“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”As the inequality gap grows, there is an ideological battle unfolding in the West.On the one hand, there are those who think government can fix things. It must do more, tax more, […]
What do 8 of the 10 wealthiest people in the U.S. have in common?Aside from being able to fly in private jets, the common thread is that each of them has made their fortune thanks to a start-up.Let me explain…From tech titans like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison (founders of Microsoft and Oracle, respectively), to […]
In December of last year, I left my career to travel the world for one year.My plan was to visit as many countries as possible on my Star Alliance Around-the-World ticket in the first nine months, then, for the remaining three months, return back to the country that most caught my eye and my curiosity.Nine […]
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
For the last 18 months, we’ve been wrestling with a conundrum: How is it that the U.S. energy industry is unlocking vast new stores of oil and gas… and the U.S. biotech industry is discovering how to turn back our biological clocks… at the same time Washington is setting new debt records and Wall Street […]
“What are you complaining about all the time?” people sometimes ask me. “I’m just about as free as I want to be.”Here’s the problem. How can we really know what we want if we’ve never had it before? The less free we are, the less we know what freedom feels like and how it shapes […]
I’ve noticed a trend with the writings of Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine and the author of a new book on 3-D printing called Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.It goes like this. He comes out with a book, and the highbrow experts say it’s crazy, that this time he has gone too far. […]
Two years ago, I spoke to a gentlemen who had started and sold four companies. He was currently working on a new project that sounded very promising (for all I know, he has already sold that one too). We had just heard a talk in which the speaker told people that the whole key to […]
A contributing factor in the rise of Internet commerce, a feature that gave it a kick-start, was that you didn’t have to pay sales tax on what you purchased out of state. Ah, the glory days of the 2000s, when you could order anything and, for once in your life, not get hammered by the […]
Why is business so often scapegoated for all the problems of society?The term scapegoat comes from the Bible and refers to the goat cast out of the community as part of a purification ritual. Perhaps when people saw that lonely goat walk away and probably into its death, it made them feel better about themselves.Weird, […]
In 1881, Dakota Territory had never sold a bushel of wheat to anybody outside of Dakota. Six years later, it sold 62 million bushels. What happened?I recently read Garet Garrett’s The American Story, which came out in 1955. It is a well-written history of America, unusual because of its emphasis on the powerful economics that […]
For young people facing terrible job prospects and a generally bad economic environment going forward, starting a business sounds very appealing. It has advantages over embedding yourself in a big institution, taking your wages in forms of benefits, and hoping (against hope) to climb the ladder.It’s never been easier to strike out on your own, […]
There’s a jewelry store in town with a long tradition, a devoted client list, and a good record of solid profitability. But during the last year, it’s moved around like the “oldest established permanently floating crap game” from the musical Guys and Dolls.It was downtown. Then it was not. It was reestablished on the other […]
Oh how everyone (of a certain class and income) makes fun of the Twinkie, the ultimate symbol of modern food decadence and phoniness. I don’t get it. Have the critics ever tried one? They are so appealing and delicious: light, spongy, sweet, and creamy, all in a tiny package.The news that the parent company Hostess […]
I was strolling along the wharf in Bodrum, Turkey, and I was intrigued to see some natural sea sponges on a table with a merchant behind the table telling me something about them in Turkish.I vaguely recall seeing an item like this when I was a kid but I long ago dismissed them as some […]
My neighborhood is filling up with political yard signs. Vote for this guy! Vote for that guy!I can’t understand why people are willing to give up precious real estate on their front lawns, make friends mad at them, and put their own credibility on the line to back some politico who will certainly betray them […]
The web is packed with some of the greatest educational material on entrepreneurship and enterprise, material that didn’t exist a decade ago and is now within the mouse-click reach of vast swaths of humanity. Are we taking advantage of it?Doug French and I set out to collect the top 15 videos on entrepreneurship — a […]
It’s fashionable to put down commercial culture, but, when you think about it, this makes no sense. Commerce is the driving force of human progress, in more ways that we often realize. Americans in the 19th century knew this and celebrated this. Our commercial culture was a source of pride and the envy of the […]
What’s great about POM Wonderful? Sure, this pomegranate juice tastes great. POM is one of the few drinks that seems to have the same scrunch-up-your-mouth effect that you get with a bold dry red wine.When I was a kid, it didn’t exist. Like everything wonderful in this world, it comes to us because of the […]
The great recession continues in so many ways but online commerce is booming as never before, increasing in the last quarter of 2011 at the fastest rates in six years.Before you know it, the retail side alone will account for $300 billion in sales per year. We click and pay, and if it’s not a […]
The organization Campaign for Safe Cosmetics doesn’t just want you to be able to have new choices about the makeup or other products you buy. It wants the FDA to be able to ban and recall products. It will decide for you what is and isn’t safe.And it is prevailing against the industry itself, which […]
The functioning of millions of our consumer products has been wrecked by government regulations in ways that are extremely hard to detect and difficult to narrow down. The other day, I wrote about discovering the reason lawn mowers have mysteriously stopped working and stopped improving over the last decade or so. (I now have a […]
I was reading a wonderful set of small biographies of Gilded Age entrepreneurs and took note of something we all know once we think about it. These men and women worked in productive labor from an early age.They universally credit these early work experiments for instilling an ethic to stick to the job, be alert […]
The functioning of millions of our consumer products has been wrecked by government regulations in ways that are extremely hard to detect and difficult to narrow down. The other day, I wrote about discovering the reason lawn mowers have mysteriously stopped working and stopped improving over the last decade or so. (I now have a hack that I can tell you about.)
