Tuesday , August 11 2020
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Sarah Skwire

Articles by Sarah Skwire

Why is a Baker Like a Beggar?

12 days ago

Review of First Cow (2020), Dir. Kelly Reichardt, starring John Magaro and Orion Lee

First Cow is a quiet movie. Set mostly in the woods and a small trading post in the Oregon territory, and focusing almost exclusively on two characters, it is also a small movie. There’s no epic sweep here, of story or of scenery.
But the tiny details of First Cow come together to tell a story about entrepreneurship and ambition that Econlog readers will be thinking about for a long time afterward.

One way we might think about First Cow is as an interrogation and exploration of the chestnut (somewhat accurately attributed to Balzac) that “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime.”

Our heroes, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz and King-Lu meet while trekking the Oregon woods.

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Economic Voices: A Reading List

25 days ago

A little while ago, I mentioned on Econlog that I have a history of fascination with economic thinking as expressed in non economic works–and particularly with the economic thinking of people who are in the daily grit of working blue collar jobs and doing household work. I think their diaries and letters and interviews and books of advice tell us at least as much about the economic circumstances under which they were written as do articles by economists–probably more. 

If you’re looking for this kind of material, you can’t go wrong by haunting used bookstores and poking through their collections of advice books, home economics texts, and collections of tattered old magazines. Economics is everywhere, and while an increasing amount of attention has been paid to

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The start of a new month means new articles at Econlib!

July 9, 2020

Gina Miller Johnson warns of the Danger of Benevolent Paternalism. Concerned by the increase in calls from her students and from the population as a whole for “The government to do something” almost regardless of what the “something” might be, Miller Johnson observes that this rapidly leads to government overreach. 
In a crisis like a pandemic, these dangers are heightened. “Whatever one’s view of the proper role of government as it relates to public health, another question must be posed: when, if ever, does public health provision as a public good supersede the protection of civil liberties as a fundamental role of the state? The initial wake of the pandemic saw disturbing support for sacrificing civil liberties in the name of public health.’

Michael L. Davis

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Even More Valuable than Her Coffee Cake Recipe

July 7, 2020

I suppose there are people who might be surprised to find themselves getting solid economic analysis from a food blogger. I am not one of them. I’ve actually been waiting for this moment since March.

Deb Perelman is one of my favorite food bloggers. Her blog, Smitten Kitchen, details her adventures cooking for her growing family in an impossibly tiny kitchen in New York City. She has a great reputation for funny writing, great photos, and reliable and delicious recipes. (I am NOT kidding about the coffee cake.)

But last week, she did something a little different. In the business section of today’s New York Times, Perelman has a great piece titled, “In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both.” The article is a testament from a

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Have a Non-Rivalrous and Non-Excludable 4th!

July 3, 2020

Sarah Skwire and Steve Horwitz
Here’s what we do every July 4th. First we grill some kind of meat, and then we eat pie. Then we sit on the back porch, and we wait for it to get dark. When we have decided that it’s dark enough, we gather up the kids, the bug spray, and a big beach blanket, and we drive a few subdivisions over to a spot just across from the summer home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. There, we join a small group of neighbors and plant ourselves outside the gates of the concert shell, where we can listen to Sousa marches and the 1812 Overture and wait for the fireworks to begin.

And some people say there’s no such thing as a true public good.

The classic economic definition of a public good is a good that is non-rivalrous and

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The Opportunity Costs of J. Alfred Prufrock

July 1, 2020

Steve Horwitz and I have been teaching an online class about economics and literature, pairing core economic concepts with literary works that demonstrate those concepts. This past week, we talked with the students about opportunity cost (see Steve’s thoughts on Buchanan’s Cost and Choice here), using Thomas Grey’s “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” and T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as our literary texts.
Using poetry, I told the students, helps us think about opportunity costs in ways that travel alongside, but are not the same, as the ways that economists think about them. For economists, the important thing is that a choice is made. In the most reductive version of this, the moment of choice, the moment where

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Good Housekeeping: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Vol 3

May 8, 2020

A three-part #ReadWithMe series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

I was brought up to believe that we shouldn’t put too much weight on the kinds of cars people drive, the clothes that they wear, and the houses that they own. It is the character of the person that matters, not the external trappings.

