Conservatives and coffee

J. P. Freire reports on a new “Conservative Cafe” in Crowne Point, Indiana:

“No, we don’t carry the New York Times,” [owner David Beckham — not that David Beckham] assures me. They do, however, carry the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. Meanwhile, café televisions are tuned to Fox News from open to close. As he describes his year-old venture, it’s clear that no fan of Starbucks would feel much at home in the Conservative Café. Then again, for Mr. Beckham, that’s the point.

“Nobody’s thought of starting a coffee shop that caters to more conservative thinking,” he stresses. But it’s not the thinking that seems to be at the center of his coffee shop’s experience. It’s the lifestyle. “We get a lot of curious people, but the majority of our clientele are conservatives. We’re in an area of Reagan Democrats. They’re over 30. They come with their families.”

Mr. Beckham’s coffeeshop sells t-shirts that use classic conservative shock-and-awe rhetoric, such as, “Silly Liberal: Paychecks are for workers,” and “Peace through superior firepower.” This comes despite his wife’s initial concerns that he would alienate half of all potential customers. “I told her that beauticians alienate half of their potential customers and they get by just fine.”

I’m all for letting a thousand flowers bloom, ideological diversity, small business, etc., but I’ve got to say: this sounds like an awful place. Just having TVs on in a coffee shop isn’t exactly a sign of vibrant intellectual life. But TVs tuned in constantly to FOX News? Ugh. As J. P. says, “There are no tomes of great philosophical or academic literature in the shop… Indeed, the portrait of TR pretty much precludes it.”

Left-wing shops like DC’s Busboys and Poets might not be much better; oddly, I never made it in. But at least they don’t exhibit this kind of anti-intellectualism. Selling the Wall Street Journal is great, but there’s no need to proudly shut out the New York Times. Sure, its editorials can be terrible, but the paper offers some of the best reporting in the country. A well-informed person ought to read it from time to time, not wear one’s dismissal of it as a badge of honor. (Today’s Republicans learn from the top, I guess.)

If conservatives would look into the soft lefty concern for the world’s poor expressed by many independent coffee companies, they’d see some intelligent commentary bubbling up. You know who offers the smartest critiques of Fair Trade? It’s not the conservatives and libertarians sneering at the label without a clue as to how coffee markets actually work. It’s the bean buyers who can tell you how Fair Trade is often an obstacle to improving farmers’ lives and how their own entrepreneurship has found better ways to reward farmers and raise standards of quality. They’re liberals, but they’re liberal capitalists. Their customers increasingly know this too.

And speaking of coffee, for a coffee shop owner Beckham says little about it. There’s no detail about his beans in the article and the cafe’s website isn’t very descriptive. It says they have four blends and that they are all roasted in Indiana. But the blends all come from individual countries: a Colombian, a Guatemalan, a Kenyan, and a Sumatran. So are they “blends” or are they single origins? And what do the “strength” ratings mean? Beckham doesn’t exactly sound like a coffee lover here: “We know what coffee is for. It’s to start your day. It’s not for sitting on a couch for 8 hours and looking for a friend on MySpace.” Or perhaps it’s for enjoying. Once again, this doesn’t sound like a place for the intellectually curious, in either its politics or its product.

I don’t want to slag this cafe too much. Coffee shops could use more diversity and I like to see small businesses succeed. For all I know, their coffee’s fantastic. Yet what I love about the best coffee shops is that they’re home to lively exchanges of ideas, not walled-off ideological conformity. If conservatives seem under-represented in them, that perhaps says more about conservatives than it does about coffee shops.


McCain, Obama <3 Philip Morris

The Washington Post reminds us of one more reason not to vote for Obama or McCain in November: they’re both co-sponsors of the bill to put tobacco products under oversight of the FDA. The Post supports this, of course, presumably on the theory that regulation is always good and regulation of evil tobacco companies is even better. The fact that Philip Morris supports the proposal too suggests it’s not as good an idea as they believe it to be.

