Category Archives: Consumer protection

Fallacies

Just as the warm, moist air of late summer engenders the destructive fury of hurricanes, so too do these storms bear the perennial fruit of economic ignorance. Like clockwork the talking heads either eagerly forecast economic prosperity or decry the mendacity of the evil price “gouger.” Or both. The former is the classic example of the broken window fallacy, which like a case of herpes, will never be fully expunged from humanity’s collective consciousness. The error lies in focusing on seen benefits while ignoring unseen harm. We are implored to consider the benefits of jobs that will be created as we set about rebuilding lost homes, towns, and infrastructure. But this economic activity is not enhanced; rather merely diverted. All the money spent on rebuilding would have, absent the hurricanes, been spent on other goods and services. It is those markets and industries that will in turn see economic decline as fewer people spend in those areas. Even if argued that the rebuilding funds come exclusively from the savings coffers of insurance carriers therefore it wasn’t going to be used anytime soon, that still does not change the economic dynamics. A huge influx of “new” cash competing for a fixed amount of supplies does nothing but cause prices to rise for everyone else (e.g. building supplies will be in higher demand therefore all users of such supplies nationwide will experience higher prices). These higher prices mean, again, fewer dollars to spend on other goods. The only sense in which one could argue that net economic activity increases is if we assign no value to leisure. Certainly if one works 12 hours a day rather than 8 to both rebuild what was lost and maintain what one still has, then output is indeed greater. But is that the world we want to live in, where we sacrifice leisure in the name of economic output? Why we don’t need a destructive storm to achieve that, just pass a law enforcing a 16 hour work day and we could double GDP overnight! Destruction is not the path to an economic free lunch. Everything has a trade-off. The only path to prosperity is through savings, capital accumulation, and investment of that capital toward avenues that make production more efficient (i.e. cheaper).

The price gouger fulfills a valuable economic role, namely the rationing of constrained supplies in direct correlation to need. The feedback is immediate and perfect. There is no need for the imprecision of someone overseeing how much has Person A bought in such and such time period if rationing is imposed by pubic or private diktat. This issue is not so much of a fallacy since people do generally understand principle that if supply goes down prices will go up. Rather, it is more of an issue of emotion; each person’s barometer of what a “fair” increase amounts to varies. The fallacy is in believing that someone charging an “unfair” amount deserves to be thrown in a cage. As much as people would like to redefine words, “victim” does not describe someone who paid more than they would have preferred. So, no victim, no crime and thus any laws against price “gouging” are themselves victimizing when those with a true need find nothing but empty shelves. Trading willfully unobserved harms for spurious benefits leaves us all vulnerable.

Tyranny of the Do-Gooders

In 2012 Jeffrey Dallas Gay, Jr. (age 22) died of an overdose of prescription drugs. There is little more tragic than death resulting from something so easily preventable. As a parent the instinct is strong to stamp from the face of this earth that which our child became entangled in. But just as setting a national 5 mph speed limit would be a counterproductive response to death by automobile accident, so too are the knee-jerk reaction of legislators when faced with these sorts of drug related tragedies. Senate Bill 81 was recently introduced into the Georgia General Assembly with the stated goal of trying to eliminate opioid overdoses. As with all such intrusions by the state into the lives of individuals, it leaves in its wake the collateral damage of individual lives sacrificed on the altar of the greater good.

The bill preamble first cites a scary-sounding decontextualized statistics (that roughly 30,000 die annually from opioid overdose – context: 0.008% of the US population) it then moves headlong into the “solution.” Now, if 30,000 people a year were dying because some enemy was lobbing bombs at US cities, then yes, the government should do something about that. But we aren’t dealing with an external foe, rather an internal one, ourselves. Laws on gambling, prostitution, drugs, alcohol, compulsory health insurance, etc. all share in common the well-intentioned desire to protect us from ourselves. But such laws undermine the very idea of a free nation built on individual rights. Do you sell your soul to save your life?

