Archive for category Business

Yes, The Gov’t Does Spend Money on Freight Rail

About $550 million since 2009, by the feds alone:

That doesn’t even include tens of millions more that states have contributed for additional investment in ports and high-speed passenger trains that’s boosted the nation’s freight railroads….

The public dollars have built new overpasses to separate trains from one another, as well as cars and trucks. They’ve replaced aging bridges, laid new track and upgraded signal systems. They’ve paid to enlarge tunnels and raise bridges so that shipping containers may be double-stacked. They’ve built new facilities where cargo containers can be transferred from trucks to trains, or vice versa.

Supporters say these public investments, combined with private capital, are model infrastructure partnerships that will help take trucks off crowded highways, reduce pollution and improve the flow of goods to and from the nation’s seaports.

And another $450 million by the states.  If you add up the numbers in the story, the total cost of the projects is about $5.7 billion, so governments have picked up about 17.5% of the overall tab.  That leaves $4.7 billion in cap ex by the railroads themselves.  In a properly functioning economy, they wouldn’t need the extra $1 billion to get most of these off the drawing board.  But when the money’s available, and when the banks are doing better by leaving their money on deposit rather than loaned out in the world, this is what happens.

I work in the trucking industry, and I can tell you that intermodal traffic – freight that gets delivered to and from ramps from truck, but is delivered cross-country by train – is one of our fastest-growing businesses.  It’s that way because over a long route, rail takes less fuel than trucks, given that most of the infrastructure is already in place.  Rail, of course, is much more capital-intensive that road.  But the Class I rails are long-since paid-for except for maintenance, and the containers tend to be owned by the shipping companies rather than the railroads.

But this is telling:

For all the public money that freight railroads have received, they haven’t talked much about it. The industry spent years trying to free itself from government regulation, and it doesn’t want federal money with too many strings attached.

No kidding.  This is largely how they got into their mess in the first place, with massive land grants that left the door open for massive regulation.  Then trucks and trains spent several decades battling each other over regulatory hegemony rather than on price and efficiency.

I’ve never been as hostile to good infrastructure spending as some other conservatives, provided that it’s not disastrously pointless spending like high-speed rail.  There’s a good argument to be made that the transcontinental railway was a national security project as much as an economic one.  Walter Russell Mead points out that in the 19th Century, by ship, San Francisco was closer to London than it was to New York because Brazil juts so far out into the Atlantic.  There was some concern that unless we actually cemented our claims to the West Coast with people, the British might set up shop there and raise the price, or carve out some sort of permanent presence there a la Hong Kong or Gibraltar.

And while there’s always waste, sometimes you put up with some of that to create platforms that everyone can use.  In the case of  the railways, the platform was the land grant.  In the case of the interstates, it was the roads themselves.  Also, in the case of multi-user facilities like ports or urban rail crossings, there are property rights issues that need civil authority of some sort to work out, and better beforehand than in the courts for years.

Still, it seems as though most of this has gone not to resolving legal tangles, but to actual CapEx, and to protect Amtrak’s hopelessly outdated interests.  So even at the cost of 1/800th of the “stimulus,” we probably overpaid.

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Blurring the Lines

Aaron Renn of the relentlessly engaging Urbanophile posts on the need for our legal structure to change to accommodate peer-to-peer, where people more efficiently share resources rather than owning a lot of unused or idle capacity:

But beyond the sheer efficiency gains, I think it’s under appreciated in developed countries how economic informality can create economic dynamism. Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto noted that lack of property titles and difficulties of the formal economy perpetuated poverty because people in developing countries couldn’t access the system for credit to fuel business, etc. In the developed world we’ve got a similar problem brewing. Our economy has been largely entirely formalized to the point where we are choking in red tape that has produced an economic system that has failed too many of its residents and leading to the creation of these informal economies as a safety valve. And our societies are very ill equipped to deal with that as we’ve become excessively formalized.

