Baristas in the news

I wasn’t really following the story of six American University students who protested Karl Rove’s speech at the school until I noticed a name yesterday: one of the six is none other than my friend and old barista coworker Joel Gardner!

In what’s being called the “Moon Rover” incident, Joel passed by the scene and spontaneously mooned Karl Rove. Now he and five others have warrants out for their arrests for crossing a police line during the protest. I don’t know the details of the case, but Joel’s a super nice guy, so I hope he’s able to get out of this without serious consequences. (You might also remember Joel from the night David and I caused the coffee roasting disaster, but he bears no blame for that!)

His brother is writing about the case here and here, and posts this image in support:

Moon Rover


Do people know what they want to know?

Lene, one of my cobloggers at A Better Earth, points to an interesting paper called “Sentiments and Acts Towards Genetically Modified Foods.” The study examines consumer behavior in the Netherlands after the government required foods with genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such:

Because the Netherlands was one of the first EU countries to enact mandatory labelling, it provides an excellent case study for examining European consumer response…

Based on the results of the various attitude surveys carried out during the period of interest, one would expect a sizeable market segment (anywhere from 44% to 85% of Dutch consumers) to avoid GMFs if confronted with the choice. Likewise, one would expect Dutch consumers to be armed with information about GMFs based on their high level of awareness, knowledge, and intense media coverage. As indicated earlier, Dutch consumers were indeed confronted with such choice for a meaningful number of processed foods. The question then is how they actually chose?

What do you think they did?

Netherlands consumers did not significantly change their purchasing behaviour towards foods that received labels indicating the presence of GM ingredients. Nor did they alter their purchasing behaviour towards such foods after the labels were removed nearly three years later. There are no abrupt adjustments or gradual shifts away from GMFs.

That’s fascinating. The implication is that consumers responding in surveys are not good at predicting what kind of labeling and information they will actually demand in the marketplace. Yet those kinds of surveys are what justify a wide variety of regulations. Origin labels are being considered for meat because consumers supposedly want to know where their meat is coming from. Diageo says alcoholic beverage makers should be forced to put nutritional information on their bottles because customers demand it. Smoking ban supporters defend their policies on the grounds that bars and restaurants refuse to go smokefree in the face of widespread desire for such establishments. Are those expressions of consumer sentiment reliable?

I’ve argued in the past that they are not (meat labels here, alcohol here, smoking bans here). I believe that these cases of “market failure” are actually cases of “introspection failure.” Responding to survey questions removed from any actual trade offs, people overestimate their desire for information and their aversion to bad things like smoke or genetically modified foods. Their real, revealed preferences in the market are actually much more moderate. In the paper above, even when the costs of avoiding GMFs are virtually zero, consumers didn’t do so. If that’s a typical outcome, regulations based on publicly expressed opinions are bound to exceed what consumers actually demand, needlessly increasing costs or reducing consumers’ options.

This paper only applies to GMFs, but the authors provide a thorough discussion of the many methodological problems that undermine consumer attitude surveys. I urge you to read the whole thing and decide if they can plausibly be extended to the cases above. I think that they can.

So in summary of many blog posts from the past few years, here are three reasons the nanny state grows beyond what consumers really want:

1) People are ignorant of their actual preferences. (If you’re not facing real trade offs, it’s hard to imagine what you’ll actually demand. Introspection is a poor and easily biased guide.)*

2) People want to hold “good” preferences. (If supporting smoking bans, nutritional info, or GMF labels is the politically correct thing to do, you’ll respond that way in a survey, but not when those beliefs carry personal costs.)**

3) People will gladly externalize the costs of their preferences onto others, exaggerating them if they’re weakly held. (If you don’t like smoking, you may not be willing to bear the cost of going to the bars that don’t have it. But if by passing a ban you can impose the costs of your preference onto other people, you’ll exaggerate your aversion to smoke.)

What do you think?

* I’m treating revealed preferences as true. Alternatively, one could say that introspective preferences are true and consumers inexplicably ignore them at the grocery store, even when the monetary and informational costs are very low. That doesn’t strike me as a very sensible or useful interpretation.

** See Bryan Caplan’s excellent book The Myth of the Rational Voter for a lot more of this kind of analysis of democracy.

Update 8/31/07: See also Frank Newport of the Gallup Poll expressing similar doubts about whether consumers will really avoid Chinese products. Hat tip: Caleb Brown.


Your Grand Old Party…

… not so fun anymore. Mike Huckabee’s a well-known nanny-statist, and apparently he’s also a terrible federalist. Watch him call for a national smoking ban here.

