The soft bigotry of high expectations

OC Latte

If you haven’t read the New York Times Magazine excerpt of Shop Class as Soulcraft, I’d urge you to do so. The original essay from The New Atlantis is one of my favorites and I’m thrilled to see that author Matthew Crawford has expanded it into a book. Crawford left an office job, academia, and public policy to open a motorcycle repair shop, finding the most satisfaction in the last endeavor. Few seem to understand his decision:

The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

This is because they miss the intellectual challenges of the job:

And it frequently requires complex thinking. In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire.

My own experience mirrors Crawford’s, right up to the failed experiment in working for think tanks (though unlike him, I have great respect for the work done by my previous employers — I simply didn’t want to remain a daily part of the institution). When I would tell people in DC that I was a barista, their response was almost always something along the lines of, “Oh, that’s nice, but what do you really want to do?” The idea that making coffee was what I really wanted to do was incomprehensible to them.

Yet the job had more intellectual challenge to it than outsiders realize. Coaxing a good shot of espresso out of whole coffee beans is a puzzle requiring knowledge of the product and the science of brewing, and also a sensory understanding and mastery of the equipment that only develops with experience. A change in grind, in dosage, in water temperature, or any of a dozen other factors could be the difference between a mediocre shot and a true expression of the coffee. Maintaining quality required constant thought and attention.

There is also the greater feeling of reality that comes with doing manual work. Crawford describes his dawning disillusionment with his first cubicle job:

Those who work on the lower rungs of the information-age office hierarchy face their own kinds of unreality, as I learned some time ago. After earning a master’s degree in the early 1990s, I had a hard time finding work but eventually landed a job in the Bay Area writing brief summaries of academic journal articles, which were then sold on CD-ROMs to subscribing libraries. When I got the phone call offering me the job, I was excited. I felt I had grabbed hold of the passing world — miraculously, through the mere filament of a classified ad — and reeled myself into its current. My new bosses immediately took up residence in my imagination, where I often surprised them with my hidden depths. As I was shown to my cubicle, I felt a real sense of being honored. It seemed more than spacious enough. It was my desk, where I would think my thoughts — my unique contribution to a common enterprise, in a real company with hundreds of employees. The regularity of the cubicles made me feel I had found a place in the order of things. I was to be a knowledge worker.

But the feel of the job changed on my first day. The company had gotten its start by providing libraries with a subject index of popular magazines like Sports Illustrated. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, it now found itself offering not just indexes but also abstracts (that is, summaries), and of a very different kind of material: scholarly works in the physical and biological sciences, humanities, social sciences and law. Some of this stuff was simply incomprehensible to anyone but an expert in the particular field covered by the journal. I was reading articles in Classical Philology where practically every other word was in Greek. Some of the scientific journals were no less mysterious. Yet the categorical difference between, say, Sports Illustrated and Nature Genetics seemed not to have impressed itself on the company’s decision makers. In some of the titles I was assigned, articles began with an abstract written by the author. But even in such cases I was to write my own. The reason offered was that unless I did so, there would be no “value added” by our product. It was hard to believe I was going to add anything other than error and confusion to such material. But then, I hadn’t yet been trained.

There’s no denying that having a manual job like working in a coffee shop requires doing many tasks that aren’t at all intellectually stimulating: mopping floors, cleaning grinders, manning the cash register, etc. But there’s also no denying that this stuff has to get done and serves a clear purpose. This knowledge made these tasks much more satisfying than many pointless office routines I have performed, even if the latter required more intellectual effort.

Crawford writes, “A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world.” I would go a bit further and add that a good job offers opportunities for beauty. Though no Christian myself, I think there’s much truth in the fly-fishing theology of A River Runs Through It:

As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. Somehow, I early developed the notion that he had done this by falling from a tree. As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word “beautiful.” […]

My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.

Working an espresso machine offers many moments of beauty. My time condensing 30 page policy studies into 5 paragraph press releases was often challenging, but it was never beautiful. (There are occasionally beautiful moments at Cato, such as the awarding of the 2008 Friedman Prize to Venezuelan student activist Yon Goicoechea, but these never involved my work in media relations.)

