Category Archives: Freakonomics

The Independent Globalist: an instruction manual

I drink your milkshake

You drank my milkshake!

Independent globalists optimize after-tax returns, labor, and supply chains into the tax and regulatory regimes that are most favorable.

It’s an optimization exercise and a chess game.  This seems to be the dominant strategy:

1) After-Tax Returns

The equation: taxes + regulation.   Taxes are simple; they reduce your profits by their rate.  Regulation is more complicated because it costs money to comply, but there are also opportunity costs from business activities that are no longer available.

The game: reduce and eliminate taxes and regulation.  Express the stresses of international competition to pressure national politics using one issue at a time in the countries where you do business.

2) Labor

The equation: salary + benefits, including long term commitments.  Retirement, health care, and other benefits have costs, but also may reduce employee turnover.

The game: reduce and eliminate costs within each role.  Divide operational units and move them to locations with optimal rules and costs.  Use the placement of these units to pressure politics to reduce labor’s collective bargaining rights.

3) Supply Chains

The equation: price.  Commodities and other non-labor costs are priced on global markets, and are mostly fungible.

The game: reduce and eliminate regulations that internalize costs of production for your suppliers.

Investors lost $2.5 Trillion on Monday – Policy?

Investors lost $2.5 Trillion on Monday because stock markets were down.  Who still thinks stimulus is a bad idea?  How can anyone argue that it is a bad investment to spend a few hundred billion in the form of infrastructure or other stimulus when the effects are 1000%+ in the form of rising market valuations across the economy.  Stock prices rise in value within minutes when stimulus is announced.  American Freedom does not eliminate our right to make great investments for our economy.

Policy makers – and the rest of us – should pay more attention to ROI.

Mad at Pakistan?

Americans are mad at Pakistan.  Last night, Jon Stewart showed a clip of Fareed Zakaria asking if Pakistan is complicit in hiding Osama Bin Laden – or just incompetent.

Do you blame Pakistan for bin Laden living there?  Do you think our relationship with their government should be strained by this?   Should we reduce support?  Sanction trade?

No.  That’s wrong.  Here’s why:

Pakistan is not one thing and their government is not monolithic.  There are many power structures in Pakistan.  You shouldn’t blame “the government” for sectarian separatists, terrorists, or others who secretly hide within their borders.  Thinking that way is like blaming a person when their body grows a cancer.

Did we blame the American Government when Timmothy Mcveigh was a terrorist in Oklahoma City?  No.  America was a victim.  And Pakistan is the victim now.  Pakistan has been in a complex civil war with multiple armies of radical extremists for many years.  Some of them are politicians trying to consolidate power with secret affiliations, others attack India trying to incite a broader war, others hide like rats.  Pakistan is suffering from these cancers.

We should be offering tax incentives to increase trade with Pakistan, increase aid, and increase support for democratic stability, secular and academic institutions, and human rights.   Economic sanctions and saber-rattling are counterproductive because they attack the commercial economy.  It would be better to empower the population through the commercial economy – enable them to overtake and stamp out radical separatists and would-be religious fascists.  Help them get on a path to become a productive and educated economy that has the power and will to suppress it’s own cancers.  Use economic levers to achieve better outcomes.

The U.S. Penny is worth 1.04¢!

[The following article is part of a larger commentary, available here.]

After monitoring this calculation for a long time, I’m happy to announce this new and unusual arbitrage.

Pennies are composed of 97.6% zinc and 2.4% copper, with a total weight of 2.5 grams. After several years of rapid appreciation, copper prices have been stagnant for about 6 months, but zinc has been rising toward $4,000 per metric ton (or about 4/10 of a cent per gram). That places the value of the zinc at 0.994¢, and the value of the copper at 0.045¢, bringing to total cost of the raw metals to 1.04¢.

So if you collect pennies, melt them down, separate and purify the metals, then sell the metal on the public exchange, you make 4%. This is a new phenomenon, and may not last. I would expect to hear an announcement that the penny will be modified, replacing zinc with aluminum. This would bring the value of the metals down to less than 7/10 of a cent, and gives the government another couple years before they are forced to drop the penny as a unit of currency.

The new aluminum pennies will still be clad in copper, but will feel much lighter. You heard it here first.

20th Century Sociological Trends – Political and Commercial

“The Century of the Self” is a documentary from the BBC which discusses how groups behave, and why. The psychology of individuals has implications when studying populations. Understanding the dynamics of groups has been used to engineer demand and consent for products and political views. This is a very interesting documentary, with detailed historical references.

“Consumerism was a way of giving people the illusion of control, while allowing a responsible elite to continue managing society”

  1. The Century of the Self (1 of 4)
  2. The Century of the Self (2 of 4)
  3. The Century of the Self (3 of 4)
  4. The Century of the Self (4 of 4)

Freakonomics – Own land

[The following article is part of a larger commentary, available here.]

The key investment in the “green revolution” may be land. Wind farms require land, solar panels require land, bio-fuels grow on land, etc. Let’s inspect one specific use: using solar panels to generate hydrogen for fuel-cell cars:

As of last year, 700 sqft of Honda’s roadside solar generators produce enough hydrogen in one week to fuel one car for 175 miles. Clearly this is not enough, but it could be if you use more land.

(700 sqft of solar arrays) x (7 days) = 175 miles

equivalent to

(1 acre of solar arrays) x (1 day) = 1556 miles

If we assume that cars get about 25 mi/gallon of gas, then each acre produces the equivalent of about 62 gallons of gas per day. If gas costs $3/gallon, and hydrogen is priced to drive the same distance for the same cost, then each acre produces about $187/day in sales. That’s $68,140/year. Maintaining solar arrays is pretty cheap, let’s assume $5000/year/acre. If we discount the implied cash flow using a real rate of 5%, the value is $1.26m/acre. Obviously, an acre of solar arrays is expensive. Today, the cost would be about $1.5m, and exceed the net present value. But not for long!

Technology is progressing at a rapid rate. Today’s 6% efficiency may improve to 30% within 10 years. If the efficiency rises to 30%, the negative net present value of producing hydrogen turns positive. Very positive: $5 million per acre.

And don’t forget, for added upside you can install a wind farm over your solar arrays, and produce with both. Own some land.

National Infrastructure Administration

A new federal agency “National Infrastructure Administration” (“NIA”) should be formed to manage a work rotation under the Army Corps of Engineers, building national infrastructure projects.

Rotations would last 6 months at a time, and would be available to any US citizen. Pay would consist of minimum wage, minimal benefits, and possibly room and board. When not in combat, Army personnel would also serve in these rotations.

Unemployment would no longer be an issue. Anyone who wanted to work could serve a rotation with the NIA. Training and experience would be valuable alongside members of the Army, and under direction of the Army Corps of Engineers. Employers would likely respect NIA experience.

The economy would grow faster, with broad prosperity. The electrical grid, 650,000 miles of roads, 78,000 bridges, 125,000 buildings, 700 miles of airport runways, and major new dams and waterways that resulted from New Deal programs are part of why economic growth was capable of such strength into and through WWII. As Americans took advantage of better energy and transportation, prosperity spread rapidly.

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