Dynamist Blog


After a fire destroys the Biblical Arts Center in Dallas, the executive editor of D Magazine tries to explain to a dim TV reporter the difference between "priceless" and "irreplaceable." The exchange is, well, priceless. And, since this is the blogsphere, also free. (Scroll down here for background on the fire and what was destroyed.)

The Kelo Aftermath

Not surprisingly, cities that were waiting for the Supreme Court's decision have wasted no time in condemning property wanted for private developments. The Institute for Justice is tracking examples, with links to news reports. IJ has also announced a new campaign, backed by at least $3 million, to fight eminent domain abuse through state and local activism. IJ lists the following immediate plans:

  • Pursue state-level litigation to enforce the "public use" limitations found in every state constitution.
  • Today issue a formal pledge for governors in each state to sign promising to oppose efforts in their states to use the government power of eminent domain for private development, and to support legislation and other efforts to ensure that citizens of their state are safe from eminent domain for private development. IJ and the Castle Coalition will soon extend this pledge to legislators and city officials nationwide.
  • Support citizen activists nationwide who are urging their state and local officials to set stricter standards for the use of eminent domain.
  • Establish a Castle Coalition presence in every state so ordinary citizens will be poised to mobilize the minute eminent domain is abused for private ends. Citizens can join the Castle Coalition at www.castlecoalition.org.
  • Host a conference in July in Washington, D.C., to train activists in fighting unjust takings.

I'd suggest another front: shareholder and consumer activism to get businesses to pledge not to use eminent domain for their own private purposes.

P&G's Design Initiative Comes to Mouthwash

In its June design issue, Fast Company put Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley on the cover and ran an interview about the company's design-oriented strategy. (As part of this emphasis, spearheaded by VP Claudia Kotchka, last year P&G hired me to spend a day giving speeches on The Substance of Style, first to designers and then to the company's top 300 executives.) P&G's initiative is an extraordinary turn for a company whose traditional emphasis has been on technology-driven functional improvements, backed by mass marketing and advertising. The emotional response to a product or its packaging didn't figure in the old P&G equation. Even function could be defined fairly narrowly--how well a shampoo cleans, for instance, but not how it makes your hair smell. Lafley aims to change that. As he told Fast Company:

npCRESTPROHEALTHRINSES.jpg "We have to create a great experience every time you touch the brand, and the design is a really big part of creating the experience and the emotion. We try to make [a customer's experience] better, but better in her terms. If you stay focused on experiences, I think you will have a lower risk of designing something that may measure well in a lab but may not do well with the consumer."

Here's how that resolve plays out in a new product. The bottle for Crest Pro-Health Rinse is so appealing that Steve and I almost bought some, even though we never use mouthwash. It looks especially good compared to the nearby Listerine, which even in its friendly blue form "looks industrial, like Janitor in a Drum," says Professor Postrel.

To supplement the glamour shot, I'm including some on-the-scene photos from Walgreen's. My photos don't capture the full emotional impact of the design, in part because the mind's eye screens out a lot of the ugliness of drugstore shelves. (In the bottom photo, check out the pegboard background and the adult diaper packaging creeping over from the adjacent aisle.) The next frontier for consumer-products designer is doing something about the hideous store environments in which their products appear.



Poor Steven Levy

Newsweek's star technology writer co-authors a big cover story on identity theft only to have the Big Boss make it painfully obvious in his editor's letter that neither he nor anyone on the copy desk has a clue what Levy's most famous book was about. Bragging about Levy's widely recognized expertise, Mark Whitaker declares that "Steven Levy has written books on the people who can break into computers ("Hackers") and on the tools to thwart them ("Crypto")."

But, of course, Hackers--a great book, and a touchstone for anyone interested in the history of computers--is not about people who break into computers. Subtitled "Heroes of the Computer Revolution," Hackers is about people, starting at MIT in the 1960s, who played around with computers and whose enthusiasm gave birth to the personal computer revolution. Today's high-tech criminals and identity thieves are a completely different subject. A quick look at the book's Amazon page could have kept Whitaker from insulting Levy and revealing his own ignorance of technological history.

