Much of the difference between common sense conservatives and common sense liberals is how much faith each group has in the government’s ability to solve problems. Liberals tend to think that a group of thoughtful politicians can influence people’s behavior through properly crafted legislation. Conservatives tend to believe that even well-meaning legislation is likely to be botched by unintended consequences. It is tough to imagine a law that makes the conservative point more soundly than Chicago’s ban on disposable shopping bags.
The problem, as it was described by the City Council and advocates is that too many disposable plastic shopping bags are produced, used and discarded. These flimsy menaces create litter, increase our carbon footprint, fill our landfills, and are largely unrecyclable.
The solution was to require retailers to offer only bags with handles that could be reused at least 125 times. The thinking is that stronger bags are less likely to be discarded and could be reused many times. Stores are given the choice between selling them and giving them away. Most give them away and those that don’t charge such a negligible amount for them – say 5-10 cents – that no one notices.
But this foolish law which regulates only bags and retailers seems to be predicated on the assumption that bags reuse themselves and fails to acknowledge the actual decision maker in the problem – the consumer. Some consumers have long chosen to reuse bags and others throw them out.
The law does not provide any incentive for those who chose to discard their bags to change their behavior. As a result, those who reused bags before the law continue to reuse them and those who discarded them before the law continue to discard them. Many pet owners depend on shopping bags to discard pet waste and have little option but to continue the practice. Even well-intentioned shoppers often forget their bags and after accumulating more than they need are forced to discard bags. The difference is that now they are throwing away thicker, bigger bags, with larger carbon footprints, and which take up more space in the landfill.
As a result, this well-meaning piece of legislation has likely accomplished the opposite of what it intended – due to unintended consequences or just lack of intelligent conception.
Let’s be clear, I support a law that accomplishes the goal of reducing disposable bags. It’s easy to design and it looks like this:
All bags must be made out of cloth or pressed cloth-like material.
All bags must be a standard size so customers don’t have to store multiple sizes.
All bags must be sold at a price which incents consumers to hold onto them – say two dollars each.
Cheaper or free plastic or paper bags cannot be sold or offered as an alternative at checkout.
But the problem with a properly-crafted disposable shopping bag ban is that it is effectively a regressive consumption tax. Because the value of the goods put into bags by poor people tends to be lower, they pay a higher tax rate than their wealthier neighbors which isn’t cool with our City Council.
So now we see that the problem as it was described was only half the problem. The other requirement was that it could not place a larger burden on the poorer south and west sides – areas that couldn’t care less about disposable plastic bags – than it does on the North side – where the wealthier residents and image-conscious mayor were seeking a solution. Creating a Chicago-wide law that accomplishes both of these objectives is simply not possible. They are in conflict. As a result, we end up with a stupid law that penalizes all citizens equally but offers benefits to no one.
This point goes to the common sense conservatives.
Following the San Bernadino shooting a few weeks ago, the FBI bungled the investigation of the shooter’s telephone and now wants the court to compel Apple to crack it open so that their investigation can continue. Apple is refusing as they should. This is an important over reach of the government that anyone with common sense should oppose.
First, don’t believe what the FBI is telling the press. They say it is only for this one phone and it is only five lines of code. Those two statements are contradictory. If it is only five lines of code that need to be written, then either that five lines of code can be reused or edited to work with every other phone. Even if all 5 lines had to be completely rewritten, it’s still just 5 lines! Of course it could be repeated if required and it would be required over and over.
Second, Apple has built a phone that offers security to a market that requires it. The government is asking Apple to make the phone do something contrary to this required feature. This is akin to the government subpoenaing Tesla to make straight gasoline powered cars or Boeing to make planes that don’t fly.
Third, it is a dangerous precedent. Once these 5 lines are written for this project, then there are going to be 5 for another project, 50 for the one after that, and more and larger projects to follow – at Apple’s expense. There is nothing to stop the subpoenas once the gate has been opened. Eventually Apple may need to create an entire department to do the FBI’s job for them. In fact, every tech firm may suffer the same expensive requirement.
This is not Apple’s problem and their involvement increases expenses, reduces the value of their brand, weakens important features, and increases the risk that a government – out of their control – will subpoena additional potentially crushing exercises in the future. Instead, the FBI, DOJ, and NSA need to learn how to do their own jobs. We’ve been hearing things about the awesome power of the Government’s computer black ops for years. Assuming that wasn’t a ruse, I am pretty sure they can solve this problem.
Now, you geeky guy over there with the glasses. Go back to your desk, do your job, and stop bothering Tim Cooke. He’s a busy man, and probably working on some new wearable piece of technology that no one wants. Leave him alone.
