Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Blago, Bobby and Roland Show

What fresh hell is this? - Dorothy Parker

C'mon, Blago.

I mean, really, what were you thinking when you did this?

If you saw the press conference this afternoon, I sincerely hope that you first scratched your head and then threw something at the television.

Well, that's what I did.

Not, mind you, because this sort of political theater surprises me. No, it was because of the situations that now might arise because this unfit-to-serve governor persists in thinking that he still has some sort of de facto legitimacy.

Let's look at the three main players in the press conference one by one. This will, I think, make some things clear.

Roland Burris. He has indeed had a long career of public service in Illinois, serving three terms as the Comptroller and one as the Attorney-General among other positions over the past forty years. It is true, then, that he would be pretty well qualified for the job of fill-in senator.

What is unfortunate is that Burris did what he did and accepted the nomination from Blago. He is not, however, strategically innocent. A cynic, like myself, would say that Burris is at the end of his political life and figured, "why the hell not?" He is seventy-one years old and would most likely serve until 2010 and then bow out. He saw his last chance at a national political position and, seriously, what politician could resist?

Another part of Burris's decision, and one that relates to the most damnable of our three conferees today, is the fact that he happens to be an African-American. Now, this is more of a fact of the matter than a qualification, but the next person to be discussed did not see it this way.

Bobby Rush Here is where the political theater really comes into this. If you watch the aforementioned press conference, it seems that Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL) seemed to appear out of nowhere to support this ill-timed and possibly untenable decision. If you look really close, though, it seems that it is more a case of he showed up accidentally on purpose.

And, oh, what he said when he got there.

Bobby Rush implored the press and their consumers not to "hang or lynch" Burris because of the allegations against Blago. He went on to say that since Barack Obama was the only African-American Senator, that it is only right that his successor be an African-American. He seemed to imply that this would be the right thing to do.

This is race-baiting of the worst kind. First, he uses a purposely loaded phrase like "lynch" in reference to a black man. This was, to my mind, a calculated move to make the press feel ashamed and perhaps lay off. This is a perverse use of the horrific history of lynching as a form of terrorist action against blacks in America. Rush should feel ashamed of dredging up this shameful chapter in our history to score cheap debating points.

He then went on to suggest that, simply because the Senator who vacated the seat in question was black, therefore his successor should also be black. This, for me, goes beyond suggesting that race is a qualification rather than a fact of the matter. This suggests that the whole process of appointing people to serve in what should be elected offices is not only permissable, but in some cases, it can be morally superior. I reject this idea completely.

The people of Illinois elected Barack Obama to serve as their Senator. The people of Illinois, therefore, should be allowed to choose his successor. Bobby Rush, I suspect, knows this and chooses to ignore it. Our third person, sadly, also seems to have a real thing for ignorance...

Blago What do today's events say about Blago that we don't already know? Well, he was as good as his word that he was not going to quit and that he retained all of the powers of the governor. He also seemed to be perfectly willing to nominated a candidate knowing that he will go to Washington with a cloud over his head and the prospect of not being seated by the Senate leadership.

This raises issues at the national level about the power of the Senate to refuse to seat an appointed replacement for a Senator. I imagine that the Constitutional nature of this power will be much discussed in days to come. Read the part of the Constitution in question here.

What Now? As far as Burris is concerned, he made his decision, he will go to Washington, he might not get seated and he better be prepared to be at the center of a constitutional battle.

Bobby Rush has shown his allegiances and seems, for now, to be in the Blago camp. He has also shown that he is not above dealing out a whole deck of race cards and using charged imagery to get what he wants. In other words, he is, and shall remain, a politician.

Blago seems capable of mind-boggling levels of self delusion. He is either an adept strategist trying to make the best of a career-ending crisis or he is actually delusional, as some have speculated. In a strange way, I hope it is the latter.

The anti-Blago forces are consolidating their position. Who are the key players? I'd say that the main forces against Blago at the state level are Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, Attorney-General Lisa Madigan, House Speaker Michael Madigan, Illinois Senate Majority Leader Emil Jones and Secretary of State Jesse White.

At the national level, this most recenty Blago move sets him against Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and (perhaps most powerfully) President-Elect Barack Obama.

So, good luck with all of that, Blago.

