Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas Movies created by the not easily bored Grinch

On Christmas we saw Marley and Me. It is a book that I have not read. I like dogs and this movie is about a dog that is a little out of control as a puppy but who grows to be a family stalwart. Marley eventually dies. My wife read the book and said it was wonderful warm and inspiring. But the movie is at best methodical. Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston seem to read their lines - the whole perfomance is flat. The movie is also very long. This is not a great kids movie. USA Today said "Just don't expect the human portion of the story to wow you." Now that is an understatement.

We saw the curious case of Benjamin Button today. Benjamin Button is an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story that takes about an hour to read. Unfortunately the director of this likes to draw things out. My wife thought Brad Pitt was excellent. I thought the whole thing was a big bore. Fitzgerald's novella offers, at least as I remember it, some great commentary on the passage of time. What would happen if a person were born old and then regressed? But the movie is just long. Ken Turan of the LA Times raised the question "you have to wonder why everyone bothered." I did not get why the movie, which Fitzgerald wrote in 1921 was set in pre-hurricane Katrina New Orleans.

Marley has done $36 million while Button has done about $10 million less. My son in law commented at one point that he would rather go to a place where they pulled his fingernails out one by one than go to see Marley, I wish I had listened!
We also saw Four Christmases. We knew what we were getting into. But even then it was a disappointment. It was Vince Vaughn playing Vince Vaughn. He does a pretty convincing job of it. But a reprise of the self centered man about town runs thin the thirtieth time is has been presented. Of the three Four Christmases was the least disappointing merely because it was thoroughly what we expected. All three were at bargain matinees - and for at least two of them I thought I got ripped off - even with the discount.

We do want to see Slumdog Millionaire. This is an Indian movie but a director who Ken Turan says never makes the same movie twice (the other three above were reprises of previous performances or movie directions). We're also looking to Gran Torino - which looks like another good shot from Clint Eastwood. But so far this season has been a bust.

Drifting on the Trinity

Yesterday a friend and I went fishing on a drift trip on the Trinity. We were looking for Steelhead. We went fishing rather than catching. In the time honored tradition of looking for fish there are both options - fishing and catching. Although we engaged several fish we did not land one. Steelhead hit a lot harder than trout. In the hits I got I knew I had a fish on the line. For the most part you are also working in relatively shallow water.

The weather the day before had been cold and rainy, which, according to our guide was miserable. (That one actually did not require his expert opinion, I could have guessed.) But yesterday was magnificent. The weather yesterday was brisk, but mostly dry.

We did a seven mile stretch of river down to the remains of Steel Bridge. Our guide was Scott Stratton. We both thought he was excellent. A great guide helps you find fish but also imparts knowledge of local conditions and fishing in general (also of catching). Scott does that quite well. He knows the river well but he also has a knack for bringing out skills. Our trip involved fishing in the boat and in the water. It was great to mix up the options. At several runs we went back over territory, if it looked promising. In one stop we got a good understanding of the entomology of the river. Fish feed on what is there, so understanding what is in the water is critical to finding something that they will go after. So in all the day was fun and informative.

On the trip we saw a lot of fish, but the ones that rose were for the most part youngsters - who had not made their treck to the "salt" - steelhead go from fresh water, out to the sea and then back again (sometimes more than once). At this time of year the Trinity is near the end of one run of fish and slightly ahead of the next, so expectations were not high. For me fishing is only part of the experience on a day like yesterday - we also saw a lot of wildlife including a Golden Eagle, and both Blue and White Herons and a 3 point buck. Besides the wildlife, the scenery was awe inspiring.

The night before we had dinner at a place called the LaGrange, which is in Weaverville. Both the food and service were excellent. If you want to see some more Trinity River Photos.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

What kind of stimulus?

In an article in the Financial Times Martin Wolf argues that "Keynes’s genius – a very English one – was to insist we should approach an economic system not as a morality play but as a technical challenge." That is a clever formulation that restates a set of arguments that Hayek had with Keynes in the 1930s. Hayek argued that the "technical" challenge was indeed the wrong metaphor. He did so in a number of venues. In The Fatal Conceit he explained the inability of centralized policy makers to get all the necessary data correct to accomplish those technical adjustments. The fatal conceit was that anyone or any group of experts could account for and manage the manifold variations in the economy. In The Uses of Knowledge in Society he argues for something called the "knowledge of time and place" which explains why the sum total of individual decisions is often better than centralized decisions.

The issue for many on the stimulus package is whether an additional injection of almost $1 trillion (on top of the TARP funding and the auto bailout and other commitments) will actually restimulate the economy in a reasonable way that will not induce significant inflation. Many economists argue that a total stimulus package, financed mostly with government debt, that equals more than 10% of the GDP is likely to prove quite inflationary.

Wolf argues that "As was the case in the 1930s, we also have a choice: it is to deal with these challenges co-operatively and pragmatically or let ideological blinkers and selfishness obstruct us." I agree, but with he ignores the compelling evidence that the very same tools that FDR used in the 1930s so ineffectively, will do anything more than they did then, now.

While there are real problems to be solved, repeating prior failed policies are not the way to do it. Not surprisingly the talk of a huge stimulus package has generated a group of "pigs at the trough" all arguing a) that their sector (be it zoos or auto makers - both of which have argued for some of the federal booty) are so critical to the economy that they will be able to miraculously pull us out of this slump, and b) that more regulation will solve the problems of variations in the market. There is a role for governmental policy here just not as robust as Wolf or his fellow exuberant Paul Krugman would claim. (One wonders why Krugman who called this recession about 20 times before we actually began to decline would be listened to anyway - but that is another story.)

