This story is incredible , in a way that sucks.
Ian Calderon (D), who is majority leader of the California State Assembly, has taken a great deal of (much-deserved) heat for introducing a bill that would impose stiff prison sentences on waiters in California who give plastic drinking straws to customers unsolicited. Mr. Calerdon’s office has since said that the penalties for this grave offense will, in fact, be much lighter.
Mr. Calderon was driven to crusade against the evil plastic straw because, he and his office believe, the number of such straws given out daily in the United States is 500 million – a figure that the Hon. Mr. Calderon’s office calls “alarming.”
Reason‘s Christian Britschgi  discovered that the 500 million figure comes from – and from only – a telephone survey conducted in 2011 by Milo Cress, who was then all of nine-years-old. Master Milo’s tender age does nothing to diminish the confidence that Mr. Calderon’s office has in the accuracy of the 500-million figure:
“Calderon’s spokeswoman, Lerna Shirinian, said his office stood by the number. “We have no reason to believe it’s not accurate,” Shirinian said.
Remember, Democrats – especially those in coastal states such as California – are forever boasting of their commitment to science, reason, and the facts. So what do your – as in you, a reader of Cafe Hayek – instincts say about the 500 million number? Forget that a telephone survey conducted by a child is not, shall we say, likely to be sufficiently rigorous to qualify as science. Instead, let’s do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to explore the plausibility this 500 million figure. (By the way, I literally used the back of an envelope to record the figures that I report below.)
Google directed me to this Rasmussen Report , which gives dining-out data for mid-2013 (which is close enough to 2011, the year Prof. Cress conducted his research). I quote relevant data from Rasmussen:
Fifty-eight percent (58%) of American Adults now say they are dining out at least once a week, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. That’s virtually unchanged from January  and includes 40% who say they typically go out to a restaurant once a week, 14% who go out two or three times a week and four percent (4%) who dine out more than three times a week. Thirty-nine percent (39%), on the other hand, rarely or never eat at a restaurant.
In 2013, the U.S. population was 316.2 million . So let us, consistent with these figures, max out the number of instances of dining out in the U.S. in 2013.
40 percent of Americans dined out only once a week. That’s 126,480,000 weekly meals out. On average, then, this figure means that on any one day of the week 18,068,571 of this 40 percent of Americans dine out.
Let’s be as generous as possible and assume that all of the 14 percent of Americans who dine out two to three times weekly actually dine out three times weekly. That’s 132,804,000 weekly meals – which gives us an average of 18,972,000 meals daily from this group.
Let’s also be as generous toward Dr. Cress’s research with the third group of dining-out Americans as we were with the second group. That is, let’s assume that the four percent of Americans who dine out more than three times weekly dine out 21 times weekly – three meals daily, every day of the week. That’s 37,944,000 million dine-out meals each day.
The sum of these three figures is – take a deep breath – 74,984,571. Let’s now assume – generously – that every American gets two plastic (never paper) straws with each and every meal eaten out. Not only, we assume, do the teenagers who drink milkshakes at McDonald’s each use two straws at each meal, so, too do all diners at fine establishments such as New York, NY’s Masa and Yountville, CA’s The French Laundry. (The likes of Montrachet and California zins always taste better when drawn through straws, don’tcha know?)
So now we have 149,969,142 plastic straws handed out daily across our great republic.
How, pray tell, did Dr. Cress come up with a daily figure of 500 million (a figure larger by the figure calculate above by approximately 350 million)? Hard to figure. Seriously, I don’t fault a child for faulty research. However, I do fault adults – and especially adults with political power – for being so unimaginably stupid and gullible as to accept this figure as valid and to continue to stand by the figure once it is pointed out that it is the product of research conducted by a nine-year-old boy with a telephone!
Presumably, the Hon. Ian Calderon and his staff are all adults. Are they so completely ignorant of the size of the U.S. population, and of the general pattern of Americans’ dining patterns and habits, that a figure of 500 million plastic straws daily doesn’t cause them to be skeptical? Are they so innumerate as not to question such an obviously ridiculous number? The answers to these questions, I fear, are ‘yes’ and ‘yes.’
And yet, again, people such as these possess power to order other people about.
It sucks. And it’s frightening.