Mexico: One Failed US War Doesn’t Justify Another

On November 4, ten dual US-Mexican citizens  — members of an offshoot sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — died in a highway ambush, apparently the latest casualties of rampant and violent drug cartel activity in northern Mexico.

US president Donald Trump promptly called upon “Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.  We merely await a call from your great new president!”

Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador just as promptly rejected Trump’s proposal.  That’s not surprising. He ran for president on a platform that includes ending, not escalating, Mexico’s status as a battlefield in the decades-long US “war on drugs,” a war that created, and continues to empower, the cartels.

AMLO’s right.  Inviting direct US military intervention into Mexico’s internal affairs is not the solution.

The solution is for the US to re-situate American demand for recreational drugs from violent and corrupt “black markets” to peaceful legal markets.

After several decades of US regulatory, law enforcement, and military war on drugs, the “winners” of the war remain the cartels (who rake in billions serving customers forbidden to buy what they want legally) and US government agents (who dispose of huge budgets and earn comfortable salaries while boasting little impact on drug use at either the demand or supply ends).

Many (probably most) Americans like to get high.

Everything else being equal, they’d probably prefer to buy their marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and so forth from their local pharmacies, at reasonable prices and in known quantity, purity, and potency.

But if they can’t do that, they’re not going to stop getting high just because the US government tells them they must not. They’ll buy their drugs wherever they can find those drugs, even at the risk of being killed by the product or by the product’s sellers.

“Black market” sellers make bank on drugs because “white market” sellers don’t exist. The more money they make, the more they have to spend bribing government officials,  buying weapons with which to protect their drugs and their profits, and battling their competitors for market share with bullets rather than with lower prices or higher quality.

In the “war on drugs,” there was never any chance that the drugs would lose. Who does lose? All of us who continue to tolerate our rulers’ deadly and expensive folly.

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“The Grid” is the Problem, Not the Solution

On October 9, Pacific Gas & Electric began shutting down power to about 750,000 customers (affecting as many as 2 million people) in California. The company claims the shutdowns are necessary to reduce the risk that its power lines and other infrastructure will cause wildfires like last year’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and and caused $16.5 billion in damage.

The Camp Fire was an extreme , and the blackouts are an extreme response,  but they’re far from the only indicators that Americans should no longer trust aging “grid” distribution systems to reliably  and safely supply electricity to their homes and businesses.

Fortunately, just as the problems seem to be getting really bad, the solutions are coming online fast.

Unfortunately, states’ response to the problem are a strange mix of unneeded mandates and subsidies and unjustifiable barriers, driven by cronyism and hostility to free markets.

Solar panels, wind turbines, large batteries for power storage, and gasoline generators for short-term backup are getting cheaper and cheaper.  Unfettered, markets would proliferate these solutions to most Americans in a fairly short time.

But government can’t resist putting its finger on the scales.

The California Energy Commission has ordered the inclusion of solar panels on all new homes beginning in 2020, citing climate change rather than independence from the grid as justification. A nice subsidy to the solar industry, at the expense of homeowners for whom wind or other solutions might work better.

Nationwide, many localities require homeowners to attach their houses to the grid whether they want to or not — then require those homeowners’ solar systems to shut down during grid outages for utility worker safety, leaving them powerless too.

Extreme weather often results in power loss to large numbers of people. I’ve experienced multi-day outages from thunderstorms,  blizzards, and ice storms in the midwest and hurricanes in the southeast. Most Americans probably recall similar outages. That’s what happens when you string wires and transformers all over the place then pray nothing knocks them down or stresses them out.

The increasing sprawl and automation of grids, initially touted as a feature, turned out to be a bug. In 2003, a software failure in Ohio turned what should have been a local blackout into a two-day  outage in two Canadian provinces and eight US  states, shutting down more than 100 power plants and leaving 55 million without electricity. Lately the fear (thus far apparently unrealized) is that grids are vulnerable to hackers of both state and freelance varieties.

“The grid” needs to go. We’ve got the means to replace it. If politicians and bureaucrats just got out of the way, the market would do the rest. Instead, they’ll probably drag it out for decades, at a cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.

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City Shuts Downs Preschoolers’ Farm Stand Citing Zoning Violations

It’s like something out of The Onion: city manager shuts down preschool farm stand out of fear that, if allowed, “we could end up with one on every corner.”

