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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Why is World War I so difficult?

I'm in a what seems to be interminable process of writing a chapter on World War I, and specifically coal and competition policy during the war. I started writing this chapter in August 2009, and it's still not done.

For some reason, I just can't get excited about it. All I can really say is that people didn't have enough coal, and they sometimes blamed coal dealers and operators for the shortage, but they also sometimes blamed the government and the fact that the county was at war. That's it. That's all. I mean, the war sort of served as a prologue to what came after, but my chapter on the 1920s will actually begin by looking at the antitrust reforms in Canada and the US that began around 1909 and ended (more or less) in 1914, which is the year the war started. [*****warning*****RETROACTIVE SPOILER ALERT****warning]

Saturday, January 8, 2011

On backpacks and getting older

I love my backpack. It enables me to carry a lot of stuff with me wherever I go and I can keep my hands free while I walk. It's an everyday backpack (not some mammoth hiking lover's thing), and it serves the same function as a purse does for others. I realize that wearing a backpack probably fixes me as the real-life caricature of your beer-loving, slack-jawed thirty-something graduate student who is "still working on my dissertation." (Cf. Bart Simpson's disturbingly apt take on the lifestyle.) But as long as it is professionally feasible and I am physically able, I'll continue to wear it.

The "physically able" part might, someday, be a challenge. A certain professor (probably in his 60s) I know and who I've TA'd for a couple times once commented on all the students who wear backpacks that they're taking their ability to wear backpacks for granted. This professor has back pains that prevent him from carrying anything too heavy, and he couldn't probably sport a backpack if he wanted to.

I'm not there yet. In fact, I have always (knock on wood) been physically healthy for the most part. But I can say that when I (at 37 years old) wear my backpack now, I feel it more than I used to. It doesn't hurt, and it's not too heavy, but I do feel it. I'm more aware of wearing it. As much as I like my backpack, I sometimes have a brief thought of "wouldn't it be nice not to have to put it on?"

By whom the offense cometh

One common theme of Mr. Zywicki's at the volokh conspiracy is to point out how new financial regulations at the state and federal levels tend to harm the very credit consumers that they are intended to help. The gist of his arguments: while making it more costly to provide certain loans (either through limitations on such impositions as late fees or limitations on interest rates), these regulations prompt lenders to restrict credit to more creditworthy folks or to shift costs onto those who have less. (For an example of the latter, see his linking to an article about the trend away from "free banking." Click here to read it.)

His most recent post (click here to read it) is about an initiative in Montana which effectively outlaws payday loans by drastically lowering the interest rates that lending facilities can charge. Mr. Zywicki says he holds little favor for payday lenders, but putting them out of business effectively denies choices to people rather than helps them.

There's a counter-claim to his claim, namely that the "real" problem is that people are drawn into an ever oppressive system of debt and repayment and that closing down these lenders puts an end to the enticement to this trap. I think this claim is fundamentally an empirical one that could plausibly be tested. I think such a test would show that in at least some cases, the claim proves true.

But none of this really denies Mr. Zywicki's claim. If some are helped by no longer being exposed to the trap of payday lending (and it's unclear to me how many customers of payday lending find themselves in an irresolvable debt-repayment trap and how many have been able to use the services a few times when cash was particularly tight and repay everything before the cycle becomes oppressive), some are, in effect, "harmed" by no longer having the option.

What Mr. Zywicki argues goes against my instinctive sense of what's just. But I think he is right, as much as I am disinclined to want to admit it. He himself notes that he is "no fan of payday lending and auto title lending." I am beginning to think that the morality of payday lending is a distinct issue from whether the state ought to ban it. As Lincoln said, quoting a passage in the Bible, "if it must needs be that offenses come, then woe unto the man by whom the offense cometh." (I myself ought not be pompous in claiming who's to blame for the offenses. One summer, I gave brief but serious consideration to applying for a job at a payday lending post: I had the requisite banking and cash handling and probably had a chance at getting the job.)

I do wonder, however, if there is some other way to prevent or at least curtail significantly predatory lending schemes. I do think one partial solution would be to encourage banks to take on more customers. (I blogged about this a while ago, click here to read it if you're interested.)

Experiments in Entertainment

I have an idea for a new TV drama that uses as its template the old Law & Order show. I'd call it "Original Order." The show's lead in would include a faceless voice saying:
In the library research system, historians are serviced by two separate but equally important groups, the graduate students who process the collections and the reading room staff who page the materials for patrons. These are their stories.