The Insanity of Regulation

Near the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson found himself in a tight spot financially. He had spent the previous 60 years or so in the public service as President, Vice-President, Governor, Ambassador, Regent of the University of Virginia, etc. These various services to his country and state kept him, so he claimed, from properly attending to his own affairs. As a result, he ended up deep in debt.

His solution was to sell some of his property to pay off his creditors. However, the land was very valuable and the market was very depressed, so he feared that there would be nobody willing to pay full price. As an alternative to traditional sale, he proposed a lottery. By putting up the property as the prize of a lottery, he believed that he stood a better chance of receiving full value for the land. The only problem was the the Commonwealth of Virginia regulates all lotteries, so Jefferson would need special dispensation from the legislature. So he made an appeal, recounting all of his services to state and country and waxing philosophical about the moral implications of gambling.

Jefferson starts this appeal by acknowledging that “chance” is merely the name given to causes that we do not or cannot know. “If we know the cause [of a thing], we do not call it chance; but if we do not know it, we say it was produced by chance.” So every human endeavor includes some element of chance. He calls the farmer “the greatest of all gamblers” because the farmer risks his rent, his seeds, and his labor on a crop that may fail because of things beyond his control. And because all human action is a gamble to some extent, gambling cannot be immoral per se. So far, so good.

But then Jefferson holds in opposition those games of chance that are not productive in the way that insurance or capital investment are. (I briefly observe that games of chance are productive in the form of entertainment, which can be hard to measure but clearly has value.) He writes of “cards, dice, billiards, &c.” as games “which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them.” And he lauds the state’s suppression of these games for the sake of those who would be injured by playing and losing. Here, I think, Jefferson busts.

Jefferson acknowledges that there is a natural right to gamble. This, I take it, is based on two considerations: first, as discussed above, gambling is not immoral per se, but is merely another term for the risks that all of us take in each of our daily actions; and second, that the natural right to property necessarily includes the right to dispose of it by sale, gift, or game of chance. (A previous post on this blog discusses the curious relationship between Jefferson’s and Locke’s notions of the natural right to property.) So once gambling is acknowledged as a natural right, how can its prohibition be justified?

The justification is by way of analogy. The analogy drawn by Jefferson is between degenerate gambling and “insanity, infancy, imbecility, &c.” If a gambling addiction is a sort of madness, then the state is right to prohibit gambling for the protection of the addicts. But even if we agree that a gambling addiction is akin to a mental handicap – which is at least debatable – the analogy is somewhat unfair. Why should all table games be banned for the protection of the fraction of the population that suffers from a gambling addiction? If we do not allow children or the mentally ill to drive cars by virtue of their infancy or insanity, that does not mean that we would authorize the state to ban cars outright. And if cars are too modern a concept, then consider an example of what children and the insane could not do in Jefferson’s day: neither group was capable of entering into legally binding contracts. Yet Jefferson would not have advocated the notion that the enforcement of all contracts should be banned for the sake of the children and the insane. Rather, the intervention of the state should be limited to protecting the narrow subset of individuals while interfering as little as possible with the rights of everybody else.

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Beer of the week: Wieselburger Gold – Jefferson may have found himself short on gold, but who isn’t? If the name “Gold” is used to describe the color this Austrian beer, the name is not very apt. This brew is much more pale than anything that I would call gold. If the name refers to the quality of the beer, they still come up a bit short; this is a bronze medal beer, silver at best. What little head there is dissipates quickly, and there is hardly an aroma to speak of. However, the flavor is not without its charms. There is a bit of malt sweetness up front, and a floral, hoppy finish that leaves the mouth feeling dry, always encouraging the next sip.

Reading for the week: Thoughts on Lotteries by Thomas Jefferson – There is more to dislike about this appeal than the weak analogy between gamblers and the insane. Notably, Jefferson discusses his own political career at length and argues that he should be entitled to exceptional treatment by the legislature on those grounds.

Question for the week: Is there a formula for what percent of the population is impacted before rightful actions should be banned?


Tesla’s Spirit

My grandmother felt a very real connection to her Pennsylvania-Dutch roots. Her great-great-etc.-grandfather came to these shores from the old world, and his son fought in the American Revolution. My grandmother was born, educated, married, and died in Pennsylvania. That’s not to say that she wasn’t worldly. She left her part of the state to attend Gettysburg College, one of the two Lutheran colleges in the state that admitted women. She travelled to India, Hawaii, Hong Kong, and more. But she stayed firmly connected to her ethnic roots in a way that I haven’t.

