Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A hump-day post from Charles Mackay

I'm rereading Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and I am struck once again by what a fine novelist's eye Mackay had. As he himself puts it "Many other anecdotes are related, which even, though they may be a little exaggerated, are nevertheless worth preserving, as showing the spirit of that singular period.":

Law was now at the zenith of his prosperity, and the people were rapidly approaching the zenith of their infatuation. The highest and the lowest classes were alike filled with a vision of boundless wealth. There was not a person of note among the aristocracy, with the exception of the Duke of St. Simon and Marshal Villars, who was not engaged in buying or selling stock. People of every age and sex, and condition in life, speculated in the rise and fall of the Mississippi bonds. The Rue de Quincampoix was the grand resort of the jobbers, and it being a narrow, inconvenient street, accidents continually occurred in it, from the tremendous pressure of the crowd. Houses in it, worth, in ordinary times, a thousand livres of yearly rent, yielded as much as twelve or sixteen thousand. A cobbler, who had a stall in it, gained about two hundred livres a day by letting it out, and furnishing writing materials to brokers and their clients. The story goes, that a hump-backed man who stood in the street gained considerable sums by lending his hump as a writing-desk to the eager speculators! The great concourse of persons who assembled to do business brought a still greater concourse of spectators. These again drew all the thieves and immoral characters of Paris to the spot, and constant riots and disturbances took place. At nightfall, it was often found necessary to send a troop of soldiers to clear the street.

 Law, finding the inconvenience of his residence, removed to the Place Vendome, whither the crowd of agioteurs followed him. That spacious square soon became as thronged as the Rue de Quincampoix: from morning to night it presented the appearance of a fair. Booths and tents were erected for the transaction of business and the sale of refreshments, and gamblers with their roulette tables stationed themselves in the very middle of the place, and reaped a golden, or rather a paper, harvest from the throng. The Boulevards and public gardens were forsaken; parties of pleasure took their walks in preference in the Place Vendome, which became the fashionable lounge of the idle, as well as the general rendezvous of the busy. The noise was so great all day, that the Chancellor, whose court was situated in the square, complained to the Regent and the municipality, that he could not hear the advocates. Law, when applied to, expressed his willingness to aid in the removal of the nuisance, and for this purpose entered into a treaty with the Prince de Carignan for the Hotel de Soissons, which had a garden of several acres in the rear. A bargain was concluded, by which Law became the purchaser of the hotel, at an enormous price, the Prince reserving to himself the magnificent gardens as a new source of profit. They contained some fine statues and several fountains, and were altogether laid out with much taste. As soon as Law was installed in his new abode, an edict was published, forbidding all persons to buy or sell stock anywhere but in the gardens of the Hotel de Soissons. In the midst among the trees, about five hundred small tents and pavilions were erected, for the convenience of the stock-jobbers. Their various colours, the gay ribands and banners which floated from them, the busy crowds which passed continually in and out—the incessant hum of voices, the noise, the music, and the strange mixture of business and pleasure on the countenances of the throng, all combined to give the place an air of enchantment that quite enraptured the Parisians. The Prince de Carignan made enormous profits while the delusion lasted. Each tent was let at the rate of five hundred livres a month; and, as there were at least five hundred of them, his monthly revenue from this source alone must have amounted to 250,000 livres, or upwards of 10,000 pounds sterling.

 The honest old soldier, Marshal Villars, was so vexed to see the folly which had smitten his countrymen, that he never could speak with temper on the subject. Passing one day through the Place Vendome in his carriage, the choleric gentleman was so annoyed at the infatuation of the people, that he abruptly ordered his coachman to stop, and, putting his head out of the carriage window, harangued them for full half an hour on their "disgusting avarice." This was not a very wise proceeding on his part. Hisses and shouts of laughter resounded from every side, and jokes without number were aimed at him. There being at last strong symptoms that something more tangible was flying through the air in the direction of his head, Marshal was glad to drive on. He never again repeated the experiment.

