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Thursday 31 October 2002

Robert Flores’ Letter

Robert Flores, the guy who killed four people at the University of Arizona on Monday, sent a letter to the Arizona Daily Star telling his story. It’s 22 pages long, and I suggest reading the whole thing.

The usual suspects have been working pretty hard to demonize they guy (which shouldn’t be too hard, because he did, after all, kill four people), but what strikes me about the letter is that at least one or two of Flores’ victims seems to have had it coming. I’m not saying that these people deserved to be shot, mind you, but rather that — at least in his version of the story — he’d actually been wronged by people at the school of nursing who were just going through the motions.

He had to re-take a class due to, according to him, a stickler of an instruction who failed him on technicalities. Re-taking this class would mean postponing other classes because of a rigid school scheduling system. This would require him to stop being a full-time student for the time being, which would require him to begin paying back his student loans. Paying back these loans would not leave him with enough money to pay his child support, which would mean that his LPN license would be suspended, meaning he couldn’t work. He ultimately decided to kill the instructors he saw as the source of his problems, and then to kill himself.

That was almost certainly a bad decision, but I can certainly empathize with him. About 50% of my interactions with customer-service-type people wind up at a point where the entire problem could be simply and quickly solved with no cost or trouble to anyone — at which point I’m told that the elegant and obvious solution that presents itself just won’t work, because of “policy”. Whenever customer service mentions “policy”, you’ve got to get ready for the shaft, because the policy is never to just take care of the problem and move on.

When this happens, I usually want to kill someone. The difference between me and Mr. Flores is that 1) I resist these urges, and 2) the issues like this I’ve run into have never threatened to cast my life into ruin.

The letter is a good lesson in unintended consequences and in interpersonal communications between superiors and subordinates (i.e. instructors and students). While Flores alone was ultimately responsible for his actions, it sounds to me like he was unnecessarily and pettily hounded to a point where he felt he could no longer function.

Posted by tino at 12:35 31.10.02
Wednesday 30 October 2002

Homelessness and Markets

Today’s Post has an article, on the front page no less, headlined Exasperated Cities Move to Curb or Expel the Homeless. The immediate problem, it seems, is that the homeless population is now a serious threat to the quality of life in places like San Francisco, Santa Monica, and Madison.

It is interesting that nearly every one of the places mentioned in the article are cities known for their liberal politics.

Now, it might be — is, actually — the case that bums flock to places like these. It’s certainly more pleasant and easier to be homeless in Santa Monica than in Buffalo. And while in Madison the weather tries to kill you with predictable regularity in the winter, it’s a college town, and thus has a lot of cheap things to do, a radical-left tradition that results in lots of social services, and a deep vein of middle-class guilt to mine by panhandling.

But it goes beyond that. In much of America today, and particularly in the most liberal areas, it’s impossible to be poor. Well-meaning laws designed to replace poverty with relative prosperity have instead replaced poverty with destitution.

In San Francisco, the minimum (“living”) wage is $10 an hour. In Madison, it’s $9.34, but it only applies to certain city contracts. Voters in Santa Monica will vote on November 5 on a $12.25 minimum “living” wage.

Now, I’m not exactly arguing against paying people that much; it’s not like these are princely sums. Living in San Francisco on $10 an hour is not luxury. But I’m confused by the government’s reasoning.

The problem: City X is too expensive to live in on the minimum wage, because everything costs too much.

The solution: Raise the minimum wage, making janitors and grocery clerks more expensive to hire, thus eventually causing a rents and grocery prices to rise. Whereupon, presumably, we raise the minimum wage again, et cetera. Eventually the city gets too expensive for anyone to live in, and they all move away — except for the low-wage people with few skills, who wind up living among the ruins in some kind of post-apocalyptic quasi-urban state of nature.

Wouldn’t it be a better idea, if the government is going to meddle in this matter at all, for them to find ways to make the city more affordable? Not by doing things like building shelters and public housing — San Francisco spent $200 million last year — that’s $20,000 for each of their estimated homeless population — and homeless people famously don’t like shelters anyway. A city that simply allowed developers to build low-cost housing would see most of its homeless problem — in as much as the problem is that people don’t have homes — disappear.

