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Causation: A Political Imposition

As I admitted two days ago, during my vacation I did some trawling in MEN'S JOURNAL for blog topics. This will be my second and last entry drawing upon that source.

There's a fascinating though brief item about contemporary changes in van design. For purposes of historical perspective, the author [Jamie Lincoln Kitman, portrayed above]  mentions an action of President Johnson in 1963. The new President, unhappy that France and Germany had imposed duties on US poultry exports, retaliated with a tariff of his own, one that amounted to a 25% increase in the price of imported vans. Kitman refers to this act of retaliation as the "chicken tax."

What Kitman didn't say was whether this was something Johnson did by slipping a relevant amendment into some omnibus tax bill that then became law, or whether it was something accomplished by executive order (pursuant to some earlier mandate) or ... what. He writes as if Jonson unilaterally decreed the chicken tax, which leaves me a bit puzzled, though it isn't the sort of thing that would cause me to cross the road for an answer.  (Get it?)

Anyway, let's continue with Kitman's story. he believes that the chicken tax killed US vans, that is, it is an industry that has only quite recently resurrected itself.

"American carmakers sensed an opportunity to coast, and they took it, denying American consumers the latest van technology for more than a quarter of a century. Where an ordinary car or a minivan (which are based on passenger cars) went four or five years between redesigns, some full-sized American vans went essentially unchanged for 30 years. Old-fashioned body-on-a-frame construction, crude suspensions, lousy fuel economy -- if it's what they did in 1975, it's pretty much what they did in 2005."

Now, that at first seemed a wonderful microcosmic confirmation of how I see the world. Government action on some unrelated issue (protecting chicken exports) produces unintended but quite negative consequences of a godawful sort for a long period. Insert libertarian or anarcho-capitalist sermonizing for yourself here. I don't know anything about Kitman's politics. He's an automotive journalist, a blogger for Car Talk among much else. Even better -- a neutral source confirming my political prejudices with the facts from his field of expertise.

But then I started thinking about the time line. Kitman is saying that an action in 1963 had certain consequences in the period 1975-2005. In another place in the piece he describes the early 70s as the "heyday" of the US manufactured van, putting them at the height that made such coasting possible. But what was going on in the model years from 1964 to 1974? There was already a chicken tax, the foreign competition was absent but ... things kept getting better for awhile before they started getting worse.

Something about this cause-effect claim seems off. Was there a progressive momentum in the design world that continued for a decade until companies decided they could coast?  


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