Econ 101: Have As Many Babies As You Can

on buying friends

This sad tale is a single anecdote, not composite, with a handful of details changed to create a smokescreen to serve as a  shroud of charity. It struck me that I have been hearing this story repeatedly, directly and in conversation all over central Niagara County for several years. It has become a kind of mythos for the Lockport region.

I had occasion very recently to visit a nonagenarian, and the phone call which was a prolepsis to my visit revealed an anxiety in her voice that bore no relation to my arranging our convocation. She said, entirely unprovoked, “My house still has not sold, and I’ve already reduced the price two times!”

Quick math: A nonagenarian in 2014 was born between 1915 and 1924, meaning she came of age during the Great Depression, and probably participated in some capacity in World War II.

We were strangers to each other, and my visit had nothing to do with the sale of her home. At the behest of a mutual acquaintance, I was there to visit with her; that is all. When I walked into her home, she bade me sit down in the kitchen, which was large. Immediately, I perceived that this home was postwar, constructed in the 50s or 60s. The floor was tiled, but it had a violent, easily perceptible bow in it. Before I had removed my jacket and taken my seat, she launched into a tirade about the unfairness of it all, saying, “I put $160,000 into this house, and they want me to reduce the price to half that!” She was looking at me with a kind of resigned despair in her eyes, and I had no response; besides, she had already indicated that she was practically deaf, and anything empathetic would lose its comforting effect shouted at such volume as she might hear. And she couldn’t hear most of what I was saying, nuanced by inflection or not. It was pathetic, poor lady.

It didn’t matter: she wanted to unburden herself, so she wasn’t listening; she was talking. “The county bus comes by, but I can’t use it because they won’t help me come down the stairs. They won’t help me put on my coat. They won’t help me get the mail. The cleaners won’t help me clean the stove. They won’t help me into the bathtub. They won’t help me with the laundry.” And so on. Pretty soon I myself went almost entirely deaf, and all I could hear her saying was Help me. Help me. Help me.

I shouted, “Children?”

“My son lives in Denver, and my daughter lives in Seattle.”

“How old are they?” I asked.

“Sixty three and sixty one,” she said. “I haven’t seen my son in seven years or my daughter in five years.”

Quick math: A nonagenarian with children in their early sixties indicates that she did not or was unable to have children in her bearing prime.

She continued, “When my husband died in 2001, I bought this plot and built a house on it. I sunk $160,000 in it! They want me to sell it for $80,000, but I know that a house the same size sells for over $320,000 in Lewiston.

Quick math: Who builds a custom house in her late 70s or early 80s? And as an immediate response to the death of a spouse?

Quick math: 2001 happens to coincide with the drastic reduction of the workforce of Harrison Radiator Manufacturing, a subsidiary of GM located in Lockport, a factory located not five miles from her house. Several thousand found themselves unemployed. There has been, since, a flight of the populace from Lockport. Lewiston, on the other hand, twenty miles west, is nestled beneath the Niagara Escarpment, resting one shoulder upon the Lower Niagara River, with the Queenston-Lewiston bridge connecting it to the heavy-fruited vineyards of the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, Canada, less than two hours from Toronto.

“Did I tell you about my doctor?” she continued. I thought she was going to entertain me with stories of her aching, aging body. “He bought a six bedroom house for ten thousand dollars! Can you believe that? He got someone like me to sell him that huge house for $10,000, and he turned it into apartments. They’re taking advantage of people like me!”

I shrugged and shook my head empathetically, doing all this social math in my head. Then she showed me a copy of a flier from a grocery store, a sale advertised circa 1940. Porterhouse was on sale for two bits a pound. I slavered but quickly recovered.

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I do not know what Mohican Fresh Fried CAKES would be, but I’d spend a quarter to discover.

