Friday, February 5, 2010

I can see clearly now (my light bulbs are gone)

Who doesn't like being bossed around and told what to do -- for our own good, of course? Take, for example, incandescent light bulbs. Already banned in Australia in favor of more energy-efficient alternatives -- in particular, compact fluorescent lamps (cfl) -- traditional light bulbs are also on their way out in Europe and due to be banned in the United States starting in 2012.

Nevermind that the more-expensive bulbs deliver cost-savings to users only if people change their light-using habits and leave lamps on for relatively uninterrupted periods (Britain's Daily Telegraph reported in September 2009 that "[t]he lifespan of energy-saving light bulbs can be reduced by up to 85 per cent if they are switched off and on too often.")

Nevermind that the new mercury-laden bulbs have to be disposed of carefully.

And nevermind that some people just don't like the light the damned things throw and would rather stick with the tried-and-true old bulbs. We've all been drafted into the latest social crusade to save energy.

Well ... Maybe some of us don't like being bossed around.

Reason's Nick Gillespie has an interesting take on the world-wide Noble (whether you like it or not) Light Bulb Experiment below.

And beware this (tongue-in-cheek) warning from the future: "Boy, 7, in critical condition after light bulb raid."


Sunday, January 3, 2010

It's a rule, damn it, it doesn't have to make sense

I'm parked, with my family, in a tiny bungalow in the Los Angeles area right now. The bungalow belongs to my mother-in-law, who is in Pasadena's Huntington Memorial Hospital, awaiting either a quadruple or quintuple heart bypass operation tomorrow, as the situation dictates at the time (oh hell, why not go for six?).

Anyway, the hospital currently has unusual restrictive limits on visits by kids in place. It's not uncommon for hospitals to have some limits on minors during "RSV season" -- the time of year when kids might catch a virus that causes a cold in adults, but can be nastier in little ones. The RSV concerns often get wound up with flu season fears and result in restrictions -- like those at the Flagstaff Medical Center, near my home, confining the fresh-faced little weaklings (and potential vectors of contagion) to common areas, ground floors, and the like.

At Huntington Memorial Hospital, the restrictions (PDF) are a bit more far-reaching -- as in absolute. Taking the whole oh-so-last-summer swine flu panic and running with it, the hospital administration has apparently barred everybody's favorite beasties from anyplace to which the provider of "quality, uninterrupted healthcare" (editorial note: the word "quality" requires a modifier) can lay claim.

Today, not only was my four-year-old barred from wishing grandma the best, but he and I were then tossed out of an outdoor courtyard open to the street at either end and the sky above -- you know, a place where squirrels and pigeons shit -- while we waited for my wife. The uniformed security guard was polite enough, but he was insistent that the courtyard was hospital grounds, and children can't be anywhere on hospital grounds.

He was kind enough to suggest that we could wait outside the main entrance. Thanks anyway. We preferred a stroll through the streets of Pasadena.

Never mind that H1N1 has proved to be yet another disappointment to our neighborhood false Cassandras -- sure it's unpleasant to catch, but that's true of any flu, and lots of other bugs besides. Swine flu just hasn't been as big a threat as originally feared -- it's such a bust, epidemic-wise, that many European countries are trying to unload their wildly excessive H1N1 vaccine stocks, even though half the doses haven't even been delivered yet (buy your swine flu novelty collectibles now and watch the value soar!).

Nobody is putting in place specific swine flu-related restrictions these days -- especially not panicky ones that treat toddlers like emissaries from the Children of the Corn. The Huntington Memorial Hospital policy was clearly implemented months ago, at the height of the panic. Now that flu frenzy is passe, we're still stuck with security guards enforcing draconian policies that kick tykes to the curb.

But so it often is with rules and restrictions of any sort. Some urgent concern (often a social panic of one sort or another) seems to call for immediate response -- a really poorly thought out and wide-sweeping response, thank you. Fears subside, but the boneheaded policies remain in place months or years later, having acquired an awesome bureaucratic inertia that can overcome even irrefutable pointlessness.

As that security guard told me that, for the sake of protecting against an epidemic that fizzled, my son was persona non grata in a place where rodents run free and wind rats rule the skies, I couldn't help imagining what airports will be like, long after the fruit of the loom bomber has, himself, been forgotten.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Let's have some more of that failed security theater

It's worth noting that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was thwarted in his Christmas Day attempt to blow an airliner out of the sky, not by institutional security measures, but by an alert passenger and the cabin crew of the airplane in question. It's also worth noting that, rather than take inspiration from Jasper Schuringa's exercise of personal initiative, various government seatwarmers around the world plan more of sort of the sort of security measures that have long failed to do much more than make air travel an unpleasant chore.

Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian dubbed the "Fruit of the Loom bomber" by some wags, attempted to detonate a bomb he'd smuggled on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit as it approached its destination. He'd been allowed to board even though he'd been placed on one of the U.S.government's myriad lists of suspicious persons with terrorist ties after his own father, a prominent Nigerian banker, warned U.S. authorities that Abdulmutallab is dangerous.

Abdulmutallab was brought up short only when passengers on the plane noticed flames after the terrorist ignited his explosive device. They jumped the would-be-bomber and doused the fire. Dutch video director Jasper Schuringa is credited with putting Abdulmutallab in a headlock and stripping and subduing the terrorist with the assistance of flight attendants.

"We had to do something," Schuringa told reporters. Well, yes -- they did. It's very likely that the passengers and crew escaped harm because they quickly reacted to circumstances that they couldn't have foreseen as they happened.

It's difficult, really, to imagine a better defense than people willing and able to take initiative. Dutch authorities have taken a lot of flack for letting Abdulmutallab slip his explosive device through security, but terrorists have had decades to adjust their techniques to ever-tightening security measures at airports. American officials have been called on the carpet to answer for allowing Abdulmutallab to board a U.S.-bound flight when he's listed as a terrorism suspect, but the list he's on -- the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment list -- reportedly contains 550,000 names.

There comes a point of diminishing returns, when you've listed so many potential threats that there's no possible way to react to them in any effective manner. I suspect that point comes somewhere before you tally up a half-million terrorism suspects.

But Abdulmutallab was stopped -- on the plane, by passengers and crew. While the fact that the terrorist plot got that far is being treated as a failure in many quarters, it may have run up against the most effective security measures that there can ever be -- people at the scene who take responsibility and initiative as a threat materializes.

That's the most effective security measure there can ever be because its really the only measure that can't be easily anticipated or evaded by plotters. After all, if they want to harm people, terrorists have to be near people. And those people have the potential to react on the spot, as needed.

That security officials appreciate the value of such flexibility is clear from the Transportation Security Administration's announcement that it will "surge resources as needed on a daily basis" and that "[p]assengers should not expect to see the same thing at every airport."

OK. Flexible is good.

But TSA officials aren't the targets. They're the people the terrorists are evading. No matter how many new checkpoints or measures they put in place -- millimeter-wave scanners, extra baggage checks at gates, behavior detection, dogs, bans on putting anything on your lap or moving around the cabin -- the most officials can do is create hurdles that terrorists must plan for, and that seriously inconvenience anybody who still chooses to travel through the police state that air travel has become.

That government officials know that they engage more in security theater than actual security is pretty clear. The Government Accountability Office has called the TSA on the carpet in the past for implementing procedures without ever bothering to investigate their effectiveness. In a 2007 report, the GAO recommended:
[T]he Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for TSA to develop sound evaluation methods, when possible, that can be used to assist TSA in determining whether proposed procedures would achieve their intended result...
In March 2009, the GAO followed up, finding (PDF):
TSA has taken some actions but has not fully implemented a risk management approach to inform the allocation of resources across the transportation modes (aviation, mass transit, highway, freight rail, and pipeline). ...
Without effectively implementing such controls, TSA cannot provide reasonable assurance that its resources are being used effectively and efficiently to achieve security priorities.
The latest measures will almost certainly be implemented with the same disregard for effectiveness, because they are and can only be primarily for show. Real security doesn't come from lumbering institutions, uniformed snoops and high-tech scanners, it comes from people who take responsibility for themselves.

