Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Chuckwagon: Baked Potatoes

I know, I know, I know.

Who needs a recipe for a baked potato, right? Don't they serve those at Wendy's?

Well, I think there is a need. The perfect baked potato can be quite elusive, simple yet just out or reach.

I think of baked potatoes like I think about fries: so much potential, but so often overlooked.

Why care so much about potatoes? Is it because I (for better or worse) am of Irish extraction? Perhaps, but people the world over enjoy potatoes because they are cheap, filling and full of all the good stuff that we need. Why do you think that they became such a staple in the diets of people the world over?

Anyway, I have tinkered with a few methods for making baked potatoes, and this is my favorite:

  • 2-4 medium to large Russet baking potatoes
  • Oil (olive, vegetable, canola, peanut, corn...anything but motor)
  • Salt (Kosher if you have it, table if you don't/don't care)


  • Wash potatoes in cold water with a stiff bristled brush. Scrub them good, but don't strip the skins.
  • Take a fork and stab each potato deeply (really give those suckers a good jab) eight to twelve times, depending on the size of the spud. This helps steam to escape while cooking.
  • Dry the potatoes off
  • Coat each lightly in oil. The best way (but not the least messy) is to put some oil in your hand and rub them all over.
  • When each is oiled, place on an ungreased baking sheet
  • Salt the potatoes lightly
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 1-1.5 hours (for two potatoes, 1 hour 15 minutes seems about perfect - alter with oven and number of potatoes.
  • When done, they should be crispy on the outside, yet squeeze easily and be soft inside.
  • To open, take a fork and stab a dotted line across half of the potato's top. Squeeze at both ends and it should pop open.

At this point, the world is your oyster. You have a perfectly baked potato with a crispy, delicious skin and a smooth, creamy interior.

Top with, well, basically anything. Sour cream, chives, butter, salt, pepper, HP sauce, chili, tuna, baked beans, ketchup, mayonnaise...basically anything edible will taste good on top of this perfectly baked potato.

Oh, and if anyone asks you, you can tell them (not exactly a lie) it is the method of an Irish cook who tried hundreds of ways before getting it just perfect.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Will Is a Twit(ter)

More substantial posting later (think baked potatoes and the Scottish Enlightenment).

I did want to mention here (if you didn't notice the box to the right under "Breaking News") that I have joined the world of Twitter.

Boy, I have gone from Luddite to aspiring social media whore in a comparatively short amount of time.

Anyway, to follow me on Twitter, just click my username to the right in the box thingy and go from there.

If you want the URL, it is here.

So, if my long boring musings here are not enough, maybe my short boring updates can fill the gaps.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Link Exchange

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Television, History, Memory

It is always funny what can trigger memories to come rushing back.

For me, one recent incidence was looking for an old, local commercial from Chicago television.

I found it, and saw that the clip seemed to be part of a much larger project. Indeed, it was.

The Museum of Classic Chicago Television is a completely online museum dedicated to preserving television clips from the Chicago area. I think just the premise is great. It is everything that a museum should be: interactive, well-organized and completely open to anyone.

In looking through their "exhibits," I was surprised at the wide array of television clips that they had. It was not just commercials (although this is a large part of what is there). They had newscasts, sports clips and everything else that makes up what a television station does.

As I paged through the clips of ads for Schmerler Ford, Polk Brothers and Linn Burton "For Certain," newscasts with Fahey Flynn, Walter Jacobsen and Joel Daly and all of the WTTW clips for Wild Chicago, Image Union, Doctor Who promos and Marty Robinson, something happened.

A lost world started to remake itself in my mind.

Instantly, I was a kid again, sitting there on Saturday morning, waiting for cartoons to come back on as that guy in the Victory Auto Wreckers commercial pulls the door off the car again. I was also there, in the kitchen with my mom after school, her making dinner, me talking about school, Joel Daly reading the news. I was there, too, on a Saturday night, waiting impatiently for Marty Robinson to announce this week's Doctor Who adventure.

It was a real nostalgia trip. Then, when I came back from that lost world, the academic began to think about what just happened.

Is this what defines my past? Is it disjointed clips of local media and ads for products that can trigger personal memories? Isn't this a bit crass? Shouldn't it be something more profound? Am I just proof that we are an over-commercialized society that watches too much television?

Before I reached peace with this, the historian in my mind reminded that these are artifacts of a lost age of broadcasting, before cable was ubiquitous, when the local affiliate station held a lot more sway in any given media market. I thanked him for the insight, but was still troubled a bit.

Then it hit me. It is not these flashes of Chicago's media past themselves that form my past. They merely serve as triggers.

They are not the lost world. My memories are.

These glimpses into the televised past of my hometown were merely the background noise to everything else that was going on, part of the soundtrack to what really was meaningful - growing up, sharing bonds with family, becoming who I am today.

I thought, furthermore, what does it matter if it was these things going on in the background and not the music of Brahams or Mozart, not the poetry of Keats or Tennyson? Those artifacts of "high culture" are as much a part of my memories as the "low culture" of Celozzi-Ettelson Chevrolet or Carson's Ribs.

To put it another way, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is as much a part of my mental landscape and past as, " York and Roosevelt Roads, where you always save more money!"

Does this make me a philistine who has flashes of "real" culture peppered in among the trash? Well, I think the high/low divide in culture is a false divide and has not really been meaningful for almost 200 years. So, no.

Does it bother me that my memories and personal past are made of such disparate elements? Not at all. It what helps make me (and everyone else) the unique and fascinating people that they are.

The whole is, as ever, more than the sum of its parts. So it is with me, I imagine.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Henry Kissinger was Right (About WWII, Anyway)

I know, I know.

Dr. K is not only one the most important diplomats in American history, he is also an incredibly divisive figure. Opinions of him range from praise for beginning the end of the Cold War to wanting him convicted as a war criminal.

As a historian, though, many of his assessments were well-considered and show a deep understanding of motivation and geopolitics in the past.

I may talk about his ideas about the Congress of Vienna at a later date, but in preparing my lecture for the end of World War II and the coming of the Cold War, I re-read part of his 1994 book Diplomacy. There is much to recommend his reading of the situation immediately after the Second World War, especially from the standpoint of the three Allied leaders (Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin).

First, I think he reads the diplomatic geneaology of FDR exactly right. He argues that FDR's vision of the world after WWII emerged from American exceptionalism, Wilsonian idealism and a unique understanding of the American psyche.

Great, what the hell does all that mean? Well, American exceptionalism is the idea that America is unique and has a singular role to play on the world stage. The US is special and has a special destiny because of its history and its ideas.

This is complimented by Wilsonian idealism, the vision of world politics that came from former President Woodrow Wilson at the close of the First World War. Wilson believed in the spread of democracy and national self-determination and that America had the central role to play in this.

Lastly, FDR understood the American proclivity to think in terms of universal ideas rather than the calculus of reward and punishment that seemed to govern diplomacy in years gone by.

I think this is right because it explains his actions in the waning months of the war. He believed Churchill and Britain could hold off the USSR while helping to rebuild Europe without American assistance. This belief is, knowing that Britain was economically destroyed and politically vulnerable, only explained by a deep ideological commitment to a certain vision of the world.

This was also helped by the fact that while FDR often distrusted Churchill's motives (especially where the British Empire was concerned), he believed Churchill's rhetoric that Britain was up to the task. This, incidentally, says as much about Churchill as it does about FDR.

Secondly, I think Kissinger was right in his assessment of Stalin as a blend of communist ideology and traditional Russian notions of statecraft. Stalin, according to Kissinger, distrusted fascism as much as he did capitalism. He hoped to use his alliances with Nazi Germany and then with the US and Great Britain to further territorial aims that could have come out of the old Russian imperial playbook.

Russia, for hundreds of years, has been concerned with gaining buffer territory along its vast borders. This, coupled with the centuries-old notion that Russia has to constantly allay its own feelings of inferiority, explains Stalin's policies during and after the war.

I think this is right, although I have a different take on the ideology bit and how it relates. While Stalin pursued communist policies at home, he had realized at least since the 1920's that the USSR must consolidate its position against possible rivals. This was a central factor in the disagreement between Stalin and Leon Trotsky.

So, in a way, I believe that Stalin saw communism and the Soviet system as means to an end, a way of establishing total control on a domestic level so that he could pursue fairly traditional foreign policy aims.

