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October 2003

One of the persistent criticisms of Microsoft is that it "steals" great ideas from little firms. It allegedly can get away with this because of its huge size and monopoly power. (Either or both, depending on the critic.) But consider this similar complaint lodged against . . . noble Apple.

A new reason to fear and loathe and Wal-Mart and a virtuoso display of idiocy:

"I don't like what Wal-Mart stands for," said Cynthia Munson, a mother of two and a real estate broker in Aurora. "I don't like that they are taking over the planet. I don't like that they are putting other people out of business. I don't like that their employees' wages are so low."

Munson lives near a shiny Super Wal-Mart stocked with every item imaginable, but she finds plenty of other places to shop. If she's paying more for goods, or driving further as a result of this philosophical choice, she doesn't notice.

Wal-Mart's treasure-hunt atmosphere doesn't lend itself to wise shopping anyway, she says. Low prices lure the undisciplined into all kinds of unplanned purchases. [Emphasis added.]

Ralph Peters makes short work of the "Iraq is Vietnam all over again" argument. There is, he writes, only one way the analogy is valid:

THERE is only one way in which the situation in Iraq resembles Vietnam: Our enemies realize that they can't win militarily. This is a contest of wills much more than a contest of weapons. The terrorists intend to wear us down.

Our enemies are employing media-genic bombings to leap over our soldiers and influence our political leaders and our elections - just as the Vietnamese did. The suicide bombers themselves are deluded madmen, but the men behind the terror campaign calculate that, if they can just maintain a sufficient level of camera-friendly attacks, our military successes and all the progress of our reconstruction efforts will be eclipsed by a mood of dejection in Washington.

Two of the questions students can select for one of the required essays on the 2004-05 undergraduate application to the University of Chicago:

If you could balance on a tightrope, over what landscape would you walk? (No net.)

"One of the very nicest things about life," as Luciano Pavarotti once said, "is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating." Pavarotti, in all of his well-fed wisdom, suggests that eating and meals are a separate kind of activity--often a break from the work and play of life. Yet food and meals sustain our lives in many ways every day. Tell us about an ordinary food or meal that may seem mundane to the rest of the world but holds special meaning for you. Think about how the food is prepared, packaged, or served and by whom. Do you eat it in a distinctive manner? At a special time? In a certain place or with select company? Most importantly, explain how this everyday food sustains or satisfies you in a way that another food or meal could not.

France opposed our plans for Iraq and criticized us severely. Some Americans--particularly in the blogosphere--called for a boycott of French products. Question: is there evidence of a boycott in the foreign trade figures?

Using the online data provided by the U.S. International Trade Commission, we can take a first cut at an answer. For January through August 2003, the dollar value of U.S. imports from the European Union countries rose 8% over the same period of 2002. Of the 15 EU countries, imports rose by double-digit percentages in 9, single-digit percentages in 3, and declined in only 3. But one of those declining 3 was France. Evidence of a boycott?

It appears not. All of the unusual behavior of French imports comes from just two trade categories: aircraft, and turobjects and gas turbines. And for both of these categories, 2002 imports were noticeably lower than 2001 imports--that is, they were falling before the French started giving us grief over Iraq. (What happened in these two categories is left as an exercise for the reader.) The category that seems to me to be most subject to pressure from angry U.S. consumers--beverages, including wines and liquor--rose year over year during Jan.-Aug. 2003.

These numbers are just merchandise imports; they wouldn't pick up, for example, a fall in the number of Americans visiting EuroDisney. And "further research is needed." But this first looks finds less drama that one might have thought.

Today's prestigious Abuse of Economics award goes to Professor Brant T. Lee, U. of Akron School of Law, for "The Network Effects of Whiteness." No link I could find, but here's the abstract:

Network economic analysis provides an important and intuitive explanation of racial inequality. In short, Whiteness is Microsoft's Windows operating system, or the QWERTY keyboard, or the standard (non-metric) measurement system, and difficult to dislodge for many of the same reasons. Network effects explain how the establishment of a dominant market standard 1) can be contingent on historical context, 2) does not necessarily derive from superior intrinsic merit, and 3) exhibits strong self-reinforcing characteristics that can maintain the dominance of the standard in perpetuity, even in the absence of any explicit or conscious determination to maintain it. All of these factors are present with regard to the economic and cultural dominance of Whiteness in the United States.

Whiteness works like a network standard in three important ways: 1) increasing returns to scale arising from communication standards drive markets toward a single dominant racial standard; 2) various kinds of positive feedback in complementary markets make the dominance of the Whiteness standard "sticky," or resistant to change; and 3) the establishment of Whiteness as the dominant racial standard is due to historical events rather than to any inherent or natural qualities. This insight casts new light on mainstream explanations of racial inequality, supporting the critique that: 1) current racial inequality is not the result of unequal "merit," but is the legacy of history; and 2) no racist intent or conspiracy is required for this inequality to continue - rather, specific intent and determination is required to dislodge it.