Free Market? Sure, I’m Game.

milton-friedman-free-market

Finding a national consensus on matters like drug use, abortion and gun control is clearly a fool’s errand. Because we are, as a nation, so diverse and divided on matters of religious beliefs, ethical foundations and personal priorities, we will never – NEVER – come to a stable, lasting, nationwide accord on these issues.

Let’s start with drugs. Several states have decriminalized or even legalized marijuana use. Marijuana use was recently made legal in Washington and Colorado. Its use is not a criminal offense in more than a dozen other states. Others haven’t changed the legal status of marijuana and aren’t likely to.

The government of North Dakota recently passed anti-abortion laws that are considered to be the most restrictive of personal choice in the nation. New Jersey, along with states like Oregon and Nevada, has no active ban on the right of the mother to terminate pregnancy.  There are a number of workplaces (including hospitals) and schools affiliated with, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, which objects to contraception as sinful. Therefore, some of these church-affiliated institutions object to offering contraception as a part of employee or student health insurance. There are plenty of other employers and schools that have no issue whatsoever with offering contraception as a part of employee or student health coverage.

Guns control is an extremely emotional and divisive issue in the United States. This was demonstrated clearly last week when the Senate considered unsuccessfully a moderate proposal to nationally standardize required pre-sale background checks for firearms. Unrestricted private firearm ownership is considered nearly sacred by some of my fellow citizens but considered purely evil by others. In Alaska and Arizona, for example, gun ownership, and even carrying guns in public, is virtually unchecked. It is much more difficult to obtain a firearm in, say Connecticut or California, and nearly impossible to get permission to carry a firearm in public.

Now, we could all spend, like, forever trying to align on the ‘right’ approach to these policies but, in truth, we never will. Even if we rely on the courts to settle the ‘right’ approaches, they will not be settled permanently.

So, instead, let me propose something completely different – a solution driven entirely by free market principles. And it might look something like this.

The federal government tracks and posts accurate conditions reports on each state, listing up-to-date laws governing behavior on these ‘values’ issues. We, as consumers, decide where to live, go to school buy products, etc. based on those particular issues that matter to us.

If we want to smoke marijuana legally, we move to Washington or Colorado.

If we want to own the choices regarding our reproductive health, we don’t live in North Dakota or go to Notre Dame or St. Mary’s Hospital.

If we want to legally carry a firearm to the shopping mall, there’s always Arizona.

Now, the other side of market solutions is, states and employers and schools must be required to fully disclose their positions on these ‘values’ issues. Notre Dame University, for example, must have a statement in its marketing materials (alongside the intensely-focused cello player and the touchdown-scoring halfback) that says:

Dear Prospective Student:

This university is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, which considers contraception a sin. Therefore, our student health service does not and will not offer contraceptive services.

With that information fully disclosed, high school seniors can intelligently choose colleges that best align with their personal beliefs and priorities. Anticipate needing or wanting contraceptive services as part of student health? Notre Dame isn’t for you; go somewhere else.

I can imagine signs at state borders as well:

Welcome to Arizona.

We allow pretty much anyone to buy and carry a gun here.

Enjoy your stay.

If you don’t like being around a lot of people with firearms, you can always vacation in Massachusetts.

This is, of course, not a realistic proposal, for two major reasons.

First, when push comes to shove, institutions (states, businesses, colleges) are loathe to disclose their positions openly if it costs them money, tourists, students, or employees. Notre Dame is unlikely to tell promising high school seniors with non-Catholic values they should just look elsewhere. North Dakota doesn’t want to lose new businesses because of its position on abortion. And Arizona would literally starve to death if tourists stopped going to the Grand Canyon or baseball’s Spring Training because of its gun laws.

And second, so-called ‘values’ conservatives say they like the unfettered free market and personal liberty and all that, but what they really want is to force their agenda down the throats of everyone else. They don’t want Colorado to become a stoner’s paradise, not because they themselves don’t want to live in such a place, but because, according to their own personal values, marijuana is evil and no American should be allowed to partake.

So, for now, we’ll live with this endlessly boring political and judicial wrestle over ‘values’ issues, when what we really should do is just start erecting the new state border signs:

Welcome to Washington.

Flame on!

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Okay, One More Time From the Top

If we have a lot of crude oil supply, why are gasoline prices so high at the pump? In an article titled ‘Abundant crude supply doesn’t push gas prices down,’ the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Nalder goes from Alaska to Oklahoma to walk us through the tortured logic of the wonder that still exists in response to this elementary question.

Crude oil price fluctuations have little effect on short term gasoline prices. Know what has much greater effect? As an economy, America will buy a lot of gas, regardless of price. Our society is structured to virtually guarantee it. Economists call it inelastic demand.

For most normal goods and services, as prices rise, the amount of the good or service will fall. We tend to buy less of relatively expensive stuff. Gasoline, on the other hand, behaves more like goods people are addicted to, like…

Yeah, like cigarettes. Or…

That’s right, illegal drugs. We’re addicted to fossil fuels and no matter the price, we’ll use them, and a lot of them too.

So, let’s get it straight. As long as America, and other industrialized economies, are hooked on oil, prices will go wherever they can, no matter the price of crude, no matter the military or political condition in the Middle East, no matter who’s in the White House.

Got it now?

A Super Tuesday? Not So Much.

Today, of course, is Super Tuesday, when Republican presidential primaries are being held in Ohio, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Oklahoma, Idaho, North Dakota and Alaska. We’ll know soon enough whether the eventual nomination of Mitt Romney will be again delayed by the fringe of his own party.

Let’s check in about that tomorrow.

Last night, I re-read Choose Me, a wonderful late-night book (lots of pictures, few words) by brilliant photographer Arthur Grace. Grace captures the major presidential candidates of 1988 – you may remember: Bush (senior), Dukakis, Gephardt, Dole, etc. – in searingly truthful and completely revealing portraits.

Look carefully at these photos and see precisely what candidates work so hard to hide: boredom, disdain, insecurity, surrender to the inevitability of loss, lack of focus, immaturity. Grace’s work is an eye-opener, all the better for a bit of chronological and emotional distance from the campaign and the candidates.

Especially in this era of over-produced events, pre-packaged candidates, and sound-bite communication, you can see that plain old still photography gives us a way to see inside someone’s character and intellect that we in the general population don’t often have; short of being on the inside of an actual campaign, this is as close as most people are ever likely to get.

What might unguarded photos of today’s candidates tell us? What do these tell you?

Newt Gingrich

Ron Paul

Mitt Romney

Rick Santorum