Rolls Royce, Cadillac, Moving Assembly Line, Economies of Scale, VCR, Cell Phones and HD Plasma Television

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 1st, 2013

History 101

The Moving Assembly Line allows GM to Divide their Costs over more Units than Rolls Royce

Rolls Royce automobiles are very expensive luxury cars.  Of impeccable quality.  It may be the finest automobile ever built.  And I say built not manufactured.  For they build a Rolls Royce by hand to ensure that high quality.  By some of the most experienced and skilled artisans to ever hone metal, wood and leather into an automobile.  Because of this they can’t make a lot of them a year.  They set a record sales total in 2011.  By selling 3,538 hand-crafted automobiles.  The entry price for a Rolls Royce?  Around $250,000.

By contrast GM sold 152,389 Cadillac luxury automobiles in 2011 in North America.  These are not hand-crafted.  The Americans build them on moving assembly lines.  Which is why they can build 43 times as many Cadillacs than they can hand-build Rolls Royces.  The entry price for a Cadillac?  About $33,100.  While a top of the line may cost you around $63,200.  Now Cadillacs are nice.  The name has become synonymous with high quality.  The best quality is the ‘Cadillac’ of something.  The quality may not be Rolls Royce quality but few will complain about that quality when sitting behind the wheel of a Cadillac.  They are glad to settle for a Cadillac over a Rolls Royce.  Especially when it costs 7.5 times as much to get into a Rolls Royce than into a Cadillac.

Why are hand-crafted Rolls Royce automobiles so much more costly than Cadillacs manufactured on a moving assembly line?  Economies of scale.  The higher production levels of the mass-produced cars allows GM to divide all of their costs over many more units.  Bringing the unit cost down.  And the selling price.  With fewer sales the unit cost for Rolls Royce is much higher.  As is the selling price.

As Demand grew Manufacturers were able to Bring Prices Down thanks to Economies of Scale

Rolls Royce pays a price for their commitment to quality.  They can’t sell cars as inexpensively as some of their luxury rivals.  But that’s okay for them.  As the market for hand-crafted luxury cars is large enough to keep them in business doing what they love.  Building the finest quality automobile in the world.  And those who want the best can afford to pay a quarter of a million dollars for an entry-level Rolls Royce.  So they do.  Which is why Rolls Royce doesn’t have to worry about economies of scales to compete against their competition.

Before Henry Ford built the moving assembly line cars were too expensive for the working man.  Henry Ford changed that.  Once they started manufacturing the new driving machine on the moving assembly line Ford was able to reach an economy of scale that greatly increased production rates.  Bringing down the unit cost.  And the selling price.  As new products entered the market place they were typically unaffordable to all but the rich.  But then as demand grew manufacturers were able to bring prices down thanks to economies of scale.  Like Henry Ford did with the automobile.

The first commercially viable video tape recorder was the Ampex model VR-1000 in 1956.  It cost $50,000 (about $421,000 today).  It was the size of a kitchen stove.  And about the only place you found them were in television broadcast studios.  From this early beginning came the technology for the video cassette recorder (VCR).  By the mid to late Seventies schools had one they rolled from room to room.  It cost approximately $5,000 (about $19,400 today).  About a decade later you could buy a smaller unit that could do more for around $2,000 (about $4,000 today).  Just before the DVD player and the digital video recorder made them obsolete you could get a nice one for about $100.  They were so small and so inexpensive that you bought one for every television in the house.

Bringing these Prices Down are State-of-the-Art High-Tech Manufacturers throughout Asia

When the first cell phones came out we called them car phones.  Because they were so big and had no real battery life that they were permanently installed in a car.  Connected to the electrical system of the car.  The first real portable cell phone was something that looked like a brick and weighed in around 2 pounds.  The battery gave you maybe an hour of talk time.  And it cost $3,995 in 1982 (about $9,600 today).  By 1993 the price was down to $900 ($1,400 today) but still weighed in at 2 pounds.  By 1996 the weight dropped to about 3 ounces.  It cost about $1,000 ($1,400 today).  By 2002 you could buy a flip-phone with a built-in high resolution camera for $400 (about $510 today).  And so on until they got smaller and more powerful with longer battery lives.  Today you can often get a pretty nice phone free when you sign a contract for service.

Things people like and demand can accelerate this process of quality improvement and lower prices.  For half a century the television has been a fixture in most American homes.  So technology buffs with money were always ready to spend a lot of money on the next best thing.  And when high-definition plasma televisions hit the market it didn’t take long for economies of scale to bring prices down as demand exploded for these beautiful things.  A Panasonic 42″ high-definition plasma television cost around $2,500 in 2004 (about $3,000 today).  About 4 years later you could get a slightly better set for about $700 (about $750 today).  Today you can buy an even better 42 inch plasma set from Panasonic for as little as $400.

Bringing these prices down are state-of-the-art high-tech manufacturers throughout Asia (Japan, South Korea, etc.).  They can mass produce cell phones and televisions and other high-tech goods at remarkable production rates.  Filling ships with their goods to export around the world.  They bring together high-skilled labor and the best in automated production equipment.  They can retool and begin new production so fast that they can fill the demand for the next big thing without missing a step.  And quickly ramp up to an economy of scale wherever they see growing consumer demand.  Bringing down unit costs.  And prices.  Making a lot of happy consumers around the world.