 Two sober, quiet, and philosophic men of letters, M. de la Motte and the Abbe Terrason, congratulated each other, that they, at least, were free from this strange infatuation. A few days afterwards, as the worthy Abbe was coming out of the Hotel de Soissons, whither he had gone to buy shares in the Mississippi, whom should he see but his friend La Motte entering for the same purpose. "Ha!" said the Abbe, smiling, "is that you?" "Yes," said La Motte, pushing past him as fast as he was able; "and can that be you?" The next time the two scholars met, they talked of philosophy, of science, and of religion, but neither had courage for a long time to breathe one syllable about the Mississippi. At last, when it was mentioned, they agreed that a man ought never to swear against his doing any one thing, and that there was no sort of extravagance of which even a wise man was not capable.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Asking me not to overbill you means you hate children

I always like to preface these stories of education reform abuse with a reminder that the vast majority of people on both sides of this issue are motivated by a sincere desire to improve the lives of children. Unfortunately, this assumption of goodwill is often very much lacking in the reform movement. Instead, movement reformers all too often assume that people who oppose them are motivated by self-interest, fear of change, etc., while (and this is the really dangerous part) their allies are as dedicated and sincere as they are.

As a result, the movement has been defenseless against truly sleazy operators. In this recent case from Ohio, a major political donor set up an enterprise that allowed him to divert tens of millions of dollars to his side businesses. Then, when caught overbilling the state, he fell back on the human shield defense, running ads that suggested that attempts to make him pay back the money he owes are somehow attacks on Ohio's children (with added chutzpah points for doing it with taxpayer money).

From a report in the Columbus Dispatch by Bill Bush.

Even after ECOT announced that it will lay off 350 workers within weeks, the internet charter school continues to use taxpayer dollars for a barrage of television ads attacking the Ohio Department of Education’s decision to claw back $60.4 million because of the charter’s poor attendance records.

“The Ohio Department of Education wants to end school choice and stop parents from deciding what’s best for their children,” says a former student identified in the ECOT ad as Lionel Morales, a 2017 graduate, in an ad airing in Columbus. The end of the ad is signed “Ohio’s children.”

“That’s why I and the over 36,000 students and alumni of ECOT are hoping our elected leaders fix what’s broken and save our school.”

“Sadly, the Ohio Department of Education says many of us don’t count,” Morales says.

The department said it is ECOT that wasn’t counting how many kids actually participated in classwork after logging in. The department found that ECOT had overbilled the state, invoicing for more than double the number of students it could document.


Even before ECOT turned to the airwaves to fight the state over its funding, the school was a big advertiser. The Dispatch reported in 2015 that ECOT spent $2.27 million on advertising to attract students, about 2 percent of its state tax receipts.

But it is unclear whether a school district can legally spend tax money on political ads to urge the legislature to take action.

In the case of ECOT, if the ad campaign succeeds, the tax revenue spent on it could help protect the profit of ECOT founder William Lager via two for-profit companies, IQ Innovations and Altair Learning Management. According to ECOT’s latest audit, for the 2015-16 school year, the school paid the two firms almost $22 million, or about one-fifth of all the tax revenue the school received. Altair is paid to manage the school, while IQ Innovations provides curriculum software.

By comparison, it spent about $47.2 million on salaries, 43 percent of revenue, the audit states.

Lager is one of Ohio’s largest political donors to the GOP, having rained millions of dollars on Ohio politicians.
By the way, this is not our first post on the good people at ECOT or on Ohio's charter school issues.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Goop criteria

There's a lot of good reporting by Beth Skwarecki in this long but never boring expose of the Gwyneth Paltrow pseudoscience empire (which is still respectable enough for New York Magazine). Difficult to single out the best part, but this exchange struck me as especially pertinent to some of our previous discussions of science journalism.
When Goop publishes something weird or, worse, harmful, I often find myself wondering what are they thinking? Recently, on Jimmy Kimmel, Gwyneth laughed at some of the newsletter’s weirder recommendations and said “I don’t know what the fuck we talk about.” I know Goop is Gwyneth’s brainchild, but I also know a woman of her status does not write a weekly newsletter by herself.

Luckily, there is an “Ask Me Anything” stop staffed with Goop editors. They lounge on white-cushioned chairs, under umbrellas for shade, and are dressed in light blue button-down shirts. The editors are mobbed all day. Whenever I stop by to eavesdrop, it sounds like attendees are pitching them products to feature.

