Sunday, July 30, 2006

Something Smells Rotten

A Wegmans grocery store is one of the greatest institutions in the modern era. A local one--about 15 minutes from my place--houses food from all over the world, an upscale cafeteria (upscale for a grocery store) and consistently good prices. Leaving the parking lot from a recent trip, I witnessed yet another Wegmans addition: a protest.

About half-a-dozen young people stood on the street corner just outside the store waving large signs encouraging a boycott of Wegmans. A banner said, " Watch the Video and Decide for Yourself" The film is a good half-an-hour so I watched the trailer to see if the larger version was worth watching. I doubt it is.

The film and website are entirely dedicated to complaining about the living conditions of the chickens in Wegmans' egg farms. The trailer showed a series of shots of chickens struggling in small cages, flapping in feces and walking over dead cage-mates. An attractive young woman (who I swear is in every animal-rights video I've seen) declared "You know something's really wrong there, that that can happen."

Let's set aside the obvious problem with making such a wide conclusion seemly based on this small sample of information. Let's ignore that Wegmans claims they meet or exceed industry standards, a fact verified by New York State Police. Let's even table the assertion that these conditions are typical in other egg farms and Wegmans is being targeted only because it is large. My question is, why insist everyone boycott the entire store? Their Diet Coke supply has nothing to do with chickens. You could even still buy eggs there (they sell organic eggs where the chickens are free-ranged and not kept in cages).

It makes a larger impact if you deny an entire store because of their eggs, that much is certain. But Wegmans is a popular store (and was incredibly crowded today). It's much more reasonable to ask people to boycott their eggs then get all their groceries elsewhere (with less selection at higher prices). The protesters clearly have not thought through their strategy to get Wegmans to change which suggests they also haven't thought through their accusations.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Humanity 2.0

Imagine a world where people never sleep. Where anyone can use computers with their mind alone. Where every superhuman power from the 1950s comic books are as commonplace as iPods. During a Monday talk at the IHS seminar I just returned from, journalist Joel Garreau explained this is a world looming on the horizon and it's closer than we think.

For dynamists like myself, this was an exhilarating speech. Think of the untold wonder that will become common place in just a decade or two. How the world will change, how people will adapt, what new ideas will explode from such radical change is the process that defines us as humans and I anxiously await the successes and unavoidable failures.

Yet buried in Garreau speech was a lurking sentiment I found uncomfortable. He said his main motivation for telling people about the upcoming breakthroughs is so "they" don't determine how society evolves. "Who's 'they?'" I asked. "Technologists," he replied. Elaborating, he said technologists are those who invent technology with no concern for the advances larger implications. It reminds of me of what Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park: "[y]our scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

The perception that because scientists develop technology they are in charge or should consider unintended consequences of such advancements assumes they are either superhuman or ought to be. When a new technology is released unto the world, the populace determines its use and its value. If people think we are moving too fast, market forces adjust for that. (Internet companies responded with better security measures to answer consumer concerns of identity theft while buying thing online.)

To be concerned that scientists will mold society into something most don't want can only occur under tyranny, not capitalism.

Author's Note: A friend told me that his book, Radical Evolution, does not actually paint scientists in such a suspicious matter. However, I still find it necessary to emphasize that if he does feel this way, he is wrong to.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Efficient Rent Seeking?

There is legislation in Congress that would kill the penny. It costs more than a penny to make one, with rising metal costs (and inflation making it worth less, although the article omits this). Representative Jim Kolbe from Arizona introduced the bill. I thought that someone in Congress actually wanted to do something to stop wasting money besides Ron Paul or Jeff Flake, but then I got to a later paragraph:
Kolbe's home state of Arizona is the largest copper producing state in the nation. Copper is the main material of the nickel which would benefit by becoming the lowest denomination of currency in circulation.

Even though Kolbe is trying to boast his own state’s revenue, I think this is efficient for society as a whole. Which got me to thinking, what are other examples of efficient rent seeking?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

IHS Break

My blogging will be even more sparse than usual this week as I'll be attending the IHS seminar, Liberty and Current Issues. Hopefully I'll get a chance to post while I'm at Catholic University.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Meeting Dave Barry

Tonight I met Dave Barry, the humor columnist. He's one of my favorite writers and was doing a book signing in Arlington Virginia for his new kids book. I always enjoyed his writing, and then I read this from Reason. I learned that Barry takes swipes at the government so adroitly because he’s a libertarian. And he seems to have a basic economic knowledge, unlike almost everyone in Washington.
Reason: In your column I detect a certain skepticism at the notion that congressional spending creates jobs.
Barry:: Of all the wonderful things government says, that's always been just about my favorite. As opposed to if you get to keep the money. Because what you'll do is go out and bury it in your yard, anything to prevent that money from creating jobs. They never stop saying it. They say it with a straight face and we in the press will write that down. We will say, "This is expected to create x number of jobs." On the other hand, we never say that the money we removed from another part of the economy will kill some jobs.

