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Trade Is a Labor-Saving Device

Trade Is a Labor-Saving Device →

Sheldon Richman, writing at Reason.com, shares some wisdom about trade.

think about the saving of labor. Normally we see this as a good thing. We buy electric toothbrushes, power lawnmowers, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers, and self-cleaning ovens, among many other things, precisely to save labor. Why? Obviously because labor is work—exertion. Most of what we think of as work we would not do if we could have the expected fruits without it. (Of course we sometimes are paid to do things we'd do anyway, but then it is something more than mere work.) Saving labor through technology not only relieves us of particular exertion; it also frees us to obtain other things we want but would otherwise have to do without—including leisure. Thus labor-saving enables us to have more stuff for less exertion. Time and energy are scarce, but our ends are infinite. That's why no one in private life fails to see labor-saving as good.

Trade is a labor-saving "device." We each have two legitimate ways to acquire any good: produce it ourselves or acquire it through trade (after producing something else). For most goods, trade will be the lower cost method. (See why "comparative advantage" is "The Most Elusive Proposition.") The day is simply too short to make everything we want. Thus trade makes us wealthy. When government interferes with trade, it makes us poorer.

Bastiat believed that people found the destruction of cross-border trade ("protectionism") attractive "because, as free trade enables them to attain the same result with less labor, this apparent diminution of labor terrifies them." (Read about the bias against saving labor in Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter.) Why do people who try to save labor every day believe this? Because they think a society's principles of well-being are different from those of an individual's. As long as they do, political candidates will feed the bias.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton may or may not know that trade unfettered at political boundaries makes people wealthier. We need not waste time (which of course could be put to better use) wondering if they are demagogues or just ignoramuses. Rather, we should devote our scarce energy to showing people that what is good for them individually—saving labor—is just as good when observed from a bird's-eye view.

Krugman and Inequality of Free Time

Krugman and Inequality of Free Time →

Krugman is correct that women spend more time in paid jobs than before. But women also spend much less time doing unpaid household work. Overall, men and women enjoy three to six hours a week more free time than in the 1960s — Americans have more leisure today than a generation ago.

In fact, lower income Americans have more free time today than upper income Americans do. It seems that people face a trade-off between higher incomes with less free time or lower incomes with more free time.

Speaking personally, I know I could probably earn more if I put in more time at work. But I'm happy to forgo that extra income in favor of spending more time at home, with my family.

Why I love Walmart despite never shopping there

Why I love Walmart despite never shopping there →

Eric S. Raymond gives his explanation for why he loves the unlovable: Walmart.

I do not love the ambience of Walmarts; by my standards they’re loud, cheerless, and tacky – and that describes a lot of their merchandise and their shoppers, too.

But my esthetic and aspirational standards are those of a comparatively wealthy person even in U.S. terms, let alone world terms. To the people who use Walmart and belong there, Walmart is a tremendous boon that stretches their purchasing power, enabling them to have things that don’t suck.

That’s why I love the idea of Walmart, and will defend it against its enemies.

This is my reason too. Even though I rarely shop at Walmart, I'm glad that it exists.

An example of private property helping the poor

I finished listening to an old EconTalk podcast, during my commute this morning. Russ Roberts was talking to Karol Boudreaux about her fieldwork on property rights and economic reforms in Rwanda and South Africa. They spent the first half of the conversation talking about Rwandan reforms and the second half talking about South African reforms. I was most fascinated by the South African portion. (It starts at about 30 minutes into the podcast.)

Karol talked about Langa township in South Africa. It was established as a place for blacks to live, but they weren't given any rights to the properties whatsoever. They had to get permission from the city government even to paint or repair their homes. By 1994, the government had started to turn over ownership to the people who lived in the homes.

I was thrilled to hear the story of Sheila, a very entrepreneurial woman in Langa township. (Her story starts about 39 minutes into the podcast.) Sheila had been a domestic helper in Capetown when she saw a receipt for two glasses of wine and a plate of cheese. She was stunned to see that that sold for more than she got paid in a month. She knew she was worth more than that. So, she decided to prove it.

