Maybe good art is defined by those with the money to buy it, but come on: Is there any justification for spending $8MM for a shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde?

If I had that kind of money to spend on modern art, I think at this point I would go with the fastest and most expensive production car ever — a relative bargain at $1.3MM.  After all, even if it was never driven off its display pedestal in your lobby, wouldn’t you feel a lot more proud of the Bugatti?

Congress’s Priorities on Gasoline

Why does Congress want to inflate the cost of gasoline in America?  Federal government has mandated that gasoline be oxygenated.  Until recently, this was done primarily with MTBE.  But MTBE is now considered a toxic chemical, and producers cannot protect themselves against the liabilities of producing it.  So gasoline manufacturers are stuck using the other oxygenate, ethanol, which in this country is extraordinarily expensive to produce and distribute.

Compounding our problems is the fact that domestic ethanol production is the lovechild of two of the most powerful and irrational lobbies in America: environmentalists and farmers.  As a result taxpayers are not only supporting absurd subsidies for its domestic production, but we are also raising the market cost of the fuel by maintaining a significant tariff on imported ethanol.  Other countries, like Brazil, can produce the stuff much more cheaply.  Allowing them to sell to us without penalty would help lower our prices and balance our markets.

Gasoline fuels our economy.  More expensive gasoline slows our economic growth.  Yet the federal government mandates oxygenates, cuts off the supply of MTBE, and artificially inflates the price of ethanol.

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Minimum Wage

The great thing about the Philadelphia Inquirer is that it saves conservatives the trouble of constructing strawman arguments. Witness today’s editorial on the minimum wage, which includes this gem: “Low-wage employers often have unfilled positions. Raising the wage rate could actually enable them to fill those jobs more quickly.” Brilliant! Those silly low-wage employers just need government to come along and remind them that if they offered more money they could get more employees. And since reminding isn’t working, let’s force them to offer higher wages. It’s a win-win situation!

Of course, the best response to the minimum wage is to point to the extremes: If $7.15/hour is better than $5.15, then wouldn’t $10 be even better? Why not $100?

I first wrote about the virtues of eliminating the minimum wage in 1994, in reponse to a challenge by my Macroeconomics professor Nordhaus to come up with a way of meeting a number of economic objectives:

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Billionaires for the Death Tax

The Boston Globe is one of many news organs to see the Buffett-Gates commitments to philanthropy as somehow buttressing those billionaires’ arguments in favor of maintaining a death tax. The real irony is that their charitable activities represent a shameless effort to avoid the tax. If they truly believed, as estate-tax advocates must, that an individual’s excess lifetime earnings belong to society through the government, then they would be writing big advance checks to the U.S. treasury, not frittering away billions each year with scholarships and research activities completely independent of our government.

Big Philanthropy

Thanks to Warren Buffet’s commitment, the Gates Foundation now has more than $60 billion at its disposal.  With resources of that magnitude under the complete control of a single individual, projects can be undertaken that are simply impossible to pull together when they require the resources and consent of large groups.

Yet while it has clearly identified its priorities (mostly in the fields of global health and education) the Gates Foundation often appears to lack focus.  For example, this year it has made more than 200 separate grants, some for as little as $1,000.  It has devoted more than a billion dollars to numerous educational scholarships.  These are all wonderful acts of charity, but their piecemeal nature squanders the benefits that could accrue from focusing massive resources on singular “moon-shot” projects.

For example, whether one philanthropist spends $1 billion endowing scholarships or one thousand donors each spend $1 million, the net benefit is roughly the same.  But the billionaire philanthropist could fund basic research and development efforts – say, in the fields of vaccines (which the Gates Foundation does) or alternative energy – that would never come together if they had to wait for the private donations of thousands of individuals to even get off the ground, or if they were subject to the political turbulence of government funding.

It is wonderful that these private fortunes are being devoted to charitable endeavors instead of fleets of solid-gold yachts.  But big philanthropy can make even greater contributions to humanity by focusing exclusively on the infrastructure, development, and research projects with such high barriers to entry that no one else can attempt them.

