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Archive for August 2018

Update on the Phoenix Light Rail Fail

A few weeks ago I posted Valley Metro's own numbers that showed that the billions spent on light rail in the Phoenix area have done nothing but case the stagnation of transit ridership in Phoenix.  Light rail ridership actually fell substantially despite an expensive extension of the line.

Today,

As of 2016, light rail carries  of all travel in the Phoenix urban area. The 2016 American Community Survey says that the  take light rail to work, which is unusual as transit’s commuter share is usually much higher than its total share. Phoenix light-rail ridership in the twelve months ending in June, 2018 was  from the previous twelve months. Transit ridership for Phoenix as a whole is down 5.6 percent for the same time period.

Phoenix is one of many Sunbelt urban areas in which rail transit makes no sense at all. Aside from the Antiplanner’s argument that buses can move more people than light rail, rail systems only make sense where there is a high concentration of downtown jobs that a hub-and-spoke transit system can serve. According to , downtown Phoenix has only about 26,000 jobs, which is just 1.4 percent of jobs in the metropolitan area.

Phoenix is particularly unusual (though not unique) in that its suburbs are actually denser than the city itself. According to the 2010 census, the city of Phoenix has about 2,800 people per square mile, while its suburbs have nearly 3,500 people per square mile. With both jobs and population spread out, the region needs nimble, low-capacity transit if it needs any transit at all.

Arizona State University students make up a “” of light-rail riders. Until this year, students were able to buy transit passes for  for the nine-month school year, plus $75 for the other three months. The same passes would cost other members of the public . Despite the steep discounts, student weekday ridership dropped by around 40 percent between 2011 and 2015.

The last paragraph reminds me that I forgot to discuss the issue with ridership and ASU students in my last post.  A huge portion of Phoenix light rail ridership comes from two sources:  subsidized ASU students and fans going to downtown sporting events.  This helps to explain why the commuter share of Phoenix ridership is so low -- essentially, many of the light rail riders are not commuters but in these two other groups.  Why we should be spending billions to subsidize bar crawls for already heavily-subsidized ASU students or to save sports fans money on downtown parking** is beyond me.

He has this good news:

The Phoenix city council is considering delaying or even because it is concerned that city streets are falling apart and too much money is being spent instead on an insignificant form of travel.

** much of the downtown parking revenue for sporting events goes to the city and county, so cannibalization of this revenue is yet another hidden cost of light rail.

I Am Tired of Being An Unpaid Laborer For My Own Destruction

For some reason my small business now has to fill out three incredibly time-consuming census reports every year.  I don't know what we did to be punished in this way, but each of these (if one were truly diligent) can take more time than a tax return to fill out.

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Several of the reports ask for accounting data in ways no private company keeps accounting data, such that really giving them the number they want would take hours or days of recasting thousands of accounting transactions. I try to give them something reasonable but let's just say they get exactly the quality they pay for here.

There does not seem to be any filter or limit on the amount of time government bureaucrats can demand for this cr*p.  Every bureaucrat seems to have some piece of data they think is desperately needed, so every year each of these reports gets longer and every few years another report is added.  It is particularly frustrating because the government is just going to use this data to justify regulating or taxing me more.  My forced unpaid labor is providing ammunition for the government to make my life harder.

And speaking of unpaid labor:  Last time I wrote something like this about how much I hated this data gathering (at that time I only had to fill out one of these) I had economists write me that this is really important data and without it they could not do their job.  You know what?  I don't demand economists perform unpaid labor to support my job, why do I have to provide unpaid labor to support theirs?  If this is such vitally important data, pay me for it.

You Won't Find the Words "Fired" or "Terminated" In This Article

Update:  As many of you know, my company privately operates public recreation areas.  One of our sales points vs. public management is, honest to God, that when we have a bad employee we can just fire them.

Life in the Trump Era: Conservatives Now Define Raising Taxes as "Progress"

writes approvingly of Trump's apparent trade deal with Mexico.  First, he quotes the New York Times celebrating the higher taxes:

Under the changes agreed to by Mexico and the United States, car companies would be required to manufacture at least 75 percent of an automobile’s value in North America under the new rules, up from 62.5 percent, to qualify for Nafta’s zero tariffs. They will also be required to use more local steel, aluminum and auto parts, and have 40 to 45 percent of the car made by workers earning at least $16 an hour, a boon to both the United States and Canada and a win for labor unions, which have been among Nafta’s biggest critics.

I am not sure how narrowing the scope of products subject to lower taxes is a "boon" to this country, though I suppose labor unions might be happy and one is suspicious that this is sufficient reason for the NYT to support it.  My suspicion is that these numbers are incredibly carefully tailored by Ford and GM lobbyists to hit a couple of their competitors while missing themselves -- this has all the fingerprints of a classic crony deal that benefits very few powerful groups to the detriment of most consumers.

So the NYT can be expected to cheer for bad crony economics that helps a few unions, but what about Conservatives, who are supposed to understand markets and trade.  Hinderaker writes:

So, from 62.5% to 75% to qualify for zero tariffs. Not exactly radical, but positive.

So broadening a US government tax on US consumers is "positive."  Powerline in the past has rightfully chided Paul Krugman for abandoning his understanding of economics in favor of cheerleading the Democratic team.  Now Powerline is doing the same for Trump.

Well, I Was Wrong about Super Delegates

A couple of years ago, in response to suggestions that the Democratic Party should get rid of super-delegates in their Presidential nominating process, .

The Cycles of Government and the US Constitution

I was in a course this weekend on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic.  One term that was new to me was Polybius's theory of government called Anacyclosis (Polybius was a contemporary of the Roman Republic and actually lived during the time when the seeds of the Republic's downfall were being planted).  Others before and after Polybius had similar ideas but apparently Polybius gets a lot of the credit.  There are two interesting ideas in this theory that I think will have a lot of resonance to folks today.  First, he believed that governments followed a cycle from one-man rule to aristocracy to democracy and back.  Second, and perhaps more interesting, he believed that each of these three forms of government had a good and bad form, and that the good form was inherently unstable and always degenerated into the bad form.