A comparison that on second look does not fit

Some papers are raising the point that Senator Clinton acceded to her senate seat in a way similar to the route proposed by Caroline Kennedy. When she first ran, she moved into a state where she had little history and forced out her rivals. She then got the retiring senator to anoint her.

But there are many differences. Clinton, whether you agree with the value of it or not, had some real Washington experience. And she seems to have learned from that experience. The health task force was run poorly both on a policy basis and a political one. But in her roles since then she has shown an ability to learn from those early mistakes.

Kennedy's Wikipedia article describes her as an "attorney and author" although in the four paragraph summary of her career there is no evidence that she ever practiced law. Her initial career interest centered on photojournalism. She subsequently worked on a three day a week job to raise outside funding for the public schools. One of the four paragraphs in her career summary reads as follows: "Kennedy has represented her family at the funeral services of former Presidents Ronald Reagan in 2004 and Gerald Ford in 2007, and at the funeral service of former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson in 2007. She also represented her family at the dedication of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park in Little Rock, Arkansas in November 2004." Gee that sounds like important experience.

Her political views seem to have been written as a Manhattan liberal, although both Wikipedia and the news media, suggest that they are not well known.

Clinton, on the other hand, has grown into the job. She began as a classic liberal democrat but has been described by many in the senate as an effective member of the body.

With the strong potential for a comedian to be elected to the senate, the prospect of adding an ingénue does not seem to be that outrageous. But both prospects seem to diminish the overall luster of what once was called the greatest deliberative body.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Senator from Noblesse Oblige

The campaign to appoint Caroline Kennedy to the US Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton has begun in earnest, coincidentally on the day after Christmas when many gifts are marked down. Note the picture is not the campaign photo that she will use.(At least officially.) Kennedy, who has no prior public elective service commented that her major qualifications came from her parents. "Many people look to me as somebody who embodies that sense of possibility. I'm not saying that I am anything like him (JFK), I'm just saying there's a spirit that I think I've grown up with that is something that means a tremendous amount to me." And then she said "I think my mother ... made it clear that you have to live life by your own terms and you have to not worry about what other people think and you have to have the courage to do the unexpected," She defended her lack of experience by saying " we're starting to see there are many ways into public life and public service," She did not say dynasties are good. She did not have to. But she surely believes it.

One errant reported pointed out that Ms. Kennedy had failed to vote several times and she responded
"I was really surprised and dismayed by my voting record, I'm glad it's been brought to my attention." She did not say, when you're a Kennedy you are not expected to vote.

The candidate ((how odd to have a term for what she wants to be starting with the word candid.) discussed how her late brother would have taken her candidacy, after commenting that he always thought of himself first (evidently a family trait) she said "He would be laughing his head off at seeing what's going on right now." Unfortunately, some people are actually taking this one seriously.

The seat she proposes to occupy has had some distinguished holders (although it could be argued in her first campaign Clinton was somewhat anointed to the job) which included Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Robert Kennedy, Charles Goodell, Chaucey Depew, Hamilton Fish and even Martin Van Buren. Even the guy who helped define the word entitlement in public policy (her uncle) might see this attempt as a bit of a stretch (but probably not).

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A reinterpretation of the Christmas Carol by the B Street Theater - Sacramento

One of my favorite pieces of Dickens is The Christmas Carol, which he wrote in the 1840s to immediate success. The B Street Theater in Sacramento is presenting a "reinterpretation" of the classic. I came to it with some trepidation. In recent years there have been a number of reinterpretations of the original story including ones using George C. Scott and BIll Murray. None, IMHO, was satisfying as the original. Dickens' language is concise and elegant.

The B street production begins with the premise that Dickens has a deadline to supply his publisher with a Christmas story and is on deadline and blocked. The characters are campy and I must admit when I first discovered that this was a reinterpretation that I was not looking forward to it. But the play is lots of fun. It gets to the same essential point of reconciliation that Dickens' original work does but in a thoroughly delightful alternative path. This could well be another option for theaters and even for a movie version.

I am always amazed when an artist is able to create something novel from something that I know well. I read the Christmas Carol each December. I could recite major parts of it by memory. This production offers a new look that is well worth a second view, or even a third. I hope the B Street Theater decides to present this again.

Who Gives More to Charity - Liberals or Conservatives

There is a dispute that has been growing in the tax world about who gives more to charity - liberals or conservatives. The liberals claim although the raw data suggests liberals give less - but liberals claim that much of the "conservative" money goes to "membership dues" in churches - which according to liberals are really funds to benefit the internal community rather than a larger world around them. Afterall the liberals reason, churches build large edifices which benefit only the people who attend them. That is like a large social club.

The problem with that notion is that many donations both liberal and conservative are not entirely eleemosynary. All charitable donations involve some level of personal satisfaction and choice. For example, the public radio station in our neighborhood makes the case that donors help to sustain a public resource - but that resource is of limited value to people who believe that NPR focusses its coverage on liberal issues.

The non-profit law blog looked at the issue a few days ago and wondered what constitutes charitable activity. To me that is the wrong issue. Clearly, charitable donations cannot benefit an individual. But they always involve personal choice. I choose to give to the Union Gospel Mission because they do not accept governmental resources. Others choose to donate to local food charities who get government money because they do accept such grants. The key issue is not whether either donation makes one feel better but whether the donation is an irrevocable contribution. The fundamental issue here is whether by allowing individuals to make donations to societal institutions which do not directly benefit individuals, and thereby lose control of those gifts, whether society is improved.

I am less concerned with who gives more and more with the protection of the opportunity for a wide range of individuals, regardless of political philosophy to give to institutions that are not controlled by governmental policy.

