Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hauling Lee Away on a Flatbed Truck

Maryland had mused for years about what to do with its Confederate statues. Surely they didn’t quite belong in a state that believed in equality, had long since abolished slavery, and could claim only the weakest historical ties to the Confederate side in the Civil War. Then last weekend a Nazi army descended on Charlottesville in the neighboring state of Virginia, beating and killing local people, threatening to destroy the town, and doing enough harm to ultimately affect everyone in the local area. It was a Confederate monument that drew the Nazis and their allies to Charlottesville. The Nazis intended to argue against its proposed removal, and though they had their say, they made their point a self-defeating way.

Overnight, every town that had a Confederate monument wished it did not. Would the Nazis strike their town next? Would they carry through on their threats to burn the town down this time? In this context, Maryland’s Confederate statues became a clear and present danger, an imminent threat to public safety. How many people might the Nazis kill if they came to Baltimore? With the Nazi groups heavily armed, it was easy to imagine a pitched battle with hundreds of people dying, but even one or two deaths would be too many. Officials collected the necessary approvals. Last night, cranes picked up the statues and loaded them on flatbed trucks. By 5 a.m. the four Confederate monuments in Baltimore had been taken away. Officially, their whereabouts are unknown. It does not seem likely that they can be safely stored anywhere, so one hopes they can be melted down and converted to something constructive.

The outcome might seem paradoxical. The Nazis are arguing against the removal of Confederate statues, but the brutal violence with which they state their case makes the removal of most of the remaining Confederate statues almost inevitable. To a governor or public safety commissioner, the compelling point is that with no statue, there is no flash point that could trigger a Nazi invasion. The strategy of removing the statues will not stop in Baltimore or Maryland. At the same time that Maryland was at work on its Confederate statues, the governor of North Carolina was recording a speech calling for the removal and relocation of the much larger number of Confederate statues owned by that state. I imagine North Carolina will quickly approve the removal of the statues, but if not, that action will follow soon enough there and elsewhere. A state does not have to see Nazi flags and torches again and again before it is compelled to move. Each removal of a Confederate statue increases the pressure on those that remain, so that within a few years, thousands of Confederate statues could be melted down or hidden away out of public view.

The result makes sense if you look at the situation through the lens of game theory, the mathematical modeling of making decisions when one’s decisions affect the decisions other actors. Nazis overestimate their popular support, so they calculate that their arguments will rally a large number of people to their cause, when the actual number is quite small. They may also underestimate the fear and loathing they engender, so that they don’t plan on the degree of effort others may make to avoid them. These mistaken assumptions make a highly irrational strategy on the part of the Nazi movement appear rational to them.

Taking down statues that are symbols of repression can have a larger impact than you would expect on the psyche of a community. The most prominent historical example of this is the rapid demolition, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, of the Lenin statues that had littered Russia. With the statues down, there was no chance that the Soviet system could make a comeback. Last night’s work removing statues that symbolized slavery has similarly lifted a weight from Baltimore’s shoulders. It will not be surprising if this turns out to be a similar turning point in the story of the city.

Update: Also see Washington Post story

Update: Congress too is getting in on the trend:

Monday, August 14, 2017

Diesel Scandal Takes Down Motor Fuel Category

The diesel emissions scandal has had a bigger impact on transportation policy than I would have guessed. As industry analysts had told us early on, it was more than just Volkswagen cheating emissions tests. In the time since the scandal broke, the global warming problem has become more dire. 

It now looks like the phase-out of diesel will take all liquid motor fuels with it. Norway is moving quickly and has set 2025 for its transition to electric cars. The United Kingdom and France have made plans to phase out fuel-burning light road vehicles after 2040. Volvo said that by 2019 — two years from now — a fuel-burning car will be a luxury item. Volvo will be selling hybrid and electric models side by side starting in 2019, but will no longer make fuel-only drives. Today the government in Germany conceded that a phase-out of fuel-burning cars is inevitable and will probably happen sooner than 2040 in practice.

In the meantime in the United States, Tesla started shipping its mass-market electric car, for which it has taken more than half a million advance orders. For everyone who has ordered a Tesla, there are 200 drivers who, like me, are looking on with a degree of envy. Tomorrow I will put another another $33 in my car’s fuel tank. A few lucky drivers won’t be doing that. I might be too cautious to buy an electric car at this point, but I have trouble imagining the logic of buying a new fuel-burning car at this point. Most of us will become electric-car drivers as part of the vehicle replacement cycle, but the transition will certainly come sooner than the 20-year life span of a current new car. In practical terms, the whole auto industry could stop making new fuel-only cars at the end of the 2018 model year and the existing stock of vehicles would serve.

