Music Hath Charms

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“What is the soundtrack of your life?”

Shedrick “B,” an inmate presenter at the TEDx Sing Sing I helped organize a few years ago, asked that question of the audience of 100 or so civilians and inmates. He went on to explain that music has the power to transport him back to certain moments in his life: holding hands with his first girlfriend, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, Christmas Eve with his family, being booked for the crime that landed him in prison. When he hears the songs he remembers, he returns to those moments, good and bad.

With the invention of the MP3 player and iPhone, music could indeed become the soundtrack of our lives. Suddenly we had instant access to thousands of songs that used to be piled in a shoebox or stored in the wrong jewel case in a closet back home. And with music-streaming platforms like Pandora, we have access to thousands more songs that we haven’t even purchased. We can listen to music when we’re walking, driving, biking, talking, waiting, even sleeping. When I go hiking, the station I select — sometimes upbeat ’60s, sometimes a mellow Coldplay, sometimes classical or Broadway or hymns — controls my mood and thus my experience. It was inevitable that a movie would take that ubiquity and turn it into a giant of a movie. That movie is Baby Driver.

Baby isn’t just skilled; he’s a veritable savant, and we barely hang onto our seats as he hightails the robbers through the streets of Atlanta.

Other films have toyed with the concept; Woody Allen is known for the jazz pieces he selects for his soundtracks. Music stands out in Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the protagonist in Guardians of the Galaxy (also 2014), listens to an ’80s mix tape his mother made for him as he gathers the energy to save the universe. The soundtrack was the best part of Guardians, and fans couldn’t wait to hear the selections for Guardians Vol. 2. Even calling it “Volume 2,” like an album, instead of “Part 2,” like a movie, acknowledges the importance of the music as a main ingredient of the franchise’s popularity.

But music isn’t just the soundtrack of Baby Driver; it’s the driving force. Baby (Ansel Elgort) can’t function unless his earbuds are delivering exactly the right playlist of high-octane music to his brain, even when his life depends on getting the hell out of there now. Baby is the highly skilled getaway driver for the mastermind, called Doc (Kevin Spacey), behind a series of bank and post office heists. He isn’t just skilled; he’s a veritable savant, and we barely hang onto our seats as he hightails the robbers through the streets of Atlanta while dodging cars, cops, and bullets. The music is perfectly synchronized with the actions and gestures of the characters, even when they’re sitting around a table having a conversation. It all creates the sense that we’re watching a choreographed concert as much as a movie.

Despite his childlike name, Baby is cooler than cool. No matter how many times he loses his sunglasses (or someone takes them) he has another pair in his pocket to replace them. He carries multiple iPods loaded with music for any occasion, and he doesn’t flinch when his life is endangered. When he isn’t driving like a stunt man, he’s running through streets and leaping over benches and stairs like a parkour expert.

Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) heightens the fun with unexpected edits and background details. As Baby leaps through the streets to a chorus of “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” the word “Yeah” is seen spray-painted on three successive trees, exactly in time to the music. In the window of the bank that’s being robbed, we see a poster advertising college loans — a kind of bank robbery itself, and a life sentence for many students who get in over their heads. When Baby is at a laundromat, the clothes cycling around in the dryer become a 45 record spinning us into the next scene. Baby uses sign language to communicate with his rheumy-eyed foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) who looks blind, not deaf.

When he isn’t driving like a stunt man, he’s running through streets and leaping over benches and stairs like a parkour expert.

We soon learn that Baby isn’t really a bad guy at heart. He’s gentle and thoughtful with Joseph. He’s in love with a sweet young waitress (Lily James), who is just as anxious to blow this town and start a new life as he is. But he owes a debt to Doc, the cool and sadistic mastermind, and he has to do one last job to be free of the debt. If you know anything at all about film scripts, you know that the words “one last job” can be deadly.

So Baby is enlisted for one last heist, driving Doc’s newly organized team (John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Elza Gonzalez); as expected, things begin to go deliciously, suspensefully wrong. Baby takes a few wrong turns and a few right ones as he tries to extricate himself from Doc’s employ while protecting the two people he loves — and always with exactly the right music and the right pair of sunglasses to motivate him for the job. In my opinion the film jumps the shark toward the end, when a glaring red haze demonizes a particular character and culminates in the virtual fires of hell, but I can forgive that over-the-top indulgence. The entire film is over the top, and that’s what’s keeping it at the top of the box office. Baby Driver is a winner from the word “Go.”




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Worker’s Rights Advance, Under the Radar

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In the firestorm of news reports surrounding President Trump’s nominees and Russia’s hacking, some great news about workers’ rights has been overlooked. But in January, without any fanfare, Kentucky adopted a right-to-work (RTW) law.