So, what do we have to look forward to in 2009? In the words of the great Kinky Friedman: "Smile. It only gets worse."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Echoes Of Holidays Past

This is the first Christmas season that I am spending without my mom. Everyone told me it would be really hard on me. In a way, it really has. In another way, though, it hasn't.

It has been hard because this time of year seems to be one full of nostalgia, a time where the stories and memories of the past (holiday-related and otherwise) are very much at hand. It is no different for me. It does not help, therefore, that mose of these stories and memories involve my mom.

It has also been hard because, although we are doing much as we have in the past, it is simply not the same nor will it ever be, I imagine. We decided to go ahead with Christmas Eve at our house. The house is cleaned (almost), the food is all set, the guests are invited and everything seems to be in hand. Yet, in a really big way, it just does not feel right.

My mom coordinated these events in the best way possible - she made it look really easy. I guess in helping to spearhead the effort this year, I realize how much my mom did and it just makes me miss her all the more.

This point, though, relates to one way in which things have not been as hard as they could be. There is comfort in carrying on, in doing all of those things that we have always done. Getting out the same old decorations, setting up the same old tree, preparing the same old food - these actions give a sense of continuity, a feeling of connectedness with all those memories and stories that are so much a part of who I am.

As a historian, history and memory are my stock-in-trade (I happen to think they are very different from each other, but that is for another time). In my professional life, I (and other academic historians) treat the past as a subject of interest, a battleground for personal biases, a grand interpretive puzzle and a constant source of reconsideration and argumentation. I have been tempted to treat my own history in the same manner. I cannot, and especially not now, come to do this just yet. Perhaps I never will and perhaps this is for the best.

For now, I will allow the past to give me the comfort that it has done and continue to consider what role it will play in whatever normal life will be like from now on.

In closing, and in relation to these reflections, an excerpt from a short story has been much on my mind recently. These thoughts on the season and the past coupled with staring out at the weather we have had in Chicago to bring the last sentences of "The Dead" from James Joyce's The Dubliners very much into focus recently. I will leave you with that and my wish that you draw comfort and strength from your past this holiday season.

  • "A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Multum In Parvo

(I intend posts with the above title to become a semi-regular feature here at COTL. I run across a lot of stuff in my reading, research and boredom that I think is interesting, but that may not need extended commentary on my part. There are also some things that I find funny, amusing or ironic that are in the same category. I want to share these with my readers (you are there, right?) and open them for comment and discussion. If discussion or interest seems to warrant it, I will comment at more length. In the meantime, you can rely on my regular extended commentary on, well, whatever the hell is bothering me at present. So, without further ado...)

  • An interesting article linking the Bernard Madoff debacle with the idea of affinity fraud. I wonder how much this had to do with the scope of Madoff's deception? Also, the term "Ponzi scheme" has been bandied about a lot without much explanation. Click here for that.
  • The latest person to jump on the "capitalism is dead" bandwagon? The guy who created Dilbert. Give me a break.
  • "I, Pencil" turns fifty years old. It is one of the clearest expositions of why and how free markets work. Read it here (don't worry - it is really short).
  • This year's version of America's Safest (and Most Dangerous) cities is out. Lists like this fascinate me, especially the criteria that they use.
  • One in-depth take on the relationship between Central Europe and Russia. I would be more worried about Central Asia and the Transcaucasus, though.
  • I cannot get this song out of my head for some reason. Read more about why people get songs stuck in their memories here and here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Santa Claus Meets The Dismal Science

You knew this post was coming, right?

You know, the one where Will drags boring crap like history and economics all over the clean, pristine rug that is the Christmas season.

Well, folks, I'm at the door and I am going to do a real number on that carpet, so hold on...

First, let us bypass the soundbyte-take on the economy and Christmas. In this view, for this year, they both suck and will do so for the forseeable future.

I want to delve deeper, to get at some of the basic motivations for why we behave the way we do between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

In this cause, I intend to focus on a few central questions: why do we give gifts? Why don't we just give everyone cash? What is the broader social function of gift-giving, especially around a holiday?

Why Do We Give Gifts?

In many rituals and customs for people around the globe and through time, the giving of gifts has been and remains central to the meaning and execution of those rituals. What makes a gift exchange a special sort of relationship? I believe it is two things: reciprocation and a different rendering of value.