SB 81 purports to solve, or at least mitigate, the opioid “epidemic” by limiting first time opioid prescriptions in the state of Georgia to no more than a 5 day supply. Additionally every pharmacist is required to log all such prescriptions into a statewide database (cough, Big Brother, cough) so usage can be tracked to prevent someone buying “too much” (whatever that may be). Just as someone today can hit a wall if they try to buy “too much” Sudafed so too will the unintended consequence be that some must suffer in agonizing pain because their prescription is “too much” under the eyes of “the law.” But hey, who cares about individual suffering if we think our policy might help someone. What’s next, tracking our grocery purchases to be sure we aren’t “abusing” our bodies by buying the food that makes us less healthy and leading to higher health care costs? The greater good of “public health” would surely allow for such reasoning. Yes, laugh now, but it’s coming one day.

Of course these legislators want their cake and eat it too. The paragraph stipulating no more than a 5-day supply is quickly followed by a paragraph supporting the right of a physician to prescribe whatever they deem medically necessary. So once again politicians get to bask in the limelight of “doing something” while not actually doing anything other than adding yet another layer of bureaucracy for doctors who are already over-burdened with a mountain of regulatory paperwork they have to comply with from the local, state, and federal level.

The sad fact that no one wants to face is there no way to solve the opioid overdose problem other than getting people to follow the prescription on the bottle. And that’s not going to happen because people are people and some people just can’t follow directions. People “abuse” antibiotics as well by doing the reverse, not taking enough. This promotes antibiotic resistance. Indeed, nearly as many people (23,000) die each year due to antibiotic resistance. Why no bills designed to solve that “crisis”? Perhaps because no one is getting high off antibiotics? The desire to stamp out any possibility of artificially induced pleasure seems to be the driving force behind drug policy in this country. Anyone who needs a medication should not be made to suffer the hardship of additional hurdles just to get what they need because a handful of people can’t act responsibly. If you want to make a meaningful inroad toward ameliorating this problem, lobby the FDA to remove rules on side effect disclosures that require events with a 0.00001% chance of happening being listed. This leads to information overload and people just tune out everything. If the warning listed only actual hazards – like death from overdose – people would pay attention. Thus unintended consequence of government meddling leads to “solutions” like SB 81 which will invariably lead to more unintended consequences which can only be solved by yet more rules and legislation. The state cannot remake man through the pen. It must stop trying to do so.

In Defense of the Gouger

There was a recent disruption in the supply of gasoline to Georgia due to a ruptured pipeline. The resulting shortage was the predictable result not of the constrained supply but rather busybody price controls imposed by the Governor. The universal support by the public for the Governor’s actions betrays a breathtaking ignorance of basic economics. The law of supply and demand cares not one whit for your desire to maintain a constant supply of a good while forcing its price down.

Not only should “gouging” be “legal,” but in fact welcomed. Gouging ensures a supply of a good even when supplies are constrained. For example, gouging of event tickets ensures that you can get a ticket at a moment’s notice. Although the price is high would you prefer high price and ticket vs. no ticket? Rising prices due to increased demand is the market-natural rationing system. If prices stay low, then no one cuts back and the good is quickly consumed. High prices incentivize conservation so a given supply last longer and is available to those that desperately have a need of it. Hypocritically the state blocks private business from such practice but happily engages in it on a regular basis in the PeachPass toll lanes of I-85. I have personally seen prices go from 7¢ to over $11 for the same stretch. Of course this is a good thing, and the state knows it, so it is rather disingenuous for them to block it in other arenas.

The most common objection is what of the station that raises their prices during the day on the mere rumor of a disruption? They’ve already paid for the gas in the tanks in the ground – how can they possibly justify reaping these windfall gains? Easy. The higher price (and profit) ensures the station itself can buy more from their supplier at the soon to be higher prices. If the gas in the ground cost 25 and is sold for 30, then the station takes from those sales 25 and buys the same amount again. But if they are not allowed to raise prices and it soon will cost 100 to refill the station’s tanks, then they can only buy 1/3 of what is needed and so will run out that much faster each time. If they can charge 120, they can take 100 and fully replenish the tanks ensuring a steady supply.