I find the station quiet during one of the more popular talks, and end up speaking with editorial director Nandita Khanna. “You publish a lot of things that are outside of the mainstream. What are your criteria for determining that something is safe and ethical to recommend?”

Khanna starts by pointing out that they include a disclaimer at the bottom of health articles. This is true. It reads:
    The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

Okay, but how do you decide that something is worth including in Goop to begin with? “We definitely do our homework,” she says, and insists that the team extensively discusses and researches the things that end up in the pages of Goop. She won’t go into detail about the process, but she points out that some of their sources are doctors. Do you ever ask the doctors to vet new ideas? I ask. Yes, she says, often.

But she says they don’t have any specific guidelines. Sometimes Gwyneth will say she doesn’t think this or that story is the right one to tell, or maybe it’s not the right time to tell it.

So I ask: “What responsibility do you believe you have to your readers?” Here at Lifehacker, I recently killed a post I was excited about—a trick for stopping kids from unbuckling and escaping from their car seat—after a car seat expert nixed it. I feel like if I’m providing information people might act on, I have a responsibility to make sure that information is reasonably accurate and that people won’t hurt themselves (or their children) if they take me at my word.

Goop’s editors don’t see it that way. “Our responsibility is to ask questions, to start the conversation,” Khanna says. Even if the product or advice doesn’t work? “I think it’s up to each person to decide what works for them,” says another editor sitting nearby. Khanna agrees. “Medicine is so subjective.”

(Medicine, actually, is not subjective in this way. The point of randomized controlled trials, a key concept in medical research, is to set aside subjectivity and figure out what’s useful and what’s a waste of time. Nobody here, staff or attendees, seems even the least bit interested in separating the worthwhile stuff from the garbage.) [I'm not crazy about Skwarecki's phrasing here (I would have mentioned double blinding, placebo effects and the need for well defined objective metrics), but the basic point is important -- MP]

I turn the conversation to Goop’s infamous jade eggs. They are for sale that day in the pharmacy shop, and I got to hold one in my hand. It was smaller than I expected, not the size of a chicken egg but more like a grape tomato. Both the jade and rose quartz eggs have a hole drilled through the smaller end, and at first I imagined a Goop acolyte taking the egg out of her vagina, rinsing it off, and hanging it around her neck. I learned later that the hole is the answer to the question in the jar: you can attach dental floss to give it a removal string, like a tampon.

The idea of the jade egg, or its prettier rose quartz companion, is to “cultivate sexual energy, increase orgasm, balance the cycle, stimulate key reflexology around vaginal walls.” The grain of truth here is that using a small weight for vaginal exercises can help strengthen the muscles in that area. You can do this without a weight, too.

But Jen Gunter, a practicing gynecologist who is one of Gwyneth’s most vocal critics, has explained that jade eggs are a terrible idea. Stones can be porous enough to grow bacteria, and she says the instructions for using the egg are incorrect and could harm people. For example, a Goop article suggests walking around with the egg inside of you. Gunter counters that overworking your vaginal muscles this way can result in pelvic pain.

The Goop editors remember the jade egg backlash, and they are unfazed. “Did you read the letter from Layla?” Khanna asks. Layla Martin, who sells jade eggs and a seven-week course on how to use them, wrote a 2,000-word “letter to the editors” defending the eggs. Goop published it in their newsletter, and underneath it, their disclaimer, and underneath that, a link to their shop.

Khanna says they “never considered backing down.” She points out, as if it were a defense, that the eggs were very popular and sold out right away. I ask her: Has there ever been a health article in Goop that you thought afterward, maybe we shouldn’t have run that?

No, she says, never.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The sad part is that New York Magazine would probably write a puff piece for it

Assuming Colbert could line up a celebrity business partner. [If you want actual journalism on Paltrow's pseudoscience, check out this excellent piece by Beth Skwarecki.]

Thursday, June 22, 2017

An evergreen quote

This is Joseph.