If this becomes law, makers of alternative tobacco products, such as smokeless tobacco, will be explicitly forbidden from mentioning in advertising or any other forum that their product is safer than cigarettes, even though this is true. The development and marketing of safer cigarettes could be blocked and “low tar” labels eliminated. The FDA could mandate lower nicotine levels, causing current smokers to inhale more cigarettes to ingest the same dose. Smokers who prefer flavored cigarettes are completely screwed, as every flavor except for menthol will be banned. This is all to the good of Philip Morris, maker of the popular Marlboro menthol brand; new restrictions on advertising and the costs of complying with new regulations will prevent smaller companies from eating into its market share, while denying consumers valuable information about the relative safety of other forms of tobacco will keep other competition at bay. (See this Reason article for details.)

This bill will not hurt Philip Morris and won’t keep consumers safe. It will eliminate consumer choice, secure the Big Tobacco oligopoly, and ensure that existing smokers are more likely to die from their habit. Bush, to his credit, has opposed it. In this regard, at least, his replacement will be significantly worse that he is.

Freshly minted bias


Organizational tweeting

Craig Newmark points to Gene Weingarten’s predictable “I’m old and don’t understand the point of this Twitter thing all the kids are doing” column from earlier this month in The Washington Post. Weingarten complains that’s it’s hard to write anything profound in 140 characters or less, which of course misses the point. We’ve talked here before about how Twitter helps create a social sixth sense; I feel far more in touch with the friends I left behind in DC than I would without it. In just the past few weeks I’ve used the service to find a good barbecue joint in Kansas City (thanks, Tim!), locate sources for a paper I’m writing, express things I’d like to say but not write a full blog entry about, join my DC friends at a “virtual bar” as we watched the conventions and debate together, and possibly line up a regular writing gig.

Weingarten does bring up one thing that bugs me too, though:

My problem with Twitter is that it has become so big and so popular that some newspapers, including this one, are stuffing their latest headlines into Twitter alerts. Even the presidential candidates are kowtowing to it, sending out 140-character campaign news updates. (Some of these sound as though they were composed by the authors of product-assembly manuals from Taiwan. Here’s an actual McCain alert: “Hillary turned McCain bloggers shut down by blogger? . . . Doesn’t add up.”)

Lots of organizations are jumping onto the Twitter bandwagon, but I don’t think they really get the medium. I’m bombarded with Twitter accounts from think tanks and magazines whose updates just duplicate information that I’d rather get from RSS feeds, email subscriptions, or by visiting their websites.

The Cato Institute writes one of the better feeds. It includes some information I might not otherwise catch, like scholars’ upcoming media appearances and interesting news stories. Most of it, however, I’d rather get (and probably already do) via more traditional routes. Because the links are shortened to TinyURLs, I don’t know if I’m clicking on an op/ed, a paper, a podcast, a blog post, or a news site. And most of these items, though interesting, are just clutter when they show up on my mobile phone rather than on my computer. So as much as I like Cato, I don’t follow the feed. (All of this goes double for you bloggers who link every single one of your posts to your Twitter feed. An occasional highlight is fine, but let’s have some perspective here: If I’m on Twitter, I’ve probably mastered RSS.)

298 people do follow the feed, so their strategy is certainly working. Even so, I’d like see a better use of the medium. How about more spontaneous, timely tweets alerting me to events or TV and radio appearances? Cato has some witty people in the building; how about 140 word commentaries from them? Snarky remarks from Jerry Taylor or Jim Harper I would tune in for.

The company I’ve seen use Twitter best is Bell’s Beer. I visited their cafe in Kalamazoo, MI last month and updated my feed to say that I was there. Bell’s was following me before I finished dinner. They search for anyone mentioning their beer and add them as a friend, then update their own feed with the latest news about their beers, events, an inside look at what the staff is up to, and answers to questions from their fans. As a result they’ve brought in more than 400 followers in just over two months. (It helps that their beer is awesome too).