First, I say "reciprocation," but I should really add the two words, "or not." One thing that is central to a market or barter economy is the fact that there is a quid pro quo, or if you give something, you expect to get something of value in return. In gift exchange, this is not really the case. There are some sorts of gift-giving where reciprocation may be implied, but not required. If reciprocation is required, and enforced by some sanction, then it is not truly a gift exchange.

Second, a different rendering of value. Some economists think that part of the value of a gift given to another is that you spent a lot of time making it or picking it out (to use the terminology, what are your sunk costs for this particular gift?) There is another side to this, courtesy of the always-brilliant David Friedman...more on him below.

All of these notions fall under the idea of a mixing of a gift economy with the market economy that usually governs our economic relationships.

Have I answered my original question? Well, as ever, yes and no. It seems that we give gifts to each other and these gifts are not necessarily reciprocal and they are not valued in the same way as other things. This is, to me, confusing.

Let's ask a more specific question that I think will clear up things a bit...

Why Don't We Just Give Cash?

This is the classic question concerning gifts for many economists. The answer that usually comes back, furthermore, interests a more general audience because of the seeming coldness and insensitivity of it.

Many economists believe that, to a greater or lesser extent, the only really acceptable gift in any situation is cash. What we should all do is just take the amount of money that we would have spend shopping, paying for and wrapping gifts and just hand it out to the intended recipient.

Let me guess. For many of you, this idea seems repellent, but you are not completely sure why.

On one level, it is a completely sensible idea. Money never spoils, is always the right color, shape and size, it is accepted for goods and services anywhere and it is exchangeable so that it can travel globally. Why do you buy the man who has everything? Nothing. Just hand over the cash.

For one such classic view, see this 1993 article by economist Joel Waldfogel. If you don't want to read it, Waldfogel's main point is that the deadweight loss for most individuals' holiday purchases is 18% higher than what it should be. In other words, people get an 18% better deal if they just spend money on themselves. A gift of cash would allow them to do this.

On another level, though, I am sure that this idea makes a lot of you squirm. Why? As I said before, it is hard to define, but there seems to be something, well, rather impersonal and cold about just cutting someone a check. We all do it in some situations, but why not in all situations?

This is when some thinking on the part of some sharp economic minds is in order.

Mankiw and Friedman on Gifts

In this excellent post from his always interesting blog, Greg Mankiw discusses gifts as a form of signalling. To boil it down, Mankiw argues that people know their own preferences better than those of others. If your boss decided to pay you in merchandise that he/she chose, you would probably complain. Why, then, is our reaction so different when someone we love does the same thing?

Mankiw goes on to say that it is also an asymmetric information problem and is related to signalling. If you are giving a gift to a loved one, you have information that they do not, namely, how much you love them. If you do love them, then you will spend the time to learn their preferences and pick out a good gift. This gift serves as a signal to the other person of your level of affections. Even if you pick out a bad gift, the reciepient still knows that you put effort and money into it, so the love must be there. If you give cash to loved ones, surmises Mankiw, you are signalling that you are not even willing to try.

David Friedman, on the other hand, argues in this post at his excellent blog that the best way to conceptualize it is having two individuals in one body. One is a short-term pleasure maximizer, the other a long-term utility maximizer. The short-term me is the me that always wants another beer, more gyros or an extra hour of sleep. The long-term me is the me that tries to hold off these short-term pleasures for a gain in the more distant future.

Friedman argues that buying gifts shows that both the long and short term me care about you. The short-term me cares because I am forgoing extra resources for me in order to buy a gift. Long-term me cares because I will have a few less dollars and a little less time when I retire. See, we BOTH love you!

Great, Will. So What?

I have never been someone to leave well enough alone. I cannot accept that we do things because we do them. What fun would life be then?

No, I have always been inclined to the sort of thinking we see above by Mankiw and Friedman. Take a behavior that we do and ask why we do it. Go on. Anything. This is the very basis of the social sciences which, to my estimation, are all behavioral sciences. Today, we have delved into why we pursue a certain sort of behavior at this time of year.

Does this mean that I will practice what I preach and just give cash? Well, if you think that, you sort of missed the point. Cash is an acceptable gift for some people and not for others. Why the distinction? Go back and read the previous section again.