We don’t need to establish property titles as we already have them, but we do need regulatory systems that enable entrepreneurship and new business models like peer to peer to thrive. What’s more, I think enabling some level of an informal sector to flourish is actually a good thing, as it’s a de facto “incubator” for new ideas that can later be developed into a more officialized system. Without a toleration of informality, these would never get off the ground.

These innovations are getting stifled by incumbents, and it’s tying up a lot of the economy’s capital.  You can’t rent a room in your house through AirBnB because that supposedly turns you into a hotel, and you’re avoiding the hotel tax.  Uber can’t schedule limos because that somehow is unfair to Yellow Cab or Metro Cab.  The car-sharing stuff seems to have found favor, though, for some reason.  Lyft began service in Denver a couple of months ago.

I agree with some of the commenters that there’s a qualitative difference between creating new value – like nanotech and 3D printing – and wringing the most out of existing resources.  Living standards really rise because of the former, not so much the latter.  The big improvements in quality of life happen when productivity jumps, and that’s not going to happen through renting out that spare room on a regular basis, or sharing cars.

Bear in mind that not all restrictions are just naked rent-seeking.  There are externalities associated with many businesses, and making sure that infrastructure gets paid for, and that you’re not taking up your whole block’s available parking with your in-home B & B are perfectly reasonable concerns.  I think most of that is already recaptured by excise taxes and gas taxes and incorporation fees and oh, income taxes.   So tying up capital in inventory is something most US companies have been avoiding since the 1980s, and no fair keeping us from joining in on the fun.  But unless you’re turning that money into productive ideas, someone else is going to end up capturing the benefit of your thrift.

The wrong model will end up raising the cost of owning-your-own outright to the point where it becomes a luxury.  I’m not entirely sure that’s healthy, and given the way these things tend to work, it could end up reinforcing a socialist model where ownership itself becomes a blurry concept.

For that reason, among others, I tend to prefer the Lyft model to the Car2Go model, although I hasten to add that that shouldn’t be enforced through regulation.  (Neither, of course, should Car2Go get the benefit of a parking subsidy as they do now.)  I think it’s healthier when the individuals own their own cars, rather than surrender ownership of a large part of the available fleet to what will end up being a small number of owners.  Private ownership also ends up making it more likely that individuals will recognize an individual payment, rather than just avoiding an expense.  Not only is that likely more satisfying, it’s also likely to result in more of the experimentation that we’re trying to encourage.

The other reason that a company going into business as a clearinghouse might prefer the Lyft model to the Car2Go model is the capital expense.  Car2Go has to spend a lot of money to buy a fleet large enough to make the service worth using, to make sure that there will be cars available.  And right now, it seems to be all tiny SmartCars.  I suspect that the existing vehicle inventory out there on the road (or in the garage, as it were) pretty closely mirrors the overall composition of what people actually want to be driving.  Why try to guess at a fleet composition, when the country has already done that math for you?

As always, read the whole thing.


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Uber vs. PUC

This past Saturday’s Wall Street JournalWeekend Interview was with Uber founder Travis Kalanick (“Travis Kalanick: The Transportation Trustbuster“).  Uber allows a customer to summon an otherwise idle limo or SUV, on demand, through a smartphone app.  The prices are competitive with town car service, and don’t require pre-arrangement.  The article details, in part, Kalanick’s battles with various municipal regulatory authorities, who, often acting on behalf of established taxi interests, seek to keep his company from operating:

When I suggest to Mr. Kalanick that Uber, in the fine startup tradition, was using the “don’t ask for permission, beg for forgiveness” approach, he interrupts the question halfway through. “We don’t have to beg for forgiveness because we are legal,” he says. “But there’s been so much corruption and so much cronyism in the taxi industry and so much regulatory capture that if you ask for permission upfront for something that’s already legal, you’ll never get it. There’s no upside to them.”

Then, last year, came the clash with regulators in the city where they order red tape by the truckload: Washington, D.C. A month after Uber launched there, the D.C. taxi commissioner asserted in a public forum that Uber was violating the law.

