Industrial Progress Policy Marches On


President Bush has nominated Kellogg CEO Carlos "Froot Loops" Gutierrez, a Cuban emigre, to head up the Department of Commerce.

Which brings to mind Reason's 1987 Q&A with the then-chairman of the guvmint's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a guy by the name of Clarence Thomas.

Why do you need a Department of Labor, why do you need a Department of Agriculture, why do you need a Department of Commerce? You can go down the whole list—you don't need any of them, really.

Such heretical ideas were common 10 years ago, when Republican revolutionaries first stormed the House of Representatives vowing to abolish Commerce and other federal agencies. But now, we're on our own to ponder the Great Questions, such as: "Um, what does the Dept. of Commerce do again?" Bloomberg News gamely points out that it's

a Cabinet agency of 40,000 people, which compiles economic data, monitors the weather, helps administer the airwaves and adjudicates trade complaints against products such as shrimp from Thailand, lumber from Canada and hand trucks from China.

Well, somebody's gotta monitor that damned weather. Godspeed, Carlos!

NEXT: Brian Doherty reads from Lost in the Grooves

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  1. I guess it would be too much to hope for that the Kellogs guy would be the ax-man hired to downsize Commerce :/

  2. This is good info. Next time I need to know whether it’s raining, I’ll just call the Dept. of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admnistration office at 202-482-6090. Might as well get my tax money’s worth, after all.

  3. “Gutierrez, 51, will pick up an agenda Evans developed to help manufacturers by cutting government regulations, reducing taxes and managing the end of global trade restrictions on textiles in 2005.”

    Sounds like someone who’ll work himself out of a job. I have great hopes.

    I also expect Santa will bring me lots of neat toys for Xmas.

  4. And after we abolish the NOAA, Matt Welch and Stevo Darkly can run their own computational fluid dynamics models to project the path of hurricanes which cause billions of dollars in property damage. You guys are pretty smart, it’s only a massively parallel series of partial differential equations.

    And then Stevo and Matt (hereafter known as the dynamic duo) can fly their jets into the center of a hurricane to drop instruments and take readings.

    This is not to say that the DoC budget could not be massively trimmed, but let’s not go overboard in criticizing the DoC’s value added functions, m’kay??

  5. Exactly! There can be competing weather agencies, each flying their planes into the eye of the hurricane to deliver the same report, each running their own algorithms, etc. But to avoid wasteful duplication of service, and to heighten competition, the hurricane-spying planes should carry Sidewinder missiles, so one agency can shoot the other agency down! It’ll foster innovation in weapons countermeasures, and thus more innovation in weapons. Because remember: if your plane gets splashed, it’s because it didn’t have enough protection. Society is under no mandate to protect it. In fact, ALL competing airlines should probably outfit their jets with air-to-air missiles! And air-to-ground missiles, to blow up any would-be idiots with SAMs! And robotic stewardesses that know kung fu, to fuck up would-be terrorists! And the in-flight movie should be The Fountainhead

  6. Of course, if there were no NOAA around, no private entity would ever have found it to their economic benefit (and that of others) to undertake such a project. Ever.

  7. But that is what copyright protections are for! News agencies, the Weather Channel, etc, will find it in their economic best interest to monitor hurricanes so they can have a spicy and hopefully informative news broadcast. However, to avoid the free-rider problem of Mr. Smith telling Mr. Jones what the weather is, the whole shootin’ match is copyrighted, and any reproduction, etc. may not be perpetrated without the express written consent of the issuing agency, which will happen NEVER…so the only way to find out what the weather will be is to pay them, or get your own damn news bureau! It’s the libertarian way, I tell you! And we will put air-to-air missiles on the copyright protection planes!

  8. Isn’t the Secret Service also part of the Commerce Dept.?

    We probably shouldn’t abolish that…Also, the NOAA/NWS runs the severe weather warning system – not sure how private enterprise or individual states would run that. Maybe Commerce is a department we can all be okay with after all!Now the Dept. of Education….

  9. The Secret Service was moved from Treasury to Homeland Security Dept.

    I’m no Milton Friedman, but perhaps severe weather prediction could potentially be justified by the “national defense” proviso for federal spending in the libertarian playbook.