While she was still showing me this flier, she said, “My husband and I both worked, and we saved every penny. As soon as he died, I bought this lot and put the house on it. A few years ago, I became ill and had to spend some time in the nursing home. I am amazed at how quickly all my money was spent! I have to sell this house to have some money to live out my days!”

Quick math: $300,000 in savings, to those who came of age when porterhouse sells for two bits a pound, must seem like a tremendous amount of money. I wonder how much money those pennies saved earned, especially presuming, usually correctly, that they did not invest, especially in their early retirement years, which would have coincided with the unbridled growth of the economy during the 1980s.

Quick math: Who builds a house immediately in the wake of her husband’s death? Perhaps a lady whose children demur visiting their own dear mother. It borders on judgmental, but I hazard to guess that such a frugal couple may not have enjoyed the fruits of their marriage, namely their two children and their burgeoning savings accounts. They may not have enjoyed each other.

Quick math: $160,000 may buy a sizable kitchen and family room, but it does not also buy quality craftsmanship or materials. This may explain why a relatively new house appeared to be so old, with the attendant structural problems.

“I wish I could go to church,” she said. “But it wouldn’t matter if I could. I have outlived everyone I knew there. Everybody there is so young that I don’t know who they are.”

Quick math: A demographics chart of the region says that the average age of those who attend her church is about 70. They are the children of the people she has outlived.

She’s lonely and frightened. Which of the two is worse? Nevertheless, we’ll do what we can to help her, at least to alleviate some of the excess anxiety. However, such anxious people are becoming a significant part of the populace.

Finally, while we do what we can to help, we are instructed. There is a moral to the story, among several smaller, supporting morals: have lots of babies when you can, and if you can’t produce a brood, buy friends across all the generations. Better in poverty to have friends than to have a house sunk with costs.

That’s probably true whether aged or still sowing wild oats.

How to Argue Like a Traditionalist

Until very recently, “traditionalist” to me meant purely “gives weight to unarticulated knowledge embedded in time-tested norms, practices, and institutions.”

As with many ideas I had held onto for a while, Deirdre McCloskey persuaded me to reconsider this. This isn’t because she discounts the value of unarticulated knowledge—to the contrary, she is a Hayekian par excellence. Unlike a lot of Hayekians—including me, until encountering her work—she simply does not discount the value of articulated knowledge, either. In fact, McCloskey’s vision of human social systems is full of talk—a very convenient thing, since the actual human experience is full of it as well.

The problem with the purely unarticulated traditionalist perspective is that people who have fully bought into most traditions do not self-consciously make reference to the tradition itself or the concept of an institution the way that someone like Burke did. This is Alasdair MacIntyre’s big critique of Burke—Burke argued on behalf of tradition but in practice his politics were on the liberal end of the spectrum for his day. Burke was clearly what we now call a classical liberal; while famous for his opposition to the French Revolution, he supported the American Revolution, and his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity put him firmly in the same camp as Adam Smith.

In short, Burke was not just a conservative who respected unarticulated norms and institutions; he also had substantive positions which he defended using the tools of those particular traditions of thought, as they were emerging at the time.

I’ve discussed elsewhere how such a McCloskeyan “traditionalism” (if that word is even appropriate) looks in practice. I’d like to take a moment to look at three fellow Sweet Talkers and what I see in them that I like and hope to emulate myself.

David Duke is very much like MacIntyre—he takes care to situate things in a history. Just see his latest post on property in ancient Mesopotamia. But like most articulate people embedded in living traditions throughout history, he also is not afraid to tell a message in the form of a myth or story, as his ongoing series on Heraclitus demonstrates.

Sam Wilson is deep, deep into the literature within economics on the subjects of importance to him.  When he speaks of property as being founded on respect, he can speak not only of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, but their relationship to the vast literature on the game theory of institutions. Moreover, he is expert at the structured thought experiments that economics and game theory lends itself so well to. He is, in short, very much a part of the rhetorical community of economics; he is mired in that tradition, self-consciously aware of it while also participating in and contributing to it.

