Archive for August 2005

The Health Care Trojan Horse

I get email and comments from time to time that my language deriding government's intervention into every aspect of our lives is overblown and exaggerated.  My answer:  Oh yeah, well how about this:

Mike Huckabee, the Governor of Arkansas, now
requires annual fat reports. These are sent to the parents of every
single child aged between 5 and 17; a response, he says, to "an
absolutely epidemic issue that we could not ignore" in the 1,139
schools for which he is responsible.

I just cannot craft any reasonable theory of government where this is the state's job.   The "obesity" crisis in this country just amazes me.  "Experts" every few years broaden the definition of who is overweight or obese, and suddenly (surprise!) there are more people defined as overweight.  Even presuming it is the state's job to optimize our body weights, is it really the right approach to tell everyone they are too fat?  Having known several people who were anorexic, including at least one young woman who died of its complications, is it really a net benefit to get young people more obsessed with looks and body style?  And what about the kids that are genetically programmed to be overweight?  Does this mean that years of taunting and bullying by their peers is not enough, that the state's governor wants to pile on now?

It is interesting to note that governor Huckabee apparently started this initiative after his own personal battle with weight loss:

[Huckabee] lost 110lb after being warned that his
weight, more than 280lb after a life of southern fried food, was a
death sentence. A chair even collapsed under him as he was about to
preside over a meeting of state officials in Little Rock.

We all have friends who have lost weight or gotten into homeopathy or became a vegan and simply cannot stop trying to convert their friends now that they see the light.  Now we have the spectacle of elected officials doing the same thing, but on a broader scale and with the force of law, rather than  just mere irritation, on their side.  One can only imagine what report cards kids would be carrying home if Huckabee had instead had a successful experience with penis enlargement.  What's next, negative reports for kids with bad acne?  For women whose breasts are too small?  For kids who are unattractive?

As I have argued many times in the past, a large part of the blame for these initiatives is public funding of health care.  Beyond the efficiency and choice arguments, I have tried to point out that publicly funded health care is a Trojan horse for a number of truly intrusive nanny-state government controls of our lives.

It isn't such a stretch to imagine the effect
when people realise "” as residents of Arizona have been told already "”
that about 40 per cent of their healthcare charges are spent treating
the consequences of avoidable obesity.

When health care is paid for by public funds, politicians only need to argue that some behavior affects health, and therefore increases the state's health care costs, to justify regulating the crap out of that behavior.  Already, states have essentially nationalized the cigarette industry based on this argument.

By the way, I am willing to make a bet with anyone that no where near 40% of our healthcare charges in Arizona are due to obesity.  I am positive some advocate made up this number, or created it using some ridiculously broad assumptions, and it has now been swallowed by the credulous and scientifically-illiterate press.

Update: Wow, the solution to obesity!  Government funded shrubbery:

City dwellers living in areas with little greenery and high levels of
graffiti and litter are more likely to be obese than those living in
pleasant areas with lots of greenery, say researchers in a study
published on today.

Reason number 6,345 not to ever take "facts" from a "study" reported in the media at face value.

Update #2: More about the health care as a trojan horse for statism  (emphasis added)

BangkokThe World Health
Organization (WHO) has always had a rather expansive notion of what it
means to be healthy. If one looks at the official definition it defines
health as a "state of complete physical, mental and social well-being
and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." According to that
understanding there isn't much that is not in some way connected with
health.  And for the health promoters at WHO's recently completed Bangkok conference that means that health is the supremely important value that trumps everything else.

all, the health promoters argue, it is surely obvious that health is a
necessary condition for any sort of life, so it must follow that for
any truly rational person health must outweigh any other value that
might conflict with it.
But the "obvious" -- especially the obvious of
the health promoter -- is often likely to be untrue. While it may be
true that being alive is in some not very interesting sense necessary
for having a life, it is not at all true that being "healthy,"
especially as defined by WHO, is a necessary condition for having a
good life.


of us make trade-offs between optimal health and other values all of
the time. We travel by car for instance, for reasons of economy or
convenience, even though we might recognize that statistically planes
are safer. We smile at Alan Dershowitz's cardiac calculus where a
patient chooses between ten years of inactive life and the risk of
sudden death:


doctor has made a prognosis/That intercourse fosters thrombosis/But I'd
rather expire/Fulfilling desire/Then abstain, and develop neurosis."


My Dumbest Traffic Ticket

Started off my day today by getting the world's dumbest traffic ticket.  I got a ticket for "improper position making a right turn".  Huh?  The cop pulled me over, and asked me if I knew why he was pulling me over, and I said "I have no idea".  At the previous intersection, the two lane road has a very brief dedicated right turn lane.  The officer argued that I did not get all the way over into that lane before I turned right.  You have got to be kidding me - he must be behind in his quota for this month.  Ironically, he issued me the ticket while I was sitting in the very parking lot that my car was broken into 3 months earlier, a crime the police did not lift a finger to investigate.

Look, I am no virgin here.  You could probably nail me for speeding on any given day.  But "improper position making a right turn??"

China and California Following Similar Energy Policies

A couple of years ago, California suffered through a summer of electricity blackouts while the state and  state-protected power monopolies nearly bankrupted themselves.  While California politicians have tried to cover their behinds by blaming Enron for the problems, the real mistake that led to the debacle was allowing the wholesale price of electricity to float higher, while the retail price remained low and fixed.  As a result, as wholesale prices skyrocketed, the State and the power monopolies had to buy high and sell low, causing massive financial losses.  At the same time, consumers saw no change in prices, so they had no incentive to change their behavior and cut back on usage, which they would have done if retail electricity prices had been allowed to rise with the market.