Nikola Tesla is another example of somebody strongly attached to his own cultural identity, even when physically separated from it. Tesla was a Serbian, but he was born and raised in what is now Croatia. His education took him to Vienna and to Prague, and his work took him to France and the United States. In fact, it doesn’t appear that he spent much (or any) time at all in Serbia proper. Still, his entire life, Tesla regarded himself as a Serbian. He founded the Serbian Culture Club at his university in Austria, he memorized and translated Serbian poetry, and is now regarded as a national hero in Serbia (and namesake of the largest airport in the country.) So why is his Serbian connection so strong despite never living in Serbia?

For one thing, Tesla strongly believed in a unified Balkan Peninsula. “The fact is,” he wrote, “that all Yugoslavs-Serbians, Slavonians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Dalmations, Montenagrins, Croatians and Slovenes – are of the same race, speak the same language and have common national ideals and traditions.” (It seems that the Serbo-Croatian language has fractured along political boundaries, but Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin remain mutually intelligible.) This belief in a shared identity helps elucidate how somebody born in Croatia would see no incongruity in asserting his own Serbian-ness.

Another determining factor in Tesla’s connection to his Serbian identity was his education. His mother memorized and recited Serbian epic poetry. And in that poetry, he found the same sort of grand feats and noble traits that draw people to the ancient and proud identities of Sparta or Rome. “For in Milosh [Obilich, hero of the Battle of Kosovo,] we see both Leonidas and Mucius, and, more than this, a martyr, for he does not die an easy death on the battle-field like the Greek, but pays for his daring deed with a death of fearful torture. It is not astonishing that the poetry of a nation capable of producing such heroes should be pervaded with a spirit of nobility and chivalry.” It is the poetry, with all of the history and ideality it contains, that kept Tesla a Serbian, first and foremost. In many ways, that is far more important than geography or blood.


Beer of the week: Spirit Tesla – This week’s beer, named for the man himself, is intertwined with these questions of identity and national pride. The idea to name this beer after Tesla apparently came from an American importer keen to capitalize on the popularity of the inventor. (In some circles, Tesla is something of an obsession.) In Serbia, the same beer is sold under the brewery’s trade name, Valjevsko. Whatever it is called, this is a decent Euro lager. There is not much head to speak of, and it is perhaps a bit on the sweet side, but I like that it is a solid malty offering. Unlike so many cheep lagers, this one has some flavor.

Reading of the week: Zmai Iovan Iovanovich – The Chief Servian Poet of To-Day by Nikola Tesla – The love of Serbian poetry that Tesla inherited from his mother stayed with him his whole life. In fact, he assisted in translating a fair bit into English.

Question of the week – Do you associate more with where you are from or where your ancestors are from? And even if those are the same, do you consider yourself primarily of your town, region, nation, or continent?


Bowling for Blue Ribbons

Bowling is an excellent sport. Like most of my preferred sports, it is a recreational option for the young and the old alike, it goes well with beer, and is very social.

In fact, the routine of the game creates a very interesting social dynamic. Conversation during a round of bowling naturally diverges and converges as each participant steps away from the others to take his or her turn. With three players, this occasionally results in three distinct conversations being carried on throughout the game, one between each pair of bowlers. This constantly shifting one-on-one aspect can be really fun.

With a larger group, the dynamics change less with each player stepping away. Nonetheless, the conversation still shifts markedly. In my experience, it helps to ensure that everybody stays involved because the group conversation is less easy for one person to dominate. It also forces couples to interact with the rest of the group by being separated by each one’s turns. This is even true if one of the party is not bowling. In fact, one of my favorite trips to the lanes involved an infant who was passed from hand to hand as each new bowler stood up.

“Nice pick-up! Here, have a baby!”

PBR

Beer of the week: Pabst Blue Ribbon – Let’s be honest, this beer is not very good. No head retention, smells like cheap grain. Tastes like, well, cheap beer. That said, I am certainly not above downing a few pitchers of the stuff at the bowling alley or throwing back a few PBRs on a warm day. It’s just bland; that’s the worst thing about it. It most certainly could be worse.

