Brad DeLong recently quoted the following snippet from an email he received on his blog:
In Agatha Christie’s autobiography, she mentioned how she never thought she would ever be wealthy enough to own a car – nor so poor that she wouldn’t have servants…
Today, having servants is a luxury only open to the rich, whereas owning at least one car is a standard part of middle class life, outside of a few major cities. In Christie’s youth, however, it was just the opposite. Automobiles were the luxury, whereas most middle class families could afford live in servants (the same is true of many developing countries today).
The Christie quote (or paraphrase, rather) reminds me of something a Papal legate wrote about the habits of the Byzantines back in the day: “Their treasuries are overflowing, yet they do their own laundry.”
In both cases there is the same basic phenomenon at work. As a society gets wealthier, the real cost of most things goes down, but the real cost of human labor goes up. To quote John Nye: Continue reading
Blackadder, I’m expecting your answer to be characteristically parsed and lawyerly, but I’ll ask anyway: Do you think there is any imbalance in power between Walmart (say) and a door greeter or stocker that works there? If so, in your libertarian utopia who or what would protect the workers from abuse by management?
It’s a good question. Continue reading
Since today is not President’s Day, I thought I would indulge in a little rant.
Presidential rankings tend to be rather biased. The problem isn’t so much political. A 1982 survey of historians, for example, found that conservatives and liberals were in complete agreement as to the best eight and worst six presidents (though the ordering in each case was slightly different). Rather, bias in presidential rankings is that such rankings tend to reward presidents who do a lot and expand the power of the presidency while punishing those who do not. A president who presides over peace and prosperity is liable to be forgotten, whereas those who faced great crisis, economic or military, tend to be ranked more highly. Indeed, since success in averting or defusing crises often makes them seem less severe in retrospect, this sort of ranking could be said to actually reward presidents for mishandling potential crises, or even creating them in the first place.
How else to explain the consistently low ranking (often in last place) of our 29th President, Warren G. Harding. Continue reading
On Monday, I listened to President Obama’s prime time press conference, which was focused on the President’s economic plans. When asked how we would know if the stimulus package due to be voted on today was successful, Obama stated that his “initial measure of success is creating or saving 4 million jobs.” The inclusion of the words “or saving” is, of course, a fairly big hedge, since the only way to really say for certain that his plan hasn’t saved 4 million jobs is if things get so bad that there are less than four million people working in this country. Still, I take the President at his word that saving jobs is a priority for him, and motivates his strong support for the stimulus package.
The irony is that even as Obama was speaking, thousands of small businesses in the U.S. were bracing for the effects of a new law that may very well put an entire industry out of business. As you may dimly recall, last year there was a scare involving lead paint in some toys from China. In response, Congress hastily passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which required any manufacturer of children’s products to certify, starting on February 10, 2009, that there products did not contain a significant amount of lead.
It sounded like one of those common sense pieces of legislation that no sensible person could oppose. And, in fact, passage of the bill was nearly unanimous. The problem, however, is that the required certification is prohibitively expensive for most small businesses. So whatever the good intentions behind the law, its results are potentially devastating.
Due to public outcry, the Consumer Product Safety Commission agreed to stay enforcement of certain aspects of the new law for one year. Nevertheless, on February 9th the CPSC published guidelines telling thrift stores and other sellers of used goods that they could be held liable for selling uncertified books published prior to 1985, as well as books with metal or plastic components. The results have been far from pretty:
My daughter works in a used bookstore. TODAY they pulled all the books from the children’s section that had any kind of metal or plastic or toy-like attachment, spiral bindings, balls or things attached, board books, anything that might be targeted under this law, and they very quietly trashed them all. I say “very quietly” because the bookstore had a meeting with employees and told them to be careful not to start a panic. If anyone asked what they were doing they were told to say that they were “rearranging their inventory.” No one was allowed to tell anyone about the new law, and no one was allowed to take any of the doomed-for-destruction books home or give them away.
