Archive for September, 2006

Wreck on the highway

September 29, 2006

Ed at work commutes every day from Marion, and he was almost in this wreck. His was one of the northbound cars that "managed to avoid" the semi that crossed the median, and he was pretty shaken up all day. Hearing about a close call is almost like seeing the accident, and it yanks you out of your complacency. Driving day after day, we tend not to think about the reality, which is that a horrible disaster is always just a blink away.

I lived in Marion for a couple of years and also commuted on 1-69, but in the other direction, to Ball State and back. Driving the same stretch all the time can be pretty hypnotic. Once in a while, I’d get off at the Muncie exit and realize I had no memory of the last half hour — I’d been on automatic pilot — and it would scare me witless. One thing I try to do now — which I highly recommend — is vary my driving patterns to and from work. There are three main ways I can go to and from work, and I seldom take the same way more than three days in a row. We like to think that any bad crash we’re in will be from someone else’s mistake, but the truth is we have to guard against our own inattentiveness, too.

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The news is on the road

September 29, 2006

The news just keeps getting more and more depressing for print journalism:

The Chronicle-Tribune will print its newspaper in Indianapolis beginning in mid-January when it shuts down its Marion presses and ends its commercial printing business, a move that will idle 41 full and part-time employees.

All other operations, including news and advertising, will remain at the downtown Marion newspaper office at Sixth and Adams streets, where 75 employees will continue to work after January.

So the newspaper will be printed in Indianapolis, then trucked back to Marion, to compete with all the other media that can offer nearly instantaneous news. How’s that for a perfect example of how technology changes things? The interesting thing is what this says about the delivery platform all newspapers still must deal with — that printing change won’t even affect the Chronicle-Tribune’s 6 a.m. delivery time.

I went through a long period of not watching any TV news, but lately, I’ve been watching more of the 6 p.m. local news. It’s the fastest way to catch up on things that have actually happened that same day.

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Hey, nice tat!

September 29, 2006

Even prison inmates have their standards:

A man serving a life sentence for molesting and murdering a 10-year-old southern Indiana girl now carries a constant reminder of his crime – a scrawled tattoo of the young girl’s name on his forehead.

Anthony Ray Stockelman, 39, was placed in protective custody last weekend after authorities discovered the tattoo reading "Katie’s Revenge," said Rich Larsen, spokesman for the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Ind., 30 miles south of Terre Haute.

[. . .]

Efforts to reach Katie’s family were unsuccessful Thursday. Her father, John Neace, told Indianapolis television station WTHR on Wednesday that he believed the tattoo was the work of other inmates.

"I’d say it’s a statement from the inmates," he said.

The way things sometimes go these days, Stockelman won’t necessarily die in prison. Guess he’ll have to wear a bandage on his forehead to try to blend in.

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Your turn

September 28, 2006

Listen, up kids. Those of us in the baby boom generation have given you rock ‘n’ roll, computers, war protest, the breakup of the family and the breakdown of social order, the sexual revolution, drugs, sport utility vehicles and the elevation of self-indulgent narcissism to an art form. We created the world you live in by squandering the heroic sacrifices of the Greatest Generation.

Now it’s your turn to start taking care of us:

Less than half of the nation’s communities have begun preparing to deal with the needs of the elderly, whose ranks will swell dramatically with the aging of the baby boomers, according to a study to be released Wednesday.

A survey of more than 1,790 towns, counties and other municipalities found that just 46 percent are looking at strategies to deal with aging America.

The issue is critical because the baby boomers _ those born between 1946 and 1964 _ began turning 60 this year and are rapidly approaching retirement age. By 2030, the number of people over age 65 in the United States will exceed 71 million _ double the number in the year 2000, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, or n4a, one of the sponsors of the study.

I don’t ask much. A nice little condo will do, perhaps with a tennis court and swimming pool, at taxpayer expense. Oh, and my drugs — the legal kind, which are getting way too expensive. Borrow the money from your kids if you need to. That’s what we did.

