Friday, August 31, 2018

Jeff Bezos and PT Barnum think alike

PT Barnum was right; there is a sucker born every minute.

Amazon recently announced a program that promises massive profits to startup local package delivery companies. It represents that entrepreneurs who participate in its program can earn $300,000 in profit per year. That's certainly an attractive proposition. Their site represents that this is achievable with only a $10,000 investment and an additional $30,000 in liquid assets. That's a heck of a potential return*

Now the math. Let's assume that Amazon is completely honest and you'll make $300,000 in profit each year with 40 vans (but if you dig a little deeper, that $300,000 headline number become $75,000 to $300,000). But let's stick with the best case scenario of $300,000. 

That works out to $7,500/year/van or $21 per day per van... and you take all the risk, you use your capital, and you are liable on the debt. You work 365 days a year, and you can be sure that they expect close to 6 sigma performance.

Amazon doesn't say anything about what happens when driverless vans come around. My guess is that you'll be dropped like a Trump staffer who has managed to piss off Ivanka and be stuck with useless vans and the need to unwind this whole operation. You think this is crazy? Well, Amazon is buying a fleet of aircraft so that it can move business away from FedEx and UPS.

Before rushing into an opportunity that seems too good to be true, think about the risks involved. Economics 101 teaches us that an efficient market will not in the long-run allow someone to earn an above average return without taking an above average amount of risk. Only suckers think otherwise.

*The NPV of an investment requiring $10,000 up front and generating a 20-year stream of profits of $300,000/year increasing 2% annually for inflation and discounted at an 8% discount rate is more than $3.2M.

Take Responsibility for Disaster Preparedness

It's no secret that I think Donald Trump is an embarrassment as a President and as a human being. That being said, all this talk about the death toll in Puerto Rico is unfair to throw on him.
Local Puerto Rican government officials failed the people of Puerto Rico. They clearly did not do enough over the decades to prepare the Puerto Rican infrastructure to deal with a hurricane that was certain to come one day. A Cat 4 or 5 storm in the Caribbean is not a black swan event - it's completely foreseeable. Instead, they wasted billions through countless crony projects, subsidies to win votes and corruption. And all these officials were elected and re-elected by the people of Puerto Rico themselves.
So while we should expect DJT to show some compassion, the 3,000 person death toll is not his fault. At most, only the deaths that could have been prevented in the period following 5 to 7 days after the storm should be his responsibility because that demonstrates a failure in our response. I've yet to see a break down of when these 3,000 deaths occurred or what they were attributable to. But the President of the United States cannot be responsible for someone choosing to live in a structure that is built to sub-par building codes because local officials were incompetent or corrput or in a flood zone.
Since Katrina, FEMA has clearly stated that every American should be prepared to survive on their own for at least 3 days after a natural disaster without assistance. That's true whether they are in Florida, NY or California, but it's particularly true when you are in a remote location like Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam or anywhere else that a logistics infrastructure can't use roads or rail. I don't believe it's unreasonable for people in remote regions to expect to be on their own for up to a week until aid can be mobilized to these areas.
Look at the difficulties residents of NYC faced after Superstorm Sandy. They are in one of the world's greatest cities but very few of them had even a day or two's supplies to deal with power outages and flooding.
Sooner or later we are all likely to experience some natural disaster be that hurricane, flood, tornado, earthquake, blizzard or volcano. If you don't prepare in advance, you'll end up being one of those thousands who have to wait in line for basic necessities and you'll have nobody to blame but yourself. People need to take responsibility for themselves and stop expecting the government to be their nanny.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

A historic opportunity to protect the GOP

There's actually a historic opportunity here for both Senators McConnell and Schumer. They should sit down and propose a Constitutional Amendment enshrining the filibuster for Supreme Court appointments. It has to be an amendment because changing the rules of the Senate are not binding on future Congresses (or even this same Congress). Harry Reid created this mess when he double-crossed Bill Frist and did away with the filibuster rule for Article I judges after telling Frist not to do the same when he was in the majority.
It would be in the interest of both parties (because one day, the GOP will again be in the minority) and the country as a whole to ensure that the rights of the minority are protected particularly when it comes to something as irrevocable as a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. They could both look like statesmen and change their legacies from petty politicians to real leaders.

Supreme Court History: It wasn't always like this.

Just how divided has our Congress become? Antonin Scalia (the poster child of conservative Supreme Court Justices) was confirmed by a vote of 98-0 in a Senate that was split 53-47 between Republicans and Democrats. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the poster child of liberal Supreme Court Justices) was confirmed 96-3 in a Senate that was split 53-47 between Democrats and Republicans.
When did our Congress become a force to divide us instead of an institution that rose above politics to do what was best for our nation? When people want to work together they can.

Who needs the KGB when you have the National Enquirer?