Reading of the week: Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving – The evening that Rip Van Winkle spent with the mysterious Dutchmen was full of drinking and bowling. However, the drink in the story is Dutch gin. At least PBR doesn’t leave me passed out in the woods for a couple decades.

Question of the week: Are there better social games than bowling?


You are free to do as I please.

Imagine that you live in Vermont and want to be a beer brewer. You don’t only want to be a brewer, you need to be a brewer. It is your calling. You find that there are a lot of options. You could apply for work at The Alchemist Brewing Company. You could apply for work at Hill Farmstead. Or Fiddlehead Brewing Company. Or Long Trail. You could seek work at any of the dozens of breweries in the state. Or you could start your own. To be sure, there are legal and logistical hurdles to starting a brewery. There are some licensing and regulatory issues. But in a state with more breweries per capita than any other, it can’t be too hard.

Now imagine that you live in Taiwan in the 1990’s and you want to be a beer brewer. You don’t only want to be a brewer, you need to be a brewer. You could apply for work at the Monopoly Bureau of the Taiwan Governor’s Office, makers of Taiwan’s only beer: the cleverly named “Taiwan Beer.” And if you did not get the job, you have to give up on your dream. Opening your own brewery is not an option. As the name clearly states: there is a state monopoly on beer production in Taiwan.

These two contrasting scenarios illustrate a necessary defect in centralized economies. Vermont, which is a relatively free market, produces some of the very best beers in the world and provides entrepreneurs with the opportunity to follow their dreams. The result is an excellent environment for both brewers and consumers. Taiwan, on the other hand, produces decidedly mediocre beer. And until 2002, the state run brewery was the only game in town. The result was a stifling of creativity for brewers and a lack of choice for consumers.

Dedicated socialist H. G. Wells wrote in his New World Order that collectivism requires a declaration of human rights. “The more socialisation proceeds and the more directive authority is concentrated, the more necessary is an efficient protection of individuals from the impatience of well-meaning or narrow-minded or ruthless officials and indeed from all the possible abuses of advantage that are inevitable under such circumstances to our still childishly wicked breed.” And he is certainly right that the more power the government has, the more dangerous it is to individuals. (Although his solution of “compose a declaration of rights” is, in my opinion, a poor second to the solution of “just don’t give that much power to the government.”)

Wells’ proposed declaration of rights includes economic freedom. “That he [anyone] may engage freely in any lawful occupation, earning such pay as the need for his work and the increment it makes to the common welfare may justify. That he is entitled to paid employment and to a free choice whenever there is any variety of employment open to him. He may suggest employment for himself and have his claim publicly considered, accepted or dismissed.”

But the Taiwan example shows how hollow this freedom is. In a totally centralized economy, there really is no space for the individual to suggest his own employment. The question of which occupations are “lawful” and “open to” the individual is totally loaded. It is the government itself that decides whether the occupations are lawful or open to any given person. Wells may as well have written “he may engage freely in any occupation that the government gives him permission to.” As long as the power is given to the government to make all economic decisions, there is no freedom at all.

Sip of Sunshine

Beer of the week: Sip of Sunshine IPA – Lawson’s Finest Liquids is yet another wonderful Vermont brewery. And Sip of Sunshine sure is a treat. This beer is honey-colored and has a decent head. The aroma is bright and fruity. The taste has lots of tropical fruit and citrus notes from the hops and the sweetness of the malt balances it all very nicely. There is a reason that this beer is very sought after; it is delicious.

Reading of the week: The New World Order by H.G. Wells, Chapter: 10 Declaration of the Rights of Men – I think that the above criticism of Wells is valid, if not original. However, this reading does include a number of very good ideas that cannot be as easily discounted.

Question of the week: Is there anywhere in the world that is better for beer right now than Vermont?


Discount Logic

Nearly every time I sit down at a bar, I ask the barkeep the same question: are there any beer specials on at the moment? Admittedly, the motivation behind this question is pinching pennies. But as Confucius said,“Waste begets self-will; thrift begets meanness: but better be mean than self-willed.” So I’d rather be thrifty than wasteful. And anyway, if I save a dollar per drink, that can quickly add up to another drink.