UPDATE: Steven Levy emails:

Mark's point in his letter's editor (which I saw before publication and was OK with) was simply to say that I had reporting background in the kinds of people with the wizardry to potentially frustrate security. The exact language he used was accurate: that "Hackers" was about the people who CAN break into computers, not that I was writing about crooks. As you eloquently acknowledge, the book's focus is on quite a different kind of hacker (although there are few people I wrote about, like John Draper, who pioneered techniques that would later be abused by the dark side.) But for the point that he was making, citing Hackers and Crypto with those very brief descriptions was sufficient. Thanks for the defense, Virginia, though none was needed here.

New London Rally

In the wake of Kelo, the Institute for Justice is planning an anti-eminent domain rally in New London, Connnecticut, next week:

NEW LONDON RALLY: On July 5th, New London will hold a city council meeting and we are coordinating a rally beforehand to ask city council to save the homes of Susette Kelo and the New London residents. If you are anywhere near Connecticut, we hope you'll join us and voice your support for the homeowners and property rights. The rally will be held at 6pm at New London City Hall, 181 State Street, New London, CT. By saving these homes, we can show the country that, regardless of what the Supreme Court says, eminent domain abuse is wrong.

Appalled but Not Surprised

That's my reaction to the Supreme Court's 5-4 Kelo ruling that it's OK for cities to use eminent domain to take homes and businesses, even in "non-blighted" areas, to turn the property over to other businesses. Once again, I find myself wishing that Douglas Ginsberg hadn't withdrawn as a Supreme Court nominee. His presence would have changed the result in Kelo.

For lots of informed commentary, and good links, see the Volokh Conspiracy.

I agree with Glenn Reynolds, who observes that Kelo may prove analogous to "Bowers v. Hardwick decision, which didn't make new law, but which led to a sea-change in public attitudes." Bowers was the 1986 ruling, also 5-4, that upheld Georgia's criminal statute against private, consensual oral or anal sex. The ruling galvanized efforts to repeal anti-sodomy statutes, to challenge such laws under state constitutions, and, ultimately, to get Hardwick overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Glenn notes that Bowers, unlike Kelo, "was consistent with the law going all the way back." That's not the only difference. Bowers upheld laws that most Americans assumed were essentially symbolic and unenforced. One reason the decision was so shocking was that Mr. Hardwick had actually been arrested in the privacy of his own bedroom, demonstrating that the laws could have real-life consequences. Still, even sodomy law supporters didn't want stricter enforcement. Bowers wasn't going to lead to systematic police sweeps of the nation's bedrooms.

Kelo, by contrast, isn't about cultural symbolism and largely unenforced law. It's about common practices. American cities quite regularly take property from some private parties to give it to other, usually wealthier ones. Now that practice has the Supreme Court's blessing. Kelo could very well lead to much more aggressive use of eminent domain for "economic development." Bowers was offensive, but Kelo is scary.

That's all the more reason to crank up the grassroots activism. Cities can legally bind themselves not to abuse eminent domain. On (of all places) D Magazine's Frontburner blog, a local lawyer points to a charter amendment passed by the citizens of Carrollton, a Dallas suburb, in 1998:

"Provided, however, nothing included above or anywhere in this charter shall authorize the City of Carrollton, or any corporations, agency or entity created by the City, or pursuant to the City's approval and authorization, to institute and exercise the power of eminent domain to acquire private or public property if the purpose of the acquisition is the promotion of economic development for a private business enterprise which business enterprise would own any right, title, or interest in the property so acquired." (Emphasis added.)

The Institute for Justice, which brought the Kelo case, is organizing grassroots efforts via its Castle Coalition. (Steve and I are donors to IJ and this site is running the Castle Coalition's Blogad without charge.) From their site:

Right now, there is a tremendous momentum against this abuse of power, and we ask each of you to begin organizing to change the law in your city or county or state. The Castle Coalition will help you write the language, but now is the time to start organizing your friends and neighbors. Your local government will tell you there's nothing to worry about, that it would never use eminent domain, or that it's only as a "last resort." Don't believe a word of it. Your only protection is a change in the law (or good state court rulings, which is what the Institute for Justice is working on).

