Untouched by foreign human hands

If you’re into food policy you’ve certainly heard by now about the Bush Administration’s last minute decision to slap a punitive 300% tariff on Roquefort cheese. Because it’s, uh, French and stuff. Still, I thought this email from the owner of Cheesetique in Alexandria, VA was worth reprinting (the whole thing’s at Crispy):

I was shocked and awed not by that cavalier attack on our broad free-trade liberties, but by the specific violation featured prominently on the front page (albeit below the fold): little old Roquefort is under attack! That sublime product of lactation, coagulation, and fermentation has always held a special place in my heart, despite its high price tag and limited availability. Not only do I have a particular affection for Roquefort, but so do Cheesetique’s discerning customers, who marvel at its romantic story of creation, rustic approach to production even today, and exclusive availability. Your love of raw milk Roquefort has made it a staple in many of my cheese classes and one of the most popular and consistent sellers at Cheesetique. Since opening our doors more than four years ago, we have never been without Roquefort Papillon (I prefer this brand above others, though we have also carried Carles, which is outstanding). We have sold hundreds of pounds of Roquefort despite its title as the most expensive cheese consistently carried at Cheesetique. […]

Why do I focus today on this seemingly insignificant example of protectionism at it worst when there are such large-scale issues to consider in our tumultuous time? For that reason exactly. There are so many huge examples of economic policies gone awry, totaling billions and trillions of dollars, and for that very reason, I point out this easily identifiable, but no less extreme violation of the American ways of free choice and trade.

As our own form of culinary protest, Cheesetique will continue to carry Roquefort until it is no longer available, which I assure you, will only be a matter of time. Not only will we continue to carry it, but its price will never exceed that which we pay for it. We encourage those of you that might have shied away from this pricey perfection in the past to come in and pick up a piece of one of the most historically significant and perfectly created foods in the world – at $20.00 per pound. Yes, you read correctly. $20 per pound.

Remember: Protectionism is bad. Roquefort is good. Long live the latter!

It’s a good thing our new cosmopolitan rulers are above such petty anti-foreign sentiment. Oh, wait:

Washington souvenirs worth $100,000 — including images of the Capitol dome and printings of the U.S. Constitution — are locked in storage, blocked from sale in the new U.S. Capitol Visitors Center because the items are made in China.

Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Administration Committee, said he warned operators of the visitors center not to purchase merchandise made outside the United States, but they did it anyway.

Although the center has the goods in hand, Brady said, “I’m not allowing them to sell those products.”

His Administration Committee oversees operations in the House of Representatives, including the House restaurant, parking facilities and the Capitol Visitors Center. A spokesman for the committee said other House gift shops also are under restrictions on items made outside the United States.

Brady, whose district includes Philadelphia, insists that it’s wrong for tourists to return home with a souvenir from the nation’s capital that bears a “‘Made in China’ sticker.”

And it’s not just the little stuff, either:

The stimulus bill passed by the House last night contains a controversial provision that would mostly bar foreign steel and iron from the infrastructure projects laid out by the $819 billion economic package.

A Senate version, yet to be acted upon, goes further, requiring, with few exceptions, that all stimulus-funded projects use only American-made equipment and goods.

Proponents of expanding the “Buy American” provisions enacted during the Great Depression, including steel and iron manufacturers and labor unions, argue that it is the only way to ensure that the stimulus creates jobs at home and not overseas.

Stimulus advocates are fond of comparing our current situation to the Great Depression. Though the scale of the recession and the trade restrictions are nothing compared to that period yet, the comparison should give them pause. Dan Ikenson writes:

For all practical purposes there is no difference between the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill of 1930 and the “Buy American” provisions in the $819 billion spending bill that passed the House Wednesday.

Smoot-Hawley was the catalyst for a pandemic of tit-for-tat protectionism around the world, which helped deepen and prolong the global depression in the 1930s. “Buy American” provisions will no doubt inspire similar trade barriers abroad and will have the same effect of reducing global trade—and therefore prospects for economic recovery. It is not unreasonable to say that U.S. policymakers are on the verge of taking us down that same disastrous path.