Whatever people’s motives for supporting smoking bans, I wish they would drop the pretense that they’re doing so on behalf of restaurant workers. We servers and bartenders go into the business knowing what we’re getting in to and we’re smart enough to make the decision of whether or not the compensation is worth it. We know the exposure, we can avoid it we want to. What’s the problem? This is a terrible argument that should have died long ago. Instead it’s an applause line for presidential candidates.

Want to ban smoking? Fine, do it. But quit patting yourself on the back for your concern over worker safety.

Speaking of which, I wonder if Huckabee orders pizza for his staff on the campaign trail?


Noonhat is what’s for lunch

The internet reads my thoughts and turns them into reality. Or at least that’s how it seems sometimes.

On the way to lunch on Monday, a colleague and I were discussing Keith Ferrazzi’s book Never Eat Alone. “Discussing” is too strong a word, as neither of us has actually read it, but I think idea in the title is great. I half-seriously suggested posting a Craigslist ad seeking random lunch meetings in the neighborhood in which I work, but thought better of it.

The very same day I came across a WorldChanging post about Noonhat, a brand new website designed by Brian Dorsey. The idea is simple: place a circle on a map indicating your location, choose a date, and enter your email address. On the date you’ve chosen, Noonhat puts you in touch with other locals available on the same date so you can make lunch arrangements. You all pick a restaurant, meet, and enjoy a meal with some totally strange strangers.

I signed up for a lunch today not yet expecting anyone from DC to appear. To my surprise, a guy from just a few blocks away had signed up as well (turns out he met the creator at the Gnomedex conference). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but given that to be on the site he had to at least be up to date on internet trends, I figured that if worse came to worst we could just talk about LOLcats for half an hour.

Luckily, we didn’t have to do that. We hit it off quickly, found some common interests, and kept the conversation flowing all through the lunch without a single “i can has cheezburger” joke. Not too surprisingly given the neighborhood, we also discovered we have somewhat similar jobs promoting the work of our employers, making our exchange not just personally enjoyable but productive, too. We’ll probably meet up again.

If the site continues to add users I could see Noonhatting on a regular basis. As Dorsey says, the internet excels at matching people with similar interests and ideas, but offers fewer options for meeting very different people nearby. Noonhat is a strikingly simple way to make that happen. I dig it. To give the site a try, sign up here.


Ethanol is not energy policy

Yesterday’s news included three informative pieces on ethanol subsidies and why they endure. First, New Scientist reports on yet another study showing that ethanol and similar biofuels do not reduce the amount CO2 in the atmosphere:

Righelato and Dominick Spracklen of the University of Leeds, UK, calculated how long it would take to compensate for those initial emissions by burning biofuel instead of gasoline. The answer is between 50 and 100 years. “We cannot afford that, in terms of climate change,” says Righelato.

The researchers also compared how much carbon would be stored by replanting forests with how much is saved by burning biofuel grown on the land instead of gasoline.

They found that reforestation would sequester between two and nine times as much carbon over 30 years than would be saved by burning biofuels instead of gasoline (see bar chart, right). “You get far more carbon sequestered by planting forests than you avoid emissions by producing biofuels on the same land,” says Righelato.

He and Spracklen conclude that if the point of biofuels policies is to limit global warming, “policy makers may be better advised in the short term to focus on increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel use, to conserve existing forests and savannahs, and to restore natural forest and grassland habitats on cropland that is not needed for food.”

So why do the subsidies keep coming? Because they’re good politics! If you want to win Iowa, you’ve got to like ethanol :

Three Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, all visited the Iowa Falls refinery, where they pledged further investment in alternative energy.

Over the past year, two other candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), went from strongly opposing the expansion of ethanol to endorsing it.

Backing ethanol is a political necessity in the state that is the traditionally the first to choose its presidential candidates. Iowa boasts the greatest number of ethanol plants in the country, producing about 30 percent of the U.S. supply. Ethanol is Iowa’s golden, corn-fed goose.

And it’s not just for corn. With cheaper sugar imports soon to arrive from Mexico, American growers used to protective quotas are looking to ethanol as a way to keep prices up:

Under the farm bill the House passed last month, the federal government would buy surplus sugar and sell it to ethanol producers, where it would be used in a mixture with corn. The program was inserted as a hedge against a looming North American Free Trade Agreement provision, which will let Mexico export unlimited amounts of sugar to the U.S. starting next year…

The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, inserted the sugar-to-ethanol provision in the farm bill. Minnesota is the nation’s largest producer of sugar beets, and Peterson represents the state’s sugar beet-growing Red River Valley. U.S. sugar is made from beets in some Northern and Western states, and cane in a few Southern states and Hawaii.

The media writes about ethanol as if it’s part of energy policy. That’s just a pretense. It’s farm policy.


