Tuesday , October 15 2019
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Sarah Skwire

Articles by Sarah Skwire

Buying Boots

22 days ago

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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Thoughts on Tank Man

June 11, 2019

Recently, Pierre Lemieux quoted my comment on a pre-release viewing of Robert Anthony Peters’s new short film, Tank Man in a post here at EconLog. I said the film made me cry, and that it’s a beautiful story. And that you should see it if you get a chance.
Now that the film is online and available to the public, you have your chance, so I thought it might be worth spending a little time talking about what I found so effective about the film.
[The remainder of this post will contain spoilers for Tank Man, so if you haven’t seen it yet, take 15 minutes, click here, watch it, and then come back to the post.]
Tank Man explores one of the most memorable photos of the 20th century. In it, a single man, dressed in a plain white shirt and black trousers, holding what

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Socialist Fantasies

May 24, 2019

Ludwig von Mises’s essay “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth,” references Aristophanes’ play The Birds and the medieval fantasy of the idyllic and work-free Land of Cockaigne when Mises notes of socialist planners that, “Economics as such figures all too sparsely in the glamorous pictures painted by the Utopians. They invariably explain how, in the cloud-cuckoo lands of their fancy, roast pigeons will in some way fly into the mouths of the comrades, but they omit to show how this miracle is to take place.”[1]  Don Lavoie similarly points to the science fictional/fantastical aspect of socialist planning discussions when he comments in Rivalry and Central Planning that, “Details of future social life are not the province of economic science but of

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It’s Not a Thought Experiment Anymore

February 19, 2017

Rights Theory, Toleration

(co-authored with Steve Horwitz)
We all know the thought experiment. There are a million versions of it. What do you do if the Nazis show up? Do you hide your Jewish neighbors in your attic? Do you protest in the streets? Do you throw stones at the Nazis’ parades? Do you shoot them on sight? What are your ethical limits? What are the limits of a civil society?
Is it okay to punch a Nazi?
Classrooms across the US run thought experiments like these, show the movie “The Lesson Plan” about the Third Wave event in Palo Alto, and discuss the Milgram experiment. It’s supposed to prepare our students and ourselves to resist fascism.
We want students to say that the solution here is to

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Cinnabon, Caskets, Catfood, and the Tyranny of Experts

November 3, 2015

I had occasion recently to read some of Akerlof and Shiller’s new book Phishing for Phools. I found it, to be perfectly blunt, infuriating. The book is paternalistic. It assumes that free markets reward cheaters. It equates marketing with fraud. It e…

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