Prepare for Global Warming

Maybe global warming is happening, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s caused by people, maybe not. Maybe it’s not too late to stop it, or maybe we’ve begun an irreversible, cataclysmic descent into planetary conditions unlike any human beings have ever known.

There’s a lot we don’t know, but one thing I believe we do know is that if change is coming we can adapt. Even the most extreme scenarios suggested by global warming alarmists seem to give us a generation or two to watch as oceans and temperatures rise, storms become more violent, and local climates shift. Well, buildings are typically depreciated over forty years. It’s a shame to have to eventually abandon existing cities, but it’s not economically devastating. If we believe the worst then new buildings should all be hurricane-rated and built on ground that will not be underwater when all the polar ice has melted. Humans can relocate en masse over the course of a generation, and though we will lose land mass overall, plenty of previously uninviting regions will become desirable. Just make sure your Miami condo is a lease, and if you’re looking for a long-term real estate investment (and you believe in global warming) then buy land in Greenland, or Antarctica. Agriculture has been adapted to almost every climate on earth (especially warm ones). Even if farming and building technologies did not continue to advance, it seems hard to imagine a global warming scenario that would truly devastate our civilization.

In the worst case scenario, humans will have to make a lot of changes. These chages require economic productivity, and economic productivity depends on cheap energy. Fossil fuel is the cheapest energy we have right now, so let’s dig in!

Raise the Speed Limit

You can run with the herd your whole life and never get caught. The odds are in your favor, but if a predator is on the prowl someone will get taken down. It might be you. Life on the plains, or reality on America’s highways?

Everyone knows that on a clear day the flow of traffic on a modern highway is far in excess of the posted speed limit. Which raises the question: What is the point of our speed limits if nobody follows them?

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Marriage for All

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s front-page headline says it all: Same-sex partners fear losing rights.

If we are to turn marriage into a contract for state-sanctioned rights and benefits, why should it be limited just to people in sexual relationships? And why should it be limited to two people at a time?

The gay marriage proponents’ mantra, “All we want is the same rights given to heterosexual couples,” seems to fit with our nation’s democratic ideals of equality. But are these activists sincere? Do they support the extension of marriage rights to other adult couples currently forbidden from marrying? Shouldn’t, say, a parent and an adult child be able to exploit the healthcare, tax, and pension benefits of marriage? And what if a polygamous commune wishes to raise children: shouldn’t every husband, wife, and child be protected by the marriage contract?

If gay marriage activists truly believe that marriage should be a contract available to any committed group of adults, then let them say so. Such consistency is a powerful argument. But if they oppose the extension of those rights to people they themselves consider “deviant,” then let their hypocrisy condemn their campaign to failure.

Can It!

If you invented a device that could make any firearm both safer and more accurate, you’d probably expect to win praise from both sides of the political spectrum, and make a fortune in the process. You might even expect the federal government to pass regulations requiring such a safety device for all firearms and making it difficult or illegal to operate a firearm without one. You would be wrong.

I’m talking here about suppressors, also known as “silencers” or “cans.” These are devices that sit at the end of a firearm barrel to absorb the rapidly expanding gasses that propel a bullet. The most popular design consists of enclosed baffles – basically like a car muffler, but for your gun.

Suppressors are widely manufactured for all sorts of firearms. Some are built into the gun, while many others are light alloy devices that either thread or clamp on to the end of the barrel. Top manufacturers claim that their suppressors consistently increase the muzzle velocity and accuracy of a gun. How is that possible? The devices effectively extend the barrel length, giving the propellants extra time to accelerate the bullet. And the flat end of a suppressor can increase accuracy because it is like having a perfectly crowned muzzle.

Of course, the most well known effect of suppressors is to help “silence” the explosion of burning propellant, allowing firearms to be comfortably discharged without hearing protection and in enclosed spaces. And this seems to be the sticking point.

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