Most Chicago readers have never visited Rockford Illinois – although many say they have. “Yeah, that’s the place with the Clock Tower.” Yes. It has a clock tower. Yes, you drove by the clock tower while you drove by Rockford, but you did not visit Rockford. And I’ll be honest, three’s not much reason to do so.
Rockford has a long and storied history of depression. Starting in the 1980s when unemployment hit 22% it started getting ranked as the worst city to live in the nation. Over the last 35 years it has stayed on many of those lists bouncing up or down, jockeying for position with Flint, Detroit, and Baltimore. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the current unemployment rate is 6.9% – 25% higher than the national average. Wages are on average 10% lower.
In the early part of the 20th century, however, Rockford was a thriving community. For many years, it was the second largest city in Illinois and supported many companies in aerospace, hardware, and machined metals. Amerock, Ingersoll, Sundstrand, Barber Colman, and Woodward Governor were the bedrocks of this manufacturing community, and the downtown bustled with shops, restaurant, theaters, churches and lots and lots of people! In 1940s and 1950s it was a picturesque American town.
I can only guess, but it may have been that appeal that lead the mid-century civic leaders to make the mistakes they did. As automobile transportation and trucking logistics began to shape the American suburbs, Rockford’s leaders elected to eschew a highway that went through town in favor of one that went around town. Their thinking was likely that the eminent-domain acquisition and demolition of property followed by the scarring construction would disrupt Rockford’s quaint urban appeal. And they were right.
But what they didn’t realize was that the new highway built along the outskirts of town would be a powerful draw and many of those businesses would move toward the outskirts taking with them all those people. Mega in-door shopping malls were built, businesses moved to improve access to transportation, and people simply lost their reasons to be downtown. It began to die. The department stores and restaurants began to suffer.
Meanwhile, there was another powerful demographic shift at work. The manufacturing industry that provided the jobs for Rockford’s working class was moving to Mexico and China where labor was cheaper. One by one the major corporations closed their manufacturing centers. Today, only Woodward Governor is still a presence.
The image in the upper right corner of this blog is some of what is left of the Barber Colman plant. I think it looks like a scene from Fallout 4.
This is when Rockford’s civic leaders made their second grand mistake. Thinking they were taking a page from a European playbook, and hoping to return vitality to the downtown area, they – get this – paved over the streets and created a “walking mall” (what the what what?). The unanticipated consequence of no cars was no people. Of the 50 or so business that were there, all but two closed. The “pedestrian mall”, as they called it, became a no-pedestrian wasteland. The theaters and churches hung on a little longer but eventually they went away too.
They church buildings are still there and you can buy them. My childhood church which is referenced in a previous post recently sold for about $500K.
Rather than admit defeat, the City leaders defiantly erected a huge (I mean 30 ton!) contemporary sculpture called “The Symbol” by Alexander Liberman that the citizens hated.
There was no precedent for modern art appreciation in Rockford. With their hubris, the city leaders were shoving their misinterpreted definition of modernity down the citizens’ throats. No matter how many times they barked with unconvincing bravado that “this sculpture represents the intersection of culture and manufacturing blah blah something else blah” the people of Rockford still saw no reason to call it anything other than the “The Monstrosity.”
Soon after this the Rockford Public School Board (more civic leaders) was caught in a funding scandal and the ensuing lawsuits decimated the boards coffers ensuring that Rockford’s children would receive second rate educations for generations to come. Most recently Rockford built a $8MM bridge from one park that no one goes to to another park that no one goes to. One has to wonder, when will it end?
Meanwhile many of the valuable downtown buildings that were abandoned when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s still sit in shambles. These beautiful buildings deserve to be developed and could be great projects for community investors. A truly revitalized downtown could bring business, people, artists, civic pride, and best of all tax dollars. Unfortunately the continuing weak civic leadership has only been able to:
Tacitly encourage a pocket of retail development at State Street and the river. This effort and the city’s commitment to it ebbs and flows with seeming revitalization some years and decay in others.
Encourage social service organizations to occupy the buildings downtown bolstered by state, city, and federal grants. The problem with this is although social services are important to every community, they do not build a neighborhood and their presence tends to repel the they crowds that the residential, retail and restaurants developers are trying to attract.
But with bold leadership, downtown Rockford could be the jewel in Northern Illinois’ crown. It requires municipal expenditures, but not much relative to what will ultimately be recouped by the entrance of sustainable tax payers.
First. Rockford needs to incent the social service organizations to move their operations out of the city hub. The focus needs to be retail, restaurants, and for-profit businesses and the end-goal needs to be up-market residential.