A tertiary benefit of high prices is as economic alarm. It signals too society that resources are more urgently needed where prices are high. People then swoop in to access that higher profit potential and so the supply immediately begins to swell and prices fall. So even when such “gouging” occurs it will not last long as the market corrects itself naturally. No need for men with guns running around threatening people.

The usual objection here is that people can’t afford the higher prices. Please. No one is going to be filing bankruptcy because they spent extra on gas for a week or so. The above average amounts are no more than typical monthly discretionary spending (movies, eating out, etc.) The prospect of possibly foregoing a few luxuries doesn’t seem like the sort of essential human right that rises to a compelling state interest. Indeed, state intervention only makes matters worse – when it comes to economics, there’s no free lunch.

Faith Healing

The current outrage-du-jour over the skyrocketing price of EpiPens is a perfect example of the effectiveness of a societal indoctrination that leaves us blind to the parasitic ills wrought by the state. The credulous media reports with much indignation and finger wagging over yet another example of an evil profiteering corporation charging outrageous sums for a life-sustaining drug. Clearly this fits with the media’s preconceived narrative that capitalism is bad and we need government to right such wrongs. Case closed. No need to scratch the surface and investigate the cause and effect of this phenomenon. Even those media outlets that do ask the right question and get the right answer are still somehow blind to the necessary solution. They recognize that prices are high because of a lack of competition (a result of patents), third party payment distortions, and cronyist-driven increased demand (fueled by FDA mandates). Even the likes of the Journal of the American Medical Association have admitted as much in a recent article.

“The most important factor that allows manufacturers to set high drug prices is market exclusivity, protected by monopoly rights awarded upon Food and Drug Administration approval and by patents. “

But the universal answer to solve these woes? More of the same: state intervention. If we can’t even imagine a world without state-driven influences in the market then there is only one option that remains – more state intervention. The state is entirely responsible for the current quagmire that is our health care system, but hey, maybe more regulations can fix the problem the first, second, and third set of regulations caused. As they say, if all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.

There is no quick fix. The foundation is built upon the sand of wishes and emotion rather than the stone of the unwavering principle of liberty. To solve the problems in the health care market we must dismantle the framework of rules, laws, and regulations that can do nothing but produce this distorted market.

Step 1: Eliminate the patent system entirely. Without patents competitors can instantly respond to prices that get out of control. Novel inventions have a natural period of protection because of secrecy and first-to-market advantages. The more obvious the invention, the more easily it could be copied. Praising the patent system for rewarding inventors with monopoly pricing while simultaneously pining for the low price of generics is the height of cognitive dissonance.

Step 2: End the FDA’s monopoly privilege of being the ONLY agency allowed to review the safety and efficacy of drugs. If the FDA is going to take years to approve a drug or device (resulting in countless needless deaths and higher costs) then perhaps it is time to let competitors help them out.

Step 3: The FDA and its competitors should be financially responsible for their mistakes just like any other company. Presently the FDA bears zero responsibility if they approve a flawed drug. If there existed in any other sector of the economy such a lack of competition and accountability we would be outraged. Yet somehow this state of affairs exists with the FDA and no one bats an eye. Most curious.

It’s almost like society has been brainwashed into the credulous narrative that those in government are not mere mortals but rather angels who are immune to normal human foibles. This blind faith in the supremacy and righteousness of the state has closed our eyes to the truth no less than medieval faith in the Church blinded men to the truth of heliocentrism. Time to question that faith. Our very lives depend on it.

Drive Free

Last week I was able to experience a privilege not found anywhere in this bastion of freedom otherwise known as the United States. To find it I had to travel all the way to the arguably much less free and more socialist Germany. Yes, I am speaking of the Autobahn, that driving Nirvana that every red-blooded American and teenage boy with a newly minted driving license dreams of. Now, not to burst anyone’s bubble but it is not the 10-lane super highway we all manage to conjure up as we imagine speeding along at 200 mph. In fact, it in many sections it has more in common with two lane I-20 than any roadway utopia. But the crucial (and fun!) difference is there are stretches of highway where there is no speed limit.

