Archive for November, 2013

Three years ago, I wrote about the problem of retail stores being open for business on Thanksgiving.  It is posted in full below.  As one might expect, Sears continues to open on Thanksgiving and has been joined by many other businesses trying to profit from those who can’t resist getting a jump on so-called Black Friday.  Fortunately, many Americans agree that this is probably a bad idea.

A Huffington Post poll found that “62 percent of Americans think businesses should close on Thanksgiving so workers can have the day off.”  I also found this finding heartening: “few personally plan to go shopping on Thanksgiving Day, according to the new poll — only 7 percent said that they would be shopping that day, while 80 percent said they would not. The rest weren’t sure.”

[Not sure what to make of this other result: According to the study, “only 27 percent said that they think stores should feel free to stay open if there is demand for it.”  It isn’t clear what this means given the likely poor wording of the original poll question — What does it mean “to feel free to stay open”?  Does that imply blue laws?  Or that they shouldn’t feel free because of public disapproval?]

As I explain below, I think businesses should be legally free to open on Thanksgiving.  And yet we should not only avoid shopping on those days but give those businesses and Turkey day shoppers our disapprobation.  Blue laws are not the answer.  Too many Americans want to politicize their tastes and moral views as it is.  Let’s not forget that there are other modes of social change available to us!

So in that spirit, I want to personally give a thumbs-down to the following businesses open most of the day tomorrow (and I’m going to try to find alternatives to them when I do shop, which won’t be difficult):


Old Navy

Dollar General

Many other businesses will also open tomorrow but just later in the afternoon or evening.  I fear they’ll creep into the earlier hours eventually….unless we vote with our feet and stay out of the marketplace when they do.

And kudos to the following businesses for staying closed:


The Kittery Trading Post (whose vice president, Fox Keim, said that he was staying closed due to the store’s “core values”)

BJ’s Wholesale Club

And to many others remaining closed for the holiday.


Good Reason to Avoid Sears on Thanksgiving

November 12, 2010 by Grover Cleveland

Sears is apparently going to be open on Thanksgiving for the first time in its long 85 year history of operating retail stores.  Other similar retail stores have been open on Thanksgiving for some time, including K-Mart.

I’m glad that Sears has the legal right to be open on Thanksgiving or any other day it chooses – which hasn’t always been the case in many places given the existence of “Blue Laws.”

However, I think a good argument can be made that we should avoid such stores on certain days and even express some disapprobation for those who make the choice to shop on particular holidays.  When we frequent stores on holidays, we provide an incentive for stores to remain open on those days in the future.  What that means is that many employees will have to work while preferring to be home celebrating the holiday with their families (or being incentivized to prefer work over family by the time and a half or double time pay they might receive).  I’m sure many stores essentially poll their workers to see who wants to work on holidays and who does not (and I accept that everyone may not have my – I think common – preference to spend time with family and observe certain meaningful rituals), therefore, it may not be as bad in practice as it might be in theory.  However, normalizing days like Thanksgiving will tend to undermine the ability of people to say no as these days become, like Sunday, just another date on the calendar during which King Commerce will rule.

We shouldn’t confuse more choices with a better world despite what the “choicatarian” wing of the libertarian movement thinks.  Some options are best left, like the nasty Thanksgiving cranberry in a can, on the side of the plate and uneaten.  Of course, I’m generally not opposed to greater choices and usually think those who get upset at cereal aisles full of options are pretty silly.  But let’s not assume that “markets in everything” automatically translates into human flourishing and that satisfying all individual preferences should be celebrated even if it should be legal to do so.

Given its policy of not being open on Sundays to give employees time for “family, worship, fellowship or rest,” it is unsurprising that Chick-fil-a will not be open on Thanksgiving.  Glad to see that I can’t satisfy any desire for a chicken sandwich after a long game of football with my kids…since this might mean others won’t be able to play football with theirs.  But I’ll certainly continue to frequent Chick-fil-a on those other days, especially given its proper appreciation of the non-economic needs and preferences of its employees.

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The Government of Scotland has just released its 600-odd-page white paper on independence in advance of the September 18, 2014 referendum on the question. First Minister Alex Salmond and the rest of the pro-independence side have their work cut out, with the latest poll showing a 47-38% plurality in favor of “No.”

In part, the white paper aims to show that independence would not harm the Scottish economy. There is a debate between nationalists and the British government about whether Scotland would face a significant fiscal gap after independence. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says Scotland would face a long-run fiscal gap amounting to 1.9% of national income after independence, while the British government says Scotland would have to raise taxes 9% upon independence to fund the same benefit levels. Nationalists retort that they would change policies to save money. Nevertheless, like most political parties, they are only specific about the new benefits they plan to introduce after independence.