But what bureaucrat wants to admit that there's only so much he can do? Who wants to put himself out of a job by telling scared travelers that real security comes from emulating Jasper Schuringa?

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Happy holidays, Phoenix-style

Presumptuous busybodiness knows no particular season. The arrogant assumption of the right to boss people around is a year-'round affair that has bureaucrats patrolling for bacon-wrapped hot dogs in the heat of summer and chasing down joyful sledders in the cold months so they can jam helmets on their heads and force them to sit upright. But every now and then you get a perfect storm: nannystaters who meet the demands of the holidays with an uber-authoritarian frenzy wrapped in a bow. Then, public officials issue just-in-time-for-Thanksgiving orders to churches and synagogues in Phoenix, Arizona, to stop feeding the homeless on their own property because ... well ... slapping down a few warming trays to serve free food in a church utility room counts as operating a business in a residential neighborhood. And rules are rules, you know.

For now, the CrossRoads United Methodist Church -- the House o' God at the center of the decision, though it applies everywhere in Phoenix  -- is continuing its Saturday morning breakfasts, pending the hearing of its appeal in January by the Board of Adjustment. That means Christmas meals will be served, perhaps sparing the meddlers the worst possible press over their intrusive -- not to mention Grinch-ish -- ruling.

But  come January, doers of good deeds in Arizona will have to go hat in hand to a bunch of government seat warmers to find out if they'll be allowed to continue feeding hungry, poor people at their own cost, and under their own roofs.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The end of helicopter parenting?

I hope it's true (but it's in Time, which is wrong about oh so much). Anyway, the aging, archaic newsweekly reports that helicopter parenting -- that freaky, overbearing, effort to program every kid like some kind of robo-child, customized for success -- is on its way out.
All great rebellions are born of private acts of civil disobedience that inspire rebel bands to plot together. And so there is now a new revolution under way, one aimed at rolling back the almost comical overprotectiveness and overinvestment of moms and dads. The insurgency goes by many names — slow parenting, simplicity parenting, free-range parenting — but the message is the same: Less is more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful. You really want your children to succeed? Learn when to leave them alone. When you lighten up, they'll fly higher. We're often the ones who hold them down.

I never planned on overparenting my son -- unless you count training him early to mix the perfect manhattan as an exercise in excess (well ... maybe so) -- and my family lives in an area that's strongly resistant to the parenting school of thought that shuttles kids between Mandarin for Toddlers and lessons in playing musical instruments that mass twice as much as the budding musician. But I've never been terribly fond of what helicopter parents were doing to their kids and the culture around them. Millions of college freshmen unable to decide between fake-ID vendors without first making a cell phone call to mommy are just too depressing.

So maybe now more kids will get to be ... kids.

That's good news.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

So, why were you taking those painkillers last year?

Have you ever taken any prescription drugs I should know about? Let me rephrase that. Have you ever taken any prescription drugs that you think are none of my business or anybody else's, for that matter? It's all the same, if you live in a state like Arizona, where Big Brother is monitoring your prescription history and keeping records of your medications stored in one handy, centralized database.

The Controlled Substances Prescription Monitoring Program was established by an act of the legislature, and went into effect this past December. It joins Arizona with 37 other states that have or are planning similar monitoring programs. The text of the law is rather brief, creating "a computerized central database tracking system to track the prescribing, dispensing and consumption of schedule II, III and IV controlled substances" for the purposes of assisting "law enforcement to identify illegal activity" and to "[p]rovide information to patients, medical practitioners and pharmacists to help avoid the inappropriate use of schedule II, III and IV controlled substances."

Well, isn't that nice and helpful.

The rules (PDF) created by the Arizona State Board of Pharmacy are more detailed. Of particular interest, the rules allow access to the database to:

  1. A person who is authorized to prescribe or dispense a controlled substance to assist that person to provide medical or pharmaceutical care to a patient or to evaluate a patient;
  2. An individual who requests the individual's own controlled substance prescription information under A.R.S. § 12-2293;
  3. A professional licensing board established under A.R.S. Title 32, Chapter 7, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21, 25, or 26. Except as required under subsection (B), the Board or its designee shall provide this information only if the requesting board states in writing that the information is necessary for an open investigation or complaint;
  4. A local, state, or federal law enforcement or criminal justice agency. Except as required under subsection (B), the Board or its designee shall provide this information only if the requesting agency states in writing that the information is necessary for an open investigation or complaint;
  5. The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System [Medicaid] Administration regarding individuals who are receiving services under A.R.S. Title 36, Chapter 29. Except as required under subsection (B), the Board or its designee shall provide this information only if the Administration states in writing that the information is necessary for an open investigation or complaint;
  6. A person serving a lawful order of a court of competent jurisdiction; and
  7. The Board staff for purposes of administration and enforcement of A.R.S. § Title 36, Chapter 28 and this Article.

Am I the only one who thinks that's an awful lot of people to have poking through people's medication records? Note that access for law enforcement isn't conditional on a warrant, but only requires a written request stating that the information "is necessary for an open investigation or complaint." Uh huh. Don't tick off your neighbor, the state trooper.

And professional licensing boards have access to prescription information too. The specified professional boards with authority to leaf through your medication history include those regulating: podiatrists; dentists; traditional, osteopathic and naturopathic (but not homeopathic) physicians; nurses; optometrists; pharmacists; veterinarians; physician assistants; and security guards.

A "lawful order of a court of competent jurisdiction" could be just about anything -- including your ex-wife or husband taking a stab at revisiting your child custody rights. It could also be just about any fishing expedition related to a lawsuit.

And all of this is authorized access at the outset of the program. We can assume there will be pressure to expand access as the years go by -- the temptation to do so will be like ... well ... the bureaucratic equivalent of an addiction. And we can assume that some government employees will abuse access out of curiosity or for personal gain -- like the IRS agent who was sentenced to probation last year for snooping through the tax records of nearly 200 people, including celebrities. That was only the latest example of a problem (PDF) so pervasive at the IRS that it involved congressional hearings a decade ago -- which obviously didn't change anything.

Why would a centralized database of people's prescription history be any more immune to abuse than our frequently browsed tax records?

And make no mistake about it -- those records are sensitive. Schedule II drugs include drugs such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, schedule III includes testosterone and anabolic steroids, and schedule IV includes Librium, Valium and Ambien. There are perfectly good reasons for taking any or all of the affected drugs, but do you really want to have to explain those reasons to a licensing board, or a court -- or a journalist?

Oddly enough, for a program supposedly intended to combat "the inappropriate use" of controlled substances, the creation of the centralized medications database may be the best reason anybody could ever have for buying their drugs on the street.

Here's a thought: How about we take the government entirely out of the loop when it comes to acquiring and using the medications we want or need?

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

I need my alcospeed fix

A North Carolina man wants to force a brewing company to stop peddling alcoholic energy drinks -- and he's joined forces with a nanny-state outfit that makes its bones trying to get the government to limit the range of food and beverages from which people can choose.

According to the Wilson Times:

Mike Sprinkle wants to sue the company that produces an alcoholic energy drink he says nearly killed his daughter this summer.

Sprinkle said that on the night of July 20, his 23-year-old daughter, Amanda, drank half a can of orange-flavored Sparks, an alcoholic energy drink made by MillerCoors, at their Wiggins Mill Road home then suddenly collapsed at her computer desk.

Amanda's eyes had rolled back, Sprinkle recalled, and she had no pulse. It was only after he performed CPR on her and took her to Wilson Medical Center that she was later determined to be fine.

He says doctors pointed out the energy drink as a likely culprit.

"Honestly, if I hadn't been sitting there that night, she probably would have died," Sprinkle said.

Since then, Sprinkle has been unsuccessfully trying to organize a class action lawsuit against MillerCoors for producing Sparks, a 6 percent alcohol energy drink sold by the company. According to the MillerCoors Web site, the drink comes in three flavors - original, light and plus - and contains the stimulants caffeine and guarana, not normally used in alcoholic beverages.

Sprinkle's efforts to protect his adult daughter from her taste in beverages brought him to the doors of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI filed a lawsuit against MillerCoors back in September in an effort to get the courts to cut off the tap on Sparks.