I can’t imagine ever going back to office life and its rush hour commutes, enterprise software, and pointless dress codes. And yet I woudn’t be happy focusing entirely on craft, either. I still want to engage in public intellectual life and am painfully aware of how my hours behind the bar detract from my time to write and research. I feel very lucky to be living in a time in which the internet has made it so unnecessary to choose between the two paths, however difficult it can be to strike the right balance. Crawford does a great service dispelling the notion that mastery of a trade is something to be looked down upon or seen as a course suitable only for those unequipped for more esteemed professions.


Toward a supply-side theory of assorted links

Tyler Cowen posted recently about the apparent increasing popularity of bloggers posting daily lists of assorted links. He asks questions of his readers: Do they click? Should he care if they do? The comments are interesting.

That’s the demand-side of assorted links. What about the supply-side? Why do bloggers write these posts? I started providing daily morning links in January, 2008. I based the idea on the twice-daily lists of links provided by The Morning News, my expectation being that they would be a useful way of getting people to visit my site or subscribe to my RSS feed. The links are basically a loss leader: They take a bit of work each day and aren’t directly rewarding in terms of links back, but by attracting readers to the site they make it more likely that people will read my longer posts too. Or as Jason at 37signals put it in a post about why the Drudge Report is one of the best designed sites on the Web, “The more you send people away the more they’ll come back.” (The other main reason for the feature is to give myself a convenient way of linking to things I find interesting but about which I have little to say.)

My rough impression is that this has worked, based on positive feedback from readers and a near doubling in daily traffic in the year or so following the implementation of morning links. But there are confounding variables: In the same period I wrote more normal blog posts, published elsewhere more frequently, redesigned the site, and did a guest stint blogging at Radley Balko’s popular weblog.

Unfortunately the stat programs I’m currently running don’t tell me much about how many readers click on the links, especially those of you who read via RSS. So consider this an open forum on the morning links feature. Do you read them? Would you rather have more numerous, shorter posts, and fewer links each morning? Should they go off the sidebar and onto the main page? Anything else I could improve? Let me know what you think.

(In case you were wondering, I use Kates Gasis’ excellent Sideblog WordPress plugin to make the feature work. It’s a very simple way to shunt selected posts over to a sidebar.)


Links for 5/28/09

US heads toward a VAT

Venezuelan government interferes with Cato event

“Hear that silence? That’s David Leonhardt not actually giving a damn about what people want.”

When to say “I love you,” an economic approach

Isaac Asimov, the source of Paul Krugman’s lack of humility?

Intelly’s Direct Trade gets a little more direct

Don’t smoke inside. Don’t smoke outside either!

Oh, so that’s how bear spray works

For my Chicago friends


Exemptions and employment revisited

On Friday I wrote about a new study by Liz Klein of Ohio State University that found no impact on employment in restaurants and bars following the passage of smoking bans in Minnesota cities. While noting the study’s many limitations, I concluded that it was “interesting and credible.” In light of new information I have revised that evaluation downward.

My main criticism of the study was that it tracks changes only at the community level, missing potentially catastrophic impacts on individual businesses. At the time I thought this was an inherent limitation of the data. But as Michael McFadden (whose own site is here) noted in the comments, Klein could have easily made finer distinctions about the bans’ impact. Specifically, her data codes restaurants and freestanding bars separately, so if there was a differential effect on the two kinds of businesses it should be easy to spot. I posed the following question to Klein asking her why she didn’t include such an analysis in her paper:

A commenter on my blog alerted me to the fact that free-standing bars are coded separately from full-service restaurants in the NAICS data. Given that one would predict bars to suffer the brunt of any decline in business following a smoking ban, it would be of interest to see the data from bars separately rather than pooled together with restaurants. If no statistically significant decline appeared, it would make the conclusions of your study even stronger. On the other hand, if bar employment did decline, the change would be obscured by pooling the data with that from full-service restaurants. Why does your paper only publish the pooled data?

