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Posts Tagged ‘Caligula

“Before the monopoly should be permitted, there must be reason to believe it will do some good – for society, and not just for monopoly holders”*…

From the ever-illuminating Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller), eagle-eyed sentinel against exploitative monopolies…

I write a lot about big tech, but today’s issue is about something so basic and fundamental we literally don’t think about it. Salt. Salt mining is one of humanities’ oldest industries, with wars fought over this commodity. Cities like Venice monopolized the salt trade in the middle ages for geopolitical reasons, and the British tried to block colonists from access to salt during the American Revolution to prevent their ability to preserve food. 

Today salt is still used in everything from chemicals to food preservation. Its main use is deicing our roads, because salt from mines across North America, and shipped in from overseas, makes it possible to drive in all sorts of weather. Salt saves lives, stops car accidents, and makes our economy run. 

And in the U.S. and Canada, salt mining is being monopolized, as we speak…

In the winter, when it’s really cold and snowy, what Americans need is not a competitive semiconductor industry or better app stores. They need salt. And not the kind of salt that flavors our food, but the kind that melts snow and ice. If we don’t have salt, no one can drive, because salt is what keeps our roads manageable. Without salt, trucks can’t deliver supplies, people can’t get to stores or work, and the economy comes to a standstill. 

And people die. A lot of them.

Every year, over 1300 people die in car accidents due to snowy, slushy, or icy pavement, with another 117,000 injured. Snowy weather is also a huge waste of time and money, costing roughly $500M a day, and 544 million vehicle-hours a year of delay. Road salt doesn’t eliminate this problem entirely, but it comes close, reducing collisions by up to 88% and injuries by 85%. Studies show that deicing salt pays for itself within the first 25 minutes after it is spread. Roughly 40% of domestic salt, produced largely from mining, is used not for food or chemicals, but for deicing. It’s a major expense for cities and states, and commercial customers like shopping malls. And because weather leads to demand spikes, and America tends to operate in just-in-time style inventory models instead of managing risk by storing surpluses of critical commodities, there are often shortages of road salt precisely when everyone needs it most.

And that’s why I paid attention when ex-convict and junk bond king Michael Milken’s alleged private equity firm, Stone Canyon, bought two major salt producers over the last year. Early in 2020, Stone Canyon acquired Kissner, a producer of deicing salt, private label consumer salt, and salt-related chemicals. Then, nine months later, Stone Canyon bought Morton’s Salt, the largest producer in the world, for $3.2 billion, and it is now awaiting antitrust approval. Kissner is itself a roll-up of the salt industry, having bought Central Salt and Lion Salt and turned itself from a small Ontario-based regional distributor of ice melt into one of the giants of the industry. So Stone Canyon is overseeing a roll-up of roll-ups.

This series of mergers should terrify cities across the upper Midwest, who have to buy salt in unpredictable spot markets and often deal with shortages when the weather gets bad. Minnesota, for instance, bought roughly 1.5 million tons of salt for the 2020 season. Salt is a regional business, it’s just not economical to move extremely bulky road salt over land more than 150 miles, so while port cities can get salt from abroad in ocean vessels, and salt can be barged up the Mississippi river, much of the upper Midwest and Canada has to buy local. (It doesn’t help that America’s rail system is monopolized.)…

The salt industry is an oligopoly, and the number of suppliers to Governments in regions of the Great Lakes markets will shrink from 4 to 3 and in some geographies from 3 suppliers to 2. There are two consequences of this consolidation of salt production. The first is that prices will go up, and municipal budgets will be stretched. 

Salt is sold in blind bidding processes. Governments put out tender offers, and then suppliers bid. When bidding, suppliers will set prices by considering the supply levels among competitors. If there are only two competitors in a market and one of them has committed their salt production for the year, then the remaining one is a monopolist who can just set the price. This is particularly true for a bunch of Midwestern states, like Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

But the much more serious problem is that of shortages. The industry manages demand spikes from weather not by having spare production capacity or lots of storage, but by overpromising salt deliveries. The rule of thumb is that one out of every five years will see a mild winter with few sales, three out of five will be snowy but normal, and one out of five will involve extreme weather and much higher demand. Of course, rules of thumb have gone out of the window now that there’s more extreme weather, which means demand drops and spikes will be more common. 

One of the best ways of winning market share is to bid low, and then if demand is high, to simply not deliver to Commercial customers (Landscapers that service residential and commercial customers are almost always shafted first, meaning driveways and sidewalks go unsalted.) There are penalties in contracts for doing this to government customers, but when the snow hits, it doesn’t matter and the producers often pay the penalties if they are even enforced by the government entities. All customers need the salt when it snows, and a contract dispute doesn’t get in the way. 

