1. The Persistence of Tyranny Ken White, Popehat
  2. The father of consumer sovereignty Henry Farrell, Crooked Timber
  3. UK’s Labor (Left-wing) Party and the Custom’s Union Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling
  4. Kosher Salt Stefan Kanfer, City Journal

The Moral Worth of Chloe Kardashian

Like many pack animals, I judge the hell out of the idiots surrounding me. It’s impossible not to have immediate gut reactions when we see our neighbors making stupid decisions; our brains are hard-wired to be nervous about how wisely our tribe used scarce survival resources. And let’s face it, it’s fun to make fun of doofuses in vinyl wrapped electric Hummers.

A couple semesters ago I asked my class for examples of useless things and landed on tabloid articles about Chloe Kardashian. Surely that’s one thing our economy can save some cash on without any real harm.

But it’s not so simple. Nobody is being forced to print those rags which means someone (bless their hearts) wants to read about Chloe Kardashian. And they want it enough that they’re willing to work for it.

If you set up an amateur print shop in your basement and made up a bunch of celebrities to gossip about as a hobby, nobody would have any reason to stop you. We may agree that your hobby is silly, but if you can’t have a silly hobby, then what’s the point of it all?!

When people buy those magazines at the check out counter, they’re putting their own effort into making up celebrities to gossip about, the difference is they don’t have to put in so much time and the production value is higher because of gains from trade.

Even silly things have moral worth when they exist because of people’s voluntary choices. We should all be more hesitant to ban behaviors we don’t understand.

A hypothesis implied by Galbraith

pp. 171-172 of Competition and Entrepreneurship has J.K. Galbraith asserting, “that independently determined consumer desires [do not] dictate the pattern of production. The ‘institutions of modern advertising and salesmanship…cannot be reconciled with the notion of independently determined desires, for their central function is to create desires–to bring into being wants that previously did not exist.'”

Beyond the obvious first step (recognizing that consumers’ desires could not possibly be determined independently of the market process), this raises an interesting hypothesis: Advertisers should a) recognize that they’re selling snake oil and consume significantly less than similar people, or b) be particularly excited about the prospects of new and exciting products generally. In either case advertising should affect them differently than regular consumers and they should consume a different amount than consumers generally. At the very least, their consumption patterns should be different from regular consumers in the particular goods that they are advertising.

The criticism of advertising as socially wasteful (i.e. using up resources without actually making consumers better off) may hold up if evidence is found in support of the above hypothesis. In the case of pattern ‘a)’ it may be clear that advertising is manipulative and anti-social. But in the case of pattern ‘b)’ or the null (advertisers buy the same junk as the rest of us) we either have to abandon the criticism of advertising or come up with some ad hoc story about how everyone is stupid and their preferences shouldn’t matter.

Some Thoughts on Voting

A while ago I bought a Willie Nelson album because Willie is excellent. People who say “I don’t like country music” haven’t listened to Willie Nelson.

Willie would be the first pig-tailed president. We must elect him for social justice!

Even though I can get the album without paying for it, I paid because I want to tell Willie Nelson that I appreciate him. But my purchase was also a dollar vote (a five dollar vote, really) telling would-be musicians to be more like Willie Nelson.* For undertaking the expense of making that vote, I even got access to the album through Amazon. That’s good if I want to load it onto my phone for a road trip, but most of the time it’s actually easier for me to listen to that album on Grooveshark. In any case, I got to express myself, listen to Willie Nelson in a barely easier fashion under some circumstances, and it only cost my $4.99.

Now let’s do some lazy economics. My cost of expressing my preferences was approximately $5. If I’m rational we can infer that my benefit was at least as great. I got access to the album (that’s worth about 2 cents to me), I got to express my appreciation of Willie, and I got to make an infinitesimally small impact on the artistic landscape.

I think it’s fair to say that people who vote are doing so to express their views (as I did). But I think they usually vote for the wrong person. If I decide candidate Bob is less terrible than candidate Andy, that doesn’t mean I should vote Bob. I think candidate Carol actually reflects my views fairly well, and I’m sure she won’t win the election. But I also know that if either Andy or Bob wins, it will be by 300 or more votes**; so if I vote for Carol I won’t change the outcome and thus won’t be “wasting” my vote. In fact, if I vote for Bob I’m wasting my vote because I’m sending the message that we need less of the stuff Carol calls for and more of the stuff Bob does.

But in any case, we all pretty much understand that while your vote matters on average, it doesn’t matter on the margin. Put simply, the costs of voting are significantly higher than the benefits you would get if your vote magically actually did change the outcome multiplied by the probability that such a miracle occurs. So probably people vote to express themselves, and as long as their doing that, voting for the Republicans (Democrats) is like buying a popular album you hate because there’s another popular album you hate more. Don’t do that!

* Being more like Willie Nelson doesn’t mean impersonating Willie, it means being excellent.

** In an election with fewer than 5000 voters you might actually have a reasonable chance of affecting the outcome, but if you aren’t voting in a small town election you can safely assume that your vote won’t determine the winner.

Sardines at Midnight

Sardines at midnight? If the mood should strike me, I can zip down to the local Safeway store here in Belmont, California, which is open 24/7, and be back with a can in 20 minutes. My biggest problem would be choosing from among Thai, Canadian, Polish, or Norwegian sardines packed in water, olive oil, tomato-basil, or soybean oil.

So what? It’s darn near a miracle, that’s what, and would seem so to most inhabitants of today’s world and everyone in yesterday’s world. Leonard Read’s phrase “The Miracle of the Market” was only a slight exaggeration. I won’t attempt to describe how markets miraculously motivate and coordinate the actions of the thousands of people who cooperate in providing me with sardines. Nobody can do that better than Leonard Read did in his classic “I, Pencil.” If for some reason you haven’t read it, stop now and do so.

The increased quantity and quality of the conveniences available to us are really amazing. We should stop to think about them from time to time, paying special attention to the incentives that brought them about.

I have vague memories of the Fisher Brothers grocery store where my mother took me around 1950. The place was tiny and the selection limited. Looking back, I wonder about its cleanliness: The owners kept sawdust on the floor to soak up spills. Later they built a supermarket that was much larger but still only a pale precursor of today’s Safeway. A mix of union coercion, government regulation, and perhaps just plain custom kept all supermarkets closed after six p.m. Monday through Saturday and all day Sunday. A working woman had to scramble to get her shopping done before closing time or join the mob on Saturday. Continue reading