But then we have to consider what low-cost housing means. ‘Low-cost housing’ isn’t even a term that’s used in the United States much. Instead, we say ‘affordable housing’, which is the first problem. If you’re Bill Gates, just about anything is ‘affordable’ housing. If you make your living by collecting tin cans, busking, and occasionally doing some manual labor, very little is affordable.

As near as I can tell, ‘affordable housing’ today means ‘housing that forty years ago would have been considered middle-class, and which is today just a cut-down version of modern middle-class housing’. The smallest house on the National Affordable Housing Network website is this one :a 900 square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath house with a good-sized eat-in kitchen and a living room.

At Affordable Housing Online, we find apartments like this one in Washington, DC: $817 a month for a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath apartment with full kitchen and wall-to-wall carpet.

Here’s a shocker: maybe poor people should not expect or be expected to live like middle-class people. Gasp! Maybe the reason poor people spend so great a chunk of their income on housing is that there’s generally no “poor” housing available, and they generally wind up in middle-class housing that they can’t really afford. You’d see the same problems with cars, if the cheapest car commonly available was a late-model Honda Accord.

The SRO (single-room-occupancy) hotel, which used to be the housing of choice for the very poor, has disappeared in most places. Cities that still have SROs generally have ordinances in place making it illegal to tear them down to convert them to other uses. Another well-intentioned plan, but one that really just ensures that nobody will ever again enter the SRO business in those cities with an idea of making a profit — even as it encourages current SRO operators to get out of that business, now a roach motel, using any loophole they can exploit.

And even if it weren’t for that, it’d probably be impossible to operate an SRO profitably these days anyway. Very few Americans with any choice will choose to live in a place where they have to share a bathroom. This means that the SRO market is pretty much limited to the poorest of the poor. But these wretches are priced out of the SRO market by zoning laws and building codes in a lot of cities. Check out these requirements for SRO housing in San Jose:

- The Single Room Occupancy (SRO) unit shall have a living room of not less than 150 square feet (13.9 m2) of superficial floor area
- The SRO unit shall be provided with a separate closet
- Every SRO unit shall be provided with a kitchen equipped with a kitchen sink; however, that single room occupancy living unit facilities and single room occupancy residential hotels may contain partial kitchen facilities so long as a sink is provided and laundry facilities and kitchen facilities are provided on each floor accessible from a public hallway

This is all apart from a bunch of other requirements that the place has to meet, like accessibility and number of bathrooms and such. All these are also high-minded ideas that result in less housing being available, but I’ve tried to focus here solely on things that go toward making the SRO more comfortable for the residents — since the point I’m trying to make is that for people who can’t afford comfort, maybe some degree of discomfort is preferable to sleeping in the rain.

But in any case an SRO room in San Jose has to be at least 10’ x 15’, it has to have a separate closet, and it has to either have a kitchen or have kitchen and laundry facilities on the same floor. I give you ‘affordable’, ladies and gentlemen.

Nobody who is in a position where an SRO looks like an attractive option is going to be able to afford to live in such a palace; and very few people who can afford it will want to live there. This is why there are no such places. The city can pass all the ordinances it likes, but it cannot will a market into being.

(See this article for a rundown of how the government tries (and fails) to deal with the problems that are the result of the market distortion caused by their initial involvement. It’s a story about the tendency of immigrants to crowd into ‘affordable’ houses, doing the only thing they can to remove those quotation marks from around ‘affordable’.)

So here’s my point, the wisdom all of this has been leading up to: poor people need someplace to live. And more to the point, they need someplace to live that they can afford.

What poor people can afford is not, generally, as nice as what middle-class or rich people can afford. This is why most poor people have some plan to stop being poor at some point, and why rich people have a plan to avoid ever being poor. Poverty is personally undesirable and societally, in too great a dose, destabilizing.

