Archive for October 2005

"I Never Forgot I Was Lying"

Via Overlawyered, comes this fascinating confession of one of the young "accusers" in the McMartin pre-school sex abuse prosecutions, one of several witch-hunts from a mercifully brief era of a national day care sex-abuse panic.  While certainly abuse occurs, as is made clear from recent Catholic Church revelations, prosecutors used the excuse of "protecting the children" to justify all kinds of abuses of the fact-finding process (something we should remember in the Patriot Act era).

The lawyers had all my stories written down and knew exactly what I had said
before. So I knew I would have to say those exact things again and not have
anything be different, otherwise they would know I was lying. I put a lot of
pressure on myself. At night in bed, I would think hard about things I had said
in the past and try to repeat only the things I knew I'd said before.

remember describing going to an airport and Ray taking us somewhere on an
airplane. Then I realized the parents would have known the kids were gone from
the school. I felt I'd screwed up and my lie had been caught"”I was busted! I was
so upset with myself! I remember breaking down and crying. I felt everyone knew
I was lying. But my parents said, "You're doing fine. Don't worry." And everyone
was saying how proud they were of me, not to worry.

I'm not saying
nothing happened to anyone else at the McMartin Pre-School. I can't say that"”I
can only speak for myself. Maybe some things did happen. Maybe some kids made up
stories about things that didn't really happen, and eventually started believing
they were telling the truth. Maybe some got scared that the teachers would get
their families because they were lying. But I never forgot I was lying.

There is much more in the article, demonstrating how prosecutors manipulated children to get prosecutions. 

This topic has resonance with me because I sat on the jury of such a case around 1992.  Earlier sex-abuse prosecutions were starting to look suspicious, but there was still a lot of incentive for prosecutors to push high-profile cases (after all, Janet Reno would soon become AG for the US, largely on the strength of a number of well publicized and in retrospect very questionable such prosecutions).  By 1992, though, defense lawyers had caught up and were better at highlighting the egregious tactics used by prosecutors to coax stories out of children.  Many of the tactics we saw in our trial were identical to those recounted in this article.  There was even an eerie parallel to this recent Vioxx case, as the initial (3rd party) accuser who first reported that the victim was being abused seemed more motivated by getting on Oprah than getting her facts correct.

Update:  Neo-Libertarian has the details on the Janet Reno prosecutions I mentioned in passing.  Here is the PBS story on "the Miami method" and several of Reno's unethical abuse prosecutions.

She Was Asking For It

While the "she was asking for it" defense has thankfully been purged from most rape trials (at least those involving strangers), it seems to be alive and well in the civil trial world.  Last week, a jury held that the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 were only 32% responsible for their actions.  The real villain in this terrorist attack was ... the Port Authority, owner of the facility, who so thoughtlessly allowed themselves to get bombed.  More via Volokh and Overlawyered.  Based on joint and several liability, the PA now is on the hook for the entire $1.8 billion verdict.

By the way, the "smoking gun" in the trial was apparently a recommendation the PA received (one of hundreds and perhaps thousands of suggestions of wildly varying quality) to close the parking lot to cars to prevent car bombs.  This helps reinforce my earlier point of why litigation insanity like this actually works to make the world less safe, because such litigation provides a strong disincentive for an entity to have any internal discourse on safety, since notes from this discourse can be held against it later. 

It is always useful to think about what consistently applied policy would have satisfied the jury that the PA was not liable.  In this case, the jury's verdict was clearly "they should have closed the garage to prevent car bombings."  Now, lets apply that everywhere consistently.  This would basically mean that we close every car parking garage in the country, since they are all equally vulnerable to a car bomb.  Applying this further, wouldn't this same standard also result in closing all tall buildings to prevent airplane attack, closing all airports to prevent hijackings, and closing all government buildings to prevent bombings (well, maybe thats not so bad).  I have posted before about finding the absurdity from translating a jury's civil verdict into a consistent policy.  Here is one example:

the exact wording on the complaint against the railroad is even better than I thought:

[engineer] did not stop the train in a timely manner, and failed to
yield the right of way to a pedestrian walking along the tracks in
plain view"

A freight train's topping distance is measured in miles, even with full emergency braking.

She and her attorney's further argue:

the railroad was negligent for failing to post signs warning 'of the
dangers of walking near train tracks and that the tracks were actively
in useLets

leave aside the obvious point
about individual responsibility, and ask what would happen if this were
the legal standard, to have such signs.  To make sure someone saw one,
you would have to have one say every 30 feet.  Since there are just over 200,000 miles of freight railroads in the North America that works out to a bit over 35,000,000 signs that need to be posted.  At $100 per sign this would cost $3.5 billion.

Here is the serious point:  Never would any legislature
pass a law that said there had to be warning signs every 30 feet on
railroads.  It would be way too costly for little benefit.  At grade
crossings today, we have signs and flashing lights and even gates and
still thousands of people a year drive in front of trains on grade
crossings.  So, if we would never require it legislatively, how have we
gotten to a point where a jury might effectively retroactively require
such signs, and assess a multi-million dollar penalty for not doing it?

Halloween Myth-Busting

I must admit that I always accepted the conventional wisdom that trick-or-treating was becoming more dangerous, with incidents of kids getting poisoned candy and the like.  According to Snopes, this is an urban legend.  In fact:

Tales of black-hearted madmen doling out poisoned Halloween candy to
unsuspecting little tykes have been around forever "” they were part
of my Halloween experience nearly forty years ago. And every year sees the same
flurry of activity in response to such rumors: radio, TV and newspapers issue
dark warnings about tampered candy and suggest taking the little ones to parties
instead of collecting goodies door-to-door. Even Ann Landers published a column
in 1995 warning us against the mad poisoner, saying, "In recent years, there
have been reports of people with twisted minds putting razor blades and poison
in taffy apples and Halloween candy."

It's a sadness that a holiday so thoroughly and greedily enjoyed by kids
is being sanitized out of existence in the name of safety. Sadder still is there
appears to be little reason for it.

Though I've yet to find evidence of
a genuine Halloween poisoning, I have uncovered a few isolated incidents
initially reported as random poisonings that, upon further investigation, turned
out to be something else.

So relax and have a happy Halloween  (and yes, I will still probably visually check my kids candy tonight just to make sure -- its too easy and its an ingrained habit now).

Politicians and Prioritization

Imagine that you are in a budget meeting at your company.  You and a number of other department heads have been called together to make spending cuts due to a cyclical downturn in revenue.  In your department, you have maybe 20 projects being worked on by 10 people, all (both people and projects) of varying quality.   So the boss says "We have to cut 5%, what can you do?"  What do you think her reaction would be if you said "well, the first thing I would have to cut is my best project and I would lay off the best employee in my department". 

If this response seems nuts to you, why do we let politicians get away with this ALL THE TIME?  Every time that politicians are fighting against budget cuts or for a tax increase, they always threaten that the most critical possible services will be cut.  Its always emergency workers that are going to be cut or the Washington Monument that is going to be closed.  Its never the egg license program that has to be cut. 

I am reminded of this in driving long distance this weekend and I picked up, by one of those random late night AM skip-distance things, a station in Colorado, and it was full of commercials threatening dire consequences (old people will go hungry, kids won't get an education, emergency workers won't be there for your heart attack) if voters don't overturn TABOR, which is the tax plan that has, for over a decade, limited tax revenue collections to population growth plus inflation.  When I was in Colorado, I loved TABOR (the Cato institute has a nice article on why you should too) and really loved the tax refunds I often got because of it.

