Archive for August, 2006

 No Man Is A Continent

Regarding Jennifer Schwirzer’s article entitled “How Noble Experiments Fail,” I had to make a few comments.

First, her argument that our country’s last attempt at prohibition was a miserable failure due partly to lack of enforcement has merit, however, any suggestion that we should try again with greater focus and fervor is reminiscent of socialists who argue that socialism would work if only the right people were in place to properly manage and execute it. It ignores the basic fact that socialism, and likewise prohibition, are incongruent with human nature, and therefore doomed to fail.

Second, pointing to Barrow, Alaska, as a prohibition success story is somewhat disingenuous. Schwirzer herself admits that, “such a ban was easy to enforce,” due to Barrow’s remoteness. Let’s see the same “experiment” conducted in, say, a small midwestern town of comparable size within a reasonable driving distance of a major metropolitan area. Would the ban be easy to enforce? Certainly not. But more importantly, prices of the banned substance would remain reasonable on the black market, and it would likely flourish.

Lastly, the author’s argument that “no man is an island” carries some weight in a debate about personal responsibility. However, self-harm is the other side of the freedom coin. The right to buy, sell, and imbibe alcohol is no different than the self-evident rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are among those endowed to us by our Creator. And one would think that writers for Liberty magazine would realize that fact.

 Accepted

This movie was pleasantly surprising. It doesn’t suffer from traileritis, as I had been expecting. Although some of the jokes have been recycled from college movies of the past (such as the granddaddy of them all, Animal House), it didn’t stop it from being entertaining. It even has some heartwarming moments towards the end. Justin Long (of PC/Mac commercial fame) does an admirable job carrying this movie. Count on seeing more of him in the future.

 Wanna Play Monopoly?

As I write this, there are still over 500 people in the St. Louis area without electricity, according to AmerenUE‘s outage map. Granted, that number is down from almost 700,000 people. And, granted, this is following the worst storm damage in Ameren’s 100-year history. But is it acceptable?

A half-million customers went 3 days or more without power following the July 19 and July 21 storms. My power was out for exactly one week, and when it came back on, there were still hundreds of thousands left in the dark. You know the situation is grim when the Reverend Al shows up to voice his concern. Despite only stepping out of his car for a few minutes to address the media, he did make one worthwhile comment, “when power companies fail, people should not have to pick up the tab.” Indeed.

But we do. And the important point here is that we have no choice because the electric utilities in this country are, almost universally, government-mandated monopolies. It is interesting how many people find fault with monopolies, perceive them as a failure of the free market, and welcome any government intervention to prevent them. However, when the government *creates* monopolies (for the good of the people, of course), it’s fine. Except when they fail.

The consensus that public utilities (especially electricity) must be run as government-regulated monopolies is starting to change, however, and incidents such as this outage in St. Louis only serve to spur those changes on. The Progressive Policy Institute issued this report in April 2000 calling the emergence of a competitive retail electricity industry “highly likely,” since 13 states have already enacted some legislation to begin this transition. That is encouraging news, but to the rest of us still suffering under our government-imposed monopoly, things are perhaps not moving swiftly enough in that direction.

So in the meantime, what will the monopolies do to mollify their customers? Probably nothing. There is no incentive to make their service more attractive because they are not competing for your dollar. If you want electricity in your home, you will continue to pay them for it. And I should like to point out that losing power, especially in midst of the summer heat, is not merely an “inconvenience” as AmerenUE’s spokespeople were so fond of calling it. It is truly a life-or-death situation, as the St. Louis residents who succumbed to the heat could attest (if they were still alive). The monopolies (and by proxy, the government) should be held accountable for these deaths.

In markets where electric utilities must compete for business, there is a clear incentive to provide the best (i.e. uninterrupted) service to their customers. In practical terms, this means investment in the infrastructure used to deliver the product. There is a clear business case for an electricity provider to make their wiring as bullet-proof as possible. If this means spending $1 million per mile of wire to bury it in the ground, making it impervious to storm damage, that is what you do in order to achieve a competitive advantage over other providers who are still using the 19th-century technology of stringing wires on poles.

