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Tobacco Farmers and Clotheslines

There were two fascinating page-one articles in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that reinforce why it is so hard to predict the future.

U.S. Farmers Rediscover the Allure of Tobacco,” by Lauren Etter, is about how tobacco farming has spiked in the U.S. in the three years since federal tobacco subsidies ended. Although the U.S. tobacco/cigarette industry has taken a few body blows, foreign demand is huge, and that is what’s driving a 20 percent increase in U.S. tobacco acreage since 2005. The article is incredibly well reported and well written, so you should read the whole thing; here’s a key quote: “Even factoring in higher labor and other costs, [Martin Ray Barbre]’s netting up to $1,800 an acre from his 150 acres of tobacco, compared with $250 an acre from his corn.” If I taught Econ. 101, I’d plan an entire class session around this article: it’s full of good lessons about economies of scale, unintended consequences, and allocation of resources.

The Right to Dry: A Green Movement Is Roiling America,” by Anne Marie Chaker, is not as complex an article but it’s still interesting. It’s about how homeowners in nice neighborhoods want to hang their laundry out to dry — for the clean smell, sure, but primarily to cut down on expensive and polluting electricity — but that their neighbors frown on this activity because it makes the neighborhood look trashy. Among the things you’ll learn: that an organization exists called the “clothesline advocacy group Project Laundry List” (not kidding), and also, according to Chaker, that “nationwide, about 60 million people now live in about 300,000 ‘association governed’ communities, most of which restrict outdoor laundry hanging.” This number comes from Frank Rathbun, a spokesman for the Community Associations Institute in Alexandria, Va. (where it seems every association in the U.S. is based). I had no idea that 1 in 5 Americans lived in an “association governed community” — until I looked at the data on the C.A.I. website and realized that I am one of them, since I live in a co-op in New York City. Maybe tonight I will try to hoist some wet socks in the hallway and see what happens.