TABOR provides a fairly constant revenue stream to the government, in good times and bad.  When times are good, the government is flush, and when times are bad the government runs short (due to unemployment payments, more welfare, etc.).  Many of us in cyclical businesses deal with this all the time, and seem to be able to cut marginal programs added in good times that we can no longer fund in bad times.  Politicians are incapable of this.  Many businesses also underspend revenues by a wide margin in good times, knowing they will need the reserves in bad times.  Politicians are also incapable of this.

On Tuesday, Colorado voters will decide if they will require Colorado politicians to take the same responsibility for fiscal management that everyone else does in their private business lives, or if they will bail them out of their incompetance with more of their money. 

Going back to my example of suggesting in a budget meeting that you will cut your best programs and people in a budget crisis, would you expect to get more budget or to be fired?  Why can't we do the same with politicians?

Update: Bummer.  Coloradans voted to roll back TABOR.  Glad I don't live there anymore.  Roundup at Hit and Run.

Senator Coburn Makes Another Run at Fiscal Sanity

Apparently not daunted by the how the Senate embarrassed itself in overturning his first amendment, Coburn is doggedly trying again:

Dr. Coburn, joined by Senators Sam Brownback, Jim DeMint, John
Ensign, Lindsey Graham, John McCain and John Sununu, proposed the
following actions to offset hurricane relief spending:
"¢ A freeze on cost-of-living adjustments for federal employees,
including members of Congress, with the exception of law enforcement
and military personnel.
"¢ A two-year delay in implementation of the Medicare prescription
drug benefit except for low-income seniors who would receive $1,200 in
assistance with their drug discount cards.
"¢ A requirement that those with higher incomes pay higher Medicare
Part B premiums in 2006, rather than in 2007 as currently scheduled.
"¢ Eliminate $24 billion in special project spending in the recently passed highway bill. 
"¢ A cut of 5% to all federal spending programs except those which
impact national security, with 1% set aside for funding of essential
The package of offsets proposed today could save the American taxpayers nearly $130 billion over two years.          

Arizona is the only state who had both its Senators support the first Coburn amendment, but I am never-the-less writing both to encourage them to hold tough. 


AZ Republic Takes Shot at Oil Companies

In a remarkable example of an anti-business hit-piece called "Fueling Contempt" on the front page of the AZ Republic, the Republic leads with this line:

Reaction to major oil producers' staggering profits ranges from rage at
the pumps to calls for profits to be reinvested in exploration,
alternative-energy research or simply returned somehow to the public.

The article is mainly focused on the profit announcement at Exxon-Mobil, so I will use their numbers to put "staggering" into context.  E-M announced profits of $9.9 billion on sales of $101 billion.  For those who cannot divide, that is a profit margin of 9.9% of sales.  Since when is a profit margin at a cyclical peak of 9.9% considered "staggering"?  Microsoft makes 30%, in good times and bad, with a fraction of the investment or risk X-M takes.  From this chart, you can see the average for all industry is about 8%, with the oil industry generally below this number in all but cyclical peak quarters and banks, pharma, software, semiconductors, financials, household products and many others all consistently over 10%.  Procter and Gamble makes a margin of nearly 13% of sales selling toothpaste and detergent but we are going to begrudge oil companies 7.6% on average and 10% in their best quarters?

The article does absolutely nothing to put the profits in their proper context, though I was able to do it in one paragraph.  This is the only context the article offers:

The oil companies assert that their profits are no larger than other
businesses and that they just look big because it is a big business.

Exxon Chairman Lee R. Raymond said in a statement that the company
"acted responsibly" in its pricing and said its fourth-quarter profits
would come nowhere close to the $9.9 billion in the third quarter.

That doesn't necessarily wash with Adrienne Valdez of Phoenix.

"I can't afford to buy socks because I am paying twice what I used to
for gas," she said. "It's not right that they should be making billions
at our expense."

In Phoenix, gas prices soared to $3.14 after Hurricane Katrina hit the
Gulf Coast. The average Valley price per gallon, which has been falling
in recent weeks, was $2.72 Thursday, according to AAA Arizona.

Bruce Trushinsky, owner of the former Moon Valley Exxon station at 1901
W. Thunderbird Road in Phoenix, called Exxon Mobil's $9.9 billion
quarterly profit "disgusting."

He became so upset at the $7.6 billion profit posted by the company in
the second quarter that he canceled a longtime branding agreement.

"I ripped down all the Exxon signs and threw them in the garbage,"

he said. Now, after 30 years, Moon Valley Exxon is Carmel Automotive
and Fuel. Trushinsky said the high wholesale prices charged by Exxon
were devastating to his business and that the last straw was when the
company canceled its dealer-incentive program.

"They cut us off, then they announced their (second-quarter) profit increased $2 billion."

This is populist crap, and is the reason the MSM cannot be taken
seriously when they say that they are neutral reporters.  They are not
reporting, they are cheerleading an anti-oil company bigotry that has
existed for decades.  I think that the E-M management should be embarrassed to make such a small return in their best quarter.  Shareholders should take management to the woodshed for investing and risking so much in a cyclical business and making so little.  For gods sakes, they make a lower margin than Jif peanut butter earns.  Is anyone suggesting that we impose a windfall profits tax on Charmin?

I find the title of the article "Fueling Contempt" interesting - I am not sure if it was meant to refer to high oil company profits or if it was just a statement of intent for the article.


Since 1977, governments collected more than $1.34 trillion, after adjusting for
inflation, in gasoline tax revenues"”more than twice the amount of domestic
profits earned by major U.S. oil companies during the same period

This is just gasoline taxes - it does not include income tax payments, property tax payments, and oil lease royalty payments.

Wal-Mart and The Minimum Wage

Apparently, though I can't dig up a link right this second, Wal-mart is putting its support behind a higher minimum wage.  One way to look at this is a fairly cynical ploy to get the left off its back.  After all, if Wal-mart's starting salary is $6.50 an hour (for example) it costs them nothing to ask for a minimum wage of $6.50.

A different, and perhaps more realistic way to look at this Wal-mart initiative is as a bald move to get government to sit on their competition.  After all, as its wage rates creep up, as is typical in more established companies, they are vulnerable to competitors gaining advantage over them by paying lower wages.  If Wal-mart gets the government to set the minimum wage closer to the wage rates it pays, it eliminates the possibility of this competitor strategy.  Besides, a higher minimum wage would surely put more low-skilled people out of work, increasing the pool of people Wal-mart can hire  (and please do not bring up the NJ convenience store study that supposedly shows that higher minimum wage increase employment - no one in their right mind really believes that demand for labor goes up when the costs go up).  I am not sure what the net effect on Wal-mart's customers would be -- some would have more money, from higher wage, and some would have less, from fewer hours or due to being laid off.

I have defended Wal-mart in the past, but I am going to stop if they become the new auto or steel industry and use the government to protect their market position.  Already they are losing my sympathy with their whoring for local relocation subsidies and eminent domain land grabs.  I wrote on minimum wage from a small business perspective here.

Pumpkin Carving Contest

The Fat Triplets are having an online pumpkin carving contest.

Libertarians Adrift

While it comes as no surprise to me, Republicans are making it official:  After dallying with small government notions in the eighties and nineties, under George Bush they are refocusing themselves on statism.  Going forward, Republicans see themselves locked in an arms race with Democrats over who can spend more and advocate more statist controls.

