The brick and mortar opticians’ cabal.

Have you heard of Warby Parker? Or Lookmatic? They’re just two of a bunch of new companies that sell cheap and stylish prescription eyeglasses online. Warby Parker is my favorite, because of their marketing slickness, Tom’s-style buy-one, give-one do-gooding, and the fact that they’ll send you five pairs of frames (for free!) to try on in the comfort and privacy of your home before you make a selection. If you try them, know before you go to your eye doctor that you need your “pupillary distance” or “PD” measure, and it’ll save you a lot of hassle. I went through this hassle, and it seems like a good example to me of a broken regulatory system and anticompetitive market, so I cannot resist boring the Internet with my story:

I’d decided a few months ago to get new glasses because I was sick of my current pair and because the insurance I had through my fellowship covered an eye exam. Before I moved to California (and before that insurance ran out), I got a new prescription for eyeglasses at an eye doctor in D.C. A few weeks ago, I ordered a home try-on kit from Warby Parker and spent a couple days being indecisive about what pair of frames to choose. After I finally made a decision, I dug up my prescription to enter it into the Warby Parker site, when I discovered that my eye doctor had not included a PD measure. Apparently, this is common, and the Warby Parker site suggested that I go back to my eye doctor to get my PD measure. In my case, since my eye doctor was across the country and I didn’t want to pay for another eye exam, this wasn’t really an option. The website also made two other suggestions: I could try to see if the last place I had glasses made had my PD on file, or go to a local optician and see if they would measure my PD (possibly for a nominal fee). The copy on the Warby Parker page was actually pretty interesting:

You can also try to walk into an optical shop and ask for a PD measurement. In the past, most optical shops provided PD measurements for free, but now we’re finding that many are no longer doing so in a vain attempt to maintain control of the market and prevent people from buying online.

That made me think that the local LensCrafters store was not going to be happy about measuring my PD (trivial though the process is). So my first thought was to call the Pearle Vision store where I had bought my last pair of glasses to see if they would just tell me my PD. The woman who spoke to me on the phone told me that an email had gone around about these online opticians, and that she could not give me my PD measurement information. When I asked her if there was any way I could request its release to me, since it was mine, she said, “No, it’s not yours, it’s the lab’s.”

Plan B was to try calling the local LensCrafters. After I explained my situation to the guy on the phone, he tried to dissuade me from buying glasses online at all, saying that the PD measurement was likely to be inaccurate if I had a strong prescription and they didn’t have the actual frames on me to measure them. When I told him I’d take my chances, he suddenly remembered that the store’s pupillometer was broken and that I could try my luck at a different LensCrafters. (So if you’re thinking of waltzing into the LensCrafters in Emeryville, don’t bother! Their pupillometer is broken and they are apparently ethically bound to taking only the most precise PD measurements before any eyewear changes hands. [Just kidding! Opticians don’t have professional ethics.])

In the end, I wound up paying $25 for the optometrists-in-training at the UC Berkeley Eye Center to measure my PD. I guess they’re more of a medical school than a member of the brick and mortar opticians’ cabal, so they don’t really have a dog in this fight.

When I sat down to write this blog post, I did a little Googling and discovered that there really is a brick and mortar opticians’ cabal. It’s called Luxottica:

It owns LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, and the optical shops in Target (TGT) and Sears; (SHLD) it owns Ray-Ban, Oakley, and Oliver Peoples; it manufactures, under license, eyewear for more than 20 top brands, including Chanel, Burberry, Prada, and Stella McCartney. “They’ve created the illusion of choice,” says [Warby Parker co-founder] Gilboa. And inadvertently they’ve created an opening for an indie anti-brand brand such as Warby Parker. Luxottica declined to comment.

…Warby Parker uses the same materials and the same Chinese factories as Luxottica. It can sell its glasses for less because it doesn’t have to pay licensing fees, which can be as much as 15 percent of the $100 wholesale cost of a pair of glasses. Warby Parker doesn’t have to deal with retailers, either, whose markups can double or triple prices, it says. And at least for now, the founders are content with lower margins.

So, Warby Parker and co. are full of win, right? They simply seem to have the superior business model; if the market works at all, then surely the pathetic and apparently-coordinated attempts at Luxottica outlets to resist progress through noncooperation will ultimately prove futile. Well, I’m not as optimistic about the market as some, but we’ll see.

The unpredictability of firm size and political clout: a case study in snakes.