After a few false starts, she hit on the right business plan. Tourists had been driving through Langa Township for years, to see the results of apartheid. But they never got out of their tourist buses. Sheila decided to give them an opportunity to start getting out. She opened up a restaurant in her house (after she'd received the title to it). She now serves meals to tourists, while telling them the story of her life and her experiences under apartheid. Her restaurant is well known for "authentic" South African food. It's primarily advertised through word of mouth and bloggers (how great is that?). The restaurant doesn't just support Sheila. She also employs five other people to keep things humming along.

Does South Africa have more economic freedom than the U.S.? In some ways, it does. Try opening a restaurant out of your home and see how long it lasts before the local authorities shut it down. But, in South Africa, Sheila was able to use her home to create a living for herself, create income for others, create something for tourists to see and do, and educate many people along the way. And it all happened because she had the economic freedom to use her property in the way she saw fit. Her tourist guests use their freedom to eat where they see fit and her desire to keep her restaurant's reputation protects her customers as they eat.

Sheila's story is a perfect example of the win-win results that come from letting people make their own economic decisions and bear both the profits and losses that they generate. It's also an example of how far you can go if you decide to change your circumstances instead of complaining about them.

Diversity in Ratings

Scene Stealer - The Web Is Pouncing on Hollywood's Ratings - NYTimes.com

The standard Hollywood ratings -- G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 -- must now compete with all manner of Internet-based ratings alternatives, some of which are gaining new traction through social networking tools.

SceneSmoking.org, which monitors tobacco use in movies, issues pink, light gray, dark gray or black lungs to films, depending on how smoking is depicted. Kids-in-Mind.com ranks movies on a scale of 1 to 10 in categories like "sex and nudity" and "violence and gore."

Movieguide.org issues ratings from a Christian perspective. A "+4," or "exemplary," means "no questionable elements whatsoever." A "-4," or "abhorrent," means "intentional blasphemy, evil, gross immorality."

The article goes on to talk about how people want to "fix" the MPAA ratings, according to various pet standards.


It seems like something great is happening. People that are passionate about different things -- and have different standards of acceptability -- are creating and disseminating their own ratings. Parents, or discriminating movie goers, who care about particular standards can use the ratings from a group that shares those same standards. There's absolutely, positively no way that Hollywood -- or the FTC -- can create a single rating system that represents all of those different standards.

There's a simple reason for that. One group of parents believes that nudity and coarse language is a natural and normal part of life. They believe that sex and nudity should be celebrated while their children should be protected from exposure to violence and aggression. There are other parents who would be horrified at the thought of their children seeing some bare skin but are perfectly okay with their children seeing movies that depict massive amounts of violence. Now, design me a PG-13 or R rating that makes both groups of parents happy.

I celebrate the diversity in ratings. I may even use one standard to evaluate which movies my children will be allowed to see and a completely different standard to evaluate which movies I'll see. Vive la difference!

I'm Glad I Don't Eat Local

With the spring weather that we had this year, eating local doesn't look like such a great idea:

The floods that damaged farms in southern Wisconsin will likely result in fewer fruits and vegetables at farmers' markets this summer and help boost already high prices for organic eggs and meat at grocery stores in the fall.

A cool spring meant many farmers were about two weeks behind in planting. The storms struck just as their first plants emerged from the ground.

"Twelve inches of water falling on, say, this field of beets that were just starting to peak through the soil, it just washed them away," de Wilde said. "They couldn't withstand that kind of deluge."

Organic corn fed to livestock that provide organic eggs, chicken, beef and pork was barely 4 inches high, half of what it should have been, said Eric Newman, vice president of sales for La Farge-based Organic Valley, the nation's largest cooperative of organic farmers.

Thankfully, today's progressive consumer can secure an organic diet no matter what the local market is like:

California supplies over half of the nation's organic fruits and vegetables and should be able to make up for losses in Wisconsin and other flooded states, Newman said.

It's a good thing we have a robust, distributed economy. Even though local farms are having a tough time, we won't have to worry about anyone starving or eating an unbalanced diet.

This entry was tagged. Prosperity Wisconsin

The Blessings of Used Book Sellers

It seems that some people get annoyed when used book sellers visit library book sales.

Book dealers armed with handheld ISBN scanners are threatening to take over the used book sales run by volunteer fundraising groups for the Madison Public Library system, Morris said.