I juts ran across this quote by Matt Yglesias while reading another article:
But it is entirely emblematic of America’s post-Reagan treatment of business regulation. What a wealthy and powerful person faced with a legal impediment to moneymaking is supposed to do is work with a lawyer to devise clever means of subverting the purpose of the law. If you end up getting caught, the attempted subversion will be construed as a mitigating (it’s a gray area!) rather than aggravating factor. Your punishment will probably be light and will certainly not involve anything more than money. You already have plenty of money, and your plan is to get even more. So why not?
And if  you think that this isn't the case, consider Wells Fargo:
These payouts are on top of the $3.2 million Wells Fargo has paid to customers over 130,000 accounts over potentially unauthorized accounts. That works out to a refund of roughly $25 per account.
Now any one case can be pretty nuanced.  Maybe this settlement is fine.  But does this really look like the sort of penalty that would really discourage any sort of future wrong doing?

There are several reasons to punish bad behavior in a white collar context -- mostly to make it possible to have a fair and free market.  But the punishments need to be at least severe enough that bad actions are discouraged.  Responsibility should not be only for the powerless and the middle class.  I am all for being compassionate about mistakes, but I would like to see compassion across the spectrum, and not isolated to large corporate actors.

This 2016 post on journalistic homogeneity has just gotten relevant again

[When reading the overheated coverage of the Whole Foods acquisition, remember that the chain's relatively few locations are heavily concentrated in the same areas where journalists are over-represented. And yes, Terre Haute is out of luck.]

Location continued

Dean Dad points us to something I wish I had seen before writing the other location, location, location posts.
But with the shift in production has come a shift in geography.  As Joshua Benton’s recent piece notes, jobs in the new journalism are much more concentrated on the coasts than jobs in the old journalism are.  In a recent survey, almost 40 percent of the digital journalism jobs in America were physically based in the New York City and D.C. metros.  That’s compared to less than 10 percent of the jobs in television journalism.  Terre Haute may have a local news team, but it probably doesn’t have a freestanding digital news provider of any size.
I can't really recommend the rest of the Benton piece (too much conventional wisdom for my taste), but he deserves credit for digging up that remarkably telling statistic.

Pretty much all of us news-junkies consume the product on at least two levels: local and national. Ideally, the second should reflect a broad awareness and understanding of the parts that make up the first, not to mention the social and economic strata that make up the parts. This is extremely difficult when the people covering national stories tend to be geographically concentrated, particularly when they also tend to be economically and culturally homogeneous.

Of course,  we have to be careful about overgeneralizing -- there are, for example, food bloggers who just write about local scenes – but digital journalists play a big role in the discussion of national topics like transportation, and those journalists are disproportionately located in those two cities, as are the major print publications that dominate the national discourse. All of this is contributing to debates where not only do all of the participants have the same frame of reference; they are increasingly unable to imagine anyone having a different one.

If I lived in NYC or DC or San Francisco, I could imagine giving up my car and relying on Uber and public transportation. And if I and everyone I associated with lived in NYC or DC or San Francisco, some of the more optimistic Uber business scenarios might strike me as credible.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Aspect dominance, competitive landscapes, and other reasons why the Amazon acquisition of whole foods may not be that big of a deal.

Also ran this one in the food blog.

First off, let's look at some numbers.
[From Wikipedia]

National chains
    Albertsons LLC - 2,400 stores; besides the parent company, some stores are operated under the banners: Acme Markets, Carrs, Jewel-Osco, Lucky, Pavilions, Randalls and Tom Thumb, Safeway Inc., Shaw's and Star Market, United Supermarkets and Market Street, and Vons
    Aldi - 1,401 stores;
    Costco - approximately 500 warehouse stores in the USA, plus 200 elsewhere
    Ahold Delhaize - 2265 stores under the following brands.
        Food Lion (1098 stores in Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia)
        Hannaford (188 stores in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont)
        Giant-Carlisle (197 stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia)
        Giant-Landover (169 stores in Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia)
        Stop & Shop (416 stores in New York Metro: Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, New England: Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island)
        Martin's Food Markets (197 stores in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia)
    Kmart Super Center - 624 stores
    Kroger - 2,460 stores; besides the parent company, stores operate under Baker's Supermarkets, City Market, Dillons Supermarkets, Food 4 Less, Foods Co., Fred Meyer (technically a hypermarket), Fry's Food & Drug, Gerbes Super Markets, Harris Teeter, Jay C, King Soopers, Owen's, Pay Less Super Markets, QFC, Ralphs, Roundy's, Ruler Foods, Scott's, and Smith's
    Schnucks - 100+ Stores
    SpartanNash - operates 167 retail stores in 44 states, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East
    SuperValu Inc. - 1,582 stores (691 corporate and 891 franchised stores); the Save-A-Lot name is its most common banner; others are Cub, Farm Fresh, Hornbacher's, Shop 'n Save and Shoppers
    SuperTarget - 251 stores
    Trader Joe's - 457 stores (as of April 22, 2015)
    Walmart - 3522 stores + 699 Neighborhood Markets + 660 Sam's Clubs (as of January 31, 2017)
    Whole Foods - 430 stores (as of June 14, 2016)

