Friday, April 29, 2011

What's sympathy got to do with it?

The people I am studying for my dissertation are, mostly, coal dealers, and they are not especially a sympathetic bunch. The key word is "especially." They were not evil or vicious (most of them), but like almost everyone else on this planet, they have not sacrificed their lives for the well-being of others without asking for anything in return.

They enjoyed more privilege than not relative to most of their neighbors and to other workaday Americans and Canadians. (I should point out that I am studying the "established" coal dealers and not the more marginal coal peddlers, whom the established dealers derided as "snowbirds" but who probably provided a service to many a consumer.) Some, of course, like Elias Rogers and his son, Alfred Rogers, in Canada and Francis Peabody in the U.S., enjoyed vast wealth (and even owned their own mines) and undoubtedly own their share of the blame for the sometimes violent labor disputes in the mines they owned and profited from.* Others, like the less famous small coal retailers, were more like the modern day convenience store owners who find themselves competing with grocery store chains and Walmarts, while still others fell somewhere in between.

A recurring theme in what I am studying are the ways in which these coal dealers engage in practices to limit competition and the ways in which the state exercises "competition policy"--with a focus on antitrust (U.S.) or anti-combines (Canada) policy, although I am also looking at licensing regimes and older policies such as laws against "forestalling the market"--to punish them for these attempts or to regulate the way in which they make these attempts. Here are the types of practices most of these coal dealers engage in:
  • Monopolizing local markets by cornering the market on coal within a very few hands under the command of a single firm. (Here I use "monopolize" to mean "gain control of all or most of the commodity in a given market," and not "to secure an exclusive right from the state to trade in the monopoly.")
  • Collusion with wholesalers to limit bulk sales only to "legitimate" retailers, legitimate being defined as "membership in local coal associations predicated on abstaining from 'price cutting' and from other 'trade abuses.'"
  • Setting prices, either outright through price-setting conferences (more common in the 1880s and 1890s), or through some form of what by the 1910s became known as "open prices associations," where information on prices and costs was pooled in some central publication that factors in the industry could then use to determine how to set their costs.
  • Labor-management agreements that regulated coal prices indirectly by standardizing labor costs. These agreements ranged from industry-wide (or almost industry-wide....West Virginia was a major exception until the 1930s) contracts ("joint agreements") between operators and the United Mine Workers, to local-market specific contracts between coal dealers and the local teamster's union(s). These local contracts usually involved some sort of exclusivity: dealers pledged to use only union labor while the workers pledged to work only for "fair" coal dealers.
The first practice almost never happens. In the soft coal industry, it was almost impossible to attain anything like a monopoly and only in very rare, very exceptional circumstances, and then only in a single (and small) market, could anything like a local monopoly on soft coal exist. In the hard coal industry, "monopolies" (using my looser definition) were a bit more common. Even then, they usually depended on the cooperation of wholesalers and retailers who were not owned/licensed by the anthracite operators; and even then, there were some hard coal operators (the "independents") who were not part of the monopoly. More to the point, hard coal had to compete with soft coal, with fuel oil (after 1900, and especially after World War I), with natural gas, and with hydroelectric power. I should say that attempts to use antitrust policies against these "monopolies" usually failed to meaningfully end them; but such policies were not necessary anyway to this end: these "monopolies" usually fell apart within a year.

For the other two practices, which, as the antitrust laws evolved, became increasingly "per se" violations--actions that by definition were violations of the antitrust laws and not subject to what became known as the "rule of reason" jurisprudence--antitrust laws were used much more aggressively and much more "successfully," if success is measured by conviction rates, having those convictions upheld in higher courts, and preventing at least the most flagrant violations.

The fourth practice--labor agreements--were sometimes subject to antitrust and other actions, and sometimes not, but they were more durable and enjoyed, sometimes, more state support.

(The New Deal is an interesting exception to all these points. The National Industrial Recovery Act not only legalized many cartel agreements, but made them legally enforceable. And even after the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional (and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England, which had jurisdiction over Canadian laws, declared a similar program, proposed by Prime Minister Robert Bennett, "ultra vires," or beyond the lawmaking powers of the Canadian government), new laws in the U.S., like the first and second Guffey Acts, as well as labor laws, like the Wagner Act and Ontario's Industrial Standards Act, had the effect, sometimes, of tolerating, if not imposing, cartel-like behavior.)

