Political Calculations
Unexpectedly Intriguing!
31 October 2005

Leave it to the statisticians of the U.S. Census for being able to come up with the following statistics related to Halloween in the U.S.:

36.4 million

The estimated number of potential "trick-or-treaters" — 5 to 13-year-olds - across the United States in 2004, a decline of 381,000 from 2003. Of course, many other "kids" - older than 13, and younger than 5 - also go "trick-or-treating."


Number of states that, contrary to the national trend, experienced an increase in their elementary school-age population (children between 5 and 13) between 2003 and 2004. Arizona (8,400), Nevada (7,500) and Florida (7,100) led the way, with North Carolina, Colorado and Georgia rounding out the list.

In 2004, Utah had the highest proportion of its total population in the 5-to-13 age group (14.9 percent), followed by Alaska (14.1 percent).

106 million
Number of potential stops for "trick-or-treaters," i.e., housing units occupied year-round.
998 million pounds
Total pumpkin production of major pumpkin-producing states in 2004. Illinois, with a production of 457 million pounds, led the country. Pumpkin patches in California, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York also produced a lot of pumpkins: each state produced at least 70 million pounds worth. The value of all the pumpkins produced by these states was $100 million.
Number of U.S. manufacturing establishments that produced chocolate and cocoa products in 2003. These establishments employed 43,379 people and shipped $12 billion worth of goods that year. California led the nation in the number of chocolate and cocoa manufacturing establishments, with 146, followed by Pennsylvania, with 120.
Number of U.S. establishments that manufactured nonchocolate confectionary products in 2003. These establishments employed 23,343 people and shipped $7 billion worth of goods that year. California also led the nation in this category, with 79 establishments.
25 pounds
Per capita consumption of candy by Americans in 2004; it is believed a large portion of this is consumed by kids around Halloween.
Number of formal wear and costume rental establishments across the nation in 2003.

Finally, the U.S. Census Bureau has some thoughts on where you might like to spend October 31:

Happy Halloween!

28 October 2005

The story of invention is really the story of the multitude of paths that people around the world have taken in adopting the technologies that better their lives. Through all the twists and turns, starts and stops, great leaps and tiny steps that come sometimes in parallel and sometimes through an endless tangle of possibilities, it is the paths that people are able to take that ultimately define how development happens.

Bell's Telephone In the world of innovation, some of the most entertaining stories focus on the parallel invention of the same technology by people unfamiliar with each other's work. The best example of this parallel path to the same technological development may be found in the invention of the telephone, which was simultaneously invented by Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray.

What's that? You never heard of Elisha Gray? To make a long story short, the only reason we remember Alexander Graham Bell as the sole inventor of the telephone is because he beat Elisha Gray to the U.S. Patent Office by a couple of hours to file his patent claim! Despite the huge legal battle that followed, today, when we think of the telephone, we think of Bell.

While stories of parallel development are interesting, perhaps the oddest stories in the annals of innovation and invention are those that involve the creation of a technology, which is then lost, forgotten, and then rediscovered years later by people completely unfamiliar with its original development.

Heron's Steam Engine The best example of this unusual process revolves around the original invention of the steam engine, which was first created by Heron of Alexandria in the first century A.D. The device created by Heron was truly inspired, unlike anything else that came before, but never considered to be anything but a toy with only very limited practical application.

As a result, Heron's steam engine, and its potential, was lost to the mists of time until James Watt's creation of the modern steam engine helped spark the Industrial Revolution.

Watt's development of the modern steam engine provides a good example of the more conventional path that leads to innovation, where the work of one inventor builds and improves upon the inventions that came before. Watt took an existing steam engine design, and improved it to the point where it was truly useful for doing work.

But the real question is why the contrast in the development of the two steam engines? Why was Heron's steam engine lost while Watt's steam engine became one of the lynch pins of the technological age?

The answer lies in the networks (the paths) connecting each inventor to the world in which they lived. When you consider that the Greeks had invented rail tracks in Corinth nearly 700 years before Heron's invention of his steam engine, it was literally possible for Heron or his contemporaries to go the next step and develop a working locomotive. It didn't happen because Heron's invention was essentially isolated. Neither he nor his contemporaries could make the leap from his invention to truly useful application, despite having many of the pieces that only needed to be put together.

By contrast, Watt was much more tightly linked to the other inventors and developers of his day than Heron could ever hope to be. Watt's invention was quickly disseminated, adapted for use in new applications and constantly refined and improved. It's no accident that Watt's steam engine powered the development that came afterward - it was the network of people interested in the opportunities made possible by Watt's invention that made it possible.

Recently, the question has been asked: "How will blogs change development thinking?"

The answer is by connecting a network of discrete decision-making individuals with the knowledge needed for development. Combined with the networking potential of the Internet, communication through blogs can focus development on what works, providing real-life, real-time results with little cost and allowing the results to be disseminated over the entire spread of the network at speeds unheard of in Watt's day, and unbelievable in Heron's day.

Need an example? Consider the humble zeer pot, a neat bit of technology that's proving to aid economic development in the dry climates of Africa by providing cooling without electricity. Could any centralized development planning agency produce and disseminate an equivalent low-cost solution to the need to keep fresh produce cool in underdeveloped regions of the world? Or would they be more likely to focus their efforts on grandiose plans of development that involve substantial investments in major infrastructure at great cost and with little benefit to the people their efforts are intended to help? Historically, those engaged in "development" have almost invariably pursued the latter course.

Sustainable success in development relies on the ability of individuals to adapt solutions to their own unique needs, whether in parallel with others or by building upon what's been proven to work elsewhere. They only need to know their options, and the key to enabling the exponential growth of their opportunities are the networks of development, of innovation and of knowledge available to them. In the end, the best paths to a better future run alongside the networks of individuals that create them. It is, after all, all about their own ability to improve their own lives.

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27 October 2005

The following is offered as a pure urban legend, since there is no source authenticating what magazine might have run such a contest. Still, the quotes are fun, if not necessarily real....

A magazine recently ran a "Dilbert quotes" contest. They were looking for people to submit quotes from their real life Dilbert-type managers.