This time Uber was ready with what it called Operation Rolling Thunder. The company put out a news release, alerted Uber customers by email and created a Twitter hashtag #UberDCLove. The result: Supporters sent 50,000 emails and 37,000 tweets. Mr. Kalanick says that Washington “has the most liberal, innovation-friendly laws in the country” regarding transportation, but “that doesn’t mean the regulators are the most innovative.” The taxi commission complained that the company was charging based on time and distance, Mr. Kalanick says. “It’s like saying a hotel can’t charge by the night. But there is a law on the books, black and white, that a sedan, a six-passenger-or-under, for-hire vehicle can charge based on time and distance.”

In July, the city tried to change the law—with what were actually called Uber Amendments—to set a floor on the company’s rates at five times those charged by taxis. “The rationale, in the frickin’ amendment, you can look it up, said ‘We need to keep the town-car business from competing with the taxi industry,’ ” Mr. Kalanick says. “It’s anticompetitive behavior. If a CEO did that kind of stuff—you’d be in jail.”

A determined PR campaign by Uber was able to derail DC’s efforts.  By coincidence, this week, Uber posted on its Denver blog that the Colorado PUC is up to the same tricks:

Unfortunately, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission proposed rule changes this month which, if enacted, would shut UberDenver down. We need your help to prevent these regulations from taking effect!  Sign the petition!!

Here’s a sampling of what’s being proposed (Proposed Rules Changes):

  • Uber’s pricing model will be made illegal: Sedan companies will no longer be able to charge by distance (section 6301)
    • This is akin to telling a hotel it is illegal to charge by the night.
  • Uber’s partner-drivers will effectively be banned from Downtown — by making it illegal for an Uber car to be within 200 feet of a restaurant, bar, or hotel.   (section 6309)
    • This is TAXI protectionism at its finest. The intent is to make sure that only a TAXI can provide a quick pickup in Denver’s city center.
  • Uber’s partner-drivers will be forced OUT OF BUSINESS — partnering with local sedan companies will be prohibited. (section 6001 (ff))

The PUC has run interference for the taxicab cartel here before, last year shutting down a popular airport ride sharing program.  In 2011, they denied additional permits to Yellow and a proposed start-up, Liberty Taxi.  And the Union Taxi Cooperative’s battle to begin service (eventually successful) was the stuff of legend.   Their actions to the detriment of electricity ratepayers have been well-documented by Amy Oliver and Michael Sandoval over at the Independence Institute.  But at least in those cases, they had the fig leaf of enforcing existing law.  Here, as in DC, they’re actually proposing to change the rules in order to run the company out of town.

As a living, breathing example of regulatory capture, Colorado’s PUC is in a league of its own.  Let’s hope that Uber’s supporters are able to persuade them to cease and desist their harassment of the company.


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PERA Gains a New Client Group

What makes it so hard to fight the growth of government is its ability to create client groups seemingly at will, with the money of the very people it’s seeking to co-opt.  I see it myself all the time at the JCRC, where what had been private, service groups are reduced to begging for scraps and favors in front of legislative committees.  At one time they thought it more expedient to do that than to make the case for the value of their work to the community they served and represented.  Now they’re caught, and even when they’re not temperamentally inclined to go along with the leftist agenda, they often do because they can no longer imagine doing business without government support.

So it happens with PERA, too, which has announced the Colorado Mile High Fund, a fund geared towards investing in Colorado entrepreneurs who have partners, but are also having a hard time finding additional capital.

“We heard from businesses around the state during the development of the Colorado Blueprint that increased access to capital is critical to their success and that of our state’s economy,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper. “The creation of the Colorado Mile High Fund will improve that access to capital and we are pleased that Colorado PERA’s partnership will benefit and help grow companies here in Colorado.”

The risks to the taxpayers and the foolishness of this sort of government adventure are all around us, but it’s hard to tell if that’s a bug or a feature of this plan.  I don’t think PERA’s out to deliberately lose money, but investing in high-risk start-ups may not be the best decision for a defined benefit retirement fund.