Another important feature of the question is its ability to narrow down my choices. There are so many beers out there, that I often appreciate the opportunity to rely on the daily specials to help me decide. I have sampled a great number of beers that I might otherwise have overlooked this way.

But discounts are more than they seem. Discounts can reveal a number of motivations. They can be implemented for the purpose of new customer acquisition. They can also be used to move inventory that is growing stale. But the main sale prices offered by bars are designed to drive sales, particularly at times when demand is low. Compare, for example, the deals that you can get Tuesday afternoon compared to Saturday night. The traditional notion is that the retailer will reduce the price to encourage a greater volume of sales. The increased number of sales hopefully offsets the decreased profit margin on each unit (and then some.)

But those Saturday night customers might have a gripe against the Tuesday happy hour crowd. Arguably, discounts are essentially subsidies paid by one group of patrons for the benefit of another. Everybody who drinks at the bar outside of happy hour is subsidizing the drinks of the happy hour drinkers. For the bar to remain profitable, base prices have to go up in order to cover the revenue lost due to discounts. So by accepting a discount, thrifty patrons are externalizing a portion of their tab and the rest of the customers share the cost in the form of higher prices later.

But there is nothing very novel about this notion. The idea has been around for a long time. A classic example is the expression “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The “free lunch” in question is the time-honored tradition/marketing scheme whereby public houses offer free food with purchase of a drink. (An arrangement that fed me and my friends more than a few times during our college years.) As more than a few people have observed, those who buy a single drink and eat well get a great bargain. While those who buy multiple drinks or eat little essentially subsidized the feeding of others.

Once this situation has been recognized, one must ask whether there is a moral imperative not to accept discounts on the grounds that doing so is to the disadvantage of those customers who do not receive a discount. The answer, I think, is no.

The bars that I frequent sell cans of PBR or Hamms for as much as $3 per can. And some people make the free choice to pay that price. After all, each and every transaction at the bar is made freely by both the bar owner and the customer. The bar owner is free to set his prices and if the customer finds the prices too high, he may return during happy hour or take his business elsewhere. What does it matter to me if the bar makes more money off of some other patron than he does off of me? If the bar owner is actually losing money on me, let him raise his prices or discontinue his discounts. In a free market, one has little right to complain that somebody else got a better deal.

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Beer of the week: Revolution Rosa – I have complained before about the fact that bars in Boston are prohibited from offering happy hour specials. Chicago no longer has such a prohibition. And this Chicago beer may now be seen at a discounted price, because summer beers are finished and autumn seasonals have hit the shelves. It is hard to tell from the photo, but this beer has a color unlike any other beer have ever seen. It is brewed with hibiscus, which gives the beer a distinctly floral taste and a pink hue. The aroma of the beer is very sweet and malty. The taste follows the smell closely: sweet, malty, flowery. I think that this beer is very good, but I would understand if anybody complained that there is not enough hops to balance all of the sweetness.

Reading of the week: The Sayings of Confucius – To be honest, I am not sure how to read Confucius. I have made a couple of attempts but not as seriously as I might. This section seems like a more or less random smattering, but it contains quite a few lovely thoughts. Of particular interest to me is the line “Were shouldering a whip a sure road to riches, I would turn carter: but since there is no sure road, I tread the path I love.”

Question of the week: Do discounts to some really disadvantage others? Is this a case of the workers in the vineyard?


Body Shaker

It is easy, though incredibly naive, to reduce the effects of alcohol to the intellectual plane. It is clear as day that drinking affects the way that we think. Our inhibitions are lowered; our capacity for reason is retarded; all at the same time, our ideas become unreasonably clear and inextricably confused. Alcohol’s greatest virtue and greatest danger is its ability to affect our mental processes.

But we recognize the effects of alcohol most markedly in their physical manifestations. Our cheeks flush. We stagger. We slur our words. Our physical coordination fails us. Even as alcohol robs the mind of its greatest power (reason), it robs the body of it’s purely animal capabilities.

Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am.” But by reducing existence to the intellectual plane, he initiated an entire line of thought dedicated to the idea that physical existence is completely ancillary to “real” existence. Humans, however, are both corporeal and spiritual. Recognition of this essential duality is evident in Plato’s scheme to educate leaders both physically and intellectually in The Republic. It is also evident in Homer’s casting of Odysseus as both athletic and cunning.