The scanners tell them how many copies of a title are in circulation and what it generally sells for -- powerful information to have if your aim is to find cheaply priced books that can be sold online for much more than you paid.

"You see them just literally hunched over ... shelves of books," Morris said, blocking book lovers like him from perusing the titles and maybe picking up a bargain they actually intend to read.

Thomas Boykoff, president of the board of directors for the Central Library Friends group, and Margaret Rentmeesters, who manages the book store at the library, acknowledge that the book dealers have become more common at book sales over the last two or three years.

But profit sometimes motivates unpleasant behavior.

"They sort of claim an area," Boykoff said, "Some of them just don't give a damn."

How horrible! How, how ... profit-driven! How evil! Or is it?

I love reading, but I just don't have time to get out to library book sales. While I wish I could, the timing just never quite works out.

Thankfully, there are people out there willing to trade their time for my money. They'll pore over the stacks, weeding through the books that no one wants, to find the books that someone wants. Then they'll list these books on Amazon.com, Half.com, Alibris, Deal Oz, AbeBooks, Powell's Books or other similiar sites. I can browse the online sites, find what I want, and have it delivered directly to my door.

These book sellers are no nuisance. They're a blessing and I'm grateful for them.

The Earth Isn't Overpopulated

Dear Rob,

I'm sorry that none of the presidential candidates are addressing your pet issue, overpopulation. There's a good reason for their avoidance, however. Overpopulation simply isn't that much of a problem. The entire world population, living with the same population density as New York City, could fit into the state of Texas. If that's too crowded for you, the entire population of the world could fit into the United States, with the same population density as Madison.

That would still leave the entirety of Europe, Asia, South America, the Indian subcontinent, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Alaska, and Hawaii as both wildlife preserves and sources of food.

Furthermore, the industrialized nations are the world's most efficient agricultural producers. As the third-world countries grow wealthier, they will increase their own crop yields and grow food more efficiently. Far from running out of food, their wealth will enable them to produce more food at a lower cost. As these societies become wealthier, their birthrate will decrease (mimicking what has already happened in the industrialized world) and the earth's population will stabilize.

That is why politicians are "ignoring" the problem. It's because there really isn't a problem to begin with.

Rush Limbaugh on Conservatism

I don't always enjoy listening to Rush Limbaugh. He tends to be bombastic and more than a bit over the top. I think that his brash rhetoric probably turns people away, who might otherwise agree with him. Still, when he's right, he's right.

One of his monologues today was perfectly on point.

No, no, no. Let me tell you something about this wealth business. I've been broke twice in my life. When I was 31 years old, I was making $17,000 a year. I have been fired I forgot how many times. Seven times! So I've been there. This constant refrain that I'm "out of touch," is just bogus. That's another thing that really bugs me: this movement within the Republican Party to claim that the middle class is in great suffering and pain. I understand if you own a house, and your value of your equity in your house is plummeting, that you're worried, and I understand that totally. What you need to hear is the truth of why it happened, so that you can make plans in the future. These are cycles, and everybody in every country and every society goes through them, and ours are not nearly as bad as people around the rest of the world are. I know health care is expensive. That's why I'm focused not on making it more expensive, but on making it cheaper, and how you do that? You do it with conservatism! I'm by no means out of touch on this. If the health care industry were priced like every other industry is on the patient's ability to pay, then we'd fix the problem, and that's the direction we have to head in.

But if we're going to keep this notion that everybody's entitled to have whatever they want medically paid for by their neighbors, then we are finished. We are finished as a country; we are finished as a society. You can talk about my wealth, but let me tell you something, sir. I don't depend on anybody else for anything, and it was one of my objectives when I grew up. I didn't want to be obligated. I didn't want to be dependent. I didn't want to owe anybody. I don't buy into insurance plans because it's a hassle! Now, I know a lot of people don't have that freedom. I used to not have that freedom, either. But I do now because I worked for it -- and if I can do it, a lot more people can do it than think they can, and that's conservatism again. People are much better than they know. They have much more potential than they know. But when you've got a Democrat Party and a movement telling them they suck, telling them they can't get anywhere because the deck is stacked against them and the people stacking the deck are Republicans and so forth, then you are diminishing the country; you're diminishing the future, and you're destroying people's lives.


