The magic of politics

Earlier this week I was hanging out at the coffee shop with my friend Joe when a politician walked up to us. “Hey guys,” he said jovially, “You look a little hungry. How would you like a pair of big, tasty burritos?”

“Heck yeah!” I replied.

“Definitely!” said Joe. “How much are you charging?”

“Oh, I don’t charge anything,” said the politician. “All I have to do is wave my hands and through the magic of politics delicious burritos will appear at your table!”

I was a little skeptical, but I watched as the strange politician gestured enchantingly with his hands, took a deep breath, and muttered a secret incantation. Sure enough, within seconds a fresh burrito was sitting on a plate right in front of me. Joe had one, too.

“Gosh, thanks magic politics man,” I said through a mouthful of rice and beans.

“No problem. Enjoy the burritos.” As he walked off into the sunset, he called back over his shoulder, “And remember, vote for me!”

The next day Joe and I went back to the coffee shop hoping the generous politician would show up again. We didn’t see him, but we were approached by an economist. “Hey guys,” he said, “I’m doing some research and I’m wondering if you two would like to help me out. Are you hungry? Do you like burritos?”

“Of course, everyone likes burritos,” Joe answered. “Are you going to magically create some for us?”

“Um, no,” said the economist. “I can’t do that. But I will give you each some money so that you can buy burritos. I’ll even tell you where to get them. If you walk two blocks down the street, there’s a Mexican place with pretty good food. They’re not the best in town, but they’re all right. If you really like burritos, I recommend walking another ten blocks to this little stand that serves the best burritos in all the city. They cost the same, so it’s up to you which one you go to.”

This economist sure knew a lot about Mexican food. Perhaps it was Tyler Cowen? We didn’t ask his name, but Joe and I set off down the street in search of dinner. After two blocks, Joe decided to stop and eat at the nearer, inferior restaurant. “Ok,” I said. “I’m going to keep walking and try this other place. I’ll meet you back at the coffee shop.”

An hour later we returned to the shop and found the economist waiting for us. “How were the burritos?” he asked.

“Mine was pretty good,” Joe replied.

“Mine was fantastic,” I said. “But ten blocks is a long walk. Not to sound ungrateful, but I miss the politician.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Joe. “Why’d you make us do all that walking?”

“Well,” answered the economist, “That politician who gives away free burritos is a very popular guy. When he asks you if you want one, of course you say yes. But I suspect that people don’t really like burritos as much as he thinks they do. So to find out if you guys really like burritos, I had to make them cost you something. In this case, a distance to walk. Even though you both claimed to like them, it’s obvious that Jacob really likes them more because he was willing to walk ten blocks instead of two to get a good one.”

“You’re right,” Joe said. “All things equal, I would have rather had a burger.”

“But,” I interjected, “The politician’s way is still better. His food doesn’t cost anything! He just waves his hands and it appears.”

“Jacob, as a magician, you of all people should recognize that that was just fancy sleight of hand. Your taxes paid for those burritos,” said the economist.

“Wow, how did you know I’m a magician?”

“I’m an economist. I know everything.”

“Impressive,” said Joe.

“Indeed,” answered the economist. “And now I must go. I hope you enjoyed your dinners, and more importantly, that you have learned something tonight. Adios!” With a wave of his cap, the mysterious economist then flew, magically, into the sunset.


For those of you who read all the way through that silly story, I have a confession to make: it didn’t really happen. There was no magical politician, I didn’t eat burritos this week, and I don’t even have a friend named Joe. So why post it? Because I think the logic of the story goes a long way toward explaining why smoking bans are so popular while smokefree bars are not. The politicians promoting smoking bans are no different from the politician offering Joe a free burrito. Even people who dislike smoking just a little bit will support a ban, just as people who like burritos only a little bit will gladly accept a free one. Simply asking non-smokers if they’d prefer a ban doesn’t tell you anything useful about how much they really want it. Since it doesn’t cost them anything, they have no reason not to enthusiastically support it.

To find out if people really demand smokefree spaces you have to offer them some trade-offs. Are they willing to travel a little further to avoid smoke? To go to a slightly more expensive place? To go where the crowds are less hip? If not, then they probably don’t really care about smoking, even if they say they do in the abstract.