This means that for a long time, there was a moment at the end of Pride and Prejudice that was very difficult for me. It comes just a few pages from the end of the novel, in chapter 17 of the third volume. All difficulties have been resolved. Wickham has been forced to marry Lydia, and they’ve been shipped off to Newcastle. Mr. Bingley and Jane are blissfully engaged. And Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth have, at last, found their way to love through the tangle of mistaken impressions

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Our Judgement is as Good as Gold: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Vol 1.

May 1, 2020

A three part #ReadWithMe series. Read Part 1 here. 

Last week, I wrote about the ways in which Austen surprises us with her plot developments, urges us to reconsider and re-examine our initial assessments of characters and situations, and reminds us how very bad we all are at this project of trying to judge other people. The second volume of the novel continues this theme, with the shocking revelations of Mr. Darcy’s letter at the end of the volume causing an almost complete reversal in the reader’s (and Elizabeth’s) understanding of his character and actions.

Austen’s initial title for Pride and Prejudice was, after all, First Impressions.The game of the novel is to warn us, over and over, that our initial assessments are unreliable and will be overturned,

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We’re All Very Bad at This: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Vol 1.

April 24, 2020

A Three-Part #ReadWithMe Series
After the recent EconTalk episode with Janine Barchas, we promised we’d discuss this book… So here goes!

(Although this post focuses on Volume One of Pride and Prejudice it will contain spoilers for the rest of the novel. Given the near-infinite number of adaptations of Austen’s novel, I’m assuming you’re all likely to be familiar with the book’s major plot points, even if you haven’t read the novel before.)

Like many of us, I was first introduced to Jane Austen when I was a teenager, reading Pride and Prejudice for a school assignment. On first read, and with the characters and major events of Pride and Prejudice less ingrained in the culture than in our current, Austen-enriched days, I was completely hornswoggled. The rude Mr.

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Poems for Pandemics

April 21, 2020

One of the wisest things ever said about poetry was said by the Canadian poet Tom Wayman in his poem “What Good Poems are For.” Wayman describes a man who is so moved by a poem “about work he did, what he knew about,/ written by somebody like himself” that he takes it from table to table in a dive bar, reading it to every customer. Wayman tells us that this is because the man realized that the poet’s words were “a person is speaking/ in a world full of people talking.”

Our world is full of people talking lately. Here are some people speaking–sometimes across the centuries. To me, the awareness that others have felt the many things I have felt lately and have struggled with the many things that challenge me these days makes me feel less alone, even while socially

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Toilet Paper Wars; Peace at Last?

March 27, 2020

Last week, my kids made fun of me for having plenty of TP in the house, and made fun of other shoppers for buying lots of TP. I suggested to them that, with more people at home, we’d probably go through a lot more TP and other essentials, and that with store supplies uncertain, they should learn to understand why I, and other shoppers, might be particularly concerned about the rising demand for this essential household item.

So I had them count the stock of TP in our bathrooms. We had 16 rolls, or 4 rolls for every member of the house.

We recounted today, and we have 12 rolls, so we have used a mathematically tidy one roll per person in a week. That suggests to us that, if nothing changes, we should be stocked for another 3 weeks, and should start thinking about

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Toilet Paper Wars

March 20, 2020

As the COVID19 pandemic hit the US, with school and office closures rapidly following its arrival, Americans began to stock up for the long haul. Unsurprisingly the stocking up led to some shortages. Stores rapidly ran out of hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, and any number of perishable goods. But the item we heard about most often, and most derisively, was toilet paper.

