Saturday, May 7, 2016

Jobs - Misleading the Masses...and the Pundits

Data without meaningful context are useless if not misleading, but that is what we normally get from the media, their approach justified by our short attention spans and failure to demand more. Here are three examples from reports on the current jobs situation in the US.

First, the New York Times wants us to believe that the jobs machine has been "racing ahead for many months" and that we have just enjoyed "the best two-year stretch for the job market since...the late 1990's." That is an Obama-promoting miss-statement if I ever heard one. (Click on these images for a readable view.)

The Wall Street Journal is less exuberant and closer to the truth but still focuses only on the last two years and ignores our longer term history of job creation relative to population. Their chart focuses only on the weak recovery but offers no evidence of just how weak it really has been.

All the monthly jobs data come from the US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. I asked for data from 1960 and got the little chart below. The severity of the 2008, 2009 crash is evident, but, other than that, a cursory look at this chart suggests no obvious long term trends in job growth (I'll try to not use "creation.") over the last 45 years. The scale on the y axis and the failure to consider population, however, completely hide a very significant long term trend.

Below are all the raw data, changes in number of jobs, for each month from January 1960 to the recently reported plus 160,000 jobs in April 2016. That is the last number you will see at the bottom of the chart with the (P) indicating that the number is preliminary and subject to change. 

Recognizing the size and sluggishness (long time constant) of our economy, the way month to month and even year to year noise tends to hide the long term trends, and the importance of jobs relative to population, I calculated the totals for the twelve months of each year and then plotted a ten year moving average of job changes as a percent of population. Here is the result:

And that ugly trend is the fundamental reason so many people are so frustrated and unhappy that they are willing to turn to Donald Trump as a viable candidate for the highest office in the land. The establishment politicians of both parties have failed in their primary responsibilities to develop globally competitive infrastructure, economic climate, tax structure, and national defense that will preserve, protect, and defend our constitutional  rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Instead, in pursuit of votes and campaign contributions, they have focused on wealth-transferring social benefits that now consume 75% of total federal tax revenues and, through continued deficit spending, have built our national federal debt to essentially equal to GDP.

And the ugly job growth data above are completely consistent with our long range record low GDP growth and labor force participation rates.

Here are the downloaded data with population and long term averages added, just in case you want to check my math. I am a bit rusty. Click on it to read the numbers.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Christian Walls and Bridges

"The attractive nuisance doctrine applies to the law of torts in the United States. It states that a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land if the injury is caused by an object on the land that is likely to attract children."

Pope Francis made some comments this week about walls and bridges and Christianity and on Donald Trump's position on immigration, which was probably explained to Pope Francis as poorly as the pope's comments were translated and reported to us by the media. I'm not going to try to defend Mr. Trump since he is unsurpassed in self-defense and needs no help. But I do understand and generally agree with Pope Francis that, from a Christian viewpoint, bridges are better than walls. I believe that was the gist of his comments.

It is clear that the United States of America bears full responsibility for the problems that have resulted from our intentionally insecure southern border and the attractive nuisance it created. We have looked the other way or winked at illegal crossings for decades and have enjoyed the economic benefits of having millions of low cost workers harvesting our crops, working our ranches, cleaning our homes and hotel rooms, keeping our restaurants going, and building our houses. We have allowed establishment of "sanctuary cities" and have issued drivers licenses and provided education and food stamps and other benefits even while continuing to force immigrants to live in the shadows, always fearing deportation. And we have tempted and challenged the "bad" people, the drug pushers and rapists and terrorists Mr. Trump keeps warning us about to join those "good" immigrants in exploiting our porous border. That has been our policy, and it seems to me to be inconsistent with Christianity. A wall would have been far better.

And, a combination of walls and bridges, a secure border with controlled crossing points and processes for welcoming and allowing those who want to come to work to be properly identified and vetted and admitted legally, on special work permits, with the possibility of citizenship if certain criteria were met, might have been a Christian approach. The hiding and fear could have been eliminated and those welcomed could have worked openly and in compliance with US law. And the criminals could have been deterred from entry. We could have done much better...and collected more tax revenue in the process.