This news comes to us via conservative David Brooks, via Volokh:

[Brooks] rejects Bartlett's charge that Bush has betrayed conservatism. According to
Brooks, "Bush hasn't abandoned conservatism; he's modernized and saved it." As
Brooks tells the story, "conservatism was adrift and bereft of ideas" until
President Bush came along.

Almost single-handedly, Bush reconnected with the positive and
idealistic instincts of middle-class Americans. He did it by recasting
conservatism more significantly than anyone had since Ronald Reagan. He rejected
the prejudice that the private sector is good and the public sector is bad, and
he tried to use government to encourage responsible citizenship and community
service. He sought to mobilize government so the children of prisoners can build
their lives, so parents can get data to measure their school's performance, so
millions of AIDS victims in Africa can live another day, so people around the
world can dream of freedom.

"Government should help people improve their lives, not run their lives,"
Bush said. This is not the Government-Is-the-Problem philosophy of the mid-'90s,
but the philosophy of a governing majority party in a country where people look
to government to play a positive but not overbearing role in their lives.

Barf.  The last sentence contains a pure contradiction:  There is no way for government to play any role, positive or negative, without being overbearing, at least to some.  There is no way for the government to improve some lives without running others.

Despite what politicians may argue, the government has only one unique quality no one else can match.  They are not uniquely smart, or uniquely capable, or uniquely compassionate, or uniquely efficient, or even uniquely able to run large organizations.  Their only unique capability is to deal with people by force, and to use force and the threat of force and imprisonment to compel individuals to do things they would no choose to do themselves.

This unique ability to use force is necessary to the government in fulfilling its core roles of protecting us from the use of force from outside our borders (military) and protecting its citizens from the use of force or fraud by other citizens (police and courts).  When the government uses its unique ability to coerce in other spheres, there are always winners and losers.  That is because by definition the government is using force to cause an outcome or a decision that people would not have made on their own, based on their own self-interest and of their own free will.  So when politicians blithely say things like "help people improve their lives", what they ALWAYS mean is using force to compel someone to do something they would not have to do in a free society.   

For this reason, there is no such thing as having the government "play a positive but not overbearing role in their lives".  The best you can hope for with such an activist government system is to hope that the government plays a net-positive role in your life, while being overbearing to others.  Which pretty much sums up why politics are so high stakes today - if government is about sacrificing one group to another, I want my guy in there so he can be overbearing to some other group for the benefit of mine.

I dealt with these same themes a couple of days ago in this post, where I said "the entire Republican and Democratic platform each boil down to 'we
support government intervention except where our major donors oppose
it'".  My summary statement on the full range of government interference with free individual decision-making is here.

Update:  While Marginal Revolution is still optomistic for libertarians, they point out that "progressives" see the opportunity now for real expansion of socialism in this country

Democrat Matt
Yglesias writes

If you did have a progressive president, there's no longer a
particularly large amount of popular resistance to expanding the activist state.
Even most Republicans don't especially care about small government.

Archiving Coyote Blog in Print Form

Recently, I just finished a two-book archive of the first year of Coyote Blog.  Today, I got the books (or blooks) in the mail and they look great!

Coyote_cover_1 Coyote_back_1

Why, one might ask, did I put my blog in a book, when everything is archived by pressing links right over there to the right of this page ------>

The first reason was for my dad.  My dad is 80-something and refuses to join the Internet age, but he would like to read my blog.  So, I produced a couple of volumes of my blog posts to give to him for Christmas.  (See, that's how confident I am that he is not reading this online -- I just published the contents of his present).

The second reason is based more on my having been a part of computers since getting an Apple II back in the late 70's.  Electronic media are not necessarily the greatest for archiving.  I wrote a lot of neat little games on my Apple II.  I wrote programs in college in pascal and assembly language on an S-100 bus C/PM computer.  I wrote programs in SNOBOL on cards for the mainframe at Princeton.  I received hundreds of emails on early CompuServe email.  Anyone know where all that stuff is today?  Neither do I.  Already I remember some cool web sites with content that seems to be gone from the Internet.   There is some kind of reverse-Moore's Law here that, if concocted, would say that the cost and complexity of reading and retrieving electronic files doubles every five years it ages.

So I decided to create a paper archive.  In the end, it cost me about 8 hours in formatting time and $30 in publishing costs to get the first year of Coyote Blog in book form.  For anyone who is interested, here is what I did:

First, I picked a printer.  It was important to do this first, since it determined what format and formatting I had to get the electronic files into.  I first considered BlogBinders.  The advantage of this service is that they can suck all of the content they need right off the web site, really making the process quick.  I decided not to go with them, because (at least 4 months ago) they did not retain any of the HTML formatting.  This means that the blockquotes I make heavy use of just became regular paragraphs.  As a result, a reader could not tell the difference any more between my writing and what I was quoting.  This caused me to look for another option, but you might still want to check it out -- I know their product is maturing so they may have more functionality today.  There is also a Beta going on right now at QOOP Blog Printing that might be a good option soon.

These were the only two direct print from blog options I found - if you know of others, please add them to the comments section.  So, I then turned to the print-on-demand self-publishing world.  CafePress has done a few things for me in the past, but I decided their print on demand was a bit too pricey for this.  Based on a few recommendations, I chose to publish.  I thought their pricing was reasonable, and I liked their royalty and pricing flexibility.  While I don't intend to sell the Coyote Blog archive, I am close to self-publishing a novel and I wanted to give Lulu a test spin.

Once I chose Lulu, I then needed to choose a format.  I knew I wanted a Perfect Bound book, and, scanning the pricing calculations, it was clear the cheapest option was to go for 8-1/2 by 11, since this reduced page count.  Having decided this, I downloaded their Microsoft word template, which made sure that I had all the margins and gutters and such right.

Now came the tedious part.  I wanted the posts to be in chronological order, but my blog displays in reverse date order.  I had to temporarily change the way the blog publishes.  Then, with the posts now in the right order, I just copied and pasted the text right off the site monthly archives into the word template.  I did some trial and error - cutting and pasting out of explorer gave different results than out of Firefox.  Pasting as HTML gave different results than pasting as rich text.  Eventually I got what I wanted.

Now came the really really tedious part.  I went through and did a few different edits, actually working in Open Office writer because I find it easier for this type work than Word:

  • I changed the font from sans serif Arial to a more book friendly serif font (patalino)
  • I deleted posts that had no value without the links (posts like "check this out") and some but not all my frivolous picture posts
  • I added monthly chapter headings
  • I played around with font size and line spacing for readability (remember, the first reader of this will be in his eighties)
  • I added an index with the page numbers for the monthly chapter headings as well as page numbers for may favorite posts.  I did the latter by setting the titles of my favorite posts to "heading 2" rather than "heading 3" for the other posts.  Both had the same formatting, but I told the contents to only index down through heading 2, but not heading 3.
  • I cleaned up a bit of spelling
  • When it was clear the whole was too long for one book, I broke it into two books

(update:  Several people have misinterpretted the "tedious" and "a lot of work".  This was really just minor whining.  The time spent taking the electronic material and finishing it out into a book was about 0.1% of the time it took to actually write the articles the first time around on the blog or that it would take to write a 800 page two-volume tome from scratch.)

Since I was using Open Office, it was easy to just save the final file as a pdf and upload it to Lulu.  Lulu also provided templates for the covers (front and back) and I did some simple work on the covers, uploaded everything, and two days later the books were in the mail.

I have posted excerpts from the files with links below, both word and pdf, so anyone who is interested in trying blog printing themself can see what I did. 

