Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

economics

Odd Lots

  • Amazon is selling hand-made (in Latvia) steampunk thumb drives incorporating copper pipe caps and a Soviet-made pentode vacuum tube. LEDs light up the glass from the bottom of the tube when there’s power available at the USB connector. (Thanks to Bill Meyer for the pointer.)
  • Tonight would be a good night to see Mercury. It’s never easy because the planet never gets too far from the Sun in the sky, but with smartphone apps like Sky Map (on all Android phones by default) it’s certainly easier than it once was. Start by finding Venus in the west, immediately after the Sun goes below the horizon. (You can’t miss Venus.) Mercury lies roughly on a line between Venus and the Sun. There are no bright stars in that part of the sky, so if you see a star near that line, it’s not a star but ol’ Merc himself.
  • Speaking of the Sun… Here’s a solid overview of the history of solar science. It’s a long piece, and even if you choose not to read it, the photos and diagrams are worth the visit.
  • Betelgeuse continues to dim for unknown reasons. It’s fallen from 10th brightest star in the sky to 24th brightest. Orion is the first constellation I can clearly recall seeing, and these days, it just looks…off. This may mean it’s about to go supernova…for large values of “about.” (Hundreds or more likely thousands of years. Stars are never in a hurry.)
  • I’ve been following the coronavirus epidemic using a dashboard maintained by Johns Hopkins. Who knows how accurate it is, but one does get a feeling that China is currently in a world of hurt. I got the link from my friend Charlie Martin, and he’s got a good article about the issues involved.
  • This is a little weird, but it’s one more telltale that the technical publishing industry I loved for so long is no longer with us. I went searching for a book on installing, configuring, and customizing the MediaWiki software, and found…nothing. There’s plenty online, but I’m talking about book-length treatments. If you know of one let me know. My longstanding heuristic is that if it’s not on Amazon, it isn’t available.
  • How to turn a waterway into wine. At least it wasn’t a Zinfandel.
  • Ah, but this was a sweet, sweet hack: Some guy wandered around downtown Berlin pulling a little red wagon full of smartphones, all running Google Maps. Wherever he happened to be during his wander, Google Maps reported a traffic jam.
  • If politics bores you as much as it bores me, here’s a solid distraction from all the tiresome yelling and screaming: The economics of all-you-can-eat buffets. Eat quick: My instincts tell me that as a category buffets are not long for this world.
  • Finally, you’ve heard me say that there’s funny, there’s National Lampoon funny, and then there’s Babylon Bee funny. This may be one of the Bee’s best pieces yet–given this season’s nonstop nonsense.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • At our most recent nerd gathering here, four of my friends and I managed to carry our 1997-vintage, 198-pound Sony CRT TV set up our precipitous stairway out to the 4Runner, and a few days later I paid Blue Star recycling $37 to see it to its final rest. Many thanks to the guys–we had been pondering how to get rid of it for the past several years. Friends are most excellent to have, especially for people like me who can’t lift 100 pounds anymore.
  • And this means we’re shopping for a downstairs TV. I came across a good site focused on plasma TVs, which as a class may be problematic at our current altitude of 6600 feet. Apparently they buzz and run far too hot, though the physics of the phenomenon remain obscure to me.
  • I’ve found the first (thin) review of the Motorola Xoom. Few details yet, but I will say up front that the cloud-based ebook system doesn’t thrill me. Early releases of Honeycomb may not support the XD card slot, but Motorola hints that an OS update will take care of that. That’s important here: Given that 16GB MicroSD cards are already down to $35, sideloading my entire ebook library would be a snap, with room left over for lots of music and videos.
  • I also recently found out that the Xoom GUI borrows from the quirky but interesting BumpTop, recently bought by Google and then pulled from general distribution.
  • I may be too old to appreciate the BumpTop 3D metaphor (I always think it looks like working inside a refrigerator box) but some good themes have been created for it, including this steampunk specimen.
  • Xoom has a “barometer.” Most commenters, including the LA Times , don’t seem to understand that a barometer can measure altitude with more accuracy than GPS. I doubt that the Xoom’s barometer will have anything to do with weather reports. (Else there’d be a thermometer and a hygrometer as well.)
  • There’s a long-running feud between Samsung and US cell carriers over who pays for Android updates, with the result that many Samsung phones are stuck at Android 2.1 and may never get an update from the vendor. (Applying the update yourself is not for the squeamish.) Yesterday afternoon, of course, Samsung denied it all. As intriguing as the Galaxy Tab looked when I played with it back in November, issues like this may keep me away from Samsung wireless products entirely.
  • Some images speak for themselves. Like this one. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Oxytocin may be the biochemical basis for tribalism, racism, political parties, and just about everything else that the human species would be better off without. “Cuddle hormone” my ass.
  • Good-bye to seigniorage, not that one person in ten thousand ever knew what it was–or how to spell it.
  • Ahh, well. I may have eaten my last pistachio.