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Economies of Scale

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 31st, 2012

Economics 101

Employers are very Reluctant to hire Additional Employees because Labor Costs are their Greatest Costs

When it comes to running a business there is nothing more costly than people.  Employee salaries and wages.  Payroll taxes.  And benefits.  People need a large paycheck to live on and will go to the employer that offers the highest pay.  Government has imposed costly taxes and regulatory costs.  And to further entice good workers employers have to sweeten the deal with some fringe benefits like health insurance, paid vacation time, holiday pay, paid sick days and retirement plans.  It adds up.  Something like this:

As you can see the amount of pay employees are familiar with (the working pay above) is far less than the total cost to the employer.  The employee doesn’t see the 63.1% markup on their working pay that their employer has to pay in addition to paying the employee.  As a business hires more employees these costs add up.  A small factory with 15 workers on the factory floor can cost the employer $1.6 million.  Which is why labor costs are the greatest costs of most businesses.  And why employers are very reluctant to add additional employees.

The more Productive you are the Lower your Unit Cost and the Lower the Selling Price in a Store

Besides labor costs a business like a factory will have material costs, too.  These are variable costs.  They’re variable because they vary with varying levels of production.  The more production there is the more variable costs there are.  In addition to variable costs businesses have fixed costs.  Often simply called overhead.

Factories make things.  Like things you can pick up off a store’s shelf.  Things with low prices on their price tags.  But when it can cost a small manufacturer $1.6 million JUST for its labor costs how can they sell things with such low prices?  By making a lot of those things to sell.  As much as they possibly can with their variable and fixed costs.  What we call economies of scale.  And the more they can make for their given costs the lower the unit cost is for each thing you can buy off a shelf at a store.   As you can see here:

Assuming a factory can produce anywhere from 1,250,000 to 2,750,000 units with a given labor force operating the same production equipment in a factory you can see how the unit cost falls the more they produce.  Which is why there is so much talk about productivity.  The more productive you are (the more you can produce for a given cost) the lower your unit cost.  And the lower the selling price in a store.  Increasing productivity could mean moving an assembly line a little faster.  Or replacing some people with machines.  Things that workers don’t like.  But things consumers love.  For they like low prices when they go shopping.

Employers are very Reluctant to Hire New Employees and Prefer Increasing Productivity with Automation

If you crunch these numbers for the labor costs of 16 and 17 workers you can see how unit costs rise as an employee or two is added to the production floor.  At an annual production of 2,000,000 units the unit cost increases $0.05 (4.6%) going from 15 to 16 workers.  Adding two workers increases the unit cost $0.11 (10.1%).  Doesn’t seem like a lot.  But we notice when something we once bought for $0.99 now costs $1.04.  And we don’t like it.  But business owners like it even less.  Here’s why.

Business may be booming.  Those on the factory floor may be working a lot of overtime to produce at a rate of 2,000,000 units per year.  And are growing unhappy with all of that overtime.  They keep demanding that the owner hire another person.  The owner does.  Increasing unit costs by $0.05.  But the owner hopes the booming economy will continue.  And that they can even increase the production rate.  For if they can sell an additional 250,000 units the unit cost can actually fall $0.07 to $1.02.  Making the addition of a new worker on the factory floor not increase costs.  As the increase in production will make costs fall greater than that increase in labor costs.

But it doesn’t always work like that.  Economic booms don’t always last.  When too many factories increase production to meet booming demand they bring too much supply to market.  Causing prices to fall.  And forcing factories to cut back on production rates.  So instead of increasing the production rate they may find themselves cutting back.  Perhaps going from 2,000,000 to 1,750,000.  A fall of 250,000 units.  Increasing the unit cost $0.21 (19.3%).  Which could very well raise the unit cost above the prevailing market price.  Requiring layoffs.  To get the unit cost back down to $1.09.  Allowing them to sell at the prevailing market price.  And at a production rate of 1,750,000 units that may require letting go more than just one worker.  Maybe even more than two.  Which is why employers are very reluctant to hire new employees.  And prefer increasing productivity with automation.  For it is far easier to make machines increase or decrease production rates than it is to hire and lay off people.  Making it easier and less costly to reach great economies of scale.  Which makes low prices.  And happy consumers.

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Government Regulatory Policies make Greek Milk the most Expensive Milk in the European Union

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 24th, 2012

Week in Review

Greeks are furious over the high price of milk.  Some cannot even afford it anymore.  While others are calling for government to do something about the high price of milk.  Which is rather ironic as the government is responsible in large part for those high prices (see Price of milk makes Greeks’ blood boil by Karolina Tagaris and Alan Wheatley posted 11/22/2012 on Reuters).

Aravanis reserves his harshest criticism for government bureaucrats, who he says make it hard for farmers to obtain land permits to expand and reap economies of scale. “It’s not as if cows are going to be grazing in their living room,” he said.

George Kefalas, who produces milk on a family farm near the northern city of Thessaloniki, said it can take two or three years to get an operating license…

Attempting direct comparisons with prices elsewhere in Europe is treacherous because so many variables are in play, such as transport costs, rents and consumer preferences.

But Eurostat says the price in Greece of dairy produce -milk, cheese and eggs – was 31.5 percent above the EU average in 2011, the highest in Europe…

Skordas said milk was expensive because of farmers’ high production costs, expensive packaging and the cost of transporting milk to remote islands and villages.

Moreover, fresh milk is sold in Greece with a shelf life of just five days, which means more trips to collect it from farms.

