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Small Fixes that Make A Big Difference - 2

Getting the government out lets markets grow - and the opposite too.

By Will Offensicht  |  September 20, 2010

In the first article in this series, we explained that mammoth pieces of legislation that attempt to solve a gargantuan problem all at one go, never ever work and usually make things much worse.  Instead, it's wiser to snip around the edges of problems one thing at a time, creating incremental improvements on the ground.

We presented two very small adjustments with the potential of large, beneficial consequences for health care and job creation.  Here are three more.

Safer Underground Mining

Mining disasters have been in the news lately.  A methane explosion in a coal mine in Montcoal, VA, is bringing a huge budget increase to the agency whose inspectors failed to prevent the explosion.  On another continent, the world is caught up in the fates of a group of Chilean miners who're trapped so far below ground that it's going to take months to drill a big enough shaft to rescue them.

South American engineers are working on a solution that will eliminate such disasters - take all the people out of the mine.

These engineers have noticed that the American military are making effective use of unmanned aircraft which are guided from command centers halfway 'round the world.  The bandwidth requirements for controlling a machine which breaks up rock and loads it into smaller vehicles which carry it to the elevators may or may not be higher than flying a high-speed combat aircraft in 3 dimensions, but this can be solved easily.  Unlike flying machines, miners can run fiber optic cables from the control center all the way to the mine face if they have to, or they can position wireless relay units here and there if that's cheaper.

As a technical problem, automating mining machinery is straightforward compared to designing, say, a Boeing 767.  The machinery would have to be redesigned for remote control, but Caterpillar has experimented with unmanned bulldozers which read CAD drawings and position themselves with GPS to sculpt earth and rock all by themselves.  In addition, automobiles have used fly-by-wire control systems for years, which makes remote control much easier.

This idea brings no technical risk at all, it's clearly doable.  The problem, in the US at least, is sociological.

The United Mine Workers has a much more violent history than even the UAW.  How will the leadership of the UMW react to the arrival of machinery which allows management to operate the mine from above ground?

It remains to be seen whether South American union leaders are more concerned with their workers' safety or with preserving their own political power.  This technology may have to be tried out in brand-new mines which aren't unionized, or perhaps in countries that currently have neither mines nor unions.  Didn't we just read something about massive mineral discoveries in Afghanistan, where most people don't really want to go anyway?

Drunk Driving

There is good news about DWI - alcohol related automobile deaths have declined from 26,173 in 1982 to 16,885 in 2005.  Regardless of how tight our laws get, however, drunk drivers keep killing people and our current programs are starting to level out.  There's a simple way to take another bite out of the problem - forbid stores to sell cold beer.

When someone buys a warm case, he's going to take it home and put it in the fridge.  The only reason someone would buy chilled beer is that he's going to drink it while driving.  If drinkers can't buy cold beer, drinking while driving will be chopped a bit around the margins.

This won't solve the problem, but it will help noticeably. Yes, expatriate Brits may still be tempted to swig behind the wheel as they like their beer warm anyway, but there aren't very many of them.

War on Drugs

The billions of dollars which Americans are willing to pay for illegal drugs are fueling a civil war in Mexico which the Mexican government may or may not win.  Despite some recent successes in capturing various drug kingpins, there's always going to be someone willing to take over the business and keep the drugs flowing.

Straight legalization has been tried in various countries with mixed results.  The Texan city of El Paso is trying to legalize drugs against intense opposition from Washington.  Even Mexico is considering legalization in an attempt to de-fund their drug gangs, but that won't solve the problem as long as illegal US demand remains high.

The solution is to have the American government take over the business and give drugs away for free.

The government's offerings won't be of very good quality which will keep demand down.  Fortune magazine demonstrated the appeal of this plan in an article "How Marijuana Became Legal" which reports on Irv Rosenthal, who's one of four (4) US citizens who get their medical pot for free from the US government:

Rosenfeld's weed is hardly connoisseur quality by contemporary California dispensary standards. The government grows its crops only sporadically, so it dries the harvested flowers and places them in cold storage. When I visited him in June, Rosenfeld was smoking marijuana harvested nine years earlier. Because Rosenfeld finds the government's cigarettes too dry, he unwraps them, rehydrates the marijuana by placing it in a container with lettuce, and then re-rolls his own joints, he says.

It's as if Rosenfeld were receiving vanilla ice cream joylessly made in the Soviet Union and stored for decades, when there's fresh Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough for sale just around the corner.

Still, Rosenfeld's not complaining. The government charges him nothing, so his only costs are medical consultations and pharmacists' fees -- about $50 a month. Subpar or not, the 8.3 ounces he receives every 25 days would cost him more than $2,000 on the street.

Fortune makes our case perfectly.  Free weed doesn't taste very good, but it competes favorably with the $2,000 it would cost on the street.  Nobody who doesn't need pot would apply to the government program, but the availability of free weed would make it much less profitable to market and sell pot.

Parenthetically, the government shut down its "compassionate-use" program some years ago; Rosenfeld was grandfathered and will receive free pot until he dies.  He's not going to be buying any pot from Mexican gangs; receiving his supply from the government takes $2,000 per month of revenue from the drug lords.

The important point is that free pot tastes lousy; you'd have to be desperate to use it at all.  Nobody will have an interest in hooking new customers.

There will be a market for carefully-grown pot, of course, but the high-priced pot will have to compete with the free variety which will eat into profit margins.

Going after the supply chain simply hasn't worked; the only way to really harm the drug lords is to cut off demand.  Since we don't plan to execute drug users as Singapore does, our only course is to choke demand by supplying the market with free, effective, but somewhat undesirable and flavorless government-issue pot.

Want To Kill Something?  Let The Government Do It

If you don't think this would work, consider NASA.  The space shuttle was supposed to be a cheap. reusable vehicle to get freight into earth orbit.  Instead, it became a fantastically expensive failure whose existence prevented commercial firms from replacing it.  Meddling extraterrestrials who wanted to keep humans earthbound could hardly have concocted a more effective way of doing so.

Now that NASA is withdrawing from the shuttle business, a host of commercial investors have sprung up - but they could be shut down in a moment if the government got back into the business.

Similarly, if the government gave pot away, they'd wreck the market and remove any incentive to find new users.  People would still grow and sell pot, of course, but without the billion-dollar market, this would take the criminal profits out.

People are willing to kill for the 1,000% mark-ups in the world of illegal drugs, but nobody would risk his life for the 10-20% gross margins which are more typical of normal retail.  Margins would be even lower if free product were available.

To date, government intervention has killed or retarded many markets.  Let's have them take a whack at illegal drugs!