All The Forks That We Need

eternalfork.jpgCarol and I have been married now for 33 years. Back in the summer of 1976 my mother threw us a bridal shower, and among the many gifts we received were two sets of Ecko Eterna Corsair stainless steel flatware, for a total of eight place settings. We still have them. In fact, we have been eating with them for all 33 of those years. (At left is a 33-year-old daily-driver fork. “Eterna” is fersure. ) They’re all still in the drawer.

Well, almost all of them. Flatware eventually goes missing, like protons, though with a much shorter half-life. Over the years a couple of spoons and forks have probably followed us to potlucks and never come home. I have no better explanation. When I was a toddler I used to drop flatware down the cold air return, which I know because when I was 14 I helped my father tear out the old sheet-metal octopus that heated our house, and found most of a place setting at the bottom of the big pipe. As an adult I have no such excuse. I only know that we run out of clean forks before we run out of clean tablespoons.

I got irritated enough recently by our fork shortage to look on eBay, where I scored three Ecko Corsair forks for $10–and five spoons for $12. The forks were unused, and when I got them, washed them, and dropped them in the drawer, it struck me that there wasn’t much difference in appearance between the brand-new Corsair forks and the forks that have been faithfully stabbing our steaks for 33 years now. We have a full drawer of flatware again, and all the forks that we need. Better still, if we ever need more, we know where to find them.

I had an insight when the forks arrived that Carol and I are not and will probably never again be in the market for new-build stainless steel flatware. Why should we be? Our set works perfectly, and still looks like new. Spare parts are available, cheap. This isn’t good news…if you make flatware.

And I also wonder if our auto industry is in trouble at least in part because cars are lasting longer and people are trading them in far less often. I got my first car in 1970 when I started college. It was a bare-bones 1968 Chevelle 300, and even at two years old the door panels were growing significant rust spots. By 1974 the body was mostly rot and the engine disintegrating, and rather than pony up for a valve and ring job, I dumped it and bought a brand-new Honda Civic. The Civic lasted until 1982, when its brake cylinders started going out repeatedly. I had a Datsun pickup for a year and decided I didn’t like pickups; I traded it for a 1984 Chrysler minivan, which I owned uneventfully until 1995. That year I traded the old minivan in on the newest version of the same minivan–and we still have it, a little tired but entirely functional. The Toyota 4Runner that we bought in 2001 will flip over 100,000 miles today or tomorrow, and has never given us a lick of trouble. No rust, no wiggles, no funny noises, no problemo nada. I expect to be driving it happily ten years from now.

Draw the curve here. Cars that used to implode after 5 years are now lasting for fifteen or more. Is it any wonder that we don’t need as many cars as we used to? A great many of our economic problems today may stem from simple overcapacity: factories cranking out stuff like it’s 1968, simply because that’s what they’ve always done and the spreadsheeters require it. (Publishing certainly has that problem, though for different reasons.) We are the victims of our own success, in that there is less work than there are workers, because we’re making better forks…and much better cars. We may not need a Big Three for making cars. A Big Two may be sufficient. (I’ll leave the eenie meenie mynie moe part to someone else, thanks.) And if that’s the case, we have to be extremely careful about protectionist economics, because the export market is all that’s left, once Americans have all the forks that they need.