An RTW law simply gives workers in any business where the workers are unionized the right not to support (i.e., join or pay dues to) the union. Without RTW laws, unions can and often do compel workers to join or support them in spite of their desires. While the right to join a union is protected by federal law, the right to refuse to join is not so protected. It is up to the states to pass RTW laws, and counting Kentucky, 27 states have now done so.

The Kentucky House of Representatives first passed the measure by a vote of 58–39. What allowed this to happen was a massive recent historical change: the Republicans took control (by a nearly 2-to-1 margin) of the chamber, which had been controlled by Democrats for nearly a century. Shortly thereafter the bill was passed by the Republican-controlled Senate, in a rare Saturday session, and the Governor — Matt Bevin, also a Republican — immediately signed it into law.

Short-term, this was a fabulous deal for the auto workers, giving them a seemingly crazy amount of job security. But in the long run, it drove the automakers off a fiscal cliff.

The reaction to this by Kentucky union leaders was predictably bitter. Bill Londrigan, head of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, angrily barked, “Right-to-work is simply a clever slogan designed to undermine union resources.” Caitlin Lally, of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, lamented, “The future of the fight is in . . . trying to stop the erosion of wages, benefits and safety.”

This is nonsense, of course. There are several compelling arguments about why it is morally repugnant to force workers to support a union, arguments that are winning out in state after state.

First, unions justify forcing workers to support them with the free rider argument: since the unions deliver great contracts to the workers, it is right to make every worker pay dues. However, it is by no means clear that unions negotiate contracts that benefit the workers overall and long-term. For example, the contracts the United Auto Workers were able to force upon US automakers included provisions that seemed great — such as the one requiring the companies to keep all employees on at full pay when any of the companies shuttered a plant (say, because the model made at the plant wasn’t selling). Short-term, this was a fabulous deal for the auto workers, giving them a seemingly crazy amount of job security. But in the long run, it drove the automakers off a fiscal cliff, resulting in the bankruptcy of two of them, and in turn requiring taxpayers to pay massive amounts of subsidies to keep the companies alive.

Second, the right to free association applies to all parties. You and your friends are free to form a club, free from any interference by me. But I have the same right to refuse to join, no matter how much you might think it would benefit me to be a member. Similarly with unions: the right of private-sector workers is sacrosanct, and nobody — least of all I — proposes to take it away. But the right to opt out of the union should therefore be recognized as equally sacrosanct.

Workers who are pro-Second Amendment find with alarm that their dues fund politicians intent on ending gun rights.

To this, union apologists offer the freedom-to-contract argument: workers and management have the right to contract freely, so if a company’s workers can get management to agree to a contract compelling all workers to support the union, the rest of us shouldn’t interfere. But the union apologists are intellectually dishonest here, since they support the federal law that prohibits “yellow dog” contracts — that is, contracts that forbid unionization. If there is freedom of contract, then yellow dog contracts should be allowed, too.

Finally, there is the point made by Thomas Jefferson: “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” Unions typically use worker dues for the lavish support of politicians and political organizations that are typically Left-liberal in orientation. So workers who are pro-life find with disgust that their dues go to support extreme pro-choice candidates, and workers who are pro-Second Amendment find with alarm that their dues fund politicians intent on ending gun rights.

More good news for worker freedom may be just around the corner: both Missouri and New Hampshire are considering RTW laws, and both have newly elected Republican governors who have indicated that they support free choice for workers.




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The Karma of Flaming Cronyism

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In 2009, Vice President Joe Biden announced a $539 million Department of Energy (DoE) loan awarded by the federal government to Fisker Automotive. Fisker, a newly formed crony capitalist firm, would use the money (together with private funding from the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, whose partners include green crony capitalist and former Vice President Al Gore) to produce hybrid electric vehicles in Biden's home state of Delaware. The investment would create 2,500 American jobs, by 2014 produce an annual 75,000–100,000 "highly efficient vehicles," and by 2016 "save hundreds of millions gallons of gasoline and offset millions of tons of carbon pollution."

With gasoline prices below $2 per gallon at the time, free enterprise could not be counted on to produce planet-saving electric vehicles (EVs) and establish the US as the world leader in EV technology. Capitalism can only be counted on to produce what consumers demand. Then-DoE Secretary Steven Chu believed that the demand for EVs would not materialize until gasoline prices reached nine or ten dollars per gallon. In the interim, only crony capitalism would do.

The Fisker loan was considered a vital, timely investment for America: in 2009, thanks to years of US outsourcing of jobs and manufacturing expertise that propped up its emerging crony capitalist economy, China had become the world’s leader in green technology spending. “We are putting Americans back to work,” exclaimed Chu, “and reigniting a new Industrial Revolution that is paramount for the economic success of this country.” The loan was "seed money," heralded Biden, "that would return back to the American consumer in billions and billions and billions of dollars in good new jobs."