You can see the book here in my Lulu storefront, which has both the electronic and paper versions available for sale.  I am NOT recommending anyone buy it - I just wanted to test Lulu for future projects (verdict:  I was very happy with the entire experience).  The only reason you might buy one is to see a sample if you are considering a similar project.  The cover looks great, and the paper quality is first rate.  The text printing is good but the non-cover graphics printing leaves something to be desired, but that was probably the fault of the source file having low-res graphics.  (update:  Welcome to Blooker Award readers!)

As a final note, in the extended post I have put the text of my forward for the volumes which explains some of the shortcomings of paper blog publishing:

Continue reading ‘Archiving Coyote Blog in Print Form’ »

More on California Bounty Hunting

Walter Olson has a post on California Prop 79, which

contains a sneaky, little-discussed provision that will empower trial
lawyers to file bounty-hunting suits against pharmaceutical companies
if the companies charge prices "that lead to any unjust and
unreasonable profit", with a minimum $100,000 plus fees guaranteed to
plaintiffs if a jury agrees that they have proved this (very hazily
defined) offense.

He has a roundup of posts on other California bounty-hunting laws.  I knew about a few of these, but the list is a lot longer than I suspected.

Politics without Philosophy

It may surprise some readers to know that I am a conflict avoider when it comes to arguing politics in social gatherings.  There are a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is often a desire to escape substantive issues in the off-hours of my life. 

However, one important reason I don't like discussing current events or other weighty issues with people (particularly in groups) is that many of the people I meet don't really have an underlying philosophy, but rather a hodge-podge of political positions stitched together from a variety of sources.  This makes it almost impossible to have a substantive conversation with them.

When I have a disagreement with someone on matters of politics or economics or whatever, there are really only two satisfying outcomes:

  1. To discover that we share the same basic premises and philosophy, but have reached different conclusions from these premises.  Trying to figure out where we diverge is an interesting and generally informative exercise
  2. To discover that we have very different fundamental premises or assumptions about the nature of existence.  While perhaps not satisfying, this can at least save a lot of useless discussion.  For example, if you believe that we are all born with an obligation or requirement, kind of like original sin, to provide our fellow man with material comforts, while I do not, there is not a lot of point in the two of us arguing about redistributive taxation.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to reach either of these conclusions with people who have no underlying philosophy that drives their ethics and political positions.  I remember one discussion with a woman who was taking all all comers over abortion, defending a woman's right to choose for her body.  So I asked her if she was therefore opposed to the government ban on breast implants.  "No, that's different, those are totally frivolous.  Women shouldn't have breast implants, its demeaning".  But, I asked,  isn't the FDA telling women what they can and can't put in their bodies.  "But its necessary, she says, because people don't always know enough to make the right decisions".  So, I follow-ed up, its part of the FDA's job to hold up drugs like the morning-after pill?  "No, that's just christian-right bullshit".

How can you argue with this, when there is no consistent underlying philosophy?  Essentially her position boils down to "I support government intervention except when I oppose it".  And this is not unusual.  In fact, the positions she took are entirely consistent with the positions on these same issues taken at the NOW web site.  Hell, the entire Republican and Democratic platform each boil down to "we support government intervention except where our major donors oppose it".

The reason for this brief, really tangential rant was this morning when I was reading through some recent emails from a trade group I belong to called the NACS, or the National Association of Convenience Stores.  Because of changes in the market, the NACS represents a large percentage of the gasoline retailers in this country.  In the last two weeks, the NACS has:

  1. Opposed government "price gouging" regulations aimed at how gas stations price their product.
  2. Advocated government intervention in the pricing of credit card processing services, arguing that gas stations are getting gouged by banks today

Could anything be more stark?  There are no values here, no philosophy, no core assumptions about the nature of man and man's existence.  Just a bald desire to be left alone yourself, but have the government intervene in your favor with everyone you do business with.

PS:  Credit card processing rates piss me off as well, but you don't see me asking for the government to intervene.

Pfizer's Role in Kelo Takings

I have hashed through my pain over the Supreme Court Kelo decision any number of times, including my post before the decision, after the decsion, following up on more New London antics, and following up on abuses in other locations (and here).

One of the first things I did after the decision was to write the CEO of Pfizer a letter, complaining about their role in getting the New London government to take peoples homes so their managers could have nice views of the water.  I was surprised at the time that more people, particularly those on the left who don't usually need a good excuse to bash corporations, didn't put more blame on Pfizer rather than just New London.  However, up until now, Pfizer has claimed that the redevelopment plan in New London had nothing to do with them, and they just came in later as a tenant.

Based on investigation by The Day ($), the New London paper (hat tip: Volokh), it is becoming more apparent that the Kelo takings were in fact driven mainly by specific requirements set by Pfizer, and that Pfizer was hip-deep in the redevelopment planning:

Pfizer's Fingerprints On Fort Trumbull Plan

Documents show the pharmaceutical giant was involved in the Fort Trumbull
project form its inception, even before announcing its research center would
expand into the New London neighborhood

In mid-July, as commentators and politicians around the country decried this
city's attempt to seize private homes for economic development on the Fort
Trumbull peninsula, a press release appeared on the Web site of Pfizer Inc.

The pharmaceutical company, whose $300 million research complex sits adjacent
to what remains of the neighborhood, announced that it wanted to set the record
straight on its involvement in the Fort Trumbull development project.

The project, the statement said, wasn't Pfizer's idea.

"We at Pfizer have been dismayed to see false and misleading claims appear in
the media that suggest Pfizer is somehow involved in this matter," the statement
said. The writers said the company "has no requirements nor interest in the
development of the land that is the subject of the case."

But a recent, months-long review of state records and correspondence from
1997 and 1998 "” when officials from the administration of then-Gov. John G.
Rowland were helping convince the pharmaceutical giant to build in New London "”
shows that statement is misleading, at best.

In fact, the company has been intimately involved in the project since its
inception, consulting with state and city officials about the plans for the
peninsula and helping to shape the vision of how the faded neighborhood might
eventually be transformed into a complex of high-end housing and office space,
anchored by a luxury hotel.

The records "” obtained by The Day through the state Freedom of Information
Act "” show that, at least as early as the fall of 1997, Pfizer executives and
state economic development officials were discussing the company's plans, not
just for a new research facility but for the surrounding neighborhood as

And, after several requests, the state Department of Economic and Community
Development produced a document that both the state and Pfizer had at first said
did not exist: A 1997 sketch, prepared by CUH2A, Pfizer's design firm for its
new facility. Labeled as a "vision statement," it suggested various ways the
existing neighborhood and nearby vacant Navy facility could be replaced with a
"high end residential district," offices and retail businesses, expanded parking
and a marina.

Those interactions took place months before Pfizer announced that it would
build in the city, on the site of the former New London Mills linoleum factory,
and months before the New London Development Corp. announced its redevelopment
plans for the neighborhood and the former Naval Undersea Warfare Center next

The paper concludes:

But in a series of recent interviews, several former high-ranking state
officials confirmed what opponents of the project have long insisted and what
the company continues to deny: The state's agreement to replace the existing
neighborhood was a condition of Pfizer's move here.

Current and former Pfizer executives, meanwhile, concede that the company
expected a major redevelopment of the area to occur and offered guidance, but
they strongly deny that they insisted on specific changes.