A newspaper column isn’t a blog post isn’t a Twitter update. As more organizations are tempted by this new medium, I hope they’ll put in the effort to make their updates truly worthwhile.

Update 9/28/08: Twitter fun fact: “In Dell’s case, the company says it’s made ‘well over’ $500,000 in sales from sending special offers from its Dell Outlet store to its Twitter group, which it began in June 2007. The group has almost 1,500 ‘followers’ who receive its messages on a regular basis.”

Faking it
These kids and their Facebook


Links for 9/27/08

An elusive weekend links post!

White House knew of torture practices in 2002

Brown sums up last night’s debate

The rise of tough dogs in South London

TX court rejects Barr lawsuit without explanation

This Four Barrel time lapse is everything I love about coffee shops

New column from the DC Craft Bartenders Guild

PA bartender not thankful for smoking ban

Recession-proof plan: the 401-Keg

The good, old beer


The case against re-regulation

At the Freakonomics blog, Justin Wolfers invites Erik Hurst to offer a much-needed counterpoint to calls for re-regulation of the financial sector:

The past decade saw enormous financial innovation and the development of a liquid market to sell mortgage securities for unconventional mortgages (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had been securitizing “conventional” mortgages for a long time). Some of these new loans were issued to subprime borrowers: folks with little equity in their homes and lower credit scores.

Yet even as we recognize the costs of the subprime meltdown, we need to recognize the benefits of this innovation.

The homeownership rate in the U.S. increased by 3 percentage points over the past decade — a clear break from the two previous decades of stagnation. Around one-third of these households may ultimately default on their mortgages, but this also means that two-thirds of those who were previously excluded from mortgage markets now own a home.

Access to credit for this historically denied group is a clear benefit of financial innovation. Likewise, even if excessive lending landed us in this mess, the extra investment projects that were funded contributed heavily to economic growth over the past decade and supported the economy during the technology “bust.”

Where to Next?

Knowing what we know now, what is the optimal approach to regulating the subprime sector? Some argue that we should outlaw subprime lending completely. But do we really want to return to the world where the well-off have access to credit, but the historically denied (the poor, the young, African-Americans) can’t access the housing market or other credit markets? Is it really O.K. for only some households to use credit to help them ride out bad times, while others must just do without?

It’s a strange reversal of the usual ideologies, but those of us who care deeply about the poor must care deeply about cultivating a vibrant financial sector to service the subprime market. Otherwise, we truly risk two Americas: the credit-worthy who enjoy the benefits of the capitalist system and a highly developed financial system, and the less credit-worthy, who must live with a level of financial development that we suspect keeps so many third-world nations poor.

I don’t claim to know the best response to the current financial problems, but ten minutes into tonight’s debate it’s clear that we need economists like Hurst keeping regulation in check.


Losing the cynic vote

It was reported earlier this week that the McCain campaign negotiated a deal to reduce the Q&A time in the vice presidential debate because they were worried about Palin’s inexperience. How little confidence in your nominee do you need to have, I thought, that you would rather silence her than give the famously gaffe-prone Joe Biden more time to put his foot in his mouth?

After watching clips from Palin’s interview with Katie Couric, I’d say this was a good call:

Jason Kuznicki, bless him, took the trouble to transcribe that parade of non-sequiturs:

COURIC: Why isn’t it better, Governor Palin, to spend $700 billion helping middle-class families who are struggling with health care, housing, gas and groceries? Allow them to spend more, and put more money into the economy, instead of helping these big financial institutions that played a role in creating this mess?

PALIN: That’s why I say I, like every American I’m speaking with, we’re ill about this position that we have been put in. Where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy. Um, helping, oh, it’s got to be about job creation, too. Shoring up our economy, and putting it back on the right track. So health care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions, and tax relief for Americans, and trade — we have got to see trade as opportunity, not as, uh, competitive, um, scary thing, but one in five jobs [being] created in the trade sector today. We’ve got to look at that as more opportunity. All of those things under the umbrella of job creation.