Expanding on Kissinger's arguments, I had to ask myself about why FDR and Churchill believed Stalin's overtures toward democracy and restraint. Also, why was it that Churchill portrayed Britain and its empire as equal to the task of rebuilding Europe and holding off the USSR when they were clearly in economic distress and the cracks in the empire were growing ever larger?

To the first question, I say that FDR believed Stalin because of his notions of international relations. If the postwar order was to look like a Wilsonian notion of perpetual peace based on harmony, FDR had to think that Stalin would be a willing participant in keeping the global peace after the war. Ideology stood in the way of reality and FDR really didn't plan for the eventuality (well, it's what happened) if Stalin didn't exactly play along.

To second, I say that Churchill knew exactly what he was doing. He was an ardent old imperialist, it's true. That's where the rhetoric comes from. He was not ignorant of the situation as it was, though. While Churchill believed that the Empire could be kept together (in one form or another), it was clear from the course of the war that Britain could no longer go it alone.

Churchill knew that Britain's only chance for survival was to cozy up to the US as much as possible so that the US would, in turn, see Britain as their main ally in Europe and also their main ally in forging the balance of power that would develop after the war. This balance of power was seen as natural by Churchill, but this is what FDR wanted to avoid.

So, it was basically Churchill's task to manuver between Stalin and FDR, usually giving into US demands while making it clear at every opportunity that Washington's strategic interests were also those of London. This was Churchill's great coup, and the birth of the so-called "special relationship," at least in any formal sense.

Why should we care about any of this? Well, it was in these notions of a postwar world that the world of the latter half of the twentieth century was born. The bipolar world of the US and its allies in NATO and elsewhere on one side and the USSR and the Warsaw Pact nations on the other were born in the minds and actions of FDR, Churchill and Stalin and their governments in the waning months of World War II.

It was these critical views and opinions that set the stage for the rest of the "short" twentieth century (1914-1992), and also presented the international situation that would persist until this bipolar world crumbled to the ground and the world we live in now was born.

So, Kissinger got it right (at least here), and I think the history of the period and the subsequent years bear him out. To what extent does his reading of history reflect his own actions as a diplomat?

That is a question for another time and another long, rambling post. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Link Exchange: Making Holidays Less Fun Edition

Whether railing against Thanksgiving as ritualized commodity fetishism or condeming the imposition of the Atlantic economy on a native population or questioning the motivation of the Protestant religious fanatics who landed on our shores in the seventeenth century, academics can even take the fun out of Thanksgiving. Oh, believe me, we've already done a number on Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day and the Fourth of July.

While I believe in being critical of tradition and trying to understand it in a certain context, I am perfectly capable of leaving that hat in the library or lecture hall, pulling up my sleeves, tucking into enough food to feed ten normal people and try to care about the Detroit Lions.

Economists, unlike historians or cultural critics or anthropologists or others, at least try to have a little fun with the holidays. The preachiness is more missing, and people are considered amorally (as in without moral judgement) for their choices and preferences. That is what draws me into economics as a field of interest.

Anyway, here are some economic takes on the coming holiday:

Enjoy the holiday.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Chuckwagon: Chicken Adobo, Filipino Style

When one is terminally short of cash, one is always on the lookout for cheaper ways to do things. Thus it is with cooking.

Being stony broke forces one to become rather creative when it comes to food. One must use cheaper cuts of meat, more spices and different cooking methods. I find it to be rather an interesting challenge.

Let's see how little I can spend and still eat well?

That's why I love when I come across recipes like this one. It is cheap (you probably have most of this stuff sitting around), flavorful, aromatic and easy to make.

You might think that adobo would be a dish from the Spanish speaking world, and you'd be sort of right. The Spanish ruled the Philippines for hundreds of years, so something was bound to rub off besides the love of plaster statues of saints.

Adobo, in the Filipino context, refers not so much do a dish but to a method of preparation, which you will see below.

As with any recipe, alter the amounts or ingredients to suit your tastes. Some might like it sweeter, others tangier, others with more, less or different vegetables or meats. It's all up to you. That's another great thing about this recipe: flexibility.

  • 1/2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into pieces
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 medium onion, sliced
  • 1/4 c. soy sauce
  • 1/3 c. vinegar
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 c. water
  • Black pepper to taste


  • Mix all ingredients in medium-sized pot. Stir and let sit for 5-10 minutes
  • Cover and cook on medium heat for 30-40 minutes or until chicken is done
  • After about 20 minutes, check the level of liquid in the pot. Add more soy sauce or water as needed.
  • Great over white rice.

Friday, November 20, 2009

In A (Not So) Big Country

People seem to love smaller versions of larger things. The human brain seems to be hard-wired to be drawn to the miniature. The examples are legion: babies, Matchbox cars, puppies, cocktail hot dogs, Danny DiVito.

For me, I have always been fascinated with small countries, formally known as microstates. Or, to put it in terms both crude and politically geographical, when it comes to countries, I am not a size queen.

I guess this fascination started by playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? on our good, old Apple IIE (yes, they DID make something before the iPod) back in 1987. I could not believe that a places like San Marino or Andorra were real countries.

My fascination was fed by many early watchings of the great 1959 Peter Sellers movie The Mouse That Roared, that details the trials and tribulations of the microstate of Grand Fenwick.

I suppose it culminated with a visit to the 1994 American Numismatic Association convention where I actually shook the hand of an actual government official from a microstate (the director of the San Marino Monetary Authority).

Yes, if you were wondering, this whole being nerdy is far from being a new thing...

So, what is the draw of these places? Why are they at all interesting?

First off, the sheer lack of size in comparison is a good jumping off point. The entire country of San Marino has about as many residents as the Chicago suburb where I grew up. You could comfortably fit the entire country of Liechtenstein within the bounds of the City of Madison, WI.

Great, so what? These facts lead one to wonder: how did these tiny countries slip through the cracks? How did they remain independent even when their large, powerful neighbors fought bloody wars, shifted borders and coalesced into nation-states?

I think in a lot of cases, these places were just too small, remote and unimportant in the grand scheme for the great powers (such as they were) to expend the effort to crush and subdue them. They are not a threat, so why bother?

The flip-side of this is also interesting. The people of these microstates could have easily appealed to become parts of their larger neighbors, to grab the coat-tails of a European up-and-comer, to be a part of a unified, powerful nation. But they didn't. The spirit of independence, pride and sheer bloody-mindedness appeals to my political sensibilities.

These places are also pleasingly anachronistic in all the best ways. Because of their remotness and relative unimportance to wider political, economic and social forces, the past lives on in these places more than most.

Take San Marino, for example. They are probably the oldest constitutional democracy on Earth, having been so since 1243. Their military consists mainly of a corps of crossbowmen.

Or Andorra. Their government is a relic of a fight between Spanish and French nobles over a chunk of the Pyrenees in the thirteenth century. Andorra has two heads of state, descended from the successors to those noble claims: the Bishop of Urguell in Spain and the President of France.

In a larger sense, though, I must consider that I look at these places as a native of a "big country," one of the great powers. Some in this position might look at places like Monaco or Malta and think, "well, who dives a good goddamn about little, piss-ant countries that time forgot? What did they ever do for history. They are the places that don't matter."

Not me, however. I see these places as interesting experiments, tested by history. In isolation and ignorance of the powerful, these countries made it work. They kept their independence, ran their lives and moved at exactly the pace at which they felt comfortable, not driven forward by the inexorable forces of geopolitics through the ages.

They also provide interesting examples of how sovereignty can operate on a small scale and how democracy can function best when it functions smallest. What I mean is that when the government and politics of a place can be tailored closest to the needs and wants of the people who live there, things tend to work out better than national-level decision making.

As a libertarian with strong anarchist leanings, this notion appeals to me greatly. Think a small piece of territory cannot be sovereign and survive? Think again.

More than mere geographical or historical curiosities, the microstates of the world offer a window into a different way of life.

Maybe I believe, at least where governments are involved, that small is indeed beautiful.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wait a Minute...Herman Who?

Today, the news broke that the leaders of the twenty-seven EU member states selected the first full-time President of the European Council and the first permanent High Representative for foreign affairs.

