Thursday, March 29, 2012

Some Thoughts on "Racism"

What follows is an Op-Ed piece I wrote for the Orlando Sentinel 12 years ago..  My daughter is now 18.  I am not sure things have changed much in the last 12 years.

I took my 6-year old daughter to the Islands of Adventure theme park for a recent day of relaxation and entertainment. As it turns out, I also had the opportunity to teach her a little bit about life.

Toward the end of the day, we found ourselves on top of a boat that overlooked a ride based on the popular cartoon "Popeye.'' On the top level of this boat are several water guns that park patrons can use to shoot water at people riding on boats below.
At one point, a boat filled with exclusively with African-American youngsters came floating by. The people around us sprayed water all over these kids -- just like they had for every boat before and after -- but with different results. Most of the kids on this boat began screaming angrily that we were racists. This unfortunate outburst not only put a damper on the fun that people were having on this attraction, but it made my daughter ask, for the first time, what "racist'' means.
For the next half-hour, I explained to her what the term meant and why it is such a terrible thing when one group of people single out others with racial bias or hatred. She listened very intently, nodding when she understood and asking questions when she did not.

During the rest of our stay, I noticed that she kept a puzzled look on her face. When I asked her if something was wrong, she looked up at me with all of the innocence that a child her age should possess and asked, "Daddy, if we were spraying white people, too, why did they call us racist?''

I was taken aback by her very astute and obviously well-placed question. The real struggle was whether I should tell her the truth. You see, if I had decided to tell her the truth, I would feel compelled to tell her that some people in our country (Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton come to mind) have decided that everything negative that happens to a member of the African-American race is based on racism. Crime, homelessness, low incomes, teenage pregnancy and so forth are problems that have plagued the African-American community for years.

Unfortunately, rather than acknowledging some measure of personal responsibility for some of the problems that are pervasive among black Americans, some leaders of the African-American community choose sanctimoniously to play the race card and blame others for all problems that befall their followers.

Jesse Jackson and others have made a great deal of money convincing black people that they are and forever will be oppressed -- all the while black Americans who do not buy in to the race-baiting have continued to become more educated and more financially mobile in our free-market economy. As it turns out, we have learned that all races can contribute and that discrimination is an economically costly policy to follow.

Of course all of this would be over the head of a 6-year-old. So I did the best I could to tell her that maybe these kids had some bad experiences in their lives that make them think that innocent fun between blacks and whites is racist. Her response?

"Does this mean I can't have fun with children who are not white?''

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Government Education in Action

On a recent exam my students had the following question:

From the 'I, Pencil' essay, fully explain how Indiana will recover from its recent devastating tornadoes.  Adam Smith would argue that a completely privatized education system would lead to what outcome for American parents?  Fully explain.

In order to answer this question the student must have first read the classic essay mentioned in the question and of course, they must have read about the views of Adam Smith and the economics of public education as presented in their lectures and textbook.

Here is what one student wrote (as always I have not edited what follows for spelling or grammar):

"In India the tornadoes are becoming a majer issue for them.  They need American sadalights to keep a watch out for them.   The best idea is to get some kind of a radar. India has been ripped up with a tornadoes.  They will be able to come back from this by getting the people's help, raising taxes and finding other ways to rebuild.  The education system will help the children get smarter and become better people.  By this they can get the proper education to prepare for the next tornadoes."

So, how is your child's public school doing?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Liberals and Gas Prices

My apologies for posting a re-run but what follows is an Op-Ed piece I wrote on December 7, 2005.  Given the latest hysteria over gas prices I thought I would dust it off for your consideration.

One of the first requirements of being an economist is that you must be - by nature - a curious person. You have to want to understand things and you must be willing to ask questions that other people might not ask, even if it offends people to ask. So here goes.

I would like to ask my readers who are liberals for some help with a problem that I am having. The problem is figuring out what you want to happen to gasoline prices.

I recall when gas prices fell below $1 a gallon a few years ago that many of you liberals were complaining about all of the SUVs people were driving. You griped about how big the SUVs were getting and you said that cheap gas had encouraged us to not only ruin the environment by belching out air pollution but had also helped pay for terrorist activity in the U.S. and abroad.

This makes sense on many levels. As the price of gasoline falls, it naturally follows that people will buy more of it - often by purchasing bigger cars. You liberals are also right that burning gas causes air pollution and if we buy things that burn extra gas, nastier things will go into the air in larger and larger quantities. Finally, you are economically correct that the more fuel we buy the more money we unwittingly send to nations that use oil revenue to finance people who want to blow us up in our SUVs. So, on all counts, your economics is airtight. Congratulations.

Now we come to 2005. Gas prices rose to more than $2 per gallon and stayed there. After the hurricanes, the average price of unleaded gas topped $3 per gallon, but did not stay there. Today, gas prices are inching below $2.25 per gallon in many parts of the country and you are mad about gas prices again.