Sam Hammond, meanwhile, seems to be a bottomless well of knowledge of philosophy, political science, and economics, and is skilled at tying them together. He never begins from first principles; he always situates his arguments in a literature and a living debate. Our own Drew Summitt is exactly the same way (throwing in a comparable knowledge of theology), but his forays into longform writing are few; he largely sticks to advancing points over social media and engaging in debate with groups of highly intelligent and informed people out there (among others).

History, thought experiments within established conventions, and living conversations—that’s what traditions of thought look like in practice.

I still believe the three arguments advanced here, but I do wonder if “traditionalism” is a coherent label. It seems to me that there are many perspectives (traditions of thought) that also subscribe to these arguments, including species of post-modernism (which no one would call a traditionalism).

Not the most important question to answer, but given the general reaction to my usage of the label “traditionalism” at times I’ve started contemplating whether it was more obscuring than clarifying.

Property and Personal Dignity in the Ancient World

The Spivonomist brings forward some of his usual light-hearted polemic, and he has every confidence to be light-hearted and incisively dismissive of the “property is theft” meme that seems to crop up with every new round of vampire movies, for “property is respect” is not far removed from the basic precepts of human dignity since the very beginning of Western Civilization. To shovel up and turn over that foundation would be one heck of a people’s revolution, overturning at least 4500 years of precedent, inculcated in our several language systems and in our various justice systems.

Moreover, those precedents are rooted in narrative history, meaning the precepts represented within the earliest organizing legal documents have been forged through the human experience and practice of Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, and Anatolia. In other words, not only are these precepts organic in their nature, but their systematization also reflected generations of legal application, balancing the varied uses of force and mercy to maximize stability and prosperity.

For example, one of the earliest complete examples is a treaty created by my best friends, the Sumerians, a royal inscription known as the Eannatum Treaty, created during the 25th Century. Its significance lies in no small part that the treaty was not of one subjugating nation over a subjugated nation, as the later Hittite treaties exemplify, but is a treaty between two allied cities who were susceptible to boundary disputes and the occasional ambitious, conquest-minded ruler, conflicts which flared up during the course of hundreds of years. A few things emerge when working through the treaty:

  1. The basis of the treaty is a narrative rooted in historical realities, witnessed by heaven and earth (the deities).
  2. Once the frontier was secured, the concern was rebuilding infrastructure and returning soldiers to their ordinary occupations.
  3. Once the army was largely disbanded, the concern was defense of the frontier against outside invasion, as opposed to civil disputes between two cities.

In a word, the concern was establishing peace in order for the people to prosper. A rising tide lifts all boats, including the boat on which sits the throne.

More importantly, this particular treaty has parallels throughout the entire larger region, including a contemporary treaty found at Ebla, near Damascus. Unlike the Eannatum Treaty, however, it was one nation subjugating another. Nevertheless, its primary concern was the provision of mutual protection of merchants, detailing how sojourners were to be received and how the sojourners themselves were to conduct business. Continue reading “Property and Personal Dignity in the Ancient World”

Property is Respect

I find it easier as time passes to suppress the urge to giggle that naturally accompanies my reading of the oft-repeated claim that property is theft. The odd case of IP law that renders genetic sequences subject to copyright protection suggests to me that theft is the nearest description of ownership that might be applied. Similarly, I still recall with a crawling sense of disdain a (perhaps satirical) proposal I once heard while working one season at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to sublet a stretch of the park to a developer who would build an extensive waterslide from the rim down to the mighty Colorado. Privatizing pristine wilderness  of special aesthetic or cultural value to crass commercial ends is a takings, a theft of sort against the interests of persons living and not yet born.

But ordinary property? The land my house sits on? The car I drive? The textiles I wear?