Via Instapundit and Gateway Pundit, comes this article about gas shortages in China and the ensuing lines at retail gas stations, that look worse than anything we suffered through in this country.  The article makes fairly clear what is going on:

The Chinese government and its state-owned oil companies are locked
in battle over artificially low gasoline prices at the pump that has
caused a massive shortage in the southern manufacturing province of

For weeks skyrocketing global oil prices and rising
demand has led to a fuel-supply crunch as domestic refineries have been
caught short in Guangdong.

Some fear it is only a matter of time before gas-guzzling cities such as Shanghai are hit too.

government has blamed recent stormy weather for the shortfall, which is
feasible but not enough to result in the kilometre long queues at
filling stations that drivers in Guangdong have endured for nearly a

As oil prices climbed, a standoff erupted between China's
National Development Reform Commission (NDRC) -- a key economic policy
planning body -- and the country's two largest state oil groups
PetroChina and Sinopec, analysts said Wednesday.

The crisis
highlights the persistent problems Beijing faces as the economy is
transformed to a more market-based system but that is often retarded by
authorities who fear loosing political control in the face of
full-fledged capitalist rules.

I blame Enron.  Anyway, I wrote about gas line and what caused them in the US here.  Some genius also attempted the same policy as China is pursuing in post-war Iraq, with similar results.

My Follow-up to Andy Warhol

As most of you know, Andy Warhol once predicted that "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."  The statement seems eerily correct given the explosion of talk shows and reality TV, which mainly happened after his statement.

I would like to follow-up on Mr. Warhol's bold prediction with one of my own:

In the future, everyone will be on the TSA's no-fly list

The TSA has the ridiculous policy of stopping everyone with a similar name as a single terrorist subject.  So, once a John Smith comes under scrutiny as a possible terrorist, every John Smith gets turned away at the gate

Sarah Zapolsky's 1-year-old son had better get used to being looked at as a
possible terrorist every time his family gets on a plane.

That's because experts and officials say there's no way the toddler's name
will be taken off the federal no-fly list - even after he and another tot made
headlines for being stopped as potential terror threats.

"His name is the same or similar to someone on the no-fly list," said Ann
Davis, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, explaining
that even though a baby is not a threat, someone out there with the same name
is, and the name must be kept on the list.

Hat tip to Hit and Run.

The Danger of Government-Owned Commercial Enterprises

I am always flabbergasted by folks who support government ownership of commercial assets based on the idea that the government is somehow more accountable than private enterprise.  This argument is, frankly, insane.  Commercial entities are held accountable by two things:  1) the ability of a customer not to purchase their product or service and 2) the ability of new competitors to enter the market and take away their customers with a better price-product package.

All enterprises naturally try to resist these pressures.  In the long run, there is not much a private company can do to evade these pressures.  Even bald attempts to monopolize the market have always failed (at least without the support of the government for that monopoly, as in certain utilities).

But government enterprises are entirely different.  The government has the legislative and regulatory power** to stifle competitors to themselves and to compel consumers to use only their product or service.  In other words, the government, uniquely, has the power to totally void the two sources of accountability in the market.

And the government uses this power all the time.  They use it to protect favored airports, to protect cigarette makers who pay them loads of settlement money, to protect wi-fi revenue, and of course to protect the good-old US Post Office. Via Reason, comes this story of the government even making life worse for drivers in order to protect their toll revenues:

When E-470 opened in 2002, some people thought it was a strange
coincidence that, about the same time, the speed limit on nearby Tower Road, a
paved, 2-lane, rural highway, dropped from 55 MPH to 40 MPH. Several apparently
unnecessary traffic signals also appeared. This, in spite of the fact that after
the toll road opened, Tower Road would have even less traffic than it did

Well, it was no coincidence.

The lower speed limit and extra traffic signals, which make Tower Road slower
and less convenient to use, are required by a "non-compete" clause in an
agreement between the E-470 Public Highway Authority and nearby Commerce

The goal is to impede traffic on Tower Road so drivers will decide they are
better off using the toll road. This protects the revenue stream from the tolls,
thereby protecting the interests of the toll road's investors.

Once government gets into a particular sphere, they are never ever going to voluntarily let anyone in, no matter how bad their product or service becomes.

** This power is not really constitutional, and has only emerged post-1930's, but that is another topic.

Update:  Just to anticipate the argument, observant readers will note that several of these examples represent "public-private" partnerships that split returns between private investors and the state.  The wi-fi example and the toll road example are of this type.  The fact that these government endeavors include private money does not change the problem one bit.  The problem is the government using its unique legislative authority to intervene in an industry to protect its own rents, which can occur with the government as a 100% investor or as a minority investor.

Julian Simon Would Have Loved This

When I read this article on waste disposal, via Instapundit, all I could think of was Julian Simon.  For those who may be too young to remember, back in the 80's, after the panic that we were running out of oil was over, but before the current panic that we are producing too much carbon dioxide, there was a panic that we were running out of garbage dump space.  Uh, never mind:

Simply put, operators of garbage dumps are stuffing more waste than
anyone expected into the giant plastic-lined holes, keeping disposal
prices down and making the construction of new landfills largely

productivity leap is the second major economic surprise from the trash
business in the last 20 years. First, it became clear in the early
1990's that there was a glut of disposal space, not the widely believed
shortage that had drawn headlines in the 1980's. Although many town
dumps had closed, they were replaced by fewer, but huge, regional ones.
That sent dumping prices plunging in many areas in the early 1990's and
led to a long slump in the waste industry.

