Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Coming To A Nuclear Battlefield Near You

     This will be an insane piece. No, it’s not insane in and of itself. Neither is it about insane persons; the persons to which it refers are all doing the sensible thing: acting according to the incentives they face. All the same, many a Gentle Reader who gets to the end of it will feel an urgent need to see his brain-care specialist. In that spirit, let’s lead off with some appropriate music:

     If you’re thinking that would surely make more sense if printed out, I’m afraid I must contradict you:

Outside the gates of Cerdes sits the two-pronged unicorn
Who plays at relaxation time a rhinestone flugelhorn
Whilst mermaids lace carnations into wreaths for ailing whales
And Neptune dances hornpipes while Salome sheds her veils

Phallus Phil tries peddling his pewter painted pot
But Sousa Sam can only hear the screams of Peep the sot
Who only sips his creme de menthe from terra cotta cups
And exhales menthol scented breath whilst spewing verbiage up

Down technical blind alleys live the wraiths of former dreams
And Greeps who often crossed them are no longer what they seem
And even Christian Scientists can but display marble plaques
Which only retell legends whilst my eyes reach out for facts
Yeah, my eyes reach out for facts

[Keith Reid]

     Keith Reid, the lyricist for legendary proto-prog band Procol Harum, had a gift – or perhaps a curse – for such hallucinogenic lyrics. The entire first Procol Harum album, one of the standouts of its genre and time, is like this. The songs tease you from just beyond the edge of comprehensibility, but your mental fingers can’t get a firm grip on them...nor did Reid and singer / composer / pianist Gary Brooker intend that you should.

     No doubt every Gentle Reader has at one time or another heard the old phrase “You’re not crazy; it’s the rest of the world.” That phrase was once meant sarcastically, as a reproof to one who, viewing the behavior of others, finds it bizarre and rejects all sensible explanations for it. But of course, in our multivariate world, there are other possibilities:

You're Sane
Rest Of The World is Sane
You're Sane
Rest of the World is Crazy
You're Crazy
Rest Of The World is Sane
You're Crazy
Rest of the World is Crazy

     Gotta love those Cartesian products, eh what?

     Of course, people's interpretations of "sane" and "crazy" do diverge a bit. Mine are quite simple: if your responses to incentives and stimuli get you what you want more often than not, you're relatively sane; if not, you're relatively crazy. This should not be taken to exclude the possibility that you're sane or crazy on some limited number of subjects. For example, my Vietnamese-American sweetie Duyen is out of her BLEEP!ing mind about shoes, while her husband Matt has this obsession about toothpaste...but I digress.

     Incentives and stimuli don't quite govern all. They operate on us amid a matrix of values, some of which we internalize, others of which might be regarded as "background" incentives. Values are our principal determinants of what we want, and so are critical to the sane / crazy evaluations we make of others, and others make of us.

     Upon which note, let's pass to the consideration of a few other folks.

     People stockpile an item out of worries that it will soon become difficult or impossible to get. But why cheese?

     It turns out, America has been stockpiling cheese and butter and has amassed more golden treats than any time in past thirty years. Why? Europeans, trade, and because cheese is delicious.

     Whitney McFerron of Bloomberg News has the breakdown:

     Exports from the European Union have climbed so far this year and last — even after the bloc’s once-largest customer, Russia, banned trade in retaliation for sanctions over its incursion in Ukraine. A glut of milk, plunging prices and a weakening euro mean the EU has been able to grab customers in Asia and the Middle East, while U.S. sales have fallen.

     European dairy products are so cheap right now that the U.S. itself has become the new No. 1 customer for some products — imports of EU butter doubled last year and rose 17 percent for cheese, according to the European Commission. All that excess supply is building up in U.S. refrigerators, especially as American dairy production heads to a record this year.

     USDA statistics show cheese inventories at the end of March were the highest for the date since 1984, the year Prince’s “Purple Rain” was released. More than half of the supply is American cheese, while Swiss accounts for about 2 percent, and the rest the government classifies as “other.”

     So it turns out that Americans aren't really "stockpiling" cheese. We're not worried about a "cheese crisis;" we're just buying and enjoying more of it than before. Accordingly, retailers are keeping larger inventories of it. That's a fairly predictable consequence when a pleasure decreases in price.

     But European cheeses are "cheap" only relative to American-made cheeses. The EU's trade regulations have brought this about: that "glut of milk" exists because those regulations over-encouraged the production thereof, mostly in France. The EU's supranational government altered the market incentives that had previously prevailed. Americans who love cheese are merely capitalizing on the EU's bad judgment. Why, though, would persons whose livelihood depends upon profits from the sale of cheese persist in this course when it must surely be bringing them near to bankruptcy? And why would they tolerate the EU's insertion of its nose into their business in the first place?

     Think that over while I finish my morning chunk of Cheddar.

     Next up: a trend in thievery:

     If you want to buy soap at the Walgreens on Market Street in San Francisco, you’ll need to find a store employee to unlock the display case for you.

     Fifty dollar earbuds and $100 bottles of Claritin simply sit on the shelves where customers can pick them up and go. But baby formula, shampoo, and soap are all protected by locked display cases.

