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Sarah Skwire

Articles by Sarah Skwire

Toilet Paper Wars; Peace at Last?

10 days ago

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

17 days ago

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

18 days ago

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

25 days ago

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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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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