Thursday, September 29, 2011

Happy Birthday Mises!

Today is the 130th anniversary of the birth of one of the great defenders of freedom, one of the great theorists of classical liberalism, Ludwig von Mises. He is one of the clearest, most persuasive free market thinkers who has ever written. I don't know how anyone can read Human Action and not come away with both a much clearer understanding of economics and persuaded of liberalism. His methodology is, to my mind, well ahead of its time. Indeed, that has been part of the problem with Austrian economics, that its way of understanding the economy is so far ahead of the rest of economics that it is not really understood at all by mainstream economics. The good news is that, with the introduction of complexity, self-organization, complex adaptive systems, etc. into mainstream economics, the mainstream is in fact moving more and more toward where the Austrian school is already. Which is a nice gift for such a great man.

I hope everyone here leaves a little message for Mises' birthday today. What has he been for you?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Business and the Literati

Over at National Affairs, Algis Valiunas has an article on Business and the Literati that is worth a read. A lot for the writers of literature to think about.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Decline and Triumph of Classical Liberalism

Great lecture. Pay particular attention to what he says about the importance of culture, including shifts in culture.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Rules and Goals

"Man is as much a rule-following animal as a purpose-seeking one" (Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, 11).

Does this imply that an Austrian economics approach to literary studies is necessarily structuralist in nature, focusing on rules followed?

Should we be trying to understand the purpose(s) of literature? Or of the author(s)?

In the case of the former, Aristotle points out that plot must have a foundation (arche) and goal/purpose (telos). Is this the only goal/purpose proper to literature? Should that be something those interested in Austrian economics and literature should be interested in? Or is that a goal of literary Darwinism?

Or should we be focused, rather, on the rules of literary production -- on what rules people follow and how they follow them (and change them) in achieving their literary purposes?

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Merchant of Avon

A piece from 1997 by Frederick Turner on Shakespeare and economics. Yet it is also much more. It is about how poets contribute to economics -- or could.

New Website: Austro-Libertarian Book Reviews

Many of my literary friends describe themselves as fervent leftists. Some even believe all great art is (and must inevitably be) produced by people who are similar to them politically. This absurd idea has bothered me since my several-year-old discovery and devotion to libertarianism. I now see literature in a different light. My new website,, and corresponding youtube channel is my argument to my former self who accepted without critical thinking the bias of my professors and friends. I begin with Joseph Conrad’s satirical novel “The Secret Agent” which is overtly anti-Marxist and anti-Communism, exposing the hypocrisy and contradiction of those philosophies with all the subtlety and precision of Ludwig Von Mises, who engaged these subjects directly.

I will critique literature which supports ideas of individual liberty, and literature which opposes such ideas. I will also review non-fiction books which have been critical to my devotion to liberty and property rights in the tradition of Ludwig Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Hans Hermann Hoppe.

Part 1:

Part 2:
Part 3:
Part 4:
Part 5:

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Burned Books Fallacy

As I said in earlier posting, seeing if a concept is transferable from one kind of spontaneous order to another can help highlight an idea's absurdity (or its brilliance).

Two things I want to look at are the broken windows fallacy, which Paul Krugman and many other Keynesians have in fact been promoting as true (and which Keynes himself argued to be true), and stimulus money.

Let us start with the idea of stimulus. Let's say that you wanted to stimulate literary growth, that you wanted more literature produced. What is the best way of going about this? One can try to stimulate either supply or demand. The former would put the power in the hands of the government doing the stimulating; the latter would put the power in the hands of the average person. Let us look first at the former.

