Archive for May 2008

The State Protects Itself

Dibor Roberts was convicted, somehow, for being attacked by a police officer.

The jury in the Dibor Roberts case returned a verdict that I can only describe as contemptible, finding her guilty
of resisting arrest and felony flight from a law officer as a result of
a brutal attack upon her by Sgt. Jeff Newnum of the Yavapai County
Sheriff's Department.

Greg Nix of Larson newspapers has an interesting insight,
suggesting that the trial could have come down to the prosecution
painting a picture for the jury of "'angry black woman' v. 'respectable
white officer.'" He adds, "I grew up in the South so running the 'angry
black woman' strategy is nothing new and generally works for getting
convictions."

Perhaps he's right, and the decision was
essentially racist. Or maybe the prosecution succeeded in picking
jurors who bow down and bang their heads on the floor every time they
see a uniformed government employee. Or the result could have resulted
from a little bit of both factors.

Feed Problem

Is this site having a feed problem?  I recommend people use the feedburner feed that is linked on the right side, but I have had two people email me to tell me my RSS feed is empty.  I have no problem reading it in google reader.  If anyone can help me with more details, that would be great.

I Wanted to Get Control

Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh tells motorists that may be concerned with the authenticity of a police officer asking them to pull over at night in a deserted area that they should continue on to a more public, well lighted place.  Sgt. Jeff Newnum of the same police department says that he would give his wife the same advice.   There have been several well-publicized incidences in Arizona of people being attacked by criminals impersonating an officer making a traffic stop.

But when Dibor Roberts attempted to follow this advice, officer Newnum ran her car off the road, broke the window of her car with his nightstick, and grabbed the cell phone she was using to call 911.  Now, it is, incredibly, Ms. Roberts who is on trial for her actions.   All because she was driving 15 miles an hour over the limit on a deserted rural road.  The post title comes from the Sgt Newnum's explanation in court of his aggressive tactics.

The Power of Institutional Focus

Ilya Somin wonders why some top universities don't have law schools:

It recently occurred to me that there are several big-name
universities that don't have law schools, even though a law school
established at any of those institutions would probably do well.
Princeton arguably heads this list, along with Brown, Johns Hopkins,
Rice, and Tufts. Brandeis University also doesn't have a law school
(ironically, for a prominent university named after a Supreme Court
justice).

Why these universities haven't established law schools is a bit of a
mystery (at least to me). Law schools tend to bring in net revenue for
the university. This is even more likely to be true at a big-name
institution that can quickly attract good faculty and students. If
Princeton were to establish a law school tommorrow, appoint a credible
dean, and provide adequate initial financial backing, they could very
quickly turn it into a highly successful (and profitable) enterprise.
Many good students would come just because of the Princeton name, and
most outstanding scholars who are not already at top 20 or top 30
institutions might well be willing to move to Princeton if asked.

Princeton, by the way, does not have a law school or business school or medical school.  It really tries to hold itself up as primarily and undergraduate institution, and works hard to be the premier undergraduate school in the country.  It has graduate schools only in disciplines for which there is an undergraduate degree (e.g. math, economics, chemistry, history).  I have always suspected that they maintain these graduate programs mainly because they have to to attract top academic talent to be available for their undergraduates.  Unlike any other university with which I am familiar, and certainly unlike Harvard where I also attended, graduate students at Princeton feel themselves to be second class citizens.

Somin acknowledges this a bit when he says:

Various commenters suggest that these universities choose not to
have a law school because of their desire to focus on undergraduate
education. That may indeed be the right explanation, though several of
these institutions (including Johns Hopkins, Tufts, and Rice) have
other professional schools on campus. But it doesn't strike me as a
very compelling reason not to establish a law school. If the law school
were to drain resources away form undergrad education, there might
indeed be a conflict between the two. In fact, however, a law school is
likely to bring in net revenue that could be used to improve
undergraduate education. Moreover, some law school professors
(especially at elite schools) teach courses that undergraduates might
be interested in taking, as sometimes happened at Yale, when I was a
law student there.

Even if a law school adds resources to undergrad education instead
of draining them, it's possible that its presence could detract from
undergraduate education in some other, more subtle way. But it's hard
for me to see how. If Yale Law School were closed down tomorrow, would
undergraduate education at Yale improve? Are undergraduates at Yale
currently worse off than at Princeton in some way traceable to the fact
that Yale has a law school and Princeton doesn't? Possibly. But I
remain skeptical.