Here are some of the submissions:

  1. As of tomorrow, employees will only be able to access the building using individual security cards. Pictures will be taken next Wednesday and employees will receive their cards in two weeks. (This was the winning quote from Fred Dales at Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, Washington.)
  2. What I need is a list of specific unknown problems we will encounter. (Lykes Lines Shipping)
  3. How long is this Beta guy going to keep testing our stuff? (Programming intern, Microsoft IIS development team)
  4. E-mail is not to be used to pass on information or data. It should be used only for company business. (Accounting manager, Electric Boat Company)
  5. This project is so important, we can't let things that are more important interfere with it. (Advertising/Marketing manager, United Parcel Service)
  6. Doing it right is no excuse for not meeting the schedule. No one will believe you solved this problem in one day! We've been working on it for months. Now, go act busy for a few weeks and I'll let you know when it's time to tell them. (R&D supervisor, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing/3M Corp.)
  7. My Boss spent the entire weekend retyping a 25-page proposal that only needed corrections. She claims the disk I gave her was damaged and she couldn't edit it. The disk I gave her was write-protected. (CIO of Dell Computers)
  8. Quote from the Boss: "Teamwork is a lot of people doing what 'I' say." (Marketing executive, Citrix Corporation)
  9. "How About Friday?" My sister passed away and her funeral was scheduled for Monday. When I told my Boss, he said she died so that I would have to miss work on the busiest day of the year. He then asked if we could change her burial to Friday. He said, "That would be better for me." (Shipping executive, FTD Florists)
  10. "We know that communication is a problem, but the company is not going to discuss it with the employees." (Switching supervisor, AT&T Lone Lines division)
  11. We recently received a memo from senior management saying: "This is to inform you that a memo will be issued today regarding the subject mentioned above." (Microsoft, Legal Affairs Division)
  12. One day my Boss asked me to submit a status report to him concerning a project I was working on. I asked him if tomorrow would be soon enough. He said "If I wanted it tomorrow, I would have waited until tomorrow to ask for it!" (New business manager, Hallmark Greeting Cards.)
  13. Speaking the Same Language: As director of communications I was asked to prepare a memo reviewing our company's training programs and materials. In the body of the memo one of the sentences mentioned the "pedagogical approach" used by one of the training manuals. The day after I routed the memo to the Executive committee, I was called into the HR director's office, and told that the executive vice president wanted me out of the building by lunch. When I asked why, I was told that she wouldn't stand for "perverts" (pedophilia?) working in her company. Finally he showed me her copy of the memo, with her demand that I be fired -- and the word "pedagogical" circled in red. The HR manager was fairly reasonable, and once he looked the word up in his dictionary, and made a copy of the definition to send back to her, he told me not to worry. He would take care of it. Two days later a memo to the entire staff came out - directing us that no words which could not be found in the local Sunday newspaper could be used in company memos. A month later, I resigned. In accordance with company policy, I created my resignation memo by pasting words together from the Sunday paper. (Taco Bell Corporation)
  14. I am not making this up. This gem is the closing paragraph of a nationally-circulated memo from a large communications company: "(Company name) is endeavorily determined to promote constant attention on current procedures of transacting business focusing emphasis on innovative ways to better, if not supersede, the expectations of quality!" (Lucent Technologies)

Source: Tina's Humor Archives


26 October 2005

What if a labor union operated more like an entrepreneurial business, rather than as a fundraising arm of a political party or as a rent-seeking agency?

The example of a local bricklayers union based in Oklahoma may point to how labor unions might be able to successfully rebuild their thinning ranks. Taking advantage of the housing boom that has placed skilled bricklayers in short supply, Local 5 of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers has capitalized on its ability to train new workers to meet the demand. The housing boom's increased demand for bricklayers has also created a competitive advantage for the bricklayers: their existing negotiated contracts with employers for pay and benefits is less expensive than what the businesses would have to pay for skilled non-union labor.

As a result, Local 5's president Ed Navarro has been able to buck the national trend toward less union membership, and has increased the local union's ranks. The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) describes the bricklayers turnaround:

Since Mr. Navarro took over in 1995, Local 5 of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers has expanded its membership to about 2,000 from 300. That is partly because it has taken over other, less successful locals in neighboring Arkansas and Texas. But it also reflects Mr. Navarro's strategy of focusing organization efforts on employers, not workers. "As long as the unions have something positive to offer and management has an open mind, I think there's a lot of room to grow," he says.

Time will tell if Navarro's focus on training and competitiveness will take hold in the world of organized labor. It's certainly a lesson the bosses of the AFL-CIO can afford to learn.


25 October 2005

So, who do you tip, how much, and when? Political Calculations treads these dangerous waters and offers the following (mostly serious) guidelines for answering these questions:

Tipping Guidelines
Who to Tip? (Profession) How Much? (% of Typical Service Charge, or $USD Amount) When?
Barber 100% Once a year, typically in December.
Bartender 15%. Consider more if service is exceptional. At each service.
Bus Driver Consider a small gift instead of cash. Once a year, typically in December.
Custodian $20-$30 Once a year, typically in December.
Day Care Provider $25-$70, also consider a small gift on behalf of your child. Once a year, typically in December.
Dentist 0 If recent service was exceptional, consider sending a fruit basket for office.
Doctor 0 If recent service was exceptional, consider sending a fruit basket for office.
Doorman $25-$100 Once a year, typically in December.
Dry Cleaner $5-$10 If they can get a difficult stain out of your clothing, once per occurrence.
Economist 0 Never tip an economist. It only invites a lecture on the economic theories of tipping and nobody has that kind of time.
Engineer 0 Consider giving a new high-end technology device at each major holiday instead.
Facialist 10% At each service. Also consider $10-$20 in December.
Food Delivery Man 15% At each service.
Garbage Collector $10-$20 Once a year, typically in December. Don't place tip inside garbage container.
Gardener One week's salary Once a year, typically in December.
Gym Locker Room Attendant $5-$10 Once a year, typically in December.
Hairdresser 10% At each service.
Hotel Bell Staff $1-$2 per bag handled At each service.
Hotel Concierge $5-$10 Every time they perform a task. $20 is appropriate if the task is difficult.
Hotel Doorman $1-$3 Only for hailing a taxi.
Housekeeper 1-2 week's salary Once a year, typically in December.
Mail Carrier Less than $20 Once a year, typically in December.
Maitre d' $20 At each service. If you are regularly greeted by name and provided with your preferred table, consider $50.
Manicurist 10% At each service.
Nanny 1-4 week's salary Once a year, typically in December. Also consider a small gift on behalf of your child.
News Carrier $15-$25 (for daily delivery) Once a year, typically in December.
Package Delivery $10-$20 Once a year, typically in December, if service is provided by same individual throughout the year.
Parking Garage Attendant $10-$30 Once a year, typically in December.
Personal Care Provider 1 week's salary Once a year, typically in December.
Personal Trainer 100% Once a year, typically in December.
Pest Control Service 100% Once a year, typically in December.
Pet Groomer $20 Once a year, typically in December.
Politician Varies To be perfectly honest, a 'tip' for a politician is more often called a 'bribe.' If you must, you may obtain maximum value for your 'tip' by recording the transaction, and video with excellent sound quality is essential....
Pool Cleaner 100% ($20 minimum) Once a year, typically in December.
Superintendent (Building) $30-$100 Once a year, typically in December.
Supermarket Bagger $10-$20 Once a year, typically in December.
Supermarket Butcher $10-$20 Once a year, typically in December.
Supermarket Checker $10-$20 Once a year, typically in December.
Teacher $10-$25 Once a year, typically in December. Also consider a small gift on behalf of your child.
Tour Guide $5-$10 Once per day.
Waiter 15%-20% At each service. Consider more if service is exceptional.

