Repeating incentive failures

My Google news homepage tells me that the U.S. to increase pressure on mortgage industry. According to the article:

The Obama administration said Monday it will crack down on mortgage companies that are failing to do enough to help U.S. borrowers at risk of foreclosure, as part of a broad effort to ramp up participation in its mortgage assistance program. The Treasury Department said it will withhold payments from mortgage companies that aren’t doing enough to make the changes permanent.

I mention this just in case it wasn’t clear that the “Obama administration” has forgotten every economics class it ever took from people who know better.

Remember six months ago? The “Obama administration” doesn’t seem to. Remember when it seemed like all the banks were failing and screwed? Remember how that wasn’t actually true? How some banks were doing just fine, because they didn’t make stupid loans? Remember how those banks were given crappy ratings by the government due their fiscal responsibility? Oh… you don’t?

Well, consider Massachusetts bank East Bridgewater Savings. Back in March, when all the banks were going to hell, East Bridgewater Savings was doing fine:

Bad or delinquent loans?




Money set aside in 2008 for anticipated loan losses?


“We’re paranoid about credit quality,” Petrucelli said. The 62-year-old chief executive has run the bank since 1992.

East Bridgewater Savings ended 2008 with $135 million in assets and deposits of $84 million.

The bank even squeaked out a profit of $87,000. And its Tier 1 risk-based capital ratio was 31.6 percent, or more than three times higher than many community banks in Massachusetts.

In other words, rather than do the “predatory lending” and “sub-prime” shenanigans that the government and media would lead us to believe caused all this trouble, this particular bank only made reasonable loans, and avoided the problems entirely. But, for its trouble, the FDIC “slapped East Bridgewater Savings with a rare ‘needs to improve’ rating after evaluating the bank under the Community Reinvestment Act.”

The CRA is a set of laws that have been revised over the past 30 years to “encourage” banks to lend to local, low- and moderate-income borrowers. Because East Bridgewater Savings judged that giving loans for large houses to low-income families was not worth the risk, the FDIC essentially published a statement saying they were a bad bank.

Now, it is unlikely that the banks pushing subprime loans did so to avoid this FDIC ranking; they probably would have done it anyway. But it certainly is not particularly useful that, should you want to manage risk correctly, the government will tell the world you are an idiot for doing so. It is a totally misdirected incentive.

This current push from the Obama administration works in a similar way, offering incentives to force exactly the wrong kind of behavior.

Yeah, good luck with that

A quick prediction:

The president’s camp will prove to be completely unprepared for how many of Obama’s own supporters will bail on him over his Nobel Prize. All new presidents quickly gain some tarnish once they take office, but should he accept this award (and maybe even if he refuses it), the number of die-hard liberals I’ve seen literally rolling their eyes about it this morning suggests he’s about to loose a good chunk of the people who elected him.

What’s missing in Saturn coverage

A few months back, when General Motors could no longer escape its own incompetence, Saturn was put on the chopping block. It got an unexpected reprieve when Penske, an auto-parts maker, offered to buy it. The reprieve ran out today, when Penske backed out of the deal. So, now the press bids good riddance to Saturn in a number of eulogy-like stories.

All of these journalists seem to be missing a huge part of the story, though, with the kind of “don’t bother looking under the surface” reporting I can’t stand.

The AP story says:

Although GM and Penske reached a tentative agreement to sell the brand in June, the deal collapsed Wednesday after Penske was told by an unidentified manufacturer that its board had rejected a deal to make cars for the new Saturn.

And then… that’s it. Nothing. No information about who this “unidentified manufacturer” might have been, or why they didn’t want to deal. This is unfortunate on two counts: 1) it’s where the real story is and 2) it isn’t that difficult to figure out.

If you get your news from something other than traditional sources, you might have noticed a story still playing out around another tattered remnant of GM: Opel. In a probably increasingly common union of Canadian and Russian companies, Opel is about to be sold to Canadian car parts maker Magna and Russian bank Sberbank.

So what? Well, many people (including, evidently, all journalists) don’t realize that most of Saturn’s recent product line are just relabeled Opel models. This makes it extremely likely that the “unidentified manufacturer” who wouldn’t sell cars to Penske is Magna.