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Upholding the law

September 28, 2006

Fort Wayne Observed notes comments made by Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards in a Wall Street Journal article and follows up with a podcast interview with the prosecutor. The WSJ asked her to comment on a new approach to drug dealers getting some nationwide interest. Instead of being arrested, suspected nonviolent drug dealers are given a second chance, subjecting them to pressure from the "influentials" in their lives such as mothers and mentors.

Richards doesn’t think much of the approach. She tells FWOb:

The bigger problem I have with the program is any commodity is regulated by supply and demand, and this program has nothing to do with either supply or demand. It doesn’t do anything with drug addicts so you’re never going to have any less people wanting any less narcotics, and it really doesn’t get rid of the drug dealers because the need is always going to be there.

No matter what you think of drugs and whether they should be legal or not, Richards is right that this is a bad approach. Once something is identified as illegal, a certain number of people will be willing to cross the line and do it anyway. If the crime were legislated away, those same people would merely find some other way to break the law. The point is to persuade people on the line not to cross it. And you do that only by taking the law seriously and prosecuting those who break it consistently and thoroughly.

Those of who look at the law with at least some libertarian instincts would like fewer laws cluttering up our daily lives, and some of us do worry about some of the extreme measures in the War on Drugs. But the laws that are there have to be enforced. Giving a whole class of criminals a pass and a "second chance" might seem to make some temporary headway on a particular type of crime, but it’s overall, long-term impact cannot be good.

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Culture warriors

September 28, 2006

OK, now we know. Both Baron Hill and Mike Sodrel stand foursquare in favor of the sanctity of marriage:

Those who know me personally know that I am a family man with deep religious convictions. Much has been said by my opponent, Mike Sodrel, about my beliefs concerning gay marriage, and I want to set the record straight.

Simply put, I believe that marriage is sacred and is a right only between a man and a woman. In the Indiana legislature, I sponsored the law to define marriage as existing between one man and one woman, and I would support a federal law to do the same.

For a lot of reasons, the issue of gay marriage is headed for the Supreme Court and, like it or not, that’s where the issue is going to be decided. Maybe we could put the culture war on hold for a while and ask our legislative candidates to discuss more immediate concerns.

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See ya, Joel

September 28, 2006

How do you get rid of a guy who has become an embarrassment, especially if the opposition has been calling for his head and you don’t want it to look like you’re giving in? You accept his resignation and announce it along with a bunch of other position shuffling announced near mid-term.

Joel Silverman, the embattled Bureau of Motor Vehicles commissioner, has resigned. He will leave office effective Oct. 16.
Gov. Mitch Daniels made the announcement in a press release today. Ron Stiver, Department of Workforce Development commissioner, will become the new commissioner. Andrew Penca, Workforce Development deputy commissioner for strategic research and development, will replace Stiver.
I didn’t have much of a problem with the license branch reorganization — the closings seemed based on an honest attempt to improve efficiency and had some research to back them up — though Silverman wasn’t the most sensitive public servant in the world in implementing it. The computer-changeover foul-up was pretty much inexcusable, though. Anything that compels the governor to apologize to all Hoosiers can’t be anything but a "should have seen it coming" disaster.

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News flash

September 27, 2006

As expected, county commissioners this morning responded to the City Council’s government-reorganization request with something less than the council proposed. The county wants full consolidation off the table, and instead wants a reorganization committee to study only the merger of these specific departments: clerk of courts/city clerk, communications/911, highway/street departments, human resources, land use planning (GIS), parks and purchasing.

"In large numbers, the citizens of Allen County have told us they are not yet convinced that consoldiated government is what’s best for our community," said Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters in a news release. "But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about how to make government better."

Some of the strongest consolidation proponents, such as City Council members John Crawford and Sam Talarico Jr., seem likely to resist this compromise. But many reorganization supporters, such as state Sen. David Long and some County Council members, will think it’s a reasonable step.

An editorial will follow in tomorrow’s paper.

UPDATE: Here is  the resolution (Download aresolve.doc) approved by commissioners (Word document).