I would argue that there is an important difference that you can't just get at through incremental analysis.  That is, that the management and faculty of Princeton have a culture and focus on undergraduates that universities like Harvard do not have.  Somin is right that grad schools bring in lots of money -- and so the sum of a med school and a law school and a business school and all that tuition and grant and consulting money (not to mention resultant faculty egos) is hugely distracting for an institution.  Particularly in the case of Princeton where it does not really need incremental money anyway.  Take my word for it, having attended both Harvard and Princeton, there are enormous differences in their institutional foci which have real impacts, both substantial and subtle, on undergraduate life. 

I would love to do a poll.  Ask the faculty of both Harvard and Princeton, "Which would you give up first, your university's graduate program or undergraduate program,"  I bet I know what the answer would be.

But what do I know - we Princeton grads are all nuts, anyway.

Legislation for the Benefit of One

What follows is by no means the worst excess of our Congress.  But it is an interesting demonstration of how Congress attempts to disguise legislation that is intended to help just one important contituent.  The program looks moderately innocuous:

[T]his year's farm bill contains a special-interest provision you've
probably never heard of "” the Qualified Forestry Bonds program. This
provides federally funded tax-credit bonds for forest purchases that
meet the following four criteria:

The forest must be adjacent to U.S. Forest Service Land;

Half of the parcel must be turned over to the U.S. Forest Service;

It must include at least 40,000 total acres; and

It must be subject to a "native fish habitat conservation plan approved by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service."

Well, it looks like it might be some land acquisition scheme by the US Forest Service, though by my observation they really aren't staffed or resourced to manage the land they already have.

But here is the truth of it:

But this farm-bill provision offers a lesson on how things are
sometimes done in Washington. Only one parcel of land in the entire
United States meets the criteria set for the Qualified Forestry Bonds
program. You see, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved
exactly one "Native Fish Habitat Conservation Plan,"
covering a 1.6-million-acre parcel that reaches from western Montana
into eastern Washington State. And that parcel is owned by the Plum
Creek Timber Company, the single largest private landowner in the
United States.

Incumbent Protection

So much of government regulation boils down to the protection of politically connected incumbent competitors against new competition.  This is an astonishing example, sent in by a reader:

BEMIDJI, Minn. - Assistant House Majority Leader Frank Moe says people
who rent out their lakefront homes may be hurting the state's resort
industry.

The Bemidji DFLer has authored a bill ordering the
state's tourism agency to study whether the increased competition is
hurting resorts. It's now awaiting Governor Tim Pawlenty's signature.

If you are willing to make up your own bed, there are a lot of reasons why private home rentals are a more attractive vacation option than resorts, particularly when you consider the high price of those ancillary resort services.  Why the government needs to be involved in what is, to my eyes, just a normal consumer preference is beyond me.  This last line caught my eye:

The state's resort industry is struggling as lakefront property values
soar but the market restricts what they can charge for cabin rentals.

Uh, OK.  I have the same problem -- land for cabins and campgrounds in areas people want to spend the weekend is really expensive, labor costs are up, but rental rates remain low.  So what?  Through their preferences and how they translate to prices, consumers are saying that there is better uses for prime land than lakefront rental cabins.  I can accept that.

You're in the desert, you see a tortoise lying on its back, struggling, and you're not helping -- why is that?

We have all filled out online forms where one has to copy sometimes (purposely) hard to read letters from an image to confirm that one is not a robot (CAPTCHA).  Microsoft offers an alternative called Asirra, which stands for "Animal Species Image Recognition for Restricting Access."  I thought this might be a joke at first, but apparently it is real and MS provides access to it and sample code to use it for free.  You can get it here, and, perhaps more importantly, you can test to see if you are human.

Post title from here.

Things No One Mentions When They Whine for the Good Old Days

Via Eugene Volokh:

YearFood spending as share of disposable income
192923.4%
193921.3%
194922.1%
195917.8%
196913.7%
197913.4%
198910.9%
199910.2%
20009.9%
20019.9%
20029.8%
20039.8%
20049.7%
20059.8%
20069.9%

My sense is the same pattern would emerge for gasoline prices, electricity (if you had it), phone service (if you had it), cross-country transportation, air conditioning, etc.