Still, there is good evidence that most Scots are not concerned about the fiscal issues relating to independence. After all, somewhere between 52 and 68% of Scots express support for either independence or “devo max” in polls. “Devo max” is a term used in the UK for full fiscal autonomy, under which Scots would pay no direct taxes to and receive no direct benefits from the UK government (everything would be negotiated between the Scottish and British governments). The strong support for at least devo max implies that Scots aren’t worried about suffering from a fiscal gap even when fully fiscally autonomous.

The dropoff in support from devo max to independence reflects that Scots are more worried about the foreign, monetary, and trade policy uncertainties attendant upon independence. A major bone of contention has been nationalists’ desire for a currency union. The “No” side insists that there is no guarantee the British government will accept a currency union. Salmond has said Scotland could repudiate its share of British debt if the British government didn’t accept a currency union.

The key sticking point in the currency union debate is that the nationalists desperately want Scotland to retain a say in the Bank of England’s monetary policy. Absent that desire, it would perfectly straightforward for Scotland to retain the pound. They don’t need a central bank: people, including the new independent government, could go on using the pound as usual. Indeed, a better threat than debt repudiation that Salmond could make would be for Scotland to abolish central banking, legal tender laws, deposit insurance, and financial regulation, and suck financial business out of London into Edinburgh. (A libertarian can dream, right?) But Scotland’s political culture is solidly left-wing, and any suggestion of going without a lender-of-last-resort wouldn’t fly with voters.

So as we have seen with previous referendums in Quebec, the “Yes” side will insist that all will go on as normal after independence: same treaties, same trade relations, same monetary policy. Meanwhile, the “No” side will play up the uncertainties. They won’t “talk down” Scotland, which would risk a backlash, but instead they’ll just keep saying “there are no guarantees” and attacking the nationalists’ plans as “unrealistic,” “uncosted,” and “amateur.” Steve Saideman notes that there is a tension between nationalists’ desires to “keep everything the same” and promise improvements after independence: secession is either meaningful or it isn’t!

The way to square the circle is that Scots want more left-wing policies than the British status quo on welfare rights, education, the environment, Europe, labor, and defense, but they also like the risk-pooling advantages of a larger state. They see no advantage in a new Scottish currency or a nonaligned foreign policy. Therefore, nationalists promise Scots what they want on the former set of policies while trying to assuage their doubts about the latter.

The figure below shows how Scottish nationalism has tracked left-right ideological change in the Scottish electorate, for UK general elections only. The blue line represents the vote share for secessionist candidates in Scotland: mostly Scottish National Party (SNP), but also Greens, Socialists, and some independents. The blue line represents the UK vote for center and right parties minus the Scottish vote for center and right parties (mostly Conservatives, but also UKIP, Unionists, and the like). In general the two lines correlate pretty closely; the only major exceptions are the 1979 and 1983 elections, when Scotland moved left relative to the UK as a whole, even as the SNP vote collapsed. Since then, the lines have correlated rather well. There is some reverse causation here, since the SNP is a left-wing party, but the fact that the nationalists have adopted a forthrightly left-wing platform tells us something. The bottom line is that Scotland’s move further to the left of the UK has helped promote the secessionist cause. (The spike in the 1974 elections was due to the discovery of North Sea oil, which the SNP politicized under the campaign slogan, “It’s Scotland’s Oil!”)

lefties & nats in scotland

Whether Scotland votes “yes” or “no” in the referendum will depend on how the pivotal voters trade off concern over future Conservative governance in Britain against the uncertainties of full independence. One reason why “no” appears headed for victory is that the Conservatives look set to lose the next UK election, and over the last two decades, Labour has looked like the natural party of government in Britain and has in fact moved British policy significantly to the left, at least on fiscal issues. Scottish voters have less to fear from union.

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The debate over pre-PPACA (Obamacare) nongroup health insurance has heated up again recently, particularly on the issue of rescissions (cancellations of policies). John Goodman claims that before the PPACA, rescissions almost never happened except in cases of fraud.

Nevertheless, one problem with the nongroup market in many states was denial of applications for coverage from those who had prior health problems. Denial of coverage happened frequently even in states without onerous community rating provisions that gave health insurers a clear incentive to deny coverage to high risks. Why did health insurers choose to deny coverage altogether to these applicants rather than charge them a higher rate or offer more restricted coverage?

