Archive for December, 2008

“If the kid next door jumped off a bridge, would you?”

December 20, 2008

Somebody named Stephen Collins, a lobbyist for the auto industry (his title is actually, “President, Automotive Trade Policy Council,” but I feel comfortable in calling him a lobbyist), wrote a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, this week. He was responding to a WSJ editorial of December 6, which was critical of the then-proposed auto industry bailout.

His argument is that several states’ legislatures  have given preferential treatment to foreign automakers to relocate in their states. These big favors are often in the form of tax breaks that add up to hundreds of thousands of tax dollars per job created, according to Collins, and that’s why we shouldn’t wince too much at giving GM, Chrysler and Ford a “bridge loan” that they probably, or maybe, will pay back.

Ah, yes, the “two wrongs make a right” argument. AKA, the “But Mom, all the other kids in second grade are going to the nude drug sex party at Barack’s house!” argument. If that argument works here, where does it end? Just because government did one, or a hundred unconstitutional and stupid things, does that make it OK for them to do a hundred more?

Let’s get real.

If our tax structure weren’t rigged to punish success, choke business, feed government-addicted voters and get career political hacks re-elected again and again, we wouldn’t need to offer tax incentives, or any other kind of corporate welfare, to get people to build factories and make things. Foreign manufacturers would be elbowing each other in the ribs to be first in line to build factories here. Groups of American investors would get together and build manufacturing plants, and cars would advance in quality and decline in cost the way personal computers have over the past twenty years.

There would be hundreds of car brands, in thousands of different models and configurations. A company that made junk would be out of the market in months, or reincarnated (hah) quickly with new management and new ideas to get new market share. Innovators would take advantage of the advances in carbon composites for light, strong bodies, and high-tech alloys for fuel-sipping engines. Emerging battery technology and increasingly efficient electric motors would give internal combustion engines a run for their money, and entirely new powerplants would challenge both.

Have a look at the early history of the US auto industry, before the Big Three, when dozens of car manufacturers were springing up around the country.  Factories that had made stage coaches and carriages began to build the first horseless carriages. They ranged in cost and complexity from spindly, one-lungers with no suspension and wooden seats, to magnificent, motorized living rooms and land yachts like the Auburn, Cord and Deusenberg.

Economic downturns and and an increasingly grasping and power-hungry federal government, spawning the federal income tax and an exploding cancer of regulation, and not the market failure of individual products, brought about the consolidation of this raucus, cutthroat competition into three lumbering, and eventually, clumsy and inefficient behemoths.

Add to the mix the rise of the United Auto Workers Union, which became a parallel management structure in all three businesses, with its own greedy bureaucracy and sacred cows to feed, and you have the recipe for the current disaster.

What will “bridge loans,” or bailouts, or whatever you want to call them — huge sacks of money, confiscated by threat of force by government, from people foolish enough to work for a living, do to change this situation?

Nothing. Nothing short of a revolution will restore the American entrepreneurial spirit and economic freedom that gave birth to the automotive boom of the beginning of the last century.  May it happen soon.

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Numbering the Bullets — and Backdoor Gun Control

December 11, 2008

In the Spring of 2008, some Tennessee lawmakers were pushing a bill (HB 3245/SB 3395) that would require all bullets sold in the state to be laser-engraved with a unique serial number. Tennessee is one of several states in which this scheme was  floated. Such initiatives will probably resurface, like a recurring infection, after the first of the year.

I’m sure that the legislative sponsors sincerely believe that the technology to do this exists, that it is “relatively” reliable and inexpensive, that it won’t impose an undue burden on legal gun owners, and that it will result in solving more firearm crimes.

Most are also sincere (one hopes) in the belief that this bullet ID database will not be used as a back-door method of identifying legal handgun owners, in order to make the confiscation of their handguns at a later date more convenient. For a government that no longer trusts its citizens with the right of self defense by handgun, this is a logical way to go.  Most legislators, that is. Unfortunately, there may be some who eagerly await such a confiscation move, and who hope that an ammunition database will make it easier.

As to the technology, please allow an Information Technology administrator and firearms enthusiast to express some skepticism. Yes, it is certainly possible to laser-engrave a very large amount of information onto a very small surface area. One only has to look at a photo taken through an electron microscope of an integrated circuit “chip,” showing the circuit paths etched by a laser. The individual conductive paths make a human hair look like a giant redwood, by comparison.