She responded:

Two reasons we looked at data on the overall hospitality industry. We were not interested in looking at bars only because we wanted to make the comparison for the overall hospitality industry, since a) a lot of restaurants derive a substantive portion of their profit from alcohol sales, and b) the policies apply to both. The other reason is more practical – at least one of our communities didn’t code free-standing bars, even though there were bars in that community. Although the coding scheme should be followed as such, the Department of Employment and Economic Development cannot force a community to use the North American Industrial Classification System codes 7224 instead of 7221.

Obviously there’s nothing she can do about the community that doesn’t use the coding, but that doesn’t mean there’s no worth in examining the data in communities that do or trying to expand the sample. I wrote to Klein again asking her if I could see the data. She directed me to the Minnesota DEED website where employment data is publicly available. However this site doesn’t include information about smoking policies, nor does her study reveal the names of the cities included, so there’s no way for me to replicate her data.

Fortunately, at least one previous study has examined the question in depth. Scott Adams (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Chad Cotti (now at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh) published a 2007 paper that uses data sources very similar to Klein’s and they took the effort to differentiate between bars and restaurants. I recommend reading the entire paper for the full results, but the basic finding is that comprehensive bans decrease bar employment by a little more than 4% while having a neutral or slightly positive effect on restaurant employment.

In the discussion section of the paper, Adams and Cotti explain why this effect is plausible:

Although bars and restaurants are similar industries, there are important reasons why smoking might matter differently to both. One might argue that a restaurant is primarily selling food, with drinks secondary, and environment or atmosphere of lesser concern. Clean air is more conducive to enjoying food, especially among non-smokers who may be more likely to come to a restaurant following a ban. Bars, on the other hand, sell environment and atmosphere first, with perhaps drinks second and food third. Given that a smoking ban fundamentally changes the environment of an establishment, the observed negative impact on drinking establishments is not surprising. Moreover, part of the bar environment is the fellow patrons, which in many cases attract customers to a particular drinking establishment. It is therefore possible that a smoking ban alters the environment for non-smokers, leading them to shy away from bars following a ban. […] The main point is that there are plausible explanations for the different impacts of smoking regulations on these similar industries.

Thus there are good reasons to be interested in the potential differential impact of smoking bans on bars and restaurants. To summarize with regard to Klein’s study:

1) Existing research based on similar data finds that differences do exist.

2) Her paper examines the question of whether partial bans have a smaller impact on employment than comprehensive bans, the relevant exemptions applying to freestanding bars.

3) Much of her data is conveniently already coded to differentiate between bars and restaurants.

4) A finding that there was no differential impact would strengthen her paper’s conclusion.

Given all of the above, her insistence that only data from bars and restaurants together are of interest simply makes no sense. She is saying, in effect, that this pooled information is more relevant than data exclusively about bars, even though the exemptions in question apply to bars only. The mind boggles to see the logic in this.

To take a broader review, there are several biases in Klein’s paper that should make one skeptical of the conclusion that communities needn’t worry about the economic impact of comprehensive smoking bans:

1) Existing research shows that bars and restaurants are affected differently, yet in her study the data are pooled.

2) Existing research shows that local bans are less harmful than bans imposed statewide, yet her study only examines local ordinances.

3) Her study examines relatively sticky employment numbers rather than data that more fluidly reflects market changes, such as total hours worked or business revenues.

4) The study period is one of economic growth in which bars are most likely able to withstand the shock of a smoking ban.

For all of those reasons, the applicability of her paper to public policy is very limited and other research that examines the differential impact on bars ought to be considered along with it. It also bears repeating that no study of community-level effects will account for individual smoking-oriented businesses that may suffer drastic drops in revenue even while the overall hospitality industry thrives; the rights of those business owners deserve protection.

Regardless of whether one supports or opposes smoking bans, I hope we can all agree that communities considering them should be informed by an unbiased, comprehensive understanding of how bans and exemptions will affect local businesses. They won’t find it looking at Klein’s study alone.