Since then, the
industry and its followers have been relying on time - about 330
million tons of trash went into landfills in the United States last
year alone, according to Solid Waste Digest, a trade publication - to
fill up some of those holes, erase the glut and send disposal prices
skyward again. Instead, dump capacity has kept growing, and rapidly,
even as only a few new dumps were built.

Shortages seldom persist where the human mind is left free to attack the problem, and economic incentives are allowed to operate freely.  I wrote my own post attacking the zero-sum mentality that causes certain people to jump from one shortage-panic to the next. 

My prediction:  Five years from now, we will be seeing the same article on oil and natural gas.  "This oil field in west Texas is over 80 years old, and was thought to be depleted, until $60 oil prices and some new technology...."   You get the idea.

This is Sick

The town of New London, CT, is assessing nearly 5 years back rent on Susette Kelo and other property holders whose land the Supreme Court recently allowed the city to confiscate.  As it stands, if New London has its way, Kelo will not only lose her house, she will also be wiped out financially, all for the crime of owning the land where New London wanted condos and hotels.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently found that the city's original seizure of
private property was constitutional under the principal of eminent domain, and
now New London is claiming that the affected homeowners were living on city land
for the duration of the lawsuit and owe back rent. It's a new definition of
chutzpah: Confiscate land and charge back rent for the years the owners fought

In some cases, their debt could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Moreover, the homeowners are being offered buyouts based on the market rate as
it was in 2000...

The New London Development Corp., the semi-public organization hired by the
city to facilitate the deal, is offering residents the market rate as it was in
2000, as state law requires. That rate pales in comparison to what the units are
now worth, owing largely to the relentless housing bubble that has yet to burst.

"I can't replace what I have in this market for three times [the 2000
assessment]," says Dery, 48, who works as a home delivery sales manager for the New London Day . He soothes himself with humor:
"It's a lot like what I like to do in the stock market: buy high and sell low."

And there are more storms on the horizon. In June 2004, NLDC sent the seven
affected residents a letter indicating that after the completion of the case,
the city would expect to receive retroactive "use and occupancy" payments (also
known as "rent") from the residents.

In the letter, lawyers argued that because the takeover took place in 2000,
the residents had been living on city property for nearly five years, and would
therefore owe rent for the duration of their stay at the close of the trial. Any
money made from tenants, some residents' only form of income, would also have to be
paid to the city....

An NLDC estimate assessed Dery for $6,100 per month since the takeover, a
debt of more than $300K. One of his neighbors, case namesake Susette Kelo, who
owns a single-family house with her husband, learned she would owe in the
ballpark of 57 grand. "I'd leave here broke," says Kelo. "I wouldn't have a home
or any money to get one. I could probably get a large-size refrigerator box and
live under the bridge."

I want to barf.  Hat tip to Reason's Hit and Run.

Strange Quark Nuggets

Once in a while you read something so new and unexpected about the universe that you don't even know how to react.  That is where I am with this article on strange quark nuggets, smaller than the width of a human hair but weighing tons, burrowing through the earth at 900,000 miles an hour.  Via Instapundit.  Coming soon:  Bad Hollywood movie using the concept.

Fixed Comment Screen (Hopefully)

I have gotten a number of folks telling me that the color choices on the comment preview page made the text very difficult to read.  I was not ignoring these comments, it just took me a while to figure out which stylesheet variables controlled that page.  I think I have it licked, but let me know if you have problems.

Worlds Most Expensive Printer Ink

Today I bought what may be the most expensive consumer printer ink available.  We have a small Pitney-Bowes postage meter that has a little built in ink-jet printer to print out the metered postage symbol (that sort of red looking stuff that replaces the stamp).  One of their little print cartridges doesn't last more than at most a thousand envelopes, which represents at most the equivalent of 50 pages of text for a normal printer.  For this little cartridge with its smidgen of ink, I paid $39.99.  At the same time, I bought two-paks of the HP cartridges I needed (no bargain themselves) for $25 per cartridge, and these cartridges last for hundreds of pages.  I can't directly compare the volume of ink, but my sense is that the P-B cartridge is priced such that it would be over $500 with an equivalent amount of ink to an HP cartridge.  Insane.  And its worse because the P-B postage meter has this annoying tendency to announce the cartridge is almost out of ink before it is even half empty.  We have gone weeks with the meter telling us the cartridge had to be replaced soon.

I am not sure I fully understand the relationship Pitney-Bowes has to the US Postal Service, but to all appearances, they have been handed a virtual monopoly for decades.  For years business have been forced to pay egregious rental rates for P-B equipment with long, long minimum lease periods because the USPS does not seem to be comfortable with competition.  Only the advent of Internet postage in the late 1990's forced P-B to come out with a small business postage meter that you could purchase at relatively low cost.  I am flabbergasted that the US government continues to give them this monopoly.  It is ironic to me that several of the abusive monopolistic practices used by Pitney-Bowes and encouraged by the US government are the same practices Xerox got busted (under anti-trust litigation) years ago by... the US Government.

What Happened to Prior Art?

I wrote below that I am not an economist, but I am really, really not a patent lawyer.  However, I find this story totally mystifying:

Apple Computer may be forced to pay royalties to Microsoft for every iPod it
sells after it emerged that Bill Gates's software giant beat Steve Jobs' firm in
the race to file a crucial patent on technology used in the popular portable
music players. The total bill could run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although Apple introduced the iPod in November 2001, it did not file a
provisional patent application until July 2002, and a full application was filed
only in October that year.

