Monthly Archives: May 2010

Book Review: Economics In One Lesson

Book Review: Economics In One LessonI was pretty excited to read this as it comes recommended by a lot of proponents of the Austrian school of economics. Despite knowing about Henry Hazlitt’s Economics In One Lesson, I didn’t know much of the content. I believe the title is misleading, because the lesson is actually just one sentence long. Hazlitt humorously divides the book into two parts: Part One is the lesson, which is a short chapter; Part Two is the application, which demonstrates the machinations of the state when it inserts itself in an otherwise free market economy.

In fact, Part One can be distilled into one sentence, which is Hazlitt’s lesson. I went through the trouble of typing it out for you — you can read it in amazon.com’s preview of the book, and also on the free online version:

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

That’s it, in all its deceptive simplicity. It’s easy to understand though it’s in a politician’s best interests to ignore this fact. Its implications don’t involve them “doing things”, they don’t flower their public image during campaign season and they don’t fill voters’ conditioned desire to see politicians “solve problems”. I will explain this using an example of Hazlitt’s, which is kind of an extension of Bastiat’s Broken Window fallacy, to which Hazlitt gave mention.

Let’s say that, for one reason or another, there is a shortage of jobs in a city. The government decides to build a bridge that won’t be particularly useful nor demanded otherwise, but the idea is sold on the pretense that it will create jobs, which it definitely will. Voters assent to it and the construction starts on the bridge. People that were otherwise unemployed are working and businesses, probably local ones, are profiting from the purchased supplies. The bridge is finally built and the politicians that supported the projects and workers that benefited marvel at their product.

Those involved with this bridge project enjoy two distinct psychological advantages. One is that everyone can see the project providing jobs because they can see the people working, the other is that the product is clearly visible at the end of production. Motorists may even be seen using the bridge because it is there and it is new, though it may be completely unnecessary. Those who opposed the building of the bridge are easily labeled as a kind of obstructionist who don’t want the “working class” from benefiting from new jobs, or other such spurious accusations.

But those who know basic economics can see past the immediate because, as Hazlitt demonstrates, for every public job created, a private job is destroyed — or taxed individuals suffer from having less income. The city must fund the bridge from tax revenue from businesses or individuals. If a business is taxed, it has less resources to expand production or make current production more efficient — two actions businesses are almost always likely to perform as they make their product more valuable and more profitable. Loss of expansion results in less jobs being created, stagnant efficiency results in a product which isn’t less costly to produce. An individual who is taxed for the bridge is forced to pay for something undesired and has less buying power to purchase the products he or she desires. These unintended consequences are not seen, but the bridge is.

In subsequent chapters, Hazlitt applies this simplistic example on a larger scale, to things like rent control, inflation, minimum wage laws, “spread the work” schemes, and tariff protectionism. The situations are different but the effect is the same: government tinkering with economies always results in unintended, negative consequences on the disturbed economy. Money has to come from somewhere, either from taxpayers, the printing press, or credit, and the laws of mathematics that govern economies cannot be changed.

This review is actually timely for me for two reasons. As I started to write this, a woman came to my house door and asked me to sign a petition to acquire federal stimulus money for our district, to retain potentially outsourced jobs. I declined to sign as I didn’t support redistributive schemes to begin with, even before reading Hazlitt. I wanted to tell her that outsourced jobs are probably caused by policies that result in more costly production and forces a business to seek more favorable production environments to keep costs down, and that stimulus money is just another method of the government covering up a problem they caused in the first place. I doubt she would have cared or even understood.

The other timely event is a blog post by Steve Bland, the CEO of my local public transit service, the Port Authority of Pittsburgh. They received federal stimulus money to reorganize the public transit system to make it more efficient, which took place a few months ago (stimulus money, as Hazlitt demonstrated, that killed jobs in the private sector). However, some of the funding that was expected and the situations surrounding it have changed, so that they Port Authority is running at a loss and they will have to redo their budget. Bland says that services will have to be cut drastically, resulting in layoffs and higher prices for riders. I believe him, but I also predict an uprising of politicians and citizens who will lobby for more federal stimulus money to maintain what we have now. If this lobbying is successful we will see Hazlitt’s theory in action: we can see bus routes and the people riding them (I, unfortunately, am one of them), but we cannot see the private jobs that are destroyed from taxation to pay for all of it.