     It’s well known that pharmacies need to protect their stores of cold medicine, which methamphetamine cooks can use to make illicit drugs. But why soap? Is a $6 bottle of Dove body wash really worth the squeeze?

     This excellent article goes into considerable detail about why thieves steal what they steal...but for me, the punch in the gut came with this observation about "fences:"

     Residential fence: Thieves will sell stolen goods to a fence who buys and sells stolen goods out of his or her residence

     Excuse me? There are fences who sell stolen goods out of their homes? Doesn't that lead directly to arrest and incarceration? The police aren't fools. They notice patterns in the movement of stolen goods, and they can be relied upon to act on them...but sometimes it's in pursuit of "a cut."

     Given that the police are quite often willing to look the other way if they can have "a piece of the action," the incentives here are fairly straightforward. Yet this mode of fencing, and the related traffic in common, inexpensive household goods, is a relatively new phenomenon. What has brought it into being?

     Hold that thought alongside the previous one.

     This last case will leave you gasping and (hopefully) infuriated. I first mentioned it about a week ago:

     Eh Wah had been on the road for 12 hours when he saw the flashing lights in his rearview mirror.

     The 40-year-old Texas man, a refugee from Myanmar who became a US citizen more than a decade ago, was heading home to Dallas to check on his family.

     He was on a break from touring the country for months as a volunteer manager for the Klo & Kweh Music Team, a Christian rock ensemble from Myanmar. The group was touring the US to raise funds for a Christian college in Myanmar and an orphanage in Thailand.

     Eh Wah managed the band's finances, holding on to the cash proceeds it raised from ticket and merchandise sales at concerts. By the time he was stopped in Oklahoma, the band had held concerts in 19 cities across the United States, raising money via tickets that sold for US$10 to US$20 each.

     The sheriff's deputies in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, pulled Eh Wah over for a broken tail light about 6.30pm on Feb 27. The deputies started asking questions – a lot of them. And at some point, they brought out a drug-sniffing dog.

     That's when they found the cash, according to the deputy's affidavit.

     Eh Wah was carrying $53,000 in proceeds from his fundraising tour. You can probably guess what happened next:

     The officers ended up taking all of the money – all US$53,249 of it. "Possession of drug proceeds," the property receipt reads.

     But they let Eh Wah go. They didn't charge him with a crime that night, instead sending him back on the road about 12.30am, with the broken tail light.

     Bad enough, right? In 2015, "civil asset forfeitures" of this sort accounted for more property taken from its rightful owners than all the burglaries reported that year. But the story's not over. Here's the climax:

     At The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham told the story of how a routine traffic stop turned into the police seizing tens of thousands of dollars from the manager of a Christian band.

     What makes this story unique is not the facts of the case, unfortunately, but that it went viral....

     "Muskogee has no excuse for this gross miscarriage of justice," said [Institute for Justice attorney Dan] Alban. "Based on next to no evidence, what started as an ordinary traffic stop turned into a nightmare....This is a clear-cut case of abuse of power."

     What is unique about Eh Wah's case, which is worth a full read, is how widely his story was shared. Hours after thousands of people shared the article, the Muskogee County District Attorney dropped the charges against Eh Wah.

     Does any Gentle Reader believe that the Muskogee County police would ever have returned the $53,000 had public scrutiny and the consequent outcry not revealed them for the thieves they are? Before you answer, reflect on the article I cited just above this one. Think hard.

     In all three cases above, government interventions into the business of private parties gave rise to incentives that bent the behavior of ordinary people -- yes, for the purposes of this article let's deem the Muskogee County police "ordinary" -- away from previous patterns:

  • Americans previously ate less cheese, less frequently than they do today.
  • Thieves once concentrated almost exclusively on high-value items.
  • Time was, the police wouldn't think they could get away with robbing an Eh Wah.

     It's a demonstration of the power of incentives...but it demonstrates something else as well:

  • Time was, Frenchmen were too proud to enlist a government in securing them a protected market for their cheese;
  • Time was, Americans were too proud to knowingly purchase stolen goods, let alone stolen laundry soap.
  • Time was, American police regarded themselves as servants of justice, not as legally empowered thieves.

     The values that previously inhibited behavior of the sort chronicled above have been attenuated into insignificance. The mechanisms that have weakened those values are several; any Gentle Reader of Liberty's Torch will be familiar with them. The loss thereof is rapidly reducing the entire First World to a mass of whining, conniving brats, all clamoring gimme...and taking whatever they can pry loose from its proper owners.

     What else would make an outrage of this sort possible?

     When I wrote this piece, even I didn't think we were this close to the edge of the abyss. Suffice it to say that I see things differently now...and not more cheerfully.

     Know whom you can trust.
     Keep a close watch on your loved ones.
     And for the love of God, keep your powder dry.

     That's all for now.

1 comment:

Arthur said...

"...pulled Eh Wah over for a broken tail light"

Why did Mr. Wah have $53K in cash with a broken tail light?

Anyone who has been paying attention for the last couple of decades or so knows that once you are pulled over the state *OWNS* you.

It shouldn't be this way of course, but reality intrudes. If you are doing anything that the state can benefit from you must take precautions.