If you are unclear about what these positions are, what they do and how the EU functions in general, well, join the club. But for a good introduction, click here.

Who are the lucky winners? Who are the latest unelected people to be chosen to influence policy and procedure in the EU, a regional alliance that has been growing in power and influence, most recently with the Lisbon Treaty?

Why, it was Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rampuy and EU Trade Commissioner Baroness Catherine Ashton, of course.

Don't panic. I had never heard of either of them before today myself.

The big talk in the run-up to this decision, and the position taken by the British government, was that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was all but a shoo-in for the job. Tony least a guy that more people have heard of.

So, what happened? What led the leaders of the EU member states to choose two politicians who are virtual unknowns, who are thought to be "consensus builders," and neither of whom have much foreign policy experience?

Well, let's think about this.

It is no secret who are the "big dogs" when it comes to the member states of the EU. This position belongs to France and Germany, and most specifically, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy. These states and their leaders stand at the center of the "European project."

Why? Well, it is simple (at least to me). They both realize that to consolidate their relative positions economically and politically on the Continent, they need each other to survive. Furthermore, they need the smaller states of the EU to consolidate this position through offering attractive incentives (development money, union-wide institutions that could save individual states money) in exchange for tacit leadership by the larger states in the union.

What about Britain, then? To put it simply, the French and Germans don't trust them. The reasons are historical and, well, sort of cultural. Historical because there had been an aversion among British politicians to join the union and the corresponding rejections of British membership led by Charles de Gaulle in the 1960's. Cultural because, more than any other people who are members of the EU, the British really don't (and never have) considered themselves Europeans. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Britain is in Europe, but not of Europe.

So, back to today's decision (which was a unanimous one among the 27 member states). Merkel and Sarkozy knew that a big-name British politician like Tony Blair could prove to be much more of a problem than some Belgian guy and an EU commissioner who is a Brussels insider.

They also knew that in no way, shape or form do they have to give any part of a shit about what Gordon Brown, the current British PM, wants. It is pretty clear that Brown and his Labour Party will not be in power (or at least not in a majority in the House of Commons) for much longer. Brown pushed for his old boss Blair to get the job, but he really has no bargaining position.

What are the larger implications of this? For one, anyone who tries to tell you that the EU marks the end of old, nation-state based politics in Europe is just plain wrong. The EU is just another forum for the various states of Europe to seek their own interests. It doesn't get rid of the game; it just provides a different playing field.

Another larger point that this reinforces plays to the nature of the EU itself. I believe it is a fundamentally undemocratic institution and this decision just further proves that. This decision does nothing to make the EU's institutions more representative. All it does is preserve the status quo, mainly in favor of France and Germany.

Everything I say here is debatable, and I might well be wrong. What I do think I have right, though, is the notion that the states of Europe and their leaders will use international institutions to pursue the interests of their own states.

International relations theorists can say all they want about mid-level explanations of interstate relations, or cosmopolitanism, or cooperation. Perhaps I look at this with the jaundiced eye of the historian, but I just don't see that at work here. Feel free to prove me wrong.

Oh, and this destabilizes domestic politics in Belgium, but really, who gives a shit?

Link Exchange

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Lecturer as Rock Star?

One thing I have never had a problem with is speaking in front of groups. I have always found it hard to believe that lots of people fear it more than death, but this seems to be the case. Jerry Seinfeld even joked about it: "At a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy."

So, in my current line of work, it has been helpful not being a glossophobe. In being a TA and now a lecturer, I have to be in front of people as the central part of my job. This will be the case for my entire career.

In addition to this, I have always been somewhat aware of the performative aspect of education. A successful lecture or discussion section is built as much on the presentation as on the content. I actually will paraphrase former president Ronald Reagan here when I say that I don't know how anyone could go into education without having acting experience.

I never really had this awareness of performance and education brought home or clarified, though, until a recent conversation with my brother. For those of you who don't know him, my brother has been a musician, in one way or another, since he was in the fifth grade. He has performed in school bands and orchestras, pit orchestras for the stage, heavy metal bands, jam bands, bar bands and impromptu jam sessions of all sorts. I (and I might be showing family bias here) think he is quite an accomplished performer.

Recently I was talking to him about my frustration at sometimes not being able to tell if my students are getting it. I was frustrated that the best that I can do is see if they are obviously asleep or obviously surfing the web on their laptops.

My brother then drew the paralell between teaching a class and performing live on stage. You need to feed off the audience, drawing your energy and directing your performance in the direction of the audience. You have to try to keep the "diehards" going strong while drawing in the people who seem not to care or not to notice that there is a performance even going on. You need to constantly relate to your audience, establishing this connection so that the exchange can be mutually beneficial.

I was taken aback. Hell, he's absolutely right. They ARE pretty similar.

I had to counter with something, so I pointed out that while you mostly play at bars and music clubs, the lecture hall is a much different forum. He admitted that this was true, but that they were still people and they still act the same when something is going on in front of them on a stage.

Additionally, he said that the fact that the crowds at the average gig might be intoxicated (in one way or another) might be a double-edged sword. It might make them more "in to" what you are doing, or it might make them more ignorant, and you can never really tell.

Nail on the head, I'd say. This was not really shocking, though. My brother is in front of crowds at least four times every week and has been for most of his adult life.

So, does this mean that I think that lecturers and rock stars are the same? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the fact that they are both performers of a sort that depend on audience reaction for the energy behind their performances. No, in the fact that rock stars' performances are in the "entertainment" part of one's life, lecturers much less so.

It is drawing these paralells between the linements of human endeavor that I think lead to the deepest understanding of human behavior and the human experience.

So, if you'll excuse me, I have finish getting ready to rock Humanities 1131 with a blistering set of culture in interwar Europe.

Or, if you like, less people yelling, "play 'Freebird!'" than yelling "show us how culture influenced and was influenced by the dissolution and horror following World War I!"

Rock on, indeed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Chuckwagon: Fried Rice

Madison is a great eating town. For a city its size, the dining options are legion. Especially notable is the wide array of cuisine from cultures around the world that can be had in Wisconsin's second largest city. Peruse this website to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

There are two sorts of Americanized, bastardized ethnic foods, though, that Madison just can't seem to do right. These are standards in the American food pantheon, and I was surprised when I moved here that I could not find anything close to the standards that I was used to in the Chicago area.

I guess I am just an Americanized, bastardized ethnic food snob.

Oh, the two that I am talking about are pizza and what you might call American Chinese food.

Pizza is for another time, but suffice to say that Rosati's Pizza is just O.K. back in the Big Chi, but it is just about the best thing here.

I find it hard to believe that I cannot find take-out, white folded container, huge menu, kinda greasy Chinese food anywhere near the order of the places that I ate in the Chicago area. To put it in South Suburban terms, none of these places in Madison should be mentioned in the same sentence as Dragon Palace.

So, after a while of thrashing about, I decided to take matters into my own hands and make my own American Chinese favorites.

Fried rice is hearty, economical, a great way to use up leftovers, quick and tasty. This recipe is especially open to tinkering, so feel free.

Fried Rice
  • 1-2 green onions
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • Black pepper to taste
  • Olive oil (or vegetable oil would work as well)
  • 4 cups of cooked rice
  • Soy sauce to taste
  • Any sort of meaty add-ins: pork, chicken, shrimp, basically whatever you have
  1. Wash and chop the green onions
  2. Beat eggs with salt and pepper
  3. Heat some oil (the two-times around the pan thing should be sufficient) in a large frying pan
  4. When the oil is hot, add the eggs and lightly scramble
  5. Remove eggs and set aside
  6. Add more oil, rice, green onions, anything else and break up rice clumps with spoon
  7. Add soy sauce to your taste
  8. When heated through, add egg, mix and serve.

Link Exchange

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Incentive's Always Waiting at the Liquor Store for Me

Those who know me know that if I believe any one thing unshakably, it is that people respond to incentives. Incentives and people's choices when faced with them show their preferences, and these preferences are a window into the sort of person they are.

We make choices constantly. It seems that we are hard-wired to be decisionmakers. Just think for a moment how many choices you make before you leave the house for the morning, and you'll see what I mean.

I have long been fascinated (and even worked for a time) with people's behavior in retail outlets, especially grocery stores. Grocery stores are where most people have their longest contact with the economy, so it is a place where competing preferences and incentives are constantly in intricate interplay.