Now, back to my original point. The dealers involved are not especially sympathetic people. The workers--the coal handlers/teamsters who delivered the coal and the miners who extracted it--traditionally evoke more sympathy, probably because their circumstances were presumably more marginal and because their livelihood depended on a boss and on the vicissitudes of a labor market. (Some of this has been challenged. Fishback's Soft Coal, Hard Choices explores some of the options of geographic mobility that at least some workers enjoyed. My point is that traditionally, the workers have evokee more sympathy.)

One of the many criticisms of antitrust laws, at least the criticisms that rely on sympathy for the targets of the laws, focuses on the apparent unfairness of how these laws affect the most marginal peoples. In the case of the coal industry, this would be the miners and the drivers, and their unions' subjection to the laws. One thinks of the incarceration of labor leader Eugene Debs in part under authority of the Sherman Act** and of the Danbury Hatters' Case, in which the Supreme Court held each individual member of the hatters' union individually liable for all the damages caused by the union boycott, held to have been an action "in restraint of interstate commerce." Sometimes, small business owners and farmers are also viewed sympathetically as hapless--and presumably unintended--"victims" of the laws. But outside of the coal trade journals, hardly anyone seems to have had much sympathy for the coal dealers and coal operators, even though some of at least the smaller retail coal dealers were the sorts of proprietary capitalists people sometimes have in mind when they talk about "small business owners."

Now, I'm not trying to uplift the coal dealers from the coal dust bin of history and say yes, they, too, need sympathy. But I am bothered by the apparent arbitrariness of antitrust policy. It's not just that the policy outlaws things not normally considered crimes, at least not if we take a step back and think about them for a while.*** It's that many business transactions people might consider legitimate could be a violation of antitrust policy, and violators are often prosecuted only when they do something that offends people's moral sensibilities.

These "moral sensibilities" are offended usually in one of the following circumstances: when people believe the price of coal is too high; when people believe the supply of coal is inexplicably low; when people believe the employees of the coal operators and coal dealers are getting a raw deal and need to be paid more (but not so much more as to raise prices too much). Added to the "moral sensibility" was the fact that coal was such a necessity, especially in colder climes. It seems to me, albeit only on impressionistic evidence (because I have not studied it systematically), that only eggs, bread, and especially milk--their prices, supply, and quality--evoked more emotion than coal. Newspapers recounted sufferings of especially poorer people during times of coal shortages of high prices, and these accounts, while probably sensationalized, were also probably true.

But here's my question, something I'm trying to wrap my head around: is it "just" to have a law predicated on the notion that someone could be prosecuted at any time for its violation without any showing of intent or mens rea? This question is, of course, a question-begging question (what my college logic teacher might have called a "complex question"). It assumes that my characterization of the law (that it outlaws what people out of necessity are always going to do anyway and therefore is enforced only when people's sensibilities are implicated and an "example" is to be made of someone) is accurate. My also assumes that my characterization is exceptionally accurate [see update below]: all human-made laws, to some degree, have a certain amount of vagueness and arbitrariness to them: if lines are to be drawn, they have to be drawn somewhere; if offenses have to be defined there are always going to be cases that don't clearly fit within the definitions; if laws have to be enforced, limited resources dictate that they will be enforced with at least some degree of selectivity: is the case of antitrust laws just a problem inherent in all human-made laws, or are these laws exceptionally bad, even taking into account the weakness of our fallen nature?

I hope to write, in another post, on the justness of such a law, assuming, of course, that my characterization of it is accurate. In particular, I will want to write, if/when I have the time, on what circumstances would be necessary to prevail in order for such a law to be just.

Update 4-29-11: Ugh! I wrote that the question was partially whether my "characterization" of the law was "exceptionally accurate," when I meant and should've wrote something more like: if the law is as I describe it, to what extent are its faults unique to it, or to laws in general? Of course, if any characterization I make is indeed accurate, such an accuracy would, with my convoluted writing, be indeed exceptional.