In the meantime, Microsoft submitted an application in May 2002 to patent
some key elements of music players, including song menu software.

I have already become suspicious that the patent process as applied to software and online concepts (e.g. the Amazon "1-click" purchase patent) is broken.  For me, this is more evidence.  How can a Microsoft patent filed in May 2002 have any validity if it attempts to patent concepts already embodied in a competitive product on the market in 2001?

I once found myself in the middle of one of these patent battles several years ago.  I was on the management team at Mercata, an online shopping site who's bit of uniqueness was that it had three or four day purchase windows for various products, and the price of the product would fall as more people signed up to purchase it.  Kind of a fun, with some interesting viral marketing potential if it had caught on, but patentable?  I mean, doesn't Adam Smith have prior art on this?

Hat tip to Prof. Bainbridge.

I Don't Know the Economics Term for This

While I sometimes get grouped into economics blogs, I actually don't have a degree in the subject.  I have an MBA, some practical experience, some hobbyist reading, a few undergraduate courses, and, as my wife can attest, a willingness to pretend I know what I am talking about.  Unfortunately, that is not enough in this case.

Over the last 6 months, I have observed an interesting phenomena in the Phoenix area, one which I am sure I am not the first to discover, but I don't have enough background to put a name on it.  Here is what is going on:

Over the last year or two, the Phoenix real estate market has been red hot.  This has caused a lot of individual investors to make local real estate investments (I discussed more about this here).  The preferred type of investment seems to be to buy an old house on valuable land, tear it down, and sell the new house for a profit.

All fine and normal so far.  The interesting part comes when the investor chooses the style and appearance of the new home.  Remember that these are typically highly leveraged investments.  Investors take out a large mortgage, and that mortgage has to be paid every month that the investor cannot sell the home.  It is critical, then, that the investor build a home that is designed in a way to be most likely to sell.

Let's imagine that the pool of possible house buyers have the following preferences (I am making these numbers up):

  1. Tuscan / Mediterranean style, 40%
  2. Santa Fe style, 25%
  3. Santa Barbara style, 20%
  4. New England style, 10%
  5. Ultra modern style, 5%

With only limited information on what is going on in the market around them (ie what others are planning to build) all of these investor-builders pick the most popular style on the list, thereby apparently maximizing their ability to sell the home.  As a result, every tear down / rebuild / remodel I see in our area is a new Tuscan home.  So, while 40% of buyers (or whatever the number is) want Tuscan, 100% of the supply is Tuscan.  By the way, the same thing apparently happened in the last big Phoenix real estate boom back in the 1980's, since nearly every house in our neighborhood that was built in the early eighties was built in what we call the "santa barbara" style.

This is obviously some type of market failure, but I don't know what it is called.  I might call it the "variety failure".  To a large extent, this dynamic is made possible by the fact that many of the investors in the real estate market are only entering the housing market for a single transaction, and are not well informed of the actions of other sellers in the market.  In most other industries, investors need to make money over multiple transactions over many years, which mutes this effect.  For example, there are always farmers who try to plant this year what was earning good money last year, but these players in the market are usually weeded out over time as last year's shortage leads to this year's glut and financial losses.  Also muting this failure nowadays are changes in manufacturing techniques, which allows low cost production of greater variety, as well as expansion of specialty retail space (e.g. category killers like Petsmart or Borders), which allows display of more product variations.

Great Moments in Labor Relations

My previous post joking about potential union opposition to unmanned military aircraft reminded me of one of my favorite labor relations stories.   Until just the last few years, most railroads continued to pay a "fireman" to ride in the cab of their diesel locomotives, despite the fact that the role of the fireman to shovel coal into a steam boiler was totally obviated fifty years ago by diesel technology.  How this came about is an interesting story.

Railroads were the first heavy or large industry in this country.  For years, if you were to talk about "big business", you were really talking about railroads.  So it is not surprising that when the government succumbed to the pressure of interfering legislatively into the relationship between employer and employee, their first target was the railroad industry.  In a sense, the US has two bodies of labor law.  The first body of law is railroad labor law, and the second is the law that applies to every other industry. 

As much as we can complain about the labor law most of us operate under, it is nothing compared to the hash that the government made of railroad labor law.  From an early stage, details about work days and work rules that would normally be part of a private labor contract between a company and their union or employees were actually embodied in the law.  For example, back in the steam-engine era when trains moved fairly slowly, a full "day" for a train crew was defined by statute as 100 miles (about the distance a steam engine could go without taking on more water).  Once a train crew had traveled that distance, they were owed a days pay.  Other portions of the law gave the unions incredible power, such that the bargaining table at every negotiation with management was always tilted, by statute, in their favor.

Beginning in the late 1930's, but really gaining momentum in the late 1940's, railroads began to replace steam locomotives with diesel engines.  Diesel locomotives were more reliable, easier to maintain, easier to operate (no coal to shovel) and could go much longer distances without service (steam engines stopped frequently for more water).  As this transition occurred, railroad companies very reasonably sought to eliminate the position of "fireman" on diesel trains.  After all, without a boiler and coal to shovel, the fireman role was totally redundant on a diesel engine.  Railroad unions were nothing if not gutsy, and in response they argued that not only would they not accept elimination of the fireman position, but they campaigned for an addition of a second fireman on diesel engines.  Railroads found themselves in the position of actually having to fight a nearly successful effort to increase the number of firemen on crews.  As a result, they ended up accepting the fireman role, and generations of railroad men cruised about the country on engines for the next 40 years, doing virtually nothing for their pay.  Railroads were still fighting to eliminate the fireman in the 1990's.  In some cases, railroads were actually forced to pay "lonesome pay" to some engineers when the firemen were removed from their crew.  LOL.