' sequence of anacyclosis proceeds in the following order: 1. monarchy, 2. kingship, 3. tyranny, 4. aristocracy, 5. oligarchy, 6. democracy, and 7. ochlocracy.

According to Polybius' elaboration of the theory, the state begins in a form of primitive monarchy. The state will emerge from monarchy under the leadership of an influential and wise king; this represents the emergence of "kingship". Political power will pass by hereditary succession to the children of the king, who will abuse their authority for their own gain; this represents the degeneration of kingship into "tyranny".

Some of the more influential and powerful men of the state will grow weary of the abuses of tyrants, and will overthrow them; this represents the ascendancy of "aristocracy" (as well as the end of the "rule by the one" and the beginning of the "rule by the few").

Just as the descendants of kings, however, political influence will pass to the descendants of the aristocrats, and these descendants will begin to abuse their power and influence, as the tyrants before them; this represents the decline of aristocracy and the beginning of "oligarchy". As Polybius explains, the people will by this stage in the political evolution of the state decide to take political matters into their own hands.

This point of the cycle sees the emergence of "democracy", as well as the beginning of "rule by the many". In the same way that the descendants of kings and aristocrats abused their political status, so too will the descendants of democrats. Accordingly, democracy degenerates into "ochlocracy", literally, "mob-rule". In an ochlocracy, according to Polybius, the people of the state will become corrupted, and will develop a sense of entitlement and will be conditioned to accept the  of demagogues.

Eventually, the state will be engulfed in chaos, and the competing claims of demagogues will culminate in a single (sometimes virtuous) demagogue claiming absolute power, bringing the state full-circle back to monarchy.

He believed that the Roman Republic worked because it was a merger of all three forms of government.  If this seems like a goofy theory, like the balancing of humors for health; or if it seems wrong because we are all taught today that democracy is superior to the other two forms, consider this:  In the US, think of the Presidency as kingship, the Senate (as originally configured in the Constitution) as aristocracy, and the House of Representatives as democracy.  Our Constitution is arguably based in part on Polybius's theory.

What I Am Wondering About Inflation

Tyler Cowen asks, ""  I have wondered that for a while, but monetary policy and related topics in macro are one of the areas I admit that I simply do not understand so I don't write about it.  So rather than offering any hypotheses to Cowen's question, I will ask my own:

  1. Is it possible that inflation exists but it shows up mainly in financial assets (stocks, bonds, perhaps real estate) that don't really factor into standard inflation metrics?  Every step the Fed has taken, as well as other western central banks, appears to me to be crafted to pump money into securities markets rather than into main street.  Certainly we have seen a huge inflation in the value of financial assets and real estate over the past several years.
  2. Expansion of the economy above the rate of productivity improvement should drive inflation, unless there was a lot of excess capacity to soak up.   That may have been partly the case in the US since 2008, but surely that is gone.  Does the still greatly underutilized Chinese and Indian labor force act as excess capacity that prevents inflation from heating up here?  If so, might Trump's trade restrictions interfere with this going forward?

Fixing Tesla

I promised I would not post any more Tesla for a while, and to some extent I am keeping that promise -- no updates here on the SEC investigation or the 420 tweet.  But since I have been critical of Tesla in the past, I thought I would acknowledge that there are good things in Tesla that could and should be saved.  The problem is that Tesla is saddled with a bunch of problems that are NOT going to be solved by going private.  In fact, going private could only make things worse -- given that Tesla already has too much debt and its debt is rated barely above junk bonds, piling on more debt just to save Elon Musk from short sellers is not a good plan.  Here is what I would suggest:

  1. Find the right role for Elon Musk.  Musk HAS to be part of the company, without him its stock would go to about zero tomorrow.  But right now he is CEO, effective head of media relations, factory manager, and chief engineer.  Get him out of day to day management (and off Twitter) and hire real operating people who know what they are doing
  2. Get rid of the dealerships.  Tesla tried to do something different, which is own all the dealerships rather than franchise them out.  This is fine if one has some sort of vision for doing sales and service differently, but Tesla really doesn't.  It does the same things as other car dealerships but just slower since it has not been able to build out capacity fast enough.  And this decision has cost them a tons of growth capital they desperately need, because they have had to build out dealerships most car companies get for "free" because the capital for the dealerships is provided by third-party entrepreneurs.  Also, the third-party entrepreneurs bring other things to the table, for example many of them tend to have experience in the car sales business and a high profile in their local markets with government and media.
  3. If possible, find a partner for the charging network.  All traditional car companies get their fueling networks for free because the network is already built out by the oil companies.  Tesla is building its own, and again this is sucking up a lot of capital.  It is also dangerous, because Tesla has chosen to pursue a charging standard that may not become the industry standard (this is already happening in Europe) and Tesla risks being stuck with the betamax network.  Tesla should see if it can shift this to a third party, perhaps even in joint venture with other EV companies.
  4. Do an equity raise.  To my mind, it is absolute madness Tesla did not do this earlier in the year.   Their stock was trading at $350 and at a $50+ billion valuation at the same time they were burning cash cash at a rate of $3 billion or so a year.  Musk says he can skate through without more capital but he has said this before and it was not true.  Given the enthusiasm for his stock, there is just no reason to run cash poor when there are millions of Tesla fanboys just waiting to throw money at the company.  Even a $5 billion raise would have been only 10% dilution.  Musk says he wants to burn the shorts but ask any Tesla short out there what they would most fear, and I think they would all say an equity capital raise.  $3-5 billion would get Tesla at least through 2019 no matter how bad the cash burn remained and give the company space to solve its operational problems.
  5. Get someone who knows how to build cars building the cars.  I have written about this before -- it is always hard when you are trying to be a disruptor of an industry to decide what to disrupt and what industry knowledge to incorporate.  In retrospect, Musk's plan to ignore how cars are built and do it a different way is not working.  Not only are the cost issues and throughput issues, but there are growing reports of real quality issues in model 3's.  This has to be fixed ASAP.
  6. Bring some sanity to the long-term product roadmap.  This may be a bit cynical, but Tesla seems to introduce a new product every time Musk needs to divert the public's attention, his equivalent of yelling "Squirrel!"  There is the semi, a pickup truck, a roadster and probably something else I have forgotten about.  Even the model 3 lineup is confusing, with no one really knowing what Tesla is going to focus on, and whether the promised $35,000 model 3 will ever actually be built.  This confusion doesn't work well with investors at all, but Tesla has been able to make it work with customers, increasing the buzz around the company because no one ever seems to know what it will do next.  But once real competitors start coming out from GM, Volvo, Jaguar, BMW and others, this is not going to work.  Customers that are currently captive to Tesla will have other options.    Let's start with the semi.  The demo was a beautiful product, but frankly there is no way Tesla is going to have the time or the money to actually produce this thing.   Someone like Volvo is going to beat them to the punch.   They need to find a JV partner who can actually build it.