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Tied for 24th

September 27, 2006

Here are approval ratings for all 100 U.S. senators. Richard Lugar and Evan Bayh are in a three-way tie with Hillary Clinton for 24th place at a net rating (favorables minus unfavorables) of 29 percent. Interesting.

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Beyond parody

September 27, 2006

These are challenging times for the aspiring humorist. This is from a blog post I did last month, purely in an attempt to be funny:

Gasoline prices have dropped dramatically, even drastically, in the last couple of weeks . . .there’s some collusion going on here, folks. When prices go down like this, it does not just mean that the oil companies make obscene profits, though they surely do. We are also being sucked into driving even more, which means we will become even more dependent on all that oil. I tell you, this is one of the most evil, ingenious plots I have ever come across, and if it’s not a reason for the immediate impeachment of George Bush, I don’t know what is.

And this is from an actual, straightforward story yesterday.

WASHINGTON — There is no mystery or manipulation behind the recent fall in gasoline prices, analysts say. Try telling that to many U.S. motorists.

Almost half of all Americans believe the November elections have more influence than market forces. For them, the plunge at the pump is about politics, not economics.

Television got to the point that it was beyond being able to be parodied when there was an actual made-for-TV movie called "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island." What outrageous invention could you come up with that could top that? I think we may be at that point in our American political life right now. People will do anything, say anything, believe anything. It is impossible to parody a culture like that.

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Will strip for charity

September 27, 2006

The shameless exploitation of prurient interests continues in the Indiana Heartland:

FARMLAND — The seven members of the now famous Farmland Bridge Club who last year bared it all to support saving the Randolph County Courthouse have lured a supporting cast — of mostly men — in front of the camera for an encore calendar.

The ladies, who range in age from 78 to 95, were a big but controversial hit in their first effort. About 4,600 copies of the 2006 Courthouse Girls calendar were sold, said organizer Larry Francer, a Farmland businessman, and $5 from each copy was put into an account to save the building. Between that money and more proceeds that benefited Historic Farmland USA, the calendar raised $46,000.

Maybe we should raise money here by having the sexiest journalists pose naked while reading newspapers strategically placed. But then what would we do for the other 11 months?

Oh, I know — bloggers holding laptops.

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The outsourcing option

September 27, 2006

It’s not just evil Republicans such as Mitch Daniels who like the outsourcing option:

Indiana University officials are considering whether to hire a private company to take care of about 600 school vehicles used on the Bloomington campus.

That could be the first step toward also outsourcing other university operations as suggested by some members of the school’s Board of Trustees.

We interviewed a school board candidate last week who raised an interesting issue: Why is the Fort Wayne Community Schools board in the transportation business? Could money, maybe a lot, be saved if the school buses were run by a private company? Both excellent questions.

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Let’s make a deal

September 27, 2006

A column I wrote for Saturday’s editorial page had this as the opening paragraph:

I recently read “Freakonomics,” the book that uses economic models to show how people respond to incentives. Most of the case studies are straightforward, showing, for example, that real-estate agents use their knowledge in a way that benefits them but not necessarily home-sellers, or that inner-city crack dealers use a business model not unlike McDonald’s.

I got a call from a local Realtor yesterday who was put off by the real-estate reference, feeling that perhaps his integrity was being called into question. That wasn’t the intent, though such a passing reference can be interpreted in any number of ways. So here is the rest of the story, from economist Steven D. Levitt’s "Freakonomics."

A study was done of nearly 100,000 home sales in suburban Chicago, more than 3,000 of them owned by the real-estate agents themselves. Analyzing the data showed that agents kept their own houses on the market an average of 10 days longer than the houses they sold for other people, for a sale price of over 3 percent more — or $10,000 more on a $300,000 house going into the agents’ pockets, a strong incentive for an agent to keep a house on the market longer.

If an agent is selling your house, the incentive is not nearly so great. The typical sales commission of 6 percent is split between the seller’s agent and the buyer’s agent, with each agent then kicking half back to his or her agency. So if an agent gets a $300,000 offer on your house, his incentive to hold it on the market for 10 more days to get an extra $10,000 is only 1.5 percent of that $10,000, or $150. It makes much more sense for the agent to convince you that $300,000 is the offer that should be accepted.