I know the attractive nuisance doctrine only applies to children. Of course not all the immigrants who have crossed illegally are children, but many are, and the motivation for illegal adult crossings has often been the hope of better lives for their children. Who can blame the ambitious loving parent for being willing to risk life and limb in a dangerous crossing for the benefit of his or her children.

So, what now? I prefer Senator Sanders's proposal for an electronic wall over Mr. Trumps proposed traditional brick and mortar project (paid for by Mexico), but I do agree that securing the border is of prime and immediate importance. We need to eliminate the attractive nuisance temptation and start building bridges.

As for those we have already admitted and exploited with winks and nods, forget the ridiculous idea of rounding up and deporting families. Bush, Rubio, and Kasich are right, and Trump and Cruz are wrong. That approach would never work, would never be allowed by the courts, would be clearly "unChristian," and would just compound the errors of the past. We might even end up deporting the guys who laid the bricks on the new home we built in Blythewood sixteen years ago. And that would be a shame. They were excellent masons and had an incredible work ethic. I didn't even bother to ask if they were legal. I was just glad they were there.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Calling all SC Republicans

Famously RED South Carolina had a population of 4,625,364 persons in 2012, including 78% or about 3.6M persons over the voting age of 18. If we assume 55% of those leaned Republican, that would be just about 2M potential Republican voters. About a third of those, 603k, voted in the Republican primary, giving the victory to Newt Gingrich, and a little over half, 1.07M, voted for Mitt Romney in the general election. He, of course, carried SC easily but lost the national election in spite of Karl Rove’s assurances that Romney would win.

That was a poor SC turnout but with no serious consequences. This year is different, and any nominal Republicans who don’t like the way the 2016 election is shaping up, Trump vs. Clinton, had better get out and vote Saturday in the Republican Primary. If you are happy with Trump vs. Clinton, stay home because that is the likely result if Trump wins big, as expected, in SC.

I have to admit that I relish the idea of a Trump vs. Clinton contest. That would be a lot of short term fun with a bad ending either way. It would be much better to see a race in which there is at least one candidate I would like to see win instead of two I would like to see lose. I may cast half a vote for Kasich and half a vote for Rubio. I think a Kasich-Rubio ticket might look good to lots of people around the country and would at least be a ticket for which Republicans would not have to apologize.

And, yes, I like Jeb Bush a lot but he is just not creating any interest or excitement, and would be defeated, I believe, just because of that lack of interest vs. the number who will vote for Clinton for no better reason than the excitement of electing the first woman president.

Here is the sad story of SC Republican voting since 1980. Whatever the result, I'd like to see about a million voters Saturday, even if some of them are Democrats. I guess we will know by Sunday morning how many showed up.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

November Election Thoughts

At this point, I am not as interested in who is elected president in November 2016 as I am in who the two candidates are. I believe there is a winning combination of candidates, whoever is elected, and here is my thinking on the subject.

Afterthought: Let me be clear! I am looking for fundamental transformation, not in the USofA, but in the way Congress operates and carries out its responsibilities, especially its fiduciary responsibilities. It has been a fairly constant theme of my writing. Search the Blog for "congress" for some examples.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Sins, Inequality, and Wages

I classify overspending, fiscal irresponsibility, and excessive debt as serious if not mortal sins, in Catholic terminology, for individuals, families, businesses, and governments. It is those practices which have driven US income inequality primarily through artificially inflated asset values which have in turn driven up the wealth of the haves and made it very difficult, because of high prices, for the have nots to buy anything of sustainable value.

It is important to understand the differences between wealth and income and the fact that the wealth of the one percent is not based on, nor was it acquired from, income but is a result of asset value growth and could be decimated in a few days of a serious market crash or monetary crisis. Inequality in such a case would be drastically reduced, but nobody, rich, poor, or middle class, would be happy. Unemployment levels would be shocking. Note last week’s headline that Amazon's Bezos "lost $6B in one day." He didn't "lose" anything, but it shows how quickly the wealth can disappear.