The government can either try to stimulate literary production in general, or engage in more targeted production. If the government tried to do the latter, you would have politicians from the different states insisting that their writers were the best, and should therefore receive the most stimulus dollars (let's say, for argument's sake, that the government is going to pay a certain amount per page of writing produced). If you decided to just rely on the NEH, you would have money going primarily to those the NEH liked, and those are writers who are not necessarily who the average reader would like. Or even who the average professor of literature would like. Of course, this doesn't even address the problem of quality, even among the best. Toni Morrison consistently creates great works of literature, but if you were paying her by page produced, I have little doubt that over time her quality would decrease. If you then want to avoid all of these problems, maybe just paying everyone to write would be the best way to stimulate the growth of literature. Wouldn't the fact that more people are writing increase the likelihood that more good works are produced? Not necessarily. If it is likely Toni Morrison would produce fewer quality works, what makes anyone believe anyone else would? The result would be a writing bubble of very low-quality work, with both the average quality decreasing and the highest quality decreasing as well. As a result, stimulus money would in fact have the opposite result intended. In the first, most likely scenario, those already writing would get the money and continue writing -- to the extent they increased production, it would be to the detriment of quality. In the second scenario, the desired result of more literature produced wouldn't be accomplished, as what we would get would be mostly large quantities of garbage. In fact, it would become increasingly difficult to find any actual quality.

Now suppose instead that the government decided to give the consumer the ability to purchase what they wanted. We can suppose that they mail out $1000 debit cards that can only be used on books written by living authors. Here at least we would get some idea of what people want. But such a program would in fact be pretty similar to the Cash for Clunkers program, which didn't boost long-term demand for cars, but only boosted short-term demand. There was then a slump in car sales immediately after the program was over. Again, those who already have books out would benefit, and new writers (entrepreneurs in the economy) would receive none of the benefit. In writing as in economic activity, it is often the upstarts who are driving innovation. Thomas Pynchon's great novel was Gravity's Rainbow, released in the 1970s. He is still writing now, but everyone agrees that that novel is the best he's ever written. Stimulus money for literature would go not to the person writing the great novel that will be coming out next year, but to authors who have already been established. Those already established would benefit, not the innovators. So while it may be true that stimulus money given to the consumers would be better, it's still going to create distortions favoring the status quo.

Now let us look at the broken windows fallacy so popular among Keynesians today. This is, to apply it to literature, the theory that if we just had a big book burning, that would stimulate people to buy more books. Or maybe if Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Frederick Barthelme, and Cormac McCarthy were to all die in a plane crash during a hurricane, other literary writers would have a chance to be noticed. Both ideas are idiotic. It does not benefit literature to lose any of these people. If they write more, that will increase the quality of literature, making it more likely that more writers will write better works. If anyone is stimulated to buy more books, in the first scenario, that is taken away from future (and different) book sales, creating the cash for clunkers problem mentioned above. And getting rid of the best authors in the country will do nothing to make anyone else any better. (Yes, the book burning example is closest to the broken windows fallacy as typically conceived; the latter example merely takes this idiotic idea to its logical conclusion.) And Krugman's latest idiotic idea, as reported here, is that more regulations will actually result in economic growth. This is like arguing that if we only forced all writers to write everything in iambic pentameter, we would get more writing. What will really happen is many writers will go find something else to do.

In regards to that earlier posting, the concept of labor being fungible may in fact be more Marxist than either neoclassical or Keynesian, though the fact that when you treat labor (or capital) as an aggregate, you necessarily treat it as homogeneous and, thus, necessarily treat it as fungible. The math necessarily treats labor or capital as perfectly interchangeable, even if the author then goes on to elaborate that they are, in fact, not. However, how can one come to a right conclusion when one necessarily starts with either a false foundation (in the math) or from contradictory premises? So the average Keynesian may not explicitly argue that labor and/or capital is fungible, but insofar as they are using equations with labor or capital in it, they necessarily base their economics on it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Economics of Theater and Theater as Experience

Here is a good post on the economics of theaters. If you read his earlier post he links to, you can see that he is no libertarian and, likely, no Austrian. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't have some great insights into the economics of theater. He most certainly does. Consider one of his final points:

if I asked you to come up with a worse business model than that [of theaters], it’d be pretty hard: high monetary costs, high temporal costs, high waste, low income, few efficiencies, an inability to scale, little consistency, little demand.