Fisker Automotive was founded by crony capitalist Henrik Fisker, in fall 2007, only to be sued by Tesla Motors, in spring 2008, for stealing design concepts and trade secrets that Fisker allegedly used to develop the Karma — a heavily subsidized vehicle that would compete with the heavily subsidized Tesla Roadster.

The true brilliance of Elon Musk, who is regarded by many as a genius, lies in his ability to hornswoggle governments and investors.

It was also in 2008 when fellow, and far superior, crony capitalist Elon Musk became CEO of Tesla. Barely one year later, Tesla received a $465 million DoE loan. Mr. Musk knows no other form of capitalism. According to the LA Times, he "has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars [Tesla], sell solar panels [SolarCity] and launch rockets into space [SpaceX]," with the help of a staggering $4.9 billion in taxpayer-funded government subsidies. Apparently, Musk will have nothing to do with any enterprise from which he cannot obtain "government incentives, including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits that Tesla can sell. It [the $4.9 billion] also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars."

The true brilliance of Musk, who is regarded by many as a genius ("our generation's Thomas Edison"), lies in his ability to hornswoggle governments and investors. While ordinary crony capitalists are content with bellying up to the government trough for tax breaks and loans to help build their businesses, Musk has the government build businesses for him. He's "so adept at landing incentives that states now compete to give him money."

New York State, for example, is building a $750 million manufacturing plant for SolarCity. With property tax gimmicks, investment tax credits, and cash grants, the entire deal constitutes a $2.5 billion windfall for Musk — courtesy of the taxpayers. Without their coerced support, crony SolarCity, indeed, the entire solar industry, could not survive. Yet in June, New York crony capitalists prevailed over the use of drastically cheaper energy, derived from free market fracking, by officially banning the technology (and denying billions and billions and billions of dollars in lower utility costs for New York residents), ostensibly because of safety concerns: natural gas might leak from wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale bonanza that the state sits on top of, causing flames to shoot out of water faucets.

Inspired by Musk's promises to lead the world into a future without gasoline (he pledged to make millions of electric vehicles by 2025), investors have bid up Tesla stock from $16 per share, when it was first publicly offered in 2010, to $260 per share today. With this runup, Tesla was able to raise more than enough private capital to repay its DoE loan — an event that the DoE declared as "living proof" that "Tesla and other U.S. manufacturers are in a strong position to compete for this growing global market.” Only in the world of green cronyism is debt repayment celebrated as success.

At least the Model S doesn't burst into flames, as did Fisker's Karma, which had a few flaws.

Tesla, which sold 31,655 vehicles in 2014, is valued at $33.8 billion — more than half the value of Ford Motor Company, which sold 6.3 million vehicles during that year. And Ford made a profit, unlike Tesla, which has failed to do so since its inception in 2003. In 2014, Ford posted a profit of $6.3 billion; Tesla lost $294 million. Incredibly, even with its government side business of selling zero-emission-vehicle (ZEV) credits to its competitors, from which it made $217 million, Tesla still lost $294 million. But Musk promises profitability by 2020.

So confident is he of continued government largesse that he scoffs at competitors such as Toyota, which has developed a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai, that sells for $10,000 less than Tesla's $71,000 Model S. Musk's response: “Fuel cells should be renamed ‘fool cells’” — demonstrating a wit as sharp as his automotive genius.

Nevertheless, no one has done more than Mr. Musk to advance EV development in the United States, and, by all accounts, the Model S is a flawless vehicle that has exceeded the expectations of elite Silicon Valley and Hollywood car buyers. It doesn't burst into flames, as did Fisker's Karma, which had a few flaws.

The Karma — which was initially projected to ship in 2009 and to sell over 15,000 units built by 2500 American workers at a refurbished GM plant in Delaware — did not come to market until 2011. But, according to an ABC News investigation, by October of the year only 40 Karmas were produced, all of them assembled by 500 Finnish workers at a factory in rural Finland.

There was not a single US firm with the manufacturing expertise to produce the Karma. "We're not in the business of failing; we're in the business of winning," exclaimed Mr. Fisker. "That's why we went to Finland."

Less than a year later, Fisker Automotive failed — ceasing production in July 2012 and declaring bankruptcy in November 2013. Of the 2,450 Karmas that were eventually built, 1,600 were purchased by consumers, and 2,000 were recalled because of lithium-ion battery-related fire risks (including the possibility that, while parked and disconnected from a charging station, a Karma could mysteriously explode into flames, and burn to unrecognizable rubble).

Numerous reasons have been cited for Fisker's collapse: unrealistic sales goals, compressed launch timeline, insufficient funding, flaming rubble, etc. In the end, however, most subsidized green-technology companies simply find ways to lose money. They can't make a profit, even with government support. The most famous example is Solyndra (the recipient of a $535 million DoE loan), which went bankrupt selling solar panels for half of what it cost to make them. Then there is A123 Systems, Fisker's battery supplier and the recipient of a $249 million DoE grant. A123 sold batteries that cost the company $1.57 for each dollar of sales — leading to its bankruptcy in October 2012, and, in no small part, hastening Fisker's.