The first acts of Obama’s presidency impressed even skeptics like me, but if we continue down this path McCain’s principled free trade policies are going to be sorely missed.


Membership has its privileges

Richard Morrison at CEI points out this story about DC Councilman Jack Evans introducing special legislation to exempt a private club from the city’s smoking ban — a club of which he just happens to be a member:

The city’s smoke-free law provides an economic hardship waiver for struggling bars and restaurants, Evans said, but it leaves no wiggle room for a single event, like the St. Patrick’s Day gala or Fight Night at the Washington Hilton.

“Once a year, 1,000-plus people go there to drink Irish whiskey, smoke cigars and have dinner,” Evans said of the dinner. “Now they’re not allowed to do that. From my reading of the law there’s no other way to get an exemption but to legislate.” […]

At-large Councilman David Catania, chairman of the health committee, will not move Evans’ legislation or any other exemption proposal, one Catania aide told The Examiner Wednesday. The ban, the aide said, “has been a huge success.”

Evans responded that he might move the measure as an emergency to skirt Catania’s panel. He would need nine votes to get it through the whole body. He’s got one in Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells.

“Absolutely no concern,” Wells said. “I think that having some flexibility is part of good government.”

Evans has discovered the pain of having one’s treasured tradition banned by a bunch of meddling bureaucrats. I’d be sympathetic if not for the fact that Evans is one of those meddling bureaucrats. If he doesn’t like the law, he should introduce changes that open up smoking venues to everyone, not just to clubs that happen to have a city councilman in their membership.

My Crispy on the Outside co-blogger Baylen wrote about DC’s practically meaningless hardship waivers for Culture11 last month.


Battle of the bulbs

Michael Siminovitch, an advocate for compact fluorescent light bulbs, had an illuminating (sorry, couldn’t resist) interview in The New York Times yesterday:

[…] there was great pressure by agencies, by retailers, to bring the cost down on this technology so that we can get big market penetration. Unfortunately, given the lack of really good, understandable specifications, what happened was when you reduce price you inevitably compromise something. In the case of compact fluorescents, we’ve compromised on quality.

By and large the average consumer is buying a light source to provide the right quality of light. In this continuing trend to reduce cost, which is an important driver, we compromised quality.

We’ve gone too far on this thing, and what’s happened is some of these compact fluorescent technologies have become so inexpensive [that] at the same time they’ve lost a lot of their intrinsic quality. And they don’t last very long. And this is bad because the end result here is that yes, we have a very inexpensive technology, consumers will buy it, but they have a long memory.

Product failures instill a lack of confidence in the technology. […]

When we only encourage energy efficiency, which is very important, we compromise other issues. The market penetration for compact fluorescents in this country, while we’re making good strides, is not very impressive. There’s no reason today why we shouldn’t be using all energy efficient technologies in the home. The reason we’re not is consumers don’t like this technology.

We need to get past that. We need to develop a lighting technology that people really like. They like the color, they like the quality, they like the delivery, and, by the way, it’s energy efficient.

It will be illegal to sell traditional incandescent bulbs in the United States come 2012, sooner in Canada, the EU, and Australia. By then, hopefully, CFLs and perhaps some LEDs will have overcome their current flaws to become perfect substitutes for incandescents. Yet the bans work against this goal. CFL manufacturers will have to compete against each other, but they’ll be protected from competition from ordinary bulbs. Why be surprised that they’re not putting products on the market that can stand up?

My current apartment is a mix of CFLs and incandescents. The CFL in my closet is really terrible. It flickers and makes noise as it powers on and the light is of poor quality. I don’t care though because it’s just a closet. The lamp by my couch where I curl up with a book and a drink at night is lit by a 40 watt GE Reveal incandescent. It puts off a wonderfully warm light and I’d hate to see it go. The same is true for my bedroom lamp, one my cousin and I made from Michigan birch wood when I was a kid. With a CFL the clip-on shade, at least, would have to be replaced.