Economics is referred to as the “dismal science” because of its reliance on numbers and percentages. It is a boring study of something everyone wants and for which everyone works. Hazlitt simplifies the discipline by using solid verbal logic and grade school-level mathematics to expose the machinations of the well-intentioned state to improve economies — machinations that have grave consequences for those that can see past the immediate and visible. The Ockam-like simplicity speaks to its veracity, because when we are bombarded with hordes of statistics and mathematical proofs by some economists and politicians in favor of some complex interventionist policy, they are trying to convince voters to to accept a bill of goods that we would ultimately reject.

Share this post:

Paradox in Character Development

One of my favorite philosophical paradoxes is the Ship of Theseus. If I have a ship and I gradually replace the parts of the ship as they break or suffer from wear and tear, it’s possible that eventually I will have a ship with none of the original parts. The real ship of Theseus — its physical components — are in a junkyard. Even if it still operates perfectly, is it still the Ship of Theseus? Does it still retain its specific identity though it is a completely different ship?

Though it may not be a physical transformation, our favorite fictional characters “switch out” some of their parts during and after the story’s conflict. Usually what is changed is something like their personality or the way they view the world or their belief system. The person they are at the conclusion isn’t (I would even say mustn’t) be the same person they were during the exposition. Through conflicts and the reaction to these conflicts the character transforms into something new.

Except for ongoing, installment fiction like comic books, there usually isn’t enough “storytime” to transform 100% of a character. There are some special cases in science fiction, as in the artificial body-swapping technology in the Ghost in the Shell films and manga series. Interestingly, one of the running themes in that universe is the search for human identity in the face of ultra-advanced technology. What does it mean to be a human when everything about you can be changed?

Knowing all of this, at what point are the characters with whom we identify — or the ones we don’t — aren’t the same character? They may be called the same name, have the same social security number, and take up the same amount of space as their original selves, but there may be a point at which the person becomes fundamentally and irreversibly different. How can a writer accomplish such a metamorphosis on their own “Ship of Theseus” realistically? Should they even attempt it at all?

Share this post:

Book Review: Wise Blood

Book Review: Wise Blood I hadn’t heard of O’Connors Wise Blood until it mysteriously materialized in my to-read list. This might not be remarkable except for the fact that the mid-century book is highly rated both critically and general readership-wise. Maybe my cultural connection to the literary world and its history is still in question.

The story follows Hazel Motes as he leaves the armed forces after Korea and return home to the town of Taulkinham, finding his family gone. He then becomes mostly transient and is befriended by the yappy Enoch Emery, a gate guard at the local zoo. Motes also chases down — literally, at times — a blind street preacher and his assistant daughter, and Motes level of irritation with their profession is high enough that it causes him to start his own religion: the Church Without Christ. He eventually comes to compete with another preacher with a similar theology. Throw in there an unattractive hooker, a dilapidated car that somehow works, a gorilla suit, and a mummified corpse, and it all eventually works itself out in the end.

Wise Blood is exemplary of when an author enters into a full blown “I’m going to depress my readers” mode, when the story is taken prima facie, because every major character suffers from a kind of social disgrace. Motives are without real foundation, regard for personal well-being is ignored, and everyone is paranoid, grumpy, and bad to look at and think about. Personally some of the discomfort of experiencing this kind of society is mitigated when the allegorical template is screened over everything, but there’s still a bad taste in my mouth from it. Everyone wanders around aimlessly only to jump into action the moment O’Connor needs them in order to fulfill their part in her narrative iconography (the whole incident with the cop pulling Motes over for speeding is especially baffling). O’Connor undoubtedly intended for the reader to experience some repulsion at the social disorder she created in Taulkinham. She keeps the glue of civilization just tacky enough for her to get her story through — the level of chaos present would make a functional social order unsustainable.

One is left to take the O’Connor’s Taulkinham as a “soft” allegory — a term which I completely made up, antonymous to a “hard” allegory like The Pilgrim’s Progress. Critics have called Wise Blood a novel in the Southern gothic tradition, and representative of the the growing hegemony of post-War Christianity in the south. While this is fairly accurate and it might make for good social commentary but not for a universally great, standalone read.