Dairy farmers oppose a long-standing proposal to extend the shelf life of milk to 10 days, as is common elsewhere in Europe.

This could be done relatively simply in the pasteurisation process, but Skordas said cattle breeders feared – unnecessarily, in his opinion – that this would open the door to increased competition from imported milk.

Small farms.  Government restrictions.  High regulatory and compliance costs.  If the Greeks don’t want economies of scales (like they have in the US) and want only fresh milk (unpasteurized milk less than 6 days old) legally sold then milk is going to be expensive.  Especially when dairy farmers lobby government to keep their costly regulations in place to keep out less pricy imported milk.

Only government can keep out less pricy milk.  And only government can keep the cost of milk production high by mandating a short shelf life.  As the Greek milk market is a captive market Greeks have little recourse but to pay high milk prices.  Or demand that government stop raising the price of milk with their regulatory policies.

Milk is like oil in a way.  There is little difference between batches when it comes from the source.  But once it enters the regulated market governments start adding costs.  Making some milk (or oil products) more expensive than other milk (or oil products).  The reason why gasoline prices are different in the US than in Europe is that government taxes and regulations are different.  They’re more costly in the Europe so gasoline is more costly in Europe.  Just as milk is more costly in Greece than elsewhere in the EU.

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FT135: “If corporations aren’t people than neither is government.” —Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 14th, 2012

Fundamental Truth

Corporations get Wealthy by either Pleasing their Customers or Pleasing Government

Mitt Romney said during the Republican primary campaign that corporations are people.  And the Left castigated him.  While late-night comedy made jokes with that snarky, all-knowing condescension.  Because everyone on the Left knows that corporations aren’t people.  They’re evil, soulless entities.  Unfeeling and cruel.  Who care only about profits.  While poisoning our environment.  Everyone on the Left will agree with this.  And those CEOs?  They’re the worst.  A bunch of greedy, old, white men.  Except those women who shattered the glass ceiling.  Who the Left celebrates.  Even though they run evil, soulless entities.

So what is a corporation?  Other than something that comes from the bowels of hell?  Well, perhaps the simplest explanation is this.  A corporation is a business structure that lowers consumer prices.  Which reduces the cost of living for poor and middle class families everywhere.  Huh?!?  No.  That can’t be right, you say.  Because corporations are evil and soulless.  On top of that they’re not people.  So why would some evil, soulless non-humans do something that is very beneficial to humans?  In a word, greed.

There are two ways corporations can get wealthy.  Either by pleasing their customers.  With high quality, great selection and low prices.  Or by pleasing government.  Allowing them to give their customers lower quality, poorer selection and higher prices.  Because their friends in government limit competition.  So they don’t have to please their customers.  Wal-Mart is an example of a company getting rich by pleasing customers with high quality, great selection and low prices.  Wal-Mart shoppers enjoy going to Wal-Mart.  The American auto industry is an example of companies getting rich because of government.  Which restricted free market competition as much as possible in the auto industry.  Raising prices and lowering quality.  Because of this auto shoppers don’t enjoy buying American cars as much as foreign imports.  Which has made Toyota the number one car company.

The more Corporations Pursue Profits the more Choice, Quality, Variety and Lower Prices Consumers Have

Selling a large variety of high quality goods at low prices will attract customers.  And increase sales volume.  That leads to profits.  Which is what those greedy corporations want.  And one of the best ways to do this is through economies of scale.  Growing larger to have greater purchasing power.  And selling so many units that you can charge less per unit to recover overhead costs.  Thus allowing you to sell at lower prices.  And the bigger you get the more you can lower your prices.

But to get big you need to take a lot of risks.  And the biggest risk is borrowing enormous sums of money.  Because it takes money to make money.  The kind of money one person typically doesn’t have.  So how to get it?  By incorporating.  Becoming one of those evil, soulless entities.  So you can give your customers a large variety of high quality goods at low prices.  When a business incorporates a few things happen.  First of all the business becomes a legal entity.  Which protects the people running the business.  By diversifying risk to its numerous shareholders.  Who assume that risk in exchange for ownership.  Incorporating also opens the capital markets for them.  Where they can sell bonds to finance growth.  Or sell stock.  Allowing them to raise the large sums of money to open more stores/plants.  Hire more people.  And achieve economies of scale.

The more corporations that do this the more choice consumers have.  The better quality.  And the lower prices fall.  Just think of something you’ve bought recently.  And the choices you had.  The stores you visited.  The websites you visited.  How you found exactly what you were looking for and paid what you thought was a fair price.  And how you enjoyed the whole process.  Now compare that experience with, say, renewing your driver’s license.  Where you have no choice in quality or price.  Compare the friendly faces at your favorite store with the joy of waiting for them to call your number at the DMV.  When the number being served is 76.  And you have number 12.  Worse, when you make the “I have places to go look” to the civil servants behind the counter working at a snail’s pace you don’t get a friendly smile in return.  You get a look of contempt.

People in Corporations put on a more Human Face than Government Workers because they Want to Please You

When you get poor service at a store you will complain.  You will talk to management.  You will threaten to take your business elsewhere.  Or you will just take your business elsewhere without telling anyone at that business.  Giving them no chance to correct a problem that will discourage customers shopping with them.  Which is the worst thing that can happen to a business.  Because they can’t fix a problem they don’t know about.  But if they know about it they will fix it.  Because if they don’t you will take your business elsewhere.  The last thing they want you to do.  So they will strive to make your experience a good experience.