A123 might have charged Fisker twice as much, thereby returning a per unit profit of 43%. Why not? Couldn't Fisker absorb the cost increase? It was getting government money too, not to mention the $7,500 tax refund awarded to EV buyers. And, with the price of gasoline heading towards $4 a gallon, surely the demand for EVs was growing. Besides, anyone who could afford the $103,000 Karma might be willing to pay a little extra. Except that, on average, Fisker spent $660,000 for each vehicle produced. To make even a meager profit of, say 10%, Fisker would have had to charge $733,000 — a price that might have scared off early Karma buyers such as pop stars Justin Bieber and Al Gore.

Most subsidized green-technology companies simply find ways to lose money. They can't make a profit, even with government support.

The purpose of the DoE grant to A123 was to help America compete with China. "President Obama was determined not to let China run away with green energy technologies," said a Forbes article covering the bankruptcy auction, where A123 was unloaded for, one could say, a fire sale price. Guess who won the bidding (hint: it wasn't an American company). It was the Wanxiang Group, a Chinese conglomerate run by Lu Guanqiu, an auto-parts magnate with deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

Forbes characterized the business acumen of our green cronies as a triple irony:

The U.S. borrowed money from China to subsidize a battery company to compete with state-subsidized Chinese battery companies. The American company gets bought out by a Chinese company for about the same amount of money that the U.S. government gave it. The U.S. still has to pay the money back to China. The Chinese company buying the American company makes a lot of money by providing auto parts for the cars that Americans drive.

Perhaps of greater significance is the national security implication. The sale of A123 included US technology developed for advanced ultra-light lithium-ion phosphate batteries — technology that extends beyond powering EVs, to important applications for electricity generation and distribution, not to mention sensitive military applications. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Hillary Clinton vehemently opposed such sales, asserting the need for "ensuring that technologies . . . critical to U.S. national security are not sold off and outsourced to foreign governments." Yet Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time, did nothing to interfere with the sale.

The Fisker bankruptcy snuffed out the DoE plan of "reigniting a new Industrial Revolution," as well as Joe Biden's hopes of "billions and billions and billions of dollars" for American consumers. It was followed by a DoE announcement that, instead, American taxpayers would get a bill for $139 million, the amount that the government lost in the Fisker debacle. Fisker was sold, in another fire sale, not only to a Chinese company but to the same one that bought A123.

Today, just one year afterward, Mrs. Clinton is running for president and Mr. Biden is thinking about throwing his hat into the race. Mr. Guanqiu is planning to resurrect the Karma with his new company, formed from the old Fisker and A123, businesses he picked up for a song: a measly $406 million. The amount is much less than the manufacturing assets and intellectual property he purchased. They represent a value that the DoE must have believed was significantly greater than the $778 million it invested in these companies. But that's life in the risky world of green cronyism: sometimes seed money leads to abysmal failure, especially when it is other people's seed money.

Mr. Musk is now getting into the battery business, building the world’s largest battery factory, a gigafactory, he says. That is, he bamboozled the state of Nevada into a $1.3 billion incentive package to build it. What crony could turn down a deal projected to generate $100 billion? With capitalist fracking driving gasoline prices down to less than $2 a gal (when $9 gasoline is needed for EV's to be competitive), any capitalist sees folly. But crony capitalists see only the delusion of billions and billions and billions of dollars — that, and taxpayer-funded subsidies for fellow cronies.

That's life in the risky world of green cronyism: sometimes seed money leads to abysmal failure, especially when it is other people's seed money.

And Mr. Fisker is planning to start another automotive venture. He is "intrigued with Millennials, their craving for new kinds of transportation and their fascination with all things digital." It would behoove him to rekindle his relationship with Al Gore, this time for marketing purposes. Who is better than Mr. Climate Change at pitching flimflam to Millennials? Whatever Mr. Fisker has in mind, he remains optimistic, believing that "the timing is right for something completely new."

But none of this is new. Under our current political system, the timing is always right for crony capitalism. And, unlike taxpayers, crony capitalists will profit from another completely new green auto company, even if it goes down in flames.

#39;s Thomas Edison




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VW Bugs

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It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

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The latest news on the American auto industry brings back bad memories of Obama’s crooked crony nationalization of GM and Chrysler. We may well be seeing the setup of another round of bailouts in our dysfunctional domestic auto industry.

Start with a recent report on the nervousness in the industry during the run-up to the Federal Reserve decision on whether to move off the Fed’s seemingly endless zero-interest rate policy. The auto industry has been selling a lot of cars for cheap money; as the report notes, the apparent revival of the domestic auto industry has been facilitated by an explosion of auto loans. Earlier this year, the combined auto debt of US households hit an all-time high of over $1 trillion. The artificially low interest rates, along with the drop in gasoline taxes (brought about by the miracle of fracking) worked like Viagra to swell the American libido for new cars. The sales of domestic cars will likely exceed 17 million units for the year — a level not seen since 2001.

