Category Archives: Books

Slogans and Nationalism

A passage from p. 562 of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris contains an interesting political slogan:

He was replaced by Wolf Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, up to then police chief in Potsdam, of Saxon aristocratic descent, former head of the Berlin SA, with a reputation deeply sullied by scandal about his financial affairs and private life, but–compensating for everything–a radical antisemite who, the Propaganda Minister reckoned, would help him ‘make Berlin clean again’.

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Bats and Price Theory

A Gordon Tullock-esque insight about the law of demand and why bats hunt at night, on p. 30 of Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker (thanks to Don Boudreaux for the recommendation):

Bats have a problem: how to find their way around in the dark. … But the daytime economy is already heavily exploited by other creatures such as birds. Given that there is a living to be made at night, natural selection has favored bats that make a go of the night-hunting trade.

In other words, animals are careful shoppers. Bats, or their ancestors, moved from higher-priced daytime hunting to lower-priced night-time hunting. Prices, in this case, being not money, but effort, food availability, and amount of competition. Had night and day’s hunting “prices” been the same, bats’ nocturnalism, and related traits such as sonar, would likely not have evolved.

Economics is everywhere, day and night.

Spontaneous Order in Roman History

Edward Gibbon, describing a revival of sorts under Cola di Rienzo in 14th century Rome, on p. 2401, near the end of Decline and Fall, channels a bit of Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek:

“As soon as the life and property of the subject are secure, the labours and rewards of industry spontaneously revive: …”

Legalized Plunder in 14th Century Venice

Venice, as much as any other city, was founded on international trade and commerce. Even today, the outward-oriented and freewheeling worldview that commerce inspires is that lagoon city’s defining characteristic. From p. 287 of Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas:

For Venice, piracy was the most detested crime, an affront to business and the rule of law. The Republic preferred its maritime violence organized at state level.

Crowley goes on to describe state-approved instances of piracy by and against Venetians, and other nations’ grievances about the same. If all this sounds familiar in the context of today’s trade debate, you’re not alone. History is alive, and this is a good reason to study it closely.

Economics Is Everywhere – Richard Feynman Edition

Economics is everywhere. Physicist Richard Feynman, while working at Los Alamos laboratory, re-discovered Adam Smith’s division of labor after some computer troubles and apparently didn’t even know it (he never mentions Adam Smith or the division of labor in this story):
In this particular case, we worked out all the numerical steps that the machines were supposed to do–multiply this, and then do this, and subtract that. Then we worked out the program, but we didn’t have any machine to test it on. So we set up this room with girls in it. Each one has a Marchant [old-timey calculator]: one was the multiplier, another was the adder. This one cubed–all she did was cube a number on anindex card and send it to the next girl.
 We went through our cycle this way until we got all the bugs out. It turned out that the speed at which we were able to do it was a hell of a lot faster than the other way, where every single person did all the steps. We got speed with this system that was the predicted speed for the IBM machine.
-Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, p. 126.

Trade Made Renaissance Art Possible

Trade and specialization make all kinds of life-enriching innovations possible. In fact, Italian Renaissance art was one of them, a gift that continues to inspire us five centuries later. Re-opening trade with the Middle and Far East is what allowed Europe to climb out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Venice, in particular, was a hub of trading activity, as Peter Frankopan points out at Kindle location 4260 of his 2016 book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World:

By the late fifteenth century, nearly 5 million pounds of spices were passing through Venice each year… It also seems to have been the main point of entry for pigments used in paintings. Often referred to collectively as “oltremare de venecia” (Venetian goods from overseas), these included verdigris (literally, green from Greece), vermilion, fenugreek, lead-tin yellow, bone black, and a gold substitute known as purpurinus or mosaic gold. The most famous and distinctive, however, was the rich blue that came from lapis lazuli, mined in Central Asia. The golden age of European art—of Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca in the fifteenth century, and then of artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian—owed much to their ability to use colours drawn from pigments that were part of the extension of contacts with Asia on the one hand nd rising levels of disposable wealth to pay for them on the other.

So the next time you look at The Birth of Venus or the Mona Lisa, remember that trade made them possible, and artificial trade barriers could have deprived the world of profound beauty.

In fact, the process continues today. Michelangelo and his contemporaries had to make their own paints. Long-distance traders brought them the materials, but the artists themselves had to mix the ingredients. And if they didn’t do it just right, it could be a very expensive mistake. Today, you or I could walk into an art supply store and trade money worth a few hours’ labor for oil paints, or watercolors, or any other kind of paint, in almost any color imaginable. Digital art and photography don’t even need paint. Just a computer, a camera, or even a smartphone.

Trade makes humankind’s highest cultural accomplishments possible. This is just one reason it is worth defending. For more reasons, see the new CEI study “Traders of the Lost Ark.”

Even Steve Jobs Hated Comcast’s Service

Not everyone can call up a company’s CEO to bring up a complaint. But if you can, more power to you. Kudos to the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs for doing what so many of us wish we could:

During his recuperation, he signed up for Comcast’s high-definition cable service, and one day he called Brian Roberts, who ran the company. ‘I thought he was calling to say something nice about it,’ Roberts recalled. ‘Instead, he told me “It sucks.”

-Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, p. 489.