As CFLs improve I’d gladly transition more of my apartment over to them. I might even switch entirely. Or I might not; old technology has its charms. A country in which people switch nearly all of their light fixtures would be slightly less energy efficient than one in which they’re forced to replace 100% them, but it would also be marginally happier.

If CFLs and LEDs become as good as their boosters claim they will, there will be no need to ban their century old competitor. And if they don’t, it’s not the government’s place to tell us we can’t keep the cozy corners of our households.

Update: To clarify, by “traditional incandescents” I mean the kind widely available on the market now. The energy bill didn’t ban incandescent technology explicitly, it just set new energy standards that it does not meet — effectively banning it. Some incandescent manufacturers may adapt.


No disagreement?

Damn. Cato took out full page ads this week in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Roll Call objecting to Obama’s claim that “There is no disagreement that we need action by our government, a recovery plan that will help to jumpstart the economy.” The ad is signed by some 200 economists and reads:

With all due respect Mr. President, that is not true.

Notwithstanding reports that all economists are now Keynesians and that we all support a big increase in the burden of government, we do not believe that more government spending is a way to improve economic performance. More government spending by Hoover and Roosevelt did not pull the United States economy out of the Great Depression in the 1930s. More government spending did not solve Japan’s “lost decade” in the 1990s. As such, it is a triumph of hope over experience to believe that more government spending will help the U.S. today. To improve the economy, policy makers should focus on reforms that remove impediments to work, saving, investment and production. Lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth.

On the other hand, Obama’s plan persuaded Cato to inject much-needed revenues into the struggling print journalism industry, so he’s got that going for him.


Links for 1/28/09

If you’re going to stimulate, do it now!

Eminent domain abuser uses libel suit to threaten critics

AR governor’s appointee calls smokers mentally ill

ASH suggests denying surgeries to smokers

Another writer jumps ship from National Review

Whisky saves a life!

Author makes a good point, commenters are idiots

Bad questions for Yahoo! answers

One full year of morning links! Kickoff post here


The need to demystify drinking

Harold Pollack posts the following image from “The effect of alcohol consumption on mortality: Regression discontinuity evidence from the minimum drinking age,” a new paper by Christopher Carpenter and Carlos Dopkin:

Drinking age mortality

The red line represents days drinking per month. The black line represents the fatality rate. The horizontal axis is age. There’s a discontinuity at 21, suggesting that legalized drinking immediately increases deaths. I don’t have access to the paper, but here’s Pollack’s interpretation:

Young people’s alcohol consumption increases by over 20 percent as they hit their 21st birthday. Meanwhile, death rates increase by 9 percent exactly at age 21. Carpenter and Dobkin traced this further, finding that the mortality jump was largest for motor vehicle accidents, suicides, and other causes plausibly linked with alcohol use. The correlation isn’t a slam dunk, but it is close. The authors estimate that reducing the minimum drinking age by one year–as some propose–would cause 408 additional deaths every year among 20-year-olds.

That might be true, though I question the accuracy of self-reported drinking days among the under-21s. More importantly though, this graph strongly suggests that our current neoprohibitionist policies leave 21-year-olds woefully ill-equipped to enjoy alcohol safely. It’s likely the case there will be a increase in fatalities at any drinking age. That’s not surprising given that alcohol is a dangerous product when it’s abused. The question is how we teach young people to drink responsibly.

I don’t know that there’s an easy answer to that. A combination of lowering the drinking age so that teens can learn to imbibe with adult supervision and a greater emphasis on driving enforcement is one appealing alternative. That’s not going to change American drinking culture over night, but absent those changes it’s hard to envision better practices developing.

For more, here’s Radley Balko on the Amethyst Initiative and the case for lowering the drinking age.


Smokers need not apply

This didn’t take long. The Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health has a job opening for a webmaster. It’s open to any qualified candidate, with one exception: smokers aren’t welcome. You can probably guess the justification:

[QCTH president Mario] Bujol also cites the other costs employers must incur when an employee smokes, as well as the public health issues surrounding second hand smoke and the toxic fumes that settle on smokers even after they have butted out, often called third hand smoke, as reasons why it is fair to limit job placement based on smoking status.

