Frontier Libraries

PuebloLibrary

This past week at work I was reviewing some Colorado territorial laws that we just recently digitized and I found this great one from the 1872 about the establishment of the first public libraries. Apparently what happened was each little mining town would set up a fund where they would put all of the money collected from violators of the place’s the vice laws (it says any penal ordinance, but that was pretty much all there was in the way of municipal law back then), and they would use that fund to purchase books for the town library. So, as you might imagine, a lot of these towns ended up having really nice libraries.

The old jail in Telluride.  Built in 1885, it began as the town's library.

The old jail in Telluride. Built in 1885, it began as the town’s library.

It’s kind of ingenious when you think about it: you use people’s predilection for bad behavior to nourish institutions that promote the public good; because you if you can’t keep people from gambling and whoring around, you might as well harness that energy and put it towards something that could end up being corrective. It’s like they were trying to systematize moral rectitude. Pretty crafty for a bunch of semi-literate hack lawyers.

Reading these old session laws, one gets a sense of how these frontier people were essentially building a civilization from scratch. The Native American tribes in the area certainly had a social order, and I think during the early half of the 19th century when white people, trappers mostly, first began entering Colorado that’s what was used. Trade, war, friendship, and kinship were conducted in the Indian way, because it was a tried and proven system. But when people began doing other things in the region besides hunting and subsistence farming, an entirely new complex of rules and norms had to be devised. As evidenced by the strength of their laws and the prosperous communities they built, those early Coloradans did not fail at what they set out to do.

The Stellar Evolution of JoJo

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The other night I fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole studying about this also-ran pop star branded as “JoJo.” I was reading the article about the Hannah Montana tv show and was intrigued to learn that the staring role of Hannah Montana had initially been offered to her. In what would go down as a monumentally bad career decision of historic proportions, she actually turned it down(!)–or rather her agents and managers thought that because she couldn’t have been more than 14 years old at the time. The only reason I can think of is that they must have thought that staring in a Disney sitcom would diminish JoJo’s reputation as a recording artist. This would have been in 2006, before the days when platinum singles could get their start from being showcased in car ads. So, as we all know, the role went to Miley Cyrus who goes on to become a teen sensation and international megastar, while JoJo quietly drifts to the margins of teeny bopper R&B. The last real gig she had was opening for the Joe Jonas & Jay Sean Tour back in 2011.

Last thing I did before going to sleep that night was rake through JoJo’s twitter feed to see if I could detect any notes of bitterness over the way her career turned out. For the most part it just seems like she was soldiering on, trying to make it work, trying to find a place for herself in the middle echelons of pop stardom. Doing yeoman’s work selling the same act as 5 years to an aging audience that’s rapidly growing out of it.

Cab Economics

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Listened to this podcast story about Uber and the economics of variable rate car services. The story is premised on the question of whether it’s fair for a cab driver to charge extra for a ride when demand is higher. I was surprised to hear so many people on the customer end complain in interviews about how they felt they were being cheated. The typical taxi passenger is cheated to a much greater degree by the outmoded municipal rules that govern the ride service business. In many places cab fares are standardized for all companies and the law restricts the number of companies and cabs that can operate within city limits. These systems are set up specifically to thwart competition between drivers and to make sure that everyone get some business. Rules are different in every city. Some places have next to no restriction on taxi carriers; but most do. I don’t know where the laws come from or why they were passed in the first place. I can say with some certainty that standardization has an unmistakably negative effect on quality of service. It isn’t favorable to the consumer. It does mean that the cab companies pull in regular and reliable profits. One cab company in the town I grew up in had been in business since 20s. It was a small but assured revenue stream for this old ,wealthy family that had always owned it.

When I graduated college, I worked for that company for a little while, or more accurately I contracted with them since none of the drivers were actual employees. What we were, in fact, were customers of the cab company. We would pay them rent to use their cars and their dispatch service. It was then up to us to make enough money on our fares, on top of the money needed to pay for the car, to support ourselves. As you might imagine, this sort of arrangement attracted a lot of dodgy people: deadbeat dads trying to hide their incomes so that they didn’t have to pay child support, ex-convicts who couldn’t get traditional employment, people on disability who wanted a sit-down job that the government didn’t know about. The whole operation was sketchy as hell, and I blame the city for setting it up so that it could be that way

I can say with confidence that municipal control over fares and licensing has a ruinous effect on cab service in a city. If you’ve ever called for a cab to take you to the airport and they never showed up, it’s because of the way taxi service is regulated. If you’ve ever been taken to your destination via an indirect route, it’s because of the way taxi service is regulated. So much of what’s wrong with getting a cab could be remedied if we let drivers and companies compete with each other directly for our business and let them control their own pricing models.

