Friday, 30 January 2009

Excess Bonuses

Not a day goes by that we don’t see more than one tirade in the media about bonuses paid to corporate executives. Yesterday saw #44 displaying a bit of pique on the subject, a theme he had used frequently during the campaign. It’s an easy hook to hang a politician’s hat on, but it’s wrong.

First, compensation policies are contracts. If the government is providing funds to a company, there’s no reason why it can’t require, as one of the terms of such funding, that the corporation not enter into any contract that pays certain bonuses. On the other hand, it’s absolutely wrong for the government to expect or demand that a business break those contracts that it has already entered into. Certainly bonuses aren’t spelled out as concretely as some other terms of employment, but they are still part of the bargain struck when one person surrenders his productive hours and energies in exchange for monetary return. How congresscritters who are so reluctant to let a bankruptcy court adjust the interest rate of a mortgage can expect corporations to suddenly abandon their commitments is quite beyond reason. (Congresscritters often are beyond all human understanding, of course.)

Second, over the years we have seen thousands of cases in which businesses made decisions based on monomaniacal devotion to the current quarter’s returns, and millions of words have been written deploring this. The very businesses that are being assaulted most vociferously during this recession are the ones that were paying huge bonuses to those who had been motivated only by inflating the current results. If these businesses are paying out bonuses based on 2008 returns, during which they all lost their shirts, then the basis for those bonuses must have changed. This is progress, not something for which businesses should be excoriated.

Assume I’m including our normal royal commitment to the teaching of logic in these comments.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Engineers Should Be Logical

Boeing today announced it’s fourth-quarter results, a loss of $56 million, and plans to lay off a total of 10,000 employees. At the same time, they said the costs of the Machinists strike came to $1.2 billion in the quarter, and that engineering difficulty on the 747-8 program consumed another $685 million. Absent those two factors, the company would have had a profit of over $1.8 billion.

With the company sitting on a huge order backlog, with further delays of the Dreamliner program certain to lead to penalties and cancellations, coming off a quarter in which their inability to efficiently get enough work done cost a staggering amount of cash, their response is to cut the work force?

Boeing is a big company and there have always been some silly things on the fringes. It wasn’t called The Lazy B for no reason. But they used to do pretty well with basic logic. (They used to do a better job of figuring out how to build airplanes, too.) It seems Boeing is no longer an airplane manufacturer that makes money, it’s a financial empire that happens to make some airplanes. They’ve lost the fire in their bellies to make great products in staggering quantities and replaced it with a great love of counting beans.

Full disclosure: We spent six months working in Finance at corporate headquarters (the 2-25 Building on Marginal Way, Seattle) almost twenty years ago, making presentation graphics for cost accountants. The idea was to clearly identify which activities cost money and which made money, a function that apparently is no longer present.

They’ve taken their eyes off the ball, and the communities where Boeing does business will pay dearly for it. Which we predicted when they moved headquarters to Chicago; by the time the real pain comes, all the executives will have moved to the Windy City where they won’t have to see anything but the numbers on their reports.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Mirror, Mirror; On the Wall

George Bush is gone, but tens of thousands of photographs remain. In the case of a modern head of state, these photographs are carefully orchestrated, but for the moments that the cameras are present, and from the angles where shooters are allowed, there is still a range of events and expressions to capture.

In his Zoom column in yesterday’s New York Times, Errol Morris interviewed the photo editors of the three main wire services that have covered the Bush White House. Each of the three selected their top picks from those eight years and discussed them with Morris. I found it fascinating and would suggest that anyone who shoots people, in any context, would be well-rewarded by taking ten minutes to read this piece.

The three editors were Vincent Amalvy (Agence France-Presse), Santiago Lyon (The Associated Press) and Jim Bourg (Reuters).

If I Were King, I probably wouldn’t have much chance to be behind the camera, but as I am not king, I enjoyed this immensely.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Transparency We Can Use

As mentioned a couple of days ago in our comments regarding the FDA, we need transparency in the health-care field. If any member of the royal household is facing a major health issue, and the physician is recommending a specific course of action, we want to know whether that’s because that specific course is the best possible one, or if it’s because the physician is loyal to the company that sells the device or medication involved because they routinely fly him to Honolulu or pay him to speak at their sales conventions. Worst of all, what if it’s a distant second choice, but the doctor will benefit financially by prescribing it?