The Subtle Ironies of Daytime TV

When I workout I often watch AMC. They have a set of commercials that I think are ironic without intending to be so. All three promise a free lunch. I don't begrudge any of these companies trying to make a buck - but I find each annoying in the frequency of their ads.

For example -

The Scooter Store - This place uses medicare money to obtain electric scooters for people who need them. There is nothing illegitimate about that - except that they try to guarantee that "if you qualify, you won't have to pay a penny." Clearly this company is a rent-seeker trying to get as many people as possible to use this particular medicare benefit. If you don't have to pay a penny how can it be a store?

Weight loss pills - There are dueling fat pills (Hydroxycut and Lipozene) both promise significant weight gain without changing your diet or your exercise routine. Americans are overweight (this is especially ironic when I am in a gym) because they either consume too many calories or they don't get enough exercise. These two products can possibly help take off weight momentarily, but the only sure way to keep weight off is to moderate food intake and to keep active.

Physicians Life Insurance Company - This company sells limited purpose life insurance to people 50-80. It states that funeral expenses can be high and that a "responsible" person would make plans for those expenses. It then offers an insurance policy that requires "no physical exam" or pre-qualification - at the same time it says that for the first couple of years "benefits are limited." Most any life insurance company will make a similar bet - but it depends on how much the limits are and what the premium is. What I find ironic here is the name of the company - isn't the job of physicians to help assure that you don't have to pay out those "final expenses" for a long time. Seems like the physicians and the insurance are at cross purposes.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Clear Pass

When it started I became a member of Clear - which is a service designed to assist frequent travelers in getting through the TSA security system. The system costs about $200 per year. It is not universally available. Thus if you fly as I do more than a hundred times a year - the cost of the service is about $2 per visit. The tradeoff for the system is like something the Customs service once had. You exchange some biometrics for a quicker way through security. The FastPass for the Customs service was a great idea but the computers never worked so it only was useful about one time in four when coming back into the country. The Clear Pass works quite well. In the airports it serves you go into a special line and a literally walked through the security system. But there are some drawbacks to the system. My wife is an occasional flyer so to get the benefits of the system I have to buy her a pass - that makes the system even less cost effective. This year I went through perhaps 35 airports, fewer than half of them had a Clear installation. Of the ones that do I rarely use some of them to start a flight, so the number of useful airports is, at least for me, quite limited. I spoke with the Sacramento airport people and they said they would not install the system. Some like Burbank have created an expert traveller line - which speeds your process without a cost. There is one other problem with Clear - it does not get you out of the inspection it merely speeds your process in the line. You still have to go through the screening. After zipping through the line, with Clear unlike the Fast Pass you then get put back into the grey container process where a lot of the screening delay occurs.

I am not a fan of the TSA. I think many of their procedures are silly and bureaucratic. But in the last year they have made some improvements which make the Clear system even less relevant. In addition to the Expert Traveller lines they have also simplified how you go through the process, so for example if you keep your computer in a sleeve, you do not need to take it out of the container.

There are lots of ways that the current TSA system could be improved. When it was created I expressed concern that we were making a lot of new public employees and that systems like the Irish and Israeli security screening used private employees and more technology with a lot less intrusion. Clear was trying to create an alternative to the bureaucratic gum of the system. They were less than half successful. That's why I did not renew. I suspect a lot of others made the same choice.

Monday, December 22, 2008

NPR and Innumeracy

This morning on the way to the airport for the last time this year, NPR had two Brits on trying to explain how to understand numbers, large numbers. One of their examples demonstrated why these kinds of issues are so important. The two have a show on the BBC purporting to put numbers in perspective. One stated, the total GDP of the US is about 15 trillion dollars, in that context a $700 billion TARP fund represents only about 5% of the total. The arithmetic is correct but the numbers are wrong. The tax base (that part of the GDP that we cede to government action is about 18%, or if you count our spending about 20% (about $3 trillion on a $15 trillion GDP base).

If you start from the tax base rather than the GDP the policy change in the share of GDP going to government increases by 5% but actually it is about a 30% increase in the percentage we offer up in taxes (or deficit spending). If you add in the $850 billion that the President Elect seems to be adding into the equation in short order we have increased the share of the government take from about 20% to about 30%. It is unlikely when those numbers are understood that most Americans would think the change was a minor one.

The Greatest Generation

Tom Brokaw coined the phrase that the young adults in WWII were "the greatest generation." According to his book they sacrificed in WWII and then came back to build American industry and make loads of other contributions to our country. All that is true but I have always been bothered by the characterization.

Along comes Peggy Noonan in a great little book called Patriotic Grace. Noonan makes a superb case for the restoration of civic discourse. But in one section she argues that the Boomers have had their own challenges. As opposed to the "greatest" generation that lost more than 400,000 to battle casualties - the boomers lost about 55,000 in Vietnam. However, the prior generation came back to adulation and support of all types. The boomers came back to boos.

More importantly, the "greatest" generation laid the foundations of an expansive government in all areas - many of the deficits that we face today came from entitlements which the "greatest" established without thinking about how to pay for the out year costs. Noonan also points out that the boomers were among the first to become financially responsible for two generations (taking care of their parents and their children at the same time).

All of this should not denigrate the very real contributions that Brokaw's book amply demonstrates. But Noonan's point is worth thinking about. Ultimately, her point is that we are all in this system together, and we would do well to figure out how to think about our challenges not in rankings but together. Our heritage should be focused not on rankings but on shared experiences of the nation. Noonan's short book is vital reading for all of us who care about the future of the country.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

One of the complexities of life

In the gym today there were two guys discussing the annoyance of some internet services. I've recently gone to a VOIP phone system in my office which allows me to use an extension in my home which looks, feels and acts like another office phone.