Other labor statutes and work rules prevented full use of the diesel's capabilities.  For example, the 100 mile rule was now absurd - an inter-modal or other long-distance freight train could cover this in less than two hours.  But US law still insisted that railroad workers be paid a full days pay for 100 miles.  By 1990, after four decades of lobbying and negotiation, the 100 miles had been increased all the way to ... 108 miles.

This article from Regulation is a bit dated, but it still gives a good overview of some of the historical insanities in railroad labor.  An excerpt:

The rail unions deserve the labor equivalent of an Oscar for best sustained performance in reducing industrial efficiency. Restrictive work practices are legendary from firemen on diesel locomotives to train-limit laws. During the 1980s the railroads made minor progress against these practices, but they still have a long way to go. Some crews receive an extra day's pay every time they turn a locomotive around (yard and line haul crews have rigid separations of duties despite identical skills). Carriers are forced to employ three- to five-person crews, while nonunion carriers (Florida East Coast Railway and regional and short-line carriers) use two people. Crew members receive a full day's pay after a train moves 108 miles, even if the trip requires only a few hours. (The current three-member board appointed by Congress may impose a 130-mile rule by 1995.) Some union members have guaranteed lifetime incomes and must only work a few days per month. Some engineers receive "lonesome pay" for giving up the full-time company of a fireman. Until 1987, some Burlington Northern crews received "hazardous pay" for traveling through Indian territory in Montana. Management studies show that work forces could be cut in half, and according to some estimates, labor restrictions cost the industry some $4 billion a year. Despite union concessions on work rules, shippers continue to complain about the carriers' inability to achieve efficient and economical labor contracts. Overall, the RLA and its government-backed unions combine to double labor costs and therefore drive up freight rates from 20 to 25 percent, a very serious handicap in the competition with trucks and barges.

One railroad stood up to the union, and eventually won, but had to withstand a violent 11-year strike, all the while the taking continuous grief in the union-friendly press:

The Florida East Coast Railways, a line long known as "America's most efficient railroad," highlights the woeful labor inefficiencies of the major carriers. Its primary operation is transporting freight from Jacksonville to Miami. When Edward Ball took over the operation in 1961, the unions required the use of three five-man crews-each receiving a day's pay for each 100 miles traveled on the 366-mile trip. Ball failed to see the sense of this scheme and decided to try th change it. Union officials could not see the sense in any change and called a strike in 1963. The violence and vandalism that continued for eleven years demonstrated to other carriers the cost of defying the unions. The railway won, however. The company used two-man crews who were "cross-trained" and paid them a day's pay for eight hours' work rather than for 100 miles traveled. During the 1970s, the railroad's labor costs were 40 percent of total costs compared with 64 percent for all class I railroads, and Florida East Coast Railway earned the highest return of any class I railroad. In addition, the railway consistently won safety awards that fended off another pretext for government control and continues to retain customers while other railroads lose out to trucks.

Read the whole article.  If you have ever read Atlas Shrugged, you will find that a lot of the outrageous legislation in that story that seemed too stupid to be true actually have a basis in the history of US railroad law.  Even the "railroad unification act" that seems totally over-the-top toward the end of the book is based on actual railroad law after WWI:

The Transportation Act of 1920 gave the Interstate Commerce Commission complete control over pricing, issuance of securities, expenditure of proceeds, consolidations, and the construction, use, and abandonment of facilities. The act set up a Railway Labor Board to mediate disputes. Its "recapture" provision required a portion of a company's earnings in excess of an allowable "fair return" to be diverted to railroads with relatively low earnings. Except for the most routine administration, almost everything owners might do was subject to federal regulation or dictation.

More on the transition of steam to diesel here.  I am not very well versed on the subject, but apparently this specialized railroad labor law was later applied to airline pilots, with predictable results.  It is interesting that the two industries covered by the RLA (railroads and airlines) have both seen every major carrier in their industry bankrupted over the last 50 years.

Update:  I have been a fan of railroads for years.  One of my frustrations with my current house is a don't have room for a model railroad layout.  I had one back in St. Louis, where I had a basement, but there are not very many basements in Phoenix.  Here are some photos of that old layout, which was still under construction when I had to tear it down and move.

Pilot's Union Strangely Silent

Actually, there is no pilots union in the military, perhaps fortunately, because they likely would have opposed the creation of un-manned drone aircraft such as the Predator, which has been wildly successful in Middle East operations.  Current aircraft have both reconnaissance and air-to-ground attack capabilities.  These aircraft are piloted from the ground by ex-fighter pilots, but the next generation will be able to take off and land themselves, obviating the need for even a ground pilot.  Wired has a longer article on these cool drones.  Beyond the obvious reduction in risk to humans, the drones also have the advantage of being substantially less expensive than human piloted fighter craft -- as little as $15 million apiece, even for the next generation tricked up models.

Blogging Officially Declared Mainstream on August 11, 2005 at 07:23 AM

OK, an event has occurred that tells me that blogging is officially a trend.  My mom has actually trolled my blog with her first blog comment.

Renouncing My Place of Birth

I am renouncing my place of birth.  No, not my country.  For all its faults, I love the United States and miss it when I am away.  And no, not my birth state of Texas, despite its perceived great Satan status among the media elite.  I am not even renouncing my birth city of Houston, despite the fact I don't think I could ever return to the traffic and humidity.  I am taking the bold, original step of renouncing my birth hospital.  I was born at St. Luke's in the Texas Medical Center, and they are apparently going over to the dark side:

St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital's famed medical tower will soon be renamed for a
Houston lawyer who has made millions taking the health care industry to trial.