Like “Red” from “Shawshank Redemption” who only recognized his own “institutionalization” after he had been released I was a bit reticent at first. “Someone must be watching,” and “I’m going to get in trouble,” flashed through my mind. But then slowly I experimented. First cruising at 85 mph (the super-speeder speed here in Georgia that would get you a $700 ticket), then 95, then 100! Hard to believe, safely moving at 100 mph! That became old pretty quick and I eventually worked up the courage to hit 200 km/h (125 mph). Still a bit of a chicken I slowed back down to a mere 110 mph all while people still passed me.

And then they all suddenly slowed down. Was it an accident? Was it a cop? No. It was simply a speed limit sign (yes, the autobahn does have speed limits). And everyone quickly and uniformly obeyed it. Why? Not because they might get a ticket (indeed I never saw a single police car the entire time driving on the Autobahn – tickets are only given for speeding if you actually are involved in an accident) but because they all respected the message of the sign. In Germany the speed limit sign is not there as a matter of revenue collection, it is there as a matter of genuine safety. Their speed limit signs are the equivalent to our yellow safety signs that warn a driver that conditions might be slippery when wet, that a bridge may ice over in the winter or that one really should slow down to 45 mph on that tight radius exit. You don’t get tickets here for ignoring those signs unless you actually cause an accident, so people obey them. Speed limit signs in the US are often flouted because we all know they are for the most part set artificially too low in order to enhance revenue collection. If the rules are structured to benefit a third party more than you, they will be ignored. If the rules are structured to benefit only you, they will be respected. This respect can clearly be seen on German roads. Actually slowing down when appropriate makes the roads far safer. One is about twice as likely to die on US highways than on the Autobahn in terms of deaths per distance driven (1.7 vs. 3.4 deaths per 1 billion kilometers). And yet we are told that speed kills. While it is true that all things equal higher speed is more deadly, all things are not equal. There exist different cars, different tires, different road conditions and last but not least, different levels of driving skill.

So when Bernie tells us we should emulate the European model, I agree! Let’s copy those Germans and bring freedom back to our roads here in the States. If it could save upwards of 8,000 lives per year, why not try?

Honey I Shrunk the Seat!

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently introduced an amendment to an FAA reauthorization bill that would have required the FAA to set minimum values for how narrow and close commercial airline seats may be. Fortunately, this amendment was rejected last week.  While those of us who have flown in recent years (and experienced firsthand the “Honey I Shrunk the Airplane Seat” phenomena) can all certainly sympathize with the goals of such legislation, it would nevertheless be a gross violation of the rights of the airlines to dictate how they may or may not utilize equipment THAT THEY OWN. Of course there already exists an ever-expanding regulatory framework that strangles other businesses similarly. So how is this any different? It’s not. And that’s what is so scary – it was rejected not on principal but rather because it was visible. Visible government intrusions send the wrong vibe to a supposedly freedom loving populace. But invisible intrusions go on every day and are of course perfectly fine. If the death penalty were required to take place in public it would be ended immediately; but when done behind closed doors the public in general couldn’t care less.

Such reflexive urges to regulate by those “in charge” of our lives are a predictable outcome of their glaring ignorance of basic economics. It is the usual story: government engages in Practice A which stealthily causes Harm B and so our great benefactors must now step in to save us from the very harm they caused in the first place. For example, the federal government, through its puppet the Federal Reserve, is constantly inflating the US dollar. This steadily erodes the value of said dollar until after many years the drips of annual inflation have carved a canyon of lost value. There are two ways to respond to this declining value: raise prices, or, maintain prices while reducing quantity/quality. For example, boxes of cereal now contain 15% less than they did only a few years ago but are marketed at the same price point. It is a surreptitious form of inflation that consumers don’t immediately recognize but is just as injurious to their buying power as is rising prices.