With the right set-up one can operate an office almost anywhere. But we began to talk about alternatives. One guy said he was having trouble with AT&T in getting a static IP address. Getting the techs to make things right is tough, even if you know something about it.

A few months ago we dropped Vonage and switched to Comcast for our phone service. Both are VOIP, both are less than traditional phone lines. Both use some out sourced help desks. But Vonage relies almost exclusively on a call center in India. I found in working with their people that their English was not entirely up to par and more importantly they could not communicate effectively about how to fix a problem. When we switched to Comcast, we got better phone service but more importantly we also got a tech who could come to the house and fix stuff when the phone support did not work. That is certainly worth a lot more than the few bucks a month one pays more than Vonage.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A new definition of stimulus

The American Prospect is not exactly a bastion of conservative wisdom but today they published the attached chart which examines debt as a percentage of GDP - which is currently at 46%. The numbers should cause heartburn in many places, especially Washington. It is doubtful that our national leaders, current or future will need the Pepcid, however.

Note at the end of WWII our ratio was 110% or a bit more than a third of the current projection. That was the highest it has ever been. It is unclear from the article whether this includes the projected $850 billion package of "stimulus" that the President Elect talked about yesterday.

One other note. During the 1930s, when we had the most pronounced and consistent stimulus policies for a decade we averaged about 17% unemployment. One would think that someone would consider the effects of prior stimulus packages.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Truths of Life # 12

In many hotel gyms there is a volume control on the TV but when I am tired of listening to podcasts I would like to watch TV. Question - what do you do when the volume cannot be turned high enough to hear while working out? Answer - I have discovered that Walker Texas Ranger is perfect. The dialogue really does not matter and you always know what will happen. It is actually fun to fill in the dialogue.

That's what I like about the south in two parts

Yesterday as I was landing in Greensboro I encountered two demonstrations of the differences in the south from the rest of the country.

#1- There is a shine guy in the airport who has been there several years. Every time I go through the airport I try to get a shine. He works hard and is dedicated to giving good shines. We spoke about what he was going to do for Christmas (not the holidays but Christmas and New Years) and then about the economic situation in the country. He asked a question for which there is no good answer. He said that the last night he took his family out for dinner at Chevy's - and he wondered if the economy was so terrible why it was full. Good question.

This guy works hard at his trade. He is a keen observer of life as it passes by. And he certainly did not miss that at least part of the economic challenge we have at this point is self-induced - we've talked ourselves into a recession.

#2 - One of the perpetual problems for frequent flyers is lost items. Every flier has a set of stuff that you have with you in your seat. I have an iPod and a Kindle and earphones and my laptop. But in the last couple of years I have lost a couple of iPods because I leave them on the seat. A little more than a year ago I left a case with two iPods on my seat in San Francisco. When I discovered my error I had left the arrival gate and went immediately to the Red Carpet room. The agent there called the lost and found who, of course, did not answer the phone. He left a message and told me to call the next day. I did, three times, and never got a call back. Obviously, one of the cleaners on the plane or the flight attendants (this was at the end of the day) found the things and simply pocketed them. Contrast that with Greensboro. As I was leaving the security area, I heard my name being called out to go to the customer service desk. They asked had I left something on the plane. When I identified it (an iPod) they produced it. I really appreciated it!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Political Delusions

Dan Walters wrote a great column today in the Sacramento Bee. In it he argues that politicians, by making the budget mess look like a life and death situation are "merely feed(ing) their own egos and mak(ing) it that much more difficult to act." The conservatives argue that any change in taxes will harm the economy while democrats argue that any reduction in programs will degrade the social fabric of the state. Of course, both conclusions are false.

California needs to solve the budget mess both in the short term and the longer one. As Californians we need to have some fundamental discussions about what we should provide in the public sector and how we should pay for what we want to provide. There is some evidence that our tax system is out of whack and that some of the regulatory decisions we have made in the last 20 years have slowed economic growth. At the same time the state has accommodated a large number of new people which adds complexity to what we want to accomplish. But the immediate need is to balance the budget. Then we can begin to think about the longer term mix of revenues and expenditures that will define who we are and what we want to become. But if the narcissistic egos of both sides intervene, neither the short term nor the longer solutions will be possible. Dan's perspective is helpful in looking at what is really at stake. Note, it is not the egos of the politicians. No matter what they think, the very big problems are not immediate issues of life and death.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Peter Schrag and the Budget

Peter Schrag, the veteran 1960s columnist of the Sacramento Bee, wrote a column this morning which argued that the GOP in the legislature as "a hard-line group of self-insulated ideologues", even for Schrag that is a bit over the top. He argues that the GOP budget plan, which ignores revenues and demands a series of policy changes outside of his rather narrow view of the world, is absurd.

The GOP plan announced yesterday had a lot to be desired. Ultimately the state budget will need some revenues. One could make both the policy case and the political one that the substantial reductions seem to concentrate on things many in the GOP caucus do not value.

But if the GOP is guilty of narrow vision, so is Schrag. Schrag points a finger at the GOP when both parties deserve a good deal of credit for the mess we are in. Neither has an idea about the middle. The GOP has been a bit more aggressive in dumping out people but independents are ultimately growing at the expense of both parties. Schrag lays a lot of the problems in the budget on the 2/3 vote requirement. One could make a much stronger point that the open primary, which most democrats would reject categorically, could improve decision processes a lot more than changing the voting fraction on the budget. One need only to have listened to several of the new members of the Assembly who are democrats to understand how narrow both parties are.