The health care problem in this country is getting worse, while people are voting on for people who are making it worse because they hear these people saying, "I'm going to fix it." Well, the people in charge of fixing it have no interest in it getting fixed, because if it gets fixed, you don't need them. You can rely on yourself. This health care debate is one of the most infuriating things I witness every day, because I get so sick and tired of people buying hook, line, and sinker a lie. "I'm going to get everybody covered. I'm going to make sure everybody gets health insurance in this country. We're going to make sure it's not just the rich." It doesn't happen, does it? When you have government telling private industry how to operate, this is exactly what you get, and it's going to happen in energy. It's already happening in a number of other industries, too. It's happening in the auto industry...

Why Are We Rich and They Poor?

Mary Anastasia O'Grady wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the findings of the latest Index of Economic Freedom.

"The evidence is piling up that neither government nor multilateral spending on education and infrastructure are key to development. To move out of poverty, countries instead need fast growth; and to get that they need to unleash the animal spirits of entrepreneurs.

The nearby table shows the 2008 rankings but doesn't tell the whole story. The Index also reports that the freest 20% of the world's economies have twice the per capita income of those in the second quintile and five times that of the least-free 20%. In other words, freedom and prosperity are highly correlated.

Why are some countries so poor? Why is the U.S. so much richer than countries like India? Is it because the U.S. gobbles up the wealth of the world and doesn't play nice with other countries? Not really, no.

In "Narrowing the Economic Gap in the 21st Century," Stephen Parente, associate professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, debunks several World Bank myths by showing that it is not the resources -- land, workforce and capital -- of an economy that play the most important role in explaining higher income countries. Instead it is "the efficiency at which a society uses its resources to produce goods and services."

Mr. Parente cites the microeconomic research of McKinsey Global Institute, which estimates that modern industry in India could take a huge bite out of its productivity gap with U.S. competitors by simply upgrading production techniques. India doesn't need another multilateral education project. It needs to tap into knowledge already available in successful economies -- the information and technology is out there. The trouble is that it is unavailable in many countries like India, because government barriers and constraints to limit competition make access difficult or impossible.

In other words, the U.S. is richer because American workers do more with what they have, not because they have more to do something with.

Don Boudreaux puts it quite nicely.

As Julian Simon taught us, the ultimate resource is the free human mind. A land rich in petroleum, arable land, and iron ore and other minerals is useless to a society of humans incapable of rational thought and intolerant of change. Nor would such a land of potential plenty realize its potential if its inhabitants are restrained by tyranny or by widely shared misconceptions that individual enterprise, innovation, profit, and the pursuit of worldly pleasures are degrading or sinful.

But unleash people from the countless foolish and rent-seeking constraints imposed by government and from constraints imposed by their own superstitions and they will create resources. They will flourish and prosper, not only materially but also culturally and intellectually. A free people can and will build a dynamically prosperous society in even relatively barren and inhospitable places such as New England, Arizona, and Hong Kong. An unfree people will languish in poverty even in lush paradises such as much of Central and South America and in lands teeming with 'natural' resources such as Congo and Russia.

(Via Cafe Hayek: Freedom and the Ultimate Resource.)

Fear Chinese imports

Made in China

Well, the Chinese have stopped even pretending concern for the welfare of the foreign peoples to whom they export. As if shipping potentially hazardous tires, dolls, wooden art sets, and even faulty fortune cookies wasn't enough, now they're selling people missiles.

But Saudi Arabia, a country so renowned for being concerned with safety that it still doesn't allow women to drive, has taken a stand. Its own Interior Ministry recently

"made its largest terror sweep to date, arresting 208 al-Qaida-linked militants in six separate arrests in recent months... The ministry said members of [one] cell were planning to smuggle eight missiles into the kingdom to carry out terrorist operations, but it did not say what kind of missiles or what the targets were. [The newspaper] Okaz reported Sunday that the missiles were already inside Saudi Arabia [when they were confiscated]."

A Minor Thoughts source also confirmed that lead-based paint was used to decorate the weapons.

Everyone's Getting Rich

Everywhere I turn in the media, I hear that the economy is horrible. I hear that our parents had it better than we do. I hear that my generation may be the first ever to be poorer than my parents generation.