Now, there has been a lot of interesting work done on people's retail behavior, including (but not limited to): how to pick the fastest checkout lane, price discrimination (getting people to pay different prices for the same stuff), and the deadweight loss of Christmas.

One sector of retail behavior that has always fascinated me is people's behavior in liquor stores (or the liquor sections of grocery stores). I have been observing this behavior (and admittedly participating in it) for some time, and I wanted to offer a few observations.

First, I think there is a lot of signalling involved in buying liquor. The particular liquor one chooses conveys information about that person. The bunch of dudes with a cart full of thiry-packs of PBR is sending a different message than the old codger with a liter of bourbon or the couple with pretentious eyewear with the wine from somewhere foreign.

I think much of this has to do with brand image and how this relates to one's own image. It is the ultimate victory of the advertising industry, in my opinion. You don't want to send the wrong message, especially with a product that, in a lot of ways, sends negative messages anyway.

This is, of course, silly. A consumer product is an inanimate object, devoid of moral force. It is simply another commodity, and what it says about you should not be a factor in your incentive calculations. But, the problem is that, well, this seems to be true. We fall for it all the time and liquor is no different.

Second, the mantra, "incentives matter" plays out in interesting ways in the liquor store. I see this operating in two ways:
  1. The person who seems to float between different sections and different potent potables, seemingly in a quest for the most "bang for the buck," as it were. These are incentives at their most pure: what am I getting for what I am giving up? To put it another way, what is the opportunity cost of going for a lot of cheap booze or a little better stuff? To put it yet another way (the way the most calculating and hardened drinkers think about it, I imagine) what is the highest alcohol content per volume that I can get at a certain price?
  2. The items left in the liquor department of grocery stores often tell an interesting (and occasionally depressing) story about people and incentives. I've seen discarded packages of diapers, allergy medication, coloring books, contraceptives, bread, milk and motor oil in liquor departments. Liquor went up against all of these things and (seemingly) won out. This might say more about the person than their purchases, but that's the whole point. By making this choice, they convey information about themselves.

Lastly, it is fascinating to me to conjecture on how people change their liquor buying decisions based on external factors. Of course, there are the people who will buy the same thing no matter the time, place or company (people who respond to the whole brand image thing I talked about earlier).

I wonder, though, how people's liquor buying decisions are altered by the people around and the time of day and also the place itself. The crowd at the average liquor dispensary is very different on a Tuesday afternoon than it is on a Friday evening. To give but one possible scenario:

You are standing in front of the beer case at your favorite liquor emporium. You are ready to go the "most bang for buck" route and grab the one thirty-pack of PBR that those dudes left behind. All of a sudden, an attractive (depending on how you define this) person walks up next to you and appears to engage in the same behavior.

The question becomes: do you change your PBR decision and go for a twelve of Stella Artois? Or a local microbrew? Or an armful of forties of Steel Reserve? How does the presence of this other person influence your beer incentive scheme?

Well, enough of this talk. I am going to pour another beer from the $6.99 case that I bought this afternoon.

Go ahead. Pick out my signalling, analyize my decisions and figure out my incentive scheme.

You know you want to.

Oh, and cheers!

Friday, November 06, 2009

Link Exchange

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Chuckwagon: Guinness Beef Stew

I have thought about this a lot, and I have concluded that I am much more a winter food person.

Now, before you throw your barbecue tools at me, hear me out. I would never turn my nose up at a brat, burger, ribs, chicken or a steak the size of a garbage can lid off the grill.

When it comes to variety, though, I have to say that once you cycle through all your grilling choices, you find your self repeating yourself repeatingly redundant.

Winter food, though, is a more open playing field. You could go a month and eat nothing but variations on the casserole. I don't recommend that you do this, but if you are from Minnesota, you probably do this anyway.

One of my favorite food categories with a million variations is the stew, otherwise know as soup's brawnier brother. It is the simplest of foods, invented by cultures the world over through the centuries. Meat, vegetables, liquid, heat. Everything else is completely up to you.

A favorite in the English-speaking world is beef stew. From Dinty Moore to the Lancashire hot pot, it never fails to deliver that stick-to-the-ribs warming feeling that is one of the reasons I like winter food.

This recipe is one of my favorites. I first ate it about a year ago, and have made it several times since. It is easy and delicious. In fact, when I served it at my St. Patrick's Day extravaganza last year, it was gone before the corned beef was.

You do need a CrockPot, but if you don't already have one, pony up and get one. It is well worth it.

So, here you go (with a tip of the tweed pinch cap to Julie Norkus).

Guinness Beef Stew
  • 3 tbs. olive oil
  • 3 tbs. flour
  • 3 lbs. beef stew meat
  • 1 medium bag of baby carrots
  • 6 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1 onion, cubed
  • 4 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 2-3 cups of beef broth
  • 1 7oz. can of tomato paste
  • 16 oz. of Guinness
  • 2 cups of green peas
  • thyme
  • oregano
  • parsley
  • salt and pepper

1. Thickly dredge beef in flour and fry in olive oil until brown

2. Put ingredients into CrockPot in this order: potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic, meat, Guinness, broth and tomato paste (mix together first), generous sprinkling of thyme, oregano and parsley

3. Cook on High for six hours.

4. With about an hour and a half to go, stir and add peas

5. Give yourself about forty-five minutes-hour leeway to make sure everything is done.

Oh, you might want to leave the house while this cooks...the smell of it all day will drive you mad with desire.

Link Exchange

  • Bryan Caplan on libertarians quoting Trotsky. No, this is not fake.
  • Athletes, performance, signalling and "excessive celebration," from Robin Hanson.
  • In the next week, we celebrate twenty years since Die Berliner Mauerfall. Links, all good, from Cato@Liberty. I particularly like the one about "paradise imposed at gunpoint."
  • Interesting map of the Biblical flood that shows a lot about faith and science in the seventeenth century.
  • Exploring the pros and pitfalls of Wikipedia. I think the demographic data is particularly illuminating.

Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand, Everywhere

With two new books out about her, sales of her books higher than ever, and new interest in her philosophy in the world's largest democracy growing, it might seem that we are living in a Randian moment.

Love her or hate her, it is hard to ignore her and her ideas, her strange personality, her evangelical followers (even though they would hate that phrase) and her vehement detractors.

I intend this post as a collection on some recent, useful writing on the subject for the curious. I have already made my opinions known here at COTL back in 2005. Read those here.

Now, the reading list (which is by no stretch of the imagination exhaustive). Oh, and if you don't throw up a little at the (thankfully fake) picture in the GQ article, you might not be human.

  • The Reason Foundation's "Rand-a-Palooza." You might expect Reason to be chest-thumpingly adulatory, but they do complicate this expected bias towards Rand and her ideas.
  • According to GQ, "The Bitch is Back," apparently. For some, she never left. More a personal reflection for, well, the sort of people who read GQ.
  • Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution's take. I especially like his ideas about Rand and a modern virtue ethics.
  • Article in New York about Rand's personality and its relationship to her ideas. I particularly like the notion of the unreality of Objectivism.
  • NYT book review that details Rand's difficult relationship with conservatives. I would add that this difficulty extend to libertarians, liberals...pretty much everyone who didn't accept Objectivism whole and uncut.
  • A bit of humor mixed in with the criticism. Murray Rothbard's delightful one-act play entitled, "Mozart Was a Red." This zeroes in, with humor, on one of the things that I find most objectionable about her philosophy.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Vacation From The City Of Tiny Lights

As you all can tell, I have decided to take a break.

I have a lot to do in the next few months and I figured I'd give the old electronic mouthpiece a rest.

The upshot of all this is that I will have a lot to talk about when I come back.

I intend to pick back up in July.

So, until then, keep your eyes open and ears to the ground.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Not, "Oh No, Not Again."

Don't worry.

I have not disappeared as has become my custom in recent years.

Allow me to explain.

The post below, the first of my weekly features, turned into a beast. I had to tame it down a little and change focus.

Also, I have lost the wireless signal at home, leaving me dead in the water, Internet-wise. Expect another "crappy customer service" post if this does not work out well.

In partial penance for my disappearance, I have included a bonus post below on how to read a Supreme Court case. It will help the uninitiated wade through the sometimes inscrutable legalese.