Comment Registration Turned Back Off

OK, I managed to kill all commenting, since the Typepad registration does not seem to work right.  I wish I had tested this when I first made the change.  I knew there was a problem when I tried to write as inflammatory as possible and was getting no comments.  I love the ability to get comments so I will, for now, leave commenting wide open and just cull the bot spam manually.

The Senate Gets Its Temperature Taken

Last week, the Senate got its temperature taken, with a vote that very effectively checked the health of the putative "World's Greatest Deliberative Body".  This was not a very invasive test, more like using an oral thermometer than having a colonoscopy.  Never-the-less, the results were stark:  The Senate is very sick.

The test was called the Coburn Amendment, and was a test to see how attached the Congress is to pork barrel spending.  The reason that the test was fairly non-invasive was that it it sought to move the spending from only a few of the most egregious pork projects in the highway bill, and shift the money to infrastructure replacement in New Orleans, a use that garners substantial public support.  The bill was voted down resoundingly, 86-13  (though both of our Arizona Senators voted for it, more credit to them).

This post from Mark Tapscott is a pretty good summary.

The charade [is] of endlessly mouthing the cliches of fiscal responsibility
while taking to record levels the shameful practice of log-rolling - "I'll vote
for your pet spending project no matter how bad it is if you vote for my pet
spending project, no matter how bad it is."

Members of Congress call it
"congressional courtesy." Weary taxpayers don't.

Closely related to
log-rolling is the congressional maxim that "to get along, you have to go
along," especially if you are a freshman or from a small state. Coburn is both a
freshman and from a state with only a handful of electoral

Senators and Representatives have been log-rolling since the First
Congress, of course, but never before with the intensity of the current GOP-led
Congress. Appropriations bills now routinely gain approval with hundreds or
thousands of "earmarks," which is Hill-talk for pork barrel projects inserted by
individual members to benefit their district or state.

Patty Murray, of Washington, freaked at the prospect of losing her poetry shelter or whatever it is they proposed cutting from the highway bill, and threatened Senator Coburn with excommunication from the go-along-Senators-club.  Coburn's response to the legendarily dimwitted Murray is here.

Murray (recorded):  You know, as the old saying goes, what is good for the goose is good for the gander, and I tell my colleagues, if we start funding for individual projects, your project may be next.  And so, Mr. President, when members come down to the floor and
vote on this amendment, they need to know if they start stripping out this project, Senator Bond and I are likely to be taking a long, serious look at their projects, to determine whether they should be preserved during our upcoming conference negotiations.


Jed Babbin: Well, does that bother you,  Senator? I mean, are you worried so much about Oklahoma projects?

Tom Coburn: No. I don't ask for any projects.  I ran on a platform of saying the biggest problem we face in our country is financial and economic, and cultural in Washington, that if we don't change that, I promised you I will not earmark
a thing until the budget is in surplus.

JB: Wow.

TC: So I don't have any earmarks.
So I don't have know, there's no power over me to withhold
earmarks, because I have none.

JB: Well, how tough is it going to be, though, to undo this culture of pork? I mean, the porksters are all around you. I mean, we're not naming names, but you're
                outnumbered there pretty solidly, so...

TC: Look, when the American people want things to change, they will change. Just as like in 1994, they changed? It's this year's time. Make them change. You know, hold them accountable. There's Democrats and Republicans up here, but we're all Americans, and we ought to be thinking about the
heritage that has come before us, and the legacy that's going 
to follow us. And the legacy that's going to follow us today is  a millstone around the neck of our grandchildren, because we're going to leave them so far in debt, and we haven't even begun
to talk about how do we fix Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid.


Ahh, but saving best for last, there is Alaska.  Many months ago, I took some shots at the famous bridge to nowhere, and called Don Young the New Huey Long.  Now, even some Alaska residents are willing to give it up to help New Orleans:

The amendment became a cause celebre on the left and the
right, with watchdog and conservative groups reporting updates on their
Web sites throughout the day. The Club for Growth alerted readers early
yesterday on its Web log, or blog: "As of last night, the opposition is
putting up a big fight. They sense this amendment, if successful, as
establishing a precedent. A precedent where all pork is vulnerable and
no lawmaker is safe."

Later in the day, the Heritage
Foundation circulated a paper, "The Bridge to Nowhere: A National
Embarrassment," and noted, "fiscally responsible members of Congress
should be eager to zero out its funding." Even the Sierra Club backed
the amendment, noting, "We must fix the nation's existing
infrastructure first."

And, there is a curious twist
to the story: Many residents of Alaska appear to support forfeiting the
bridge money for hurricane relief. "This money, a gift from the people
of Alaska, will represent more than just material aid; it will be a
symbol for our beleaguered democracy," reads a typical letter to the
Anchorage Daily News.

Young, who made sure his state
was one of the top recipients in the highway bill, was asked by an
Alaska reporter what he made of the public support for redirecting the
bridge money. "They can kiss my ear! That is the dumbest thing I've
ever heard," he replied.

Anyone want to be that a large portion of Mr. Young's campaign donations come from local construction contractors?


The Baseball Closer Role is Nuts

I am not really a huge baseball fan, but we generally watch the World Series, and the Astros pitching decisions in the seventh inning had me yelling at my TV again.

In a previous post, I talked about my pet peeve of the closer position.  For non-baseball fans, here is the background:  Typically, starting pitchers make it about 6 innings on average, leaving a need for other pitchers to cover the last three innings.  Most relief pitchers who cover these later innings are not as good as the starting pitchers, or else they would be starting pitchers.  The exception is that most teams have a "closer", typically their best relief pitcher who is reserved for pitching the last inning (thus the name "closer").  I asked before why the closer always pitched the 9th, rather than whichever inning of the last three that the toughest batters were expected.  The answer I came up with was this:

the explanation must lie in metrics.  If a manager loses a game in the
7th, it is just a loss.  If a manager loses a game in the 9th, the game
was "blown".  Newspapers and talk shows keep and publish stats on games
blown in the 9th, but not games lost in the 7th and 8th.  Games lost in
the 9th are in a sense portrayed as more of a management failure than
games lost in the 7th, and this is made worse by the fact that a game
lost in the 9th is somehow more psychologically devastating for fans
and media.  Managers are not dumb - recognizing that they get dinged on
their performance rating more for a game lost in the 9th than the 8th,
they have invented the closer role.  General managers take a
disproportionately large part of their salary budget for relief
pitching and dedicate it to this closer role.

You can even see this effect today, as everyone talks about Brad Lidge giving up a 1-run homer in the 9th, rather than talking about the grand slam the bull pen gave up in the 7th.

So here is what specifically drove me nuts last night:  Bottom of the 7th, the White Sox trailing 4-2, the Sox had managed to load the bases with two outs and had Paul Konerko, one of their best sluggers, up to bat.  The Astros were clearly going to switch pitchers, since the current guy had just walked two batters in a row.  The question was, who to bring in?  One announcer suggested they bring in Brad Lidge, their closer and the best guy available (short of bringing in a starting pitcher). The other announcer said, no, you can't do that, he will never make it all the way to the 9th.  You can't, he said, bring your closer in this early.

Well why the hell not?  Are you really going to face a more dangerous situation than bases loaded with Paul Konerko up to bat later in the game?  Lidge, if he is their best guy, should have been in then, and pitched the 8th, and then they could have patched guys together for the 9th.  Instead, they sent in some other guy and boom, grand slam.