  10. Call me snake: Weather prediction is historically military-driven. A return to the DoD might make sense, but the brass are less likely to share their knowledge, lest they tip off the enemy. So we get a duplication of efforts between DoD and Commerce.

    I hold with Matthew’s optimism, that somebody has to be the last Chief of the tribe.

  11. Isn’t the Secret Service also part of the Commerce Dept.?

    No, originally Treasury now the Orwell Dept*. They were originally responsible for catching counterfeiters (one of the few law enforcement responsibilities enumerated to the fedgov). After Lincoln was shot they were assigned to protect the Prez. Of course if that happened today they’d start a whole “Department of Protecting the President and all his Hangers-on and all the ex-Presidents and their wives”.

    There’s no reason that NOAA couldn’t move to another Dept. After all the Coast Guard was moved from Treasury to Transportation and then to Homeland Security. Maybe a downsized version can be moved back after the War on Drugs is ended and the War on Terror has been won. 🙂

    *”Call me snake” alerted me to that change while I was composing, Thanks.

  12. In my opinion, the Weather Channel doesn’t have the deep-enough pockets to have performed the mission of NOAA. Report on storms, sure. Develop quality predictive models… don’t buy it. In fact, it would be in WC’s interest for maximum surprise in terms of stormy events. It’s possible a consortium of insurance companies could have ponied the funds. I’d also have buyed Enron’s weather derivatives trading desk.

  13. “And robotic stewardesses that know kung fu, to fuck up would-be terrorists!”

    Funniest thing I have read today.

    “Of course, if there were no NOAA around, no private entity would ever have found it to their economic benefit (and that of others) to undertake such a project. Ever.”

    Phil, I’ve always wondered why, before government took on the responsibility, no one was ever able to send any mail, or learn to read, or build a road, etc., etc., etc. The first government was probably organized to order our ancestors out of the trees, which they never would have done on their own initiative, the damn anthropoid slackers.

  14. Let’s keep in mind that Kellogg was a loon.

    Stevo Darkly,

    Ha ha ha. 🙂

    Call me snake,

    If it weren’t for the government encouraging folks to live in hurricane zones, it wouldn’t be such a problem. 🙂

  15. I don’t meant for the guys slaving away at the NOAA to feel bad, and this may well be an ignorant question, but do you really need to fly airplanes into hurricanes to find out which direction they are heading? Could you accomplish the same essential function by doing real-time (or close to it) observation by weather satellite observation, maybe? The private sector can build, launch and maintain satellites.

    To handle the free-rider problem (always a problem with any kind of information service), maybe they could do it by bundling the cost of the weather-monitoring service with some other excludable good — like they sometimes used to bundle lighthouse provision with harbor services. I dunno, maybe the weather-monitoring company could bundle its service with the provision of hurricane insurance, or even evacuation assistance in case of an approaching hurricane. You pay for the one, and it includes the cost of the monitoring. I dunno, I’ve only been thinking seriously about this for about five minutes — maybe someone else can come up with a better market-driven solution after an hour or so.

    Or, hey, maybe this vital service can be funded by donations, and even staffed by volunteers. Would a team of qualified meteorologists and pilots be willing to volunteer to fly into a hurricane once in a while for the bragging rights and macho babe-magnetism alone?

    Pipe dream? Nuh-uh. Once (sometime in the past 10 years) REASON did an article on a sea-rescue service in the UK funded entirely by donations and staffed entirely by volunteers, IIRC, and it was doing a bang-up job. No (monetary) profit motive required. Gov’t program vs. for-profit business aren’t the only alternatives out there, you unimaginative statists. 🙂

  16. Aha! It was the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and here is the must-read link:

    (Published 10 years and 3 months ago. Damn, I’m good. And REASON is an amazing resource…)

    Some excerpts:

    In May 1993 the racing yacht Heptarchy, with a crew of 10, fouled its propeller in a fishing net while trying to get into port in Cornwall, England. Gale winds of more than 60 knots blew the yacht out to sea and knocked it down. Using its VHF direction-finder, the lifeboat David Robinson located the Heptarchy and connected a line. After a five-hour struggle in turbulent seas, it managed to tow the 56-foot yacht to safety in Falmouth.

