Smash Corporate Greed!

Ooh, the AFL-CIO has an online video game arcade! Play “Smash Corporate Greed” to vent your anger against the man, or “Shatter the Glass Ceiling” with some Arkanoid-style action. A Teamster version of Frogger that replaces the frog with a CEO and makes the trucks the good guys is in development, I’m sure.

I know what you’re thinking… “If we libertarians had such fun and educational Flash games, perhaps we could finally win the political victories we so richly deserve.”

Oh, but we do! Purge your mind of the anti-capitalist ideas so subtly drawn into the union’s games with “The Tragedy of the Bunnies.” I know I’m partial, but I really do think we’ve got better animation, catchier music, and a sounder economic lesson to teach. And isn’t that what video games are all about?

[Thanks, Renee!]


Prohibition made me smoke

Cafe Saint-Ex, a popular D.C. bar, has recently taken up the fight against that most pernicious of negative externalities that has been plaguing our watering holes and sickening those of us who don’t partake in the noxious activity. I’m referring, of course, to popped collars.

It’s a moot point now, but the D.C. smoking ban has been a hot issue on the Vandy blogs lately (Zhubin, Joel, David, and I debate it here, here, and here). To the public health fascists in the group, I would like to point out that Saint-Ex instituted its ban on popped collars voluntarily, without pressure from the government. The city-wide popped collar prohibition that so many have called for is clearly unnecessary. The market speaks, norms evolve, and both the tools and the non-collar poppers find establishments that serve their preferences. I take this as irrefutable empirical proof that I was right about the smoking ban and demand a groveling concession from Zhubin within the day.

Unwholesome activities IThose of you who know me well know I’ve never smoked a cigarette and would probably find it comical to see me do so. If you weren’t at Reason‘s happy hour at Mackey’s Wednesday night, you missed your chance. As our merry group of libertarians gathered for drinks and conversation, I thought wistfully of how this would be one of the last times we could all get together without the smokers in the group having to excuse themselves to step outside by order of the nanny statists on the City Council. That made me mad. So mad that I walked up to my friend Eric and, to his great surprise, requested a cigarette and something to make fire with. I then proceeded to cross one more item off the list of unwholesome activities I’ve never experienced:

Sticking it to the man

I can’t say smoking did much for me. This protest cigarette was definitely my first and my last. One negative side effect I noticed immediately: within moments of lighting up, think tankers were approaching to “borrow” a cigarette of their own. These guys clearly don’t get paid enough. Positive side effect: Increased attractiveness and popularity, as shown by Nikki’s willingness to be photographed in public with me:

I was not this cool 30 seconds ago

Note that Nikki could have been standing next to libertarian rockstar Randy Barnett, who was also in attendance. Conclusion: smoking makes you cooler than Randy Barnett.


Nanny state links

Bar Power — Via Adrienne, Ban the Ban volunteers are canvassing D.C. bars tomorrow night to rally the opposition to the smoking ban and make patrons’ and employees’ voices heard. If you support freedom, if you think bar owners should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to allow smoking in their establishments, or if you just want to flirt with libertarians, stop by one of the locations listed and sign a postcard that will be sent to the city council.

[Update 7/11/05: Adrienne posts her account of the event.]

Morgan Spurlock Watch — Radley’s started up a new weblog to debunk the many misleading or poorly researched claims of Morgan Spurlock. Any blog that links to the Cato Institute and Five Guys hamburgers must be good, yeah? Read it through RSS to avoid the daily glimpse of the Spurlock burgernipple pic.


Sticking it to the manicure, revisited

My post on the freestater being arrested for giving an illegal manicure in New Hampshire unintentionally sparked a serious philosophical debate in the comments section. My old friend Chad Horne raised the level of discourse considerably above what usually takes place on this site. I’ve been too scared, I mean busy, to reply until today.

Chad revised and restated his points at length in the original comments section, where another Chad (Wilcox) entered the fray with a free market riposte; readers might want to look there before continuing here. Below I do my best to pull a few summary quotes from Chad Horne’s comments and then post my own thoughts on the matter.
Continue reading “Sticking it to the manicure, revisited”


Crazy Capitalist Day 2005

Celebrate Capitalism (tm, of course) day is coming up on June 5th. Anti-capitalist protestors have a habit of breaking the windows of the nearest Starbucks. What’s a young free marketeer to do in response? Clean the windows? Objectivists of the world, grab your squeegies and demonstrate your love for corporations!