AmerenUE has no such incentive. In fact, when asked about his plans to bury the company’s power lines over a period of decades, the August 6, 2006 edition of the St. Louis Post Dispatch quotes Ameren CEO Gary Rainwater as saying, “Scratch that one off the list.” He cites the prohibitive expense of burying some 61,000 miles of power line in the St. Louis area. Claiming the cost would “triple or quadruple the price of electricity.” This coming from a company with annual revenues approaching $7 billion. Where is all that money going, Gary? Obviously, some of it is paying for your $800,000 palatial estate in Chesterfield.

I bet the storms didn’t knock out Gary’s power.

 Norman McCourt, Where Are You?

Mayor Norman McCourt is all over the map on this issue. But what do you expect? He’s a professional politician. He’s going to take whatever position is most likely to get him reelected.

I’m sure he hasn’t been happy lately over the national exposure he has been receiving. Various accounts are portraying his sleepy little suburb of St. Louis as a quaint throwback to the 1950s — complete with the institutionalized racism that was so prevalent then in our society. But let’s give Norm the benefit of the doubt on that one. He may not be a racist at all.

As recently as 1999, Mayor McCourt was framing this as a moral issue, referring to unwed parents in their community as not being “an appropriate standard that they wish to approve.” Well, that case didn’t receive the attention that this one is, and in the past few months Mayor McCourt has done an about face. Now, he is championing a change in the local ordinance that stands in the way of Olivia Shelltrack and Fondray Loving obtaining an occupancy permit for the house in which they have already lived for months. Why the sudden change of heart, Norm?

Are the political winds blowing in a different direction this month? Did a focus group, or local telephone survey of prospective voters, indicate that you were on the wrong side of this issue? Or did you have a true epiphany and realize that government has no business defining what the term “family” means, or dictating what a homeowner can do with his/her property? I’m guessing it was the former.

 Waste, Fraud, and Abuse

Government has refined waste, fraud, and abuse to an art form. I wrote about one instance of this a couple of months ago. Now, from our friends over at Homeland Stupidity, here’s another.

Some people might be willing to overlook a certain amount of this, and say that as long as the government’s job gets done, a little corruption shouldn’t worry anyone. But it’s not just a little corruption. And it grows without bound. How do I know? Because I’ve been a party to it.

Around this time every year (as the beginning of the DOD’s fiscal year Oct 1 approaches) military commands all around the world begin to review their budgets and start to draft budgets for the coming year. Much like any other government agency, if you do not do an adequate job of justifying your own existence, by spending your previous year’s budget in its entirety, you aren’t likely to receive the same amount (or an increase) the following year. So August and September are the months when the military goes shopping!

In 1988, I was a corporal in the United States Marine Corps, and in that year I personally oversaw my command’s computer budget. I was asked to spend something close to $10,000 by ordering items from various GSA catalogs, or from commercial vendors. Some of the items I purchased were needed, some were even useful, but many of things we ended up buying that year sat on a shelf in our storage lockers until I was discharged years later. I was also made aware of leftover training budget that was spent to replace the carpeting our building — carpeting that was only a year old.

If waste, fraud, and abuse are going on at that level at one small Marine command, imagine the amount of graft when you multiply that by thousands of military installations. Then couple that with the knowledge from the story above that much of this “surplus” is then being sold at pennies on the dollar, and the sheer amount of waste is staggering. Like I said, it’s an art, and the DOD has some talented artists.

 Why AOL Sucks

Almost exactly ten years ago I wrote my first rant on this web site entitled “Why AOL Sucks.” It is nice to finally have confirmation of this fact. I’m sure the 5,000 employees losing their jobs would agree with me at this point.

I must admit, however, that AOL’s business model lasted longer than I expected. I never would have believed there were enough people out there who were both computer-illiterate enough and stupid enough to part with $20 a month.

Perhaps this signals the beginning of the end of an empire that was once big enough to fool Time Warner into giving them top billing in their merger. We can only hope.