If you get poor service at the DMV, though, you don’t want to get the people who can make you wait forever angry.  Instead you smile and tell them what a great job they’re doing.  Because you can’t go anywhere else.  Which is par for the course whenever you have to deal with the government.  Where customer service is not in the employee handbook.  Which is why people usually feel fear and/or dread whenever they have to deal with a government bureaucrat.  Especially the IRS.  Which is why the dark world George Orwell wrote about in Nineteen Eighty-Four was about the oppressive world of socialism.  Not an oppressive world where corporations take over.  Because they could never do that in a free market economy.  They could only do that in a world where government chooses winners and losers in the private sector.  Which would be a world without competition.  Where there was no large variety of high quality goods at low prices.  But the grey world that Orwell wrote about in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

So what’s the difference between corporations and the government?  The people.  The people in corporations put on a more human face because they want to please you.  Because they have to please you to stay in business.  The people in government, though, don’t.  Because government doesn’t have to please you.  And don’t try to.  For where else are you going to go?

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Competition, Mom and Pop Store, Big Box Store, Cooperative, Internet Sales, POS System, Inventory Control System and Wal-Mart

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 3rd, 2012

History 101

Big Box Stores offered More Choice and Lower Prices putting Mom and Pop Stores our of Business

Competition makes everything better for consumers.  Consumers love competition.  Because it gives them so much to choose from.  And choice is good.  Especially when that choice lowers prices.  And raises quality.  Which is why we love competition.  But it’s not very popular with businesses.  Especially the older ones.  Used to doing things the old way.  Who got into a comfortable rut.  Doing things the way they always did them.  Enjoying their comfortable incomes.  Until something arrived that shattered their world. 

America became the innovative capital of the world.  Thanks to their entrepreneurs.  In the land of liberty they were free to do great things.  Invent great things.  And go into business.  In cities and small towns everywhere moms and pops opened up shops.  Mom and pop stores.  Family affairs.  Serving their communities with quality goods and services.  At reasonable prices.  At least what people thought were reasonable prices.  Often times there was little competition for these mom and pop stores.  Apart from other mom and pop stores.

Mom and pop stores don’t have large sales.  Or large purchasing power.  So their prices are higher than a competitor who has large sales and large purchasing power.  Mom and pop office supply stores learned this lesson quickly when Office Max opened in town.  And Office Depot.  And Staples.  Big box stores that offered more choice and lower prices.  And no matter how much we loved our mom and pop stores when we had a chance to get more for less we chose to get more for less.  And these big box office supply stores put the mom and pop office supply stores out of business.

Advanced POS and Inventory Control Systems allow a Large Variety of Items at Low Prices

The mom and pop hardware stores suffered the same fate.  When the big box home improvement stores moved in.  Builders Square.  Home Quarters.  Home Depot.  Lowes.  Who served both consumers and contractors.  Giving them huge economies of scale.  Moving such a wide variety of material at low prices the small mom and pop hardware stores could never match.  Some survived.  Offering services like they did in the old days (like fixing a broken window).  And joining a cooperative (such as True Value or ACE Hardware) to match the purchasing power of the big box stores.  To get some economies of scale.  But more have gone out of business than stayed in business.

During the Eighties a lot of computer stores opened as the personal computer industry took off.  A lot of small stores custom built PCs.  Sold dot-matrix printers.  Fanfold printer paper.  Printer ribbons.  Floppy disks.  Cables.  External storage devices.  With the advent of the Internet they added dial-up modems.  As the industry grew the big box stores came in.  CompUSA.  Computer City.  The big box office supply stores.  Best Buy.  And Circuit City.  Put the small computer stores out of business.  By providing a huge variety at low prices.  They added software.  Games.  Uninterruptible power supplies.  And other electronic devices (PDAs, digital cameras, game boxes, game controllers, etc.).  Then Internet sales took off putting pressure on the big box stores.  Putting some of them out of business.

A big driver in the move away from the mom and pop stores to the big box stores is technology.  In particular inventory control systems.  Tied into their point of sale (POS) systems.  Buying a lot of goods and storing them in large warehouses is costly.  Because inventory doesn’t earn any revenue.  It costs to warehouse items.  And it takes cash to place things into inventory.  Businesses buy these things to sell them later.  If they buy too much of the wrong things they may sit in those warehouses.  Becoming less valuable as people’s interests change.  Requiring deep discounting to move these unwanted items out of inventory.  On the other hand, if you don’t carry a large inventory there is a chance you may run out of something that is popular and is selling.  This is where technology comes in.  When a cashier completes a sales transaction a lot of things happen automatically.   As people receive their change from the cashier the POS system automatically interfaces with the inventory control system.  It updates the system to show the reduction in inventory.  And the inventory control system places an automatic order to replenish the inventory.  The successful big box stores carry smaller inventories of each individual item.  Allowing them to carry a larger variety of items.  Which is how they can offer a larger variety at lower prices.

Stores like Wal-Mart are the People’s Hedge against Bad Fiscal and Monetary Policy 

The king of retail, Wall-Mart, got to be king with technology.  The ultimate big box store that sells just about everything under the sun (groceries, clothes, hardware, gardening supplies, electronics, prescription drugs, you name it).  They have taken inventory control systems to an art.  They combine economies of scale and efficiency that few can match.  They sell so much that they get to buy at the best prices.  And their sophisticated POS and inventory control systems keep the shelves stocked with the things people want to buy while keeping their inventories lean.  Few stores please consumers more by their wide variety and low prices.  Allowing them to fill their shopping carts without having to sacrifice other family needs.