I’m only kidding. I’d never send you to a Starbucks.

Thanks to Nikki for the link.


Sticking it to the manicure

A freestater has been arrested in New Hampshire for giving an illegal manicure:

Newmarket’s Mike Fisher was arrested outside the office of the state Board of Barbering, Cosmetology and Esthetics on Monday after he gave a manicure without license. A member of the Free State Project, Fisher, 23, knew his arrest was imminent even before he pulled out his emery board but persisted in order to take a stand against government regulations.

“This is not for me, this is for others,” Fisher said, surrounded by about 20 fellow free-staters. “They have licensing for everything and I think it’s out of control. This all about bringing debate.”

Concord police arrested Fisher shortly before 1 p.m. and charged him with giving a manicure without a license, which is a misdemeanor carrying with it a penalty of a fine up to $1,000. It is illegal to perform a manicure — and various other procedures — without a license according to state law (RSA 313-A:9)…

Fisher has been in contact with the Board of Barbering, Cosmetology and Esthetics for the past few weeks, protesting the licensing process. When Fisher accepted $1 from fellow free-stater Kat Dillon of Keene and began buffing her nails, inspectors from the board informed Fisher he was in violation of the law.

When he ceased, Concord police were called. Police arrived and witnessed Fisher “actively engaged” in giving Dillon a manicure.

It’s humorous, but perhaps libertarianism could use more of this kind of civil disobedience. Regulation is boring. We can talk about it all we want, but we’ll have a hard time finding an interested audience. Mike Fisher’s protest manicure has won him a spot in the press and some cogent quotes in the paper. Kudos to him. Raise thy emery boards in solidarity.

[Hat tip: Ceaf Lewis, again.]


Gourmet coffee a fraud? Give me a break!

If I’ve accomplished nothing else this year (and some would say I haven’t), I feel like I’ve at least established a healthy balance between my life as a semi-professional libertarian guy and my interests in more eccentric endeavors like coffee. But yesterday I was forced to choose between my loyalties not once, but twice in a single afternoon.

For the first occurrence I have ABC News’ John Stossel to blame [Hat tip: Starbucks Gossip]. I admire a lot of John’s work and his would definitely be the news broadcast I watched if I were ever to watch an evening news program. Alas, I have to take issue with his most recent column, in which he sets his sights on debunking gourmet coffee:

Do you pay big bucks for “better quality” coffee? Maybe you spring for Dean & DeLuca’s beans, which cost $12 per pound. Well, wake up — have someone give you a blind taste test — because you’re probably wasting your money…

On our unscientific test, Starbucks came in first. A close second went to, surprise, the Sam’s Club brand, Marques de Paiva. Oren’s came in a distant third, closely followed by Nescafe, the instant coffee. The most expensive brand, the $12 a pound Dean & DeLuca’s, ranked second to last, and dead last was Folgers, America’s best seller.

I haven’t seen the broadcast version of the segment, but coffee blogger extraordinaire Fortune Elkins was among the tasters in the studio. She wrote about her experience there last month and offers an interesting behind the scenes perspective on how the testing was done. Of most relevance is her unequivocal judgment that the coffees were brewed too weakly; Oren’s rep Genevieve Kappler (or Felix?) contended the same thing. Stossel responds that the coffee was brewed by coffee expert Kevin Sinnott, who should certainly know what he’s doing.

Sinnott says he brewed the coffee at 3.25 oz. ground coffee to 64 oz. water. That’s within SCAA‘s recommended range of proportions, but at the absolute bottom of it. If an experienced taster like Fortune could tell from the beginning that it was underextracted, I’m willing to take her word for it. The test could have been flawed from the beginning by not bringing out the full flavors of the coffees, a fact that would surely disadvantage the more complex ones of the lot.

All of that is a bit beside the point, however. What really matters is that it’s silly to ask a group of people who all use coffee for different purposes and who have different levels of experience with the drink to rank a wide range of beans as better or worse than one another. Some people use it as a morning pick-me-up when they’re too groggy to even care about taste, others use it as a social lubricant, and an even smaller number use it as a drink to be enjoyed purely on its own terms. Most use it as all three to some extent. How a person uses coffee and how consciously he focuses on the taste will determine whether more expensive coffees are worth the money to them.

