declaration, together with the names of the signatories, to the Council, Commission, and Parliaments of the Member States.

"depending on the readiness of oil companies to reduce their speculative gains thanks to the 'stock effect'"??  What the *&#$@% does this mean?  What economic concept are they even trying to get at?

Further, I was amazed at the statement that BP made net profits of 63.4%.  It took me a while to figure out that this was the quarter over quarter profit growth, not the profit margin.  I can't tell if these guys are just ignorant or if this is a translation issue into English, so i will give them the benefit of the doubt.  In case you are wondering, BP's net profit margin in the first quarter of 2008 was 8.3% of revenues, which in the grand scheme of industry is actually below average.

One reason fuel prices are so high in Europe is because the government takes more than half of fuel revenues in taxes:

Fuel taxes are also the central issue for truckers in Europe, because they account for a large portion of the retail price of fuel. Unleadedgasoline sold for $8.65 per gallon and diesel for $9.62 per gallon Tuesday in Britain, which charges a flat $3.77 per gallon in fuel duty and imposes a 17.5 percent consumptiontax on the total price

So, 61% (44% from the $3.77 plus the 17.5%) goes to government and 8.3% goes to the BP shareholders.  So lets tax BP shareholders more to lower the price!

Posted on June 25, 2008 at 03:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (30)

My Addiction to Health and Prosperity

Kevin Drum titles a post on providing government incentives for high MPG cars "Ending the Addiction,"  by which I presume he means addiction to gasoline.   I really struggle with the point of view on life that describes consumer affinity for enormously value-producing technologies to be an "addiction."  One could equally well refer to our preference for good health or prosperity to be an "addiction," particularly when fossil fuels have played such a central role in fueling the industrial revolution and the prosperity which it has brought.  With the current jump in oil prices tied so closely to growing wealth in China, never has the tie between fossil fuel use and prosperity been more obvious.

Drum advocates for what he calls a "progressive" proposal:

For cars, the most effective thing would be a "feebate": In the showroom, less-efficient models would have a corresponding fee, while the more-efficient ones would get a rebate paid for by the fees. That way when choosing what model you want you would pay attention to fuel savings over its whole life, not just the first year or two. It turns out that the automakers can actually make more money this way because they will want to get their cars from the fee zone into the rebate zone by putting in more technology. The technology has a higher profit margin than the rest of the vehicle.

I will say that this is probably less bad than other "progressive" proposals I have heard, but the logic here is based on consumer ineptness.  Higher gas prices, which drive higher lifecycle costs, are presumably providing exactly this incentive without any government program.  The problem, it seems, is that progressives don't think very much of the common people they wish to defend.  Just as the justification for Social Security is that the average person can't be trusted to make good decisions about their retirement savings so we elites will do it for them, this seems to be the logic here, but even more patronizing.   Here is the best bit which really demonstrates the point I am making:

Here's a further suggestion: require stickers to list the estimated cost of fuel consumption over a five year period.

Basically this calculation is total estimated miles per year divided by mpg times estimated gas prices times five. A simple piece of math with four numbers that can be completed on a calculator in 10 seconds or by hand in less than 30 seconds.  Mr. Drum, a big supporter of our current monopoly government school system, apparently does not think that people educated in this system can do this math for themselves.  Could it be clearer that "progressivism" is really about disdain for the common man and a belief that elites should make even the smallest decisions for them?

Posted on June 10, 2008 at 09:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (18)

The Oil Prices We Deserve

A good column on gas prices by George Will.

Can a senator, with so many things on his mind, know so precisely how the price of gasoline would respond to that increase in the oil supply? Schumer does know that if you increase the supply of something, the price of it probably will fall. That is why he and 96 other senators recently voted to increase the supply of oil on the market by stopping the flow of oil into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which protects against major physical interruptions. Seventy-one of the 97 senators who voted to stop filling the reserve also oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

One million barrels is what might today be flowing from ANWR if in 1995 President Bill Clinton had not vetoed legislation to permit drilling there. One million barrels produce 27 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel. Seventy-two of today's senators -- including Schumer, of course, and 38 other Democrats, including Barack Obama, and 33 Republicans, including John McCain -- have voted to keep ANWR's estimated 10.4 billion barrels of oil off the market.

Posted on June 9, 2008 at 06:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Turning America into Europe

The Europeans have crafted a regulatory environment in their labor market that grants all kinds of protections and gauranteed benefits at the expense of new or unskilled workers trying to join the workforce.  We are doing the same thing:

This year, it's harder than ever for teens to find a summer job. Researchers at Northeastern University described summer 2007 as "the worst in post-World War II history" for teen summer employment, and those same researchers say that 2008 is poised to be "even worse."

According to their data, only about one-third of Americans 16 to 19 years old will have a job this summer, and vulnerable low-income and minority teens are going to fare even worse.

The percentage of teens classified as "unemployed"—those who are actively seeking a job but can't get one—is more than three times higher than the national unemployment rate, according to the most recent Department of Labor statistics.

One of the prime reasons for this drastic employment drought is the mandated wage hikes that policymakers have forced down the throats of local businesses. Economic research has shown time and again that increasing the minimum wage destroys jobs for low-skilled workers while doing little to address poverty.

According to economist David Neumark of the University of California at Irvine, for every 10 percent increase in the minimum wage, employment for high school dropouts and young black adults and teenagers falls by 8.5 percent. In the past 11 months alone, the United States' minimum wage has increased by more than twice that amount.

Posted on June 9, 2008 at 06:43 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Restricting Credit to the Unsophisticated -- And Are You Really Any Better?

After years of arguing that expanded credit is critical for the poor, and attacking banks for "red-lining" poor and minority districts, the liberal-left of this country has reversed directions, and has decided that the poor can't handle credit.

No matter how much folks want to paint the recent mortgage problem as some sort of fraud perptrated on homeowners, the fact of the matter is that in large part, lenders lowered their income standards and a lot of those folks now can't pay.  While we have yet to see any specific legislation beyond bailouts, it is impossible for me to imagine any reaction-regulation that does not have the consequence (intended or not) of restricting credit to the poor.

But these restrictions are not limited to the housing market.  Many states, for example, are cracking down and even outright banning payday loan companies, often the last resort (legal) credit source before people turn to the loansharks.  First in Ohio (via Mises Blog)

  If Ohio's 1,600 payday-lending stores want to continue operating past this fall, it appears they will have to find something else to offer besides payday loans.

   A hotly debated bill that effectively would spell the end of the short-term, high-interest payday-lending industry in Ohio sailed through the Ohio Senate yesterday despite pleas from lenders that their stores would close and 6,000 employees would be put out of work.

   The Senate was unable to find a compromise that both satisfied payday lenders and eliminated the debt trap that bill supporters said forced too many borrowers to take out new loans to pay for old ones. So it did what the House did last month: dropped the hammer.

   "I think everybody said there is just no way to redeem this product. It's fundamentally flawed," Bill Faith, a leader of the Ohio Coalition for Responsible Lending, said of the twoweek loans. The industry "drew a line in the sand, and the legislature kicked the line aside and said we're done with this toxic product."

And perhaps soon in Arizona.  Yes, the interest rates are astonishing, though the dollars involved are seldom huge for the short life and small size of the loan.  And, as an extra added bonus, Tony Soprano does not send someone to break your legs if you don't pay (the Sopranos being the only alternative provider once payday loan companies are illegal).

So, for those of you oppose payday loans, you are welcome to comment below about what a bad idea they are.  However, I challenge folks to criticize payday loans without simultaneously implicitly expressing disdain for the intelligence of payday loan customers, or trumpeting your ability to make better decisions for payday loan customers than they can make for themselves.

However, for those who think they are ever so much smarter than payday loan customers, who are charged a lot of money for small liquidity boosts, consider this:  Let's say you take out $40 each week from an ATM to keep you liquid and that the ATM fee is $1.50.  You are therefore spending $1.50 or 3.75% for a one week liquidity boost of $40, which you must again refresh next week.  Annualized, you are effectively paying 195% to get liquid with your own money.  For this kind of vig, at least payday loan customers are getting the use of someone else's money.

Posted on June 4, 2008 at 01:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (27)

The Oil Reality

Yesterday we saw the people who have done the most to keep oil prices high (e.g. Congress) trying to blame shift their policy failures onto oil company executives.  Hilariously, Maxine Waters thinks she would do a better job for consumers if she were in charge of the US oil companies. 

Beyond the realities of supply and demand, which I guess we all despair of teaching Congress, there were these remarks by Shell's John Hofmeister (via Powerline):

While all oil-importing nations buy oil at global prices, some, notably India and China, subsidize the cost of oil products to their nation's consumers, feeding the demand for more oil despite record prices. They do this to speed economic growth and to ensure a competitive advantage relative to other nations.

Meanwhile, in the United States, access to our own oil and gas resources has been limited for the last 30 years, prohibiting companies such as Shell from exploring and developing resources for the benefit of the American people.

Senator Sessions, I agree, it is not a free market.

According to the Department of the Interior, 62 percent of all on-shore federal lands are off limits to oil and gas developments, with restrictions applying to 92 percent of all federal lands. We have an outer continental shelf moratorium on the Atlantic Ocean, an outer continental shelf moratorium on the Pacific Ocean, an outer continental shelf moratorium on the eastern Gulf of Mexico, congressional bans on on-shore oil and gas activities in specific areas of the Rockies and Alaska, and even a congressional ban on doing an analysis of the resource potential for oil and gas in the Atlantic, Pacific and eastern Gulf of Mexico.

The Argonne National Laboratory did a report in 2004 that identified 40 specific federal policy areas that halt, limit, delay or restrict natural gas projects. I urge you to review it. It is a long list. If I may, I offer it today if you would like to include it in the record.

When many of these policies were implemented, oil was selling in the single digits, not the triple digits we see now. The cumulative effect of these policies has been to discourage U.S. investment and send U.S. companies outside the United States to produce new supplies.

As a result, U.S. production has declined so much that nearly 60 percent of daily consumption comes from foreign sources.

The problem of access can be solved in this country by the same government that has prohibited it. Congress could have chosen to lift some or all of the current restrictions on exportation and production of oil and gas. Congress could provide national policy to reverse the persistent decline of domestically secure natural resource development.

This is a point I have made for a while:

Exxon Mobil is the largest U.S. oil and gas company, but we account for only 2 percent of global energy production, only 3 percent of global oil production, only 6 percent of global refining capacity, and only 1 percent of global petroleum reserves. With respect to petroleum reserves, we rank 14th. Government-owned national oil companies dominate the top spots. For an American company to succeed in this competitive landscape and go head to head with huge government-backed national oil companies, it needs financial strength and scale to execute massive complex energy projects requiring enormous long-term investments.

Lots more good stuff, check it out.

Posted on May 23, 2008 at 02:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Zoning and the Housing Bubble

The Anti-Planner links an article by a Federal Reserve Bank economist on the housing market in Houston and how it is affected by zoning:

“Given that Houstonians had access to the same new types of mortgages as the rest of the country and that Houston has had greater population growth than other large metros, we might expect price appreciation to be stronger in Houston than elsewhere,” says the article. “However, the opposite has been true.”

The reason? Houston’s lack of zoning and its large supply of land available for development allowed builders to respond to easy credit by increasing the pace of construction. Slow and unpredictable permitting processes prevented builders in many other regions, including Florida and the Pacific Coast states, from similarly stepping up production.

While some cities and regions have further delayed construction by imposing adequate public facilities or concurrency ordinances, Houston allows developers to create their own municipal utility districts. Through these districts, the developers install the sewer, water, and other facilities needed by their developments and charge the property owners over time.

The result is that housing prices did not bubble, and they are not significantly declining today. As of the fourth quarter of 2007, in fact, they were still increasing. Anecdotal evidence from local realtors and developers indicates that the tightening credit market has soften the demand for homes under $200,000, but homes above that price are still selling well.

Whatever correction Houston faces, says the article, “takes place in the context of prices that are squarely in line with local construction costs and without the painful supply-induced downturn under way in many other markets.” This leaves Houston relatively immune to the ups and downs of housing prices experienced in regions with planning-induced housing shortages.

I need to think a bit about how that relates to this.

Posted on May 21, 2008 at 08:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Incumbent Protection

So much of government regulation boils down to the protection of politically connected incumbent competitors against new competition.  This is an astonishing example, sent in by a reader:

BEMIDJI, Minn. - Assistant House Majority Leader Frank Moe says people who rent out their lakefront homes may be hurting the state's resort industry.

The Bemidji DFLer has authored a bill ordering the state's tourism agency to study whether the increased competition is hurting resorts. It's now awaiting Governor Tim Pawlenty's signature.

If you are willing to make up your own bed, there are a lot of reasons why private home rentals are a more attractive vacation option than resorts, particularly when you consider the high price of those ancillary resort services.  Why the government needs to be involved in what is, to my eyes, just a normal consumer preference is beyond me.  This last line caught my eye:

The state's resort industry is struggling as lakefront property values soar but the market restricts what they can charge for cabin rentals.

Uh, OK.  I have the same problem -- land for cabins and campgrounds in areas people want to spend the weekend is really expensive, labor costs are up, but rental rates remain low.  So what?  Through their preferences and how they translate to prices, consumers are saying that there is better uses for prime land than lakefront rental cabins.  I can accept that.

Posted on May 14, 2008 at 03:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

On the Front Lines of Building the Nanny State

Paula Brown is on the front lines of building the nanny state.  Her son and his friend built a bicycle ramp out of rocks and old boards in the street in front of Ms. Brown's house.  The youthful construction couldn't stand the stresses involved, and the boy's friend suffered a nasty crash, sending him to the hospital with multiple broken bones.  Ms. Brown, who was present in the house as the boys built their jury-rigged Evil Knievel ramp, believes that the government needs to be doing more:

"We've got good drinking and driving laws here, but why no helmet laws?" asked Paula Brown, Cam's mother.

The Browns moved to Scottsdale in August from Vancouver, where helmets are required for bikes, skateboards and scooters.

"We make our kids wear helmets for anything on wheels," Brown said.

Tammy Blackwell, Tristan's mother, also would support a helmet law for kids. "My husband and I went out and bought helmets for ourselves because of this."...

She complains that, since Scottsdale doesn't have a rule, peer-group pressure is more compelling to kids than common sense.

Evidently the city's modest signs recommending helmet use and the more existential, "Skate at Your Own Risk" aren't making a dent.

The real logic gap in this story is that the kid who was hurt was wearing a bike helmet at the time.  So the severe injuries involved had nothing to do with helmet wearing, and everything to do with the lack of adult supervision by Ms. Brown.

Posted on May 12, 2008 at 03:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

California Energy Leadership: Leading the Race to the Bottom

California is apparently trumpeting its "leadership in energy."  The centerpiece of its claims is its low per capita electricity use.  Arnold is making the claim now, but Kevin Drum was pushing this a while back when he said:

Anyway, it's a good article, and goes to show the kinds of things we could be doing nationwide if conservative politicians could put their Chicken Little campaign contributors on hold for a few minutes and take a look at how it's possible to cut energy use dramatically — and reduce our dependence on foreign suppliers — without ruining the economy. The energy industry might not like the idea, but the rest of us would.

Max Schulz of the Manhattan Institute is not impressed:

California's proud claim to have kept per-capita energy consumption flat while growing its economy is less impressive than it seems. The state has some of the highest energy prices in the country – nearly twice the national average – largely because of regulations and government mandates to use expensive renewable sources of power. As a result, heavy manufacturing and other energy-intensive industries have been fleeing the Golden State in droves.

Neither am I.  I addressed this issue a while back in response to Drum's post, but since the meme is going around again, I will excerpt from that old post.

The consumption data is from here. You can see that there are three components that matter - residential, commercial, and industrial.  Residential and commercial electricity consumption may or may not be fairly apples to apples comparable between states (more in a minute).  Industrial consumption, however, will not be comparable, since the mix of industries will change radically state by state.....

Take two of the higher states on the list.  Wyoming, at the top of the per capita consumption list, has industrial electricity consumption as a whopping 58% of total state consumption.  KY, also near the top, has industrial consumption at 50% of total demand.  The US average is industrial consumption at 29% of total demand.  CA, NY, and NJ, all near the bottom of the list in terms of per capital demand, have industrial use as 20.6%, 15.1%, and 16% respectively.  So rather than try to correlate electricity consumption to local energy regulations, it is clear that the per capita consumption numbers by state are a much better indicator of the presence of heavy industry. In other words, the graph Drum shows is actually a better illustration of the success of CA not in necessarily becoming more efficient, but in exporting its pollution to other states.  No one in their right mind would even attempt to build a heavy industrial plant in CA in the last 30 years.  The graph is driven much more by the growth of industrial electricity use outside CA relative to CA.