Links for 5/27/09

DC councilman wants to ban pizza by the slice. Yes, seriously. Update: Clarification here

Libertarians, beware of Sotomayor

The looming government takeover of American healthcare

Will progressives turn against gay rights?

Predictions for the next iPhone

The Onion, America’s finest source for Obama humor

I’ve always wished my bar was more like the post office

The EP of elevator behavior

Penn and Teller’s act gets gun controlled

MHD gets some local press

Nebraska’s license plate fiasco


Government not at work

Patrick Emerson takes note of an email from the amazing Portland pub and beer shop Belmont Station:

A FULL 16 ounce PINT EVERY TIME. You asked for it, we’re delivering. We are now using oversize glasses with a 16 ounce line. Be patient. Let it settle a moment. If it’s not 16 ounces we’ll top it up. More beer for you. Less waste!

Meanwhile, in my previous home of Arlington, VA, local music hotspot Iota has implemented a new house policy:

IOTA Club & Café celebrated two milestones in March, with the Arlington venue marking its 15th year in business and also delivering the news that it would be going smoke free. […] The club went non-smoking on March 15th (its actual anniversary) getting a head start on Virginia’s smoking ban, which doesn’t take effect until December 1st. Co-owner Jane Negrey Inge said the idea had been in the works for a while and the anniversary seemed like a natural time to do it. She added that smokers are still welcomed on the club’s back patio.

Both businesses made the changes to keep their customers happy, no coercion required. Imagine that!

[Thanks to Dan for the Iota tip!]

Is there such a thing as a dishonest pint?
Liberty Tavern not so keen on liberty


Exemptions and employment

A new study from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health about the impact of smoking bans on restaurant and bar employment is making news this week. The study examined 10 Minnesota cities from 2003-2006, tracking employment numbers and searching for effects correlated with different smoking policies (comprehensive bans, bans with exemptions for bars, and no bans). No statistically significant impact was found, so the researchers conclude that governments should pass comprehensive smoking bans without concern for economic effects. Predictably, the conclusion has been picked up uncritically by the press, and the authors hope it will influence debates over statewide bans.

The study is gated online so I wrote to lead author Liz Klein, now at Ohio State University, and she was kind enough to send me the full paper so that I could look at the methodology. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first I’d like to reiterate that employment effects are among the least important arguments against smoking bans. The real question is whether consenting adults should be free to assemble in a privately owned business to enjoy a legal product. Reasonable people can disagree about various measures to reduce indoor smoking, but to eliminate all businesses where adults can enjoy tobacco and alcohol is a blatant violation of their rights to property, assembly, and contract. Empirical questions about employment are an interesting part of the debate over smoking bans, but while discussing them we shouldn’t lose sight of how anti-liberal comprehensive bans really are.

That said, let’s get to the study.

Fortunately, the methodology is straightforward. Most research in this area focuses on tracking changes in employment in one jurisdiction before and after a smoking ban. This one takes a different approach, tracking employment in 10 cities classified by their smoking policies. Employment was measured by restaurant’s and bar’s self-reported numbers of employees, which they are required by law to send to the state. Two of the cities had no bans on smoking in bars and restaurants and served to identify any secular changes in employment trends. After adjusting the numbers into a per capita measure to account for population differences, no significant effects were found.

All of this is fine as far is it goes, but there are some important limitations. The first is that the cities in the sample weren’t randomly treated with smoking policies. Comprehensive smoking bans get passed in the cities that have the political will to pass them and thus presumably have many residents who like going out to smokefree businesses. Cities with looser bans or no bans at all likely have more relaxed attitudes toward smoking. The employment effects of local bans are therefore potentially very different from those of bans imposed statewide, in which, for example, the preferences of urban voters might trump those of rural bar patrons who’d very much enjoy a cigarette and a beer.