Starting today, Park Nicollet Health Services (Minneapolis, Minnesota) is posting all consulting and speaking arrangements between drug and device manufacturers and the 1400 doctors who work at Methodist Hospital and 25 clinics in the Twin Cities. They aren’t posting this in a huge binder you have to ask for at some hidden counter in the administrative wing of the hospital, or filed with some state office, it’s right at this page on their website.

If I Were King, this level of transparency would be universal. We would be delighted to learn that it was universal because the health-care industry saw the need and did this of their own volition, as Park Nicollet has, but we would issue a royal decree if that were needed.

COPA Finally Dead

The Child Online Protection Act finally died yesterday. The bill, signed late in 1998 by Bill Clinton, made it illegal to put sexually explicit materials on a website seeking commercial gain, but never went into effect. The bill made it to the Supreme Court in 2004 but was remanded to the US appellate court at Philadelphia. As Mukasey vs ACLU it was dismissed Wednesday without comment.

Although we are certain that participating in creating pornography is likely to be damaging to children, we are skeptical that seeing it has any effect at all. Even if it did, any damage that could be done by exposure to pornography is insignificant compared to the damage of raising children in an environment where censorship is practiced.

If I Were King, the government would not have pressed this case.

Apple’s Strong Fourth Quarter

Shortly after Wall Street hammered Apple’s stock over health concerns regarding Steve Jobs, the company announced outstanding results for the quarter just ended. Both revenue and net profits were up nicely, at a time when any company turning in improved results is a shock. As always, the stories are mentioning that Apple’s gross profit margin was 34.7 percent, the same as in the prior-year quarter.

This is curious. In fact, this is nonsense. The issue is that the press is constantly comparing Apple to Dell or HP in this regard, but the comparison is silly. What they are overlooking is that Apple’s margin includes both the margin on the hardware, which is probably better than Dell’s but probably not all that much better, and its margin on the operating system, which is probably not as high as Microsoft’s margin on Windows. When Microsoft reports their margin, it’s closer to 85% on Windows. I have no idea what Dell pays Microsoft for an OEM copy of Windows Vista, but though it isn’t anything like the retail price, it isn’t trivial.

On server products, the advantage probably goes to Dell/MS or HP/MS. When a Windows server is sold, the base operating system is in the total to the tune of $500 and up, for five users, on which MS earns their 85%. But there isn’t much reason to buy a real server for five users, so the client buys sets of CALs – Client Access Licenses. Five additional CALs cost about $150, on which the MS margin has to be on the order of 99%.

In other words, the constantly repeated theme that Apple is making dramatically higher margins than their competitors is the result of poor logic and arithmetic skills on the part of the media. As has been said before on these pages, If I Were King, education would be focused on addressing this, and nobody with a high school diploma would be likely to make such an error. We assume that the media would continue to hire only those who have at least that level of education.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

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The Exclusionary Rule

The Supreme Court ruling in Herring v. United States last Wednesday (14 Jan 2009) foolishly limited the evidence exclusion rules regarding police actions. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, including this: “To trigger the exclusionary rule, police conduct must be sufficiently deliberate that exclusion can meaningfully deter it, and sufficiently culpable that such deterrence is worth the price paid by the justice system.” This is utter nonsense.

Police departments and individual officers are motivated to do their jobs well, and both bitterly resent it when a case they feel they’ve made is tossed out “on a technicality”. Part of me immediately says, “tough!”, but part of me says, “good!”. It is best if cops do their jobs effectively and proudly, any employee or organization will do their best when they feel like they are performing well and their work is respected. Their motivation to eliminate wasted efforts can be powerful, and should be encouraged.

Roberts asserts that the occasional sloppy police work will not be deterred by throwing cases like this out of court, which means he has absolutely no sense at all. Occasional sloppy work is not something that just occasionally happens. Sloppy work is done in environments where sloppy work is acceptable. If sloppy work means your fellow officers are going to be upset about losing these cases, those officers are going to be powerful advocates for eliminating slipshod record keeping (as in this case) and other systemic failures.