It’s quite possible, and indeed likely, that shortages will worsen. Without competition, it will be much harder to go to a different supplier, because there won’t be any other suppliers. And private equity takeovers in general are operational nightmares, which means that it’s likely Kissner and Morton will have problems with production and distribution purely because mergers tend not to work out. 

There’s one final piece of the problem. Because private equity firms have too much money and not enough acquisition targets, prices for mid-market industrial companies are really high. So Stone Canyon almost certainly overpaid for both Kissner and Morton’s. To justify its investment, Stone Canyon is going to have to cut costs and reduce capital spending, which will harm production, because salt mining needs a lot of investment. Then it will likely have to raise prices. In other words, if the merger goes through, the financial pressure of paying such rich prices for salt firms will force significant price hikes, and potentially shortages in the market… 

A private-equity salt roll-up suggests that we’re in for shortages and price spikes: “How a Salt Monopoly Could Spike Car Accidents in the Midwest,” eminently worth reading in full.

For other reasons to be paying attention to salt: “How America got addicted to road salt — and why it’s become a problem.”

* Lawrence Lessig

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As we study saline substitutions, we might recall that it was on this date in 37 CE, following the death of Tiberius, that the Roman Senate annulled Tiberius’ will and confirmed Caligula, his grandnephew, the third Roman emperor.  (Tiberius had willed that the reign should be shared by his nephew [and adopted son] Germanicus and Germanicus’ son, Caligula.)

While he has been remembered as the poster boy for profligacy, Caligula (“Little Boots”) is generally agreed to have been a temperate ruler through the first six months of his reign.  His excesses after that– cruelty, extravagance, sexual perversity– are “known” to us via sources increasingly called into question.

Still, historians agree that Caligula did work hard to increase the unconstrained personal power of the emperor at the expense of the countervailing Principate; and he oversaw the construction of notoriously luxurious dwellings for himself.  In 41 CE, members of the Roman Senate and of Caligula’s household attempted a coup to restore the Republic.  They enlisted the Praetorian Guard, who killed Caligula– the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated (Julius Caesar was assassinated, but was Dictator, not Emperor).  In the event, the Praetorians thwarted the Republican dream by appointing (and supporting) Caligula’s uncle Claudius the next Emperor.

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“A world constructed from the familiar is the world in which there’s nothing to learn”*…

 

bubble

 

In a surprising new national survey, members of each major American political party were asked what they imagined to be the beliefs held by members of the other. The survey asked Democrats: “How many Republicans believe that racism is still a problem in America today?” Democrats guessed 50%. It’s actually 79%. The survey asked Republicans how many Democrats believe “most police are bad people”. Republicans estimated half; it’s really 15%.

The survey, published by the think tank More in Common as part of its Hidden Tribes of America project, was based on a sample of more than 2,000 people. One of the study’s findings: the wilder a person’s guess as to what the other party is thinking, the more likely they are to also personally disparage members of the opposite party as mean, selfish or bad. Not only do the two parties diverge on a great many issues, they also disagree on what they disagree on.

This much we might guess. But what’s startling is the further finding that higher education does not improve a person’s perceptions – and sometimes even hurts it. In their survey answers, highly educated Republicans were no more accurate in their ideas about Democratic opinion than poorly educated Republicans. For Democrats, the education effect was even worse: the more educated a Democrat is, according to the study, the less he or she understands the Republican worldview.

“This effect,” the report says, “is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.” And the more politically engaged a person is, the greater the distortion.

What could be going on? Bubble-ism, the report suggests…

Arlie Hochschild explains: “Think Republicans are disconnected from reality? It’s even worse among liberals.”

* Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble

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As we contemplate commonality, we might recall that it was on this date in 37, following the death of Tiberius, that the Roman Senate annulled Tiberius’ will and confirmed Caligula, his grandnephew, the third Roman emperor.  (Tiberius had willed that the reign should be shared by his nephew [and adopted son] Germanicus and Germanicus’ son, Caligula.)

While he has been remembered as the poster boy for profligacy, Caligula (“Little Boots”) is generally agreed to have been a temperate ruler through the first six months of his reign.  His excesses after that– cruelty, extravagance, sexual perversity– are “known” to us via sources increasingly called into question.

Still, historians agree that Caligula did work hard to increase the unconstrained personal power of the emperor at the expense of the countervailing Principate; and he oversaw the construction of notoriously luxurious dwellings for himself.  In 41 CE, members of the Roman Senate and of Caligula’s household attempted a coup to restore the Republic.  They enlisted the Praetorian Guard, who killed Caligula– the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated (Julius Caesar was assassinated, but was Dictator, not Emperor).  In the event, the Praetorians thwarted the Republican dream by appointing (and supporting) Caligula’s uncle Claudius the next Emperor.