24 October 2005

Earlier this year, the U.S. Census Bureau issued findings from its 2002 Survey of Business Owners. The findings cover the economic and demographic characteristics of approximately 7.7 million people who own businesses with paid employees. Here are some of the highlights as noted in the Census Bureau's press release:

First, we look at the breakdown of small business owners by Gender:

Small Business Owners by Gender

Next, here is the U.S. Census' breakdown of small business owners by Race:

Small Business Owners by Race

Finally, here is the U.S. Census data showing the minimum level of educational attainment for small business owners:

Small Business Owners by Educational Attainment

Interestingly, the U.S. Census Bureau notes that 1 in 4 of Asian and Black business owners had a graduate degree, indicating that small business owners in these groups are much more likely to be highly educated, as compared to other ethnic groups.

Regardless of gender, race and educational attainment, the small business owners are very likely to put in long hours to make their business successful. The Census bureau notes that 49% of all small business owners work more than 40 hours per week managing or working in their business, and that 19% of small business owners put in 60 or more hours per week.


21 October 2005

Corporate rent-seeking behavior goes a long way in accounting for the ever-growing presence of pork-barrel legislation moving through the U.S. Congress. I thought the following excerpts from an editorial in the October 4, 2005 Wall Street Journal (via Truth About Trade and Technology) examining how the actions of a self-interested politician and the corporations who learned how to exploit the system created at the behest of lobbyists provides some really good insight into the modern political process (links added):

Tariffs for the Rich

So you want to be a millionaire? May we suggest a career in ball bearings or steel or candles.

That's our thought as we read a new report from the General Accountability Office on the Byrd Amendment, a trade rule that directs the proceeds of anti-dumping duties into the pockets of companies "injured" by foreign competition. It was named after West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, passed by Congress in 2000 and has since been ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization.

The U.S. collected $1 billion in Byrd duties from 2001 to 2004, and according to GAO, two-thirds of the payouts went to companies in just three industries: ball bearings, steel and candles. Nice work if you can get it.

But, lest you think that the money collected through the Byrd duties was evenly distributed among the hundreds of companies within these industries, the GAO report reveals a high degree of concentration in where the money went:

The report also found that nearly half of the Byrd duties ended up in the coffers of five companies. Some 38% went to ball-bearing manufacturer Timken Co. of Canton, Ohio, including two subsidiaries -- Torrington Company and MPB Corporation. Timken's take alone was $205 million. Two other companies -- Candle-lite and Zenith Electronics Corp. -- raked in 5% and 3% respectively.

Some quick math (dividing Timken's $205 million by its 38% share) reveals that the amount taken in by the Byrd duties adds up to approximately $539.5 million USD. The 5% received by Candle-lite amounts to roughly $27 million USD and the 3% received by Zenith adds up to just over $16 million USD. Quite a lot of free money if you, or rather, your stable of lobbyists, lawyers and accountants, know how the game is played:

These companies won the Byrd lottery by figuring out that payouts depend more on how many claims are filed than on whether they are valid. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is charged with collecting and disbursing the Byrd duties, has more claims than it can handle so it uses a pro-rata formula for disbursements. This, as GAO drily notes, has created "an incentive for producers to claim as many expenses as possible relative to other producers."

I think the GAO quote might well qualify as the understatement of the year. Now, let's see what Byrd's amendment has achieved in terms of changing the behavior of the companies seeking a potential windfall:

Claims skyrocketed from $1.2 trillion in 2001 to just under $2 trillion (no, that's not a typo) last year. A "more than 10-fold increase" is expected this year, says the report. Over four years, by the way, Customs has managed to verify the claims of just one of the 770 companies that received Byrd money.

That increase in claims from $1.2 trillion USD in 2001 to $2.0 trillion USD in just three years time represents an annualized growth rate of 18.56%, as determined by Political Calculations' Investing: Rate of Return tool. Funny how changing things like incentives changes behavior. But how does a self-interested politician, who is looking out for their special interests instead of the interests of those they represent, keep the unwashed masses from being able to cash in their share of the bounty?:

Byrd mischief doesn't end there. It is tilting the playing field of the U.S. economy in favor of a privileged few. The GAO says the "top recipients" of Byrd money "reported positive effects" (no kidding), but "some non-recipients said that disbursements to competitors were having negative effects on them." "Non-recipients" are companies in the "injured" industries that failed to support anti-dumping lawsuits in the first place. They are being punished for opting to compete rather than agitating for protection. Nor is there any evidence that Byrd recipients used the money to create jobs in the U.S. One Byrd recipient used his windfall to pay off his mortgage.

But let's not forget the potential for retaliation against U.S. exports. U.S. consumers could well find the things they buy becoming more expensive as a direct result of the WTO's finding that the Byrd tariff is prohibited by international trade agreements:

Finally, there's the effect on U.S. competitiveness abroad. Since Byrd violates WTO obligations, U.S. exports could be hit with retaliatory tariffs of up to $134 million based on 2004 Byrd disbursements. Canada, the European Union, Mexico, and Japan have already ordered new duties and it is possible that four other WTO members will do the same.