Now take the residential numbers.  Lets look again at the states at the top of the per capita list:  Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas.  Can anyone tell me what these states have in common?  They are hot and humid.  Yes, California has its hot spots, but it has its mild spots too  (also, California hot spots are dry, so they can use more energy efficient evaporative cooling, something that does not work in the deep south).  These southern states are hot all over in the summer.  So its reasonable to assume that maybe, just maybe, some of these hot states have higher residential per capita consumption because of air conditioning load?  In fact, if one recast this list as residential use per capita, you would see a direct correlation to summer air conditioning loads.   This table of cooling degree days weighted for population location is a really good proxy for how much air conditioning is needed by state.  (Explanation of cooling degree days). You can see that states like Alabama and Texas have two to four times the number of cooling degree days than California, which should directly correlate to about that much more per capita air conditioning (and thus electricity) use....

OK, now I have saved the most obvious fisking for last.  Because even when you correct for these numbers, California is pretty efficient vs. the average on electricity consumption.  Drum attributes this, without evidence, to government action.  The NY Times basically does the same, positing in effect that CA has more energy laws than any other state and it has the lowest consumption so therefore they must be correlated.  But of course, correlation is not equal to causation. Could there be another effect out there?

Well, here are the eight states in the data set above that the California CEC shows as having the lowest per capita electricity use: CA, RI, NY, HI, NH, AK, VT, MA.  All right, now here are the eight states from the same data set that have the highest electricity prices:  CA, RI, NY, HI, NH, AK, VT, MA.  Woah!  It's the exact same eight states!  The 8 states with the highest prices are the eight states with the lowest per capita consumption. Unbelievable.  No way that could have an effect, huh?  It must be all those green building codes in CA.  I suspect Drum is sort of right, just not in the way he means.  Stupid regulation in each state drives up prices, which in turn provides incentives for lower demand.  It achieves the goal, I guess, but very inefficiently.  A straight tax would be much more efficient.

Posted on May 5, 2008 at 09:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Cognitive Dissonance

As a follow-up to this post on gas-price demagoguery, I would like to observe that the very same people who are most likely to demagogue about high gas prices in this country are the very same ones who advocate that the US adopt European-style taxation levels, regulatory policy, and CO2 targets, the results of which can be seen here:

Gas1

If you can't read the colors on the scale well, I think you can guess which is the US price line and which are the European gas prices.  Source here.  Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with wholesale gasoline prices, which are substantially similar between the US and Europe:

Gas2

Since the difference in price does not go to the producer, I will leave it as an exercise to guess where the extra $5 per gallon is going (hint:  Uncle Francois)  The cognitive dissonance required to call for 80% CO2 reductions while simultaneously decrying $3.50 gas prices is just stunning to me.

Update:  From the same source, here are the gas prices in dollars per US gallon EXCLUDING taxes:

                               
DateBelgium FranceGermanyItalyNthrlndsUKUS
4/14/20083.323.283.183.613.853.093.21

Update #2:  More here on Hillary's sleight of hand.  And this from Robert Samuelson, at how this cognitive dissonance extends to exploration limits:

We could be producing more, but Congress has put large areas of potential supply off-limits. These include the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and parts of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. By government estimates, these areas may contain 25 billion to 30 billion barrels of oil (against about 30 billion barrels of proven U.S. reserves today) and 80 trillion cubic feet or more of natural gas (compared with about 200 tcf of proven reserves).

What keeps these areas closed are exaggerated environmental fears, strong prejudice against oil companies and sheer stupidity. Americans favor both "energy independence" and cheap fuel. They deplore imports -- who wants to pay foreigners? -- but oppose more production in the United States. Got it? The result is a "no-pain energy agenda that sounds appealing but has no basis in reality," writes Robert Bryce in "Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of 'Energy Independence.' "

Posted on April 30, 2008 at 09:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Something Else I didn't Know

Something I didn't know:  Arizona has a State Board of Homeopathic Examiners.   Seriously?  Do we also have a state board for horoscope writers?  For witch doctors?  For water diviners?  Doesn't the Flat Earth society need some supervision?

How do you have a board of scientific examiners for a discipline that has no science behind it.  A key part of homeopathy is the repetitive dilution of active ingredients to make "medicines."  In fact, homeopathy advocates claim that more diluted mixtures are more potent.  Here is an example, via Wikipedia:

Hahnemann advocated 30C dilutions for most purposes (that is, dilution by a factor of 1060).[73] A popular homeopathic treatment for the flu is a 200C [1 in 10400] dilution of duck liver, marketed under the name Oscillococcinum. Comparing these levels of dilution to Avogadro's number, one liter of a 12C homeopathic remedy created from diluting 1 liter of 1 molar solution contains on average only about 0.602 molecules of the original substance per liter of the 12C remedy. Similarly, the chance of a single molecule of the original substance remaining in a liter of 15C remedy dose is about one in 1.7 million, and about one in 1.7 trillion trillion trillion (1036) for a 30C solution.

So what does the Homeopathic board do, look at the products sold for $100 by homeopaths and say, yep, that's pure water, it must be a valid homeopathic brew?

According to our governor here in Arizona, the Homepathic examiners are not doing their job.  What does that mean?  Did some homeopath actually sell a product that had a measurable amount of the active ingredient?  Anyway, the two comments so far on the Republic article sort of sum the whole debate up:

Commenter 1:  The number of people injured by homeopathic treatments is a tiny fraction of the number of people killed and injured by regular allopathic physicians and prescription drugs. The allopathic community doesn't like the competition, though, so they create a crisis.

Commenter 2:The number of people helped by homeopathic treatments remains zero, so the cost/benefit ration is infinitely higher than that of allopathy.  It's true that the allopathic medicine industry doesn't like competition, but that doesn't change the fact that homeopathy is nothing more than faith healing.

A couple of notes, just so I am not misunderstood:

  1. I am sympathetic with the desire not to load oneself up with drugs as much as many doctors seem to prescribe.  I have been prescribed antibiotics about 10 times in the last 20 years and have actually taken them once.  That being said, all those drugs and medical procedures have a real utility in aggregate.  To some extent homeopaths are, like vaccination avoiders, free riders on the medical care provided everyone else.  Go try your diluted duck liver in a plague-ravaged Middle Age city and see how far it gets you.  Go back 100 years and see how many of your children you can save from early death with homeopathy.
  2. I am very sympathetic to those who are frustrated that the current medical profession provides only one type of care without competition.  I have argued this same thing many times.  Its absurd, for example, that we have to go to a person with 8 years of medical education to get a few stitches put in.  Why can't someone with far less expensive education set up an emergency practice without an MD to dress and sew up simple wounds?  Think how much this would clear out the typical ER.  But we can't, because the government colludes with doctors to protect their medical monopoly and their single preferred (read intensive and expensive) style of care.

Posted on April 27, 2008 at 09:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (13)

Wherein A Libertarian Argues For Regulation Enforcement

I got to thinking today about regulation and its enforcement in this imperfectly government-dominated world after reading this Jon Stewart quote as relayed by Kevin Drum:

With this administration, if a passenger blows up a plane, it's a failure in the war on terror. But if the plane just blows up on its own — eh, it's the market self-regulating.

What struck me that I had not thought of before is the question of whether non-enforcement of a published regulatory regime was the same as letting a market self-regulate.  And my answer was:  No, at least not in the short to medium term.

The reason is that the government regulatory regime crowds out private mechanisms that might attempt to achieve the same goals.  What do I mean by crowding out?  For example, if the government published car reliability metrics and regulation for all cars, no matter how imperfect, would JD Power and Consumer Reports bother with the investment to do the same?  For decades, insurance companies wrote de facto building codes and performed fire inspections of their insured structures.  They no longer do so, because the government has taken on that role (arguably less well than the insurance companies, who had the reputation of being tigers on such inspections).  Would Moody's exist to rank bond risks if the government had regulations in place that theoretically forced all securities to (I don't know how) have the same risk?  My marina liability insurer conducts occasional inspections of my marinas.

As a result, insurers don't inspect airlines, nor do manufacturers enforce inspection and replacement regimes (as automobile companies do, to some extent, to protect their warranty).  Third parties rate airlines for customer service but not for safety.  The whole private evaluation regime for airlines exists on the assumption that the government has regulatory program X and Y in place that is enforced.  In the long term, if the government were to abandon enforcement, and this lasted long enough for that expectation to exist in the market, new private regulatory methods would arise [arguments would most certainly exist between libertarians and others whether these new regimes were as effective as the old regime, but almost undoubtedly something would emerge].  But in the near term, we don't have a self-regulating market or even the expectation of one. 

As a result, I come to the conclusion that while deregulation may be needed, the absolute wrong way to do it is via non-enforcement of existing regulations.  So there you have it, a libertarian calls for better enforcement.  Comments?  I am just starting to think about this and would appreciate feedback.

Posted on April 9, 2008 at 01:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (15)

Fighting the Competition, One Legislature at a Time

Thanks to an email from a reader, comes this bizarre but all-too-common tale of an industry group supporting licensing to protect itself from competition:

Imagine you were a state legislator and some folks asked you to pass a law making it a crime to give advice about paint colors and throw pillows without a license. And imagine they told you that the only people qualified to place large pieces of furniture in a room are those who have gotten a college degree in interior design, completed a two-year apprenticeship, and passed a national licensing exam. And by the way, it is criminally misleading for people who practice interior design to use that term without government permission.

You might stare at them incredulously for a moment, then look down at your calendar and say, "Oh, I get it -- April Fool!" Right? Wrong.

These folks represent the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), an industry group whose members have waged a 30-year, multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to legislate their competitors out of business. And those absurd restrictions on advice about paint selection, throw pillows and furniture placement represent the actual fruits of lobbying in places like Alabama, Nevada and Illinois, where ASID and its local affiliates have peddled their snake-oil mantra that "Every decision an interior designer makes affects life safety and quality of life."

Legislative analysis by a half-dozen states that rebuffed ASID's attempts to cartelize interior design -- including Colorado, Washington and South Carolina -- has failed to support ASID's claim that the location of your couch or the color of your bedroom walls is literally a matter of life and death. As the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies put it, there is "no evidence of physical or financial harm being caused to . . . consumers by the unregulated practice of interior designers."

I am not sure this even needs comment.  I traditionally end my posts on licensing with this Milton Friedman quote:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

Many other posts in the same vein here

Posted on April 1, 2008 at 02:38 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Unfortunately, the EU Is What Many US Politicians Long to Emulate

From the Times, via Daniel Mitchell at Cato:

An award-winning winemaker whose wares are sold at the royal palaces is facing a £30,000 bill after European bureaucrats ruled that he was using the wrong-shaped bottles. Jerry Schooler, who sells 400,000 bottles of fruit wines and mead a year, has been threatened with prosecution over his determination to use traditional measurements. The proprietor of the Lurgashall Winery in West Sussex, has been told to halt the sale of beverages such as mead, silver birch wine and bramble liqueur in 75cl and 37.5cl bottles. If he continues to sell them, he could be taken to court under a new EU directive that permits the sale of such products in 70cl, 50cl or 35cl measures only. …Mr Schooler now faces costs of about £30,000 to change his production line. “We are going to have to change all our bottling, the labels, machinery, boxes and maybe the corks as well and it is going to cost me thousands to do it,” he said. …West Sussex County Council’s trading standards department said that the winery was bound by EU Directive 2007/45/EC, which was drawn up in September to “lay down rules on nominal quantities for prepacked products”. It said the directive meant that the use of 37.5cl bottles for liqueurs was illegal.

Don't miss his other story of passengers having to hop off buses every 30 miles to satisfy EU regulations.  The latter regulation is actually one that is remarkably similar to railroad regulation in the US, where a crew day was defined as something like 100 miles.  Modern freight railroads were having to change crews every two hours - I don't know if that one is still on the books.

Posted on March 26, 2008 at 08:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don't... Hell, Damned if You Try To Run Any Kind of Business at All

Arizona state law now requires that employers use the federal e-verify system to screen employees for legal immigrant status.  As I mentioned earlier, state law requires that I use this system in ways that are illegal under federal rules, at the risk of losing my business license.

Right now, I am going through a 6000 screen required tutorial that I have to endure before I can use a system that requires me to fill in about 3 blanks and hit enter.  (Of course, since this is a government system, the tutorial has already crashed twice three five times and I have had to restart it each time).  Somewhere in the midst of the training, I reach this admonition:

You may not discriminate against applicants and employees based upon their citizenship or immigration status with respect to hiring, firing, or recruitment or referral for a fee. This includes treating citizens and non-citizens differently during the hiring process, such as screening out non-citizens or not hiring lawful immigrants based upon their immigration status.

WHAT?  Personally, I am all for living by this, but isn't this EXACTLY what the law is requiring me to do?  To discriminate against people, and ban my hiring of them, based on their immigration status?  How can I possibly keep my actions legal if I am required to discriminate based on citizenship status but I am also banned from discriminating in hiring based on citizenship status.  How Orwellian can we get?

To continue the Orwellian theme, as part of this law by the state of Arizona whose sole purpose is to restrict the classes of people I can and can't hire, I must display this poster:

Ocw_poster

Gee, I would have thought everyone in the world had the right to seek work and to contract with anyone they please for their labor, but in fact the only body taking away the right is the group that made this poster -- ie the government -- which requires that everyone have a special government license called citizenship or a green card before they can sell their labor to willing parties in this country.

Well I wondered, of course, why there were 176 (I counted) training screens just to enter name-social-DOB and hit return.  It turns out that by "agreeing" to join the e-Verify program, which I am forced to do by Arizona law, I have agreed to become a US immigration officer and to do their job for them (without compensation, of course).  Here is an example screen:

There are five options for resolving a case:

  • Resolved Authorized. Select this option when employment is authorized.
  • Resolved Unauthorized/Terminated. Select this option when employment is not authorized (SSA Final Nonconfirmation, DHS Employment Unauthorized, or DHS No Show), or when a Tentative Nonconfirmation response is uncontested AND employment is terminated.
  • Self Terminated. Select this option if an employee quits or is terminated for reasons unrelated to employment eligibility status while the verification query is in process.
  • Invalid Query. Select this option if a duplicate query was discovered after the query was sent or if a query was sent with incorrect data.
  • Employee Not Terminated. Select this option to notify DHS that you are not terminating an employee who received an SSA Final Nonconfirmation, DHS Employment Unauthorized, or DHS No Show response or who is not contesting a Tentative Nonconfirmation response.

Got that?

Every campaign year we get these debates with all of these stupid questions, including things like "do you know how much a gallon of milk costs" or "Who is the head of state of Mayanmar?"  I would just love to see someone ask Obama or Clinton "In the largest city of your state, can you name all of the city, county, state, and federal licenses, registrations, tax numbers, certifications and registrations you need to be able to legally run a business with 10 employees?"

Update: OMG I have to pass a 33-page test before it will let me use the system.  LOL.  We can't test government-employed teachers for subject competency but we can test employers on government bureaucratic procedures before we allow them to hire anyone.

Update #2:  Well, there is an hour and a half of my life I will never get back.  It would have gone much quicker if they had a server that wasn't powered by a hamster on a treadmill.  Every several pages the server would take a minute or more to respond with the next page, and every twenty pages it would crash my browser completely.  Incredibly, to continue the Orwell theme, there were several questions where a correct answer required one to confirm government propaganda about the program.  Stuff like "The e-Verify helps every employer by...."

I am now fully empowered to, as required by US and Arizona law, discriminate in hiring based on immigration status just so long as I am careful not to discriminate in hiring based on immigration status.

Posted on February 29, 2008 at 09:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Down With DST

I think that Arizona's decision not to go on DST is a great one.  Being outside in the summer sunshine in Phoenix can be miserable, but the desert cools very quickly once the sun goes down.  The earlier the sun goes down in the summer, the better as far as I am concerned.  Within an hour or two after sunset, it is pleasant to sit and eat and play outside.

A new study seems to show that DST increases electricity use, rather than reducing it.  DST was, if my memory serves, a WWII innovation to save electricity.  It does so quite well if electricity demand is driven mainly by lighting.  It lets one read and function by sunlight in the evening hours.   However, as air conditioning has become a larger element of electricity demand, that equation is changing.  DST can lead to higher air conditioning loads in the evenings.