Even if this turns out to be one fund in the option and under-used 401(k) option, entrepreneurs and start-ups will now have a reason to support increased funding for a government-sponsored employee retirement plan, whose money much come from the pockets of the taxpayer.   The most dynamic sector of the state’s economy will be effectively recruited on behalf of its most stifling.

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Democrat Disillusionment

Wednesday night, Mitt Romney punctured the balloon that was Barack Obama’s inflated reputation as a debater and communicator.  I guess having a hollow core and thin skin is a bad combination.

Romney did this largely by turning out not to be the stick figure that Obama had been running against for the last 18 months, and which he had apparently internalized as actually being the actual Mitt Romney.  So in some respects, the left’s and the Democrats’ disillusionment with Obama is a result of Obama’s disillusionment with the opponent his campaign constructed for him.  So far, his only response has been to complain that Mitt the Man is a better candidate than Mitt the Myth, and to argue that Mitt must have been lying during the debate.  Romney’s campaign has responded with an ad calling Obama on his own campaign’s admission that Romney’s proposed net tax cut won’t be any near $5 trillion, an admission echoed by the media “fact-checkers” that, up until now, Obama had held up as the Gold Standard of Absolute Truth.

That said, some of Obama’s own claims during the debate turn out to be at least misleading.  At one point, during an answer ostensibly about working across the aisle, Obama mentioned three free trade agreements passed in 2011:

“That’s how we signed three trade deals into law that are helping us to double our exports and sell more American products around the world.”

But of course, Obama inherited those free trade agreements – with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia – from the Bush administration, and he sat on them for over two years before submitting them to the Republican-controlled House, where they were approved, and the Democrat Senate, where they passed overwhelmingly.  In this regard, the comparisons with President Clinton are instructive.  One of Clinton’s first acts was to submit NAFTA for Congressional approval, where it passed a Democrat House largely on the strength of Republican backing, and against the wishes of the Democratic majority.  The Democrat leadership simply wasn’t going to submarine a brand-new Democrat president on one of his first initiatives.  Obama had the option to do the same thing anytime during his first two years in office, but chose to wait until the demands grew loud under a Republicans House to do so.

His claims to being open to Republican ideas have always been a sham, but in this case, they’re little more than an attempt to cover up for the fact that he all but ignored economic growth and job creation for his first two years in office.  The difference between Clinton’s & Obama’s trade policy lies in contrast to the similarity in their politics, though.  Clinton has tried mightily to take credit for the benefits of a welfare reform bill that he only adopted once his party lost control of Congress. Likewise with Obama and these bilateral trade agreements.  (In what would be a bizarre claim for an actual news organization, the Washington Post at the time tried to spin this as a win for Obama, rather than his bowing to reality.)

Closer to Colorado, Congressman Ed Perlmutter apparently never got the message, and was the one member of Colorado’s Congressional delegation to vote against all three agreements.  Colorado’s trade with Panama and Colombia is relatively small, but we export hundreds of millions of dollars a year in goods to South Korea, an economy which, while running a trade surplus, isn’t nearly the export-driven economy that it used to be.  Perlmutter was the only Colorado representative who professed to see a threat to local jobs in these agreements.  Even Diana DeGette, long in the tank for the unions, only opposed the Colombian agreement.

As we progressively disabuse ourselves of illusions regarding Democrats, perhaps the next two to fall will be that Obama deserves credit for free trade, and that Perlmutter understands the topic at all.


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Q3 and QE3

The Democrats-with-a-byline who populate the MSM are no doubt going to point with glee at the performance of the markets over the last quarter.  A good Q3 in an election year usually means re-election for a sitting president, and with the Dow Industrials up 6.6%, the S&P 500 up 8.4%, and the NASDAQ gaining 9.4%, the champagne will be out at the Tiffany Network tonight.  (Maybe Jay-Z and Beyonce have some left over for them.)