Add in a ton of local and regional players and it becomes evident that Whole Foods is not that big of a slice. 

The distorting effects of aspect dominance
Whole foods is not just small in absolute terms; it is almost exclusively focused on a very narrow target market. Upscale, price insensitive, urban foodies credulously immersed in the world of health and culinary trends. By coincidence, this profile matches almost perfectly with the journalists currently reporting the story.

Whole Foods looms large in the lives of the kind of people who write for New York magazine or produced segments for CNN. This inclines them to lend this story an air of importance it does not merit. For example check out Matt Yglesias.

The post-peak problem

Even with its targeted demographic, there is considerable evidence that Whole Foods was already in danger of losing its dominant position. A decade ago, the chain largely had a lock on the organic and exotic market. If you wanted heirloom tomatoes and cage free eggs and pink Himalayan salt and those big bottles of Dr. Bonner's soap that your stoner friends used to read in the bathtub in college, you could either drive around various health-food shops and co-ops or you could go to Whole Foods.

Recently, though, the company has found its one time monopoly under assault from all sides. Old-fashioned retailers like Kroger's and Walmart have greatly expanded their organic and exotic selections. On the opposite front, small, nimble players like Trader Joe's and Sprouts have gone directly after the target market and have done so with far better prices and superior branding. This latter threat has gotten so bad that Whole Foods was forced to launch the Trader Joe's clone 365.

Before Amazon swooped in, the company had been facing one of the ugliest competitive landscapes in the industry.

"But we'll make it up with volume"

I know it seems a mundane point in this age of disruptors and economages, but Wal-Mart (and Krogers and Costco and ...) have mastered the art of selling groceries at a profit. Amazon appears to have gone into the business largely as a kind of loss leader and it's not clear they have any real plans to move beyond that model.

Wal-Mart, on the other hand, just might

This is an interesting idea, with some potentially big implications.

And finally, Jim Cramer predicts the possibility of great things.

There are few things scarier in the world of finance.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The scariest quote you'll see on antitrust this week

 For reasons I'll try to go into later, I'm not all that worried about the antitrust issues with the Amazon-Whole Foods merger, though that might change with new developments. The sale of a Kroger or a Safeway would certainly make me rethink this, as would a real (rather than all-hype) advance in food delivery systems. For now, though, I'm going to be more concerned by pretty much anything that comes out of Comcast, for example.

But when we do hit the next big antitrust case, this story by Gizmodo's Rhett Jones will worry me deeply. [emphasis added]

Makan Delrahim is Trump’s nominee to handle antitrust cases at the Justice Department. He made it through Senate Judiciary Committee hearings this month and should be starting work soon.
According to The Intercept, Delrahim has spent the last decade working in the private sector on merger deals and is considered to be very corporate friendly in such matters. As The New York Times puts it, he flippantly believes that “a monopoly is perfectly legal until it abuses its monopoly power.” For about 12 years, he has worked for the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which just happens to be registered to lobby on Amazon’s behalf.

Over at the FTC, Abbott Lipsky is the acting Director of the Bureau of Competition. Whole Foods has hired Lipsky’s former law firm, Latham & Watkins, to manage the proceedings with Amazon.