If Stossel had tried the same test with wine — asking a room full of random New Yorkers to taste test some cheap wines against some pricier bottles — he would have been laughed out of the studio. That’s because most of us realize that while our own palates limit the returns we’d get by spending more on a bottle of wine, the differences between them are real and noticeable to skilled oenophiles. Coffee doesn’t get the same respect, and that’s what needs to change.

A few more quick remarks on Stossel’s column:

1. In the print version, at least, Stossel gives proper kudos to Genevieve Kappler for being the only coffee rep willing to put her credibility on the line and take the blind taste test. That took guts and scored one for the coffee lovers.

2. Stossel’s concluding point — “expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better” — is a weaker, truer claim than his initial statement that spending money on expensive coffees is probably a waste of money. Of course not all expensive coffees are going to be good, but quality coffees definitely will cost more than Folgers or Sam’s Club. That’s why being an educated consumer matters.

3. Finally, let’s have a little perspective on price. $12 a pound may sound like a lot, but that still comes out to less than a dollar a cup. That’s about what one would pay for a soda or the cheapest of wines. Considering that some really great coffee can be had from $8 – $15 per pound, it’s a relatively cheap habit to enjoy.

I compared coffee to wine twice in the above paragraphs, a comparison of which some may be skeptical (though if you’re a regular reader of this blog, I hope you’ve been convinced otherwise by now). I had my first real “cupping” yesterday at Murky and that, like the espresso tasting before it, brought home to me the aptness of the metaphor. (Cupping is the formal process for evaluating coffees side by side. First, we measured out the various coffees and freshly ground them into cups. We then smelled the grounds and took notes on the fragrance. After that we poured in hot water to brew the coffee. After four minutes, we stirred in the grounds and took note of the aroma. Then we moved on to actual tasting, taking each in turn and noting our impressions of brightness, flavor, body, and aftertaste. The session ended by all of us comparing our notes.)

This wasn’t a blind tasting, so it’s likely that the labels affected our impressions of what was better and worse. I ranked the coffees from Intelligentsia and Counter Culture higher than the others, and I’m not entirely sure that I would have drawn exactly the same conclusion without labels. What is striking, however, is the consistency of the descriptors the people in our cupping group employed. For example, in comparing two Kenyan coffees from two different roasters, we agreed that one had a bright, lemony character while another had a sweeter, less citrusy taste. We made similarly consistent notes about all the characteristics of the six different coffees we tried. Tasted side by side, it’s amazing how complex coffees can be. To get an idea of the range of descriptors tasters apply, just take a glance at the SCAA flavor wheel.

My point? It’s ok to stick to cheap coffee like John Stossel says you should, but if you do you’re missing out on one of the great pleasures in life. Contrary to the impression given in his taste test, coffee doesn’t have just one flavor that can be ranked from better to worse across brands. Rather, it’s a wonderfully complex beverage, offering a whole suite of tastes, textures, and aromas to those willing to explore its possibilities.

Furthermore, paying for high-quality coffee doesn’t mean one has fallen victim to a false consciousness imposed by the Starbucks corporation. Differences among coffees are real and readily apparent to a coffee lover. To borrow a few sentences from a recent thoughtful post from Will Wilkinson that has nothing to do with coffee, “People can have wrong opinions about beauty, because the relevent capacities might be insufficiently developed, or because they haven’t learned to pay attention to right thing, or because their judgment is clouded by a specious theory. So there can be right or wrong answers about value questions within the class of people who share the relevant capacities [emphasis his].” Fortunately, coffee is a very accessible drink and pretty much anyone with a working mouth shares the relevant capacities necessary to appreciate it.

But enough about Stossel. I said there were two occasions yesterday when my worlds of coffee and libertarianism collided. The second happened when a group of economists came in to Murky for an afternoon break. There’s nothing unusual about this, but this time they were joined by none other than Nobel Prize-winning economist Vernon Smith. The Vernon Smith. And one of my friends was also in the group and invited me to come hang out with them. A very cool opportunity, but… this was right in the middle of our coffee cupping. What to do?