But perhaps we ought to look at some other indicators, as well.  Since QE3, the third, unlimited round of the Fed’s pump-priming inflationary stimulus, was announced on September 13th, the markets are down.  The Dow is off 0.5%, the S&P off 1.3%, and the NASDAQ has also given back 1.3%.  These are shorter-term moves, to be sure, but they also mean that the little boost from the QE3 announcement has faded, and the grim reality of a stagnant job market, collapsing durable goods orders, rising foreclosures, and downward revisions in company guidance as a result of rising costs.  All the money printing in the world can’t actually reverse business fundamentals.

It’s also worth looking at the Dow Transportation Index over the same period.  Over the last quarter, that index is down 3.4%, and down 5.8% since the QE3 announcement.  Clearly, the truckers and trains aren’t feeling the love.  This is important as an indicator in its own right – road and rail are expecting to have less stuff to move, and their fuel and personnel costs are rising.

But it’s also a contra-indicator according to classic Dow Theory, which says that you only get a confirmation of a market move if both the Transports and the Industrials move in the same direction.  That’s because a lot of what rail moves is related to industrial production.  Three months of divergence, in Dow Theory, is roughly an eternity.  I don’t know if it’s unprecedented, but it’s a very long time.  Sooner or later, one or the other will have to move in the other direction. (It’s possible that they both will, in which case we’ll have the same problem for a while longer, just different winners and losers.)

The political effect may well be real and enduring (although a pretty good Q3 in 2010 wasn’t enough to save Nancy Pelosi’s sorry hide).  People may look at a good quarter for their 401(k)s and their pension plans (although the government employees were probably voting for their subsidizer, anyway), and conclude that the worst is over.  That would be both a financial and an electoral mistake.

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Children of the Corn

My latest for Who Said You Said:

“When everyone says you’re drunk, you’d better sit down.” When both The Wall Street Journal and NPR have questions about a policy, it’s time to rethink it.

The Renewable Fuel Standard’s ethanol mandate requires an increasing amount of ethanol be blended in gasoline every year. Last year, more than a third of America’s corn crop went to ethanol; this year, with decreased production and increased diversion, that proportion is expected to rise to at least 40%. This requirement has pitted ethanol producers against food and feed consumers of corn, driving up corn prices even faster than normal supply shortages would dictate.

The EPA could, if it chose, suspend the ethanol mandate altogether for the year, but so far has chosen not to do so. Not only Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have been strong supporters of ethanol. On July 16, 2008, Salazar, then a U.S. Senator from Colorado, spoke on the floor of the Senate in terms of ethanol’s contribution to America’s “energy independence,” its importance in keeping gas prices down, and the jobs that were then being created on Colorado’s eastern plains in the new ethanol plants being opened there.

The Obama Administration may have been caught off guard by the severity of the current drought, but questions about price distortions caused by the mandate aren’t new. Last year, in February of 2011, Vilsack addressed exactly these same concerns at a press conference [See video above]:

“Certainly not worried in the long term about our capacity to produce enough corn to meet our food and feed needs as well as our fuel needs. The last time we had any issue relative to food prices when this issue was raised about ethanol production, our studies indicated that the ethanol production was a very, very, very small percentage of the food price increases.

“When you look at food price increases, you’re looking more at marketing, advertising, refrigeration, transportation, expenses that are incurred in the food chain. And you’re also recognizing that farmers are receiving an ever shrinking share of the retail food dollar. There are a lot of folks that have to be satisfied out of that retail dollar.

“So I’m not concerned about it. We obviously will continue to look at what the Spring will bring, in terms of cropping decisions. Part of what’s happening worldwide is the result of weather conditions in a number of countries. Export controls and restrictions by some countries have made it a little more difficult. But here in this United States, we’re anticipating food prices to rise somewhere between 2-3%, which is relatively moderate.”

The problem, of course, is that neither people nor livestock can wait for the long run to eat. It may be easy enough for us to adjust to some food price increases, but folks living closer to the margin, as in Mexico, don’t have that luxury. See Egypt for what happens when entire countries have to choose between food and fuel.