Who were these crazy people stocking up on toilet paper? The mockery was everywhere. The Atlantic brought out a story comparing the current COVID19 TP buyers with people in 1973 who stockpiled TP in response to a joke Johnny Carson made on his show. The higher demand for TP is characterized everywhere as an overreaction and a moronic response to misinformation. The mockery has gotten so bad that

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Five Books About Plagues and Pandemics and Five Books to Make You Feel Better

March 18, 2020

On Plagues and Pandemics

The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly
When the bubonic plague hit the 14th century, it hit hard. In 5 years, it killed an estimated 25 million. By the time it swept away, the world would never be the same. New political, commercial, and social arrangements changed everything. Kelly’s sweeping narrative history is readable and thorough, and gives you the big picture, with enough small detail to enliven and humanize this story of almost unimaginable tragedy.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe  AND the plague sections from the Diary of Samuel Pepys
Daniel Defoe was only a child when the Great Plague hit London in 1665, so his famed Journal of the Plague

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Economics Before Economists: From Adam to Adam Smith

March 12, 2020

I’ve just read Berakhot, the first tractate of Talmud–the collection of rabbinic teachings from the first through sixth or seventh centuries C.E. And while the Talmud is known for its complex legal debates and the many lively tales interspersed among them, I have also enjoyed discovering the economic thinking it contains.

The first tractate of Talmud contains, for example, reminders to sell stock when demand is high. “When the horn is sounded in Rome, signifying that there is demand for figs in the Roman market, son of a fig-seller, sell your father’s figs, even without his permission, so as not to miss the opportunity.” (Berakhot 62a) * A discussion of when to say the blessing over a good fragrance leads to a digression on marketing–and possibly even positive

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Money and Virtue in the Ancient World

February 10, 2020

It is never a bad idea to remind students of economics that, long before Smith’s Wealth of Nations gave birth to modern economics, complex and vivid discussion of economics were already happening. They have been happening, I am certain, for as long as humans have trucked, bartered, and exchanged. Two excellent reminders of the length and complexity of the human interest in economic matters are the summary of Stoic ethics by Aurius Didymus, from the first century BCE, and Cicero’s De Officiis (44 BCE).

Most striking in the Didymus text is that his continued interest in the Stoic definition of the virtuous man gives particular attention to the economic aspects of the virtuous man. At the end of an extended litany of the qualities of the virtuous man, Didymus

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Looking at the Wrong Books

January 28, 2020

Russ Robert’s interview with Janine Barchas opens so many avenues that I want to pursue for thought and discussion that I’m as dizzy as an Austen heroine’s younger sister at her first ball. The question of why Austen is still so firmly in the canon, what other Victorian novelists have been unjustly neglected, the popularity of modern Hollywood/BBC/Bollywood versions of Austen novels–each one merits a blog post of its own.

But I was particularly intrigued by Barchas’s discovery and analysis of cheap editions of Austen’s work. I’ve argued in a range of other articles for FEE, Cato Unbound, and Reason, that if we want to find evidence of the positive representations of the bourgeois virtues in literature, we need to read books intended for the bourgeois–not aimed

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We Can Rebuild That. We Can Make it Better.

January 24, 2020

As a knitter, I was fascinated by the discussion of recycled sweaters and recycled yarn in last week’s Econtalk. Russ Roberts and Adam Minter have a brief exchange about how to recycle wool sweaters. Russ posits that, “It’s easy. You just take an end and just start pulling until you get a really long piece of yarn, and you’re done. You get a new piece of yarn. Adam explains that in industrial recycling “What they do is, they take these sweaters and other wool garments, it’s not just sweaters, but wool in general, and it’s essentially chopped up. They have these big machines that rip these garments apart into their individual fibers and then re-roll them into a fabric called ‘shoddy’.”

Crafters do a lot of recycling of yarn, and we do it in ways that replicate

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Count Dracula and the Chamber of Wonders

January 21, 2020

[This post contains spoilers for the final episode of the 2020 Netflix series, Dracula. Proceed with caution.]