Second. Offer developers financing or TIF incentives to renovate whatever they can make a case for. Like many of the towns in which I have lived, this type of development starts with funky residential lofts and coffee shops. Some of this is already happening. With cultivation they will be followed by boutiques and apartment renovators. Then mid-sized and and start-up white collar offices. And finally Those huge old decrepit houses on Main street will become attractive renovation opportunities.
Third. Rockford needs great egress and ingress into the downtown area. There needs to be wide roads with properly timed traffic lights – fast streets that allow people who live there to get to work fast and allow people who want to visit a way to get there without hassle. Any remnant of that damned mall has to go. On a positive note, all the abandoned lots and demolished buildings means there is plenty of parking, so there’s that!
This strategy has proven successful in many cities throughout the US including Chicago and Omaha. In Chicago’s Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood it happened organically. Thirty years ago you couldn’t safely walk there and now people are investing millions of dollars in crumbling old mansions because the neighborhood housing market can support it. In Omaha, it happened intentionally when the city made investment attractive around a couple funky blocks called the Old Market and rejuvenated much of downtown.
For years Rockford’s leaders have blamed their problems on the migration of machine tool industry to other countries. But the truth is, these same leaders have done more damage with their terrible decisions – trying to protect something that was already dead – than any damage caused by the march of progress. The more Rockford unwinds these mistakes and embraces the best practices of similar communities, the better the chance of a real resurgence.
Thanks to my friends at Rockford Rocked inspiring for this post. You can visit them on Facebook. Antique photos from Bob Anderson.
There has been a lot of talk recently about the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest Americans. If you listen to our President and Democratic candidates, it’s the biggest problem facing America. That is why, according to them, it is so important that we increase the minimum wage. But does increasing the minimum wage accomplish this objective? Is there a policy that does? Is this really the problem, or is it just some focus group tested rhetoric that polls well with Democratic voters?
To find out I ran some numbers on my own. It has been widely reported that the top 1% of Americans makes in excess of $300,000 per year. With that as our starting point, the proposal to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 would decrease the income gap by 2% (change in gap/gap). That’s not a noticeable enough dent to merit an increase on this issue alone. In fact if we increase the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour as many progressives have called for, the decrease is still a mere 5 1/2%. So clearly increasing the minimum wage in-line with proposed legislation does not decrease the income gap in a meaningful way.
On the other side of the coin, there is a policy that dramatically decreases the income gap. If we cap incomes at 200K or institute a 100% tax rate for every dollar earned over 200k, we can decrease the income gap by 35%. Decrease the income ceiling to $100K and the income gap drops 70%. Clearly this accomplishes the stated objective, but no one in their right mind wants to see this sort of policy instituted. It would destroy aspirational productivity and decimate our tax base.
So if moving the bottom – i.e. increasing minimum wages – does not affect the income gap, and moving the top – i.e. capping wages – isn’t something even progressives want to do, then clearly the gap is not the problem. As long as we are lucky and our entrepreneurial spirit is in tact, people will always figure out how to make more money which increases the size of the pie and increases potential tax revenue so the top earners are not the problem.
The real problem is just poverty. People in poverty need options to move up and away from the bottom. They need better education and training. They need options when their schools are not meeting their needs. They also need jobs, and our neighbor states offer great lessons in how to create them – reduce costs, and reduce corporate tax rates (not sweetheart deals), and create a pro-business and pro-hiring environment. Growing companies need people. They also need a government that is more focused on job training than on welfare.
The minimum wage is going up. Some people will make a little more money and some companies will hire less. But it won’t affect the income gap, nor will it lead to people currently making minimum wage to making more than minimum wage. They will still be minimum wage workers.
So although the income gap is a convenient and emotionally satisfying rallying cry for the left, it obscures the real issue which is not that rich people make too much money, but that the poorest Americans – generally urban blacks – lack the opportunities and options to better their situation. Let’s get this minimum wage thing behind us so we can focus on the problems that really matter like public schools and job growth.
As we approach Thanksgiving, the national holiday of gluttony, it seems appropriate to talk about one of the finest adages that western civilization has given us is: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. This little nugget is right up there with the golden rule. Everyone learns it, and everyone knows it’s true. So when you ask most Americans which is a better method of supporting the less fortunate, it’s not a surprise that people answer correctly: teach him to fish.
Now that Saint Nick of Communism, Karl Marx, would have given you a different answer. In 1875 he wrote his most famous line: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. This is the opposite idea. According to Marxism, if somebody needs fish, the guy that already knows how to fish should fish for them. Not surprisingly, most Americans disagree with this statement and with good evidence. The failure of communism in the 20th century illustrated that if you force a fisherman to give away his fish, eventually he will just stop fishing and get his fish for free like everyone else.