And while Vilsack has correctly identified the price inputs into food production, he’s forgotten that prices change because of action on the margin, and the price of corn has proven to be especially volatile, but also especially remunerative to farmers in recent years. A large part of this increase is a result of the ethanol mandate. And contrary to Sec. Vilsack’s protestations that little of the money is flowing through to farmers, agricultural land values have been shooting through the roof, indicating that investors see corn production as a good investment.

The winners include ethanol producers, who are guaranteed a market for their product, corn farmers, who see the results of the government bidding against private ranchers and farmers for their product, and fertilizer companies, whose nitrogen-based product is needed to save the soil from the increased corn crop. Much of the increased corn planting takes place at the expense of soybeans, which replenish the soil. (As a side note, a major component of fertilizer is natural gas; the combination of falling natural gas prices and rising corn plantings has been a windfall for those companies, so to the extent that the farm vote is in play, look for politicians to make hay with that.)

The losers include ranchers, who are having to bid against the government for corn to feed their herds, and you. Because not only are food prices rising faster than your paycheck, there’s little to no statistical evidence that all this diversion of food to fuel is keeping gas prices down. And in spite of the mandates, ethanol plants are shutting down, anyway.

For decades, as their agriculture became a running joke, the Soviet Union used to blame chronic food shortages and poor crops on the weather. A Russian history professor of mine responded to a student’s question about Gorbachev’s political prospects, “Well, he’s got his main rival (Yeltsin) in charge of agriculture, so I’d say he’s in pretty good shape.”

It’s doubtful that Barack Obama felt threatened by Vilsack’s presidential ambitions (his abortive presidential run ended in early 2007, about a year before his home-state Iowa Caucuses), but it’s likely that Vilsack will end up as collateral damage of this Administration’s misbegotten economic and energy policies, nevertheless, when he finds himself – hopefully – looking for work after the November elections.

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WalMart Hatred and Racism?

I don’t tend to post a lot on purely social issues.  But there are times when the two issues intersect in their own very illuminating way.  During the June 26 hearing on the Colorado Health Care District redevelopment, one gentleman, one of three African-Americans in the room, took exception to some of the concerns being expressed by the neighbors of the proposed project:

“I’m a civil rights activist and a member of this community.  I have family and friends who live here in this community.  I’m here tonight – I thought I came here for peace and unity.  But I see, that’s not going to be the case.  Why?  Because I sit over there, stood over there, and heard you all use all these buzzwords and code words.  ’We don’t want that element out here.  We don’t want our property values to go down.  Those are code words to say we don’t want black and brown people…”

(Shouting and yelling)

“You say ‘No,’ then why don’t you…”

“We don’t want the people who shot the police officer.”

“You know something, I don’t either, I don’t want them either, and I’ve stood  on the front line saying put his butt in jail.  But at the end of the day, what I’m saying is this.  You want to be fair about it, Wal-Mart has been a friend of the African-American community, and I think that it will continue to be a friend to our community, and we need their help, and we need your help.”

Right after he finished, one of the audience members yelled after him something about Wal-Mart keeping wages down.  But that wasn’t his point.  His point was twofold: first, without Wal-Mart, many of those people wouldn’t have jobs at all, and second, Wal-Mart keep prices down, making many things more affordable to people with lower incomes.

Now, I don’t think most of the people in the audience were consciously racist.  But I do believe that the charge stung precisely because, as good liberals (the precincts surrounding the development voted from 75% to 85% for Obama in 2008), they believe themselves to be incapable of racism.  And to be sure, their bias isn’t the kind that leads someone to put on the bedding and burn crosses.

But it is paternalistic.  They are unable to imagine that they have neighbors who can’t afford the options they’d put in the place of WalMart, and who would welcome a WalMart in walking distance.  And they were stunned to hear from a black man that he very much wanted something that they were convinced he had no business wanting.

Almost 60 years ago, Billy Wilder had Humphrey Bogart, in the character of Titan of Industry Linus Larabee, explain things to his ne’er-do-well kid brother, William Holden, in the 1954 Paramount picture, Sabrina:

Wilder wasn’t a corporate shill.  In The Apartment,  he showed that he understood as well as anyone how to satirize the business world.  But this is a lesson that many of those yelling about Wal-Mart that warm evening might bear in mind.

