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Friday 21 December 2001

United States of Europe

More valid concerns about the viability and wisdom of the European Union.

What nobody talks about, though, are the cultural differences. When push really comes to shove, are the French really going to sacrifice to help the Germans? (Substitute your favorite pair of mutually-loathing European cultures here.) When the United States faced the same question, in 1860, the result was one of the nastiest wars in history. And that was between two small groups of people, largely of the same ethnic origin and political heritage, largely of the same religious outlook, speaking the same language, and with all of 100 years of history in their cultures.

The fact is that the EU is a much more ambitious undertaking than the United States was. The original intent of the USA was for states to bind together as a unit largely for common defense and trade; regulatory functions of government were largely left to the states — while the EU is meant to duplicate the functions that the U.S. federal government is bodging up today. The USA was guaranteed economic growth — a growth curve we’re still on — because nearly all of the resources of North America were as yet unexploited. Europe’s only guaranteed economic growth is in the East, where enormous sums are being and will need to be spent to renovate decrepit Communist enterprises and practices. And the federal government in the United States in 1860 was far, far more representative of the people than the European Parliament is. The EP has about one member for every 603,000 Europeans — about the same rate of representation as you see for U.S. Congressmen today, who most Americans feel are controlled largely by lobbyists instead of by the people they’re supposed to represent. (See here for more on this.)

I cannot see the EU working in the long term. The United States, which was much better poised to manufacture a super-state than are the Europeans, barely managed to hold it together. My prediction is that, within 50 years, the EU will disappear either peacefully or (more likely) in war, or the central government will become tyrannical.

Posted by tino at 10:40 21.12.01

Another argument for ‘hidden law’

In the Telegraph Mary Kenny points out that things are being made illegal because it’s impossible, in today’s cultural climate, to simply say that they are rude and to expect that to do any good. See another post from November that touches on the same subject.

Posted by tino at 09:12 21.12.01
Monday 17 December 2001

War on Fat

I have been wondering, for the past year or so, when this would happen. The Boston Globe ran an editorial this week on the dangers and causes of obesity. This was inspired by the recent “Call to Action” of the Surgeon General, of course, but the Globe takes it an ominous step further.

In the Globe’s opinion, the problem is not that Americans don’t (or can’t — see my rants elsewhere about this) walk anywhere, or that it’s difficult to eat healthily without cooking everything yourself, or that we have massive government programs to subsidize (and thus make artificially cheap) the production of milk, beef, corn syrup, and a bunch of other things that make us fat. Oh, no. The problem is that children drink too much soda pop. And the Globe isn’t shy about it, either. They say, in part:

Any school superintendent who takes the surgeon general seriously should let their soda contracts expire, then call a van to cart the machines out of the schools. They would be carting off more than an empty vending machine. They just might be hauling off a coffin that thankfully goes unused.

Since obviously someone who does not drink Coke as a child will never die. Or something.

I say that this is ominous for a couple of reasons: First, it invokes the name of Children. When the Globe’s point-of-view takes hold — and it will — supporting Pepsi and Coke’s efforts to make a buck will be seen as equivalent to wanting children dead. And, because the target of this attack is not the bad habits of individuals — nobody’s forced to drink Coke, after all — but a large and wealthy corporation, the mass-tort lawyers will soon be coming out of the woodwork with dollar signs in their eyes.

Soon, fattening foods (and anything will make you fat, if you eat too much of it) will be called “defective products” in class-action suits, much as cigarettes and guns now are. Since being fat appears to increase the stress on all your body’s systems, and since most Americans are fat, almost every non-violent death in the United States can be said to be caused, or at least hastened, by “obesity-related causes” — much as “smoking-related causes” kill many people who are not smokers, and who have never been exposed to large amounts of second-hand smoke (and never mind that the whole second-hand smoke myth has been largely discredited anyway).

So, ten or fifteen years hence, product-liability lawsuits will put Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Burger King, and most of the rest of America’s fattening companies out of business. I suspect that, when that happens, we’ll find that people still die. After eliminating guns, drugs, smoking, drinking, obesity, and trunk entrapment as potential causes of death, what will be next?

Posted by tino at 13:46 17.12.01
Sunday 16 December 2001

Book Prices

An article in the New York Times addresses the issue of book pricing. I buy a lot of books, so this is a subject close to my heart.

The gist of the story is that pricing in the publishing industry is almost random, and that the publishers can’t or won’t see what’s wrong. They just keep raising their prices in hopes of increasing their profits above their current paper-thin margins, and failing. Most of the problem is summed up in a single sentence from the article:

Stephen Rubin, publisher of the Doubleday Broadway group at the Random House division of Bertelsmann, said, “I am just convinced that there is no difference between $22 and $23. Let’s face it, price is not a factor if it is a book that you really want.”

Here are the problems with that reasoning:

  1. Notice that it requires three brand/company names to identify this guy. Possibly the publishers’ corporate structures — nearly all of them are at least as Byzantine as the Doubleday/Random House/Bertelsmann excrescence we see here. “Consolidation” in the publishing industry seems to have largely meant funneling all the money from a dozen different companies back to the same corporate parent.
  2. It’s not the difference between $22 and $23 that matters, but the difference between, say, $15 and $23.
  3. If the goal of your marketing is to sell your products only to consumers who “really want” them, as Mr Rubin suggests his is, you don’t deserve to have a job that in any way involves selling anything to anyone. Depending on how extremely he chooses to define “really” in “really want”, he could charge $5,000 for a copy of the latest John Grisham novel and still see it as a “success” when the John Grisham Museum and Sculpture Garden bought the only copy sold.