Well, anyway, enjoy.

How To Read A Supreme Court Case

For my lawyer friends, this post can easily be skipped. For others, read on...

Reading Supreme Court cases can be a bit bewildering if it is something that you have never done before. It can seem like, well, legal gibberish. You must forgive it for that; it WAS written by lawyers, after all. (Mark and Andy, don't be mad. You still are, right?)

Every case is different and the written opinions of the Supreme Court have changed dramatically. The court and its role was different in the 1790's and so are its opinions. The people are different, too.

Supreme Court majority opinions are assigned according to a rotating schedule and are therefore written by different people at different times. The personality and legal style of the authors come through in their opinions and dissents. This can be, as ever, very different for different justices.

There are four factors, however, that all Supreme Court cases have in common. Keep these in mind when reading the cases and my posts about them. They are:
  1. A description of the facts of the case.
  2. A carefully framed statement of the issue posed by the case.
  3. The application of the relevant law and precedent to the issues and facts.
  4. The conclusion or holding, which is just another way of saying the court's decision.

Written cases are usually in this order, usually with some mention of the arguments presented in court and the concurrences and dissents following after.

Concurrences and dissents, you ask? The majority opinion of the court is expressed by the aforementioned justice who's turn it is (really). This majority opinion can by joined or concurred with by the other justices. If they join it, they simply agree with the reasoning and conclusion presented by the justice who wrote the opinion. If they concur, they issue a separate statement whereby they usually agree with the conclusion but not the reasoning used to arrive at it.

Dissents are issued by justices who do not agree with the conclusion and see the application of the law and precedent to the facts of the case in a different way. Dissents can be joined by other justices just as majorities and concurrences can.

So, in reading a Supreme Court case for our purposes, don't read it like someone in law school. You are not trying to learn the law in order to apply it in any way. You are reading these cases (well, I am, anyway) for the interest in how the law has developed over time, the social and cultural impact of the decision, the changing nature of the court and the personalities involved in this branch of government.

So, with that in mind, dig into Miller v. California. As I said, it is not boring. The word "genitalia" is used a lot.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

SCOTUS Wednesday: Miller v. California (1973)

(NOTE: I realize this is being published on a Tuesday. If you read the posts above, the reason for that will become more clear.)

Click here for a synopsis of the case and audio of the oral arguments. Click here for the full text of the decision.

The Background

Marvin Miller, the appellant, was one of the largest dealers in "adult material" on the West Coast. He dealt mainly in explicit books and magazines. In an attempt to sell more of his products, he sent out a mass mailing advertising some of these illustrated, ahem, picture books. This advertising not only included detailed descriptions of the books, but also featured pictures of nude males and females, most including full frontal shots depicting genitalia. One of these advertisements found its way to a restaurant in Newport Beach, CA where it was opened by the restaurant owner and his mother. They were offended by the material, had not requested it and took Miller to court.

The California state court found Miller guilty of a misdemeanor charge of "distributing obscene material," and ordered him to be fined. Miller took the case to the California Court of Appeals and the decision of the lower court was upheld. Miller then decided that the California Penal Code section under which he was convicted conflicted with his rights to free speech, claiming that the materials that he distributed were covered under the First Amendment.

The Question

Is the sale and distribution of obscene materials by mail protected by the free speech guarantee in the First Amendment?

The Precedents

Before 1973, the prevailing test for obscenity was the court's decision in Roth v. United States (1957). In Roth, the Court repudiated the old Common Law standard for obscenity defined in the 1868 case of Hicklin v. Regina from Great Britain. The test for obscenity in Hicklin allowed material to be banned that tended to "deprave and corrupt those minds who are open to such influences."

In a 6-3 decision in Roth, the Court decided to further define the test for obscenity. In the majority opinion written by William J. Brennan, the Court defined as obscene any material whose "dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest to the average person applying contemporary community standards." Only material that meets this test could be banned as obscene.

Although this further defined material considered as obscene, Brennan reaffirmed that obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment and upheld the conviction of Roth that brought the case to the court. First Amendment "literalists" Hugo Black and William O. Douglas dissented in Roth, stating clearly that obscenity was protected speech.

What followed Roth were several decisions on which the Court could not conclusively decide on a further test for obscenity. 1964's Jacobellis v. Ohio found that a movie theater owner could not be held responsible for showing a movie that didn't quite meet the Roth test for obscenity. This case, by the way, also saw the coining of the most famous phrase in the history of American obscenity law. Potter Stewart, in his concurrence with the majority opinion, wrote:

  • "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that (emphasis added)."

As if that was not ambiguous enough, in Memoirs v. Massachusetts (1966), the court ruled that a piece of literature (John Cleland's Fanny Hill, written in 1750) might be "patently offensive," but it was not completely without social value. This decision also showed how split the court was on obscenity, with four justices writing special concurrences because they could not unanimously agree with the majority opinion written by Brennan.

The Decision and Dissents

The court held that:

  • "Obscene materials are defined as those that the average person, applying contemporary community standards, find, taken as a whole, appeal to the prurient interest; that depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law; and that, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."
O.K. So, what the hell does that mean in English? It basically means that the Roth test was overturned and a new definition was added to the old one to form a new federal test for obscenity. The "taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value" part tries to further define the sort of works that can be deemed obscene and banned by the states.

The court split 5-4 in this decision with Chief Justice Warren Burger, Byron White, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell and William Rehnquist making up the majority and William O. Douglas, Brennan, Thurgood Marshall and Potter Stewart making up the dissenting side.

Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote the opinion for the majority. He had pushed during the deliberations for a "looser" definition of obscenity to open the door for more state-level prosecutions. His opinion is summarized by the above definition.

The dissents in this case were by William O. Douglas and Brennan. Douglas dissented on the basis of his belief in the absolute letter of the First Amendment (as he had done in Roth). Brennan, as you can see, had a change of heart since his opinion in Roth in 1957. He was now of the mind, similar to Douglas and Black, that all obscenity is protected speech unless it is distributed to minors or exposed offensively to adults without their consent.

The Significance

Miller is a landmark case in that it redefined the standard by which obscenity is judged. Most importantly, and worryingly, it further defined the community standards idea.

Why does this worry me? Well, think about it. This is saying that what is obscene in Massachusetts is different than what is obscene in, say, Utah. In a general sense, this might be true.

At a deeper level, however, I agree with Brennan and Douglas on this case. The First Amendment protection for free speech is as extensive as the many forms that speech itself takes. To say that "contemporary community standards" are to rule is to say that these standards are somehow agreed upon by all members of the community.

Now, how is this really possible? This applies a utilitarian notion of "greatest good for the greatest number" to an issue that, for me, is all about an individual right. I do agree that distribution of obscene materials to minors and showing them to unconsenting adults are not really defensible (although one can argue over whether our definition of "minor" is really a good one).

Apart from these groups, though, I am not sure how the state can have the power to regulate what sort of speech I create and to whom I deliver this speech in a media of one form or another. As Brennan argues, the First Amendment is there to protect the rights of individuals to have access to whatever forms of speech they'd like, regardless of their perceived "value."

In other words, I am not sure that the idea of "contemporary community standards" can ever be brought into line with the letter (or the spirit, come to it) of the First Amendment. Obscenity is a form of speech and I should not be limited in my consumption of it if I so choose.

So, the next time you hear swear words on television, buy porn or go to a strip club, think of yourself as a warrior in the battle for the First Amendment. To hell with your "community's standards." Seek out the speech you want and don't let anyone stand in your way.

It is our right and we need to use it everyday.

Because with rights, it's use 'em or lose 'em.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

New Feature: The Results Are In...

...and they're, well, inconclusive.

My poll last week asking for you good people to vote on a new feature for COTL attracted four votes. Thanks to the four who voted or the person who voted four times but for two different things or any combination of these.

It appears that the votes were evenly split between "Thrilling Tales of Europe's Past," and "Fun With Supreme Court Cases."

Seeing as there was equal interest between these two categories, I will compromise. I will switch off weeks between these two categories.

I also intend to broaden out the SCOTUS entries, focusing not just on cases, but on justices, ideas and the historical development of the Court from the 1790's to the present.

By the flip of a coin, the Supreme Court comes first.