First off, my parents never had iPods growing up. In fact, they didn't even have cassette walkmen. Surely that's a form of wealth? Second, my daughter will grow up in a home with multiple computers; flat screen high definition televisions; cars with automatic windows, doorlocks, and airbags; wired and wireless networks; video chat with grandparents; cellphones for all; and more. Isn't that also a sign of great wealth? Isn't that also far more than my parents ever had? (Yes.)

Secondly, even if new technology didn't indicate an increased standard of living, rising incomes would. Check out the the National Data Book's spreadsheets for Money Income Of Families--Distribution by Family Characteristics and Income Level.

Between 1970 and 2004, annual median income increased from $9,867 to $54,061. After adjusting for inflation, annual income increased from $41,568 to $54,061. That's quite an increase! Incomes were adjusted using the Consumer Price Index Research Series, to that even takes into account increases in the cost of healthcare.

Sounds to me like we're doing pretty good.

Under new management


Above: A Chinese propaganda poster from 1986. No wonder Communism has appealed to so many. I would've called this The Communists party, but its painter named it _Youthful dance steps. _Oh well.

Say what you want about China's Communist leaders, but they get results, and they get them quickly. From the latest Newsweek:

"In the 10 years since Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty, official statistics show that the number of "working poor"—defined as those who earn less than half the median income—has nearly doubled."

The article itself, of course, naturally goes on to blame this 100% increase in poverty on "turbocapitalism".

Which, you have to admit, is at any rate a great name, and we here at Minor Thoughts will probably be using it a lot from now on until we can finally lay claim to the word as our new domain name.

Hong Kong: The Last Free City on Earth

We'd all do well to occasionally remember what exactly we mean by the word "freedom".

I thought about that as I read through the Heritage Foundation's Freedom Index for 2007, a list which rates each of 161 countries in the world according to that country's level of economic freedom - that is, the level of control private citizens are given over their own earnings.

Now according to the Heritage Foundation's scale, the citizens of any country with less than a rating of 80% are not to be considered "free". Which is a fair enough suggestion, we Minor Thinkers will suggest; after all, who can really claim with pride, "I am master of 4/5's of my fate"? One might very forgivably consider the possession of 4/5's of freedom a good time to start planning a government overthrow.

Unfortunately, by that yardstick only seven countries in the world qualify as "free".

They are Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.

In the various separate categories of ratings ("Freedom from Govt.", "Monetary Freedom", "Investment Freedom", etc.), only Hong Kong is found completely acceptable, save in the field of "Freedom from Corruption" (the only field not directly tied to government policy); all other countries dip below the 80% level in one category or another and simply possess an average of at least 80%.

Hong Kong.

It's a single metropolis in a world of metropolises, and it's presently the only society on Earth wiithin which you are always more than 9/10ths your own master.

And back in 1997, I notice, Great Britain tossed it to China's Communists.

Bubbles: They Make You Grow

Bubbles are good for you. Not the bubbles kids play with or the bubbles in your bubble bath, but the bigger, flashier kind. You know -- the tech bubble, the housing bubble, etc. At least, that's what Daniel Gross says.

Well, the conventional wisdom holds that bubbles are bad. Economists don't like them because they represent irrational behavior. A lot of people get hurt. They invest at the top, they lose their money. It's a misallocation of resources. My argument is that the pop of the bubble is only half the story.

Well, the way that new infrastructures get built in this country is frequently through investor enthusiasm. The government may help roll out new technologies, but we don't have the government putting up telegraph lines or stringing fiber optic cable that connects people's homes to the internet.

These activities don't proceed in a rational, easy-going way. They move in fits and starts. It's the bubbles that lead to this very rapid roll out of a new commercial infrastructure, one that businesses can plug into and use, like the telegraph or the railroad or the internet.

So bubbles create platforms for growth and innovation that help propel the economy forward.

I like his argument. It's the same one, basically, that Tom Friedman makes in The World is Flat. During the .com boom, telecommunications companies were convinced that the boom would go on forever and that they all needed their own fiber optic cables. So, they spent wildly and laid thousands of miles of fiber.