Of course, there’s no need to set up experiments to figure this out. The experiment was conducted thousands of times each day among the competing bars and restaurants in, for example, pre-ban DC. The conclusion they reached is that some smokefree establishments can be viable, but that most people either enjoy smoking or tolerate being around it. Owners would probably have continued to shift toward smokefree policies over time, but there’s no good reason to think that the slow trend in that direction was out of touch with actual consumer preferences and needed to be hastened by a ban.

These considerations cease to matter when smoking policies get taken out of the realm of economic trade-offs and into the realm of winner-take-all politics. With a smoking ban on the table, previously tolerant individuals become rabidly anti-smoker. They exaggerate their annoyance with tobacco smoke. Perhaps they even fool themselves about the true extent of their dislike, given that before the ban they made few attempts to find smokefree alternatives to their favorite hangouts. With non-smokers in the majority, they face little opposition to imposing their will on the smoking minority.

And that, in short, is why smoking bans are popular all out of proportion to people’s revealed preferences about smoke exposure.


Tomorrow is the day that England’s comprehensive smoking ban goes into effect. Some recommended reading:

Info on the ban from The Independent.

Tim Harford debunks the argument that smoking creates an economic externality.

Pub declares itself Embassy of Redonda to skirt smoking ban.

Neil Clark declares the death of liberal England.

And if you’re hungry for burritos, here’s some recommendations from Tyler Cowen.


How do you take your coffee?

On fire, please.

These Java-Logs are a green product idea I can get behind:

What’s a Java Log? The Java- Log, invented in 1998 by Rod Sprules, is a wonderful tree-saving, non-polluting invention that utilizes a renewable, natural vegetable wax and coffee to fire up the chimney.

The Java-Log is a firelog composed of recycled coffee grounds and according to the Java-Log website, is better than a conventional firelog in many ways. As I mentioned already it is composed of recycled coffee grounds which saves trees and diverts 10 Million Kg per year of coffee waste from landfills. It comes in 100% recycled packaging. It produce significantly fewer emissions than firewood: 8x less Creosote (safer for chimney & clean burning) , 5x cleaner particulate matter (less air pollution), and less carbon monoxide (less air pollution). It smells better than manufactured logs because there is no chemical smell. Some Java-Logs may have a mild sweet aroma. In addition one Java-Log provides a fire equivalent to several pieces of wood, and the flame is 3 times more brilliant to that of one made of wood. It still makes the crackling sound like regular firelogs, but it also does not emit caffeine when burnt so it won’t keep anyone awake at night.

More enviro-blogging:
With fuel-efficient cars, who will pay for roads?
How green is that chainsaw in the window?
Americans skeptical of cap-and-trade
China surpasses US as number one emitter of CO2
Senate considers new energy taxes
Does buying local mean buying green?
Biotech for biofuels
Sublime Kilimanjaro


Conversations in Outlook

I didn’t fully appreciate the simple brilliance of GMail’s method of grouping emails into conversations until using Outlook at work last week. Conversations + powerful search was a fantastic improvement over sorting individual emails into clunky folders. Going back to the old system is head-bangingly frustrating now.

As it turns out, though, Outlook does have a rudimentary conversation feature (arrange by: conversation). It has problems: if the subject line changes it won’t recognize a thread as being one conversation, it combines separate emails with the same subject line into one thread, and it doesn’t include your replies within threads. Even so, if you stay on top of deleting old emails, it’s a useful feature and brings Outlook a little bit closer to Web 2.0 goodness.

Outlook users, any other tips for making the program more productive?


Advice on culinary school

Should you go to culinary school? Should you pay for your kid to go? To get a taste of life in the restaurant industry, Dana at the Tasting Menu says:

Along with information about various schools and stuff like how to gain experience before getting there, I offer this piece of advice. Have them clean the kitchen at night for a month strait. No days off, no watching TV before, or taking a phone call. Have them clean the dishes, wash the counters, sweep the floor, take the towels to the laundry.

Make them this deal. If they can commit to one month of cleaning your kitchen, then you’ll consider helping to pay the steep tuition at one of the nations many expensive private culinary schools. Be it the fault of the Food Network, or the rise of celebrity chefs, teens are choosing culinary school more and more. Culinary school is an expensive choice, and to ensure your child is aware, put them to work cleaning.

Full post here.