Why are you mad this time? Oh, I understand. Now that prices are going up you are upset that the greedy oil companies are reporting record profits. You are mad about the perceived price gouging that has taken place, and you are frustrated that poorer Americans now have a tougher time making ends meet because more money for Exxon-Mobil means less money for food.

In two out of three areas your economics is solid. Yes, higher prices for a product with an inelastic demand means higher profit for the seller. Yes, the law of opportunity cost and scarcity means that if I spend more money on one thing I have less money for the other thing. The price gouging claim is a poor one. If they can gouge us because we have no choices over what we put in our car and must buy gas, why have prices fallen by 80 cents per gallon this fall? Why not keep prices at $3 since we would buy it anyway?

Every economist knows that the demand for oil is increasing due in large part to our growing economy and the appetite for fuel in China and India. We also know that supplies are tight because new refineries were last built in the 1970s and government-mandated additives has made it more expensive to make gas. Plus, the hurricanes set aside a big part of supply.

Getting back to your economics, I want to applaud you for being right about what happens when prices fall and what happens when prices rise.

What I don't understand is this. If lower prices makes the air dirty - which is bad - won't higher prices make the air cleaner? If high prices hurt the poor and line the pockets of oil company fat cats, don't lower prices help the poor and deny those fat cats more money?

I am suggesting that you liberals pick your favorite gas price argument and stick with it. You cannot complain about the environment and the budgets of the poor and the profits of greedy corporations all at the same time without sounding like a bunch of idiots.

It is time to choose whether you want lower prices or higher prices.

Thank you for your time.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Beauty of Baseball

Tonight my youngest son will begin another season of Little League baseball.  He and his older brother have played this game for many years and I have had the pleasure of coaching them during this time. 

While video games, cell phones, facebooking, skateboards and seemingly a million other things now dominate the time and energy of America's youth, one constant remains that, in part,  makes America great.  That is the game of baseball.

Think about it for a moment.  Baseball is the only sport where there is no clock.  In football, hockey, basketball, soccer and other sports, one team can get a lead and "run out the the clock" on the other team.  In baseball you always get your last chance at bat, no matter the score.  If you keep scoring the game can go on and on until you can no longer push across any more runs.  How is that for "fairness"?

Speaking of fairness - look at baseball players.  Name another sport were such a wide disparity in height, weight, shape and size, speed and agility takes place?  In baseball you can be 6'10" and skinny as a stick (see Randy Johnson) or 5'4" and stocky (see Freddy Patek).  You can be shaped like a pear (Rick Reuschel) or shaped like a Greek statue (see Barry Bo......o.k., not him but there are many others).  You can be really fast (Vince Coleman) or be timed in the 60-yard dash with a sundial (see pitchers and catchers).    The point is, baseball, more than any other sport, rewards skill rather than athletic ability. 

You want proof?  Michael Jordan might be one of the greatest athletes in the history of the world.  He was horrible at baseball!  He could not use his vertical leap or quickness to overcome the fact that he could not hit a curve ball.

More proof?  Suppose an NFL quarterback completed only 30% of his passes. Released.  Suppose an NBA guard made only 30% of his field goal attempts.  Gone.  In baseball, if you get a hit three out of every ten times at bat, you are first called great then you are called to go to Cooperstown.    Think of it  - 70% of the time you fail and you are a star.  Name another sport where you can fail that much and be a legend.   That is because of the skill it takes to use a round bat and hit a round ball squarely past nine defensive players after the ball has been thrown by someone who knows where it is going, how it might drop or slide or dance from only 60 feet, 6 inches away (and only 46 feet in Little League).

Baseball is also the only game where the defense starts the play with the ball.  Baseball has provided some of the greatest names in the history of sports - see Urban Shocker, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, "Cool Papa" Bell, Wee Willie Keeler, Pete Rose (send me your favorites) and some of the best sports movies (Field of Dreams, The Rookie, Pride of the Yankees).  Moreover, baseball has given us some of the greatest speeches of all time.  See Lou Gehrig on July 4, 1939 or Ryne Sandberg's Hall of Fame speech.  These and other classics are indicative of the type of people who make up this game.

Baseball is also the most fan friendly game.  I will not take my sons to an NFL game until they are old enough to defend their lives from other fans in the stands.  I took them to their first NBA game last Thursday in Orlando and the language was so bad I had to spend the night either talking to other people about knocking it off or listening for the latest potty-mouth who was going to begin talking like a sailor. 

At a baseball game you usually find people (except for Yankee or Dodger Stadium where the fans are not people) who are pretty relaxed, civil and interested in the game rather than seeing how many beers they can drink in 12 minutes.

Finally, baseball teaches humility.  Because it is so hard to learn and so hard to get good at and so hard to stay good at, kids learn pretty early that you have to humble yourself in the face of setbacks, pull yourself together and move on with greater effort.  That is what life is like too, which is why I am glad my sons keep playing this game.  Some day when their careers are over they will find that baseball has prepared them to be better workers, dads and men because of the character-building nature of the game.

Good luck tonight, son...