Drinkers of caffeinated alcoholic drinks are more likely to binge drink, ride with an intoxicated driver, become injured, or be taken advantage of sexually than drinkers of non-caffeinated alcoholic drinks, according to a 2007 study conducted at Wake Forest University. ...

"MillerCoors is trying to hook teens and ’tweens on a dangerous drink," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. "This company’s behavior is reckless, predatory, and in the final analysis, likely to disgust a judge or a jury."

Gardner coined the term "alcospeed" to refer to drinks that blend alcohol with stimulants such as caffeine. You may prefer other terms though, like "Irish Coffee," which, according to one recipe, consists of:

1 1/2 oz Irish whiskey
1 tsp brown sugar
6 oz hot coffee
heavy cream

Combine whiskey, sugar and coffee in a mug and stir to dissolve. Float cold cream gently on top. Do not mix.

That sounds far tastier, though possibly less healthy, than Sparks. It's probably more alcoholic, and possible more stimulating, than the caffeinated beer. Rum and coke would do the job, too. So "alcospeed" is nothing new, whatever the CSPI says.

But that's beside the point. The choice of what to consume or not consume is a personal one, to be made individually -- not by judges and politicians under pressure from presumptuous activist groups who would make our decisions for us.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Prohibition repeal ain't a done deal

The good folks at Bureaucrash have produced one of the better video celebrations of the repeal of Prohibition (on this day in 1933) that I've seen. It rightly notes the importance of the end of one of the nastier violations of personal liberty in this country's history, but it also, cleverly, emphasizes the growing litany of prohibitions great and small in these sadly overregulated states of America.

On a range of issues from guns to plastic bags to cigarettes, our supposed public servants have appointed themselves not only our masters, but our nannies and nags. Rather than permit us to make our own choices, they prefer to substitute their own judgment, with a boot on the neck, fines and prison time the threatened penalty for those among us who dare to tell them to get lost.

And no matter the reasons why each specific good or service is targeted by the finger-waggers, the intrusion by politicians is a violation of our rights -- and one that's doomed to fail if enough people, as is usually the case, refuse to comply.

Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can't stop what it's meant to stop.
We like it.
It's left a trail of graft and slime,
It won't prohibit worth a dime,
It's filled our land with vice and crime.
Nevertheless, we're for it.

-- Franklin P. Adams, 1931

And so the eternal war between would-be rulers and those who won't be ruled continues.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Anti-smokers hit close to home

These days, because of restrictive laws that jam one-size-fits-all rules down everybody's throats, you can't smoke in bars, you can't smoke in your office, you can't smoke on the sidewalk outside your office building, and ... you can't smoke in your home? Really?

Yep. City officials in Belmont, California, have reached their presumptuous little hands into private dwellings, pinching out cigarettes in any home that shares a floor or a ceiling with another home -- apartments and condos, in other words. has the full story for you:

It's not just smoking, of course; it's all the vices, pleasures and specific preferences that make life worth living that are under fire across the country. If we want our cigarettes left alone, we'll have to extend our neighbors the same courtesy for their foie gras and saggy pants. And we'll have to dump control freaks like those that rule in Belmont.

Consider it the sort of detente that's necessary to maintain a little freedom.

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Tyranny with a happy face

The last two weeks have offered something of a nostalgia tour through old-fashioned police-state tactics. Tear gas, phalanxes of black-clad riot cops, mass arrests -- it's a bit of truth in advertising, as the major political parties let us know in the streets outside their convention halls just what they think of us and what we should expect from them in the future.

But control freaks don't always wear jackboots. Sometimes they come along carrying Blackberries, spouting psychobabble and telling you how much they care.

That's the premise of Mean Martin Manning. It's a wildly funny book by Drexel University writing Professor Scott Stein, about a retired misanthrope who locks himself in his apartment with TV, an Internet connection, his collection of frog figurines and a supply of salami sandwiches, wanting nothing more than to be left alone -- and discovers that the world just won't cooperate.

The neighborhood in which Manning lives is designated by the state governor as a "life-improvement zone" where social workers are sent to "help" people who are considered to be making irrational and unhealthy lifestyle choices Of course, not everybody wants help, so the social workers bring a little muscle ...

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The "life-improvement zone" comes off as an implementation of the "therapeutic state" that maverick psychiatrist Thomas Szasz warns of. The therapeutic state is "a system in which disapproved thoughts, emotions, and actions are repressed ('cured') through pseudomedical interventions."

Why criminalize disapproved choices when you can medicalize them and even diagnose "patients'" protests as evidence of their illness? Resistance is then delegitimized. It's actually part of the problem to be "cured."

As diligent Caseworker Alice Pitney tells Martin Manning, "[N]ot wanting help is one of the signs of needing it. Yours is a textbook case."

Even when it's represented by a concerned smile, the state is always backed by steel, so a stubborn Manning is dragged from his apartment at gunpoint in the middle of the night -- all for his own good, of course.

And that's when the fun really begins. Manning's life is deconstructed by a courtroom parade of people from his past who recount the wrongs he's done them ever since childhood. His diet is carefully monitored and regulated. He's subjected to group therapy sessions -- including a mandatory exploration of his supposedly deep-seated racism. His personal belongings are confiscated, to reduce distractions from his treatment.

And then he's dragged on "Dr. Karen," a pop-psychology TV show that's sort of like "Dr. Phil" meets The Running Man, to be stripped of all dignity before the taunting mob.

But they don't call him "Mean" Martin Manning for nothing. You can only push a collector of frog figurines so far before he becomes a one-man insurgency.

Appropriately, the therapeutic state that Stein explores to hilarious effect in his book turns out to be popular with much of the public. While it starts as a top-down imposition, put in place by executive order, politicians are soon vying to see who can promise bigger and better "life-improvement zones."

As Manning himself realizes:

Pitney wasn't t he problem. This wasn't about Pitney. I finally knew how to get her, understood what the something was that would stick, eat at her, but this wasn't about her any longer. Alice Pitney was only possible because the governor gave her power. The governor was only possible because the people gave him power. And his opponent, with the same damn plans, was only possible for the same reason.

That's right. Tyranny often comes with a friendly smile to accompany its long lists of requirements, prohibitions and interventions. And a lot of us like it that way.


Monday, August 4, 2008

'Saving' borrowers from payday loans

Right about now, Arizonans are receiving mailings urging them to vote "yes" on Prop. 16, the Payday Loan Reform Act (PDF). All ballot propositions are sponsored by somebody, and this one is backed by Arizonans for Financial Reform, a group the Arizona Republic reports "has received nearly $2 million in contributions from payday lenders." It's a payday-loan industry group backing a "reform" bill that would impose regulations on the industry and -- oh yeah -- incidentally repeal a state measure that would essentially abolish the industry in 2010.

So that has critics screaming that Arizonans for Financial Reform is an astroturf group defending its evil, exploitative, industry through the appearance of a reform measure -- which it is, except for the "evil, exploitative" part.

If you don't know, a payday loan is a short-term loan people take out, borrowing against their next paycheck at a fee that works out to a very high rate of interest. Not surprisingly, it's the sort of loan people with limited financial alternatives take out -- stereotypically (though not always accurately), the working poor. That makes lenders open to vilification for preying on the needy.

Except that nobody makes people take these loans; they choose to do so, and for a reason. In fact, as Reason magazine reported six years ago, there has always been a market for short-term loans for people who see value in giving up a little money in a few weeks for cash right now.

Today's thriving industry of payday lending looks a lot like the "salary lenders," later renamed "salary buyers," that thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "In current dollars, they would buy $650 worth of salary by writing a check for $500," says Lendol Calder, a professor of history at Augustana College and author of the 1999 book Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit.

These days, if a person wants to borrow $200 on the first of the month, he'll write a check for $234 dated the 15th. When the 15th rolls around, either he pays off the loan in cash or the lender cashes the check. If he can't afford to pay off the entire amount, the lender will roll over the loan for an additional fee.

One hundred years ago, the leading critic of "salary loan lending" called such people "sharks, leeches and remorseless extortioners." Today's consumer advocates call payday lenders "predatory" and "legal loan sharks."