Given that they are both in the auto parts business, it might make sense at first glance why Magna wouldn’t want to help competitor Penske. But it gets more complicated as you think on it more. Why would Magna, who is just getting into the car business, pass up a huge (and highly loyal) built-in market for their new product by refusing to work with Saturn-under-Penske? I can only think of five possibilities:

  1. They are idiots. They have let hatred for a competitor blind them to a good opportunity. Maybe I’m optimistic, but I’d like to think that this isn’t the reason.
  2. They fear a long term merger. It seems to me the inevitable result of cooperation between Magna and Penske in Saturn would eventually result in a merger, hostile or otherwise. Magna may figure that they would be worse off for such a thing. I’m less sure of this reason, but it still smells wrong.
  3. They don’t care about the American market. As Opel is mostly a European brand, it may be that they have enough to handle without adding in the American market as well. This seems implausible, given that Penske would be doing all the work in America in this scenario, and also that Magna is a Canadian company.
  4. They consider the Saturn brand a liability. Read any of the previously linked eulogies of Saturn and most of them mention Saturns as being mediocre cars. It could be that Magna has convinced itself that pitching the Opel directly to America would work better for them. They could be right, but turning your back on millions of already loyal customers seems a might risky.
  5. They want Saturn for themselves. It could be that Magna was betting on exactly what happened: that if they didn’t deal, Penske would walk, leaving Saturn ripe for picking. Even if they only bought pieces of it (branding, customer databases, some dealerships), they would have a huge head start on penetrating the American market.

Of all these, the last seems more likely to me. Which means the current reports of Saturn’s death may be exaggerated.

Health volley

I’m putting together a much longer post to present a tortuous metaphor for the state of American health care, but I keep seeing the same theme in the current “debate” on health that is driving me nuts enough to say something about it here.

Here is an example, this one from Mark Steyn:

I think Sarah Palin’s “death panel” coinage clarified the stakes and resonated in a way that “rationing” and other lingo never quite did.…What matters is the concept of a government “panel.” Right now, if I want a hip replacement, it’s between me and my doctor; the government does not have a seat at the table.

Whatever you may think about Palin or the death panel or whatever, the statement above contains a huge glaring problem. Under the system we have now, while it may be true that the government does not have a seat at the table, if you want a hip replacement, it is most certainly not between you and your doctor. It may be between you and your insurance company, and it may be between that insurance company and your doctor, but if you and your doctor, by yourselves, want to decide on your hip replacement, you are totally fucked under the current state of health care in America.

If you don’t like the current health bills being debated right now, fine, but don’t compare them to an idealized system as if it actually exists when it really doesn’t.

Robert Tracinski makes the same mistake in this piece, when he says (with his own emphasis):

Do the Democrats even understand what insurance is? … Insurance is a form of financing. It is a contract under which a health-insurance company agrees to pay for medical bills that could run into the tens of thousands of dollars, if you are hit by a bus or are diagnosed with cancer, so that you don’t have to pay for those bills out of your savings. For younger people, this means being able to pay for catastrophic care even if you haven’t had time to build up tens of thousands of dollars in savings. For older people, this means not having your retirement savings or the equity in your home get wiped out by an unexpected illness.

It is? Really? Great!

The problem is that while this is what insurance should be, present-day American health insurance doesn’t actually work like this. At all.

You try telling a mother of two “sorry, your kids’ check ups are not covered by your insurance. Insurance is only for unexpected emergencies.” I dare you.

And, likewise, when an actual emergency causes “medical bills that could run into the tens of thousands of dollars”, see how likely the “insurance” is to pay it all.

There is a reason HR departments call it “health coverage” and not “health insurance”: because it is no longer insurance. The “coverage” is now used for pretty much any type of health related expense. The expectation involved is similar to imagining a world where everyone just assumed that their auto insurance would pay for their fuel, oil changes and routine maintenance, instead of just a serious car accident.

While the current state of health care in America isn’t exactly socialized medicine, it is functionally pretty close. Does it really matter that, instead of the bureaucracy of the state that meddles in your health decisions, it is the bureaucracy of a set of corporations that meddles in your health decisions? You (and your doctor) have roughly the same level of control over both of them: almost none.