The wealthy are, for the most part, able to control their incomes to minimize taxes while some of them, Warren Buffett for example, lobby for increases in income tax rates that would make no significant difference at all to them but would affect mostly high middle income folks who do not have much if any "wealth" but would like to accumulate some. And most of the "wealth" of the wealthy is tied up in shares of equities or other assets and is not something they can just spend or use to pay taxes unless somebody buys those assets. If the number of wealthy is so small, who is going to buy? Only another wealthy person can do so. It is a house of cards because the prices of assets are driven up by uninformed buyers seeking wealth, sometimes based on nothing more than the greater fool theory, but with no staying power. They sell in a panic, if possible, when the mood changes.

Without the overspending relative to revenue and fiscal irresponsibility which appeared in the mid 1970's, accelerated in the 1980's, and became absurdly high in the last ten years, we would have fewer dollars but they would have much greater purchasing power and the gap between the rich and poor would be much smaller. And we would have little or no federal debt and the strongest currency in the world. And we could afford to accumulate a bit of debt with fiscal stimulus in hard times and pay it off in good times. Because of policies and practices of the last forty years, we no longer have that option.

One way our fiscal problems could have been avoided would have been for Social Security and Medicare and other social benefits to have been restricted only to those who were unable, because of age or disability and lack of resources, to support themselves and pay their own bills and for federal transfer payments to states to be outlawed. Social programs would be much smaller today, retirees would not be buying second homes and playing golf and taking cruises with Social Security benefits and spending hundreds of thousands of federal dollars on end-of-life care, and states would be managing their own incomes and expenses instead of focusing on competing for federal grants.

Another way the problems could have been avoided would have been to raise tax revenues enough to pay all the bills for the desired levels of benefits and transfers to states we now have, but the middle class tax payers who would have borne the major burden would never have stood still for that. Provision of the benefits without the tax revenues to pay the bills is the sin and the wages of it will be much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth as corrections are forced upon us. The final result, hopefully, will be a stronger nation, more like we once were.

The capitalism vs. socialism argument will continue into perpetuity, but whichever path or whatever combination is chosen, the bills will have to be paid.

 Happy New Year!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Thinking Person's Candidate

Mr. Trump is coming to town Wednesday evening and will have a rally at a Christmas Tree Farm about 20 miles west of my house. Though not a supporter, I am fascinated by him, by his candidacy, by his rock star status, and by the constituency awarding that status.  But I am not going to show up and help boost his ego.

It bothers me to see any presidential candidate, whether ego-driven Donald Trump or socialist ideologue Bernie Sanders, enjoying rock star status. When they look out at the crowds facing them, they should see frowns rather than raised arms and hear tough questions rather than cheers. They are not running for the position of savior or king and are in no way qualified for either position. And their egos do not need building up. If we had either a faux king or a faux savior, it would destroy our representative democracy, and we have no business looking for or considering such a person. (Hugo Chavez and Hitler were both seen as such persons.)

It also bothers me to see voters locked in on a candidate for some particular meaningless reason or based on some single issue. The candidate is a woman, or is not a woman, or the candidate is an evangelical, or the candidate is either pro-abortion or is waging war on women. The candidate is a war-monger or a pacifist. The candidate is for equality or is in the pockets of the rich. Most issues are not so simple, and we really don't know how a particular person, if elected, will react to situations that may arise over the next four or eight years.

What I would like to see is critically thinking voters searching for a thinking candidate, a person with broad managerial experience interested in leading a team of like people and even senators and representatives in solving the major problems we face.

1. To avoid fiscal disaster down the road we have to find a balance of revenue, spending, and GDP growth that will bring our debt as a percent of GDP back down to no more than 20% or so. That is going to require a deep understanding of business and competition and global economics and will have to include more competitive tax penalties on corporate profits.