If I Were King, I’d take advantage of this. Make sure the cops are trained well and have the resources to do their jobs. Don’t ask them to do idiotic things like fighting the War on Some Drugs. Back them to the hilt when they’re doing their jobs well. But never let them reap the rewards, either in advancement or satisfaction, of being casual about their responsibilities.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

CAFE is Supposed to Mean Choices

At the end of last year, as America was wondering whether or not to rescue the car companies, many were berating the Big Three for failing to build smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Right along with that was a chorus of commentators wondering why Congress hadn’t acted more aggressively to jack up federal requirements for fuel economy. Along with a bit of taxpayer largesse, Detroit has recently been helped by an uptick in sales of trucks, bringing more wailing and gnashing of teeth over the foolishness of American car buyers cutting back on buying cars when gas was going for $4.00 per gallon but going back to the showrooms when it came back to $2.00. One opinion piece in the New York Times went so far as to suggest now would be the perfect time to add meaningful gas taxes; not all at once in this recession, but raising it a dime per gallon every month for two years, so as to send a “price signal” to motorists.

In Sunday’s Times, an editorial headlined How Many Miles Per Gallon? deplored the Bush administrations failure to jack up the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency) requirements and called on the Obama administration to make higher efficiency standards a condition of further aid.

To all those making these demands or suggestions, kindly roll them up and smoke them. Motorists know how much gas costs, they know how much they drive, and they know what cars will cost how much. When the price goes up, they cut back on their driving and look for more efficient cars. When prices go down, they look for cars that give them the performance and satisfaction they want. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. That’s a free marketplace responding to price signals.

Adding a monster tax is not sending a price signal, it’s levying a tax. Price signals change with the marketplace, taxes don’t.

Detroit is in trouble because they aren’t building cars that people want, or perhaps they’ve forgotten how to do a good job of giving buyers a reason to plunk down their cash on the cars they’ve built. But the obvious truth is that Detroit has struggled in trying to sell small cars and thrived when they could sell their bigger rigs, and the public seems to want the bigger cars whenever they can afford them. If the American manufacturers had been forced to sell the small cars that Americans don’t really want, a category in which Americans seem to prefer foreign brands, they’d all be out of business already.

We know that “CAFE” stands for Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency, but “cafe” is short for “cafeteria”, a concept that is much more germane to business in a democracy. In a cafe, sellers put out a choice of products, and buyers take away what they want. For some outside force, like a government, to come in to decide what products are on offer isn’t a marketplace, it’s junior high school.  If I Were King, I’d remember that.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Whither Burris?

When a member of the US Senate vacates his office, the Constitution (17th Amendment) directs that the state which has lost its representative “shall issue writs of election” to fill the vacancy. That means hold an election, and presumably certify the election results to the Senate. It goes on to allow the legislature of said state to empower the executive (i.e., the governor) to make a temporary appointment. In other words, it’s up to the state who goes to the senate, and it’s up to the legislature of the state to set the rules.

In Illinois, the rules are that the governor “shall make temporary appointment to fill such vacancy until the next election of representatives in Congress.” In other words, until the next even-year elections, in this case 2010.

The recommended forms of the Senate have a line for the governor to sign, and a line for the Secretary of State to countersign, to certify the election. Makes sense, in most states the SecState is in charge of elections. However, Illinois law does not give the SecState any power, authority, or cause to certify the governor’s appointments.

The pathetic governor of Illinois, Rod R. Blagojevich, appointed Roland Burris to fill the remaining period of Barack Obama’s Senate term on 31 December 2008. Illinois SecState Jesse White refused to certify the appointment, although he did enter the appointment in state records. On 2 January 2009, Burris filed a mandamus petition with the Illinois Supreme Court to force Mr White to sign, and in a clearly-reasoned ruling the court denied the petition one week later.

Meanwhile, the letter of appointment was presented to the secretary of the Senate on the 5th, but the Senate refused to seat Mr Burris when the session opened on the 6th, claiming that the Senate rules and tradition require the certification by the Secretary of State. The Illinois Supreme Court carefully reviewed the Senate’s rules and determined that there was no such requirement. In other words, Harry Reid is full of the same rich nutrient material we suggested be taken to Akron yesterday.

The Constitution does charge the Senate with qualifying its members, but it also establishes those qualifications. To wit: 1) a citizen of the United States, 2) thirty years of age, and 3) duly elected or appointed by the state represented. That’s it. Burris is fully qualified on all three points. We would think that the first two are obvious, and the ruling of the Illinois court, while denying the writ of mandamus, clearly ruled that the appointment was legal under Illinois law, the only law that matters to meet the third test.

If I Were King, Harry Reid would have some groveling to do, right after Mr Burris was sworn in.