GM alone has recorded more than $25 billion in profits over the last five and a half years, and Chrysler has recorded 65 months of sales growth. All this is the aphrodisiacal effect of 0% interest rates on auto loans. One couple quoted in the report said they just bought their first car in 20 years, enticed by the 0% financing, though they chose a 1.95% rate loan because of a $3,000 rebate (which they apparently used to cover their down payment). This is a common perception now: the University of Michigan’s most recent household survey showed that 28% of the households surveyed pronounced it a great time to buy a car because of the low rates.

We may well be seeing the setup of another round of bailouts in our dysfunctional domestic auto industry.

Moreover, customers are using the low easy money to buy more expensive cars. This has all the signs of a government-induced easy credit asset bubble: buy expensive cars you otherwise can’t afford, since the government has made it clear that it prefers borrowers who recklessly spend to savers who prudently forego immediate gratification. That is about as sound an economic theory as it is a moral one! Can we spell “moral hazard,” boys and girls?

However, as the report observes, easy credit brings the risk of easy defaults. And that risk has been growing like a virus: in 2013, 10.3% of auto loan applications were declined as not being credit worthy; this year, the proportion was a risible 3.3% — a drop of two-thirds!

Easy money is translating into longer loans on more expensive vehicles. Last month, the average length of an auto loan was over 68 months — six months more than it was a decade ago — a rise of nearly 10%. The size of the average auto loan is now $29,000, an increase of 15% over five years, while the average down payment amount has only increased by 10%, meaning that the loans are backed by relatively smaller down payments.

Earlier this year, the combined auto debt of US households hit an all-time high of over $1 trillion.

More bubbly still is the fact that subprime auto loans — i.e., loans to people with poor credit histories — now constitute one-fifth of all auto loans, with the total balance outstanding on subprime loans rising over the past five years to a whopping $176 billion. Many of these loans, please note, were originated by finance companies with ties to the automakers. Subprime auto loans, like subprime mortgages before the mortgage meltdown, are being bundled as securities and sold on Wall Street to people who buy them because they have higher interest rates.

Sound familiar?

Now consider another recent report, this one about the latest capers of the UAW — the main instigators of the American auto industry’s problems, and the greatest beneficiaries of Obama’s corrupt socialization of GM and Chrysler. In that deal, the GM and Chrysler bondholders and the taxpayers were totally shafted in favor of the UAW. The only real concession was the institution of a two-tier wage scale, by which existing autoworkers kept their outrageous salaries, while new hires were to come in at a lower rate — roughly $9 an hour (or about $19,000 a year) less. This irks the new hires, who often do the same work as the “upper tier” workers.

And here it gets interesting. Recently, under Rick Snyder’s enlightened governorship, Michigan — historically a state totally dominated by the unions — chose to become a right-to-work state. Thus, many UAW members — formerly coerced into supporting a mob of rentseekers — are now free to leave the union plantation. Some of the newer members, tired of being at the low end of the scale because of the UAW contract, and tired of seeing the UAW mismanage their dues, are indicating that they intend to do just that.

Subprime auto loans, like subprime mortgages before the mortgage meltdown, are being bundled as securities and sold on Wall Street.

This has led the UAW to maneuver the weakest of the three domestic automakers, Chrysler — oops! Fiat Chrysler — into signing a new contract, a contract much more favorable to the UAW. Under this new deal, after some period of time (not yet revealed), the current cap of under $20 an hour for new hires will rise to about $25 an hour (that is, new autoworkers will start out at $52,000 a year!). The two-tier system will be phased out. In keeping with its past modus operandi, the UAW will get GM and Ford to agree to the sweetened contract.

The big picture is clear. The weakest of the domestic automakers, which has on two prior occasions had to be bailed out by the federal government, at massive costs to the taxpayer, has just agreed to go back to overpaying the unionized workforce. It can do this because of the “red hot” pace of sales.

But the hot sales are inflated by the Fed’s easy money policy, and the surge of subprime loans; and sooner or later, the Fed will have to start raising interest rates. Thus, sooner or later, the nation, which has been enduring a slow, painfully shallow recovery, will slide back into recession. Then we will see the inevitable plunge in car sales, with the domestic automakers again locked into ludicrously high wage rates.

The weakest of the domestic automakers, which has on two prior occasions had to be bailed out at massive costs to the taxpayer, has just agreed to go back to overpaying the unionized workforce.

And then it will be what that great American philosopher Yogi Berra — sadly departed, this September — called “Déjà vu all over again!” We will probably see Chrysler (and even GM) go into the red once more. We will hear, once more, about the piteous plight of the company, about how sad it would be for all those overpaid employees to be laid off, and about how “compassion” — always defined by the progressive elites as spending other people’s money to buy votes for the advocates of big government — dictates another bailout of a joke of a company.