2. We need to recognize diversity among the states and quit trying to pound all fifty into the same Washington, DC fabricated mold. Competition among the states is a very good thing, and the winners will be rewarded with increasing business and growing populations. The losers will have to figure out how to shape up and be competitive and will learn from watching the winners.

3. We need to recognize diversity among the citizens and allow all to freely express and practice their cultures and faiths within the broad bounds of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That includes business owners who must be free to discriminate, not on the basis of who people are, but on the basis of the choices they make and the behaviors they exhibit.*

4. We need to recognize our leadership responsibility among the nations of the world and remain the "land of the free and the home of the brave," welcoming "the tired, the poor, the huddled masses," etc., but taking names, fingerprints, and DNA samples and enrolling them in English and citizenship classes upon entry. We must remain a "melting pot." And we have lots of room.

5. We need to get the money out of politics and simplify the tax code and regulatory environment to prevent the buying of favoritism and special treatment. We need term limits and citizen servant senators and representatives dedicated to much higher goals than re-election.

Is there a thinking candidate on the scene? Jeb Bush and Rand Paul seemed to be, but both have been pretty well eviscerated, in the minds of voters, by Donald Trump. Still, there is some hope for a third. A three way race between Sanders, Trump, and former NY Mayor Bloomberg would really bring out the voters. If only Mr. Bloomberg were 63 instead of 73. Read this article from today's The State Newspaper and you will get some hint of a thinking person's approach.

And, if Bloomberg does run and happens to show up in South Carolina for a "rally," I don't plan to be there. I will read and study his proposals.

* Let me say here that, as a professing Christian, I believe that the responsibility of Christians, and of the Christian Church, is to behave as the Body of Christ and to follow His commandments, no easy or simple task for sure. Traditional "Christendom," the joining of church and state, is over, and efforts to legislate Christianity beyond the generally accepted basics of outlawing killing and stealing, are doomed. It is far too late, for example, to outlaw coveting. We just need to be faithful servants, always seeking to help, demanding nothing but the right to enjoy and practice the freedom of religion guaranteed by our founding documents, and then proceeding to do just that, carefully considering the example of Jesus even before exercising our right to discriminate. If we do well, doing good, I believe The Church will draw adoring crowds that will trump even those Messrs. Trump and Sanders have been attracting.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Jobs, Jobs, and More Jobs...But Not Enough and Not Good Enough

At the bottom of this post is an interesting screen shot from the website of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It may bring a little reason and context to current claims being made about the strong economy and about job creation. For example, a NYTimes article about the most recent Republican debate included a subtle example of media bias in this paragraph.

The strong implication of the NYT is that the candidates, admittedly arguing childishly, were wrong, because of "rapid job growth," about the economy being weak. I don't see any such thing as "rapid job growth" in the data.

Based on the chart and data below, here is the way it looks to me:

Between January 2005 and January 2008, a period of three years leading up to the financial crisis, about six million jobs were added (154,063 - 148029). That is an increase of about 4% in three years.

Between January 2008 and December 2015, a period of seven years, during the crisis, the recession, and the weak recovery, about four million jobs were added (157,833 - 154,063) That is an increase of about 2.5% in seven years.

Population is increasing about 1% per year so population increased about 10% during that total period of time, 2005 to 2015. During that same 10 year period of time, jobs increased about 6.6% (157,833 vs. 148,029). That is not good.

Following the 2008-09 recession, employment began improving about mid 2011, and the trend line has been pretty straight in the 4.5 years since that turning point, increasing from 153,346 to 157,833, an increase of about 3% in the 4.5 years, slower than population growth. That is not good.

So, it is fun to boast of 292,000 new jobs in December, an increase of 0.18%, but the only thing that really matters is a change in the long term trend line. Individual month measurements are spotty and noisy and it takes time to see what is really happening. And, of course the data say nothing about the quality of the jobs.