Update:  If I had a #7, it would be: Invent a time machine and go back and undo the corrupt SolarCity buyout, in which Tesla bailed out Musk's friends and family and promptly proceeded to essentially shut down the company.  Tesla shareholders got nothing from the purchase except a lot of debt.

 

Here is a Fun Challenge: Be Skeptical of Statistics Even When They Support Your Point of View

I sometimes wonder if the media and the punditocracy have any ability any more to reality-check statistics.  Two examples:

One

Trump supporters were running around in circles patting themselves o

African American business owners are on the rise. According to the , the number of black-owned small businesses in the U.S. increased by a staggering 400% in a year-over-year time period from 2017 to 2018.

I call bullsh*t on this.  There is no WAY that the number of black-owned businesses increase by a factor of 5** in just one year.  There are millions of black-owned small businesses in this country and there is no way this quintupled** in a year.   It does not pass any kind of smell test.   It is clearly some sort of measurement error, either a small sample size for a survey or a change in data source and definitions from one year to another.  I could go investigate the study and try to figure out the cause but I do not even need to bother because economic and demographic data simply do not change at this pace in one year.

Two

The other example I have is :

A recent found that an average of one in four undergraduate females experience sexual assault by the time they finish college.

Here is the deal with this stat:  no one actually really believes it.  Why do I say this with confidence?  Because parents still send their daughters to college -- in fact they fight and scrap and invest huge amounts of time and money to send their daughter to college.  If they really believed their little darling had a 1 in 4 chance of being sexually assaulted, they would never do so.

Here is a point of comparison:  The Japanese brutal occupation of Nanjing, Chinak彩平台登陆 is commonly known as the "Rape of Nanjing."  It is called this in part because so many local women were raped.  The numbers are fought over by historians, but the best estimate is that 20,000 of the approximately 100,000 women who were in Nanjing at the time were raped by Japanese soldiers, or about one in five.  This means that if the one in four number is correct, then colleges are more dangerous for women than being in Nanjing during the Japanese occupation.  Now, I would venture to guess that if I tried to stuff you daughter into a time machine and send her back to Nanjing on December 13, 1937 you would probably fight me to the death to prevent it.  But parents don't act anything like this vis a vis going to college, ergo no one believes this figure.  So why does everyone keep using it like it is accurate?

** I had put quadrupled but my son just called and reminded me that a 400% increase means quintupled.  Thanks, Nic.  Though I will say there is a good chance the source incorrectly used 400% to mean quadrupled, so I can't rule that out either.

The Good Intentions Generation

This seems to be a generation in which good intentions are enough.  Actually, I am not sure this is exactly right, let me try again.  This seems to be a generation in which the signaling of good intentions is enough.


Socialism will work because we have good intentions for it.  Trade wars will work because we have good intentions.  Tesla is valuable because it has good intentions.

Democratic socialism supporters don't even know what socialism is.  Trump supporters don't understand squat about economics but just feel that Trump genuinely wants to help them.  Tesla bulls don't even try to look at a balance sheet but just really, really love the idea of Elon Musk being a real-life but progressive Tony Stark.  Not sure where I am going with this, but just frustrated this morning trying to talk policy in a world of virtue-signalling.  In the last few elections I have been presented with discouraging but predictable choices.  Now I am presented with a choice between two parties that have both lost their minds.

What Socialists (and Most Other People) Don't Understand About The Oil Industry

This same failure has happened over and over, at one time or another in Russia and Mexico and now in Venezuela.  Some tried to make it happen in the 1970's in the US, and Elizabeth Warren would still like to try, I bet.  Socialists take over the oil industry and revel in the first months about all they money they are able to divert to "social" expenditures.  Then, in a few year, it all comes crashing down.  This tweet from Michael Moore five years ago gives you a good idea of the thinking.

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Socialists have always seen production and wealth creation as some sort of magic, a fountain in the desert where piggy rich people push to the front and take more than their fair share.  Oil looks to them as the ultimate example of this -- wealth just flows out of the ground and evil rich people at Exxon grab it all for themselves.

But in fact, oil is just the opposite of the magic fountain.  It takes a huge quantity of money and brains to get even one drop of it in usable form to your car.  Imagine trying to figure out where even to look for oil when it is hiding far under ground.  Or having to poke holes a mile into the ground from structures standing in 1000 foot deep water in the Gulf of Mexico.  And then transporting the oil hundreds or thousands of miles by pipeline and ship and train and truck.  And then carefully refining the oil almost molecule by molecule in multi-billion dollar facilities.  And then getting the usable parts to the right people, including distribution outlets for you and I on almost every corner of town.

