Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Parable of the Ditch Digger

Homme appuyé sur sa Beche (Jean-François Millet, c. 1848)

Let us consider the plight of the lowly ditch digger, the stereotypical example of the unskilled laborer. He is barely literate and so bereft of other talents that he is probably unemployable in any other vocation—or at least that’s the way many of us treat him. What is to become of such a marginal worker in our modern globalized economy?

“We must help the poor ditch digger,” says the altruist. “Society should provide him with food, housing, and medical care, so he can live in good health and security. We can’t let the wretch starve to death on the street while others live in luxury and dine upon the finest fare! Everyone must sacrifice to save this poor soul from himself.”

“No, no!” replies the interventionist. “Instead, the government should pay him to dig ditches and fill them in again. The money he spends will stimulate economic activity. No new goods or services will be produced, since we’ll only be moving resources around, but everyone will be employed.”

“I have a better idea,” offers the capitalist. “I could employ several ditch diggers on my construction projects. Their labor would add real value to my investments! I would pay them small wages, but they would enjoy honest remuneration, the dignity of productive work, and the opportunity to learn new workplace skills and advance their careers. If my investments succeed, there will be more goods and services available, and everyone will grow a little bit wealthier, including the ditch diggers.”

“You can’t pay him small wages!” the altruist says in horror. “How would he support his wife and children on such a pittance?”

“The ditch digger needs a fair wage—a living wage,” the interventionist adds. “The government should mandate minimum wages that guarantee workers won’t live in poverty.”

“Frankly,” the capitalist responds, “his labor isn’t worth more than that. If higher wages were mandated, I would be better off dismissing the ditch diggers from my employ and acquiring mechanized entrenching equipment to enhance the productivity of my more skilled workers. The ditch diggers will be out of work, my projects will be a little less profitable, and we’ll all be little bit less well off than we might have been.”

“Have you no heart?” laments the altruist. “Will you let the poor ditch digger suffer and perish for your greed?”

“I certainly do have a heart!” retorts the capitalist. “When I can, I donate to charitable organizations that support the victims of disaster and indigence. You do the same, I’m sure.”

“Well …” the altruist hesitates. “I pay my taxes.”

“Indeed!” the interventionist says. “Contribution must be mandatory in order to maintain the public welfare in an equitable manner.”

“Don’t worry,” a politician slyly interjects. “I can fix everything. I’ll write laws setting a minimum wage for all workers and providing food stamps, housing vouchers, and free health insurance for the unemployable. Of course, we’ll have to levy higher taxes or borrow money to pay for all these benefits. Grateful for the public largesse, the people will reward me with their votes, and I will win re-election!”

“You do realize what will happen?” asks the capitalist. “Costs will rise throughout the market until the buying power of the higher wages has been reduced to their real value. Meanwhile, the ditch diggers and many other unskilled workers will be driven from the workforce. Some will never return, permanently relying on public benefits for their survival. In other words, your policies will actually perpetuate poverty!”

“So much the better!” enthuses the politician. “I can legislate for higher wages and increased public benefits again and again. I’ll have those ditch diggers voting for my party for the next 200 years.”

So what will become of the benighted ditch digger? Will he be allowed to contribute his value, however meager, to the economy at large and to share in the concomitant opportunity for advancement toward prosperity? Or will he be consigned to live in unemployment and relative poverty forever—or at least until other people’s money runs out?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Single-Stack Trifecta

Compact pistols from Walther, Smith & Wesson, and Ruger.
Presently on hand at Dancing Giant Sales are three of the premier single-stack, polymer-framed, striker-fired pistols available on the market today. Slim, lightweight, and chambered for the capable 9×19mm Luger cartridge, these pistols are all intended as concealed-carry weapons for authorized civilians or as backup sidearms for police officers. Today’s trifecta includes the Ruger LC9s Pro, the Smith & Wesson M&P9 Shield, and the Walther PPS.

Though they share similar design philosophies, each pistol brings some noteworthy differences to the table. First, though, let’s look at their similarities in size, weight, and capacity. Clearly, the designer’s goal in each example was to create a defensive pistol so easy to carry that it would never be left behind as an inconvenience.

The pistols are all compact and slim—slimmer even than the U.S. m1911-series and the Kahr P-series pistols. These trim slide and frame widths make the guns easier to carry concealed, since overall thickness and grip length are the two dimension that most hamper concealability. Slim grips can also help shooters with smaller hands to wield their weapons more securely and effectively.

Unloaded, each weighs under 20 oz., well under the weight of a typical full-sized handgun. As small as they are, though, these pistols probably still won’t fit in the typical pants pocket—with the possible exception of the Ruger and its optional flush-fitting magazine. That nod still goes to Kahr and the recent crop of subcompact .380-ACP pistols.

The Ruger LC9s Pro is the smallest and thinnest of the three pistols.

That said, the Ruger LC9s is the smallest and thinnest of the three. The Shield is slightly larger in all dimensions, and the Walther PPS is larger still. Which is the most comfortable arrangement would depend on the individual shooter. All three are up to the task when concealed carry is required.

And that brings us to magazine capacity. Single-stack guns aren’t known for the impressive amount of firepower they can deal out between reloads, but these pistols all deliver at least seven rounds from their standard magazines, which puts them on par with the vaunted U.S. m1911 pistol. (Modern 9mm hollow-point bullets, such as the Federal HST, are also dreadfully effective, even out of short barrels.) Larger, eight- or nine-round magazines are included or readily available. The Walther also has an extra-small six-round magazine available.

With limited magazine capacities, accuracy is all the more important, and ergonomics are central to how easy it is to shoot a pistol effectively. However, ergonomics can be personal and subjective. What is comfortable and natural for one shooter may not be for another. These three pistols all differ noticeably in their grip size and shape and their trigger geometry and actuation.