Levitt isn’t saying there’s anything evil going on. There are no villains, merely people behaving in predictable ways based on the incentives they have before them.

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PETA party

September 26, 2006

On the way home last night, I had WOWO on the radio, and Pat White was all over the PETA cockroach story. It’s stupid, it’s silly, and wouldn’t you like a yummy cockroach, perhaps dipped in chocolate, and, boy, isn’t PETA just out there?

Cockroaches have feelings too!

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals want all Six Flags theme parks, including the one in Massachusetts, to exterminate an upcoming cockroach-eating extravaganza.

  “Cockroaches have been given a bad (reputation) in our society,” said PETA spokeswoman Jackie Vergerio. “They are gentle, complex animals.”

Which means PETA has scored again. There were already almost 200 stories about this on Google news when I checked last night. I’m sure it was on radio stations all across the country, and I can just imagine editorial writers getting all cranked to express wry amusement or high dudgeon, depending on their moods, at PETA’s latest lunacy. And that, folks, is the PETA plan. Every time they come out with an announcement that is outrageous or over the top, they get the same reaction, which adds up to tons of free publicity that millions of dollars in marketing and advertising couldn’t achieve.

If I had a cause I wanted in the public eye, I’d hire whoever does this kind of stuff for PETA. They are nothing short of brilliant.

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Breakdown of the model

September 26, 2006

This column by Michael Kinsley on the future of newspapers is more thoughtful than most because it doesn’t dwell overly on the "paper" issue, which most commentaries do, missing the point. Kinsley just assumes the paper product will be gone and asks, "What next?"

The "me to you" model of news gathering–a professional reporter, attuned to the fine distinctions between "off the record" and "deep background," prizing factual accuracy in the narrowest sense–may well give way to some kind of "us to us" communitarian arrangement of the sort that thrives on the Internet. But there is room between the New York Times and myleftarmpit.com for new forms that liberate journalism from its encrusted conceits while preserving its standards, like accuracy.

The main problem with newspapers is not that our news isn’t fresh. We’ve haven’t had the "latest news" in a long time — radio could beat us and TV beat us long before the Internet came along. The main problems are that there are so many choices now that advertisers have a hard trouble deciding where and how to sell their goods. At the same time, they are less interested now in seeking a "mass market" approach and want to target their ads to niches. What we’re dealing with is that the whole model — news piggybacked on advertising — is breaking down.

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Lawmakers packing heat

September 26, 2006

Whatever you do, don’t make that legislator mad:

Ordinary citizens will have to check their guns at the Statehouse’s entrances when metal detectors are installed in the building next year.

Lawmakers, however, will be allowed to take their guns with them inside.

Sure hope that prayer debate doesn’t heat up again. Hate to see a shootout at the Speaker’s podium.

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The low-tech approach

September 26, 2006

More trouble with Indiana voting machines:

A voting machine company is working to fix a software glitch on 5,000 machines in Indiana that prevents voters from casting a straight-party ballot.

Officials with the Indiana Election Commission were upset that MicroVote General Corp. did not tell them sooner about the software problem. The general election is Nov. 7.

"I am disturbed by their lack of candor, and the commission is disturbed by their lack of candor," said commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, who sent a three-page letter to every county election official using MicroVote’s Infinity system.

Maybe this is an idea whose time has come:

To these problems (well, most of them, anyway) I have a technological solution. The technology is good. It is easy to understand. It is surprisingly resistant to fraud. And it is inexpensive. It’s the paper ballot.

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Pay attention!

September 26, 2006

Later this week, Ball State is going to release the results of a behaviorial study it did on what "really takes place during an average person’s prime time TV hours." Apparently, this won’t mean much to the average viewer, but it will tell advertisers some things they want to know, like do people actually watch commercials. (One-third of commercial breaks are watched all the way through, apparently, but more than half are watched for a minute or less; you might have noticed that a "commercial break" lasts about three minutes these days.)