The other day, Matt Yglesias disputed the idea that large corporations have too much political power, arguing instead about the disproportionate political clout of sectors made up of small firms which are geographically dispersed, like agriculture. Because of the over-representation of rural America in the Senate, that means rural priorities – like developing the ag industry – get special political attention.

In response, Mother Jones food and ag writer Tom Philpott pointed out that agriculture’s political over-representation is chiefly due to the American Farm Bureau, an agricultural trade group deeply connected with big agribusiness (think ADM, Cargill, ConAgra, and DuPont), and not so much with actual small firms (the family farms that the Farm Bureau purports to represent):

The Farm Bureau claims its 6.2 million “member families” make it the nation’s “largest and most influential general farm organization,” but there’s a math problem here: America has just 2 million farms, and 960,000 people who claim farming as their main occupation. “The vast majority of its members,” notes FWW, “are neither farmers nor necessarily advocates of the political platform that the Farm Bureau endorses on their behalf.” Instead, they’re just random insurance customers.

I don’t know if Philpott’s contention – based on a 2010 Food & Water Watch report – is an accurate characterization, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were – which would make it less surprising that politicians awarded such outsized influence to the interests of a powerful and monied national (or transnational) lobby, which may not be aligned with those of the legislators’ constituents. Of course, it’s also possible that legislators simply aren’t aware of how their constituents’ opinions might diverge from the interests of the large corporate lobbies.

In any case, this debate reminded me of the whole kerfuffle with regulating snakes, which I meant to blog about last month. When I was in law school, I interned for Senator Ben Cardin, working on matters related to the Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife. One of the bills that I helped prepare a hearing for was Senator Bill Nelson’s proposal to add the Burmese python, among other invasive snake species, to the list of species protected by the Lacey Act, thereby prohibiting their importation and interstate trafficking.

Not only is it absurd for the Republicans to mischaracterize the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed “injurious” finding as setting off a job-killing “regulatory tsunami,” it’s especially galling considering that Nelson’s bill would essentially have legislated that finding (and you’d think it ought to be uncontroversial even among today’s right-wing zealots that it is the role of Congress to skip the bureaucrats and legislate). Back when Nelson’s bill was percolating around the 111th Congress, I didn’t understand why it wasn’t a given that it would pass – I mean, how much influence could the exotic pet and reptile enthusiast lobby have? In what Congressional district(s) are snake-lovers clamoring for greater liberty in Burmese python trading? How big is the snakes-as-pets industry and how many people do they employ? (And how many people could instead be employed as customs inspectors and Lacey Act enforcement, with co-benefits for local ecosystems?)

The trouble is, as I found after a little recreational and fruitless research, this information is not readily available (because in whose interest is it to make that information available?) and so our hapless Congresscritters were not enabled to make the rational decision about adding the Burmese python to the Lacey Act. (On the other hand, the proposed rule notes [at 75 Fed. Reg. 11817] that local, state and federal entities along with universities have spent almost $3 million on studying and eradicating large constrictor snakes in Florida alone.) This information problem might be the root cause for the disproportionate influence of the fragmented and geographically disparate small firms who traffic in an uncharismatic and literally baby-killing invasive species.

An inefficiency in the mission to kill OBL.

I’ve had this tab open for weeks, it seems, meaning to point this out to the Internet. Here goes!

In its August 8, 2011 issue, the New Yorker ran a fascinating article on Operation Neptune’s Spear – the mission that resulted in Osama bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad. It is a great and interesting read. For example, did you know that the translator, a Pakistani-American, was pulled from a “desk job” and had to learn how to “fast rope” for the operation?

More interesting still is this account of how the SEALs disposed of the damaged Black Hawk helicopter (the one that Pakistan might have let China check out):

Next, the SEALs needed to destroy the damaged Black Hawk. The pilot, armed with a hammer that he kept for such situations, smashed the instrument panel, the radio, and the other classified fixtures inside the cockpit. Then the demolition unit took over.

(Emphasis mine.) The pilot brought a hammer on this mission for the sole purpose of smashing up the instrument panel and radio, etc.? I don’t claim to be an expert in [para]military operations, but this struck me as odd. Is there a reason that other tools, like ones that could serve other uses for other contingencies, couldn’t be used for this purpose? Is there a reason that other things carried by the SEALs (like assault rifles) couldn’t be used? I’d like to know, because I don’t want our courageous special ops soldiers burdened with unnecessary hammers.