Second, Schrag does not seem to consider the long term risks of current policies in smoothing out the budget waves we have seen in the last several years. Almost any observer would concede that the state needs more revenues to solve this problem. But the state's economy has been burdened over the last couple of decades with absurd regulations. Those have dampened a once vigorous economy and have chased employers out of California. At the beginning of the Davis administration there was a quick enactment of a proposal to limit employee flexibility on work rules. This generation of workers would benefit from being able to vary work rules. But the democrats enacted an absurdly rigid set of rules on California employers. The same could be said for our tax system - we have among the highest rates for income and sales taxes.

So the GOP proposal is half baked and most independent observers would argue that part of the long term solution for our current budget issues will be changes in policies that Schrag ignores. Some of the proposals that the GOP came up with on policy could help us re-establish our rate of economic growth - in the intermediate term that will help the state capture more revenue.

Monday, December 15, 2008

One of my favorite places in Mexico City

I was going through some old photos in the last couple of days and found a set I took at the Leon Trotsky House in Coyacan. I've always found it a fascinating place.

When Stalin took power after Lenin's death some of the old guard did not find their situations improved. You can read about the perils of being on the wrong side in Darkness at Noon Arthur Koestler's novel. It was compelling for me when I first read it but Trotsky's last residence is even more so. You can see and touch the desperation in Trotsky's house.

Trotsky was a committed intellectual of the Russian Revolution. He held many important posts throughout the struggle from 1905. But he was also a thinker. He was booted out of Russia in the late 1920s and then to Norway (where Trygve Lie lie gave him exile) and then eventually "welcomed" to Mexico on a freighter to Tampico by Lazaro Cardenas. He lived in Coyacan near Diego Rivera.

In May of 1940 he survived an attack by Stalinists with 25 calibre machine guns. You can see the actual bullet holes in his bedroom. A short while later Trotsky was murdered by another agent of Stalin who was arrested but eventually got away from the Mexican system.

For the last several months of his life Trotsky lived in a steel enclosed bedroom - just like a prison. So he escaped one prison to get into another.

There are several things which fascinate me about the place. First, the sheer prison like existence that this man lived in the last several years of his life. Stalin could not be escaped. Second, he was consumed by ideas. His abilities with languages and his deep commitment to learning are well demonstrated. I think most of his ideas were nutty - but he clearly had a deep commitment to thinking. The first two conclusions often are linked. But third even with the violent history (both physical and intellectual) the museum is a peaceful haven with some wonderful gardens. They present a stark contrast to the history behind the place and the man.
Within close proximity are the Diego Studio, Frida Kahlo's House and the San Angel Inn - which is one of the best restaurants in the city. There is also the San Angel square which has a great Saturday market and also a couple of fun restaurants and a memorial to the Irish soldiers who were killed by American troops in the 1846 war. Every time I go to the area with an Irish friend we get to go to the site and hear about the brave Irish patriots. The ferment in in Mexico City during 1940s was a mix of revolutionary rhetoric, artistic expression and even some pretty classy architecture.

There are all kinds of infrastructure

Joel Kotkin, whose ground-breaking thinking on everything from Japan's corporate structure to how cities form and operate, published an interesting article in the Washington Post on Sunday which bears some thinking. He says, infrastructure spending is fine, if it is spent on the right things.

For years I have wondered why our infrastructure has been crumbling across the country - from highways to basic public amenities. Kotkin points out that places like New York have spent money on their bureaucracy and on projects like the new Yankee Stadium instead of investments in maintaining and improving streets and subways. He also points out that investments like convention centers offer two perils - they produce, like sports stadiums, intermittent and relatively low paid jobs.

Kotkin suggests a simple litmus test - will the proposed funding increase productive capacity and raise incomes across the board - that means avoiding the flashy. Based on the experience of how funds like revenue sharing (which produced during its fifteen years -1972-1987) which created a ton of convention centers - the prospects are not good.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ever wonder why the Big Three are in trouble?

Thanks to Tyler Cowen - here is a photo of the UAW contract. Not much more needs to be said, except what is the Bush administration thinking?

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Best Post on the BCS

This year's BCS has resulted in another odd set of results - then a friend who is a retired football coach at the high school level sent me this. It deserves wide circulation! The original source is unclear but brilliant.


After determining the Big-12 championship game participants the BCS computers were put to work on other major contests and today the BCS declared Germany to be the winner of World War II.

"Germany put together an incredible number of victories beginning with the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland and continuing on into conference play with defeats of Poland, France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. Their only losses came against the US and Russia; however considering their entire body of work--including an incredibly tough Strength of Schedule--our computers deemed them worthy of the #1 ranking."

Questioned about the #4 ranking of the United States the BCS commissioner stated "The US only had two major victories--Japan and Germany. The computer models, unlike humans, aren't influenced by head-to-head contests--they consider each contest to be only a single, equally-weighted event."

German Chancellor Adolph Hitler said "Yes, we lost to the US; but we defeated #2 ranked France in only 6 weeks." Herr Hitler has been criticized for seeking dramatic victories to earn 'style points' to enhance Germany's rankings. Hitler protested "Our contest with Poland was in doubt until the final day and the conditions in Norway were incredibly challenging and demanded the application of additional forces."

The French ranking has also come under scrutiny. The BCS commented "France had a single loss against Germany and following a preseason #1 ranking they only fell to #2."

Japan was ranked #3 with victories including Manchuria, Borneo and the Philippines.

Non-violent checkers

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Creative Juices on the Bailout

I love the creative abilities of this generation. The attached ad summarizes the feelings of about 60% of American voters. Too bad the House and some members of the Senate are so deaf to these views.