So, sometime tomorrow, look for the first of my Wednesday history features.

We will get off to an exciting start, I assure you.


It involves porn.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Northwest Airlines Sucks

So, you thought that my bad travel experiences last month were and isolated incident, right?

Will couldn't POSSIBLY have ANOTHER bad trip so soon. Man, oh, one is THAT unlucky, are they?

Well, folks, it happened again.

I was supposed to present at a conference at the University of Akron last weekend. I was flying out of Madison on a Northwest Airlines flight that was to leave at 7:00AM and arrive in Detroit at 9:34AM. I then had a lay-over in Detroit, boarding my connecting flight to the Akron-Canton Regional Airport at 11:04AM. I was supposed to arrive in Akron at 11:59AM, in plenty of time to check in at the hotel, slap on a tie and make it to the University of Akron for my panel at 5:00PM.

Everything went to plan that morning. I was packed, showered, in a new sportcoat and on my way to the Dane County Regional Airport by 5:15AM. I checked in and went through security without incident (the TSA staff in Madison was courteous, professional and down to O'Hare and teach those assholes a lesson, why don't you?).

I got to my gate, sat down, drank a pop and read the paper. I even ran into someone I knew, so I would have someone to pass the time with on the plane. 6:45AM rolls around and they announce the pre-boarding call, so I get up and begin to make my way toward the gate (I was in Seat 6B, so I would get on first).

It was at this point when the suckitude began to ooze to the surface.

They announced that the plane was having "mechanical problems" and that we would be "slightly delayed." No problem, I thought, I had a sizeable lay over in Detroit, so this was just eating into the time I would have to kill in Detroit.

A half an hour passed (it was now 7:30AM) and the next announcement of dissapointment came. The plane required a part that they didn't have in Madison. It had to be flown in from Minneapolis on a flight that would arrive at 11:00AM. They were also having a mechanic drive in from Milwaukee to work on the plane in Madison with the part from Minneapolis.

Now, come on. Not only do you not have parts to fix the planes in service from Madison, you don't have a mechanic that can fix the plane? Isn't this an airport? Aren't you an airline? Isn't this, I don't know, what you fucking do?

It gets better (if by better you mean more suck-filled).

They announced because of their, ahem, maintenance arrangements, the flight would be further delayed. The flight to Detroit, originally scheduled to leave at 7:00AM was now going to leave at...wait for it...1:30PM - at the earliest.

Before, the delay was not a problem. Now it was a big, hairy, shambling, red-cheeked fucking problem.

I would now miss my connection for sure. I had to rebook, if necessary on a different airline. I called the airline and was immediately mired in what my dad appropriately calls, "automated attendant hell." I guess it is a different sort of hell than the people waiting in line at the gate. An entire plane of people being rebooked and rerouted by a grand total of two slow NWA employees.

When I finally reached a human being (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), I calmly described my problem and asked what could be done. I was brusquely asked if the flight was cancelled. I said that it was (people were to collect their baggage and make other plans). I was then all but accused of lying about the cancellation and asked again about the status of the flight.

Look, madam, you work for the airline. You have the schedules for flights of yours and other airlines a keystroke away. I'm stranded in a fucking airport. Who is in a better position to answer that question, asshole?

I then asked if there was any way, connecting through anywhere, that could get me to the Akron-Canton Airport by 3:00PM. After a short pause, the disembodied, snotty voice on the other end said, "not a chance."

Hey, I don't expect you to kiss my ass. I also don't expect a triumphant air of near joy in telling me that my travel plans are now ruined. You know who does things like that? Petty little shitheads with nothing to do in their lives except make other peoples' lives miserable.

I should have just accepted my refund there. But, no. I had to have the foresight of a back-up plan. I asked Her Assholiness if there was a way to get me to Cleveland sometime early this afternoon. I could fly to Cleveland, rent a car and drive to Akron (they are not at all far from each other).

After no pause at all (which tells me, dipshit, that I know you didn't check this out), I was informed, "Uhhhh, no."

Northwest Airlines and Their Unhelpful Employess and Bad Maintenance, 1: Will Shannon, 0.

I gave this woman my address to get my refund. She then had the audacity to ask me if I wanted it as a check or credit toward future travel. She opened the door and I walked through.

"Well, seeing as I never plan on flying your airline again," I declared, "I think I'll go for the check."

"Well, I'm sorry to hear that," she said, reading right from the goddamned script that these dipfucks are given.

"Are you?" I asked.

"Thank you for flying Northwest Airlines. Good bye," she said as she hung up.

I suppose she was interpreting the term "flying" rather loosely seeing as I NEVER LEFT THE FUCKING AIRPORT.

Well, I went home and have never felt as "dressed up with nowhere to go" in my life. I was in a sportcoat and tie, with a packed bag, standing in my apartment and it was 9:30 in the morning. I ended up having a topping day nonetheless. I played golf, took a nap and hit the town with the Shealy brothers. Thanks, Greg and Drew; you helped wash the Northwest Airlines shit taste out of my mouth. All the beer, whiskey and gyros helped.

I could go on about why I think airline service is so bad today (after deregulation in 1978, which was overall a good thing, airlines no longer had to compete on service at lower price points). I could lament the plight of the legacy carriers and their failure to adapt to a changing market.

But I won't. Don't want to spoil a good rant with any clear thinking. Not in this case, anyway.

So, to Northwest Airlines, I say your people are as bad as your service and you ruined a trip that I actually wanted to take. Your ill-mannered employees and shoddy ground procedures put me out and wasted my time and money. The next time I am presented with the choice of travel on your airline or walk there, I'm opting for the old Heel-Toe Express.

Oh, and the next time I want to get dressed up, spend a lot of money for nothing and get blue-balled, I'll try to go on a date.

At least then the woman rejecting me will be in person.


Multum In Parvo

Many interesting pieces crossing the wires (so to speak) today...

  • Ed Glaeser on how entrepreneurship saved New York and damned Pittsburgh. Cities have to compete for scarce resources (residents and their money), too.
  • Fascinating work on the geography of personality. Find the full paper here. This is interdisciplinary social science at its best. It also shows the Midwest (at least the part I'm from) in a really good light.
  • Patri Friedman's exhortation to libertarians to quit whining and try to make a freer society actually happen. He makes a lot of sense, really.
  • Will Wilkinson on cooperation and civil society. His discussion of "higher-level" public goods relates closely to the issues I raised about the SSIP.
  • Gary Becker argues that the drop in housing prices has not influenced overall consumption very much. His argument about "wealth effects" and housing prices is especially compelling.
  • A fascinating interactive graph of shifting religious identification in the USA. Apparently, we are becoming less likely to identify as religious and the center of this population is shifting eastward. Read a decent article in Newsweek that relates to this notion here.
  • Richard Posner's review of this book on psychology and economics. I think this issue is critical to understanding not only the economic crisis but human behavior more generally.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Parades, Relaxation And A Poll

Two new posts and a poll for you today.

The new posts discuss:
  • The problems involved at the heart of the SSIP, as I see them. Don't worry...I talk about fun stuff like beer, missiles and Snoop Dogg.
  • The soothing effect of a British weather forecast. Take a look; you might be surprised.

PLEASE, OH PLEASE vote in the poll below as well. I have wanted to have a weekly feature for a while. Jenks has a great Friday feature that teaches you Latin. Rachel has a great Monday feature that teaches you about British monarchs.

So, I figured I would have such a feature to educate and entertain that would happen each and every week. The poll below details what I thought would be good topics, and topics that interest me and that I know a lot about. There is also a chance to leave your own ideas. There is lastly a chance to tell me to shut the fuck up. Well, I know which one will get the most votes...

And now, the poll:

What should be the weekly feature at COTL?
Fun With Economics
Thrilling Tales of Europe's Past
Thrilling Tales of Britain's Past
Fun With Supreme Court Cases
Something Else (Put suggestions in a comment)
Shut The Fuck Up, Will. We Don't Care. free polls

The SSIP, Public Goods And Free Riders

I promised that I would discuss some of the problems behind an event like the recently-cancelled South Side Irish Parade. As I see it, the issues at stake here emerge from two separate but related concepts. Those concepts are the notion of public goods and the corresponding free-rider problem.

I intend to discuss these concepts and how they might relate to an event like the SSIP. In my final post, I will suggest some possible solutions derived from these concepts and the other (possible) issues related to the event.