Houston’s underground

Until the Times covered it today, I had no idea downtown Houston’s tunnel system was thriving with so many businesses or so extensive. It’s also almost entirely private:

It was not centrally planned; it just grew, inspired by Rockefeller Center in New York. But it is not connected to a transit network. And, befitting Texans’ distrust of government, most of it is private; each segment is controlled by the individual building owner who deigns to allow the public access during business hours — and then locks the doors on nights and weekends. Some parts, like those belonging to the former Enron buildings now leased by Chevron, are closed to outsiders altogether.


To drink in DC

Microbrews? Food from local restaurants? Animal conservation? I’m very tempted to attend this event on Thursday:

Raise your glass to conservation and join FONZ Young Professionals at the third annual Brew at the Zoo. Sample a variety of beer from more than 20 microbreweries, enjoy hors d’oeuvres from area restaurants, and groove to live music by Welbilt. Ticket price includes all beer samples, food, entertainment, and a commemorative glass. Proceeds benefit the National Zoo’s Asian elephant conservation program.

The brewery list looks promising, with Ommegang, Dogfish, Magic Hat, Abita, Allagash, Victory, and Rogue among the sponsors. Tickets are $55. I can drink $55 worth of beer standing up!

[Thanks to Culture Me, DC for the pointer.]


New digs

Things I now possess that I didn’t have a week ago:

1) New apartment.

2) Room for a desk.

3) Internet access.

In other words, regular blogging resumes shortly.


Return of the hopsicles

Did the Virginia ABC make a reasonable decision and I missed it? I guess so, because Rustico’s hopsicles are back on the menu. I tried the cherry made from St. Louis Kriek last night and it was a delicious grown-up dessert; the Post has notes on a few others. Or perhaps these are the revised recipes, using additional ingredients to comply with the ABC. Either way, they’re pretty tasty.


Happy ending for Barry’s

Barry’s Magic Shop, the one almost driven out of business last year under threat of eminent domain by Montgomery County, has re-opened in its brand new digs in White Flint. I haven’t been yet, but I look forward to visiting in celebration of Barry’s victory over the planners and the fact the DC area will still have a local magic shop.

Remember though, the relocation has been aided by taxpayers forced to subsidize it in the wake of the pr disaster this became for the county. In addition, the original land owner has not been compensated at all for the strong-armed sale of the property.

MoCo double lifts from taxpayers
Property rights magically disappear in Wheaton


Information wants to be free — but it’s not!

In the comments to yesterday’s post about food regulations, my friend David distinguished rules that limit consumers’ choices (bad) from rules that give consumers more information (good). I agree that the former are worse than the latter, but I’m still skeptical of both. That’s because information isn’t free. Labeling and sorting cost money. Some information is obviously good, but how much? The answer isn’t always “more.”

The solution is to treat information like any other good, subject to the workings of supply and demand. Experience shows that when consumers demand specific information, producers are glad to provide it. “Atkins friendly” and “trans fat free” foods are two recent examples of labels responding to diet concerns. The extremely specific details of origins and processes that go onto many artisanal goods tap into the desire for information at a higher level. Granted, markets don’t always deliver perfect results, but they usually do better than government regulators. Generally the best way to arrive at the optimal communication between producer and consumer is to let the market sort it out.

In yesterday’s post we were talking about origin labels for meat and other products, but a proposal to require detailed nutritional information on alcoholic drinks demonstrates the problem even more clearly:

The Treasury Department is considering a new rule that would require companies to put alcoholic content, serving sizes and nutritional information on all alcoholic drink packaging.

According to the proposed rule being published Tuesday for public comment, labels on all alcoholic beverages – from beer cans to wine bottles – would include a statement of the drink’s percentage of alcohol by volume.

The labels would also include a “serving facts” panel, which would list the number of calories, carbohydrates, fat and protein for a standard serving size.

This would be a reversal of current laws that actually prohibit distillers, vintners, and brewers from putting this kind of information on their bottles. Among the groups advocating the change is Diageo, the world’s largest liquor company:

Diageo North America has listed nutritional information for its alcoholic beverages on one of its Web sites for the past two years because it was illegal to put such “serving facts” on the label.

Yesterday, the Norwalk-based unit of the world’s biggest liquor company praised the federal Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau for issuing a proposed regulation requiring serving facts labels on all alcoholic beverages.

Diageo, joined by the National Consumers League, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other consumer groups, initiated a movement in 2003 seeking a uniform facts label…

“Consumers want more information – not less,” said Guy Smith, Diageo North American executive vice president, in a statement. “Today marks a major victory for consumers and a win for our industry. We are one step closer to providing consumers the information our research tells us they overwhelmingly want about carbs, calories, alcohol content and alcohol per serving size.”