This is worse than wrong. It’s complete nonsense, in response to a question about the biggest current issue in politics. There’s no excuse for being unprepared. And while this clip is cherry-picked from the interview, the rest isn’t much better. See here and here, for example.

I’ve been cynically hoping for a McCain win in November, in part because many of his policy ideas are legitimately superior to Obama’s, but primarily because the idea of pairing a President Obama with a supportive Democratic Congress in a down economy gives me shivers. I was also initially warm to the Palin nomination. But after her performance here and McCain’s antics this week, I’m having second thoughts. Divided government is one thing; gross incompetence and incoherence another. Lately even I feel unable to muster enough cynicism to tolerate seeing these two in the White House.


We win!

For now, at least. This week Michigan’s long fight over a proposed statewide smoking ban came to a temporary end, with supporters failing to muster enough votes in the House to pass it. Concerns about its impact on state casino tax revenues and smoking related businesses sunk the bill; if passed, it would have banned smoking even in cigar bars and tobacco shops.

My May op/ed in the Detroit Free-Press arguing against the ban garnered more hate mail (and slightly fewer supportive emails) than anything else I’ve ever written. It’s archived behind a pay wall at the Freep site, but reposted here.

[Via The Stogie Guys.]


Pick your pickpocket

My friend David Donadio takes on the bailout and our disappointing crop of candidates in the Baltimore Sun:

The case for action is clear: Things look bad, so we have to do something – and that, we’re told, means spending lots of money. But if the big bailout goes through, how will we know we’re not just putting the entire economy on stilts?

Sen. Barack Obama seems to have no problem with this, and neither does Sen. John McCain. It brings the grand total in new government spending to around $1 trillion: a $700 billion rescue plan for Wall Street, a $100 billion to $200 billion bailout for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and an $85 billion bridge loan for American International Group. To say nothing of the $1 trillion war in Iraq or the $1 trillion Medicare drug entitlement.

It doesn’t matter if we’ve never bought a house; we’ll pay for it. It doesn’t matter if we’ve never bought stock; we’ll bear its costs without its benefits. It doesn’t matter if we’ve never heard of AIG, or if the idea of financing a bridge loan sounds curiously like being knocked to the ground and robbed blind….

The sad truth is that when you consider what’s at stake for people our age this November, there’s little hope, little change and little straight talk to be had – just a choice of which suit gets to reach into our pockets and tell us it’s for our own good.

Whole thing here.


Cato in The Post

My friends at Cato get a nice profile in The Washington Post today:

The specter of the most titanic intervention in the markets since Franklin Roosevelt started sewing the safety net has folks at the Cato Institute reaching for something strong.

“I’m thinking of taking up drinking,” says David Boaz, executive vice president.

He’s kidding, of course. Just a little gallows humor from the author of “Libertarianism: A Primer,” who has a Goldwater poster and two busts of Adam Smith in his office.

Instead, in their handsome building on Massachusetts Avenue, faced with a proposed $700 billion government bailout of Wall Street, this town’s most gung-ho libertarians and free-marketeers are reaching for their coffee and their keyboards. They are invigorated. The prospect of doom and ruination for everything they hold dear only makes them stronger.

I feel bad for the media intern who will have to figure out how to log all the references and quotes from the article, but I’m glad to see Cato get such a sympathetic treatment. Now if only the Post would start incorporating more free market policy ideas into its articles…


Enamour myself of my little motor car

Oh, the indignity! I’ve taken my share of knocks for driving a Pontiac Aztek, but today is a new low. Readers of the Daily Telegraph have voted the Aztek the ugliest car of all time out of 300 nominees. The kicker? The Aztek was never even sold in Europe. As Edmunds puts it, “Even from well across the pond, Britons can see that the Pontiac Aztek is hideous.”

The car ranked well in consumer satisfaction values and has the highest humor value in its class. It’s moved me from Houston to DC to Nashville and back to DC, and soon from DC to Portland. It may look like a rhinoceros, but it’s a heck of a good car on the inside.

A car that’ll make children cry