Competition created Wal-Mart.  Because people wanted more choice and lower prices.  And Wal-Mart figured out how to do that.  Something the mom and pop stores just couldn’t do.  Which is why Wal-Mart stores are opening everywhere.  The people love them.  And the people want them.  Or they want the store that puts Wal-Mart out of business by offering even more choice at even lower prices.

Of course this begs the question why do people want more choice at lower prices?  Are they greedy?  Materialistic?  No.  They’re just not rich.  More and more of their income is taxed away at the local, state and federal level.  And prices keep rising thanks to Keynesian monetary policy.  Which continuously expands the money supply to ‘stimulate’ the economy.  Higher taxes and permanent inflation is why two-income households have become the norm and not the exception today.  And why shoppers love stores like Wal-Mart.  Because stores like Wal-Mart are the people’s hedge against bad fiscal and monetary policy.  Which is the true destroyer of mom and pop stores everywhere.

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Competing against China in Solar Panel Manufacturing will only Create more Solyndras and won’t help Save the Planet

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 5th, 2012

Week in Review

The cheaper solar power equipment is the more people will buy it and hire people to install it.  Because labor is labor.  There’s nothing you can do about that.  But manufacturing can reach economies of scale that can reduce manufacturing costs.  And selling prices.  Much like everything else in the world.  The first televisions were expensive.  Now they’re cheap.  The first VCRs were expensive.  Then they got cheap.  The first personal computers were expensive.  Then they got cheap. 

So all that we need is for someone to make solar power equipment cheap by employing economies of scale and we can ‘save the planet’ by replacing fossil-fueled generated power with clean solar-generated power.   And that’s the whole point of clean solar power, isn’t it?  Saving the planet?  Well, as it turns out, no (see The Coming U.S.-China Solar War by Bryan Walsh posted 1/31/2012 on Time).

Demand for solar power rose eightfold between 2006 and 2011 — from 200 MW to 1,600 MW…

Despite those rosy numbers, many U.S. solar companies — especially those that manufacture solar panels and modules — are struggling to survive. Most notably, the solar start-up Solyndra went under in 2011, taking with it over $500 million in government loan guarantees. The Bloomberg Large Solar Energy Index of 17 top solar companies lost more than two-thirds of its value in 2011.

That’s because solar power is getting much cheaper — prices for modules have dropped 40% over the past five years. According to some U.S. solar-panel manufacturers, that drop in price is due largely to low-cost imports from Chinese panelmakers. It’s not that their manufacturing methods are necessarily better than ours. It’s that government support from Beijing and low-cost labor make it easy for China to undercut its U.S. competitors. The result is more and cheaper solar power for Americans — but perhaps less market share for U.S. manufacturers.

You’re never going to compete against Chinese manufacturing and win.  And it’s not because of government support.  (Or their currency manipulation.)  Because the U.S. is providing government support, too.  Case in point, Solyndra.  It’s the cheap labor.  In a country that builds dormitories in factories.  Where workers work, eat and sleep.  And like it.  Because these are the good jobs.  Unlike being a starving peasant farmer.  Also, China doesn’t allow unions.  Or complaining or disobedience in the workplace.  Only when U.S. workers flood factories under similar conditions will the U.S. manufacturing ever hope to compete against the Chinese.

Of course, the U.S. could make this cheap solar equipment (that can save the planet) less cheap by slapping tariffs on it.  Making people spend more to buy this solar equipment.  So much more that the expensive American manufactured equipment is no longer more costly than the once cheaper Chinese imports.  Which, of course, would greatly discourage people from buying it and hiring people to install it.  Unless they receive massive government subsidies to offset the added tax of the tariffs.

Higher solar equipment costs for installers?  Higher costs for solar power installations for people who want to ‘save the planet’?  Higher taxes for everyone to pay for ever more government subsidies and incentives to save a few manufacturing jobs?  All while discouraging people from ‘saving the planet’?  Seems like some real silly policy.  And one that no one really thought through before getting us on this silly road.

If it’s not about saving the planet then the heck with solar power I say.  Let’s just keep using fossil fuels.  From American sources.  Let’s create good coal jobs.  Good oil jobs.  And good natural gas jobs.  For if we mine it or pump it up in America, all of the jobs will be American jobs.  It doesn’t require massive government subsidies or incentives.  And there will be no more Solyndras.  And the Chinese will be left with a surplus of solar panels that they will have to discount to unload.  Which we could then add to the electrical grid to offset peak demand on those hot summer days.  When the sun is scorching the land beneath it.  Now that would be a practical use.  It would help conserve our precious fossil fuels.  And it will also help to reduce emissions during peak demand.  Which was the whole point of solar power in the first place.  Only this way it wouldn’t require massive government subsidies and incentives.  Or the massive job-killing taxes to pay for those subsidies and incentives.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #22: “The only problem with health care these days is that it’s approached from a cost basis more than a medical basis.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 13th, 2010

THE PROBLEM WITH cost cutters is their vision.  They see costs.  Not the big picture.  Rockefeller was a notorious cost cutter.  Even determined he could save money by using a few less welds on his oil barrels.  But he saw the big picture, too.  He grew sales.  Something that cost cutters have trouble doing.  He didn’t.  In fact, he was so good that it took the government to stop his sales growth.