Share this post:

Throw Your Dirty Money At the Internet’s Face

You can buy a print of Eve’s Geometry, signed by me, on the store page. If I’m feeling adventurous while I pack it you might even get something extra with it — though I promise it won’t be a pig’s heart with a nail through it. Those are expensive to procure and that kind of parcel is reserved for all those jilted lovers in your past. They are cursing you as I type this. Their rage is visible in the ether over my house.

So say your prayers and fondle your chicken entrails for good fortune as you give Paypal permission to steal your life savings and hand it over to me.

Share this post:

Something Something Clever Cross/Mail Pun

I recently won a drawing for a handmade cross by writer Mike Duran at deCOMPOSE, and it came in the mail a few days ago. It’s called “Moon”, and I’m kind of glad that there’s two different moons on there. Look carefully, one of them is implied — so implied that I don’t think Mike consciously knew what he was doing. Heh.

Mike has other ones for sale here. Check them out and his writing, because he knows what he’s doing (except for maybe the moon thing…double heh).

Share this post:

Book Review: Pale Fire

Book Review: Pale FireMost people know of Nabokov from Lolita, a book bearing a title now synonymous with guileless jailbaiting teenage girls. Pale Fire was published after Lolita and hasn’t enjoyed its household word status, probably because it’s significantly more difficult to read and far less prurient. If you can successfully wade through his complicated narrative and strange or now-forgotten (or fictional?) cultural references, the payoff might be more worth it.

Pale Fire is centered around a 999-line autobiographical poem, written by a now-dead professor John Slade, but the bulk of the book is the meta-fictional forward and extensive commentary on the poem by Slade’s neighbor and colleague, Charles Kinbote. The commentary is where the real narrative rests, as Kinbote weaves into the vagaries of the text of Slade’s poem the story of his homeland of Zembla and its exiled king, Charles Xavier (the literary connection between his name and the leader of the X-Men is in question). Through Nabokov’s ridiculously detailed narrative we can piece together the circumstances surrounding Kinbote’s academic employment in New Wye, the history of Zembla, and the immediate events leading up to Slade’s death.

Kinbote suffers from an unhealthy obsession with Slade’s personal life and mentions his undoubtedly annoying proddings towards Slade to write the analogous poem to tell Zembla’s story. The strength of the personal aspect of their friendship is exaggerated by Kinbote’s histrionics and his fixation on his homeland is befuddling, and through Kinbote’s knowledge of the life of Zembla’s king and his escape, the mind of the astute reader should throw up some red flags of suspicion as to how he came across detailed information of supposedly semi-secret events. I went into this reading mostly naive so I didn’t catch onto Nabokov’s scheme until “it was too late”.

There are some theories of the “reality” of the events in Pale Fire within the context of the narrative, most of them dealing with the mental health on Kinbote and one “reach” theory. Since the narrative is first person limited we have to make some assumptions on the veracity of Kinbote’s statements. If you haven’t read the book or don’t know any of its history, I would skip reading this if you want to save the surprise.

  1. 1. Kinbote’s claim of being Zembla’s deposed king are true and his recounting of the events are more or less true.
  2. 2. Zembla is a real place but his obsession with his homeland exaggerates his own role so much that he believes he is Xavier, possibly amnesial and recovering.
  3. 3. Zembla and Charles Xavier are fictional and Kinbote, either from mental illness or an intentional desire to mislead readers of the poem and commentary, uses Slade’s poem to make it more of a reality.
  4. 4. Zembla, Xavier, and Slade (and possibly more) are all constructs of Kinbote’s mind and he is attempting to recreate his past with “Slade’s” poem.
  5. 5. Nabokov is trying to communicate something about his or someone else’s life using the story as a code.
  6. 6. Some combination of any of these.

Wikipedia has a nice roundup of the theories and interpretations of Pale Fire here, but you can see how the book’s ambiguity would spawn deliberation. I tend toward the first or second theory. Nabokov deviously placed Kinbote and Slade in a fictional American college town to throw us off — had Zembla been the only fictional locale, options 3 and 4 would be more likely. So we are left with piecing together the meta-story together with uncertainty.

I haven’t read anything else by Nabokov so I don’t know how it fares against his other works. Kinbote’s narrative style is precise and humorous, and I am assuming that since Nabokov was an astute writer he aimed and successfully forced himself to reconfigure his writing style completely to accommodate his role as Kinbote. It should be read more than once to be able to process all the nuances but even an initial reading reveals a masterwork of fiction.

Share this post: