Posts tagged ‘Chicago Tribune’

Enjoy the NFL This Weekend, You May Not Have It For Long

I think Walter Olson is dead on with this:

Steve Chapman at the Chicago Tribune looks at the cultural and legal responses to the mounting evidence that professional football inflicts brain damage on many of its players. He quotes my view that if the litigation system carries over to football the legal principles it applies to other industries, the game isn’t likely to survive in its current form.  [sorry for quoting the whole thing Walter, I just couldn't figure out how to excerpt it]

There is a very good chance that the NFL could go the way of Johns Manville or Dow Corning.  Those companies still exist after being sued into bankruptcy, but that is only because they had other businesses to shift into.  The NFL just has football.  And after reading the concussion stories recently, plaintiff's lawyers are going to have a hell of a lot better scientific case than they had with breast implants.    I honestly think it will take an act of Congress to keep the NFL alive, giving them some sort of liability exemption similar to what ski resorts got years ago.

And don't think the NFL does not know this.  If you are wondering why they handed out insanely over-the-top penalties for bounty-gate in New Orleans, this is why.  They are working to establish a paper trail of extreme diligence on player safety issues for future litigation.

As an aside, I find it frustrating that there is not a better helmet solution.

As a second aside, there is a guy here in Phoenix who was showing off an accelerometer for football helmets, with some kind of maximum single g-force or cumulative g-force trigger that would cause a player to be pulled from a game, sort of like how a radiation badge works.  Good idea.  Look for these to be mandatory equipment in high schools in colleges.    Takes the absurd guess work out of concussion diagnosis today, particularly since this diagnosis is done by people (the player and their team) who have strong incentives to decide that there was no concussion.

As a third aside, there are those who argue helmets are the problem.  Just as people drive less safely with seat belts and air bags in cars, helmets lead to less care on the field.  I will say I played rugby for years (without a helmet of course) and never had one concussion, or any head hit anywhere close to a concussion.  In amateur rugby in the leagues I played in, reckless behavior that might lead to injuries was strongly frowned upon and punished by the group.  Teams that played this way quickly found themselves without a game.  There were plenty of ways to demonstrate toughness without trying to injure people.

Profile on the Corporate-Regulatory State

This article from the Chicago Tribune on fire retardants has everything, from regulations that benefit a small industry group to tort lawyers effectively forcing the propagation of a bad standard to playing the race card and the "for the children" card in policy debates.   Here is a bit of history I did not know:

These chemicals are ubiquitous not because federal rules demand it. In fact, scientists at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have determined that the flame retardants in household furniture aren't effective, and some pose unnecessary health risks.

The chemicals are widely used because of an obscure rule adopted by California regulators in 1975. Back then, a state chemist devised an easy-to-replicate burn test that didn't require manufacturers to set furniture on fire, an expensive proposition.

The test calls for exposing raw foam to a candle-like flame for 12 seconds. The cheapest way to pass the test is to add flame retardants to the foam inside cushions.

But couches aren't made of foam alone. In a real fire, the upholstery fabric, typically not treated with flame retardants, burns first, and the flames grow big enough that they overwhelm even fire-retardant foam, scientists at two federal agencies have found.

Nevertheless, in the decades since that rule went into effect, lawyers have regularly argued that their burn-victim clients would have been spared if only their sofas had been made with California foam. Faced with the specter of these lawsuits — and the logistical challenge of producing separate products just for California — many manufacturers began using flame retardant foam across their product lines.

The "if only the manufacturer had used technology X, little Sarah would not be dead" argument should be very familiar to readers of Walter Olson's blog.  Part II of the story argues that the Tobacco industry helped reinforce this story to shift the blame for fires started by cigarettes to the furniture (can't any of this be, you know, the person's fault who dropped burning items onto flammable items?)

It also, by the way, has plenty of elements of environmental panic in it.  For example:

"When we're eating organic, we're avoiding very small amounts of pesticides," said Arlene Blum, a California chemist who has fought to limit flame retardants in household products. "Then we sit on our couch that can contain a pound of chemicals that's from the same family as banned pesticides like DDT."

I am open to believing that flame retardant chemicals pose some harm to humans, though one must posit some way for them to get out of the foam and into people for it to be harmful (just existing nearby is not enough).  Further, being from the "same family" as another chemical is meaningless, particularly as compared to DDT which was banned for suspected thinning of bird eggs and not for demonstrated harm to humans.

I finally read through all four parts  of the story, and its interesting to compare the approaches to science.  The authors make a really good case that the science of flame retardants effectiveness is deeply flawed and that lobbying pressure and actions in tort cases have led to their expanded use rather than any particular benefit.

But the authors' scientific standards change wildly when it comes to their own side's science (I write it this way because the authors clearly have  a horse in the race here, they want these chemicals banned). I kept waiting for their bombshell study that these chemicals posed a danger, but we never get it.  All we get is the typical journalistic scare quotes about trace quantities of these chemicals being found in house dust and in certain animals.

OK, but with improving detection technology, we are constantly finding traces of chemicals at tiny levels we did not know were there before.   How much risk do they pose?  We never find out.  It would be nice to know.  I'm convinced I would rather not have this crap in my couch, but there has to be a better standard for legislation than this.  Ironically, the whole point of their story is to highlight regulation pushed by small groups based on bad science, and their response is to ... mobilize a group to push different legislation based on bad science.    There is a heck of a lot of "OK for me but not for thee" here.

Here is what is really going to happen:  After years of being stampeded by tort lawyers into putting these chemicals into furniture as a defense against "you should have..." lawsuits based on bad science, these same furniture makers are now going to be sued by people claiming the chemicals make them sick based on bad science.   And yet another industry will find itself in a sued-if-you-do-sued-if-you-don't trap.

The one group never interviewed in all four parts were furniture makers.  It would have been fascinating to get an honest interview out of them.  I am sure they would say something like "legislatures just need to tell us what they freaking want, chemicals in or out, and then shield us in the courtroom when we follow the law."

Update:  The updates to the story are classic.  After describing how the race card was abused in what should have been a straight up fight over chemical effectiveness and safety, the authors then pen a story called "Higher Levels of Flame Retardants in Minority Children."  It's OK, I guess, to play the race card in a scientific debate if it is for your own side.

U.S. v. One 1987 Jeep Wrangler

If you want to be depressed today, read Radley Balko's article in Reason on asset forfeiture.   Despite reforms at the Federal level (which still stop short of justice, in my mind) abusive laws still exist in many states, allowing police departments to seize and keep assets merely on a "probable cause" evidence standard.  The laws are basically a license to steal, as it is almost impossible to reclaim money or property once seized, and police get to keep the money and assets for their own use, so they are going to defend the takings, and the laws that allow the takings, like mother bears.

In a 2001 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice, the University of Texas at Dallas criminologist John Worral surveyed 1,400 police departments around the country on their use of forfeiture and the way they incorporated seized assets into their budgets. Worral, who describes himself as agnostic on the issue, concluded that "a substantial proportion of law enforcement agencies are dependent on civil asset forfeiture" and that "forfeiture is coming to be viewed not only as a budgetary supplement, but as a necessary source of income." Almost half of surveyed police departments with more than 100 law enforcement personnel said forfeiture proceeds were "necessary as a budget supplement" for department operations.

Many may remember this case, one of the many Balko reviews:

Tiny Tenaha, Texas, population 1,046, made national news in 2008 after a series of reports alleged that the town's police force was targeting black and Latino motorists along Highway 84, a busy regional artery that connects Houston to Louisiana's casinos, ensuring a reliable harvest of cash-heavy motorists. The Chicago Tribune reported that in just the three years between 2006 and 2008, Tenaha police stopped 140 drivers and asked them to sign waivers agreeing to hand over their cash, cars, jewelry, and other property to avoid arrest and prosecution on drug charges. If the drivers agreed, police took their property and waved them down the highway. If they refused, even innocent motorists faced months of legal hassles and thousands of dollars in attorney fees, usually amounting to far more than the value of the amount seized. One local attorney found court records of 200 cases in which Tenaha police had seized assets from drivers; only 50 were ever criminally charged.

One case seems right out of Minority Report:

On February 4, 2009, Anthony Smelley got his first hearing before an Indiana judge. Smelley's attorney, David Kenninger, filed a motion asking for summary judgment against the county, citing a letter from a Detroit law firm stating that the seized money indeed came from an accident settlement, not a drug transaction. Kenninger also argued that because there were no drugs in Smelley's car, the state had failed to show the required "nexus" between the cash and illegal activity. Putnam County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Headley seemed to agree, hitting Christopher Gambill, who represented Putnam County, with some tough questions. That's when Gambill made an argument that was remarkable even for a forfeiture case.

"You have not alleged that this person was dealing in drugs, right?" Judge Headley said.

"No," Gambill responded. "We alleged this money was being transported for the purpose of being used to be involved in a drug transaction."

Incredibly, Gambill was arguing that the county could seize Smelley's money for a crime that hadn't yet been committed. Asked in a phone interview to clarify, Gambill stands by the general principle. "I can't respond specifically to that case," he says, "but yes, under the state forfeiture statute, we can seize money if we can show that it was intended for use in a drug transaction at a later date."

My Favorite Quote of the Day

From a Chicago Tribune editorial on the city aldermen blocking Wal-Mart construction in the city, via Carpe Diem:

Organized labor doesn't like Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart doesn't have union jobs. It just has jobs (with an average hourly wage of $12.05 in Chicago). The aldermen, of course, already have jobs. They get paid $110,556 a year and they figure that as long as they keep the labor unions off their backs, they'll keep making $110,556 a year.

Who says the City Council doesn't generate jobs? If you're one of the 50 aldermen, your unemployment rate is 0 percent. But the unemployment rate for the rest of Chicago is above 10 percent. One in 10 Chicagoans is out of work.

Maybe Its Not So Lucky

I don't mean to draw too much from a cutsie human interest story, but the Freakonomics Blog links an article in the Chicago Tribune about a guy who claims to have found 160,000 four-leafed clovers.  My only real take was that maybe they really aren't very lucky, since the previous record-holder recently died in prison.

We Don't Need No Stinking Consistency

For the past 6-months, gas station owners have been under attack by state regulators for their pricing practices just after Katrina, when fears of shut-in Gulf oil production and refining capacity led to a temporary spike in gas prices.  Gas station owners have tried to patiently explain about supply and demand and market dynamics, but to no avail, and are starting to settle:

Sunoco Inc. became the second oil company to
settle a price gouging lawsuit brought by New Jersey authorities,
agreeing to pay $325,000 but admitting no wrongdoing....

As part of a state probe into all oil companies doing business
in New Jersey, more than 100 violations were found at 400 gas
stations in the first week of September, the most common of which
were prices being raised more than once every 24 hours, and
stations showing different prices at the pump compared to their
posted prices, officials said.

Nobody is really getting fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for changing their prices more than once in a day.  Gasoline retailers are getting fined for being unliked, and because politicians find it a populist boon to their reelection to wack on oil companies every once in a while.  One of the reasons that gasoline retailers get fined for petty crap like this is that they are the only retail industry that I know of that actually posts their prices so you can see them on the street when you drive by.  A while back we also highlighted this funny bit of high-handedness in Illinois:

Illinois State Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked 18
operators whose prices jumped significantly after Hurricane Katrina to
donate $1,000 to the American Red Cross or risk a potential consumer
fraud lawsuit, reports the Chicago Tribune.

And you just knew enemy-of-Antarctica and Aspiring Governor Eliot Spitzer couldn't miss out on the populist fun:

Illinois isn't the only state to go after retailers for
price gouging after Hurricane Katrina; New York Attorney General Eliot
Spitzer fined 15 operators $10,000 for pumping up their prices.