Can't I just accept a gift, not ask why someone did it, cram some fruitcake in my gob and shut the hell up? No, sorry. I will take that gift, but wonder why we do this with each other. I will cram said fruitcake in said gob, but I will ask if this is a good deal for me and why. Oh, and I will ask why so many people hate fruitcake? Buy this fruitcake and thank me later.

So, I think that there is time in all situations to dig deeper, to demand more. That is why I am an academic and that is why I write this website. I hope you agree that these are worthy pursuits. I know I do.

Oh, and if you are intending to send a gift my way, let me deal with the asymmetric information problem for you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Crisis and Turmoil: Take Your Pick

They have nothing to do with each other, naturally.

I wrote two posts today and you can read them below.

They concern:
  • The constitutional crisis caused by the proroguing (don't worry...I define it) of the Parliament in Canada.
  • The constitutional crisis caused by the fact that Rod Blagojevich is the latest (and perhaps mose egregious) of a long line of corrupt scumbags to control my home state.

Check them out and let me know what you think.

I will warn you, though. I might be done with Canada; I am probably not done with Blago.

Blago's Downfall: Don't Act Surprised

Just don't.

Not even if you don't care about politics in Illinois or anywhere else.

Nobody was shocked when they read this news yesterday.

Well, I can think of one resident of the northwest side of Chicago who might have been a *little* surprised.

This story is still developing, naturally. There is much to be said, though.

The Facts (Or Something Like Them) Let's get the facts (whatever the hell those are apart from the official complaint) out of the way first.

Blago was involved in a multi-year campaign of graft, kick-backs and pay-to-play politics. He won re-election in 2006 in a strong Democratic year versus ineffective Republican opposition by making the other side look worse than himself. Things started to get hairy for Blago more recently with the trial of political operative, fundraiser and fellow scumbag Tony Rezko. Read all about that here. Blago's name just kept coming up over and over again as using people like Rezko as his shake-down men for campaign contributions.

Rezko was not the entire story, though. In the most recent set of allegations, backed up by wiretaps of Blago and his flunkies, he continued his cash operation seeking money from people involved in a $1.8 billion dollar tollway deal. He offered $8 million in funding to Children's Memorial Hospital while seeking a $50,000 contribution from the president of that hospital. He diverted horse racing revenues into his coffers. Read more (if you are not pissed off enough) in the statement by federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald here.

Most explosively, though, he seemed to offer the now-vacant U.S. Senate seat of now-President Elect Obama to whoever was willing to cough up the most money. Read about that here and the person who was supposedly willing to pony up here. Of course they all deny it. Never believe anything until it is officially denied.

Nobody should have been shocked because of the people involved and the political culture from which they emerged. Illinois state politics have been mired in sleaze for decades and this is just the latest chapter. Much has been written over the last day and a half about just why this is.

A Bit of Illinois Political History (Stick With It Here, Folks) Let me give it a go. We have a history in the last sixty years of corruption in Springfield and in Chicago that often feed each other. Three Illinois governors since 1945 have been convicted and sentenced to jail (those being Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, and most recently George Ryan). Chicago's corruption scandals are too numerous to mention here, but take a look at Operation Silver Shovel to get an idea of the more recent brand of Chicago corruption. Believe me, it goes back to the very beginning in the nineteenth century.

Why did this political culture develop in a place like Illinois? Well, I will make two main suggestions. First, look at the demographics in Illinois. Take a gander at this population density map of Illinois and I think you will immediately get what I am about to say. There is one part of the state that has always (and will always) have disproportionate influence and it ain't Peoria, Carbondale, East Saint Louis or even Springfield.

This means, to me, that the brand of politics that are the order of the day in Chicago will be the way that the state largely works. Also to be considered with this first point is the fact that there has often been tension between Chicago and Springfield. To soften this tension and get the wheels of government moving, certain things have happened in the past (and I ain't talking about having a nice chat over tea). To put it in the words of an old Chicago ward heeler, "I like a guy who takes cash...you always know where you stand."

What are the roots of this culture in Chicago? Well, you need look no further than the city's immigrant past. Waves of immigrants passed through and settled in Chicago beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century. They didn't always have access to the channels of power in the city because of poverty, bigotry, illiteracy and other factors that were common to immigrants from Europe to nineteenth century America.