The plan to rename the edifice after John O'Quinn in recognition of a $25
million donation by his foundation has infuriated many St. Luke's doctors, who
last week began circulating a petition against it and Monday night convened an
emergency meeting of the medical executive committee.

"Perhaps you are unaware of the intensity of feelings held by many physicians
about Mr. John O'Quinn," says the petition, which is addressed to the Rev. Don
Wimberly, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas and chairman of the St.
Luke's Episcopal Health System board of directors. "The primary source of his
financial success has been representing plaintiffs in medical liability and
products liability cases, many of them groundless."

Where does the money come from?  In part from O'Quinn's baseless but infuriatingly successful suits over breast implants, which no serious medical study have shown to be dangerous:

A plaintiff's lawyer who often has sued doctors, O'Quinn made some of his
fortune on litigation involving breast implants, which bankrupted a company (Dow
Corning) even though the consensus later developed that the science didn't back
up the claims.

Another part of the money comes from pushing bogus asbestos claims that have kept most of the asbestos settlement money out of the hands of the truly sick:

In July 2005, a Corpus Christi federal judge fined O'Quinn's law firm for its
part helping to produce what she called bogus diagnoses involving the
occupational illness silicosis, a serious and occasionally fatal lung disease.
She said the claims "defy all medical knowledge" and the diagnoses were about
"litigation rather than health care."

More on the growing scandal in asbestos screening here and hereOverlawyered has the whole store here, as well as links to plenty of background on Mr. O'Quinn.

Do We Have to Change the State Names?

The NCAA has effectively banned the use of "hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery" at NCAA events.  Apparently, despite the broad language, the rules are aimed narrowly at teams named using Native American imagery, since "Fighting Irish" is not on the hitlist, despite the fact that Notre Dame has no formal approval from Ireland to use the name, while "Seminoles" is on the hitlist, despite the fact that Florida State has the Seminole tribe's blessing to use the name.  The "Dutch" and the "Dutchmen" are apparently OK, as are other teams named after non-Indian peoples such as the "Gauchos", the "Highlanders", the "Quakers", the "Norse", the "Scots", the "Swedes", the "Trojans", the "Vandals", the "Vikings", and of course, the "Nads" (Go Nads, go).  Complete mascot list here.  As a resident of Phoenix, can I sue the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay for denigrating me?

So I started to think about the University of Utah Utes, who are also on the hitlist.  Apparently, using a name derived from the Ute Indian tribe is no longer Kosher in the NCAA.  Which leads to the obvious question - can the University of Utah even use the name Utah any more at NCAA events, since it is derived from the Ute tribe?  Instead of "Utah" on their uniforms, will they have to have something like "that state between Nevada and Colorado"?  Same with Missouri, Illinois, and both the Dakotas, all state names derived from local Indian tribe names.  And don't even get me started on the 40 or so state names (including my own Arizona) derived from Indian words.  How about Indiana, which means "land of Indians"?  Or Oklahoma, which is Choctow for "red people".  If we can't put "redskin" on a NCAA jersey, how can we put "Oklahoma"?  Coming soon: The Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. The Far North Texas Sooners.

The FIRE website has more, noting the irony of university presidents suddenly chafing under the same type of vague and arbitrarily enforced speech code that they have blithely imposed on their own students for years.

Update #1: I heard an interesting interview on this topic with an NCAA spokeman on the Dan Patrick Radio Show.  The host pressed the NCAA figure on why FSU can't use the "Seminole" name, when the Florida Seminole tribe had given their blessing.  The response from the NCAA official was typical of a lot of elitist thought nowadays.  It boiled down to "its for their own good, even if they don't agree".

Update #2: Being from Texas, I knew that calling Oklahoma "Far North Texas" would incite some response.  I have gotten several emails.  The conclusion to an email from reader Dale was typical:

from one fellow libertarian to another, can you do me a favor?  Henceforth,
please refrain from associating my Sooners with anything texas-like.  Thank


More on Bureaucratic Hell Mono County

I have written a number of times about bureaucratic hellhole and most bureaucratic county Mono County, California.

Today, they confirmed by mail that my 11 campgrounds, all within 3 miles of each other and managed under a single contract as a single complex with the US Forest Service, now need to be registered separately with 11 tax ID's and 11 separate sales tax reports.  I must fill in the same detailed application 11 times, and each application has 3 pages plus 3 carbons for a total of 66 pages of information.  So, in order to collect exactly the same amount of tax that I have been collecting on exactly the same campgrounds for the last several years, Mono County needs 66 pages of paperwork, and apparently needs these same 66 pages filled out again each year.  Also, instead of filing a single consolidated sales tax report each quarter, I now must file 11 separate reports for a total of 44 a year. 

Can you imagine the insanity if the whole state adopted this approach?  That McDonalds in California or Unocal would have to file thousands of reports a month instead of one?  This is what happens when you let bureaucrats run amok.

A (Partial) Defense of Larry Krueger

Larry Krueger, a radio personality for the San Francisco (baseball) Giants, recently ignited a firestorm by saying that he was frustrated by the Giants'

brain-dead Caribbean hitters hacking at slop nightly.

In response, Giants manager Felipe Alou has demanded Krueger's firing, asserting that this statement represents the worst sort of racism, and that he refused to accept Krueger's apology because "There's no way to
apologize for such a sin."