Farm Stand Shut Down

Alas, this is not satire. It’s the current predicament facing the Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. In an area where access to fresh fruits and vegetables can be limited, this preschool has stepped up to prioritize growing and selling fresh produce from its school gardens. According to recent reporting in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Little Ones has often sold its produce with generous discounts to local food stamp recipients and other neighbors and has been acknowledged as a leader in the farm-to-school healthy food movement.

That is, until the city shut down the bi-monthly farm stand program last month for zoning violations.

Despite protests from community members, city officials are holding firm to their stance that allowing one farm stand could lead to an unruly proliferation of fresh produce.

“Anywhere you live, you’ve got to have rules and regulations,” Forest Park City Manager Angela Redding said. “Otherwise, you would just have whatever,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

That “whatever” is exactly the hope and promise that irks central planners. Whatever symbolizes what is possible when individuals and organizations spontaneously create new streams of value for their neighbors. Whatever are opportunities for mutual gain through voluntary exchange. Whatever are new inventions, new services, and new ways of living and being that augment our existence and improve our future. Whatever is freedom.

Central Planners Are Threatened by Freedom

Freedom is the threat. Central planners are uneasy with spontaneous order, or the decentralized, peaceful process of human action that occurs when individuals follow their diverse interests in an open marketplace of trade. A preschool finds it beneficial for their students, parents, employees, and neighbors when they emphasize immersive gardening, sustainably-grown produce, and farm stand commerce. Students enjoy it, parents value the experience for their children, teachers choose to work in this farm-focused environment, and neighbors are willing to pay for the garden bounty from a twice-per-month farm stand. It is a beautiful example of the beneficial gains achieved through free markets.

That is, until the city’s central planners intervened out of fears that allowing one neighborhood farm stand to operate could lead to many, un-zoned farm stands. This is particularly poignant given that this preschool is located in one of the most disadvantaged counties in Atlanta. Little Ones preschool director Wande Okunoren-Meadows told Mother Nature Network: “According to the United Way, Clayton County has the lowest child well-being index out of all the metro Atlanta counties…So if we’re trying to move the needle and figure out ways to improve well-being, I’m not saying the farm stand is the only way to do it, but Little Ones is trying to be part of the solution.”

Zoning is often considered to be a protection mechanism, ensuring that neighborhoods remain orderly and livable. Yet, zoning laws in this country have a long history of racist tendencies. Granting power to government officials to control housing, commerce, and neighborhood development has previously led to unfair practices and unfavorable results. Decentralizing that power by eliminating questionable zoning practices can ensure that power is more justly distributed among the individual citizens of a particular community. Sadly, children’s lemonade stands are also routinely shut down for similar reasons, often with the same outrage.In the case of the Little Ones preschool, power would shift from city planners to local neighbors and businesses.

The city has offered Little Ones an opportunity to hold their farm stand in another part of town, but it is far away from the preschool and its neighborhood. City officials also said that Little Ones could pay $50 for a “special event” permit for each day it hosts its farm stand—a fee that is prohibitively expensive for the school and its small produce stand. For now, the school is selling its fruits and vegetables inside the building, but the indoor location is leading to far fewer sales as passersby don’t realize it’s there. The Little Ones parent and educator community is hoping that the city rules can be changed to allow for occasional outdoor farm stands.

Cases like Little Ones preschool expose the deleterious effects of zoning regulations. “It’s like shutting down a kid’s lemonade stand,” Okunoren-Meadows says. “Nobody does this. It just shouldn’t happen,” the preschool director told Mother Nature Network.

Sadly, children’s lemonade stands are also routinely shut down for similar reasons, often with the same outrage.

We should be outraged when young entrepreneurs are prohibited from producing and selling something of value to their neighbors due to restrictive regulations that centralize power and weaken neighborhood dynamism. Some states, like Utah, are passing laws to protect young entrepreneurs from these zoning and licensing challenges. The key is to look beyond preschool farm stands and advocate for more freedom for all.

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Is There a Market for an ISA Marketplace?

I love the idea of better and clearer markets in everything.

There already are markets in everything, but most lack clear information flow, have fuzzy incentives, and weak to no liquidity or money prices.

Individual earning potential is no different. There is so much that could be done to better allocate money across time slices to get capital to its highest time value location for individuals. When you need money isn’t always when you have it and vice versa. I’ve blogged before about a world where you can sell shares in yourself and securitize your future potential wealth.

But I want to know who would do it.