Like so much that goes wrong in public policy, the solution is to stop the government from doing stupid things. The Byrd amendment favors the well-heeled and connected few at the expense of everyone else. Maybe a constitutional amendment that applies to public officials along the lines of one proposed by the Skeptical Optimist could go a long way to providing the self-interested politicians with the proper incentive to focus their efforts on serving the collective best-interest of those they represent, rather than those who make sizable campaign contributions or investments in K Street lobbyists.

If you doubt that Senator Byrd is motivated by a higher level of self-interest than other politicians, you can thrust those doubts aside as you consider his many monuments to himself....

20 October 2005

A stunning example of bad math has recently been given attention by University of Chicago PhD candidate Ngan Dinh (HT: Cyberlibris.) Here is the anonymous mathematical proof that girls are evil:

Girls Are Evil Mathematical Proof, by Ngan Dinh

As the mathematically literate among Political Calculations' readers have already seen, the proof runs off the tracks in the second line, as the author states that girls require time *and* money, which suggests addition, but the author instead writes that Girls are the product of Time and Money. Multiplication instead of addition. No wonder that the final result, "Girls = Evil," is simply wrong.

Here's how the problem should have been solved:

First, we state that girls require time and money:

Girls = Time + Money

And, as we all know, "Time is Money":

Time = Money


Girls = Money + Money = 2*Money

From which we conclude that Girls require twice as much money as you might otherwise think they do. Also, recognizing the equivalence of Time and Money, we also find that:

Girls = 2*Time

From which we may also conclude that Girls require twice as much time as well.

QED. Now we just need Steven Levitt (also of the University of Chicago) to back up the mathematical proof with some Freakonomics-style empirical evidence.


19 October 2005

Transparency International has released their 2005 Corruption Perception Index, which examines the extent to which corruption threatens confidence and increases the costs of business in the nations of the world. The following map shows how the various nations ranked, with the lightest shaded countries representing the least corrupt and the darkest-shaded countries the most corrupt (countries shaded in gray have no report):

The World of Corruption (Lightest = Least, Darkest = Most

The impact of corruption cannot be understated. Even the notoriously inept and itself-corrupt United Nations recognizes that corruption "affects the poor disproportionately," and is instrumental in "creating inequalities that violate their human rights."

For poor nations, the impact of corruption upon their economic development is well established: the investment that supports economic development is routed away from corrupt nations. As a result, nations that are both poor and have a high degree of public corruption bear a double burden - they lack the capital necessary to alleviate their own poverty and also lack the ability to attract it. Consequently, the people of these nations are condemned to live in poverty and all the afflictions that come with it.

(HT: Pablo Halkyard of PSD Blog)

See more at the New Economist, who summarizes the reports findings and focuses upon some of the worst nations. Not to be missed is the New Economist's summary of a related transparency index being developed by the World Bank. (Political Calculations offers a "Do-It-Yourself" checklist based upon the World Bank's proposed index for evaluating whether the government of your interest has instituted basic good governance practices.


18 October 2005

De welkom lezers van de Sprout!

Derek Sivers says that without execution, even the best idea isn't worth very much. (HT: Rob at BusinessPundit). He even has a method for determining the potential value of an idea:

To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.



SO-SO- EXECUTION = $10,000
GREAT EXECUTION = $1,000,000

To make a business, you need to multiply the two.

The most brilliant idea, with no execution, is worth $20.
The most brilliant idea takes great execution to be worth $20,000,000.

As regular readers know, when that kind of math shows up, Political Calculations(TM) simply can't resist it! Here is the tool for evaluating how much an idea combined with the expected level of execution is potentially worth:

Idea and Execution Quality Ratings
Quality Type Rating
Idea Quality
Execution Quality
Potential Value
Estimated Results Values
Potential Value of the Idea ($USD)

The hard thing to do is to determine how an individual will execute when given the chance. This difficulty is the reason why people without good track records of execution routinely get shot down when they try to raise capital to support their ideas. If you've got the track record, odds are you'll get what you need to make your idea happen.

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17 October 2005

John Hussman, the PhD manager of the Hussman Strategic Growth Fund (HSGFX), writes a weekly market commentary for his fund (HT: Moneywise at The Real Returns). His August 29, 2005 commentary offered a bold prediction: a 40-year forecast for the S&P 500 Index:

I've gone ahead and calculated the long-duration forecast for the S&P 500 versus its actual total return for every period since the late 1930's. Even for very long horizons, the projection performs well, generally within 2% of the true annual return. Notice that the horizon of each forecast is simply the duration of stocks at the time, so what you're seeing on the chart are forecasts that have ranged from less than 20 years to more than 60 years in duration (the longest-duration one, unfortunately, being the one at the 2000 market peak). At present, we've got a projected long-term total return for the S&P 500 of about 7.8% annually for a probable duration of about 40 years, even making the fairly optimistic assumption that the market's P/E multiple will not contract in the future.

This sounds like he did quite a bit of work, but sadly, work that was wholly unnecessary if he would have just simply assumed that the next 40 years for the S&P 500 Index would look like its last 105 years. Here's Political Calculations' chart showing the extremes of the rates of return for the S&P 500 Index for holding periods ranging from 1 to 105 years, along with the average rates of return for each of these holding periods from 1900 through 2004, which shows the average approximate rate of return for just about every holding period to be, drum roll please, 7.8% when rounded to one decimal place:

S&P 500 Average and Extreme Returns for Various Holding Periods

The bottom line? Predicting an average annual return of 7.8% in the S&P 500 Index over the next 40 years might appear to be a bold prediction, but in reality, is not exactly going out on a limb. Those considering investments in the HSGFX fund might like to take that into consideration in evaluating Hussman's money management prowess.

14 October 2005

Well, now you've done it. You've loaded up your credit card, and money is so tight that you can only make the minimum payments on the bill. Do you have any idea how long it will take to pay it down? (Assuming, that is, you don't go right back out and start charging it back up again.)

