Thursday, January 09, 2014

Do try this at home...

Positive parenting 

Beyond the naughty step 

Attempts to go where calm and reasonableness fear to tread 

Jan 11th 2014 | CHICAGO | From the print edition

IN THE old days parents followed a simple rule: spare the rod and spoil the child. These days less violent forms of discipline are favoured. Supernanny, a television toddler-tamer, recommends the “naughty step”, to which ill-behaved brats are temporarily banished. Yet even this is too harsh, some psychologists say. Putting Howling Henry on the naughty step may interrupt his tantrum; but advocates of “positive discipline” say it does nothing to encourage him to solve his own problems (and thus build character). Some even suggest it may be psychologically damaging.

 Positive discipline, which is becoming a grassroots fashion in America, aims to teach children self-control and empathy. Rather than screaming at them to pick up the toys they have strewn on the floor, parents or teachers ask them to suggest their own way of tackling the problem. Adults are encouraged to think harder about the causes of bad behaviour. Families meet regularly to discuss all of the above. [More...]

DIY Lego iPhone Dock

Feeling fairly smug. After finding out that my new Apple dock did not hold my phone in its case the overpriced bit of plastic was returned to Appleville for a full refund. Then made my own dock out of old bits of the children's Lego for next to nothing. 

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Punch up at Christmas

I think I managed to start a fight between two Christmas tree associations just before Christmas.

Christmas tree wars 

Making fir fly 

Dec 16th 2013, 15:43 by N.L. | CHICAGO

AS IT is the holiday season, Schumpeter wishes to spread some festive joy by highlighting the work of a little known, and under-appreciated, trade association. At this time of year there can be no better recipient of such largesse than America's National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA). It was founded in 1955 to help farmers grow Christmas trees as an agricultural crop. (Prior to that most trees were taken from forests.) Today, state associations do much of this and the NCTA has different things on its mind, such as battling fake trees for market share in this $1 billion industry. Or, as Rick Dungey, NCTA's spokesperson, calls artificial trees: "plastic tree-shaped decorations". Happily for Mr Dungey, real Christmas trees are doing reasonably well. Despite a rise in sales of fake trees a decade ago, fake trees have lost their sparkle a bit since the financial crisis (see chart).

 NCTA is not alone in its quest to represent Christmas trees. A more mysterious trade association called the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA) sprouted up in 2008. ACTA says it represents the whole industry. "We believe that both kinds of trees are good trees and it's up to the consumer to decide what is right for themselves," says spokesperson Jami Warner. Mr Dungey is not buying it. He says ACTA will not reveal who its members are, does not represent anyone in the real tree industry and is a front for a company that imports fake trees. Not so much astroturf, then, but astropine?

Ms Warner replies, "despite the efforts of the NCTA to pick a fight, something we have not and will not engage in, we have continued our efforts to provide factual information about Christmas trees and the Christmas tree industry, and, furthermore, to advocate for the Christmas tree industry as a whole." Ms Warner confirms that ACTA does not reveal who its members are. Schumpeter pointed out that it was difficult for ACTA to represent an industry with no evidence of any actual members. Ms Warner did not reply. But, as she pointed out previously, it is ACTA's busiest time of year. [More...]

Friday, December 06, 2013

Is God more popular than Jesus on Google?

God certainly has a great deal more all-year round appeal, while interest in Jesus is naturally more seasonal. But do these figures show an uptick in interest in God versus Jesus in Google searches? Possibly. Why might that be? And is the uptick in interest in God in March 2010 something to do with the Catholic church child abuse scandals?

Official: Christmas is not getting earlier.

Look at this time line of searches for "Christmas" on Google trends. I can see no evidence that Christmas is getting earlier but it does look like people have been getting less interested in Christmas since 2005. Shopping fatigue?

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

No surprises

Detroit's bankruptcy 

Given the green light 

Dec 3rd 2013, 21:31 by N.L. | CHICAGO 

 FOR A city as indebted as Detroit it may seem surprising that a judge would have to decide whether it is eligible for bankruptcy. Nonetheless this is what Judge Stephen Rhodes has been obliged to consider since the city filed for Chapter 9 protection in July. On December 3rd he decided that Detroit was insolvent and could move ahead with its bankruptcy filing. That is good news for the city, but bad news for its over 100,000 creditors, among whom are pensioners, bondholders and even those awaiting payouts in lawsuits against the city.

In his ruling, Mr Rhodes turned away arguments that the bankruptcy violated the federal constitution. The use of federal mechanisms for resolving municipal debts does not violate the tenth amendment, he said, citing the Supreme Court case of US v Bekins. Then he turned to the state constitution, which protects the pensions of public workers, except in the case of bankruptcy. Mr Rhodes ruled that the constitutional protections "do not apply to the federal bankruptcy court" and that pensions ought to be treated like the city's other debts.

