This Too Will Pass

Julian Simon used to remind us that humans had been worrying about things getting worse for as long as they have recorded their thoughts. Always there was a memory of a Golden Age now in the past, or at least a memory of the good ol’ days of one’s youth. And there’s always a market for predictions of doom. P. J. O’Rourke used a quotation from The Great Gatsby (1925) as the epigram for his book All the Trouble in the World (1994): “I read somewhere the sun’s getting hotter every year,” Tom said genially. “It seems that pretty soon the earth’s going to fall into the sun–or wait a minute–it’s just the opposite–the sun’s getting colder every year.”

Or as Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

And I was reminded of all this a few days ago by the comic strip “For Better or Worse.” Cartoonist Lynn Johnston is approaching retirement by recycling some of her earlier strips to show the development of the family at the center of the story. The recycled strips don’t include their original date, but judging from the style and the age of the characters, we can guess that last Saturday’s strip originally ran not long after its launch in 1979. And like Johnston’s comic strips, the contemporary ideas it reflects are also being recycled today (click for larger version):

For Better or Worse

Posted on April 17, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Whose Side Are You On?

A chart in the Wall Street Journal is headed “Sen. John McCain’s tax-cut proposals and their average annual cost, in billions.”

I guess it depends on whether you see the world from the perspective of the taxpayers or the tax-eaters. I would have titled it “McCain’s tax-cut proposals and their average annual savings to taxpayers.”

Posted on April 17, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Victory for “Laissez Faire”

I just talked to Brad Stevens, who runs the customized card programs and much else at Starbucks, about how the company came to reject customers’ request for customized cards featuring the call to arms “Laissez Faire.” In my Wall Street Journal article on Monday, I noted that customers had had requests for “Laissez Faire” rejected, while “People Not Profits” and “Si Se Puede” were approved. I wondered “just what the company’s standards were. If ‘laissez-faire’ is unacceptably political, how could the socialist slogan ‘people not profits’ be acceptable?”

Stevens assures me that the company has no intention of approving or rejecting personal messages on the basis of ideology. Only a very small number of requests are rejected by the review team at the contractor who actually fulfills the orders, mostly because they are obscene, are insulting to the company or to a specific person, infringe on trademarks, are overtly political, or in some other way associate the Starbucks brand with images the company doesn’t want. Thus, for instance, they have rejected such messages as “Democrats Suck, Republicans Blow,” “Vote Democratic for a Change,” “Impeach Bush, Vote Hillary,” and “I Love GWBush and Cheney.” They also, according to their records, rejected “Fair Trade,” odd since the company boasts that it is “North America’s largest purchaser of Fair Trade Certified coffee.” It may be a sensitive term, though, since “fair trade” campaigners continue to criticize the company.

Stevens says the rejection of “Laissez Faire” was just an unintended outcome of the instructions that the company gave its supplier. And indeed, Jonathan Adler reports today on the Volokh Conspiracy that a VC reader inspired by my op-ed has received his Starbucks Customized Card proudly carrying the message “Laissez Faire.”

And by the way, just in case anybody is confused, of course I think a company has the right to set any rules it wants to for its customized cards. If a company wants to allow “Obama for President” and reject “McCain for President,” it has every right to do so. That’s what laissez-faire means! But customers annoyed by the policy have a right to expose it, complain about it, or take their business elsewhere.

In this case the market worked, “Laissez Faire” cards are fully acceptable, and my Starbucks-addicted colleagues can breathe easy again.

Posted on April 10, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Don’t Do Something, Just Stand There

In the Washington Post Shankar Vedantam discusses “the action bias, or the desire to do something rather than nothing when you have just been through a terrible experience.” He cites evidence that both individuals and politicians often prefer to do something rather than nothing, even if “nothing” would be the wiser course.

When people suffer losses and confront the possibility of even greater reverses — it doesn’t matter if you are talking about a terrorist attack or a meltdown in retirement savings — it is psychologically difficult to do nothing, to hold course. This is true even when the action you contemplate produces an outcome that leaves you demonstrably worse than you were in the first place….

Economist Ofer Azar recently came up with a novel way to study the insidious nature of the action bias. He examined whether soccer goalies were more likely to stop penalty kicks when they dived to the left, dived to the right or stayed in the center of the goal. In a study of 286 penalty kicks faced by elite Israeli goalkeepers, Azar found that goalies had the best chance of stopping a kick when they remained in the center — partly because when they dived to one side, they left themselves with no chance of stopping a kick aimed at the other side or a kick aimed dead center. And even when they correctly guessed the direction of the kick, they still had only a 1-in-4 chance of stopping a goal.

Despite the clarity of the evidence, Azar found that goalies dived to one side or the other 93 percent of the time.

And of course it’s not just goalies. Vedantam suggests that “the Iraq war might be Exhibit A for the action bias”–noting Hillary Clinton’s statement in 2002: “In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am.”

Good point. And he might go on to discuss the current rush to regulation in the wake of the subprime crisis and the Bear Stearns collapse. Voters expect politicians to “do something!” Regulators don’t want to look unresponsive. So everybody has a plan for more money, more regulation, or some sort of action. And of course it’s a recurring problem. Enron failed, and politicians panicked right into the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, whose costs will be with us long after we’ve forgotten what Enron was.

The bias toward action is one good reason for constitutional and procedural constraints on government actions. Constitutional limits on what government can legislate, bicameral legislatures, supermajorities, the filibuster, the presidential veto–all are designed to prevent hasty action, whether from popular delusions, demagogic campaigns, or the simple desire to be seen doing something rather than prudently refraining from misguided actions.

Posted on April 2, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Will They Turn Themselves In?

British prime minister Gordon Brown has announced that he supports increasing the penalties for the use of marijuana, reversing the slight liberalization of the law under his predecessor, Tony Blair.

I touched on this topic about nine months ago in my posting “Hash Brownies and Harlots in the Halls of Power.” As the Brown government began a review of the marijuana laws, it was revealed that at least eight members of Brown’s cabinet –including the Home Secretary (or attorney general), who was charged with studying the idea of increased penalties, the police minister, and the Home Office minister in charge of drugs — had themselves used marijuana. They were dubbed the “Hash Brownies,” in honor of their service in Brown’s government. I wrote at the time:

In the United States many leading politicians including Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bradley, and Barack Obama have admitted using drugs, while Bush and Bill Clinton tried to avoid answering the question.

In both Britain and the United States, all these politicians support drug prohibition. They support the laws that allow for the arrest and incarceration of people who use drugs. Yet they laugh off their own use as “a youthful indiscretion.”

These people should be asked: Do you think people should be arrested for using drugs? Do you think people should go to jail for using drugs? And if so, do you think you should turn yourself in? Do you think people who by the luck of the draw avoided the legal penalty for using drugs should now be serving in high office and sending off to jail other people who did what you did?

Those are still good questions. I noted at the time that they might also be asked of Sen. David Vitter, a patron of prostitutes who believes that prostitution should be illegal. And of course now they should be asked — if he were to reappear and take questions — of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who not only supported the laws he was breaking but aggressively enforced those very laws during the same period in which he was enthusastically violating them.

Hypocrisy may be the tribute that vice pays to virtue in matters of advice. But it’s entirely unbecoming when the coercive force of law is involved.

Posted on April 1, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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