small d, Big J

What Steven desJardins is interested in.
Friday, February 28, 2003
Last year the Washington Post had an article on Community Supported Agriculture, a scheme where people buy shares of a farm's output and get a delivery of vegetables each week during harvest season. The disadvantage is that you only get what's in season, but that's the advantage too. It seemed like it would be an interesting exercise, to cook with what was available instead of just going down to the supermarket and buying the same stuff every week. Unfortunately, the only farms that delivered to Dupont Circle sold out of their shares before I could get one.

I remembered that this week, Googled on "community supported agriculture" "dupont circle", and found a copy of that old article. The two farms that seem best for my purposes are Clagett Farm and Bull Run Farm. Clagett delivers for 27 weeks for about $400, and Bull Run delivers 20 weeks for $330, plus they have a "fruit share" for $55 which delivers 8-10 pieces of fruit a week. I want the fruit share, and 20 weeks is less of a commitment, so I decided to subscribe to Bull Run. The first deliveries are in June, so my hands should be in good shape by then. This may not turn out well, but even if I throw a lot of stuff out it ought to be a fun experiment.

The following quote is from Salt, by Mark Kurlansky:

The truth was that too much brine was being pumped too rapidly from underneath Cheshire. Hundreds of ambitious small-scale entrepeneurs were making salt. They became extremely competitive. Some would pump additional brine out and dump it in the canals just to try to deprive their competitors.

The brine that flows over the salt rock of Cheshire is a saturated solution--one quarter salt--and so it is incapable of absorbing any more. But as brine was removed, fresh groundwater took its place, and this water would absorb salt until the brine was once again one-fourth salt. The problem was that if large quantities of brine were removed, they were replaced with large quantities of freshwater that hungrily absorbed considerable amounts of salt. Once that started happening, the freshwater began eroding the natural salt pillars that supported the space between the salt rock and the surface. When a pillar collapsed, the earth above it sank.

But even in the nineteenth century, when this process was understood, it was difficult to know whom to blame. The area around a saltworks might remain solid even though the brine it was pumping was causing the earth to collapse four miles away. Two or three other saltworks, though closer to the hole than the culprit, might have caused no damage at all.

Identifying the culprit was an important legal issue, since hundreds of people, many of them not in the salt industry, had lost their property and were demanding compensation. Unable to name a defendant, they could not pursue a legal action. Could they charge the salt industry in general? Citizens formed committees and went to Parliament proposing a bill that compensated victims for the damages caused by the salt industry. Property owners, citing a long-standing principle of British law that the owners of land owned the subsoil, claimed that not only was their property being destroyed, but they were being robbed of the rock salt that they owned. The brine pumpers were sucking up their rock salt from under their own sinking property.

The salt producers argued, with typical nineteenth-century capitalist confidence, that the locals were already being compensated by the economic benefits of having the salt industry. They denied that the subsidence was caused by pumping, insisting that the sinkholes were a natural phenomenon that would continue even without pumping. These arguments prevailed, and in 1880, the bill was defeated.

I find this section interesting because it's an example of a typical problem in environmental regulation. You may know pollution causes harm without being able to link individual polluters to individual victims. Libertarian schemes that call for the people hurt by pollution to sue the polluters don't work in situations like this, where there's no way to apportion blame. The best the courts could do is devise some scheme for collecting damages in some way from all the polluters, and disbursing money from this pool to all the victims. But that isn't a tort scheme, it's a form of regulation, and if industry is to be regulated in this way then legislatures or bureaucracies, which are more directly accountable to the people, are better able to do it. (In this particular example, the legislature didn't handle the problem well, but in principle they could have, and in fact they did pass a compensation bill in 1891. The libertarian model can't handle this sort of problem at all.) This is one of many reasons I am not a libertarian.

Thursday, February 27, 2003
One of the things I've been doing with my new TiVo is adding all sorts of programs that I might want to watch occasionally. For example, I added a season pass to record BBC World News and keep only the most recent episode. I watched it for the first time last night and was appalled by the story of Derek Bond, a British citizen who the FBI identified as one of their "Most Wanted" criminals, and who spent three weeks in a South African prison before they figured out they had identified the wrong man. Bond, who is 72, was forced to sleep on a mat on a concrete floor in a room with no electricity. He was barely able to eat and was physically shattered by the experience. It was ten days before anyone took a statement. Bond was released a day after the real criminal, Derek Sykes, was arrested in Las Vegas. The FBI has apologized, but they're refusing to pay compensation. They say the arrest was justified because Sykes had used Bond's identity as an alias. They even blamed Bond for agreeing to be extradited to the U.S., claiming that if he'd fought harder they might have realized their mistake.

Even more appalling than the arrest, though, is that I only heard about it from a foreign news service. The Washington Post didn't mention the incident anywhere. In fact, according to Google News, the Las Vegas Sun was the only American paper to run a story about the case. That's disgraceful, and it goes a long way to explain why the rest of the world sometimes sees the United States more harshly than we see ourselves.


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