Here is the source of the data:

Monday, January 4, 2016

Blessings and Curses, Thanks to SC Legislators

The State newspaper today, in the wake of recent flooding damage, reports on an addition to the long list of approximately 80 South Carolina sales tax exemptions from rates of 7% or more in most localities in the state. This one exempts construction materials purchased by charities to build or renovate a home for a family below certain income levels, $39,000 in Columbia. 

A Habitat for Humanity spokesman termed the exemption "an absolute blessing." Habitat builds about 100 and repairs about 100 homes per year in South Carolina, and the tax exemption will save them perhaps $3,000 for each home built plus some smaller amount for homes repaired, maybe a total of around $400,000 per year. Of course that lost state revenue has to be made up by somebody and just puts upward pressure on the sales tax rate for those who don't have exemptions. In the case of government handouts, one person's blessing is another's curse. Somebody has to pay the bills.

Habitat has full financial information on families it builds for, but an interesting twist shows up in the repairs for flood damage. Home Works of America and the St. Bernard Project are working together to repair flooded homes but will have to deal with the $39,000 cutoff, keeping careful track of expenses for each home and documenting homeowner incomes. And projects for two people living side by side in a flooded neighborhood, one with income of $38,000 and one with income of $40,000 will generate different tax bills for materials purchased. Of course the homeowners won't see the difference, but it makes one wonder what the point of the legislation is other than to get more votes.

The State's associate editor Cindi Ross Scoppe mentioned this new exemption, along with another new one for exemption from sales tax on clothes for poor children, in her December 28th column which celebrated the expiration of the Amazon sales tax exemption granted to get Amazon to build a distribution center here five years ago. As far as Ms. Scoppe and other knowledgeable people know, the Amazon exemption is the first South Carolina sales tax exemption ever to expire. I just got my first Amazon bill with 8% sales tax included. At least I won't have to worry about reporting these missing taxes, owed but not collected by Amazon, on my income tax returns every year.

These legislative gifts of sales tax exemptions are a cancer that has a simple cure as suggested by Ms. Scoppe: "Those numbers explain why we have one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation, at 6 percent statewide, at least 7 percent in 40 of our 46 counties and 9 percent in some, plus local restaurant taxes: When your tax code is more loophole than whole, you have to set the rate much higher than you otherwise would."

In case you don't know, one of those infamous exemptions is on anything over $5,000 on the price of a car. So the purchaser of a $60,000 Mercedes pays the same sales tax as the purchaser of a used $5,000 Toyota.

Bottom line is that a low and flat sales tax of around 3% on everything from cars and yachts to clothes for poor children would be fairer and simpler and less intrusive, would generate as much revenue as the current high rates on some things, and wouldn't unnecessarily burden anybody. And Habitat would still get an absolute though somewhat smaller blessing, even as expensive car buyers would suffer a bit of an affordable curse. And South Carolina could justifiably brag on perhaps the lowest sales tax rate in the nation.

This is not a new idea. I've written about it a few times:

You can find a current list of the SC Sales Tax exemptions here. One of the most interesting is "70% of the gross proceeds of the rental or lease of portable toilets." Talk about a "special interest" and a wasted blessing.

Read more here:

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Columbia SC Warmth and Wetness Data

Weather news has thankfully provided some relief from political campaign news this year. I suppose the judgment of which is worse depends on ones locality.

Columbia, SC, "Famously Hot," is just finishing up a December with average temperature of ~60 degrees Fahrenheit, a high of 79 degrees on December 28th, and daily highs running about 13 degrees above the long term “normal.” 

And, Columbia has been unusually wet with 5.4 inches of December precipitation, about two inches above normal, on already saturated ground and full reservoirs, except for those behind dams that failed during the early October record rains and floods. Rainfall for the year was about 17 inches above the long term average.

I thought it would be interesting to dig out some historical data on local temperatures and precipitation and see just how unusual 2015 was. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a lot of work since I found no long term downloadable data available. I’m sure it is there somewhere but finally settled on using Weather Warehouse data from the ColumbiaMetropolitan Airport. I had to enter the data manually.

