Thanks to Norton, Ken & James

This is really more a comment to Ken’s discussion below and comes from a non-economist as well as James’s discussion of blogger tasks. (Ok, I’m a parasite.)

The importance of a meme, of a take, essentially, of an analogy, is important. Looking at underlying analogies seems another useful task of bloggers.

This week I taught Fred Strebeigh’s essay, first published in Bicycling in 1991. Strebeigh had gone to China to see a bicycling society in action and happened upon the Beijing Spring of 1989. He captures the excitement of that time, but woven throughout is a tribute to what we have and they, for that brief time, realized as energy and power. For instance, he notes the privacy of speech that came in the midst of movement as the streets filled with bicyclists; he describes how bikes made possible the assembly in the Tiananmen Square. He leaves Beijing as it erupts to interview a grad student; she had biked a thousand hard miles across China to Tibet. He found Fang Hui, who had been no athlete before setting out on this challenging trek. He asked her if she had worried about giving up on the journey and she had replied that no, before, she had feared giving up on life. Bicycling across country, instead, “I felt as if I would become light” she said. She demonstrated how dead we can feel cocooned and how alive tested.

Then, he describes a bicycle repairman who, through initiative and work outside the state economy, could afford two more children. My students were excited as well – they understood the power of these ideas. Strebeigh quite beautifully reports what he sees, but what he sees is the strength of the vision that impelled these people–a vision that impels us. He argues that the crack-down had been represented on television by shot after shot of crumpled bicycles, destroyed as the army took over the square and that open life, that open marketplace of ideas and talk and challenge was destroyed.

Sadly, we will no longer use this book. Some argue it is too difficult, others that it isn’t argumentative enough. Now, we are choosing among rhetorics crammed with the less subtle arguments of op-eds; they consider balance countering Paul Krugman with John Leo. But they won’t include the best of these writers, but rather the quick statements of position where space is too limited for nuance. The writing will be competent but obvious rather than rich & subtle. This semester, I lead up to the contrarian approach of Rauch’s “Defense of Prejudice”; his is an argument for the marketplace of ideas they can, by then, appreciate. Underlying those narrower, more “timely” takes will be a simplification of the marketplaces – of ideas, of goods, of speech. They will be designed to be “relevant” – which essentially means not wresting our students from the sense all of us had at 18 that the world began at our birth and our issues are the big issues.

And in many will be different metaphors. And that is why we now return to Ken & James.

Two analogies underlie many of those arguments. One is that goods & services are set in the determined boundaries of a pie plate; if one country (or person) gets a bigger piece, someone somewhere else gets a smaller one. After all, we needed to eat our dinners because of the starving children in China – food going to waste took away food from that great pie of food from which the Chinese child wasn’t getting enough. To waste any – ah, that was taking away from this great pie. This theory makes for jealous, equity-wanting mobs. It is this with which the socialists threaten free marketers, as Ken noted.

The other analogy, however, is that wealth grows all economies – or that a rising tide raises all boats. This has a quite real history, too – and is the way most of the Chicagoboyz believe. We might even say that this is like – well, emotions. Both hate and love can be enlarged to cover more of our lives. Surely we don’t think that loving our new born diminishes the love in the world nor that diminishing the hatred of a lynch mob means that somewhere else more hate must pop up to keep the world’s quantity of hate constant. Or, more clearly applicable, we can remember Lilek’s tax refund, used to rebuild the steps to his house. That contractor hired workers and bought supplies; the store then needed to restock the supplies and sent off to a factory, which needed other’s labor to fill that order, others who then went out to, say, Walmart, and bought, say, steaks that some farmer was growing. Talents put in the ground don’t do anyone much good. (Does anyone ever talk about the Bible in capitalist terms?)