Right now gasoline in Phoenix goes for about $2.85 a gallon, which is about $2.40 before taxes.  This is 60 cents a quart, which compares to the retail price of a bottle of water of about $2.00-$2.50 a quart.  It's a freaking miracle of modernity that you can fill your car this inexpensively.

Anyway, it turns out that oil is the ultimate "you have to spend money to make money" kind of business.  And once you spend all that money, you investment immediately starts dying.  Oil companies have to completely rebuild retail gas stations every 20-30 years.  Refineries have to be constantly updated with really expensive improvements to take advantage of new technologies, to adjust to changing markets and regulations, and to handle different types of crude oil.  And then there is oil production.  Drill a well today and the moment you open it up, the production starts to fall off.  The flow will drop, the percentage of water might increase-- a million things can happen and all of them bad.  To keep wells flowing companies constantly have to reinvest their profits in reworking the wells (fracking and such) and adding enhanced recovery systems.  As fields deplete, new wells have to be drilled in new locations or at new depths, or else whole new fields have to be developed to replace them.

The "greedy and short-term-focused" oil companies reinvest much of their earnings to make sure the supply of oil is sustained.  The "enlightened" socialists harvest all the cash they can and hand it to their cronies, allowing the production assets to fall apart and, eventually, their economy to collapse.

I Spend a Lot Of Time Here Skewering Goofy Technologies, But... I Love This One

As a train enthusiast, .  I give them double points for being honest that their technology is not yet economic

The wind doesn't always blow, the sun doesn't always shine. So utilities are in search of ways to store surplus energy when they've got it, so they can distribute it later, when it's needed.

The most "duh" approach to energy storage is very big batteries like the ones Elon Musk peddles, which are poised to become a lot cheaper in the next five years. Pumped hydroelectric facilities are another option. Or you can move compressed air around underground caves. But none of these options has emerged as the best way to fix the grid.

Then there's rail energy storage, which is about to get its grand debut. In April, the Bureau of Land Management approved an ARES—that's Advanced Rail Energy Storage—project, conceived by a Santa Barbara-based energy startup called, well, ARES. By 2019, ARES operations head Francesca Cava says, the facility will occupy 106 acres in the excellently-named town of Pahrump, Nevada. By running a train up and down a hill, ARES can help utilities add to and subtract from the grid as needed.

It's a wonderfully simple idea, a 19th century solution for a 21st century problem, with some help from the abundant natural resource that is gravity. When the local utility's got surplus electricity, it powers up the electric motors that drag 9,600 tons of rock- and concrete-filled railcars up a 2,000-foot hill. When it's got a deficit, 9,600 tons of railcar rumble down, and those motors —the same way your Prius does. Effectively, all the energy used to move the train up the hill is stored, and recouped when it comes back down.

 

CNN, Buzzfeed, NYT, WaPo, AP, NBC, And Politico Attempting to Doxx Manafort Jurors

Just one day after their coordinated virtue signaling about their important role in maintaining a civil society**, a coalition of media companies  (pdf) seeking the names and addresses of the jurors in the Manafort trial.  I am a huge supporter of sunlight and disclosure in  government, and perhaps there is a precedent for this, but it seems like a terrible idea.  I have served on two criminal juries in my lifetime and I can guarantee you I would have resisted participation had I known that my name and k彩平台登陆 address would be released to the public in association with the trial verdict.

CNN in particular has some history in misusing doxxing.  A year or so ago they threatened a Reddit user with doxxing if he didn't stop posting a meme critical of CNN.  Given that probably 95% of the employees of this media coalition probably want to see Manafort convicted, there is real reason for concern how this information might be used.

In FOIA rules, the decisions to release a particular piece of information to one petitioner is a decision to release it to everyone,  I am not sure if similar rules would apply here.  Kind of hoping that Ken White at Popehat chimes in on this.

 

** A conclusion I am sympathetic to, though I think the media undercuts their argument a bit by acting as thin-skinned and as childish at times as President Trump does.

Update:  Judge denies motion.  Good.

The Meteor Extinction Debate Looks A LOT Like the Climate Debate

is quite interesting and worth a read.  Gerta Keller has had quite an interesting life.  But I will say I found it particularly fascinating comparing details here to the climate debate.  Here are a few example quotes that will seem very familiar to those who have watched the back and forth over global warming, particularly from the skeptic side:

Keller’s resistance has put her at the core of one of the most rancorous and longest-running controversies in science. “It’s like the Thirty Years’ War,” says Kirk Johnson, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Impacters’ case-closed confidence belies decades of vicious infighting, with the two sides trading accusations of slander, sabotage, threats, discrimination, spurious data, and attempts to torpedo careers. “I’ve never come across anything that’s been so acrimonious,” Kerr says. “I’m almost speechless because of it.” Keller keeps a running list of insults that other scientists have hurled at her, either behind her back or to her face. She says she’s been called a “bitch” and “the most dangerous woman in the world,” who “should be stoned and burned at the stake.”

Nobel prize winner Alvarez sounds a bit like Michael Mann:

Ad hominem attacks had by then long characterized the mass-extinction controversy, which came to be known as the “dinosaur wars.” Alvarez had set the tone. His numerous scientific exploits—winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, flying alongside the crew that bombed Hiroshima, “X-raying” Egypt’s pyramids in search of secret chambers—had earned him renown far beyond academia, and he had wielded his star power to mock, malign, and discredit opponents who dared to contradict him. In The New York Times, Alvarez branded one skeptic “not a very good scientist,” chided dissenters for “publishing scientific nonsense,” suggested ignoring another scientist’s work because of his “general incompetence,” and wrote off the entire discipline of paleontology when specialists protested that the fossil record contradicted his theory. “I don’t like to say bad things about paleontologists, but they’re really not very good scientists,” . “They’re more like stamp collectors.”