Competition has become so fierce that a game of chicken has ensued where no one wants to be the first to raise nominal prices. This has occurred with airlines as well. Although ticket prices may have risen or fluctuated with fuel prices, such prices are, all things equal, less than they otherwise would have been had seat sizes not shrunk. Getting 10-15% more seats on a plane means lower average cost for each flyer. It is simply a natural response to the incentives created by government interference in the economy (Fed money printing). Eventually seat sizes will decline to a level where ridership will drop off. At that point the industry will know they can go no lower. But that is how the market works; the feedback of profit and loss tells businesses if they are doing good or doing poorly. Top down regulations subvert that process and prevent the voice of the consumer from being heard.

Actually, progressives like Schumer should appreciate the spectrum of market prices engendered by this seating freedom. It incentivizes those who value comfort over money to pay ever-increasing prices for the larger seats. These higher prices can be used to subsidize other ticket classes thereby expanding fare access through lower prices or halting the size decline. By allowing consumers to vote with their dollars the market delivers what consumers, in aggregate, are willing to accept. While any single consumer may disagree with where that point is, it should no more be the right of a minority of consumers to dictate to all what they should be able to buy any more than a minority of busybody senators should be able to dictate to a nation how they may live their lives.

Fighting against 1984

The State is getting nervous. Technology has a way of disrupting institutional power. The Guttenberg printing press liberated the flow of knowledge from the former stranglehold of the Church and its scribes. Today the digital realm of the Internet is effecting a similar change with self-publishing upon the old-world monopoly of the print-publishing house. Travel agents are virtually a thing of the past. Bitcoin is beginning to threaten the monopoly the banks and the government have over the flow of money. Encryption of our digital lives (personal electronic devices) is now threatening the power and relevance of the State. Encryption means we can manage our own security; we don’t need some nebulous State apparatus to keep us safe and secure. Nearly everything that is important to us (photos, messages, financials, medical info, etc.) is locked away securely in our digital treasure chest.

But the State will have none of that. They demand the key to that treasure chest. Both New York and California legislatures have introduced bills banning the sale of smartphones that do not offer some sort of encryption “back door”. How dare these companies make a product that is impervious to the prying eyes of the State! This is a direct threat to their unlimited power to intrude into our lives.

Not to be outdone, the Federal government is getting in on the back-door game. A federal judge recently ordered Apple to assist the FBI in unlocking the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Apple is openly defying this order. The primary problem is that were Apple to comply with the order there is nothing to prevent the technique used from falling into the hands of truly “bad guys” who could then threaten the privacy and security of every iPhone user. It’s like the government asking scientists to build the atomic bomb “just this once, to stop the bad guys”. Once knowledge is out there it cannot be contained.

But even worse, the government’s use of an act from 1789 (the All Writ Act) to compel Apple to help them sets a dangerous precedent. It is not the case that Apple has in its possession information that it is being asked to hand over (which it has always done in the past when presented with a warrant). Instead Apple is being forced to help the FBI, drafted as it were, unlock this device. Insert picture of government agent holding loaded gun to Tim Cook’s head and saying “help us, please” and you’ll get the picture.

Yes, but you say the FBI is trying to stop future terror events, so anything to prevent a loss of life is worth it. Ok, well that cuts both ways. If Apple helps the FBI on what grounds could it refuse to help the government of China, Russia or perhaps even a threatening mob boss? After all, they know that since Apple helped the FBI then it is indeed possible to unlock these things. Is the standard of behavior to be: Apple helps any “legitimate” state actor, except when they are bad, because of course everyone knows who the goods guys and bad guys are.