Public Goods

Typically, when one asks how to define public goods, the answer usually involves the terms "non-rivaled" and "non-excludable." Blank stares usually follow.

Examples are the best way to get at this concept. Non-rivaled means that the consumption of the good by one person does not reduce the availability of the good for others. If I drink a case of beer, the result (apart from me talking really loud and then passing out) is that I make that case of beer unavailable for anyone else.

Non-excludable means, well, that the consumption of the good does not exclude others from consuming that good. Continuing the beer example, if I drink that case of beer, I exclude others from consuming it. This, in a way, slightly reduces the ability of others to consume that same good. I know that they could go and buy their own beer, but they are prevented from consuming the beer that I did.

That case of beer is, therefore, not a public good because it is rivaled and excludable.

Something like a parade is different. The consumption of the good (the events of the parade) by one person does not reduce the availability of the parade for other spectators. In the same way, the consumption of the parade by one person does not exclude others from consuming it.

Parades are, then, public goods. Other example of public goods are things like parks, sidewalks, fireworks displays (to an extent) and other goods that people can consume without competition or exclusion. "Public" events like sporting events, concerts and other performances are not actually public because people can be excluded by means of an entrance fee.

The provision of these goods leads to a problem...

The Free-Rider Problem

This problem could just as easily be called "the freeloader problem."

The free-rider problem arises when people enjoy the benefits of a good completely independent of whether they pay for it or not. Classic examples that are given for this are things like national defense. Whether I pay for it or not, I will be protected by the armed forces of my government. The cost of keeping me (and other free-riders) from being defended (or, in other words, consuming this particular public good) is prohibitive.

An example closer to home, for some of us, might also help define this concept. We all have that friend who is usually described as a "mooch," a "leech" or "that cheap fucker who never ponies up for anything."

Snoop Dogg once famously expressed this notion in song: "I got me some Seagram's Gin/everybody's got their cup but they ain't chipped in/this kind of shit happens all the time/you gotta get yours, fool, but I gotta get mine." Snoop intuitively understood the problem of free-riders.

So, suppose you and your friends are planning a party. You plan on splitting the price of the food, drink and other expenses. You, being the magnanimous people you surely are, extend a more-or-less open invitation to friends to come and bring whomever they like. If they are really your friends, and they value your expenditure on the event, will reciprocate in kind or in cash.

There's always That Guy (or Gal), though. They come along, eat your food, drink your booze, take up your space and time and contribute nothing (aren't these also always the people who pass out on your couch and you then have to deal with them the next day as well). The price of excluding these people is probably prohibitive (socially or otherwise) and getting them to pay is even harder.

Free-riders, then, are a real problem when it comes to public goods. In the case of a parade, they consume the resource without any intention of bearing the cost of the event.

Well, this is not completely true because they bear some cost if public resources are expended in putting on the event. They DO pay for anything that is supported with public funds (police, fire, sanitation and the like). This cost, though, is often small compared to the amount of the resources consumed.

The result of this is especially acute for a private body that produces a public good, a body like the committee that until recently organized the SSIP. The free-riders are so many and the expense is so great that the ability to produce this public good voluntarily becomes cost-prohibitive.

Conclusion and Preview

As you can see, the problems of the parade are characterized by the ideas of public goods and the related problem of free-riders. These are, naturally, not the only problems involved.

We will discuss these other issues next time and begin to offer some possible solutions to the issue based on these concepts and some good old-fashioned intuitive thinking.

We will also engage in some wild speculation (perhaps in a fourth parade-related post) about other reasons behind this event being cancelled. I must warn you, though. All of the above is based on solid foundations. These claims will have no such thing. They will involve clannish neighborhood empire buliders, Mayor Daley, thinly-veiled racism, the Chicago Police Department and the extremely cynical application of demographic data.

But that's for another time.

(NOTE: If you are interested in the above-discussed concepts, I would gladly provide a short reading list of articles and books that discuss these fascinating concepts. They are fascinating, right? Right?)

Media That Soothes

There are any number of reasons that we consume the media that we do. We watch, read, attend and listen to things that inform, persuade, enrage, stimulate or bring us pleasure in one way or another.

As for me, I suppose I am not much different than most people in this.

I have noticed, however, that one piece of media that I enjoy has a different effect on me than the one intended. I would guess that you have some similar things in your life.

The media that I am talking about is the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4.

You can listen to the Shipping Forecast here and get more information about it here. For the full experience, listen to the lead-in music used by Radio 4.

As you might imagine, the Shipping Forecast is given for informational purposes. It is to report the weather conditions off of the coast of the British Isles and to report the weather from coastal reporting stations.

For me, though, I find it extremely soothing. Even before I knew all the zones and locations or what the numbers meant, I found my self relaxing and just enjoying the experience.

I'm not sure what it is, exactly. It might be the cadence of the announcer. It might be the fact that it comes out (at least in its full form) right near when I usually go to bed.

What I think is the most relaxing, though, is the mental picture that I draw as I listen to the weather conditions for Fastnet, Irish Sea, German Bight, North and South Utsire and the rest.

I picture ships and boats being tossed on the dark sea, fighting the wind and waves off of the coast of the British Isles. I picture a sun-drenched afternoon's sailing in the Norfolk Broads or off the Isle of Wight. I see lonely coastal weather stations, faithfully reporting the local weather.

I know that seems like a lot to imagine out of a weather forecast, but I guess I have a rather active imagination.

Do give it a listen and let yourself get taken away, forming your own mental pictures. It is the cheapest vacation that I know of.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

South Side Irish Parade: Developments Have Developed

We will come back to the concepts underlying the parade, its dynamics and the problems therein next week.

For now, though, there are two news stories of interest that have arisen in the past few days:
  • Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton has made noises that his suburb might want to host a St. Patrick's Day parade. This would be, if it was done right, a boon and a credit to the south suburbs.
  • One of the people arrested at the parade tells people not to blame him for killing the parade. To Mr. Vasquez, I say that punching a cop was probably a bad move, even if you considered it self defense (which it seems that it wasn't). To his larger point, of course one person cannot be blamed for the parade being cancelled. As we shall see, the problems inherent in the parade are not those of human frailty, but those of bad planning and organizers who failed to change their focus with the changing nature of the event.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

South Side Irish Parade, 1979-2009

I was surprised, shocked and quizzical upon hearing of the "suspension" of the South Side Irish Parade. Read the Sun-Times version here.

I will offer a more in-depth analysis of this event, the decision to suspend it and possible paths for the future in the coming days. Presently, I wanted to offer my reflections based on my own experience and also respond (in one way or another) to the commenters on this version of the story at

My Personal Parade Experiences
I have attended the parade for at least the last ten years. A close friend's family owns a business near 103rd and Western Avenue. I also have good friends who live in the neighborhood, several of whom host parties on the day of the parade.

I have always had a good time at the parade. For several years, we would even stay at a hotel near the parade site and take cabs or walk to the parade to be on the safe side. Most years, though, we would park behind my friend's shop and stand out front to enjoy the parade.

I would be lying if I said that my friends and I didn't drink during the parade. We did, and on the public thoroughfare (which is illegal in Chicago and most everywhere that isn't Las Vegas or New Orleans). We were always responsible about it, though. I have too much experience in my circle of friends with DUI and other legal complications. We always had a sober driver and always got back to the South Suburbs safe and sound.

Alternately, we would walk to a friend's house in the neighborhood, spend the rest of the day and night there and pick the car up in the morning.

We always respected the neighborhood, understanding that we would expect the same if people came to our neighborhood. I never peed in a lawn. I never threw my trash around. I never destroyed property. I never got in a fight or caused any sort of disturbance. I, furthermore, never saw any of my friends do any of these things. If they did, then I didn't see it.

I am not exaggerating any of this just to make myself look like a saint. I pride myself on being a responsible parade goer and one who knows his limits when it comes to alcohol. I have tested those limits in the past, but I am beyond that stage in my life. I know what I can handle and I don't go beyond.

To Those Who Say, "Good Riddance!"
...and at the above-linked article there were plenty of them. A lot of these people, furthermore, claim to be Beverly-Mt. Greenwood residents. I have no way of proving where these people are from, but there were several common themes in their comments.