This sounds familiar, dueling battles between models and observations:

That the dinosaur wars drew in scientists from multiple disciplines only added to the bad blood. Paleontologists resented arriviste physicists, like Alvarez, for ignoring their data; physicists figured the stamp collectors were just bitter because they hadn’t cracked the mystery themselves. Differing methods and standards of proof failed to translate across fields. Where the physicists trusted models, for example, geologists demanded observations from fieldwork.

There is pal review

he said impacters had warned some of her collaborators not to work with her, even contacting their supervisors in order to pressure them to sever ties. (Thierry Adatte and Wolfgang Stinnesbeck, who have worked with Keller for years, confirmed this.) Keller listed numerous research papers whose early drafts had been rejected, she felt, because pro-impact peer reviewers “just come out and regurgitate their hatred.”

And charges that key data is not being shared to avoid it falling in the hands of skeptics

She suspected repeated attempts to deny her access to valuable samples extracted from the Chicxulub crater, such as in 2002, when the journal Nature  that Jan Smit had seized control of a crucial piece of rock—drilled at great expense—and purposefully delayed its distribution to other scientists, a claim Smit called “ridiculous.” (Keller told me  and was eventually found in Smit’s duffel bag; Smit says this is “pure fantasy.”)

Leading to a familiar discussion of scientific consensus

Keller and others accuse the impacters of  before alternate ideas can get a fair hearing. Though geologists had bickered for 60 years before reaching a consensus on continental drift, Alvarez declared the extinction debate over and done within two years. “That the asteroid hit, and that the impact triggered the extinction of much of the life of the sea … are no longer debatable points,” he said .....

All the squabbling raises a question: How will the public know when scientists have determined which scenario is right? It is tempting, but unreliable, to trust what appears to be the majority opinion. Forty-one co-authors signed on to a 2010 Science paper asserting that Chicxulub was, after all the evidence had been evaluated, conclusively to blame for the dinosaurs’ death. Case closed, again. Although some might consider this proof of consensus, dozens of geologists, paleontologists, and biologists  contesting . Science is not done by vote.

Hunting Through The Jungle to Eliminate the Last Surviving Soldier in the Culture War

Those of you as old as I am may remember in the 1970's when from WWII were discovered or coaxed to surrender after hiding for decades in some Pacific jungle.  No one was looking to punish these guys -- the war was won and over -- we were just trying to get them to come out and try to live a normal life.

I am reminded of these stories upon reading that for not baking someone a cake:

On the same day the high court agreed to review the Masterpiece case, an attorney named Autumn Scardina called Phillips’ shop and asked him to create a cake celebrating a sex transition. The caller asked that the cake include a blue exterior and a pink interior, a reflection of Scardina’s transgender identity. Phillips declined to create the cake, given his religious conviction that sex is immutable, while offering to sell the caller other pre-made baked goods.

In the months that followed, the bakery received requests for cakes featuring marijuana use, sexually explicit messages, and Satanic symbols. One solicitation submitted by email asked the cake shop to create a three-tiered white cake depicting Satan licking a functional 9 inch dildo. Phillips believes Scardina made all these requests.

Scardina filed a complaint with the civil rights commission, alleging discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The matter was held in abeyance while the Supreme Court adjudicated the Masterpiece case.

I have supported gay rights for as long as I can remember and briefly ran an Arizona campaign to legalize gay marriage.  But this looks to me like sending an entire army into the jungle to try to hunt down and kill that last Japanese soldier.  Isn't it enough that we have complete legal tolerance of homosexuality, de facto tolerance by the majority of Americans, and commercial tolerance in that 99+% of all businesses gratefully accept business from gays?  There can't be that many businesses denying accommodation to gays and trans-gendered when they have to keep harping on the same one example of non-conformity.  One of the features Hannah Arendt used to distinguish totalitarianism from run-of-the-mill authoritarianism was that in the latter, authorities need everyone to act in accordance with their wishes, in totalitarian governments they require people to believe in accordance with their wishes.  This need to seek out and harshly punish tiny infractions against social justice strikes me as totalitarian.

As an aside, I would challenge anyone to say that there is no message they would refuse to put on a cake.  I can think of a number I would say no to, .

Mandated accommodation laws are a tough thing.  Libertarians tend to be suspicious of them because they tend to tread on several first amendment rights (speech, association).  But I could envision cases where I would support them, for example in the 1960's South during the dismantling of Jim Crow.  I really do not think we are there for gay wedding cakes.

 

For the Music Lover, See the Muscle Shoals Documentary

Aretha Franklin has passed away, and in his obituary for her, mentions her early recordings at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama.  I remember seeing one of these Franklin studio performances in the documentary   Her performance was staggering in its power.  I am not sure I have seen anything like it.  The entire documentary is recommended.

Tesla: With the First Domino Tipped Over, It is Just Physics Now

You may not see much Tesla coverage here for a while, despite a lot of breaking news.  Here is why:

The dominoes are all lined up, and that was an interesting story (the dominoes include:  Tesla's poor management of a good product, its lack of adult supervision, its repeated failure to meet targets, its utter contempt for being held accountable to targets, its paranoid worldview, its past near-corrupt actions like the insider SolarCity purchase, Musk's irrational hatred of shorts, its running out of cash without any plan for a capital raise, the fanboys who would eat any dog food Musk served up, etc.)

The first domino has been tipped over (Musk's outright lie that he had funding secured for a $420 buyout when he had not even talked to bankers or his board yet, just to tweak the shorts for a few hours in one day).

Now, I am not sure that I find that interesting -- after all, it is just inevitable physics at this point.