Political Calculations(TM) doesn't know either, but at least we have the tool to do the math for you. Enter your data in the fields below, including the information from your credit card issuer outlining what their minimum payment percentage and their minimum fixed payment amount, and we'll tell you just how long you'll be credit indentured servitude (for the record, we stop the calculations at 100 years, which we justify by assuming that the debt is fully paid by your heirs in settling your estate....)

Your Credit Card Debt Information
Input Data Values
Initial Amount Owed ($USD)
Interest Rate (%)
Minimum Payment (Percentage of Amount Owed)
Absolute Minimum Payment - Fixed Amount ($USD)

Credit Card Payment Data
Calculated Results Values
Accrued Interest
Number of Minimum Payments
Number of Years to Fully Pay Down Debt
Total Amount of Payments

Obviously, you want to avoid this situation - outside of not racking up debt on your credit cards, your best bet is to make payments substantially above the minimum level.

Also, if you'd like to see how long it would take to pay down your credit card to zero for a given amount of money per month, change the Minimum Payment percentage to zero, and enter your arbitrary payment amount for the Absolute Minimum Payment fixed amount in the tool.

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13 October 2005

The following workplace calculation from Political Calculations' archives was written around 1960. It's funny to see that that while the numbers have changed, the final math results still manage to be true today!

The population of the United States was 180 million at the time of writing, but there are 64 million over 60 years of age, leaving 116 million to do the work.

People under 21 total 59 million which leaves 57 million people to do the work.

Because of the 31 million government employees, there are only 26 million left to do the work.

Six million in the armed forces leave twenty million workers.

Deduct 17 million State, county, and city employees, and we are left with three million to do the work.

There are 2,500,000 people in hospitals, asylums, and treatment facilities leaving half a million workers.

However, 450,000 of these are bums or others who will not work, leaving 50,000 to do the work.

Now, it may interest you to know that there are 49,998 people in jail so that leaves just 2 people to do all the work, and that is you and me, and I'm getting tired of doing everything myself!


12 October 2005

One of the great things about regularly using blogs for reviewing news and events, at least as compared to mainstream news outlets, is that you will eventually find yourself well ahead of the information curve.

This is especially true for the televised broadcast and print versions of MSM news outlets, which can lag by weeks in coverage of items of interest (if ever), but less so for radio broadcast outlets which range from being current to lagging by several days. Compared to the lumbering of a TV news-gathering operation or the medieval pace of a modern newspaper newsroom, radio has an immediacy the others lack, plus the advantage of being able to be absorbed while the audience is engaged in other activities (such as driving a car), but still, even radio doesn't compare to what blogs have achieved in disseminating complex information to a wide and influential audience over their short existence.

In short, you can get a better, more accurate picture of current events through blogs and other online sources faster than you can through the old MSM outlets. Better, in that you can get perspective from a multitude of discrete witnesses of the events in question, rather than just a handful filtered by the bureaucratic layers that dominate MSM newsrooms. More accurate, in that the information cycle is fast enough in the blogosphere to allow for corrections of mistakes to be noted and disseminated to a wide audience in minutes and hours, and not the days or weeks later typical of major MSM news outlets, if they even acknowledge the errors.

For those blogging about current events, this advantage in information provides a unique platform for being able to influence decisions. Some examples:

InstaPundit's Glenn Reynolds, a law-school professor, can ignite a campaign to strike pork-barrel spending from the federal budget to free funding to support disaster relief efforts with just handful of keystrokes.

A blog about shoes can influence purchasing decisions, and catapult the otherwise anonymous blogger into a six-figure income.

Heck, even a simple question asked by a little read blog might change people's driving habits.

The world of information is changing, and those who blog, along with those who read them, are changing it through the competitive advantage that comes from being ahead of the information curve. Today, they're reshaping the market for information - turning it away from the long-established outlets of the old media to the new information markets of the blogosphere. The only guarantee is that tomorrow's market for information will look very different from what we see today.

11 October 2005

One of the unintended consequences of the regulations put into place upon publicly-traded companies by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, aside from the dramatic increase in the cost of SEC compliance for the companies whose stock is traded on the nation's equity markets, is the corresponding desire by smaller companies to avoid these increased costs by taking their companies private.

These companies have a clear bottom-line incentive for delisting their stock from public exchanges - but what about individual investors? Is there a way that the Average Joe can profit from these companies' decisions?

Bill Mann of the Motley Fool explains how small-fry investors can gain from delisting, with the example of using ASA International, which ceased being publicly-traded in 2004:

Here's the trick: Find a company that is going private by cashing out its shareholders. Last year, for example, ASA International elected to delist its stock, which at the time traded on the Nasdaq. To delist, companies must file reams of paperwork with the SEC, but they can avoid doing so if they have less than 300 shareholders. So ASA determined that if it did a reverse split of its stock at 600:1 and then cashed out anyone with partial shares, it would get rid of enough shareholders to delist. It announced that it would cash people out at $5 per share. After ASA had cleared out the rabble, it would re-split its now-unlisted stock at 600:1.

Now, you might presume that the moment ASA announced that it was going private at $5, its share price would pin itself within a few pennies of that price. You'd be wrong. This is a tiny company, without much liquidity (which is why being public no longer made sense), so selling shareholders exited the company at prices as low as $4.25 after the company had announced that it would essentially cash small shareholders out at $5.

Note how government regulations influenced not just ASA International's decision to delist its stock, but also its delisting strategy. In this case, the SEC regulation that greatly increased the amount of paperwork that would be required to delist the stock (and thereby the cost of doing so) if there were 300 or more stockholders, determined the shape of the deal.

But between the government's arcane regulations, there is opportunity for profit. In the ASA International example, it would be possible to gain up to 75 cents per share in a short period of time. If you held 599 shares, just under the 600-share threshold qualifying your shares to be cashed out, you could pocket just over $449. In the short time between the delisting announcement and the execution date, an individual could get a double-digit rate of return on their investment with substantially little risk.

There are downsides involved with this strategy too. These potential downfalls include:

  • The deals typically involve small companies, so the amount of the money to be made is small, at best.
  • The number of companies delisting varies widely from year-to-year. This variability makes the ability to make money using this strategy on a regular basis unpredictable.
  • The company's delisting arrangements may be complicated. Thorough due diligence is required to avoid being potentially burned by conditions that may affect the company's delisting plans.
  • The amount of time required for a company to delist its stock may make the investment undesirable from an opportunity cost standpoint.
  • The company may fail in its bid to go private.
  • Transaction costs, such as commissions, may take up a substantial portion of your potential gain.