Our main finding is that—contrary to the policy’s intent—DST increases residential electricity demand. Estimates of the overall increase range from 1 to 4 percent, but we find that the effect is not constant throughout the DST period. There is some evidence of electricity savings during the spring, but the effect lessens, changes sign, and appears to cause the greatest increase in consumption near the end of the DST period in the fall. These findings are consistent with simulation results that point to a tradeoff between reducing demand for lighting and increasing demand for heating and cooling. Based on the dates of DST practice before the 2007 extensions, we estimate a cost of increased electricity bills to Indiana households of $8.6 million per year. We also estimate social costs of increased pollution emissions that range from $1.6 to $5.3 million per year.

Posted on February 27, 2008 at 10:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (17)

First Question: Ask About the Energy Balance

Over the coming months and years, you are going to see a ton of stories like this for somehow storing or reprocessing CO2:

 

If two scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are correct, people will still be driving gasoline-powered cars 50 years from now, churning out heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — and yet that carbon dioxide will not contribute to global warming.

The scientists, F. Jeffrey Martin and William L. Kubic Jr., are proposing a concept, which they have patriotically named Green Freedom, for removing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it back into gasoline.

The idea is simple. Air would be blown over a liquid solution of potassium carbonate, which would absorb the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide would then be extracted and subjected to chemical reactions that would turn it into fuel: methanol, gasoline or jet fuel.

This process could transform carbon dioxide from an unwanted, climate-changing pollutant into a vast resource for renewable fuels. The closed cycle — equal amounts of carbon dioxide emitted and removed — would mean that cars, trucks and airplanes using the synthetic fuels would no longer be contributing to global warming.

Although they have not yet built a synthetic fuel factory, or even a small prototype, the scientists say it is all based on existing technology.

You are going to see a ton of stories like this from academia because academics respond to incentives like everyone else -- faced with billions of dollars available for funding research into carbon-neutral technologies, they are going to publicly promote their ideas in an attempt to garner this funding.

The first question you should always ask is about the energy balance.  I am sure that this is technically possible.  Today we can create hydrogen fuel from sea water, but it is atrociously expensive from an energy standpoint.  The problem, then, is whether it makes any sense from a cost and energy balance point of view.  This is a good hint that it does not:

Even with those improvements, providing the energy to produce gasoline on a commercial scale — say, 750,000 gallons a day — would require a dedicated power plant, preferably a nuclear one, the scientists say.

We have to be suspicious that the carbon benefits come from the nuclear plant they require, not the process itself.  In fact, one is left to wonder why we would go through so much effort at all rather than just charge electric cars directly from the nuclear plant.  My sense is we are much closer on battery technology than on this stuff.

 

Posted on February 20, 2008 at 02:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

All Businesses Allowed, Except Those That Are Proven Successes With Customers

Via Hit and Run:

The Palm Beach Town Council on Monday voted unanimously to block "formula restaurants" from opening in the island town.

The ban, which was first proposed in 2006, applies to restaurants with three or more units and similar trade names, standardized and limited menus, uniforms, architecture, and decor. The measure will go before voters this spring.

In other words, if your business has proven itself to be successful with customers and attempts to bring this proven success formula to our town - forget it.

The post digs in further, and finds the real problem to be that the Palm Beach Town Council is afraid of the "riff raff" that might come with certain plebeian chains.  Which reminds me of Lexington's opposition to the Boston Red Line being extended into their town.  Ostensibly, they were opposed to it on fiscal grounds, but that is a joke in a town that has never opposed a government program ever on fiscal grounds.  In fact, they were afraid of the "riff raff" the metro might bring to town, but the more-liberal-than-thou residents could never admit that in public.

Posted on February 19, 2008 at 08:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

It Turns Out That I Am Not A Patriot

It turns out, according to Barrack Obama, (who hales from the party that doesn't believe in questioning anyone's patriotism) that I am not a "Patriot Employer."  This is from the text of Senate Bill S. 1945 of which he is a co-sponsor  (My snark is interspersed in italics):  Patriot Employers are to be given tax breaks over unpatriotic employers (I presume this means that their tax rates will be raised less in an Obama presidency than those of other folks) with "patriot employers" defined as such:

(b) Patriot Employer- For purposes of subsection (a), the term `Patriot employer' means, with respect to any taxable year, any taxpayer which--

        `(1) maintains its headquarters in the United States if the taxpayer has ever been headquartered in the United States,

      OK, I guess I can comply with this.  Though I am not sure the best way to begin an Obama "kindler gentler foreign policy" is to tell the nations of the world that we will be taxing their company's income in the US at a higher rate than our own companies.

        `(2) pays at least 60 percent of each employee's health care premiums,

      So the #1 determinant of patriotism is not commitment to individual rights but paying 60% of employee health care costs.  I guess I am so unpatriotic

      And, just from a practical standpoint, 90% of my employees are seasonal, hired for about 4 months of the year.  To be patriotic, I have to pay their health care costs all year long?  Also, since most of my employees are retired, they are on Medicare or an employee retirement medical plan.  If they pay $0 in premiums and I pay $0 of that, do I get credit for 60%?  Maybe the government can mandate a solution for zero divided by zero, like they did for the value of pi years ago

        `(3) has in effect, and operates in accordance with, a policy requiring neutrality in employee organizing drives,

      I presume neutrality means that in a hypothetical union drive, I do not express my opinion (and likely opposition) to said unionization drive?   I am told that this also entails allowing card checks rather than hidden ballot voting.  In other words, patriotism is being defined here as 1) giving up your free speech rights and 2) opposing hidden ballot voting.  Uh, right.  Besides, if a union organized our company, as unlikely as that would be, I would probably have to do a Francisco d'Anconia on the place.

        `(4) if such taxpayer employs at least 50 employees on average during the taxable year--

        `(A) maintains or increases the number of full-time workers in the United States relative to the number of full-time workers outside of the United States,

        In other words, we don't want American companies growing overseas.  This could also be called the "give up international market share act."  This implies that it is unpatriotic for US-based Exxon to explore for oil in Asia and that it is more patriotic to let the Chinese national oil company do it.  This implies that it is more patriotic for Coke to lose market share in Germany than to gain it.  This means that it is more patriotic for Mattel to buy its toys in China from Chinese companies rather than run the factories themselves (and thereby be accountable themselves for product quality and working conditions).

        This is beyond stupid.  We LIKE to see US companies doing well overseas.  If we have to import our raw materials, we feel more comfortable if it is US companies doing the extraction.  Don't we?  In the name of patriotism, do we really want to root for our domestic companies to fail in international markets?

        `(B) compensates each employee of the taxpayer at an hourly rate (or equivalent thereof) not less than an amount equal to the Federal poverty level for a family of three for the calendar year in which the taxable year begins divided by 2,080,

        90% of my workers are retired.  They work for me to supplement their income, to live our in nature, and to stay busy.  They need me to pay them based on the poverty line for a family of three, why?  I will tell you right now that if I had to raise wages this much, most of my employees would quit.  Many of them force me to give them fewer hours so they can stay under the social security limits for income.  I discussed what rising minimum wages often force me to do here, but just as an illustration, a $1 an hour across the board wage increase would easily wipe out all the money I make in a year and put me into a loss position.  In which case the lowered tax rate would not do me much good anyway.

          `(C) provides either--

            `(i) a defined contribution plan which for any plan year--

            `(I) requires the employer to make nonelective contributions of at least 5 percent of compensation for each employee who is not a highly compensated employee, or

            `(II) requires the employer to make matching contributions of 100 percent of the elective contributions of each employee who is not a highly compensated employee to the extent such contributions do not exceed the percentage specified by the plan (not less than 5 percent) of the employee's compensation, or

          `(ii) a defined benefit plan which for any plan year requires the employer to make contributions on behalf of each employee who is not a highly compensated employee in an amount which will provide an accrued benefit under the plan for the plan year which is not less than 5 percent of the employee's compensation, and

          Uh, I am not sure why it is unpatriotic for an employee to save for themselves, but I think 401k plans are a nice benefit.  I would certainly offer one except for one tiny fact - ALL MY EMPLOYEES ARE ALREADY RETIRED!!  They are over 65.  They are drawing down on their retirement, not contributing to it.

          This is at the heart of the problem with all US labor law.  Folks up in Illinois write laws with a picture of a steel mill in mind, and forget that employment and employees have infinite variations in circumstances and goals. 

          So I am unpatriotic, huh.  But if forcing companies to contribute to emplee retirement plans is patriotic, why is hiring folks once they are retired to give them extra income in retirement unpatriotic?  In fact, maybe I could argue that 100% of the wages I pay go to retirement spending

        `(D) provides full differential salary and insurance benefits for all National Guard and Reserve employees who are called for active duty, and

          In other words, we of the government are not going to pay our employees (ie reservists on active duty) what they are worth and are not going to give them benefits, so to be patriotic you need to do it for us.  We in Congress are not really very patriotic and don't support the troops, so you need to do it for us.

          All kidding aside, I would do this in my company if it was applicable, but I really resent being piously told to do so by several Senators who don't really model this behavior themselves.

        `(5) if such taxpayer employs less than 50 employees on average during the taxable year, either--...

blah, blah.  Basically the same stuff repeated, though slightly less onerous.

Since when did patriotism equate to "rolling over to the latest AFL-CIO wish list?"

Posted on February 13, 2008 at 11:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Cap and Rent-Seek

Just the other day, I made the point that just because regulated corporations support a regulation does not mean that said regulation is sensible or good for the economy.  Often, incumbents are beneficiaries of industry regulation, which tends to give them certain advantages over new entrants.  I showed an example with General Electric and the new energy bill regulating light bulbs:

we see that GE has a product sitting on the shelf ready for release that fits perfectly with the new mandate.  Assuming competitors don't have such a technology yet, the energy bill is then NOT a regulation of GE's product that they reluctantly bow to, but a mandate that allows GE to keep doing business but trashes their competition.  It is a market share acquisition law for GE.

Marlo Lewis makes a similar point, this time in relation to cap and trade systems:

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that line of chatter—and from people who usually assume anything corporations are for must be bad!
 
There are many reasons some corporations support cap-and-trade, or at least say nice things about it in public. Some companies seek the PR value from looking green....
 
But in the case of energy companies, many who support cap-and-trade do so in the expectation that they’ll get a boatload of carbon permits from the government—for free!
 
Permits represent an artificial, government-created scarcity in the right to produce energy. The right to produce energy is very valuable, especially where government restricts it. The tighter the cap, the more valuable each permit traded under the cap.
And this is a major problem with cap and trade that no one talks about:  It is a huge government subsidy and protection of existing competitors against new entrants.  Because in most systems, current competitors receive a starting allotment of credits for free, but new entrants who want to start up and compete against existing companies must purchase their credits.  This is tolerated in Europe, because that is how the European quasi-corporate-state works, with politicians and large corporations in bed together to protect each others' incumbency.  But it creates a stagnating economic mess, ironically locking in place the very companies and business models environmentalists would like to see overtaken by new ideas and entrants.

Frequent readers know that I am not convinced the costs of man-made global warming exceed the costs of abating such warming.  However, if we are going to do so, a carbon tax makes so much more sense, in that it avoids the implicit subsidies of incumbents and reduces the opportunities for rent-seeking and political shenanigans.  Politicians, however, live for these rent-seeking opportunities, because they generate so many campaign contributions.  They also favor hidden taxes, as cap-and-trade would be, over direct taxes, such as the carbon tax, because they are, well, gutless.

More here on cap-and-trade vs. carbon tax.

HT:  Tom Nelson

Posted on February 12, 2008 at 11:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Businesses and Regulation

I sometimes here supporters of a certain regulation say "even big company X supports this regulation, so it must be a good idea."  But this is based on a faulty assumption, similar to that made by people who equate being pro-business in politics with being pro-free markets.  They are not the same thing.  As was said at the Cato blog:

Representatives of the business community frequently are the worst enemies of freedom. They often seek special subsidies and handouts, and commonly conspire with politicians to thwart competition (conveniently, they want competition among their suppliers, just not for their own products). Fortunately, most business organizations still tend to be - on balance - supporters of limited government. But as the Wall Street Journal notes, some state and local chambers of commerce have become relentless enemies of good policy.

Incumbents of major industries very often shape regulation to their advantage, and to the disadvantage of consumers and smaller or new competitors.  For example, as one of the larger companies in my business, many of the regulations and restrictions I rail against in this blog actually help my business.  Licensing requirements, bonding requirements, insurance requirements, regulatory and reporting requirements, etc.  all tend to make it nearly impossible for new companies to enter the business to compete against me, and give a distinct advantage to the larger incumbent players.   I still vehemently oppose all that garbage, but I do so as a defender of capitalism and against what are probably the best interests of my company.

So when large companies like GE say that they are now on the global warming bandwagon and support government intervention in CO2 emissions and such, it is not an indicator that CO2 science is any good; it just means GE has decided that likely CO2 legislation will help its bottom line.  While GE is portrayed as someone who will get hurt by CO2 regulation but is reluctantly coming around to the science anyway, what it in fact really means is that GE has decided that global warming regulation can be shaped to its advantage, particularly if it can use its size and political muscle molding the details of that regulation.  Here is a great example, via Tom Nelson (the Instapundit of global warming skepticism)

But there is sure to be strong opposition to the bill, including from General Electric Co.

The light bulb maker is developing a new generation of efficient incandescent bulbs, said Kim Freeman, a GE spokeswoman in Louisville, Ky.

By 2012, she said, GE will have an incandescent bulb that uses as little energy as the compact fluorescent bulbs sold today.

"We would oppose any legislation that would ban a particular technology," she said. "Giving consumers more choices is the appropriate approach."

The company supports the standards passed by Congress in December, according to Freeman. That law requires bulbs to be 25 percent to 30 percent more efficient starting in 2012.

Read between the lines, and you see GE attempting to steer global warming legislation to its advantage.   The last paragraph goes a long way to explaining GE's support of the last energy bill (with substantial light bulb legislation), which GE might have been expected to oppose.  Because now we see that GE has a product sitting on the shelf ready for release that fits perfectly with the new mandate.  Assuming competitors don't have such a technology yet, the energy bill is then NOT a regulation of GE's product that they reluctantly bow to, but a mandate that allows GE to keep doing business but trashes their competition.  It is a market share acquisition law for GE.  On the other hand, GE says a total ban would be bad, because it would force CF bulbs to the forefront, where GE trails its competitors.  This is the cynical calculus of rent-seeking through regulation.  And it is all worthless, because high efficiency bulbs are one of the things that so clearly pay for themselves that consumers will make the switch for themselves without government mandates.

Posted on February 8, 2008 at 08:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

The Fascists Have Jumped the Shark

Via the Junkfood Science blog,

It has actually happened. Lawmakers have proposed legislation that forbids restaurants and food establishments from serving food to anyone who is obese (as defined by the State). Under this bill, food establishments are to be monitored for compliance under the State Department of Health and violators will have their business permits revoked.

Unbelievable.  And not that this would make it right, but the ban is not even on serving certain types of fattening foods, but on serving any food.  Here is the key part of the law:

Any food establishment to which this section applies shall not be allowed to serve food to any person who is obese, based on criteria prescribed by the State Department of Health after consultation with the Mississippi Council on Obesity Prevention and Management established under Section 41-101-1 or its successor. The State Department of Health shall prepare written materials that describe and explain the criteria for determining whether a person is obese, and shall provide those materials to all food establishments to which this section applies. A food establishment shall be entitled to rely on the criteria for obesity in those written materials when determining whether or not it is allowed to serve food to any person.

Posted on February 1, 2008 at 05:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

The Consumers are Saved!

I could probably start a blog just featuring ridiculous government licensing practices.  As I have written before, licensing generally has little to do with the consumer, and more to do with protecting current incumbents from competition.  Via Radley Balko, this is one of the uglier examples I have seen of late:

Mary Jo Pletz was really, really good at eBay. But now the former stay-at-home mother and gonzo Internet retailer fears a maximum $10 million fine for selling 10,000 toys, antiques, videos, sports memorabilia, books, tools and infant clothes on eBay without an auctioneer's license.

An official from the Department of State knocked on Pletz's white-brick ranch here north of Allentown in late December 2006 and said her Internet business, D&J Virtual Consignment, was being investigated for violating state laws....

The 33-year-old opened her Internet business in 2004 so she could stay home with her 6-month-old daughter, Julia, who was diagnosed with a hypothalamic hamartoma brain tumor.

She cooperated when told it was illegal and works at dental offices in Allentown, Bethlehem and Lehighton as a hygienist to help pay the bills at home. Julia, whose health stabilized on medication, is enrolled in day care. Pletz also has a son, Douglas, 7.