The Real Problem With Big 3 Bankruptcy

I’ve been very puzzled by Big Media’s consensus that we simply can’t allow the Big Three to file for bankruptcy. I guess too many people think that “bankruptcy” means sending everybody home, closing the doors forever, and selling off the machines for ten cents on the dollar. There are, of course, forms of bankruptcy that work that way, but that’s not what anybody’s talking about. Chapter 11 bankruptcy is about reorganization with an eye toward continued operation. The reorganized company is forgiven some of its debts and is given more flexibility to remake itself as a profitable operation. That’s what all three of our automakers should be doing, and should have been working in that direction for some time. But GM’s board says that bankruptcy is not an option.

In cruising online articles, I find it peculiar that no one is raising an interesting possibility: Bankruptcy for the Big Three means an end to the UAW as we know it—and the Big Three can no longer operate their plants without the UAW’s help. Chapter 11 would basically allow a judge to tear up an automaker’s union contracts, allowing the firm to cut salaries, lay off as many people as it wants to without union consultation, and nullify work rules. It basically turns a union shop into a union-less shop (not a non-union shop, but a shop in which the union exists without any power) and the unique problem with that is that without UAW cooperation, it’s unclear whether GM, Ford, or Chrysler management know enough about their own SOPs to make the plants work. The UAW, seeing its own inevitable death (or at least irrelevancy) would have no strong motivation to work with reorganized automakers. Whether or not the rank and file would want to keep working, the UAW could shut the American portion of the industry down, in a strike not so much against management as against American society. It would be a weird twist on the goofy Ayn Randian idea of creative people withdrawing from society to punish society for not “appreciating” their self-defined importance. “Give us billions of dollars annually forever or you won’t be able to buy Chevies anymore!” Uhhh, no. It won’t work for the Objectivists, and it won’t work for the UAW.

On the other hand, such a shutdown, as hard as it would be on the workers, could be the only way to force the changes that have to happen: The Big Three would close for perhaps as much as a year, and maybe more, while plants are shuttered, marques retired (do we still need Buick? Or Pontiac?) and the entire process of making autos rebuilt from the ground up, more along the lines of non-union plants operated in the South by overseas companies. There’s a good description of what such a process might be like over at The Deal, and although it goes deeper into the finance than most of us could follow, it’s worth a look. This would not be the end of the world. It needn’t be the end of the UAW, either, but the UAW will have to retool itself every bit as much as management will have to retool the plants.

The other and perhaps more serious problem with the UAW is that GM (as an example) has three times as many retiree members as working members, and retirees have voting rights. In effect, the UAW is no longer a worker’s union but a pension management organization, and this should make us a little uneasy. Keeping the plants running is no longer the overriding concern of UAW membership. The Feds absorbed the pension plans of dying railroads, and this may be one reason we cannot make passenger rail service work over here. (The article is ten years old but worth reading.) There is some danger that a special autoworkers’ retirement system could make it impossible to produce autos profitably here, but I haven’t been able to find enough on this to have a strong opinion.

I guess the whole situation is a lot more complex than anyone has understood prior to now. Taylorism and the century-long one-time labor shortage created by industrialization made trade unionism inevitable, but both of those forces are now history. The Big Three need to be remade along the lines of the Little Five, the foreign-owned “transplant” automakers that seem to be doing quite well in the US. They are not sweatshops, and their people seem to be happy. The UAW may refuse to do this, and management probably doesn’t know how. Without cooperation by both, the task may be impossible, and American automaking may go the way of the railroads, or become impossible except for foreign corporations. It’s a weird, sad business.