Now, I will admit that Lidge's giving up the game-winning home run in the 9th taints my argument a tad, if only to make the point that Lidge may have not been as hands down superior to the rest of the bullpen as we may have thought a few innings earlier.  But that does not change the facts of the 7th inning:  The Astros were facing the most dangerous possible situation, in the heart of the Sox order, one worse than anything they were likely to face in later innings, but they chose not to put the person they thought of as their best available pitcher out of homage to this weird baseball conventional wisdom called the closer.

I Thought This Was Just A Lame Conspiracy Theory at First...

I had seen some Internet posts on this before, but I thought it was from the "Aliens were behind the 9/11 attacks" crowd.  But it does appear to really be Big Brother at work:

The pages coming out of your color printer may contain hidden information that
could be used to track you down if you ever cross the U.S.

Last year, an article in PC World magazine pointed out that printouts
from many color laser printers contained yellow dots scattered across the page,
viewable only with a special kind of flashlight. The article quoted a senior
researcher at Xerox Corp. as saying the dots contain information useful to
law-enforcement authorities, a secret digital "license tag" for tracking down

Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco consumer privacy
group, said it had cracked the code used in a widely used line of Xerox
printers, an invisible bar code of sorts that contains the serial number of the
printer as well as the date and time a document was printed...

The EFF said it has identified similar coding on pages printed from
nearly every major printer manufacturer, including Hewlett-Packard Co., though
its team has so far cracked the codes for only one type of Xerox

The U.S. Secret Service acknowledged yesterday that the markings, which
are not visible to the human eye, are there, but it played down the use for
invading privacy.

This kind of stuff really scares me.  Is there anyone out there that thinks that this won't be used to trace a leak, track down a whistle-blower, or identify an anonymous political critic?  And, even if you are able to conjure up trust that the US government will not use these codes for anything other than fighting counterfeiting, what about use of these codes by private parties?  Or, even more depressing, remember that these printers are being sold today in China, Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, etc.  Does anyone at all doubt that these governments will use the print codes to identify and silence dissent?

Shame on the government for instituting this program.  Double shame on HP and Xerox for going along in silence, joining the ranks of Microsoft, Cisco, and Yahoo in making adjustments to their technology to make government surveillance and censorship easier.  I don't know of any legislative mandate that requires these printer companies to go along with this, so they are doing this voluntarily - sort of (see below).

For those on the left feeling smug that this is solely a right-wing Bush-is-a-fascist problem, shame also on those who built the economic regulatory state that we live in.  In a truly free economy, HP and Xerox would likely have told the government to take a hike.  However, the government holds a huge regulatory hammer over corporations' head in so many realms that companies in our society find it difficult to tell the government off when they get this type of request.  Its the same story with airlines and banks, who feel compelled to share otherwise private customer data with Homeland Security under the threat of having government retribution fall on them from any number of directions.  We have got to start realizing that government control of economic activity is just as much an imposition as government control of speech or the press.  Freedom of expression does not become voided just because money changes hands.

Many thanks to Marginal Revolution for the link.  Their comment:

Would the Berlin Wall have fallen if East European governments had access to
this kind of technology twenty years ago?

Follow-up on Segregation at ASU

Racially segregated classes at ASU may or may not still exist, and the University may or may not have ended them.  How's that for a follow-up.  FIRE does some more research here, and find:

In fact, there's no reason to believe that the racial restriction on that class
hasn't existed for at least eight years. And unless ASU is a university at which
students sign up for a class directly with the professor (which would be truly
unusual), ASU's administration had to be part of the effort to enforce the
racial restriction.
So why didn't ASU tell the truth in its letter to FIRE, especially if it
was planning to abandon the racial restriction anyway (once it got caught, of
course)? Probably because its administration didn't believe that anyone would
really do the research and find out that legal segregation has flourished on its
campus for at least the last eight years. This brazenness is shocking,
especially considering that a 2002
from FIRE got ASU to drop
racial restrictions
on a Navajo history class. Are there other classes with
similar restrictions just waiting to be discovered?

Free Camping

Running for-fee campgrounds on public lands often gets us into some controversy.  For example, many people wonder, sometimes in a fairly excitable manner, why they have to pay for camping on public lands when they have already paid their taxes.  The simple answer to this is that Congress and administrations of all flavors have consistently ruled for years that fees rather than taxes should support developed campgrounds.  Read this post for more, or call your Congressman if you don't agree.  Also, here is my company's FAQ on camping fees and private companies operating on public lands.

However, there ARE many free camping opportunities on public lands, but because of Forest Service terminology, these are sometimes missed by the public.  In most cases, when the Forest Service has a named campground, it requires a fee because it has a number of minimum features for the facility:

  • Graded, and sometimes paved, roads and spurs
  • Bathrooms, and sometimes showers
  • Picnic table, tent pad, and fire ring / grill at each site
  • On-site host / security to enforce rules (e.g. quite time)
  • On-site operator with property and liability insurance
  • Water supply that is frequently tested and treated when necessary
  • Hazard tree removal
  • Trash and (for campgrounds not on a sewer system) sewage removal
  • Leaf blowing from trails and roads, site raking, painting, etc.

This stuff does cost money, and so the typical campground we run charges $12-14 a night, with 50% off for Golden Access patrons (i.e. senior citizens).  Heck, the insurance alone costs about $1.50 per night's stay, thanks to our friends in the tort bar.

However, most National Forests offer what is called dispersed camping.  This is camping out in the wilderness, without any amenities, and, at least in most cases, is totally free.  Most of these camping areas don't have names, just locations and boundaries.   Expect to give up all of the above amenities, and be ready to pack your trash out, but you can still pitch your tent out in nature without charge.  And in many of these locations, you can get far away from other campers.  Just call the local ranger district (contact info here) and ask them for information on dispersed camping.

One proviso - the biggest problem with these dispersed, non-hosted areas is, if they are heavily used, they can be a worse experience than the paid campgrounds.  They can accumulate trash from thoughtless patrons, and they can get very rowdy.  Dispersed campgrounds attract the best of campers - those truly trying to get a natural experience; and the worst of campers - those who don't want to follow rules, don't clean up after themselves, and who don't want to shut down their loud partying just because it is two in the morning.  Many people who initially opposed paid camping are now big believers, since they have learned to value campgrounds with rules and security after a few late nights listening to loud generators and drunken parties.  Talk to the ranger district to know what you are getting into at a particular site.

Comment Changes

A couple of notes on comments:

1.  I cleaned out a lot of past spam.  I am sorry for not doing this sooner.  If I decide I want to advertise bestiality or transvestite sex, I will do so myself.

2.   I updated my ban list.  My ban list is based SOLELY on spamming.  I have not, to this date, felt the need to ban anyone based on contents of a real comment post, though I suppose with enough provocation that could change (this is NOT a challenge!!).  If I banned you by mistake, send me an email.  I am just trying to get some of the bots.

3.  Going forward, I just can't stay on top of the bot-driven spam, so I am now requiring authentication.  Frequent commenters on other sites will know the drill, and many of you may already have a TypeKey account.  It is a simple, non-intrusive, one-time registration whose only purpose is to try to defeat the bots.  You can link to the registration right from the comment screen.  Sorry for the extra work.

Update:  By the way, I had a blinding glimpse of what I guess is the obvious for most bloggers, but I have been missing a lot of my comments.  I read comments by looking over the last 8-10 posts each day and seeing what new things have been said.   I have never used the "most recent comments" screen in the dashboard Moveable Type gives me, except to attack spam.  I found, though, that many of my comments are coming in, presumably via Google hits, weeks or months after the post.  In particular, I get my most negative comments this way (for example, per a recent email, I am the spawn of Satan for posting this).  Sorry if I have been missing your comments, and I will try to keep up better in the future.