The Shield has the same lines as the larger M&P pistols.

The S&W has an oval-shaped grip with a gentle palmswell. It has some texturing, but that doesn’t seem to add much traction. The grip frame of the PPS is flatter and more rectangular. It incorporates textured finger grooves, which combined with the grip’s other rough textures do seem to aid traction. (Of the three, the PPS is also the only with interchangeable small and large backstrap inserts.) The LC9s has a narrow, waisted, almost triangular grip. Its fine checkering feels good but also appears to have dubious utility.

The Walther and Ruger both share Glock-style triggers with integrated safety levers, while the Shield utilizes a hinged trigger safety. The S&W has a relatively short pull with a somewhat stiff break. Its highly curved geometry leads the shooter to pull the sights slightly off target when using the modern technique. (Fortunately, aftermarket upgrades are available.) The PPS has a similarly short pull but a very stiff break. However, its flatter trigger shape helps the shooter keep the sights aligned while pressing the trigger home. The LC9s is entirely different. Its trigger pull feels very long, but it is also fantastically smooth and light, with a crisp, surprise break.

Despite recent price drops, the Walther PPS is a more expensive choice.

Price also differentiates these three pistols. The LC9s Pro is the least expensive at retail, selling for $30–$40 less than the Shield. However, the Ruger ships with just one magazine, which explains the otherwise favorable price difference. By contrast, the PPS is over $100 more expensive than the Shield.

Finally, let’s consider aesthetics. Looks may not be important for the utilitarian concerns of a concealed-carry piece, but they do say something about the overall care invested in a given design and about the craftsmanship that goes into its manufacture.

The Shield shares the handsome lines of its larger M&P brothers. The PPS has that angular European look, but its sloped slide lends it some elegance over more blocky designs. At a glance, the Ruger appears to be the most boring of the three, resembling any number of other subcompact pistols, but the lines of its various components all flow together in subtle, curvilinear refinement. In short, I would call none of them ugly.

Though the gun-control bastions of California and New England are unlikely to reform without a federal mandate, over 40 states allow their citizens to lawfully carry concealed firearms. As a result, more and more responsible Americans are making the decision to carry a handgun for self-defense. Walther, Smith & Wesson, Ruger, and many other firearms manufacturers are meeting this growing demand, producing defensive sidearms in convenient, effective packages.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Benefit of Labor Unions

The humorous picture says it all, doesn’t it? Thanks to labor unions, we enjoy five-day workweeks, break time, overtime pay, and so forth. It sounds great on the surface … except for the little problem that it’s not really true.

While labor unions certainly did champion these things—a point I will return to shortly—it was employers who first implemented such reforms. They did so for one very simple reason: to improve productivity. Efficiency studies conducted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries AD demonstrated that a worker’s effectiveness would decline quickly after a certain length of time without ample rest periods. Why pay one worker for 16 hours of labor, when two eight-hour employees can produce significantly better results for the same price?

As an aside, vacations and other extended leave times were a touchy subject for historical reasons. In the early years of the industrialized economy, employers faced the problem of workers who would simply disappear after several weeks or a few months. This was a holdover from earlier impermanent employment traditions. Historically, agrarian laborers had to work regularly only during the planting and harvesting seasons, saving enough money to last them through the winter or other down times. This cultural mindset took a good deal of time to change in the continuous-production environment of the industrial economy, so employers were equally slow to allow latitude for time off and continued employment.

Nevertheless, the competition between corporate management and organized labor was having synergistic effects within the free market, improving working conditions, increasing profits, and generally enriching everyone. That’s when things went too far. While the labor unions hadn’t brought about the workplace reforms on their own, what they did manage to do was to get them mandated by law.

Today, this legislative achievement is commonly presented as a great benefit for working people. In fact, labor laws have simply limited workplace flexibility, often to the detriment of the worker. Younger workers—those just getting started in their careers—are particularly handicapped. Eager and full of energy that their older compatriots may lack, these workers are often willing to work harder for longer hours at lower pay rates. Doing so would allow them to increase both their income and experience much more rapidly, but labor laws prevent employers from “exploiting” their enthusiasm and productivity—making it that much harder for young people to build solid financial futures.

Similarly, union shops tend to encourage mediocrity in the name of protecting workers from arbitrary employers. The least competent workers get to retain their jobs, but the best workers see little reward for their efforts. The consumer ultimately gets a less satisfactory product or service at a higher price.

Labor unions have become an entrenched part of the political system, just like any other moneyed corporate interest group. The unions themselves can easily become focused more on expanding their own influence than on improving the lots of individual members. However, as they are co-opted and subsumed by political parties, the unions actually lose power. When a given party can take their members’ votes largely for granted, what else can organized labor accomplish?

None of these problems mean that labor unions are a bad thing. Like any corporate entity, they have strengths and weaknesses. Unions are at their best when it comes to collective bargaining, which can give employees as a whole the same short-term advantages enjoyed by an employer over an individual worker. Of course, both employers and union members can still suffer in the long term, when they misjudge market conditions.

The fundamental problem faced by both unions and corporations is their desire to use the political process and the coercive power of the state to advance their own interests. The result is stagnation and inefficiency. The corporations protect established businesses by making it more difficult for entrepreneurs to enter the marketplace. The unions protect the positions of veteran workers at the expense of fewer opportunities for those entering the workforce.

While labor unions can be an asset to the worker at the bargaining table and have had and can still have an important voice in establishing the healthiest and most productive working conditions, they certainly don’t deserve all of the credit for workplace reforms and improvements. Furthermore, the dangerous excesses of unionism also have to be recognized—just like the dangerous excesses of large corporations and other powerful commercial interests. All of these entities will be tempted to use government authority for their own selfish goals. When this happens, we all pay the price.