Congratulations to Jean Tirole, this year’s recipient of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. On my shelf is a copy of the textbook he and Drew Fudenberg wrote on Game Theory (titled, unassumingly, Game Theory). In it, they write of models that might be applied to notions of property as described by Enlightenment philosophers. Locke wrote as if ownership of the wild places of nature emerged through felicitous mutual cooperation, where men of like spirit pursued joint agreements to tame the wilderness and promote useful industry. Contrast this with Hobbes, who contrived a brutal state of nature, red in tooth and claw, where hapless primitives died early and painfully, enduring the din of a merciless God’s laughter. Between Locke’s Coordination Game and Hobbes’s Prisoner’s Dilemma is Rousseau’s Stag Hunt, whose organizing maxim lives on in Orwell’s Animal Farm: all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Whatever your game theoretic bent, if you squint your eyes hard enough, you can make the “property is theft” trope fit. A peaceful Lockean farmer still has to bar marauders and arsonists from his land to render it fertile, thus restricting their natural “liberty” to burn and pillage. However, given the choice between “property is theft” and “property is respect”, I have found respect to more comfortably fit each of the game theoretic models above. In Locke, property is supported by a widespread mutual respect, and the sovereign is there to recognize and enforce the terms of respect. In Hobbes, constituents are unable or unwilling to generate the rules of mutual respect, so the sovereign arises to provide that valuable service. In Marx, the direction of respect has been bloodied and perverted to flow in the wrong direction, to be restored by revolution.

What can we gain by thinking of the institutions of property as arising from the sentiment of respect rather than the crime of theft? Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but it helps me a little easier to spot those specific instances where respect becomes corrupted or ignored. Staying off my lawn when I’m seeding it is a sign of respect for me, preventing folks from fleeing across my lawn when a fire rages across the street is also a measure of disrespect, this time on my part. This trope predisposes me to easily assign a hierarchy of wants, of justice to the ownership in a way that theft does not. Respect better matches the established order of law, better channels moral intuitions, and is better reflected in the folklore and received wisdom of the civilization. I don’t know if “property is respect” true or not, but it’s a lot more useful to me than “property is theft.”

You can’t spell “property” without “proper.”

[published without editorial review]

Heraclitus on the Economics of Just War

“We have a hero in our military tradition by the name of Patton,” I said. It was the evening of our detoxifying day in his garden, after a light supper, and neither of us felt much like wine, so we were drinking some medicinal tea for the last of the aches and pains. I asked for more honey. “Patton said that compared to war, all human endeavors shrink into insignificance.”

“Sounds like my kind of fellow,” said the old man. In the light of the fire I could see his visage glowering over his tea.

“Yeah, Patton was a genius for war.”

He grunted, sipping.

“We were lucky that he was on our side.”

“Lucky?” he said excitedly. “I suppose next you’ll be telling me that you sacrifice to those Athenian gods of the myth instead of hearkening to the Logos, and that you’ve discovered a rationale for enslaving your fellowman.” Gosh, he was an irascible sort.

“I’m just saying that if he hadn’t been on our side, injustice would have prevailed the world over,” I replied.

“I did not know there was such a thing as a ‘side’ in warfare.”

“Well, sure there is,” I said. “The good guys are on one side, and the bad guys are on the other. Now, I know what you’re gonna say–it depends on whose side you’re on–but history has a way of sifting through the data to teach us who was bad and who was good.”

“I have no doubt you are correct,” he said. “I had never considered that minor detail of the thing.” I was hooked, and he tugged on the line. “You have obviously not considered that there is no such thing as a ‘side’ in warfare. Is that the normal terminology for combatants? ‘You’re on that side; I’m on this side’?”

“Well, no. We call it a front.”

“That’s right: the front lines. And the lines move. When the lines move, the sides change. Whoever was on ‘that side’ is now on ‘this side.’ Once upon the side of justice, now upon the side of injustice. Such foolishness, war, if there is such a thing as ‘sides.'”

“I thought you were for war,” I inquired.