Roger Smith was a numbers man.  He managed costs.  Starting in the accounting department of GM, he reorganized GM to make better sense.  On paper.  To make nice, neat, bookkeeping-like ordered sense.  Things tend to work better on paper, though, than in reality.  Suffice it to say that few laud Smith as the greatest CEO of GM.

Robert McNamara was also a numbers man.  And he ran the Vietnam War by the numbers.  He carefully determined what U.S. forces could NOT attack.  (Any place outside South Vietnam was basically a sanctuary for the enemy.)  And he introduced the body count.  There was no strategy to win.  Just a policy to verify you were killing more of theirs than they were killing of yours.  Wars of attrition, though, take years.  And lives.  On both sides.  Americans don’t like sitting back and waiting for enough of their sons to die to declare victory.  McNamara failed to see the big picture.  Strategy.  He just tried to make the combat efficient.  Which did little to inhibit the enemy from making war. 

Managing costs is important.  It can improve profits.  But it can’t grow sales.  And if you can grow sales, you’ll be able to pay your costs.  Even if they are high and inefficient.  Few companies fail because they have a cost problem.  They file because they have a revenue problem.  They lack sales.  Cost cutting cannot fix this problem.  It can temporarily help reduce operating losses.  But if you don’t increase sales, you’ll probably fail in the long run.

There are detail people.  And people with vision.  Rarely are people both.  Rockefeller was.  Smith and McNamara were detail men.  They could not see the forest for the trees.  And this is the problem in health care.  We’re not looking at the big picture of medical care.  We’re looking at the details of cost. 

YOU WOULD THINK that doctors would oppose the government taking over health care.  Because when governments do, they tend to put salary caps on doctors.  Kinda diminishes the return on all that costly medical training.  I talked to two recently who favor a national solution.  Why?  Because of costs.  They like Medicare.  Because it’s simple.  Most of their patients are seniors.  So the bulk of their billings are uniform.  Medicare reimbursements.  They like anything that simplifies their overhead costs.  Private insurance companies don’t do this.  They’re not all the same.  Different people to call.  Different procedures.  Different approved tests.  Different paperwork.  And more of it.  And a bigger staff to handle it.

Doctors hate paperwork.  No doctor ever went through medical school because they wanted to shuffle paper.  Or because they wanted to fend off malpractice lawsuits.  Doctors are under a bureaucratic assault.  They spend more time with paperwork than with patients.  And paperwork does have a cost.  As do frivolous lawsuits.  A government takeover would standardize the one.  And, hopefully, eliminate the other.

I understand these doctors’ concern.  But they can’t see the forest for the trees.  Government is not going to approach health care from a medical basis.  They’ll approach it from a cost basis.  They’ll use statistical analysis.  They will manage care to maximize cost efficiency.  They will approach health care like Smith did in GM and McNamara did in Vietnam.  They’ll crunch the numbers.  Then determine what health care is cost effective.

THEY PROBABLY NEED no introduction.  Most people are family with the British comedy troupe called Monty Python.  Funny, a bit naughty and rather bookish, they’ve appealed to the masses across generations.  They spent a lot of time researching before making some of their movies.  Reading books.  The realism it adds made some of the funniest scenes.  A Roman centurion gives a Jewish terrorist a Latin lesson at the point of a sword (Life of Brian).  Dennis the constitutional peasant arguing with King Arthur (Monty Python and the Holy Grail).  And this scene from The Meaning of Life during a live birth lampooning the British National Health Service:

Nurse:  The administrator’s here, doctor.

First Doctor:  Switch everything on!

[They scramble to do so.  Machines turn on with flashes and sounds.  The administrator enters.]

Administrator:  Morning, gentlemen.

First and Second Doctors:  Morning Mr. Pycroft.

Administrator:  Very impressive. Very impressive.  And what are you doing this morning?

First Doctor:  It’s a birth.

Administrator:  Ah, what sort of thing is that?

Second Doctor:  Well, that’s when we take a new baby out of a lady’s tummy.

Administrator:  Wonderful what we can do nowadays.  [A machine makes a ‘ping’ sound.]  Ah!  I see you have the machine that goes ‘ping’.  This is my favorite.  You see we leased this back from the company we sold it to.  That way it comes under the monthly current budget and not the capital account.  [They all applaud.]  Thank you, thank you.  We try to do our best.  Well, do carry on.

This is funny.  Because it’s true.  When we approach health care on a cost basis.  You must show you need and use every piece of expensive equipment you have so it stays in the budget.  And the administrators administrating health care don’t understand health care.  They understand and make their decisions based on numbers in columns.  And speaking of numbers in columns.

 ONE THING STANDS out more than everything else when looking at numbers in columns.  In one cost column in particular.  Of all the costs in columns, one dwarfs all others.  The costs in treating very sick and very old people.  You can cut and trim the budget everywhere else but you won’t make a dent in overall costs.  Unless you cut and trim this one column.  Manage these costs.  Do some statistical analysis on these costs.  For if you cut THESE costs, it will make a difference.  It could even stave off bankruptcy without having to further raise taxes.  Yes, we can make the system more financially sound if we just stop treating so many sick and old people.

