Archives: 11/2007

Consumer Product Info - Regulation or Markets?

60 Minutes had an interesting and balanced piece last night on proposals to mandate that fast-food restaurants promote calorie information by placing it directly on their menus.

This fits in a category of regulation that is increasingly prominent: mandated disclosure and promotion of product information. There are plenty of examples: financial privacy notices, real estate purchasing notices, nutrition labeling, etc.

If consumers had unlimited attention, the surfeit of notices would be an unqualified good thing. But consumer attention is not unlimited. Consumers quickly learn to ignore notices that don’t interest them. Notices can easily confuse consumers. Mandated notices often provide information that consumers would already get in more accessible ways.

Nutrition labeling is the sacred cow of mandated disclosure, of course, and mandating calorie notices in restaurants is one of its calves. Everyone who talks about nutrition labeling uses nutrition labeling and so can’t believe that anyone doesn’t. But it certainly hasn’t done anything to change the trend in U.S. obesity since the 1990 law requiring nutrition labeling went into effect.

Note in the 60 Minutes piece how proponents of calorie labeling really are just social engineers. They can’t outlaw you buying that Big Mac, so they’re going to put discouragement in your face using the intermediary of Mickey D’s. They mean well, but I’d just as well have them mind their own business.

Information about products and services is subject to market demand just like every other feature of the things we buy. If you don’t believe me, try running a grocery store without putting price tags on or near the canned peaches.

Where Have All the Republicans Gone?

In Sunday’s “Opus” cartoon, Berkeley Breathed suggests that Opus, becoming middle-aged, will naturally find himself sliding straight into the welcoming arms of the Republican party. The general idea of middle-aged conservatism is understandable enough. There’s an old saying, attributed to many different authors, that “if you’re not a socialist at 20, you have no heart. If you’re still a socialist at 40, you have no brain.”

But Breathed reveals his own advancing age when he depicts the Republican organizers wooing Opus with the promise of “Balanced budgets – and smaller government! And no nation building! We’re not the world’s policemen!” When’s the last time Republicans offered such a platform?

Oh, right, George W. Bush in 2000. But seven years is a lifetime in politics. Today’s Republican party offers massive deficits, a government virtually unlimited in size and scope, and a Wilsonian-neocon foreign policy that is both policeman and nursemaid to the world. I wonder if even a middle-aged penguin would sign up for that.

Baseball Star Tries to Avoid New York’s Oppressive Tax Burden

Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees has been a Florida resident since 1994, doubtlessly attracted to the Sunshine State because it has no personal income tax. But since he spends at least 81 days in New York City for Yankee home games, New York already has the right to tax at least half of his baseball salary. But this is not enough for the greedy politicians in Albany. They are trying to make Jeter a permanent New York resident so they can grab a much bigger share of his income. Depending on state rules, the ultimate decision may rest on how many days each year Jeter actually spends in New York. But the legal wrangling misses a bigger point. If New York didn’t treat wealthy people like fatted calves, the politicians would not have to worry about the geese that lay the golden eggs flying across the border. FoxNews.com reports:

New York state tax officials want Jeter to fork over what could be hundreds of thousands — even millions of dollars— in back taxes and interest for the years 2001 to 2003, when the baseball shortstop claimed residency in Florida, despite his high-profile presence in New York’s sports and gossip pages during that time. … Jeter’s agent, Casey Close of Creative Artists Agency Sports, disputed tax officials’ claim that the baseball star lived in New York during the time in question. “As a Yankee, Derek has great affection for the people of New York and its amazing fans, but since the mid-1990s, he has made his home in Tampa, Florida,” Close said in an e-mail to FOXNews.com. … The ruling shows that Jeter has actually claimed Florida residency since 1994, though he first came up with the Yankees late in the 1995 season. State officials aren’t disputing those filings, even though Jeter became an increasingly prominent presence around town during that time period, often in the company of young starlets and other New York celebrities. But the team captain’s headline-grabbing purchase in 2001 of a $13 million apartment at the ultra-exclusive Trump World Towers on Manhattan’s East Side may have been too much for tax collectors to ignore.