The President Elect and the Governor

I was impressed by the President Elect today in his opening remarks on the Illinois Governor. Some on the right have tried to build a cloud of doubt about the relationship. Based on his comments this morning - I think they are wrong. Mr. Obama made a couple of clear statements. First, he said he thought the Illinois governor should resign his office. There was no equivocation. That is not a tough stance to take - Blegojevich has an approval rating even lower than Congress. But Obama's clarity could not be mistaken. Second, he stated that he did not have any direct contact with Mr. Blagojevich on the matter of succession and that he would review any contacts that his staff had with the Governor and his staff and report on it.

I found his candor refreshing.

Our first socialist president

Werner Sombart was a German economist/sociologist at the turn of the 20th Century. In graduate school I read a paper of his which established the "apple pie theory of socialism." Sombart argued that the US had not succumbed to socialism because each worker had a slice of apple pie in his lunch pail - ultimately that workers, compared to places where socialism thrived, were reasonably well treated.

But Sombart's theory may be out of date. One could make the case that George Bush is our first socialist president. Consider the following. During his administration government expenditures grew by 40% (not counting the numerous bailouts for financial and other industries). By any measure that is a healthy level of growth. But that 40% will pale when one considers the long term obligations of the unfunded liabilities of things like the medicare prescription plan. We made some huge steps toward nationalizing the educational system through No Child Left Behind. He seems to have accepted the nationalization of banks and key industries like autos. Those are certainly accomplishments that would make a socialist proud.

Logical Traps in the Bailout Deal

According to the NYT the forecasting firm CSM Worldwide thinks that with or without a bailout Chrysler will at best go into a "slow wind down" over the next several years. That would lead one to conclude that it would be silly to add any money to a presumed failure. They suggest that Chrysler, while having some viable brands simply does not have the scale to continue to compete. In my mind a second objection to offering any money to Chrysler is that its two major investors (Daimler and Cerberus partners) are different than a normal shareholder owned entity. The investors thought private capital could solve the company's long term problems. They were wrong. Now, we are being asked to backstop their wrong decision. If anything Chrysler and its investors should be allowed to pass on. Perhaps some of the parts of the company can be picked up or reworked by other companies. But the rest should be allowed to fail.

CSM also projects that auto sales next year will drop by about 10% (in addition to the roughly 25% that they dropped this year) - the numbers go from about 16 million units in 2007 to 11 million in 2009. That suggests that whatever is done needs to think about ultimate capacity of the entire industry. The conclusion of CSM is that the other two might be able to survive.

But then comes the wise questions from Mickey Kaus. He points out that in typical legislative wording the "bridge" financing can be recalled by the car czar if in the czar's judgment the individual companies have not arrived at a plan for long term viability. What confuses Kaus is just how would the government recover its investment? Presumably the money which might go out to the companies fairly soon will have been spent before the czar has a chance to make the viability determination. The only logical conclusion is that the bill which was agreed to in principle yesterday is the down payment for a much larger involvement in the auto industry.

This sounds a lot like a bridge loan to nowhere. But then Congress has a long history of doing these kinds of projects. As opposed to the one in Alaska which was eventually recalled, this one involves, in the first instance, a huge amount of money.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Two thoughts about the bailout

In the last few days the frenzy about bailing out the big 3 has reached a fever pitch. As I noted a few days ago I have very little confidence that people like Barney Frank, who helped to get us into the soup on mortgage issues, has any idea about how to solve the problems for autos.

#1 – Government Corporations are an oxymoron
Think of well run government enterprises. Hard isn’t it. We have such sterling examples such as the US Post Office (who stays alive by having a government monopoly on some types of traffic and still cannot turn a decent return), or Amtrak (enough said), or Fannie and Freddie.

I tremble at the notion of having a car czar. The car czar promises to be no more successful than the energy czar or the drug czar. Drugs, transportation, and mail delivery have good examples of competition which is constantly working to improve their system while the government managed enterprise looks and feels like a horse and buggy operation.

#2 – The most ingenious argument for a bailout.
Some have suggested that if we allow the companies to go into bankruptcy (or reorganization) that people will not buy their products. It is suggested that individuals will not buy something that lasts for a number of years when they know that the company that brought it to you may not be around. That is ingenious, but wrong. Here are a couple of counter-arguments.

First, if the uncertainty of the industry is so great as to inhibit purchases, then why will some federal loans make that situation any better. We are told that GM will run out of cash without the infusion – but the solution is less than half a loaf. So why would we assume that they will not eventually be back for the whole package? If the problem is uncertainty, why not use some of the money to guarantee warranty programs? The answer is that the private markets are fully capable of producing risk control mechanisms like that without the help of the government. But that is not what the auto makers are after.

Second, if the problem for the auto companies is a slowdown in consumption, then why not try to solve the problem where it is supposed to be? Why not establish a program which would give an equivalent amount of money to individual consumers through a one time tax abatement or some other mechanism which would encourage them to consume? The answer is that Congress cannot figure a way to not aid the healthy parts of the American auto industry at the same time. Those rebates might well go to the automakers, who have lowered their cost structures, rather than to the legacy companies who happen to have been started in the US.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Re-envisioning language

IBM has a new webap that reconfigures words using a set of algorithms - ultimately the "word clouds" give greater prominence to words that appear more often. For example, here is a quote from Frederic Bastiat on Competition. The application is called

After all, what is competition? Is it something that exists and has a life of its own, like cholera? No. Competition is merely the absence of oppression. In things that concern me, I want to make my own choice, and I do not want another to make it for me without regard for my wishes; that is all. And if someone proposes to substitute his judgment for mine in matters that concern me, I shall demand to substitute my judgment for his in matters that concern him. What guarantee is there that this will make things go any better? It is evident that competition is freedom. To destroy freedom of action is to destroy the possibility, and consequently the power, of choosing, of judging, of comparing; it amounts to destroying reason, to destroying thought, to destroying man himself. Whatever their starting point, this is the ultimate conclusion our modern reformers always reach; for the sake of improving society they begin by destroying the individual, on the pretext that all evils come from him, as if all good things

And here is how Wordle dealt with that.