*I am not trying to deny the culpability of miners who killed or injured strikebreakers in such depressing debacles as the "Herrin massacre," but I am saying that the mine operators share some non-trivial responsibility for putting people (strikers and strikebreakers) in such desperate circumstances.

**The appeals court upheld Debs's incarceration partly on the ground of violating the Sherman Law. The Supreme Court, in upholding the appeals court decision, declined to opine (nice rhyme, mine and not thine!) on the Sherman Act, preferring to rest its decision on Debs's purported interference with interstate commerce and the federal mails.

*** Price-setting seems pernicious, with a whiff of conspiracy and backroom deals among portly, cigar-smoking, mustachioed men in suits about to down some brandy to celebrate foreclosing on an orphanage. But if one accepts that a business owner may set his or her own prices, then it is at least a bit challenging to decide why, in principle, two or more people may not agree to set the same price. I'm not saying such behavior necessarily ought to be legal, but only that the case for the oughtness of its illegality is not necessarily so clear cut as it might seem at first.

Do I "need" a TV?

As I've said earlier, I've been reading the letters of C. S. Lewis. Writing around 1953, he explains, in one of his letters, why he chooses not to buy a TV (it causes people to spend so much of their time huddled in front of it, to the exclusion of doing other things, like reading or taking walks), and he wonders at the way in which such items as TV's become seen as "necessities." He mentions a current cost-of-living survey that included the cost of financing a TV as part of one of life's necessities (again, this is c. 1953, when TV's were still in their infancy, and at a time when some more basic articles, like sugar and stationery, were still subject to a post-World War II rationing regime).

I am now in the situation where I "need" a new TV, assuming I need one at all. My current TV, a hand me down from a friend from a couple years ago, now turns off at random moments and needs to, I guess, cool down or something for 5 minutes before I can watch it again. It turns off more frequently when I watch DVD's (apparently the DVD technology is too much for this 1997 television).

But do I "need" a TV? There were times of my life where I was without a TV and although I sometimes missed it, I survived and thrived. In fact, to the extent that I "need" TV to stay informed, I could watch most of my news programs online (the Newshour, Chicago Tonight, Washington Week, Inside Washington, etc., are almost all available for free).

Of course, this is the internet age. Some times in the past when I had no TV were, at least for me, pre-internet. There were still, of course, newspapers, but I didn't read them that much. I remember one day in April, 1993 seeing headlines in a local Fort Collins paper (where I was an undergrad) with a huge complex and a companion picture of Janet Reno claiming "responsibility" for it. It was still only days later that I learned about what had gone on at Waco, even though the stand-off had been going on for weeks.

All that, of course, is prelude to saying that I have access to the internet now and that the added expense of a TV is even less arguably necessary for me (I would know about the next Waco within minutes of it happening; of course, I hope it never happens again). Whether access to the internet is a "necessity" is a trickier issue. I probably get as much of my news from reading blogs as from the news shows I mentioned above. (I also get an undisclosed proportion of my news through yahoo! links and AP releases, although I do not always look at them with an appropriately critical eye.) Also, access to email is, if not a "necessity," something that is very helpful for an aspiring yuppie like myself (how old does one have to be before one is no longer a young urban professional?) Finally, my dissertation-writing process is helped by regular access to the internet: I do a non-trivial amount of my primary source research online (through databases of newspapers that would be otherwise difficult or impossible to access here in Chicago); I also have, through my university's library website, access to a wealth of articles from academic journals (previously, I would have had to spend valuable dollars making copies of articles that I would never read; now I can skip a step in the process and simply download those same articles as pdf files before I don't read them).

The short answer (now that I've given the long answer) is that I really don't "need" a TV.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

On taking a position

Somewhere in my blog-reading career--I think it was on a thread at the Volokh Conspiracy or at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, although I don't remember exactly--one commenter wrote that atheism and theism were not "arguments," but positions that one takes. I think I agree, and I would add (heck, I will add) that agnosticism can/should be viewed in the same light. What I mean is, that each of these ism's takes a certain position for which it tries to argues or through which it processes evidence. (I am using "it" as a shorthand for those who believe in the athe- / agnostic- / the-ism). Here are the essential positions I see each ism taking:
  • Atheism: there is no god.
  • Agnosticism: it is impossible to know if there is a god or the jury's still out on whether there is a god.
  • Theism: there is a god.
Now, this brief summary of positions leaves unanswered and undefined certain terms and questions: what kind of "god" are we talking about? what does one mean by "know"? who is sitting on the jury?