But that’s just the beginning. Someone pointed out to me that Band-Aids no longer stick. That seems right to me. I began to fish around the regulations for a clue. It is extremely difficult to find the one thing that caused it, since no regulation states outright that “Sticky Band-Aids are hereby banned.” The reason is usually very complicated.
Looking around, I found myriad restrictions on how bandages can be produced. Most pertain to the types of glues used. I found a mandate that forces manufacturers to put a long and terrifying warning label on any product that uses a particular type of glue and wondered if perhaps this is the problem: Manufacturers are declining to use the stuff because they don’t want to terrify the people they are trying to heal.
But I wasn’t sure. I took a break and went to store, where I saw a friend of mine who is a doctor. I asked him outright why Band-Aids no longer stick.
Without missing a beat, he said, “Because government banned the glues that work!”
I can’t prove he is right, but I assume so. Sometimes only industry insiders know these sorts of things. For example, I wouldn’t have known that government banned cloth aprons in commercial kitchens had a restaurant owner not told me the story of having to throw away piles of great stuff and start buying government-approved aprons.
It applies to so many products that don’t work like they used to. Today, unless your toilet makes some explosive bomblike sound when it flushes, it is probably not doing the job and probably not staying clean after use. Unless you add phosphates to your detergents, your dishes and clothes are not getting clean. Government regulations are the reason your refrigerator died too soon and why your white paint turned yellow.
You can dismiss these points as nothing more than “first-world problems,” but it’s actually more serious than that. The essence of civilization comes down to whether the small things in life perform as they should and improve over time. Regulations are stopping this, systematically bringing about regress. These people are wrecking the world one consumer product at a time.
But let’s return to the lawn mower. I touched on only one major aspect of the problem: the clumping problem from the bagging process. There are more problems, such as how the “self-propelled” mower moves more slowly and pathetically than it used to. Government regulations mandate that the wheels must stop moving within three seconds after the propulsion bar is released. That mandate required manufacturers to weaken the engines.
And why is it that we can’t just push our mowers forward with our fingers, rather than having to hold down a long bar with both hands? This, too, is a government mandate. The bar must be there, and it must be held down with both hands. This is the way it has to be because the government has actually drawn up an official blueprint for gas-powered, walk-behind, grass-bagging mowers. There can be no progress under these conditions.
The problem my article focused on was how regulations mandate that steel casing go all the way to the ground to prevent a “foot probe.” This cuts off the airflow that makes the grass fly up and into the bag.
Your ability to collect your grass in a bag was mandatorily sacrificed for your own good. What? You have no interest in sticking your foot underneath a running mower? Doesn’t matter. Government is protecting you.
In any case, here is a short history of life: Government erects barriers to progress, and then the market finds some workaround that is not perfect but helps blunt the effects of government’s attack. It’s true in the lawn mower case as well.
There are two engineering issues to overcome: airflow and grass redirection. A company called Arnold, which specializes in parts for outdoor equipment and prides itself on innovation, invented what it calls the “extreme blade” that does two things. It uses an elevated blade tip for redirecting grass into the bag, and it also puts extra slits into that tip. The slits help use the existing air in the sealed lawn mower casing to create a windy circulation, as well as to chop up the cut grass even further so that the clippings are lighter. The result is absolutely marvelous.
The blade is more expensive. And you have to go through the trouble of taking off the old blade and adding a new one. Most consumers won’t even think to do this and imagine that they aren’t qualified to even try. They will never figure out that there is an answer to their woes. After all, I went through three mowers in 10 years before being clued in that some company had invented a workaround to the problem of government regulation.
This is the archetypical case of how all these things happen. Some product works great, and then the government wrecks it through a stupid new mandate. The thing stops working. Consumers get mad and blame the product maker. A few years go by and some entrepreneurial company jumps out in front with a decent workaround. Meanwhile, millions of consumers are stuck with the stupid old thing and get mad and don’t know the fix. They start to blame the manufacturers for their woes. In the worst case, the company that finds the fix patents the answer, which means that others can’t copy the solution.
This scenario pertains to a vast number of products, including many that we haven’t noticed along the way are gradually depreciating our standard of living. We just get used to it. Government regulators have a field day with our liberties, and we live vaguely vexed lives.
Another workaround — and really the best approach — to get around government regulations is to buy the product that is so revolutionary and amazing that there aren’t government regulations yet crafted that ruin it. This is pretty much how it works in the digital world. Apple and Google and others — not government agencies — are responsible for authorizing applications that come along daily. That’s why the digital world is progressing.
This same level of progress doesn’t usually happen in the physical world because it is so heavily controlled. However, as long as we are talking about lawn mowers, have a look at something truly revolutionary. It is called the Robomower. It is amazing. It mows your lawn for you. That’s right. You turn it on and the whole yard gets mowed on its own.
A reader actually told me that the whole thing works wonderfully well. But the price is unapproachable: $1,500-2,000. The producer has a lockdown on the patent. That situation will exist for some time, thereby preventing the price from falling and restricting this wonderful innovation to only the elite in society. The way that patents slow down innovation and limit access to cool stuff is a subject for another day.
Regardless, if you have a drink in your hand (provided by private enterprise), offer a toast to the free market and its ever-amazing capacity for overcoming the barriers to the good life that government puts up.