Because man’s greatness stems from both intellect and physique, the “beer gut” is all the greater shame. Moderate consumption of alcohol may have beneficial effects, both physical and psychological. But excess is dangerous in both directions.

Bone Shaker

Beer of the week: Bone Shaker Brown Ale – This New Hampshire brew from Moat Mountain is orange-brown with a quickly fading head. The aroma is somewhat musty and is a bit reminiscent of Triscuit crackers. The flavor carries on with the cracker notes from the smell. The body of this ale is fairly thin. I don’t think that this is a great beer, but I will certainly drink it again.

Reading of the week: Iliad by Homer, Book XXIII, 653-749 – At the funeral games for Patroclus, “Odysseus of many wiles, he of guileful mind” wrestled to a draw with Ajax, the strongest of the Greeks (except for Achilles.)

Question of the week: To what extent is alcohol consumed for its physical, rather than its psychological effects? Can the two even be distinguished?


My Kingdom for a King

As repugnant as many Americans find the idea of monarchy, there are some arguments to be made in favor that particular form of government:

  1. A monarch has a vested interest in the continuing stability of his country. If he may be on the throne for several decades and then pass the crown to his son, there is a lot of incentive for a king to plan for the long-term. Compare this to an elected politician, who is either subject to term-limits or must always have an eye on the polls for the next election. Once he reaches his term-limit, he is at liberty to steal as much as he can and let the next office-holder take the blame. If there is no term-limit or if he has not yet reached it, the elected politician has a lot of incentive to prioritize short-term results lest he be ousted at the next election. Fiscal responsibility, therefore, seems much more likely to exist in a monarchy than in a republic.
  2. A monarch may act as a very effective check on popular government. Because he has no fear of being removed when the people go to the polls, a king may safely attempt to stand in the way of a popular faction that would inappropriately impose itself on others. Emperor Franz Joseph supposedly claimed that his role as monarch was “to protect my peoples from their governments.” Alcohol prohibition in America is a great example of how a dedicated faction can overrun all official opposition with the threat of the ballot box. The result is often gross incursions of the government into private affairs.
  3. A monarch also serves as a unifying principle. Like the flag, the crown is a non-partisan symbol of national unity. To be sure, not every monarch is universally loved. But it is possible for an American president to be elected by a relatively small fraction of the population. (Bush the Second got some 50 million votes in 2000, and the total population of the USA at that time was well over 280 million.) And elections are almost always very decisive. As a result, it is uncommon for Americans generally to “rally behind” their elected officials the same way royal subjects may rally behind their king.

These arguments are certainly somewhat compelling. In particular, the independence of the monarch from popular whims and contentious factions is an attractive feature of the system. History, however, tells us that people are not always better off under a king than under a republic, (or under a rightful king rather than a usurper.) The customary means by which one ascends to the throne is birthright, but not every child of a king is fit to wear the crown. In Meno, Socrates antagonizes Anytus, one of the men who would eventually accused him of corrupting the youth of Athens, by listing great men who had inferior progeny; if Themistocles, Pericles, or Thucydides did not have sons who lived up to their fathers’ reputations, why should we expect great kings to fare any better? And if the notion of birthright is abandoned on these grounds, what is left of monarchy?

Beer of the week: Arthur – Speaking of progeny, Arthur has a family connection. This farmhouse ale is not named for King Arthur, but for one of the brewers’ uncles who grew up on the farm that gives Hill Farmstead Brewery its name. It pours a cloudy straw color with lots of big, white bubbles. The aroma is of yeast and tart grapes or white wine. The finish is more sour than expected, with lots of lemon, white grape, and earthy yeast flavor. I really enjoyed this Vermont treat.

Reading of the week: The Tragedy of Richard II by William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2 – When King Richard returns from Ireland, he finds that some of his supporters are fled, others dead, but most have gone over to the usurper, Henry of Bolingbroke. Richard flashes from hope to despair and back (and back again) in this scene. Two of his speeches are of particular interest to me. In the first, Richard enlists nature itself to preserve his monarchy by setting spiders and vipers and toads in Bolingbroke’s way. In his later speech, however, he acknowledges that there is nothing about the nature of kings that separates them from other men: “For you have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?”

Question of the week: Are the above arguments for monarchy really compelling? And if so, how can the problem of unfit heirs be remedied adequately to justify a monarchy?