While Kelo rightly sparks the immediate demand for political action, motivated by a visceral sense of injustice, over the long run a lot of intellectual work needs to be done. Kelo is the logical result of the argument that spillovers of any sort--in this case, the positive effects of business development--constitute externalities, and that externalities justify government intervention. What's wrong with that argument? If it's fine for air pollution (as I believe it is), why doesn't it apply to refusing to sell your house to a business that would enrich the local area? Why doesn't it apply to offensive speech?

These are not easy questions, and they need to be asked. As political scientist Aaron Wildavsky warned before his untimely death in 1993, "externality" (and even "pollution") is an elastic, socially constructed concept whose application depends on what you like or dislike. If spillovers are all it takes to justify government action, liberalism's most basic freedoms--from freedom of speech to private property--cannot survive.

Looking primarily at negative spillovers, I wrote about the problem in a 1999 Reason editorial and have addressed the problem of aesthetic spillovers in a number of pieces listed here under "Aesthetic Conflict". In his review of The Substance of Style, John Nye also considered the problem of externalities.

The World's Worst Logo?

verizon_logo_black.gif It's certainly the touchstone among designers. Every time I go to a design conference, at least one speaker rags on it. I'd hate to be the person--or, more likely, committee--responsible for constructing it. Nobody seems to claim credit but this Google Answers thread suggests some possible culprits.

"Unwittingly Creating a New Gesture"

Forbes Digital features an interview with Motorola design honchos Jim Wicks, the company's chief designerk and Peter Pfanner, head of North American design operations. They're most excited about results they don't exactly design:

Get them talking shop, however, and they don't talk about what a phone can do or how many famous people use it (former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was photographed using a RAZR phone), but rather how people react to it. What gets them excited is unwittingly creating a new gesture.

Pfanner fished into a pocket for his own RAZR phone to explain what he meant. With the phone closed, he demonstrated how easy it is to open and close with one hand--flick the top portion up with your thumb and then close it again with the thumb. There's something about the tactile sensation that makes this action something you want to do repeatedly, like a nervous habit.

"I see people opening and closing these phones all the time," Pfanner said. "Seeing people do that with their hands is pretty cool."

My new Motorola phone, alas, is a cheapy and not quite this exciting.

Visa Troubles

Steve Forbes has tough words for the Bush administration's post-9/11 visa policies, which are hurting business (the Forbes concern) and alienating otherwise pro-American foreigners. Here's a bit of the editorial:

The Bush administration is doing the economy long term harm by not reforming our post-9/11 immigration and visa policies. Since the terrorist attacks, foreigners have had to go through considerably more hassle to enter this country. No one is arguing about the mortal necessity of tightening our screening procedures. But it defies belief that this, the most technologically advanced of nations, can't come up with software and hardware to expeditiously assist in determining who should and should not gain entrée.

Despite the weak dollar, the number of visitors from overseas during the past three years is down 23%. International conventions and seminars are not taking place in the U.S. because organizers can't be sure their delegates will be allowed into the country.

More alarmingly, foreign students are increasingly turning to non-U.S. universities. Australia, Canada and other nations have been effectively luring these students by assuring them that if they qualify, they won't have to undergo repeated, humiliating hassles at their borders. By contrast, foreign students now in the U.S. know that when they go home for summer vacation or holidays, their probability of returning to school is no sure thing.

Read the rest here. The visa hassles are no small thing, even for permanent residents and foreign-born citizens whose families want to visit them. "For the first time, I feel like a foreigner in this country," one of Professor Postrel's Indian-born colleagues told us at at recent party. We are needlessly alienating people who enrich our country and culture--and who would otherwise spread pro-American sentiment to their home countries. Bravo to Steve Forbes, for raising an issue most politically active people would prefer to ignore.

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