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A Bridge Loan Over Troubled Waters?

As mentioned yesterday, the Denver Democrats have invited Rep. Maxine Waters to speak at the annual State House District 7 Unity Dinner this Saturday night. While we think Waters is a terrible excuse for a Congressman, she’s all-too-representative of her party in at least one respect – a belief that it’s possible to give money to one person without taking it away from someone else.

As the interview deteriorates from a policy discussion into Waters’s patented grievance-mongering, CNBC’s redoubtable Mark Haines former analyst and Erin Burnett go from incredulity to resignation, that they’re dealing with someone with roughly a 1st grade understanding of accounting. In fact, you can only arrive at her beliefs through a rigorous process of re-education; 1st grade math problems routinely feature apples being taken away from Johnny and given to Timmy.

In the past, HD7 has invited Mayor Michael Hancock, Auditor Dennis Gallagher, and Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Say what you will about them, they have the virtue of being adults. Hancock and Gallagher have demonstrated fiscal common sense in their positions with the city, and while we’ve had our disagreements with Romanoff in the past, he at least demonstrated some understanding of economic and fiscal matters.  (Who knows?  Maybe she’s even one of the idiots who needs educating?)

People like Hancock, Gallagher, and Romanoff have actually had responsibilities to larger groups that have pulled them to the center, in rhetoric, if not always in deed.  Waters, with a safe seat in south-central, has the luxury of indulging her worst impulses on a regular basis, and probably isn’t the ideal figure for a broad-based party to unify around.

If the Denver Democrats insist on inviting folks like Maxine Waters to keynote these dinners, perhaps they need to rename them the Fragmentation Dinner.


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Investments and the Two Minutes’ Hate

I’m smart enough to realize that there’s no power on earth, aside from maybe Frank Capra, that can make a bank an object of sympathy.  But yesterday’s Two-Minutes’ Hate outside Wells Fargo’s main Denver office sure came close:

When the call went out, this was the focus on ProgressNow’s email:

Over the last four years, Wells Fargo’s federal income tax rate was just 3.8%–less than what nurses, firefighters, teachers and janitors pay–despite making some $69.1 billion in profit. If Wells Fargo had paid their fair share in federal taxes, Colorado would have received an extra $53 million–money to hire hundreds of teachers, nurses and firefighters.

The source for this claim seems to be a Citizens for Tax Justice report, claiming to show that Wells Fargo actually got back $680 million, on $49.4 billion in profit, from 2008-2010, and then applying the same methodology to 2011.

There are many flaws in the CTJ’s study, beginning with the idea that while the tax expense isn’t real, somehow its “current” component is more real than its “deferred” component. It’s a mistake that they have a history of making, especially in years following recessions and election years, when the difference between financial accounting and tax accounting depresses apparent tax rates. It’s a mistake that Megan McArdle and Fortune have caught the New York Times making as well.

Cash, on the other hand, is real. Cash represents an actual check that Wells Fargo wrote to the Federal government. So while the IRS wasn’t writing Wells Fargo a $4 billion check in 2009, the company’s Statements of Cash Flows do say that on $64 billion of net income, it wrote checks to the government for $11.7 billion over those four years. To the extent that this represents “real” taxes paid, it constitutes an 18% tax rate.

But here’s one of the most revealing claims:

“…’accelerated depreciation’ is technically a tax deferral, but so long as a company continues to invest, the tax deferral tends to be indefinite.”

And the problem with that is…?  Evidently “investment” only counts if it’s government “investment” in Solyndra, or if it’s the result of shakedowns by community “organizers,” like the ones on the streets yesterday, or the one the White House.  Wells Fargo claims a quarter-billion dollars a year in charitable and community giving, but of course, that’s them deciding what to do with their money, and if it doesn’t satisfy the avarice of SEIU organizers, or fall under their control, then it doesn’t count.

Remember: Progressively More Expensive, Progressively More Intrusive, Progressively More Restrictive.

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