But it’s impossible to eliminate poverty by simply making the manifestations of poverty illegal. In fact, if you make the manifestations of poverty illegal — I’m thinking here mainly of SRO hotels and the like — you’re likely to perpetuate poverty The would-be-SRO-residents and eker-outers become dependent on a complicated government framework in order to keep body and soul together, a framework that actually penalizes achievement (i.e. as your wages rise, so does your rent, automatically — but you’re still living in the same crappy place).

To solve the homeless problem, it’s necessary to stop believing the fiction that the market will not provide adequate housing for all but those totally incapable of earning any money, if left to its own devices. Housing for someone whose main source of income is redeeming Pepsi cans would not be pretty, it’s true. But this non-pretty housing would be preferable, to the can-redeemer as well as to society at large, to having the guy sleeping on park benches.

Or maybe not. As long as the culture forbids appropriate accomodation to the poor, it can speak of them as having “fallen through the cracks”, i.e. that they have slipped so far down the ladder that they’re no longer even members of society. Far better for society’s conscience, then, that a bum should fall through the cracks and freeze to death on a park bench, than that he should live an unpicturesque life in an SRO, within the bounds of society.

Posted by tino at 17:51 30.10.02
Tuesday 29 October 2002

Declining Systems & Desperate Measures

The Washington Post reports that the TV ratings for this year’s World Series were at an all-time low, down 50 percent in the last 11 years.

Certainly some of this year’s performance can be attributed to the fact that it was a California series; the previous all-time low ratings were for the ‘subway series’ between the Yankees and the Mets in 2000.

“Baseball’s got to be concerned about its future,” Fox Sports Chairman David Hill told the Associated Press. “I would imagine they’ll read the writing on the wall at the very highest levels and get their house in order.” [… He] blamed the summer’s protracted labor negotiations between owners and players for part of the postseason apathy.

“Once again, baseball managed to turn off its loyal fans,” Hill said. “I hoped it would pick up when we got to the postseason. It certainly hasn’t been what I hoped it would be. Our ratings had been terrific all year. They went in the bucket when all the bristling and saber rattling started.”


Major League Baseball spokesman Rich Levin called the ratings drop part of a cycle that included an increase last season. “While there were a lot of unknown faces and that hurt in the short term, we put a lot of new faces on the national stage, and that bodes well for the future,” Levin said.

In other words, as far as Baseball is concerned, everything is fine. The team that won the World Series is up for sale because it’s a financial millstone around Disney’s neck, they’re talking about axing two teams entirely, one of the country’s largest cities (Washington) desperately wants a baseball team but can’t have one because of the greed and vanity of the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, and the All-Star game was called at 7-7 after 11 innings because… well, because that’s what the baseball honchos decided to do. But of course fan apathy is due to the fact that baseball is building for the future, and not because the sport is horribly mismanaged.

Baseball is clearly in a downward spiral, and the people currently in charge seem not only not to care, but determined not to notice.

Regular readers will notice that I don’t write about sports here much. I’m not actually writing about sports now, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.

I am writing about the tendency of large organizations — Major League Baseball, the RIAA, the airline industry, certain governments, etc. — to look everywhere but to themselves for the causes of their problems.

Low music sales are the caused by on-line piracy, not by the music industry’s extreme risk-aversion and the resulting blandness of pop music.

The airlines are in the dumps because of terrorism fears and government security requirements, not the byzantine corporate structures, antiquated business plans, high costs, and anti-competitive practices of the airlines themselves.

And social and economic misery in certain parts of the world is caused by the policies of richer countries, not corruption of the local governments.

In each of these cases, we find an entity in a position where it has a virtual license to print money, and in each case we see that entity forget that it’s making money because it’s selling something (baseball, entertainment, transport, societal stability and growth) that is relatively difficult to provide and for which there’s strong demand. The people running these organizations begin to believe that they’re making money because — well, who knows? Because they’ve been chosen by God, I suppose, but not all of them actually phrase it that way.