I went with the cupping. Yes, faced with the choice of hanging out with a Nobel Prize winner whose work I admire or tasting coffee, I went with the latter. In hindsight, I’m not sure that was the best choice, but the fact that I even had to think about illustrates just how far into geekdom I’ve descended and how powerful a good cup of coffee really is.


Welcoming Chad to D.C.

Congratulations are in order to Chad Wilcox, the newest member of the IHS team and D.C.’s libertarian community. Chad’s one of my best friends from Vanderbilt and I’m excited to see him leaving Nashville behind to enter the policy world here.

For more on Chad, click on over to his weblog, Quiet Declarations. Then add him to your bookmarks, blogroll, or Bloglines. And don’t forget to ask him all about this.


Notes from Chicago

I spent the past weekend in Chicago for a seminar about public choice economics sponsored by Liberty Fund and the Institute for Humane Studies. Somehow I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to this intellectually stimulating event even though it seems I only write about coffee and frisbees these days. The seminar was composed of about a dozen legitimate academics (with, like, .edu email addresses and everything) and ably moderated by Duke University professor Michael Munger.

For the unfamiliar, public choice theory is the application of economic methods to the study of how political decisions are made. Rather than assuming a single entity called “government” that can act with a single purpose, it analyzes the politics through the actions of politicians, bureaucrats, voters, lobbyists, etc. Asymmetric information, self-interest, and poorly structured incentives can all subvert the process, leading to government failures akin to the market failures predicted by welfare economics. Public choice theory predicts when these failures are likely to occur, informing us about how government should be structured and how we should reasonably expect it to perform.

While technically a positive theory, it shouldn’t be surprising that its normative implications mesh well with libertarianism. After all, it provides a rigorous counterbalance to that naive form of analysis that supposes a government corrective to every economic ill. For this reason James Buchanan, one of the theory’s founders, aptly sums it up as “politics without romance.” Public choice doesn’t reveal that government never produces efficient outcomes, but it does have a way of increasing skepticism by applying stricter scrutiny to the political process than is usually done.

The conversation at the Liberty Fund seminar was slightly more constrained by theory than the previous one I attended, which was about whether the libertarian-conservative alliance still makes sense in a post-Cold War America. Nonetheless, our sessions were marked free-flowing and intelligent conversation about the readings and I walked away with a deeper understanding of the theory than I had prior to the conference. Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice made for a good overview of the subject, while specific readings from Buchanan, Hayek, Madison, and others provided more specific insights and jumping off points. I’d also recommend Charlotte Twight’s Dependent on D.C. as a pessimistic but informative selection of case studies on how concealed transaction costs have led to an undesirable growth of government.

Like all Liberty Fund events, this one was a great way to spend a weekend: smart and interesting people, excellent accomodations, high-level conversation, and enjoyable free time between sessions. An invitation to one of these seminars is not to be turned down. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say that the opportunity to attend them is incentive enough all by itself to keep me writing about more than just coffee and frisbees. And soon I will, I promise! But a trip to Chicago wouldn’t have been complete without visits to a few key coffee shops, so let’s talk about those first.

The big one, of course, was Intelligentsia. They’re famous as one of the best shops and roasters in the country and their baristas took three of the top six places in the National Barista Championship. I’ve been a fan of their Black Cat espresso blend since sampling it at Fowler’s in Durham and at the recent Murky espresso tasting, so I was determined that if I did nothing else in Chicago I would finally make it out to their Broadway store and try it on its home turf. What can I say? It was everything I hoped it would be: a perfect double shot with full body and lots of tiger-flecked crema. This was followed by a few amazingly sweet sips of a friend’s Yemen Samani and a small latte to accompany the breezy walk back along Lake Michigan. If you’re ever in Chicago, you should definitely check them out.

That was Saturday. On Sunday I ended up finding a Peet’s coffee shop. Peet’s is the place that Californians who are too cool for Starbucks like to go. I didn’t know they had locations this far east, so when I found out they did I decided to see what they’re like. To once again use the words of Caesar (from History of the World Part I), “Nice. Nice. Not thrilling . . . but nice.” Their shots had a decent flavor but were poured way to big. They seem like a pretty good chain alternative to Starbucks though.