Monday, June 19, 2017

An alternate model for the rideshare business

One of the problems with hype-driven businesses and next-big-thingism is that it tends to drive investments and strategies in questionable directions. The best model for an industry might not be sufficiently hype-friendly or it might entail lots of small and medium players rather than one for to behemoth that investors can get excited about. (See the previously mentioned Ponzi threshold).

This got me thinking about the ridesharing industry. We have all largely accepted the Uber/Lyft  models as the only way to make the industry work: a huge number of employees (or subcontractors if you prefer) working for a big company that takes care of everything except for the car and the driving.

Instead, what if we thought in terms of something more like a franchise model? You have a national company that handles the branding, dispatching, routing, and billing while a middleman handles the inspection, driver recruitment, and dealing with local authorities.

This would insulate the national corporation from many of the labor issues currently besetting the industry. It could very well significantly reduce cost. It could even go a long way toward letting market forces determine where to grow. Rather than letting some corporate bureaucracy determine which region was suitable, the decision would be based on local entrepreneurs willing to put in the work and put up the money.

Friday, June 16, 2017

I know you've probably already seen this, but it's too good not to post.

Great work from XKCD. Of all the embarrassing sub genres of statistical pseudoscience journalism, there is not that beats the popularity and the obvious bullshit factor of the every-states-favorite-______. You inevitably start with a sample so inadequate that states like Montana come in with less than a dozen people. Worse still and defying all logic, each state somehow ins up with a different food, singer, or TV show.

The next time you see one of these what-each-state-thinks maps, send the people responsible a copy of this:

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Keeping the Uber thread going

For those joining us late in the show, we've spent this week discussing some of the problems with Uber's current business model and some of the proposals for the future.

Even evil plans require a certain level of competence

Ponzi Thresholds

A follow-up to Mark's post

One of the issues we've brought up more than once is that some of the companies difficulties appear to run so deep that even achieving a monopoly would not be enough to resolve them. Over at LGM, Scott Lemieux has reached a similar conclusion:

But it should be obvious that the Standard Oil model won’t work. There are two fundamental problems facing Uber’s potential profitability:

    The inherent costs of entry are low
    Demand for cab service is highly elastic

The circle just can’t be squared. The reason it takes a lot of venture capital to compete with Uber is because it’s massively subsidizing riders and drivers. But if you assume that Uber can charge market rates and still make a profit, then it would be easy as pie for a competitor to enter the market. To assume that market rates are profitable and that it would be extremely expensive to enter the field is a Mnuchinesque mistake. If you share my assumption (and, apparently, the assumption of the companies themselves) that they would hemorrhage riders if they charged market rates, then it doesn’t matter if Uber achieves quasi-monopoly status — it’s still losing money.

And the problem is even more acute in smaller, less dense markets than NYC and SF. Some of the problems I identified — cars in poor condition, opaque pricing, forced ridesharing — are regulatory failures and/or cases of companies being incompetent. But there’s a reason why outside of the biggest cities cab service tends to be unreliable if it’s available at all outside of transportation hubs and major hotels. Basically, in cities where people don’t take cabs for most trips you face the choice of making it worth their while for drivers to stay on the road when they don’t have passengers, or you’re going to have cases where people want cabs and can’t get them. Given that demand is particularly elastic in places where people generally have cars and rarely use cabs, cab companies are probably going to choose the latter. But this creates a downward spiral — if you need a cab and can’t get one, you’re even less likely to use a cab going forward. I don’t see anything about Uber’s technology that solves this fundamental problem.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A follow-up to Mark's post

This is Joseph

I wanted to follow-up on Mark's recent posts. One thing that needs to be carefully thought about with disruptive technologies is whether the legal framework will remain static or not.  Consider the example of Amazon and sales tax: for a long time the company benefited from having lower costs due to rules about collecting sales tax in states where it did not have a physical presence.  However, success breeds interest in collecting this revenue and, eventually, a successful company can no longer make the argument that special treatment is needed in order to grow a new industry.

With Uber, the fault line is clear -- as long as the drivers are independent contractors that's fine.  But the new types of variable pricing are undermining that argument.  Felix Salmon:
I do think that it does bring Uber one step closer to being the drivers’ employer, since the drivers are effectively being paid a flat wage for generating a variable revenue stream.
The answer is supposed to be driverless cars, but it is unclear that anybody is likely to own this space enough to make it a monopoly.  Both traditional car companies and Google look like competitors, and it isn't clear that these companies can be simply muscled aside.