Let’s see, prime time viewing habits. Read the paper or a chapter or two in a book. Fuss with the cats. Talk on the phone. Run and check the Web. Take a bathroom break. Freshen up that coffee or get a snack. Yeah, I’m really paying attention to those commercials.

Do not be intimidated by the link. It is not more type. It is a TV spot. Feel free to leave the room while it is playing.

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You’re welcome

September 25, 2006

Gov. Daniels knows a good idea when he sees one:

Gov. Mitch Daniels today said the state should consider creating local tax adjustment boards that would be in charge of controlling property tax rates in Indiana’s 92 counties.

Speaking before the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, the governor said such boards would help simplify the state’s complicated property tax system and give citizens a clearer picture of how their money is being spent.

The governor says the General Assembly should take up the topic, but it has been brought up once or twice that county councils can reinstate the boards by a simple vote.

UPDATE: Mitch Harper points out that one thing the legislature can do is make the adjustment boards mandatory instead of voluntary.

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Condiminimum

September 25, 2006

I know I’m risking Kevin Knuth accusing me of harboring romantic fantasies again, but I hope some of you caught Condolezza Rice on "60 Minutes" last night. Her passion for democracy and supporting democratic movements is strong, remarkable and necessary in today’s world. A lot of her passion comes from growing up black in the segregated South. What is the difference, she asks, between those today who say "some people aren’t ready for democracy" and those then who said "blacks are childlike and need us to take care of them"? What is the difference between Islamic terrorists who leave roadside bombs and homegrown terrorists who bombed churches? A fanatic willing to deliberately target innocents is a fanatic willing to deliberately target innocents.

It’s been raised as an issue that perhaps Rice isn’t equipped to deal with today’s war on stateless terrorism because her education, training and early government work dealt with the Soviet Union, a super state. But I think she learned a valuable lesson there, too, in watching the breakup of the USSR. No matter how subjugated they are, people yearn for freedom, and they are willing to sacrifice for it perhaps more than we remember.

As the world’s leading democracy, and the nation that has most shown what freedom can achieve, we have not only a responsbility but a duty to self-interest to nurture the growth of democratic movements around the world (and almost 50 percent of the world’s population is now rated as free, according to Freedom House, an all-time high). A major topic of our foreign policy conversations for at least the last 50 years is over how to do that. There is a difference between nurturing democracy and supporting those who seek it and trying to impose democratic values at the point of a gun. In Iraq, we might have blurred the difference, and Rice might be too close to it to acknowledge the arguments of the other side.

But Rice and her boss (yeah, him), however we might fault them for how they are pursuing their goals, are on the right side of history. At a minimum, we have to wish them well.

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The rest of your life

September 25, 2006

Britons are asked to rate the quantity of life vs. its quality:

A large number of Britons would be prepared to give up sex if it meant they would live to be 100, according to a survey Friday.

The Mori research found that 40 percent would pass on the passion for longevity, although far more women (48 percent) were willing to make the sacrifice than men (31 percent).

Of course, maybe some of those people don’t think sex is important to the quality life in the first place, so it’s no trade-off at all. And the pollsters didn’t specify that all 100 of those years would be relatively healthy ones. Interestingly, a whopping 94 percent would not give up friends and family for those extra years.

What would you give up for a longer life, or take for a shorter one, for that matter? Would you trade 10 years for fabulous wealth? How about 15, or 20? Would you like an extra 20 or 30 (in relatively good health) if you could have no money except to meet your basic necessities? Would you rather have 40 more years from this point on, most of them fighting serious illness, or 20 more in excellent health? How would your answer change were 25 and five?

I’m not sure where I come down of some of this, but my thinking is certainly different from what it was when I was, say, 21.

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Snuff it, geezers

September 25, 2006

Every smoking ban in the country (at least so far) has allowed for smoking in people’s homes. But what about when somebody’s home is also a place of business?

Delaware County’s ban on smoking in most work places and public buildings has put local nursing homes in a no-win situation.

If a nursing home complies with the local ordinance, it will violate a federal regulation, and if it complies with the federal regulation, it will violate the local ordinance.