Still, if you're willing to do your homework, there are opportunities out there to be had in this investing niche.

10 October 2005

As you might have long suspected from Political Calculations' occasional contrary take on business, management and worklife in general, one of our favorite web sites is Despair.com. Part of the sheer genius of the site, which is primarily known for its line of Demotivational products, is a new book that concisely focuses on how to unleash the power of demotivation in the workplace: The Art of Demotivation. The following excerpt is from the book's chapter on Compensation: Making Pay Fair, and illustrates the Demotivational Philosophy in setting fair compensation practices:

Wage Earners. This is the largest group in your organization. Therefore, your goal is to pay them as little as possible. They are the flotsam and jetsam of the economic system and overpaying them is likely to turn the pristine shores of your organization into a debris field of employees who were forced to wald the plank by your competitors. Turnover in this group will be high if they are offered a position with a competitor before they have had a chance to be demotivated. This is okay, though, because turnover in this group is as necessary as the process of elimination is for the body.

Managers with little or not chance of becoming executives. These employees have proven their value to the organization and their compensation plan should have two primary goals: First, to leverage their knowledge, skills, and abilities to increase the productivity of the wage earners who work for them, and second, to give them a reason to be interested in the long term success of the organization.

Managers with a chance of becoming executives. The compensation plan for these employees is a mentoring program as much as it is anything else. These employees should be exposed to many of the sources of compensation experienced by executives, though at a dramatically lower level, so that they can learn to handle the burdens of wealth.

Executives. Executive compensation has three fundamental goals: (1) to express appreciation for leadership; (2) to reduce as much as possible the temptation posed by executive recruiters; and (3) to provide access to the symbols of wealth and power.

Not to be missed at the site, thoughts on:

There's so much more. Go see!

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07 October 2005

Political Calculations(TM) thought it might be interesting to go back into the Economic Freedom of the World 2005 Annual Report (available as a 1.96MB PDF document) to highlight the biggest movers in the index over the past twenty years, or at least from 1985 through 2003. First, here are the countries with the biggest overall changes in their Economic Freedom Index (EFI) scores:

Economic Freedom of the World Index's Biggest Movers
Country EFI 1985 Score EFI 2003 Score Change
Brazil 3.2 5.9 2.7
El Salvador 4.0 7.2 3.2
Ghana 2.5 6.2 3.7
Iceland 5.1 7.7 2.6
Jamaica 4.3 6.9 2.6
Myanmar 4.1 3.1 -1.0
Nicaragua 1.7 6.3 4.6
Peru 2.9 6.9 4.0
Poland 3.4 6.1 2.7
Tanzania 3.4 6.3 2.9
Uganda 2.5 6.5 4.0
Venezuela 6.3 4.3 -2.0
Zambia 3.4 6.7 3.3
Zimbabwe 4.6 3.3 -1.3

Now, let's go into the report's appendices to find where they've really changed! The countries with the greatest changes in their scores the overall index have been highlighted in green (for the greatest positive change) and in red (for the greatest negative change):

Changes in Major EFI Components for the Big Movers
Country Size of Government Legal Structure Sound Money International Trade Regulation
Brazil +1.2 +1.2 +7.0 +3.7 +0.5
El Salvador +2.3 +2.3 +4.1 +3.7 +0.6
Ghana +0.7 +2.3 +5.0 +5.3 +1.5
Iceland +0.1 +1.3 +7.3 +1.1 +2.4
Jamaica +2.3 +1.6 +5.0 +0.7 +0.4
Myanmar +3.5 -1.8 -4.6 +0.2 +0.2
Nicaragua +2.7 +0.3 +9.0 +5.1 +2.8
Peru +2.1 +1.8 +9.7 +3.9 +2.4
Poland +2.0 +0.4 +3.7 +3.2 +2.2
Tanzania +1.4 -0.5 +4.3 +3.0 +3.5
Uganda +3.1 +1.6 +9.0 +3.1 +1.4
Venezuela -1.0 -3.9 -2.6 -0.7 -1.3
Zambia +4.3 +1.5 +3.9 +2.1 +1.8
Zimbabwe +1.1 -0.3 -4.8 -1.3 -0.9

What the Changes Mean

Size of Government

Size of Government takes into account such factors as the amount of government spending, taxation and consumption of resources made by goverment entities relative to the overall size of a nation's economy. By and large, the greater the ratio of goverment spending to overall economic activity in a nation's economy, the more political choice is being substituted for individual and market choice in the decisions of how scarce resources will be allocated. A positive change indicates that government is playing a smaller role in these decisions, while a negative change indicates increasing government intrusion into economic decisions.

Legal Structure

Legal Structure examines the degree to which independent, impartial institutions exist for resolving disputes, particularly those between government entities and individuals or private businesses. Another important aspect of Legal Structure centers on the security of the property rights of individuals, households and businesses, including intellectual property. A positive change indicates the country is strengthening its support for developing these institutions and rights, while a negative change indicates that these institutions and rights are under increasing attack.

Sound Money

Sound Money measures to what degree individuals and businesses are able to trust the currency in which they trade, and whether they are able to access more stable currencies. Here, factors such as the nation's rate of inflation and its corresponding volatility, the growth rate of its money supply with respect to its real economic growth, and whether individuals and business are free to own foreign currency bank accounts both in and out of the country. A positive change in this category indicates that individuals and businesses are increasingly able to enjoy low inflation with relatively stable prices, and are able to access sound money in the international market. A negative change indicates that individuals, households and businesses are increasingly unable to access sound money.

International Trade

International Trade looks at the barriers to being able to freely trade across national borders. Factors that produce a positive change in this category include lowering tariffs (or taxes on international trade), increasingingly efficient processing of traded items through customs, an easily convertible currency and fewer restrictions on the movement of capital. A negative change in this category suggests that the nation is raising barriers to free trade.


Regulation considers the effects of how the rules governing credit, labor and business practices restrict the ability of new participants to enter into a market or otherwise interfere with voluntary exchanges between parties. A positive change indicates that the country is reducing its regulatory barriers, while a negative change suggest that the countriy is increasingly using regulatory barriers to limit the entry into markets by potential competitors or to substantially increase the cost of individuals and businesses in conducting economic activity.

