Several current phenomena puzzle me. Maybe some of Liberty’s readers have answers. I’ll save one puzzle about politics until the end of this Reflection.

  • BP, notorious for spilling oil in the Gulf, has been filling TV screens with ads about its concern for the region’s prosperity. According to these ads, it has installed “cutting edge” technology and a “state-of-the-art” monitoring system operating “twenty-four/seven.” How can BP and its advertising agency believe that its public image benefits from the insincerity suggested by three clichés in ten or fifteen seconds in an ad often repeated in a few minutes?
  • In its ads Kroger, the grocery chain, offers reduced prices if one buys at least a specific number of specified items or spends at least a specific amount on them. To take advantage of the deal, the customer has to count which of them he really wants or is willing to stock up on and how much, in dollar terms, he wants them. This additional little complication to life often makes me omit buying the one or few specified items that I do want; I don’t want to yield to the price discrimination. Sometimes I even shop at another supermarket. My reaction may be irrational in the most narrowly economic sense, but I think it is human. I wonder how common such reactions are and whether Kroger takes them into account.
  • Charities often send out personalized return-address stickers, presumably to put recipients on a guilt trip if they do not contribute. Almost without exception these stickers put a title before the name — in my case “Professor,” “Prof.,” “Dr.,” or “Mr.” Don’t these fund-raisers realize that it is bad form (except perhaps for a physician) to refer to oneself with a title? The name alone is better.
  • Expressing my next puzzle might seem to be a complaint about other people. It is not; I am genuinely curious. Why do so many people want almost continuous contact with one another, as by cellphone, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media? Myself, I do not want to send or receive hourly or daily bulletins about the trivia of everyday life, not even to or from close friends. I understand that the social media are useful in coordinating revolutions, but what accounts for their popularity in the United States?
  • Whatever became of the half-dollar? Why is the quarter the largest denomination of coin routinely circulating in the United States?
  • Why does bitcoin, the digital currency, receive the respect it does in the popular press? A full-fledged currency must maintain a reasonably stable and predictable value, at least over the time between a holder’s receiving it and paying it out in transactions. Bitcoin’s value, however, has been monstrously unstable, ranging from $13.50 in January 2013 to $782 in mid-November, then falling back. How could people confidently use such a currency for pricing and regular transactions, let alone for long-term or even short-term loans? A sound money derives a determinate value either by linkage to some commodity like gold or by regulation of its quantity with some attention for the demand to hold it. Bitcoin, however, is created in a decentralized and capricious way as the reward for solving difficult mathematical problems requiring much expensive computer time; the problems become more and more challenging so as supposedly to put a ceiling of 21 million on the total issue. The system lacks the transparency required for a sound currency of determinate value.

    Its wide fluctuations do give bitcoin an appeal for speculators. Yet for anyone interested in a nongovernmental currency that performs all the functions of a normal money and that, moreover, allows a high degree of anonymity in transactions, ideas for reform must run along other lines. Bitcoin remains a puzzling distraction.
  • My last puzzle centers on a fund-raising letter from Speaker John Boehner enclosing a purported survey of opinion. The questions are slanted to draw desired answers. The phoniness of the whole business is epitomized by the date on Boehner’s letter, “Monday morning” — nothing more. (I received the letter and survey on Monday afternoon, November 18.) Many such appeals — complete with the provocative phony dating — have arrived in my mailbox from Republican politicians over the years; I wonder what the Democrats send out. Anyway, how can anyone believe that such phoniness attracts rather than repels voters and contributors?

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Richard Massey

In response to your comment about BP it really toasts my Wheaties when I see one of their commercials telling us their commitment in the Gulf Coast is strong while they are now trying to weasel out of their written agreement to pay for their damages.


Prof. Yeager:
I could offer my two cents about all your puzzles, but I'll limit myself to one. I usually don't trust Wikipedia to be honest or accurate about controversial subjects, but it is frequently informative about non-controversial ones. I think the Half dollar article might answer your questions.

Jon Harrison

Geezer, you old stopped clock, you're right! So much of Wikipedia is inaccurate/slanted/badly written, but that half-dollar article is quite good.

I find the technical and scientific articles to be the best things Wikipedia offers. On the other hand, it may be that I just don't understand the content of many of those articles.

One exception to the Wikipedia generally sucks rule: I thought the bio of Enoch Powell was excellent. As I recall it was way, way above the Wiki norm.

paul thiel

BP really believes that it can convince people of its sincere concern for a clean environment in 15 second clips.

Kroger believes (probably correctly) that there are millions of money grubbing shoppers out there who will go to (even costly) extremes to "save" a buck. To avoid shopping at places that offer convoluted discounts is perverse. I do this also.

Charities, like most Americans, have little understanding of good form but realize that appeals to people's vanities often pay.

"Social media is the opium of the masses", Karl Marx VI said somewhere or other. People are so afraid of being alone with their thoughts that they will do anything - including constantly piping music directly to their brains, yakking for hours on a phone or endlessly text inanities about nothing - to avoid thought.

I remember reading in a coin magazine once that by putting President Kennedy on the half dollar, the mint guaranteed that the coin would never circulate - presumably because they would be hoarded as keepsakes / collectors items. Once people lost being accustomed to seeing half dollars in circulation, they never again accepted them.

Bitcoin's appeal is as a computerized wave of the future. Its ongoing appeal is less as a medium of exchange than as a speculation.

The use of "Monday morning" or something such is intended to be dramatic and to make the subject seem immediate and compelling thus requiring an immediate reaction - send money now!


I shop regularly at Smith's, a division of Kroger.
When they promote deals like 10 avacados for $10, you don't have to buy 10 to get the $1 each sale price. It may seem that you do, but you don't.

Jon Harrison

I believe there is a federal law or regulation that prevents the store from requiring that you buy more than one of an item to get the sale price. I thought everyone knew that one doesn't have to buy ten (or two) to get the sale price.

Jon Harrison

This is the best thing to appear here in some time. At least since the last time I posted something.

On BP: That's just how things are done in advertising. Anything else would shock the rude masses out of their indifference.

On Kroger: I don't quite understand the point, so no comment.

On address stickers from charities: I get the point, but is "Mr." really a title?

On the addiction to social media: most people have either little inner sense of self worth, or the an overblown feeling of self-importance. Both lead to immersion in social media. Behind both is the desire to be seen and heard, to feel that one truly exists, stemming at bottom from the fear personal extinction.

Why does the half-dollar lack popular appeal: I dunno.

Bitcoin: I agree with you completely.

On fund-raising letters, emails, etc.: These are meant for the true believers. That they are sent to less-than-true believers is actually a heartening phenomenon: we are still not at a point where everything and everyone is precisely categorized for government and/or corporate consumption.


“. . . most people have either little inner sense of self worth, or the [sic] an overblown feeling of self-importance. . . . Behind both is the desire to be seen and heard, to feel that one truly exists, stemming at bottom from the fear personal extinction.”

Is that an unintentional confession?

Jon Harrison

Unintentional? No. Everyone including me knows that I have an overblown feeling of self-importance. However, I receive enough worship from various quarters that I don't need social media for validation. In any case, I don't fear personal extinction. I only fear dying during the next 10 or 15 years, while my child may still need me.

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