Only local folks are likely to be very interested in the specifics of these charts, but there are some lessons that can be learned from them: 
  1. It is often simple and tempting to pick and choose data to back up just about any claim a person might want to make. 
  2. Weather varies considerably, and it takes a lot of data to identify significant long term trends.

First is a temperature chart for 1963 through 2015. (Click on it for a high resolution view.) All the data are measurements taken at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport (CMA). Each of the "Individual Years" points is an average of reported mean temperatures for each of the twelve months. So, the "Five Year Moving Average" points are each averages of sixty numbers, lots of data.  Here are some observations that could be made from the data depending on what points a person might want to make:

1. Average annual temperatures at CMA have increased by a troublesome 3.1 degrees F since the 1960's.
2. Temperatures at the CMA were the same in 2015 as in 1990.
3. Average annual temperatures at CMA have increased by a worrisome 3.7 degrees F since the 1980's.
4. Temperatures in 2015 were a scary 5.5 degrees F higher on average than temperatures in 1967.
5. Average annual temperatures at CMA have increased by only 1 degree F since the 1990's.

If we avoid any attempt to skew observations by pulling data out of context or focusing on anecdotal evidence, the first observation is the only one that is of significant value. It is consistent with but does not prove hypotheses of "global warming," and it says nothing about how the temperatures of these 54 years compare to those of the 1950's, 40's, 30's, 20's, 1800's, 1500's, and earlier.

Second is a chart of total annual precipitation, essentially all rain in this warm southern state. Precipitation is much more localized than temperature, and there could be differences in these totals reported at CMA and totals that have been reported for downtown Columbia, SC, about eight miles away. But I'm not worried about that. There is a limit to my curiosity.

A difference between the two charts is that, while there is a discernible long term upward trend in the temperature, there is no consistent long term trend in the precipitation chart. After some ups and downs, the Five Year Moving Average ends up insignificantly, less than 3 inches, lower than where it began in the 1960's. 

Another difference is that the variability in precipitation is much greater than the variability in temperature. Without the multiple daily weather reports reminding us exactly what the temperatures are, we cannot really tell whether the temperature is 95 degrees or 100 degrees. Both qualify as HOT. But precipitation variability has a huge impact on us. We moved to Columbia most recently in 2000, right in the middle of three years of very low rainfall and a resulting drought that necessitated shipment of hay from neighboring states for cattle feed. There was no drought in those neighboring states. Contrast that period of drought with twice the rainfall in the wet early 1970's, 1991, and 2015. Too much rain, by the way, can be as bad for crops as too little. And, even the driest month, November, can sometimes suffer from flooding deluges while the wettest, August, can suffer a crop dehydrating lack of precipitation.

I’m fully aware of the differences between “climate” and “weather” and the advice we are given that we should worry about increasing frequency of extreme weather, even cold spells, as a result of global warming (climate change). I'm not worried about that either. The extremes always have been and always will be localized and terrible.

The current obsession with climate change dangers does raise an interesting possibility. If we really believe we can control the global temperature by tinkering with one of the independent variables, atmospheric CO2, maybe we will eventually be able to control the local temperatures also and line that CMA airport temperature out at a steady annual average of 64 degrees, January at 44 degrees and July at 82 degrees, and the precipitation at a steady one inch per week all year long. That would really be something! 

Speaking of January and July, the coldest and warmest months respectively, here is a chart that shows their temperature trends along with the annual average. There are no moving average lines on this chart but just individual annual averages. Take a look at that January in 1974, 59.2 degrees F, about the same as the 2015 December we just enjoyed. In January, 1974, we had just bought our first SC house and moved into it five months later, June 1974. The center line, by the way, in this chart is the same data as in the first chart above. The upward trend is much less noticeable and less threatening on the more compressed scale, and neither January nor July seems to show much if any of an upward trend.

I didn't address snow in this post, but here is an interesting story about the record SC snowfall of 1973. It registered 16 inches, or maybe ~ 1.6 inches of precipitation, at CMA.