This isn’t idle speculation. A 2006 study (not gated) by economists Robert Fleck and Andrew Hanssen examined California’s statewide smoking ban that went into effect long after many California communities had passed their own local restrictions. Here is a summary by Michael Pakko at the St. Louis Fed:

[Fleck and Hanssen] analyzed quarterly restaurant sales data for 267 California cities over 25 years. They find that the measured impact of smoking bans differs between local bans and the statewide ban. In what the authors call their “naïve” specification that treats all smoke-free laws the same, they find a statistically significant 4 percent decline in revenues associated with smoking bans.

When they estimate the effects of the statewide ban and local bans independently, they find that the measured decline in restaurant sales is attributable to the statewide ban on cities without local bans. The measured effect of the statewide ban is nearly 4 percent, and it is statistically significant. The independent effect of local smoking ordinances is estimated to be very small and is not significant. These findings are consistent with the interpretation that locally originated smoking bans have little effect, but smoking bans that are imposed on a community by a higher jurisdiction can have a detrimental economic impact.

Fleck and Hanssen go on to uncover an important specification problem: They find that cities that adopted smoke-free laws were systematically different from those that did not. The authors find that sales growth tends to be a predictor of smoking bans, rather than the other way around. This “reverse causality” calls into question many earlier findings, and it poses problems for using data from California in drawing inferences about the economic impact of smoking bans elsewhere.

I asked Professor Klein if she thought this limitation should be considered when applying her study to Ohio, where bar owners are currently reporting declining revenues and seeking an exemption from the state. She responded:

While randomization is an ideal option to deal with the potential for confounding, a quasi-experimental design, as we have implemented, is the next best option. We selected comparison cities (by size and type of community) in order to best account for time trends in effect at the time of study (2003-2006).

In other words, the limitation is real, and the applicability of the study depends on one’s confidence that the two small control cities are an adequate substitute for randomization. Given the inherently non-random distribution of local smoking bans, I suggest a caveat ought to be included in discussions of statewide exemptions.

The second major limitation is even more serious, and that is that the study only tracks effects at the community level. Individual businesses could be hit drastically hard by a ban and not show up in the data if local restaurants and bars in general are performing well (and remember, a successful hospitality industry may be one predictor that a community will pass a ban). Klein and the other authors acknowledge this in their paper:

An important limitation in the use of aggregated data is that we are able to estimate an overall average, but we are not able to determine differential effects at the business- or neighborhood-level.

I mentioned this to Klein as well. She replied:

Our study does not make claims about individual businesses, as we had data at the community-level only. However, policies are enacted at the community level, so it seems that evaluation of policy effects at the community level are appropriate. Ultimately, decision-makers have to weigh the scientific and economic evidence to make the best decisions for the health of a community.

Voters and legislators consider exemptions to smoking bans precisely because they realize that policies that are good for the community at large might be disastrous and/or unfair to certain businesses within it. To say that community-level effects are the only thing that matter is to dodge the question. Essentially, it is to tell people put out of business by a ban to suck it up because on the bright side their competitors are doing well. Fortunately most people are more tolerant and compassionate than that and so exemptions to smoking bans may continue to pass.

Two other limitations of the study also come to mind. The first is that job numbers are an imperfect measure of the economic effect on employees. They tell us how many people are working, but they don’t tell us how their hours on the job or tip revenue have been affected. Employees in some bars included in the study might have been made worse off by anti-smoking policies and we wouldn’t know it from the data.

The second is that 2003-2006 were good years for the hospitality industry. The economic picture is very different in 2008-2009. Bars in the study period were likely able to absorb the shock of smoking bans more easily than bars today.

In summary, this new study is interesting and credible. It (and others) suggests that ban opponents sometimes overstate the economic case against smoking bans. Its application is limited, however, and says nothing about the potentially disastrous impacts of smoking bans on individual businesses and employees. Policy makers should continue carving out exemptions to smoking bans for the sake of business owners, their patrons, and the people who choose to work for them. A free society can and should tolerate a diversity of smoking options.


The elitism of exemptions

It’s been a busy week for tobacco policy. One of the developments is senate approval of an exemption for cigar bars in New Hampshire:

The New Hampshire Senate approved a bill on Wednesday that would grant cigar bars permission to sell liquor if approved by the House.