    The David Robinson is one of 272 lifeboats assigned to 210 stations in the British Isles run by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The lifeboats are called out some 5,000 times every year to offer assistance in marine mishaps. According to its records, the service saved an average of three lives a day in 1993 and has saved more than 124,000 since its founding in 1824.

    But running the lifeboats and paying the thousands of rescue workers does not cost British taxpayers a penny. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is a private organization, supported, as it proudly says on its letterhead, “entirely by voluntary contributions” and managed by its own trustees and staff. The RNLI will rescue you whether you are rich or poor, whether you have donated to it or not…

    Since the 1890s, left-wing activists have pushed to have the RNLI nationalized on the ground that the state ought to run all public services. These campaigns always founder on the hard rocks of fact: The RNLI beats government emergency services hands down…

    Then there is the advantage of volunteers, who cost less than full-time government staff and are more dedicated to serving the public… {Read the article for why this is so.]

    Reviewing all these advantages, the government’s own officials down through the years have quietly agreed with the sentiment expressed by Jack Stapley when I asked him why the RNLI avoided government support: “We feel service would deteriorate if it was government-funded.”

  17. I should admit that I failed to properly appreciate the importance and complexity of the Commerce Dept.’s weather-monitoring function, even if I think it should not be a gov’t function. My apologies for that.

  18. I’m telling you, only when you make the weather report worth getting by making it copyright-protected, will anyone have financial inventive to get it! of COURSE the govt. is in the business of getting weather right now, any fucking idiot who can pick up a used newspaper can find out the weather! I, for one, look forward to the day when all television is provided with an encryption system so only the purchaser of the particular signal is given the key to unlock it! When broadcast radio dies out and we can pay to hear commercial-free radio! When air-to-air missiles are finally legal to carry into a Starbucks! When I can go into the hot kung-fu robotic stewardess bar and pick up a dashing helpmeet for the evening! And South Carolina! And Michigan! Yaaaaaaaaaaaar!

  19. Dear Mister of Miss tRL(s),

    You added the specification of hotness to your suggestion that a kung-fu robotic stewardess would greatly increase airline travel security standards.

    “…hot kung-fu robotic stewardess …”

    We are working on your request.


    The Secretary

  20. Just wanted to point out a couple of things:

    1) There are already a number of private entities that provide weather forecasts for a fee. They may use NWS data for their forecasts–I don’t know. But it seems unlikely that if the NWS ceased to exist that they wouldn’t band together and come up with some means for collecting data.

    2) It is very difficult to determine hurricane intensities from satellite photographs. And given that such intensities can change dramatically on short notice (ask my neighbors in Punta Gorda), real-time data from within the storm is essential for any sort of reasonable intensity forecasts. Intensity correlates best with central pressure, and that can’t be obtained solely from satellite data.

    3) Supercomputing ain’t what it used to be. Numerical solutions to PDEs are best done through massively parallel computation, and this can be accomplished today relatively cheaply, especially if a machine were to be specially constructed for the purpose. A few years ago, the record computing speed was (briefly) held by some physics professor who linked together a bunch of discarded 486 machines. Most (all?) of the algorithms are public domain, and they are no more difficult to implement than the matching algorithms now commonly in use–by numerous private companies–for DNA sequencing. Most innovations in numerical PDE solutions are in grid adaptation and refinement, of which there are many out there, with no clear favorite. The bottom line is that gov’t funding is not essential for either numerical algorithms or the machines to implement them.

    All that having been said, I could easily be persuaded that weather forecasting is one of the small set of things things that could legitimately be claimed to fall under “provid[ing] for the Common Defense and general Welfare of the United States” (Art. I, section 8). I think that if the writers of the Constitution had been aware that such a thing were possible, there is a good chance they would have deemed it just as vital a function as establishing post offices.

  21. The small but ever so large story here is that Carlos started out driving a truck for Kelloggs and is now the CEO.

  22. Yes TWC. Reading his bio and he reminds me of Tony Montana – well except that you replace the cocaine with corn flakes.

    “Say ‘ello to my leetle friend.”

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