There are facts and arguments in support of each of these positions, and I tend to believe that these positions are not so hard and fast. Most atheists I have known, even the strident, proselytizing ones, admit that it's logically possible that a god of some sort might exist and that there might come a day where they might be proved wrong. Many theists I have known, although not necessarily the proselytizing ones, admit, on some level, that they might be wrong. Agnostics, perhaps by definition, seem to admit of the possibility of knowing one way or the other.

I am basing the preceding assertion based on what people of "goodwill" who take these positions would say. ("Goodwill" is a hard thing to define, and I'm not even a Kantian! I imagine that by "goodwill" I mean some question-begging definition that identifies "goodwill" as being willing to acknowledge discomfirming evidence.)
tend to believe that knowledgeable and curious people of goodwill who take such positions will acknowledge the discomfirming facts and arguments as well as the ones that tend to confirm the argument.

I'm not sure where I'm going with these thoughts, but I thought I'd put them out there.

Public service really is (at least sometimes) service to the public

I am a graduate research assistant at the university where I am a graduate student (there's a redundancy in there somewhere, but I've a cold and don't feel like correcting it or making this already-too-long sentence as pithy as it ought to be). My job involves processing a collection of papers from a local governmental agency and as a result, I run across a lot of papers from the Cook County government. (N.b.: 1) I am not saying I am processing the official papers of the Cook County government papers, just that I run across some such papers in the course of my processing; 2) for those who don't know, Cook County is where Chicago is; so it's a pretty important county.)

Almost nothing that I see is particularly interesting. Indeed, much of it is quite boring: I'm talking land deeds, legal descriptions of property, workaday correspondence about such exciting matters as plats of wells and highway easements. There really isn't anything incriminating, either, despite that county's reputation for corruption. (I don't deny the corruption was there, but I am saying that the evidence for it hasn't made it into the collection I am processing.)

My point is this: much of the work is tedious [see update below], but it's work that someone has to do, and it is work that helps our economy move along. A multitude of things would be much more difficult, or even impossible, if we did not have people, including elected officials, take care of such mundane things.

I write this because I occasionally hear about how public officials really don't perform a public service at all, but simply leech off the public. Their jobs are hard, and not one I would enjoy having. What I mean is, for all the sturm und drang about who's hiring who, who's breaking what election laws, who's caving in to which special interest, there's a lot of hard work that these people are doing and it should at least be recognized.

Of course, there are qualifications: county commissioners and county presidents have lawyers and accountants and deputies at their disposal who are civil servants and who do a lot of the grunt work. I realize that when the county president signs a report on property lines, he or she did not necessarily read or understand it fully. But he or she has to deal with this stuff all day long and is held (rightly) accountable for signing off on it. A lot of government work is dreary and grim.

Of course, also, there are problems. I'm not denying that some very bad things happen. Even without corruption, not all benefit from these practices of government (just ask anyone whose property has been condemned and who didn't receiving anything like a "just compensation," or worse, whose property has been declared a "blight" and received even less). If we factor in the corruption, well....things just get really bad for a lot of people (but pretty good for a few). Finally, even without the corruption or the perverse results and differential benefits of government policy, there's the megalomania of the local politician who wants his or her hands in everything and who wants to mayor? to governor? to president?

But there is a real service provided.

Update 4-29-11: When I wrote above that "much of the work is tedious," I was referring to the paperwork performed by the county-level government officials and not to the work I was doing. Similarly, when I said that such work was "is work that helps our economy move along," I definitely wasn't referring to my job. I'm grateful for it, but it's not the most pressing need of the ages.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stupid survey answers

There's a survey organization for which I fill out online surveys from time to time. (In exchange, I receive "points" that I can accumulate to get a gift card to some local restaurant or retailer.) Most of the questions are based on my choices as a consumer, asking questions like how many lawn mowers or automobiles or power saws I've bought in the last 6 months.