However, integrated circuits are not fired under tremendous heat and pressure from the breech of a firearm, forced down the barrel of that firearm at 500 to 1000 miles per hour, and distorted or even shattered on impact. Have the bill’s sponsors seen objective studies that show how much of that etched code is still readable after the short, stressful life of a fired bullet? Or, are they taking the word of the measure’s proponents?

Then there’s the challenge of storing and recovering those codes from a government database. By some estimates, 10 billion rounds (that’s ten times one thousand times one million) of the more common handgun ammunition types are manufactured in the United States alone, every year. Even if, as some of the “ammo coding” proponents suggest, the code would “only” narrow the field to one box of twenty to fifty rounds of ammunition, we are still talking about generating, etching, and keeping accurate track of something like half a billion (that’s five hundred times one million) unique codes — each year. And each year, add another half a billion.

Ammunition has a shelf life measured in years, or even decades, if properly stored. So, a bullet coded one day may not be fired until ten, or twenty years later. Am I supposed to believe that a government that can’t even keep track of ten or twenty million illegal aliens (We don’t know how many, do we?), or the illegal use of a 9-digit Social Security number, will be able to track one, unique “ammo code” code out of five billion, back ten years, to the manufacturer, seller and, ultimately, to the buyer? Sorry. I don’t. Even if the information is entered accurately (and it often isn’t, judging from other forms of government record-keeping), it can be lost, altered or destroyed.

Does anyone know what it will cost to maintain the database — personnel, hardware, software — that houses this information? Do the legislative sponsors have any realistic estimates? Or, are they listening to the moist whispers in their ears from the manufacturers of laser engravers, database administration programs and computer servers, who will be scrambling for the contracts to accumulate and maintain this enormous, and always-growing mountain of data?

Does anyone dispute that the burden of this process on the ammunition manufacturers will drive up the price of their products? One ‘Ammo Code” proponent’s Website (www.ammocoding.com) estimates that a laser engraver will cost “only” $300,000 to $500,000. Of course, an engraver would be needed at the end of each production line. If a manufacturer runs batches of the five or six most popular handgun ammunition types at one time, that’s “only” a few millions of dollars in up-front costs, plus the cost of labor to operate and maintain what must be a fairly complex piece of equipment, plus the extra time and space added to the manufacturing process, and their attendant costs.

This could only look attractive to the manufacturer of the engraving machines, it seems to me. How many of them are lobbying for these bills in state legislatures around the country, and counting the added revenues as they drift off to sleep?

Of course, the gun control lobby has to be enthusiastic about anything the drives up the cost of personal protection via handgun, even a little. If the price of ammunition can be pushed high enough to put  it out of reach for a single mother in the projects, with a minimum wage job, an abusive “ex” who likes to drop by and beat her, and a neighborhood full of crack dealers and pimps who don’t seem to have any problems getting handguns and ammunition, so much the better.

And then, there’s the problem of privacy. Does anyone not know about information theft? A former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency “misplaces” a laptop with top secret documents on it. Tens of thousands of credit card numbers go missing because somebody was patient and skillful enough to penetrate a corporate network and steal them.

Even if you choose to ignore the deliberate misuse of “private” information within government (the browsing of passport data files at the State Department, or the illegal possession of private FBI files by White House staff come to mind), incompetence, laziness and corruption make the theft of such information as ammunition ownership not just likely, but nearly inevitable. Do we really want that sort of information lying around?

Criminals typically obtain handguns on the street, or by stealing them. In the jurisdictions with the strictest gun control laws on the books, a criminal can still get a handgun (or even a machine gun, if the price is right) in hours or even minutes. A criminal is someone predisposed to have no more regard for firearms laws than for any other laws, or he would not be a criminal. Would the criminal not also find ways to circumvent the “ammo codes” by getting his ammo on the street, from sources that are less than scrupulous about their record-keeping? As the history of gun laws repeatedly shows, an ammunition code law would only burden those who buy their ammunition legally. The criminals would skate.

Millions of pounds of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, opiates and other drugs are smuggled into the US annually by entrepreneurs who know a market when they see it. Will they not see a market for uncoded, or unregistered ammunition? Does anyone with a toehold in reality doubt it?

This “ammo coding” initiative looks like a scam advanced by an unholy alliance of opportunists who see a chance to profit from it, and power-hungry people who don’t trust John Q. Public with the means to defend himself with a handgun.