After getting Dave to sign a book of his I have, I went to see Jim Bovard, Jesse Walker from Reason, and some old guy debate if we have the government we deserve because we keep electing these fools and put up with their antics. It was an interesting debate, even showing up an hour late because I went to the Dave Barry book signing. I think the conclusion was that we are partly responsible, but not completely. (And when I say we, I mean not me. I’ve never voted.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Getting the Most for Your Money

While at a store today I overheard someone wishing he had more interests, as they don't cost any money, such as watching soccer. No, said another, you have to pay monthly bills electricty and cable to watch soccer.

I'll agree with electricity, assuming the opportunity cost uses less energy, but if this stranger already has cable then on a monthly basis, using it more makes it cheaper.

On the surface, this seems very strange; cable bills remind constant month-to-month and isn't effected by how much you use it. But on the margin it becomes cheaper the more you use it. If I watch 10 hours of cable a week and then discover a new show which ups my total to 11 hours, I am paying less per hour, less per interest and, most fundamentally, less per "unit" of satisfaction.

It's exactly the same concept of average fixed costs: the more the hypothetical factory is used, the less significant its initial building costs are.

Sadly, the first patron left promptly after this exchange before I could point the economics out to him.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Welcoming Warren

Warren, a friend and fellow student in the economics program at Mason, joins L3 this week. Hopefully he will be posting soon, though if he's anything like me lately he's a lot of talk and no show.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

“(Gullible) Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury”

Trial by jury is one of those things that look really great on paper…and, unfortunately, that’s where most of the greatness stops. With people going to court over stupid things, and lawyers dragging out the trials forever, it’s no wonder why nearly everyone tries to get out of jury duty. We servants of the public (read “state”) have to show up and sit through a long selection process, including instructional videos and a pep talk from the commissioner. This is all done for free since we only get paid after the first day of service. The opportunity cost is enormous! It doesn’t matter whether you’re a graduate student working part-time (like me!) or a CEO. Jury duty is a big blow to one’s pocketbook. On the other hand, the general principle of trial-by-jury, inefficient as it is, shouldn’t be abolished. Many people have said that they’d never want to have their cases decided by just one person. Surely something can be done about the system.

Friday, July 07, 2006

New Jersey Folds

Suppose you are a VP of a company and, unable to settle on a timely budget, the entire corporation shut down for several days, resulting in millions of unrealized gains. Now suppose all VPs pointed fingers at each other and nobody claimed fault. Would it not surprise you if stock holders demanded the lot of you to be fired? I wouldn't be.

After several days of debate and roughly 60 million dollars of lost revenue, the New Jersey government will finally allow Atlantic City casinos to do their business. When politics prevented the congress to pass a budget by July 1, the casino inspectors (who are strangely required by law to be on the floor) were forced to take several days off resulting in the complete shut down of all Garden State gambling.

Perversely, the inspectors, who seem to be nothing more than government-appointed auditors, are paid by the casinos. (I imagine the casinos pay the government who then pays the inspectors, which is why the budget problem still created this mess.) Like millions of other residents, the casinos paid for something the government then denied them, an injustice that could have been avoided if this invasive law were removed.

I'll be surprised if the law's dropped and I'll be even more stunned if all of congress steps down. For those of you who think government's more reliable and accountable than the private sector, take notes.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Earned Freedom?

People's memories are surprising short. On July 5th, I watch Hardball where Jim Gilmore, the RNC Chairman, spoke out against an "automatic path to citizenship." Forget that millions of Americans, including Gilmore, got an automatic path to citizenship by the simple act of being born here. He embraced an even more unreasonable argument.

The day before I engaged in my annual ritual and reread the Declaration of Independence along with its recognition of unalienable rights. The sad truth is for most of the world's people enjoying these rights means becoming an American citizen (or citizen of another freedom-loving country). To suggest this path shouldn't be automatic is inhumane, unpatriotic and antagonistic to the day the country just celebrated.