Are borrowers right to seek these loans? Well, you either leave the choice to them, or you substitute the judgment of legislators, do-gooders and government officials who have no idea of the specific needs of the people patronizing payday lenders.

It's not as if the alternatives are so much more reasonable. Bank overdraft fees are now drawing the wrath of the same folks (PDF) who vilify payday lenders. And Tom Lehman, a professor of economics at Indiana Wesleyan University, says bounced-check fees can actually be significantly higher than the fees charged by payday lenders.

Not surprisingly, given that people have long sought out payday lenders and their predecessors, "protecting" people from short-term loans can have serious consequences. In research (PDF) done for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Donald P. Morgan and Michael R. Strain found:

Compared with households in states where payday lending is permitted, households in Georgia have bounced more checks, complained more to the Federal Trade Commission about lenders and debt collectors, and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection at a higher rate. North Carolina households have fared about the same. This negative correlation—reduced payday credit supply, increased credit problems—contradicts the debt trap critique of payday lending, but is consistent with the hypothesis that payday credit is preferable to substitutes such as the bounced-check “protection” sold by credit unions and banks or loans from pawnshops.

Is your blood pressure rising? Are you thinking that, perhaps, all short-term loans are nothing more than legalized loan-sharking that should be abolished for the good of would-be borrowers, whether or not those borrowers appreciate the gesture?

Then let me point out that the logical, final alternative to legalized loan-sharking is illegal loan-sharking, with all that implies. If you think a triple-digit rate of interest is harsh, consider that real loan sharks are known for inflicting broken bones and occasional fatalities on deadbeats.

Franchised payday lenders, no matter how much you hate them, don't do that.

So, it's our choice. We can either leave people free to borrow money at rates of interest that make us shudder, or, to give ourselves warm-and-fuzzy feelings, we can outlaw the practice, hurt some people financially, and drive others to borrow money at rates of interest that make us shudder -- from criminals.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Get ready for helicopter government

"Helicopter parents" -- overinvolved, overbearing, moms and dads who just won't let their offspring venture into the world without a protective, hovering presence -- have made the news repeatedly over the past few years. This being summer, a new crop of articles detailing the woes sleep-away camp administrators are facing with clingy parents is making the rounds.

Hey, it's better than more presidential campaign coverage.

Anyway, from Lenore Skenazy via the Creators Syndicate:

So we have come to the point where children have to soothe their parents' separation anxiety. Next thing you know, they're going to have to send care packages.

Or maybe not, because the camps already are taking care of that. More and more have started posting the addictive parental treat of daily online camper snapshots.

"We promised our daughter $1 for every time we see her picture on the Web site," the parent of an 11-year-old camper, Texan Caryn Kboudi, said. This way, her daughter knows to look for the camera and make sure she gets her picture taken a lot. Meanwhile, mom can check the Web site 10 times a day — literally — to look for her.

Parents want written updates, too. "We're forced to tell parents everything the kids have done," said June Ingraham, spokeswoman for camp Sail Caribbean. "Like, 'They sailed from point A to point B; they went on land; they took a hike; they got ice cream at a local shop and stir-fry for dinner.' We put everything in there so that parents can live vicariously."

If feeding parental clinginess sounds to you like a losing strategy, you're right. Says the New York Times:
Starting about seven years ago, camps tried to satiate parents’ need to know by uploading pictures of kids at play daily to password-protected Web sites, a one-way communication tool that seemed to respect the sleep-away tradition of maintaining distance. But such real-time glimpses often aggravate the problem, as the obsessed become obsessed with what they are seeing — or not seeing.

“I have parents calling and saying they saw their child in the background of a picture of other children and he didn’t look happy, or his face looked red, has he been putting on enough suntan lotion, or I haven’t seen my child and I have seen a lot of other children, is my child so depressed he doesn’t want to be in a picture,” said Jay Jacobs, who has run Timber Lake Camp in Shandaken, N.Y., since 1980.

“In previous years, parents would understand that we were out in the field with children, and we’d get back to you after dinner when we had freer time,” said Mr. Jacobs, who has fielded inquiries from parents about what day the water trampoline would be fixed and whether a particular child still loved his mother after a promised package failed to arrive. “Now a parent calling at 11 will be off the charts if they don’t have a response by 1 or 1:30.”

Parents, says the Times, are even helping their kids smuggle forbidden cell phones into camp. They send two phones: one to be easily detected and surrendered, and a backup for actual use.

This is just nuts, of course. Frankly, when I was a kid, my parents were happy for the occasional opportunity to get rid of my sister and me. We couldn't afford more than a taste of day camp, so they sent us off to my grandmother. Grandma had an old-fashioned party-line telephone, which didn't stand up to excessive use, let alone helicopter-style monitoring. After some initial adjustment, my sister and I were fine. It taught us a little independence.

Party-line? Did I just write that? Wow, I'm dating myself.

Honestly, though, the smothering treatment helicopter parents inflict on nine-year-old campers isn't as frightening as what they do to theoretically adult college students -- or worse, to college graduates who have entered the job market.
At Hewlett-Packard, parents have gone as far as contacting the company after their child gets a job offer. They want to talk about their son's or daughter's salary, relocation packages and scholarship programs.

"Parents are contacting us directly," says Betty Smith, a university recruiting manager at HP. "This generation is not embarrassed by it. They're asking for parents' involvement."

She recalls one job fair in Texas "where the parent was there at our booth asking about benefits." The company has trained recruiters in how to handle parents.

Cell phones have taken some of the blame -- it's so easy to intervene in children's lives that parents so inclined can't resist. The digital umbilical cord replaces the real thing.

But there's more to it than that when parents are calling up HR people on behalf of twenty-something "kids." For some reason, many parents just aren't letting their offspring be independent adults. They're infantilizing men and women and depriving them of the opportunity to become full-grown human beings.

It'd be funny if it weren't so pathetic. OK, it is funny -- but it's still pathetic. And it concerns me ...

Really, what happens to the political culture when adults -- well, sort-of adults -- are accustomed to somebody always watching out for them, counseling them and bandaging their booboos? What becomes of the assumptions of individual responsibility that underpin (what's left of) a free society when teenagers become twenty-somethings, and then thirty-somethings, always with the shadow of hovering mom and dad cast across their lives?

Are these people really capable of functioning on their own, enjoying the fruits of their good decisions, suffering the fallout from the bad ones, and living as mature citizens of a free society?

Or will they always expect somebody to be there to pat their heads, make their decisions, fight their battles, and generally wipe their increasingly hairy butts as the years go by?

I think we know the answer to that. The children of helicopter parents are bound to become accustomed that hovering presence. Some will resent it and break free, but others ...

Others will happily turn to anybody who promises to institutionalize that shadow across their lives. And the people best equipped to make such promises are our ever-eager politicians.

If helicopter parenting is a current trend, helicopter government may be the wave of the future.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Phoenix: Not so free, not so unfree

Phoenix isn't a terrible place when it comes to personal freedom. It's not so great either, despite Arizona's overstated Wild-West reputation.

Reason magazine's Radley Balko raised a fuss in Chicago with his column in the Chicago Tribune taking that city to task for "treating its citizens like children" with a variety of nanny-state interventions into everything from sex laws to booze restrictions to firearms regulations that are designed to turn local politicians' obsessions and bugaboos into punishable offenses.

The full article from which Balko drew, rating 35 cities according to semi-scientific rankings of the various city governments' treatment of personal freedom, is available on Reason's Website. The cities are assessed on the environment they provide for personal autonomy in the areas of: Sex, Tobacco, Alcohol, Guns, Movement, Drugs, Gambling and Food/Other.

Chicago came in dead last, setting itself up for its public excoriation. Las Vegas, with a generally laissez-faire attitude toward matters that draw political and legal attention elsewhere, ranked first.

I note that Phoenix, the metropolitan behemoth of Arizona, ranks a mediocre 14. With its middle-of-the-road status, the city doesn't even rate a full text analysis of its advantages and disadvantages. The magazine merely notes: "If harassment of suspected illegal immigrants were measured in this list, the stomping grounds of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio would rank dead last."

I've written plenty about Sheriff Joe's shenanigans, so I can't disagree.