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Pulp

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When I was in grade school, a neighbor had an unfinished basement room, all studs and drywall, filled with paperback science fiction books and magazines. I was given free rein to browse and borrow. It was a treasure trove.

Among the things I read was the 1951 short story, The Marching Morons, by Cyril M. Kornbluth. It takes place in a distant future where, because of adverse genetic selection, the average IQ has fallen to 45.

A detail of the story that has stayed with me was the marketing of cars in that imaginary distant future. The cars weren’t very fast or powerful, so they were fitted out with electronic sound effects that made them sound like rolling thunder.

Here's the short story.

Reading the Washington Post the other day, I stumbled upon this:

For the 2015 Mustang EcoBoost, Ford sound engineers and developers worked on an “Active Noise Control” system that amplifies the engine’s purr through the car speakers . . .

Ford said in a statement that the vintage V-8 engine boom “has long been considered the mating call of Mustang,” but added that the newly processed pony-car sound is “athletic and youthful,” “a more refined growl” with “a low-frequency sense of powerfulness.”

Here's the link to the piece.

Welcome to the future.




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The Congressional Killswitch

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Sometimes a story is just so perfect that the immediate response is suspicion, even skepticism, that such a thing could be. Even when backed by unimpeachable evidence, even to relate the story in another context, a reporter (this reporter, anyway) feels he must get the caveats out of the way, even at the expense of burying the lede, because it’s simply too easy to proceed any other way.

So then.

Eleanor Holmes Norton is a Delegate to Congress representing the District of Columbia in the House of Representatives. Though allowed to serve on committees as well as speak on the House floor, DC reps cannot vote on legislation and thus have only symbolic power—hence the District license plate legend, “No Taxation Without Representation.” Holmes was first elected to Congress in 1990 and has faced no substantive opposition to the renewal of her term since, nor will she until she retires.

Google is a very, very large company. Despite early attempts to avoid governmental entanglement, combined with a motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” that is warm and fuzzy by big-biz standards, Google is nonetheless one of the most politically involved corporations in the world, donating many millions to causes such as gay marriage rights and alternative energy sources—as well as to the Democrats, where such ideas are on the whole more welcome. However, in recent years (and in particular, after a potentially nasty antitrust suit) Google has been hedging its bets, courting the Republicans as well to make sure that whoever happens to be on top, Google can still prevail.

If they weren’t so quick on the killswitch, maybe Google wouldn’t need to spend so many of its resources lobbying for approval.

One of Google’s main ongoing projects is the creation of a driverless car—something that can hook into an overarching traffic grid and speed passengers to their destinations without the limitations of human frailty or curiosity: no more merge delays, no more fender benders, no more rubbernecking. Clearly hoping for congressional money to be shoved their way, Google hosted an event for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to showcase their new toy. And as a ranking member of that committee, Holmes was not only invited along, but also given pride of place as the first occupant of the shotgun seat, with results I highly recommend you watch in the video on this page.

For no sooner does she sit down than she wrecks the whole show: “It says Emergency Stop,” she says, while tapping and then smashing a big red button marked with exactly those words. And the Google spokesman (and Carnegie Mellon engineer), trying valiantly to control his panic, replies “Oh, no, don’t press that, it shuts everything down, and it takes some time to, um, recover from that.”

And with all the above caveats out of the way, how perfect an image is this of how legislators interfere with progress in technology and markets? A company wishes to test out a new product, and instead of going to the customers to see if it will succeed, they must first kowtow to those in authority (the representative of all Washington, D.C., as a matter of fact), who promptly misunderstand the device and render it useless—and then have the gall to take some sort of perverse credit for the deed, as implied in the newscasters’ comment: “Norton does think that cars like that could have a future so long as they have safety features like that kill switch.” Thanks, Delegate! Without you we’d never have known how to murder promising technology in mere seconds.

As the further exchange shows, even as a constitutionally powerless member of the House, Norton can still cast a formidable shadow:

“And you know, if they ever get that started, it could be a cool little ride.”
“I guess it still needs a little work.”
“Still needs a little work, yes.”

But despite their gentle, demagogic mockery, the newscasters save for the end a shrewd observation, one that calls into question the very idea of a large-scale federal government: if you are to build such a thing, “Be careful who you put in it—Delegate Norton may not be invited next time around.”

Would that we could all disinvite Delegate Norton, and her 535 cronies actually charged with lawmaking in this country! If they weren’t so quick on the killswitch, maybe Google wouldn’t need to spend so many of its resources lobbying for approval—and the rest of us wouldn’t have to bide our time waiting for advances that would’ve been possible decades ago, apart from the reticence and hesitance of our so-called leaders.



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Not with a Bang, but a Whimper

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The most recent news on the UAW’s attempt to unionize the VW autoworkers in Chattanooga, Tennessee is interesting.