Note:  The crash is likely to be much slower than at Enron.  Once confidence failed in Enron, the crash came almost at once because Enron was like a large bank that was investing long and borrowing short.  Once the short-term borrowing window was closed for them, it was over.   Tesla can likely make it 6 months before they start scraping bottom and/or their debt covenants.

Update:  For the Tesla fanboys who seem super-excited about the loss of liquidity moving to a private company, :

Three of Tinder's co-founders and several other current and former senior executives are suing the dating company's parent organizations, Match Group and IAC. According to a complaint published online, the lawsuit seeks billions of dollars in damages for allegedly manipulating financial information in order to reduce Tinder's valuation and illegally take away employees' stock options.

The complaint explains that Tinder was supposed to be valued in 2017, 2018, k彩平台登陆 and 2021; On those days, employees should have been able to exercise their stock options. Instead, the lawsuit alleges that parent company IAC/Match Group inaccurately lowballed Tinder's valuation in July 2017 at $3 billion, the same as it did two years ago despite the dating app's substantial growth. Then, the parent company secretly merged Tinder into Match Group, which meant employees earned far less in stock options. Then, IAC threatened to terminate anyone who revealed how much the company was actually worth, the lawsuit claims.

Tesla Predictions Secured

I had dinner last night with my old college roommate Brink Lindsey and he even sort of rolled his eyes about my recent Tesla obsession, so I really really will try to make this the last post for a while.  However, I have to count coup on a few accurate predictions I made last week here and here.

First, I said, in reference to how Musk can bail himself out of his "funding secured" tweet when it has become clear this is not the case:

So what can Musk do?  Well, the first defense might be to release a statement like "when I said funding secured, I was referring to recent conversations with ______ [fill in blank, maybe with Saudis or the Chinese, call them X] and they told me that if we ever were looking for funds they would have my back."  This is probably the best he could do, and Tesla would try to chalk it up to naivete of Mr. Musk to accept barroom conversation as a firm commitment.  Naivite, but not fraud.   I don't have any experience with the Feds on this kind of thing but my guess is that the SEC would expect that the CEO of a $50 billion public company should know the rules and legally wasn't allowed to be naive, but who knows, the defense worked for Hillary Clinton with her email servers.

Recently, after the Saudi fund bought almost 5% of Tesla stock through the public markets, they reached out to ask for another meeting. That meeting took place on July 31st. During the meeting, the Managing Director of the fund expressed regret that I had not moved forward previously on a going private transaction with them, and he strongly expressed his support for funding a going private transaction for Tesla at this time. I understood from him that no other decision makers were needed and that they were eager to proceed....

I left the July 31st meeting with no question that a deal with the Saudi sovereign fund could be closed, and that it was just a matter of getting the process moving. This is why I referred to “funding secured” in the August 7th announcement.

Of course the Feds probably expect "funding secured" to mean a signed term sheet (which does not exist) accompanied by an 8-K (which STILL has not been issued).  I then said in my prediction:

But this defense is MUCH MUCH better if, in the next day or so, Tesla can announce a deal with X on paper with signatures.  Then Musk can use the same defense as above but it has much more weight because he can say, see, they promised funding and I believed them when they said they had my back and here they have delivered.

And today we learn:

But was the funding really secured? Apparently not, because in the very next paragraph Musk writes that "following the August 7th announcement, I have continued to communicate with the Managing Director of the Saudi fund. He has expressed support for proceeding subject to financial and other due diligence and their internal review process for obtaining approvals. He has also asked for additional details on how the company would be taken private, including any required percentages and any regulatory requirements."

Hmmm.  So basically Musk had a chat with the Saudis that did not include any due diligence, any percentages, or anything about the structure of the transaction and nothing has been submitted formally to the Saudis for the required review and approval.  The Feds would never accept this BS from an unpopular CEO like, say, Jeff Skilling.  It remains to be seen whether they will really go after cultural icon Musk.

Finally, I predicted the odd and relatively unprecedented transaction that Musk likely envisioned:

Here is what I think Musk wants -- he wants an LBO without any actual change in ownership. Basically he wants to create Tesla New, which will be private and not trade on the markets. He is hoping that all his current fanboy shareholders will exchange a share of Tesla for a share of Tesla New. Musk has already said he will do this with his 20%. In the extreme case, if every current shareholder wants in on the new private company, then no capital at all is needed for the LBO. Musk might admit that perhaps a billion or two are needed to buy out the few recalcitrants at $420, and then all the Tesla fanboys can enjoy short-seller-free illiquidity

There was no way that Musk could expect to raise $70-$80 billion ($420 times the float) or to run an already cash-starved business with that much debt.  The only way to imagine this is if the buyout was only of a small percentage of owners.  And sure enough, here is Musk this morning:

Therefore, reports that more than $70B would be needed to take Tesla private dramatically overstate the actual capital raise needed. The $420 buyout price would only be used for Tesla shareholders who do not remain with our company if it is private. My best estimate right now is that approximately two-thirds of shares owned by all current investors would roll over into a private Tesla.

I won't comment on whether this is possible because I don't know enough about security laws.  I have been told that the SEC would likely frown on a private company with no public disclosures that has thousands or even millions of individual shareholders, but again, I don't know.

I find it amazing that anyone would want to stay in on this basis, but like Musk, the Tesla fan-boys seem to care more about burning the shorts than the quality of their own long investment in Tesla.  How can moving your small (percentage-wise) investment in Tesla from being exchange-traded to being locked up in a private company possibly be an improvement?  Today your investment has total liquidity (you can sell any time), it has massive 3rd party scrutiny and accountability, and it has real-time price discovery.  You would lose all of that in a private company.  You can only sell when Musk lets you sell and at the price he chooses to give you based on whatever company information he chooses to release.  Choosing the private option as a minority shareholder is like saying that you would rather hold non-refundable airline tickets than fully refundable ones.