They didn't stand for this situation for long. They began to organize in their neighborhoods and tie themselves to certain politicians who promised to help them in exchange for, ahem, some consideration. It also worked the other way, the politicos plying the masses with booze, food, women (remember only men could vote in most places until 1920) and all manner of vice to get their votes. It was through this cycle of pay-to-play politics (sound familiar, Blago?) that the city's political culture was born and raised. It gave rise to Carter Harrison, "Big" Bill Thompson, Anton Cermak, Richard J. Daley, Richard M. Daley and, yes, Blago.

Why did these immigrants do what they did? Mainly, well, because they had to. More speculatively, though, I have always wondered about the connection to politics in their countries of origin and how that played out on the streets of Chicago. Most came from non-democratic states where governments ranged from democracy-for-some and outright feudalism. These people, coming from such places, were already skilled at circumventing the system. They did it in (Poland, Ireland, Bavaria, Italy and a dozen other places). Why not do it here too?

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Blago? So, what happens next? The biggest concern seems to be who will choose Barack Obama's successor as Illinois's junior senator. Attorney General Lisa Madigan (who just happens to be the daughter of Illinois General Assembly Speaker Michael Madigan) seems to think that there is a constitutional provision to strip the governor of his power.

While this might (or might not) solve the problem of who should pick Obama's successor, there is still the larger problem of what to do with the Scumbag-in-Chief of the Land of Lincoln (who should be rolling over in his grave, apparently). There is a forced resignation, there is impeachment, there is perhaps state troopers who are a good shot who could keep their mouths shut. I am kidding on that last one. A little bit, anyway.

What will hopefull happen is that he will resign soon, handing power over to Lieutenant Governor Patrick Quinn. Quinn is not THAT corrupt and could be trusted to take advice in appointing a successor for Obama and carrying on the business of state government. Hell, all Blago did was find ways to feather his nest, so it couldn't be that hard. Then he should sit somewhere uncomfortable while his greedy, corrupt, profane, sullied, disgraced ass is dragged over the coals in Springfield during an impeachment trial.

The only problem there is how many of the denizens of the state capitol would have to recuse themselves for, ahem, conflicts of interest.

We shall see what Blago's fate is and if this has any long-term effect on the political culture of Illinois...or we can see this all happen again when the next group of lunatics gets to run the asylum.

I shudder at the answers to those questions.

Political Crisis...In Canada?

Yes, you read the title right.

Probably had to look twice, though, didn't you?

It's just that those two ideas rarely appear together.

In the last few weeks, though, they have with some frequency.

You may have heard something about this. That is, you may have heard of it if you keep up with international news or happen to be Canadian. It is an interesting story nonetheless and one worthy of our attention.

A bit of background about the Canadian government might help clear things up. Canada's government is a parliamentary system very similar to the one in the United Kingdom (and many dominions and former colonies of the British as well as this map shows).

In systems such as the one in Canada, the "government" actually refers to the party with the most seats (most Members of Parliament or MPs) in the lower house of the Parliament. Canada's Parliament is composed of two houses, the Senate and the House of Commons and the Sovereign as represented by the Governor-General (more on this below). The Senate is largely appointed and need not concern us here.

One appointed official who DOES concern us here is the Governor-General. The Governor-General is an appointed representative of the head of state in Canada, who just happens to be this lady. The role of the Governor-General is largely ceremonial (as is the role of the Queen in Canada). One duty that is often just ceremonial is the calling and dissolving of parliament.

Now, in a parliamentary system, elections don't just happen every four years. What happens is that there is usually a time limit (which is five years in Canada) for any government in which they must call a general election. In Canada, they just held a general election on October 14 of this year. Read about it here. Before this can happen, though, the prime minister, who is currently Stephen Harper of Canada's Conservative Party must ask the Governor-General to dissolve the House of Commons and call for an election.

O.K., you say, that's great. Canada has a fascinating and British-esque form of government. "Where's the crisis you promised?" you ask, with a mixture of mild annoyance and strong boredom. Well, here it comes.