But the state has not dropped prosecution. It sent Pletz a complaint in April and an amended complaint in December. The complaint says she could be fined $1,000 for each violation of the state law. The April complaint noted 10,000 sales. Pletz and her attorney, Joseph V. Sebelin Jr. of Palmerton, did the math - $10 million in possible fines. The second complaint does not list a number....

Because of the complaint, Pletz worries the state also could revoke her dental hygienist's license, which she earned by attending community college for seven years at night.

"I really wish that they will walk away from that one and prosecute somebody else," said State Rep. Michael Sturla (D., Lancaster), who is chairman of the House Professional Licensure Committee. "There is every reason in the world that if she is found guilty, she should be exonerated," he said.

This latter is the most outrageous of all, and it is a line taken by a number of public officials -- that the concept of prosecuting people who are selling things on eBay is just fine, but they should not have started with someone who has less sympathetic.  Maybe Exxon has an eBay arm.

Sturla has proposed the bill to create the electronic auctioneer's license. The license would require the Internet seller to buy a $5,000 bond for about $40 a year. This would protect consumers, he said.

Bull.  This would protect competitors.  eBay has numerous controls in place to identify problem sellers.

D&J Virtual Consignment had 11,000 feedback comments on eBay and 14 were negative, Pletz said, giving her a 99.9 percent satisfaction rating.

I can say from experience that for some reason they must teach this in government school -- when in doubt, make service businesses get a bond.

This is not unique - Ohio tried to do the same thing.  But why is a person who sells on eBay an auctioneer at all?  Isn't eBay the auctioneer?  If I turn my stuff over to Christies to auction off, setting a reserve price in advance and having them take a sales commission, how is that any different than putting the same stuff on eBay.  In Ms. Pletz case, eBay is earning the auction commission.  She is just taking a retail margin.

Posted on January 31, 2008 at 11:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Licensing Everything

In case you thought the government was sane.  By a strict reading of the law, a license would be required to put a smoke detector in your own house.

Posted on January 25, 2008 at 01:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

No Dancing Allowed

Drew Carey's new Reason video focuses on San Tan Flats, a restaurant in the Phoenix area where local officials are trying to ban dancing.

I was on this case a year ago.

Posted on January 16, 2008 at 02:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

The Joys of Government Mandates

Today, I had to buy gas in Oregon.   Usually, I try to gas up just before I enter Oregon, in protest of their anachronistic laws making self-service gasoline illegal.  Unfortunately, I had not choice but to stop in a station in Portland.  Because of this government mandate, I had to sit in my car for 5 minutes waiting futilely for service.  Getting none, I finally got out and gassed up myself.  The state-mandated car-fueling employee, who couldn't manage to get to me to fill up my car, was at my car in 5 seconds once he saw that I was impinging on his territory by gassing up my own vehicle.  I told him full service was not service at all if I had to wait five minutes, and he could have me arrested if he wanted.  For the rest of the time I gassed my car, I was subjected to an ignorant left-coast lecture on how the mandate created jobs.  All this lecture took place, of course, while other customers waited for service.  I wonder what it would feel like to know with absolute certainty that your job was completely useless and existed only because of a trick of legislation.  People who owe their jobs to the government are always a lot more vigilent about protecting their turf than they are about providing service.

Posted on January 14, 2008 at 05:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (13)

Cool, There's a Word For This

I have been calling it "the health care Trojan horse for fascism."  It is the phenomenon where government funding of health care is used as an excuse to micro-regulate individual behaviors.  Apparently, the economic term is "government financing externalities."

These kinds of "government financing exernalities" are commonly used to justify government regulations that restrict individual freedom. Liberals use these arguments to justify such regulations as mandatory seat belt laws, smoking bans (because government may end up subsidizing smokers' medical treatment if they get lung cancer), and most recently restrictions on morgage terms (because the government may bail out people who end up defaulting). Conservatives have their own favorite government financing externality arguments. For example, many argue that we should restrict immigration because otherwise the immigrants might collect welfare benefits that are paid for by taxpayers. Obviously, the greater the role of government in financing a wide range of activities, the greater the number of potential government financing externalities. The expansion of government spending facilitates the expansion of government regulation intended to curb the negative effects of the spending.

Government financing externality arguments generate their appeal from the fact that they seem not to be paternalistic. We are willing to let you hurt yourself, advocates implicitly suggest, but we can't let your bad behavior hurt the taxpayers.

The libertarian solution to this problem is to eliminate the government financing that created the "externality" in the first place. I

Posted on January 13, 2008 at 09:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

It is Time To Reform the US Patent Office

The evidence is fairly clear that it is past time to reform the US Patent Office, particularly in its handling of software and Internet-related patents.  One of my ex-employers, Mercata, managed to obtain several patents (including a few that were awarded postmortem) that in effect patented volume discounting (though the method was sortof kindof clever).  Amazon famously managed to patent 1-click ordering, and numerous companies from Red Hat to Blackberry have been subject to expensive suits from various patent trolls, many of whom never took a single step to monetizing or developing their patents besides hiring lawyers. 

Stephan Kinsella at Mises has another good example:  Apple is attempting to patent the ordering of take-out food by cell phone.

Genius! Apple's done it! They've solved the problem of waiting in line for food or beverages. You place your order before you get it--but not the normal way--see, here's the pure genius of it--you place your order, get this, you won't believe it, wirelessly. Yep! Who would have thunk it? I mean, I know it's well known to call in a food order and drive there in time to get it, so you don't have to wait in line (and this might be done on a (wireless) cordless home phone, or a (wireless) cell phone, but I digress); or to place your order and receive one of those little blinky-buzzy things that tells you when your order is ready, so you don't have to wait in line (hey, aren't those little blinky wireless buzzers, er, wireless? but again, I digress); and it's known to communicate wirelessly; and in other countries, it's well-known to use cell phones to make purchases. And in McDonald's, you can place your order at a little automated computer kiosk (but maybe it uses wires! Whew--HUGE difference, lemme tellya).

But, my God, Apple! Oh, it's amazing--the innovative brilliance to think of using a cell phone--a cell phone, do you hear me!?--to place an order for a cuppajoe... so you don't have to stand in line... it's so beautiful, I'm about to shed tears... Sniff... Thank God for the US patent system giving them a king's monopoly on this unique idea. Otherwise, no one would have come up with this!. And let's only hope Apple gets a patent on this and is able to sue or threaten other companies to pay them royalties for all their remotely similar "wireless communications systems". After all, it's a small price to pay to have the American innovation we do.

There was a time when I was naive enough to think that the US Patent Office would step back and say -- "oops, we screwed up.  We really didn't know what we were doing when we were flooded with all of these business-model-masquerading-as-software patents.  Now we realize we need to get our act together."  Congress is going to have to step in and reduce or eliminate the patentability of software and business models (all other software other than computer code is subject copyright law, not patents).

But of course, Congress will never make these reforms, because forcing business competition into the courts under arbitrary and changing law rather than settling business model superiority in the marketplace generates far more political activism and campaign donations.  So why am I even bothering writing this.  Never mind.

Postscript: By the way, if I were running a software or Internet company, I would be filing every dumb patent application I could think of, because if I don't, someone else will and will and then I am stuck with a suit and trying to prove priority.  Which causes me to think of one way we might force reform -- a sort of reverse strike.  Every software company in 2008 should strive to file as many patent applications for every BS thing they can think of.   Maybe a deluged PTO might at that point force some kind of reform.

Posted on January 2, 2008 at 12:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Nanny's of the Year

A good end of the year list, via Maggie's Farm

Posted on December 29, 2007 at 08:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Who Elected Me This Guy's Parent?

My company, as I have written before, gets hosed on unemployment insurance in states like California where the government does nothing to police cheating.  Many of my seasonal employees take vacations during the winter, but draw unemployment from California because the state has absolutely no interest in really checking to see if they are looking for work (which is a legal requirement of drawing unemployment).

This week I received the  most amazing ruling from California on unemployment.  If you don't understand how it works, the state taxes me a percentage of my payroll in the state as unemployment insurance premiums.  The rate is set so that the premiums I pay are about equal to the payments my ex-employees receive.  This means that the rate can adjust up and down, and also means that any incremental payouts are eventually paid by my company.  The rules are that the employee must have been terminated, not voluntary quit, and can't have been terminated for cause (i.e. theft) though in the latter case states like California give employees a huge benefit of the doubt (so huge, that I have never been able to prove "cause" to their satisfaction, and end up paying the unemployment for people who stole from me).

So I got this notice this week:

The claimant quit your employment on his/her doctor's advice.   A leave of absence was not available or would not have resolved the problem.  Available information shows that the claimant had good cause for leaving work [the claimant admits in a second document to having had a motorcycle accident on his own time]

Great.  The state has agreed to exactly the facts as we submitted them.  Victory at last!  Or not:

Your reserve account will be subject to charges.

An employee of mine has a motorcycle accident on his own time, and my company has to pay his wages while he is hurt?  Why?  Because we were the nearest people at hand to grab the money from?  Who elected me this guy's parent?

Posted on December 26, 2007 at 10:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

The New Energy Bill

If you want to have mood lighting in your house that dims and doesn't turn everything a weird color, then go out and stock up on light bulbs today because the new energy bill just passed**.  I have already blogged plenty about the stupid stuff in this bill, but apparently Kevin Drum thinks its a good step.  I don't see how anyone of any political stripe can see this as a good bill.  Its just stupid in so many ways.  Yes, I understand as a libertarian, my energy bill would look like:

  1. get out of the way

But I can for a moment place myself in a position where I would imagine being worried about CO2 and dependence on fossil fuels.  For someone who really cares about these things, here is what a rational energy plan would look like:

  1. large federal carbon tax, offset by reduction in income and/or payroll taxes
  2. streamlined program for licensing new nuclear reactors
  3. get out of the way

** I personally have replaced most of the bulbs in my house, out of rational economic self-interest, with CF bulbs.  However, there are about 6 where CF's just won't do the job I need and about 6 more (3 above my shower and 3 outside) where current CF bulbs do not hold up to the moisture.   The desire by government to micro-manage me into using an inferior solution for these 12 locations is the same compulsion that has led to my not having a single toilet in my house that works  (the shower also sucked too until I figured out how to remove the government-mandated flow restricter from the shower head).

Posted on December 19, 2007 at 11:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (21)

Government Whipsaw

TJIC has a great roundup of 20th century lending regulation:

Once upon a time, when we had a free market, bankers made loans to poor people.

Then, FDR came into office, and he and the Democratic Congress passed laws to pressure banks to stop making loans to poor people.

Then, in the 1980s, Democrats heckled banks for not making sufficient loans to poor people, and pass laws to force them to change their ways.

Then, in the 21st century, Democrats heckled banks for making too many loans to poor people, and passed laws to force them to change their ways.

Posted on December 19, 2007 at 09:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Regulation Protects Industry Incombents

I often see folks who are arguing for increased government regulation of some industry observe that "even those greedy corporations in this industry support this new regulation."  For example, if a power company takes a public position to support greenhouse gas emissions, then that is used as evidence that such regulation must really be necessary if even the to-be-regulated are in favor.  Greg Craven makes such an argument in his global warming video that I refuted the other day.

There are two very good reasons a company in such a position might publicly support even a bad regulation.  The first is basic politics and PR:  If the regulation appears inevitable and has public support, then it is sometimes better to get out ahead of it and try to curry favor with politicians and the public to manage the regulation's implementation.   We all know corporations give donations to political candidates, but look at how they give them.  Corporate donations correlate far better with "who is expected to win" rather than "who would create the most favorable regulatory environment for the corporation."  In fact, corporations are highly likely to give donations to both candidates in a closely-fought election, and a lot of their giving is after the election, to the winner of course.

The other good reason that companies support regulation in their industry is because a lot of regulation is either designed to, or effectively, helps incumbent companies against new entrants.   I have talked about this many times with the questioning of licensing.  Global warming regulation and carbon trading systems in particular give us another great example:

BBC News understands the industry will be allowed to increase emissions as much as it wants by the European environment council. Aviation is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases. But Europe’s environment ministers look set to reject a plan for a strict cap on emissions from planes. Instead, airlines will be given a set number of permits to pollute.

Instead, airlines will be given a set number of permits to pollute.

If they overshoot their limit they will be allowed to buy spare permits from firms who have managed to cut emissions elsewhere - manufacturing industry, for instance.

So, current airlines in Europe will be given carbon permits that presumable support their current business level.  However, any new entrant, or any current player wishing to take market share from another airline, must spend money on carbon credits to grab this market share, carbon credits the current established incumbents got for free.  This in effect becomes a tax on market share gains.  This European-style protection of large corporations is typical, and is why the 30 largest companies in Europe are nearly the same as they were in 1965, but are completely different in the US.

This is also why, though I don't think expensive action on CO2 is justified, I think that if we do so the approach must be a carbon tax rather than cap and trade.   But cap and trade has so much potential for political hijinx and giving special deals to the politically influential that my guess is that politicians will want cap and trade.

Posted on December 19, 2007 at 09:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Not a Bailout?

I was watching CNBC over lunch and saw that Alan Greenspan has criticized the President's plan for freezing the interest rates on some adjustable rate loans.  He argued, and I agree, that it is bad to mess with contracts and markets, and bad to stand in the way of a real estate bubble that needs to correct.  He said that if the government feels sorry for certain mortgage holders, it should give them cash.

I am not too excited about giving away cash to people who made bad financing decisions, particularly since I have successfully weathered a couple of tough years in my business brought about in part by rising rates on our businesses adjustable rate loans.  However, I am very much a supporter of being as open and up-front as one can be in government taxing or spending.  For example, I prefer direct payments to farmers rather than price supports.  I prefer a carbon tax to CAFE-type mandates.  In both cases, while both alternatives probably cost the economy about the same in total, the cost-benefit tradeoff is more clear in the first alternative.  Which is why, predictably, politicians usually prefer the second alternative. 

All of this pops into my head because apparently the President's reaction was that he preferred his plan to a "bailout."  Huh?  How is his plan any more or less a bailout, except that the exact costs are more hidden and who pays the costs are more obscure.  The only real difference is that Greenspan's approach is probably less likely to set bad precedents for the future or to make mortgages more expensive for the rest of us, which the President's plan almost certainly will.

Posted on December 17, 2007 at 03:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

I Will Shut It Down First

We offer Wi-fi services to campers and recreators in some of the facilities we manage.  But I am shutting it all down if I am put in the position of policing how my customers use the Internet.

Posted on December 6, 2007 at 01:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (13)

New York Inspired Thoughts on City Planning

I really can't stand to be in New York City for very long.  The crowds, the hassles and the lines all conspire to drive me crazy.  Every second I feel like I am packed around by more people, and I find it horribly claustrophobic.

If your immediate reaction to this statement is to feel like I am attacking you or your lifestyle, you are wrong.  My purpose is not to say that those who love it here in NYC are making an incorrect choice, for they are not.  If they derive energy from the people and the density and all the amenities that density can justify, great.  It is in fact an interesting (and depressing) feature of modern discourse that my saying that I don't personally choose a certain lifestyle is found as threatening to people who do.  Why should it?  My only answer is that this zero-sum statist society of activists has created the expectation that the next step of anyone who expresses a negative preference for something will be to run to the government to get it banned.

The reason I bring my preference up at all is that the vast majority of city planners get a huge hard-on for New York.  Their goal is to turn the world into Manhattan.  They wish to maximize densities and minimize personal automobile use and, well, backyards.  In other words, a bunch of folks who have the ear of the government wish to use the coercive power of the government to turn the world into something I can't live in.  Again, I have no problem with New Yorkers having New York, but why does Scottsdale have to be New York too?

By the way, on a quasi-related topic, the Anti-Planner has an interesting observation:  Supposed gains in sustainability in high-density urban areas have more to do with making everyone poor than with the density  (emphasis added):

Many planning advocates take it for granted that sprawl and auto driving are inherently unsustainable. McShane shows just how this attitude can go when he describes Halle Neustadt, which some Swedish urban planners once described as “the most sustainable city in the world.”

McShane here refers to some field work done by the Antiplanner. To make a long story short, what made Halle Neustadt “sustainable” was poverty, and as soon its residents gained some wealth, many of them moved out and most of the rest bought automobiles, turning the cities many greenspaces into parking lots.

Owen then turns to climate change, which he describes as the last gasp of smart growth. Smart growth, he notes, “has always been a policy in search of a justification, a solution in search of a problem.” Now, in climate change, smart-growth advocates hope they have found such a problem.