Valeria Plame Affair and the Law of Unintended Consequences

I must confess to being at a loss over the whole Valerie Plame leak affair, which strikes me as mostly a political battleground between the two parties, so I have not really tried to figure it out. 

However, one thing struck me reading a story about it the other day:  The only thing that was clear to me was that folks on the left seem to envision an ultimate goal of bringing down either Karl Rove or Dick Cheney.  From a short-term political standpoint, I suppose this might be satisfying.  From a longer-term view, say out to 2008, it seems stupid to me.

Let's take Karl Rove first.  I have to take the left's word for it that he is an evil political genius.  But if so, why would you want the guy out on the street.  Right now he is wasting his talents on a lame-duck president who can't run in 2008, and neither can his VP.  Why do you want to put this powerful piece of electioneering artillery out on the street, available to a Republican candidate several years in advance of 2008?

The backfire from bringing down Cheney seems even worse.  As I pointed out a year ago, 2008 will be the first election in 50+ years where there is no incumbent VP or president running for either party.  There is nothing Republicans would love to do more than have a VP spot they could fill with a 2008 candidate.  The GOP Party apparatus would love it, because both Parties secretly long for a return to the day of smoke-filled rooms (rather than primaries) for selecting their candidates, and this would give Party leaders more control of the outcome.  There is nothing either party hates more than having Iowa select its candidates from an open slate - being able to choose a new VP would allow the GOP to effectively choose a front-runner.  The GOP would benefit no matter who is put in the position, because the suddenly have an incumbent running, with the advantages of being an incumbent, in 2008.  Does anyone doubt that the VP would suddenly get extra visibility over the next few years, as Clinton did for Gore?  Finally, Bush would love it, because it would give him another Miers-type opportunity to reward a friend (or crony, as your perspective may dictate) such as Condoleeza Rice.

Opposing Hariett Miers

I have never really waded into a debate about Supreme Court nominees before.  On John Roberts, my only comment was to laugh at how stupid the Senate confirmation hearings were.

This time, I feel the need to make an exception on Hariett Miers.  In a previous post, I called her the anti-libertarian, and more than ever I am convinced that that assessment is correct.  Everyone inside of the beltway seems to love talking points, so here are mine:

Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that Miers's nomination
resulted from the president's careful consultation with people capable of such
judgments. If 100 such people had been asked to list 100 individuals who have
given evidence of the reflectiveness and excellence requisite in a justice,
Miers's name probably would not have appeared in any of the 10,000 places on
those lists....

It is important that Miers not be confirmed unless, in her 61st year,
she suddenly and unexpectedly is found to have hitherto undisclosed interests
and talents pertinent to the court's role. Otherwise the sound principle of
substantial deference to a president's choice of judicial nominees will dissolve
into a rationalization for senatorial abdication of the duty to hold presidents
to some standards of seriousness that will prevent them from reducing the
Supreme Court to a private plaything useful for fulfilling whims on behalf of

  • She threatens to be a judicial Pat Buchanon:  Conservative on social issues, interventionist on economic issues.  In other words, the anti-libertarian.  From John Fund:

One White House
source says the positions she took in staff meetings might surprise her
business supporters. He said she leaned conservative on social
questions and liberal on economic issues. Bruce Packard, a former
partner at Ms. Miers' law firm, also cautions that she may be more
complicated than people expect. 'She is very reticent to ever discuss
her own views and liberal on issues other than abortion,' he told me."

  • Though not discussed very much, her leadership of the Texas Bar Association, which is touted as perhaps her highest judicial qualification (interesting, since its just a bureaucrat job) makes me very very nervous.  Someone is going to have to try to get control of the tort situation and start resetting the rules of courtroom procedure to bring more sanity to liability trials.  I guarantee that a person who headed the Texas Bar Association, home of some of the most outrageous millionaire tort lawyers in the country, is not going to do anything to bring sanity to tort law.

As a note, I don't really cast my vote one way or the other based on abortion -- I have a viewpoint on it, but its not my hot-button, or even in my top 10, issues.  However, I kind of hope Miers turns out to be clearly anti-abortion so that Democrats will find a reason to join some Republicans in opposing her.  Until that happens, Democrats seem to be following Napoleon's dictum of not interrupting your enemy when he is making a mistake.

Update:  Dahlia Lithwick and I would probably not agree on the reasons for opposing Miers, but you have to love this quote, explaining why she gets paid and I do this for free:

So I am begging now. This is embarrassing. End it. Karl Rove: Either plant the
500 pounds of cocaine you keep for such occasions in Miers' car, or trot out
some actress to play her bitter, gay ex-lover. You have the power to end this.
So do whatever it is you do. But end the unnecessary pain and suffering now,
before someone really gets hurt.

Update #2:  I oppose the Miers nomination.  Hopefully, this gets me registered for this page by NZ Bear, tracking blog positions.

Are Homeowners the Largest Government Rent-Seekers?

I read an interesting article in the NY Times, via Marginal Revolution, interviewing the CEO of homebuilder Toll Brothers about housing prices.  His assertion was:

"In Britain you pay seven times your annual income for a home; in the U.S. you
pay three and a half." The British get 330 square feet, per person, in their
homes; in the U.S., we get 750 square feet. Not only does Toll say he believes
the next generation of buyers will be paying twice as much of their annual
incomes; in terms of space, he also seems to think they're going to get only
half as much. "And that average, million-dollar insane home in the burbs? It's
going to be $4 million."

I don't necessarily buy this whole story.  For one, Mr. Toll has business reasons for taking a public position that prices will keep rising - after all, his customers buy his product in part as an investment, and would be leery about paying current prices if they thought prices might fall in the future.  Second, as I have talked about a number of times with petroleum, when prices of any product start to rise, observers always tend to underestimate market and technology responses that might bring supply more into balance.

However, the one exception I did make in my oil price posts was that government supply restrictions, both on lands that can be explored for oil as well as things like refinery permitting, may indeed put structural upward pressure on prices.  And in fact, this is where Mr. Toll puts the blame for high housing prices as well:

Toll agrees with Glaeser et
that the key force driving up prices is zoning and growth regulations. 
In New Jersey it now takes Toll Brothers up to two million dollars in legal fees
and ten years in time to get the permits necessary to build.

Which got me thinking that home owners (of which I am one) may be the worst rent-seekers of all.  Most people are already familiar with the very large tax breaks for home buyers, in the form of the mortgage interest tax deduction, that is not available to people who rent or to people who borrow for purposes other than home purchase.  However, it may be that a much larger implicit subsidy to home-owners is the government restrictions on new home supply.  By restricting supply, the government is keeping prices up for current home-owners and restricting new entrants who might compete with our homes in the resale market.

Rates are Too High -- So Lets Limit Competition

Apparently, some of our local politicians in the Phoenix area are upset about payday loan companies.  According the an AP report in the AZ Republic:

The stores cater to customers who live paycheck to paycheck who need
quick access to a few hundred dollars for rent, car repairs or just to
make ends meet. Banks traditionally don't make those type of small,
short-term loans.

So these stores provide loans to people no one else will touch.  And customers use their services of their own free will.  So what is the problem?  Well, not surprisingly, the rates on these loans are high, and the default terms tend to be drastic.  "Activists" think that people are making the wrong decision using these services, and, to be fair, I would certainly advise anyone who asked to try to find another alternative.  But what do my preferences matter?  Its easy for me to say in my middle-upper class hubris that such services don't make sense, but I have a steady job and ready access to bank loans.  In a free society, both I and those activists are free to convince people to not use these services, but its wrong to artificially limit people's choices out of some elitist sense that we can make decisions for other people better than they can for themselves.