My guitar hero

Lester William Polsfuss died today. Better known as Les Paul, he’s been a hero of mine since high school, ever since seeing an HBO special in which he demonstrated one of his many inventions, the Les Paulverizer. For being conceived in an era of analog electronics, the Les Paulverizer makes an impressive demo. I can’t find the version of it I saw, but here is one from even earlier:

Unfortunately, the device is fictional, a stage prop. What isn’t fictional are his other inventions, including multi-track recording and one of the first solid body electric guitars. Not to mention his recording career. And beer commercial.

I’ll never be able to give him the tribute he deserves, so I’ll just cut to someone who did in 1988 (on the same HBO special, immediately after the Paulverizer demo)… Eddie Van Halen:

Thanks for the music, Les.

No Congressman left behind

During his campaign, President Obama promised to reform No Child Left Behind, calling it “one of the emptiest slogans in the history of American politics”. No doubt he’ll get around to doing so before too long. Chances are, however, that any improvement will still involve some sort of standardized test, in one capacity or another.

Though I’ve never really liked standardized testing, I have some suggestions for whatever bill gets written to “improve” No Child Left Behind:

  1. Whatever standardized test is settled upon, it must be administered annually to all members of the U.S. Congress, with results made public, by name. (The rest of this post will call this test by its current name, the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP.)
  2. Six months after Congress takes this test, they must take another standardized test created specifically to assess their abilities in key areas necessary to make informed choices about the laws they create. Again, the results would be made public. (Since all tests need a TLA to be taken seriously, call this the Legislative Aptitude Test or LAT.)

In addition to testing basic reasoning and skill, a strong motivation of the LAT will be questions aimed and determining how well our lawmakers detect bogus statistics, improper inferences, logical fallacies and flat out bullshit from lobbyists and people who testify before congress. The test will involve the following sections:


The NAEP should take care of the basics of arithmetic, algebra and so on, so the math portion of the LAT should emphasize unraveling the weaselly corporate statistic speak used by lobbyists to lie. Some sample questions:

A popular light beer claims to have “one-third less calories than regular beer”. If a regular beer has 120 calories, how many calories does a light beer meeting this description have:

  1. 0
  2. 40
  3. 80
  4. 120
  5. 160

Answer: C. [120 – (120÷3) = 120 – 40 = 80]

You are invested in a stock with a steady price of $100 per share. One day, the price drops to $75 per share, a 25% drop. Approximately how much will the price now need to rise to get back to the original $100 price?

  1. 10%
  2. 25%
  3. 33%
  4. 50%
  5. 100%

Answer: C. [75x = 100; x = 100/75; x ≈ 133%, an increase of 33%.]


The NAEP has questions that cover Geography, though I’m not sure if it has an official Geography section. The LAT, however, should. Further, this section should combine current events and historical context as well. Sample questions:

The second largest denomination of Islam believes that Muhammad’s family and descendants have special spiritual and political rule over the community. Further they believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was the first of these Imams and was the rightful successor to Muhammad and thus reject the legitimacy of the first three Rashidun caliphs. What is this denomination called, and in which country does it dominate?

  1. Sunni, Iraq
  2. Shia, Iran
  3. Sunni, Saudi Arabia
  4. Shia, Saudi Arabia

Answer: B

During 2008, what country had a nation occupied by the U.S. military on its main western border and another country occupied by the U.S. military on its main eastern border, but was not itself occupied by the U.S. military?

  1. Iraq
  2. Iran
  3. Somalia
  4. Syria

Answer: B

If you walked from the geographic center of the most populous Muslim nation directly towards Australia, which direction would you be walking?

  1. South
  2. Southeast
  3. East
  4. North

Answer: A [Australia lies directly south of Indonesia.]

In 1981, Israel bombed a French-built 70-megawatt uranium-powered nuclear reactor near what capital city?