Postscript:  I am new to the world of short-selling fights, as I am not really an active investor and just got sucked into watching Tesla because I found it interesting.  But wow, the tribalism of politics sure has leaked into the investment world!  In tribal politics, we see people more motivated by hatred of the other tribe than by making progress on their own tribe's goals.  This same kind of "reasoning" seems to dominate a lot of the Tesla long-short battle.

Update:  Here is a new prediction.  For a while Elon Musk has claimed he will not have to raise capital this year.  Everyone basically looks at his numbers and thinks he is nuts.  What's more, given his $50 billion equity valuation currently, he SHOULD be raising capital now while his stock is high and thus his cost of capital is low.

But one way to look at this is if he raises $20 billion in equity to buy out the 1/3 he thinks will want the cash rather than the new stock, he could easily just make that $22 billion so the company has an extra $2 billion in operating cash and thus raise capital this year without it looking like he violated his promise not to raise capital.

 

How Politicians Very Carefully Prioritize When to Unleash the Coercive Power of the State

What's Going On At Tesla

has many of the same guesses I made the other day (here on the transaction Musk likely wants, and here on how might paper over his lie about "funding secured").  Levine writes:

The intermediate possibility is that there is some sort of deep misunderstanding, that when Musk tweeted about “taking Tesla private at $420” and having “funding secured,” he didn’t mean what you and I and the SEC normally interpret those words to mean, which is that he would make a binding offer to buy any Tesla shares not owned by Musk and his financing partners for $420 a share in cash.He meant something more like: He would like to not be subject to the obligations of being a public company anymore, and it would be nice if there was a way to do that. After all Musk immediately followed up by  about letting shareholders continue to own their shares in a “private” Tesla, which is not how going-private transactions normally work. There has been a lot of , and I remain a bit skeptical, but the important point here is that if Musk believes that (1) there is actually a way to “go private” while keeping all of his existing shareholders and (2) most of his existing shareholders love him and , then he could rationally believe that he doesn’t need much financing. If no one will take the cash, then you don’t need any cash. Both of those things are kind of weird things to believe, but neither of them seems impossible for Musk to believe.

If I were Musk’s lawyer, and if he doesn’t actually have $80 billion of financing locked up, I’d be working on a termsheet for the board that (1) offers Tesla shareholders the choice between (A) $420 in cash or (B) shares in a new special-purpose-vehicle that will hold shares in a private Tesla (or whatever your plan is to let people hold on to their shares); (2) limits the cash consideration to, like, $5 billion, or whatever Musk can actually raise; and (3) has some sort of proration mechanism in case more people choose the cash than he can afford. Does this fit with the spirit of the going-private transaction that Musk tweeted about? No, absolutely not, not even a little bit. But it is … something. And then let the special committee reject it, and then quietly walk away and say “well no we were serious about the buyout proposal but it just didn’t work out.” Which is a much better position to be in than walking away saying “oh yeah sorry we were kidding about that.”

Another Phoenix Light Rail Fail: Light Rail KILLS Transit Systems

Well, another year's ridership numbers are out for Valley Metro and Phoenix light rail and they are just as grim as they have been every year since Phoenix spent the first $1.4 billion on the first leg of the rail system ()

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Now, this picture is bad enough, until you realize that Valley Metro completed a huge extension of the rail line in 2016.  In 2016 the line length was increased by 31% and the cumulative capital investment increased by 36%.  With, as you can see, essentially zero effect on rail ridership in red.  The only small highlight was that after falling for years, bus ridership actually perked up a few percent.  As you may remember from earlier posts, bus ridership could be expected to fall due to cannibalization from light rail, but in fact it tends to fall even faster than rail ridership rises, causing total ridership to fall.  The reason is that light rail costs at least an order of magnitude more (including amortized capex) per passenger mile than busses, and so light rail tends to starve the bus system of funds.  Every light rail system implementation has been met with the need to slash bus service to pay for the huge light rail costs.  So despite enormous operating subsidies and more than $2 billion in cumulative capex, rail ridership has been flat and total transit ridership has fallen.

But in fact the picture is worse than this when you look over a longer timeframe, which is why Valley Metro has probably changed their practice from graphing nearly 20 years of history to graphing just 6.  Here is an older chart of theirs I posted years ago: (the top year in this chart is the bottom year in the chart above)

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I will get back to the annotation in a moment.  But notice that despite all the cost and disruption and higher taxes from the light rail system, total ridership this year of 66.8 million is less than any year since light rail was opened and baredly 8% higher than it was before light rail opened 10 years ago in 2008.  Just organic city growth and recovery of the economy since 2008 should have driven faster growth than this.  In fact, in the 10 years before light rail was opened, Phoenix transit ridership grew 70%.  If that organic growth rate in bus service had been allowed to continue without the backbreaking costs and limited capacity of light rail being added to the mix, we should have expected 105 million riders this past year, not 66.8 million.

The Weirdness That Is Twitter

So the last couple of days I was bored and I logged into Twitter for the first time in a while and spent a few hours trying to convince myself that if I really wanted to, I could build a presence on Twitter.   Increased my follower count from about 1000 to about 1300 and got some notice and retweets.  And pretty much zero satisfaction, so I think we are going to declare that experiment over for a while.  But, this time, unlike the last effort, I managed to pretty much remain a nice guy and not become a hateful troll, so that is a step forward.