To be clear, this is not Apple’s property. They are a third party being asked to do the government’s bidding. If they complied it would set the awful precedent that the companies we do business with can be secretly dragooned into the employ of the State in order to spy on and monitor us without our knowledge. Don’t think that can happen? Well, the government already has a terrible track record of abusing its surveillance power. It took Edward Snowden blowing the whistle to show us how the NSA was spying on everyone in contravention of the Patriot Act. In fact Samsung just recently warned its customers that its voice recognition could be used by third party vendors to listen to conversations so they advised caution about what you say in front of it. Now imagine Samsung receives a request from the FBI to “help” them monitor everyone so they can ensure “our safety”. Nah… I’m sure that would never happen. Thank you Apple for fighting for us. Your actions today may well ensure that our future “won’t be like 1984.”

Waterworld

By now many of you are likely aware of the contaminated water fiasco in Flint, Michigan that has apparently resulted in 77 cases of Legionnaire’s disease (and 10 deaths). It is indeed a tragedy of shattered trust. It is also darkly humorous to witness the acolytes of Statism (i.e. the faith that The State can protect us from all harms and correct all wrongs) are apoplectically flummoxed as to how such a thing could happen: “But, but, the state is supposed to protect us from the depredations of cost cutting profiteers!” The state is supposedly there to protect the weakest among us – so how ironic that those most harmed by this incident is the predominantly poor population of Flint. How could such a thing have happened? The problem is structural. Private ownership weeds out failure; public ownership protects it.

Now one might argue that since there are thousands of municipal water systems across the country that operate without any problems this is simply a fluke, an outlier and is not indicative of any sort of problem with government run water systems. That is a dangerous premise. It’s like arguing that one doesn’t need a seat belt because they’ve never been in an accident. The problem is not that random groups of people do not know how to provide clean water. The problem is that humans are imperfect and eventually a perfect storm of errors will accumulate until a calamity results. This can happen in both public and private entities. It is the response to the calamitous event that distinguishes public from private entities.

First, private entities already have a natural incentive to prevent such events from occurring because the owners and the insurers are financially on the hook for problems. Problems are costly to fix and often results in expensive lawsuits, so prevention is the best medicine. Public entities have no such negative feedback. No one is financially liable. Everybody plays a part in creating the mess, but no one is actually responsible. Worst case someone might lose their job or the town is fined by the EPA (that is, ironically the taxpayers – the customers so harmed – end up being financially on the hook!) Oh well. Losing your job is not nearly the disincentive to preventing harm as would be losing hundreds of thousands if not millions of your own dollars.

Secondly, if something does still occur despite best efforts to prevent it, private entities have a natural incentive to fix it quickly as possible in order to contain the potential financial damage. It is the very greed that so many on the left decry that actually aligns the incentives of the owners with those of the customer. Keeping your customers happy, safe, and healthy is beneficial to the bottom line – otherwise you get sued or lose customers. But as we have seen in the Flint case, the response of the ruling class is more akin to a Three Stooges skit, with each part of that system poking the other one in the blame game – all too busy fighting with each other in order to avoid responsibility than focused on actually fixing the problem.

Lastly, no matter what happens, the public system remains in place. The public can’t “fire” them, they can’t choose another provider. They have no choice but to continue buying a product from a provider that has proven to be unreliable. No is allowed to come in and compete with them (that would be illegal). In many cases you can’t even legally dig your own well – you are obligated to buy from the local utility. With a private system one has options. You can put in your own well. A competitor could come in and “steal” customers – or perhaps the old company is sued into bankruptcy and completely new ownership takes over.

In closing I would ask you to imagine the following: Imagine that the standard in this country was that all water was provided by private entities. Now imagine that the same thing that happened in Flint happened but with a private provider. Would there not be an instant outcry and demand that the government take these systems over, or that they must be regulated for safety? Now realize that the reality today is the exact opposite. And what do we hear? Cries to “privatize” our water systems in order to allow market forces to naturally regulate the delivery safe water? No, instead we get self-righteous politicians (Clinton et.al.) trying to frame this event as some sort of partisan one-ups-man ship that endeavors to prove that the only reason this happened is evil Republicans hate “poor black people”. Well I guess they must hate themselves since it was their own city council (composed of Democrats) who signed off on the plan that ultimately led to the problem.