Norman Podhoretz’s Questionable Quote

Via Andrew Sullivan, this Economist blog post points out that a quote that Norman Podhoretz used to portray the leadership in Tehran as undeterrable came from none other than known fabricator Amir Taheri, who published the false story in the spring of 2006 about the Iranian government making Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians wear badges.

Iran expert and GMU professor Shaul Bakhash did some digging and concluded that his “research, I think, clearly establishes that the alleged quotation is a fabrication.”

The Iranian regime says plenty of deplorable things. So it says a lot that Mr. Podhoretz’s preferred policies are so far around the bend that the quote that best made the case for them is false. Then again, maybe this sort of thing is par for the course. Mr. Podhoretz has a variety of peculiar views.

Post Script to Reason Letter; Non-Coercive Alternatives to Prohibiting Abortion

I have four acquaintances raising grandchildren as if they were their own.

Some charities will pay a woman’s medical costs if covering such expenses will help her decide to carry the baby to term.

From a libertarian perspective, individuals or charities paying a woman beyond her medical expenses should also be a viable solution. Remuneration would be for the woman’s time and physical effort (labor), not a “purchase price” for the child. The arrangement could stipulate, as surrogate motherhood contracts usually do, that payment is contingent on her putting the child up for adoption.

The Good News on Cultural Decay — You Read It Here First

In Friday’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson hails “a groundbreaking essay by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin in Commentary magazine, which notes that most “social indicators” have improved:

“Over the past fifteen years, on balance, the American family has indeed grown weaker,” the authors argue, “but almost every other social indicator has improved.” Crime rates have plunged, teen drug use and pregnancy have declined, educational scores are improving, welfare caseloads have fallen 60 percent, and the number of abortions has dropped.

That is indeed important news, often lost in conservative jeremiads about the state of the culture. But I’m not sure it’s actually “groundbreaking,” considering that you could have read it more than a year ago in Cato Policy Report or indeed right here at Cato@Liberty. As Radley Balko wrote in the September/October issue of Cato Policy Report,

Nearly every social indicator is trending in a direction most of us would consider positive.

Here are just a few examples, culled from government agencies and advocacy groups: Teen pregnancy is at its lowest point since government researchers have been keeping statistics. Juvenile crime has been falling for 20 years (though there was, admittedly, a slight uptick last year). Crimes against children are down. The number of reported rapes has dropped dramatically over the last two decades, even as social stigma against rape victims has subsided. Despite a negligible increase last year, overall crime in the United States has also been in decline for 15 years.

There’s more: Divorce is down. Teens are waiting longer to have sex. High school dropout rates are down. Unemployment remains low. And over the past decade, the overall abortion rate has dropped significantly.

If Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” Internet porn, and violent video games are indeed inducing a nationwide slouch toward Gomorrah, as conservative icon Robert Bork once put it, it’s difficult to discern from those statistics.

Or indeed you could have learned it earlier from former Cato fellow Stephen Moore, who noted in the Los Angeles Times in 1999 that:

  • Teen sexual activity in the U.S. fell by 11% from 1991 to 1997.
  • Cocaine and marijuana use have fallen by almost half since 1980.
  • Welfare caseloads have dropped by nearly 40% since 1993.
  • The crime rate has fallen by one-third since the mid-1980s and burglaries are down by half in many inner cities.
  • The abortion rate is down nearly 20% since 1990.
  • The divorce rate dropped 19% from 1981 to 1996.

Conservatives know that there is nothing new under the sun and that most great ideas are old ideas. So as long as the information celebrated by Wehner, Levin, and Gerson is true, it’s of little moment that it isn’t actually groundbreaking.

WHTI Should Go

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) has had the good sense to introduce a bill to repeal the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

WHTI is a classic self-injurious overreaction to the threat of terrorism. The reductions in lawful trade and travel produced by WHTI and the direct costs of the program are greater than the damage to the country that would be averted by this readily defeated “security” measure.