They were wrong. They didn't all need their own fiber. One by one, they went bankrupt. But the fiber remained. Now, it's been bought up on the cheap by new companies and they're using it to deliver YouTube, Google Apps for Your Domain, Facebook, online video of the NCAA basketball tournament, etc.

Right now, we're reaping the benefits of the irrational exuberance of the .com bubble. Gross thinks that we'll be reaping the benefits of the housing bubble within a few years, and that we're just in the beginning phases of an alternative energy bubble.

I hope he's right -- both for my long-term housing values and because I want to see what we can invent next.

This entry was tagged. Innovation Prosperity

Manufacturing Crisis

So, has America been throwing our future away the past several decades? Have we been exporting all of our manufacturing capability? Are we at the mercy of China, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia?


U.S. manufacturing output reached its all time high in 2006. U.S. manufacturing revenue reached its all time high in 2006. U.S. manufacturing profits reached their all time high in 2006. Average annual compensation for U.S. manufacturing jobs is over $66,000. The U.S. manufactures 2.5 times more goods than China does. Finally, the U.S. produces the largest share of total world manufacturing, not China.

So, who's economy has been all hollowed out and is on the verge of collapse? Not ours.

Eat Global, Not Local

Madison family eats only items made within 100 miles of their home

A Madison family is shunning the SUV diet and thriving on the 100-mile diet.

Although wistful for citrus, soy sauce and better bread flour, Jen and Scott Lynch and their daughter, Evie, pledged to stick to this diet for the month of August, consuming only ingredients from a 100-mile radius around their home in the Bay Creek neighborhood on Madison's South Side.

The SUV diet refers to that of the average North American, whose meals are made from ingredients that travel about 1,500 miles from source to consumer.

"We know that locally grown food is better for our environment, better economics, better tasting, better for our health and better for our relationships," the Lynches write on their blog, www.vidalocal.blogspot.com, through which they share their story without pushy proselytizing.

Sure, when it's in season and available. What happens when Wisconsin harvests are dismal and there isn't enough food to go around?

The article details how the family mills their flour and makes their own peanut butter from fresh peanuts. They say this lifestyle is "better economics". Really? Is their time worth nothing? Apparently so.

They are Jen Lynch, 33, who is a house cleaner; Scott Lynch, 38, who's unemployed now but formerly worked in sales and marketing of sporting goods equipment, and their daughter, Evie, 7, who is home schooled. They have the time for an experiment that means purchasing wheat to mill, sift and use for homemade bread, crackers, tortillas and more.

Given a daughter that's home all of the time and an unemployed husband, maybe they do have enough "free time" to make all of their own food.

But what would it be like if everyone in the nation spent most of their time either farming or preparing food from ingredients produced locally? Well, it'd probably look a lot like the 1860's. People were smaller, frailer, contracted chronic ailments (heart disease, lung disease, arthritis) at an earlier age, and died sooner. Poor nutrition paid a large role in that.

So Big and Healthy Grandpa Wouldn't Even Know You - New York Times

The Keller family illustrates what may prove to be one of the most striking shifts in human existence -- a change from small, relatively weak and sickly people to humans who are so big and robust that their ancestors seem almost unrecognizable.

New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled. Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone "a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth."

And if good health and nutrition early in life are major factors in determining health in middle and old age, that bodes well for middle-aged people today. Investigators predict that they may live longer and with less pain and misery than any previous generation.

That is, if we avoid fads like "food miles" and embrace the "SUV diet" instead of avoiding it.

What about the claim that eat local is better for the environment? Recent studies say, that's just not true.

Food That Travels Well - New York Times

It all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator. Instead of measuring a product's carbon footprint through food miles alone, the Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production -- what economists call "factor inputs and externalities" -- like water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand's clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

You can eat that way if you want. I'll protect the environment, live economically, and raise healthy children by eating food from around the world. Corn from the midwest, citrus from the south, sugar from Brazil, meat from the southwest. It's the progressive thing to do.

This entry was tagged. Madison Prosperity

The Miracle of Specialization

One of the great things about the division of labor -- having each person do one job and do it well -- is the lengths to which complete strangers will go to make each others' lives better.

Take, for example, road signs. We drive by thousands of them each year. Have you ever thought about what it would take to make a better road sign? I haven't. But Don Meeker has.