The popsicle loophole

Over at Reason’s Hit and Run, Radley notes that Rustico, a fantastic beer lover’s restaurant in Alexandria, has gotten into trouble for serving framboise lambic (raspberry ale) popsicles. The owner left a bottle of framboise in the freezer and accidentally discovered a tasty treat, which he soon decided to offer customers.

Enter the government. The Virginia ABC says that all beer must be served in its original container or poured immediately into a glass. The agency is sending an official over to investigate. The owner, meanwhile, is trying to work with them to get approval for his product idea.

So far, the usual government meddling. But do I detect a silver lining? By the ABC’s logic, a popsicle stick isn’t a container. Therefore a beer-sicle doesn’t violate open container laws. Want to carry a drink down the street in Northern Virginia? Just freeze it first at home.

“What’s that officer? Open container law? I don’t see any containers here!”

Update 6/25/07: Matt, the lucky and intrepid EatFoo blogger now working at Rustico, gives an insider’s perspective.


The new job

If I ever lose my mind and decide to work at Starbucks, someone please remind me of this ponderous complaint letter sent by an irate customer who couldn’t get his venti soy iced mocha for a couple of weeks. One day of these people and I’d be scrambling back to indie shops faster than Starbucks can pull a double ristretto.

Not that Starbucks is an option anyway. As mentioned last week, I’m starting a new job. As of today I’m working in the media relations department at the Cato Institute. There are very few places in DC that could lure me away from working primarily in the service industry, but my favorite think tank is one of them. And while I’ll admit to some trepidation about wearing a suit and working 9-5:30 in an office every day, I’m glad to be back on the grounds of my old internship and working to promote the ideas of liberty.

Of course, the opinions expressed on this weblog should not in any way be construed to represent the views of Cato. (In like fashion, the coffee served at Cato should not in any way be construed to be approved by me!) This is a strictly personal blog and neither here nor during my day job do I speak on behalf of the institute.

(I hate to stress the disclaimer so much but since I frequently link to the institute’s materials I feel it necessary to disclose that I’m an employee now. I’d rather do that than ignore the association, which between Google and a variety of social networking sites wouldn’t stay hidden anyway.)

This marks a major change in the way I work, but I’m not completely giving up on my newfound interest in mixology. Coffee and cocktails will take a backseat for a while but I still plan on picking up a tamper or shaker on occasion. These are pursuits I’m not leaving behind just yet, especially after being exposed to such incredible espresso and freshly made drinks all weekend in San Francisco — perhaps more on that soon. In the meantime I’ve got too much to catch up to keep blogging tonight. Cheers, everybody.


Absinthe in the US

Wormwood derived absinthe in the US? The New York Times says it’s here, thanks to a distillery wizard and his discovery that century old techniques for making the drink could have low enough quantities of thujone to make it past American regulators:

Mr. Gurfein asked Mr. Breaux whether he could produce an absinthe that would pass regulatory muster with American authorities — meaning that it would not contain thujone. Mr. Breaux said that would be fairly easy, given his belief that, contrary to popular opinion, 19th century absinthes contained relatively little thujone to begin with — less than 5 parts per million, according to his tests, rather than much higher estimates that have been bandied about.

Still, Mr. Breaux knew that removing thujone entirely might harm the taste. “I had to get a handle on the whole thujone issue without compromising the character and the flavor of the drink,” he said. To accomplish this, Mr. Breaux blended the grand wormwood with green anise and sweet fennel from Europe, instead of using more-affordable imports from East Asia. Using herbs from Europe, absinthe’s native continent, he said, gives the drink an earthier essence.

Mr. Breaux also had to keep the American palate in mind while developing Lucid. “In the U.S., anise is a sort of a strange flavor,” he said. “We don’t get a lot of exposure to it.” So Mr. Breaux made sure that Lucid had a slightly cleaner, crisper taste than its European peers.

I’d hoped to try genuine absinthe when I was in Vancouver last fall, but wasn’t able to get my hands on any since I inadvertently visited on Canada’s Thanksgiving day. Even with its toned down anise flavor I’m curious to try this new one. The promotional site only lists stores selling it in New York right now though.

On the upside, The Bottle Gang notes that this could potentially open the door to imports of European absinthes meeting American standards for thujole content.

[Thanks to Alex for the link.]