The legislative sponsors of these bills need to take five steps back and look at them from another point of view — and then, back away from them, completely.

Olbermann’s Flatulent Rap on Those “$70 an Hour Autoworkers”

December 6, 2008

Keith Olbermann is an ignorant blowhard and an Obama sycophant, so nobody should really waste any time on what he has to say (and the great majority  of us don’t), but he set me off with this rant, which has been memorialized, not surprisingly, on uaw.org. Understand, I never watch PMSNBSNPR, or wherever he hangs out, but this article was pointed out to me by my brother, a retired GM electrician, who is following the whole bailout scene with understandable interest.

In what I understand is typical Olbermanic fashion, Herr Olbermann sets up a straw dog, and bravely, forthrightly,  righteously, knocks it down. He claims some awful, mean people said UAW autoworkers make “$70 an hour,”  thanks to the idiotic and self-destructive contracts between the Big Three auto companies and the United Auto Workers over the years.

I never heard anyone claim the $70 (or $72, I heard that, too) was any autoworker’s hourly wage.  The way I heard it was that $70/hr. was their COST to their employer in wages, plus all the bennies, plus what GM was paying the job bank employees to braid their nose hairs, get Masters Degrees in Underwater Basketweaving, etc., plus, plus, plus — averaged among the workers who are actually, or allegedly,  involved in building cars. (Parenthetically, I wonder how much it is if you add in all the union execs make, and will retire on, plus the union lawyers, lobbyists, thugs, arm-twisters and car scratchers, plus their political contributions and bribes to every Democrat since Carter that’s run for president…)

Thing is, thanks to the lowlifes at the top at GM, and the lowlifes at the top at the UAW, working together to screw everybody else in the world blind for decades, and set themselves up to retire like Saudi royalty in the process  — plus a great deal of help from the regulators and taxwriters at the federal government — it costs too damn much to make cars at UAW plants.  Since they can’t get people to pay what a car costs, plus some profit, they are on the ropes.

It’s not exactly baffling that it turned out that way.

I want Olbermann (or anybody at the UAW Website, for that matter) to explain how a taxpayer-funded “bridge loan” (oh, sure, they’ll pay it back, wink-wink) is going to make things any different.

If a lot of people take cuts in pay and benefits, and some people get laid off, and some people start paying more of their own health care costs, and the unions stop collecting dues so line workers get to keep more of what they make to pay for their own health care (har, har, snort), they can reduce the cost of building a car. Can they design and build cars that people want to buy, at a cost they are willing to pay? Will billions in tax money make that happen?

Will workers with the “GM attitude” (we who grew up in the Midwest’s GM culture know what that means) stop being dead weights, ghost employees, drunks and saboteurs, and start working as if their jobs depended, to some tiny degree, on their productivity? Oooh. That’s a big one. That might take a few more billions.

Would any of the above be more likely to happen after a tax-funded bailout? Or is it more likely after a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization that throws everything back on the table and everybody understands they either make it work, or take a walk?

Chrysler got a big bailout, back in the Carter era. Did it cause them to get lean and mean, and start kicking Japanese and European carmaker ass? Apparently not. They’re in line to climb in Uncle Santa Claus’s lap again, and whisper their wish lists in his ear, this time joined by Ford and GM.

Courtesy of TIME Magazine, August 24, 1979, here’s a little refresher on the last time a bailout was tried on a Big Three automaker:

“The Carter Administration decided last week that now was the time to come to the aid of the nation’s most beleaguered major company. After weeks of rising pressure for a federal fix for the multiplying problems of Chrysler Corp., Treasury Secretary G. William Miller produced—and Jimmy Carter approved —a Government bailout. It was designed to prevent the nation’s No. 3 automaker (1978 sales: $13.6 billion) from sliding into a bankruptcy that could have put many thousands out of work and sent a shudder through U.S. financial markets.

“Beamed Chrysler Chairman John Riccardo ‘We are extremely encouraged. This fits the bill.’

[…]

“Treasury aides were understood to be thinking of $500 million to $750 million over a limited period.”

[…]

That’s $500 to $700 mil in 1979 dollars. Wonder what that would buy today, thirty years later? What did it buy, back then? It didn’t buy a solvent, successful, competitive Chrysler.

It’s thirty years later. Somebody, please tell me, why is this time different?