One difficulty, McShane notes, is that there is no guarantee that smart growth is really more greenhouse-friendly than ordinary sprawl. Depending on load factors, Diesel trains can emit more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than autos, and concrete-and-steel high-rise condos can emit more CO2 than wood homes.

McShane refers in particular to an Australian study that found that “place doesn’t matter,” that is, low densities were not particularly greenhouse unfriendly. Instead, income was much more important, meaning that the high-rollers living in million-dollar downtown condos were generating far more greenhouse gases than moderate-income suburbanites.

Which implies that the "solution" to sustainability (whatever that is) and CO2 emissions is to promote poverty.  That may seem like a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration, but in fact the latest IPCC warning on climate relies heavily on the work of Nicholas Stern, who says the solution to global warming is to make western income levels look more like those in India (emphasis added):

Mr Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank, sends out a very clear message: “We need to cut down the total amount of carbon emissions by half by 2050.” At current levels, the per capita global emissions stand at 7 tonnes, or a total of 40-45 gigatonnes. At this rate, global temperatures could rise by 2.5-3 degrees by then. But to reduce the per capita emissions by half in 2050, most countries would have to be carbon neutral. For instance, the US currently has, at 20-25 tonnes, per capita emissions levels that are three times the global average.

The European Union’s emission levels stand at 10-15 tonnes per capita. China is at about 3-4 tonnes per capita and India, at 1 tonne per capita, is the only large-sized economy that is below the desired carbon emission levels of 2050. “India should keep it that way and insist that the rich countries pay their share of the burden in reducing emissions,” says Mr Stern.

Translation: India should stay poor and the West should become that way.

Posted on November 22, 2007 at 09:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Licensing Update

Awesome!  Via TJIC:

Ten minutes after finding out I passed the Bar, I changed my long-running position on licensure, which it turns out is awesome. Not only does it allow me to collect above market rents–which lawyers need because law school is so damned expensive–but it also keeps those who can’t afford law school or Barbri from practicing law. This is good because poor people make bad choices anyway, and I know that because one week in college I ate Ramen noodles for a week, and that’s the week I decided to major in music. Also your average poor person, usually cursed with some manner of hump or undeveloped siamese twin, will not fit into a decent suit…

In sum, remember when choosing a lawyer that I was the first one to finish the New York Bar exam, and though I probably didn’t get the highest score, I got the not-highest score the fastest. So if you’ve got the choice between an attorney who will show up at 7 AM sharp, with an obviously freshly dry-cleaned suit, and me, who will be jogging fifteen minutes behind him while pulling on a shirt and cleaning up some stubble with an electric razor, remember: the other guy’s smarter, of course, but I’m still competent. And a lot better rested. Plus I’m not going to judge you for running that red light and hitting that old lady–that’s what this case is about, right? Or was that my other client?–because chances are I nailed two or three myself on the way over this morning.

More on licensing

Posted on November 20, 2007 at 08:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Regulation is Anti-Competitive

I have frequently quote this Milton Friedman quote about regulation ostensibly being about the consumer, but in reality existing to protect one set of competitors from another:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

Here is further proof, via Scott Gustafson, right here in Arizona:

Valley tattoo-parlor owners, eager to protect and burnish the reputation of their industry, are calling for state regulation of the tattoo trade. 

Shop owners have teamed up to form the Arizona Tattoo and Piercing Association, and one of the organization's first steps was to meet this week with state legislators who say they now intend to introduce legislation to regulate the tattoo industry... 

"What we heard from the tattoo industry is that they want to be more respected, and unless there is some sort of regulation, shops can exist which will give a bad name to the whole industry," Schapira said. 

He said he intends to introduce legislation to bring regulation to the tattoo industry at the upcoming session of the Legislature. 

Burton-Cahill said she considers the matter "an issue of public health."... 

"This is becoming an increasing trend with the reputable operators," said Will Humble, assistant director of the department. "The majority of the shop owners are doing things in a sanitary way but a handful is not doing everything they can. The bigger members of the industry are trying to make sure those disreputable kinds of places don't give tattooing a bad name."

Here you see it all - ostensibly aimed at the consumer, but in reality aimed at sitting on a few competitors they want out.

Posted on November 18, 2007 at 11:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Anti-Trust is Anti-Consumer

Pursuing what has become a familiar theme on Coyote Blog, we again revisit anti-trust, and in the process, discover why the NY Times might be better off putting its editorial inanities back behind a firewall.

Writing about Intel, the NY Times editors say:

The abuse of market power to protect a monopoly hurts consumers and hinders innovation — locking out smaller rivals that may have better products with new features or lower prices. With an 80 percent to 90 percent share of the microprocessor market, Intel wields much more power than your local supermarket. Its threat to raise prices the moment a customer tries to buy from rival A.M.D. can lock in even the largest computer makers — which depend on Intel for most of their products and can’t simply swap all their processors overnight. And with such a level of control, Intel doesn’t have to exert itself to come up with new and better products.

Which I guess is why Lotus 1-2-3 must still have a hammerlock on the spreadsheet market, Creative must still dominate in MP3 players, IBM must still own the computer market, and GM must still rule the automotive roost.  How can any sentient human being who has lived through the past 20 years doubt that, particularly in technology, market dominance is as fleeting as the next technology cycle.   In fact, AMD several years ago made a huge penetration of the market with a series of processors a year or two ahead of Intel.  Most average consumers who can't even figure out how to attach a photo to an email never noticed, but among those who understood and cared, AMD ruled the roost.

Oh, and what was Intel's crime?

They say Intel is improperly protecting its stranglehold of the microprocessor market by offering big discounts and rebates to computer makers who minimize the use of processors made by rival Advanced Micro Devices, and punishing those who stray with higher prices.

Oh my god, they are offering discounts to loyal customers!  Don Boudreax gets right to the heart of it:

Monopolists raise prices; firms facing competition do not.  Intel keeps its prices low, meaning that it behaves competitively.  Yes, Intel's pricing practices make life more difficult for AMD and other rivals, but that's what competition is supposed to do.

The popular myth is that anti-trust policy is about protecting consumers.  Well, it may have been at one time or another, but currently it is all about protecting competitors who have political pull.  The Europeans are shameless about this, using anti-trust as a bludgeon to hamstring US companies who are out-competing EU home-grown competitors.  Now the NY Times wants to emulate this practice, explicitly calling on the government to force Intel to raise prices to make things easier for its competitors.

Update:  By the way, is there anyone out there who thinks Dell or H-P don't get the best possible pricing from Intel, with or without AMD purchases?  The coy little personal shopping example in the opening paragraph of the editorial is probably to help the reader forget that we are talking about Intel selling to customers who are big boys too.

Posted on October 29, 2007 at 02:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (17)

Government Limitations on Choice

I am a little late on this, but Ilya Somin has a nice post on Joel Waldfogel's book on capitalism and serving niche markets. 

University of Pennsylvania business Professor Joel Waldfogel argues that markets give us too few choices because they often fail to provide products that satisfy minority preferences. This is the opposite of Barry Schwartz's argument that markets are bad because they give people too many choices, which I criticized here. In one sense, Waldfogel's point is irrefutable: due to high startup costs or fixed costs and just to the general scarcity of resources in the world, there are some minority preferences that the market won't satisfy. The market is undoubtedly inferior to a hypothetical world in which all preferences, no matter how unusual, could be satisfied at zero cost. Not even the most hard-core of libertarian thinkers denies this. That, however, says little about the question of whether government could satisfy such minority preferences better, or whether it is even a good thing to provide products whose costs are greater than their benefits.

He makes a number of good points, including the one that first comes to my mind -- that in most cases, it is the government that tends to limit choice.

the relative lack of diversity of programming on radio stations - one of Waldfogel's principle examples of the inability of the market to satisfy minority interests - is actually a failure of government regulation. As Jesse Walker documents in this book, the FCC has for decades colluded with big broadcasters in suppressing alternative and "microradio" broadcasters, thereby greatly reducing the number of stations and making it very difficult to run a station that caters primarily to the interests of a small minority. Even a completely free broadcasting market would not satisfy all potential listeners. But it would have a great deal more diversity than is currently permitted by the FCC.

I called for the end of broadcast licensing here.  By the way, the author also ignores Sirius and XM, which have some incredibly niche offerings, and which happen to be in the least regulated part of broadcasting.  Why Sirius would have more niche choices than Clear Channel is explained here.

I could add many other examples onto this.  The FCC's regulation of the cell phone market creates the stupid environment we have today, arguing about locked iPhones.  In a previous post, I demonstrated how new government "a la carte pricing' regulation will lead to more homogenization and less focus on niche viewing audiences in the cable TV industry:

I can add a million examples.  Hair braiders are stepped on by the government in collusion with licensed beauticians.  Taxi companies get the government to quash low-cost or innovative shuttle transportation.  Discount casket companies are banned by government in collusion with undertakers.  Take dentistry.  Why do I need to go to an expensive dentist when 99% of my dental needs could be served by a hygienist alone?  Because the government colludes with dentists to make it so.  And don't even get me started on medicine.  My guess is a huge percentage of the conditions people come into emergency rooms with are treatable by someone without a 4 year medical degree and 6 years of internship.  Does one really need a full medical education to stitch up a kids cut knee?  Well, yes, you do today, because doctors collude with the government to make it so.  Why can't people specialize, with less than 10 years of education, on just, say, setting bones and closing cuts?  Why can't someone specialize in simple wills or divorces without a full law degree?

Every business where the government has licensing is an industry where the government is limiting consumer choice.  It is limiting the number of competitors, and it is specifying a narrow subset of ways in which a company can compete, eliminating service or product innovation.  In Colorado, my employees needs a license to take our customers fishing on a lake.  In Phoenix, you need a license to paint street numbers on a curb.  In Scottsdale you need a license to work out of your own home, a license to valet park cars, and a license to give massages.  And, of course, there are our tremendously dated liquor licensing laws.

Per Milton Friedman:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

Update:  Just for fun, I sat here and came up with 10 business ideas that would provide better service for customers, would reduce costs in notoriously high cost industries (e.g. medicine, dentistry, law) and which would make me a pile of money. which are all illegal due to licensing requirements that are set in collusion with current industry incumbents.

Posted on October 24, 2007 at 10:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Cost of "the Right to Build"

Virginia Postrel has a really interesting article in the Atlantic.com.  Often, home construction costs are disaggregated into the cost of land and the cost of the home.  She adds a third piece -- "the right to build" related to regulation and land use restrictions.  She cites a study that most of the cost of new homes in expensive markets like California are not building costs or even land acquisition costs, but the enormous costs involved in getting the government to let you build the house you want on your own land.

In a 2003 article, Glaeser and Gyourko calculated the two different land values for 26 cities (using data from 1999). They found wide disparities. In Los Angeles, an extra quarter acre cost about $28,000—the pure price of land. But the cost of empty land isn’t the whole story, or even most of it. A quarter- acre lot minus the cost of the house came out to about $331,000—nearly 12 times as much as the extra quarter acre. The difference between the first and second prices, around $303,000, was what L.A. home buyers paid for local land-use controls in bureaucratic delays, density restrictions, fees, political contributions. That’s the cost of the right to build.

And that right costs much less in Dallas. There, adding an extra quarter acre ran about $2,300—raw land really is much cheaper—and a quarter acre minus the cost of construction was about $59,000. The right to build was nearly a quarter million dollars less than in L.A. Hence the huge difference in housing prices. Land is indeed more expensive in superstar cities. But getting permission to build is way, way more expensive. These cities, says Gyourko, “just control the heck out of land use.”

These differences cascade into a number of areas:

Dallas and Los Angeles represent two distinct models for successful American cities, which both reflect and reinforce different cultural and political attitudes. One model fosters a family-oriented, middle-class lifestyle—the proverbial home-centered “balanced life.” The other rewards highly productive, work-driven people with a yen for stimulating public activities, for arts venues, world-class universities, luxury shopping, restaurants that aren’t kid-friendly. One makes room for a wide range of incomes, offering most working people a comfortable life. The other, over time, becomes an enclave for the rich. Since day-to-day experience shapes people’s sense of what is typical and normal, these differences in turn lead to contrasting perceptions of economic and social reality. It’s easy to believe the middle class is vanishing when you live in Los Angeles, much harder in Dallas. These differences also reinforce different norms and values—different ideas of what it means to live a good life. Real estate may be as important as religion in explaining the infamous gap between red and blue states.

The Dallas model, prominent in the South and Southwest, sees a growing population as a sign of urban health. Cities liberally permit housing construction to accommodate new residents. The Los Angeles model, common on the West Coast and in the Northeast Corridor, discourages growth by limiting new housing. Instead of inviting newcomers, this approach rewards longtime residents with big capital gains and the political clout to block projects they don’t like.

Posted on October 11, 2007 at 01:38 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

The Road To Fascism Is Paived with Pet Issues

I am looking forward to reading David Harsanyi's book Nanny StateHit and Run has an interview with some good stuff.  I think he gets at the nature of the threat very succinctly:

The problem is each citizen has a pet issue. It may be a smoking ban. Or the need to coerce the obese to stop stuffing their faces. And when you add all of those up we have the nanny state. While all these piddling intrusions can be separately viewed as non-threatening, once you bundle them together we have a movement with the potential to inflict tremendous damage on our basic freedoms.

Posted on September 28, 2007 at 08:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Disclosure: The Government Poses a Huge Threat to This Business Plan

At a recent meeting of the National Associate of State Treasurers (Yawn), John Podesta, after stating hilariously that what the world really needed was continued leadership by state treasurers on the global warming issue, argued: 

"Climate change is a threat to the long-term value of the economy and failure to calculate its impacts or manage or reduce its harm mean that our assets are being over valued, and the risks we face are being under reported."

I have a lot of interest in global warming, which is why I created a second blog Climate Skeptic to deal with these issues.  There is a lot about anthropogenic warming we do not understand.  But what is nearly a total 100% lock is that, at least for the United States, the cost to our economy of regulations to limit CO2 will be far higher than the likely net-negative effects of warming (Al Gore's 20 foot sea level rises and other anti-rational claims notwithstanding).  At its heart, isn't the risk really of damage from government regulation, rather than the climate?

Via Michael Giberson of Knowledge Problem, the NY Attorney General is concerned that certain companies are not disclosing global warming-related risks, but he is at least more honest about what those risks are:

Last Friday, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo sent subpoenas to five power generating companies seeking to find out if the companies had properly disclosed financial risks associated with proposed new coal-fired power plants.

All five of the letters accompanying the subpoenas are available from the NYAG's website.  Here is the opening paragraph of the letter to Dominion Resources, Inc.:

We are aware that Dominion Resources, Inc., (“Dominion”) has plans to build a coal-fired electric generating unit that would generate 585 megawatts of electricity without current plans to capture and sequester the resulting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The increase in CO2 emissions from the operating of this unit, in combination with Dominion’s other coal-fired plants, will subject Dominion to increased financial, regulatory, and litigation risks. We are concerned that Dominion has not adequately disclosed these risks to its shareholders, including the New York State Common Retirement Fund, which is a significant holder of Dominion stock. Pursuant to the Attorney General’s investigatory authority under New York General Business Law § 352, and New York Executive Law § 63(12), accompanying this letter is a subpoena seeking information regarding Dominion’s analysis of its climate risks and its disclosures of such risks to investors.

A little later, the letter gets more specific: "For example, any one of the several new or likely regulatory initiatives for CO2 emissions from power plants – including state carbon controls, EPA’s regulations under the Clean Air Act, or the enactment of federal global warming legislation – would add a significant cost to carbon-intensive coal generation, such as the new coal plant planned by Dominion." In addition to Dominion, the NYAG's office sent subpoenas to AES, Dynegy, Peabody, and Xcel. Here is the story from the New York Times.

The letter doesn't say so explicitly, but I'm sure the message was clear, that in addition to new or likely legislative actions and substantive regulatory initiatives, the companies also faced the risks and costs associated with being harassed by swarms of officers from the NYAG's office.

You can see what is going on here -- following in the rich tradition established by the egregious Eliot Spitzer, the NY AG is again overreaching his office's authority and attempting to set regulatory policy rather than enforce it.  But at least he is honest in portraying the main risk to be a government regulatory backlash on these companies.

Thinking about this, couldn't every company put this in their boilerplate?  I mean, for most of us, the number one risk we face all the time is that the government will either do something to us specifically or the economy in general to hurt results.  Let's just have everyone add the line "the government poses a huge risk to our business plan" and be done with it.

Posted on September 19, 2007 at 08:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

What if the Wage Isn't Required for Living?