As I said, I buy a lot of books, far more than the average American. In the past few months in particular, though, there have been a good number of books — probably about 15 or 20 — that I have left on the shelf at the bookstore because I judged them not likely enough to deliver value for the money.

Other books, I’ve imported from Britain, where the pricing is more rational. (Amazingly enough, Amazon.co.uk’s shipping to the USA is usually faster and always cheaper than Amazon.com’s shipping, too.) Bestsellers and new releases have pretty much the same prices on both sites thanks to deeper discounts in the USA, but cover prices for the same book in American guise is usually about 20% more than the British version.

My prediction is that the publishing industry’s “solution” to this problem within the next few years will not be to adopt some realistic marketing and business practices (publishers pulp or remainder, on average, 30% of the books they print each year — imagine if any other industry did that), but rather to attempt to subject their customers and retailers to some kind of restrictive license agreement to reduce the secondary market and marginalize (no pun intended) the “gray market” in imported books. This would be not unlike what we have now with software, music, and movies — and remember, most publishers are ultimately divisions of companies that also produce music and movies.

In the last few years, large companies of all kinds have come to look everywhere but at themselves for the cause of their problems. I see no reason why the publishing industry should miss out on the trend.

Posted by tino at 00:06 16.12.01
Saturday 15 December 2001

Strange Doings in Washington

Most news outlets report today, in deeply-buried items — the Washington Post’s article is on page A43 — on a White House move to refuse a subpoena from Congress for documents relating to a Boston mob case of 30 years ago and the one or other of the Clinton finance probes.

I can sort of see the refusal to cough up the Clinton information; that wasn’t long ago, and it’s possible that there are still things going on with that case. I’m not saying it’s justified, but rather that it seems justifiable.

The mob case, though is another matter. I’m too lazy to have dug up all the facts at this point, but the gist is this: Thirty years ago, the FBI watched one Joe Salvati go to prison on murder charges while they knew he was innocent. His conviction was based on testimony by an FBI informant who apparently had a grudge against Salvati. Salvati was released from prison in 1997.

It’s a complicated case, but it ultimately comes down to the fact that the FBI — part of the Department of Justice — stood by and watched a man (several men, actually, in this one case) go to prison for a crime he (they) did not commit. And now, thirty years later, they don’t want to talk about it. The only plausible excuse is to protect the FBI’s “sources and methods” — though it seems that we’d all be better off if the FBI were forced to develop some better sources and adopt some more effective methods.

It does not take a particularly observant person to notice that the criminal “justice” apparatus in this country is more interested in convictions and ordnung than it is in justice. It’s especially frightening that the administration seems to think that this needs to be kept secret from Congress.

Posted by tino at 01:00 15.12.01

To The Movies

We made one of our rare ventures out of the house tonight, and saw Ocean’s Eleven. Despite the potentially annoying presence in the cast of Ms. Julia Roberts (what is the deal with her? She is not much of an actress — better than I am, yes, but not extraordinarily talented relative to the competition, and she is not good-looking. I can understand why she gets work, but not why she’s this giant star), it is quite a fun movie. A real old-fashioned Caper flick, except that there’s not enough drinking and smoking. Go see it.

Anyway, that’s not my main point. My main point is that we paid over $30, including popcorn, to sit in uncomfortable seats in an overheated “theater” and to watch the movie on a screen not much bigger than the one we have at home. Though I will admit that the screen we have at home is extraordinarily large, for a screen at home.

There were no cupholders, and there wasn’t enough space for me to cross my legs properly so I could balance my snacks on my foot — the seats were that narrow. Oh, and after the house lights went down and before the trailers started, we got to watch at least four separate advertisements, including the oh-so-clever (not to mention fresh) Mountain Dew ad where the guy butts heads with the goat.

I won’t be going back to that theater (Reston Multiplex, run by these people, who seem to ultimately be Viacom) any time soon. Airlines at least get you some place while you watch a movie on a tiny screen from and uncomfortable seat. Products that are solely amusements have to pay a little more attention to the customer’s satisfaction and sense of value, because they’re totally discretionary. I understand the economics of movie theaters well enough to know why they are need such narrow seats and such expensive popcorn. The problem is not the theater operators, it’s the movie studios. The studio gets nearly all — better than 90% in most cases — of the face value of your ticket. I say it’s time for the theaters to start pushing back on the studios, though.

Posted by tino at 00:19 15.12.01
Tuesday 04 December 2001

The best thing about my job

The best thing about my job is that from my window, I can see fire trucks going down the street a few times a day. They’re ten stories below, so you can hear the sirens, but not too loud.

This tells you something about me; but in fact it probably tells you more about my job.

Posted by tino at 14:50 4.12.01

This is the best they can come up with?

The New York Times reports that the FTC has found problems with the music industry. What’s do they say the industry is up to? Price-fixing? Payola? Anti-competitive practices?

No. Apparently the problem is that the music industry has “not done enough to promote warnings and curb advertising of inappropriate material in magazines and on television shows intended for young audiences.”

Jesus Christ. Honestly, if there were any competition in the music industry, or any reason at all for those companies to give a damn what their customers think of them, the market would handle this problem anyway.

Posted by tino at 14:41 4.12.01