You can vary color and font and that seems to influence things like word placement. I am not sure how to use the things it produces but thought it was interesting none-the-less.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Mercantilist Risk Capital

I am a supporter of markets. I am disgusted with the false arguments that have been raised in support of substituting bankruptcy for the automakers for a government bailout. Each of the big three has a story to tell but none is more fraudulent than Chrysler. Chrysler is 80% owned by a private investment firm called Cerberus. They bought it from Daimler in 2007 for about $7.5 billion.

Cerberus says they involve themselves in "risk capital" a good brief definition of that is "Funds made available for startup firms and small businesses with exceptional growth potential. Managerial and technical expertise are often also provided. also called risk capital. also called venture capital (VC)." Risk capital's inherent structure has always been that rewards can be great but so can losses.

On their website, Cerberus extolls the virtues of private markets "Cerberus specializes in providing both financial resources and operational expertise to help transform undervalued companies into industry leaders for long-term success and value creation." "We invest in undervalued companies and their people, and help them to realize their potential."
"We partner with our portfolio companies to help them become industry leaders. We believe competition makes the global economy more productive and more efficient, which enables companies to succeed long-term in the globally competitive marketplace."

"We encourage our companies to focus on the future through prudent capital investment, R&D, new product marketing, talent development, improved operations and appropriate strategic acquisitions." Note, it is hard to determine whether they actually do this because no 10-K filing is required of private corporations.

John Snow, former Bush Treasury Secretary is the CEO, he gave a speech to the National Press Club in July 2007- The speech, like a later one to the Detroit Economic Club is fraught with comments about the goodness of private equity. Here are six quotes from the speech that speak for themselves.

But now I have an insider’s view on what I believe is the best hope for restoring our industrial base in this country: the growing role of private investment in our economy.

The prescription we offer is patient capital.

Now sometimes people think of “debt” or leverage as bad. In reality, corporate debt and equity are flip sides of the same coin. Both represent positive investments that can create jobs. Debt represents the confidence of the bond markets—people don’t lend money if they don’t have the expectation of a positive return. Either way, we address underinvestment. Many of our investments like Chrysler, for example, actually de-leverage the balance sheet. (Emphasis added)

Private investment is no magic elixir, but in certain cases like Chrysler, we believe it offers simply the best hope for restoring competitiveness to sectors of the U.S. economy that need it most. And stronger, growing companies are the best way I know of to provide job security, increase employment, raise living standards – and keep America’s economy strong.

Over twenty-five years ago, when Chrysler faced bankruptcy, it turned to the United States government for assistance. Today, Chrysler again faces new financial challenges. But it is private investment stepping in to inject much needed support. That speaks volumes for the transformation of our economy. Private equity was virtually unheard of at that time. Now, Cerberus has the opportunity to use the tremendous financial innovation of private investment to turn Chrysler around, to restore it to financial success, and to help it be a continuing source of good jobs for many Americans, as well as great products for American consumers.

As a private company, Chrysler will be able to implement a plan to build longer-term value, to make strategic investments and to focus all of its energies on improving the company’s performance – all without fear of short term negative market reaction from quarterly public company reports and the pressures to meet analyst targets.

In the middle of the first tech boom, I was a major investor in a company that made modems. At one point I was one of the largest outside shareholders. The company made a pretty good product. But the market for modems was drying up and commoditizing. In the end I lost a substantial investment. But I did not go to the feds to restore the money I lost. Indeed, it took me a couple of years to write out the losses I had on my income tax. But Snow and his partners (which includes Dan Quayle) have enlisted some of the most expensive lobbyists in Washington to backstop their investment. What frauds.

Accuracy would be an important component of disclosures designed to inform us

Presumably the distinguished chair of the House committee that will deal with the financial mess should have a modicum of knowledge about the economy. He was quoted today as suggesting that the unemployment rate which ticked up a bit more than expected was the worst in 30 years. The chart above is from the Department of Labor unemployment series. I am not sure how Barney Frank reads these kinds of things - but 6.7% is considerably lower than the recessions in 1976, 1982,1992 and ranks close to 2003. The black line presents the current rate as presented today.

If you look at the raw numbers in this downturn the numbers are the largest in 30 years - but that does not control as a percentage of the workforce - which is about in line with a lot of other recessions. A critical part of the media's responsibility here is to assure that they do not induce panic. The relentless yammering of numbers out of context are not helpful in assuring that we know the nature of the problem.

One other data point - for most of the 1930s the unemployment rate was over 15% and at times as high as 30%. Our current 6.7% is larger than recent data but nowhere near that prior level.

Even if you take the current projections that unemployment in this recession will trend up to about 10% by the end of the cycle - his remarks are off the mark. Isn't the job of our leaders to tell the truth? He is not alone, MSNBC also blurted out the same statistic. How can we hold these bozos accountable?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Quick Bailout Quiz

There are three rows of photos. The top row are the CEOs of the (not so) Big 3 automakers. The second are the respective chairs of the the committees in congress who will deal with the request for a bailout. The third row represents three Americans chosen at random.