This is simplistic, I’m sure. Anyone knows more about this than I do. But I do know that these two views lead to quite different metaphors that guide our understanding of commerce, our relation to others, to life itself. One leads to an energized optimism along with personal responsibility – it is up to me to make my life grow. That is life as Fang Hui races up mountains in her bike or the bike repairman hangs out his tires and commences to do business.

The other leads to envy; it is not surprising such metaphors invoke mob violence, lead to the horror that is Zimbabwe. If we think that every penny another has he took from one great bag and diminished all the rest of our shares, then we tend to look at that other person with the human but unattractive human traits, jealousy and envy. If we notice that he got a penny by doing something that we, too, could do (or do better or do differently) to earn that penny, then we smile at him and thank him for the example.

Okay, to all you economists (like Jonathan) this is old news. But people from the disciplines in which I was trained see metaphors but we tend to see them as decoration; we accept them a little too easily. So, many of us accept the pie metaphor. Of course it, too, has many analogies to life as we know it and it too can seem intuitive. I have come, however, to believe that this meme doesn’t work well – either to help in reaching the truth nor attaining what Benjamin Franklin would see as the highest standard, felicity in this life.

The book we now use is the The Norton Reader, in its 11th edition, edited by Linda H. Peterson and John C. Brereton. I doubt that the editors are conservative nor free marketeers. But their selections often lead to work on a substantive plane–a level not with the balances of op ed pages but rather the essential arguments, the big questions: less likely, perhap, to engage my students in loud & argumentative discussion but more likely to engage them in pensive dialogue. I do not think we should mistake the former for the latter. I want to thank these editors for many moments in which teaching seemed worth while and for a book many of my students pay the highest compliment they can – they don’t intend to sell it back.

2 thoughts on “Thanks to Norton, Ken & James”

  1. Maybe that rising tide isn’t such a good metaphor either – it seems to illustrate a vast, impersonal force miraculously lifting vessels that just float along….

    I’d go back to those pies for a minute. Whereas our friends on the left like to presume that the plutocrats nefariously cut a bigger slice of the pie for themselves, I think a much closer description of reality is that rich plutocrats got that way by, directly or indirectly, baking more pies – huge mountains of them.

    For instance, instead of baking another pie himself, which is analogous to the activity of so-called “labor”, our plutocrat puts together a new type of oven that allows those pie bakers to bake ten times as many pies as they could previously. Surely he’s entitled to a share of those excess pies, isn’t he? After all, even after he’s gorged himself, everyone else still ends up with more pie than they would have without his efforts.

    The same with the plutocrat that takes a disorganized bunch of bakers that keep getting in each other’s way and choreographs them in a new process that lets them crank out the pies at top speed. That’s how “management” earns its keep, and again such people seem to be legitimately entitled to a cut of the “excess” pie that their efforts made possible, at least to me.

    The old pie metaphor seems to assume that a single pie just appeared out of thin air and the people are squabbling over this gift from the gods. A better metaphor takes into account that pie, along with nearly everything else of value, is created by human effort, and that before anyone can distribute a pie, someone must bake it, and that someone needs to be given a good reason to do so – and someone else must build him an oven, a pan, and other goodies, and that someone else also needs a good reason to do that, and so on.

    Mmmm…. time for dessert…

  2. Actually a necessity to such a vision is the sense that the lines between socioeconomic levels is extremely permeable – that those who are rich today may not be rich tomorrow and that the poor move up through the levels, given some luck but mainly imagination, hard work and perseverence.

    We are a lot less likely to direct our energies towards invention and industry if we think that movement is hopeless – even if we do see that someone else’s success is going to make our life a lot easier, too. And the more inherited wealth plays a major part in placement within levels, the less we are likely to challenge ourselves.

    Personally, I would prefer words like inventors and entrepreneurs to plutocrats. Plutocrats “exercise power through virtue of wealth.” However, the examples you gave were of those who deserve money through the exercise of their imagination – whether in inventing a better stove or in better managing people.

    But, then again, why am I even writing about this. We have better experts.

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