But if your Thanksgiving dinner includes some contemporary progressives, the conversation might include a third answer.
Me: Which is better, a fishing lesson or a fish dinner?
Liberal lawyer who makes his own beer: “A fishing lesson AND a fish dinner!”
Me: “I’m sorry, but that wasn’t an option.“
Fellow in thick glasses wearing a hat at the table: “Sure it is. How can you expect someone to learn anything on an empty stomach? Give him a nice plate of Dover sole – heck, make it fried carp for all I care – then get him a good night’s rest and tomorrow you can talk tackle!”
ME: “The question specifically implied that you have to choose one or the other. Assume that there is some physical impossibility in providing both.”
Lawyer’s wife: “Fizzie what? This is the real world. Of course we can do both!”
ME: “But they both cost money – especially in the real world. The purpose of the question was to determine which was a better use of the limited funds we have?”
Bernie Sanders (OMG, you are having Thanksgiving dinner with Bernie M-Fing Sanders!) : “Funds aren’t limited! Find some more. Look how frickin’ hungry that guy is. We need to get him some dinner! We’ll borrow it if we have to!”
Me: “But even if we borrow the money, won’t he be hungry again in the morning?”
Hostess, getting annoyed: “So borrow some more money tomorrow and feed him again. What are you, some kind of monster? Help the fella out for chrissakes! You are not invited back next year.”
Herein lies the challenge. Americans know the right answer but when faced with making the decision, the right answer seems unkind and no one wants to be unkind. Further harshing the toke, the right answer appears to offer mercilessly little more than the opportunity to remain self-sufficient. Still, even a crappy fishing lesson is more appreciated than a five dollar gift certificate to Long John Silvers. One of the smartest men in America, Arthur Brooks said “the greatest controllable factor to happiness is earned success through work.” In other words that fellow even wants to catch his own fish!
Tough love may be harder to dish out than it is to receive. In an effort not to appear mean, we avoid requiring self-sufficiency and helping in-need people get there. Instead of investing in job training we throw borrowed money at stimulus programs, jobs bills, and extend unemployment incentives indefinitely. We make free fish dinners the standard and avoid delivering the fishing lesson to those who want it. We choose not to look into the wet eyes of the currently unemployed and say “I am sorry, but the job, house, or retirement you must accept is not as good as the one you had before – but it will return you to self-sufficiency,” even though we know that is the right answer, and things will improve for that guy. Instead, we leave the bad news for generations to come later, people who we don’t know and whose eyes we will never have to look into and apologize for anything.
It’s time we change the strategy. Government assisted training, and work for aid programs need to gradually replace welfare as the default safety net. We all know that it is better to teach a man to fish and we all know that giving him a fish has only temporary benefits. Americans often fail to understand that we can’t have both, but that must change. The current course will only grow the number of families reliant on government handouts while pushing increased expenses into the future. That’s not fair to those in-need today or those picking up the tab tomorrow.
Do you want to talk about the death penalty? Because I do! before I continue, can you guess which side I will take? More importantly, can I make it interesting enough for you to read the whole thing.
The current argument against capital punishment is that it is either cruel or unusual. There is some mind-numbing article written along these lines every day. Maybe the drugs that are used hurt, or the windows that allow visitors to look in are embarrassing, or the FDA has only approved that particular drug for euthanizing chronically ill sea turtles. Actually, these made-up examples make it sound way more interesting than it is. The truth is it’s all technical details that do not resonate with the American people. These arguments may be fodder for lawyers, but lets face it, lawyers are boring. In general no one cares.
So? Money shot follows…
The reason that Capital Punishment in the United States needs to be abolished is because our system makes mistakes. Not all the time, and maybe only rarely, but when there is a chance that the system has made a mistake, no punishment can be enacted that fails to offer a recourse. It’s that simple, and everyone should get behind this.
Think about it. If we throw a guy in jail for 30 years and 29 years into his sentence, we decide to check the DNA and find that – oops – he isn’t the guy that did it. We can let him out of jail. Society is going to owe him a huge apology and hopefully a whole lot of tax-payer funded comforts to make up for his time in jail, but he gets to have what’s left of his life back. Conversely, if we execute a convict only to discover after the fact that his DNA did not match what was found at the crime site, we have absolutely no way to correct even a portion of the societal wrong.
