Specialization and Trade

A Re-introduction to Economics

[Amazon Link]

A little book (in the "physically small" sense) from Arnold Kling, published by Cato. Impeccable credentials, there.

The book sets forth Kling's argument for a new epistemological approach to the field of economics. He calls it a new "framework of interpretation", but potayto, potahto. Either way, it's very similar to the sort of thing ("paradigm shift") Thomas Kuhn described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: the old ways of "doing" economics are losing explanatory power, its "expert" predictions are too often off the mark, and there's a general air of musty stagnation around the field. It's as if physicists were still building their research efforts around phlogiston and the luminiferous aether.

Kling proposes starting over with a change in the fundamentals: analysis should begin with the atomic concepts of (guess what) specialization and trade. He argues, convincingly, that without specialization, you don't even have much of an economy. And, indeed, economic history is very much the story of how individuals perform increasingly "special" tasks, none that important in themselves, trading with each other as necessary to generate general prosperity.

Kling's explanation is clear and his enthusiasm is obvious. He proceeds to apply this framework, showing its explanatory power in various areas. His criticisms of alternate frameworks, especially Keynesianism and "MIT"-ism, are compelling. (His chapter titles betray an unfortunate obsession with alliteration, but we'll forgive him that.) There is special emphasis on the 2007-8 financial crisis that "nobody saw coming".

URLs du Jour


■ Proverbs 28:14 provides advice:

Blessed is the one who always trembles before God, but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble.

This is the New International Version. A number of other translations make that last word "calamity". Don't you prefer that?

■ At NR, Walter Olson finds another example of MSM fake news: Outrage on Wheels.

It made for great copy — irresistibly clickable and compulsively shareable. “Trump’s Budget Would Kill a Program That Feeds 2.4 Million Senior Citizens,” blared Time’s headline. “Trump Proposed Budget Eliminates Funds for Meals on Wheels,” claimed The Hill, in a piece that got 26,000 shares.

But it was false. And it wouldn’t have taken long for reporters to find and provide some needed context to the relationship between federal block grant programs, specifically Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), and the popular Meals on Wheels program.

You might think the MSM would start worrying when the default sensible attitude toward their stories is skepticism-verging-on-disbelief.

■ At the WSJ, Tunku Varadarajan interviews Thomas Sowell: The Education of an American Sage. I especially liked this anecdote, from Mr. Sowell's early years in Harlem, up from dirt-poor North Carolina:

A family friend called Eddie—a boy roughly Mr. Sowell’s age—had taken it upon himself to help the callow little Southerner navigate his new metropolitan minefields. “I was assigned to a junior high school in a really very bad part of Harlem, and Eddie told me, ‘You don’t have to go there. You can ask to be sent to a different school.’ That’s what he’d done. And then I followed him to Stuyvesant”—a selective high school for smart kids. “He led me. If you take Eddie out of my life, there’s virtually no way I could have followed the same path that I did.”

This resonates with me. I'd always been "kinda" good at school, but fate dropped me at Lewis and Clark Junior High School in Omaha for 7th and 8th grades. The school had a high proportion of Jewish kids—I remember being surprised on the first Rosh Hashanah when about 60% of my classmates didn't show up—and it seemed that just about every one of them was smarter than I. That certainly prompted me to up my academic game a few notches. Like Sowell, my path would have been far different otherwise.

■ My LFOD Google Alert was triggered by a wonderful article about the coiner of that hallowed motto by Janice Webster Brown in New Hampshire magazine: John Stark: A Hero for His Time and Ours.

“Live free or die,” our dire ultimatum of a motto, is used so often these days that it’s nearly meaningless. We apply it to everything, with varying degrees of jocularity — no state income tax? Live free or die. Fireworks shops on backroads and liquor stores on highways? Live free or die. Today, the word hero is also tossed around with little regard to its actual meaning. Tom Brady and David Ortiz are New England sports gods, but heroes? Sorry, not even close. Heroism is putting your life on the line for a cause or for the sake of others. Around 200 years ago, when General John Stark wrote “live free or die,” he meant exactly what it said. And he lived his life accordingly.

Janice writes on Granite State history and genealogy at her Cow Hampshire blog, highly recommended.

■ Cold-hearted Virginia Postrel sheds no tears over the Death of the Shoe Salesman, Finally.

Macy’s recently said it would convert more shoe departments to an “open sell” format, where customers serve themselves from stacks of boxes. J.C. Penney is experimenting with the format. It’s the way sales have long worked at stores like DSW and TJX Co.’s Marshall’s and T.J. Maxx.

Bonus—if that's the word—Al Bundy clip at the link. (I never thought that guy was funny. Jay Pritchett is hilarious, though.)

■ At Minding the Campus, John Leo wonders: Crime But No Punishment at Middlebury?

Two weeks have passed since a student mob shouted down visiting lecturer Charles Murray at Middlebury College, injured a professor, and jumped up and down on Murray’s car. But college President Laurie Patton still hasn’t acted to deal with any of the perpetrators. The action necessary was laid out clearly and forcefully by Rod Dreher in the American Conservative: “Middlebury College is on trial now. Its administration will either forthrightly defend liberal democratic norms, or it will capitulate. There is no middle ground. “

I'm not holding my breath. The University Near Here (in cooperation with Durham cops) did a better job with its Super Bowl vandals. But places like Middlebury seem hopeless. I'll let you know if future events prove me wrong, or right.

■ At HeatStreet, Ian Miles Cheong notes: Amy Schumer Blames Trump and the ‘Alt-Right’ for Bad Reviews.

Amy Schumer’s latest foray into comedy, a Netflix standup special titled ‘The Leather Special’, has failed to gain her many new fans, as bored viewers inundated it with thousands of bad reviews. Her fans really hate it, and they’ve been keen to voice their dislike. But Schumer blames those bad reviews on the “alt-right.” She also believes that Trump is out to get her.

For the record (not that it matters):

  1. I watched a couple episodes of Amy Schumer's skit show on Comedy Central, and thought she was funny and talented.
  2. Her politics are regrettable, but if I relentlessly boycotted every celebrity progressive, I'd find my viewing choices severely limited.
  3. I have no special problems with dirty female comedy. For example, I find Iliza Shlesinger's Neflix shows to be perceptive, hilarious, but undeniably filthy.
  4. But I watched the Schumer show mentioned above, and it was amazingly unfunny. I mean, I sat there for an hour without a chuckle or smile.
  5. Well, except for maybe ten minutes or so, because I nodded off a couple times. Because in addition to not being funny, it was also tediously boring.
  6. Readers will know that I'm neither "alt-right" nor a Trumpkin, just a guy who's relatively easy to amuse.

Sorry, Amy. To channel my inner Homer:

■ And finally—you might have wondered if I would ever get around to this—Dan McLaughlin, the Baseball Crank, saith RIP Chuck Berry, The Founding Father of Rock. You will find many obits and tributes to Mr. Berry, but I am pretty sure you will find none with as many YouTube clips of artists covering "Johnny B. Goode". Yes, even Michael J. Fox. Two, in fact.