For those who are new to my blog, I run recreation sites like campgrounds, mostly with retired people as labor.  Retired people love these jobs, because they are looking for a nice place to live for the summer in their RV.  Often they are willing to work just for their site and utilities, though as a private entity I must pay them minimum wage as well (when they work for the government, they don't get paid).  We sometimes get into odd situations -- for example, because of a disability payment or Social Security limits, it is not unusual I have employees that ask me if I could not pay them or pay them below minimum wage, and I have to tell them no (minimum wage is absolutely required, even if the worker begs to be paid less).

This relationship works out well.  The retired persons bring conscientious and low-cost management to the campgrounds.  Our employees, who usually are living comfortably off their retirement savings or pension, get a few extra bucks and a nice place to live for the summer.  These folks may work a bit slow, but I can afford that at $6 an hour.

But what happens when a state like Maryland, because it's got its blood up against Wal-Mart, passes a $11.30 "living" wage?  A number of problems result.  First, a camping night generally consumes, on average, about an hour of labor.  At $6 an hour with 22% burden for payroll taxes and workers comp, this totals to $7.32  per night of camping in labor.  At $11.30 an hour, this totals $13.79 per night of camping.  Most of our campsites are tent camping sites and more primitive natural campgrounds (see here) and a typical price for a night of camping is $16.  This is a very low price for camping when compared to large RV parks, and makes our sites particularly popular with lower income people.  The Marlyland minimum wage would add at least $6.50 to this price, or increase prices by 41% in one swoop.  And this is before considering second order cost increases in other purchased goods and utilities due to the minimum wage increase.

The other problem is one I would have thought so obvious that it is amazing to me that no one seems to talk about it -- not everyone earning minimum wage is trying to live on it.  Certainly people new to the work force are one example, as they are often willing to trade lower initial wages for training and experience and a work record and other valuable but non-quantifiable benefits.  In my case, while I am perfectly happy to tolerate lower productivity from older, retired workers at $6 an hour (the average age of my employees is over 70), when wages are forced arbitrarily to over $11, then I have to think about changing my business model, substituting younger workers for older folks.  As any economist would predict, lower productivity workers get pushed out of the market.

For more on this topic, I discussed four case studies in my business dealing with the minimum wage.

Posted on September 18, 2007 at 01:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

More Anti-Consumer Regulation

We seem to be getting these stories in batches lately (others here and here) but leave it to the EU to trump even San Francisco in anti-consumer stupidity:

Microsoft lost its appeal of a European antitrust order Monday that obliges the technology giant to share communications code with rivals, sell a copy of Windows without Media Player and pay a $613 million fine - the largest ever by EU regulators.

The EU Court of First Instance ruled against Microsoft on both parts of the case, saying the European Commission was correct in concluding that Microsoft was guilty of monopoly abuse in trying to use its power over desktop computers to muscle into server software.

It also said regulators had clearly demonstrated that selling media software with Windows had damaged rivals.

"The court observes that it is beyond dispute that in consequence of the tying consumers are unable to acquire the Windows operating system without simultaneously acquiring Windows Media Player," it said.

"In that regard, the court considers that neither the fact that Microsoft does not charge a separate price for Windows Media Player nor the fact that consumers are not obliged to use that Media Player is irrelevant."

Yes, you are reading it correctly.  Microsoft is being penalized for giving the consumer too much value by bundling in additional features and programs for free into its OS.  And just to make sure that you understand that this has nothing to do with the consumer, but is purely a complaint of large competitors that can't keep up, they make it clear that they want the bundling stopped even if it does not change the price of the OS one penny (pfennig or whatever the Euro equivalent is).  They want the product stripped down and are deliberately trying to reduce its value to customers.

Gwynnie at Maggie's Farm has a funny comment, saying, "Microsoft is guilty of succeeding while American."

Posted on September 17, 2007 at 01:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (15)

Killing Entrepeneurship

Regulation is a frequent topic on this blog, and one of the points I try to make over and over is that most supposedly pro-consumer regulation is in fact put in place to protect incumbents from competition and new entrants.   It's worth repeating this Milton Friedman quote:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

Apparently, the NY Times has discovered the phenomenon, and argues that it is accelerating under the Bush administration.  I have no evidence to refute this claim, though I note that the NY Times offers no evidence in support of it either.

Never-the-less, it certainly is a feature of most governments to try to protect politically powerful businesses against competitors, foreign and domestic.  Basically, the entire German and French economy is built on this practice, which is why the top corporations in these countries in 1960 are still the top companies today, whereas the list has completely turned over in the US.  Our economy thrives because of entrepreneurship.  New entrants replace senescent competitors, or at least keep the pressure on them so they stay sharp and focused.

This is an enormous issue in my business.  My industry is characterized by about 4-5 larger companies that operate many recreation facilities, of which we are one, and hundreds or perhaps thousands of individual operators.  Over the last five years, the US and state governments have passes a myriad of rules and regulations that are making it virtually impossible for smaller companies to compete.  I don't know if these are being suggested by any of the larger players (they certainly aren't coming from me) but these regulations are serving the purpose of strangling smaller competitors and making it nearly impossible for new entrants to compete.

Posted on September 17, 2007 at 10:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Worst Law I Have Seen In A While

From San Francisco, of course! via Market Power

Prop. G obligates the Planning Commission to conduct a hearing for any chain store (also known as "formula retail") proposed in neighborhood commercial districts.

Formula retail is defined as any retail sales establishment with 11 or more stores in the United States that maintains two or more standardized features, including decor, facade, color scheme, uniforms, signage or a trademark.

Incredibly, freaking 58% of the voters passed this turkey.  It's hard to know where to start, but here are a few thoughts:

  • Equal protection?  Anyone?  Buehler? 
  • One of the most obvious punishments of success I have ever seen.  If you only have one store, you are fine.  But if you are succesful and your concept flourishes and you have many stores, then you are automatically penalized.
  • One of the single most anti-consumer pieces of legislation I have ever seen.  Stores using a proven formula that has been succesful in other areas have a sort of consumer good housekeeping seal of approval.  They are by definition retail establishments where many consumers have already voted with their wallet "we like this."  So in effect, proven customer favorites are penalized vs. less proven concepts.  What an odd zoning concept when you put it that way -- we don't want anyone doing business here that has already proven themselves to be succesful with customers.  We only want you if you have no proof customers want what you are selling.

The other night I was staying in Arcadia, CA (a suburb of LA near Pasadena) on what I was told was the old Route 66.  There were a ton of restaurant choices, many of which I did not recognize, and there was a Chile's, which I grew up with in Texas.  I am positive some of those restaurants would have provided me a more satisfying meal than Chile's.  I am also sure some would have been worse.  Sometimes I am in the mood to find something new, but that night I just wanted a predictable experience.  All that stuff San Francisco is trying to penalize -- those standardized features -- bring real value to many consumers.

Posted on September 14, 2007 at 11:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (25)

Serving My Kids Alcohol

Increasingly MADD and the tea-totaling Nazis are after parents who allow kids to drink alcohol at home.

Research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2004 found that adolescents whose parents permitted them to attend unchaperoned parties where drinking occurred had twice the average binge-drinking rate. But the study also had another, more arresting conclusion: Children whose parents introduced drinking to the children at home were one-third as likely to binge....

In fact, the American Medical Association has actually put out press releases lamenting the fact that most teens get their first sip of alcohol from their parents. I'd say that's exactly who ought to be giving it to them.

While I have no intention of throwing wild parties and getting my kids' friends drunk, I do intend to introduce alcohol as well as a respect for it at the dinner table, just as my parents did.  I am a firm believer that letting you kids drink a bit in the very controlled home environment is the best possible way to take the edginess and mystery out of drinking -- after all, how cool can it be if you do it with your parents.

Posted on September 10, 2007 at 09:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (15)

Government Priorities

The government is worried that you will do harm to yourself if you self-medicate pain pills.  So what is their response?  They will throw you in jail for 25 years.  Yeah, much better to have someone rot in jail for a quarter of a century than make a bad decision that only affects himself.

Posted on September 10, 2007 at 08:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

LA Proposes to Institutionalize Red-Lining Poor Neighborhoods

For years, banks have been sued for "red-lining" poor neighborhoods, meaning they were accused of purposefully avoiding doing business in these poor areas.  National retail chains have been accused of something similar, causing poorer the oft-commented-on irony that poorer neighborhoods often have the highest retail prices.

The City of Los Angeles seems to like this practice and wants to pass new legislation aimed at further limiting retail choices in poorer neighborhoods:

"Amid worries of an obesity epidemic and its related illnesses, including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, Los Angeles officials, among others around the country, are proposing to limit new fast-food restaurants -- a tactic that could be called health zoning." Zoning restrictions on fast-food outlets in towns such as Concord, Mass. and Calistoga, Calif. are typically based on traffic or aesthetic concerns, rather than a determination to second-guess what residents choose to eat. The proposed L.A. restrictions would not be city-wide but would instead be specifically targeted to the city's poorest sections in and around South Central. Mark Vallianatos, director of something called the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College (more about it), says "bringing health policy and environmental policy together with land-use planning" is "the wave of the future."

Jesus, the Center for Food and Justice?  Another clear leading edge of health care as the Trojan Horse for fascism, which I have been warning against for years.

Posted on September 10, 2007 at 08:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Drug Prohibition Doing Nothing To Affect Teen Use

One of the arguments for banning adult legal access to drugs like marijuana (and even allergy medications) is that it helps to prevent abuse of these drugs by underage kids.  This would be nice to test in a true control group setting, but we really don't have the opportunity under current laws to do so.  But we can work by proxy.  We can compare drugs that are illicit for everyone, like marijuana, to drugs that are legal for adults but not for minors, like tobacco. 

If drug warriors are correct, teenage tobacco use should be much higher than use of other illicit drugs.  This is particularly true because the proxy is an imperfect one, since the tobacco is a far less intimidating drug to try than, say, heroin.  However, it turns out not to be the case.  The new figures our out from our friendly US Government drug warriors, and it turns out that tobacco use is barely higher among teens than illicit drug use.

For example, the study shows that past month tobacco use among kids 12-17 was 12.9% in 2006, while past month illicit drug use in the same group was 9.8% (tables G.16 and G.7).  That's lower, but certainly not decisively so.  Both of these use numbers have fallen since 2002 at about the same rate.

Even more interesting are the figures for the number of kids 12-17 who had initiated use of certain substances in the past year (table G.26).  In that year, 2.45 million had initiated cigarette use, but 2.79 million had initiated illicit drug use.  Further, when asked if certain substances carried "great risk" in trying to purchase them, 68.7% of underage cigarette smokers said yes (table G.25).   This response was 10 or more points higher than that of teenage occasional users marijuana, cocaine, or even heroin.  In short, teenagers are saying it is more difficult and/or riskier to support cigarette use than it is to support a weekly marijuana, cocaine, or heroin habit -- exactly the opposite of the drug warriors' argument for prohibition  (but consistent with the libertarian argument that bringing these drug sales above ground will make underage purchase more visible and easier to combat).

HT: Hit and Run for the link

Posted on September 10, 2007 at 11:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (19)

Not Yet, Mr. King

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Today I am spending much of the day filling out my EEO-1 report for the government.  This report requires me to officially report the race of each of my employees.  One of the most distasteful things I have to do all year.

Posted on August 24, 2007 at 11:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)

A Parable of Cars and Contact Lenses

I drive into my local Shell station to fill up, and stick my card in the pump, but the pump refuses to dispense.  I walk into the office and ask the store manager why I can't get gasoline.  She checks my account, and says "Mr. Meyer, your Volvo fuel prescription has expired."  I say, "Oh, well its OK, I am sure I am using the right gas."  She replies, "I'm sorry, but the law requires that you have to have a valid prescription from your dealership to refill your gas.  You can't make that determination yourself, and most car dealerships have their prescriptions expire each year to make sure you bring the car in for a checkup.  Regular checkups are important to the health of your car.  You will need to pay for a service visit to your dealership before we can sell you gas."  I reply, "RRRRRRR."

OK, so if this really happened we would all scream SCAM!  While we all recognize that it may be important to get our car checked out every once in a while, most of us would see this for what it was:  A government regulation intended mainly to increase the business of my Volvo dealership's service department by forcing me to pay for regular visits.

So why don't we cry foul when the exact same situation occurs every day with glasses and contact lenses?  The parable above is nearly exactly the conversation I had the other day with the operator at 1-800-CONTACTS, except with "gas" substituted for "contacts".  I know that my contact lens prescription is a bit out of date, but I really needed them for a trip, and in terms of safety, a slightly out-of-date contact lens in my eye is much better than none (My contacts are about -6.5, which means I am pretty blind without them).  No joy, though.  I did not have time to get to the doctor, so I wore -5.0 contacts I found in a drawer just to have something.  The operator told me that doctors have the prescriptions expire each year so that I am forced to come see them.  Why with eye doctors do we consider this "for my own good" when in any other profession it would be called a scam? 

In fact, each year I know my eyes get about 0.25 worse on each lens.  I would really like to just self-medicate and order myself the next level up, but of course that is way out of bounds.  Can't trust people to figure out their own lens correction (though we do allow this for reading glasses, go figure).

Posted on July 13, 2007 at 11:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (29)

Internet Radio Day of Silence

I found this when I went to Pandora today (one of those applications that makes the Internet so entirely cool and worth all the spam and flame wars).  I found this message:

Hi, it's Tim from Pandora,

I'm sorry to say that today Pandora, along with most Internet radio sites, is going off the air in observance of a Day Of Silence. We are doing this to bring to your attention a disastrous turn of events that threatens the existence of Pandora and all of internet radio. We need your help.

Ignoring all rationality and responding only to the lobbying of the RIAA, an arbitration committee in Washington DC has drastically increased the licensing fees Internet radio sites must pay to stream songs. Pandora's fees will triple, and are retroactive for eighteen months! Left unchanged by Congress, every day will be like today as internet radio sites start shutting down and the music dies.

A bill called the "Internet Radio Equality Act" has already been introduced in both the Senate (S. 1353) and House of Representatives (H.R. 2060) to fix the problem and save Internet radio--and Pandora--from obliteration.

I'd like to ask you to call your Congressional representatives today and ask them to become co-sponsors of the bill. It will only take a few minutes and you can find your Congresspersons and their phone numbers by entering your zip code here.

Your opinion matters to your representatives - so please take just a minute to call.

Visit www.savenetradio.org to continue following the fight to Save Internet Radio.

As always, and now more than ever, thank you for your support.  


  -Tim Westergren
  (Pandora founder)

Posted on June 25, 2007 at 11:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

More on Price Gouging

Gary Galles at Mises has a good post on why currently proposed "anti-gas-gouging" law is rediculously vague and effectively ex-post-facto law.  I have made this point before as well.

I wanted to comment on something different.  As he begins:

In May, the House of Representatives passed a bill that could lead to fines as high as $3 million per day for gasoline price gouging, which it defined as charging a price that “grossly exceeds the average price…offered for sale by that person during the 30 days prior” or “grossly exceeds the price at which the same or similar gasoline…was readily obtainable in the same area from other competing sellers.”

Lets take these two cases in reverse order.  If I am charging a prices that “grossly exceeds the price at which the same or similar gasoline…was readily obtainable in the same area from other competing sellers," then what for God's sakes is the harm?  People will just go to one of the "readily obtainable" other sources.  My business will take a beating, but that's my problem.

The first case is an open invitation for gas lines.  It does not say “grossly exceeds the average price…offered for sale by that person during the 30 days prior unless there is some kind of supply discontinuity or change in wholesale prices.”   It sets up a clear if-then:  If you raise your prices by some amount we later rule to be too much, we can fine you $3 million per day.  In the confusion of a supply disruption, gas stations will be afraid to raise their prices despite the new supply-demand reality. They will be afraid of this kind of arbitrary enforcement.  Therefore, the first 100 random people who show up to top off their tanks  or fill their generators to keep their TV running will get the available supply, rather than letting price allocate the gas to the people who value it the most.

I lived through gas lines of the 1970's.  In fact, as the low-driver-on-the-totem-pole, it was my job in the family to cruise around town looking for an open station and then sitting in whatever line I found.  I don't think younger people remember, but in major cities (not in the countryside) in the 1970s, there were weeks when there simply was no gas to be found.  Since that experience, I have pleaded to allow gas gouging in supply emergencies.

Posted on June 13, 2007 at 03:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

What Drives Government Regulation

Since the mid-1970s, various people have decried the growing amount of money spent on elections.  They have tried numerous approaches to limiting campaign funding, all to no avail.  In part, their lack of success has been due to off-and-on efforts of the courts to protect political speech.  However, a large reason for their failure has been that they are addressing a symptom, rather than the cause of the problem.