“Who is for war? Why do you keep saying that? Do I appear to you as some sort of warmonger, a broker of power among the nations? Drawing lines upon which to do battle? I am not for war, but war is for me.”

“Oh.”

“If you listen very carefully,” he continued, “you may actually catch wind of the Persian machine for war even now. These rapscallion youths protesting my brother’s wise conscription policies will set all of Ionia aflame, and the Persian King will feel the need to put it out. I desire to understand the nature of the flame, as it is an element which dries out the soul, and war rides the flame as a locust horde rides the wind. Taxes, you know.”

“Yeah,” I said, but I felt a protest forming in my gullet. “Is there no case for a defensive war?”

“Ah, defensive war,” he chuckled. “Otherwise known as the slaughter of your own innocents. War is not like, upon seeing the storm upon the horizon, battening down the hatches and waiting it out, looking for luck to bail the water from your holds; war must be participated in, or you will certainly be consumed. You must slash and burn, drive, thrust, parry, or the child cannot be born.”

Dammit all, a child?

“Grow up,” he said, and he said it like it was a curse. “The infantryman tells himself he is following orders to defend his king, his farm, his wife, his children, but he is not: he is thrusting another man through. He knows it is so, and his children know it is so, and his wife even more so, as he writhes in his bed beside her, trying to kill them all all over again, night by night, from the time he is young until he is very old. He knows he has killed, and he knows the lust for blood that rose into his mind, that it came from him. Perhaps he finds someone to forgive him.”

“But–” I started to say, but he was warming to the task.

“Perhaps he prefers to throw missiles from afar–a bowman or a catapult man. Who is on the other side of those walls? Women and children? No? They should have been evacuated; the blood is on the head of the city fathers. And when fire comes from the city toward the attacking catapult, does the same blood lust not rise? But it rises in defense of justice, no?”

I sat silently, feeling my tea cool. It was for the better; the tea was awful.

“You participate in war, you participate in injustice. Justice is the thing that springs up after the front lines have moved and scattered, like seedlings of the springtime after the rains.”

“But,” I protested, “we do not all participate in war.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Tonawanda,” I said.

“Is Tonawanda such a gracious and magical land that you do not pay taxes?” he asked. “And those taxes are not apportioned for the training of the machines of war?”

“No,” I said. “But perhaps I should move to the land adjacent, the land of Canada, where they do not have a military, and all their taxes are apportioned for the welfare of their subjects.”

Even in the dim firelight I could see the twinkle spark from within his eyes. He said, “Indeed. And how does this paradise Canada-land compare to your fair Tonawanda-land?”

“Well, it’s about a tenth of the size.”

“Mhm,” he said, mockingly.

“What’s more…” I said.

“What’s more?” he mocked further.

“Yes,” I said. “What’s more, their beer is taxed such that they sneak into Tonawanda on a regular basis to buy all of ours to spirit it back into their paradise.”

“They are a virtuous people, indeed,” he said, leaning back in his chair, retiring for the night.

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Heading East

One of the great delights of reacquainting with Heraclitus has been rediscovering the East, the cradle of Western Civilization. The Ancient world centered on Babylon of the Sumerians, pre-semitic peoples who sprung up, it seems, from the mud flats of Mesopotamia, creating a civilization that endured for a gazillion years, a civilization that bears no small resemblance to the one we inhabit in Europe and North America today, at least socially speaking. Technologically, of course, that’s another story.

They wrote stuff down, the Sumerians did, and we’ve only recently re-deciphered some of what they wrote. One of the more fascinating artifacts of their writing is the Sumerian King List, which lists historically verifiable personages and dynasties, but then, randomly, veers into the fantastic, listing mythical personages who endured on the throne for tens of thousands of years. University nerds work themselves into a tizzy with respect to overall reliability and verifiability of the list, both of the unimaginably long lifespans of these antediluvian rulers, but also the historically verifiable personages and dynasties. After all, if they were prone to believing the nonsense of myth (being more primitive than us progressed Anglo-Saxons), then how can we put confidence in their historiography? Their methods are surely suspect!