The current rendition of Dracula on Netflix, created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, was providing me with a delightfully gory evening of blood and horror when it stopped me dead. Out of nowhere, Count Dracula himself delivered one of the finest descriptions of the miracle of modern progress since Adam Smith marvelled that the greatest monarch of his time was not as far removed from the peasantry in terms of wealth than the peasant was from the monarch of an undeveloped country.

Adam Smith was able to make progress visible by comparing the rapidly industrializing England and Scotland with countries that had not yet experienced the rapid increase in

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The Crankiest Woman in England: Elizabeth Freke and her Money

December 26, 2019

Elizabeth Freke is widely acknowledged to have been the crankiest woman in England in the 17th century. The editor of her diary, Raymond Anselment, justly describes her life as one of “medicine, money, and misery.”

I think economists would find her fascinating.

Freke’s misery begins when she marries a dissolute cousin without her father’s knowledge or support. She would be the first to agree with that assessment, heading up her journal with a note indicating that it is “Some few remembrances of my misfortuns [that] have attended me in my unhappy life since I were marryed.” 

These misfortunes are primarily economic, and Freke’s diary provides us with a grim picture of the economic life of women when coverture was still the law of the land. Coverture was the

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Look for the Union Label, not the Gender Role

December 3, 2019

Pierre Lemieux argues here that when it comes to questions of working hours, feminists have, from the beginning, allied themselves with the State in order to “enslave men equally.” In doing so, he overlooks a long history of women fighting against “equal enslavement” rather than freedom for all, demonizes all early feminists at one swoop, and overlooks the real bad guys–the unions.
For example: 
In 1903 the state of Oregon passed a law forbidding female employees of laundry services, factories, and mechanical manufacturers from working more than 10 hours a day. On September 4th, 1905 Mrs. E. Gocher worked more than 10 hours at the Grand Laundry, owned by Curt Muller. The state stepped in and sued Mr. Muller, and the case found its way to the Supreme Court. In a 9-0

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My Five Favorite Novels with Economics Themes

November 20, 2019

Editor’s Note: As you know, we’re big fans of book lists, like the ones we always read at Five Books. Last month, we’ve posted two of our own so far (here and here), and you can certainly expect more!

A ridiculously biased list, in no particular order.

There is no faster way to shut down the brain of literature geeks than to ask for their “favorite book.” It’s only slightly less dangerous to ask for a short list of favorites. Acknowledging that fact, and knowing that the mere making of a list means that at the moment of publication I will remember the many many works I didn’t include, here is a ridiculously biased list, in no particular order, of my five favorite novels with economic themes.

Red Plenty,* Francis Spufford.
This is the economic novel I

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How Crackpotted is Your Economics?

October 18, 2019

Courtesy of a lovely little article in Lapham’s Quarterly titled “Beware of Cranks” I have recently discovered the incredibly useful “Crackpot Index” developed in 1992 by the physicist John C. Baez as a way of computing precisely how nutty the nutty theories of various amateur mathematicians are.
Mathematicians apparently have a particular need for this kind of rating system. A similar crackpot index exists for theories specifically about prime numbers, and an earlier index—more narrative in style—appeared in 1962.  
It occurs to me that with relatively few alterations, any of these Crackpot Indexes could be adapted for the assessment of theoreticians in economics, which might prove useful as we enter another heated political season.
 I leave said alterations as an

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How Crackpotted is Your Economics?

October 18, 2019

Courtesy of a lovely little article in Lapham’s Quarterly titled “Beware of Cranks” I have recently discovered the incredibly useful “Crackpot Index” developed in 1992 by the physicist John C. Baez as a way of computing precisely how nutty the nutty theories of various amateur mathematicians are.
Mathematicians apparently have a particular need for this kind of rating system. A similar crackpot index exists for theories specifically about prime numbers, and an earlier index—more narrative in style—appeared in 1962.  
It occurs to me that with relatively few alterations, any of these Crackpot Indexes could be adapted for the assessment of theoreticians in economics, which might prove useful as we enter another heated political season.
 I leave said alterations as an

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Buying Boots

September 23, 2019

A recent newsletter from AdamSmithWorks reminded me of this great discussion between Russ Roberts and Mike Munger on division of labor, particularly their discussion about shoe and boot making in Colonial Williamsburg. (That bit of the podcast begins at around 27:54). 