The real cause is the growing regulatory state.  Without regulation, there would be only limited incentive for corporations and individuals to make large political contributions.   Regulation (combined with taxation) is the fountain from which most campaign money springs.  Threaten to regulate a sector, and you automatically put politicians in the position of creating winners and losers, both of whom will spend money to try to improve their fates.

Holman Jenkins makes this point in today's WSJ($):

Being a shrewd bunch, the private equity industry presumably has gotten the message: When vast new fountains of wealth open up in the economy, Congress must receive its ransom in campaign donations. Delivering the wagged finger were none other than Max Baucus and Charles Grassley, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, who've taken to musing aloud about how the tax code's treatment of private equity's lately fabulous profits might be revised.

The bipartisan nature of the initiative should reassure readers that there's no philosophical issue here. It's purely bidness. You, private equity, have been remiss in your patriotic duty. Cough up.

Anyone who recalls the junk bond wars of the 1980s will notice a pattern. Then too, Congress was awash in proposals for taxing the takeover industry: by eliminating the interest deduction for junk bond interest, by imposing an excise tax on assets acquired in a hostile takeover, etc. These ideas came to naught, not least because of the fright the proposals put into the stock market. But the endless debate unlimbered a delicious flow of campaign dollars from all concerned.

It appears that everything will turn out OK for the politicians:

But the message has been received. Private equity has now set up a Washington trade group and has opened its pockets to politicians, with Barack Obama being a special heartthrob. Oh, happy day for members of the House and Senate tax committees, who lived for years off the junk bond wars and now will live for years off the private equity plutocrats.

I remember stock brokers used to say that they had the best job in the market, because whether the market went up or down, they still got their money.  The same is true of politicians -- whether the regulations help or hurt, whether they end up benefiting the incumbents or the new entrants -- the politicians will still get their money.

Posted on June 13, 2007 at 10:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Licensing Protects Incumbents, Not Consumers

Scott Gustafson's Arizona Economics blog points to another example of a local regulatory body, in this case the Structural Pest Commission, bravely protecting incumbent competitors from new competition.  As background, you should know that though we don't have nearly as many pests as most places, the ones we do have (e.g. scorpions) are essentially unkillable with legal chemical technologies.  The best you can hope for is to tighten up your hose to keep them out.  And we have these lovely rodents called roof rats, sort of like squirrels on steroids who are not cute, who like to come in and take up residence in attics and walls.   So a lot of pest control here is about putting up screens over vents and setting traps rather than spraying chemicals.

As retirees go, Rich Hanley seems like a decent enough guy. He's a former cop who came to town a few years ago. He obeys the law. He pays his taxes. In 2004, he started up a little business, repelling roof rats.  

Specifically, he covers vents with steel mesh so the little fellas can't come calling. 

Once, we would have applauded such enterprise. Now, we issue cease-and-desist orders. 

Yep, it's true. My favorite state bureaucrats over at the Structural Pest Control Commission have decided that Hanley has violated the law... 

"The problem is his advertising," says Lisa Gervase, executive director of the agency... 

The pest-control cops launched a seven-week probe, concluding that Hanley can do the work. He just can't tell people why he's doing the work. Thus, his sales pitch - "Keep birds and rodents from invading your home" - has to go. 

Gervase said the state would have no problem if Hanley says he's covering vents to keep leaves out. "But if he's advertising that he can keep pests from invading your home, that's pest control, and you need a license for pest control."

Its nice, I guess, when you trade group can get the government to use its coercive power to do you work for you.  Much more on licensing as anti-competitive behavior rather than consumer protection.

Posted on June 12, 2007 at 11:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

More Anti-Trust Fun and Games

Regulators can always declare a merger to be monopolistic -- they just have to define the market narrow enough.  For example, if the FCC and FTC are considering calling satellite radio a separate market from terrestrial radio as an excuse to stop the Sirius-XM merger.  The NAB, the trade group fro terrestrial radio, has been going ape trying to block the merger, knowing that the two together will cause its stations to bleed listeners to satellite even faster than in the past.  Hilariously, though, the NAB is having to twist itself into pretzels as it goes to Defcon 1 trying to stop the merger by ... arguing that satellite radio is a separate market from terrestrial radio and thus the merger is monopolistic.  Begging the question, then, why they are working so hard to block it, particularly after the FCC has allowed huge consolidation and merger activity among NAB members.

Now, history is repeating itself yet again, as the FTC threatens to block the Whole Foods - Wild Oats merger because... it claims organic food grocery stores are a separate market from other grocery stores.  Uh, right.  Extra points, as in satellite radio, for claiming consumers will be irreparably harmed by a merger in a "market" that did not even exist 2 decades ago.

Posted on June 7, 2007 at 08:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

That 70's Show

Straight from the 1970's, the US's golden era of bumbling government intervention in the economy, come the same proposals that worked oh-so-well the first time around.  Democracts blame big oil for gas prices, and propose channeling solutions from Hugo Chavez:   (via Q&O)

Congressional Democrats are taking aim at big oil companies as U.S. gasoline prices near a record average $3.05 a gallon.

Although industry experts doubt it will have any effect, half a dozen senators gathered in front of a Washington service station to push their own remedies to the situation, the Washington Post said.

The latest average price for a gallon of unleaded regular gas was $3.042, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge report.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Congress to consider breaking up the giant companies. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., pushed for a windfall profits bill.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., promoted her anti-price-gouging bill, which the Senate Commerce Committee adopted earlier this week.

Gee, since every transaction in a free market requires a willing buyer and a willing seller, wouldn't it be just as correct to blame profligate consumers for the increase?  And why is it I don't remember any of these actors in Congress rushing to clamp down on greedy sellers when home resale prices skyrocketed far more than gas prices have?  Does anyone remember Maria Cantwell imposing windfall profits taxes on home-sellers?  Or, for that matter, on sellers of Internet stocks who financed their campaigns selling stock above $80 that would soon trade only in the single digits?  And by the way, how can any party who elected Maria Cantwell to the Senate seriously call members of the other party "stupid."

Let's do a thought experiment.  Let's assume that through a series of government actions, Congress is able to return oil profits "to the people."  Oil company profits are now reduced to zero.  That should make a huge difference in gas prices, right?  Well, out of a $3.00 gas price, taxes and the retailers margin are probably 75 cents or so (46 cents tax, 10% or 30 cent retail margin).  This leaves $2.25 for the greedy oil companies.  It turns out large oil companies like Exxon make about 6% of revenues in the bad times, and 10% in the good times, like now.  So, this leaves a profit of  14-22 cents per gallon.  The "people" are saved!  Gas prices can come down by a whole 15-20 cents.  Of course, in return for saving a buck or two on fill-ups, we've nuked the whole incentive system for investment and finding new oil and improving efficiency.  Gas prices over time will rise much higher than they are now, and lines will start reappearing at gas stations, but that probably won't show up until after the next election, so why should anyone in Congress care?

Posted on May 11, 2007 at 09:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (17)

Anti-Trust is Anti-Consumer

This is part 158 or so of a series of posts on how anti-trust law is often portrayed as being pro-consumer, but whose effect in practice is usually just to politically powerful competitors rather than consumers.

I have written a couple of posts on the National Association of Broadcasters hypocritical opposition to the Sirius-XM satellite merger. Radley Balko takes on this same topic:

So when XM and Sirius announced a highly-publicized merger this year, everything changed for the NAB. Clearly, the two startups it so feared for so long were floundering. And with no other licensed satellite providers around, the NAB's position on the merger became clear: What's bad for satellite is good for the NAB. So the NAB would oppose an XM-Sirius alliance.

Problem is, the only colorable argument against the merger is that it would create a monopoly for satellite radio. XM and Sirius cleverly (and probably accurately) headed that objection off by noting that satellite radio competes with a variety of technologies for the listener's ear. This put the NAB in an awkward position. The lobby would have to argue that despite its 15-year effort to derail satellite radio, satellite radio was not a competitor. Of course, the harder the NAB fights and the more money the NAB spends to promote this message, the clearer it becomes that the NAB fears the competition posed by an XM-Sirius alliance. In effect, the more the NAB fights the merger, the more it undermines its own argument against it.

But the NAB has a lot of clout, since it controls most of the media.  Here, for example, is the Boston Globe whoring for the NAB without mentioning that their parent company is a member of the NAB.

Posted on April 20, 2007 at 11:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

No Free Stuff For Our Consumers!

Arizona is taking another typical step to protect incumbent businesses against new competitors:

"Arizona regulators have ordered a Seattle-based online home price estimator to stop doing business in the state." Zillow.com has won wide popularity by applying algorithms to publicly available data to come with rough estimates of the value of existing homes, which it makes available for free through its site. The Arizona Board of Appraisal says that Zillow should not be dispensing such information without an appraiser's license.

Gee, we'd hate to give people the impression that a whole profession could be replaced by a few computer algorithms and some data base lookups.   I am not sure why, historically, but state governments have an incredible propensity to protect everyone in the real estate field from competition.  For years they have enforced licensing on real estate agents to help support that cartel that the Internet is only just now starting to break up.

By the way, here is another way you could write the headline for this news:  "Arizona Bans Giveaways.  Consumers Must Pay for Everything."  Oh, and my neighbor just sold his house.  The final price he got was within 4% of the Zillow estimate.  I will say that from the houses I am familiar with, they do a pretty good job (though I am sure they make mistakes, for example in neighborhoods with a lot of gentrification and a mix of old and new homes). 

Posted on April 16, 2007 at 03:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

$5000 A Day Fine for Dancing

Congrats Pinal County, which border phoenix to the southeast, for pushing government intrusiveness to a new level:

At the conclusion of what Pinal County officials said was the longest code compliance hearing in the county’s history, San Tan Flat owner Dale Bell was ordered to pay an initial $5,000 fine Tuesday for customers dancing in the open-air portion of the restaurant. He will also be fined $5,000 for every day people dance at his restaurant starting Feb. 17.

Bell, who does not advertise or encourage dancing at San Tan Flat, acknowledges that people do dance on weekend nights and it’s usually parents with children or senior couples. He has even put up signs discouraging it.

   “It’s impossible to ... ensure no one breaks out in the waltz or two step,” Bell said....

County Attorney Seymour Gruber said dancing outside violates a county code because it’s not happening in an enclosed area with walls and a roof. The county wants Bell to stop the dancing, limit it to inside only or get a special use permit which requires public input from neighboring property owners.

We wouldn't want people dancing without wall or a roof, would we?  I mean, there is probably a 0.5% chance they could get rained on or something.  If you are thinking this is some grizzled biker joint or a shack of a place, you are wrong.  Its actually one year old and quite nice - check out the picture.  For those of you in other parts of the country, where the idea of a family honky-tonk may seem odd, this concept is very popular in Arizona.

So why is this government harassment going on?  Well I have gotten better at decoding these things, and my sense is that it started with noise complaints, which many commercial establishments get:

There have been no complaints against San Tan Flat for dancing, but both the county and Bell have received noise complaints about the live music. The restaurant has not been cited for noise because the volume has been within acceptable levels.

So the county got noise complaints, and my guess is that one of the complainers had some strong political pull (or else they would never have pursued it this far).  Particularly since this is not a population-dense area, and there is little housing directly nearby (see Google satellite map, just click on satellite in the upper right to see all the surrounding, uh, dirt).  I mean it's right next to an airport, for god sakes.   Thus, wanting to satisfy what could only be a high-profile complainer, the county moved in and pulled out the rubber glove and gave the restaurant a good probing.  And, since it is impossible to be in compliance with every stupid ordinance on the books (many conflict, so that you can't be in compliance) the city found something they thought they could make stick.  The only issue I can't decode is whether they are trying to use this as a bargaining chip to get operating hour or noise level changes, or if they are using it a s a club to close the place down.  It probably depends mostly on how much juice the key complainer has who is driving this.

The good news is that the IJ is on the case.

PS-  If you really want to get pissed off, read some of the other economic liberty cases being handled right now by the IJ.  Many of them are great examples of a point I have made for years, that state licensing of professions is more about protecting the professions from competition than they are about protecting the consumer.  If you haven't seen it, George Will had a great editorial on the same topic, which includes this gem:

In New Mexico, anyone can work as an interior designer. But it is a crime, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to a year in prison, to list yourself on the Internet or in the Yellow Pages as, or to otherwise call yourself, an “interior designer” without being certified as such. Those who favor this censoring of truthful commercial speech are a private group that controls, using an exam administered by a private national organization, access to that title.

This is done in the name of “professionalization,” but it really amounts to cartelization. Persons in the business limit access by others — competitors — to full participation in the business.

…in Las Vegas, where almost nothing is illegal, it is illegal — unless you are licensed, or employed by someone licensed — to move, in the role of an interior designer, any piece of furniture, such as an armoire, more than 69 inches tall. A Nevada bureaucrat says that “placement of furniture” is an aspect of “space planning” and therefore is regulated — restricted to a “registered interior designer.” Placing furniture without a license? Heaven forfend.

Posted on March 27, 2007 at 09:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

The Boston Globe's Non-Existent Ethics

I am a big fan of the Mises blog, but in this post on a Boston Globe editorial they miss something pretty substantial.  S.M. Oliva takes as a starting point this absurd editorial on the pending XM-Sirius merger:

the proposed merger of the two US satellite radio firms is premature at best. At this point, it should be rejected. In half a decade, the two firms have gone from barely broadcasting to throwing up their hands in defeat. But it is hardly clear that the nation's two satellite radio firms will wither and die unless they unite, or that a merger would benefit consumers.

Oliva does a good job at debunking this argument, but why bother?  It is patently absurd.  How is can one possible define a market at just satellite radio?  Where have I heard this same ridiculous argument before?  Aha!  Right in the press release from the National Association of Broadcasters, the organization most threatened by satellite radio and who would benefit most if it would just go away.

When the FCC authorized satellite radio, it specifically found that the public would be served best by two competitive nationwide systems. Now, with  their stock prices at rock bottom and their business model in disarray because of profligate spending practices, they seek a government bail-out to avoid competing in the marketplace.

Of course, even a combined XM-Sirius would have to compete in the marketplace -- in fact with the members of the NAB, whose asses Satellite has been kicking for a few years.

Oh, but here is the good part: the Boston Globe's parent company is a member of the NAB, owning two radio stations and 9 TV stations.  So in fact, the Globe was not editorializing in favor of the consumer, but in fact was shilling for its own trade group, working to weaken a dangerous source of new competition for its own broadcast radio and TV stations.  And nowhere in the editorial does the Globe disclose this massive conflict of interest.  Which makes this closing line a joke:

A Sirius-XM merger would snuff out competition within a potentially lively market at a time when the technology is still evolving. And by creating one dominant satellite radio firm, the move would likely keep new rivals from emerging in the future.

As any economist will tell you, it is ridiculous to define satellite radio as a "market."  At its smallest, the market is reasonably "radio."  The delivery mechanism of radio (satellite vs. terrestrial) is meaningless to the definition of a market (the editorial tries to deal with this logical fallacy by creating a straw man that the market does not include iPods, when of course the main issue is that it does include terrestrial radio stations).   The Globe, along with the NAB whose talking points the Globe is just repeating in this "editorial", are in fact interested in reducing competition for themselves, not enhancing it.

Oh, and by the way, if approving a merger of broadcast or media companies is a "bail-out," then I invite the Boston Globe to calculate how much of a bail-out the Times corporation has been given, as the government has approved the merger of the NY Times, Boston Globe, IHT, 20 other papers, 9 TV stations, 2 radio stations, and 35 commercial web sites.  And by the way, what is the market share of each of their papers in their own local "markets?"

I will leave you with a quote from Milton Friedman vis a vis licensing but entirely appropriate here:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

Posted on March 25, 2007 at 08:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Intellectual Welfare and Credit

A few years ago I coined the term "Intellectual Welfare."  I originally devised he term to describe Social Security, where it was arguable that most people in the program were not receiving a transfer payment, but they were instead receiving for-your-own-good government restriction of individual choice.  In the case of Social Security, government takes over the management of some of our retirement savings (at an appalling cost) because we lunkheads can't be trusted to manage our own savings for ourselves.

I was going to prepare a similar post about cries for regulation in the sub-prime credit market, but Alex Tabarrok did it already:

Roubini and others generating hysteria about defaults in the mortgage market are credit snobs - they think credit is something that only the rich can handle.  Just look at the language that Roubini uses to analogize borrowers - they are "reckless patients" who "spent the last few years on a diet of booze, drugs and artery clogging junk food."  Similarly, the Washington Post tells us that it's the end of the "borrowing binge."

