Wal-Mart Really Does Benefit Consumers by Lowering Prices


Scholarly studies show Wal-Mart’s price reductions to be sizable.  Economist Emek Basker of the University of Missouri found long-term reductions of 7 to 13 percent on items such as toothpaste, shampoo and detergent.  Other companies are forced to reduce their prices.  On food, Wal-Mart produces consumer savings that average 20 percent, estimate Jerry Hausman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ephraim Leibtag of the Agriculture Department.

All told, these cuts have significantly raised living standards.  How much is unclear.  A study by the economic consulting firm Global Insight found that from 1985 to 2004, Wal-Mart’s expansion lowered the consumer price index by a cumulative 3.1 percent from what it would have been.  That produced savings of $263 billion in 2004, equal to $2,329 for each U.S. household.  Because Wal-Mart financed this study, its results have been criticized as too high.  But even if price savings are only half as much ($132 billion and $1,165 per household), they’d dwarf the benefits of all but the biggest government programs. 


For the full commentary, see:

Robert J. Samuelson.  "Wal-Mart as Red Herring."  The Washington Post  (Wednesday, August 30, 2006):  A19.


New Concert Halls Reduce Money for Other Activities

”A new theater is not automatically simply great news,” said Marc Scorca, the president of Opera America, an organization serving opera companies nationwide.  When a hall is added, he said, it may just divert audiences and their dollars from other performance and cultural institutions.

”This is all redistributing people’s expenditures from one activity to another,” said David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago who focuses on the arts.

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University and the author of ”Good and Plenty:  The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding,” said there was little solid research measuring the economic impact of arts centers on a city, although there was for sports stadiums.  Such research shows no benefit for a city’s growth, he said, adding that he was skeptical about economic claims for new concert halls.

”The glorious tales are typically exaggerations,” said Mr. Cowen, who also contributes a monthly economics column to The New York Times.


For the full story, see: 

DANIEL J. WAKIN.  "This Season’s Must-Have Urban Accessory."  The New York Times, Section 2  (Sun., September 3, 2006):  1 & 17.

Daley Shows Chicago is Still the “City of the Outstuck Neck”

I think it was the poet Gwendolyn Brooks who once described Chicago as the "city of the out-stuck neck."  Chicago’s current Mayor Daley did himself and the city proud recently when he had the guts to stick his neck out by vetoing the proposed Chicago minimum wage. He deserves a salute from Chicago’s consumers and poor.  Democrat Daley is the mayor of the out-stuck neck.


Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley used the first veto of his 17-year tenure to reject a living-wage ordinance aimed at forcing big retailers to pay wages of $10 an hour and health benefits equivalent to $3 an hour by 2010.

The veto is important to Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which plans to open its first store in Chicago late this month in the economically depressed 37th ward.

. . .

In vetoing the ordinance, Mayor Daley cited a potential loss of jobs.  In recent weeks, several big retailers had written to his office to oppose the ordinance.  "I understand and share a desire to ensure that everyone who works in the city of Chicago earns a decent wage," the mayor wrote to the aldermen yesterday.  "But I do not believe that this ordinance, well intentioned as it may be, would achieve that end.  Rather, I believe that it would drive jobs and business from our city."


For the full story, see: 

KRIS HUDSON.  "Chicago’s Daley Vetoes Bill Aimed At Big Retailers."   Wall Street Journal  (Thurs.,   September 12, 2006):  A4.


(Note:  I can’t find the exact source of the out-stuck neck quote, but one reference on the web is:  http://starbulletin.com/97/05/22/sports/fitzgerald.html )


World Health Organization (WHO?) Endorses DDT

MalariaGraphic.gif  Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.


The World Health Organization, in a sign that widely used methods of fighting malaria have failed to bring the catastrophic disease under control, plans to announce today that it will encourage the use of DDT, even though the pesticide is banned or tightly restricted in much of the world.

The new guidelines from the United Nations public-health agency support the spraying of small amounts of DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, on walls and other surfaces inside homes in areas at highest risk of malaria.  The mosquito-borne disease infects as many as 500 million people a year and kills about a million.  Most victims are in sub-Saharan Africa and under the age of 5.


For the full story, see:

BETSY MCKAY.  "WHO Calls for Spraying Controversial DDT To Fight Malaria." Wall Street Journal  (Fri., September 15, 2006):  B1.