But it’s a body count mentality.  You have to willingly accept a defined number of additional deaths.  The Soviets were willing to trade 10 lives for one against the Nazis.   A steep price to pay.  But it did wear the Nazis down and lead to victory.  There was a similar ratio in Vietnam with America on the better side of that ratio.  But it was still too high a price for Americans.  It goes against our nature to think in terms of ‘acceptable’ losses.

But there will have to be a line that health care will approach but does not cross.  Where there are ‘acceptable’ losses.  Statistical analysis will take into account probable remaining years of life in a potential patient.  If few, the system will assign an appropriate value of care to match the health care expenditure with the expected return on the medical treatment.  People with more probable years of life left will receive more health care treatment.  People with fewer years left will receive less.  We’ll help manage their pain until they no longer feel that pain.  For it would be inefficient to spend a lot of money on someone who is going to die ‘soon’.

Perhaps I can best summarize this in song.

When you were young and your heart was an open book
You used to say live and let live
(you know you did, you know you did you know you did)
But in this ever changing world in which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die
Live and let die
Live and let die
Live and let die

(Live and Let Die, Paul McCarthy)

And that’s what bureaucrats will use all that statistical analysis for.  To determine who to let die.  You can sugarcoat it anyway you’d like, but it comes down to this.  A bureaucrat, not a doctor, will have the power of life and death as they decide what health care is appropriate and prudent.  As it must be under a system where bureaucrats distribute limited resources on a cost basis.  They will have no choice but to deny care that is not in the budget.

ONE PUZZLING THING about health care is that it is perfectly acceptable to approach it from a cost basis but not on a revenue basis.  For it is immoral to profit on health care.  Pity, because introducing market forces is one sure way to bring down costs.  People are willing to pay for medical services.  They pay for abortions.  And abortion clinics are readily available.  The free market laws of supply and demand work for abortions.  And so they would for other outpatient medical services. 

Instead of running a battery of tests because an insurance company requires this incremental approach of the cheap stuff first, you could go to an MRI (or some other expensive procedure) clinic and pay out of pocket.  Because they do nothing but MRIs, they achieve economies of scale.  The clinic makes money by offering low cost, high quality MRI scans that result in a high sales volume.  You benefit because you miss less work.  The doctor benefits because he gets your MRI scan results without additional paperwork to process.  I’m sure a market is there just waiting for an entrepreneur to come along.  I mean, if you can make money by performing abortions, you should be able to make money with some non-invasive, high-tech machines.

HEALTH CARE SERVICES will not become more affordable and more readily available by cutting costs.  If the bean counters try, they’ll damage the quality of health care.  Because the bean counters rarely look at the big picture.  You need someone with vision.  Because no cost cutter ever saved a business.  Or made the world better.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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LESSONS LEARNED #20: “It is never a consumer that complains about ‘predatory’ pricing.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 1st, 2010

ECONOMIES OF SCALE and vertical integration can do two things very well.  Make industrialists rich.  And make the things they sell cheap. 

The more you make, the less each thing you make costs.  Businesses have fixed costs.  Big one time investments in plant and equipment.  Businesses have to recover these costs.  Each thing they sell has a portion of these fixed costs added to its price.  The more they sell, the less they need to add to each unit sold.  This is economies of scale.  Think of bulk goods.  Warehouse clubs.  Places where you can buy large quantities of things at lower unit prices.  You may buy an ‘economy pack’ of 3 bottles of shampoo shrink-wrapped together.  The purchase price of a 3-pack will be greater than the price of a single bottle of shampoo at your convenient corner drug store.  But the unit cost of each of the bottles in the 3-pack will be less.  You save more over time by buying 3 bottles at a time.  Spending more, then, means spending less.  In time.

Few of us buy raw materials.  Few have a need for crude oil.  Iron ore.  Coal.  Limestone.  Manganese.  But they make the stuff we buy.  A lot of things have to happen before those raw materials make it to us in those things we buy.  It has to be mined or drilled/pumped.  Transported.  Processed.  Stored.  Transported again.  Processed again.  Stored again.  Transported again.  There are many different stages between extracting raw materials from the earth and incorporating them into a final product we consumers buy.  At every stage there are costs.  And inefficiencies.  Which add to costs.  By reducing these costs along the way, the component materials used at the final manufacturing stage cost less.  This reduces the selling price of the final product.  This is what vertical integration does.  It puts everything from the extraction of raw materials to the incorporation of those processed materials into the final product for sale under control of the final user.  It brings in a high level of quality, cost containment and reduction of inefficiencies into the entire process resulting in a high quality, mass produced, inexpensive product.

Not everyone can do these things.  You have to live and breathe the industry you’re in.  You have to understand it intimately.  An industrialist at the top of his game can do this.  A politician can’t.  States trying to take control of their economy have failed.  Every time they’ve tried.  Why?  Politicians are ‘intellectuals’.  They’ve never run a business.  They only thought about it.  And, somehow, that gives them the moral authority to tamper in something they are simply unqualified to do.  And when they meddle, they destroy.  Purposely.  Or through unintended consequences.  In the process, though, they enrich themselves.  And their cronies.

ANDREW CARNEGIE WAS a brilliant entrepreneur.  After working for a railroad, he saw the future.  Railroads.  And he would build its rails.  And its bridges.  With his Keystone Bridge Company.  Which used steel and iron.  So he built his Union Mills.  Which needed pig iron.  So he built his Lucy blast furnace.  Which consumed raw material (iron, coke, limestone).  So he secured his own sources of raw materials. 