Yeah, we get it.  Credit is ok for us, the "sober" borrowers but poor people can't handle credit.  Too much credit among the poor generates decay and social pathology.  Credit must be regulated.  We can't, for example, have credit stores in poor neighborhoods.  Don't you know that credit is bad for people without self-discipline?   Let the poor buy on installment credit?  That's unconscionable.  Today's furor over sub-prime mortgages is the same old story.

Update: This really ticks me off:

Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the House Financial Services Committee, said in an interview on Friday that he intended to move legislation in the coming weeks. He said the measure he was preparing would discourage abusive loans by imposing legal liability “up the chain.” It would give borrowers and others the ability to sue the Wall Street firms that package those mortgages and then sell them as mortgage-backed securities, as well as the purchasers of those securities in the secondary market.

“Anybody, including the original borrower, can make a claim, and the liability would go up the chain,” he said. “People say it may discourage certain kinds of lending. But that’s precisely what we want to do. We will pass a bill that won’t allow companies to loan people more money than they can pay back or loans for more than the value of the house.”

GRRRR.  Does no one remember what it was like to get a mortgage before they were so easily securitized?  The paperwork in the credit application was horrendous, as was the time it took to complete the mortgage.  Today they check two or three numbers, and if these numbers match the requirements of the Wall Street companies that package the loans, the loan is approved.  This legislation, which is aimed at slamming the securitization process, will hurt everyone.  All of our lives will be made worse so a few politicians can demagogue an issue that will be forgotten in 12 months. 

 

Posted on March 21, 2007 at 07:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Makes Sense to Me

I have always thought the logic of shareholder law suits were crazy to start with, and even crazier given that shareholder suits over loss of stock value tend to result in ... declining stock value.

I have never been able to justify most lawsuits by shareholders against companies in which they own shares.  Any successful verdict would effectively come out of the pockets of the company's owners who are.. the shareholders.  So in effect, shareholders are suing themselves, and, win or lose, they as a group end up with less than if the suit had never been started, since a good chunk of the payout goes to the lawyers.  The only way these suits make financial sense (except to the lawyers, like Bill Lerach) is if only a small subset of the shareholders participate, and then these are just vehicles for transferring money from half the shareholders to the other half, or in other words from one wronged party that does not engage in litigation to another wronged party who are aggressively litigious.  Is there really justice here?

OK, you could argue that many of these shareholders are not suing themselves, because they are past shareholders that dumped their stock at a loss.  But given these facts, these suits are even less fair.  If these suits are often made by past shareholders who held stock at the time certain wrongs were committed, they are paid by current and future shareholders, who may well have not even owned the company at the time of the abuses, and may in fact be participating in cleaning the company up.  So their argument is that because the company was run unethically when I owned it, I am going to sue the people who bought it from me and cleaned it up for my damages?  Though it never happens, the more fair approach would be for current shareholders to sue past shareholders for the mess they left.

Tom Kirkendall quotes a related notion from the Economist:

This suggests to The Economist the need for a new Apple rule to guide prosecutors—at least in cases, such as backdating, where the main supposed victim is a company’s shareholders. Our rule: if a criminal prosecution is likely to hurt a company’s share price, then don’t prosecute.

Are we serious? Well, we think it's worth a discussion . . . Cost-benefit analysis is largely absent from America’s approach to regulating business wrongdoing, not only in criminal prosecutions, and that is probably one of the main reasons why America’s capital markets are indeed losing their competitive edge. At the very least, encouraging the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission to employ a few less lawyers and a few more economists would be a step in the right direction.

Posted on March 14, 2007 at 09:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

New Domains

One of the things I didn't really expect when I started blogging was the near flood of press releases I would get from across the political spectrum.  One I got this morning was called "NEW PROPOSED .XXX WEB DOMAIN LEGITIMIZES SMUT."  I had a couple of thoughts reading this release:

  • Um, pornography is legal.  I say that only because the whole press release is written in a tone that implies terrorism or serial killing is being facilitated.  In addition to being legal, it is also a very large business on the web and frankly has been an innovator in many areas of e-commerce.  One may find the business unsavory or distasteful, but it is still a legal enterprise.
  • I would think that encouraging a separate domain extension for hard core pornography would be something that pornography's opponents would support, sort of like getting the adult film store out of the suburban mall and into the red light district.   I find that internet filter software (which I have on my kids accounts) works pretty well, but I am pretty sure that filtering out an entire domain extension would be a layup.

Comments closed to avoid the inevitable flood of spam porn links.

Posted on March 9, 2007 at 08:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

I'm Confused. Why Is This Illegal?

Apparently there was another payola bust.  I'm confused.  Why is this illegal?  I guess in the 1950's I might understand it, when there was only one way to listen to music anywhere outside your home.  But today there are about 20 different ways, including several flavors of radio.  If a radio station overplays the same song to the point of insanity, just listen to something else. 

Paying for placement in overcrowded distribution channels is routine in many industries and certainly not the subject of federal law.  If you don't believe me, try taking your new brand of potato chips over to Safeway and try to get on the shelf.   Now, I know folks would argue that this contributes to Safeway's selection being bland.  But that is also why new competitors, like Whole Foods, have emerged to serve folks who don't like Safeway's selection of products.

By the way, does anyone think its funny that record producers are in the news for paying for play at the same time they are in the news for charging for play?

Update:  More on charging for play:

On March 1, 2007 the US Copyright Office stunned the Internet radio industry by releasing a ruling on performance royalty fees that are based exclusively on the number of people tuned into an Internet radio station, rather than on a portion of the station's revenue. They discarded all evidence presented by webcasters about the potentially crippling effect on the industry of such a rate structure, and rubber-stamped the rates requested by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America).

Under this royalty structure, an Internet radio station with an average listenership of 1000 people would owe $134,000 in royalties during 2007 -- plus $98,000 in back payments for 2006. In 2008 they would owe $171,000, and $220,000 in 2009.

Posted on March 7, 2007 at 09:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Legislating Taste

TJIC has a good example of relying on the government to legislate taste.

More than 30 years after outlawing big flashing signs… Boston wants to bring back some glitz to parts of town deemed too dark and staid at night.

It’s a good thing we’ve got a single monopolistic authority making aesthetic decisions for everyone.

Saying it wants colorful electronic marquees to create an atmosphere like Times Square in New York, the Boston Redevelopment Authority is planning to amend the city’s zoning code to permit electronic signs that make “bold use of graphics” and create a sense of “animation and motion” and “images that engage the public.”

So, basically, the rationale 30 years ago was “some bureaucrat finds these tacky, so they’re forbidden”, and now the rationale is “some bureaucrat likes these, so they’re encouraged”.

This from the city of Boston, whose government's sense of aesthetics dropped this butt-ugly eyesore of a city hall into the middle of historic downtown Boston:

Govcenter

And, in case you are one who supports government "redevelopment" and mandates on aesthetics but think that it would all work out fine if architectural experts and committees of academics made the decisions, here is the hideous Peabody Terrace at Harvard University, presumably vetted by the finest architectural academic minds in the country:

Peabody

These buildings, where Harvard stuck me for a full year, were transported right out of East Berlin, right down to the elevators that only stopped on every third floor for efficiency sake (efficiency of the builder, obviously, not the occupant).  The interior walls were bare cast concrete and no amount of heat could warm them in the winter.  It was the most depressing place, bar none, I have every lived.  But the "experts" loved them, and wished that this vision could have been forced by urban planners on all of America:

Leland Cott, an adjunct professor of urban design at the [Harvard] GSD, calls Peabody Terrace 'a model of design efficiency, economy, and attention to scale.'

Fortunately, someone gets it:

The magazine Architecture Boston has focused attention on the controversial aspects of Sert's work by devoting its July/August 2003 issue to an examination of Peabody Terrace, expressing the essential disagreement about the work in the form of a stark conundrum: "Architects love Peabody Terrace. The public hates it." In fact, the public's hostility to the structures may be in proportion to its degree of proximity, with the most intense feelings confined to those households on the front lines of the town/gown divide....

Otile McManus, in a companion essay, discusses the reactions of many Cambridge residents, who have described the complex as "monstrous," "cold," "uninviting," "overwhelming," and "hostile," and have compared it to Soviet housing.

Actually, the most intense feeling were by those who lived there, who really, really hated it  (though I will admit there were several third world students who loved it -- must have been nostalgic for them).  The article goes on to accuse detractors of being anti-modernist.  Which is a laugh, since my house is one of the most starkly modern in the area, so modern I could not sell it several years ago.  I am not anti-modern.  I am anti-bad-design.

Wow!  I am kindof amazed at the hostility I still feel fifteen years after the fact.  I had started out just to link TJIC's post, and here I am in full-blown rant mode.  Sorry.

Posted on February 28, 2007 at 09:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Anti-Trust is Not About Consumers, Yet Again

I have written numerous times about how most anti-trust actions are initiated for the benefit not of consumers but of industry competitors.  The incredible claim that Microsoft's giving away free applications with its OS somehow hurts consumers is just the most famous such example. 

Now we face the specter of anti-trust review of the XM-Sirius satellite radio deal.  All you need to know is that the National Association of Broadcasters, who represent the terrestrial competitors of satellite radio, are lobbying hard for the deal to be rejected.  Nearly every line of the statement is hilarious, but this one caught me:

When the FCC authorized satellite radio, it specifically found that the public would be served best by two competitive nationwide systems. Now, with  their stock prices at rock bottom and their business model in disarray because of profligate spending practices, they seek a government bail-out to avoid competing in the marketplace.

First, I am sure that the NAB is deeply, deeply concerned about satellite radio serving the public well -- NOT.  Customers gained by satellite radio are customers lost by the NAB**.  In fact, if they really believed the merger would hurt the consumer experience with satellite radio, their statement would instead be "we are thrilled by this merger because it means that customers will be served poorly in the future by the new company and that means customers will defect back to us."

Second, I love the term "government bailout."  What they mean by government bailout is the prospect that the government might not block this merger.  Which, given the white-hot merger activity between NAB members over the past 5 years, means that most NAB members have received the same "bailout."

(HT: Hit and Run)

** In the TV market, terrestrial broadcasters, particularly their local affiliates, got the government to cover their butts by passing a "Must Carry" law, which basically requires that cable companies have to include all the local broadcasters in their feed.  In practice, this and similar laws have forced satellite providers to give you your network feed only through your local affiliate.  This means that instead of DirecTV being able to just give me the NBC national feed, they have to give me the NBC Phoenix affiliate.  As a result, DirecTV has whole satellites that carry forty, fifty, sixty or more identical feeds.  What a screaming waste, and it only gets worse with HDTV.  Anyway, in radio, there is no similar law, so satellite growth is more of a zero-sum loss for terrestrial competitors.  I think the NAB is just huffy they did not get their own must-carry subsidy law passed.

Posted on February 22, 2007 at 10:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Mississippi Considering Directive 10-289

First, Mississippi regulated flood insurance rates down to a level that it was impossible to make money, so State Farm's property coverage on the coast did not cover flood/storm damage.  Then, after Katrina, Dickie Scruggs and company sued State Farm, and others, forcing them to cover storm damage from Katrina that their policies explicitly did not cover and were not priced to cover.  So, facing a state government that, by fiat, forces their fees lower and their coverage higher, State Farm is trying to exit the property insurance business in Mississippi, and the state legislature is considering legislation to prevent them from leaving.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said Friday he will seek legislation aimed at blocking State Farm Insurance Cos. from refusing to write new homeowners and commercial policies in the hurricane-battered state.

Hood's plan would require any company that writes automobile insurance in Mississippi and also writes homeowners policies in other states to offer homeowners and commercial properties throughout Mississippi....

Hood also said he his urging Gov. Haley Barbour to issue an executive order that would force the insurer to continue writing new policies until the Mississippi Legislature can deal with the issue.

Quoting from directive 10-289 (Atlas Shrugged):

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

So I ask you, is the following statement ridiculous  over-the-top regulator-speak from Atlas Shrugged, or was it actually made by a US state AG?

"We're looking at a robber baron in the face that is trying to make an example of Mississippi," Hood said of State Farm.

OK, so lets see:  The state government decides what rates you can charge.  The state government decides what your policy has to cover.  The state government decides if you will be allowed to go out of business.  But State Farm is the robber baron.  LOL.

Hat tip:  Tom Kirkendall

Posted on February 20, 2007 at 01:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Paris Hilton Is a Better Investor than Harvard MBA

New SEC rules being drafted by the Bush administration are set to declare that Paris Hilton is a fully "accredited investor" with full freedom to invest in any way she likes.  I, who graduated near the top of my class at Harvard Business School, shall likewise be declared not capable of investing and the government will limit my options "for my own good"

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has just proposed that the amount of liquid net worth an individual must have before investing in hedge funds and other so-called risky investments be raised to as much as $2.5 million.

The largest program the government has for protecting us from our own investing incompetence is called Social Security, which takes retirement savings from us by force and has the government invest it for us.   As I showed in previous posts, Social Security is returning -0.8% a year on our savings.  Thank god the government is investing this money for us - no way I could have beaten a -0.8% a year return during the greatest 20-year bull market of all time.

Tinfoil Hat Observation:  I use Google search to find old posts on my site.  Usually it is flawless.  For some reason, though, my post titled Social Security Ripoff is not indexed by Google.  A follow-up post on the same day is indexed, as you can see from this search, but not the original.  I have never failed to pull up a post before, even with inexact search words, and have never failed with the exact title in the search.  Weird.   Maybe something in the comments, I will have to check.

Posted on February 12, 2007 at 10:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Licensing Death Spiral

Frequent readers will remember that licensing is one of my big pet peaves, so it will not surpise anyone that I enjoyed TJIC's article on the licensing "cycle of suck"

Here’s the cycle of suck:

  1. a guild of professionals decides to drive up their wages by limiting the supply through accreditation
  2. to put teeth in the accreditation, they complain to the politicians
  3. politicians see a chance to scratch a back (and get theirs scratched in turn) and pass regulations limiting the practice of the profession by the non-accredited
  4. the price rises and the supply drops
  5. marginal consumers can’t afford the price
  6. politicians see a chance to scratch a back (and get theirs scratched in turn) and use taxpayer dollars to increase the supply of a service…but just to a target consumer group

Hair braiding or delivering cows, its all the same phenomena.  As usual, I can't make a post on licensing without a quote from Milton Friedman:

The justification offered is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

More of my posts on this topic indexed here.

Posted on February 7, 2007 at 08:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

CEO Pay

Apparently, the Democratic Congress is trying to "take on" high executive pay with some kind of punitive taxation plan.  This fits well into a class of legislation I would describe as "useless at best, probably counter-productive, but of high symbolic value to our base," something to which both parties are unbelievably susceptible.

I'm confused, by the way, about why exactly I should care how much CEOs are paid, particularly for executives that don't work for companies in which I own stock?  I don't think Paris Hilton, George Clooney, or the CEO of Home Depot are worth what they are paid, but I don't know how it affects me except perhaps for some simmering envy.  Does anyone with above a 5th grade education really believe that they will pay one cent less for gas or a refinery worker will make one dollar more if the CEO of Shell is paid less?

I do understand why the shareholders of Home Depot might be pissed off about what they were paying their CEO, or more accurately, what they paid him to go away.  I am sure the Arizona Cardinals felt the same way about Dennis Green.  Now, if Democrats wanted to suggest that shareholder voting and corporate governance rules needed to be amended to make it easier for shareholders to hold managers accountable for bad decisions and to overrule sweetheart deals between buddies on the board, I am very open to listening.

Posted on January 30, 2007 at 11:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Health Care -- The Trojan Horse for Fascism

Every time I write that government funded health care and health nannyism are becoming a Trojan horse for fascism, I get several emails telling me I am being a paranoid flake.  So I will have to just keep posting this kind of thing (from England), via Overlawyered:

SOCIAL workers are placing obese children on the child protection register alongside victims thought to be at risk of sexual or physical abuse.

In extreme cases children have been placed in foster care because their parents have contributed to the health problems of their offspring by failing to respond to medical advice.

The intervention of social services in what was previously regarded as a private matter is likely to raise concerns about the emergence of the “fat police”.

Some doctors even advocate taking legal action against parents for illtreating their children by feeding them so much that they develop health problems.

Dr Russell Viner, a consultant paediatrician at Great Ormond Street and University College London hospitals, said: “In my practice, I can think of about 10 or 15 cases in which child protection action has been taken because of obesity. We now constantly get letters from social workers about child protection due to childhood obesity.”

Posted on January 29, 2007 at 08:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)