To do in SF

I’m traveling to San Francisco this weekend for one last outing before I start having limited vacation days. Vacation days? Yep, that means I’ve got a new job. A “real job,” as some would say. We’ll talk about that next week.

In the meantime I could use some suggestions for places to visit while I’m in town. I have a few in mind and a few I want return to from my 2005 trip, but still a lot of time left to explore. Any tips?

Regular blogging will resume next week, perhaps a bit sooner depending on how many coffee shop hours I put in this weekend.


Drinking vs driving

At A Better Earth it’s my job to watch out for the environment. But at Eternal Recurrence, I’m watching out for something far more important: your beer. So check out this article for a balanced look at how ethanol subsidies are messing with the barley supply, perhaps leading to some long-run price hikes in beer and contributing to the closing of several German malting plants. My favorite quote is this one:

“Farmers around the world are responding to the market signals and making planting decisions accordingly,” said Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association.”`It is a sign that the market is responding.”

Everyone loves the way markets work in other people’s industries.

Recent blogging from aBE:
Did NASA administrator need to apologize?
Caution: Pay-by-weight may cause burns
Coal comfort: Are coal-to-liquid subsidies a good idea?
To fight global warming, think small
Unintended corn-sequences


Twittering away

After reading this post on the new Rule the Web blog, I’ve been convinced that Twitter might actually be useful and signed up for an account. I’ll try not to get too distracted by it and use it only in moderation, just like I do coffee and alcohol. Oh, wait…

My Twitter updates should appear on the right sidebar. If nothing’s loading, it’s because of bugs or overload on the Twitter servers, so fear not. And if you’re on Twitter, add me as a friend. My username is jacobgrier.


Filan doesn’t go far enough

[Update 6/11/07: The system works! Or not! Another fine moment in prosecutorial discretion.]

Susan Filan, a former prosecutor and now senior legal analyst at MSNBC, wrote an op-ed this week calling for prosecutors to be more cognizant of their discretion in bringing charges. This epiphany came to her after reflecting on the grossly unjust case of Genarlow Wilson, a high school football player in Georgia sentenced to ten years in prison for having consensual oral sex with another student:

When he was 17 years old and a high school senior, he received consensual oral sex from a 15-year-old, 10th-grade girl.

Everyone agreed, including the prosecutor and the girl herself, that she initiated the act.

It was all captured on video — the evidence used to convict him at trial. On the tape, police saw a 15-year-old perform oral sex on one partygoer, and after finishing with him, she turned and did the same to Wilson. Under Georgia law at the time, this was considered aggravated child molestation, a felony for teens less than three years apart to have oral sex. It carried with it a 10-year sentence, even though it was only a misdemeanor for those same teens to have sexual intercourse…

The other students at the party took that deal and some of them are out of prison by now. Because Wilson thought he would be acquitted and did not want to be branded a child molester, he went to trial. The prosecutor blames Wilson for his sentence because none of the other defendants insisted on a trial; all the others “took their medicine.”

If you’re not familiar with Wilson’s case, I urge you to read more about it. This ESPN article about him is both touching and infuriating, and probably the best place to start.

Unfortunately, Filan’s prescription for preventing these kinds of cases in the future is much too trusting of her profession:

When I first heard about the case, I wasn’t too concerned. Wilson knew the risks, rolled the dice by going to trial and lost. But the more I think about his case and the more I read about his case, the more I think prosecutors have a duty to make sure they don’t take cases to trial that they can win, when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Prosecutors have discretion, and they have to use it fairly and wisely. So why do I write about this case now, two years into his sentence? For two reasons: for one, the Duke case has heightened my awareness that there can be injustice in the system, and as a prosecutor, I have an equal obligation to seek convictions as I do to make sure the convictions are fair and just and not wrongful. I must speak out against injustice in the same way I speak out against crime and in favor of law enforcement.

It’s all well and good to wish for prosecutors to use their discretion wisely, but we know that this isn’t always going to happen. Sometimes prosecutors have a warped sense of justice. Sometimes they’re more concerned with reelection than with the justice of a particular case. And sometimes, as with Wilson’s prosecutors, they’re just dicks. Simply urging them to do right isn’t nearly enough.