The discussion about shoes and boots caught my attention then and now because of the great discussion of the price of boots in Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms:
The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when

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Legendary Lands

September 9, 2019

This week I’m heading to Arizona State University to give a talk that explores, among other things, medieval poems about the imaginary Land of Cockaigne and the way they tie in to the way we think about urban and rural labor today. So it was with no small measure of delight that I came across this piece by Matthew H. Birkhold about “The Myth of Blubber Town” at the eccentric and wonderful website, Public Domain Review. 
Unlike the imaginary Land of Cockaigne, which is famed in medieval legend as a land where no one needs to work–chickens fly through the air, already roasted and roofs are tiled with pastries–Blubber Town is a legend built on work. There was a real Dutch whaling station in the Arctic called Smeerenburg, where whalers processed blubber for shipping

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What Signals the Value of a Book- Sales versus Prizes

September 5, 2019

I nearly missed this intriguing article about a study done by three professors (two from English departments, and one who is the associate director of Stanford’s Literary Lab) that tries to determine the significance of winning or being nominated for a literary prize. To do so, they track the popularity of the book, gauged by reviews of it on Goodreads, and the prestige, gauged by MLA citations. Entertainingly, the authors of the study do not use sales data to track a book’s popularity because, “Sales data is a notoriously unreliable measurement of readership; it is gathered at point of sale, when a book is purchased online or from a brick-and-mortar retailer. As the stacks of unread books on our desks and nightstands surely attest, purchasing is no indication of

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Joys of the City: Watching the World Go By

August 23, 2019

Garrison Keillor has a fine essay in this month’s edition of Harper’s called “Hurrah for the Plaza. It’s so well done that you don’t even have to read it in his slow, folksy, Lake Wobegon drawl in order to enjoy it.
One of the things I like so much about Keillor’s piece is that it reminds me of one of my favorite things— the 18th century newspaper, The Spectator, that almost surely at least partially inspired Adam Smith’s conception of the Impartial Spectator. In the first appearance of The Spectator on March 1, 1711, Joseph Addison had the fictional narrator of the paper introduce himself this way: 
I have passed my latter Years in this City, where I am frequently seen in most publick Places,…There is no place of general Resort wherein I do not often make my

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Something Worse than Faction

July 31, 2019

The American Founders were very worried about the problem of political factions. John Adams wrote in a 1780 letter that, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
Sixteen years later, George Washington’s Farewell Address includes numerous cautions about the dangers of political faction.
There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast,

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What’s in a Name?

July 3, 2019

T.S. Eliot famously argued that:
The naming of cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
Given the challenges of correctly naming these famously independent and unpredictable animals, it can be no surprise that debate continues over what to call that group of famously independent and unpredictable humans known as libertarians, or classical liberals or Old Whigs or real liberals or…you name it.
Daniel Klein suggests “true liberals” which strikes me as charmingly bumptious, but likely to disintegrate into an endless series of “no true Scotsman” arguments. Given that members of the  group in question—regardless of what it is called—are often

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The Spectator and the Market Miracle

June 17, 2019

Long before Adam Smith wrote Theory of Moral Sentiments or Wealth of Nations, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele began their own project to portray and educate the rising merchant classes of 18th century London. Their project—a daily paper called The Spectator[1] that was issued from 1711-1712, is a treasure trove of humor, literary criticism, political and social gossip and advice for the early 18th century man or woman on the rise. For friends of this website, it is also a delightful and important early source of thinking about markets.
Issue #69 of The Spectator, published on May 19, 1711, begins, “There is no Place in the Town which I so much love to frequent as the Royal-Exchange” and the whole of the issue is devoted to the praise of trade and commerce. It

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