In the last election, Harper and the Conservatives didn't get a majority in the House of Commons. What this means is that they didn't win in enough ridings to gain complete control of the government. This leads to what is called a minority government, which often happens in systems where though two parties may dominate, there are other serious contenders for the votes of the electorate. In Canada, the two dominant parties are the Conservatives and the Liberals. The other parties that are represented in the House of Commons are the New Democratic Party, Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party.

Now, in a minority government, the party with a plurality forms the government, but the position of this government is never very secure because of the possibility of something called a no-confidence vote. A no-confidence vote is proposed in Parliament by the opposition to the government in an attempt to weaken a government or, in some cases, cause its downfall. If a government loses a no-confidence vote, it usually has to resign or call for a dissolution of parliament and a general election.

Back to our situation...it seems that Harper was on the verge of facing a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons. Instead of going through the vote, which it seems that Harper and the Conservatives figured they'd lose, Harper went to the Governor-General and asked that Parliament be prorogued. The Governor-General agreed.

Prorogued? What the hell does that mean? It means to suspend Parliament without dissolving it (and thus needing to call new elections). The power to prorogue the Parliament in Canada rests with the Governor-General. The power to ask for Parliament to be prorogued, furthermore, rests with the current Prime Minister.

What has come of this situation? Well, the Liberals have had a leadership change to professor-cum-politician Michael Ignatieff. What this will mean for the party going forward is anyone's guess, but he seems to be a bit stronger of a personality than former head Stephane Dion.

The intervening month, observed a Canadian friend of mine, will give a chance for some heads to cool and others to roll, as they already have. I suspect he is right.

(ADDENDUM: Why did I write all of this? First, I think political dynamics in parliamentary systems are interesting. Second, it is fun to talk about anything approaching political crisis when it involves a usually placid place like Canada. Third, I hadn't written a long post about a political situation in a non-sexy foreign country in a while. I'll bet you're glad THAT drought is over.)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Celebrate Repeal Day! Drink Alcohol Today!

Today we celebrate a great moment in our national history. A day when it was realized that morality cannot be legislated without disasterous consequences. A day when a nation reeling from economic depression was at last given a (legal) release valve. A day when the forces of the nanny state were sent packing, or at least for a while.

For on this day seventy-five years ago, December 5, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified, repealing the provisions of the Eighteenth Amendment. Our nation's dark period of Prohibition had ended. Americans could legally drink again.


Repeal Day, though always important to us in the drinking community, has languished as a broader national commemoration. This website, started by a bartender in Oregon, is a step to remedy that. More needs to be done, though.

Why was alcohol prohibition tried in the first place? It was a strange marriage between Progressives and Christian Evangelicals and others. Centrally, though, the Progressives thought that mankind could be made better if alcohol was unavailable. Evangelicals believed that alcohol was the root of what they saw as the moral degridation of humanity. Alcohol caused people to do wrong. God does not want us to do wrong. Alcohol, therefore, is an abomination of God. That is rather simplified, but you get the idea.

What did Prohibition accomplish? Well, a lot. A lot, however, that its supporters didn't expect. Click here for a great overview of the effects on Prohibition on crime, health, demand and prices. Generally, though, crime rose instead of fell, more people died of alcohol-related causes rather than less, demand and prices both increased (this rarely happens in a free market). Oh, and it gave rise to organized crime and all the spending and manpower needed to "fight" it. Click here for more on that aspect.

How did it get repealed? It became clearer and clearer to the American people that the Eighteenth Amendment was doing more harm than good. Women were espcially critical here. Just having been given the vote in 1920, women flexed their political muscle for repeal. People like Pauline Sabin and her Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform were important in the groundswell for repeal.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats ran with a Prohibition repeal plank in their 1932 platform. By "election season" in 1932, most Americans were ready to see Prohibition behind them and for this (and other reasons, naturally) FDR and the Democrats won in 1932.

It was on December 6, 1932 that Senator John J. Blaine of Wisconsin (we are really proud of this here), submitted a resolution to Congress proposing the submission to the states of the Twenty-First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It was finally ratified by the thirty-seventh state (Maine) seventy-five years ago today.

How should we celebrate? Purchase and consume alcohol. Simple as that. It can be a case of beer with your buddies, cocktails with your significant other or a bottle of scotch by yourself. It does not matter. Do it because you can. Do it because our forebears saw the error of social engineering and trying to limit the freedom of people to ingest anything they damn well please.