Despite enormous advantages, including the Obama administration’s blatantly partisan efforts to game the game in favor of the UAW, the union lost the vote. The union that nearly destroyed the American automakers, gleefully driving two of them into bankruptcy — a bankruptcy that ripped off taxpayers for tens of billions of dollars and left one of the companies merely a division of the Italian automaker Fiat — couldn’t overcome its unsavory reputation and convince the workers that it wouldn’t destroy their jobs and city as well.

That was in February. Immediately after the vote, the UAW filed an appeal with the Obama-rigged National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), even though it had earlier said it would abide by the will of the workers. But just before the deadline for its lawyers to appear and argue for voiding the vote, the UAW dropped its appeal. It turned tail and ran.

This capitulation came as a surprise. The union had aggressively pursued the plan, issuing subpoenas against the Republican governor of the state, Bill Haslam, and one of its Republican US senators, Bob Corker, to turn over their staff emails regarding the election, under the theory that the two men wrongfully influenced workers to oppose the UAW. The theory, then, is that the UAW is free to spend tens of millions of its members’ dues every election cycle to defeat Republicans, but the targets have no right to criticize the UAW in return. The UAW is nothing if not fair.

One of the workers who organized the vote against the union, Mike Burton, admitted that he couldn’t explain why the UAW gave up so easily. UAW president Bob King would only say that his outfit wanted to put the “tainted election in the rearview mirror ... and focus on advocating for new jobs and economic investment in Chattanooga.” But the real explanation was suggested by the Wall Street Journal in an editorial from the same day, namely, that even if the NLRB ordered another election at the plant, the UAW would very likely have lost it — making the union look even worse. The editorial also suggested that the UAW may have been afraid that anti-union workers would sue it for violating the Taft-Hartley Act, which prohibits a company from giving a “thing of value” to any union seeking to organize its workers. This VW clearly did by giving the UAW the right to voice its arguments in the plant while denying the same right to the anti-union workers.

I would add the speculation that — given the recent revelations that GM knowingly covered up defects in its cars, defects that killed a number of people, while it was grabbing billions in taxpayer dollars in the bankruptcy operation — the UAW probably fears reminding people that it was behind the crony deal.

The latest defeat for the union comes on the heels of the failure of its drive to organize workers at a Canton, Mississippi, Nissan plant, and its lack of luck so far in organizing the workers at the Vance, Alabama, Mercedes-Benz plant.

These failures couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.




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Entitlement Drives Amok

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They’re calling her a road rage hero, this woman who filmed a driver flipping her off as he passed her on the highway just moments before he lost control of his car and slid across three lanes, coming to rest in the opposite direction on the opposite side of the road. “Good for her!” people are saying. “Poetic justice.” “She showed him!”

Well, what exactly did she show him? In my opinion, she’s no hero. She caused this accident, and she should be grateful that no one was killed or seriously injured. This is an example of entitlement run amok.

First, what was she doing in the fast lane if she didn’t want to drive as fast as the person behind her? Apologists are saying that she couldn’t move over because there was too much traffic, but that simply isn’t true. If the driver behind her had enough space to pass her on the right, she had enough space to move over.

She caused this accident, and she should be grateful that no one was killed or seriously injured.

Second, she should be cited for distracted driving. Instead of watching the road (at 60 miles an hour!) she was using her cellphone to film the other driver, not only when he was beside her, but when he was behind her! In New York she would have been slapped with a $500 fine and five points on her license. And she would have deserved it. Instead, people are applauding her chutzpah. Sheesh.

Third, she contributed mightily to this man’s frustration. She taunted him with her phone and deliberately went slow in the fast lane, controlling it. She cackled with delight when she saw his car flipping around. Fortunately no cars were coming toward him as he spun out into the opposite lane, but many lives could have been lost or forever changed.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not defending the man who felt the need to flip her off instead of just driving away. He was distracted too, looking to his left instead of watching the road, and he paid the price in a ruined pickup and a ruined reputation. But driving requires the utmost courtesy. This is one place where even libertarians should yield property rights to bullies and get out of the way when someone else wants the road. You never know when some crazy lady with a cellphone is going to push you — or someone driving behind you — right over the edge.




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What Did Obama Motors Know?

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GM — known derisively as “Obama Motors” because of the crony deal it got from the Obama administration — is once again in the news . . . for a massive corporate screwup.

GM is about to be investigated by Congress in the matter of the company’s recall of 1.6 million vehicles. These vehicles had faulty ignition switches. Their malfunctions apparently led to 13 deaths. GM has lawyered up, for it will surely face many tort lawsuits, as it surely should.  Recalls are not unknown in the auto industry, but what is causing Congress to investigate is that it took GM about ten years to get around to the recall. So GM has hired the big-name lawyer who headed the investigation into the 2008 Lehman Brothers failure to be the conspicuous head of its own internal investigation.