The Road to Clarity - New York Times

In 1989, after his success with the waterways project, the State of Oregon approached Meeker with a commission to think up a roadside sign system for scenic-tour routes. The problem sounded modest enough: Add more information to the state's road signs without adding clutter or increasing the physical size of the sign itself. But with the existing family of federally approved highway fonts -- a chubby, idiosyncratic and ultimately clumsy typeface colloquially known as Highway Gothic -- there was little you could add before the signs became visually bloated and even more unreadable than they already were. ""I knew the highway signs were a mess, but I didn't know exactly why," Meeker recalled.

Around the same time Meeker and his team were thinking about how to solve the problem of information clutter in Oregon, the Federal Highway Administration was concerned with another problem. Issues of readability were becoming increasingly important, especially at night, when the shine of bright headlights on highly reflective material can turn text into a glowing, blurry mess. Highway engineers call this phenomenon halation and elderly drivers, now estimated to represent nearly a fifth of all Americans on the road, are most susceptible to the effect.

"When the white gets hit, it explodes, it blooms," Meeker, who has the air of a scruffy academic, went on to say.

And, he spent the next fifteen years coming up with a new font for road signs and getting it approved by the Federal Highway Administration. Isn't that fantastic?

Only an economic system that frees people from subsistence living can give people enough freedom and flexibility to spend 15 years designing a better road sign.

Or, take the story of UPS.

U.P.S. Embraces High-Tech Delivery Methods - New York Times

But increasingly, it is the researchers at its Atlanta headquarters, its technology center in Mahwah, N.J., and its huge four-million-square-foot Louisville hub who are asking the questions that will drive the company's future.

What if the package contains medicine that could turn from palliative to poison if the temperature wavers? What if it is moving from Bangkok to Bangor and back to Bangkok, and if customs rules differ on each end? And what if the package is going to a big company that insists on receiving all its packages, no matter who ships them, at the same time each day?

Increasingly, it is the search for high-tech answers to such questions that is occupying the entire package delivery industry. U.P.S. and FedEx are each pumping more than $1 billion a year into research, while also looking for new ways to cut costs.

Customers of both FedEx and U.P.S. can now print out shipping labels that are easily scannable by computers. Meteorologists at both companies routinely outguess official Weather Service forecasts. And both are working with the Federal Aviation Administration to improve air safety and scheduling.

The research at U.P.S. is paying off. Last year, it cut 28 million miles from truck routes "” saving roughly three million gallons of fuel "” in good part by mapping routes that minimize left turns. This year, U.P.S. began offering customers a self-service system for redirecting packages that are en route.

And now the U.P.S. researchers are working on sensors that can track temperatures of packages, on software that can make customs checks more uniform worldwide and on scheduling processes that accommodate the needs of recipients as well as shippers.

Absolutely incredible. UPS and FedEx are spending a combined $1 billion -- just to find a way to get a package to your door faster, cheaper, safer. Their researchers don't know me and they'll probably never meet me, but they're intensely focused on making my life better.

Only the profit motive produces that kind of incentive. (When was the last time a motor vehicle or postal employee cared about your time or happiness?) Only the division of labor allows that kind of single-focused effort.

Capitalism may not be a perfect economic system, but it's the only one I ever want to live in.

Living On the Excess

America is so rich that it's possible to make a living off of our trash. (You say wasteful, I say rich. It boils down to the same thing.) Madison's Capital Times published an article about the burgeoning art of dumpster diving.

So much is discarded, in fact, that it is possible to live almost entirely off of trash, or as New York dumpstering organizer and founding member of the Web site freegan.info Adam Weissman puts it, the excesses of capitalism. Weissman sustains himself almost exclusively by dumpstering, or as he refers to it, "urban foraging." Though he also trades items and gardens, the bulk of his sustenance is from garbage, he says in a phone interview.

He quotes Marx and talks about "opt[ing] out of the capitalist economic system." So, he's a bit of a nut. 'Cause, really, he'd be homeless and starving if it wasn't for the capitalist economic system that he' opting out of. Still, there is a lot of waste in a rich society. Some are using that waste to help others.