If Diageo wants to put nutritional information on its labels, it’s stupid to forbid them from doing so. That part of the current law should definitely go. But Diageo wants more than that. They want everyone to be forced to follow their lead. Why? Are they that concerned about public health? I doubt it.

When you’re a massive corporation like Diageo selling standardized products around the globe, providing detailed nutritional labels is pretty easy. But for smaller craft producers, obtaining that kind of information could be more expensive and time consuming. Perhaps the folks at Diageo are just looking out for consumers’ interest, but it seems a lot more likely that they’re lobbying to get regulations in place that are light on them and burdensome on the little guy. Throw in the seal of approval from CSPI and it’s a classic case of bootleggers and Baptists each getting what they want: the Baptists provide the moral reasoning for the law while the bootleggers reap the financial rewards.

David recognizes that this sort of thing is a problem, but suggests we regulate better, not less. I’m not convinced that’s possible. If even a proposal as seemingly benign as putting calorie counts on a bottle of wine is going to be corrupted by special interests, the problem is endemic to regulation.

Whether it’s calorie counts in fast food restaurants or nutritional labels on wine, the best way to defend consumer interests is to remove barriers to communication. Let Wendy’s advertise healthy salads and let Diageo market low-carb wines* — and allow talented chefs and artisan drink producers to focus on their work, not their paperwork.

[For more discussion of the proposed regulation, head over to Tom Wark’s great wine blog. Note also his mock-up of what new wine labels may look like, with the space that could have been used for interesting information or design taken up instead by an ugly nutrition table.]

*All wines are low-carb, silly! But Diageo knows mass marketing.


Foodies with a taste for regulation

I love Slashfood. It’s one of the best blogs around for news and reviews for foodies. Lately, however, I’ve been noticing a bit of a penchant for regulation among the writers. They don’t often write about law, but when they do they tend to take a very credulous view of what goals government can and should pursue. Scanning the archives of the past few months I find:

Jonathan Forester applauding a bill to require country of origin labels on meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Bob Sassone getting on board with NYC’s law requiring restaurants to post calorie info for their food.

Sassone, again, supporting Brookline, MA’s ban on trans fats.

Marisa McClellan expressing envy that residents of Seattle will soon, instead of just enjoying the option to compost their food waste, be required to do so — or at the very least pay for the service, whether or not they actually use it.

Sarah Gim thanking our safety regulations for the fact that we don’t eat cardboard snacks like the Chinese do. Though oops, that story was a hoax.

A quick glance at my older bookmarked links also shows Nicole Weston giving short shrift to the idea that restaurant owners should have the right to allow their patrons to smoke and Sassone (again!) opposing the liberalization of chocolate standards. In the same time period scanned above, there are a few posts that neutrally mention regulations. Only Joe DiStefano gets points for questioning regulators’ wisdom in a post lamenting a New Orleans area ban on taco trucks.

Slashfood isn’t a political blog so I don’t expect in depth policy analysis. Even so, the willingness of these writers to tell other people what to eat, how to label it, what not to smoke with it, and how to throw the scraps away is particularly regrettable given the numerous obstructions regulations already put in the path of foodies seeking good eats. Pasteurization laws deny Americans the pleasures of raw milk and cheese, Chicagoans can’t get foie gras, Alabamans are forbidden from purchasing strong beers, a few states still ban the direct shipment of wine, laws governing liquor are even more restrictive, trade barriers give us sodas made with HFCS instead of sugar cane, most absinthe is unjustifiably banned, Cuban cigars are embargoed, and it’s harder and harder to find places to enjoy good tobacco of any kind. Stretching to more indirect effects, we’ve got farm bills promoting homogenized, industrialized agriculture and ethanol subsidies diverting food to fuel. And if you count any number of narcotics as culinary delights, we’ve got a massive prison population behind bars just for consuming them. This is all just off the top of my head; with research I could go on and on. So why are some foodies so quick to support new mandates and restrictions?

I don’t want to pick a fight over all the posts cited above, but to examine just one example, let’s look at how unintended consequences undermine the New York calorie law. Seems like a harmless way to ensure that consumers have relevant information, right? But it’s not that simple. The measure requires businesses that were already posting some calorie information to post it more prominently, taking up valuable sign space. This has led some restaurants to remove the information altogether rather than deal with the burdensome regulation. The actual result in these cases is consumers who are less informed than they were before.

With just a little thought it’s easy to see that all of the ideas favored in the Slashfood posts could feature unintended consequences, increased costs, or excessive paternalism. I’m not saying the writers should all become die hard libertarians, but these things ought to be considered before supporting whatever new regulation is trendy at the moment. With all the ways government already interferes in foodies’ interests, I think by now a little a skepticism is in order.