The Biggest Movers

Of the biggest movers, Nicaragua has improved the most since 1985, while Venezuela has fallen the furthest. It would seem that the presence of Marxist-inspired leaders in power (Nicaragua in 1985, Venezuela today) presents what may be the greatest barrier to promoting the economic freedom of a country's people.


06 October 2005

English is truly a world language, with signs in English popping up worldwide. The only problem with that is that sometimes, something gets lost in translation. Here are some examples of those English signs in foreign countries:

Seen in a cocktail lounge in Norway:


Seems like a reasonable request.

At a doctor's office in Rome:


Perhaps the busiest doctor in all of Italy....

On a road outside of Nairobi:


And in a restaurant in Nairobi:


The following sign was seen in a restaurant, but there's no word on where the restaurant might be. Based on the trend, my guess is that it must be the one in Nairobi again:


You know, that might explain the disposition of the waitresses and the manager - what with having to slosh their way to work and work seven days a week and weekends, all just to serve you the finest cuisine in Nairobi, you ingrate.

Finally, in a hotel in Japan:


We'll have to ask Roger L. Simon about his recent trip....


05 October 2005
2005 Female Economist of the Year Susanna Francke: Destined for a dead-end government job in Sweden?

Here's one for the "who'd-a-thunk?" files: Working women are substantially worse off in Sweden than in the United States!

That's the surprising result of research by London School of Economics sociologist Catherine Hakim, whose findings are presented in the 2004 book Key Issues in Women's Work (HT: Dissecting Leftism.)

The findings of Hakim's econometric study contradict much of the conventional wisdom regarding Sweden's perceived "family-friendly" social policies and their role in promoting the feminist goal of "gender equity." The UK-based Guardian's Joanna Moorhead reveals the contradiction in her interview with Hakim:

What we all expect - but what is never actually said - about Sweden and countries such as Norway and Denmark is that because they have such a forward-thinking attitude to the needs of working parents, women have a much better deal, are able to work more effectively and to progress better. Wrong, wrong and wrong again, says Hakim. "Swedish women don't have it made - they still end up paying a price in terms of their career or employment. What you find, if you look closely at the figures, is that there is a pay threshold in Nordic countries below which are 80% of all women, and above which are 80% of all men.

Hakim notes that this workplace segregation by sex goes all the way up the corporate ladder in Sweden, especially when compared to the U.S.:

"What is more, the glass ceiling problem is larger in family-friendly Sweden than it is in the hire-and-fire-at-will US, and it has also grown as family-friendly policies have expanded. In Sweden 1.5% of senior management are women, compared with 11% in the US."

Worse, Sweden's "family-friendly" social policies are so expensive that private companies can't afford them. As a result, Hakim notes another layer of segregation is imposed upon working Swedish women, one that limits where they may even find work:

75% of Swedish women are working in the public sector - traditionally the lower-paid, lower-qualified end of the employment market - while 75% of men are working in the racier, more demanding private sector. What has happened through the years of family-friendly policies, she says, is that private companies have reduced their number of female employees because they can't afford the cost of the generous maternity packages.

One wonders if those who continually advocate for policies like these that inevitably produce the very opposite of their intended effects have any real grounding at all. Then again, what are the odds that they actually care?

About the Picture

It's 2005 Female Economist of the Year Susanna Francke of the Stockholm School of Economics. (HT: Newmark's Door). Only time will tell if she's headed for a dead-end public-sector job in Sweden....

04 October 2005

Perhaps the single best commentary ever on the subject of politicians and bureaucrats and how, because they lack the proper incentives, they're not looking out for you, recently appeared at Mark Steckbeck's The Liberal Order. The key questions are asked in the introduction (emphasis mine):

As a society we have a coordination problem: How are resources allocated such that the results best improve the human condition? In other words, how can we devise a system that makes the most people the happiest? Without delving into the philosophical aspects of this question, especially with respect to utilitarianism versus rights, the coordination problem is essentially an information problem and an incentive problem.

The information problem arises because it is decentralized, and consequently no one individual or group of individuals has the information necessary to discern what people actually want and who can provide it at the least possible cost. In other words, how can we coordinate the efforts of heterogeneous individuals with disparate tastes and talents, the knowledge of which is not available to any individual or group of individuals? Who produces what and who gets what?

The incentive problem arises because even if there existed an omniscient individual with the relevant information required to make such precise calculations, what incentive does he have to get it right? Why should we believe that he’ll serve the public’s interest and not simply his own?

Read the rest....

03 October 2005

Ronald Wirtz, writing in the September 2005 issue of Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis' The Region asks a very compelling question: "Just how effective is our expanding public system for helping dislocated workers?" The question is near and dear my heart since I went through the dislocation experience following the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the commercial aerospace industry.

The "dislocated" workers to whom Wirtz refers are those who have become unemployed through external circumstances, and specifically applies to those who have been permanently laid off from their previous jobs. Wirtz notes the majority thinking among economists of the economic benefits of layoffs:

While the immediate effect of layoffs on individual households is surely great, most economists argue that such job dislocations are actually a backdoor wellspring of economic growth. Layoffs allow the economy to reallocate resources (including labor) from mature, declining firms and industries to growing, healthy ones. This job churn—the many jobs lost, and new ones found—ultimately makes the U.S. economy more competitive and, in turn, prosperous.

The challenge though is getting from the job lost to the job found, and that's where the federal government is playing an expanding role, focusing on providing three types of services: insuring wages, job seeking and new skill training.

Wage Insurance

The U.S. government has largely dominated the service of providing wage insurance since 1935, when Unemployment Insurance was first created by the U.S. Congress. Under this program, dislocated workers can receive either 50% of their previous weekly pay, or $500 (whichever is less) for 26 weeks. Despite being funded by taxes on every business payroll, less than 40% of workers eligible for the program claim benefits.

Job Seeking

Dislocated workers have a lot more options when it comes to finding job seeking services. Wirtz notes both the private and public resources available for matching workers to the available jobs requiring their existing skills (links added):

Workers in need of other job services—specifically, search and training—will find a variety of private and public options at their disposal. For example, job Web sites like Monster.com have exploded with the advent of the Internet, complementing traditional job-search standbys like networking and newspaper ads. Private staffing agencies (otherwise known as temp firms) also help unemployed workers find their way to the next job, working as something of a headhunter for employers in need of labor.