Sometimes the questions are attitudinal (again, mostly related to consumer choices). So, for example, they might give me the name of a fast food place and a statement regarding that chain, like "X restaurant has my best interests at heart" or "X restaurant is the type of place I want to be seen at." The answers are multiple choice and are put on a scale, for example, and sometimes they are expressed in terms of whether I "agree" with the statement:
  • Strongly agree
  • Slightly agree
  • Neither agree nor disagree
  • Slightly disagree
  • Strongly disagree
What I dislike about this choice is that "slightly agree" and "slightly disagree" are meant to be the next step to the "strongly agree" and "strongly disagree." However, in everyday conversation, if I say I "slightly agree" with something, I usually mean that I almost don't agree with it at all; and if I say I "slightly disagree" with something, I usually mean that I agree with it almost completely except for, say, one or two qualifications.

What's up with that?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

TuhRAHnuh ay

Not that I've written much in the past couple weeks, but I'm writing now to say I'll be out of town for about a week and a half because I'm going on a research trip to Canada.

I hope that this will be the last major research trip for my dissertation. I've done one trip already to Toronto, and have done 3 trips to Ottawa. Even though the Canadian part of my topic is focused on Toronto, the Ottawa archives have a wealth of Toronto and Ontario newspapers as well as being a warehouse of federal records relevant to my topic. I was tempted to go to Ottawa a fourth time (it's a pleasant town, with enough but not too much hustle and bustle), but there are some municipal and provincial documents that I could find only in Toronto.

Research trips are expensive, but I like them (I guess that's like saying "expensive luxuries are expensive, but I like them"; however, some expensive things, like sushi or cars, I don't like at all, so it doesn't follow that being expensive means ipso facto that it is to be liked). There's something nice about having a reason other than tourism to be where one is traveling, about being able to tell the customs person that I'm coming to their country "for business," even if it's the pathetic "business" of researching a law that most Canadians don't seem to know exist. (I recently talked to a law professor from Canada who didn't realize that her country had an "antitrust policy"....that's in part because in Canada, the relevant laws are called "Combines legislation." Once I said that, she knew exactly what I was talking about.)

Of course, I've been a tourist before, and I'll do touristy things this time around. My girlfriend has graciously agreed to spend her vacation there with me, and it'll be nice to have the company, and we'll probably do some of the touristy things there.

It will be interesting to be in the country now that Canada is about to have a round of parliamentary elections. I know someone who has the same last name as the current prime minister, so it'll be interesting to watch the political ads pro and con about "Mr. Harper."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

On reading C. S. Lewis's letters

I have begun reading a compilation of C. S. Lewis's letters. There are three volumes, and I have started with volume 3, which covers the years 1930 through, I think 1963 or so, because that is the time period that interests me the most: that was when he wrote the Narnia chronicles and when he met Joy Davidman-Gresham, whom he later married. I have only read through the first year or so of the letters (they are ordered chronologically) through March 1951, and here are some observations:
  • I probably should've started with volume 1.
  • One very interesting thing is that as late as 1950/1951, the UK economy was still suffering from wartime scarcities, and many commodities were still being rationed, even though the war ended in 1945. (This shouldn't really be a surprise. In my own research on World War I, the US federal government control over the coal industry continued up to the beginning of 1921, more than 2 years after the armistice. Als0, from what I know about the "reconversion" process in the US, it, too, was very fitful and as late as 1948 or so, if I'm not mistaken, either the federal government continued to ration at least some goods, or at least there were wage and price controls in some sectors of the economy.)
  • Letter writing is a hard and time-consuming art to engage in.
  • Lewis occasionally reveals personal and moral weakness in ways that one doesn't see in his published writings. I have read most of his published fiction and most of his published Christian apologetics, as well as some of his unpublished work (I have read none of his literary criticism). And in those works, while he never claims moral perfection, one doesn't see specific examples of his personal challenges. In these letters--obviously mediated several times through by the fact that this compilation is edited and that he is speaking to a particular audience and writing in a particular form--he confesses to times, for instance, when he was too tired and stressed to help a student who had just received a poor showing on his examinations.