Norway with its 2025 target and California with an ambitious clean-air plan might be ahead of the curve, but the United Kingdom, France, and Germany are only following the trends with their 2040 cut-over. We tolerate fuel-burning cars now out of a sense of practicality. The battery of an electric car costs more than the engine of a fuel-burning car. When this comparison approaches parity, fuel-burning cars could fall out of favor in a period of less than a model year. Automakers and dealers need to plan for this decline so that when it hits, they aren’t stuck with an overhang of obsolete inventory.

It’s easy to see the transition to electric for the smallest vehicles, harder for the largest ones. Cargo transportation and air travel make more efficient use of motor fuel. Ships have longer useful lives, are harder to overhaul, and have nowhere to plug in on most days. Upgrading all our cars is perhaps a large enough challenge to take on right now. With what we learn from the transition in cars, we will surely be able to make a better plan for buses and trucks, and then we can go on from there.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sears and Kmart Seek Smaller Stores

The announcement that Kmart and Sears will be closing another 43 stores was no big surprise — more retail stores have closed in the United States this year than any year ever — but hidden in the details there was another trend that might surprise some. The company as it shrinks is planning on not just fewer stores, but also smaller stores. Many stores, that is, will be shrinking in place. I saw that happen a few years ago when a mall Sears store was reduced to one floor. That location has since closed completely, but Sears indicates that we can expect to see more stores that keep the same main entrances but have less space inside. Stores are simply too large and complicated for shoppers to figure out. After a century of ever-increasing retail space, are we ready for smaller, more focused stores? My guess is that we are.

Monday, July 3, 2017

In Search of the New Hot Dog

If what I am seeing in advertising is any indication, hot dogs have completed the transition to a one-day-a-year food for most of the people who eat them. Brands that haven’t advertised all year have been in saturation mode for the past six days in an attempt to get their share of this year’s hot dog market. It is a surprisingly fast transition in cultural terms. I can easily remember when I ate hot dogs regularly, sometimes five days in a row until the package was empty. A sharp price increase broke that pattern for me, and many other consumers were dissuaded by a series of manufacturing scandals. I no longer buy hot dogs at all, and I haven’t seen one since last summer. Hot dogs have become a gimmick. No one would consider them a practical thing to eat, but they symbolize the Independence Day holiday more than any other food item. Hot dog manufacturers in the recent advertising emphasize that hot dogs have been improved this year. I feel certain the improvements are greatly exaggerated, but regardless of any number of minor changes, hot dogs are not the easiest form of food to handle safely. Given that, there is a serious problem with eating them so infrequently. Eaters are relatively likely to find that they can’t stomach a couple of hot dogs this time around. The bad experiences make people vow to eat even fewer hot dogs, and that, in turn, makes stomach distress even more likely next time around. What is needed to save the hot dog from this downward spiral is a new kind of hot dog, one that turns the tradition on its head. The traditional hot dog was made from the worst scraps of meat — a mix of brains, skin, and internal organs that was too awful to be used in any other way. This was cheapened still more a quarter of a century ago by mixing in such extras as soy protein isolate, gum, concentrated wood smoke, and chemicals. What’s needed now is a hot dog that is designed first and foremost not to make anyone sick — made with no meat at all, no soy, no chemicals or wheat gluten. I’m not sure exactly what it would be made of, but it is surely not too much to ask. The physical form of a hot dog is so nondescript — just a tube shape filled with goop hardened by cooking until it is just barely solid — and the flavor so nonspecific, there must be fifty ways to make them that don’t lean on high-risk ingredients at all. An exact flavor match is not necessary — indeed, the new hot dogs will need to look, smell, and taste different enough that the people who got sick on the hot dogs of 2017 can be persuaded to try again in a future year. Such is the ritual importance of the hot dog on the 4th of July and so great is the risk of annually eating the current output of the hot dog factories that this hot dog redesign is almost inevitable.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Staples Goes Private

Staples has agreed to a $7 billion buyout. The paper-and-toner retail giant will be privately owned after shareholders approve and the deal closes. The buyout is not bad news in itself for the retailer, but the deal is a measure of the troubles at Staples and across the office-supply sector. Down the road, private ownership could pave the way for a rapid shutdown, bankruptcy, or more rapid store closings if the new owners cannot find a profitable niche for the company in a post-paper world.