There are those that like the “what about now” argument. This is applied to heinous monsters like John Wayne Gacy and James Eagan Holmes, the Colorado theater killer. The argument goes that they clearly did it and their crimes were so heinous that they clearly need to be put down. In these cases I kind of want to agree. But then I remind myself that these men were unanimously convicted and sentenced by the same pool of jurors that unanimously convicted and sentenced Rolando Cruz of the Jeanine Nicarico murder in 1983. Rolando Cruz spent 12 years on death row losing multiple appeals before Brian Dugan confessed to the killings and Cruz was sent home.
And just how often does the system accidentally make a mistake? Check this out! Since 1973 when the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois, the state has put to death 12 inmates. Let that sink in. 12. Over that time Illinois has exonerated – reversed the guilty verdict and set free – 20 death row inmates. That means that in Illinois, since 1973, our system has made capital punishment mistakes 63% of the time! That is not a rare occurrence. That can only be described as most of the frickin’ time!
There is a certain cost that society is willing to bear to keep law and order. Part of that cost is that occasionally the wrong man goes to jail. It is unfortunate, but inevitable, and acceptable. But the other side of that token is that society owes it to those who pay that cost to offer recourse when a mistake is found.
A version of this post originally ran on Facebook in September 2015.
Predatory lending has been a hot button issue for the last ten years or so – especially since the financial crisis of the mid oughts. Stories of perpetual payments, families rendered homeless by parasitic schedules, and greater than 100% annual interest rates abound. Legislation has been quick to follow regulating or outlawing these establishments, and their proprietors have been branded the pariahs of the financial industry.
But the truth is, payday lenders are a valuable last resort to America’s poor. They offer an emergency solution to repair a child’s glasses so she can read at school, to fix a car quickly so one can make it to work, to make an sudden appliance repair so that everyone can wear clean clothes, or any number of other family emergencies.
Payday lenders charge exorbitant interest rates by mortgage loan standards, but they are not unreasonable by banking fee standards. Imagine the scenario where a mother needs to find 100 dollars to fix her child’s glasses. The darned kid should have been more careful with them, and now mom is in a tough spot, but kids are kids and these things happen. The local payday lending shop will lend her $100 dollars today but wants $110 in return next Friday which is the mother’s pay day. I think most of us would think this sounds like a reasonable agreement. We are occasionally willing to pay a $5 ATM fee for a $100 withdrawal – and that is getting the money from our own account. Paying twice that to have it lent for a week in an emergency situation seems acceptable.
But in order to compare that loan to those available in other situations requires that we look at that fee annualized – in order to compare apples to apples. When viewed through this lens, the annualized interest rate on this loan is 560%. That looks predatory, mean spirited and downright unfair. For comparison, this is about 100 times the rate of most home equity loans.
It is because of this comparison, that legislators and activists are quick to attack the payday loan industry. Recent regulations require that they cannot occupy locations in poor neighborhoods, cannot charge more than a certain interest rate, or must close their doors altogether. Forcing these operators out of the neighborhoods they serve simply increases the cost to borrowers who now have to travel or take time off of work to secure their loan. Capping interest rates forces the operators to increase transaction fees (so the end payment is the same) or stop offering certain types of risky loans. And forcing lenders to close their doors means that needed loans can’t possibly be made. Does anyone actually believe that people are better off having the last resort option taken off the table?
Now, there are real problems within this industry. There are borrowers who do not pay their loans on time and find themselves in trouble quickly. At these rates, a $100 loan can turn into a $200 debt in a couple months or thousands if let go for too long. Some borrowers may be borrowing for non-emergency situations such as entertainment, frivolous purchases, or drugs. Still others may not understand the math behind what they are signing up for. And finally, there are operators who are truly awful. But all of these are exceptions and and can be managed down to acceptable levels by smart legislation and good operators. At the end of the day, so-called predatory loan operators are offering opportunities to poor communities that have no access other financial solutions.
There is another issue here which revolves around the concept of “fair.” When someone is in financial trouble and facing penalties they often claim it is unfair, even if they are in that spot as a result of their own doing. Society is sympathetic to this argument and often makes excuses for them such as they were taken advantage of, they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, or the lender made it too complicated (which is another way of saying the borrower is too stupid). There may be legislation required to ensure that things are clear, but people taking responsibility for their own finances is one of the costs of taking out a loan. No honest person borrows money without expecting to pay it back when they say they will (or face consequences).
Be wary when the mob with pitchforks tries to kill the monster by burning down the windmill, as they are often hiding the larger issue. Community banks have been driven out of poor neighborhoods due to 20 years of well-meaning but over-bearing regulation. In their absence payday lenders should be welcomed, nurtured, and regularly reviewed.