The closing irony here is that despite long being accused of selfishness and greed, it is the private market that has come (quickly) to the rescue in Flint. Walmart, Coca-Cola, and others have provided (for free) bottled water to the residents.  Why are they doing this? Perhaps they genuinely want to help. Or perhaps they see it as a grand PR opportunity to earn some loyal customers. Even if the latter it doesn’t matter – if “greed” compels people to help their fellow man, then I say bring on the greed!

VW: Cookie Thief

So, Volkswagen has been evading the EPA’s rules and regulations regarding emissions from diesel engine? Well good for them. Yes I realize that is not a very PC thing to say amongst all the cacophonous lamentations of those holding Proper Opinion on the “damage” to the environment that this little ploy has wrought. Regrettably VW swiftly engaged self-flagellation mode, seeking forgiveness from those that run the many worldwide plantations we today refer to as states. In other words, they quickly went to mommy and daddy and begged to not be spanked too hard if they would just quickly clean up their mess. If only they had stood up to the EPA and told them “Yes, we skirted your stupid rules, we do not recognize your authority, we only recognize the authority of our customers who will buy our products if they meet their standards and won’t if they don’t”. Of course that is not what happened. Instead VW bent over and obsequiously bleated, “Thank you sir, may I have another.” VW’s crime is about as morally significant as a slave stealing cookies from the master’s kitchen. It is but a technical violation of an arbitrary rule with no real victim.

I can hear the objections now, “But, but, the environment! They were damaging the environment!” Really? How do you know that? Because the EPA said so? Because this single agency run by a handful of bureaucrats established a committee whose job it was to climb Mt. Sinai and return with stone tablets upon which was inscribed the exact amount of safe emissions? Please. I do not know if the level of emissions emitted by VW diesels, or any diesel or gasoline engine is “safe”, and neither do you or anyone else. Maybe the level set by EPA now is itself “too high” but everyone seems ok with it. The level of emissions VW’s cars were actually producing complied with the EPA standards in existence as recently as 2004. So in 2004 the level was perfectly fine and not “harmful” at all, but two years later the target changed and suddenly VW is the anti-Christ for continuing to meet the old target? The new “clean diesel” standards were not a trivial change. VW and other manufacturers left the US diesel market and worked on the problem for 4 years! In the end VW balanced the demands of cost, power, and emissions and felt their customers would be better served by lower cost and higher power at the expense of higher emissions as opposed to higher cost and lower power in order to achieve lower emissions. Luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes could produce diesel engines conforming to the new rules more easily because their customers are less sensitive to cost considerations. When regulations force product costs upward it is the luxury brands that benefit at the expense of the value brands. If all diesels cost $50k because of the new rules, then why buy a VW when you can have a BMW?

Now some might object that when it comes to the environment cost should not be a consideration. However that assertion flies in the face of economic reality; everything has a cost and everything has tradeoffs relative to those costs. Those espousing the “ignore costs” mantra engage in a performative contradiction. Their actions in their own lives contradict their philosophy. If the environment should reign supreme to all other considerations they should return to the wilderness as hunter-gatherers. And yet they do not.

Cost is always a consideration, even in our daily lives. For example, we all obviously value our personal safety, but to what degree? Even with our safety we are willing to make cost tradeoffs. If we truly valued it above all other things we would either drive tanks or never exceed 5 mph. The sheer cost of driving a tank or the time-opportunity cost of traveling so slowly is far beyond what any of us deem reasonable. Nobody does this; we collectively have shifted that balance between time, safety, and money to the one we see today. Technology will likely change that balance in the future, but for now it is the best compromise available given current costs and benefits. Absent the EPA we would be afforded the opportunity to balance environmental concerns relative to cost in a market where different manufacturers would offer a variety of products that they hope will suit the demands of consumers. It would be the most successful model (the one people buy the most of) that would be emulated. This purely market based approach is thus the most democratic means of the people deciding where that tradeoff should be. To believe that the EPA knows best and we should all bow to their will is no different than believing the King or Queen is much wiser than us all and we should do whatever they say. Although we lack royalty in this country today, that is in name only. We have unwittingly elected the same sort of top down one size fits all approach to governance (tyranny) that so many pay lip service to opposing while blithely waving flags and swearing oaths in support of it (the state). E Pluribus Pluribus.