Question - which row would you have the most confidence in to solve the automaker's problems? And which would be the least likely to solve the problem? Hard choice (except that the most obvious answer for question number 1 is the bottom row). For question #2 the most obvious answer is the middle row - but one could make a case to disqualify only the third row and rank the other two equally. 61% of our fellow Americans think the bailout is a bad idea. Wonder why the middle row can't figure that one out.

Christmas Cards

My daughter wrote this morning about Christmas cards and funny ones she and MJC might send to people. One of the networks told a story about two guys who have exchanged the same card for more than 60 years but have no other contact during the year. Both of those things got me to think about the whole convention of Christmas cards.

One of the first years we were married I was working for a Vermont senator. We thought it was appropriate to send out Christmas cards (we don't do that as much today - there is nothing more silly than the card which goes out unsigned - real sentiment - or the long Christmas letter to people you hardly know). But we went to the place in DC where you could buy cards and found that to get one with a picture and an engraved Christmas wishes with your names was frightfully expensive. (I am also not a fan of the general holiday wishes - PC baloney in extreme). We had about 50 that we wanted to send - and the minimum was 100 to get a reasonable price.

I had a friend in the office who was single. We were talking at lunch one day in November and he said, "I really want to send out Christmas cards but I only have about 50 people I want to send them to and they are too expensive to do that for just 50." We came upon a solution. The next Saturday we went down to the Capitol, stood on the East Steps (where Presidents are inaugurated) and took a picture of the three of us. We then went to the card shop and had 100 cards sent out that said something like "Merry Christmas from drtaxsacto and quonxa and the name of the guy in the office" (in truth I was not using the moniker then and he is now a distinguished professor of law and economics at a university in Chicago which is not the University of Chicago but a good place none-the-less. (You get the idea.)

In the responses both of us got from the card - our non-mutual friends expressed confusion at who the other person was in the picture? It brought us both gales of glee.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The filibuster proof Senate

Tonight's results in Georgia make the possibility of a filibuster proof Senate a bit more remote. If the clown is elected in Minnesota then the numbers would still be close but in key events the dems will need to muster a couple of GOP members to assure the onslaught. Chambliss seems to have gotten well over 55% against Jim Martin.

We now need to wait for the Minnesota results. From my perspective this was always the most important race. Franken would be an embarrassment in the Senate, as he was on talk radio and in most of the rest of his career. But the results are annoyingly close.

The best shot for the country at this point would not to give the dems unlimited control. If you want to get worried look at a recent chart from the St. Louis Fed - the hockey stick increase in monetary base should worry almost anyone - offering both the prospects of a liquidity trap and potential future significant inflation. The dems should be able to adopt their policies - after all they won the election - but giving them the full keys to the levers would be a mistake.

Governors - Policy Bimbos versus Thinkers

This afternoon after visiting with a couple of my colleges, I was driving to my hotel for the evening and listening to NPR. One report that they had was from three of the participants in the meeting today between the President elect and a group of governors. NPR had the Governor of Michigan (former actress/model Jennifer Granholm), the Governor of Colorado (Bill Ritter) and the Governor of South Carolina (Mark Sanford).

NPR cannot be said to have been very fair about their discussion of the bailout for the auto industry. Granholm is not bothered much by the facts and quite content to pimp for her hometown industry. The same could be said of Bill Ritter. I am not sure why he thinks throwing good money after bad is such a good idea but he does. In addition he also said that the feds should fund tons of new infrastructure projects. He made the absurd statement that the FDR programs in the 30s helped us get out of the depression. That is utter nonsense. Indeed, if anything the alphabet programs were emotionally but not economically satisfying. Ritter and Granholm seemed to be operating off the talking points of the UAW and the (not so) big 3.

They made two arguments which should be answered. First, Granholm kept repeating that the auto industry some how influenced one job in ten - with the strong implication that if the bailout were not granted that our jobless rate would immediately grow by that full amount. If the figures are true (and economic multipliers are often based on silly facts) even if the big three completely failed in bankruptcy not all of those jobs would disappear. It is pretty clear that some parts of our auto industry (especially those not burdened with the legacy costs of the big three might even do better. The converse of her arguments are even more telling - if the bailout were granted we would be implying that the legacy costs should be a public responsibility.

Second, Ritter made the point that the extensive list of public works projects that each governor had on their wish list would improve the economy immediately. Frederic Bastiat destroyed that argument in the eighteenth century when he did his famous paper about the benefits of breaking windows to promote employment. When you add the public works projects that each state has not funded (and it is a very large list) you would soon have the federal government setting priorities for the states. Many of those projects would have little benefit outside their own state borders. One other issue that bothered me was California specific. On the November ballot Californians adopted a series of bond measures which presumably would have the same stimulative effects that Ritter talked about - why would a new list be more stimulative than the one established, and paid for, by California voters?

But then came Governor Sanford. The NPR interviewer asked him if he thought that a federal bailout would help a) the auto industry and b) his state. He said no to both. He was polite but firm. He suggested that South Carolinians would better be able to help themselves by not taking federal "bailouts" funded from increasing the deficit. Ritter compared the unemployment rate now (7%) to the great depresssion (then as much as 30%) which shows he is either ignorant or dishonest (or both). Sanford also said the auto industry could benefit from going into Chapter 11 to renegotiate some of the legacy labor costs.

I was impressed by Sanford's approach. He is realistic and at the same time committed to improving trade (which he explicitly supported). Sanford was polite but forceful. He made his points in an environment where the NPR interviewer was predisposed to increasing deficits to deal with the credit/productivity problem. If this is the next generation of GOP , there is hope.