  1. Beirut
  2. Baghdad
  3. Damascus
  4. Tehran

Answer: B


The accounting questions in the NAEP are OK, but most aren’t really policy type questions. In this section, I’d honestly settle for something that forces someone studing for the LATs to question his sanity. Such as:

If a private business enters an contract where it agrees to pay out some amount of money (to, say, it’s employees) several years from now, it is obligated by law to account for this future liability. Is the U.S. government required to do the same?

  1. Yes
  2. No

Answer: B (It would be highly entertaining to read the answers to a follow-up essay question: is this a good idea?)

You are given take $1 million of taxpayer to help correct the financial crisis. Which of the following actions has no chance of making any money back on your investment?

  1. Provide loans at reasonable rates to large companies that employ many people.
  2. Buy assets backed by American homes from banks that don’t know how to price them because they don’t trust each other, and become a source of trusted information in a market for them, eventually selling them.
  3. Make housing payments for citizens with poor reading comprehension and math skills.

Answer: C

Given single-handed control over government funds, how would you address the $60+ trillion shortfall that the U.S. will face in the coming decades? (Essay question)

Answer: I’m sure it will be good. If it doesn’t at least include the menu of pain or a way of offing the Boomers, it’s wrong.


Imagine an isolated island, populated by a variety of animal species, but no human beings. After several centuries of stability, the island suffers a fairly sudden environmental change (drought, a major fire, etc.). The theory of evolution predicts that:

  1. Some individual organisms will develop new traits that adapt to the change. Those that don’t will die off.
  2. If any of the slight differences between individuals present within a species provide an advantage in the changed environment, those differences are more likely to be passed on to future generations.
  3. By chance, some individuals in a species will be physically larger and stronger than the others. These individuals will live through the change while the others die off.
  4. The Creator will choose which organisms live and die through the change.

Answer: B [A is wrong because individual organisms don’t evolve; species do. C is wrong because an advantage that turns out to help a species survive a given shock isn’t necessarily related to physical size and strength.]

You are breeding an organism of some kind in a bottle. At 11am, you put the first two organisms into the bottle. The population in the bottle doubles every minute. At noon, the bottle is full. At what time does the bottle become half full?

  1. 11:00 am
  2. 11:30 am
  3. 11:59 am
  4. noon

Answer: C (Follow-up essay question 1: what time do you think it would be when the population in the bottle notices that “its getting crowded in here”? Follow-up essay question 2: what time do you think it would be when the entire population in the bottle chokes on its own waste and dies?)


According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in 1999, as the number people using Napster to illegally share music files rose, what happened to the shipments of CD albums?

  1. Decreased 50%
  2. Decreased 20%
  3. Decreased 10%
  4. Stayed the same
  5. Increased 10%

Answer: E (see this hysterical article, which hides inconvenient truth behind a lot of dire numbers about “CD singles”, a format no one cares about, and one that many consumers have never even seen.)

A hypothetical cellular carrier handles 100,000,000 calls per day. Running the network for one day costs $100,000. Trough subscription rates, customers on this network pay an average of $1 per call. The carrier testifies before Congress that, in addition to its normal traffic, each day they also have 10,000 calls made fraudulently. How much does each fraudulent call cost the carrier?

  1. $100
  2. $1
  3. Between $1 and and $0.01
  4. Less than $0.01

Answer: D.

Moral Reasoning

A lobbyist wants you to vote for something to which you are 100% opposed. How much does the lobbyist need to pay to get your vote? (Essay question.)

Well, OK, maybe I’m not the person to design the questions for this test, but the basic idea is sound. If some panel can figure out a standardized test that millions of students have to take, surely we can come up with a decent test for the legislative branch.

Morality quiz

Which of the following is the most destructive for a society:

  1. Distributing child pornography.
  2. Producing child pornography.
  3. Terrorism.
  4. Allowing minors to play violent video games.
  5. Distribution of drugs.
  6. Use of drugs.
  7. Using any of the above as an excuse to compromise the civil liberties of citizens not engaged in any of them.

If you are Canadian, your courts think the answer is “a”.

If you are British, most of your government thinks the answer is “c”.

If you are American, in the last eight years, your government has been (largely illegally) transformed to say the answer is at least c, e and f. Various citizens claim the answer is d, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary.

What’s your answer?