Anyway, weirdly, I managed in the process to create my single most -- by far -- liked and retweeted post, and it is really random.  It was just a toss-off reply to @popehat when he asked rhetorically if dentists all hire awful lawyers.  So I wrote this (which is an entirely true experience)

 

My Guesses About $TSLA, and Why @TSLA Shareholder May Be Presented with a Bad Deal

@Elonmusk is facing real blowback for his management buyout by tweet the other day, in particular for two words:  "funding secured."  Many, including myself, doubt he really had tens of billions of dollars of funding secured at the time, particularly since all bankers and likely sources of funding as well as most large Tesla shareholders had never heard of any such transaction when contacted by the media.  and other Musk corporate communication practices.  If he lied in the tweet, perhaps to get revenge on the short-sellers he hates with an irrational passion, he could be in deep, deep legal poop, up to and including jail.

Let's play a game.  Let's assume he did NOT have funding secured at the time he tweeted this, and now is running scared.  What can he do?  One ace he has is that the board is in his pocket and (I hate to be so cynical about this) will likely lie their asses off to cover Musk.  We already saw the dubious letter the other day, from "members of the board" rather than officially from the board, attempting to provide cover for Musk's tweets.  This is not just a crony thing -- it is entirely rational for the company to defend Musk.  He is, in my opinion, a terrible executive but he is the avatar that drives the fan boys and the stock price.  The day that Musk leaves is the day that the company can really get its operational house in order but it is also the day the stock trades under $75.

So what can Musk do?  Well, the first defense might be to release a statement like "when I said funding secured, I was referring to recent conversations with ______ [fill in blank, maybe with Saudis or the Chinese, call them X] and they told me that if we ever were looking for funds they would have my back."  This is probably the best he could do, and Tesla would try to chalk it up to naivete of Mr. Musk to accept barroom conversation as a firm commitment.  Naivite, but not fraud.   I don't have any experience with the Feds on this kind of thing but my guess is that the SEC would expect that the CEO of a $50 billion public company should know the rules and legally wasn't allowed to be naive, but who knows, the defense worked for Hillary Clinton with her email servers.

But this defense is MUCH MUCH better if, in the next day or so, Tesla can announce a deal with X on paper with signatures.  Then Musk can use the same defense as above but it has much more weight because he can say, see, they promised funding and I believed them when they said they had my back and here they have delivered.

The problem with this is it would be really a deal being crafted for tens of billions of dollars on a very short timeframe and with limited negotiating leverage (X will know that Musk NEEDS this deal).  As a result, the deal is not likely to be a very good one.  X will demand all sorts of extraordinary provisions, perhaps, for example, a first lien on all Tesla IP and a high breakup fee.  I picture this more like the negotiation for bankruptcy financing, and in fact the IP lien was part of the financing deal Theranos made when it was going down the drain.  But put yourself in Musk's shoes -- jail or bad deal?

And likely his conscience would be clear because this deal would be killed quickly by shareholders.  That would be fine, because the purpose of the exercise would be to keep Musk out of jail, not to actually buy the company.  Tesla shareholders will still get hosed, probably having to pay some kind of break-up fee which any sane investor X would insert as the price for participating in this farce.  And we will go back to the starting point of all this, which is Tesla being public and focusing on operational improvement in what may be the most important operational quarter in its history.

Disclosure:  I have in the past been short Tesla but have no position in it now (I did short when trading reopened the other day after Musk's announcement but covered this afternoon).  I am not in any way, shape, or form giving any financial advice you should spend actual money backing.

Recommendation: 99Designs

I am going to a trade show in a month or two.  I bought one of the standard backdrop things and needed some art for it.  I was quickly told that all my attempts looked like bad powerpoint slides transferred to the backdrop.  So I tried a site called .  They have a whole pool of freelance designers that compete for simple jobs - logos, wordpress templates, backdrop art, etc.  I committed $250 to a design contest for my backdrop (the site takes some cut of that and the rest is a prize for the winner).  That was 2 days ago.  At this moment I have 35 different designs sitting there for me to comment on and choose from.  Almost any one would be acceptable, and many are fabulous.

This strikes me as a classic victory for the division of labor. I am getting what seems like a crazy amount of good work for $250, work I could not duplicate myself for 100x that.  I suspect that some of this stuff is super-derivative and is banged out using simple tools in just a few minutes, but so what?  They can do something fast that I can't do at all and we all benefit.

My End Game Prediction for @Tesla ($TSLA) if They Really Do Go Private at $420

Readers know I am in the campground business.   Years ago there was a trend towards building super-luxury campgrounds for as much as $30,000 a camp site.  I never understood how anyone could get a return from this.  Finally I had a guy from a large campground and RV park REIT tell me, "You know how you make money on a $30,000 a site campground?  You wait for it to go bankrupt and buy it for $5,000 a site."

This is what I think the end game for Tesla may be.  I just don't think there is enough available capital in the world, and enough operational focus in Elon Musk, to see their way through to bootstrapping an entirely new worldwide automotive firm, including new dealerships, manufacturing plants, charging networks, etc.  Remember, Tesla does not just need capital for R&D and manufacturing, they also need it for the whole sales / service / fueling network.  Kia, for example, can grow with less capital because it can get independent business people to invest in the service and dealer networks and rely on existing gas stations for the fueling network.  Tesla must build all of this from scratch because of choices they made early in their development.

Even without an LBO, I think they were going to fail at this (despite having some good products) and others disagree with me.  But given the amount of debt that an LBO at $420 might take, and the subsequent rejection of the largest public capital markets, I don't think there is any way Tesla could head off a failure.  People who want to lionize Elon Musk forget that SolarCity was headed for exactly this same kind of cash crunch, only to be bailed out by a crony insider transaction with Tesla (much to the detriment of Tesla shareholders).

Right now, GM, Ford, Daimler .. pretty much any of the auto majors, would do well by buying Tesla.  It would help them with an instant presence in the BEV market and it would help Tesla by solving some of the sales and service investment and manufacturing operations problems they have.  But Tesla is just too damn expensive.  Right now the company is worth more than either GM or Ford.

I see the future after at $420 LBO as a failure in 24 months followed by a purchase by an auto major thereafter.