Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

CROSSROADS COMMENT--Smoke Free Bars and Hockey Helmets


How long will Vigo County wait to establish laws banning smoking in public places, including all restaurants and bars? Will we be the last to limp onto this moving train?

Is it futile to review again the studies that support this action? The science is overwhelming. Let’s just say that if you work or regularly frequent a public establishment where smoking takes place be prepared to pay now and pay later. Pay now in cleaning bills and throat lozenges as you try to get the noxious fumes out of your threads and sinuses; pay later for inhalers, surgery and medications.

Everyone knows all this. Let’s add a different take to counter the mind set of bar owners and some public officials as they voice resistance to a health policy that is rational and socially conscious. I wasn’t smart enough to come up with this on my own. I’m using ideas from the book Micromotives and Macrobehavior. This is a work by the co-winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in economics, Thomas C. Schelling. And don’t let that title scare you away. The guy not only wins heavy medals, he can write.

Take a deep breath (if you’re a smoker, two short ones) and think about this.

You walk into a bar on Wabash Avenue. It’s the place to be. There are great murals by a local artist on the walls, the music is cooking, the crowd is hyped. But the air inside is chewable. It smells like King Kong’s ashtray after a night out with Fay Wray. Still, no one’s wearing a gas mask or one of those fancy Columbian kidnapper scarves across their faces. You might think everyone is oblivious to the free-floating carcinogens clouding the room. You notice, however, that there is more coughing than conversation going on.

Now it’s time to send in Nobel laureate Schelling to do his thing. First the “micromotives” part.

The Nobel man grabs a drink and picks his way through the crowd and the haze. He asks individuals how they feel about the lack of oxygen in this smoggy oasis. Many of the answers are a resigned, “No problem.” From the majority, who it should be noted are nonsmokers, there’s a self-consciously jaunty, “If they can stand it,” glancing around at the scattering of smokers, “so can I.” The wait staff and the bartenders glance anxiously over at their boss, they pretend to be too busy to respond to the Nobel man’s questions. The bar’s owner takes all of this in with a smug, just shy of obnoxious, “I told you so” look on her face.

According to Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand theory, customers mingling in Club Killer Fog make a decision and behave in the way they do because their choice to suffer a night of breathing toxic air gives them a reward–camaraderie, a chance to hear live music, the pleasures of seeing and being seen–outweighing other choices, say visiting a climate-controlled museum or any other non-smoking establishment. Adam Smith theorized that these individual market decisions add up to promoting the greatest good for all.

Taking note of all of this are Vigo County’s commissioners, Mason, Anderson and Bryan. They sit at the end of the bar, listening and taking notes, or at least two of them do. The Vigo County Health Commissioner, Dr. Enrico Garcia, makes a brief appearance. He sticks his head through the door and quickly retreats, gasping for breath. City Councilman Cummins, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “Who Says No Man Is An Island?” sits alone, his back to the wall. He’s at a table playing solitaire.

But Schelling’s not through yet. Here comes the “macrobehavior” part.

Somehow, perhaps by jumping up on the bandstand, swinging his Nobel medal in a circle around his head, and rapping out a chorus of, “You’re Talkin’ Fine But It’s Macro-B Time,” Schelling manages to get everyone in the place to respond to a secret ballot on how they would feel about flipping this public watering hole into a non-smoking orbit. Following the lead of entire nations, states and a vast number of cities, they, smokers along with non-smokers, vote overwhelmingly in favor of a smoke-free environment.

So what’s happening here? And this is the part that helps win Nobel Prizes.

Through closely reasoned studies Schelling demonstrates that the individual pursuit of self-interest does not always reflect the common good. A famous example he cites is about hockey players and helmets. For many decades players in the National Hockey League did not wear helmets. Vanity, an edge in peripheral vision, and many other possibilities can explain this dangerous individual choice. Injuries were frequent and severe. In 1969 one player had this to say about wearing or not wearing a helmet: “It’s foolish not to wear a helmet. But I don’t–because the other guys don’t . . . But if the league made us do it, though, we’d all wear them and nobody would mind.” A number of secret polls among players confirmed this observation. In 1979 the National Hockey League instituted Helmet Rule 22.

OK. That’s a long way to go in order to underline the obvious–second hand smoke is very bad for your health. It’s wrong and should be illegal to expose people to this smoke in facilities that serve the public.

Local government officials should step up and do their duty. They should take action to protect the public’s health. I drag Schelling in to support them when someone comes up to one of these officials, drops an ash on their toe, and claims this smoking v. smoke-free business is about property, that it should be an individual decision. That that’s the only way, the “American way.”

When Mason, Anderson and Bryan hear this emotional non-argument, their response should be: No, the right way, the truly American way, is to protect the people of the community from individuals and business operations that do harm to the health of the community. And, they might add, that “individual decision” stuff in this case is about as worthless as a cigarette butt in a wet gutter. Haven’t you read Thomas Schelling’s “Micromotives and Macrobehavior”?

5 Comments:

Blogger Mike Kole said...

As a hockey player, I can tell you this- now that everyone wears a helmet, the sticks get up higher. So, you'd better also wear a cage, or you're still going to lose some teeth.

Protecting us from ourselves is never perfect. While the health argument for banning smoking is obvious, the unintended consequence is the loss of self-determination by the property owner. Goodbye property rights- and why? Just because a majority thinks it's okay? That was the basis of Jim Crow, as I recall.

Forget about the bogus claim by smokers that they have the right to enter someone else's establishment and light up. No, the right to decide should belong to the owner of the property.

The arrogance of the non-smoker who demands government to force a restaurant or bar owner to alter their policies is astonishing. It's the flip side to the smoker who would claim the right to enter and smoke. It goes, "I'm here, so you will change for me".

Where is the owner of the establishment in this equation? Why does the property owner have no say? Why are their voices irrelevant?

Think it through- If policy can be dictated in a private property business establishment, what's to stop the same in a private property residence? Looking forward to the day when a majority can dictate what goes on in your property?

Be careful what you ask for...

3:46 AM  
Blogger gary daily said...

Thanks for your comment Mike. It's lonely here in Blogland.

Of course I can't agree with a thing you say or the twisted logic you use in saying it. Here's my "favorite" bad example: "Goodbye property rights- and why? Just because a majority thinks it's okay? That was the basis of Jim Crow, as I recall."

Huh!?! Try reading C. Vann Wookward's _The Strange Career of Jim Crow_ and you will get a little closer to the historical truth of Jim Crow in this sadly racist country. You will find that far from majorities dictating segregation policy, it was property owners, people of wealth in need of cheap labor, that used the leverage of their power to pull poor whites ever deeper into the whirlpool of race prejudice.

And although your example is meaningless in terms of the smoking ban issue (AN ISSUE THAT IS ABOUT HEALTH RIGHTS NOT PROPERTY RIGHTS)it does serve to underline the very large blind spot in the libertarian philosophy. Property is only an element of liberty, not the be and end all. When you make property stand it for human well being, for the general welfare noted in the Preamble to the U. S. Constitution, you are demeaning your movement and the true rights of individuals. You are equating human freedom with the ownership. We've moved beyond that long ago.

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