Monday was my last day in the city and there was one more shop I wanted to visit, Metropolis Coffee. Their Red Line espresso blend was a hit with my group at the espresso tasting last month so I was eager to check them out. I’d spent the night in the south side at Chinatown; Metropolis is located on the north side of Chicago in Granville. Not knowing what the parking situation would be like up there, I opted to take the coffee’s namesake train line instead of driving. Compared to D.C., this was sloooow. Not including time spent waiting at the stations, it was about a forty minute ride each way, all to visit a shop where I’d have less than half an hour to hang out. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do for a good espresso.

Fortunately, it was worth it. I had a great double shot and a nice conversation with the friendly barista on duty, who also talked me into an extra half-pound of Ethiopian Harrar to take home. I like this shop a lot. It’s got a comfortable and stylish layout and though I was only there a short time it was clear that they really know and relate to their customers. They even devote an entire page on their website to their regulars. If there were a Platonic ideal of the neighborhood coffee shop, Metropolis might be it.

From there it was back to the train, into my car, and on to St. Louis, where I’ve spent the last couple of days exploring the local coffee scene. Now on to Nashville for what looks to be a wet and rainy Rites of Spring.


Blog party

Finally, it’s time for another Blogorama! Julian Sanchez has announced that Rendevouz Lounge is the place to be this Thursday if you’re a blogger or blogger groupie in the D.C. area. There’ll be drinking, socializing, shameless networking, and, if things get really crazy, people whipping out their webstats for side by side comparison.

Rendevous Lounge is located at 18th St and Kalorama in Adams-Morgan. The fun begins at 7:00.


Latte art and libertarian purity

I had a bit of a slow day at work on Friday so I decided to take a latte art photo. The result now graces the banner of this page, courtesy of code taken from Chad Wilcox’s Quiet Declarations. I plan on eventually switching the weblog over to WordPress and incorporating a larger picture, but felt like getting some kind of graphic element on the banner until then.

Speaking of Chad, I owe him my results on Prof. Bryan Caplan’s Libertarian Purity Test. I ended up about where I expected, my 62 out of 160 narrowly beating his 54. That puts me about even with Dan Drezner but well behind Radley’s 98 from last year and my old boss Justin Logan’s recent 115. I did, however, blow Stephen Bainbridge out of the water. As Chad says, “I don’t know what Professor Bainbridge was smoking when he scored a 24 — though judging from his score it probably wasn’t illegal.”

Gene Healy, who scored a 105, once mentioned another question to separate the libertarian men from the moderately free market boys: “Would you allow heroin to be sold out of a vending machine to a small child?” I posed the same question to a friend who asked if there would be an admissions test to get into Court’s and my most recent party, to which he responded with the most correctly capitalist answer possible…

“Only if the profit margin covers the risk.”


I said what?

The Vanderbilt Hustler ran an op-ed today asking the all important question, “Are Libertarians and Communists any different?” By describing grossly impoverished versions of both philosophies the writer concludes that they’re not. For example:

Like communists, libertarians have an essentially economistic worldview that tends to dismiss cultural and moral issues as unimportant or irrelevant. I can recall, for example, reading an interview with a former editor of The Torch, in which he argued that all drugs should be legalized and sold in stores, because (I am quoting from memory) “its all just supply and demand.”

No, that wasn’t me. The quote is from a February 2003 interview in Versus Magazine with The Torch’s contorversial columnist Brett Austin. Here’s the full quote, which is a bit more nuanced than the author gives Brett credit for:

ED: What about legalization of pot or other drugs?

BA: I think all drugs should be legal. Drugs and prostitution. I think it is all supply and demand. People are going to demand these things. So, there is a market for it, obviously, and we might as well legalize it and regulate it. It is a lot better than to have a black market trade.

Cato also gets a mention in the Hustler op-ed:

Libertarian philosophy also is casually indifferent to what we might consider national issues. Libertarian think-tanks like the Cato Institute routinely publish papers extolling the virtues of massive, unrestricted immigration and global free trade, regardless of how such policies might impact a nation’s culture, sovereignty or security.

I may submit a response to this later but will let it pass without comment for now. Thanks for the tip go to Anne Malinee, current editor of that libertarian/communist rag, The Torch.

[Update 2/2/05: Kevin McNish writes a rebuttal.]