Anyway, I guess we still haven't gotten to the "consistency" thing I mentioned in the title.  Having been at the receiving end of such ill-conceived and populist price-gouging and anti-trust lawsuits, what is the gas station trade group doing this week?  Why, appearing in front of Congress to accuse someone else of price-gouging.  In this case, they have dragged credit card companies in front of Congress to demand action on interchange fees:

All consumers pay more at the store and at the pump" as
a result of high interchange rates, added Mierzwinski. He also noted
that "legally suspect" practices have led to market power of the card
associations, and that banks engage in a variety of deceptive practices
to steer customers toward higher transaction fees, such as charging
customers who use PIN debit, as opposed to signature-based debit, which
is much less secure yet carries a higher transaction fee to the
retailer.

Of course, he is all for free markets, as he says with this pious piece of BS:

I believe in the light of day and I believe in free
markets," noted Armour, in explaining what retailers are--and
aren't--seeking with regard to interchange. He stressed that retailers
are not requesting price caps and price controls, but rather a better
understanding of why U.S. interchange rates are so high.

Right.  Then why are we dragging these people in front of Congress, except that you want to use the coercive power of government to change their business practices?  If you have Ralph Nader's PIRG behind you, then you are looking to weild the government's hammer to achieve something you couldn't achieve through free, voluntary association and negotiation.

As a retailer, credit card companies piss me off too, but I don't run to Uncle Sam for relief.  I just don't accept certain types of cards, like ATM cards with PIN verification, since they cost a fortune in fees.   And in a lot of locations, I don't accept cards at all.  We have put ATM's onsite in a lot of places, reasoning that if consumers want debit card convinience, they can pay the fees by using the ATM machine and then paying us in cash.

More Price Gouging Shenanigans

This holiday season, several gasoline retailers found extortion notes from the state AG in their stockings.  In Illinois:

Illinois State Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked 18
operators whose prices jumped significantly after Hurricane Katrina to
donate $1,000 to the American Red Cross or risk a potential consumer
fraud lawsuit, reports the Chicago Tribune.

I would define consumer fraud as getting something from a retailer different than was promised.  I am not sure how it is fraud if retailers put their prices on a great big sign right on the street, and then actually charge those prices as promised.  Unfortunately, we seem to have filled positions of political power with the economically ignorant, who are stuck on cost-based pricing:

"When we're in an emergency situation, such as we were,
retailers have the obligation not to increase their prices to the
general public over what wholesalers are charging them," Hagan told the
Associated Press.

Uh, why?  Retailers move their markup around all the time.  Most every retailer has drastically higher markups on December 1 for Christmas tree ornaments than they do on December 27, but no one seems to complain.  Workers increased the price of their labor post-Katrina, sometimes by a factor of three, and their costs weren't going up at all, so why weren't they gouging?  Its just bizarre how we treat gasoline so much different than every other product we buy.  Perhaps its because they are the only retail product that actually posts their current prices right on the street. 

As I read this article, AG Hagan reminded me of my least favorite Aspiring Governor, fellow Princetonian and enemy-of-Antarctica Eliot Spitzer.  So it was funny when the article continued on to discuss similar actions taken by Spitzer.  This was the quote I loved:

Spitzer told the Press & Sun-Bulletin that
he "hoped it would send a clear message to others that 'you cannot,
under New York law, use an environmental emergency to raise prices.'"

OK, but can I use a massive supply-demand imbalance caused by an environmental disaster to raise prices?  And I sure bet that politicians can use an environmental emergency to raise taxes  (in fact, since NY's gas tax is a percentage of the price rather than fixed, the state of NY did indeed contribute to the post-Katrina price hike). 

Here is my quote back to Mr. Spitzer:

"I hope to send a clear message that the state Attorney General position cannot be used for grandstanding forays against innocent but unpopular business entities* in order to raise one's profile to run for higher office"

*See Dick Grasso, Microsoft, et al.

Update:  More at Professor Bainbridge on Elito Spitzer  (and here)