 

May the Farce be With You

Here is something I really, really did not know, or probably even want to know, before a friend emailed me a link today:

In the 2001 United Kingdom census, 390,000 people - 0.7 per cent of the population - listed Jedi as their religion.

They are not alone - 20,000 Canadians also listed their religion as Jedi in 2001...

Some may list such a choice only as a joke, but there are apparently real churches set up in the model of the Jedi religion as detailed in the Star Wars franchise:

The two cousins and Barney Jones' brother, Daniel, set up the Church of
Jediism, Anglesey order, last year. Jedi is the faith followed by some
of the central characters in the "Star Wars" films.

The group, which claims about 30 members, says on its website that
it uses "insight and knowledge" from the films as "a guide to living a
better and more worthwhile life."

Oh, but it gets even better:

A man who dressed up as Darth Vader has been spared jail time for assaulting the founders of the Jedi Church in Britain.

Twenty-seven-year-old Arwel Wynne Hughes was given a suspended sentence for the crime by a judge in Wales on Tuesday.

Prosecutors told Magistrates' Court in Holyhead that Hughes attacked
Jedi church founder Barney Jones - a.k.a. Master Jonba Hehol - with a
metal crutch, hitting him on the head.

He also whacked Jones' 18-year-old cousin, Michael Jones - known as
Master Mormi Hehol - bruising his thigh in the March 25 incident.

 

Nobel Prize, for sure

Wow, I am not sure how I missed this seminal work, but I discovered it today via Steven Levitt.  The work is titled "On the Efficiency of AC/DC: Bon Scott versus Brian Johnson" by Robert J. Oxoby of the University of Calgary Economics Department. 

Our treatment variable in the experiment was the type of music played while individuals were making their decisions. As demonstrated by Bernardi et al. (2006), different musical styles can have different physiological effects in individuals. These effects, along with emotional responses, may result in different patterns of decision making regarding distributing money between oneself and another. In our Bon Scott treatment, participants listened to "It's a Long Way to the Top" (featuring Bon Scott on vocals) from the album High Voltage. In our Brian Johnson treatment, participants listened to "Shoot to Thrill" (featuring Brian Johnson on vocals) from the album Back in Black....

our analysis suggests that in terms of affecting efficient decision making among listeners, Brian Johnson was a better singer. Our analysis has direct implications for policy and organizational design: when policymakers or employers are engaging in negotiations (or setting up environments in which other parties will negotiate) and are interested in playing the music of AC/DC, they should choose from the band's Brian Johnson era discography.

I have this picture of AC/DC music blasting out on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade

(the whole story behind this "study" is here)

Taking A Peak Inside the Sausage Factory

Our governor is pushing for a one percentage point increase in the state sales tax as well as increased developer impact fees to fund a series of transportation projects.  Like most modern transportation bills, they are sold as a way to improve state road and highway capacity (something most people support), but it turns out that these projects are but window-dressing. Much of the money in the proposed bill goes to a series of dubious mass transit projects, including the oft-discussed mythical passenger rail line between Tucson and Phoenix.  None of these projects make sense in spread out, low density cities like Phoenix or Tucson that have no real city core, which is why they face a lot of opposition.

Well, our governor has cut a deal to try to get more support for her pet projects, and boy does it look ugly:

Some Republican
state lawmakers on Monday blasted a "backroom deal" between Gov. Janet
Napolitano and a Valley home-builders group that would exempt
residential developers from sharing a portion of the costs of a major
transportation initiative in exchange for a $100,000 contribution to
boost the signature-gathering campaign.

Under the agreement, the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona
agreed to withdraw their opposition to a state trust-land initiative
backed by Napolitano. In return, developer impact fees would no longer
be part of the transportation initiative's approach to raising money.

Vista Gaming Performance Improved

I have been a big Windows Vista detractor, and continue to be skeptical that Vista offers the average corporate user any advantages over XP, while carrying substantial disadvantages in terms of legacy equipment and software compatibility.

But, credit where it is due, service pack 1 combined with better graphics drivers have at least apparently eliminated the Vista-XP gap in gaming speeds, with graphics applications performing now nearly as well in Vista as in XP.

I'm Not Sure the Data Means What You Think It Means

Over at Climate Skeptic, I discuss a recent claim by ABC that year-to-date tornado frequency has nearly doubled vs. 2007, and that this is because of global warming.  I will take their word for it that tornado frequency is up, but there is one tiny problem:  The US in Jan-Apr of this year was almost a full degree cooler than last year.  So if tornado frequency is up, and ABC is correct that yearly changes in this metric are due to changes in global temperature, then it can only mean that global warming reduces, rather than increases, tornadoes.

Tort Reform in Mississippi

WSJ, via Libertarian Leanings:

One of the worst places, in
term of frivolous lawsuits, was Jefferson County. It became renowned as
the lawsuit capital of the country, with more plaintiffs than
residents. This is the infamous county where one pharmacist was named
in more than 1,000 lawsuits. In one legendary case against a
pharmaceutical company that sold the diet pill Pondimin (part of the
weight-loss combination known as fen-phen, which was later banned), a
Jefferson County jury awarded $1 billion to the family of a woman who
had taken the drug.

But four years ago, Mississippi transformed itself
from judicial hell hole to job magnet, a story that is instructive for
other states trying to attract jobs in turbulent economic times. The
lessons here are especially timely, because the pro-growth tort reform
trend that was once spreading across the country may soon reverse
course....

Almost overnight, the flow
of lawsuits began to dry up and businesses started to trickle in.
Federal Express invested $1 billion in a new facility in the state.
Toyota chose Mississippi over about a dozen other states for a new $1.2
billion, 2,000-worker auto plant. The auto maker has stipulated that
the company would pull up stakes if the tort reforms were overturned by
the legislature or activist judges.

That hasn't happened. About 60,000 new jobs have
arrived in four years "“ not a small number in a workforce of about 1.3
million "“ and a sharp improvement from the 30,000 jobs lost in the four
years before Mr. Barbour took office. Since the law took effect, the
number of medical malpractice lawsuits has fallen by nearly 90%, which
in turn has cut malpractice insurance costs by 30% to 45%, depending on
the county.

On the Front Lines of Building the Nanny State

Paula Brown is on the front lines of building the nanny state.  Her son and his friend built a bicycle ramp out of rocks and old boards in the street in front of Ms. Brown's house.  The youthful construction couldn't stand the stresses involved, and the boy's friend suffered a nasty crash, sending him to the hospital with multiple broken bones.  Ms. Brown, who was present in the house as the boys built their jury-rigged Evil Knievel ramp, believes that the government needs to be doing more:

"We've got good drinking and driving laws here, but why no helmet laws?" asked Paula Brown, Cam's mother.

The Browns moved to Scottsdale in August from Vancouver, where helmets are required for bikes, skateboards and scooters.

"We make our kids wear helmets for anything on wheels," Brown said.

Tammy Blackwell, Tristan's mother, also would support a helmet law
for kids. "My husband and I went out and bought helmets for ourselves
because of this."...

She complains that, since Scottsdale doesn't have a rule, peer-group pressure is more compelling to kids than common sense.

Evidently the city's modest signs recommending helmet use and the
more existential, "Skate at Your Own Risk" aren't making a dent.

The real logic gap in this story is that the kid who was hurt was wearing a bike helmet at the time.  So the severe injuries involved had nothing to do with helmet wearing, and everything to do with the lack of adult supervision by Ms. Brown.

Show Me Your Papers

Kevin Drum is discussing a book by Larry Bartels that argues the bottom third of the US population (as measured by income) are disenfranchised, as their preferences seem to have no discernible effect on legislative votes.  I have not read the book, but I find this an astounding assertion on its face, particularly given that the US government is nearly entirely paid for by the other 2/3.  We exploiters don't seem to be doing a very good job of taking advantage of our oligarchy.  (By the way, if "oppressed" is defined as having one's preferences have no impact on Congressmen, then add us libertarians into the oppressed).

On the other hand, I would say that if an affluent neighborhood had 50,000 of its citizens per month randomly stopped and frisked in the street, we might see a little more pressure for police and prosecutorial reform.  I just finished Cop in the Hood, in which Peter Moskos spends a good portion of the book discussing these same issues of probable cause and street searches.

Phthalates and Cargo Cult Science

First it was breast implants, then thimerosal, and now it is phthalates.  Each have been attacked in turn by the junk-science / media / tort law complex.  Nobel Prize-winning chemist William Knowles wrote this week:

Lawmakers -- representing the concern of parents influenced by certain
environmentalists -- are calling for an outright ban of phthalates from
children's toys because of the misguided belief that by exposing
children to toys made with these chemicals we are putting their health
at risk.

Phthalates have a long history of attacks by environmental groups
dating back more than 30 years. Even then babies were of prime
consideration. Few chemicals have undergone such extensive testing and
survived as being safe. In fact, diisononyl phthalate, the most
commonly used phthalate in children's toys, has been subjected to more
than 200 tests....

Today, with no new scientific evidence, we are again challenging
phthalates as dangerous to babies and threatening to ban them. These
are products that have survived the toughest test of all, the test of
time. There is no evidence that babies or anyone else has ever been
harmed by them.

Eliminating phthalates from consumer products would be a true
challenge. Even more worrisome, however, is the notion that any
replacement would ever be able to pass the extreme scrutiny diisononyl
phthalate and other phthalates have.

There is nothing wrong with examining the products our children
come into contact with to be sure they pose no health risks. However,
in this case, it would be a great mistake to ban what has been proven
to be a benign product without some further scientific evidence.

Government Licensing Is To Protect Businesses from Competition

Part number whatever in a series.  Today's danger to consumers and the Republic is:  people offering to drive others around without a license.

A man who said he thought he was just helping a woman in need is accused of running an illegal taxi service.  Miami-Dade
County's Consumer Services Department has slapped Rosco O'Neil with
$2,000 worth of fines, but O'Neil claims he is falsely accused.....

The 78-year-old said he was walking into a Winn-Dixie to get some
groceries when he was approached by a woman who said she needed a ride.

"She asked me, 'Do I do a service?'" O'Neil said.

"I told her no. She said, 'I need help getting home.'

"O'Neil told the woman if she was still there when he finished his shopping, he would give her a ride. She was, so he did.

As
it turned out, the woman was an undercover employee with the consumer
services department targeting people providing illegal taxi services.

"She
said the reason she targeted him (is because) she saw him sitting in
his car for a few minutes," said Ellen Novodeletsky, O'Neil's attorney.

After
O'Neil dropped off the woman, police surrounded him, issued him two
citations and impounded his minivan. On top of the fees, it cost O'Neil
an additional $400 to retrieve his minivan from the impound lot.

There are no prior complaints that O'Neil was providing illegal transportation for a fee.

I don't care if he was running a business or being a good Samaritan -- I see no possible reason that this type of transaction should be illegal.

The Times Blunders on Ethanol (Even After I Explained it to Them)

Last week I tried to explain why the choice of plant, whether it be a food plant or a non-food plant, that is used to make ethanol is mostly irrelevant to whether ethanol mandates raise fuel prices, at least with current technologies.  I wrote:

Food prices rise not because food is converted to ethanol per se, but
because the amount of grains going into the food supply decreases.  The
issue is the use of farmer's time and resources and the use of prime
cropland to grow plants for fuel rather than food for consumption.  The
actual crop used to make the fuel, whether corn or switchgrass, does
not matter to food prices -- it is the removal of farmers and cropland
from food production that matters.  The only way cellulosic ethanol is
likely to improve food prices in substitution for corn is by being more
efficient per acre in fuel yields than corn  (which may turn out to be
the case, but has not yet been proven in this country).  But even so,
incremental improvements in yield don't help much, because we are
talking about enormous (40-50% or more) amounts of US cropland that
would have to be dedicated to fuel, whatever the plant technology, to
meet the current ethanol mandates.

I almost didn't post this the first time around, because I thought it was so obvious.  But on Sunday the NY Times blundered right into the same silly assertion:

This does not mean that Congress should give up on biofuels as an
important part of the effort to reduce the country's dependency on
imported oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What it does mean is
that some biofuels are (or are likely to be) better than others, and
that Congress should realign its tax and subsidy programs to encourage
the good ones. Unlike corn ethanol, those biofuels will not compete for
the world's food supply and will deliver significant reductions in
greenhouse gases.

Of course, the ability to produce such biofuels with these magic powers has never actually been demonstrated, but I am all for them when and if someone invents them.  Efficient conversion, for example, of corn stalks, rather than corn itself, to fuel would be great and would solve this trade-off.  This technology does not exist today -- and only a lot of hand-waving can translate cellulosic ethanol successes in switchgrass to corn stalks.  Also recognize that even this has costs hidden to us non farmers, because corn stalks are used for a variety of purposes today.  My guess is that cellulosic ethanol from corn may be economically feasible, but only after some genetic modifications of the plant itself.

Where the Subsidies Go

A week or so ago, I discussed federal energy subsidies and hypothesized, without a lot of facts, that a lot of them go to failing alternative energy projects rather than to oil company shareholders.  I asked readers if they had any more information, and the discussion is here.

But ask and ye shall receive, and the WSJ has an article today on federal energy subsidies and where they go.  The answer is:  in bulk dollars, a lot of them go nuclear, hydro, and traditional fossil fuel production.  However, it is interesting to look at them on an output basis:

For electricity generation, the EIA concludes that
solar energy is subsidized to the tune of $24.34 per megawatt hour,
wind $23.37 and "clean coal" $29.81. By contrast, normal coal receives
44 cents, natural gas a mere quarter, hydroelectric about 67 cents and
nuclear power $1.59.

The wind and solar lobbies are currently moaning that
they don't get their fair share of the subsidy pie. They also argue
that subsidies per unit of energy are always higher at an early stage
of development, before innovation makes large-scale production
possible. But wind and solar have been on the subsidy take for years,
and they still account for less than 1% of total net electricity
generation. Would it make any difference if the federal subsidy for
wind were $50 per megawatt hour, or even $100? Almost certainly not
without a technological breakthrough.

By contrast, nuclear power provides 20% of U.S. base
electricity production, yet it is subsidized about 15 times less than
wind. We prefer an energy policy that lets markets determine which
energy source dominates. But if you believe in subsidies, then nuclear
power gets a lot more power for the buck than other "alternatives."

The same study also looked at federal subsidies for
non-electrical energy production, such as for fuel. It found that
ethanol and biofuels receive $5.72 per British thermal unit of energy
produced. That compares to $2.82 for solar and $1.35 for refined coal,
but only three cents per BTU for natural gas and other petroleum
liquids.

I will repeat what I said in my earlier post, just so no one is confused about my position:

I personally don't care where [the subsidies go]. I am all for eliminating all
of this subsidy mess, equally, whether it's for oil exploration or
energy-from-donkey-poop or for CEO salary enhancement.

Loyalty Programs

Kevin Drum and I seldom agree on business and economics related issues, but we both agree that consumer loyalty programs suck.  Here is Drum on loyalty programs, and here is my extended screed.

When Is A Bribe Not A Bribe?

I can't answer the question in the post title -- apparently no one has told me all the rules, but I would have called this a "bribe" rather than a "gracious gesture," as Kevin Drum does:

The latest rumor making the rounds is that maybe
Barack Obama will pay off Hillary's $11 million loan to her campaign if
she quits the race. I suppose that makes some kind of sense "” and it
would be a gracious and unifying gesture from Obama

If Newt Gingrich had paid a fellow politician $11 million to drop out of the Spearker's race against him, that would have been a, what?  Gracious gesture?  I doubt it.

Next Up: Book Burnings

Three trends on college campuses all came together in the case of Keith Sampson:

  • Rampant political correctness
  • A newfound "right" for protected groups to be free from being offended, a right that now seems to trump free speech
  • The fetishization of symbolism over substance, and the belief that other people's reactions to an act is more important than the nature of that act itself.

Here is an excerpt from his story:

IN November, I was found guilty of "racial harassment" for reading a public-li brary book on a university campus.

The book was Todd Tucker's "Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting
Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan I was reading it on break from my
campus job as a janitor. The same book is in the university library.

Tucker recounts events of 1924, when the loathsome Klan was a dominant
force in Indiana - until it went to South Bend to taunt the Irish
Catholic students at the University of Notre Dame.

When the
KKK tried to rally, the students confronted them. They stole Klan robes
and destroyed their crosses, driving the KKK out of town in a downpour.