OK, at the risk that Krueger turns out to be a serial idiot with a long history of racism, I will deal with this statement solely on its face.  And in context, the reaction to his statement strikes me as extremely exaggerated.

Some background:  Typically, hitters can be thought of in two classes:

  1. Picky hitters, that sort through pitches like my wife shopping for vegetables, carefully picking out only the best to swing at, and gladly accepting walks when they come.  These hitters are often considered more "thoughtful" hitters
  2. Aggressive hitters, who swing more indiscriminately at pitches, and who often consider a walk to be a failed at-bat.  These hitters often described as "intuitive" or "natural" hitters, rather than thoughtful.

Some managers prefer the first type, some the second (for example, Miguel Tejada's being indiscriminate at the plate drove A's GM Billy Beane crazy, while other managers are happy to let him hack away for their team, given his huge numbers).  Which brings us back to the Caribbean.  What's interesting to me is that the Caribbean is not actually a race, but a location.  And in that location, it is very clear that hitters are schooled to be type #2 aggressive hitters.  Players in the Dominican Republic, Filipe Alou's home country by the way, have a saying:  "You don't walk off the island".  In other words, to get the attention of the US scouts and come to the majors from the Caribbean, a hitter is trained to be an aggressive type 2 player. They are taught that going down hacking is better than a walk.

In a sense, the Caribbean is a big (and very very successful) baseball school for training players to play in the US.  And it turns out that this "school" tends to teach players be more indiscriminate hackers at the plate.  Ask any manager in the majors if Caribbean hitters on average are less picky, more aggressive hitters at the plate and they will say "of course".

So, to some extent, Krueger is getting flamed for saying what everyone already knows.  Saying that Caribbean hitters can be indiscriminate hackers is like saying that PAC 10 quarterbacks tend to be more NFL-ready and polished than Big 12 quarterbacks -- its just a fact that is not always true, but is true on average given how they were trained.  Krueger's real mistake was probably using the term "brain dead", which can be a dangerous term when it has racial overtones, but in context probably refers to hitting style rather than absolute IQ.  I think Alou is reaching to say that Krueger was referring to Caribbean hitters poor English skills, but I will admit that he has more history with Krueger and may have reason to make this interpretation from past events.


Nicholas Kristof reported in the NY Times (via Reason)that Portland had found the secret to eternal motion, cutting CO2 emisions while paying no price and growing the economy:

Officials in Portland insist that the campaign to cut emissions has entailed no
significant economic price, and on the contrary has brought the city huge
benefits: less tax money spent on energy, more convenient transportation, a
greener city and expertise in energy efficiency that is helping local businesses
win contracts worldwide.... Portland's experience is so crucial. It confirms the
suggestions of some economists that we can take initial steps against global
warming without economic disruptions. Then in a decade or two, we can decide
whether to proceed with other, costlier steps....

Here's his big conclusion:

Perhaps eventually we will face hard trade-offs. But for now Portland shows we
can help our planet without "wrecking" our economy--indeed, at no significant
cost at all.

No one, particularly the science-challenged press who oh-so-wanted this to be true, asked themselves if this made any freaking sense at all.  Apparently, it doesn't:

In response to data requests from the Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland-based
think tank, the [Office of Sustainable Development] admitted that a math error
resulted in a 2004 carbon dioxide calculation that was 74,561 tons too low. The
re-stated total puts Multnomah County above the 1990 levels by more than 68,000

The implication?

What's more, Cascade's prez, John Charles, argues that, beyond bad math, there
are more basic methodological flaws that lead to an undercounting of
transportation-related emissions. "Portland's claim of painlessly reducing
carbon dioxide has been repeated over and over by journalists, bloggers, and
even some scientists for the past month, without any attempt to verify the
accuracy of the OSD's report," he writes. "In fact, actual carbon emissions have
been well above the level claimed by Portland, and any regulatory program
imposed by the government to lower emissions to pre-1990 levels is going to be
costly to consumers, something elected officials apparently don't understand."

Proved Right at Internet Speed

Here was my prediction, in an article on "community" investment in services like broadband:

Bureaucracies never, ever let themselves die, and there is no way a
municipal broadband business will ever let itself be killed by a
competitor - that competitor will be blocked, even if that likely means
that local broadband consumers have to stick with higher costs and
outdated technologies.

Now there is nothing abnormal about this -- every business tries to protect itself from competitors.  But only the government has the unique and dangerous power to block competition by law, which makes it a particularly dangerous owner of business assets (either on their own or via the dreaded "public-private" partnership).

I must admit, I expected it to take some time to be proven right.  I expected that things would go OK for the local governments in broadband until an (inevitable) technology shift found them defending their outdated infrastructure against new entrants.  However, proof comes much faster, via Reason's Hit and Run:

Boston's Logan International Airport is attempting to pull the plug on
Continental Airlines' free Wi-Fi node, which competes with the airport's
$7.95-a-day pay service.

In an escalating series of threatening letters sent over the last few weeks,
airport officials have pledged to "take all necessary steps to have the (Wi-Fi)
antenna removed" from Continental's frequent flyer lounge....

At stake is a sizable chunk of revenue that Massport receives from its
pay-per-use Wi-Fi service, which is operated by a commercial provider
called Advanced Wireless Group.