So, the idea of prohibition is ancient history, right? Wrong. I won't go into this at length here, but we still prohibit free individuals from access to certain substance. I am talking about what are now considered "illegal drugs." Read this interesting research report from the Cato Institute on the relation between alcohol and drug prohibition.

Where can I learn more? Click here for a great website at SUNY-Albany on the "Great Experiment," its times and (thankfully) its downfall.


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Celebrate Liberty...Dress Like A Slob

(NB: This post was partially inspired by my first-and last-exposure to this television show. There was a marathon on, my bad ankle was acting up and the remote was across the room. I finally get around cable and this is what happens. It also has a lot of things that I have been thinking about for some time)

I have often heard it said that everyone develops their own sense of "style." I have never been sure what to make of this rather nebulous term. In other words, I do not know really what style means to me or to others.

I, furthermore, do not see my self really ever caring about this. If pressed with the question, "what sort of look were you going for there?," I would really not know what to say. I usually have some smart-assed remark ready to hurl like "annoyed middle-manager of a moderately successful mid-level corporation" or "annoyed mid-level bureaucrat in a non-sexy government department."

So, why do I dress the way that I do? Mostly practical concerns. I want to hide my nakedness (believe me, the world wants NO part of that). I am, at present and for some time now, usually stony broke. I have to comply with some vague, non-specified dress code for whatever job I have.

Do I care at all what my clothes look like? Well, yes and no. I want them to be clean and in reasonable repair. As for color, I shy away from anything bright or attention-getting. Frankly, if they sold buttoned-down collar shirts (in any pattern or sensible color) in a roll like paper towels, I would buy them in a second.

Why then, Will, are you writing about this? It comes from a connundrum that I had upon viewing the above-bookmarked television show.

On one hand, I believe that people should be able to spend their money on whatever consumer goods strike their fancy. This is why markets are the best and most fair way to allocate resources. People, making their individual decisions for selfish reasons, end up fulfilling the desires of all concerned. Sound familiar? It should.

On the other hand, and quite differently, I felt myself feeling that pursuing some sense of a "current style" went against the fundamental freedom of all people to allocate their resources as they see fit. In the past there were sumptuary laws that limited access to certain forms of consumption. The only barrier to individual consumption, the only fair barrier anyway, should be prices set in free and open markets.

Another source of my qualms has been some notion that people in other countries (particularly European ones) are thought (by themselves and us) to be "better dressers" than Americans. This is perhaps not the place to speculate on this score, but I would figure that this is a subset of the argument that Americans care about quantity over quality, breadth over depth and practicality over fashion. I am not sure why I felt this way, but I did and somewhat still do.

Why is this? I think it comes from the mere fact that in saying that someone looks "better" dressed a certain way, it makes a value judgement on that person's resource allocation decisions. It also makes a value judgement on the right of that individual to do exactly as he or she likes as long as that action does not harm other people.

I am not comfortable with either of these value judgements. If you want to spend all (or most or some) of your money on expensive garments, fine. Just don't judge me because I choose to allocate my scarce resources in a different manner. Don't hurl the epithet "slob" at me because I look like a pile of laundry with shoes under it. Just know that I make different decisions about opportunity cost. Don't make the call that, because I don't fit some certain mold of looking "put-together," that I am somehow defective in other ways.

The fundamental issue here is, therefore, that when value judgements enter decisions of resource allocation, problems arise.

What I am driving at, in the end, is that people should dress however the hell they damned well please. If that is a suit that costs what I make in a month, fine. If it is cut-off sweat pants and a BBQ sauce stained NASCAR shirt, fine. Anywhere in-between these gross stereotypes, fine.

But Will, you protest, what about decorum and dress in certain situations. I do realize that certain situations seem to call for certain modes of dress. Employers, schools, restaurants, cultural attractions and others have dress codes that must be followed or punishments can be meted out.

We must ask ourselves, though, why does it "seem" that these situations "call" for certain modes of covering one's nakedness? Why, furthermore, do dress codes exist? My short answer to both would be enforced conformity. My long answer? Perhaps for another day, that.

So, what say you, dear readers?

While you think that over, I am going to work on that "tear-off roll of shirts idea." I might be on to something there...