I read the historic encounter and imagined myself with these
brave Irish Catholics, as they street-fought the Klan. (I'm part-Irish,
and was raised Catholic.)

But that didn't stop the Affirmative
Action Office of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis from
branding me as a detestable Klansman.

They didn't want to hear
the truth. The office ruled that my "repeatedly reading the book . . .
constitutes racial harassment in that you demonstrated disdain and
insensitivity to your co-workers."

A friend reacted to the finding with, "That's impossible!" He's right. You can't commit racial harassment by reading an anti-Klan history....

But the $106,000-a-year
affirmative-action officer who declared me guilty of "racial
harassment" never spoke to me or examined the book. My own union - the
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - sent an
obtuse shop steward to stifle my freedom to read. He told me, "You
could be fired," that reading the book was "like bringing pornography
to work."

Where is the Windfall Profits Tax on Farmers?

This week, we have been given a chance to see a real contrast.  Two consumer staples, gasoline and food, have both seen their prices go up substantially over the last several months.  Both price spikes have been due to a combination of market forces (particularly increasing wealth in Asia) and US government policy that has the effect of restricting supply.

However, the political response from Congress has been completely different.  In the very same week that Democrats in Congress have introduced bills to punish oil companies for high prices with windfall profits taxes, they have passed a farm bill that rewards farmers who are already getting record high prices with increased price supports and direct subsidies.  This despite the fact that on a percentage basis, the increase in crop prices has been far larger than the recent increase in gas prices.  The contrast in approaches to two industries in very similar situations couldn't be more stark.

The only reason I can come up with is votes:  There are a lot more farmers and people who feel themselves dependent on the agricultural industry than there are oil workers.  The oil industry is incredibly efficient on a revenue per employee basis, and I guess that comes back to haunt them.  There is no oil industry equivalent of the Iowa Caucuses to cause politicians to fall to the ground groveling and shoveling out taxpayer money to buy votes.

Inventory Theory

Inventory theory says that the amount of total inventory that needs to be held to satisfy demand is proportional to the number of inventory stocking points.  The most efficient (from purely an inventory size standpoint- there are other efficiency issues that mitigate against this) is one big single shared inventory.  The least efficient is every individual holding his/her own inventory.  Glen Reynolds points to this effect in food:

I SAW A FEATURE BY TONY CAVUTO last night on food stockpiling, in which
one of his correspondents explained how he'd spent $1500 at Costco
stocking up against shortages. You know, if you have stories like this
on TV regularly, you'll get food shortages at stores even if there's no
actual shortage in supply, because today's just-in-time inventory
practices mean that there's no real slack for sudden increases in
demand. The empty shelves will then promote panic and more stockpiling,
setting the stage for the equivalent of a bank-run on grocery stores
even if there's no actual reason.

The exact same thing happened in the early 1970s with gasoline**.  Imagine that there are 100 million cars, and each fills up when the tank is 1/4 full.  On average, then, every tank is 5/8 full.  If tanks are all 16 gallons, then there are a billion gallons of gas in people's personal gasoline "inventory."  Now imagine due to some perceived crisis everyone changes their policy and fills up when the tank is only half empty.  Then, on average, every tank is 3/4 full, giving a total inventory of 1.2 billion gallons.  If this panic occurs over a period of a few days, suddenly there is an incremental demand, above and beyond normal demand, of 200 million gallons to expand personal inventories.  That as much as 30,000 tanker truck loads of extra demand at retail in a few days.  When stations run out, and people change their policy to fill up at 3/4 (as many did in those times, in panic) then that causes another 200 million gallons to disappear into personal inventories.  Logistics systems are not built to handle these demands.

**Postscript:
By the way, don't let the US government off the hook.  In the wake of the 1972 oil crisis, the main Congressional "contribution" was to pass a law that mandated oil companies deliver gasoline to each geographic area (probably by county, but I am not sure) in the same proportion as they did in the previous year.  A sort of directive 10-289 for gas distribution.  Well, we all know that things change, and among the biggest changes was the fact that with uncertain supplies and higher prices, a lot fewer people were driving on highways.  Because of Congress's action, rural interstate gas stations were swimming in gas, and the cities were out.  In a cruel but totally predictable twist, a number of the Congressmen who voted for this law later demagogued against oil companies for their poor distribution of gasoline that summer.