All of which is true. How does one overcome the problems he points out?

One of the problems he points out in the piece is that it's hard to get people to pay for an experience. Richard Florida in his several books, however, has pointed out that this is not true, and that experiences are in fact what the creative class is looking for. Perhaps theaters need to play up the fact that each and every performance is a unique experience.

Money and Contract in The Merchant of Venice

I highly recommend Money and Contract in The Merchant of Venice by Carlos Rodriguez Braun.

Writing Is Not Fungible

Steve Horwitz, over at Coordination Problem, posted a response to Jonathan Chait's argument that labor is fungible. Horwitz also has a follow-up, further driving home the point. The issue is whether or not labor is perfectly interchangeable -- which is the definition of "fungible." The reasonable answer is, "no," but it is clear that Keynesianism runs deep in many economists, who apparently really do take seriously the idea of the homogeneity of capital, including human capital.

Let us apply this to writing and literature, and see where it gets us.

With the fungibility argument, the fact that one is a writer means that one can write anything -- poetry, epics, novels, short stories, essays, articles, popular works, academic and scholarly works, blogs, tweets, plays, teleplays, screen plays, verse, prose, etc. On that logic, the fact that I have a Ph.D. in the humanities and a M.A. in creative writing -- meaning I am highly educated in writing -- means I should not have gotten a job rejection on the basis that I was unqualified for their technical writing position. If writing is writing is writing, shouldn't they want to hire a Ph.D. over a B.A., even if the Ph.D. is in humanities and the B.A. is in technical writing (we will ignore the fact that if I were hired into an English department, there is a good chance, given my background in biology and chemistry and publications in economics, that I would be asked to teach technical writing classes)? People who hire do not think that labor is fungible. If they did, then they wouldn't describe what they are looking for, what makes a candidate qualified. Further, if labor were fungible, then wages would be the same for everyone, since everyone would be perfectly interchangeable.

But even if we argue that labor isn't fungible, but is substitutable, we still have my situation above. Clearly I am a substitute for someone with a B.A. in technical writing -- but the places I have applied to do not think I am a close enough substitute to even call me. And they are likely to hire someone already working as a technical writer over someone who is unemployed.

But let us get away from personal examples. Let us look at where this idea of homogeneity and fungibility gets us. If fungibility were true, a great poet would be able to write a great novel, and vice versa. Of course, as anyone who knows even a little literary history knows, this is far from true. Thomas Hardy, who was a brilliant novelist and a brilliant poet, is a rare example. More typical are the Faulkners and Hemingways of the world -- horrible poets, but brilliant novelists.

Further, one would be very surprised if one were to learn that some great novelist has never read a single novel, but only read verse poetry. In fact, such a person doesn't exist. Great novelists read great novels. Great poets read great poets. One has to have the right literary capital with which to build one's one work. Playwrights read plays, screenplay writers read screenplays. Teleplay writers read teleplays. This doesn't mean that one doesn't get ideas and inspiration from other forms of writing, but the primary literary capital for a given genre will be other work within that genre.

Of course, this isn't news to anyone in literature. I have merely put what is well known and well established into economic terms. But in doing so, I think one is able to highlight why this idea of fungibility of labor and capital is utter nonsense. It helps to see if an idea from one spontaneous order is transferable to another. If it's not, that doesn't mean it's not a good idea for that other spontaneous order, but it should suggest looking at the idea a lot more closely. Spontaneous orders are very similar in structure, after all. I suspect that most ideas about how one spontaneous order works are loosely transferable (but, again, hardly fungible) to understanding how other spontaneous orders work. If an idea not so transferable, it is likely wrong.

Yet another reason why we are not called Keynesian Economics and Literature . Literature is not fungible. Nor is is really substitutable. Each is unique. Literature is heterogeneous.

Along these lines, I have to modify an earlier posting in which I leave out capital theory. Clearly I have come to realize that capital theory is central to an Austrian economics theory of the arts as well.