Creditors also tried to argue that the city did not negotiate in good faith, which it must do in order to be approved for bankruptcy. On this point the judge's ruling was particularly interesting. He deemed that the city did not satisfy the good-faith requirements with its proposal to creditors in June. Moreover, he said that creditors could not be faulted for failing to counter the city's restructuring deal, as it was vague and creditors were given little time to consider the offer. But these concerns were trumped by his ruling that it was impracticable for the city to negotiate with so many creditors. [More...]

Detroit or bust

Tomorrow judge Stephen Rhodes will decide whether Detroit is eligible for Chapter 9 protection in the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Two-hundred prospective jurors have already been summoned to appear. It is difficult to imagine that the judge will simply announce that the city is ineligible and tell them all to go home.

More telling than the decision to approve the bankruptcy will be how he tackles retiree pensions and what he says about the question of negotiating in good faith. It is possible that he may leave the fate of retiree pensions undecided. That would be unfortunate for everyone (except the pensioners) because Detroit needs a comprehensive deal. Retirees will do better outside of Chapter 9 though, as the constitution offers protection to their pensions. Inside a bankruptcy case they are likely to receive a fraction on the dollar (of the unfunded portion of their pensions). But if the case does go ahead and include retiree pensions there is likely to be a fight over the extent to which Michigan's constitutional protection is trumped by federal bankruptcy law.

Tellingly the judge asked at one point during the hearings so far,

“Is there any other constitutional right, state or federal that is that absolute?” asked the judge. “Even freedom of the press isn’t that absolute, is it?”  

It will be interesting to see what he says about the issue of whether the city negotiated in 'good faith'--a prerequisite for bankruptcy to be approved. Although this question was hard fought over, I wonder if it is a little bit of a red herring? Perhaps it is the true that the emergency manager of Detroit overstated the chances of doing a deal. Or perhaps they always knew that bankruptcy was a very likely outcome and pretended it was not. Maybe they even decided long ahead of time that bankruptcy was really the only option, and decided to 'go through the motions'.

The problem with even the worst-case scenario is that you have to argue that Chapter 9 protection must be denied because the situation was so bad that the city had no other real option. Of course the creditors will say a deal would have been possible with more time. What seems more likely is that more time would have allowed for a blizzard of lawsuits. So even if the judge decides that there was not as much good faith as he would have liked to have seen, it is hard to see him deciding to deny eligibility.

A recent online piece about the Detroit case:


Bankruptcy or bust

Nov 15th 2013, 14:22 by N.L. | CHICAGO

OVER the next few days it will up to one man, Steven Rhodes, a federal bankruptcy judge, to decide the fate of Detroit. In July the city filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. This was challenged by unions, retirees and creditors. Last week the trial wrapped up on whether the city was eligible to declare Chapter 9. Now it is up to Mr Rhodes to decide.

 Failure to win such protection would be a disaster for Detroit, which has some $18 billion worth of debt and liabilities. Creditors would undoubtedly sue. City services would continue to decline. Of course, bankruptcy, too, has its drawbacks. It is likely to result in cuts to pensions and health-care benefits, and the sale of city assets (possibly even its fine art). Cuts to retiree benefits have the public-employees unions up in arms.

 The unions and retirees claim the bankruptcy is an attempt to get around a ban on pension cuts in the state constitution. During the trial their representatives argued that the state did not negotiate in good faith prior to declaring bankruptcy, as is required by law.

The city disagrees. It says it tried to negotiate, but met with a lack of cooperation from debtholders. Rick Snyder, Michigan's governor who approved the bankruptcy filing, described the move as a "very last resort" when he took the stand last month. But he avoided questions about the impact bankruptcy might have on pensioners.

 How might the judge be leaning? It helps to look at his questions. Mr Rhodes has pressed lawyers opposing the bankruptcy to explain why municipal pensions in Michigan are sacrosanct, and whether this means the state must guarantee payment. “Is there any other constitutional right, state or federal that is that absolute?” asked the judge. “Even freedom of the press isn’t that absolute, is it?” [More...]

My other stories about Detroit:

Skid row, A state takeover of Detroit, once America’s third-largest city, looks likely, Feb 23rd 2013 | CHICAGO |From the print edition

Can Motown be mended? America’s biggest-ever city bankruptcy starts to roll, Jul 27th 2013 | DETROIT | From the print edition

Manna for Motown,  Uncle Sam offers a little help. Oct 5th 2013 | From the print edition

Buy to the sound of gunfire,  Some parts of Detroit are doing well Jul 27th 2013 | GILBERTVILLE, DETROIT | From the print edition

Iron Orr The city’s default spells pain for creditors, employees and residents Jun 22nd 2013 | CHICAGO | From the print edition

Nowhere to run,  The motor city flirts with fiscal disaster Dec 8th 2011, 16:17 | From the print edition