Case for Wind Power is “Absolute Baloney”

I once heard a top MidAmerican Energy executive express considerable, articulate, scepticism about the economics of wind power.  (Wind power is unreliable, so that electric companies still must stand ready to provide the electricity by other means.)  If wind power made economic sense, you wouldn’t need subsidies to promote it—profit maximizing power companies would pursue it on their own.  MidAmerican now invests in wind power, not because it has become an efficient energy source, but because wasteful government subsidies, make wind power profitable for MidAmerican.

Glen Schleede, a retired power company executive, has nothing to lose by speaking the truth: 


(p. 1B) The turbines do bother some folks, including Glenn R. Schleede, a retired power company executive from Round Hill, Va., who said the wind power industry puts out "absolute baloney" to justify its existence.

"I’m tired of subsidizing Warren Buffett companies," Schleede said, referring to federal tax subsidies that go to MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., a division of Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc. that is headed by Buffett.  Those are MidAmerican’s turbines in the fields around Schaller.

Schleede’s criticisms, mostly in academic-style papers he writes, concentrate on the economics of wind power and what he called "false claims about how this is good for an energy system."

"In fact, these things, because they’re intermittent and volatile and unpredictable, they don’t really add a lot of capacity to an electric grid," he said.  "When you see these things advertised, they talk about how many megawatts of capacity, the number of homes served and all that garbage.

"I would maintain that they don’t serve any homes."


For the full story, see: 

Jordon,  Steve.  "Harvesting Wind;Farmers like payout, but critics of wind power point to costs."  Omaha World-Herald  (Sunday September 3, 2006):  1D-2D. 

Added Evidence for Weidenbaum’s ‘Birth Dearth’


BirthDearthBK.gif Source of book image:  http://www.aei.org/books/bookID.497,filter.all/book_detail.asp


Ben Wattenberg had already been predicting a world population decline for years, when he published The Birth Dearth in 1987.  Back then, scepticism was widespread.  Governments and philanthropists spent billions promoting birth control to restrain population growth.  Many were still convinced of the wisdom of Isaac Ehrlich, darling of the environmentalist enemies of economic growth, who had predicted disaster in his Population Bomb.

(Note that the plausibility of many environmentalist disaster scenerios is based on the assumption of continuous population growth.) 

The current decline in birth rates is not a total puzzle.  Nobel-prize winner Gary Becker long-ago claimed that quality of children is what economists call a ‘normal’ good, which means that families invest more in quality as their incomes rise.  As families invest more in quality, they invest less in quantity.

Whatever the reasons, the evidence continues to accumulate that Wattenberg was right:


After a long decline, birthrates in European countries have reached a historic low, as potential parents increasingly opt for few or no children.  European women, better educated and integrated into the labor market than ever before, say there is no time for motherhood and that children are too expensive anyway.

The result is a continent of lopsided societies where the number of elderly increasingly exceeds the number of young — a demographic pattern that is straining pension plans and depleting the work force in many countries.


For the full story, see:

ELISABETH ROSENTHAL.  "European Union’s Plunging Birthrates Spread Eastward."  The New York Times   (Mon., September 4, 2006):  A3.


 EuropeanBirthratesGraph.gif  Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited above.


Iranian Cartoon Exhibit Ridicules Jews

  “Visitors to the Palestinian Contemporary Art Museum in Tehran Thursday viewed entries in a contest for cartoons ridiculing the Holocaust.” Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


I believe in free speech, which includes freedom of expression in cartoons, and art, even when that freedom produces results that I find distasteful, outrageous, or evil. 

What is strange, is the hypocrisy of some radical Islamists, who cause death and destruction in rioting over Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad, but who only smile at cartoons attacking Jews.


The Iranian cartoon exhibition attacking Jews, is documented in:

MICHAEL SLACKMAN.  "Iran Exhibits Anti-Jewish Art as Reply to Danish Cartoons."   The New York Times   (Fri., August 25, 2006):  A1 & A8.

(Note: the online version of the article has the title “Iran Exhibits Anti-Jewish Art.”)

Salt Lake Mayor Violates “Ridiculous” Zoning Law

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, whose "xeriscape" yard violates a Salt Lake City zoning ordinance.  Source of photo:  scan from a paper copy of the NYT article cited below.


SALT LAKE CITY, Aug. 21 — Covered as it is by red bark and dotted with ornamental grasses and purple sage shrubs, the front yard of Salt Lake City’s mayor stands out in contrast against the other, uniformly green lawns on the tree-lined street.

Not only is Mayor Rocky Anderson’s yard distinctive, though.  It is also illegal, one of hundreds of drought-friendly yards and gardens here that are in violation of zoning ordinances.