I want a marketplace where individuals can share their info and sell shares to one or many investors.

It’s gonna be hard to test the demand. It’s a new category and requires a lot of comfort with the idea, not to mention some parameters and assurances that legal issues won’t kill it. How to test quickly and easily if there are enough people who’d try it on both sides of the market?

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Great Tools for Teaching Kids Economics and Liberty

Whenever my children express an interest in economics or are curious about the ideals of freedom and responsibility, I can barely contain my excitement. It wasn’t until college that I discovered, and fell in love with, economics, and it wasn’t until much later that I understood liberty as a life philosophy.

Fortunately, I can avoid stifling their budding interest by drawing demand curves or quoting Hayek and Hazlitt (though I’ve been known to do both!) and turn to some outstanding resources just for kids. Designed to introduce economic principles and the foundations of a free society to young children, these tools are interesting, engaging, and easy-to-understand—for children and adults alike!

The Tuttle Twins

The popular Tuttle Twins book series continues to grow, with 10 children’s books now available, as well as accompanying activity sheets and instructional materials. Created by Connor Boyack, a father who was disappointed by the dearth of good economic and civic content for kids, The Tuttle Twins series introduces concepts ranging from spontaneous order and how money works to individual rights and youth entrepreneurship. The latest book in the series, The Tuttle Twins and the Education Vacation, makes a case for non-coercive learning outside of the classroom.

These may seem like big ideas for small children, but Boyack says we underestimate children’s ability and interest. “I’ve been blown away at how well little kids can understand big ideas,” he says.

We get reviews from parents daily who are amazed at the same discovery and are thankful that their children are being introduced to ideas that most adults never learn.

Boyack recently launched Free Market Rules, a new weekly, family-centered curriculum for exploring free-market principles in greater depth, and FEE readers can use the coupon FORTY to get 40 percent off the Tuttle Twins books.

Nobody Know How to Make a Pizza

FEE’s founder, Leonard E. Read, wrote his famous essay, “I, Pencil,” in 1958, celebrating the miracle of the free market in facilitating voluntary exchange and producing the goods and services we want and need. This process happens spontaneously, without any central planner determining what to produce and how to produce it. Indeed, the remarkable message of “I, Pencil” is that “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”

Now, author and economics commentator Julie Borowski offers a kid-friendly version of Read’s classic essay in her new book Nobody Knows How to Make a Pizza. Like a pencil, a pizza may seem simple to make, but it relies on millions of strangers working together peacefully and spontaneously to produce a basic cheese pizza. Borowski explains why she decided to write this book:

Over the years, many parents have told me that their kids enjoy listening to my commentary because I make learning about economics fun and simple. Some have asked if I would ever consider writing a children’s book. One day, I was re-reading Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil” when it hit me. It’s already a fascinating story, but can I make it more kid-friendly? I changed it to pizza cause, well, kids are more interested in pizza than pencils. And my illustrator, Tetiana Kopytova, did an amazing job creating cute characters with bright colors. It’s a fun, positive book that will revolutionize the way kids think about the world.

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I Know My Rights: A Children’s Guide to the Bill of Rights and Individual Liberty

A 2017 survey by the University of Pennsylvania found that 37 percent of American adults couldn’t name one right protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and only one-quarter of them could name all three branches of government. Clearly, there is a crisis in American civic education and a disturbing lack of understanding of individual liberty.

Author Rory Margraf wanted to address this problem by creating an accessible, colorful children’s book that easily explains the Bill of Rights and the principles of liberty to kids. He says:

I Know My Rights: A Children’s Guide to the Bill of Rights and Individual Liberty was inspired by research for an article while reflecting on the first time I was stopped by the authorities. The gap in civics knowledge, between both children and adults, indicated a crucial need for additional resources outside of brick-and-mortar schooling.

The book was so well-received that Margraf plans to release a sequel to I Know My Rights before the holidays. He adds:

I have found that the philosophy of liberty and the principles of free markets reach children extremely well.

FEE Resources

FEE also provides many high-quality resources to help young people expand their knowledge of economics and individual liberty. The free Invisible Hands video series for kids combines fun puppets and a famous YouTuber to offer an introductory look at basic economic principles. And for teenagers, FEE’s three-day summer seminars on college campuses across the country offer an opportunity for more in-depth exploration of these important ideas. Additionally, FEE’s free online courses on economics and entrepreneurship are great for people of all ages!