This is called: damage control.

When GM switches fail, drivers report that their vehicles become very hard to steer, and the air bags become disabled. So not only is the likelihood of accidents increased, but the likelihood of extreme injury and death also increases dramatically.

GM employees knew about this problem as early as 2004, when reports about it were discussed in the company’s engineering division. This is according to the timeline that GM itself has released. The company is not saying whether or not its engineers asked for a recall, or when the idea of a recall was first suggested.

In a risible act of hypocrisy, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has presented the company with a list of over 100 questions it wants answered. It now appears that the NHTSA knew of the problem as early as 2007. Its people raised the issue in a meeting. But the NHTSA is refusing to answer any questions about it.

The affair has obviously brought back to the minds of investors the old GM — the one that had to be rescued at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars.

In a lawsuit, settled last year, brought by the family of a nurse killed in a crash involving one of these faulty switches, the plaintiff’s attorney discovered that GM had an engineering team investigating the problem (found to be prevalent in small GM cars). But this was never publicized, so owners of those cars were never warned that they were at risk.

When it was announced that the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York had begun an investigation, GM shares dropped 5%, because the facts seemed to indicate not just negligence, but outright criminality.

This is just the most publicized of GM’s recent recalls. Current GM CEO Mary Barra has launched several other recalls, including one of 1.7 million higher-end vehicles (SUVs and Cadillacs) troubled by an airbag deployment wiring defect. The total number of GM vehicles recalled has now hit 4.8 million for the first quarter of 2014 — a sixfold increase from the number for all of last year. The company has issued seven major recalls in just the first three months of this year.

GM has put aside $300 million to cover immediate costs, but this is obviously not going to cover all the eventual costs. One critic has called for a fund of $1 billion. Some dealers are already reporting slower traffic in their showrooms. Meanwhile, some experts, such as corporate crisis consultant Larry Kamer, are suggesting that this crisis is a good opportunity for Ms. Barra and the “new” GM to show how much they care for customers. Kamer was a consultant for Toyota during its 2010 recall. Toyota recently settled with the U.S. Justice Department on that recall.

Barra has stepped forward to admit that the recall took too long, to offer her condolences to the families of those killed, and to announce that she has assembled a team to help the company handle and “learn from” the incident. Given that Barra was executive director of GM’s manufacturing engineering division while the deaths occurred, one is entitled to be a little skeptical of her new-found burning desire to enshrine the company as the Quality Queen of automotive technology.

As one report notes, Barra has reason to worry. The affair has obviously brought back to the minds of investors the old GM — the one that had to be rescued at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars. The article notes that Toyota took a major hit to its image from its recall two years ago. Toyota had to pay the Justice Department $1.2 billion for misleading customers. Attorney General Holder boldly declared that the Toyota deal will “serve as a model for how we treat cases with similarly situated companies,” though he didn’t address how that relates to GM.

Here is where one gets suspicious. The feds went after Toyota with a furry when it had its recalls, although the main accusation against it — that some models had “sticky accelerators” — was never proven. When it was charged that floor mats improperly installed by one Lexus dealer in San Diego led to the death of a family, Holder turned his department loose on Toyota, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood loudly proclaimed that Toyota owners should be afraid for their lives.

Of course, while the feds were going after Toyota so furiously, they owned GM. This stank to heaven. However, it is now clear that even as Holder and LaHood were conducting their Obama-jihad against Toyota, their own Obama Motors was known by their own NHTSA to be killing people. Cover-ups are common in government, I suppose, but a cover-up of this magnitude, of a company that had been socialized by the self-same government, is something rare.

Given Eric Holder’s record as an ideological hack, we can laugh at the idea that his Justice Department will honesty investigate GM.

Add to this the fact that at the time a little-noticed provision of GM’s bankruptcy deal was that the “new” (i.e., socialized) GM would not be liable for the tort claims of the “old” (i.e., pre-bailout) GM. This doesn’t just hint of corruption — it reeks. It isn’t clear to what degree GM will use that shield. Law professor David Skeel thinks that while GM is legally safe in using the bankruptcy shield, it would look bad to do so — hardball to the max. And lawyers are already sidestepping the issue by filing suits alleging that the value of some GM models have been hurt, rather than going directly for personal injury tort.

So not only did the Obama administration orchestrate a crony bankruptcy that handed over assets primarily to the administration’s own financial backers, but it apparently stood by and let innocent people die without ordering appropriate recalls. This, so it could run on the election mantra, “Bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive!” Yes, GM was alive, but a number of its customers were dead.

Given Eric Holder’s record as an ideological hack, we can laugh at the idea that his Justice Department will honesty investigate GM. Perhaps what we need is a special prosecutor — somebody outside the control of Holder’s Justice — backed with enough assets to cleanse the stables of Obama Motors.




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