Besides, lets think about the alternative.  These folks are not going to get bank loans -- in fact many customers may be illegal aliens who are, post 9/11, effectively barred from the banking system.  The only other alternative before these payday loan companies were loan sharks, whose interest is even higher and whose penalty for non-payment even more dire. This reminds me of the people who decry Nike "sweatshop" jobs in poor countries.  "Activists" similarly decry these jobs as if the alternative is $25 an hour office work, when in fact the alternative is actually grinding subsistence agricultural work for half the pay.  You may not like the payday loan companies, but they are replacing a much worse system.

But the really funny thing about this article is their proposed solution to the problem of rates for these payday loan services being too high.  Their solution?  Limit competition!  (emphasis added)

Arizona now has more than 600 payday loan stores - with 165 in the [Phoenix suburb] Mesa area alone - and some residents are upset about it.

"People are sick of it in west Mesa," said Dave Richins, a neighborhood
activist and executive director of the West Mesa Community Development

Richins and other critics claim the stores exploit customers with high interest rates.

[Phoenix suburb] Peoria blocks the shops from opening within 1,000 feet of a competing
store. Phoenix and Tucson are looking to that city's restrictions as a
model for new rules in their communities, with action possible by early
next year.

Gee, I bet that will help keep rates down -- make sure there are no competitors nearby!  Lets make sure it is as hard as possible to compare rates, particularly since the customer base is one that can't afford the gas, or doesn't even have a car, to drive all over town shopping.  I wonder why no one is suggesting the same thing for gas stations to keep gas prices down, lol.

The Perils of Prop 79

California has another confusing slate of initiatives on the ballot for the next election, including several related to various interventions in pharmaceutical pricing  (helping to demonstrate that grass roots democracy can be just as tyrannical to individual rights as any other form of government).  Bill Leonard, of the California BOE, notes in his weekly email:

Proposition 79 seeks to capitalize on public outrage over high drug prices by creating a new big government program that would supposedly mandate drug discounts for low-income Californians.

It turns out that the initiative contains a little-noticed provision that will allow private trial lawyers to sue drug companies for the new tort of "profiteering in prescription drugs."  Under this sneaky provision, which will be effective immediately even if the drug discount program is never implemented (Federal approval is required), drug makers would be prohibited from demanding "an unconscionable price" or demanding "prices or terms that lead to any unjust and unreasonable profit." These terms are not defined anywhere in the initiative or elsewhere in state or federal law, so your guess as to what these terms mean is probably as good as mine.  A violation of this new offense would carry a minimum fine of $100,000 or triple the amount of damages (whichever is greater) plus court costs and legal fees.  You can see why the trial lawyers love this initiative!  It is bad enough to have government bureaucrats setting drug prices, but imagine having drug prices set by randomly-selected jurors!

Can you imagine offering a product in a market and not knowing if your pricing was legal until after a jury trial?  Actually, until after multiple jury trials, since in cases like this there is effectively no restriction on being tried one, two, or ten thousand times for the same thing.  Not only will prices be set by a jury, but they will be set by the single most aggressive jury in what is sure to be an onslaught of trials.

In case you have any confusion or failure of imagination as to how poorly this will work out, California tort lawyers have slipped this same provision into other laws, notably the sue your boss over picayune labor code violations law and the Unruh Act, which allows lawyers to serially sue businesses for picayune technical violations of the ADA.  Here is an example of Unruh at work:

Molski, who lives in Woodland
Hills, has sued dozens of Central Coast businesses, from the Santa Ynez
Valley to Paso Robles, for alleged violations of the ADA. Among them
are Firestone, Fess Parker and Kalyra wineries in the Santa Ynez
Valley, Cambria Winery in northern San Luis Obispo County, and Fosters
Freeze restaurants in San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay.

A provision of California state law known as the Unruh Act allows Molski to demand $4,000 in damages per violation, per day.

has said in the past that an average settlement is $20,000. He
testified in the Los Angeles trial that he personally nets an average
of $4,000 per settlement, after paying attorney's fees, Beardsley said....

As of Friday, 528 cases were listed under Molski's name in federal civil courts....

fighting Molski in court is Harmony Cellars in northern San Luis Obispo
County. Winery owner Chuck Mulligan sees the L.A. decision as a good
sign, but isn't counting on winning.

just never know. A jury trial is always a crap shoot," Mulligan said.
"I think the public sees through this whole quagmire that's going on.
They claim they are trying to do something for society but it's really
just pulling money away from society that could be used for jobs," and
other purposes, he said.


suit against the Hitching Post in Casmalia alleged a wheelchair ramp
was too steep, and the bathroom wasn't accessible because the toilet
was a half inch too close to the wall; and the sink was three inches
too high, and the soap dispenser was too high.


Stricklin contends the bathroom is fully accessible.

restaurant's accessible and has been for a long time. Our mother is in
a wheelchair. Of course it would be accessible," Stricklin said. "Every
customer we have that's disabled has gotten into our restaurant, and
we've never had a complaint."

talked to about five people in Solvang and Cambria who have been sued
twice in the last year," Stricklin said. "They're stuck. Unless you
close your doors, somebody else can come along and sue you, and that's
why we're fighting. If they can see that we're not going to roll over
and settle, they'll think twice about going to trial."

At least in the case of Unruh, there is a defined legal standard, even if suing for $4000 per day for violations of 1/2-inch are ridiculous.  Prop 79 would allow suits with no standards, except whatever a jury happens to come up with on a particular day.  And we all know how smart and thoughtful juries can be (from recent Vioxx case):

Jurors who voted against Merck said much of the science sailed right over their
heads. "Whenever Merck was up there, it was like wah, wah, wah," said juror John
Ostrom, imitating the sounds Charlie Brown's teacher makes in the television
cartoon. "We didn't know what the heck they were talking about."...

... [juror] Ostrom, 49, who has a business remodeling homes, was also disturbed
that former Merck Chief Executive Raymond Gilmartin and another top Merck
official gave videotaped testimony but weren't in the courtroom. "The big guys
didn't show up," said Mr. Ostrom. "That didn't sit well with me. Most definitely
an admission of guilt."...

One juror, Ms. Blas, had written in her questionnaire that she
loves the Oprah Winfrey show and tapes it. "This jury believes they're going to
get on Oprah," Ms. Blue told Mr. Lanier. "They only get on Oprah if they vote
for the plaintiff."

Previously, I made my own tongue-in-cheek suggestions for follow-ups to Unruh, but prop 79 may be worse than any of these:

So, I would like to propose my
own Unruh II law.  I propose that in California, every citizen now has
the right to sue any other person they observe violating any sort of
traffic law.  If you observe someone speeding, doing a rolling stop at
a stop sign, failing to signal a lane change or turn, with a burned out
tail light, not wearing a seat belt, jaywalking, etc, you may now sue
them for $4000 per occurrence. 

Coming in future posts, I will
propose Unruh III to empower citizens to sue over health code
violations, Unruh IV to empower citizens to sue over fire code
violations, and Unruh V to sue anyone for any reason if they have a net
worth higher than you do.

It strikes me that my suggestion for Unruh V is where we are really going.

Update: More bounty hunting here, via Overlawyered.