Saturday, September 1, 2012

Lessons in the Failures of Central Planning from the Annals of College Football

My beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers play their first game of the season in a few hours. I am a native of Lincoln, Nebraska and lived there for twenty seven years. I grew up watching the Huskers and have been a fan as long as I can remember. I still remember my mom jumping up and down on a trampoline in our basement to expend her excitement. For years she has refused to watch games because she gets too excited. She likes to recall that on gamedays even feminine stores would have the game on TV or radio, and everyone is wearing red. It's difficult to explain what Husker football means to the state of Nebraska and the city of Lincoln if you haven't experienced it. New York has Wall Street and is the media capital of the world. Los Angeles has Hollywood. Washington, D.C. is the nation's capital. Lincoln has the Huskers. When I was a boy I used to cry when they lost big games. I still remember losing the Orange Bowl in '93 when Byron Bennett, cursed be his name forever and ever, missed a last second field goal to lose a national championship game against Florida State. I still hate Florida teams with a passion. Every year the Huskers would win the Big Eight and by contract go to the Orange Bowl and lose to a team from Florida, usually Miami or Florida State. Thus the '94 Orange Bowl is still my favorite game. We beat Miami 24-17 in classic Husker style with two fourth quarter touchdowns off simple fullback traps. The massively talented Miami defense, including NFL star Warren Sapp, found out in the fourth quarter they didn't work quite as hard in offseason conditioning as a bunch of country corn-fed walk-ons. It was legendary coach Tom Osborne's first of three national championships. Boyd Epley, the Husker strength and conditioning coach for decades, eventually went on to be the president of a national association of strength and conditioning coaches as every college athletics program began to copy his Husker Power program.Year after year Osborne and Epley would take walk-ons and overlooked underdog recruits and turn them into the nation's best conditioned athletes. The entire Husker football team was Rudy, and we were good.

I've been to a lot of Husker games in my life, usually at least two a season and of course I went to every one when I had student tickets. The Nebraska Cornhuskers have by far the nation's longest home sell-out streak. All Husker home games have been sold out since 1962. Consequently home games have a lot of tradition. The best gameday tradition is the tunnel walk, when the players come out on the field. The second best gameday tradition is the releasing of helium-filled balloons when the Huskers score their first touchdown. You could tell when we had bad teams if the crowd decided to let them go on the first field goal instead.  The sky fills with red balloons and for several minutes it's quite a sight as they slowly drift up and away. Memorial Stadium is the third largest city in the state on gamedays, and half the crowd used to buy balloons. But not this year.

This year it was announced that there would be no helium-filled balloons because of a worldwide helium shortage. Not a huge deal, but it would be kind of disappointing if I were at a game. So this morning I decided to look up what happened with the helium supply. I know that helium is an important commodity for all kinds of things besides balloons, especially for scientific instrumentation which I have personally used in many laboratories, so it struck me as odd there was a shortage. After some quick reading, I no longer see it as odd there is a helium shortage. It's the same thing that caused the fall of the Soviet Union and the Great Depression: the failure of economic central planning. Again no surprise, the problem traces back to 1925 when the government decided helium was too important to be left in the hands of the private sector. The U.S. government now directly owns, manages and sells 30% of the entire world's helium supply and since 75% of the world's supply comes from the U.S., the federal government also controls the price of 75% of the world's helium. In all my days I couldn't dream up a better fictional story illustrating the failure of government central planning, and this story isn't fiction. Just a couple weeks ago I remarked to my dad that virtually everything that is wrong with the governance of the United States seems to trace back to the progressive era of the 1920s, plus or minus a decade, and today I find out there is a shortage of the second most abundant molecule in the entire universe because the government decided almost a century ago that it knew best.

Now that's whack.