I just came back from my local thrift store with tears in my eyes! I watched as boxes and boxes of children’s books were thrown into the garbage! Today was the deadline and I just can’t believe it! Every book they had on the shelves prior to 1985 was destroyed! I managed to grab a 1967 edition of “The Outsiders” from the top of the box, but so many!
The lesson here, I think, is that laws often have serious and negative unintended consequences, and this danger only increases when a bill is passed in a hurry or out of a perceived necessity to “do something” about a given problem. It’s a lesson, I fear, that we will have to learn again and again over the coming years.
From the New York Times:
“All you need to do is grant visas to two million Indians, Chinese and Koreans,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express newspaper. “We will buy up all the subprime homes. We will work 18 hours a day to pay for them. We will immediately improve your savings rate — no Indian bank today has more than 2 percent nonperforming loans because not paying your mortgage is considered shameful here. And we will start new companies to create our own jobs and jobs for more Americans.”
Alan Greenspan floated the same idea last summer. Congress, however, seems to have other ideas:
the U.S. Senate unfortunately voted on Feb. 6 to restrict banks and other financial institutions that receive taxpayer bailout money from hiring high-skilled immigrants on temporary work permits known as H-1B visas.
As recounted in Boswell’s biography, Samuel Johnson offers the following advice on reading:
A man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to… If a man begins to read in the middle of a book, and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it, to go to the beginning. He may, perhaps, not feel again the inclination.
And in another place he says, on the advice that books, once started, should be read all the way through:
This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?
C.S. Lewis, likewise, advised that one’s reading should be divided into two categories: what one has to read and what one likes to read, with no room left over for “what one thinks one should read though they don’t want to” (unfortunately I don’t have the quote handy, or I would use the exact words). Continue reading
A propos of yesterday’s post, I came across a blog post the other day about the Madoff scandal which I found quite interesting. Madoff, as anyone not living under a rock for the last few months knows, was the famed investor whose ponzi scheme milked America’s rich and famous out of nearly fifty billion dollars. The fact that this scheme went undetected for so long (despite the efforts of some to sound the alarm) and was only uncovered when his own sons turned him in, is, to put it mildly, a rather bad screw up for the S.E.C. In fact, as Robert Murphy notes, if you had asked people beforehand to come up with a situation where the S.E.C. screwed up so badly that it would be abolished, they probably would not have come up with something nearly as bad as the Madoff scandal. And yet, the response to these failures at the S.E.C. will undoubtedly be for it to be given more money, more power, and an even greater mandate to root out scams in the investment world.
No doubt for some the problem here is not so much a failure of government as a failure of Republican administrations. If the S.E.C. wasn’t doing its job, it must be because Bush gutted the agency, or filled it with ideological hacks who refused to enforce the law. Continue reading
As time goes by, I become more and more convinced that one of the main things that keeps government in business is the inability of people to imagine how anyone else could deal with the sometimes serious problems that arise in the social order. If private action fails to solve a given social problem as well as we might like, the answer is more government. Whereas if the government fails, even spectacularly, in dealing with a particular social ill, the answer is… more government. People respond to the poor performance of a government initiative not by suggesting that it be abolished, but rather by calling for government to redouble it’s efforts. Failing businesses have a tendency to go out of business (well, at least most of the time). Failing government programs, by contrast, tend to get more money. Which, when you think about it, is not a recipe for success.
People act this way, I think, not because they are just irrational, but because they don’t see an alternative. Yes, public schools in some parts of the country are just plain awful. But what’s the alternative? Just let kids roam the streets all day? Yes, the Post Office is often inefficient, costly, and they lose your mail a lot. Still, someone has to deliver the mail. If not the government, then who? Okay, so the response to hurricane Katrina by the government was just awful, and the rebuilding efforts in many cases haven’t been much better. But it’s not like anyone else is going to do the job, so the government has to. To a lot of people, saying that some problem should be left to “private charity” or “the market” sounds like saying “let’s ignore the problem and hope it goes away.” Which hardly sounds like a counsel of prudence. The truth is, though, that allowing everyone in America to try and come up with a solution to a given social problem often works a lot better than trying to impose a single solution from the top down.
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