Now it looks like the CEO might take a leave of absence, which isn't a good sign.

The part of this that is most painful is that Uber is actually probably a very good company in terms of producing a needed product and the huge valuation is causing more harm than good.  A real time ride hailing device on smartphones really does add a lot of value by matching customers with cars in a way that used to be quite difficult with a taxi.  That's likely to be a product of enduring value.  What's harder to see is how it can ever dominate the transportation space enough to make the market capitalization, weighted for risk, seem reasonable.

Addendum:  After talking with Mark, he suggested breaking out the steps for the driverless car pivot as being:

  1. Invent and perfect the technology
  2. Build a car company or partner with an existing car company on favorable terms
  3. Build the cars -- either by buying a fleet or selling them to customers
  4. Link the cars to their current taxi service
Some of these steps may be quite challenging.  A car is an expensive asset.  It is pricey to build them in bulk and it might be hard to convince people to lend them out (unlike the taxi scenario where the owner is able to stay with the valuable asset.

This also suggests that regulatory and insurance issues are tractable.  Who is insuring the car and how does it work for periods where it is completely empty?  Is summoning an empty car an invitation to theft?  It's not that these issues aren't soluble, but there are a lot of steps before success.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ponzi Thresholds

Another post based on Reeves Wiedeman's Uber article in New York magazine. This one sets up a concept I've been meaning to discuss with the tentative name of a Ponzi threshold. The basic idea is that sometimes overhyped companies that start out with viable business plans see their valuation become so inflated that, in order to meet and sustain investor expectations, they have to come up with new and increasingly fantastic longshot schemes, anything that sounds like it might possibly pay off with lottery ticket odds.

Like I said, this is been bouncing around for quite a while. I may have even slipped in a previous reference that I've forgotten about. There are plenty of potential examples, but the following is the first time I've seen the phenomenon spelled out in such naked terms [emphasis added]:
Meanwhile, in an effort to show potential investors in an IPO that it has multiple revenue streams, Uber has expanded into a variety of industries tangentially related to its core business. In 2015, the company launched Uber Everything, an initiative to figure out how it could move things in addition to people, and when I visited Uber headquarters, the guest Wi-Fi password was a reference to Uber Freight, the company’s attempt to get into trucking. (A former employee said the password often seemed to be a subliminal message encouraging employees to focus on the company’s newest initiatives.) But moving things had its own complications. One former Uber Everything manager said the company had looked at transporting flowers or prescription drugs or laundry but found that the demographic of people who, for example, couldn’t afford a washer and dryer but would pay to have their laundry delivered was a small one. Uber Rush, a delivery service in New York, had become “a nice little business,” the manager said, “but at Uber, you’re looking for a billion-dollar business, not a nice little business.”

It turned out that food delivery was the only area that made much sense, though even that was difficult. In the past year, food-delivery companies SpoonRocket, TinyOwl, Take Eat Easy, and Maple have all ceased operations. Postmates said in 2015 that it could be profitable in 2016, at which point it pushed the date to 2017. Its target is now 2018. “It absolutely does not work as a one-to-one business — picking up a burrito from Chipotle and delivering it,” a former Uber Eats manager said. “It has to be ‘I’m picking up ten orders from Chipotle, and I’m picking up this person next to Chipotle, and I’m gonna drop the burritos off along the way.’ ” Uber Eats has grown significantly, but getting the business up and running had required considerable subsidies, and the manager said it was rumored that a significant portion of the company’s domestic losses were coming from Uber Everything.

Uber’s expansion into an ever-widening gyre of business interests makes sense for a company looking to justify a huge valuation, but it has drawn criticism from some who wonder why the company is moving into so many different markets without becoming profitable in its first one. “It’s a Ponzi scheme of ambition,” Anand Sanwal, a venture-capital analyst, told me. “ ‘We’re gonna raise money on the promise of dominating an industry to come in order to pay for this thing that doesn’t make us money right now.’ ” He had recently conducted an unscientific poll of subscribers to his newsletter asking how many would invest in Uber today, even at a discounted valuation, and 77 percent said they wouldn’t. But the new initiatives have the benefit of keeping everyone excited about the future: In April, Uber held a conference in Dallas to explain why it planned to one day get into flying cars.