Though the bill exempts cigar bars from the state’s two-year-old ban on smoking in public bars and restaurants, lawmakers added restrictions to the bill before it passed in a 21-9 vote.

Businesses will be required to: not serve food of any kind, show proof that 60 percent of gross revenue is derived from cigars or related products, maintain a humidor on the premises, and prohibit cigarette smoking. Also, all job applicants must be warned in writing about the dangers of secondhand smoke exposure.

This should be good news. Exemptions for cigar bars aren’t uncommon and there’s no reason New Hampshire shouldn’t have one too. And yet the prohibition on cigarette smoking bothers me. What is the justification for letting cigar smokers have places to enjoy their hobby indoors while denying the same right to cigarette smokers? There isn’t one. Cigar smokers just happen to have the resources to protest. Once their needs are met, who’s going to stand up for people who choose other forms of tobacco?

That’s exactly the question faced in North Carolina this week, which has joined the shameful ranks of states with smoking bans. Cigar bars can qualify for exemptions. Hookah bars, on the other hand… :

For the past several months, fliers have hung from the walls of Adam Bliss’s local hookah bar. They asked customers to call senators and lobby for an amendment to an anti-smoking bill that would keep Hookah Bliss open.

Bliss called the senators himself twice a day. He contacted hookah bars across the state to fight for an amendment. But after much effort, his lobby has failed.

The bill, which was ratified May 13 by the N.C. General Assembly, will prohibit smoking in all restaurants and bars. It was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Bev Perdue, causing Bliss to have to close his doors in January since he serves both alcohol and tobacco products. […]

Legislation does allow for some tobacco-based businesses to stay open.

The new law permits cigar bars and private clubs to continue operating. However, Bliss said it would not be possible to change his business to fit under either of these categories.

A cigar bar is defined to make more than 25 percent of its profits from cigars, which Bliss does not serve. A private club is defined as a country club or organization linked with a nonprofit organization which does not provide food or lodging to a person who is not a member or member’s guest.

“This bill has basically protected the playground of the rich and elite,” he said, noting his confusion about why an amendment would be passed for a cigar bar but not a hookah bar. “They are allowing the exact same types of businesses to operate.”

Bliss is absolutely right. There’s no reason that he should be shut down while a cigar bar next door could remain open. We are all in this together. Even if we only enjoy cigars, we need to stand up for the rights of cigarette, hookah, and pipe smokers. Or even we don’t smoke at all, we shouldn’t compromise the right of consenting adults to assemble and consume a legal substance.

New Hampshire should pass this cigar bill, but it shouldn’t stop there. The same exemption requirements should apply to the sale of any tobacco product, not only those consumed by the upper class.


Nevermind the guys in Salem

The real anti-beer action could be taking place in DC:

Joe Six-Pack may have to hand over nearly $2 more for a case of beer to help provide health insurance for all.

Details of the proposed beer tax are described in a Senate Finance Committee document distributed to lawmakers before a closed-door meeting Wednesday. Senators are focusing on how to pay for expanding health insurance for an estimated 50 million uninsured Americans, a cost that could range to some $1.5 trillion over 10 years. […]

While many of the revenue raisers involve obscure provisions of federal law, most consumers can relate to a beer tax.

Taxes on wine and hard liquor would also go up.

And there might be a new tax on soda and other sugary drinks blamed for contributing to obesity. A tax of 3 cents per 12-ounce drink would raise about $50 billion over 10 years, according to congressional estimates. Diet drinks, however, wouldn’t be taxed.

Thanks to Jason Kuznicki for the link.

The wages of sin taxes
Oregon hates its bar industry


Links for 5/20/09

“Overnight, a bunch of cheerful believers in good government found themselves on the wrong side of a do-gooding law.”

“[New CAFE standards] would cost the industry $46.7 billion, among the most expensive rule makings in U.S. history”

The mathematics of quackery

Personal, portable wi-fi bubble

Posner on conservative decline

What’s Cheney complaining about?

IT departments and negative externalities

Naples considers hiring ban on smokers