Well, do whatever you want to. They’re just old people anyway — screw ’em:

But two of the three commissioners say they don’t plan to approve the exemption when final action is taken on Oct. 2.

"How many people are in these nursing homes because of a smoking habit?" asked Commissioner Larry Crouch, who believes smoking should not be allowed in nursing homes.

It’s their own fault for getting old, too. If they’d really been trying, they would have used a better old-age preventive than smoking.

You think that kind of superior, callous attitude doesn’t carry over into the commissioner’s dealings with other constituents?

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In the No. 3 slot

September 25, 2006

There’s at least one area in which Indiana need not envy surrounding states:

Ohio Learn and Earn, the group promoting the slot machines, boasts impressive numbers. A maximum of 31,500 slot machines in nine locations would produce $2.8 billion in annual revenue, with more than $850 million of that dumped into a scholarship fund for Ohio students, the backers say.

To generate that kind of money, each of the gambling locations in Ohio would be need to be larger than the biggest slot parlor in Indiana – the country’s third largest gambling market behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City, according to critics.

Ohio’s slot machines also would have to bring in $247 per day each, an estimate Learn and Earn considers conservative considering slot machines in Indiana average $322 per day.

Dang, only third. One or two more casinos, and we could probably knock Atlantic City off for No. 2

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Good in, lousy out

September 22, 2006

We’ve all known for a long time that houses here are among the cheapest in the country, so this isn’t exactly new:

What’s the big difference between Indianapolis and Columbus?

Try $30,000.

That’s how much lower the median price of a house in central Indiana is compared with one in central Ohio.

At a median price of $120,000, homes in the nine-county Indianapolis region are the most affordable of any metropolitan area in the country, according to a National Association of Home Builders study.

Central Ohio’s median home price is $150,000.

When the association’s researchers figured in median family incomes, central Ohio ranked as one of the least affordable regions in the Midwest. Only Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis rated worse.

What’s interesting about the story is even the real-estate experts quoted don’t seem to know why Indiana housing is so affordable. More new homes on the market, driving the prices down? Belief that the local economy isn’t so good? A culture that has come to expect low prices? Selling too many houses to people who can’t afford them? (We also have one of the highest mortgage default rates in the nation.)

The low cost of home ownership isn’t really the economic-development benefit it’s sometimes touted to be, as in: Come to Indiana and get three times the home! If you’re moving here from almost anywhere else, it’s true that you can get a much nicer home. But it’s such a lousy investment, wtih so little equity built up, that if you move from here to almost anywhere, you’ll get much less of a home than you’ve come to expect.

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Fiendishly clever

September 22, 2006

Wal-Mart is cutting the price on generic drugs to $4 for a month’s supply (the average cost is $28.74), and the reaction is all over the map. The people who hate Wal-Mart can’t quite bring themselves to say anything good about it — "Well, they’re just trying to spruce up their image." Yeah, by offering disocunts of up to 70 percent for something people can’t do without. Those fiends!

Actually, it’s marketing genius. When I was growing up, I had some friends who worked in the grocery business here, and they gave me an early education in the concept of "loss leader," a term I haven’t heard in quite a while. That was an item the store sold for little or no profit just to get people in the store, the idea being that in the long run the extra traffic would more than make up for the profit loss. The loss leader had to be something people needed frequently, like bread or milk, and it was often put in the back so people had to walk through the whole store to get to it. You encounter the concept every day — it’s what McDonald’s dollar menu is. When you buy that really fancy but cheap inkjet printer only to run into huge cartridge replacement costs, you are also participating.

Wal-Mart is discouting something people have to refill once a month — that’s millions and millions of people 12 times a year — who will then notice, if they didn’t already know, that everything else is cheap at the store, too. And Wal-Mart’s chief competitors for drugs, like Walgreen’s and CVS, will find it challenging to retaliate with their own lower prices. Drugs are their main business, so they don’t have enough variety of merchandise to make up for the profit loss.

As those two guys in the Guinness commercial say: Brilliant, simply brilliant.

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