His Lucy blast furnace set world records, nearly doubling the weekly output of his steel competitors.  No one made more steel than Carnegie.  For less.  In about 20 years, he brought the price down for steel rails from $160/ton to $17/ton.  And got rich in the process.

Economies of scale.  Vertical integration.  And innovation.  Carnegie hired the best people he could find and used the latest technology.  Always improving.  Always cutting costs.  Always making steel more plentiful.  And cheaper.  His steel built a nation.  Dominated the industry.  And destroyed the competition.  Of course, that drew the attention of the government.  And they tried to break up the steel giant because it was unfair to the competition.  Who couldn’t sell steel as cheap as he could.

JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER was a brilliant entrepreneur.  After trying the oil drilling business, he saw the future.  The refining business.  For America lit the night with kerosene.  And he would provide that kerosene.  At prices that a poor man could afford.  And he did.  And he saved the whales in the process (his cheap kerosene put the whale oil business out of business).

Like Carnegie, cutting costs and production efficiencies consumed him.  He built his own kilns and used his own timber for fuel.  He made his own barrels from his own timber.  He used his own horse-drawn carts, boats, rail cars and pipelines.  He bought up competitors.  He grew to dominate the industry.  By far the biggest shipper, he got better shipping rates than his competitors.  And he constantly innovated.  When others were dumping the gasoline byproduct from refining kerosene into the river (no internal combustion engine yet), he was using it for fuel.  He hired the best talent available to find a use for every byproduct from the refining process, giving us everything from industrial lubricants to petroleum jelly (i.e., Vaseline).

His company, Standard Oil, was close to being a monopoly.  When they controlled 90% of the market kerosene was never cheaper.  He brought the price down from $0.26/gallon to $0.08/gallon.  And that was an outrage.  We can’t allow any one company to control 90% of the market.  Sure, consumers were doing well, but the higher-cost competitors could not stay in business selling at those low prices.  So the government broke up Standard Oil via antitrust legislation (the Sherman Act).  To protect the country from monopolistic practices.  And cheap kerosene, apparently.

BILL GATES WAS a brilliant entrepreneur in building Microsoft.  The personal computer (PC) was new.  You couldn’t do much with it in the early days unless you were pretty computer savvy.  But programs were available that made them great business tools (word processing and spreadsheet programs). 

IBM created the PC.  And they licensed it so others could make IBM-like machines.  IBM clones.  The PC industry chewed each other up.  But Gates did well.  Because all of these machines used his operating system (Microsoft’s Disk Operating System – DOS).  Apple developed the Macintosh (with a mouse and Graphical User Interface – GUI) but it was expensive.  Anyone who used one in college wanted to buy one.  Until they saw the price.  So they bought an IBM clone instead.  And when Gates came out with Windows, they were just as easy to use as the Macs.

Because of the higher volume of the IBM platform sold, Microsoft flourished.  Software was bundled.  New machines came preloaded with Windows.  And Internet Explorer.  And Windows Media Player.  You got a lot of bang for the buck going with a Windows-based PC.  And Windows dominated the market.  Consumers weren’t complaining.  Much.  Sure, there were things they did bitch about (glitches, drivers, viruses, etc.), but it sure wasn’t price.

Of course, Microsoft’s competitors were hurting.  They couldn’t sell their products if Microsoft was giving away a similar product free.  Because they were hurting their competitors, the government tried to break up the company with the Sherman Act. 

THE NORTHERN SECURITIES SUIT of 1902 found a holding company guilty of not yet committing a crime.  Teddy Roosevelt’s administration filed a Sherman antitrust suit against Northern Securities.  This was a holding company for Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroads.  What’s a holding company?  It replaced a trust.   Which large corporations created in response to government’s attacks on large corporations.

Small competitors feared large corporations.  They could not compete against their economies of scale and vertical integration.  The little guys couldn’t sell things as cheap as the big corporations could.  So the government intervened to protect the little guy.  So they could sell at higher prices.

But businesses grow.  All big corporations started out as little guys.  And the growing process doesn’t stop.  So the big corporations had to find other ways to grow.  They formed trusts.  Then the trust-busters busted up the trusts.  The next form was the holding company. 

The trust-busters said that the big corporations, trusts and holding companies were all trying to become monopolies.  And once they eliminated all competitors, they would raise their prices and gouge the consumers.  Northern Securities never did.  But they could.  So they were guilty.  Because they might commit a crime.  One day.

ALL BUSINESS OWNERS aren’t morally ethical and honest.  But the market is, albeit cruel.  Economies of scales will always put the little guy out of business.  Sad, yes, for the little guy.  But for every little guy put out of business, millions of consumers save money.  They can buy things for less.  Which means they have more money to buy more things.  New things.  Different things.  From new little guys who now have a chance with this new surplus of purchasing power.

But when politicians get involved, consumers lose.  When they help a competitor, they help them by keeping prices high.  To keep competition ‘fair’.  For the politically connected.

Consumers never complain about low prices.  Only competitors do.  Or their employees.  Those working on whaling ships didn’t like to see the low price of Rockefeller’s kerosene.  But the new refining industry (and its auxiliaries) created far more jobs than were lost on the whaling ships.  We call it progress.  And with it comes a better life for the many.  Even if it is at the expense of the few.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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