Parents are perfectly positioned to introduce economic and civic concepts to their children. In fact, they may be the best ones to do it. With authors now creating exceptionally good material for young children on these topics, it has never been easier or more enjoyable for parents to present these ideas to their kids and help them to deepen their knowledge throughout their teenage years.

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Dominance: Material vs. Rhetorical

Do the rich dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Rich people run most of the business world, own most of the wealth, and are vastly more likely to be powerful politicians.

In another sense, however, the rich aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Rich people are great.  We owe them everything.  They deserve every penny they’ve got – and more.  People who criticize the rich are just jealous failures,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do males dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Males run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a supermajority of the most prestigious jobs, and make a lot more money on average.

In another sense, however, males aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Males are the superior sex.  We owe them everything.  We need to protect males from women’s emotional abuse and financial exploitation, and show them the great deference they deserve,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do whites dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Whites run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a clear majority of the most prestigious jobs, and earn above-average incomes.

In another sense, however, whites aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Whites have built Western civilization, the glory of the modern world.  Almost everything good in the modern world builds on white Europeans’ efforts.  The people of the world need to acknowledge how much they owe to the white race, and apologize for their many insults fueled by their own sense of inferiority,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

My point: There are two very distinct kinds of dominance.*  There is material dominance – control of economic wealth and political power.  And there is rhetorical dominance – control of words and ideas.  Intuitively, you would expect the two to correlate highly.  At least in the modern world, however, they don’t.  Indeed, the correlation is plausibly negative: The groups with high material dominance now tend to have low rhetorical dominance.

Isn’t material dominance clearly more enviable than mere rhetorical dominance?  On balance, I suspect so.  Still, many people who could have won material dominance invest their lives in acquiring rhetorical dominance instead: intellectuals, activists, and religious leaders are all prime examples.  Why do they bother?  Because man does not live by bread alone.  Material dominance gives you luxuries, but rhetorical dominance makes you feel like you’re on top of the world: “I can loudly praise what I like and blame what I dislike – and expect the people who demur to meekly keep their objections to themselves.  Or even feign agreement!”

Conflation of material and rhetorical dominance helps explain why liberals and conservatives so often talk past each.  Liberals feel like conservatives dominate the world, because conservatives run the government half the time, and conservative-leaning groups – the rich, males, whites – have disproportionate influence over the economy.  Conservatives feel like liberals dominate the world, because liberals run the media, schools, and human resources departments.  In a sense, both groups are right.  Conservatives have the lion’s share of material dominance; liberals have more than the lion’s share of rhetorical dominance.  In another sense, though, both groups are wrong.  In the contest for overall dominance, both groups are roughly tied.  Both groups feel like underdogs because both yearn from the kind of dominance they lack.

Due to the endowment effect, moreover, both sides get angry when the other intrudes on “their” territory.  Thus, even though leftists have a near-stranglehold over research universities, the rare academic center that promotes free markets or social conservatism blinds them with rage.  99% rhetorical dominance?  We’re supposed to have 100% rhetorical dominance!  Conservatives have a similar, though less hyperbolic, reaction when business adopts liberal causes.  “Sensitivity training?!  Give me a break.”

The dream of both movements, naturally, is to hold all the dominances.  The conservative dream is a world where they consolidate their lead in the world of business and take over the whole culture.  The liberal dream is a world where they purge the last vestiges of conservative culture and bring business and the rich to their knees.  (The latter rarely means outright expropriation; I think even America’s far left would be satisfied if they could sharply increase regulation and regulation – and hear business and the rich repeatedly shout, “Thank you, may I have another?”)

When you put it this way, of course, both dreams sound like nightmares.  Neither liberals nor conservatives even dimly internalize Spiderman’s principle that “With great power comes great responsibility.” Both are epistemically vicious to the core, so habitually drunk with emotion they don’t even know what sober rationality looks like.  Frankly, I’d like to see both of these secular religions fade away like Norse mythology.  Since that’s unlikely to happen, however, I’m grateful to live in a world with an uneasy balance of power.  Or to be more precise, an uneasy balance of dominance.

* I suspect Robin Hanson will say that I’m conflating dominance and prestige.  Maybe a little, but when I picture “rhetorical dominance,” I’m picturing words and ideas that intimidate more than they inspire.  General point: You can have material prestige and rhetorical prestige as well as material dominance and rhetorical dominance.

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