Some anecdotal evidence…

When I was a cab driver, I used to work the bar time crowd. This was in Madison, Wisconsin, a college town full of bars. When the bars let out at 2am, hordes of inebriated people would flood into the street, and everyone all at once wanted to go someplace else. It was like a salmon run to the cab drivers, wall-to-wall business. A driver could make a third of his money for the night during that 2 o’clock hour if he worked it right. What you wanted is to do as many rides for as many people as possible the shortest amount of time that you were capable of doing them. You wanted short rides so that you could turn over and get a new ride in the cab right away. And you wanted to drive a lot of people at once, since each body added a dollar to the fare. So we’d look for big groups of students because most of the students in Madison lived downtown, and if you worked for them you could be pretty sure that you’d be done with their ride in five or six minutes and you’d be ready to work again. What we would avoid is older, affluent-looking people whom we could tell probably lived in the suburbs and were downtown to blow off some steam and have fun like they did when they were kids. If these people got in your cab, they’d take you all the way out to the edges of town and you’d miss out on the bartime frenzy. Now this is exactly counter to how the market should work. The wealthier customers would all get served last, and business of the poorer, more numerous underclasses was coveted. There isn’t much in a capitalist economy that functions this way, and I can tell you that the rich and entitled do not appreciate being neglected by service workers. They’d bang on my windows and kick at the car because I’d lock the doors on them. One time, on New Year’s eve, I had a man offer me sixty dollars to take him home to Middleton, about eight miles away. I did a calculation in my head and determined that I could make it worth my while for $90. He agreed. I took him home and we were both happy. Uber has made a wildly successful business out of doing exactly this.

I will say, it is interesting how the rules of our bartime game completely inverted the normal market. Instead of going after the whales we all hustled after the big schools of little fish. When the prices are all fixed, the only way you can prosper is by scaling up and being efficient, spending less of your time serving more people. It’s a good case for setting up a market that is more egalitarian and that works for more people. It would be effective in the majority of cases, but completely dysfunctional for anything irregular or outside of a foreseeable norm.

To Encourage the Destruction of Mountain Lions

panther01

As I mentioned a month or two ago, I’m building a digital collection containing legislative session laws passed by the Colorado General Assembly starting with territorial laws and going forward. This past week I was doing some review of 1881 and found some pretty fascinating Acts…

Apparently selling counterfeit butter was a thing people were doing back in the late 19th century. Or at least the problem was bad enough that they had to pass a law making it a misdemeanor to do so. According to “An Act to Prevent the Fraudulent Sale of Oleomargine as butter” anyone caught selling adulterated butter was subject to a hundred dollar fine.

Swainsona_galegifolia_(Edwards)

When I came across this law providing for a reward to persons contributing to the eradication of loco weed, I wondered what loco weed was. After rooting around in some old horticulture books from the period I discovered that it is a scrub bush which, taken in large quantities, is poisonous to grazing animals. Typically they won’t eat it, but if no other food is to be found, horses and cattle have been known to try it. I assume that’s why the reward is only made available during the summer months, when conditions are dry in Colorado and proper grasses may be scarce. The reward for digging up loco weed was a penny and a half per pound. As far as I can tell, nothing in the law prevents someone from cultivating the loco weed intentionally and selling it in great quantities to the county for immediate disposal. I wonder if anyone tried that. You could see how a law like this might actually incentivize people to disseminate the plant on purpose.

But the best by far was this one: “to Encourage the Destruction of Mountain Lions.” The act specifies that a resident of the state could collect $10 from the county treasurer in exchange for a scalp, “with the ears entire” of a mountain lion. Actually it says, “any mountain lion or lions within the state,” so in the event that you came across an African lion in the mountains of Colorado, you could kill this too to claim the bounty. One assumes this law served a similar function as the one mentioned above regarding loco weed. Mountain lions likely posed a major threat to live stock and horses and were probably hated and persecuted by ranchers. Then again, it is perhaps meaningful that the law instructs the scalping of the mountain lion, since this is very often what mountain lions do to people when they attack. Most big cats, when they attack humans, will for some reason scalp the victim. Perhaps there is, in this law, some sense of retribution, as well as practical concern for chattel property. Whatever the case, the mountain lion problem must have been urgent in Colorado in 1881 because the law indicates that the Assembly is responding to an emergency with the bill’s passing and that the law shall go immediately into effect after adoption.

How Love and Dependency Work

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I miss my cat so much. I was just thinking about him now and imagining about him lying on my chest and purring. I’m remembering how he used to have this very strong trust in me that ran counter to the natural caution and apprehension he felt toward everything else. I used to pluck him off of the ground and rest his front paws over my shoulder while cradling the rest of his body in a single arm. He liked being held like that. Sometimes he would even crawl up onto my shoulders and perch himself on the back of my neck. That’s how much he trusted me. He thought me so steady and stable, literally, that he would consent to basing his balance on my balance. I think this is a very basic and primitive form of love.
I know that he has nothing in his life right now that is reliable like that and that he has to suffer a lot of seeming chaos and inconstancy. I also know that this isn not a crisis for him. Chaos is how the world appears to work to us animals and we’re all uniquely built to adapt to it. But it’s hard to know that he knows it could be different, that the world allows for happier conditions but that such conditions are being withheld from him.