I guess I can understand their joy at the parade's a point. Yes, I can understand that the mess and congestion and crowds and public drunkenness and destruction of property is out of line and can make life miserable. How could these things NOT be a nuisance?

I can also see the other side of the argument. Yes, these negatives are considerable, but there are positives. Apart from the huge influx of cash into the neighborhoood (which will be discussed at length in future posts...I wonder if it offsets the extra cost of police, fire and sanitation), this event has truly become one of national scope. It brings thousands of people into a unique and historical neighborhood of the city for a day of celebration. I have never lived in a place that anyone has given much of a shit about, so I could see where that might engender a sense of pride.

The numbers of arrests (which don't tell the whole story), furthermore, as compared to attendees (an estimated 300,000) is miniscule. While, as I alluded to, the arrest figures do not encapsulate the fullness of the unpleasntness (and might just say as much about the police as the parade goers), it IS only one day out of the year. To have your neighborhood host an event that brings joy to so many and have to be inconvienenced one day a year seems a small price to pay.

This does not mean, however, that I condone destruction of private property. Private property is sacrosanct. It is, as far as I am concerned, a fundamental human right (the protection of property, that is). This is wrong and takes some creative thinking to make it better (again, more on this later).

In summary, then, while I can see how some people (especially residents of the neighborhood) would be glad to see it go, I can also see how these same people might not be considering all of the facets of the issue.

To Those Who Say, "The Problem is Outsiders!"
Most of the people who said this seemed to be the above people who live in the neighborhood. They lament their neighborhood celebration becoming a magnet for people from "outside," who cause most of the trouble.

They also claim that it would be a good idea, not to mention feasable, to exclude people from outside the neighborhood. This, they state, would return the parade to what it once was - a celebration by the locals, for the locals.

This view is impractical and ill-informed. While most of the people arrested were not from the immediate area, this fact doesn't really mean that much. There were likely more people at the parade who didn't cause trouble (or whose troublemaking was not officially punished) from elsewhere.

The only way to make this happen is to check proof of residency for all parade attendees. The logistics of this would be nightmarish, to put it lightly.

To Those Who Say, "We Want Nothing to Change!"
Sorry, this seems unlikely. Such a decision, I would imagine, was not taken lightly.

To Those Who Say, "This is the Wrong Way to Celebrate Irishness!"
I understand that the stereotype of the Irish as being drunk and violent is one with a long and damaging history. You can say this of most stereotypes, really.

I also understand, however, that in a larger sense, this shows a short-sighted view of the subject. One of the cornerstones of the Irish character and culture is hospitality to one and all. Welcoming strangers into our homes and neighborhoods, encouraging all to eat, drink and be merry is simply part of what Irish people are. While I am not really Irish (I am an American of Irish ancestry), I take great pride in this aspect of my background.

If some American Irish people choose to celebrate their heritage by going to church, fine. If others choose to celebrate their heritage with their friends and a case of beer at a parade, fine. If they choose not to celebrate it at all, fine. If people who have no Irish background decide to join us in our celebration, fine.

What I object to is being told how to engage with my ethnic heritage. Ethnic hertiage can be as much a curse as a blessing, and it might leave one with mixed feelings (as it does for me). I choose, however, to celebrate the best parts of my heritage while not forgetting the negatives.

For Next Time
In my next post concerning the implications of the cancellation of the South Side Irish Parade and it's possible future, I hope to explore the nature of this sort of event, the problems inherent therein and possible suggestions of how the event could change.

To read up on this, you might want to consider the ideas of public goods, negative externalities and the free rider problem.

After doing this, we will consider other possible reasons behind this decision (non-rational maximizing ones) and where we go from here.

I think it is safe to say, however, that the South Side parade as we once knew it is dead and gone forever.

Is that good or bad?

We shall see.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

TSA: Hassling The Handicapped, Taking My Pop And Fighting Terrorism

I, like many people, traveled by airplane during my spring break this year.

I took two flights: one from Chicago-O'Hare to Pittsburgh and then the return flight from Pittsburgh to Chicago.

Overall, the travel part of my trip (taken with my dad) was uneventful. No delays or lost luggage or faulty rental cars or messed-up hotel reservations. No, all of the service providers that my dad and I dealt with were generally quick, professional and gave great value for money. This included two airlines, a rental car company, a hotel and a mobility equipment rental company.

There was one entity, though, that colored each travel experience, making it unpleasant, tense and nerve-wracking.

This entity was, as you might have guessed, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

You can choose your airline, rental car provider and hotel. You cannot pick to NOT deal with the TSA. If you want to fly inside or from the USA, you have to go through a TSA checkpoint at the airport.

I have had bad experiences before with the TSA and this trip was no different. The web is resplendent with TSA horror stories; just Google-search "TSA sucks" and see what you come up with.

At O'Hare, I had no trouble apart from having to remove my shoes and jacket (as I suspected I would have to). My dad was a different story.

He went through the checkpoint in a wheelchair. Apparently, this marks the person as an immediate threat and subject to additional search. They made my dad remove his shoes and belt, two things that are not easy for him (or anyone) to do while seated. He then was made to walk through the metal detector, trying to keep his pants up.

I guess they didn't realize that he was in a wheelchair for a reason. It was embarassing, demeaning and (seeing as they have hand-held metal detectors) seemingly unnecessary.

On our return trip, it was I who had problems with the TSA. My dad was taken into a side examination room where he didn't have to walk, holding his pants and trying to walk. That was the good part.

The confusing part came when I removed my shoes (not my jacket: apparently jackets are only dangerous when one departs from O'Hare, not when one arrives there), put my bag on the conveyor belt and walked through the metal detector.

I went to retrieve my bag and, well, reassemble myself, when a TSA screener picked up my bag, looked at me like Dirty Harry and turned the contents out on the table in front of him.

Now, just for the sake of completeness, I will recount the exact contents of the bag: A book, some crossword puzzles from the newspaper, a file folder containing documents pertaining to our trip, a package of Juicy Fruit gum and three sealed, bottled beverages (Diet Dr. Pepper and two bottles of spring water). Pretty dull stuff, right?


The TSA Charles Bronson wannabe gathered the bottles up, shook his head at me like one would at a dog who pissed on the carpet, put them behind his counter and shoved the contents of the bag back toward me. I gathered up my legal carry-on items and left the area before I said something stupid (which can be almost anything around TSA screeners).

Apparently, my non-alcoholic, non-combustible liquids were off limits. I was interested in why this was, so I went to the TSA website to their list entitled, "Prohibited Items." No, nothing even close there. Thankfully, I packed my nunchucks, cattleprods, starter pistols and cricket bats in my checked baggage.

I then checked the list entitled, "Food and Beverages." There, I found a stock photo of a burger and fries and nothing more than a vague statement about items purchased inside the airport terminal.

I came to the conclusion that my items were taken unfairly or at least without adequate explanation. Well, I am not sure what I expected. Power-tripping, government-backed, uniformed thugs are never good at putting things into words.

So, to conclude, I have something to say to the TSA agents who made our trip and then to the TSA more generally.

To the handicapped-hassling, beverage-confiscating, jackbooted, pushy, unhelpful, inhumane government stooges in Chicago and Pittsburgh, I hope your day was made by embarassing a handicapped man in public and taking items that may not have been illegal. I also hope you fucking rot in the lowest level of hell.

To the TSA generally, I say you are no more than security theater. You are not there to protect people. You are there to make people think that they are protected. The real failure of airport security on 9/11 (where all of this TSA shit started) was that it worked too well and the hijackers just gamed the system.

The TSA serves the purpose of eye-wash, the visible portion of a security apparatus whose scope and remit we cannot begin to understand. The TSA is a bloated, inefficent, unwieldly government bureaucracy that serves its own interests first and the interests of the people a distant second. The only thing that they protect are their positions and salaries, each person from the airport screeners to the Secretary of Homeland Security engaging not in security but bureaucratic empire-building.

So, TSA, you do not make me feel safer. You do not convince me that you could stop the ever-evolving terrorist threat to our transport system. You do nothing but use your power to inconvienece and hassle people.

In other words, you are no different from any other branch of the government.

I want my dad's dignity back. I want my fucking pop back. I want my privacy back.

Don't bother trying, though. I know you are capable of no such things.