I defend the right of private organizations to discriminate against smokers for the same reason I support bar owners’ rights to host a smoking environment. Freedoms of contract and association trump the desire to impose a uniform standard. What’s troubling here is the abuse of junk science to justify a policy that’s really motivated by nothing more than anti-smoker bigotry. There’s absolutely no evidence that remnant smoke particles harm anyone, especially adults working in a smokefree office environment. Just as public health arguments allowed to smoking ban advocates to impose their preferences onto others in a socially acceptable way, the shoddy third hand smoke study has opened the door for discriminating against smokers under the veneer of sound science.

The Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health is financed in part by the government, opening the door to a legal challenge. It will be interesting to see what kind of debate that stirs up. Should groups that receive taxpayer money be allowed to discriminate against the smokers who fund them?

[Via Michael Siegel.]


What Obama can learn from Putin

No, seriously. This is fiscal stimulus:

Amid a financial crisis that is cutting jobs and eroding growth, there is finally good news for Russians.

The head of the new state alcohol agency — gleefully dubbed the Ministry for Vodka by the press — is advocating cutting taxes on vodka to make the country’s national tipple more accessible, the Izvestia daily reported.

Igor Chuiyan, the former head of state alcohol monopoly Rosspirtprom, has been appointed head of the new federal agency for alcohol market regulation, or Rosalkogol for short.

Without citing its sources, the paper said he advocates slashing the tax on a litre of pure alcohol from the current 190.8 rubles ($A9) to 100 rubles $A4.50).

This would mean that the tax on half litre of vodka would be cut to around 20 rubles from the current rate of 38 rubles, it said.

There’s a health motivation for the tax cut too. The article reports that high taxes have created a large black market in counterfeit vodkas and resulted in dangerously adulterated products.

That’s not a problem here in the US, but there’s a case to be made that the most effective fiscal stimulus would be cuts in our most regressive taxes, like consumption taxes or the FICA/Medicare payroll deductions. Ed Glaeser argues the point here (previously linked on Friday’s sidebar).

[Via TMN.]


Smoke less, smoke better

Contrary to previous news, official reports in England claim that the smoking ban and public health campaigns have reduced the proportion of smokers in society — from 22% to 21%! I haven’t seen the full report, but I’m not even sure that’s within the margin of error. The report also finds that smoking has actually increased among teenage boys, suggesting that the anti-smoking campaigns might have perversely made smoking cigarettes appear cooler than before. Congratulations England.

Here’s the really interesting stat:

Just 1 per cent of men now smoke pipes compared with 12 per cent in 1974, while the proportion who smoke cigars has fallen from 34 per cent to 2 per cent over the same period.

This might seem like a good thing, but since many of these people are probably substituting cigarettes it’s actually something to be concerned about. Smoking pipes and cigars is safer than smoking cigarettes because the smoke isn’t inhaled into sensitive lung tissue. The fact that they take so much longer to enjoy means that they’re consumed less frequently. The inconvenience makes it unlikely that users will develop nicotine dependency since they can’t regulate their intake throughout the day. Craving a cigar is more like craving a good steak than like craving a cup of coffee in the morning; it’s wonderful to enjoy every once in a while, but it’s not addicting.

The trend against cigars and pipes has gone on for a long time, but smoking bans exacerbate it. Cigarette smokers can step outside in nearly any weather and light up for two or three minutes. But if it’s too cold, too hot, too windy, too wet, or too anything, pipe and cigar smokers are out of luck. I’ve smoked a cigar outside in Virginia’s December and believe me, it’s no fun. Unless these smokers happen to be near one of the few, if any, cigar bars their jurisdictions still allow to exist, their hobby is hard to pursue. It’s easy to see why they’d turn to cigarettes.

Tobacco is never going to go away entirely. Governments have imposed death sentences for smoking and taxes far higher than they do now and still smoking endures. What’s changed is the way people do it. As citizens lash out against the bans, lawmakers should consider accommodating the older, safer forms of tobacco usage. A society in which people smoke less and smoke better has its advantages.