Can we just stop for a moment and consider what we found out last week? An organization literally has a vault full of information consisting of embarrassing and possibly illegal conduct by the person who occupies the office of the President of the United States. 
In the intelligence community, this is called “Kompromat” and it is accumulated and stored by foreign intelligence service to blackmail people into doing certain things (like spying on their country). 
So that leads me to several questions:
• was the US counterintelligence community aware that the person who holds the highest degree of clearance in the country was subject to kompromat?
• if David Pecker and Trump were friends, why was Pecker retaining this information instead of destroying it? It makes no sense to keep something unless you intend to use it in the future. How did Mr. Pecker intend to use this?
• How secure is the vault at American Media? Is it possible that foreign intelligence services may have gained knowledge of the kompromat or access to it? Is the material in paper or electronic form? Is there an inventory of it such that it can be determined whether it is all still there?
• Who else knows about it? Presumably David Pecker did not handle every aspect of the story; the investigation, collection of information, summarizing it, negotiating the deals to pay off the sources and then securing all that data in the vault? So isn’t each of those people also subject to being compromise by foreign security agencies in order to gain access to what they know?
• shouldn’t a US counterintelligence team be given full access to the information to determine what exposures exist and what safeguards need to be taken to prevent the kompromat’s use?
• who else within the administration and Trump family does American Media have kompromat on? Should their security clearances be reviewed? Were they aware of the existence of this material? Did they disclose it as required on their security clearance forms (my understanding is that providing false, incomplete or misleading information on an SF-86 is a federal felony).
This is potentially a very dangerous situation and Trump’s chief of staff General Kelly knows this. Has he addressed this with the President? Has the President disclosed all he knows? Enquiring minds want to know.

What John McCain can teach Catholics

Two big news events this weekend triggered news alerts on my phone Saturday night. One was the death of Senator John McCain and the other was the accusation by Archbishop ViganĂ². 
As a Catholic, these claims were another punch to the stomach. Each revelation brings feelings of disgust, shock, repugnance, anger, sorrow, and embarrassment. Truth be told it was a heck of a struggle just to go to mass this weekend.
Which brings me to Senator McCain. As a POW he was beaten regularly, denied medical care, had his arms broken and later re-broken, held in solitary confinement for years, had his teeth knocked out and was close to death several times. I’m sure he had doubts pop into his head hundreds of times over those years. He must have felt disgusted, shock, anger, sorrow, and embarrassment at a level I can literally not imagine. Yet when being debriefed by the Navy about his experiences in captivity he said that he made it through by having “Faith in country, [the] United States Navy, family, and God.”
This morning, the news had all sorts of stories on the life of Senator McCain. One of those told of how upon returning to the states after his release he attended the National War College. By the time he graduated, the concluded that “Mistakes by American political and military leaders had doomed the war effort.” 
How devastating must it have been to have spent 5 years in that hell hole for what you now believe was an effort led by bad leadership? And then it occurred to me. John McCain’s love of country was not diminished by the grave errors its leaders made, even though he paid a tremendous personal price for those errors. In fact, he dedicated the rest of his life to try to make the country better.
The evils that have enveloped our church are horrible. Many of us feel beaten, not by an enemy who holds us in captivity but rather an enemy from within our church who has tolerated way too much of this for way too long. But we will not fix this by turning away from the church. We must fight to fix it. And like Lt. Commander McCain, we need to retain our faith in God because it’s the only way we will make it through this.

The Conservative Hypocrisy on Free Speech

Donald Trump and people who claim to be conservatives are all up in arms about the purported censoring of their speech by social media platforms. 
The hypocrisy from the right is again stunning. In the Hobby Lobby case, the right advocates that forcing Hobby Lobby to provide certain types of birth control to its employees is an impermissible infringement on its first amendment rights - because it creates the appearance that they condone it and therefore forces them to speak or act in a manner inconsistent with their beliefs. 
Likewise, in the Colorado baker case, the right argues that you can't force a commercial actor to do something that they are against on religious or political grounds. Now, these same people want to ignore those very arguments and insist that all points of view must be afforded equal protection by private businesses. 
Though there is no evidence that they are censoring speech, I'd ask why should Hobby Lobby and the Masterpiece Cakeshop be protected from being forced to speak or act in a manner that they disagree with, but Google, Facebook, and Twitter not be given the same rights?
The fact that the President of the United States invoked the first amendment when discussing this matter and conservative are parroting it, shows the ignorance of all them. The first amendment restricts the government, not a private business, from restricting speech. I cannot believe why conservatives are not up in arms that the President, speaking from the White House, threaten to use the police powers of the state against a private enterprise when he perceived that it is not permitting his point of view to be spread. How would his actions be any different than when a third world dictator threatens to seize a television station or newspaper? 
When it comes to the second amendment, conservatives tell us that we should support the Constitution in its entirety, not pick and choose what provisions and amendments are important. I wholeheartedly agree. But this also means that other people have all the same rights you do, whether or not you agree with them.
The fact that the GOP is going along with this is just one more piece of evidence that the party is conservative in name only. It has no problem with big government, as long as that government is doing what they want it to do.