In light of a five-year drought that meteorologists say ended last year, Mr. Anderson is one of a growing number of homeowners in desert cities across the West who have traded in their manicured lawns and colorful flower beds for ground cover and gardens that require little water.

In Salt Lake City, though, all front yards must be completely covered with flat green grass, which needs to be watered often to keep it from turning brown and strawlike.  Although the zoning ordinance is rarely enforced, some Salt Lake City leaders — including the mayor — want to bring the letter of law in line with current landscaping trends.

“I think the zoning ordinance is ridiculous,’’ Mr. Anderson said.  “It clearly needs to be changed.” 


For the full story, see:

MELISSA SANFORD.  "Salt Lake City Moving Toward Less Thirsty Lawns."  The New York Times (Fri., August 25, 2006):  A12.


Planners Attack Cul-de-Sacs

CulDeSacs1.jpg A cul-de-sac in Eagan, Minnesota.  Source of photo:  the online version of the NYT article cited below.

City planners think they know how other people should live their lives, and the planners believe that they have the right to impose their "knowledge" on others.  I believe that there are pros and cons to living in a subdivision with cul-de-sacs, and on balance, I don’t like them.  But I understand why others might decide differently, and I think they have a right to use their own money to buy into the kind of neighborhood they prefer. 

The New York Times ran an interesting article that focused on the debate on cul-de-sacs in Northfield, Minnesota:

. . .  here and in other areas across the country, this staple of suburban development is drawing criticism from a growing number of planners and government officials, who say it should become an endangered species.

Highly popular after World War II, the cul-de-sac is essentially a dead-end residential street, often but not always ending with a large circular patch of pavement allowing vehicles to turn around.  The form was initially embraced as something that promoted security, neighborliness and efficient transportation.

Homeowners found that the cul-de-sac limited traffic, creating a sense of privacy, while encouraging ties among neighbors, who could hardly avoid one another.  Developers liked the cul-de-sac because it made it possible to build on land unsuited to a grid street pattern and because home buyers were willing to pay a premium to live on one.

. . .

Don Mitchell, professor of geography at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, grew up on a cul-de-sac in Moraga, Calif., and has seen both sides of the debate.  “It’s a quiet street that all us kids could play on without too much fear of traffic,” he said.  “And there was pretty good surveillance by our parents when we were out in the street.”

But those advantages can also be disadvantages.  “They’re quite insular,” he said.  “They tend to almost induce a circle-the-wagons sort of atmosphere, so anybody becomes a stranger who’s on the street.  They don’t often act like public streets.  We always knew when there was someone who wasn’t a regular on our street, and yet they had every right to be there.”

. . .

Although planners may be turning away from cul-de-sacs, people who actually live on them are willing to fight for them.


For the full story, see: 

CARLA BARANAUCKAS.  "NATIONAL PERSPECTIVES; Why Some Towns Place Roadblocks on Cul-de-Sacs."  The New York Time, Section 8  (Sun., August 27, 2006):  20.


  A cul-de-sac in Eagan, Minnesota.  Source of photo:  the online version of the NYT article cited above.

Obama Says Africa Needs Less, and Better, Government: More on Why Africa is Poor

  Senator Obama in Kenya.  For the source of the photo, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/26/world/africa/26obama.html


NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug. 28 — Barack Obama strode into a packed auditorium in Nairobi on Monday and attacked an issue that notoriously bedevils Kenyan society:  corruption.

He urged people to reject “the insulting idea that corruption is somehow part of Kenyan culture” and “to stand up and speak out against injustices.”

. . .

During his speech on Monday, he laid out a tough prescription for Africa’s ills, calling for government cutbacks, more openness and less ethnic politics.

Kenya is one of the more developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the closest to the West, but it is consistently ranked by international organizations as one of the most corrupt.  Mr. Obama said this corroded its ability to attract investment, fight terrorism and provide security for its own people.

Most of all, he told Kenyans to stop complaining about the injustices of the colonial past and to accept responsibility.  “It’s more than just history and outside influence that explain why Kenya is lagging behind,” he said.

He ended by telling the crowd, “I want you all to know that as your ally, your friend and your brother, I will be there in every way I can.”

Many in the audience left in high spirits.

“He’s inspiring,” said Miriam Musonye, a literature professor.  “He really seems to believe what he says.”


For the full story, see:

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN.  "Obama Urges Kenyans to Get Tough on Corruption."  The New York Times  (Tues., August 29, 2006):  A10.