Update:  By the way, the mother of all government backed cartels using state regulatory power to squash competition that might reduce government rents is in tobacco.  Good article here at Reason.  They summarize:

In short, a cartel of states has colluded with a cartel of tobacco companies to create a public-private
supercartel: a market-fixing scheme that is locked in by law, yet is accountable to no particular
government authority; that is immensely profitable to the parties at the expense of millions of hapless
consumers; and that is enforced with penalties that clobber any would-be defectors. The deal also creates
what amounts to a new national taxing authority that arises from state collusion and that bypasses Congress.
The companies provided the deep pockets, the states provided the muscle, private law firms provided the
legal talent, and public-interest groups provided legitimacy.

Republicans Running Away from Libertarian Wing

I have written a number of times that Republicans are returning to their bad old days of the 1970's, supporting aggresive social constraints and big government pro-large-business rather than pro-free-market economic controls.  Per Republican Rick Santorum, via Reason:

This whole idea of personal autonomy -- I don't think that most conservatives
hold that point of view. Some do. And they have this idea that people should be
left alone to do what they want to do, that government should keep taxes down,
keep regulation down, that we shouldn't get involved in the bedroom, that we
shouldn't be involved in cultural issues, people should do whatever they want.
Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world. And I think that
most conservatives understand that we can't go it alone, that there is no such
society that I'm aware of where we've had radical individualism and it has
succeeded as a culture.

This Reason Hit and Run post is a useful example to clarify the difference between "pro-business" and "pro-free-markets."  This earlier post of mine also addresses this distinction.

Republicans Running Away from Libertarian Wing

I have written a number of times that Republicans are returning to their bad old days of the 1970's, supporting aggresive social constraints and big government pro-large-business rather than pro-free-market economic controls.  Per Republican Rick Santorum, via Reason:

This whole idea of personal autonomy -- I don't think that most conservatives
hold that point of view. Some do. And they have this idea that people should be
left alone to do what they want to do, that government should keep taxes down,
keep regulation down, that we shouldn't get involved in the bedroom, that we
shouldn't be involved in cultural issues, people should do whatever they want.
Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world. And I think that
most conservatives understand that we can't go it alone, that there is no such
society that I'm aware of where we've had radical individualism and it has
succeeded as a culture.

This Reason Hit and Run post is a useful example to clarify the difference between "pro-business" and "pro-free-markets."  This earlier post of mine also addresses this distinction.

"Sweatshop" Wages

I have little patience for the campaign against American companies, particularly apparel companies, for operating "sweatshops" in other countries.  A bunch of American middle class protesters who have generally never been to the country involved complain that wages paid are too low.  Why too low?  Well, the only basis I can determine is that they are declare too low because the protesters involved would never take that $12 a day job themself.  Of course, the protesters have never wallowed in miserable poverty trying to live on $2 a day. As I wrote before:

Progressives do not like American factories appearing in third world
countries, paying locals wages progressives feel are too low, and
disrupting agrarian economies with which progressives were more
comfortable.  But these changes are all the sum of actions by
individuals, so it is illustrative to think about what is going on in
these countries at the individual level. 

One morning, a rice farmer in southeast Asia might faces a choice.
He can continue a life of brutal, back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk
for what is essentially subsistence earnings.  He can continue to see a
large number of his children die young from malnutrition and disease.
He can continue a lifestyle so static, so devoid of opportunity for
advancement, that it is nearly identical to the life led by his
ancestors in the same spot a thousand years ago.

Or, he can go to the local Nike factory, work long hours (but
certainly no longer than he worked in the field) for low pay (but
certainly more than he was making subsistence farming) and take a shot
at changing his life.  And you know what, many men (and women) in his
position choose the Nike factory.  And progressives hate this.  They
distrust this choice.  They distrust the change.  And, at its heart,
that is what globalization is all about - a deep seated conservatism
that distrusts the decision-making of individuals and fears change,
change that ironically might finally pull people out of untold
generations of utter poverty.

This week, with a hat tip to Cafe Hayek, I found this interesting new study by Powell and Skarbeck on wages at American plants in 3rd world nations.


We examined the apparel industry in 10 Asian and Latin American countries
often accused of having sweatshops and then we looked at 43 specific accusations
of unfair wages in 11 countries in the same regions. Our findings may seem
surprising. Not only were sweatshops superior to the dire alternatives
economists usually mentioned [such as working on subsistence farms], but they
often provided a better-than-average standard of living for their workers.


The apparel industry, which is often accused of unsafe working conditions and
poor wages, actually pays its foreign workers well enough for them to rise above
the poverty in their countries. While more than half of the population in most
of the countries we studied lived on less than $2 per day, in 90 percent of the
countries, working a 10-hour day in the apparel industry would lift a worker
above - often far above - that standard. For example, in Honduras, the site of
the infamous Kathy Lee Gifford sweatshop scandal, the average apparel worker
earns $13.10 per day, yet 44 percent of the country's population lives on less
than $2 per day.

Cafe Hayek concludes:

Powell's and Skarbek's lesson is straightforward and important. But it's a
lesson too often ignored by "activists" who would rather pose and prance as
moral crusaders than analyze situations in ways that might actually help people.
The lesson is summarized by what I call "The Economist's Question: "As
compared to what?"

In and of itself, situation A is neither good nor bad; it is good or bad only
in comparison with it's real alternatives.  This lesson is a hard one, perhaps
-- it's certainly an unromantic one -- but it's indispensable for sound


Congrats to my Congressman

I trash the Congress a lot, but a brief thanks to our local Congressman John Shadegg who was one of only 8 folks who managed a "no" vote against the pork-laden highway bill.  Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake was also one of the eight.

Update:  Flake also wins an award as the only Congressman who did not slip a special appropriation for his own district into the bill.