I Don’t Hope

I have a confession to make. I play the lottery. Yes, I understand math implies I have a better chance of being struck by lightning than of winning the jackpot, but it’s only a couple of bucks a week and ultimately somebody has to win, so who knows. I reveal this dark secret in order to set the stage for a demonstration of the ineptitude of government agency running a business: The Georgia Lottery Commission. Although to be fair it would appear the Georgia Legislature had an equal hand in the stupidity I am about to reveal.

A few years ago the GLC actually did something beneficial for their customers, they added the ability to buy lottery tickets on line. You can buy nearly everything else on line, why not lottery tickets? The process itself was a bit convoluted, you couldn’t just pay with a credit card or Paypal, you had to open a pseudo-Discover debit card called the “iHope Card” that you had to first fund from a bank account before you could play. However the card acted like a debit card so you could in theory get at your money whenever you needed it. More on that later.

In the beginning the process worked well. Every 3 months I’d buy 26 draws of the same number and then not think about it for another 3 months. Click and forget, very easy. Occasionally if jackpots got huge I might pick up a few more tickets from the comfort of home. Unfortunately that has all ended. In the past few months either a new law was passed or the GLC simply got around to enforcing an existing law. The upshot is that one must now be physically located in the state of Georgia to buy a Georgia lottery ticket. This is where we enter the Twilight Zone. Only government would craft its business model around the ideal of striving toward FEWER sales and LESS revenue by artificially restricting its customer base. I thought the revenue raised by the lottery was for funding in-state education. If people in other states want to send money to Georgia voluntarily to help educate children here, exactly what is the problem with that?

In any event, in order to ensure this asinine edict is upheld the GLC implemented a new software check that attempts to determine one’s computer location based on a combination of IP address and local Wi-Fi networks. Sounds simple enough to the uninitiated, but for those who work in IT like myself it is evident that such an approach will be fraught with false negatives. I know because I was caught up in their net and became intimately familiar with the methods they are using. One must have two (or possibly many more, they really don’t know) Wi-Fi networks nearby (this cuts out anyone not living in a dense urban environment). Likewise, one can’t be running the Mac OS because the GLC software mistakes a core function of OS X (Remote Management) as something that might interfere in location determination (it can’t). The GLC even laughably suggests one buy a Wi-Fi extender to find more networks – that’s like suggesting one buy stronger binoculars to see better in the dark. GLC’s new motto: It is better that a thousand Georgians be inconvenienced than for one Alabaman near the border to buy a lotto ticket. Brilliant.

The second act in this drama gets even more interesting (all lawyers pay close attention to this one). Seeing as how I could not use my account to buy tickets on line anymore, I opted to transfer funds back to my bank account and close the iHope account. Alas, I soon discovered you are only allowed to transfer WINNINGS out of an iHope account to a bank account (this fact confirmed by calling support when I was unable to transfer all funds). Any money that you originally transferred to it from a bank account cannot subsequently be transferred back. So what’s the problem? Well, first, that is an idiotic artificial limitation, but secondly, that information is not disclosed anywhere. I scoured the account agreement (where it should have been) and do not see any mention of this fact. Astoundingly enough their website FAQ clearly contradicts their policy by stating that

 

“CAN I TRANSFER MY WINNINGS FROM MY IHOPECARD ACCOUNT TO MY BANK ACCOUNT? Yes. Transfer your winnings, or any funds originating from your bank account, to your registered bank account.”

 

Repeated attempts to inform their tech support their FAQ was wrong resulted only them parroting the FAQ back to me. I would characterize this blatant omission and ongoing contradiction of a material fact regarding how the iHope account functions as fraud. Any interested class action attorneys – I will leave you to it.