Other thinkers, non-nerds, thankfully, have pondered the more important subject of the artifact, namely its effect. What is the effect of the Sumerian King List? What is it trying to do? Preserve history? No, that is no reason to create a fantastic archive coupled with a “real” one.

Here the opinions diverge, which is fun. Some would argue that the Sumerian King List was created in order to legitimize the culture, to root it in a culture that was antediluvian, and, therefore, pristine. Or something like that (I’m not being entirely fair in my generalizations, but that’s not the point I’m driving toward; have patience, gentle reader). In other words, the Sumerians had doubts about their own identity, even after several hundred years of uninterrupted prosperity. Fun, right? I hereby argue that the Sumerian King List may be doing that, but also, if not entirely intentionally, the Sumerian King List is teaching insignificance.

The Ancient Near East, in general, preserves for us a sensibility of vastness, that the cosmos works in great big sweeps, rocking back and forth in swaths of ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand-year patterns. One reads Sumerian literature, and Akkadian literature (the first Semites), and Hittite literature, and Egyptian literature, and Assyrian literature (that’s Babylon again, come round full circle), and last, but not least, Hebrew literature, observing a cosmos that is enormous in size and scope, stretching backward into time primordial and messy, boundary-free, but moving, oscillating, renewing. There is a detente, see, and it’s hard to ascertain, but it’s there, and if you work at it, you can acquire some sort of harmony with the universe, coming into resonance with its patterns. You are thereby absorbed into it and given significance in spite of your insignificance. If you resist the patterns of the cosmos, grasping for immortality, you will be swept aside. Thus, the ancients observed that the virtuous endured humility, were brought low by pain and suffering; at the same time the powerful (assuming that the powerful came into power by the usual non-virtuous means) enjoyed prosperity for a little while (generations, even), but the broom of the cosmos was already making its corrective sweep. What is man, therefore?

Markets opened and closed, trade routes flourished and were disrupted, order was susceptible to entropy. Nothing endures because virtue does not endure, but virtue re-emerges, and the thing begins anew, renewed. The Bronze Age, for example, wasn’t nothing; it was progress, representing a human triumph over the cosmos, which is merciless in its movements. Nevertheless, the Iron Age brought the Bronze Agers to naught. Where was progress? Over the horizon, threatening the 6-row barley harvest–and the wine (the Disney treatment Fantasia captures this very well, I think, in its exposition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). You can see why the Sumerians were suffering an identity crisis. When is it our turn to be returned to detente?

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Moving west, however, one finds a smaller cosmos, beginning with the Unmoved Mover, from which (whom?) emanates the material of the known world, which creates a cosmos of the mind, for the sake of taxonomy–and control. Moving further west and north and closer in time, the cosmos is no longer a cosmos at all, but a town about the size of Königsberg, with no real history, only a future into which history inexorably marches, easily ascertainable, observable, and obvious. Can you not see the Emperor’s new clothes?

Is it fair to evaluate, saying that as we have made the world smaller and more malleable, the individual has been swallowed up by history, insignificant?

The Ebola, poor governance, impending revolutions, terrorist threats, and even asteroid strikes are threatening to those who believe that history is driven along by those who understand its progress and its direction. Somehow, and irrationally, this progress is entirely dependent upon collectively-minded people who acquire power. If the collectively-minded people are not in power, then the oceans will surely rise to punish us for our redirecting of history; progress will go off the rails.

But to those of us who sigh humbled under the yoke of the cosmos, we know that our virtue is valuable in the grand scheme of things, whatever that may be. The asteroid strikes from outer space, ebola strikes within, and damnable taxes steal yet more of my labor, but this, too, shall be swept away so that virtue may resurrect, this time a little more pure, a little wiser, and less proud. What is progress?