The variability illustrated above shows that potential visitors will be safe to completely ignore the climate data posted on the Columbia SC Chamber of Commerce Website. Averages really don't matter...unless one plans to stay a very long time.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Flat Tax Virtues and Presidential Candidates

I am not currently a fan of Dr. Ben Carson for President of the United States. Still, I wish people would just listen to see what they might learn from his unusual perspective and consider how it might work rather than demonizing him and writing him off as some kind of fool. The Facebook comments, for example, on a NYTimes article condemning Carson's flat tax proposal as being based on "an extraordinarily simplistic notion of fairness" show little but knee-jerk idealogical reactions and condemnations and hardly any thought at all. 

It is difficult to see how people can so passionately defend the progressive and convoluted tax code we have, given the results it has delivered: $18T of debt, very poor economic growth, and a fairly constant 15% of the people in poverty over the past fifty years, even with social spending having doubled as a percent of GDP since the 1970's. It almost makes me think the condemnations of Dr. Carson's tax proposal must be based on something other than economics. Of course the simplistic answer of the defenders is to just raise the rates on the "rich," whomever they are. If that is so simple, we must clearly understand why it has not been done consistently over the past half century to keep us out of the fiscal difficulty we now face.

Dr. Carson is wrong about the 10%, of course, but the principle is sound. A somewhat progressive flat tax of 20% or so on ALL personal income over $50,000 and on ALL publicly reported corporate profits would provide adequate revenue increases and cost decreases to begin paying down our national debt and provide social benefits only to those who actually need them in place of the current plan to get everybody in the USA eventually filing reports to and receiving a check from the federal government. 

Such a plan would help restore a sense of fairness, personal responsibility, and human dignity and replace the sense of federal government dependency that has been created with the current system. And big corporations and wealthy tax avoiders would see higher tax bills than under the current system.

An important side benefit would be the destruction of the lobbying and tax avoidance  industries and elimination of the ability of congress to garner contributions and votes by granting favors and picking winners and losers. Congress is not smart enough to do that effectively. Any needed tax increases would go to everybody, and all would benefit from tax cuts, and all the game playing with exemptions, deductions, exclusions, and credits would disappear. 

Now, as far as whom I can support for President, based on economics alone, Mrs. Carly Fiorina would be my current choice. But there are other important considerations and, thankfully, I don't have to make a decision for quite a while yet. I will continue to listen and see what I can learn. Governor Bush's tax proposal is pretty good also. Right now it seems to me that Senator Rubio's plan will only add complications to the existing system. But I am still listening. Hopefully nobody will make their decisions this early in the game without having carefully studied all the issues and listened closely to all the candidates. I'm even listening to Bernie Sanders, and that is a bit of a stretch for me.

Finally, I am going to keep reminding myself that the president is not a king and must be able to work with Congress to get things done. We have had too many years of failure in that important area. We do not want a King. (Check out 1 Samuel 8 for a timeless warning about kings.)

Later addition: Some Facebook discussion on this post, especially my comment at the end of the third paragraph, delved into the issue of how many US citizens are receiving checks from the government. Here is an interesting article on the subject, and two charts contained therein. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Universal" Health Care and Medicare

Above is a little inspirational chart seen on Facebook this morning from "US Uncut," a champion of higher tax revenues and no cuts in any government programs. They claim to be the instigators of "Occupy Wall Street." I point this out just to give appropriate credit for the chart.  You can see their Facebook page here. Inspirational? Well it inspired this blog post.

"Universal Health Care" is a term that needs careful definition and its application in this little chart almost certainly obscures considerable variability in actual quality and availability of medical care among these countries. And I believe that, while all probably  have some system available on some basis to all who need it, most also have some parallel system which operates on free market principles and is available to those who can afford it, even working folks.

The USA, missing from the list, has done little to improve medical care or make it more available except for seniors. All the effort outside of Medicare, primarily the Affordable Care Act, has been focused on insurance which is not necessarily linked to actual medical care. And many of the changes have made medical care less available, even for the poor, by reducing compensation for doctors and increasing demands for non medical care activities on doctors and nurses, all tending to make their lives more difficult, reduce their time with patients, and make the medical professions less attractive to the best and the brightest students.

