The Locker Room

August 16, 2004

Cuneiform or be cast out

Posted by John Hood at 9:47 PM

Let's continue the "Locker Room History of Mesopotamia" with this bit of prose from The Babylonians, a somewhat-misleadingly titled book that has become my bedtime reading this month. The book actually tells the entire story of the region, from prehistoric times to the onset of the Persian Empire.

The so-called "Third Dynasty of Ur" began in 2113 BCE -- several hundreds years after the tax revolt I wrote about recently -- with the restoration of Sumerian-speaking kings after the rule of Sargon (a Semite) and a period of outside invasion. Apparently, the new rulers were highly bureaucratic, as evidenced by the fact that archaeologists have found hundreds of thousands of tables of cuneiform (the Mesopotamian writing system that had a reed stylus making wedge shapes in clay). Most of the tablets have governmental decrees, business transactions, or economic data on them. There are so many that the contents of few have yet been published.

When I say "bureaucratic," I mean it:

Documentation became obsessive. Everything had to be documented, such as, on one tablet, an exact count of a certain kind of fish (2,740 of them) delivered as food for the temple dogs. Two sheep, dead from natural causes, were regarded as a matter requiring record. There was even documents recording that there was nothing to record.

Much as this sounds like it should be read in the voice of John Cleese.

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UNC-Charlotte prof not crying in the wilderness

Posted by John Hood at 7:39 PM

James Tabor, a religious studies professor at UNC-Charlotte, shows up occasionally on the History Channel programs I like to watch (never, never let anybody tell you there's nothing to watch on television -- they either lack cable/satellite or are woefully misinformed). Now Tabor has a new claim to fame: the excavation of a cave in Israel where John the Baptist may have annointed his disciples and spent much of his time during his ministry.

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fuzzy math

Posted by George Leef at 12:04 AM

Just today, I saw that a book has recently book published with the remarkably whiny title "Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?" Well, one reason might just be that kids graduate without knowing as much about math as fourth graders used to. Linda Shrock Taylor makes a terrific attack on the prevalence of "fuzzy math" in this article.

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Compassion and Price Gouging (corrected)

Posted by Dr. Karen Y. Palasek at 11:27 AM

Want the quickest possible relief from the effects of a natural disaster? Price gouging is the answer.

Hurricane Charley has devastated vast areas of Florida, creating a need for all kinds of repair and emergency materials. Predictably, the politics of price controls has reared its head, and is ready to create a second and third round of victims of the hurricane's blast.

Merchants are now to be prosecuted for price gouging--a pejorative term for selling goods at prices higher than they were prior to the hurricane's wreckage. Preventing prices from rising is a false remedy, as James Doti points out so well in The Market Economy: A Reader. Doti details his own experience during one of Chicago’s worst snowstorms, as weather-bound residents and grocers tried to keep provisions from running out before normal supply schedules could be restored. We may want to impute evil, greedy motives to these folks, but regardless of their moral status, higher prices are the right, and compassionate, route to follow.

Right now, higher prices in Florida reflect intense scarcity and the urgency of the demand for basic needs. Anti-price gouging laws will cause Floridians, many newly (and truly) homeless, to suffer needless extra delay in recovering property and reestablishing their basic as well as extended needs. Why? Suppliers outside Florida will be less able to respond to thier needs under price controls, and government will be deciding who is "needy" or "most needy," rather than the individuals who are directly affected by the disaster. Just ask the victims of Floyd, some of whom waited years for promised government aid in restoring their homes and property, how efficiently the process went.

Are merchants who "jack up" (another pejorative term) prices after a disaster following a path of greed, or good economic sense? Perhaps both, but good economic sense for sure. If we let the market do its work, supplies will race to the scene.

Many victims will need charity in the meanwhile, and agencies like the the American Red Cross, and other civic and church outreach efforts exist precisely because markets can't cover that part of the job.
In extraordinary times, it is essential to emphasize the role of emergency relief agencies, volunteer organizations, and goodwill. That's one good reason why we should support these agencies, both with cash and with our efforts, during "fat" times. They need to build the reserves they can use in a crisis. Businesses, on the other hand, should not be expected to become de facto charitable organizations, especially if we want them to remain viable engines of production and employment. Forced charity through price-fixing simply transfers wealth from business workers (not just business owners) to disaster victims.

It would be nice if every Florida and area merchant--themselves trying to support their families and make a buck--would donate time, materials and services to the needy in Florida. If they could afford to do so without impoverishing themselves and their families, or ruining their businesses, some surely would. Those that would not should not be criminalized. The sense of community and civic responsiveness has long been alive in the business community, even without the heavy hand of government wagging its finger and forcing "compassion."

Does a free-wheeling price strategy help the dispossessed? Most decidedly. Nothing brings additional supplies at the greatest possible speed than suppliers competing to get there first. True, it's more costly to bring in temporary housing, erect new shelters, supply emergency food, electricity, and sanitation from a distance. That's exactly why prices should be allowed to rise. As soon as additional supplies roll into town, local prices will tumble. In fact, nothing makes them tumble faster than letting the gougers set their own prices, bringing on their competition.

In the interest of public relations, many home centers do not charge more for generators, plywood, etc., after a disaster. National chains may be able to do this, for a while, by subsidizing extra costs in those areas with revenues from the rest of their operations. And the public relations surely doesn't hurt them. But few solvent operations can afford to be loss leaders, and it makes far more sense to ration by price than by government fiat or fistfights. A mandated constant-price strategy exposes the very businesses we need in these situations to the risk of bankruptcy, failure, or unemployment for their workers. That's not a compassionate strategy, or a smart one.

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Clueless Union Members at US Airways

Posted by Donna Martinez at 11:20 AM

Pity US Airways CEO Bruce Lakefield. His airline is reportedly teetering on bankruptcy unless new labor agreements are forged to cut costs. This would be the airline's second bankruptcy filing. Yet, labor unions continue to obstruct Lakefield's efforts to rescue the business. And according to this Washington Post story, union members are living in a dream world that somehow there is a giant conspiracy to allow a major investor to profit from a bankruptcy filing. Lakefield says he "remain[s] astounded" by that belief. But that's not even the amazing part of this story. Lakefield is furious, and rightfully so, because union leaders are repeatedly demanding a guarantee of profit-sharing benefits. Yes, folks, profit-sharing benefits. Said Lakefield: "The answer is pretty simple. If we file for Chapter 11 protection, nothing, and I repeat, nothing can be guaranteed -- especially a profit-sharing plan."

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PA Can't Handle the Truth

Posted by Paul Chesser at 08:28 AM

If you think the western world is getting the balanced story out of the Israel/Palestinian Authority conflict, then you need to read Jeff Jacoby's column today. A sampling:

On Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were shocked by footage of Palestinians dancing in the streets to celebrate the terrorist attacks on the United States. But those scenes disappeared from the airwaves soon after -- not because they weren't newsworthy, but because the Palestinian Authority gave orders to suppress them.

An Associated Press cameraman was summoned to a PA security office and warned not to release the material he had filmed. A top aide to Arafat told the AP's Jerusalem bureau that if the footage were aired, "we cannot guarantee the life" of the cameraman. Other news outlets were likewise ordered not to use any images of the 9/11 revelry. Most of them caved, and the images dried up.

Of course, that just scratches the surface.

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