“You can never buy a decent used car”?

It was the subtitle that got me to read Tim Harford’s book, “The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich are Rich, the Poor are Poor – and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!” Our family owns the oldest independent car dealership in Phoenix and has sold thousands of decent used cars over the last 75 years; who is this guy to say you can “never” buy one?

I’m glad the title pissed me off enough to read the book. Nothing is more powerful for a man than knowing how things work. Harford’s book shows you how the world works in ways that empower you to do something about it. Whether you’re a Libertarian like me or subscribe to some other political belief, an economist’s understanding of the effects – intentional or otherwise – of market actors and government policies will help you advocate for the good. After finishing this book, you’ll have a much better grasp on the world than 95% of our politicians in Washington.

“Billions of people could benefit from better economic policies. Millions are dying because of bad
ones.” -Tim Harford

One key insight he explains in simple terms is that if one wants to adjust the outcome of a race, the
least distortion is made by rearranging the starting blocks, rather than forcing some runners to run
backwards or more slowly. The outcome is still that all runners cross the finish line at the same time,
but they all are still running at their individual capacity.

There is also an excellent analysis of why our healthcare system in the United States is so broken and
what we could do to fix it. Rather than distort the heath insurance market with mandates and
penalties to deal with the issue of asymmetric information between individuals and insurance
companies, we should adopt a system that allows the market and price forces to work, similar to
Singapore. The Singaporean system is not perfect, but would be vastly better when it comes to both
price and outcomes than what we have now.

As to the used cars, think about how you would deal with the problem of a car dealer having good
and bad cars for sale (“peaches and lemons”) from the perspective of a car buyer who doesn’t know
which is which. Once you’ve thought through the problem, pick up a copy of Harford’s book and
see whether you got the same solution.


Marketing to a small minority without a massive budget

If 1 out of 100 people are potential buyers for your product, you still have a target market of approximately 3,227,000 people. The challenge is reaching them.

Mass media would work, if you saturate all 322MM people with your message, some fraction of that 1 in 100 would respond, but you'd be broke from the cost of mass marketing to everyone to target the 1%.

The hack for this system is to get the media to give you free (often negative) coverage by creating manufactured controversy and outrage. They will run stories that attack your product and show them to everyone, but your 1 in 100 target market will also see those stories. They will be intrigued by your product and probably even more loyal customers from watching your product be attacked by the mainstream.
The specific methods for using this technique are covered in Ryan Holiday's book, "Trust Me I'm Lying," and are used by controversial public figures every day.

Understanding how this works is a powerful tool, though it can't be your only tool.


Book Review: "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power"

It's not often anymore that I have time for a full-length book, but I recently read Jon Meacham's biography of Jefferson, "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power."  It took a few weeks taking it on long flights and reading before bed, but it's very worth the time.

Meacham covers the entire arc of Jefferson's life, giving plenty of space to his formative years in Virginia and looking at the influences that shaped him prior to obtaining high office.

By Meacham's account, Jefferson seldom would be directly critical of others, even political opponents or enemies.  His politeness and tact were the surface that people saw, while he worked quietly and diligently behind the scenes to consolidate alliances and test the waters to ensure that he seldom engaged in battles he could not win.

Meacham does not avoid the issue of slave ownership, treating it thoroughly, but noting the complexities of the time and Jefferson's complicated relationships with his slaves.  He finds some evidence that Jefferson supported abolition as a concept, but his assessment of the political situation was that it would be a lost cause to fight for publicly.

Libertarians have a soft spot for Jefferson, due to many of his writings and quotations having a strong libertarian bent, but the picture Meacham paints is of an idealist who was an absolute realist about policy and the exercise of governmental power.  His ideas were lofty, but he also had skill as a political tactician in not seeking too much and knowing when to negotiate.

If you're interested in the man behind the legend of a Founding Father, Jon Meacham's "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power" is worth a read.


Real change starts with the man in the mirror

There are so many people in the world who are not doing what they should.  When I find myself focusing on the actions of others, I find it helpful to listen to Michael Jackson's classic, "Man in the Mirror

As a stoic, I recognize that only my actions are in my control.  As a Libertarian, I recognize that nobody should have control over another person's freedom.  As a businessman and manager, I have experience that people respond better to examples than commands.

It's time we take a look at the man in the mirror.  It's time to make a change.


How Much Do You Get Paid for Breathing? - An update

Back in July 2013, I wrote a post about how much one gets paid for breathing.  The basic concept is to figure out how much money you make from entirely passive investments and divide it our to figure out what you get paid just for breathing, without having to do any work.

At that point, between interest, dividends, and rental income, I was making $0.34 per hour.

Not quite two years later, I'm doing a little better on dividends and the rent went up on the house we don't live in.  The new passive income is up to $3409.49 for the year, $284.12 for the month, $9.34 per day, and $0.39 per hour.

A five cent per hour raise is not normally something to write home about, but when it's a raise on the wage you make for breathing, that's an extra $438 every year for just staying alive.


The Next Chapter in my Career

Over 70 years ago, Roman "Slim" Sarwark moved from South Bend, Indiana to Phoenix, Arizona to convalesce after he lost a lung to tuberculosis. His doctors didn't give him much chance to live for many more years.

Slim started Sarwark Motor Sales in 1942, selling one or two cars at a time. His hard work and dedication built the business up, through selling new cars, mobile homes, and eventually only selling quality used cars. He was at the lot every day until about a week before he passed away at the age of 87 in 1999.

My father, Frank Sarwark, worked with my grandfather as he grew up, sometimes being called from high school to bring back the car he was driving so a customer could buy it. He's the President of the company now, and just like his father, he's at the lot every day.

The name has changed to Consolidated Auto Sales, Inc, but it's the same business my grandfather started 72 years ago. When people come to us, they aren't always in the best financial or credit situation, but they need a vehicle. We still treat every one of those customers the way we would want to be treated, with respect and integrity. We do our own financing and do whatever we can to work with people to get the vehicle they need.

That way of doing business is not as common as it should be. We can't make other dealers change how they do business, but what I can do personally is join my father in the family business to make sure that we keep living up to the standards set by my grandfather and father for another generation.

Our sign at 1610 E. Van Buren says, "Sarwark's Consolidated Auto Sales." That's my grandfather's name. That's my father's name. That's my name. I'm committed to honoring that name and the reputation for doing business the right way that was earned long before I was born.


Last day as a public defender

Today is my last day as a Deputy State Public Defender. 

Over the last five years, I have fought beside some of the best people I've ever met to defend the indigent accused. 

I've had the honor of saving men from living the rest of their lives in a cage. I've experienced the pain of watching a client be sentenced to 48 years of prison, taking away his adult life. 

Nearly 35 jury trials. Oral argument in front of the Colorado Supreme Court. Thousands of clients lives touched, and hopefully, helped in some way. Late nights and weekends spent working harder to keep my clients out of a cage than the prosecutor was working to put them in.

There are new chapters to be started. They should be good ones, but today is the last day of the most meaningful job I've ever had.