On the public side, myriad government programs help workers search for and obtain new jobs. This safety net is truly a bureaucratic morass of programs, resource streams and guidelines. Funding is modest at best and, it turns out, so are results—likely one reason that the majority of workers bypass such programs.

I fully agree with the author's assessment of the government job seeking programs - in my experience, they simply do not add any significant value for dislocated workers who can access the private system. This is partly due to the bundling of government job-matching programs, in which dislocated workers (who possess significant training or education) are lumped in various job searching programs with people who are practically unemployable as they lack skills or education, and in some cases, those who have problems that may immediately exclude them from serious consideration for employment, such as substance abuse or serious mental illness. If you ever find yourself unemployed, never, never, ever spend more than the minimal amount of time that you are required to in a government job placement office.

New Skill Training

In 1998, the U.S. Congress revamped its existing job training programs to benefit dislocated workers through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which allows those workers who are unable to find work in their field to qualify for new job skill training programs. Under the WIA program, local job placement offices are managed by government employees and local business owners and executives, who direct eligible dislocated workers to job training programs for which employers in their area have indicated that they are seeking employees:

The WIA has also made what many consider a useful—and long overdue—shift to a demand-responsive approach to training and service in general, which in essence shifts the focus of service from what workers request to what employers need.

The problem with this aspect of the job training program lies in its forecasting of job needs. Wirtz provides an example of this using the demand for medical transcriptionists:

Mike Goldman, the dislocated worker liaison for the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said via e-mail that job forecasting itself is something of a crapshoot. Given that many large employers are focused on short-term objectives like quarterly earnings and stock prices “rather than thoughtful long-term plans and commitments, it is not surprising that the crystal ball for forecasting future [job] demand is less than perfect.”

He pointed out that less than five years ago, medical transcriptionist was projected to be a growth occupation. With Internet and other computer technology, though, “these positions are being eliminated by more and more medical providers,” as doctors and nurses either do the work themselves or outsource it. While some projections are pretty reliable—like increasing demand for healthcare workers—the rate of change is so rapid in many fields that five- and 10-year projections “are likely to miss the mark.”

But, aside from predicting what skills will be required in the future, how much more likely is a dislocated worker who receives new job skill training than one who just goes through the government's core and intensive job placement services? The following table illustrates the results for 2003:

How Effective are WIA Job Training Services?
Employment Data Individuals who Received Training Services Individuals who Received Job Searching Services
Rate of Entering Employment 82.8% 80.6%
Employment Retention Rate 90.7% 89.5%
Earnings Replacement Rate 91.2% 90.0%
Source: Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Deptartment of Labor

Reviewing the table, it appears that the new skill training doesn't provide a large increase in the rates of returning dislocated workers to the workforce, keeping them there once they are re-employed or in replacing their previous level of earnings.

The WIA programs are inefficient in how they use money for training, often using their allocated funds for overhead expenses rather than providing access to training services:

Two industry experts—one a state official, the other a private consultant, both of whom asked not to be identified—pointed out that programs are often heavy in infrastructure (like staffing and office space), leaving little money for training. The state source pointed out that retraining costs per job placement can reach into the thousands (averaging $4,500 in the source's state), despite the fact that many clients typically received just three to four weeks worth of training. “You know those people aren't getting that [full monetary] amount of training. ... It's ridiculously expensive."

From my own perspective, while the various programs funded by the government aren't terribly effective or efficient, there really isn't an alternative available in the private sector for providing either wage insurance or new skill training, particularly for those workers dislocated by unexpectedly large shocks in the economy which reshape entire industries and regions, such as the September 11 terrorist attacks or Hurricane Katrina. It may be though that the best insurance for individuals against being unemployed is to develop multiple skills, with at least one that can be put to work somewhere in short order. That's what the freedom of self-reliance is really all about.

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01 October 2005

The U.S. blood supply continues to benefit strongly from the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, with the available stocks at blood centers well ahead of where they were at the same time last year. The following charts from America's Blood Supply, which covers roughly 50% of U.S. blood supply, show the overall trend:

The first chart shows the 90-Day Inventory, as of September 27, 2005. In the chart, Green indicates the reporting centers have a supply sufficient to last 3-days or longer. Yellow indicates the reporting centers have a supply that may last for up to 2-days. Red indicates the reporting centers are in danger of running out of blood in 1-day or less. Black indicates the number of centers that haven't reported their supply level:

U.S. Blood Supply: 09-27-2005

The response to the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina is clearly demonstrated in the following charts, all of which show dramatic year-over-year increases in the availability of adequate blood supplies throughout the U.S. The first chart shows the year-over-year comparison for the number of blood centers reporting that they have a 3-day or greater supply:

U.S. Blood Supply, Year over Year, Centers with 3-Days or Greater Supply

The next chart shows the year-over-year comparison for the number of reporting blood centers that have a blood supply capable of lasting 2-days - here, the good news is that the percentage of centers reporting this level is far lower than in the previous year:

U.S. Blood Supply - Year over Year Centers with 2-Day Supply

The next chart shows the year-over-year comparison for the number of reporting blood centers that have a blood supply capable of lasting 1-day or less. As with the chart showing the percentage of reporting centers with a 2-day supply, the lower level of centers reporting a 1-day supply is dramatically less than in the previous year:

U.S. Blood Supply - Year over Year Centers with 1-Day Supply

The only question now is how long can the Katrina-effect be sustained before the supply levels drop back to previous year (normal?) levels. The increased level of blood donations began almost concurrently with the hurricane, so it will be interesting to see how well U.S. blood centers do in convincing those who came forward to donate blood in Katrina's aftermath to do so again. A healthy individual can donate blood again in as little as eight weeks time.

Previously on Political Calculations

To Donate Blood

Visit the American Red Cross' Give Life web site to find a blood drive or to make an appointment to give blood at a site near you!

About Political Calculations

Welcome to the blogosphere's toolchest! Here, unlike other blogs dedicated to analyzing current events, we create easy-to-use, simple tools to do the math related to them so you can get in on the action too! If you would like to learn more about these tools, or if you would like to contribute ideas to develop for this blog, please e-mail us at:

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