You Don’t Drink The Can

When beer ads aren’t about beer, you should be a little skeptical.

I, like many other people, enjoy drinking beer. Some people drink it for refreshment, some people drink it for taste, and some people drink it for social lubrication.

In the last five years, Coors has attempted to re-brand itself as the top purveyor of cold beer. Temperature, not taste, is the focus of their advertisements. Their message is: “Our beer is COLD! So you should drink it. A lot. Because it’s cold. And you can drink it while watching football. Did we mention that it’s cold? Yeah, it is. And that’s why you should drink it. Beer. Cold. Got it?”

Any beer can be cold, and I don’t think we should rely on arctic explorers to provide us with chilled beverages (as in their commercials). If you really need cold beer–and beer is not supposed to be 40˚F– then put your bottle/can/mug/stein/keg in the freezer for a little while, and be sure to take it out before it explodes.

The great Milwaukee institution known as Miller has gone down a similar path. Their advertisements in recent years have emphasized the spectacular features of Miller cans. (Coors has done this too, with temperature-sensitive ink on its cans and bottles to ensure maximum coldness.)

As we all know, the most important feature of a beer can is its efficiency in allowing the consumer to imbibe beer at a rapid rate–hence Miller’s wide mouth cans and punch tops. Of course, one can punch a hole in the top of any beer can, which makes this supposedly revolutionary invention a gimmick. Miller would have been better off saying “You’re going to want to use that punch top so you can drink our beer much faster–then you won’t be able to taste it.” On the positive side, the punch top has given us this brilliant example of modern American journalism.

To put all this another way: if they aren’t advertising the beer, there is probably a reason for that.

What If We Didn’t Have National Parks?

Sometimes the best way to see the value of something is to lose it. Your mobile phone is just an everyday convenience until you wash it in a pair of pants and you can’t call people or check email at any time from anywhere. In the same way, the best way to see the value of legally protected land in scenic areas is to explore what happens when natural beauty isn’t protected.

For our example, let’s head over to the southern Aegean Sea to the island of Santorini. Famous for its sunsets, Santorini is the upper part of the world’s largest volcano–not volcanic archipelago, it is an actual volcano, with few recent eruptions but continued seismic activity. The total land area of the islands (two of the six are inhabited) is 35 square miles, and the permanent population is about 15,000.

The topography of Santorini is extremely impressive: the western side of the island has steep, dramatic cliffs that plunge hundreds of meters into the caldera of the volcano, while the gentler slopes of the eastern side slide into the light blue waters of the Aegean, allowing space for farms that grow the famous Santorini tomatoes and vineyards for sought-after Santorini wine.

Unsurprisingly, this stunning scenery is a powerful magnet for tourists. Millions arrive by ferry or plane every year, far outstripping the permanent population. The strain on infrastructure is visible every time a ferry arrives at the recently redeveloped, but still fairly small, port on the west side of the island. One two-lane road zig-zags up the cliff, and tourists in buses and vans creep up and down the switchbacks during the busiest hours in high season. The island’s economy is more than just geared toward tourism; with the exception of some agricultural products (the wine and tomatoes I mentioned above), the economy is tourism.

The result of this is jarring. Rather than suburban sprawl, Santorini has hotel sprawl. Its main settlements have expanded far beyond the capacity of the local population to support them, with hotel after hotel constructed a few yards back from the western cliff face.

Santorini was once a fairly quaint and quiet island with a population level in line with its natural resources and geography. It is certainly not that any more. The natural beauty of the island, which made it an attractive destination in the first place, is being overwhelmed by the self-sustaining tourism industry. People go to Santorini because it’s a cool place to go, with fancy restaurants and swanky hotels–the island itself, despite its historical and geological importance, is an afterthought.

This is what can happen to places of natural beauty if they are not protected. For American readers, imagine if the Grand Canyon were not a national park: there would be Econo Lodges, Applebees’, and Holiday Inns lining the North and South Rims. There would be a McDonald’s on the bank of the Colorado River. For Brits, think of a Premier Inn on Scafell Pike or a Gregg’s in the North York Moors. France would have a Carrefour on Mont Blanc and an Ibis in the Mont-Saint-Michel. The examples can go on and on. If governments do not protect places of natural beauty or historical importance, someone will try to make a buck, a pound, or a euro by selling something there.

The Power of Extremes

A principal achievement of the Tea Party has been the purging of moderates from the Republican party. The inescapable logic of ideology has provided the fuel for the primary fires that have burned centrists out of the Republican Congressional caucus. When Lindsey Graham (R-SC) can be described as a moderate, your party has changed–or, more appropriately, it has been changed, in this case from without and within.