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Written by LW

March 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Better the illusions that exalt us than ten thousand truths”*…

 

Pushkin

 

St. Petersburg is set to open a sprawling, immersive theme park that will bring iconic Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s fairy tales and poems to life in 2023. [sic]

Considered the founder of modern Russian literature, Pushkin wrote some of Russia’s most famous fairy tales and epic poems and remained popular through Soviet times and into the present.

Dutch design company Jora Vision will use Pushkin’s works as inspiration for the 17,000-square-meter Lukomorye park, named after the mythical Slavic land in which Pushkin’s fairy tales take place…

The interactive park, which will be populated by actors playing famous heroes from Pushkin’s stories, will stage carnivals, performances and master classes. While the park is still in its conceptual stage, visitors can expect to be able to learn about Pushkin’s life in an “immersive walkthrough experience,” Jora Vision says…

The future of entertainment is the past: “Immersive Pushkin-Themed Park to Open in St. Petersburg in 2023.”

* Alexander Pushkin

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As we make our travel plans, we might recall that it was on this date in 41 CE that Roman Emperor Caligula (see almanac entry here) was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard, which promptly proclaimed his uncle, Claudius, the new Emperor.

220px-Gaius_Caesar_Caligula

Caligula

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Written by LW

January 24, 2020 at 1:01 am

“You don’t get explanations in real life. You just get moments that are absolutely, utterly, inexplicably odd”*…

 

A warning sign in Coober Pedy, a town in northern South Australia

There are over five million articles in the English Wikipedia… These articles are verifiable, valuable contributions to the encyclopedia, but are a bit odd, whimsical, or something you would not expect to find in Encyclopædia Britannica.

Wikipedia: unusual articles

* Neil Gaiman

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As we wonder at the weird, we might send dissolute birthday greetings to the poster boy for oddity and excess, Caligula; he was born on this date in 12 CE.  The third Roman Emperor (from from 37 to 41 CE), Caligula (“Little Boots”) is generally agreed to have been a temperate ruler through the first six months of his reign. His excesses after that– cruelty, extravagance, sexual perversity– are “known” to us via sources increasingly called into question.  Still, historians agree that Caligula did work hard to increase the unconstrained personal power of the emperor at the expense of the countervailing Principate; and he oversaw the construction of notoriously luxurious dwellings for himself.

In 41 CE, members of the Roman Senate and of Caligula’s household attempted a coup to restore the Republic.  They enlisted the Praetorian Guard, who killed Caligula– the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated (Julius Caesar was assassinated, but was Dictator, not Emperor).  In the event, the Praetorians thwarted the Republican dream by appointing (and supporting) Caligula’s uncle Claudius the next Emperor.

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Written by LW

August 31, 2016 at 1:01 am

“The key of the success of Studio 54 is that it’s a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the dance floor”*…

 

In 1977, at the height of the disco craze, a club opened at 254 West 54th Street in New York City. Studio 54 was—and, arguably, remains—the world’s most renowned and legendary disco. Regularly attended by celebrities such as Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger, Jerry Hall, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, Michael Jackson, Calvin Klein, Elton John, John Travolta, Brooke Shields and Tina Turner, the club fostered an atmosphere of unadulterated hedonism for New York’s art and fashion set. Hasse Persson [c.f., here] and his camera were frequent club guests from 1977–80. The images he photographed there have become legendary, capturing the club’s famed revelers, dancers in costume and general, drunken exhilaration—and yet, incredibly, Studio 54 (published by Max Ström) marks the first time in history that they have seen publication. Almost 35 years after the club’s unceremonious and sudden closure, this beautiful hardback volume superbly documents the zeitgeist…

More at “Never Before Published Photos of Studio 54” and at Persson’s own site.

* Andy Warhol (seen, holding his camera, at the bottom of the photo above)

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As we look for the “Hot Stuff,” we might recall that it was on this date in 37 CE that the Roman Senate conferred the Principate on Caligula.  His great-uncle Tiberius had left the office jointly to his grandson, Gemellus, and to Caligula; but Caligula had the will nullified on the grounds of Gemellus’ supposed insanity.

Caligula reigned until his assassination three-and-a-half years later by members of his own Praetorian Guard; the first two years of his tenure were marked by moderation– but accounts of his reign thereafter paint a portrait of extraordinary sybaritic excess and cruel, extravagant, and perverse tyranny…  leading many historians to suspect that Caligula succumbed in his last months to neurosyphilis.

A marble bust of Caligula restored to its original colors. (The colors were identified from particles trapped in the marble.)

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Written by LW

March 28, 2015 at 1:01 am

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