Dynamist Blog

The Dangers of "Buying on Time"

When I was a child in the 1960s, a lot of children's literature seemed to be set in the Depression and featured characters, often migrant farmers, beset by financial woes. One of the morals of these stories was that you shouldn't "buy on time." In the 1920s, installment buying was a popular way to finance consumer durables like cars, furniture, and refrigerators. As I hazily recall, in kids' books poverty-stricken families were always having their household goods repossessed because they couldn't make their payments.

So here's the bleg: What are these books? I'm looking for some examples and can't find them. Blue Willow is a terrific book whose title dish beautifully exemplifies Grant McCracken's concept of "displaced meaning," but it has nothing about buying on time. Strawberry Girl is less impressive and also features no repo men. Am I simply imagining these anti-debt morality tales?

California's Regulatory Impulse Cont'd

It looks like ridicule may kill the spanking ban, but California legislators never stop finding new ideas for bans and regulations. Now the San Jose Mercury-News reports that Lloyd Levine, an assembly member from Van Nuys, wants the state to ban sales of incandescent light bulbs. The credulous article, by Kate Folmar of the Sacramento bureau, makes no mention of aesthetic objections to fluorescent bulbs, focusing entirely on short-term price comparisons (with no present value calculations):

Switching light bulbs is an idea that environmentalists have long supported. But getting consumers to embrace change has been slow going.

Banning energy-intensive incandescents "saves consumers money, saves the state money and saves energy," said Levine, who calls his measure the "How Many Legislators Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb Act."

"When a consumer is standing in a store and they're confronted with two different products, they generally opt for the one that is cheaper and the one they've traditionally bought," he said. "The problem is: The one they think is cheaper is only cheap at that moment in time. The other one is cheaper over the long run."

Compact fluorescent bulbs cost several times more than a traditional bulb, but they last 10 times longer. Replacing one bulb that is used four to eight hours a day can save a consumer $4 to $13 a year and $38 to $72 after five years, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

For a different perspective, see my article here. After an unhappy experience with Wal-Mart's compact fluorescents, Megan McArdle sparked a vigorous debate on the subject here and here.

Regardless of the merits of the light bulbs, California legislators are far too eager to write their personal preferences into bans and mandates. (If you want Californians to burn less electricity, put a tax on it or let utilities raise the price. Don't tell them how to allocate the electricity they use.) So I'm reviving a blog series headline from a few years back.

String Theory in Two Minutes or Less

Discover.com is running a contest for the best two-minute video that will "present an accurate, basic understanding of string theory that will stick in the brains of relatively intelligent non-scientists." Glamorous physicist and author Brian Greene is the final judge.

But this is one seriously exploitive contest. There appear to be no prizes--not even a gift subscription or a signed copy of The Elegant Universe--and merely entering the contest gives Discover "exclusive [!!!--vp], royalty-free and irrevocable right and license to edit, reproduce, publish, display, broadcast, stream or otherwise use your video entry, in whole or in part, for any purpose and in any manner or media (including, without limitation, the Internet) throughout the world in perpetuity, and to license others to do so, without limitation or further compensation." Sounds like a very bad deal.

Apollo in Myth and Memory

Looking for something entirely unrelated, I stumbled on a list of Amazon recommendations titled Apollo in American Myth and Memory, from Roger Launius, a historian at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. It's an intriguing list with useful comments and, judging from the books I'm familiar with (those by Charles Murray and Michael Collins), a well-chosen selection. I wish more Amazon lists were as well done.

As a matter of blog history, back in 2004, Launius came in for some not-entirely-fair criticism on Rand Simberg's blog for his skepticism about the prospects of private launch companies. That shouldn't detract from the value of his book recommendations, of course. Besides, we had indeed seen lots of earlier private launch hype with few results, and rockets are indeed dangerous and hard to control. There was nothing crazy or, for that matter, pro-NASA about Launius's comments.

In Prison for Blogging

flyer.JPG Egyptian blogger Abdelkareem Soliman, known online as Kareem Amer, is facing nine years in prison for such free-speech "crimes" as "spreading data and malicious rumors that disrupt public security," "defaming the president of Egypt," "incitement to overthrow the regime upon hatred and contempt," and "incitement to hate Islam." Before his arrest in November, he had been expelled from college because of his political blogging. His case demonstrates the abyssmal state of basic liberties in Egypt. It also challenges the self-importance of bloggers: Can, in fact, this new medium generate public interest and support for one of its own? Pajamas Media has covered the case here, and Tom Palmer has made freeing Soliman a major cause.

There will be a rally at 3:30 today outside the Egyptian consulate in Manhattan (2nd Ave. between 58th and 59th) in support of Soliman. For more information, visit the Free Kareem site. (Thanks to Todd Seavey for the tip.)

Kidney Reviewing

I review Kieran Healy's Last Best Gifts: Altruism and the Market for Human Blood and Organs in the Sunday NYTBR. The opening:

Organ transplants are at once the most amazing and frustrating of medical miracles. A new kidney or heart can cure someone who would otherwise die or, even in less than ideal circumstances, extend life and improve well-being. The surgical skill and pharmaceutical innovation required to make transplantation work are wonders of human ingenuity.

But there is still no such thing as a truly new organ. Unlike insulin or artificial hips, organs so far cannot be successfully manufactured. They come only pre-owned, usually from young, healthy people who have died suddenly in traumatic accidents that destroyed their brains. Rainy weekends increase the organ supply. Helmet laws reduce it. The more than 94,000 Americans on the waiting list for organs are, in effect, waiting for someone else to die so that they can live.

The link embedded in the first paragraph goes to recent Times articles on organ transplants--a useful reference.

While the review obviously reflects my interest in the organ shortage, it's also a follow-up to my Boston Globe article on economic sociology. In fact, thanks to journalistic mobility, the same editor, Jenny Schuessler, assigned both pieces.

Milton Friedman Day

The producers of Free to Choose write:

Monday, January 29 is Milton Friedman Day. Numerous events are scheduled. Of note:

The University of Chicago Memorial is being streamed live via http://www.ideachannel.tv at 2:00 p.m. CST (GMT -6 hours). This site will also have available an exclusive audio discussion featuring Nobel Prize winners Gary Becker and Ken Arrow discussing Friedman and his ideas. You can also view the Free to Choose series here at no charge.

The Friedman biography, The Power of Choice, premieres on PBS. Check local listings here. DVDs of the program are available via Idea Channel.

For the full listing of events, go to http://www.miltonfriedmanday.org.

Paul Krugman calls Friedman "a great economist and a great man." in this essay in The New York Review of Books. (Via Greg Mankiw.)

Reason's Brian Doherty selects Friedman quotes from three decades of contributions to the magazine.

Here's the agenda, with papers, of a 2003 Dallas Fed conference, "The Legacy of Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose: Economic Liberalism at the Turn of the 21st Century."

Where Exactly Is SMU?

Why does this LAT article on the Bush library flap have a Houston dateline? If the Times couldn't afford a ticket on Southwest, why not file from L.A.?

I have to wonder where the protesting faculty were during the long site-selection process, when SMU was campaigning for the library and was widely considered the leading contender. Have they been on sabbatical for the past two years?

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