The central problem the Republicans have brought upon themselves was neatly summed up a few weeks ago in an interview on the Daily Show. Noelle Nikpour said “we will always fight for less government.” On its face this seems like an innocuous statement: Republicans have claimed this ground for decades. But it actually says something more profound. “We will always fight for less government.” There is a momentum about this statement, and it reflects a lot of the sentiment around the recent radicalization of the Republican party. No matter what they cut now, they will want to cut more, with the eventual goal of destroying government entirely. (This is reminiscent of the famous, macabre Grover Norquist quote about shrinking government until it could be drowned in a bathtub.) There’s an ideological consistency about it, and many anarchists would welcome it as policy.

The key here is the momentum to keep shrinking government. No matter your party affiliation, it should be clear that this goes beyond a set of policy positions and demands a constant effort in one ideological direction. Even those who agree with this viewpoint should agree that it pushes the party that espouses it to an extreme.

The demand for purity (always smaller government) allows Republicans to one-up each other in conservatism. “You only want to cut $200 billion? I want to cut $300 billion!” and so on. To be sure, this hasn’t always been effective: ideology and demagoguery can only drag so many voters a certain distance from the center. But it has moved the center of the Republicans to the right and, as I’ve argued before, made compromise much harder.

There is also an elegant clarity about extremist politics that can be very attractive. Extremists say that our big problems require radical solutions, which has an appealing sense of proportionality between demands and responses. Ideology taken to its logical conclusion is a common way to produce these extremes. Ms. Nikpour’s position is simply the extension of “small government is good” to its logical conclusion: no government is best.

Moving the center of Republican politics has involved both the base and the elected officials tacking rightwards, and the second part of this process is cutting loose those who were not making the appropriate adjustment to starboard. I would argue that the emergence of leaders who are more conservative and a rightward shift in the base preceded this, as it produced the electoral alternatives to more centrist Republicans and the votes to put those alternative candidates in power. Either way, the result is clear: electoral success (in primaries and general elections) of candidates who are more conservative.

Even New York’s Mayor Can’t Turn Back The Clock

Earlier this week, New Yorkers elected a new mayor for America’s biggest city. Bill de Blasio, a progressive/populist (delete according to preference) Democrat will be the first center-left mayor of the city in twenty years. One of the most vicious and sustained attacks on de Blasio has been that he is soft on crime. Critics have claimed that his opposition to “stop-and-frisk” in particular will send New York back to the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s.

First, a bit of context. In 2012, the murder rate was the lowest since the city began keeping records in 1963, and New York is the safest of the ten largest cities in the United States. It’s even safer than many smaller cities. The murder rate is less than a fifth of what it was in 1990. I could go on, but the point is clear: New York has gotten safer over the last twenty years.

This is undoubtedly good. New York is a safer place to live, and the city and its citizens are better off as a result. At the same time, falling crime rates are a political problem for Mayor-elect de Blasio. No matter what changes he demands in policing–even in the very unlikely event that he demands none–his reputation will be tied, in part, to crime statistics. Crime was falling before he was elected, if it stops falling or even increases under his leadership, no matter the causes, he will get the blame.

In the same way that Presidents and Prime Ministers are subject to the vicissitudes of financial markets that are mostly beyond their immediate control, local governments get credit and blame for developments that have very little to do with policy changes. The fact that inequality in New York has been rising is not primarily the responsibility of Mayors Bloomberg or Giuliani, it’s a broader national trend from which the city is not exempt. Local officials are more responsible for ameliorating the symptoms of problems and doing their best to create fertile ground for positive developments. In this way, the mayor of New York does have a role: he can require developers to include affordable housing and ensure that city residents can access important social services. Bill de Blasio doesn’t have the power to re-distribute wealth or change the dynamics of earning in New York, but he can make life easier for people most hurt by systematic change.

Another part of the mayor’s role is putting the city in a good position to benefit from broader changes. The idea that New York has been getting safer has attracted wealthier people back into the city as part of the gentrifying process. If politicians are judged by results (which they usually are), the success of American cities and mayors since the 1970s has been in convincing people that things are getting better, which has actually produced some positive changes like reduced crime. Methods of policing have a role, of course, but given the variety of cities that have gotten safer in the last forty years, they are probably not the main factor.

Neither Bill de Blasio nor his erstwhile opponent for the occupancy of Gracie Mansion, Joe Lhota, can single-handedly undo decades of demographic and economic change in New York. Still, as mentioned above, he has to maintain the perception that New York is safe and getting safer. This is vitally important for his political future. While he does not have control over the systemic factors that have reduced crime, he needs to play his PR hand well.