Reason's rankings are a welcome tool for assessing the livability of America's many and various jurisdictions by a variety of criteria. Measures of economic freedom are relatively easy to come by, but attempts to assess local openness to gays and lesbians, personal choice on smoking, drug laws, the ability to defend yourself within the law and other measures of the breathing room to live in a given area according to your own preferences are rare.

In fact, it's interesting to cross-reference, say, the Pacific Research Institute's U.S. Economic Freedom Index (full document here in PDF format) with Reason's rankings. Chicago's miserable last-place personal freedom ranking correlates depressingly with Illinois's overall 46 (out of 50) rank among the states for economic liberty.

Las Vegas, the top dog for personal-freedom, is located in pretty-good twelfth-ranked Nevada for economic liberty.

But the best bargain may be Denver, ranked third for personal freedom, and nestled comfortably in second-place Colorado, for economic liberty.

(Phoenix, ranked a mediocre 14 out of 35 for personal freedom, does a bit better on economics, given Arizona's slot at 11.)

Of course, rankings are only snapshots; you need to see what direction a jurisdiction is going, or you're at risk of moving to a garden of freedom just in time to watch it transform into a gulag. As David Harsanyi notes in Reason's write-up of Denver:
Often the relevant question isn’t where you are but where you’re headed. And Denver, alas, is moving in the same godforsaken direction as the rest of the country. Safety, economic and social “justice,” the children, the environment, the pets (unless we’re talking about pit bulls, a breed banned from city limits)—all of them trump individual freedom. ...

Denver is one of the freest cities in the country? That’s dreadful news for the rest of you suckers.

Oh well. Reason is going to have to repeat these rankings on a regular basis, so we have a better idea of how our homes, current and prospective, fare. It just might be better to stay in a town ranked at 14 that stays at 14 than it would be to move to a burg that starts off good and then slides, heartbreakingly, down the scale.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Did Colorado ban the Bible?

Social conservatives are in a fine lather over a Colorado law (PDF) signed by Governor Bill Ritter on May 29 that extends anti-discrimination protections to sexual minorities in matters of business and public accommodations. On its face, the law is the latest effort by our socially conscious lawmakers to force us all to be nice to each other under penalties of fines and imprisonment -- specifically, $300 or one year in jail per violation.

It's all just a bit too much like that old joke about the Soviet Union, in which the commissars express concern about the dreary, bleak attitudes of their subjects: "Everybody must be happy! Anybody not happy by noon tomorrow will be shot!"

Predictably, the sackcloth-and-ashes crowd seems obsessed that the new law means that women's restrooms will now be filled wall-to-wall with adam's-apple-sporting cross-dressers. The pre-verts are everywhere!

Religious conservatives have also fretted that businesses will be forced to cater to people they find repugnant -- for instance, that wedding photographers will be compelled to take shots of same-sex ceremonies. That does, in fact, seem to be the intent of the authors. Rep. Joel Judd responded to just such an objection with the comment that, "If you choose to do commerce in Colorado you have to abide by these rules."

Uh huh. Good luck to the happy gay couple who hires a true-believing Roman Catholic shutterbug. May the record of your most-important day not be made up of 300 shots of the photographer's shoes.

Perhaps most troubling, the law's Section 8 restricts the sort of written material that businesses and landlords may publish and distribute. Supposedly, this provision applies only to statements of an intent to discriminate, but if that's what the authors intended, it's not what they wrote.
SECTION 8. 24-34-701, Colorado Revised Statutes, is amended to

24-34-701. Publishing of discriminative matter forbidden. No person, being the owner, lessee, proprietor, manager, superintendent, agent, or employee of any place of public accommodation, resort, or amusement, directly or indirectly, by himself or herself or through another person shall publish, issue, circulate, send, distribute, give away, or display in any way, manner, or shape or by any means or method, except as provided in this section, any communication, paper, poster, folder, manuscript, book, pamphlet, writing, print, letter, notice, or advertisement of any kind, nature, or description which THAT is intended or calculated to discriminate or actually discriminates against any disability, race, creed, color, sex, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, marital status, national origin, or ancestry or against any of the members thereof in the matter of furnishing or neglecting or refusing to furnish to them or any one of them any lodging, housing, schooling, or tuition or any accommodation, right, privilege, advantage, or convenience offered to or enjoyed by the general public or which states that any of the accommodations, rights, privileges, advantages, or conveniences of any such place of public accommodation, resort, or amusement shall or will be refused, withheld from, or denied to any person or class of persons on account of disability, race, creed, color, sex, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, marital status, national origin, or ancestry or that the patronage, custom, presence, frequenting, dwelling, staying, or lodging at such place by any person or class of persons belonging to or purporting to be of any particular disability, race, creed, color, sex, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, marital status, national origin, or ancestry is unwelcome or objectionable or not acceptable, desired, or solicited.

Note that the law doesn't just say that you can't publish material that states you'll deny services to protected classes of people, it also says you can't make them feel "unwelcome."

Hurting people's feelings is now a criminal offense.

Social conservatives object that handing out the Bible or the Book of Mormon may be illegal under the new law. While I can't imagine the courts allowing that interpretation to stand, the text of the law is open to just such a reading.

I have to think that legislators threw as much as they could against the legal wall, just to see what would stick.

Many socially conservative groups based in Colorado say they flat-out won't obey the law. As much as I despise their attitudes toward gays and lesbians, I can't blame them. Private individuals, businesses and organizations have the right to decide who they'll associate with and who they won't, and what ideas they'll express along the way, no matter how abhorrent or unpopular their criteria. If the law doesn't recognize that right, the law should be defied.

Lawmakers who set out to make society kinder and gentler through the use of force do violence to the whole idea of tolerance -- and to our liberty.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Chicago, where you do what you're told

The windy city gets raked over the coals for its poor treatment of personal freedom in a Chicago Tribune OpEd written by Reason magazine's Radley Balko. A taste:
Chicago reigns supreme when it comes to treating its citizens like children (Las Vegas topped our rankings as America's freest city). Chicagoans pay the second-highest cigarette tax in the country, and the sixth-highest tax on alcohol. Chicago has more traffic-light cameras than any city in America (despite studies questioning their effectiveness), restricts cell phone use while driving, and it's quickly moving toward a creepy public surveillance system similar to London's.
Don't miss the multitude of comments attached to Balko's article,  many belonging to two general threads: one applauding the restrictions because they make Chicago more in tune with the poster's values and preferences (my taste, now mandatory); the other pointing out that a heavily regulated city gives the folks in charge unparalleled opportunities for shaking downs folks who violate or want to violate the rules.

The column is based on an upcoming Reason article assessing 35 American cities on how they "balance individual freedom with government paternalism. We ranked the cities on how much freedom they afford their residents to indulge in alcohol, tobacco, drugs, sex, gambling and food. And, for good measure, we also looked at the cities' gun laws, use of traffic and surveillance cameras, and tossed in an 'other' category to catch weird laws such as New York's ban on unlicensed dancing, or Chicago's tax on bottled water."

Chicago, by the way, comes in dead last. Las Vegas is first.

There are plenty of assessments of various jurisdictions' economic freedom rankings, but this is the first I'm aware of  that actually tries to rank cities based on their overall respect for personal freedom. I look forward to seeing the full piece.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Where's our anonymous electronic money?

First, Congress banned the use of credit cards "and other payment forms" to settle Internet wagers. Now the San Francisco Chronicle wants to impose a similar ban on the use of credit cards to make purchases from online pharmacies. Not content to simply forbid people to purchase products or pursue vices of which they disapprove, the nation's all-too-full ranks of control freaks also want to deny folks who don't toe the line the ability to pay unapproved bills. Credit cards and other payment systems, once seen as a potential route to financial flexibility, have become tools of political control.

There are alternative means of payment, but these have proven vulnerable to government pressure. PayPal, which began with an explicitly antigovernment agenda, folded rather early, and now bans a variety of politically incorrect transactions. NETeller, even though it's based outside the country, followed suit after two of its executives were essentially kidnapped and held hostage while in the U.S. Some other payment systems remain available, but nothing has established itself as invulnerable, or even highly resistant, to government arm-twisting.

Where is this brave new world of anonymous and untraceable transactions we were promised?