That phrase "looking to justify a huge valuation" is one that you need to contemplate for a few moments, let the logical implications wash over you. As I suggested before, like most New York magazine tech writers, Wiedeman does a good job capturing the telling detail, but is reluctant to draw that final Dr.-Tarr-and-Prof.-Feather conclusion, particularly when it threatens a cherished narrative.

There are at least two layers of crazy here. First, hype and next-big-thingism push Uber's value far beyond any defensible level, then, as reality sets in and investors realize that the original business model, though sound, can never possibly justify the money that's been put into the company, Uber's management responds with a series of more and more improbable proposals in order to keep the buzz going.

The phenomenon is not unique to this company but I can't think of another case this big or this blatant. (And they actually used the term "Ponzi scheme.")

Monday, June 12, 2017

Even evil plans require a certain level of competence

This article on Uber by Reeves Wiedeman is less than the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are very good. I particularly liked this observation about the role of competition in the company's valuation and business plans, though Wiedeman does leave one important point unmade. [Emphasis added]
To explain its massive losses, Uber and its investors have often cited Amazon, which didn’t turn a year-end profit for ten years as it built out an infrastructure that made the selling of more and more books — and eventually, of everything — cheaper and more efficient the larger it got. But Amazon’s biggest-ever loss was $1.4 billion, half of Uber’s 2016 deficit, and Jeff Bezos responded by cutting 15 percent of his workforce. Plus, Uber’s economics barely resemble Amazon’s. The taxi business doesn’t scale in the same way, and while Uber’s technology is sophisticated, the barriers to entry are relatively low, and Uber has had to fend off various competitors. So far as [transportation-industry analyst Hubert] Horan could tell, there was only one possible path for Uber to meet that $68 billion valuation: eliminate competition.

Uber’s potential aspirations toward monopoly are a sensitive matter — in discussing how Uber Pool became more efficient the more people used it, [Uber’s former head of mapping Brian] McClendon referred to Uber’s ideal state as a “monopoly,” before correcting himself to call it “not a monopoly, but a heavily used service” — and while every company dreams of owning its entire market, the question of whether Uber can do so has become murky. One Uber investor told me he no longer sees ride-hailing as winner-take-all but didn’t want to speak for the company; when I put the question to Rachel Holt, Uber’s head of North American operations, she ducked it by praising the value of competition and saying she didn’t have a crystal ball.

Being an old Arkansas boy, I was born and raised in the Walmart briar patch and I know a thing or two about anti-competitive practices. The giant retailer mastered the art of driving small, locally owned stores out of business by selling products at a loss, then jacking the prices back up when they had a clear field.

There are two essential components to this strategy: sufficiently deep pockets to stay in the game long enough and sufficiently high barriers to reentry so that, when the profit margin starts going back up, a new crop of competitors does not quickly appear. In the case of Walmart, restarting a collapsed local retail economy is next to impossible, but as noted in the article, the barriers to starting a ridesharing service are relatively low, particularly one targeting a single metro area.

So to recap,

1. Uber's plans depend on establishing an objectionable and quite possibly illegal set of international monopolies

2. Even if they do manage to pull this off, they probably won't be able to jacked prices up sufficiently to cover their losses.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Explaining the upsell model with Porky and Daffy

Upsell models are not necessarily innately evil, but they often align the incentives that way.

If the model is based on leveraging customer satisfaction – – if you're happy with the introductory packet, you'll just love the deluxe – – then there is absolutely nothing wrong with the approach. This model is fairly common in healthy, efficient, truly competitive markets. When people are free to choose, the system works.

If, on the other hand, customers are locked in and there are impediments to switching to a different product, this creates an incentive to make the entry level product just good enough to keep people from storming out the door but bad enough that an upgrade is often necessary for a satisfactory experience.

I could illustrate the point with examples from the airline and cable TV industries, but wouldn't you rather just watch the cartoon?

Dime to Retire by MistyIsland1