In some cases, government regulation was to blame. The “managed care” revolution of the 1990s introduced certain innovations designed to control health care costs, such as “elimination riders,” which would remove coverage from pre-existing conditions, and requirements to obtain referrals from primary-care physicians for access to specialist care. Managed care apparently worked to control health care costs, up to about 1-1.5% of U.S. GDP had it been allowed to take its long-run course. But it was unpopular, as constraints always are, and many states passed laws banning elimination riders and mandating direct specialist access.

Even without government regulation, however, social pressure caused the disappearance of some of these practices. On this point, there are two fascinating, complementary pieces of research: “The Death of Managed Care: A Regulatory Autopsy” by Mark Hall of Wake Forest University and “Risk Pooling and Regulation: Policy and Reality in Today’s Individual Health Insurance Market” by Mark Pauly of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Bradley Herring of Emory University.

Hall investigates (more…)

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Whether one looks to the domestic or the international arena, it appears that little is working these days. Three issues I have been following:

1. The Affordable Care Act (formerly known as Obamacare): The difficulties in the ACA roll out persist and the circular firing squad continues to take aim at the guilty parties. Megan McArdle  adds a new dimension with her piece on “the illusion of omnicompetence” and Healthcare.gov. A fine quote:

The technocratic idea is that you put a bunch of smart, competent people in government — folks who really want the thing to work — and they’ll make it happen. But “smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific. Most academics couldn’t run a lemonade stand. Most successful entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to muster the monomaniacal devotion needed to get a Ph.D. Neither group produces many folks who can consistently generate readable, engaging writing on a deadline. And none of us would be able to win a campaign for Congress. Yet in my experience, the majority of people in these domains think that they could do everyone else’s job better, if they weren’t so busy with whatever it is they’re doing so well. It’s the illusion of omnicompetence, and in the case of HealthCare.gov, it seems to have been nearly fatal.

There are some useful lessons here on the limits of technocracy and planning more generally.

2. Our exit from Afghanistan: As the proud father of a Marine, I have particular interest in this story. I find it interesting that President Karzai is making more demands before accepting a long-term security arrangement. Absent an agreement, the US exits Afghanistan in 2014 with predictable results (you will likely get the same result regardless of when you exit). I am at a loss to understand (1) what makes Karzi believe he has a strong bargaining position, and (2) why we are not exiting Afghanistan immediately (other than the obvious: no president wants another “evacuation of Saigon” as part of his legacy).

3. Climate Change: If the negotiations over Afghanistan sound complicated, they pale in comparison to the attempts to find a path forward on climate change post-Kyoto. The 19th Conference of the Parties meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw generated little. As Alex Brown notes:

United Nations climate talks ended Saturday with a last-ditch agreement to set a timetable in the future to make goals that will hopefully one day comprise part of a future pact on climate change.

I can’t imagine that the 20th Conference of the Parties (next December in Peru) will resolve things.  Given the diversity of interests, the distribution of costs and benefits, the lack of powerful institutions, and the complexity of the underlying science, perhaps the best we can hope for is cooperation in adapting to a changing environment.

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George H. Smith, in his new book The System of Liberty, gives us this explanation:

Although all of the proceeding explanations have merit, I have focused in this book on the one offered by Hayek.  In particular, I have discussed how the presumption of liberty, when not accompanied with clear criteria of defeasibility, sometimes became so diluted as to be rendered ineffectual as even a theoretical barrier to the growth of state power.  This was especially true for those liberals who placed more stress on the ‘public good’ or ‘social utility’ than they did on natural rights; and when the Bethamites later excluded natural rights altogether from the liberal lexicon, the game was essentially over.  Without this moral foundation, liberals were reduced to quibbling over what governmental measures did and did not promote the public good, when there were no longer definite standards to decide such matters from a liberal perspective. It is scarcely coincidental that those nineteenth-century liberals, such as Thomas Hodgskin and Herbert Spencer, who protested most vigorously against the incursion of state power were also strong advocates of natural rights.

Of course, one could argue that Hayek was part of the problem….


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Half a Century

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination and I am quite happy to leave the obsession with Camelot and conspiracy to the media. The photographs from 1963 seem quite quaint, like they were plucked from another era. I was two years old then, growing up in a world of stay-at-home moms, fathers who wore hats and overcoats, and mandatory church attendance. This world no longer exists, and the photographs and film clips from November 22, 1963 led me to reflect a bit on how much the nation has changed in a brief half-century.

Obviously, the changes have been far more significant than what can be conveyed in a single post.   But here are a few observations of a policy geek backed with statistical indicators that might be of interest.

1. We are a far wealthier nation today than in 1963.

Indicator: Real per capita disposable personal income (2009 dollars):


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Reid Nukes GOP

In case you missed it, here’s some libertarian commentary on the Senate filibuster, pro and con:

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