The best way to guard against these kinds of injustices is to empower juries to fulfill their intended role as a check on overreaching government power. Wilson went to trial knowing he wasn’t a child molester and hoping his jury would see that, too. And they did see that — but because contemporary juries are prevented from questioning the law, they tearfully convicted him anyway. From the ESPN article:

The day before the trial was expected to end, in the last night he’d ever spend at his home, Wilson went to a church down the street and asked the preacher to pray with him. He awoke early the next morning. He knotted his tie carefully and went to the courthouse. The trial finished that afternoon, and the jury came back with “not guilty” on the rape but “guilty” on the aggravated child molestation.

He looked at the forewoman. She was crying, seeming to understand they’d just undone a promising future. Indeed, when the jurors found out there was a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, several were incensed. The prosecution told them to write a letter, then moved on to the next case.

The answer to cases such as Wilson’s is to allow defense lawyers to argue that some laws or applications of laws are unjust, inform juries of the sentencing consequences of a conviction, and urge them to act as the conscience of their community when called for. I don’t expect former prosecutor Filan to advocate such a radical return to the original intent of trial by jury, but I’d be greatly impressed if she did.

(Wilson has a habeas appeal pending, with a decision from the judge due Monday. Follow the details here.)

Dawkins doesn’t get juries


Russ Roberts on the nanny state

At Cafe Hayek, Russ Roberts has a superb post up responding to criticism from friends and neighbors that he wastes his time protesting minor infringements of liberty such as Montgomery County’s ban on trans-fats. Read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:

I don’t want to live in a world where a bunch of strangers sitting on the Montgomery County Council act in my name to constrain us. Those strangers don’t love me. They don’t care about me (though they protest that yes, they do.) They are responsive to all kinds of forces besides my well-being. So I don’t want to expand their authority to make decisions for me. I want to reduce it.

So when your friend laughs at you for caring about something as trivial as trans fats, tell your friend you don’t care about trans fat. You care about the principle that’s at stake. The principle is that when your health is a justification for restricting liberty, then the power of politics climbs in your car, in your kitchen and in your bedroom. Today it’s trans fats. Tomorrow it’s meat or single-malt scotch, or skiing or sex. It’s not about whether some cost-benefit analysis proves that on this particular case or that one, the ban is worthwhile. It’s about whether you’re free to be an adult and pursue what you enjoy, knowing that nothing is entirely safe. I choose adulthood for adults.

I often get similar feedback about this blog’s obsession with smoking bans, a growth of the nanny state I find particularly loathsome for the way it seduces normally tolerant individuals to violate the autonomy of smokers and business owners in their communities.


Bill Whitman changed my lime

Bill Whitman, founder of the Rare Fruit Council International and popularizer of this blog’s adored miracle fruit, died last week. From the NY Times:

Among rare-fruit devotees, Bill Whitman, as he was known, was hailed as the only person to have coaxed a mangosteen tree into bearing fruit outdoors in the continental United States. Native to Southeast Asia, mangosteen is notoriously finicky and cold-sensitive…

Mr. Whitman managed to cultivate other fastidiously tropical species like rambutan and langsat, and he was recognized as the first in the United States to popularize miracle fruit, a berry that tricks the palate into perceiving sour tastes as sweet.

In pursuit of rare fruit, “Bill was a monomaniac,” said Stephen S. Brady, his doctor and friend, who traveled with him. “He’d hear about a fruit tree, and pursue it like a pit bull to the ends of the earth.”

Full obituary here.


The coming caffeine ban

Our children are being taken in by a new drug. A drug that’s fattening, high in calories, and addictive. It’s carried openly in schools, considered a sign of fashion. Even teen celebrities promote its glamorous image:

…it doesn’t help when trendsetters like Mary-Kate Olsen regale interviewers with tales like this: “When I was younger, on weekends, my mom would make us pancakes with our initials on them and then a tiny cup of coffee,” she told W magazine. “I remember at 10 sneaking my own coffee and pouring a ton of sugar in and going up to the playroom and drinking it.”

Oh no, coffee! I’d like to think that when an op-ed appears in the Boston Globe lamenting kids’ coffee consumption, it’s just a call for parents to be aware and responsible. I think we’ve learned by now that that’s not the case. Can calls for school districts to ban coffee from students’ hands be too far behind?

Remember, coffee also serves as a dangerous and deadly weapon!

Previous Boston Globe hand-wringing about kids and coffee noted by Rogier van Bakel here.

[Cross-posted at STC.]