But God helps those who help themselves, the thinking goes, and they get greedy:

People like to watch baseball games! Let’s raise the ticket prices, charge more for the rights to televise the games, get the city to build us a new stadium, pay the players more, etc., etc., etc.! We’ll make even more money, because people like baseball, and there’s certainly no upper limit on the price they’re willing to pay!

People like boy bands and whore-of-Babylon adolescent girl performers and thumping horrible “R&B” acts and “alternative” music in one of two or three styles! Let’s concentrate on our core competencies and release lots more of that! Think of the money we’ll make by eliminating the risk of acts that aren’t the product of a focus group!

People like to travel! And they’ll still like it if they have to pay more for worse service, get treated like dirt, wait in long lines, and always feel like they’re being ripped off as a result of one of the world’s most opaque markets! Let’s keep operating as we did before deregulation, because that’s certain to still work, and result in greater profits!

I’m living large as Presidente-for-life! But I could live even larger if I squeezed the population a little more and keep the security forces happy! No successful state on earth actually works or has ever worked that way for long, I‘ll definitely be able to make it work!

What do all of these people — the Baseball owners, the music-industry honchos, the airline kings, and el Presidente, have in common? They’re totally insulated from reality. Some business failures are due to incredibly subtle factors like stock shrinkage, slight fluctuations in the weather, employee morale, customer whims, and so forth.

That’s not the case in any of these examples. All of these people are trying, as every business does, to wring as much profit as possible out of their customers. But what they’ve all done is to go over to the Dark Side of the curve — where the diminishing returns lie.

These people aren’t all complete idiots; somebody at each of the major airlines, for instance, must have noticed by now that their costs are unnecessaily high, and that squeezing their customers, rather than making their operation more efficient, is not a good idea in anything but the extremely short term.

But whatever the smart individuals inside these organizations might think, bureaucratic inertia is killing those golden-egg geese. If you were running a lemonade stand, and you were charging $8 a glass — whether you had to because you’d bought sugar at $35 a pound, or just because you were greedy — you probably wouldn’t be surprised when you didn’t sell much lemonade. You especially wouldn’t be surprised to find yourself idle if you skimped on the sugar ($35 a pound, remember) in that lemonade, and were attempting to sell watered-down lemon juice to people at those prices.

I mean, this doesn’t take a business degree to understand: people just don’t want that product at that kind of price. If you were an individual, you’d understand this. If you were a large operation, you’d probably hire consultants to reassure you that it’s someone else’s fault.

Posted by tino at 17:08 29.10.02

Busy, busy, busy

My little car has been yet more trouble, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Of course, the Jeep is making wheel-bearing noises, and the windshield wipers on two separate vehicles are now either not working or working in some funky way, and it’s cold and rainy and there are wolves after me.

I promise that there will be a rant later today, tying together the subjects of baseball, third-world dictatorships, the airline industry, and the RIAA. Anyone care to venture a guess on the common thread?

Posted by tino at 15:13 29.10.02
Wednesday 09 October 2002


So I have once again neglected this for so long that the right-hand column wraps around most unprettily. I apologize, but I have been busy. The Austin blew a head gasket, for one thing.

I have a screed all planned for tomorrow; it should appear in the afternoon unless something comes up.

Posted by tino at 01:56 9.10.02
Tuesday 01 October 2002

Tino Christmas List

$7500 is probably too much for a custom action figure, because I need more than one. I’d need normal, mild-mannered Tino; Super Tino!, with crime-fighting gadgets; Astronaut Tino; Special Forces Tino; etc.

I figure I’ll wait until you can get these things made for $100 in an hour at the mall.

Posted by tino at 21:32 1.10.02

Winona Ryder, Public Ememy #1

There’s an interesting article on National Review Online about the Winona Ryder shoplifting case, scheduled for trial Real Soon Now.

Particularly interesting is that it seems that the facts of the case are not much like anything the DA’s office has been saying.

Posted by tino at 20:25 1.10.02