Links for 1/23/09

“…wanting to help the poor should not require the abandonment of sensible skepticism about expanding the size of the state.”

Ryan Frederick railroading

Redefining “natural”

Not just smoke-free, but smoker-free

New site from Megan McArdle: Atlantic Business

We don’t make vows

Twitter use in UK explodes tenfold in one year

A quick summary of print journalism’s recent troubles

Academia no place for hotties


Smoking ban fails

It’s not often I get to say this, but this has been a very good week for smoking ban opponents. Tim Kaine’s proposed statewide ban stalled in the Virginia Senate. In Bavaria resistance is paying off:

The state of Bavaria in Germany is relaxing its strict smoking ban. From August, small bars will be able to introduce special smoking areas, as will beer tents, such as those during Munich’s ‘Octoberfest’.

Bavaria’s smoking ban was the strictest in Germany; up to now, it has not allowed any exceptions or separated areas where people can smoke. However, the ban led to fierce protests, and special smoking clubs were even set up to beat the law. Bavaria’s Health Minister Dr Markus Söder explains it was impossible to enforce the legislation, and relaxing the regulations will restore “social peace”.

Similarly, a ban in Ludhiana, India is being rebuffed by brazen civil disobedience. And even here in the US, Colorado is taking steps backward from its strict statewide ban:

Portions of Colorado’s 21/2-year-old indoor-smoking ban could be in jeopardy under a bill expected to be introduced soon.

The bipartisan measure would classify bars, restaurants, racetracks and parts of casinos as cigar-tobacco bars if they have a humidor and make 5 percent of annual gross income or $50,000 in annual sales from tobacco products. Patrons would be required to buy the cigarettes or cigars they smoke at these bars…

But the original legislation exempted cigar bars, and establishments ranging from dive bars to casinos tried to use the loophole to allow patrons to light up.

The new bill would clarify the definition of such bars — and expand it.

It first would eliminate a clause that cigar bars that wish to be exempt from the smoking ban must have been in place since 2005.

Under the bill, the cigar-tobacco bars would have to apply for a special license, ban anyone under 18 and post signs that smoking is allowed. No more than 25 percent of the space in most casinos could be a smoking area.

Rep. Don Marostica, who will be the prime House sponsor, said the effort is driven partly by tales from bar and casino owners about massive losses of business since the ban was enacted.

But it also largely is a matter of wanting business owners and adult patrons to be able to choose the rules under which they operate, said the Loveland Republican, who says he smokes no more than a couple of cigars a year.

“There’s a lot of bars in Adams County that have gone down and under (since the smoking ban), and this just gives them a way to reclaim their business,” said Thornton Democratic Rep. Ed Casso, also a sponsor. “Literally, not every bar is going to convert over to being a smoking bar, but it gives them the option if they want to do that.”

I am cautiously optimistic that we will soon put the worst of anti-smoking hysteria behind us. The tobacco control movement continues to destroy its own credibility with increasingly unscientific and ludicrous claims. Bans go unenforced and resisted by bar owners and smokers. As the recession and SCHIP put downward pressure on state budgets, legislators may look increasingly to tobacco as a source of revenue rather than an evil to be eliminated. And most importantly, as voluntarily smokefree bars and restaurants proliferate non-smokers will have less incentive to stomp on the rights of business owners. We’re not out of the woods yet, but there are glimmers of sunlight in the distance.


Credit where due

I’m still catching up on the news, but Radley’s impressed with Obama’s self-limiting first acts in office:

Yes, it’s only been one day. But this is mighty impressive. Obama’s top priority upon taking office was to sign orders rolling back his predecessor’s expansion of executive power. Put another way, Obama’s top priority upon taking office was to institute limits on his own power.

Check Radley’s post for specifics. Keep in mind too that this is all just a week after AG nominee Eric Holder had no expectation of reversing course on the telecom immunity Obama initially opposed but eventually caved and voted in favor of. But still, bravo for a good beginning.