Digital cash that would flow as freely as coins and paper has been "just around the corner" for years. Cryptographer David Chaum was an early pioneer of the idea, although the company he founded, DigiCash, folded a decade ago. The idea seems to be feasible -- at least, experts like Chaum believe it is -- but it hasn't quite caught fire yet. People have proven more open to adapting payment systems they know -- such as credit cards -- to a new environment than they are to adopting something as completely new as money represented by encrypted bits of data.

But as governments choke off the use of traditional payment means and make familiar Visa and Mastercard accounts into extensions of the political whims of whatever crop of nannies currently holds office, they may inadvertently open the door for high-tech money that, until now, has seemed to be a solution in search of a problem. Out of necessity, gamblers, pharmacy customers and other patrons of disapproved businesses may soon look for high-tech payment systems that can offer them reliability and privacy in an overgoverned world.

The overwheening nannies of Congress and the editorial pages may yet turn a gee-whiz technological promise into a practical reality.

Well, I'm hoping so, anyway. Any of you technological whizzes out there know how close anonymous, safe and reliable electronic money currently is to being a real-world deliverable service?

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Monday, March 31, 2008

The sweetest little black market

Inadvertent leaders in economic research, public school officials seem dedicated to discovering again and again just what it is that sparks the creation of a black market. What have they found? Restricting goods that school kids want inspires many of them to foray into the world of underground entrepreneurship.

California school officials have discovered -- surprise! -- that banning "junk food" creates economic opportunities for kids willing to take a few risks in smuggling and peddling contraband. The lesson comes courtesy of the drive to promote healthy eating, or else, among the nation's pudgy youth. Golden State officials have cracked down on unapproved foodstuffs and put their official weight behind healthier -- but less popular -- alternatives.

“It’s created a little underground economy, with businessmen selling everything from a pack of skittles to an energy drink,” said Jim Nason, principal at Hook Junior High School in Victorville.

This has become a lucrative business, Nason said, and those kids are walking around campus with upwards of $40 in their pockets and disrupting class to make a sale.

The results could have been predicted by an economist or student of history who has paid even cursory attention to repeatedly thwarted efforts by government officials to restrict people's access to goods and services that they want. The situation in California (and in Boulder, Colorado, earlier) not only emulates the reaction to Prohibition and drug bans -- it directly reflects students' response to junk food bans elsewhere. Says the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph:

The situation echoes that in the UK where a similar drive to promote healthy eating sparked a playground black market in junk food with pupils trading snacks and fizzy drinks and the most organised staging lunchtime runs to local shops and McDonald's to fill junk food orders.

British officials shocked by widespread resistance to their efforts are considering barring students from leaving campus at lunch, and even preventing fast-food restaurants from opening near campuses -- schemes intended to further restrict the flow of contraband. Considering, though, that flat-out outlawing marijuana and heroin has failed to cut off the supply, it's hard to see how tighter restrictions on legal products can do anything more than slightly raise prices (and profit margins) on goods smuggled through school doors.

Oddly enough, surreptitious peddling of cokes and candy may offer public school students the best economic education they're likely to receive in tax-supported institutions. School officials may barely be able to teach kids to read and write, but they're offering an excellent lesson in the hurdles faced by any effort at prohibition and the inevitability of the underground economy.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

You don't really want to retire, do you?

From the Arizona Republic:

Imagine walking into your neighborhood grocery, hospital or government office and finding that a quarter of its workforce is missing.

Census figures suggest the threat is real, and Arizona is taking steps to avoid it. By 2020, one in four Arizonans is expected to be older than 60, says Melanie Starns, Gov. Janet Napolitano's policy adviser on aging. More than 35 percent of Yavapai County residents already are in that age group.

This year, the oldest boomers turn 62 and become eligible for early Social Security benefits. The thought of millions of boomers taking their early-retirement benefits is causing concern about the stability of Social Security and Medicare.

The article goes on to talk about how much older Americans have to offer, and how retirees and those nearing retirement often find that they really want to continue working -- even if not in the same field that has held their attention throughout their main working years.

Expect to see lots of articles in this vein in years to come, with a particular emphasis on how oddly compelling the prospect of working into our seventies has become to a host of civic-minded seniors with too much time on their hands. The Social Security meltdown is looming, with the Ponzi-scheme pension system due to start tapping general revenues in a little over a decade (that's the so-called "trust fund"). Medicare is in worse shape, approaching total collapse before 2020. That makes it necessary for government officials to do their best to convince people to delay retirement -- and to recruit journalists to the cause.

I shouldn't mock too much, since there's more than necessity to the case for working longer. The fact is that the age of broken and tired 65-year-olds is largely at an end. Older Americans are running, kayaking and bed-hopping with an enthusiasm once reserved for people decades younger. As the Duke University Medical Center reported in 2005, "the majority of people enjoy good or excellent health, even past age 85. Later life is not necessarily defined by a steady decline in health, but rather by more healthy years followed by a much shorter period of ill health immediately before death."

That's good news, unless you've been planning for a retirement much like that of your parents. If you're going to live longer and be able to do more than generations past, you need more money stashed away to support an active life into your 80s.

And that's assuming that you've been doing a good job of planning for the future. Unfortunately, the Congressional Budget Office says, only "roughly half of boomer households are on track to accumulate enough wealth to maintain their current standard of living if the heads of those households retire when they now plan to."

That means that many of those healthy older folks are going to have to spend more of those long, active years than they intended in the work force. That's not really a bad thing. If 70 is the new 55, there's no reason why people who haven't made adequate provisions for their own future should be able to tap other people's income to fund what is now an early retirement. In fact, it's perfectly reasonable to expect that the working years will extend longer than they did in the past, except for those people who specifically plan for a long retirement.

So as much as I roll my eyes at the calculated nature of stories like the piece in the Republic, I have to grant that they're both necessary and inevitable. In the years to come, we'll see an increasingly desperate effort to convince older Americans to stay in the work force, paving the way for a significant hike in the age at which Americans become eligible for Social Security and Medicare benefits. Ultimately, I hope we'll see the end of the poorly considered and doomed Social Security and Medicare systems themselves, so that we never have another crisis like this one.

On the plus side, as we work throughout our long, healthy lives, a lot of us will still be around to counsel future generations to avoid the mistakes of the past.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

To nanny or not to nanny

Britain's New Statesman has an interesting piece on the UK political class's indecision over whether to preserve some remnant of liberal (in the classical sense) respect for people's right to guide their own lives, or whether the country should whole-hog embrace the nanny state and substitute top-down policy for individual choice.

... Politicians of all stripes are struggling with the failure of liberal democracy to cope with issues which, in the end, come down to the individual. They are fatally equivocating between two ir re concilable approach es: the paternalist desire to use the levers of the state to enforce better behaviour and the liberal instinct that people should be left alone, unless the actions in question are directly damaging to others. It is a strong liberal principle that activities which harm only the actor should not be interfered with. A gambler blowing his life savings at the baccarat table may be as foolish as the bank robber, but the foolishness of the former hurts only himself.

Behaviour leading to obesity is, in strictly liberal terms, beyond the legitimate reach of the state. If I eat badly and live as a couch potato, the only person who will get fat is me. That is why it is ludicrous to talk of an "obesity epidemic". It is hard to imagine genuine liberals such as the late Roy Jenkins getting worked up about weight gain. Nonetheless, the profound impact of obesity on health - some studies suggest obesity knocks a decade off life expectancy - has led to lots of political rhetoric on the issue.

Much of the impetus for the growing British embrace of the state as schoolmarm and personal trainer comes from that country's massively overburdened National Health Service. Having socialized medical costs, the state now feels entitled to a say in how people incur those costs -- and how they'll be treated if they misbehave. That's resulted in threats to withhold medical care from smokers, drinkers and overeaters; but it's also encouraged the tendency to meddle in people's lives so that they don't burden the health system to begin with.

That's part of the problem, but I don't think it's the whole thing. The old liberal ideal of individual autonomy seems to be giving way in some quarters to an increased willingness to direct people's choices with either carrot or stick. Sometimes the authoritarianism is blunt; other times it is cloaked (often creepily as "libertarian paternalism") as firm guidance to "help you make the choices you would make for yourself—if only you had the strength of will and the sharpness of mind." If only you would choose the way the people in charge want you to choose, that is.