"The first time I saw it I was amazed and taken aback. There was more food than you've ever seen, just there. ... Sometimes it still hits you -- all this food is still good," says Spike Appel, frequent dumpster diver and chief organizer of the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, an "anarchist community project" that provides free vegetarian meals to the public.

Much of the food donated to Food Not Bombs is one step from the dumpster. This is not to say the produce, dips and baked goods are in any way spoiled. Ripe, organic produce is a hallmark of the meals provided by Food Not Bombs, as is the fact that they do not serve meat.

While the Food Not Bombs Web site advocates dumpstering as a way of obtaining food, the Madison chapter works with local businesses for donations. Food Not Bombs has an international following, and each chapter varies according to the resources in their community.

Interesting, no? Dumpstering is illegal. Many of the business that dump food, rather than donating it, do so out of fear of lawsuits and food safety regulations. The vast majority of that food is still perfectly safe. Why shouldn't we relax the regulations and remove the fear of lawsuits? Why not let that food be legally donated to the hungry rather than forcibly wasted?

Appreciating Luxuries

It's easy to forget exactly how rich we are. Two days ago, as I was driving to work, I saw a van with a bumper stick. The van belonged to a typical Madison parent, one with school-age children. The bumper sticker stridently proclaimed "The Arts Are Not a Luxury!" Obviously, at some point, this parent felt threatened that their child's school would cancel the orchestra, the band, a painting class, or some other such artistic program.

The bumper sticker, of course, is wrong. The arts are a luxury. They're an incredible luxury. They enrich our lives in many ways, yet have been a disposable part of human existence for centuries.

The first priority of any group of people has always been food, clothing, and shelter. This is easy to forget when a 900 square foot apartment qualifies as poverty, when buying clothes from Goodwill is an embarrassment, and when grocery stores stock the cuisine of the world -- available to anyone with food stamps. But America's "poor" haven't always been this rich.

For the last several weeks, my wife and I have been rereading Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House..." books. I was probably in middle school, the last time I read these books. Reading them with an adult's perspective has been an eye-opening experience. Charles and Caroline Ingalls spent most of their adult life doing nothing more than gathering food, stockpiling food, building shelter, and attending to household chores.

In Little House on the Prairie, we see the family leaving home, able to pack all of the belongings into one, small covered wagon. Upon arriving in "the prairie", Pa spends an entire summer doing nothing more than building a house and barn, digging a well, hunting food, making furniture, and starting to plant crops. During most summer days, Pa worked from sunup to sundown and collapsed into bed as soon as night fell. The only time he was energetic enough to play his fiddle was when winter shortened the days and he was forced to work fewer hours.

This was a world where store-bought sugar and butter were precious luxuries, to be enjoyed only a few times a year. This was a world where buying window glass represented a huge splurge and a sack stuffed with grass constituted a fine mattress.

The arts? Pa's fiddle was the sum total of the Ingalls' experience of "the arts". Forget the arts -- for many years, Laura and Mary didn't know how to read, write, or do math. Simple education was a luxury that was out of their reach. And they were hardly alone. The majority of American families lived through similar experiences.

Food, clothing, and shelter are all plentiful in the America of today. People spend so little time worrying about these staples of life that they have time to think about music, painting, and poetry. People can only enjoy the arts when bellies are full and bodies are warm.

Let me illustrate. We received a package from Amazon.com today -- Season 3 and Season 4 of the Cosby Show. These episodes were produced 21 years ago. Over the past two years, companies have been putting the episodes onto DVD. Over the next several weeks, we intend to enjoy every one of them.

Unlike Charles Ingalls, I don't have to build our house, I don't have to hunt down our food, and I don't have to worry about making our own clothing. Instead, I can come home and have multiple hours available in which to entertain myself. Rather than amusing myself with only my own fiddle, I can listen to a wide variety of music -- all on-demand. I can read from a huge selection of books and I can watch a large selection of television and film entertainment. Entire sections of our economy consist solely of people producing ways for other people to amuse themselves.

The arts -- and everything else -- are a luxury. They're a luxury that I'm incredibly thankful to have. I want my children to have them as well, but I realize that the world won't end if a music program or a painting program gets canceled. As long as my children are full and warm, I'll be content. Everything else is just butter on the bread.

This entry was tagged. History Prosperity