Monthly Archives: August 2009

UAW = Unions Accepting Welfare

Hmm, I guess we can see once again that our Congress is not in any way trying to manage our car companies (and their unions) for political gain:

The latest example is the $10 billion taxpayers will be asked to shell out to prop up the United Auto Workers’ retiree health insurance program.

That provision is tucked deep into the bill passed by the House.

In effect, it would ask every taxpayer, regardless of whether they’ll have health insurance coverage themselves after they retire — and most won’t — to chip in to maintain the UAW’s coverage, which even after the union’s givebacks is still better than what the average American worker receives.

The helping hand is a recognition by Congress that the union’s volunteer employee benefit association, or VEBA, can’t possibly stay solvent if it is asked to cover all of the union workers taking early buyouts from the Detroit automakers.

So the union’s supporters added language to the House’s gargantuan health care bill that requires the federal government to pick up most of the cost of catastrophic claims for union retirees age 55 to 64.

The biggest beneficiary would be the UAW, which got $60 billion from the Big Three in exchange for taking on the obligation for retiree health care.

I don’t suppose I’ll be getting a gift basket from the UAW thanking me for my generosity. I’ll bet quite a few Congressmen will, though.

Hat Tip: John Stossel

Regulation. It’s About Eliminating The Competition

This follows quite a few themes I’ve discussed at length here:

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) requires third-party testing of nearly every object intended for a child’s use, and was passed in response to several toy recalls in 2007 for lead and other chemicals. Six of those recalls were on toys made by Mattel, or its subsidiary Fisher Price.

Small toymakers were blindsided by the expensive requirement, which made no exception for small domestic companies working with materials that posed no threat.

So while most small toymakers had no idea this law was coming down the pike until it was too late, Mattel spent $1 million lobbying for a little provision to be included in the CPSIA permitting companies to test their own toys in “firewalled” labs that have won Consumer Product Safety Commission approval.

The million bucks was well spent, as Mattel gained approval late last week to test its own toys in the sites listed above—just as the window for delayed enforcement closed.

Instead of winding up hurting, Mattel now has a cost advantage on mandatory testing, and a handy new government-sponsored barrier to entry for its competitors.

I’m of two minds on this. First of all, I find it revolting that, as the headline of the above-quoted post @ Reason points out, it was Mattel’s toys that got everyone riled up and now it’s Mattel getting the exemption. I know exactly how government regulation works, and it’s nearly universal that regulation protects incumbents by increasing the cost of doing business for small competitors.

At the same time, though, I understand a bit about the advantages of economies of scale. There are simply times where it makes more sense for large companies to have this testing in-house. They have enough products to be designed and tested that they’re going to save money by keeping it in-house.

Working in the electronics industry (and having worked for small startups as well as major corporations), I know that in some cases the burden of third-party testing is large enough that you can’t test products iteratively during the design process, when you’d like to. Every time you send the product for testing, you’re talking about thousands of dollars at a start, going up to very high numbers if you want to test to very stringent standards.

Large companies have the resources to test to a wide range of standards, because they sell enough product to amortize that cost. Small companies simply can’t do this, so they opt for the minimum required testing (by law or by their customer, depending on which is applicable), and often turn down business they can profitably produce to spec but can’t afford to profitably test to the requirements.

Mattel has both the economies of scale to afford outside testing, but further the economies of scale to bring that testing job in-house. In fact, they likely are using existing in-house labs for much of the new testing requirements. So yes, this requirement and exemption cost Mattel very little on an incremental basis, and costs their small competitors dearly.

This, however, is not an argument against Mattel — it’s an argument against unnecessary and expensive mandatory testing. It’s an argument against regulatory capture and for individual freedom. It’s an argument towards the inherent goodness of man (i.e. they don’t want to make products that’ll hurt their customers) rather than considering companies by nature wicked and more concerned with profit than customer needs.

Mattel, being the company that produced bad product and who is now benefiting from the regulation makes for a great whipping boy. They certainly deserve some scorn for both supporting this regulation with lobbying dollars and subsequently ensuring that it will affect their competitors more than themselves. But at the end of the day, Mattel has no more desire to poison your kids with lead than mom & pop toymakers — one might remember that THEY discovered their problems in-house and THEY issued the recall of their products rather than wait for someone to be hurt.

The CPSIA is bad law. Mattel, like most major corporations, uses the government to try to influence bad laws for their own benefit. For that, do we have Mattel to blame, or do we point the finger at Washington?

Another False Green Shoot Exposed

Here in California, our state decided to offer a tax credit to buyers of new housing construction. Unsurprisingly, $10K in free money gave the housing market a bit of a kick in the pants, particularly new construction.

Now they’ve run out of money. And in a complete and utter coincidence, which nobody could possibly have predicted, new housing starts are drying up!

California Building Industry Association says the state’s homebuilders hit the brakes on starting new housing after the state’s $10,000 tax credit for buyers of new homes ended in early July. The state incentive had ignited a modest building and buying burst when it started in March.

According to July stats from the Construction Industry Research Board:

  1. Builders pulled permits for 3,011 total California housing units in July, down 14 percent from June.
  2. 2,045 California single-family permits, down 29% from June — that was the busiest month since July 2008.
  3. In Orange County, 62 homes were permitted in July — down 43% from June and off 69% from a year ago.

Says CBIA’s president, Robert Rivinius: “Our homebuilders reported a significant drop in traffic last month, largely due to the state closing the window on the homebuyer tax credit. Activity stopped as quickly as it started, which is bad news for housing and the broader economy.”

The recovery will be solid when economic gains are due to real fundamental improvement in the economy. Relying on the effects of government largesse as a sign of rebound, though, is not especially trustworthy.

All I Have to Say About Ted Kennedy

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

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