We're in a philosophical moment when the people who think they know better than the rest of us feel themselves to be in ascendancy -- and they're having their way with public policy.

So it's nice to know that, even in overgoverned Britain, there's still something of a debate going on.


Friday, February 1, 2008

No food for fatties

You know how some of us keep warning about the slippery slope of stupid activist litigation and legislation meant to "improve" our lives in ways we never wanted, and how it will inevitably lead to absurd results? We warn that presuming people are too stupid to run their own lives will lead to lawsuits against tobacco companies, and Shazam! That's what happens. Then we caution that lawsuits against tobacco companies will lead to lawsuits against fast food companies for "tricking" people into super-sizing their fries and ... crap .. somebody takes the ball and runs with it. Then we raise red flags about outlawing products that people like but are bad for them, because that could easily justify banning ... oh ... margarine. Then some bastard goes and does just that. And I distinctly remember arguing that if you punish bartenders for serving drunks, you might as well fine waiters for putting a plate down in front of fat people. Now ...

Via Hit & Run comes news of proposed Mississippi legislation to ban restaurants from serving meals to fat people. No, I am not kidding, and neither is the author, Representative W.T. Mayhall, Jr. Says Sandy Szwarc of Junkfood Science:

I called lead author, Rep. Mayhall, and asked if this was serious legislation or tongue-in-cheek to make a point. He kindly took a moment to answer my question while the legislature was in session. He said that while, regrettably, he doesn’t believe his bill will pass, this is serious. He wrote it, he said, because of the “urgency of the obesity crisis and need for government action.” He hopes it will “call attention to the serious problem of obesity and what it is costing the Medicare system.”

The full text of the bill (available here in PDF) says:

10 SECTION 1. (1) The provisions of this section shall apply
11 to any food establishment that is required to obtain a permit from
12 the State Department of Health under Section 41-3-15(4)(f), that
13 operates primarily in an enclosed facility and that has five (5)
14 or more seats for customers.
15 (2) Any food establishment to which this section applies
16 shall not be allowed to serve food to any person who is obese,
17 based on criteria prescribed by the State Department of Health
18 after consultation with the Mississippi Council on Obesity
19 Prevention and Management established under Section 41-101-1 or
20 its successor. The State Department of Health shall prepare
21 written materials that describe and explain the criteria for
22 determining whether a person is obese, and shall provide those
23 materials to all food establishments to which this section
24 applies. A food establishment shall be entitled to rely on the
25 criteria for obesity in those written materials when determining
26 whether or not it is allowed to serve food to any person.
27 (3) The State Department of Health shall monitor the food
28 establishments to which this section applies for compliance with
29 the provisions of this section, and may revoke the permit of any
30 food establishment that repeatedly violates the provisions of this
31 section.
32 SECTION 2. This act shall take effect and be in force from
33 and after July 1, 2008.

True, this bit of legislation is unlikely to make it into law at this time, but it's absolutely mind-boggling that we've reached the point at which lawmakers find such mandates even conceivable. I'm officially giving up on pointing out where any line of legislative reasoning is likely to lead for fear that I'll give somebody ideas.


Saturday, January 5, 2008

Thomas Edison gets the boot

The bizarre crusade against the venerable incandescent light bulb that has been sneaking its way across the globe has finally come to the United States -- quietly. Buried in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which President Bush signed in December, is the death knell for that familiar source of illumination that we all grew up with. By government decree, incandescent bulbs are to be no more starting in 2012.

The argument, as we've all been told, is that incandescent light bulbs are simply inefficient. We can all save energy in the long term if we simply suck it up and spend some money up-front to buy compact fluorescent lights. Global warming will thereby be reversed and Al Gore will bestow his blessings upon us.

Well, that's all well and good if you think that increasing efficiency and saving energy are good reasons to replace personal choice with government mandates. I suppose we'll all be junking our clothes dryers and jogging to work -- or else -- in the name of shaving a few percentage points off the nation's energy tab. Why not order folks to hang their clothes on the line and slip on a pair of Reeboks if it will improve efficiency?

For that matter, why not order people to switch to a raw diet to save the energy used to cook food, or even to create the equipment needed to cook food. Sure, that would mean some unwelcome adjustments for people, but we're talking about saving energy here -- personal choice is a secondary consideration.

The truth is that there's always an overruling purpose that can be invoked to trump freedom -- just this once, because the stakes are so high. It might be the environment, or health costs, social cohesion, public order, or your immortal soul. Just about everybody you know has a bug up his butt about some issue that's just too important to leave to people to decide for themselves. For the collective good, decisions must be made from the top down.

Lost in all of this crisis-driven autocracy is the consideration of freedom as a value in itself -- in fact, as the most important value. When we value freedom, we respect people as autonomous beings who are not subject to the whims of others. We recognize that, just because some segment of society is passionate about an issue, that doesn't mean that they have the right to force their preferences down the throats of others -- their personal choices don't take priority over those of other people just because they really, really care.

Which brings us to the practical concerns: Caring deeply about one way of addressing a perceived problem is not a substitute for allowing people to make a variety choices, and seeing which one(s) work out in the end. There may, after all, be better solutions; there may also be unintended consequences to the policies that the activists of the world want to make mandatory. For example, those CFL bulbs that our governments would force us to use as replacement for incandescent bulbs have now been fingered as potential causes of migraines and skin problems. They can also be somewhat difficult to dispose of.

So, when politicians act at the behest of activists to strip you of the choice to buy incandescent light bulbs, it's not just an annoyance that will have you spending more at the store and tossing out your dimmer switches and clip-on lampshades. The ban is also a sign that the powers-that-be don't respect your right to make choices for yourself, and that they're so convinced of their infallibility that they won't consider the possibility that they're wrong, and that the best solution might only be found in a free world in which innovations arise by competition among many different choices.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Bad prescription

Here's a notable legacy of Mitt Romney's mis-rule of Massachusetts: mandatory health insurance, with hefty fines for state residents who demur. Now, those fines are heading through the roof.

When the new year begins Tuesday, most residents who remain uninsured will face monthly fines that could total as much as $912 for individuals and $1,824 for couples by the end of 2008, according to penalty guidelines unveiled by the Department of Revenue on Monday.

Individuals who failed to sign up for health insurance by the end of 2007 faced only a one-time loss of their $219 personal income tax exemption.

The theory is that people who have willfully declined to pay for health care are irresponsible, not that they've rationally assessed their own needs and concluded that paying for coverage doesn't make sense -- at least when the options are limited to what the government of the Bay State considers acceptable.

For the record, I spent some time as a freelancer in Boston in my twenties without health coverage simply because I considered it an unnecessary expense for a man with zero health concerns. It was a gamble, but one I considered quite reasonable. I switched over to the most bare-bones catastrophic policy I could find (not so bare-bones in the people's republic by the sea) when I started riding a motorcycle, with all of the risks that entailed. Frankly, it was my choice to make, and my responsibility to live with the consequences of my choice.

But assuming that people are too stupid or irresponsible to make their own decisions is a popular pastime among politicians. Hillary Clinton has made coerced coverage a centerpiece of her platform, while John Edwards adds mandatory coverage to a far-reaching scheme for government-regulated care.

It's probably no surprise that mandates rarely stand alone. Once government officials get into the business of ordering people to get health coverage, they become ever more enthusiastic about defining what constitutes coverage. Edwards, for one, wants to drag folks to regular doctor's appointments whether they want to go or not.

"It requires that everybody be covered. It requires that everybody get preventive care," he told a crowd sitting in lawn chairs in front of the Cedar County Courthouse. "If you are going to be in the system, you can't choose not to go to the doctor for 20 years. You have to go in and be checked and make sure that you are OK."

He noted, for example, that women would be required to have regular mammograms in an effort to find and treat "the first trace of problem." Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, announced earlier this year that her breast cancer had returned and spread.

Call it eat-your-broccoli social policy. Oh hell; call it finger-wag-or-else, because nothing says "good for you" like the prospect of being held down by a couple of health cops while a state-contracted sawbones checks your prostate.