At the same time, the established system of fixed compensation per service provided, with no price competition, has driven unnecessary capital investment and increases in certain expensive activities as hospitals and doctors strive to increase their revenues. How many MRI's do we really need anyway?

Medicare is different, at least for the consumers. We seniors are enjoying a very good medical care situation at the expense of our children and in return for our votes, but it is unsustainable as our ranks continue to grow, our life expectancy increases, and economic growth per capita lags. For example, I had cataract surgery and a heart catheterization in the past twelve months all completely paid for by Medicare or my Medigap policy. I would have been very happy to pay out-of-pocket, in advance, what Medicare paid for those procedures ($4,496) but not the ridiculously inflated initial charges ($38,379) presented by the providers, more then eight times as much as Medicare actually paid. Medicare benefits should apply only to those who need the help, not to everybody who happens to be over 65, and those who can afford to pay should not have to pay anymore than Medicare pays. And of course we all need to be able to buy catastrophic major medical insurance to cover those extreme costs of long term illnesses and major surgeries.

Pro ACA anecdotes about individuals who now have insurance but didn't have it before are nothing more than smoke screens obscuring the larger truth that we are enriching the insurance companies and hospitals and drug companies and their hundreds of thousands of non-medical employees while making life more difficult for those who have the necessary education and experience to solve or at least treat our medical problems. Well, our health care system can be considered at least a "Jobs" program if not a medical care program.
And, besides, we do have some system of "universal health care" in that anyone going to a hospital emergency room must be treated. The widely touted high expense of emergency room visits is a straw man, or diversionary tactic, established by the strategies and cost allocation systems of hospitals and designed to force all into the various insurance programs. It would be quite simple and easy for hospitals to establish a section of the "emergency room" for non-emergency cases and have much lower levels of costs allocated to that. Check out the CVS Minute Clinics for an example of how it could work. Or just go to the Minute Clinic and skip the emergency room. The nurse there will send you on to the real emergency room if you need to go.

(Revised slightly November 11, 2015)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Carly Fiorina and HP

This is not a defense of Carly Fiorina but rather a plea for additional skepticism on the part of consumers of "news" and punditry. It is prompted by the abundant comments declaring Mrs. Fiorina a failure because of the performance of the HP stock price during her service as CEO. The most irrational charges tend to compare HP stock trends with those of the S&P 500 during the same period of time. That is truly an apples vs. oranges comparison.

Here is a chart that tells the whole story with enough context to enable some reasonable judgments about the validity of the charges of incompetence based on stock price. It in necessary to remember that Mrs. Fiorina's leadership of HP began very near the end of a multi-year period of irrational exuberance of technology investors in the late 1990's, during which the NASDAQ soared way beyond the S&P 500. The balloon popped in early 2000 and HP along with most of the stocks listed on the NASDAQ plummeted back to earth. The NASDAQ had peaked at 5048.62 in March, 2000, and is still about 4% below that fifteen years later.

Some have argued that HP was bested during the turmoil by primary competitors IBM, Dell, etc., and that may be true depending on the exact time period chosen, but a cursory examination of the chart below will show that HP generally followed the NASDAQ throughout the process. The general opinion of some writers seems to be that it was actually the fairly small dip in 2004 which led to the firing of Mrs. Fiorina in 2005.

Some, including me, like to argue that the performance of a CEO, especially one of fairly short tenure, is best judged by the performance of the stock after he or she leaves because that is a measure of the competitive position in which the company was left. By that standard HP has done fairly well.

Carly Fiorina may or may not have been a terrible CEO, but the performance of the HP stock price during such a five year period of turmoil provides no evidence to support either position. And when somebody tries to use the S&P 500 as a benchmark for HP, please, just laugh.

You have to click on the chart for a high resolution view.