More regulation will inevitably drive up costs or hammer-down the quality of medical care. When providers and consumers don't respond to legislation the way politicians promise, the result will be rising penalties all around to penalize "uncooperative" doctors and patients.

Just look at Massachusetts.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hold the fries -- or else

Los Angeles politicos are pushing ahead with plans to ban fast food restaurants in certain parts of the city -- particularly, in those areas inhabited by ... you know ... poor people who can't be trusted to make menu decisions for themselves.

Despite concerns over its broad sweep, a city panel on Tuesday moved ahead with a plan to ban fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles.

The proposal from Councilwoman Jan Perry was approved by the council's Planning and Land Use Committee even though two city officials said they believe more work on the ordinance is needed.

"We have a serious problem in my district with fast-food restaurants and the increasing level of obesity and diabetes," Perry told the panel.

No word yet on whether those folks will also be relieved of the burden of picking city council members and such.


Monday, December 17, 2007

SF contemplates soda tax

Says the San Francisco Chronicle:

After banning plastic bags from chain grocery stores and bottled water from City Hall, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has set his sights on soda - working up a plan to charge a new city fee to big retailers of sugar drinks.

Oh, please. A "fee" to be imposed on sellers (which means buyers) of sweet drinks? I'd ask what's next, but I'm afraid what the answer would be.

Note that Newsom is specifically targeting "high-fructose corn syrup drinks like colas and Big Gulps," which suggests he may be exempting gourmet drinks sweetened with cane sugar and honey. You know -- the kind of drinks favored by Newsom's oh-so-right-thinking supporters.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

No drinks for you

The British government is considering a new alcohol limit for drivers in the UK: Zero. That's right, no drinks at all, not so much as s sip of beer or wine before hitting the road. Hell, forget drinks -- that means no cough medicine.

I think the UK has officially overtaken the U.S. as the breeding ground for the stupidest, most intrusive control-freak rules.

Well ... except for this from North Carolina (courtesy of The Agitator):

Also, as of Saturday, people can lose their driver's licenses for providing alcohol to anyone under 21. The penalty is important because many underage drinkers get alcohol from friends or family members, said Craig Lloyd, the executive director of the North Carolina chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The law means that, theoretically, parents could be punished for giving a glass of wine to their 20-year-old son or daughter, even if the 20-year-old never gets behind the wheel.

Lloyd said that's not excessive.

"It's a zero-tolerance policy," he said. "Breaking the law is breaking the law."

Oh, OK -- the U.S. is still in the competition.

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Pssst ... Got a salt shaker?

The Food and Drug Administration is contemplating yet another intervention into what you and I are allowed to eat. According to news reports:

Best known for deciding whether medications are safe and effective, the Food and Drug Administration is weighing whether to crack down on plain old salt, which doctors say is harmful in the quantities most Americans consume.

This is especially interesting because, not only is it a wildly presumptuous interference with personal taste and preference, and the market's response to that taste and preference, it's also a precipitous declaration that an ongoing debate in the medical and scientific community has been settled, just because federal bureaucrats say it has.

Yes, there is significant evidence that excessive salt intake can contribute to heightened blood pressure and cardiovascular disease -- but the data doesn't unanimously lead to that conclusion. Some studies have found that it depends on individuals' personal reaction to salt -- some people are simply not affected. And at least one study suggests "that low-salt diets may actually increase your risk of dying from heart attack or stroke."

So even if you don't agree that people ought to be able to exercise their personal choices as to what they eat, produce, buy and sell, this seems like an odd decision to ... well ... force down people's throats.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Lessons in economics

Boulder Weekly covers the city public schools' burgeoning black market in ... wait for it ... candy. Black market in candy? Yep -- it's all courtesy of a new school district policy "that has removed all unhealthy, sugar-laden snacks and sodas from vending machines in schools. The new policies are part of a national trend, in which foods are forbidden at schools if they don’t meet strict nutritional criteria that limit calories coming from sugar and fat."

How restrictive is the policy?

Boulder’s new policies apply to vendors of food services, snack and beverage vending machines, student stores, fundraisers and “any regularly offered food during a child’s school day.” The policy allows water and seltzers, low-fat milk, fruit juice (no less than 50 percent real juice), and electrolyte sports drinks with 42 grams or less of added sweetener per 20-ounce serving. Allowed snack items include nuts, seeds, dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruits and vegetables, and some packaged fruits. Other food items are allowed only if calories are comprised of 35 percent or less fat, 10 percent or less of saturated fat plus trans fat, and if sugar comprises 35 percent or less of the total weight of the product.

All very well-intentioned, I'm sure. But school administrators clearly forgot one of the iron laws of economics: If you ban it, they will come ("they" being underground entrepreneurs, of course).

The money to be made sounds pretty impressive. The story details kids buying iPods and new clothes -- and even taking their own parents out to dinner -- from the profits made off marking up candy bought in bulk at Costco. At least one set of parents actually bankrolled their entrepreneurial offspring.

The laws of economics rule across the board, of course. Profit margins have apparently drifted down because of the influx of competition from other kids who have turned their lockers into convenience stores.

Unsurprisingly, similar black markets have appeared elsewhere when school administrators imposed nutritional restrictions that ran contrary to consumer tastes.

Huh. These modern kids have it so easy. In my day, we had to sell dope to make a buck between classes.

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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Felony cheese making?

Courtesy of Sunni Maravillosa comes news that a Southern California couple have been arrested on a variety of charges, including "felony cheese making." It seems that they were running a successful home-based business producing artisanal cheeses, but hadn't bothered to go begging, in mother-may-I fashion, for government permission.

What higher crime can there be than failing to tug one's forelock for a bureaucrat before going about your business?

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A license to decide for yourself

The U.S. and the UK have been playing an annoying game of one-upsmanship over the past decade or two in the field of intrusive policies. Political correctness, penalties for racist jokes, smoking bans, "broken window" policing, asset forfeiture laws, television cameras monitoring public streets and much more -- really dumb ideas have been winging their way back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, making life unpleasant for Americans and Britons alike. Overall, the UK has come out ahead in the nanny-state Olympics, and that unhappy country looks set to hold on to the crown.

The latest mother-knows-best proposal to make the rounds is a scheme put forth by Professor Julian le Grand, a one-time advisor to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, to require smokers to get their doctor's permission and pay 200 pounds annually to be issued a license that would permit them to purchase tobacco products. According to The Daily Telegraph, "The scheme would ensure smokers had to make a conscious decision to continue the habit and require people to become 'registered addicts'."

Prof le Grand, who lecturers in social policy at the London School of Economics and advises ministers through his chairmanship of Health England, said the idea was to make healthy choices the norm and force those who object to make a conscious effort to opt out.

The idea seems to come out of the "Libertarian Paternalism" school of thought that has become something of a craze among folks who like to crack the whip over their fellow man. For those not in the know, Libertarian Paternalism advocates imposing authoritarian policies short of outright bans to steer people to the "correct" choices, as determined by those in power, and then making such monumental presumption more palatable by attaching the word "libertarian" to it. Prof. le Grand didn't use the term -- at least, not as reported by the press -- but his proposal to permit smoking but make it harder and more expensive to be a smoker certainly fits that paternalistic philosophy.

Tellingly, le Grand advocates other mandates that also stink of aspirations to serve as philosopher-king.

He also proposed banning food manufacturers from adding salt to products, an exercise hour for all employees during the working day and free fruit in offices.

Because nothing says "we care" more clearly than forcing longshoremen and stockbrokers to take a break to perform jumping jacks side-by-side, followed by a shared apple and some good-natured bitching about the total lack of flavor in their food.

To his credit, le Grand acknowledges that not everybody would willingly go along with his scheme.

He admitted there could be a problem with an emerging black market where those with permits sold them to those without, and that it could create the impression that as long as one is licensed smoking is not harmful.

Britons might want to start looking into the practicality of growing tobacco in their gardens -- or of smuggling it in. They also should prepare for a long siege as "Libertarian Paternalists" like Julian le Grand continue to cook up ideas in keeping with their oh-so-current philosophy.

And Americans shouldn't feel too smug. If the past is any indicator, we're next.

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